Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ramage 8-11

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

In the eighth Lord Ramage novel, dashing young Captain Nicholas Ramage remains in command of the frigate Calypso, which he had captured from the French off Martinique in Book 7. He is still on the Caribbean station, too, under the command of the admiral whose share in the Martinique prizes ought to incline him favorably toward Ramage. His spectacular success in a mission of which not much was expected stands, however, in embarrassing contrast to the failure of the admiral's favorite, a captain who was supposed to cut a shipful of mutineers out of the Venezuelan port to which they had surrendered themselves. The first captain had sailed up and down in front of the harbor, decided there was nothing he could do about it, and sailed home. Now it's up to Ramage to do or die—most likely the latter—or, failing to do either, to serve as a convenient scapegoat for the admiral and his favorite captain.

This tale of naval derring-do in the age of sail is based on the story of the HMS Hermione, a ship whose crew mutinied in 1797, handed themselves over to the Spanish ship and all, and were later recaptured by the British. Here Ramage is up against not only the dangerous Spanish shore batteries of the fictitious port of Santa Cruz, and the ships that cruise the Spanish main, but the very real threat of mutiny spreading like a virus from one ship to another, even perhaps to a whole fleet, unless it is put down soonest and discipline restored.

As usual, the very capable Ramage is backed up by a capital crew, much of which he has somehow managed to keep together through three or four commissions. He still has among his lieutenants the loyal Aitken and the able Wagstaffe, as well as a fiery, aristocratic youth named Paolo Orsini as his midshipman; ship's master Southwick with his full range of expressive sniffs, red-faced marine lieutenant Rennick with his passion for cutting-out actions, American-born coxswain Jackson with his shrewd reserve, and the dear, familiar peanut gallery of seamen Stafford and Rossi, and others, serving at times as chorus to the developing suspense and intrigue of the mission.

Plus, you get to see all these familiar faces in a strange and perhaps hilarious disguise. In a ruse of diabolical cleverness calculated to get the Calypso past Santa Cruz's impassible batteries, they become a shipful of mutineers themselves. The humor of the situation is somewhat tempered by the risk these men are taking, the risk of being shot as spies, and a very close-run risk at that as, inevitably, the plan comes off with hitches galore, and a tremendous explosion at the end.

Author Dudley Pope, himself a sailor who loved cruising the Caribbean, succeeds beautifully in this installment of a series that takes a deliciously slow-paced survey of Ramage's naval career. In reality, he would already have taken more than his share of prizes as a frigate captain, but we don't mind seeing the cruise go on. Perhaps less subtle than a Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin novel, a Lord Ramage story is always worth reading for the sheer thrill and delight of being, as it were, an eyewitness to such daring exploits in an era when warfare was just deadly enough to make each battle really matter.

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

With this ninth book in the series, the Lord Ramage Novels reach their midway point. Captain Nicholas Ramage, R.N., is still cruising the Caribbean in his formerly French frigate Calypso, but unfortunately he is no longer under the command of an admiral who owes him a fortune in valuable prizes. Instead, he has to bear with the interference of Admiral Sir William Foxe-Foote, more a politician than a seaman. Foxe-Foote sets young Ramage on the wake of a band of piratical privateers, whose bloody work the Calypsos soon see for themselves on board a ship whose passengers were senselessly slaughtered.

The scent of piracy eventually leads Ramage & Co. to the Dutch-held island of Curaçao—which, owing to the alliance between France and the Netherlands at that time, is enemy soil. But Ramage comes at a particularly opportune moment. The spirit of revolution, stirred up in part by French patriots and in part by self-serving privateers, has spread to the back country of Curaçao. The Dutch governor feels events slipping out of his grip. In desperation, he calls on Ramage and the Calpysos for aid—in effect, surrendering his island to the British without a shot being fired—so that the flames of rebellion can be stopped before they consume the capital city and the ships anchored in its uniquely sheltered harbor.

Getting at the rebels means leading a significant expedition inland, where (apart from the marines) Ramage's men are not used to fighting. Their land battles with the rebels and privateers are exciting enough; but when Ramage is betrayed by all but a few of the Dutch officials after keeping his side of the bargain, and threatened by a powerful Dutch ship of war to boot, the actions he takes are... well, let's say "explosive" and leave it at that. He loses some valued men and takes a shrewd blow to the head himself, but he also helps two heartbroken lovers come together, seals the fate of the pirate who had slaughtered those innocent passengers, and acquires an entire island for His Britannic Majesty. Not bad for a frigate on the prowl for privateers!

