Tuesday, December 29, 2015

44 Scotland Street

44 Scotland Street
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

A decade ago, the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency came home from a party at the home of another author who was serializing a novel in an American newspaper, and penned an editorial lamenting that such projects aren't often attempted these days. His column must have touched a nerve, because an Edinburgh, Scotland newspaper immediately ordered a serial novel to be published in more than 100 brief, daily chapters. He wrote it, and here (under a single cover) it is.

The tale of this novel being written as a daily newspaper serial would, by itself, almost be enough to persuade me to read it. Knowing the author's work through his series of gentle, thoughtful, almost mysteryless mysteries set in Botswana pushed me the rest of the way. Set not in Africa but in Edinburgh - which, to a reader in Missouri, USA is scarcely less exotic - it directs the same eye for scenic detail, the same ear for character voices, the same mildly perverse sense of humor, and the same compassion for human weaknesses toward a gap-year girl named Pat, her narcissistic flatmate Bruce, her endearingly hopeless boss at the art gallery, Bruce's boss and his socially-climbing wife, the middle-aged lady across the landing, and the young mother downstairs who is determined to prove her five-year-old son Bertie a musical and intellectual prodigy.

Each newspaper-column-sized chapter brings the narration perfectly to its next point as these people's intertwining stories advance at a cleverly measured pace. Even while dwelling on small incidents, many of them within the minds of the characters, it doesn't seem to move slowly. In brief, intensely focused glimpses it shows us what is in their hearts and heads and lets us be frustrated with them, or for them, without hating anybody. Who wouldn't recognize himself or somebody he knows in this gallery of characters and their petty yet urgently felt problems? Who wouldn't laugh at lines like the one in which Matthew, the gallery owner, self-deprecatingly tells real-life author Ian Rankin (and I paraphrase), "There are art dealers and there are art dealers; I am one of the latter." This is only the briefest example I can think of among many passages that made me laugh exactly as hard as I needed to at that moment in my own life story.

I look forward to reading Espresso Tales, the second of so-far ten books in this series which, as far as I know, McCall Smith is still serializing in that Edinburgh newspaper. Meanwhile, I am already a good third of the way through the first book in his Isabel Dalhousie series, The Sunday Philosophy Club and, at the same time, an audiobook of his seventh Precious Ramotswe novel, Blue Shoes and Happiness. And there are so many more books in this freakishly prolific author's list of works that I'm just a little intimidated by the challenge of finding them all. But not by the necessity of reading them; not at all. No body of writerly work could be more welcoming or, indeed, more comfortable to dwell in, immersed from all sides as if in a bath full of fragrant oils and soothing salts. Don't expect me to come to the surface soon!


Vindications: Essays on Romantic Music
by Deryck Cooke
Recommended Ages: 15+

I never met Deryck Cooke, of course; he died when I was 4 years old. My only previous acquaintance with his work was hearing a recording of Mahler's Tenth Symphony, of which Cooke prepared the performing edition, published the year he died. M-10 was left unfinished at the premature death of the great Austrian composer in 1911, a mere eight years before Cooke was born. Though the work existed in the form of a complete sketch, with thematic continuity throughout, a few pages of full orchestration and only a few gaps in harmony and counterpoint, it seemed likely the great work would never be heard by music lovers until Cooke came along and gave it a try. And a really plausible try it was, though with the reservation that Mahler doubtless would have completed it rather differently.

Western civilization owes Deryck Cooke big-time for retrieving, to some extent, one of the great artistic losses of the 20th century, a great symphony that might never have been heard due to Mahler's early death. I felt something like the pain of that loss when I read Bryan Magee's biographical sketch of Cooke in the foreword of this book. In fact, so profoundly did Magee, a close colleague and personal friend of Cooke, express his feelings of loss at the early death of that musician, critic, and BBC broadcaster, I was actually in tears before I reached the main body of this book.

