Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hymns for Tough Times in the Church

I've been planning the two hymns below for a while. In fact, with them I catch up with all my unrealized hymn plans, and from here on I either have to wing it or figure out a new plan. Once again, a bout of insomnia in the middle of the night prompted me to set pen to paper, with these results. The tune for 241 is NAGLET TIL ET KORS, from Hartnack O.K. Zinck's Koralbog of 1801. The tune for 242 is MEINE HOFFNUNG by Joachim Neander, 1680, which I have used once before for an original hymn. In case these tunes don't register on your singability meter, each has a reasonably nice alternative tune that, funnily enough, comes from the same source: Zinck's PAA SIT KORS and Neander's UNSER HERRSCHER (only with two notes in the penultimate phrase tied together).
241. Prayer About a Church Divided
Lord, whose free, creating vision
Made distinction and division,
Night from day and sea from land:
Help, lest brother part from brother,
Drawing boundaries for other
Than the reasons You command.

Christ, who brought a sword, dividing
These who trust from those deriding
You and all that makes for peace:
Now make good Your prayer, desiring
Those You serve with love untiring
To be one, their strife to cease.

Holy Spirit, call and gather
Daughter, mother, son and father;
Heal the wounds that ill divide.
Bind us all in true believing,
One another's faith perceiving,
Till we face You, side by side.

242. Prayer About Mistreated Ministers
Christ, whose ancient prophets cherished
News of You when they were sent:
Well You know how oft they perished,
Slain by those to whom they went.
Lord, we pray: Help, today,
One who walks the prophets' way.

You Yourself, Lord Jesus, tasted
Of the prophets' bitter cup;
Lest Your suffering be wasted,
Hold Your wounded witness up.
Lord, we pray: Help, today,
One who walks Your cross's way.

Those who clamored to be seated
At Your right hand or Your left,
You warned, first might be defeated
By the world, abused, bereft.
Lord, we pray: Help, today,
One who walks the apostles' way.

Bind his wounds, O heav'nly Healer;
Send Your angels, giving strength
To Your medicine's revealer
And its patient, till at length
He arise, Fixing eyes
On the precious, perfect prize.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Bad Unicorn

Bad Unicorn
by Platte F. Clark
Recommended Ages: 12+

According to The Codex of Infinite Knowability - which Madison, Texas middle-schooler Max Spencer dug out from under his bed one fateful day when he was late to write a book report - our modern world is one of three principal levels of reality, known as the Techrus. There's also the Magrus, home of such magical creatures as unicorns, fire kittens, and zombie ducks; then there's the Shadrus, which we don't talk about. There's also an in-between place known as the Mesoshire, which can be reached on foot from either the Techrus or the Magrus, but anyone in a hurry would rather teleport from one to the other using the mystical Tree of Attenuation. And there's also a place called the Umbraverse, sort of the flip side of the universe, but it's not a very nice place to visit.

Max learns all this from a book that apparently only he can read - or even touch without receiving a painful electric shock - written by the world-sundering arch-sorcerer himself, Maximilian Sporazo. This apparently means Max is a blood descendant of Sporazo. Because of that, before he knows it, he's a wanted boy - wanted by the Maelshadow, the dark lord of the Shadrus; wanted by the ambitious arch-mage Rezormoor Dreadbringer; wanted, most urgently, by a unicorn named Princess. Don't let her pink sparkly mane fool you; Princess (surnamed "the Destroyer") is a vicious monster with a taste for human flesh. She can't wait to get her hooves on Max, because once she does, Rezormoor has promised to let her feast on the people of Texas.