The Ramage Touch
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book Ten of the Lord Ramage Novels finds Captain Nicholas Ramage and the men of His Majesty's Frigate Calypso on a four-month cruise in the Mediterranean, at a time when that body of water has virtually been swept clean of British ships. Even though Ramage and the Calypsos prefer the climate of their previous station in the Caribbean, they couldn't ask for a more ideal set of instructions: to cruise, without a convoy and independent of any superior officers' direct interference, "to create as much havoc as he could along the French and Italian coasts, disrupting shipping, transport, communications..."

If you ask Ramage to create havoc among the enemy, you've come to the right shop. In this particular mission, aided by all his old faithful followers as well as at least one promising newcomer (a "wide awake," flute playing, young lieutenant named Martin), Ramage captures two bomb-ketches—which is to say, two small ships designed not so much for their sailing virtues as to provide floating platforms for the firing of explosive mortar shells. At first, after seeing to it that his junior officers have a grasp of the principles of firing a mortar, Ramage seems content to sink the bomb-ketches. But they prove useful in battering a troop convoy being manned in a Tuscan port, and in capturing the plans for a mysterious massing of troops in the eastern Mediterranean.

Once again, Ramage proves that he has a unique touch with men, sails, guns, and the many daring disguises of war. At times wittily comical, and often overflowing with action and excitement, this book is a valuable installment in a consistently fun-to-read series. I might quibble at the marine lieutenant's name suddenly (and for this book only) changing from Rennick to Renwick; but neither C. S. Forester nor Patrick O'Brian was immune to continuity gaffes over the course of a long series of novels, so why get worked up about it? After all, it's just another reminder of the vast number of miles, battles, and thrilling exploits covered in the 18 Ramage novels. And if you hadn't already guessed, I'll let you in on a secret: I mean to read them all!

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

In the eleventh of the Lord Ramage Novels, Capt. Nicholas Ramage continues his four-month Mediterranean cruise (begun in Book 10) with splendidly open-ended instructions to raise Old Harry with enemy shipping. He is well-equipped to do it. Besides being a clever tactician, blessed with a gift for seamanship and an aura of command, Ramage happens to command the frigate Calypso, so recently captured from the French that she retains the unmistakable rigging, paintwork, and armament of the French navy. And she has one of the top fighting crews in His Britannic Majesty's navy, from elderly ship's master Southwick (a prime navigator) to teenaged midshipman Paolo Orsini, a nephew of the Italian marchesa who is all but engaged to Ramage. His first lieutenant has passed up opportunities for promotion in order to keep sailing with him; his junior lieutenant, a flute-playing youth nicknamed "Blower Martin," was all but born sailing and shows every promise of becoming a great naval commander himself, if he doesn't get killed first.

And now it's about to get a lot easier. For Ramage has decided to capture a semaphore station on the coast of France, replacing the signalmen with members of his own crew, in order to gather information about enemy shipping and, ultimately, to disrupt communications from Toulon to Barcelona. In spite of a few surprises from the weather and from enemy forces, they manage this nicely. Then their work is simply a matter of luring a whole convoy of merchantmen into a trap across a wide expanse of sea, maintaining all the while the charade of being their French escort; defending them against a crew of ruthless Algerine pirates; capturing and burning them without letting any ships get away and ruin their disguise; and finally, getting their prizes to Gibraltar without letting the ever-present Franch and their allies recapture them.

Remarkably, the exciting final chapter plays out in Ramage's absence, while other business detains him elsewhere. All in all it's a delightful romp, full of familiar, friendly faces, amazing ruses, roaring guns, creeping suspense, and all manner of good-humored fun. As I write this, I have only one additional Lord Ramage novel in my possession (Book 12, Ramage and the Renegades), but even if I can't afford to buy the six that follow it, I'm not worried. I've got a shiny new library card, and I've already put a reserve on Book 13!

Sherwood Smith

by Sherwood Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

In spite of my recent obsession with naval fiction, I have not entirely given up my survey of the fantasy genre. When I chose this book, it helped that it promised a bit of both. Set in a world crafted with a Tolkienesque variety of made-up landscapes, languages, cultures, and political forces, it features a boy of remarkable gifts who, by the end of four thick books, will become a great military leader on land and sea. His name, at least to begin with, is Indevan-Dal Algara-Vayir. You can call him Inda.