In this book, editor David Matthews brought together what he considered a representative selection of Cooke's critical writings, including notes on his favorite Romantic composers: Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner and (to my surprise) Delius. In these essays Cooke defended his views on the language of music (a phrase that also serves as the title of his most important book) - which is to say, the non-verbal vocabulary composers throughout the age of tonal music used, especially through melody, to express emotions, states of mind, and an impression of sensuous beauty. He systematically explored the themes of Wagner's music dramas, Mahler's symphonies, and Delius's violin concerto. He painstakingly cleared up the famous "Bruckner Problem" concerning the variant texts of that master's symphonies. And he also wrote cogently about Beethoven's late string quartets, Strauss and Stravinsky's totally opposite approaches to neo-classicism, the rhythmic structure of a Beatles song, and exactly why Wuthering Heights is a great romantic novel.

Cooke scored his deepest hits, I thought, in his criticism on criticism itself. He powerfully observed how little right a music critic has to judge the weaknesses of a work he himself could never have created. He asks whether criticism of this kind might not be, more than anything else, a confession of the critic's aesthetic blind spots. He challenges future writers on the music of the great masters - and later observes how few of them took up that challenge - to deal not with matters of taste or opinion, but with a falsifiable, which is to say scientific, theory about what's going on under the hood of a great symphony, concerto, or music drama. He dares music journalists to start over and address those works that are undeniably works of genius not as subjects of criticism, but as phenomena whose communicative power is real and can, perhaps, be explained. He approaches music in a way that I have always, deep down, wanted to study it and write about it: as a scientist, with a comprehensive yet detailed knowledge of the evidence and a unifying theory that he is convinced explains it all.

As a disciple of music, I can think of few things more exciting than the possibility of taking up Cooke's challenge and continuing his work. However, as a child of the TV-blighted late 20th century and the even more Internet-blighted early 21st, I am painfully aware that I did not have the kind of musical formation Cooke had. Going back to Magee's biographical sketch, I salivate with envy at a picture of a fatherless, working-class youth born in 1919 coming by the ability to play great symphonies in four-hand arrangements, and being able to find similar youth able and willing to play them with him.

Setting aside religion (on which my views differ from Cooke's as night from day), I am reminded once again that electronic gizmos are really the opiate of the people. How I wish we could all quit cold turkey, detox ourselves as individuals and as a society, and recover the super-powers ordinary people used to have up to Cooke's salad days, if they can be recovered! I'm willing to give it a try, to the extent of not watching TV or having an internet connection at home (though, alas, writing this blog means staying at work after hours). Maybe I won't ever know Wagner or Mahler the way Cooke did, but with books and sheet music filling my spare time instead of flickering screens, perhaps I will find out it's not too late to experience a deeper, richer engagement in the best humanity has to offer, in things both enduringly and objectively beautiful.

Little Women

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott
Recommended Ages: 12+

I don't know whether the book I read is the first installment of a trilogy, continued in Little Men and Jo's Boys, or an omnibus edition of the first two books in a quartet. Some, after all, count Part 2 as a separate book, titled Good Wives. But the plot of the two or three movie adaptations I have seen of it over the years seems to take it for granted the title Little Women covers both parts of this American classic, originally published in two volumes in 1868 and -69 and frequently, then and now, published in one volume under the same title as Part 1.

This is the already well-known story of four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, set during and a little after the U.S. Civil War. Their parents are minor lights in the intellectual firmament of greater Boston. Their neighbors are a lonely boy named Laurie and his crusty grandfather. Their girlhood adventures take place mostly in their imagination, a communal imagination that takes the form of homespun melodramas (inspired by Shakespeare) and the minutes of a fancied gentleman's club (inspired by Dickens). They put up with being poor and unfashionable at a time when a young woman's hopes could be staked on a ball gown or a chaperoned tour of Europe. One of them suffers a slow, lingering death; one of them finds success as a writer; three of them find love; they all learn lessons about being good and happy women.

I also don't know for sure what to make of its author's express criticism of both moralizing children's fiction and sentimental romances, since at times it has features of both - little preachy passages and soft-focus passages of nostalgia, wooing by indifferently developed male characters and tear-jerking accounts of grief and loss. But at the same time it spotlights a non-traditional female protagonist, sets her up for an unconventional match with a whiskery, middle-aged German professor whose name (Bhaer) is vaguely suggestive of his shape, and turns an only slightly rose-tinted lens on the author's extraordinary real-life family. It isn't as radical or revolutionary as some would have liked, but its originality and straightforwardness have kept it fresh, with a voice that speaks to today's people.

