Friday, December 15, 2017

Name That Composer

Back when I lived in an area served by a classical music radio station, I became a power-player in the game of Name That Composer. To help you achieve a similar level of success, here are some of the cheats, I mean rules, I played by. These are only some of the mental shortcuts that helped me maintain a high score. For many composers, however, there is no substitute for simply listening to a lot of their music.

Rule 1. When you tune in and you find what sounds like a symphony in progress, if it sounds like Haydn...
  • 1a. ...but its slow movement drags, it's by Mozart.
  • 1b. ...but it takes unexpectedly daring harmonic risks that totally pay off, it's early Beethoven.
  • 1c. ...but it takes unexpectedly daring harmonic risks that don't entirely pay off, it's early Schubert.
  • 1d. ...but it's scored entirely for strings, it's early Mendelssohn.
  • 1e. ...but nothing, it's Haydn.
Rule 2. If it sounds like Schumann, it's Schumann. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Schumann's.
Exception: Max Bruch.

Rule 3. If it sounds like Berlioz, it's Berlioz. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Berlioz's.

Rule 4. If it sounds like Bruckner, it's Bruckner. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Bruckner's.

Rule 5. If it sounds like Sibelius, it's Sibelius. Nobody else wrote music that sounded like Sibelius.
Exceptions: Early Lars-Erik Larsson and Luís de Freitas Branco.

Rule 6. If it drips with Central Asian exoticism, it is probably by one of a handful of Russian romantic composers. But no matter who is credited with writing it, Rimsky-Korsakov most likely meddled with it.

Rule 7. If it turns out to be an early symphony or orchestral suite by Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, or Holst, your classical radio station sucks. Someone should tell its programming director to play significant music.

Rule 8. If it fills you with an urge to dance,
  • 8a. ...with satyrs and unicorns, it's Beethoven's Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony.
  • 8b. ...with hobnailed boots on, it's Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
  • 8c. ...while wearing lederhosen, it's the scherzo of Schubert's Great C Major Symphony.
  • 8d. ...with tutu-clad hippos, elephants, crocodiles, and ostriches, it's a ballet by Ponchielli.
  • 8e. ...with anthropomorphic flowers, sugarplum fairies, nutcrackers, or fairy-tale characters, it's a ballet by Tchaikovsky.
  • 8f. ...with a fur coat on, because at the same time the music chills you like a wind off the Siberian steppe, it's a ballet by Stravinsky.
  • 8g. ...because the moment you stop dancing, a Red Army firing squad will open fire on you, it's either Prokofiev (if you feel like you learned your steps at the dacha of your wealthy, upper-class family) or Shostakovich (if you feel like your vodka-merchant father sent you to a dancing school).
Rule 9. If it bores the daylights out of you,
  • 9a. a stuffy, British way, it's Elgar.
  • 9b. a blue-collar, British way, it's Vaughan Williams.
  • 9c. an bourgeois, German way, it's Richard Straus.
  • 9d. a proletarian, German way, it's Hindemith.
  • 9e. a lush, French way, it's Saint-Saëns.
  • 9f. an austere, French way, it's Milhaud or possibly Honegger.
  • 9g. a next-to-banal, French way, it's Poulenc.
  • 9h. the manner of a prosperous Russian émigré, it's Rachmaninoff.
  • 9i. the manner of a starving Russian nobleman, it's Medtner.*
  • 9j. the manner of an obedient member of the Soviet Composers' Union, it's Kabalevsky.
Rule 10. If it sounds like the aural equivalent of an impressionist painting,
  • 10a. ...but with a touch of English folk melody, it's Delius.
  • 10b. ...but with a certain Slavic twinge, it's Scriabin.
  • 10c. ...but with a French or Spanish warmth, it's Debussy.
  • 10d. ...but with French or Spanish coldness, it's Ravel.
I might add more rules in a later post, to deal with genres other than "what sounds like a symphony."

*...although, I suppose, he didn't write much that sounds like a symphony - unless you count Piano Concertos.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Shadow Throne

The Shadow Throne
by Jennifer Nielsen
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this concluding installment of the Ascendance trilogy, Jaron, the boy king of Carthya, has scarcely recovered from securing the additional job of pirate king when he finds his country at war with three surrounding enemies. The main foe is King Vargan of Avenia, who is tired of Jaron standing in the way of his plots to make Carthya the first conquest of his hoped-for empire. Vargan proves he will stop at nothing, including taking hostage the girl Jaron loves, capturing and torturing his most trusted adviser, and treating the young king himself - once he falls into Vargan's trap - like the common thief he once pretended to be. But each time Jaron and his kingdom seem past saving, the young scamp pulls off another amazing trick.

Can he keep it up, though, when hundreds, even thousands of his citizens are falling in battle against an enemy that knows no mercy? Can he keep fighting when each wall he is backed against looms higher, and a leg injury has taken away his ability to climb? Can he defend the people he loves when Vargan seems to have a genius for using that love against him? Read and see - and weep, and laugh, and be amazed.

In contrast to what I did, I recommend reading this book in swift succession with the rest of the trilogy, to make it easier to keep track of past developments that prove significant in the finale. They are memorable enough stories, however, that I think a little prompting will bring back Jaron's earlier feats, such as turning enemies into devoted followers, surviving assassination attempts, convincing a traitorous nobleman to set him up as a pretender to the throne that is actually his, etc. Jaron's exploits have the gosh-wow appeal of tall tales featuring a ne'er-do-well-who-makes-good type of hero, along with a touching survey of the heart of a really noble young man. His character is complicated in just the right way, and to just the right degree, to engage young readers who may need nothing more than a fun hero to root for. Whatever "ascendance" means, here's a young man who goes through hell, and puts us through suspense that seems close to the same, without losing hope, or goodness, or the sense of adventure. It is a great relief for me, to know such heroes are still being written into being.

The first two books of the Ascendance trilogy were The False Prince and The Runaway King. Other titles by Jennifer Nielsen include the Underworld Chronicles (Elliot and the Goblin War and two more), the Mark of the Thief trilogy, A Night Divided, and The Scourge.


by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 13+

In the first book of The Reckoners, a young man named David seizes a risky opportunity to join a group of terrorists known as, like, the Reckoners, so he can help them kill superheroes. Maybe I should have phrased that differently. The Epics, who started taking over the world 10 years ago, aren't exactly superheroes. They're just people with superhero-ish powers who seem to think they're gods, and spend a lot of time squishing ordinary people like bugs. Ten years ago, when he was 8, David witnessed his father being squished by an Epic named Steelheart, who is rumored to be invincible. But just before Steelheart killed David's dad, who foolishly believed the Epics had come to save mankind, David saw Steelheart bleed. Against all odds, the boy survived the Epic's attempt to destroy all memory of the incident that left a scar on his cheek - including murdering the rescue workers who arrived at the scene after the deed was done.

Since that day, the only thing that has kept David going is the knowledge that Steelheart has a weakness, though he doesn't know exactly what it is, and a thirst for revenge. Now he uses that knowledge to persuade the Reckoners to stay put in Newcago - known as Chicago, before Steelheart turned it into a maze of steel catacombs cloaked in everlasting night. He convinces their leader, a brooding scientist named Prof, to draw Steelheart out into what he believes is a duel against a nonexistent Epic named Limelight, meanwhile disrupting his stranglehold on Newcago. He basically hijacks a whole unit of anti-Epic insurgents to use them for his personal revenge, even if it means creating a power vacuum that will, at least in the short term, cause more human suffering.

Prof thinks taking Steelheart down will convince more ordinary folks to rise up against Epic rule. His teammates have different views. There's a French-Canadian guy named Abraham, who like David's father, has faith that Epics will eventually turn toward good and save mankind, though for now he's happy to blow stuff up. There's Tia, an operations expert who relishes the challenge of analyzing David's memory of the day Steelheart took over Chicago, trying to spot his crucial weakness. There's Cody, a sniper with a Tennessee accent who likes to pretend he's Scottish. And lastly, there's Megan, a beautiful but unapproachable girl David would like to figure out. Although his knowledge of what makes Epics tick rivals anybody's, something about Megan eludes him.

As their plan to challenge Steelheart races forward with reckless speed, David encounters dangers to body, soul, heart, and mind, each of which keep the reader engaged at a gut level, even while mindblowing concepts scream past and incredible surprises pop up at every turn. It's another astonishing feat of world-building, engineered to thrill, by the author of Elantris, The Rithmatist, the Mistborn series, and the conclusion of the late Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time cycle. A discerning reader might pick up some common threads between the quests of these books' heroes, but the differences between the worlds they inhabit make each one an exciting realm to explore. This time, Sanderson blows the door off Superman's quick-change phone booth with the question, "What if super powers turned people into monsters?" My synopsis, above, does not begin to do justice to how deeply or how rewardingly this book delves into that question. Set in a world that, until 10 years ago, apparently looked just like ours, it makes that question count for us as though it affected us personally - and, with only a minor tweak in one's definition of "power," it actually might. I definitely plan to read the next book in this series, Firefight. There is also a third novel, Calamity, as well as a short story titled Mitosis.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Musical Analogy to Math?