Inda is the second son of a landed prince in the kingdom of Iasca Leror, where the native Iascans are the common people, who have not yet forgotten that they were conquered by the Marlovans, a warlike people from the north. To this day the Marlovans speak a kind of pidgin in which their ancestral tongue is reserved for military matters, while anything to do with farming and everyday business is spoken in Iascan. They specialize in a kind of warfare carried out chiefly on horseback, and they practice strange social customs, in which the eldest son (whether of the king or of any nobleman) is trained in warfare at a military academy in the royal capital, and then in turn the eldest son trains his younger brother to be his "shield arm," to defend his territory right up to the castle walls. Inside the walls, meanwhile, defense is laid to the charge of the ruler's wife, and because marriages are arranged at birth (if not earlier), a daughter is frequently fostered off to be raised in the household of her betrothed, and trained from girlhood to perform these defensive duties when she becomes the master's wife.

So, it's not a really easy-going culture in which Inda was born. You feel for him from the beginning, because he is very clever and he has a heart of gold. Even as a boy of eleven years old, he shows tremendous potential as a strategist. So he is really delighted when the King's Shield Arm (Sierandel, and later Harskialdna, to use the Marlovan titles before and after the kingdom goes to war) summons all the second sons to his academy and begins training them for the expected war with the Venn of the far north. Inda takes to the Academy like a fish to water. Unfortunately, for reasons he cannot begin to comprehend, the Sierandel seems to feel threatened by him. Just when a boy of Inda's gifts seems to be what the kingdom really needs, a villainous plot to discredit him leads to horrendous tragedy.

When I reached the midpoint of this book, I was so excited that I had to call my father and tell him about it. I did so at great length, but to whet his appetite I opened with the following analogy—maybe it will excite you too. Suppose, when Harry Potter went back to Hogwarts for his second year studying wizardry, that when he crashed the flying car into the whomping willow, his humorous friend Ron Weasley was killed. Then suppose that Professor Snape, having rigged the car to crash, now conspired to have Harry take the blame for Ron's death. And, instead of continuing his studies at Hogwarts, suppose the heartbroken Harry was now expelled and hustled off, for his own protection, to where Voldemort would never look for him—say, the first departing vessel of the merchant marine. Wouldn't that be a stunner? And that's just the first half of the book!

Inda does, indeed, become a ship's boy in the merchant marine, while his "Hermione" at the Academy—a king's second son nicknamed Sponge—tries to carry on as leader of the second-son scrubs. The Royal Shield Arm's evil designs continue to mature, designs which involve holding Sponge back in any way possible. Sponge's older brother, the Sierlaef (another Marlovan title, there), makes eyes at the betrothed of Inda's older brother, and hatches evil plans of his own. Rumors of pirate attacks on sea, and of a Venn blockade retaliating for the Marlovans' latest war of expansion, continue to trickle in. Inda's intended, the sweet young Tdor, waits and hopes for his return.

And on the high seas, Inda and his shipmates pull together as a band of mercenary marines, specializing in protecting merchants against pirates. They do fairly well at that until, in the final pages of this book, Inda wakes up with a pain in his head after a fierce battle and learns that he has a choice: join the pirates or die... After reading this, I wasted not a moment in laying hands on the second book in this quartet: The Fox.

The Fox
by Sherwood Smith
Recommended Ages: 14+

This sequel to Inda continues the dramatic rise in the fortunes of Indevan Algara-Vayir, a youth from the fantasy kingdom of Iasca Leror who, thanks to a vile conspiracy, washed out of a military academy and became first a merchant marine, than a marine mercenary. With tactical skills far ahead of people twice his age, Inda is a natural leader and an expert at fighting. But now the very pirates he has been fighting against have captured him.

Fox is the name of the youth who, captured by pirates somewhat before our hero, we found whispering a choice into Inda's ear at the end of the previous book: "Become a pirate and join our mutiny, or die." The Fox is also the symbol of the kingdom Inda comes from, and the honor he holds in his heart. Honor which binds him not to step foot on his native soil until his name has been cleared of a schoolmate's death. Honor which separates him from all that he has known and loved, and an honor that cuts him to the quick as he agrees to join a pirate's crew in the hope that, somehow, someday, he will be able to undermine his command. That day comes more suddenly than Fox expected, when Inda spots a narrow window of opportunity to seize command of the ship. Then, after the first of many savagely bloody battles, Fox and Inda and their cronies become the leaders of a new kind of pirate fleet—one that preys entirely upon other pirates.

