Monday, January 31, 2011

The Tibetan Memory Trick

Remember The Great Panjandrum? Today I reconnected with a similar example of "marvelous nonsense" in the English language. It has been so many years since I last heard it that I had forgotten all about it. Then, while ransacking the internet in search of one of my favorite tongue-twisters, which was right on the tip of... well, you know... I unexpectedly found this:

The Tibetan Memory Trick
  • One hen.
  • Two ducks.
  • Three squawking geese.
  • Four Limerick oysters.
  • Five corpulent porpoises.
  • Six pairs of Don Alfonso's tweezers.
  • Seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array.
  • Eight brass monkeys from the ancient sepulchers of Egypt.
  • Nine apathetic sympathetic diabetic old men on roller skates with a marked propensity towards procrastination and sloth.
  • Ten lyrical spherical diabolical denizens of the deep who haul sail around the corner of the quay of the cove all at the same time.
There are many variants of this, which have come down through oral tradition from unknown origins. Since at least the 1940s, one version of it has been used as an "announcer's test" to gauge a prospective radio presenter's nimbleness of tongue. It makes a great vocal warmup and diction exercise. Another version has been passed down through generations of Boy Scouts as a "repeat after me" game, in which you start by repeating the first line, then the first two lines, then the first three, and so on until you (try to) rattle off all ten items in one staccato rush. Some folks have even added an eleventh verse that has something to do with the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, an homage to Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe trilogy. There are several videos on Youtube of people performing versions of the TMT, e.g. here and here.

Why do I think this is great? Well, I like language. I like the feel of words rolling off the tongue, sparking a chaotic series of bizarre mental images. I like the bundling-together of tongue-twister, memory game, and orally transmitted folklore in one irreverently goofy package. And I like the excuse to mention what I believe may be the most excruciating tongue-twister in the English language: "The sea seetheth, then ceaseth, and thus sufficeth us." Forget about saying it fast three times in a row; I can't even say it once without the word "thesis" somehow finding its way in there!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lentil Soup for Dummies

Today being my first wide-open, do-nothing day in more weeks than I care to count--possibly even months--I decided it was time to make an all-day recipe: pea soup. Then I found out that that the 1-lb. bag in my cupboard, which I had thought was a bag of dried split peas, was actually lentils. That dialed it down to only a half-day recipe, so with my bonus time I might go see a movie this afternoon!

The reason pea soup takes me all day, but lentils only half a day, has to do with my peculiar taste in both kinds of soup. Some people serve a pea soup in which tender but separately intact peas swim in a delicious broth with pieces of ham, vegetables, and aromatic seasonings; others cook them until they turn into a mush, then strain out the skins and some of the excess fluid and serve them as a lumpy gruel. While I have enjoyed delightful bowls of both types of pea soup, my preference is to boil the peas down until they completely dissolve, skin and all, into a cloudy broth...and then keep boiling the broth for hours and hours, reducing it down to a silky-smooth goo that thickens even more as it cools, until you can (at least almost) stick a spoon in it and the spoon stays upright.

Because this generally takes not only a whole day but a good deal of the night as well, I have only done it a few times. It would probably be smart of me just to make the mushy-gruel-type pea soup, add some of the fluid back in & whip it in a food processor, but I don't have a food processor and there's something about the final result of the "all-day way" that I would really hate to miss.

Lentil soup, on the other hand, has often been served to me as an indiscriminate mush, but the best varieties are on the "tender lentils in a savory broth" order. There needn't be much in the broth, except a couple of well-chosen herbs, some onion, and perhaps some meat. I've enjoyed lentil soup made with roast venison, chopped-up hard summer sausage, and bacon ends & pieces, and even a mysteriously-spiced ground sausage that I found in my freezer and still can't tell whether it was meant to be Italian or breakfast sausage. But ordinarily, I haven't made it with ham, because when I put frozen, bone-in ham in my fridge to thaw, it is usually with the idea of making pea soup. And so today, I made my first lentil-and-ham soup. This was a stroke of luck, since what I thought were ham-hocks (which I would throw away after they were done lending their flavor to the smooth pea soup) turned out to be more like a bone-in ham-roast cut into three chunks with lots of meat on them.

So I ended up with a broth full of al dente lentils and off-the-bone-tender chunks of ham. I've just eaten a bowl of it, and it was superb, even if I say so myself. Here's how a clueless bachelor, especially one who is a beginner at this sort of thing, can do what I did.

  • A working stove that you can use, without being challenged, for several hours running.
  • A supply of running water, preferably including hot water.
  • A reasonable amount of counter space.
  • A clean, medium-sized stock pot (say, 2-1/2 gallons) with a tight-fitting lid, preferably vented
  • A clean liquid measuring cup. (I have one that holds 8 cups of liquid at one time, and I find that it saves steps.)
  • A big, sturdy, and above all clean slotted spoon (use wood or plastic if your pot has a non-stick coating).
  • A disposable aluminum-foil baking sheet (best if not previously used).
  • A clean metal fork.
  • A clean, sharp steak knife.
  • A clean colander or pasta strainer.
  • A clean soup ladle or scoop.
  • A clean soup bowl and table spoon.
  • An oven timer or alarm clock (the "kitchen timer" function on a microwave oven will do).
  • A spice rack already stocked with all the standard herbs and spices.
  • Optional: a pair of clean kitchen tongs.
  • Dish soap, clean dishcloths and towels, for cleaning up afterward, or for cleaning any of the above itms (as needed) before you use them.
  • Clean, sealable storage container(s) for the leftovers.
  • A package of fresh or frozen chunks of bone-in ham; if frozen, let them thaw in your fridge (still tightly wrapped up) for a couple days ahead of time.
  • A one-pound bag of dried lentils.
  • A packet of crackers and/or the leftover breadsticks from last night's pizza delivery.
  • Quick-soak the lentils. This is to say:
    • Open the bag of dried lentils and pour them into the stock-pot. IMPORTANT: Don't cook the bag. You can throw that away.
    • Add enough piping-hot water to submerge the beans under 2 inches of water, about 4 cups.
    • Turn on the stove, particularly the flame or heating element directly under the stock-pot. NOTE: No useful objective is served by lighting the stove if the pot isn't on top of the part that is lit.
    • Heat the pot over "high" heat until the water boils.
    • After letting it boil for two minutes, turn off the heat, cover the pot and set the timer or alarm clock to ring an hour later.
    • When the timer or alarm has gone off, remove the lid from the pot and pour its contents into the colander or strainer. IMPORTANT: It is best if the strainer is located in the sink at this point.
    • Rinse the beans a bit (losing as few as possible down the drain), rinse out the inside of the pot, and return the beans to the pot.
  • Add the ham chunks (minus their wrappings) to the pot with the pre-soaked lentils.
  • Add 6 cups of piping hot water and bring it to a boil. (See previous note about which heating element or flame to light.)
  • Reduce heat as low as possible so that the water continues to simmer (bubbling gently) without exactly boiling.
  • Put the cover on the pot and set the timer or alarm clock to go off in another 90 minutes. (TIP: If the lid falls right in, it's the wrong one. Fish it out and try a bigger lid until you find one that stays on top of the pot. Be careful not to put your hand directly in the boiling water, because t's, like, scalding hot, dude.)
  • Stay within earshot of the kitchen while the pot is simmering.
    • Good noises to hear: a soft bubbling sound, the lid of the pot gently vibrating, maybe an occasional faint hiss of escaping steam.
    • Bad noises to hear: loud rattling, hissing, and bubbling indicating a more rapid boil; a dribbling sound from the water boiling over; the smoke alarm; sirens; screams; people pounding on your door and asking if you're all right.
    • Also, be alert to smells: cooking ham, good; acrid smoke, burning metal, and melted plastic, bad.
  • Give the contents a stir now and then, using the slotted spoon. (TIP: Hold the spoon so that the "slotted" bit is pointed downward into the simmering liquid, while your hands remain high and dry.)
  • At the end of 90 minutes, remove the lid of the pot and fish out the chunks of bone and meat, using the kitchen tongs or, if none are available, the fork and slotted spoon.
  • Place the meat-and-bone chunks on the disposable baking sheet. Then, using the fork and knife, separate the meat from the bones. Trim off excess fat and cut the meat into bite-sized hunks; then, return it to the pot. TIP: If you are using ham hocks, which are basically pigs' feet, you might want to skip this step and simply throw the meat & bones away, or refrigerate them in a sealed container for another soup-making project within a day or two.
  • Add any additional seasonings you see fit to add. I would suggest some dried onion, a couple of whole bay leaves; 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon each of black pepper and garlic powder, and maybe chili powder and/or celery salt; a pinch or so each of sage, thyme, rosemary, and basil, or maybe the equivalent number of pinches of just one or two of the above.
  • After giving the seasoned soup a good stir and a moment to simmer, turn off the heat, and use the scoop or ladle to dish up a bowl of your new soup. TIP: Leave the bay leaves in the pot.
  • Enjoy your soup.
    • TIP: Use a spoon to eat it; otherwise the liquid will run through the slots in your fork.
    • ANOTHER TIP: Try dipping crackers and/or bread-sticks in your soup. Or, crumble up a cracker or two into the bottom of your bowl to soak up the last of the soup.
  • When the remaining soup in the pot has cooled enough to be handled safely, pour it (bay leaves and all) into the storage container(s), seal them, and refrigerate to eat as leftovers tomorrow or within the week.
  • If you want to keep your leftovers longer than that, seal them in a freezer-safe container (no more than half full) and stick them in the freezer.
  • You may find that the flavors actually improve after a night in the fridge.
    • TIP: Transfer a serving of chilled, leftover soup to a microwavable dish, cover loosely (e.g. with a paper plate) and reheat in the microwave until piping-hot, stirring after every minute or so in the microwave.
    • ANOTHER TIP: Don't eat the bay leaves. Leave them in the storage container until you're down to the last serving of leftover soup, then throw them away.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