For some reason, I woke up this morning wondering whether music could provide an analogy to help people understand higher-dimensional math.

I'm not very advanced in my mathematical studies. I enjoy watching the "Numberphile" channel Youtube, but I often find the concepts don't stick. One of the concepts that doesn't even seem to make contact is the idea of imagining the topology of objects in space that has more than three dimensions.

But now - bear with my ignorance - I'm thinking I might have the corner of something between my very confused fingertips. And it's basically an analogy from music to spatial dimensions.

Click to enlarge the illustration, if you like. I'm putting all the figures into one image, to save myself time and effort, but I'm going to talk about each image separately.

Consider Fig. 1. Suppose that this note, the D just one step above Middle C, represents a dimensionless dot on a one-dimensional line extending forever in both directions.

To keep it company, add the notes F-sharp and A (Figs. 1a and 1b), but only as separate dots on the same conceptual line - the line, say, of musical pitches extending upward and downward from the origin (say, Middle C), clear out of the range of human hearing. You could say the integer units on that line represent the tones of the equally-tempered 12-tone scale, repeating through a succession of octaves, like a Base-12 grid that has a heavier line at every 12th unit.

Moving on to a two-dimensional plane, suppose you plotted points D, F-sharp, and A on a graph with any arbitrary origin point (Middle C would do). In this instance, the points needn't be integer units or lie on a single line. When you transpose those notes up a half-step, as in Figures 2, 2a, and 2b, the new notes E-flat, G, and B-flat are interrelated in a way similar to the relationship between D, F-sharp, and A. The process of transposing the three notes, as a group, would be analogous to using three-dimensional math (with complex numbers, involving the "imaginary unit") to rotate a group of three points on a plane while preserving the angles between them.

But there is more you can do on a two-dimensional plane than plot a bunch of dimensionless dots and rotate them. I'm not yet up to delving into all the possibilities, but a blatantly obvious one is to draw line segments of various lengths, connecting pairs of dots on the plane. Likewise, when two notes sound together, consecutively or simultaneously, they form an interval. For example, D and F-sharp (Fig. 3) form the interval of a major third; D and A (Fig. 3a) form a perfect fifth; and F-sharp and A (Fig. 3b) form a minor third.

As with the single points, complex-number math can rotate line segments, individually or as a group, on the plane while preserving their lengths and the angles between them. Likewise, a set of musical intervals can be transposed, or as it were rotated, into similar intervals in a different key, like transposing the D/F-sharp/A intervals in Figs. 3, 3a, and 3b to the E-flat/G/B-flat intervals in Figs. 4, 4a, and 4b.

Another operation those Numberphile videos taught me you can do with a two-dimensional figure on a plane is to draw a plane inversion of the figure - and inversion, like rotation, can be done in higher-dimensional spaces too. I'm really straying into dangerous waters here, way over my head, but as I understand it, one can discover the reciprocal of a number (like turning a fraction upside down) by plotting a point and/or a circle around it in relation to the origin and radius of an arbitrary reference circle, then graphing an inversion of that point and/or circle's position and/or size, via a bunch of conditions that don't seem too far-fetched when someone who knows what he's talking about explains them.

After that no doubt compelling description, I am sure you'll agree this procedure bears some analogy to the process of transforming the musical intervals in Figs. 3, 3a, and 3b to their inversions in Fig. 5, 5a, and 5b. In the latter series of intervals, we find the D on top of the F-sharp instead of under it, changing a major third into a minor sixth; the D above rather than below the A, changing a perfect fifth into a perfect fourth; and the F-sharp above rather than below the A, changing the minor third into a major sixth. It is as if, in my imaginary universe governed by very shaky analogies, the reciprocal forms of the previous intervals were plotted in reference to an invisible, or rather inaudible, circle of musical inversion. Gads, that's terrible. Or maybe, if you catch what I'm throwing, it's brilliant.

Nah, it's probably just terrible.

But wait, I'm not done yet! There's still Fig. 6 to consider. When I first started cooking up this series of analogies, I was thinking of relating three-dimensional figures to the musical triad - a three-tone chord that, by a little note-shuffling, sort of like reducing fractions to their simplest form, can be distilled down to an interval of a third (like D to F-sharp) on top of another third (F-sharp to A), or a third (F-sharp) and a fifth (A) above the root tone (D). But now, it occurs to me the triad could also, and perhaps more aptly, illustrate the idea of a closed shape in the two-dimensional plane. Then again, when I moved from one dimension to two, I re-positioned the three notes as points on a plane, not on a straight line. So, perhaps I can be excused for using the same musical example two different ways.

So, yeah, in the 2-D plane, you can do the same operations with a closed figure as you could do with one or more line segments. I didn't bother to illustrate the rotation principle by transposing the D-major triad (Fig. 6) into an E-flat-major triad, but based on what I did with Figs. 3 and 4, I trust your imagination can get you there. You could do the same thing with Figs. 6a and 6b, the first and second inversions of the D-major triad - and inversion really is the musical term that applies here; I'm not just letting the planar-inversion analogy get away from me here. Each of these triad inversions could also be "rotated" into E-flat-major, or whatever key you want, sort of like using quaternion numbers (like complex numbers, only more so) to rotate a 3-D figure in space. 6a and 6b are still D major, even though a different tone in the original triad has been stuck at the bottom of the pile; but they have been transformed enough to give them a distinct sound.

Nevertheless, I think the triad could also be useful in an analogy to 3-D space, with a three-dimensional figure (sphere or otherwise) being transformed in some way, perhaps quite a dramatic way, when subjected to spherical inversion. But where I really wanted to go with this comes in Fig. 7, where I attempt to extend the analogy into a higher-dimensional space (in this case, 4-D space). If you accept a triad as comparable to a 3-D figure, where do you go from there? To start with the simplest possible answer, you could go to Fig. 7, which combines sequentially or, Fig. 7a, simultaneously, three similar triads - in this case, three major triads, D major, F-sharp major, and A major. It's as if you took the D-major triad from Fig. 6, rotated it to reveal a similar major triad rooted on each tone of the D-major chord, then brought all three major triads together into one figure - analogous to a tesseract or a 4-D supersphere.

Attempts to visualize 4-D figures using geometric imagery can never be quite precise, somewhat like the limitations of a 2-D picture representing a 3-D figure. But with music, it is possible to hear three different triads, each rooted on a different tone of the first triad, all at once. If you play them all together, but in such a way that you can hear each triad as a distinct identity within the superchord - say, by playing each triad in a separate register - you can actually hear it as a chord of chords. You can, to drive the analogy home, make the 4-D figure pop out of 3-D space - just as certain optical illusions can make a 3-D figure seem to pop out of a 2-D illustration.

Fig. 7b suggests one further level of sophistication. By musical analogy, we have already generated an optical illusion of a tesseract or supersphere, as it were, a very basic 3-D figure that seems to pop out into 4-D. But why stop at a supersphere? Why not go for another order of strangeness, and have each rotated sphere that pops out of the surface of the original sphere, be not only a rotation but also an inversion? Why not, indeed, include two different inversions - ah, but here the analogy is stretched past the breaking point, since I don't think math allows for more than one reciprocal of a given number. Music does, which is why I guess music beats math. It actually makes it possible, just conceivable, to "visualize" (in your mind's ear) a superfigure that has 3-D figures rotated three different ways, each a distinct inversion of the other two, and that pop out of each other.

In higher dimensions still, I guess you could be building musical tesseracts on each of the tones of all three chords in Figure 7b, rotated into the additional triads rooted on A-sharp (B-flat) and E, not to mention the other notes in those triads. And since your chord has more than three tones in it, you can also invert it in more distinct ways - sort of like how a four-note chord (like a dominant seventh chord, D/F-sharp/A/C) has three inversions, including the one with the 7th at the bottom; and a 9th chord has four inversions; etc. You could get super-crazy in your exploration of higher dimensions in harmony, though to our 3-D ears the resulting tone clusters may soon stop sound as if anything new had been added.