Luckily, just when Princess and her glum personal wizard arrive in Madison, Max has inadvertently set off a spell launching himself, his dorky best friend Dirk, a girl warrior named Sarah, and an outcast dwarf named Dwight 300 years into the future. Unluckily, his departure from the present has altered history, resulting in a future where machines have taken over the world, humanity is extinct, and immortal robot versions of Princess and her henchwizard command an audience of millions in a nightly, televised hunt of the most helpless creatures in all three realms, frobbits. Yes, frobbits, fantasy fans: big eared, hairy footed little people who are really, really bad at fleeing from predators and even worse at fighting back. Now the survival of humans, dwarves, and dragons - I didn't mention dragons, did I? - depend on Sarah training an army of frobbits and snow fairies to fight against mechanized hunters, and on Max figuring out how to master the magic in a book that sometimes would rather talk about its theory that squirrels are taking over the world.

This is the first book of the "Bad Unicorn" trilogy, which continues in Fluff Dragon and Good Ogre, by an author who lives in Utah with his wife and seven kids. Judging by this book, that must be a really interesting household to live in. It's a hilarious, off-the-wall book full of irreverent fantasy and gaming in-references, endearingly goofy character portraits, and the under-utilized type of comedy that finds humor in the juxtaposition of timeless magic with banal reality. It mentions the Inn of the Flatulent Orc, a batch of evil apple fritters, and a game that robs its players of their reason (oddly resembling golf). It takes satirical shots at several recent Disney animated features. And it demonstrates, on practically every page, how a unicorn gone bad can be a threat to everyone and everything. Read at your own risk - of splitting a gut laughing.

Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth

Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth
by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Recommended Ages: 10+

Looking after his forgetful grandfather, so granddad can continue to look after him, has gotten extra difficult lately for silent young Prez Mellows. When the old man's latest exploit has led to him being driven away in a police car, Prez is consigned to the Temporary - that's southern Scotland for a facility that houses underage wards of the state. Because it's summer, the Temporary in turn places him with a farm family, where everybody talks non-stop, so they hardly notice how Prez never says a word. While he's there, he befriends a strange boy named Sputnik, whom everyone else sees as a dog (though each person sees a different dog). Sputnik claims he has come to Earth from across the universe, to protect the boy when Galactic Downsizing plans to reduce the planet to the size of a tennis ball to make room for more interesting worlds.

Together, they start a list of 10 reasons not to destroy the earth. Meantime, Prez hopes to spring his granddad from jail, even though he has nothing to guide him except a cryptic map his grandfather made of all the places they've visited. Sputnik shows Prez that gravity is more interesting than he knew, that the TV controller can fast-forward or rewind more than what's on TV, and other examples of the surprising things you can find out if you actually read the instructions to things. Together they capture a couple of burglars, lead a jailbreak (first going out, then back in), teach a real dog to speak English, cut down a tree with a child's toy and put it back together again, and build a leaning tower of haystacks. Their adventures are weird and wonderful, and eventually bring the voice out of a child who has been holding it in all his life.

I had a great time reading this book. It made me laugh out loud, and abounded in strange ideas and little-known facts. Under all the gags and special effects, it has a gentle, warm heart. But then, I've liked pretty much everything else I've read by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who won a Carnegie Medal for Millions. His other books for young readers include Framed, Cosmic, Desirable, The Unforgotten Coat, Triple Word Score, The Astounding Broccoli Boy, Runaway Robot, and four sequels to Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

240. Youth Hymn About the Church Year

To wile away the latest in a string of restless nights, I dreamed up this hymn for older children (or maybe adults) who want to learn about the church year. It might go down in history as the first Lutheran hymn to employ the word "slumming," if that term doesn't date it beyond usefulness. The tune I initially chose for it is a four-line number called DEBENHAM by Richard Redhead (1820-1901). A reader's comment persuaded me to merge the original ten four-line stanzas into five eight-line stanzas and suggested several tunes in that meter, from which I chose GALILEAN by Joseph Barnby, 1883 (see below). Fear not, I'm saving DEBENHAM for something else.
Thank You, Lord, for all the seasons
Making up Your church's year.
Help us think about the reasons
For the lessons that we hear.
Earth has autumn, springtime's swelling,
Summer's fullness, winter's rest;
So Your church has seasons telling
Time as serves Your teaching best.