Though their destruction of numerous seagoing crime lords ought to be upheld as a public service, Inda and his pals continue to be regarded as pirates and outlaws by the coastal communities. Nevertheless they fight on, unwilling to rest until they have swept the seas clean of all pirates, Inda becoming infamous under the false name of Elgar the Fox. What they will do when all this is done is a matter on which Inda and Fox disagree, since Inda remains bound by honor to the Marlovan king, while Fox (whose ancestors were unthroned by the current royal house) wants to fight his way onto the throne. Neither of them knows, yet, that Inda has become the heir to his father's principality, following his older brother's death by treachery—the treachery, no less, of the king's elder son. Nor do they know that, after a bloody uprising against the royal family which the king's second son only, and narrowly, survived, Inda's school chum Sponge (a.k.a. Evred) now sits on the throne, and his own sister is queen!

All Inda knows is that, having disposed of the pirates, he now has to do something about the Venn, the great enemy from the north that is preparing to invade his homeland. The Venn have powerful mages helping them navigate their ships. Inda learns that he must get one of those mages to join his cause willingly, or all is lost. Everything he learns about the Venn, their naval and military power, comes at great cost. Inda endures the death of numerous friends, receives wounds that leaves scars all over his body, and undergoes a life-changing spell as the prisoner of a sadistic nobleman who wants Inda's help overthrowing his Venn masters. His reputation, in popular rumor, is compounded of equal parts awe at his prowess and disgust at his villainy. His closest associates are gripped by conflicting goals, romantic passions, doubts and suspicions. And back at home, his loved ones are losing the strength to wait for his return....

I can think of no better way to tell you how much I think of this series than to describe, in brief, the trouble I went to in getting hold of the third book, titled King's Shield. After reading the last page of this book, I did not think I could survive a whole day without finding out what happened next. I drove all over the metropolitan area, visiting one bookstore after another, but luck was not on my side. I found multiple copies of Books 1, 2, and 4, but not a single copy of Book 3! I even broke down and visited the public library, something I do so seldom that, on my last two consecutive visits, I had to get a new library card to replace one that had expired. I eventually gave up and placed an online order for King's Shield, and I'm reading it now. I'm in no hurry now. I want it to last a while!

Sherwood Smith, best known as the author of Crown Duel, is a sixtyish American lady who has written prolifically under a variety of pen names. The Inda books are the first books by her that I have read. If the same will be true for you, you might thank me for an "adult content advisory," in consideration of the very open approach to sexuality evident in Inda's world. While there is some magic there, I do not think it rises to the threshold of "occult content," given how very little magic there is, most of it on the order of domestic cleaning spells; the most interesting of which, in my opinion, is the "disappearing of the dead." Let the prospective reader, or parent thereof, be advised.

Alexander Kent

The Bolitho Novels
by Alexander Kent

My hunger for naval fiction has become more ravenous than ever, lately. I devoured C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels. I inhaled Patrick O'Brian's Aubreyiad, books that I count among my most cherished possessions and that I have begun re-reading in audio-book form. I am two-thirds of the way through Pope's Lord Ramage novels. It won't take me long to finish them all. So I sensed that, in the tradition of Britain's Royal Navy, "not a moment must be lost." I decided that it was time to find the next major series of naval novels to sail through. Guided in part by the advice of a knowledgeable second-hand bookseller, and in part by the recommendations listed in the foreparts of the Ramage books, I decided to give the Bolitho novels by Alexander Kent a try. It already runs to more than two dozen books, and it seems the author is still writing them, so I reckoned they would provide ample hours of reading pleasure.

After I read the first book, I realized that I need to know more about this remarkable author. My research on Kent turned up something really amazing. Judging by his Bolitho novels, Alexander Kent is an amazingly prolific author. But he doesn't actually exist. Kent is, in fact, a pen name of author Douglas Reeman, who has published numerous other books under his own name. In addition to the Bolitho series, Reeman has written an equal number of novels based on World War II naval wafare, a five-book series on several generations of Royal Marines (the Blackwood Saga), and at least seven other novels of action, adventure, and war on the water. Wiki has a list of them. The author's own website gives synopses, first-edition covers, and information on how to get hold of the current editions.