9.5 Theses on Pizza

These assertions are open to debate.
  1. No one who makes a bad pizza crust can make a good pizza; no one who makes a good pizza sauce would make a bad pizza.
  2. Much can be forgiven a pizza (e.g., mediocre sauce, skimpy cheese and/or toppings), provided that it has an exceptional crust.
  3. While a good sauce can promote a pizza from mediocre to fairly good, or from fairly good to very good, no one can make a spectacular pizza without a spectacular crust.
  4. Though St. Louis style pizza (thin crispy crust + provel cheese) allows you to stuff more square inches of meat, cheeze, and vegetables before you get full, it provides little scope for distinguishing between fair and excellent pizza.
  5. Because Chicago style (deep-dish) pizza is dominated by its crust, it takes less acreage to fill you up; but its toppings have to be tremendous to push it into the "exceptional" bracket.
  6. Most other pizza varieties are both rarities and novelties, requiring a great deal more time and competition to develop their potential for true excellence.
  7. Therefore a pizzoisseur's greatest chance of experiencing a wide range of quality lies on regular, hand-tossed crust topped with red sauce, mozzarella cheese, and other toppings ad lib.
  8. A more generous layer of melted mozzarella can break a tie between two pizzas of otherwise equal excellence.
  9. One meat-based topping (pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, sausage, etc.) is best enhanced by exactly one vegetable (olives, shrooms, peppers, pineapple, roma tomatoes)--but a touch of shredded onion can make a magical difference in any combination of pizza toppings.
9.5... Eat it while it's hot out of the oven. As it approaches room temperature, a pizza's deliciousness decreases irreversibly.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Gamy Tackiness

This week's lighted-sign message at the local ELCA Platform for Pious Platitudes:


This seems to be based on the symbols used to rate the maturity level of video games, like the ones I used to sell during my sojourn in retail. "Ao" for Adults Only, "M" for Mature, "T" for Teen, "E10+" for Everyone 10 and older, "eC" for Early Childhood, etc. So this sign shows an awareness of the world young people live in--one might even go as far as to say "hipness"--that is amazing to see in a group of people who still think reader-board messages such as "AUTUMN LEAVES, JESUS DOESN'T" are going to reach the unsaved.

On the other hand, I'm not sure the product is labeled accurately. After some of the decisions the ELCA made at its most recent nationwide Synod, I wouldn't assume their programming is altogether "family-friendly"....

Monday, January 24, 2011

Opera Goes to the Movies

I've been terribly remiss in my intention to go to the local cinema when it is showing the Metropolitan Opera (of New York) in live digital video. Just when I make up my mind to go see a particular opera, a schedule conflict crops up. So, year after year, it doesn't happen.

Recently, however, I sprang for a DVD of an opera, and I watched it today. The opera was Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc, performed in English by The Australian Opera in 1984, under the direction of Richard Bonynge and featuring the late and lamented Joan Sutherland. The celebrated opera star plays Madame Lidoine, the Mother Superior of a French convent at the time of the French Revolution.

There is a true story behind this opera (which, I believe, Poulenc based on an unproduced screenplay). Eleven nuns, three lay sisters, and two convent servants went to the guillotine in 1794 and became Catholic martyrs who, today, are well on their way toward canonization.

It is a difficult story to watch. These women saw their doom coming but did not stop doing what they believed in, and faced death with great courage. Mostly. One way the opera departs from historical fact is the death scene of Mme. Lindoine's predecessor as Mother Superior, Mme. de Croissy, who in reality was one of the 16 who rode the tumbril that day in 1797. In the opera, Mme. de Croissy suffers an excruciating death at the end of Act 1. This scene is a gruelling depiction of physical pain and spiritual unrest, made all the more vivid by the spectacular acting of Danish mezzo Lone Koppel. In a profound way, everything goes downhill after her character's death.

Another non-historical figment of Poulenc's libretto is the central character of Blanche de la Force, played in this 1984 Australian production Scotch prima donna Isobel Buchanan. In a story that is essentially about courage, her character's struggle to overcome paralyzing fear makes a moving, personal framework for a story that otherwise is held at a respectful distance. But I noticed there is no "Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ" listed among the Martyrs of Compiègne. Nevertheless her free choice to climb the steps to the guillotine in the final moments of the opera puts an ironic veneer of "happy ending" on an otherwise inevitably tragic tale.

Also appearing in this film are Kiwi diva Heather Begg as Mother Mary, Australian baritone Geoffrey Chard as Blanche's father, and long-time down-under Phantom of the Opera lead Anthony Warlow in a minor role. I enjoyed the acting, and one ensemble number in particular was very beautiful. Mostly it wasn't the kind of opera that is stuffed with tuneful arias, rather it was a sung drama in which the dialogue is set to highly expressive recitative and backed up by striking orchestral music.

Though it was sung in English, I would have understood much more of the dialogue had the cheapo Kultur DVD production bothered to include captions. In my opinion, failing to include captions in any DVD video is a breach of the contract the video industry made with consumers when they persuaded us to switch from VHS, and any video that lacks them loses beaucoup points on my scorecard.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Antigravity Music & Antihero Movie

This past weekend I participated in two live performances, one of them broadcast on classical radio, of Brahms's German Requiem with David Robertson conducting the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. Also singing with us were soprano Twyla Robinson, who did Rossini's Stabat Mater with us a couple years ago, and baritone Stephen Powell. And if I may say so, they were very powerful and beautiful performances.

This was my second German Requiem with the Symphony. The previous one, five years ago, was part of a program in which we also sang John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls (in memory of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center), a program with which we not only ended the 2005-06 season but also earned raves at Carnegie Hall. While that, to-date my only trip to New York, was a pinnacle experience, I think this performance was even better. I believe we took our musicianship further, and I personally benefited from being more comfortable with the piece to being able to participate on a higher level while being spiritually moved at the same time.

The German Requiem, officially ein Deutsches Requiem, is not a version of the liturgical rite for the dead. Rather, it is a choral cantata based on texts Brahms himself selected from the Luther Bible. Though he avoids explicit mention of Christ or the atonement, Brahms chooses verses that a Christian will instinctively associate with some of Jesus' most deeply comforting promises, especially for those who grieve or who tremble in the face of their own mortality. It is a non-sectarian kind of comfort that Brahms intended to embrace people of all faiths, but it is also a comfort that Christians, and especially Lutherans, can hardly separate from the original context of the lyrics.

Movement 1, performed without violins, opens the work with a sonic exploration of the gray, shadowy, gloomy, even muddy world of grief. But the music grows tenderly hopeful with the words: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted..." Movement 2 presents the sobering thought that even the brightest flower of mankind must wither and die: "For all flesh is as grass...but the Word of the Lord abides forever." This last phrase pivots the piece into such a strong affirmation of hope that I almost got choked up singing it: "The ransomed of the Lord will return... Joy, everlasting joy, will be upon their heads."

Movement 3 is a dialogue between the baritone soloist and the chorus, as between a teacher and his students, the one "lining out" the lesson that the others repeat back to him: "Lord, teach me that there must be an end to me... Now, Lord, with what shall I comfort myself? I hope in You." It concludes with a fugue over an immovably solid pedal point: "The souls of the righteous are in God's hand, and no torment will ever touch them."

Movement 4 is the sweet, delicate, at times almost ecstatic anthem: "How lovely are Your dwellings, O Lord of Hosts... Blessed are they who dwell in Your house; they are always praising You." Then comes Movement 5, the heart of the piece, a very slow solo for soprano accompanied by breathlessly soft chorus. By putting Jesus' words in the soprano's mouth, particularly at a time when the composer himself grieved for his mother's death, Brahms suggests that what we are hearing are the sentiments of the dearly departed themselves: "You now have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one takes your joy from you..." The chorus, as though whispering the inner thoughts behind these words, repeatedly sings: "I want to comfort you as one's mother comforts him."

Movement 6 is full of the mystery of the resurrection, the chorus carrying the main part of the argument while the baritone soloist fills in a few recitative-like bits: "For we have here no abiding city, rather we seek the one to come..." This gradually builds up to an overwhelming climax, which a friend in the audience described as "like an explosion": "Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your sting? Hell, where is your victory?" Brahms finishes this movement with a lengthy, jubilant fugue, saying: "Lord, You are worthy to receive praise and glory and power...."

Finally, Movement 7 brings the piece full circle with a musical quotation from the first movement, while at the same time moving us far beyond the opening beatitude about here-and-now grief to present a more forward-looking view of death and beyond: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, the Spirit says that they rest from their labor...."

If you haven't heard these comforting words set to Brahms's stunning music, don't wait until someone close to you dies to do so. Learn to know and love the German Requiem now, so that you will know which tracks to turn to when you or someone you know needs comfort.

This weekend's concert, concluding with the above work, also featured the U.S. Premiere (!!) of a piece written in memory of the Columbia astronauts, titled "Seven," by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös, who is apparently one of the most successful composers alive today to judge by the proportion of his operas that are currently in production somewhere in the world (i.e., 7 out of 7). David Robertson credits the fact that "all the other orchestras in this country are so boring" for the serendipity of our being able to hear it played for the first time on American soil.