Christ, Your Advent, or your coming,
Teaches us to watch and wait,
Neither slumbering nor slumming,
Till we see You, soon or late.
Christmas is our time for marking
God with us, Immanuel's birth,
With the joyful shepherds harking
To the angels' "Peace on earth!"

Christ's Epiphany, revealing
Light to Gentile nations, glows
With His pow'r for feeding, healing,
Which God's love so richly shows.
Lent prepares us for the Passion -
Jesus' suffering and death -
So in meek, repentant fashion
We take in His dying breath.

Easter, from Christ's resurrection
Till He soared above all things,
Gives a glorious, glad direction
To the fate our future brings.
After Pentecost, the Spirit
Guides the church's daily walk
As the bride of Christ; His merit
Is her gown, and He her Rock.

None may judge our feast or fasting,
Since our Savior set us free.
God, whose grace is everlasting,
Leaves to us when each will be.
Freely, then, we use this order
For the lessons that we hear,
Trusting God, our faith's rewarder,
Every season of the year.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

239. Objective Justification Hymn

I've been brainstorming for quite a while over a hymn that I felt was needed to address, in a devotionally polemical way, some recent debates in U.S. Lutheranism about the doctrine of objective justification. A page in my gradually developing volume of "Edifying Hymns" has been marked for it. A list of speaking (or singing) points has been stewing in my writing journal. It's been in the back of my mind. Last night, I finally decided to undertake the actual writing of that hymn, as an outlet for some restless energy. I was thinking about writing it to fit the tune GOTT DER VATER WOHN UNS BEI, but I've already used that tune for two different original hymns. So, instead, I wrote an original tune in a somewhat different meter, titled JUSTIFICATION.
The Lord has sworn in sooth:
He would see all men saved
And brought to know the truth.
So deeply this He craved,
His only Son, eternal Christ,
To sinful Adam's line was spliced
And, once for all, was sacrificed -
For which He, only He, sufficed.
No idle promise this, no lie;
Who would God's plighted word deny?

While we were helpless - nay:
While we were yet in sin
And under bondage lay,
God's foes, and dead within -
Then Christ for us was crucified;
Then Christ for all our trespass died;
Then He, when raised and glorified,
The unjust fully justified.
What merit dare we, then, inject
Twixt lost mankind and the elect?

When He was sacrificed,
Pierced through His hands and feet,
Our dying Lord and Christ
Declared the thing complete.
His off'ring - blameless, broken, brave -
An answer to all charges gave,
All flesh redeemed from hell and grave,
Accorded with God's will to save.
He pled, "Forgive them" as He died;
Who would God's counsel now divide?

What God declares is done,
Nor on man's pleasure waits.
His Word with Him is one
And what He speaks, creates.
For faith His words of promise sue
And, though such faith to them is due,
Need naught from us to make them true.
The faith He justifies us through,
His living, active word imparts
Unto our void and formless hearts.

We live by God's own act;
His righteous verdict flows
From the objective fact
The heart thus opened knows.
Salvation comes from God's own heart,
The course His changeless will did chart,
The Lamb for slaughter set apart,
The gifts His means of grace impart.
Through faith, not unto faith, we raise,
But unto Christ, pure hearts in praise.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Lair of Dreams

Lair of Dreams
by Libba Bray
Recommended Ages: 14+

In Book 2 of the "Diviners" series, the author of A Great and Terrible Beauty, The Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing continues her saga about young adults with paranormal powers in the Prohibition period. It features a party girl, radio personality and "sweetheart seer" named Evie, who is torn between two boys (always a great place to start) and who has the ability to read people's past from objects they touched (which I bet you didn't see coming). There's also a studly cyborg named Jericho, a ne'er-do-well named Sam who can hypnotize people not to see him, a Ziegfeld Follies chorus-line girl named Theta who can set fires with her bare hands, a young Harlem poet named Memphis who has the healing touch, a couple of dream-walkers from widely different backgrounds, and of course how would they get along without dear, unpowered Mabel? Between them, if they could only get their act together, they might be able to stop an evil spirit that is preying on people, using their dreams to suck the life-force out of them.