Between the two sites, you can find lists of the books in both publication and canon order. So I won't waste space on that here. Here I only want to point out that the Bolitho series follows the career first of Richard Bolitho, then of his nephew Adam, as officers in the Royal Navy beginning before the American Revolution, and thus commanding a broader sweep of history than the Hornblower, Aubrey, or Ramage novels (which all begin round about 1800). Indeed, I seem to remember that Horatio Hornblower's birthdate was July 4, 1776, which makes Richard Bolitho quite a bit senior to him and promises a series with plenty of room for sea actions and the changing fortunes of war.

Though Alexander Kent is really Douglas Reeman, it turns out there was a person by that name, a shipmate of the author's who was killed during World War II, and whose name Reeman honors with the Bolitho series. As a naval veteran, Douglas Reeman brings detailed experience, as well as considerable historical research, to his art. As far as I have read so far, however, it seems Reeman cares just as much about the heart, the conscience, and the feelings of his hero, portraying him and the people around him with a richness of personality in all its shades and colors. Other fans of the series, since I told the world on Facebook that I was starting to read it, have told me how deeply they enjoyed this series, reading it over and over from start to finish, and swearing that it is better than all the other series I have named; one even rhapsodized about unforgettable characters whom I have yet to meet. I hope their endorsement tempts you as much as it tempts me!

The Complete Midshipman Bolitho
by Alexander Kent
Recommended Ages: 14+

In canon order (that is, the chronology of events within the books), this is the first book in the Alexander Kent/Richard Bolitho series, actually authored by the amazing Douglas Reeman. But it wasn't the first to be written; that honor goes to To Glory We Steer (first published, 1968). Nor is it really one novel. Rather, it is an omnibus volume of two novellas and a novelette, if I may be allowed to draw such a fine distinction. Published in 1975, 1978, and 2005 respectively, their titles were Richard Bolitho—Midshipman, Midshipman Bolitho and the 'Avenger,' and Band of Brothers.

Even these three books do not cover all of Dick Bolitho's career as a midshipman in the British Royal Navy, which began some four years farther back at age 12. I suppose, however, that we must satisfy ourselves with what we've got. Dick's career can't have started to get interesting much before his assignment, in October 1772, to the 74-gun ship-of-the-line Gorgon, commanded by Captain Beves Conway. Just sixteen years old and already on his second ship, Bolitho resolves not to repeat this mistakes of his previous assignment. Instead, he sets out to make new ones, as well as to distinguish himself as a promising future leader. Already well versed in the rudiments of seamanship and the hard routine of duty on a ship of war, Bolitho faces new challenges, makes new friends, and shows every likelihood of living up to the standards of his naval officer brother, father, grandfather, and so on.

None of these things would make this a book that screamed to be picked up and read, without the danger, suspense, excitement, and action that Dick, his friend Martyn Dancer, and their shipmates face in these three short tales. For in these pages they face a band of ruthless, murdering pirates off the African slave coast, and arms smugglers off the Channel Islands. Bolitho serves under the command of his own brother on a revenue cutter, solves a murder, catches a traitor, endures a couple of hostile senior officers, protects a hero-worshiping junior midshipman, passes the examination for lieutenant, and watches his best friend die in his arms. That's quite a lot for two novellas and a novelette, no?

And there's just something about the age of sail that makes suspense an equal partner with action in adventure yarns like this. At a certain point leading up to every battle, and even in the heat of battle itself, there are long agonizing moments when all depends on where the wind blows you, at whatever speed it chooses to blow; or on the actions of the men with you, even when the fray becomes so thick that no semblance of order, or ability to give orders, remains. In moments like these, months of hard training and back-breaking discipline can make a lot of difference—while an officer who holds the confidence and loyalty of the men can make even more.

Such moments come, abundantly, in this book—or rather, these books. And though there are a few stretches, particularly in Band of Brothers, where Reeman's literary style eludes my grasp—where, frankly, I had trouble visualizing what was happening—I felt the promise of Dick Bolitho's naval career so keenly that I immediately bought the next book in the series: Stand into Danger.

Stand into Danger
by Alexander Kent
Recommended Ages: 14+

In 1980, this book was published as the 13th of what are now 30 (and counting) books in the Bolitho series of naval adventures. And now, after shifting three short novels about Dick Bolitho's career as a midshipman into one volume, this emerges as the second book in the series—as events flow. Eighteen-year-old Richard Bolitho, R.N., has just passed for lieutenant in Britain's peacetime fleet—has just lost his closest friend—has just been transferred out of the 74-gun Gorgon, not to the shore as one might expect, but to another ship. Now he belongs to the frigate Destiny, 28, commanded by the magnetic and often frighteningly driven Captain Henry Vere Dumaresq.