"Seven" is a violin concerto in two movements, the first of which is a series of accompanied cadenzas representing each of the seven astronauts, and the second of which seems to rhapsodize on the human achievement of space flight. The orchestra included some unusual instruments, such as a bass flute, and was divided into seven ensembles on the stage, plus six additional solo violins deployed around the auditorium. It's a really modernistic piece, creating some spacy impressionistic sound-images and ending with the soloist making some unearthly sounds one might not have realized a violin could make. Our soloist this weekend was Akiko Suwanai, who (if I understood correctly) originally commissioned the piece.

And tonight, I wrapped up the arts-and-entertainment portion of my weekend with a long-anticipated trip to the movies. My film of choice was The Green Hornet, a hysterically funny, action-packed, blow-'em-up Marvel Comics movie based on the perfect character for Seth Rogen to play (and it ought to be, since he co-wrote the screenplay): a slacker superhero whose powers mostly consist of being rich, stubborn, and reckless, and whose survival in a crime-ridden city is due mainly to the journalistic research of his unwitting mastermind (Cameron Diaz) and the mechanical and martial-arts genius of his driver Kato (Chinese rock star Jay Chou owning lock, stock, and barrel, the role originally created by Bruce Lee).

The show also features a grumpy newspaper editor played by Edward James Olmos and a ridiculously insecure villain played by recent Oscar alum Christoph Waltz. And though there are some terrific chases and scenes of massive property destruction and numerous casualities, the coolest scene for my money is the fight between the two sidekicks, which ultimately leads to the climactic moment where the Green Hornet apparently agrees to assassinate himself... You'll just have to see it to understand what I mean.

IMAGES from top: Twyla Robinson; Stephen Powell; Akiko Suwanai; Péter Eötvös; Seth Rogen & Jay Chou in The Green Hornet.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Spaghetti à Dad

Here is another comfort-food masterpiece for which I have a strong nostalgia, though it's been decades since I've tasted it. I have seen recipes for marinara sauce that actually take more than one day to make (it's one of those things that improves overnight in the fridge). I have seen a very creditable recipe that can be made in about half an hour (and it only has 8 ingredients). But again, for the all-stops-pulled-out, three-meat family spaghetti dinner, which wants only some garlic bread and a couple of antipasti to rival the Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner as a family feast, my money is on Dad's all-day recipe. Which, I think, is based on what my Mom's Sicilian-American father used to make for the whole clan once a year or so. Without further ado, over to Dad:
For Sauce:
  • Four small cans of Tomato Paste
  • Two medium cans of Tomato Puree
  • Four #8 cans of Tomato Sauce
  • 12 large cans of Tomato juice
  • 1 lb. of Country Style Ribs
  • 1 lb. package of really good Italian sausage in the skins
  • 1 large garlic, or 6 to 8 good sized cloves, or pre-diced garlic in the jar
  • 1 medium onion
  • Olive Oil—Extra Virgin (Is there really any other kind?)
  • Spices:
    • Cumin
    • Rosemary
    • Basil
    • Garlic powder
    • Onion powder
    • Thyme
    • Fennel
    • Oregano
    • Salt
    • Sugar
    • Black Pepper
For Meatballs:
  • 2 lbs (or more) good hamburger
  • Pre-packaged Italian Bread Crumbs (Contadina is nice)
  • 2 large eggs
Also a good quality, long Spaghetti pasta.

Plan to spend the entire day on the sauce. This process takes six to eight hours, but doesn’t require close attention at
all times.

Get a large pot15 quart sauce pot is goodpreferably with a good, thick bottom that spreads the heat evenly, reducing the likelihood of scorching the sauce. Heat the pot, coating the bottom of the pot with a thin layer of Olive Oil. When the oil is hot, brown the country-style ribs, then remove them from the pot; brown the Italian sausage and remove it from the pot.

Chop the onion fairly fine and add it to the hot grease. Pour the tomato paste into the hot grease in the bottom of the pot, stir and watchyou want to brown, but not burn or scorch, the tomato paste. That removes the bitterness from the paste. When the paste is lightly browned, add the puree, sauce, and eight to ten cans of juice. Stir, and set the heat to bring the sauce to a simmernot a rolling boil.

While the sauce heats, peel and chop the garlic, and add it to the heating sauce. Season the sauce with salt (liberally), pepper (sparingly), a cons
iderable amount of Oregano, liberal amounts of garlic powder and onion powder, a teaspoon of sugar, a pinch or two each of the other spices (later you can add more of them to taste), and two or three pinches of fennel; some believe the fennel is optional.

Stir the sauce occasionally, watching the heat so that it does not boil too hard and does not scorch. You will be reducing the tomato juice down, and as the water evaporates out, you will be adding the othe
r cans of juice to the sauce. I have been known to use 15 cans of juice in a good sauce. When the sauce is simmering, put the ribs and the Italian sausage into the sauce to simmer along with the sauce. Taste the sauce occasionally; if it seems to need a spice or two now and then, don’t be afraid to add it.

While the sauce is cooking, mix up the meatballs. Mix the hamburger, two eggs, and a cup or two of Italian breadcrumbs; salt lightly, add a pinch of fennel and any other spices you prefer in your meatballs. Roll the meatballs about golf-ball size and place them on a cookie sheet with a raised lip, or in a cake pan. Brown the meatballs in the oven at 350̊ . Don’t neglect to turn them after about ten minut
es to brown them evenly. Set the meatballs aside, covered with foil or a towel until later in the process.

Simmer your sauce for a good four hours. Remove the meat to a platter. Yes, the ribs will be falling apart tender; you can toss the bones if you like. Remove the sauce from the heat and allow it to cool to room temperature, or below if you have a convenient way to chill the sauce. When the sauce is cool, remove the grease (a ladle usually works, or a small coffee cup) from the top of the sauce. If it gets good and cold, the grease will harden and turn white-ish. Then you can just pick the grease off. Make sure you wipe the clinging sauce back into the pot with a spoon, and discard the grease.

Now, slowly reheat the sauce. The cooling process causes the flavors to blend better (you know how spaghetti always seems to taste better left over?). As the sauce heats up, add the meatballs to the sauce to heat up and finish cooking in the sauce. When the sauce is warm, taste it for the final spicing. Add the spices you think it needs to your taste, but be less aggressive than earlier; a little seasoning will go farther now.

Add the ribs and sausage back into the sauce to re-heat, and bring
the sauce to a gentle simmer, stirring regularly to keep it from scorching. It should cook for nearly an hour.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Add the dry pasta to hot water. Watch it so that it doesn’t get too mushy. You want it al dentejust a little chewy, but not hard and not real soft. Some Italians will toss a noodle against the wall (or ceiling) and if it sticks, it is ready. I just take a piece when it seems about ready and chew on it. You can feel when it is too hard, and, hopefully, it won’t seem too mushy.

Stir into the water a couple of teaspoons of Olive Oil, and drain the Spaghetti. Do not rinse it. You might like to add a small amount of sauce to the finished noodles and toss them for color and to help them not stick (which is also what the Olive Oil is supposed to do).

Now, when the sauce is simmering well, remove it from the heat. Remove the meat to platters
meatballs to a bowl, the other two meats can share a platter, or not as you please. You can serve the sauce in a tureen or a gravy boat, or from the pan as it pleases you. Some people will also have Parmesan cheese available for those who do not enjoy good spaghetti, but the use of it should be classified as a criminal offense after all the work has gone into making a perfect sauce. The only real debate is whether you put the meatballs on the pasta before you ladle a generous portion of sauce on, or after. The other meats generally are on the side.
Mind you, this isn't your "sauce, meat, and noodles mixed together in one pot" type of spaghetti feast. This is the slow-food, every-dish-in-the-china-cabinet, please-pass-the-boat-of-marinara-sauce type of meal in which that salad with onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers in a dill-flecked brine is served as a side, and so is a lettuce salad in a sweet creamy house-made dressing, and the oven-toasted garlic bread comes from a loaf the size of a baseball bat, and there is a special pleasure in knowing that the tomatoes in the sauce were home-canned, all the herbs home-grown, and the sausage made according to a recipe that remains a strict family secret to this day. To keep your anticipation on edge while the cooking goes on, sample dishes of sauce, sausage, and meatballs go around at discreet intervals. And later, in the living room or on the front porch, while the adults settle their stomach with sips of amaretto, we children suck on cups of lemon-ice. Aaaah.... It's like being back there again.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

NST 16

We continue our labor of (admonitory) love where we left off, in poking fun at the hymn selection of the Ambassador Hymnal, with its water-thin doctrinal content, glue-thick adherence to artistically inferior music, and general unsuitability for group worship in a church that bears the name Lutheran...

Hymn 606 is Nothing between (first line: Nothing between my soul and the Savior), with words and music by Methodist minister Charles A. Tindley (1852-1933), giving additional credit to one Dan Peterman (b. 1925) for his harmonically undistinguished, part-songy arrangement of the tune. The only moment where the music is remotely interesting is the rhythm of the words "Nothing preventing the least of his favor" in the refrain, especially surprising given the page layout of AH, which places this trip hazard right after a page break. Meanwhile, the text puts into each worshiper's mouth the boast, "I have renounced all sinful pleasure--Jesus is mine! There's nothing between." Is this one of those things that's OK to sing, even if it isn't necessarily true, because we hope that by singing it we will convince ourselves to do it? Either way, the message grates against Lutheran ideas in several ways. It smacks of decisionism, for one; it denies the means of grace, for another. With great effort one could correctly interpret this hymn as an expression of total devotion, but all the heavy lifting seems to take place at "my" end. What ever happened to "Jesus does it all"?

Hymn 608 is Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom, John Henry Newman's (1801-90) words set to the tune "Lux Benigna" by John B. Dykes (1823-76). I have already said as much as I ought to about this hymn. At the risk of saying more than I ought, I might add that Newman phrases his anthem to Christ in such a way that you might think the only relevance He has for our life lies in His moral influence. Newman's piety seems to be all about Jesus' impersonal, mystical involvement in our journey of spiritual experience, rather than any objective, historical, flesh-and-bone facts about who He is and what He has done.