But in case I haven't sufficiently beaten up on math at the expense of music, I should point out that I've only touched on one aspect of musical complexity in the above analogies. Nowhere have I mentioned rhythm, melodic shape, tonal design, formal/dramatic structure, contrapuntal texture, number and type of movements, tone color, dynamics, lyrics, etc, etc. Counterpoint itself forks into such layers of complexity as number of voices, free imitation vs. canon vs. fugue, inversion and retrograde, augmentation and diminution, etc. One of those Numberphile videos shows evidence that origami (the traditional Japanese art of paper folding) is capable of doing harder math than Euclidean geometry (that stuff with a compass and a straight-edge). Perhaps it shouldn't be amazing that a soft subject like music rivals higher-dimensional topology for sheer complexity. Maybe this makes it good news that the Voyager Golden Record, now traveling through interstellar space, includes music by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky, among others in addition to greetings in 55 languages and a bunch of mathematical and scientific diagrams. If mankind's bright future ever depends on one thing on the Voyager spacecraft making an impression on E.T., my money is on the Brandenburg Concerto.

At least, saying so helps me feel good about being way better at music than at math. Fish out.

Monday, December 4, 2017

232. Prayer About Late-Stage Dementia

I couldn't go to sleep last night without completing this hymn, written in love for a couple that belongs to the church I attend. The husband showed up solo at Bible class yesterday morning, and when asked how he was doing, he said, "I think this is the worst I've ever been hurt." He went on to announce that his wife, who is in late stage dementia, has been put in hospice care. He expressed feelings that were almost too painful to live with, about looking in the eyes of the woman he has loved his entire life and seeing the life in them end, even while the body went on living. I wish I could say words that would bring comfort in his situation. Whether or not it will come true, I don't know, but that wish now takes the form of the following hymn. The original tune, titled LORETTA, has already been harmonized (I really couldn't sleep until it was finished!).
1. When those we love forget our name,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
When serving them exhausts our frame,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
Their agitation, mental strain,
Confusion, helplessness, and pain
Surpass our power to explain;
But You will make them whole again.
Remember us, Lord Jesus!

2. When no one gazes through their eyes,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
When body lives, but spirit flies,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
You, who descended into hell,
Forsake us not, who sink as well.
To hearts in bondage, tidings tell
Of peace that will all sorrow quell.
Remember us, Lord Jesus!

3. When all our taxing care is past,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
When we have time to grieve at last,
Remember us, Lord Jesus.
Assure us that, restored by grace,
Our loved one has a dwelling place
Where, after we have run our race,
We’ll recognize each other’s face.
Remember us, Lord Jesus!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Four Goofy Children's Hymns

I didn't sleep much last night, perhaps for reasons relating to the 10 newspaper assignments I was working on this weekend. So, I had plenty of time to brainstorm about my projected series of "reverently goofy children's hymns," and how to go about extending them. During a break between assignments 9 and 10 this afternoon, I wrote four more of the little ditties, which I hereby recommend for testing in the home-school, Sunday School, and family altar setting. If you find these tacky, please observe that every effort has been made to combine a light (even humorous) tone with good teaching, and to avoid the pointless tackiness of which I think many children's hymns are guilty. Also, just think: my original plan for #231 was to be a "Knock, Knock Hymn." Orange you glad I reconsidered?

228. Peekaboo Hymn for Little Eyes
Tune: STUTTGART, Gotha, 1715.
1. Oh, that Jesus’ eyes would see us!
Oh, that we might see Him too!
Must we, like that wee Zacchaeus,
Climb a tree, our Lord to view?

2. So much from our sight is hidden:
Short and weak of eye are we.
Help us wait, till we are bidden
Come, O Christ, Your gifts to see.

3. Now our loving God is playing
Peekaboo with little eyes;
All His promises are saying,
“Wait and see this good surprise!”

4. Give us eyes of faith, Lord Jesus,
In our lifelong hide-and-seek,
Counting on the word that frees us,
Till at last You bid us peek.

229. Ephphatha Hymn for Little Ears
1. Word of God, whose light caress
Saves the babes You christen,
Speak Your “Ephphatha,” and bless
Little ears to listen.

2. Christ, Your spit and finger’s touch
Left the deaf man hearing;
Let Your word now do as much,
Faithful children rearing.

3. Call us each by name, to walk
By Your side, believing.
Loose our tongues to pray and talk,
Faithful witness leaving.

4. When the truth is hard to hear
Or to utter clearly,
Savior, touch our tongue and ear
To respond sincerely.

5. Even when our final rest
Stills our voice and hearing,
Bid us, Lord, with all the blest,
Rise at Your appearing.

230. Hymn for Little Running Feet
Tune: HER KOMMER DINE ARME SMAA by J. A. P. Schultz, d. 1800
1. Lord, let the tramp of little feet
Rise to Your ears as music sweet.
Direct the legs that skip and run
To follow Your beloved Son.

2. Christ, gather up Your straying Lambs.
Our wriggling toes, our knees and hams
You bade our parents steer toward You,
Since Your way is for small feet, too.

3. Come, Holy Spirit, give us grace
To run our course, to win the race,
Till seeing Christ, we leap with joy
And claim the prize none can destroy.

231. Ask, Seek, Knock Hymn
Tune: HJEM JEG LÆNGES by Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1812-87
1. Father, hear the asking voices
Of each child who pleads today.
Answer us with loving choices,
Leading us again to pray.

2. Jesus, lead Your children’s seeking,
Till we find in You our prize.
Threat and promise plainly speaking,
Comfort us and make us wise.

3. Spirit, open to the knocking
Of each child the Kingdom’s door.
Treasures old and new unlocking,
Pour on us salvation’s store.

For more of my "reverently goofy children's hymns," see also:

Saturday, December 2, 2017

227. A Grabby, Grubby Children's Hymn

Taking a break from my series of "litany hymns for times in the Christian life," here is a third entry in a series of "reverently silly children's hymns." Perhaps, if you put it together with this hymn and this hymn, you can see a theme developing. It's an attempt to address promises of Christ with common conditions in the life of a small child. The tune is KOCHER, by Justin H.
Knecht, 1799, which I found in Common Service Book (1917) with a version of "A Great and Mighty Wonder" that, wonder of wonders,
didn't end with a three-line refrain beginning, "Repeat the hymn again." That refrain was actually a fragment of a four-line stanza in the original poem, before the hymn was adapted to fit the tune ES IST EIN ROS. I think the CSB version is best, so in its honor, I am stealing its tune for this hymn.
Lord, grasp our grabbing fingers,
Embrace each clinging arm.
Give us a grip that lingers
On Your love, safe and warm.

Direct each restless digit
To point by faith at You.
Push into palms that fidget
Your promise, strong and true.

So, when our hands grow muddy
With guilt and deeds that hurt,
Your hands, once pierced and bloody,
Will wipe away our dirt.

Accept by grace our playing
And often straying hands.
Teach us, Your mercy weighing,
To bear its light demands.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Apothecary

The Apothecary
by Maile Meloy
Recommended Ages: 12+

It's 1952, and ninth-grader Janie Scott is enjoying the life of a Los Angeles teenager. So, she doesn't take it very well when her parents inform her they have to move to London, immediately, before the U.S. Marshals Service can confiscate their passports. The Red Scare is on, and the House Un-American Activities Committee is in session, and her television writer folks have been asked to name names of Communists working in Hollywood. They know they won't be able to give the answers the committee wants, because they believe in the First Amendment. So, to London they go, hired to write a BBC series about Robin Hood under assumed names, and dragging a resentful Janie with them.

Things soon start happening to take Janie's mind off being homesick. First, the local apothecary (sort of like a druggist) gives her a potion to cure homesickness. Then, the apothecary's son attracts her notice when he stages a protest at the school where she is suddenly expected to know Latin grammar and medieval English history. Benjamin notices her, too, and invites her on a chess date in Hyde Park. But chess turns out to be a cover for his self-directed training as a spy, and things start to get weird when the Soviet attaché they are spying on passes a message to Benjamin's father. In quick succession, the apothecary disappears, the kids find themselves in possession of a book of alchemy, they witness a murder, escape from police custody, befriend an East End boy named Pip, and be-enemy a traitor in their midst, who is conspiring with the Soviets. Plus, they find out that, with the right recipes, the impossible is possible - like, changing a person into a handful of salt crystals and back again, becoming invisible, and transforming into a bird.

Their adventure quickly escalates from "fun and magical" to "deadly serious," with a chase at sea, an arctic survival ordeal, a nuclear detonation, and a hostage dilemma. The combination of alchemy and espionage, tender young love and ruthless political intrigue, a teen-friendly depiction of school and family situations with a slice of post-World War II/early Cold War history, adds up to a uniquely textured story. Incredible feats of alchemy take place, defying the line between science and magic, all involving totally believable, flawed but appealing characters. A complicated yet satisfying, kid-friendly storyline combines with vocabulary-stretching, thought-provoking language, such as Mr. Burrows' comment about Hungarians being strong in "extralinguistic" communication. Who would casually drop "extralinguistic" into a young adult novel? Maile Meloy does. I think it's extraordinary.