To generations of fans, this book hardly needs an introduction. It has already stood a test of time, has sold lots of copies, and has been more than sufficiently dramatized and filmed. My endorsement cannot help it and my criticism, if I had the hubris to offer any, could not hurt it. From the perspective of catching up on required reading (better late than never), the most useful thing I can say about it is that it went down easily, with a pleasing aftertaste and more than one powerful throb of sympathy, in the audio-book format read by Barbara Caruso. I might even have wept, just a little.

From the "why fans of Harry Potter may also love this" standpoint, I could note many points of comparison between L. M. Alcott (at least as she portrays herself in the character of Jo March) and J. K. Rowling. Jo (March or Rowling, take your pick) takes an unconventional path toward being a successful writer. Meantime she lives a modest private life, rich in disappointments and surprises. As for Alcott herself, she spent the brief interval between the two volumes of this work fielding fan theories about who the March girls would end up marrying, only to do her best to thwart the shippers with romantic surprises - or rather, and perhaps even better, unromantic ones. The way Amy and Laurie come to their understanding (oops, spoiler!) is one example. Jo's walk with Bhaer through the Boston mud is another. Time has proved these understated touches to have more heart in them than a dozen swoony demonstrations of highly fraught passion.

And if, at times, Alcott sometimes lapses into something like a Unitarian tract, she has the excuse of dealing with characters whose imagination was formed, in part, by Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and the transcendental philosophers of mid-19th-century New England. This novel is, in a way, the culture of that bunch distilled into popular literature. And though, to this day, it remains more "popular" than "literature," there is nothing to sneer at in that. There is a sound reason why I have read everything by Dickens and stopped reading Joyce after one novel. It is like the reason A.S. Byatt's sneer upon J.K. Rowling has gone to fewer hearts than Stephen King's praise of her. The best in a nation's literature may sometimes be more on the order of popular entertainment than technically perfect art work. What finally matters is whether, after a good deal of time has passed, a book is still widely loved and rewards those who read it with pleasure. Little Women, in spite of what its critics may say about it, has made the cut.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Box of Gargoyles

A Box of Gargoyles
by Anne Nesbet
Recommended Ages: 12+

I came across this sequel to The Cabinet of Earths, which I haven't read at this time, in the bargain section of a new-and-used bookstore I spotted while walking my parents' dog during an unplanned road trip. I literally ran straight into the store, grabbed this book, bought it and ran out without pausing to look around. It's funny how these little strokes of luck happen when you're not looking for them. After a dry spell in terms of finding books I really liked, this one hit me with a fascinating combination of creepy magic, cultural richness, and a neatly crafted character study of adolescent friendship and family ties. Quirky, surprising, laced with crisp dialogue and the charming scenery of Paris, it was, if not the best book I have read this year, by far the most enjoyable of the way-too-many books I was attempting to read at the time.

In the previous book, which (I stress again) I have yet to read, 12-year-old Maya Davidson coped with her mother's serious illness, her family's sudden move from California to France, and trying to fit into a school where everybody speaks a language she doesn't know... not to mention her adorable little brother's abduction by a distantly related wizard named Henri de Fourcroy. This purple-eyed character has stayed young and handsome for 100 years by something to do with a cabinet of earths and something to do with draining the charm of out of children like five-year-old James. But that's all behind Maya now, right?

Well, no. In spite of being vanquished, Fourcroy is only mostly dead. Part of him lives on in the stone wall of the Bulgarian embassy where Maya's best friend, the cheerful and scientifically inclined Valko, lives with his diplomat parents. Another part of Fourcroy is reaching out to Maya from beyond the grave, using letters on enchanted paper and other talismans to compel her to do his evil bidding. And though Maya knows bringing back Fourcroy will mean the end of her, she can't help it thanks to a binding magic that makes her every act of resistance but another step down the "clockwork path" he has set her on.

While the now 13-year-old girl tries to find some wiggle room to escape a nasty fate, waves of strangeness are breaking out in the middle of Paris, spreading twice as far every 137 hours and threatening to envelop the world in chaos. Everything from baked goods to major landmarks is changing shape. Mobs of mesmerized women are bursting forth in song around Maya, singing Bulgarian lyrics that threaten to eat her heart. A shadow in vaguely human form keeps chasing her. And a pair of disturbingly mobile gargoyles have entrusted their egg to her, a responsibility she feels deeply although the egg is also connected somehow with Fourcroy's dastardly plan.