Hymn 609 is We would see Jesus, for the shadows lengthen, words by Anna B. Warner (1827-1915, the author of "Jesus loves me, this I know") set to the tune "Consolation" by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-47). Having sung and played some lovely pieces by Mendelssohn, I find it hard to believe this straight-edged, square-cornered piece represents his original intentions. More likely, it has been adapted within an inch of losing all semblance to its maker's handiwork. Its gushy effeminacy, unfortunately, is probably authentic. The text takes its departure from "Sir, we would see Jesus" (John 12:21), a phrase that I saw engraved on a sign inside the pulpit of a church where I once preached. I find the point of that simple sign easier to take than this hymn, because for all the hymnist's (and the singers') avowed wish to see Jesus, they don't seem able to locate Him in the preached Word and the Sacraments. Apparently, if you follow Miss Warner's line of thought, you don't really get to see Jesus until we get to heaven. Meanwhile, we have to deal with the heaviness of such phrases as "Other lights are paling" and "Yet the spirit lingers" until one really feels a longing for death.

It strikes me, just now, how interesting it is to see 608 and 609 on facing pages, when one is all about making the best of this life, the other about marking time until the next. Isn't it amazing that such opposites can exist side-by-side without bursting the shackles of tackiness?

610 is Jesus, Rose of Sharon (first line: "Jesus, Rose of Sharon, bloom within my heart"), with words by Ida A. Guirey (no dates given, early 20th century) and the tune "Rose of Sharon" by Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932). When I look at the list of all the songs to which the latter contributed, I feel a sense of despair. It's not that it isn't a nice tune; in fact, as harmonically sedentary, echoey part-songs go, it's quite lovely. And except for the premillennial implications of the last stanza ("Till the nations own Thy Sov'reignty complete..."), the text makes nice use of the Rose-of-Sharon metaphor. Except for one thing: Song of Songs 2:1, where the biblical image of "rose of sharon" appears, seems to apply it not to Christ but to His Bride. How embarrassing! For four whole stanzas we're addressing Him as the female character to whom, moreover, He stands as Bridegroom. Tsk.

611 is Teach me Thy Way, O Lord, a hymn in the same meter as "Nearer, my God, to Thee"--which is worth mentioning because there are many such hymns and they all breathe the same spirit. Both the lyrics and the tune ("Camacha") are by one B. Mansell Ramsey (1849-1923), whose fame now rests almost solely on this hymn. It's all quite nice, in a nothing-special way that contrasts depressingly with the hundreds of outstanding Lutheran hymns left out of this book. Perhaps as a sign that Ramsey was more musician than hymnographer, the overall pleasantness of the hymn almost obscures the fact that it calls on Jesus, in all kinds of troubling situations, not for His comfort or grace, but for information and advice: "Teach me Thy Way," again and again.

612 is I'm but a stranger here, a hymn by Thomas Rawson Taylor (1807-35), wedded to the tune "St. Edmund" by Arthur S. Sullivan. Click the link on the composer's name and you'll see that I've already thrown this hymn down and stamped on it. I am ashamed to say this hymn has even infected the piety of my own Missouri Synod, going all the way back to The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), so what I say about it discomfits me as much as anyone else; but I am not the only one. My ears still sting from the harangue on this hymn, of which one of my seminary profs unburdened himself over a decade ago. The gist was that one can sincerely sing a hymn like this only if one believes either that Christ's death and resurrection obliterated the incarnation, or that He was only ever "made man" in appearance only. This thought seems to lie implicit behind all such hymns of pietistic renunciation; because what Christ did not assume, He did not redeem. Hence this life and all that it has in it is meaningless; the only real thing awaits us in heaven. This is a hymn that should fit right into the spirituality of Christians who now, more and more widely, opt for cremation rather than burial; because they have imbibed the idea, in common with pagan culture, that after the soul departs, the body is a worthless empty shell.

On the other hand, a Christianity founded on the conviction that God and Man became one Person in Christ, never again to be separated, will also insist on the distinctive practice of Christian burial--the planting of a seed still precious to the Lord who redeemed it; the respectful preservation of an honored vessel; the peaceful slumbering of a saint who will one day soon be awakened, transformed, and glorified for eternity. The body, and the material world in which it lives, are not just so much dead weight to be sloughed off so that the spirit can be free; rather, when your soul and body are separated in death, your soul pines for the part of yourself that you have left behind, until the whole "you" is reconstituted again. Because the eternal Son became flesh, died, lives again, and now sits at the Father's right hand, all creation has been renewed and sanctified to the holy use of God's holy people. Even while it writhes in birth pangs and awaits the deliverance to come, it is still God's world where He has called us to live, and how we live in that calling is of great consequence. To say, "I'm but a stranger here, Heaven is my home," etc., is basically to deny all that and say, "Phooey on this life! It's all just a tedious layover before our flight to the real destination." My prayer is that a few who read this will give this serious thought. Perhaps then this hymn will stick in their throat as it does in mine.

615 is More about Jesus (first line: "More about Jesus would I know"), with words by Eliza E. Hewitt (1851-1920) and the tune "Sweney" by John R. Sweney (1837-99). It's a catchy little part-song number with a jaunty, swinging rhythm concealing its static harmony. But rather than teaching us more about Jesus, it goes on and on for four stanzas (with a refrain), ceaselessly pounding the moral imperative to learn more about Jesus. Stanza 2 prays, "Spirit of God, my teacher be, Showing the things of Christ to me"--prior to any hint of how one gets access to that Spirit. Stanza 3 does locate where you can learn "more about Jesus"--"in His Word...hearing His voice in ev'ry line," which at least saves the hymn from failing to tell you how to learn more about Jesus; but the accent seems to be on absorbing useful information about Jesus rather than finding Him coming into your life through Word and Sacrament. "More about Jesus" is all very well, but once you have absorbed all the data available about Him, are all your problems supposed to be solved?

623 is Face to Face with Christ my Savior, a hymn in the meter of "What a Friend we have in Jesus," with words by Carrie E. Breck (1855-1934) and music by Grant C. Tullar (1869-1950), the author of a well-known devotional poem called "The Weaver." Again, the assumption of this hymnal seems to be that as "conservative" Lutherans, it behooves us to preserve a given slice of the past. Unfortunately, the slice selected by AH is the American Protestant culture of the mid- to late 19th century, a crucible in which anything distinctively Lutheran must boil away. The emphasis in this particular hymn is so inimical to Lutheran theology that it can only turn up the flame. For now we look forward to seeing Jesus "far beyond the starry sky," but until then, "Only faintly now I see Him, With the darkened veil between..." In other words, He is not with us as He promised (Matthew 18:20; 28:20); rather He is separated from us by an infinitely vast distance, if not actually separated from His assumed humanity; and so we cannot, in our present life, participate in full communion with Him through Word and Sacrament. What a bummer it would be to believe this. I don't think I would be able to wait to meet Jesus face to face; I would probably blow my brains out.

Then come several hymns I haven't the heart to pick apart except to remark on their "old-time religion" part-song music, which (I find) suffuses worship with the lukewarm, sickly sweetness of spiritual sentimentality, a flavor that generally makes me want to spit. Thus the tunes "Han skal öppna Pärleporten" by Elsie Ahlwén (set to 625 "He the pearly gates will open"), "Saved by Grace" by George C. Stebbins (626, first line "Some day the silver cord will break"), and "Ahnfelt" by Oskar Ahnfelt (627, "There many shall come from the east and the west") tease my tonsils and test my gag reflex, especially the Ahnfelt one because its polka-band banality replaces a beautiful Swedish tune called "Der mange skal komme."

629 is the U.S. national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," including all four stanzas--most of which you only knew existed because your 10th grade U.S. history teacher forced you to learn one of them by heart. It's nice to know where to look in case you need to find those other stanzas, but it's strange to think of them being sung in church--particularly the bloodthirsty lines consigning all enemies of the star-spangled banner to "the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave," etc. 630 is "America, the Beautiful," 631 "My country! 'tis of thee," 632 the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," 633 a patriotic hymn by Leonard Bacon (1802-81) identifying the Plymouth Pilgrims as "our fathers," and 634 "O Canada" (in the interest of being fair and balanced). I guess when your church body is centered in Minnesota, you have to take extra care to make sure you're covered in case the wind blows your church across the border. Happily, this is not the Lutheran hymnal that contains "Maple Leaf Forever"--though I assure you, there is such a book.

So, in the last analysis, being American (or, at minimum, Canadian) is at least as much intrinsic to the piety of this hymnal as being Lutheran. Perhaps more so; because its hymn selection is thoroughly steeped in American cultural Christianity, and where that conflicts with Lutheran teachings--well, you can guess which one is set aside....

Chicken Soup à Dad

It's the time of year when you need every advantage you can get against the germs and bugs that want to get you down. Here's a medicinal classic made the way my Dad used to make it, once in a while when he was allowed to take over the whole kitchen for an entire day. It's one of a couple of all-day, go-for-broke recipes that dwell in the upper stories of my Comfort Food Pantheon. And so, I turn the floor over to Cuda:
Remember: I cook without a lot of measuring, go by taste and smell and adjust on the fly.