I imagine teen bookworms will decide for themselves whether this book runs too deep for them, or is just right. If they make the decision based on whether or not the word "Apothecary" on the cover turns them off, they might be on the right track. But if they do open it, I think the book will draw them into its heady mixture of surprises, mystery, romance, peril, laughs, and strange, rich imagery that strikes upon seldom-traveled paths in the reader's imagination.

This first installment in the "Apothecary" series was Maile Meloy's first novel for young adults. It currently has two sequels, The Apprenctices and The After-room. Meloy's other works include the grown-up novels Liars and Saints, A Family Daughter, and Do Not Become Alarmed, the novella Devotion, and the short-story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Meloy is the sister of Colin Meloy (lead singer of The Decembrists and author of the "Wildwood" trilogy) and the niece of award-winning nature writer Ellen Meloy.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

226. Parents' Prayer for Their Children

This is the third installment in my series of "litany meter" hymns representing an edifying, faithful prayer at different times in the lives of Christians. If my unmarried, childless existence disqualified me from writing the preceding "Prayer for a Pious Mate"
and "Childbearing Hymn," my credentials would be even more dubious in this case. But I don't think it is so. I have not lived 45 years sealed up in a solitary-confinement cell. I have been a family member, have lived among families, and have ministered to families. More to the point, I have absorbed a great deal that Holy Scripture says to families, including the parents of children. I think the best prayer in any situation would be one that gives back to God what He has given in His Word. This hymn attempts to do that in the context of bringing up children, and I hope those who have that responsibility may find it useful. The tune I chose for it is LITANY, from the "St. Alban's Tune Book" (actual title: Appendix to The Hymnal Noted), London, 1866, not to be confused with another tune titled LITANY in the same meter, by William H. Monk (1875), which I don't like as much. There is another tune I would prefer over this, but unfortunately it's one of only two hymn-tunes in The Lutheran Hymnal over which Concordia Publishing House still defends a copyright. Even compared to some other publishers, I've found that a strong deterrent against doing anything creative with it.
From the Maker's timeless throne,
Mighty Word, You once came down,
Born to seek and save Your own:
Savior, bless our children!

Let Your birth and childhood both
Sanctify and shape their growth;
Breathe baptism's forgiving oath:
Savior, bless our children!

Help them, too, grow strong and wise,
Bound, like You, to family ties,
Nor their parents' voice despise;
Savior, bless our children!

As with kindness, rich and true,
Babes into Your arms You drew,
So may they Your kingdom view:
Savior, bless our children!

Likewise, gentle Lord and just,
Take them as You can and must;
Lend them back to us in trust.
Savior, bless our children!

Purify, till You appear,
Teaching mouth and learning ear;
Nourish each in godly fear.
Savior, bless our children!

Give, Lord, our posterity
Faith and hope and charity;
Come want or prosperity,
Savior, bless our children!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

I decided to let one more little movie-night debauch into my Thanksgiving-week festivities last night, another one of those $5-movie-tickets-with-free-mini-popcorn nights at the Marcus Cinemas movieplex across the Lake of the Ozarks. It was my fifth trip around to Lake Ozark/Osage Beach in eight days, about the same number of visits I've made the whole rest of the year put together; I guess I'll chill now for a while. But on a tight budget, I enjoyed the new Marvel Universe movie Thor: Ragnarok, a sequel/sidequel to a number of other Marvel movies, including a couple previous Thor movies, a couple Avengers movies, Doctor Strange, and arguably, 2008's The Incredible Hulk (albeit that Hulk was played by Edward Norton). Like the DC heroes discussed in my recent review of Justice League, other characters depicted in the Avengers movies (e.g. Spiderman, Iron Man, Captain America) also have their own movie franchises, which further complicates the pedigree of this movie. I am woefully ill-equipped to present a master's thesis about these canon issues, since out of all the current crop of Marvel/Avengers movies, I believe I have only seen the first Iron Man, the Hulk movie with Edward Norton, and at least most of the first Thor movie. I'm sorry I can't even say with certainty whether I saw all of it, but it was one of those situations when I was watching cable TV with my parents, and my dad had the TV controller, and you know how dads are; they can't sit through a commercial break without changing to another channel and then, possibly, missing an act or two of the movie they intended to watch - if, indeed, there was any particular movie they intended to watch. I think I saw the better part of it, though.

So, yeah, I'm no expert on this. I mean, I thought Valerian was a really fun movie when I saw it last summer. Afterward, I learned I didn't hate it properly. This was, no doubt, because I didn't even know it was based on a series of graphic novels, so I didn't compare every tiny detail of the film to the books and find it wanting. When I express my opinion about this movie, I'm evaluating it as a popcorn-munching, casual moviegoer, not as a fan of the franchise. I haven't seen all or even most of the films that some might regard as required viewing before seeing this. I haven't read a comic book since I was about 15, and I doubt I read six of them before that. I like superhero movies because they tend to be visual funhouse rides, packed with over-the-top action, cheesy dialogue, and dazzling effects. If I was interested in their deeper themes, I would probably see something arty.

Thor: Ragnarok has some actors reprising their roles from previous Marvel films: Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers) as Bruce Banner/Hulk, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and of course Chris Hemsworth - the Marvel Cinematic Universe's answer to Henry Cavill - as Thor. It has cute cameo appearances by Sam Neill, Matt Damon (uncredited), and Luke Hemsworth as actors playing the last-named father/sons trio of Norse gods. It also features Idris Elba (who lately starred on British TV as a detective named Luther) as an Asgardian good guy named Heimdall, Tessa Thompson (Creed) as the last surviving Valkyrie, Cate Blanchett (Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings) as the villainous Hela, Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, Independence Day) as Grandmaster of a junk planet's gladiatorial games, Clancy Brown (the head screw in The Shawshank Redemption) as a fire demon who plans to bring Ragnarok (the end of Asgar), and Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek reboot films) as Hela's sidekick Skurge. I thought I recognized the actress who played Goldblum's sidekick, but I haven't seen anything Rachel House was in; I guess she reminded me of The Trunchbull from Matilda. Also, I mistook rock-monster Korg's accent for South African, but it actually belongs to New Zealand native Taika Watiti, who also directed this movie.

So, to summarize what happens in this film: Not one, but two evils arise, and neither Thor nor his treacherous (and surprisingly not dead) brother Loki can stop them. Inevitably, Asgard comes to an end.

There. Happy? No? Well, for more details, see the movie. It's got lots of (how did I put it?) over-the-top action, cheesy dialogue, and dazzling effects. It has gladiatorial action, white-knuckle spaceship driving, and many thrilling battles, chases, and escapes. Also, there are some good character-development hits and a strong dose of comedy. For example, it's hard not to giggle whenever a character refers to a certain wormhole, known as the Devil's Anus. Goldblum's character is disturbing and adorable at the same time. Female movie fans undecided about seeing it should consider that one of the heroes and one of the villains are both strong women; and if you're still on the fence, Chris Hemsworth has his shirt off for a minute. Male movie fans, concerned about whether this movie is for them, need not ask any further than, "Is there a fight between Thor and the Hulk?" Yes. "Who wins?" Sorry, there was a limit of one question.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Odin tells Thor why he doesn't need his hammer. Maybe hardcore comic fans are saying, "All right, I already know this, get on with it." I thought it was a very intelligent and emotionally fulfilling moment. (2) Loki, exiting a dimension where Doctor Strange has parked him while he talks with Thor: "I've been falling for half an hour!" (3) The spaceship chase during Thor & Co.'s escape from Grandmaster's planet, for fast-paced, funny action. Honorable mention: The whole story arc about Banner being afraid if he becomes Hulk again, he won't come back, only to have almost the opposite happen at a climactic point in the battle with Hela and her revenant army. I didn't mention them, did I? Well, add that to your reasons to watch this movie.

Overall grade: A-. Note, that's better than the B+ I gave Justice League. Even with the end-of-the-world stuff, a dystopian subplot, the deaths of several beloved recurring characters (don't think I didn't notice), and a cliff-hanger mid-closing-credits bonus scene, it's a much cheerier, lighter, unrepentantly fun movie. It doesn't pull the viewer's mood down with all that post-empire stuff that, perhaps in Justice League and certainly in the recent X-men sequel Logan, is intended to be (and might actually be) a virtue. It just takes you out of your world and shows you a good time before sending you back. Good for it. Good for you.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Diviners

The Diviners
by Libba Bray
Recommended Ages: 14+

Being banished from her hometown of Zenith, Ohio to spend a few months with her eccentric uncle in New York City isn't much of a punishment for would-be flapper Evie O'Neill. But the fall of 1926 turns out to be a dangerous time, especially for a girl whose behavioral problems are connected with the spirit world. As curator of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult - popularly known as the Museum of the Creepy Crawlies - Uncle Will has a velvet-rope pass to the police investigation of a series of gruesome murders that seem to involve the occult. Evie joins Will, his handsome assistant Jericho, and an irrepressible pickpocket named Sam to lend their aid, and partly through Evie's gift of seeing the history of objects when she holds them, they realize the killer is actually a ghost.