In particular, Dumaresq is driven to discover the fate of a cargo of Spanish gold that got taken by a British ship commanded by his father—and that subsequently disappeared. Through the betrayal of a trusted lieutenant, the wiles of a respectable pirate, and the passing of years, the treasure has become all but hopelessly lost. It is Dumaresq's passion, as well as his mission, to follow up on the few remaining clues and, if possible, take back the king's treasure—or, at least, to keep it from falling into the hands of the American colonists who draw ever closer to open rebellion.

In spite of his lowly position as Destiny's junior lieutenant, Bolitho has a pivotal role to play in wresting this treasure out of the hands of pirates who still, all these years later, are ready to kill to protect their secret—from an intimate knifing in a crowded port to a battle of roaring broadsides and land batteries belching heated shot. Besides taking a bad head wound in this adventure, Bolitho also takes a devastating wound to the heart—in the form of a beautiful woman married to a decidedly unbeautiful man.

All is not romance, mystery, and quest for lost treasure, however. Naval life in the late 18th century is brought vividly before the senses, with its hard work and tedious routine as well as its moments of explosive danger. We see the conflict of personalities, the building of friendships, the knitting together of a body of men, and one young officer showing an amazing gift for drawing men's loyalty to himself. Here Bolitho discovers his future coxswain Stockdale, leading an existence so miserable that being recruited as a seaman is the best thing to have happened to him so far. He finds a young midshipman named Jury who, after a short time together, seems determined to follow him anywhere. He finds friends and enemies galore while leading a boarding party cut off from reinforcements on his own ship, taking another ship just in time to escape the sinking of the one he was on, and leading a shore party in a no-quarters-asked-or-given battle with vastly superior pirate forces. He experiences love and loss, pain and pleasure, and the heat of battle both on land and at sea.

The adventure is thrilling. Its setting is vivid. Most importantly, its hero is very admirable. What more can I say? As I write this, I am too broke to continue buying books in the Bolitho series. But that isn't stopping me from reading them. I already have the next book in canon order, In Gallant Company, on request at the public library. And I can scarcely wait until it becomes available!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Backwards Day

Assignment: Live an entire day backwards.

Within limits, of course. There are some things you probably won't want to try. It's not a good idea to do your laundry on backwards day, because then you would have to dry the clothes first, then wash them and put them up wet. Ick! Also, don't walk backwards or drive backwards; that could be dangerous. Don't attempt to talk backwards; few people have the gift. Wash your hands after using the toilet; doing the reverse is unhygienic. You might not want to do this on a regular work day; you could get fired. But whenever possible, try to do every day tasks from back to front.

Begin the day with your bedtime prayers. You're really gonna need God's help today. Then kiss your significant other Good Night. Lie in bed for a while longer, reading a favorite book chapter by chapter from back to front. Then get up and toss a hot water bottle into your empty bed. Do your bedtime toilet (flossing and brushing teeth, putting rollers and a hairnet on, taking your teeth out, changing from your pajamas into your hanging-around-the-house gear, etc.). Watch TV for a while. Then get dressed to go out.

For breakfast, go to a 24-hour restaurant (like Denny's) and have dinner. Instead of waiting to be seated, go directly to a table and sit down, and slap $30 in cash on the table. When your waitress comes to serve you, decline to look at a menu. Instead, instruct her to take a reasonable tip out of the cash (neither stingy nor particularly generous) and use the rest to ring up a meal. Explain that you're doing everything backwards today, it's an assignment, so if she'll please bear with you, she can start by bringing you dessert and coffee. Then an entree, followed by salad, and of course a refillable drink. Table bread, if any, should be served only at the very end, at which point you will look at the menu and order the meal you have just eaten. Then ask that the waitress would kindly show you to the door.

If you go to a movie, buy popcorn and soda after seeing the picture, on your way out of the theater. If you visit a building that has escalators, walk up the down escalator and down the up one. If you watch a movie on DVD, use the "chapters" menu to watch it in reverse order, from the last chapter to the first. (This is probably best done with a film you already know well.) Or listen to a recording of a symphony from the last movement to the first. Go to a store only to return merchandise for a refund.