  • an entire chicken (for a lot of soup)
    • just the breasts (if you are making 4-5 quarts of soup)
    • or the dark meat if your prefer—it is a matter of taste
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Various spices—I would use:
    • Cumin
    • a touch of Rosemary
    • Caraway
    • Basil
    • Garlic powder
    • Onion powder
    • Thyme
  • one whole Onion
  • several cloves of garlic, or a couple of teaspoons of chopped garlic (from a jar)
  • celery
  • carrots
  • flour
  • egg
I like to start with a whole chicken (as purchased in the grocery store, not with feathers and innards). Clean out the body cavities. Cut the chicken up into legs, thighs, back, breast, wings, etc.

Fill a large pan with water—15 quart if you have it; smaller if you don’t, but big enough to make a lot of soup. Leave room at the top of the pan for the water to rise as you add chicken and other ingredients.

Cook chicken in the water thoroughly—skin on. Remove the chicken pieces, remove the skin from the pieces and discard the skin. De-bone the meat and dice it to desired size of meat pieces by personal preference—about a half inch on a side works for me. Put the meat back into the broth.

Add a lot of salt—to taste, but it takes a lot of salt in a lot of liquid, less in less liquid. I add pepper copiously. Other spices are added by the principle of opening the spice up, smelling it (or tasting) and if seems like it would be good in chicken soup I add some. Other spicing is done by taste as the soup progresses.

Chop the Onion and add it. Add garlic, diced or chopped. Use Onion powder and garlic powder—add to taste. Chop several stalks celery and add to the soup. Chop carrots and add to the soup. Cook at a simmer for an hour.

Cool soup to room temperature (or refrigerate). Scoop out fat, which will rise to the top, and discard. Re-heat soup to a boil. As it approaches a boil, taste and season as it seems to need seasoning.

While the soup is re-heating, take a cup of flour, add an egg, preferably without the shell, and mix into a dough, adding a pinch of salt. You can use water to speed the process, but the water makes and inferior egg-noodle. If you want more noodles, use more egg and more flour. My working principle is "the more noodles, the better".

Roll the dough out flat and fairly thin (1/8 of an inch). Cut the dough into strips. I use a pizza cutter for that purpose, although a knife or kitchen scissors work too. Width is by personal choice: 1/4 inch to 1 inch wide. Cut length of noodles to about five inches (also personal choice).

When soup is boiling gently, add noodles and allow them to cook for ten or fifteen minutes. You can add any vegetables to the soup you wish to add. I prefer mine with just celery and carrots. Serve.
Mmmmm, I can just about smell the stock cooking... feel my teeth biting through those thick, full-bodied noodles... and hear my Dad grumbling about how somebody keeps moving the utensil he was about to use. Alas, Dad doesn't get to cook very often because he and Stepmom have different views on kitchen hygiene and, frankly, it's her turf. I could use a bucket of this soup right now, though!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Boardless Cribbage

I don't remember who taught this to me, and I haven't consulted any reference books about it, but from memory here is a little two-player game, requiring one standard deck of playing-cards, that you may even be able to teach to someone who is too old and set in his/her ways to learn Cribbage (which, I find, is impossible to teach to anybody above college age--only kids are dumb enough not to realize how hard it is).

Somebody shuffles the deck (after Jokers are taken out), then deals to each player a stack of 12 cards face-down, followed by one card face-up on the table.

Beginning with the dealer's opponent, the two players take turns drawing a card off their piles and laying it face-up, arranging the cards around the initial card in a 5 x 5 square. It doesn't matter whether the opening card ends up at the center of the grid, or at one corner, or anywhere else, as long as all cards end up in the same 5 x5 square.

As they lay down their cards, each player is trying to give himself points while preventing his opponent from getting any. For the dealer, points come from combinations of cards in each vertical column (N-S); his opponent's points come from card-combinations in the horizontal rows (E-W), or vice versa as the players arrange between themselves.
  • Each combination of cards in a single column or row that adds up to 15 (counting A's as 1 and K's, Q's, and J's as 10), gives the relevant player 2 points.
    • For example, the combination 5, 7, 8, 10, J would have 6 points worth of 15's: 2 for the 5-10 combination, 2 for 5-J, and 2 for 7-8.
    • The combination 5, 5, 5, Q, K would have 14 points in 15's: 2 for each 5-Q combo, 2 for each 5-K, and 2 for the 5-5-5.
  • Each pair is worth 2 points; and so 3 of a kind = 3 pairs for 6 pts.; 4 of a kind = 6 pairs for 12 pts.
  • Each "run" of three or more cards in consecutive denominations (A is always below 2) is worth 3, 4, or 5 points depending on how many cards are in it.
    • And so the combination 6-7-7-8-9 would have the following points: 6 for the 15s (6-9, 7-8, 7-8); 2 for the pair (7-7), and 8 for the runs (6-7-8-9 with each 7), for a total of 16.
    • Because "double runs" come up so often, it may be helpful to remember that a "double run of 3" (such as 6-7-7-8) is worth 8 points, counting both the runs (6-7-8) and the pair (7-7), but not counting 15's.
    • Following the same principle, a "double run of 4" (such as 6-7-7-8-9), counting the pair, is worth 10 points.
    • Other pair-run combination one sometimes sees include a triple run (such as 5-6-6-6-7) for 15 points, and a quadruple run (e.g., 4-4-5-5-6) for 16 pts.
  • A flush (all 5 cards the same suit) is worth 5 points.
    • A 4-point flush, excluding only the starter card, may also be allowed if both players agree on it.
  • A jack of the same suit as the initial card laid down by the dealer, and in the same row or column, is worth 1 point ("knobs").
    • If the starter card itself is a jack, the dealer can claim 2 points for knobs.
When all 25 cards have been played, both players count the points in each of their rows or columns. The player who scores the most points in total, wins. In the event of a tie, the dealer wins... but the other player gets to deal next time!

With both players' consent, you can add an extra element of jeopardy to the game: If you can show your opponent that he overlooked any points while scoring his hand, you can add the the points he missed to your total.

IMAGES: Some of the numerous designs for cribbage boards, in case you ever feel brave enough to experience the full richness of cribbage. Note the board shaped like the number 29. This is a reference to the highest-scoring single hand that is possible in cribbage, with 8 pts. in 15's from different 5-5-5 combinations, 8 pts. in 15's from J-5 combinations, 12 pts. in pairs from different 5-5 combinations, and 1 pt. for "knobs" because the Jack is of the same suit as the starter card; 8+8+12+1=29. I have personally had this hand at least once. That much, at least, I have achieved in this life!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Drunk Food and Painted Music

Tonight I picked up a friend at Lambert Airport and, since we had time to blow, drove him down to my neighborhood in St. Louis's south city for a bite to eat. We dined at Baldo's Restaurant on the block of Hampton Ave. between Potomac and Oleatha Streets, where I had previously enjoyed one of the best plates of chicken marsala on record, and which I remembered as a cozy little joint with a parlor full of ornate settees and low tables at which one could imagine tidy old men drinking tiny cups of espresso and arguing in Italian about Inter Milan.

I've been carrying around a gift certificate for $25 off a meal at Baldo's since last June. Unfortunately, the fine print said it wasn't good on Saturdays. But, to make it up, our waitress offered us a terrific deal: a choice of one of four entrees and one of two sides, soup, salad, crusty bread, a glass of wine, and a scoop of gelato for something like $13. We went for it.

The rolls were indeed crusty. They were also big, warm, and covered in well-toasted sesame seeds, a flavor I have come to appreciate; and although a decanter of olive oil was on the table, the waitress was considerate enough to provide pats of butter and margarine as an alternative bread-spread. She also proved to be one of those waitresses to treasure, the kind who refill your icewater without asking or being asked.

The soup was a cup of piping-hot minestrone, which is to say, tender pieces of vegetable in a dark, beefy broth. No complaints. The wine was... well, I'm no wine expert, but given a choice between white and red, my friend and I both opted, rightly or wrongly, for the red. And whatever wine it was, it was good: not too bitter, as young wines can often be, and with a pleasant round full flavor that went down easily and didn't leave a chemical aftertaste. It was probably something cheap but well-cared-for and not so sharply distinctive that it would offend an uneducated palate. See, I can say something intelligent-sounding without knowing the first thing about wine!

For the salad, I went with the house Caesar and my friend asked for an Italian dressing. It isn't often you can say much about the salad. The leafy lettuces were nicely ripped, the dressing was delicious, and the broad, thin wedge of tomato that came with each salad (and I ate both of them, since my friend didn't want his) was exceptionally juicy and full of fresh tomatoey flavor. There were also rings of onion in there and perhaps other things that I forget. But let's face it, it was a salad and we had years of catching-up to do in only a couple of hours, so what I mostly remember is that it took me a long time to eat it because I was talking so much.

His main course was the chicken marsala, and his side was pasta in meat sauce. He was awestruck by the deliciousness of the chicken--two halves of chicken breast laid out under a garlicky marsala-wine sauce, with mushrooms on top--and I was, frankly, envious. On the other hand, he didn't think the meat sauce on his pasta was anything special, and it probably wasn't the "right" side to go with chicken. Oh, well. I had two pork chops with mushrooms in a sherry sauce, which except for being nicely done chops with an occasional extra-brown bit that I particularly liked, were nothing special. I only ordered it because (1) I didn't want to waste the opportunity to broaden my Baldo's experience beyond chicken marsala, and (2) when I asked the waitress what she would choose, between the shrimp scampi and this, she suggested this. Maybe I should have ordered the scampi!

My side-dish was stuffed zucchini, which I was surprised to find out was stuffed with a sweet, fluffy, ricota-cheese mixture and covered with some sauce or other. I think I got the better deal on the side-dish, though it wasn't quite what I had visualized when the waitress said "stuffed zucchini"--here was me, thinking of an Italian variant on Ari's stuffed eggplant. It all went down, and stayed down, and as to what it turned out to be, I can make no complaint.