Naughty John, a.k.a. Mr. Hobbes, is more than just any ghost, however. He is the chosen one of doomsday cult that was willing to sacrifice all its original members, and many innocent people to boot, to bring on Armageddon. Being hanged, dead, and buried 50 years ago for the first half of his planned series of sacrificial murders hasn't stopped him from coming back and carrying on. Now the victims include a leading chorus girl from Ziegfeld's follies, a young trumpet prodigy on the rise in the jazz world, and more. Even besides John Hobbes, another threat is looming on the horizon that will require all the Diviners - people like Evie, whoever they may be - to join forces. Meantime, Naughty John's naughtiness must be stopped before a certain comet passes over Manhattan, only days away. The Ghostbusters faced nothing like this: an angry, hateful force of occult belief allied to a cruel intelligence. It really seems Evie may lose her uncle, the boy she loves, her most sacred memory, and even her heart - I mean her literal, beating heart - sooner than stop this menace.

I enjoyed Evie's outgoing, flapper spirit and the historical recreation of 1926 New York. I truly had creepy crawlies while reading about the evil of John Hobbes. There were several other attractive characters as well, characters whose connection to each other will (I trust) become more apparent in future installments. One thing this book could have done without is the long, portentous, but essentially anticlimactic coda - two entire chapters, if I remember correctly, after the end of the book. On the scale of a fairly long novel, however, and one whose pace was seldom exactly hell-for-leather, it's not a big problem; and it does set the hook for the sequel.

This is the first book of the "Diviners" series. So far, it is followed by Lair of Dreams and, released as recently as October 2017, Before the Devil Breaks You. I picked this book up along with its immediate sequel last weekend at a Publisher's Warehouse outlet on the other side of the Lake of the Ozarks. I then decided I couldn't wait to read the first one, even though I was in the middle of another book; devouring it in two evenings, I went straight into the sequel without pausing to pick up the book I had put down unfinished.

Bray is also the author of the Gemma Doyle trilogy, comprising A Great and Terrible Beauty, The Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. My only previous Libba Bray reading experience was an audiobook of this last title, though I believe I have the other two on my bookshelf. I'm reconsidering my longstanding opinion that they'll keep just fine where they are. Bray's other young-adult novels include the Michael L. Printz "best book" award winner Going Bovine, Beauty Queens, and It's Just a Jump to the Left.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Thanksgiving Movie Extravaganza

I've gone to the movie theater three times during the last week. Two-thirds of it was a simple case of having a four-day weekend with the Thanksgiving holiday, and nothing much else to do. I also visited a couple bookstores and made a few purchases in that line, but I'll save that bit for later.

Last Tuesday, I decided to try out the $5 movie deal (with free popcorn!) at one of the local theaters - by which I mean, all the way around to the other side of the Lake of the Ozarks. I went with an open mind as to whether to see Coco, Wonder, or Murder on the Orient Express. Due in part to how the showtimes fell out, and partly on the advice of the ticket seller, I went with the murder movie. Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, it is based on the classic Agatha Christie mystery, which I read in about eighth grade. It also stars Derek Jacobi ("Father Cadfael" of TV's Mystery) as the victim's valet, Josh Gad ("Olaf" in Frozen) as the victim's man-of-business, Judi Dench ("Elizabeth I" in Shakespeare in Love) as a Russian princess, Michelle Pfeiffer (I think you know) as an American widow on the hunt for Husband No. 3, Willem Dafoe (Max Schreck in "Shadow of the Vampire") as a racist Austrian professor, Penélope Cruz ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona") as a deeply religious passenger, Daisy Ridley ("Rey" in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as a governess, Leslie Odom Jr. ("Aaron Burr" in Broadway's Hamilton) as a young black doctor, and Johnny Depp in an unusual turn as the heavy, who also turns out to be the murder victim.

This is at least the third time the story has been filmed, counting a 2001 made-for-TV movie (which I haven't seen) starring Alfred Molina as Poirot, Peter Strauss as the murder victim, and Leslie Caron and Meredith Baxter as two of the suspects. I have, however, seen the 1974 theatrical film, for which Ingrid Bergman won a late-in-her-career, best-supporting-actress Oscar as the German lady's maid. It also featured Albert Finney as Poirot, Richard Widmark as the victim, and an all-star cast of suspects including Sean Connery, Wendy Hiller, Martin Balsam, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York. It's been ages since I've seen this film, but in spite of the impression the above cast list gives of a too-earnest, high-production-value bore of a film, I remember it as being basically an effective movie. The present-day addition to the novel's roster of film adaptations tops all, I guess, by putting superb performances ahead of casting stunts, and by opening up the action a bit with some scenes more of the thriller variety than the source material really called for. Perhaps this dissipates the claustrophobia somewhat. But it doesn't taint the essential chemistry of a classic Agatha Christie whodunit, of the type that subverts the whodunit concept while at the same time bringing to perfection the idea "One of the 12 people in [insert isolated setting] could have done this, and after Poirot interviews each of them, he will presently amuse the whole group with an exquisitely timed revelation of who it was."

At her best, Christie often experimented with subverting this concept and carrying it to its extreme at one blow. In The Mousetrap, for example [SPOILERS AHEAD], in which all the suspects are snowed in together at a boardinghouse, she had the sleuth (not Poirot) turn out to be the murderer. In Death in the Air, in which the murder takes place on board an airplane in flight, the passenger who eventually proves guilty is the one who has been assisting Poirot throughout his investigation. In The Man in the Brown Suit, partly narrated via the diary of a passenger on board the ship where the murder takes place, we learn at the end that the diarist has not only done the crime, but also lied to his own diary and thereby, also, deceived us all along. In Curtain, one of Christie's many "someone spending the weekend at Lady ____'s summerhouse must have done its," each crime was actually carried out by a different perpetrator, one of whom in fact was Poirot himself - while the true fiend behind all the murders didn't technically kill anyone. In And Then There Were None, a.k.a. Ten Little Indians (let's all try to forget the original title was Ten Little N*****s), the entire cast of characters, one of whom must be (and, in fact, is) the killer, dies one by one until literally none are left alive; the puzzle is which of the victims pulled it off, and how he or she managed to do some of the crimes while apparently dead. But it would be hard to top this masterpiece, perhaps the most-filmed bit of Christie, in which the fussy, mustachioed Belgian is forced to suspect each and every one of his fellow passengers on a train from Istanbul to Calais that has become stranded by an avalanche in the Carpathian Mountains. Of course, if you read the book and/or saw the 1974 and/or 2001 movie adaptations of it, you'll already know the humdinger that awaits at the end of this movie.

This remark more or less gives away what I think of the movie. It is beautifully photographed, and good use is made of camera angles (such as the straight-down-from-above dolly shot at the discovery of the body), and the acting, as I said, is superb; but attempting to "open up" this story is a bad idea, I think. Although there is a an undeniable triteness in the concept of a mystery in which all the suspects are stuck together in one place until the detective is at leisure to tell them which one (or more) of them done it, its advantage in this particular story is the sense of claustrophobia, with all these people (including, presumably, a killer) crammed together in one train car while awaiting the arrival of a work crew to dig them out of the snow. I thought Branagh's efforts to move some of the drama outside the train let a good deal of that tension out as well. So, all that needs to be added are my overall score for the movie (B+) and the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Any time the obsessive-compulsive Poirot tells someone, "Please, straighten your tie"; (2) The scene in which Poirot "divides and conquers" the witnesses, by interrogating the German lady's maid, in front of her Russian mistress, in German; and (3) The crisis of all the movie's suspense, in which Poirot suggests that he cannot be allowed to live with the knowledge of who done it. In place of claustrophobia, the movie leaves behind a lingering impression of a tragic conflict in the conscience of a man who, earlier in the movie, flatly stated that he sees good and evil strictly in black and white.