Out in public, say "Excuse me" to someone near you, then bump into them as if by accident. Tell people "good afternoon" in the morning and "good morning" in the evening. On the bus or train, wait until you stand up to leave, then ask the person next to you if this seat is taken. Go to the pond in the park and try to take bread from the ducks. Find a pile of leaves and, observing ladder safety, stuff them into the gutters of your roof. Take your leaf-blower and blow grass clippings onto your sidewalk. If you meet someone new, act as though you've known for ages, and then try to forget them afterward.

Finish the day with a late breakfast. Brush your hair, then shower and shave, then put on pajamas, take the cold water bottle out of your bed, give whomever a Good Morning kiss, and roll into bed with a stretch and a groan. Bet you can't wait to find out what you dreamed last night!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Swell, but not Great

Playing pipe organs is nothing if not an exercise in adapting to unique and varying conditions. Every instrument is different. Most pipe organs, if they haven't been overbuilt or produced on a lavish cathedral scale, require their practitioners to exercise ingenuity in combining the available stops to create the colors, contrasts, and levels of loudness appropriate for the pieces they play.

Some instruments stretch the inventiveness of the organist more than others. Some that I have played actually don't stretch it enough. The one I have been privileged to play for the last 5 years, a 1972 Reuter recently restored by the St. Louis Pipe Organ Co., is one that in my opinion stretches the player's resourcefulness just enough. When I first auditioned on it, I told the hiring committee that it was the first time I had heard some of my old-warhorse pieces sound the way I heard them in my mind's ear. And not a rank of pipes was wasted!

Well, lately my ingenuity has been put to a sore test. It isn't the organ's fault, really. It's the large stained-glass window centered above the pipes on the rear wall of the nave. Decades of exposure to the elements, combined with some substandard leading, has caused this beautiful work of art to bow out to an alarming extent. In some places you can actually stick your finger through the gap between the leading and the surrounding stone. Not good. So, in order to get at this window, take it out for restoration and reinstallation, we have had to pull out all of the pipes from the center section of the organ. Which is to say, the foundation stops. Pretty much everything on the Great division of the organ, since the Swell is divided between two chests on opposite corners of the instrument.

At first, only the middle third of the Great was pulled out, including the Zimbelstern (which I hadn't had a really good look at before; it's really neat to look at). At this point I had 5 pedal stops, everything on the Swell, and except for the Krummhorn nothing above middle C on the Great, plus couplers. Really, once they took out the rest of the Great, it didn't make any difference. I couldn't use the middle-C-and-below portion of the Great for anything except pieces with a left-hand solo part, and really even then the likelihood was great that I would be missing notes needed for the solo. Or I could couple the Great to the pedal and play with both hands on the Swell manual. But for anything requiring a contrast between two manuals, or the full range of the keyboard, I was confined to the Swell, the Krummhorn, and 16' and 4' couplers for each.

So, really, pulling out everything on the Great below middle-C didn't make much difference. My challenge for the past few weeks, then, has been to milk the Swell, five pedal stops, one soft reed and a variety of couplers for all they are worth. I've actually surprised myself with the variety of sound combinations I have come up with; and although very few of them are really useful for leading the congregation in song, some of them are more than marginally adequate. I do miss the foundation stops, though. And it has made my insides shrivel with embarrassment to see people look around to see what could be wrong with the organ, or the organist. This past Sunday, I used the fact that the choir was singing in a processional and performing an anthem at the front of the church (at late service only) as an excuse to lead both services in their entirety from the piano. But my insides shriveled again when, between services, several people asked with evident concern, "Will we have the organ for Easter?"

Yes, and no. The pipes that most give this instrument its characteristic sound as it supports corporate worship, the pipes whose voices provide the strongest and steadiest accompaniment to our voices, the pipes that furnish the foundation onto which everything that currently works on this instrument is added merely as color, will not be there. There will be an organ, yes. But it will not be the same organ. I have faced greater challenges to my ingenuity in pulling sound out of a compromised instrument--having played at least two pipe organs that were even more desperately compromised. And I have enjoyed and appreciated organs that had less to offer than my church's organ does even now. But I did not have to support public worship with those instruments, nor did I have to fill up such a large resonant space with them. Musically speaking, Easter will not come for this organ until the window is repaired, and all the pipes are put back, and it can once again rise to its mighty potential as a singing, praying, and preaching instrument.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Constructive Tackiness

This week's mid-Lenten message at the neighborhood Lutheran Church of Lighted-Sign Tackiness (ELCA):


Yeeeeesss. It's so hard to find that quality of work these days.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Have Your Cake, Bachelors

My Mom sent me the following recipe, along with a note saying: "It's a conversation starter! You can't taste the beans! The cake is very good. Unbelievable. You must try it. It tastes like spice cake! Everybody likes it!" I don't know who gave the recipe to her, but it looks like the kind of thing a bachelor could dig into...