For dessert we had not only the house-specialty Italian hazelnut gelato, but also--because my friend had never had one before--a pair of cannoli, one each. Crispy on the outside, cool and creamy on the inside, with a perky hint of lemon flavor and a decorative maraschino cherry at each end, they were absolutely delicious. I've never had two cannoli that were alike (from different restaurants, I mean), so it's hard to compare Baldo's cannoli with those of the competition. The pastry tube part reminded me of those thin tea-cookies (ginger snaps, etc.) that you can get in long cardboard tubes at grocery stores that cater to international tastes. I would be much more excited about those cookies if I could have them with the fluffy, lemony, creamy filling that filled these cannoli.

Then I drove and drove and drove. I had to get my friend from St. Louis to Litchfield, Illinois, and drive back in time for an 8:00 concert at Powell Symphony Hall, to which I had previously purchased a ticket. It ended up being a close-run thing. I arrived at about 7:45, with just enough time to spare that I didn't have to drive recklessly, and coughed up the full $10 for gated-lot parking so that I didn't have to circle around looking for a free piece of curb.

The concert opened with the Concert Românesc by modern Hungarian-born composer György Ligeti, he whose Atmospheres formed part of the soundtrack of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The "Romanian Concerto" was surprisingly un-avante garde, having been composed in 1951 under the dictates of Hungary's ruling Communist Party, which demanded something very much "of the people." In spite of its classical sonorities and folkish themes, the piece was yanked after only one rehearsal and remained under the ban for 20 years. I enjoyed the four connected movements, except for a few flubs in the horn section which one comes to expect after a while; the orchestra's concert leader furnished an agile violin solo that helped drive the piece to its energetic close.

Then David Halen came out on stage and knocked Brahms's Violin Concerto out of the park. (Pictured: Brahms and his friend Joseph Joachim, the original soloist in this concerto.) It was a good thing that Halen had a lot of room to move around in, because he did a lot of expressive footwork while sawing out one beautiful melody after another, from the first movement's yearning-soaring theme which the soloist adds to the themes already introduced by the orchestra, to the tender melody first laid out by a gorgeous oboe solo in Movement II, all the way to the finale's wild Hungarian fiddle theme.

Perhaps the only tiny flaw in the concerto's performance--more like a beauty-mark than a boo-boo--was how the orchestra seemed a mite surprised by the quickness of conductor David Robertson's tempo at the beginning of the middle movement. But then, Robertson always seems to be fighting against the performance conventions which rely too much on exaggerated tempi to wring every drop of pathos out of a slow movement; he proves, again and again, that all the emotional power the piece needs is written right into it, if only we can trust the composer.

Finally, after the intermission, the orchestra showed us Pictures at an Exhibition, Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's celebrated homage to an artist friend who had recently died, in the popular orchestral arrangement by Maurice Ravel. It's a stunningly powerful piece, full of strange colors, spooky imagery, and viscerally effective moods ranging from nobility to humor to dread to panic and finally, to a colossal "big finish" in which religious piety and civil grandeur first alternate and then blend together in a sustained shout of brass and bells and percussion and anything else that can vibrate.

Pictures always brings down the house. Nevertheless, I wish the orchestra could have sounded better prepared for it. There were more times, as in the second movement of the Brahms, when one gathered that they weren't expecting the tempo Mr. Robertson gave them. I drew this impression from a variety of little things--a bit of fuzziness here, a xylophone note out of place there, the usual things that can go wrong in any performance without reflecting badly on anyone... except the saxophone soloist, who clearly needed to spend more time locked up inside "The Old Castle," until he could get through his moment in the spotlight without mangling his lines. Repeatedly.

But I'd better shut up about that now, because I'm going to be on stage with these folks next week and we're all going to make each other look really good. Mr. "I just washed my saxophone and I can't do a thing with it" was well forgotten by the overwhelming conclusion of the piece, leaving the audience applauding so loudly that my phrase "bring down the house" might have nearly come true. After all, a performance doesn't have to be note-perfect to be a great one. It can often be the ones that skate dangerously close to the edge of the ice that thrill us the most, the performances animated by a commitment to what the music means and an excitement about the power it wields, that make the fuzzy moments and even the saxophone flubs worthwhile because now, we too share the same thrill and conviction.

IMAGES from top: Baldo's; red wine; chicken marsala; cannoli; Ligeti; Brahms & Joachim; Halen; Mussorgsky; Ravel.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Eight Book Reviews

Alexander Hamilton
by Ron Chernow
Recommended Ages: 13+

I wouldn't have read this book if the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod had not sold its classical radio station, KFUO-FM, to a Christian Contemporary Music network. I would have happily spent my two-hour daily round-trip commute listening to pieces of Brahms and Haydn, highbrow patter about the local arts community, and advertisements for home-decor boutiques and elder-care facilities. Instead, I found myself banished to the fiery limbo of talk radio. I tried listening to CDs from my own classical music library, but even the best of them grow tedious after you've heard them ten times in a row; I needed a briefcase full of them just to get through one week. Even operas, the super-size-meal-deal of the music world, were only good for one or two round trips. So I finally broke down and invested in some audio books. Weighing in at anywhere from six to ten CDs, these books-on-disk enabled me to beguile my windshield time for as much as a week per book.

Equally important, however, was the choice of audio book. I didn't want to listen to somebody reading current bestsellers, which may be more or less entertaining today but will probably be forgotten by next week. I wanted something that would truly exercise my mind and give me lasting pleasure. So I started my search at a used record store, where I bought the audio-book version of two works by Ernest Hemingway... and this.

At last, I get around to discussing the book itself. Whether you read it in hard copy or hear the somewhat abridged audio book narrated by Grover Gardner, I think you will find this biography of one of our nation's founding fathers an absorbing and worthwhile exercise of your gray cells. Ron Chernow, also a celebrated biographer of George Washington, does not sugar-coat the flaws and errors of the man who, more than any other individual, was responsible for translating the dead letter of the U.S. Constitution into a living, functioning federal government. With a transparent blend of dramatic vividness and scrupulously documented historical accuracy, Chernow presents the man in all his foibles and infidelities, his strengths and weaknesses, his tragedies and triumphs, his loves and hates, his eccentricities and his essential principles.

I was unaware, until I read this book, that Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the West Indies, that he did not attend school until he was well into his teens, or that he became a leading figure in the American Revolution--and even a war hero--while still in his twenties. Having heard about him mainly from the other side--the Jeffersonian point of view--I was surprised to find myself sympathizing with Hamilton's federalist principles, his intellectually gifted rhetoric, and his sometimes reckless honesty in all his political and business dealings. His closeness to Washington, which some historians have cast in a sinister light as of a shrewd toadie operating on a mentally feeble old warhorse, comes across in this book rather as a touching partnership between vastly different men who held each other in the deepest respect. Subsequent presidents Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe come across as surprisingly flawed and, in at least one case, cynically two-faced.

Even Hamilton's fatal nemesis Aaron Burr comes in for a fascinating and detailed portrait. I particularly relished the scene, near the end of the book, where then-ex-President Monroe pays a call to Hamilton's widow, only to get stiff-armed by a lady who had never forgotten Monroe's role in her husband's downfall. Brought up in trying circumstances, driven by powerful ambition, hamstrung by his own pride and honor, and finally slain in a duel that eerily resembled one that had killed his eldest son a couple years earlier, Hamilton appears both in his touching humanity and in his amazing significance to the establishment of our republic. That such a person could really exist bears witness to the adage that "truth is stranger than fiction." That his true story is as readable (or listenable) as a fine piece of fiction is a credit to Mr. Chernow.

Death in the Afternoon
by Ernest Hemingway
Recommended Ages: 14+

Here is Hemingway's love letter to the art of killing bulls, a unique outgrowth of the cultural religion of Spain. Written when its author was in his early thirties, it paints a vivid, colorful prose picture of an art that was either beginning to die when he witnessed it, or had already essentially died, or always is and has been dying but never quite dead. It is an exploration of what is essentially true at the heart of a decadent institution: the acting-out of the timeless tragedy of death that seems, at times, to have degenerated without chance of recall into a gaudy spectacle of self-destructive machismo, or sometimes very thinly veiled cowardice.

Hemingway presents the chief parts of the bullfight one at a time, in the manner of a lecturer delivering a master class on the subject. With a keenly critical eye he evaluates the strengths and weakness of the matadors of his time, and of the people who serve them (such as picadors and banderilleros). To keep it from becoming boring, however, he places it all against a richly colored backdrop. Spain, as it was on the eve of its Civil War, comes alive to all the senses.

Hemingway also offers strange and wonderful insights into the Spanish character, as well as the human, and his own--simply by making such a compelling case for seeing the beauty in a ritual that too many have thoughtlessly condemned as wanton, cruel and wasteful of life. He argues persuasively that the corrida's shift of priorities, from when the killing of the bull was all-important to the latter-day matador's exhibition of calmness and poise while allowing the horns to pass suicidally close to his body, is both a blessing and a curse but mostly the latter. Under Hemingway's influence, one may even come to suspect that some of the reforms meant to lessen the supposed cruelty of the fights actually, in effect, increased the suffering experienced by the animal and the danger faced by the men.

The author does not confine his discussion to the ring. He sketches the lifestyle of bullfighters outside the ring, the pressures and health-hazards (both physical and mental) that they face, and the wider experience of living and traveling in Spain. He observes the behavior of the spectators, the character of the all-too-mortal men engaged in this blood sport, the challenges of the climate, and even the problems inherent in writing about Spain. At a couple of points he goes entirely off-topic and volunteers a bitingly memorable, brief essay on some other subject, such as using a beloved old horse as bear-bait, seeing death in a variety of forms in World War I (what he calls a "history of the dead"), and even some of his experiences from living in Paris.