My second movie of the week was a Friday matinee of Wonder. This was a Walden Media film (among other production companies), which is a dead giveaway that it was based on a piece of children's literature - in this case, a middle-school-appropriate novel with the same title by R.J. Palacio. I haven't read the book yet, chiefly because I haven't seen it offered for sale in paperback form, and my budget does not permit me to buy hardcovers. This isn't quite the place to mention it, but I've often been miffed in recent years by the tendency of certain books - often ones that are "soon to be a major motion picture" - to stay in hardcover for years and years, when that price point is an impediment to me buying the book. The results have sometimes worked to my advantage, such as when I saw the movie Hugo and decided its perpetually hardcover source book The Invention of Hugo Cabret could not possibly be anything special; I decided this was merciful, since even a full-prize movie ticket is cheaper than a hardcover novel, and the film takes less time to get through. I think it is also good for my opinion of a movie to see it either before reading the book it is based on, or so long afterward that I can't make a finely detailed comparison. This order of battle promotes doing full justice to the movie on its own terms.

So, without regret, I saw this movie without having read the book. I'm so over the "must read the book before I see the movie" phase of my existence; but seeing this movie may, in fact, sell me on reading the book, as soon as I can get around the problem of hardcover pricing. It was a well-structured, beautifully shot and acted, and most importantly of all, heart-touchingly well-written movie. I did not suffer from dry eyes while watching it. In fact, if tears are good for the complexion, my face benefited greatly from it. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson were an endearing yet believable any-couple who have given their all for their son during his first 10 years of life - a boy named Auggie Pullman, who has been disfigured since birth by a genetic condition, and even after many plastic surgeries, is still a bit shocking to look at, the first time anyway. They've home-schooled him until now, but as he enters fifth grade, they decide to let him try going to a real school - though Auggie isn't quite sure. Predictably, he struggles at first with bullying, has trouble making (and in one instance, keeping) friends, and does not at all times show heroic courage. But the other characters around him - including his lonely older sister, her sometime best friend, and other kids at Auggie's school - have stories of their own that, when revealed, make your heart go out to them. And the heart that proves to matter, the center of the healing and change in the way people see (to regurgitate the movie's best line), is Auggie himself.

This is a completely lovely, lovable movie that I would recommend to everybody - a solid A grade. The Three Scenes That Made It For Me are: (1) Auggie's principal, played by Mandy Patinkin, telling the awful mother of the hero boy's most antagonistic classmate, "Auggie can't change the way he looks, so I guess it's up to us to change the way we see." Jeez. I'm choked up right now. (2) The scene in which Auggie's ex-best friend works out a clue about what caused he hero boy to stop talking to him - you can see the moment when the penny drops, and the life just goes out of the kid. (3) The two buddies making up, after an alienation that has visibly broken both their hearts, via Minecraft instant messaging.

Today's main attraction was preceded by a Disney animated short titled Olaf's Frozen Adventure, featuring the voice of Josh Gad (whom I saw earlier this week in Murder on the Orient Express) as the titular enchanted snowman. I knew who Olaf was before I saw this short, because he is so popular with kids that I couldn't help picking up on it, even though I don't have any kids of my own, and also - please, don't hurt me - I have never seen Frozen. Main cast members from that movie returning in this short include Idina Menzel, who (I think) became a household name because of Frozen though I can't recall ever seeing anything she was credited in; Jonathan Groff, who has a regular role in TV's Mindhunter, which I want to see sometime, but other than that I've never seen anything he was credited in; Kristen Bell, who headlined TV's Veronica Mars (which I never saw) and played Christina Aguilera's bitchy rival in Burlesque - finally! something I have seen! - and, of course, Gad, who I would never have spotted as the voice-actor who played Louis the mole-hog in Ice Age: Continental Drift. I'm seriously out of touch with pop culture, when my best chance at recognizing these stars - and they are stars, make no mistake - is a tie between a lip-sync diva in a musical that tanked critically and commercially, and the voice of a nebbishy animated rodent in an ensemble-cast animated sequel. Also, I don't know anything about the story that is, apparently, required viewing to understand this short. So, I didn't really understand this short. It probably isn't fair in me to give it a grade, but it had some touching moments, a good deal of comedy, and several showy musical numbers, so for whatever it's worth, I'll give it a B. It went by too fast for me to assign it a full Three Scenes That Made It For Me, so I'll mention just one: anything that had to do with the fruitcake.

The main attraction, of course, was Disney's latest animated feature, the Mexican Day of the Dead-themed Coco, which I've been hot to see since the first preview I saw of it; and that seems like a couple years ago. Animated by Pixar, which is now part of Disney, it follows the adventures of a boy named Miguel, who wants to be a musician like his no-good, never-to-be-spoken-of great-great-grandfather, but whose family has rejected everything to do with music since that dishonored ancestor abandoned his family to pursue his dream. Miguel resists his family's demand that he put thoughts of music out of his head, and runs away to the land of the dead (long story; see the movie for more details), in defiance of his loved ones, both living and dead. He and a Xoloitzcuintli named Dante have until sunrise of the Day of the Dead to obtain the blessing of the spirit of the popular singer he believes to be his great-great-grandfather. Pay no attention to the way I phrased that. It's totally not a spoiler. Oh, crap. I don't know how to finish this synposis now.

Well, anyway, the idea underlying the movie is that, on the Day of the Dead, the spirits of deceased Mexican folks can cross the flower bridge from the land of the dead tot he land of the living, and visit their non-deceased loved ones, provided the latter have set up an ofrenda (I spelled it right; don't expect me to define it as well) with their photograph on it and little gifts they might enjoy taking back to the spirit world with them. Apparently, all these ghosts and skeletons are not supposed to be scary at all, but a comforting ritual of being together with loved ones who have passed on. From the point of view of the dead, however, it is crucial that someone put their picture up, or they can't get across. Also, bygone relatives need their families to preserve their memory by telling stories about them to later generations; otherwise, the dead will fade out of the land of the living, something they call "the last death." And finally, there's some business with spirit guides, called alebrijes, sort of like winged animals in psychedelic colors, who guide the dead to the afterlife; and there is the trouble that when a living person, like Miguel, visits the land of the dead, he can only return with the blessing of his loved ones - but he must do so by sunrise, and he must meet all the conditions they may put on that blessing.

Boring as all that information is, it's better than having all the surprises of this story spoiled for you. Be it enough that all the drama and excitement of this story comes out of those principles, accompanied by Mexican-flavored song-and-dance numbers, chase scenes, gags, action, suspense, and family drama featuring a cast of really cute characters (many of them appearing as animated skeletons). Just to be mean, I won't even tell you why the movie's title is Coco. I strongly recommend seeing it. It's a wonderfully realized piece of original storytelling, with adorable characters who run the whole gamut of emotions, gorgeous imagery, entertaining music, and an immersive fantasy world with a unique texture and look. It's the kind of movie that, without saying a single word to suggest it, will leave you thinking, "Forget Trump's wall. Our country could stand to be more Mexican." On a related note, you can't watch this movie without learning (or at least re-learning) a few Mexican words, like "abuelita" (grandma) and "mijo" (my son).

Final grade: A. Three Scenes That Made It For Me, leaving aside examples that will necessarily spoil the whole flick: (1) The scene when Mama Imelda (the spirit of Miguel's great-great-grandma), thwarted in her pursuit by a gate across a narrow passage, momentarily checks the boy's flight by starting to sing; I thought this was the most heartbreaking point in the story of Miguel's alienation from his music-hating family. (2) The scene in which the old ghost who is about to fade away, forgotten, requests a song played by the sketchy spirit Héctor (voiced by Benjamin Bratt, late of "Law and Order"). I think this was the first of many moments in this movie that had me choked up. (3) The scene in which Miguel, serenading his supposed great-grand-father (voiced by Gael García Bernal) in the middle of a crowded party, walks strumming and singing straight into a guitar-shaped swimming pool. I could name a lot more examples, actually, but I thought that third one was one of the movie's funniest surprises. There are a lot more, of course. It is such a strange movie, in which the expected is a thing rarely seen or heard.

Question: Which movie that I saw this past week do I think was best? Answer: I don't know. It's between Coco and Wonder, to be sure. But they were both excellent, feasts for the heart and soul. I suppose on a surface level, which speaks very much to the question of which film was more successful, it is Coco that makes the greatest impression on one's eyes and ears. But I'm not ruling out the possibility that Wonder's more down-to-earth story doesn't pack enough emotional power to even it up. I was particularly cut to my heart by the scene in which Auggie overheard his buddy talking trash about him (recalled by his buddy later in my #2 scene); I can remember witnessing, and even experiencing, heartbreaks like that at about Auggie's age.