I'll be blunt and to the point. I would only give this book three stars out of five. Yes, the jazzy atmosphere of the flapper era is, indeed, the elephant's eyebrows (Star 1). The looming threat of the Man in the Stovepipe Hat and the ghostly jiggery-pokery that causes an outbreak of sleeping sickness makes for some truly yummy horror and suspense (Star 2). And some of the main characters show real promise as heroes of an entertaining fantasy franchise (Star 3).

But this book, like the one before it (The Diviners), keeps so many plates spinning, so many plot lines bowling along separately and each at a none-too-rapid pace, and takes so long getting to the always-anticipated point where the hero characters recognize what the mystery is and start working together to solve it, that I for one became exasperated by about one-third of the way through it, and continued reading in a state of exasperation until exasperatingly close to the end. So exasperated was I, and if you're getting exasperated with my use of the word exasperated that's just tough because I want you to know how I felt, so exasperated was I (says I) that I consider it generous of me to knock off only one star for this. I think there are writers who would have made a virtue of this problem, in the form of suspense, but I don't think Libba Bray was one of them in this instance.

Also like The Diviners, this book finally whips up a goodly head of dramatic energy at its climax, only to let it dissipate in anticlimactic fashion with an unnecessarily long coda. So it ends up being another one of those books that made me want to scream, "Isn't this [expletive deleted] book over yet?" - which is remarkable, considering how few pages ago I was biting back an oath to the effect, "Is this story ever going to get moving?" Hence the second subtracted star.

Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning there is a third book in this series, titled Before the Devil Breaks You. Bray is also the author of Going Bovine, Beauty Queens, and It's Just a Jump to the Left.

The Moon Is Down

The Moon Is Down
by John Steinbeck
Recommended Ages: 12+

This novella, published in 1942 during the thick of World War II, sketches out a stirring tale of resistance when a free people is conquered by a totalitarian one. It was an important book in its time, with translated versions being illegally published by the resistance movements of several Nazi Germany-occupied countries in Europe. The wiki page (which I consulted just now) adds it was the best-known piece of American literature in the U.S.S.R. during the war. So, it played a significant role in resisting the German war machine through culture, somewhat like the "Leningrad Symphony" discussed in Symphony for the City of the Dead.

What I observed about it, after I plucked it out of a public library's 25-cent-per-paperback book sale, was that it has a compact (115-page), somewhat stagy form - it reads like a detailed scenario for a play, with dialogue confined to distinct scenes and only stage direction-like passages stretching the confines of the set. Yet for all its sense that the most exciting stuff is going on "offstage," it drives home its message with devastating rhetorical and emotional power. The hero of the piece, if there is one, is the mayor of the unknown town (somewhere in bombing range of the R.A.F.) who, at the start, comes across as a rather silly, unthreatening man and who, by the end, has given himself up as a sacrifice with a simplicity, a humanity, and a dedication to the service of freedom that are altogether inspiring.

I was moved; nay, I was overwhelmed by this book. I shed tears over it. I lost sleep over it. I went back and re-read several parts of it, and found them just as overwhelming a second time. I was struck by the insistent, bell-like style of Steinbeck's writing, blending clear, simple language with a sense of fateful tolling, or perhaps knocking, created by repetition of motifs. I was gripped by scenes of hysteria and dread. I was amazed by the author's thought-provoking argument that free people always win the war after oppressors win the battles. I was stunned by the application of Socrates' Denunciation in the final chapter and the mayor's perfect, parting words as he goes to his fate.