It is interesting to consider whether the cynicism of Hemingway's worldview can be separated from these experiences, or from his appreciation of the bullfight. It is fascinating to have such a vital character speaking directly to you, even if you (like me) cannot help but disobey his command to "read no further until after you have seen the bullfight." Hemingway must have envisioned quite a small audience for this book if he really expected that injunction to be obeyed. But one aspect of his vitality is the swiftness of his judgment of other men's manliness. The life he himself lived would be a hard yardstick to measure up to. Yet in this book we see--or, as in my case, hear it as narrated on CD by the verbally gifted Boyd Gaines--this standard of judgment brought to bear on such men that Hemingway seems to come away in awe of them. And if that isn't a reason to take an interest in the bullfight, I don't know what is.

True at First Light
by Ernest Hemingway
Recommended Ages: 14+

In 1999, Ernest Hemingway's centennial year, this previously unpublished work went public. It had been edited by the author's son Patrick Hemingway from an unfinished manuscript twice as long as the final book. If you want to see what Patrick left out of his father's semi-autobiographical novel, or semi-fictional memoir, you can read that too: see Under Kilamanjaro, edited by scholars from the Hemingway Society. My advice, however, would be to accept the book in the form Patrick Hemingway gave it, because in my opinion it is just about perfect. True at First Light lovingly conjures the beauty of one of Africa's most spectacular wild places, populates it with characters who partake of a fascinating way of life, and places in their midst a sympathetically flawed narrator whose gentlemanly wisdom Hemingway seems to have wished, or even half-believed, was his own.

The book is loosely based on a two-month period in 1953-54 when Ernest Hemingway served as acting game warden on the north slope of Mount Kilamanjaro, in the African nation of Kenya. He and his fourth wife Mary had been guests of the regular game warden, and were happy to fill in while the latter tended to his farm. The African idyll ended when the Hemingways survived two plane crashes on the same day, resulting in exaggerated rumors of their demise. The author was more seriously injured than anyone realized at the time, and partly as a result of these injuries he gradually lost the ability to concentrate on his work. And so this book remained unfinished at the time of Hemingway's suicide in 1961.

The book does not cover the plane crash or its aftermath, though there are ominous foreshadowings of it for him who has eyes to read between the lines. Instead, it focuses on a few weeks during the author's term as interim game warden, on Mary's obsessive stalking of a rogue lion, on the author's (completely fabricated) affair with a native woman, on his invention of a new religion, and on the complex interrelationship between the Hemingways, their camp servants, and the locals. It was a melancholy time when the future of a beautiful wild country, its game, and its unique tribal cultures was in jeopardy from colonial "white" influences, the spread of Islam, and the policies of corrupt native officials. It was a perilous time when the Mau-Mau rebellion swept Kenya--a fanatical movement which, had it been joined by the Kamba tribe befriended by the Hemingways, would certainly have caused their deaths.

I enjoyed this book in its audio format, narrated by actor Brian Dennehy, during a week's worth of two-hour daily commutes. Dennehy's voice is not only easy on the ears but also very well suited to the character Hemingway crafts about himself. It is also the voice of a surprisingly cultured and linguistically gifted reader, who carries off a script liberally mined with Kiswahili vocables, to say nothing of entire sentences in French. Where Boyd Gaines (in reading Death in the Afternoon) sometimes forgot himself and went on in a Spanish accent for whole paragraphs of Hemingway-as-Hemingway, Dennehy never broke character until I almost believed I was listening to Hemingway's own voice. The CD also includes a track of Patrick Hemingway reading his own foreword to the book, which leads to such reflections as, "If his Dad sounded like that, he owes Brian Dennehy big-time."

My only complaint is that the crucial CD, in which Mary's lion hunt comes to its climax, was scratched and full of skips. I guess I'll have to read the hard copy next time. I'm almost certain there will be a next time, because in spite of its debatably dubious pedigree and lukewarm critical reception, I found this book to be classic Hemingway: steeped in the enchantment of an exotic world and of a rare, dangerous, and dying way of life, it preserves that moment, and that place, with a clarity so amazing that it makes art seem easy, genius a day's work, and a tedious stretch of highway a place of wonderful significance.

I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President
by Josh Lieb
Recommended Ages: 11+

Oliver Watson seems like a totally average junior high student in Omaha, Nebraska. Well, that's a lie. Actually he seems below average--fat, weak, nervous, and stupid. But it's all an act. Well, mostly. The fat part isn't an act. But the rest of it is an ingenious cover for the fact that Ollie is secretly a rich, criminal overlord well on his way toward world domination.

Local millionaire Lionel Sheldrake is actually a front-man for Oliver, who meets his minions in a blimp flying over Omaha, or in a secret underground laboratory, or even in a hidden room behind a row of decommissioned lockers in his school. Oliver's minions have planted fiendishly clever devices that, for example, cause the drinking fountain to run chocolate milk at the press of a button camouflaged as a wad of chewing gum. Ollie's minions listen to his orders, whispered into a hidden microphone, to punish kids who are mean to him by injecting them with a drug that causes noxious flatulence, or by having their favorite TV show canceled. Ollie's minions play bizarre pranks on his least favorite teachers, such as planting unnervingly personal messages inside the peel of an orange or on the side of a cigarette. Surrounded by all-but-invisible bodyguards, able to topple the leader of a small nation at a whim, and unhampered by inconvenient emotions such as tenderness or friendship toward anyone, Oliver Watson is vulnerable to nothing, nobody's fool... except.

Except that he has Daddy issues.

In spite of the fact that he remembers the day he was born, and was more intelligent than his father even then--though he has always had to hide it, to avoid frightening his parents--Ollie wants for nothing except, just once, to make his father proud of him. It is such a burning passion, such a deeply frustrated desire, that he almost doesn't admit it to himself. But in spite of all that he has accomplished without his father knowing it, Oliver yearns to do just one thing that will measure up to to the boyhood achievements of his quick-to-find-fault Dad. Which is why he stakes so much of his astronomical wealth and secret power on running for president... of the student council.

This is a fiendishly funny, first-person story from the point of view of a self-described "evil genius" who gradually finds out that he can't fight the emotional needs that he has in common with all other children, as much as he despises them. It is a horror story about how far a person with unlimited resources might go to settle a score of the most personal kind. It is a quirkily touching story about a boy who goes to anti-heroic lengths to prove that he can do it all without friends or loved ones, only to learn that he can't. Nor, surprisingly, does he need to. It is a story of school mayhem that scribbles a silly mustache on teachers, school administrators, Federal agents, third-world dictators, and quite a few kids you know. It could speak powerfully to frustrated overachievers, as well as underachievers who aren't frustrated enough... and it is also a very, very entertaining first book by a TV writer and producer for such shows at "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Simpsons."

by Robin McKinley
Recommended Ages: 15+

I take a book with me everywhere I go. The habit has grown out of my realization that I hate boredom more than anything else. So one night when I had a ticket to the Symphony, I brought this book along and read from it during the "down-time" before the concert, and during the intermission. Another adaptation I have made is to become used to passersby taking an interest in whatever it might be that I'm so interested in. About 18 people asked me about this book that night. I was happy to tell them about Robin McKinley, who has written so many good books. But what really intrigued most folks is the fact that Sunshine is a vampire novel. It doesn't look at all like what you would expect in a vampire novel. Unless I'm a poor judge of people, at least a few of those 18 inquirers went out and bought Sunshine the next day. Why? Because anyone can tell, right from the front cover, that as vampire novels go, this one is different.

And having read all the way through to the back cover, I can honestly confirm that it is every bit as different as you may have guessed. Perhaps more so. And that's really saying something. I've been a big fan of vampire literature since I read Dracula as a young teen, and then went on a video-bender watching every Dracula-based movie I could find. And reading many a vampire-related book. Some of them were super-scary. Some of them were a erotic. Some were action-fantasy blockbusters. Others were funny, or suspenseful, or mysterious. Some were rather lame. Lately, with the massive success of such Harlequin-romance vampire sagas as True Blood and Twilight, the market has been flooded with so many vampire yarns that I've been forced to give up following them all. Now the only thing that can brighten the hopeless vista is a truly different vampire novel. Leave it to Robin McKinley, that past mistress of the mythopoeic, to write it!

The world McKinley creates in this book is similar to present-day America, except that it is aswarm with workers of magic and magical beings of every type, from the brightest faeries to the darkest demons. It is a world that has already been torn apart by magical wars, rendering vast tracts of real estate uninhabitable due to spell pollution. It is a world in which the most important Federal law-enforcement agency is SOF--Special Other Forces--policing the activities and status of dark creatures and of the millions of people who share a mixed demon/human heritage. It is a world where the undead are a law unto themselves, spreading like a cancer that, some say, will take everything over in 100 years.

In that world, it is unwise for a coffeehouse master baker named Rae Seddon--"Sunshine" to her friends--to take a nighttime drive, alone, out to the lake that society abandoned after the worst part of the wars. Sunshine shouldn't live to regret it, after being captured by vampires and chained to a wall inside a derelict mansion next to another vampire, who is being starved and tortured into insanity by exposure to each day's sun. Even though the vampire doesn't want to eat her, they both know it's only a matter of time until his self-possession breaks. Except that Sunshine does something extraordinarily unexpected. She discovers an untapped power within her, a power drawn from sunlight and from the magic-user heritage on her long-absent father's side. She discovers a way to save both herself and, even in broad daylight, her undead prisonmate.