Finally, what did I buy at the bookstores over yonder? At the Osage Beach Outlet Mall's Publishers Warehouse store, I bought Libba Bray's The Diviners and its sequel Lair of Dreams, both in quality paperback format and at 60 percent off, so my total purchase cost just $10 and change. Then, at Stonecrest Book and Toy, I picked up Invasion by Luke Rhinehart, which I started to read last night with great anticipation. Unfortunately, my reading enjoyment has been somewhat dampened by the high concentration of Social Justice Warrior bull**** the author saw fit to pour into it. When you read my review of it, coming soon, I expect you to appreciate how firmly I plan to restrain myself. Planning to restrain myself is already taking a lot of energy, and I haven't even finished the book yet. Fish out.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

225. Childbearing Hymn

This hymn and the previous one (the prayer for a pious mate) are part of a single concept - a kind of extended litany about the times of life that people generally experience, and the added meaning Christ brings to them. Because the idea of a litany came to me early in the planning process for this series of hymns (and there will be a least a couple more), I'm planning to set each one to a different tune in the same meter, as it were, the "litany" meter ( In fact, two of the eight tunes I have curated in that meter are titled LITANY, and more than one of them have been paired with a hymn that has the general character of a litany: an extended prayer calling on God for mercy in a full range of contexts. The tune, in this instance, is SCHEFFLER, from the 1657 book Heilige Seelenlust by Johann Scheffler (a.k.a. Angelus Silesius), whose conversion (only four years earlier) from Lutheranism to Catholicism led many Protestant hymnals to downplay his authorship of the hymns they took from him - a testimony not only to the offense caused by his caustic invective against the Reformation, but also to the undeniable beauty and devotional value of his hymns, such as "Come, follow Me, the Savior spake" and "Where wilt Thou go, since night draws near." Without embarrassment, I give him full credit for publishing the first known instance of this tune.*
1. God, whose Seed was given room
In the blessed Virgin’s womb,
Sown to reap the serpent’s doom:
Help all hopeful parents.

2. From her first, unconscious glow,
Guard the mother’s embryo;
Health and cheer on both bestow,
Fruitfulness increasing.

3. Shelter, like a precious flame,
New life’s miracle, and tame,
By the music of Your name,
Two hearts’ clashing rhythms.

4. If their term be fraught with pain,
Send your servants to sustain
Their endurance, lest in vain,
Father, they may suffer.

5. Should You, in mysterious love,
Summon one or both above,
Give us the conviction of
Resurrected glory.

6. Comes the grueling time of birth,
Ease her pain with love and mirth;
Introduce her child to earth,
Cradled in Your mercy.

7. Bless them with the means to live;
Willing hands, relief to give;
Faith, to share the hope of Eve
In Your gospel promise.

8. By baptism, soon unite,
Christ, to You that little mite;
Death and darkness change to light
And to life eternal.

*Extra credit: This may be the first hymn in history to incorporate a line that its author initially thought of adding as a joke at the expense of its own tune. Have you spotted it?

224. Prayer for a Pious Mate

Here is another item I can cross off the list of hymns I have been planning to write for Edifying Hymns, the projected sequel to Useful Hymns. It's kind of a scary prayer to write, since I'm one of the single adults whose numbers seem to be increasing in the Lutheran church. I've been single so long that I don't know what I would do if God answered it, in my case, with "OK, here you go." Like the best prayers, it uses God's own words to twist His mighty arm. Scriptures specifically cited in this prayer include Genesis 1:18ff; Genesis 24:63-65; Proverbs 18:22; John 2:1ff; 1 Corinthians 7:1-9; Ephesians 5:22ff; and more or less the whole book of Ruth. The tune, which was literally the first one I looked at out of an alphabetical list of eight hymn-tunes in the same meter, is titled ACK, VAD ÄR DOCK LIVET HÄR and is from the 1697 Swenska Koralpsalmboken of Stockholm.
1. God, who deemed it was not good
Man should live in solitude,
Though in paradise he stood:
Bless Your unwed children.

2. Some have not the gift to spurn
Impure lust with scant concern;
Would You not, than they should burn,
Rather have them marry?

3. Isaac, fifty, did not fail
His forlornness to curtail;
Seeing him, her bridal veil
Donned Rebekah gladly.

4. Solomon, too, understood
That to find a wife was good;
Ruth rejoiced that Boaz would
Claim from her that favor.

5. Christ Himself, at Cana’s feast,
Bride and groom’s delight increased;
May we, too, though last and least,
Taste such joy and blessing.

6. Be the unwed woman’s guide,
Fitting her to be a bride;
Place a husband at her side,
Pious, kind, and faithful.

7. Let him learn, who needs a mate,
Chastely for but one to wait;
Make their shared devotion great,
And their marriage fruitful.

8. Let her happiness and gain
Claim his willing toil and pain,
That Christ’s love may tune the strain
Of the praise he sings her.

9. Shape, as well, her wifely ways,
That each service she essays
Such a faith in him displays
As the church owes Jesus.

10. More and more, your graces lend,
Till as one their hearts shall blend,
Letting none their union end
But Your heav’nward summons.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Justice League

I don't go to the movies very often any more, and when I do, as a rule, I try to avoid sequels or installments in long-running franchises - a policy that I think has saved me many a time from feeling my ticket money was wasted. But Thursday night, when I went to see the DC Comics film Justice League, I made an exception. This was an easy decision to make, for two reasons: first, because I would have had to wait an additional hour to see Murder on the Orient Express, and the other choices (including a "Thor" movie and a comedy sequel starring Will Farrell and Mark Wahlberg) didn't interest me in the slightest; and second, because I haven't seen any of the films to which Justice League could be construed as a sequel. So, with little danger of being let down in my expectations based on a previous film, I went and had a good time.

Yes, comic book movie fans, it is true. I have never seen Man of Steel, the first film in which Henry Cavill played Clark Kent/Superman, though I have seen a few excerpts of it. Also, I have never viewed even a tiny bit of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Cavill was joined by Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne / Batman and Gal Gadot in the role of Diana Prince / Wonder Woman, who had a movie of her own earlier this year. So this is kind of a sequel to three movies, all helmed (except Wonder Woman) by this movie's director Zack Snyder. The difficulty in reviewing this movie without committing a major spoiler becomes apparent when I have to bleep out part of the following sentence: Although Superman dies at the end of Batman v Superman, ### ##### principal stars return for this outing, in which they are joined by Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) in his first full-strength outing as Barry Allen / the Flash; Jason Momoa, best known as Ronon Dex on Stargate: Atlantis and the title character in 2011's Conan the Barbarian, as Arthur Curry / Aquaman; and Ray Fisher, unknown to me, as Victor Stone / Cyborg. All three of these new superheroes have been teased in cameo appearances in earlier DC films (including Suicide Squad and BvS), and each of them is slated to headline his own movie within the next 3 years (Aquaman next year, and both Flashpoint and Cyborg in 2020).

In the "also starring" category, some of them making repeat appearances in the current franchise1, are accomplished stars Diane Lane as Clark's mom, a still photo of Kevin Costner as Clark's late dad, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Jeremy Irons as Bruce's man Alfred, Connie Nielsen as the Amazon queen who happens to be Diana's mom, and Joe Morton (who played a quirky inventor on Eureka) as an ethically-challenged scientist who happens to be Victor's dad. I didn't notice it at the time, but my research tells me David Thewlis (Remus Lupin in the "Harry Potter" films) appears in this film too, reprising a role from Wonder Woman. Also joining the cast for the first, or in some cases only, time in this film franchise are Ciarán Hinds - an actor of many faces and accents - unfortunately submerged beyond recognition in the stop-motion CGI role of Steppenwolf; J.K. Simmons, who has played Peter Parker's publisher in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as Police Commissioner Gordon; Billy Crudup as Barry's jailbird dad; and an uncredited Holt McCallany (TV's Medium) as the burglar who tangles with Batman in the opening scenes.

I haven't seen any of the recent DC Universe films, but I've been equally remiss in following Marvel Universe franchises. It sometimes takes me a while to remember which is which. For example, I spent a few minutes during this movie wondering why Spiderman wasn't in it. So, obviously, you shouldn't take me as an authority on these things. But I saw a recent video review of the latest X-Men movie Logan, which made an interesting case that the superhero film genre is responding to changes in the needs of society by turning in a more pessimistic, dystopian direction, and increasingly exploring doubts and ironies about the very concept of heroes. This movie continues that trajectory somewhat, depicting a world that is teetering on the brink of apocalypse, that is almost beyond saving, and some may wonder whether it deserves saving, or whether the superheroes are really doing it a service by attempting to save it.

This downkey atmosphere is partly, but not entirely, a result of Superman no longer being around, having (the early scenes explain, for those of us who missed it) sacrificed himself to stop a monster/weapon of mass destruction brought to life by a power from beyond this world. Now the world is in even worse danger, because a supervillain-alien-demigod named Steppenwolf, who was once stopped from conquering the world by a coalition of Atlanteans, Amazons, Olympian gods, and men, has decided now is the perfect time to make a second attempt. The aforementioned power from beyond this world proves to be but one of three "mother boxes" that Steppenwolf plans to bring together into "the unity," which will destroy the whole planet and create a new world in the image of Steppenwolf's hellish homeworld.