Besides all this, Valko may be taken from her by his scary grandmother, the one with the mole on her face who thinks he is losing touch with his Bulgarianness. Viktor Krum! What will Maya do?

What she does is actually a little mind-blowing. The setting where it happens is delightful in every detail, right down to a dinner party in which a historian of yogurt debates the finer points of vampires with a scatter-brained American authoress. (Fans of bare-chested vampires should be advised, that chapter isn't kind to them.) This is the kind of magic I have hoped to find more of, ever since I started writing book reviews under the motto, "If you like J. K. Rowling, you may also like..." Magic-starved Potterheads, head this way!

Nesbet, a California-based author who also teaches Russian literature and the history of film, has also written a recent book titled The Wrinkled Crown. It too shows signs of being a good pick for kids of all ages looking for a little magic.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

The sixth book of sixteen and counting in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, this installment presents several challenges all at once for Mma Precious Ramotswe, her assistant Mma Grace Makutsi, and her new husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Gaborone, Botswana.

First there's the matter of Charlie, the elder of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's two idle, girl-crazy apprentices. He falls under the spell of a rich married woman and impulsively quits his job, risking the ruin of his entire future and forcing the garage to hire a certain Mr. Polopetsi, an educated man with a troubled past.

Next Mma Ramotswe's first husband, the cruel and magnetic Note Mokoti, shows up and demands money in return for staying silent about the fact they are really still married. While trying to figure out what to do, Mma Ramotswe drives her tiny white van out to the village where Note's mother lives, only to see her faithful old vehicle first broken down in the bush, then stolen.

Meantime Mma Makutski takes a lead in solving the agency's one paying case for the time being, while also trying a dance class and meeting a man who evokes first her irritation, then her compassion, and finally her love.

How they fit all these adventures into one thin little book, and still have room for a burglar who flees without his trousers and a pumpkin that mysteriously appears on the porch, is a mystery you will only solve by reading this book yourself.

If you do, you will join multitudes of readers who have been touched, amused, and fascinated by the kindness, the cultural richness, the problem-solving resourcefulness of Mma Ramotswe, and the colorful circle of characters around her. I, for one, am looking forward to borrowing the local library's copy of the next book in the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

168. Hymn for the 27th Sunday after Trinity

With this hymn I complete my "hymn for every Sunday of the church year" project. This mass would occur only during a year when Easter falls on or before March 26. Its Epistle is 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and its Gospel is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, Matthew 25:1-13. The tune is FIVE THOUSAND, which I wrote in 2008 for this hymn. I hope the hymn below may serve as an antidote to the knee-jerk proclamation of a moralistic or decisionistic preparation for Jesus's coming, which seems to me a hideous misapplication of this Gospel. Jesus' point of comparison isn't the oil that the virgins have to bring or buy, as in works or spiritual movements that we ourselves must supply. It is simply about being ready for Jesus to come at any time and not becoming discouraged even if we fall asleep before He comes. Paul's comments in the Epistle are so much to the purpose that the pairing of the two texts seems, as it were, inspired.
Christ, who Your kingdom once compared
To five wise and five foolish maids,
Keep us alert as daylight fades
Until Your banquet is prepared!

Grant us, while time remains in grace,
The ready oil but You provide
To fuel our faith, until Your bride
Beholds the glory of Your face!

Grant us the word that heralds peace,
The washing of the second birth,
Bread broken once for all the earth,
The keys that from sin’s bond release!

Grant thus that when Your trumpets sound
And You pass in and close the gate,
We may not light our lamps too late
But in full readiness be found!

Nor let us slumber nor grow drunk
Nor falsely think ourselves secure;
But help us patiently endure
This age till its last light is sunk!

For we are fated not for wrath
But to be saved through You, O Christ,
Who for us all were sacrificed,
Our life the purpose of Your death.

From this such comfort we shall take
That, bearing trouble, fear and loss
With eyes lit by Your holy cross,
We watch with full hearts and awake.

Come soon, dear Lord, with sweet surprise;
And if perhaps our bodies drowse,
Fill them with life, our souls arouse,
And draw us onward with the wise!