As the strange events continue to unfold, Sunshine develops a bond with the vampire Constantine, experiences new senses, discovers unlooked-for powers, and gets caught up in a vendetta against a power so revoltingly evil that it will make even the most jaded horror-junkie shudder. Even after the gruesome climax, the book's deliberate ending allows you to savor the really juicy question: Can Sunshine come through all this and remain herself?

Like many books of the "mythopoesis" persuasion--a specialty of both McKinley and her husband Peter Dickinson--this one poses some degree of challenge to the reader, a challenge to discover by induction all that is unique about the world it conjures, and to master its distinctive style of speech. It is also a book that earns an "adult content advisory," owing not only to violence and gore but also to some strong sexual imagery. Vigilant parents should consider their teen's level of maturity before deciding whether this book is appropriate for him or her. But it is also a chatty novel that, I think, could easily take even younger teen readers into its confidence and draw them into its world, with its sensory delights and compelling pace, so that they hardly realize how challenging it us until they find themselves surrounded by vampires. As one character tells Sunshine: "I think you are in over your head in exactly what you are best suited to be in over your head in...and you are doing very well."

Ramage and the Guillotine
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sixth book in "The Lord Ramage Novels," young Royal Navy Lieutenant Nicholas Ramage accepts a seemingly impossible assignment, personally handed to him by the First Lord of the Admiralty. His mission: to cross the Channel into France, find out the state of readiness of Napoleon's invasion fleet--which is expected, any day or perhaps never, to attack the English coast--and report back. And although he is a naval hero, he must do all this without a ship of his own. How he gets over to France is his own business; the crucial part of the job must take place on land.

Part of Ramage's adventure does double duty, both as a display of the young lieutenant's savvy in finding a way to do the next-to-impossible, and as a historical study of the smuggling trade in the early 1800s. Ferried across the Channel by the unusually cooperative crew of a brandy-smuggling smack, Ramage and a handful of faithful seamen sniff around the harbor of Boulogne. Then, putting his neck at inconceivably high risk of being stretched across the Guillotine, he follows the scent of even better intelligence inland to Amiens. In a paranoid police state where no one can travel without papers, even from one city to another, and where everyone lives in constant fear of denunciation to the powers that be, Ramage risks all on his ability to impersonate an Italian ship-builder, accompanied by a Cockney picklock who doesn't speak a word of French (let alone Italian) and a French smuggler brazenly impersonating a member of the Committee for Public Safety.

To say that such a mission is "suicide" may lack force in this day and age, where we are accustomed to seeing heroes accomplish the impossible. So in fairness to Ramage's deathwish, I must mention to you that he spends part of this book--near the end, actually--awaiting execution by guillotine. This brings a relentlessly suspenseful book to a climactic pitch of tension, while also being moving and--believe it or not--bitterly funny...
OFFICIAL: Your execution is arranged for ten o'clock tomorrow morning.

RAMAGE: Thank you. It is a civilized hour. I was afraid you would make it dawn.
I continue to enjoy the exploits of the all but tiresomely admirable Ramage. This is one of his most admirable exploits so far. And it is also a fascinating glimpse into the atmosphere in France at the time of Napoleon's wars of conquest. I had never really appreciated, until I read this book, the irony that post-revolutionary France was really a miserable, oppressive, horrific place to live. By comparison, the very British Empire against which my country had so recently revolted was, for all its flaws, the best and freest nation in the world, except perhaps America.

By reading this book at home at the same time that I listened to Alexander Hamilton in my car, I found it easy to agree with some of our founding fathers (such as Hamilton) who sympathized with Britain, and to lose respect for others (such as Jefferson) who worshiped the French Revolution. Imagine that! It could be a novel of naval derring-do that convinces you that "liberty, equality, fraternity," without the rule of law, is by far the worse tyranny than even Mad King George and his cynical, tax-and-spend Parliament. Maybe all I needed to say was that this is a book that educates as it entertains. But it entertains so well that you don't mind a bit of educating coming in under the stile!

Ramage's Diamond
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the seventh book of his naval adventures, Lord Nicholas Ramage attains to the rank of post-captain. This is to say, "Captain" is finally his official rank, and not just the courtesy title afforded to any Royal Navy Lieutenant who happens to command a ship. Now he can aspire to command any size of warship, up to the massive "ships of the line" that supply much of Britain's firepower against the combined navies of Spain, the Netherlands, and Napoleonic France. Meanwhile, however, he has been given command of a 32-gun frigate, Juno by name, and dispatched to the West Indies with orders for Admiral Davis, orders direct from the First Lord of the Admiralty.

Ramage knows only that the Admiral's orders have to do with some special, urgent mission. If he hopes that Davis will send him on that mission, his hopes are in vain. Instead, the Admiral sends one of his favorite frigate-captains on the mission, and puts Ramage on blockade duty along the coast of the French island of Martinique. Nevertheless, our young hero very quickly turns his tedious assignment to good account, first by capturing a couple of privateers that tried to capture Juno, then by accomplishing the almost unbelievable feat of setting up a battery on the 500-foot-high haunt of goats known as Diamond Rock. The only thing more unbelievable than this fictional achievement is the fact that it actually pales next to the historical fact it is based on!

Then it's just a matter of waiting until the expected French convoy rounds the southern point of Martinique. But in spite of his late amazing run of luck, Ramage has good reason to worry. His expected reinforcements haven't arrived, and time is running out. Under-gunned, under-manned, he may find himself facing suicidal odds and vastly superior forces, with nothing in his favor but the element of surprise.

The suspense is good, and it is also wonderful to see Ramage moving into the next phase of his career--building relationships with his own lieutenants, commanding larger forces, holding more responsibility, and running more complex tactics. The one weakness of this book, particularly alongside others in this series, is the almost anticlimactic ease with which Ramage's great crisis resolves itself. Heck, strike the word "almost"--the lopsided battle against the much larger French forces tilts so dizzyingly in the other direction that it smacks of deus ex machina, only with a makeshift land-battery instead of deus and a freak collision instead of machina. One could reasonably regret not seeing Ramage claw victory out of the enemy's grasp by sheer boldness and tactical brilliance... instead, he so seems to owe his victory to luck that even Ramage himself feels cheated, to say nothing of the reader.

On the other hand, I suppose such things happened in real life, and if they hadn't there might not be an eighth Lord Ramage Novel to look forward to. And it does seem that his gamble on that land-battery idea of his paid off in a big way. But now that he has succeeded so successfully that Admiral Davis is willing to give him that special mission, Ramage must swallow the bitter pill of what that mission involves. I'm not telling, though. You'll have to stand by for Book 8, Ramage's Mutiny....

The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse
by Robert Rankin
Recommended Ages: 15+

19 years ago, while crossing the Atlantic in the center section of a DC-10, I found myself seated next to an adorable little German boy who spent the entire flight puking. The poor Schatze used up every airsick bag in the entire row; I can't imagine where it all came from. To keep my mind off this unsettling spectacle, I fell back on the only available diversion besides an edited-for-airlines presentation of the cinematic masterpiece Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot! Which, natch, meant reading a book. All I had was a novel hurriedly grabbed at a multilingual airport gift shop in Frankfurt. Its title, dear reader, was Armageddon II: The B-Movie. It was supposed to be the sequel to a book called Armageddon: The Musical.

If you think you can imagine how awful that book was, you are probably mistaken. Even though its awfulness was predictable, given its title; even though it evidently was awful by design; even though, like all your favorite awful books, its awfulness was mitigated by a few gratuitously explicit passages of an adult nature: it was, at last, too awful to compete with the comedic duo of Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty. So I surrendered to the real B-movie and let the make-believe one drift to the bottom of my Fort Made of Books until I had forgotten all about it except its title and a vague impression of its failure to compete with a nauseous neighbor for entertainment value.

I didn't connect the name of author Robert Rankin with that memory until after I had bought this book and started reading it. The title (pictured above) jumped out at me as I passed it in the stacks, and after scanning the back-cover blurb I thought it might be a fun diversion. When I realized what a weird kind of fun it was, I checked inside the front cover for a list of the author's works and was shocked to make the connection to that nightmarish flight from Frankfurt to Boston in June of 1992. Yes, Robert Rankin wrote that too.

Nevertheless, I pressed on. It didn't entirely redeem my first impression of its author, as (for example) The Scarecrow and His Servant rehabilitated my opinion of Philip Pullman after the offensively disappointing His Dark Materials trilogy. While I can still sense a kinship between this book's irreverently quirky sense of humor and the book I found unreadable 20 years ago, I actually had a good time reading this one. Many readers may find it puzzlingly tacky, psychotically weird, and weighted down by an exaggerated estimate of its own cleverness. Vigilant parents who wonder whether this book, like Armageddon II, deserves an "adult content advisory," might be concerned to hear the answer, "Ha, ha, yes, very much so." And after all that is said, I imagine there is a small market for a hard-boiled detective novel featuring a boy named Jack and his bestest friend, a stuffed bear named Eddie, in a city where nursery-rhyme characters and toys live, move, and have their being.

This is a naughty murder mystery in which an underage boy drinks, drives, and loses his virginity, together with a toy bear who likes to stand on his head while drunk so that the alcohol trickles into his sawdust brains. It is an often gruesome and oftener gross story in which denizens of a fairy-tale universe grapple with deep questions about God and the end of the world. It is a cosmically (and comically) bizarre romp amid cannibal farmers, clockwork cars, talking door-knockers, killer spider-women, and an evil twin who leaves hollow chocolate bunnies at the scenes of his crimes. It has some of the same twisted appeal as Jasper Fforde's "Nursery Crime" series, yet it remains the work of a unique stylist with a satirical outlook all his own. If this had been the first book by Robert Rankin I laid hands on, I might not have waited 20 years to try a second...