There's a lot of CGI in this movie, and unfortunately, not all of it is of the most convincing quality. But when the eye is able to follow the action and the mind can be persuaded to believe what it is seeing, it has a remarkable look and a lot of exciting battles. However, and perhaps to an extent that will leave rabid comic-film fans squirming with impatience, this movie's particular strength is its treatment of its six main superhero characters as human beings, and the development of their relationship.

So, without any further blather, here are the three scenes that made this movie for me:

(1) When Barry Allen walks into his apartment, switches on the light, and finds Bruce Wayne sitting in his second-favorite chair, waiting to recruit him for the Justice League. This whole scene, extending to where they drive off together in the Batmobile, is superbly written, and both Affleck and Miller deliver their dialogue with comic flair and character chemistry. I particularly liked Barry's hilarious attempt to explain his costume (made of a material designed to withstand space shuttle re-entry conditions), and Bruce's answer when asked what his superpower is.

(2) Lois Lane's confession to [### bleeped out for spoiler reasons ###] that she hasn't been strong since Clark died, and he would be disappointed with her. The emotions surrounding the entire plot of this act of the movie, which I can't describe without ruining it for you, cover an enormous range and are very effective.

(3) Barry's attempt to say goodbye to a little Russian girl, which left me guffawing and thinking, "Did he really say that?"

There are plenty of runner-up scenes, like the one in which Bruce counts his injuries after getting the stuffing beaten out of him, or when he tells Diana that Clark - who, you may remember, is actually Kal-El of the planet Krypton - is the more human of the two of them, or when Arthur unexpectedly opens up about his emotions (a perfectly timed moment that pays off brilliantly just when you're starting to wonder whether it's going to work). I think Diana is a great character (quite a looker too), and Victor has interesting problems to work through, and to be sure, Jason Momoa and Henry Cavill both supply enough masculine animal attraction that it's a wonder the picture doesn't distort around them, for relativistic reasons.

Nevertheless, my vote for the most fun character has to go to Barry Allen. He's just so endearingly insecure, chatty, funny, charged with nervous energy that keeps him running fast even when he isn't moving, afflicted with numerous fears and insatiable dietary needs. I predict his solo movie will be more of a hit than the Aquaman and Cyborg ones, because even though Jason Momoa is the epitome of unreconstructed male coolness - I mean, seriously, he makes Hugh Jackman ("Wolverine") look like a nebbish - the average person isn't going to identify with him, or feel close to his character; while Cyborg just isn't very human. Also, in a way that strangely parallels Cavill's role in this franchise, it seems Miller's character in an upcoming Fantastic Beasts sequel is going to #### #### #### ### ####. Oops. Had to bleep another spoiler there. If he keeps this up, he'll be a shoo-in for the list of "best multiple franchise actors"2 - which, I was amazed to notice, doesn't have Jeff Goldblum on it. But that's a rant for another time. Overall grade: B+

1Not that I would notice, but those of you following the series would.
2Anyone below Danny Trejo on this list is apparently being damned with faint praise.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Razing Arizona: A Parable

To what may I compare the politics of the present generation?

How about this map of Arizona. Just look at it. Have you ever seen a more unequal distribution of altitude? The difference between the highest elevation (12,633 feet at Humphreys Peak) and the lowest (70 feet above sea level, on the Colorado River) is horrendous. While a very small percentage of the state's area is at a lofty elevation above 9,000 feet, the Colorado Plateau forms a big, bourgeois, middle class of elevations between 4,000 (the statewide average) and 8,000 feet. A significant part of the state - almost the whole southwest quarter of the state, in fact - is below the average, with the hottest, driest, loneliest parts of the state forming a basin ranging below 3,000, 2,000, or even 1,000 feet above sea level.

Having lived there two and a half years, I can personally bear witness that life in Yuma - one of Arizona's lowest, hottest, and least rainy areas - is completely unbearable from May to September. Forget it. Only scorpions, Gila monsters, saguaro cacti, and the occasional javelina can survive there, without terraforming projects on the order of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The planet Tatooine is literally just across the river, which means California gets all the tax revenue from the Mos Eisley cantina. (It's also the planet from the original "Stargate" movie, but I digress.)

Arizonans Against Altitude Inequality (A3I) recognized the injustice of these disparities. So they got a constitutional amendment on the state's referendum ballot to shave the top 3,633 feet off the state's elevation. What area really needs to be higher than 9,000 feet, anyway? All prominences above that altitude will be converted into gravel and either thrown into the Grand Canyon, or spread around that big basin in the southwest part of the state, depending on which version of the ballot language gets the final nod from the Commission for Elevation Equalization (CEE), which the amendment will establish. Just think how much that gravel will raise the elevation of the low desert!

Just think!

All right, that amount of gravel - or the parts of it that don't end up being sold to road paving companies, with profits to be disbursed at the CEE's discretion - won't raise the elevation of that basin by any measurable amount, but it will close the gap (by up to 3,633 feet!) between the highest and the lowest points in the state. Plus, the CEE will continue to entertain proposals about shaving off even more of the rock from the higher-altitude regions of Arizona, and perhaps moving some of the middling-high peaks more-or-less intact to lower areas.

Sure, the net result will only be that the highest elevation in the state becomes lower, and maybe establishing a few additional high-ish spots (though they'll never be quite as high). And of course, those high altitudes, and whatever benefits or resources depended on them, will be gone for good. But at least the playing field, by which I mean the desert, will be more level on average. Right?

Let him hear who has ears. Let him think who has something between them.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller
by Henry James
Recommended Ages: 13+

This little trifle of a novella, almost a short story, weighs in at 59 pages in the "Dover Thrift Edition" in which I read it - an extra-thrifty purchase at some used-book store, whose price tag lists it at all of 10 cents. A list of other Henry James titles, printed in the back of my copy of The American, lists some full-length novels going for 50 to 75 cents. Somewhere between a clue to how old this book is and the fact that its author, dead now more than 100 years, can no longer control the rights to his work, there is a lesson about something or other - like, "Thus far the fortunes of (in some people's estimate) the finest novelist in the English language." But I don't have that lesson in sharp focus yet, because this isn't exactly a novel, and it's only the first thing I've read by Henry James.

The story, dating from 1878, is touching and sad, told from the point of view of a young American expat studying in Switzerland, named Winterbourne. While visiting his very proper, upper-class, widowed aunt in the lakeside resort town of Vevay, he is fascinated by a beautiful young American named Daisy Miller. Unlike Winterbourne, who was educated in Europe and who doesn't really understand American manners, Daisy is entirely a creature of Schenectady, N.Y. - a gregarious, fashionably dressed, spoiled banker's daughter who doesn't understand the way her every act, whether innocent or defiant, is judged by the exacting mores of the European nobility. She loves being in society, but has no consciousness of its proprieties or improprieties. She loves having gentleman friends, and risks scandal by going all over town with them unchaperoned. Her mother doesn't have the spirit to check her, and neither of them can tell the difference between a real gentleman and a charlatan. So, while Winterbourne watches her - first in Vevay, and later in Rome - he can never quite make up his mind whether to censure her for acting improperly, or excuse her for her innocence. So, while her head is seemingly turned by a handsome Italian adventurer, Winterbourne never succeeds in cutting in and saving her before her lack of good judgment leads her to irrevocable harm.

The word "bittersweet" is not enough. The ending of this brief novella (novelette?) is downright painful. Seventy years earlier, in the hands of a Jane Austen, approximately the same raw materials would have been the making of a comedy of manners. This, instead, is a tragedy of manners, in which the manners themselves are subtly indicted, and in which the difference between the manners of old world and new actually claim an innocent and vivacious life. Class snobbery; traditions - then more prevalent in the aunt's circles than elsewhere - such as single young women needing to be chaperoned in public; the health risks of visiting certain parts of Rome at certain times of day - which would probably give today's doctors a good laugh; and the heart-deadening consequences of a young man, so long separated from his home country, being unable to read the signals a beautiful girl is sending him, all combine to leave the reader sighing at the end.

The next book I plan to read is Henry James' 1877 novel The American. It's the only other one I have by me at the moment. The back-cover blurbs of both books, and the introduction helpfully inserted into this one, suggest there are common themes between them, and perhaps in most of James' better-regarded books. A native New Yorker who, like Winterbourne, was educated abroad and spent the better part of his career in Europe, James wrote such well-known novels as The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, and famous short stories and novellas including The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers, plus lots of less-well-known stuff, long and short. Since I felt the impact of this little work, I think I might be up to exploring some of his bigger ones and deciding for myself whether he is as some say, in spite of Hardy and Eliot, our language's best novelist.