You know I'm a softie. I said as much when I admitted that Goodbye, Mr. Chips (a book of almost identical length that I picked up at the same library sale) made me weep and lose sleep. But let me point out this difference: my tears for Chips were the tears of a guy who enjoys a good sentimental wallow now and then. My tears over this book were more rough, more raw, and ultimately more spiritually enriching - a grade, or proof, of tears that can only be distilled from a perfect piece of tragedy, complete with a sense of uplift that makes it all that much more moving. Though it has been overshadowed by some of its Nobel Prize-winning author's other books, such as The Pearl, The Red Pony, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath, this book deserves not to be forgotten. In fact, now may be a particularly good time for a new generation to read it.

Shadows of Self

Shadows of Self
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 14+

This second book in the second "Mistborn" series, featuring lawman/lord Waxillium Ladrian, explores issues of religious faith that may arise when your god happens to be an ascended, but fallible, human being. The god of Wax's Pathian religion, known as Harmony, was once himself a theologically troubled man named Sazed (see Book 3 of the first series, The Hero of Ages). Harmony took a broken world and put it back together so mankind wouldn't have such a struggle to survive, but now (as he tells his doubting disciple, in a moment of what one might describe as "prayer backwash") he worries he may have made life too easy for them. Unexpected problems are cropping up as a result - references Wax doesn't understand, such as "You should have had radio and aviation by now." And then there's the whole problem of being loved and served by a good man whom you have chosen to use as your instrument of death. Oh, you poor, poor god.

But leaving Harmony to work out his own troubles, Wax has problems of his own. The woman he is supposed to marry is very strange, in a distinctly repulsive way, but also vulnerable and admirable at the same time. Their impending union is based on purely practical considerations - he needs her money, and she wants to rise in the social world. They need each other, perhaps in ways neither of them is ready to admit. But meantime, Steris' bastard half-sister Marasi comes closer to being Wax's soulmate, which makes both of them uncomfortable because they're honorable folks. She has given up a promising career as a lawyer to become a constable, skipping over an ambitious veteran officer to become second-in-command to the octant commander and making enemies accordingly. She has to overcome prejudices against women in high places. She has to clean up the messes Wax makes when he barges in and out of ongoing investigations. And of course, both of them - along with Wax's weird friend Wayne, for good measure - have to stop an assassin who can change bodies and can even change allomantic or feruchemical powers at will, thanks to the all-but-lost art of hemalurgy that Harmony imperfectly stamped out. Their quarry is a true monster, one whose nature and character will put Wax's struggling faith to its cruelest test.

The book before this one is called The Alloy of Law. The book after this one is called The Bands of Mourning. If you see any book with the words "by Brandon Sanderson" on its cover, however, I advise you to read it. Even at Book 5 of an epic series, he does not slow down, exploring challenging issues and crafting ever more layers to deepen the perspective of his fantasy world. This post-original-trilogy series has the additional advantage of being tightly focused and compact, compared to some of his other novels, which (if any complaint is to be laid against them) can rather sprawl. Bottom line, though, I just find that I care about Wax and those around him, and I want to see where his journey leads next.

Black Panther

Yes, of course, I saw the Marvel Studios movie Black Panther last weekend. It was partly a working weekend, partly a weekend in which my recreational plans were scotched by bad weather and road conditions. I needed something to do besides pace up and down in my apartment and finish reading three books(!). So, I went to the local theater, where my choices were this, Shades of Grey: Freed (the third installment in a trilogy of R-rated BDSM smut), or Forever My Girl (a Harlequin Romance novel in moving pictures). Of course I went to see the blockbuster action film. I say all this lest you start to think I'm becoming a fan of comic-book movies. On the other hand, if movies like this keep coming out, that could happen.