Blend 15 oz. pork 'n' beans, 8 oz. crushed pineapple with juice, until pureed.

Add 2 cups sugar, 1 cup oil, 4 eggs, 2 tsp. vanilla.

Add 2 cups flour, 2 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. baking powder (??), 1 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. cinnamon.

Pour in ungreased jelly roll pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 min.

Frosting: 8 oz. cream cheese, 1/2 cup margarine, 1 tsp. vanilla, 4 cups powdered sugar. Thin with 1 tsp. milk if needed.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Happy Birthday, KJV

I was browsing the electronics section at Walmart this afternoon, looking to see if they carried the third season of Star Trek: Voyager (alas, they didn't), when by chance I stumbled upon an end-of-aisle display belonging to the adjacent books department. There I found, on sale for only $5.00, a hard-bound facsimile edition of the 1611 King James Bible put out by Zondervan in honor of the KJV's 400th anniversary. I was so impressed that I immediately grabbed a copy and called my pastor and my father to ask if they wanted one. (Pastor didn't pick up. His loss.)

Now that I'm back at home, I've been looking through the 1611-2011 facsimile edition. It really is just a photographic reproduction of the original printing, complete with ornate capitals at the beginning of each chapter, Gothic script where s looks like f and the v's and u's seem to have swapped places, thousands of marginal notes, the translators' preface, gorgeous woodcuts, and page upon page of genealogical charts, maps, guides for finding the date of Easter, a guide for reading the whole Psalter in 30 days, and tables of "First Readings" appointed for Matins and Evensong for every Sunday and high feast of the church year. This last piece of info could be quite valuable in tracing the history of the (mostly) Old Testament lectionary, which couldn't have come into use alongside the older Epistle and Gospel series much earlier than this.

One detail on this table caught my eye: a reading from a book of the Apocrypha. I flipped through the anniversary edition, looking for where the King James publishers might have parked the Apocrypha. I couldn't find it anywhere. I finally resorted to reading Zondervan's brief introduction to the book, where they admitted altering the original publication in two ways: (1) by shrinking it down from the massive, podium-dominating tome it was to the cute little fits-in-the-hand keepsake it is now; and (2) by expunging the deuterocanonical books from the record.

I smell a rat.

There's even a page from the old KJV which lists the books of both Testaments, in order, followed by the number of chapters in each book; there is a blank space near the bottom of the page that looks as though the books of the Apocrypha might fit there.

So, Zondervan's tribute to the original 1611 edition of the Authorized Version only carries its page-for-page fidelity so far. It looks to me as though Zondervan has chosen to serve the American Bible Society's vast, Reformed-Protestant conspiracy to erase the memory of the Apocrypha from the consciousness of modern Bible readers. Likewise, it seems to me that this destructively anti-historical agenda fetches a higher priority with Zondervan than faithfulness to the great document it purports to reproduce.

Don't get me wrong. I say this not out of a conviction that the Apocrypha is inspired, Holy Scripture, but because I think people should be free to study it and discuss it in the context where that is best done: namely, alongside God's Word. Surely, fourteen decidedly little books would not have added that much bulk to Zondervan's shrunk-down edition. Plus, given that readings from the Apocrypha are indicated in the KJV lectionary charts they have so faithfully preserved, it seems a bit of a cheat not to include these books. There is some bizarre and perhaps even foolish material in them, but there is also wisdom, narrative of historical interest, and devotional literature that I myself have found illuminating and even comforting. I am not one to bind people's conscience to these deuterocanonical books... but why is the American Evangelical establishment so bound against them?

Anyway, I would love to see Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, the Song of the Three Holy Children, and the Prayer of Manasses in the KJV's original Gothic script. For now, I'll have to make do with my thin Cambridge University Press edition of the KJV Apocrypha, notwithstanding its Roman typeface and the comparatively plain drop caps. I'm surprised at how much typesetting means to me...