The movie features Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman (a.k.a. "Bilbo Baggins," a.k.a. "Watson"), and Andy Serkis (a.k.a. "Gollum," a.k.a. "King Kong") in supporting roles and the physically impressive Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan as, respectively, the newly crowned king of the invisible African nation of Wakanda who moonlights as its super-powered protector, and the American mercenary who, thanks to the royal family's dirtiest secret, has an equal claim to the throne. T'Challa, the good guy, wants to protect his country's secret technological advancement, to keep it from falling into the hands of warlords, despots, and terrorists. Bad guy N'Jadaka, a.k.a. Erik Stevens, a.k.a. Killmonger, wants to start a global jihad to avenge all the injustices ever suffered by black people by using Wakanda's rich supply of MacGuffin (seriously, I'm not looking up how to spell what it's really called). The two super-dudes proceed to kill the daylights out of each other, and the long peaceful nation breaks down into civil war. The action is terrific.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) The chase through the streets of a South Korean city (the movie's release was nicely timed to coincide with the PyongChang Olympics) in which T'Challa and two female sidekicks, aided remotely by his techie sister, pursue Serkis and his goons with lots of car-flipping, crash-and-bang acrobatics. (2) The reunion of the hero with his mom, sister, and main squeeze, in which their not-very-original dialogue is interrupted by a yawn from the brusque leader of the mountain clan. (3) The scene in which Killmonger has a vision of his dead father, an unusually powerful instance of a supervillain being portrayed as a sympathetic character. I suppose I should also mention that people who sit through the credits will be rewarded by a bonus scene (which is hardly news any more, when it comes to comic-book movies), a cute cameo by Stan Lee (which is hardly news any more, etc.), and the fact that a girl in the row behind me squealed when the hero finally kissed the woman he loves. But if you weren't there when I saw the movie, you might miss that part.

238. Hymn for Hungry Young Saints

Here is yet another entry in my recent series of (hopefully) edifying hymns for young people. Its working title was "Hymn for Hungry Little Tummies," but in the end it reminded me guiltily of Dorothy Parker's response to A.A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner: "Tonstant weader fwowed up." Besides, it really isn't a hymn aimed specifically at little kids - it could apply to children of any age who hunger and thirst for the Lord's body and blood. The tune is VOLLER WUNDER by Johann G. Ebeling, 1666; some may know it as the tune to the hymns "Every morning mercies new," "Safely through another week," and "Blessed are the sons of God" (with the memorable refrain "With them numbered may we be, now and through eternity").
Give, O gracious, glorious Lord,
Give the pure milk of Your word.
Nourish us with heav’nly food.
Fill us full of what is good.
Feed us lively, living bread.
Save the children You have fed.

Help! We hunger so to grow!
Help! We thirst Your truth to know!
Oh, Your cup of joy to sip!
Oh, Your feast of fellowship!
Oh, the Lamb unseen but real!
Oh, the myst’ry of that meal!

Till we take that bread and cup,
Father, guide our growing-up.
Make Your word our daily food,
Baptism a refreshing flood.
Work our faith, like rising yeast,
Toward the fullness of Your feast.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Last Month's Move

I've had some ridiculous experiences moving before. In 2005, moving from Arizona to Missouri, I had one Uhaul truck blow its transmission near the end of Day 2 of a three-day trek; the local rental place then helpfully moved all my stuff onto a truck that had bad truck springs, which made the rest of my trip a sickening experience and left the truck's front tires worn down to the weave. In 2006, moving from one city in Missouri to another, I had to deal with the fact Uhaul wouldn't allow the model of car I then owned to be towed on one of their dollies. As a result, I had to make several trips back and forth via Amtrak in order to move both my car and my truckload of possessions, separately. Now you judge. Was the move I made a month ago, from Missouri to Minnesota, in the same league of grouchiness-inducing stupidity?

Once again (because I'm insane, and insane people keep doing the same thing and hoping for a different result), I chose Uhaul. This time, I had my car on a tow-dolly pulling behind the truck. I had from noon Friday, Jan. 12 - when I clocked out of my old job for the last time - to 8 a.m. Monday, Jan. 15 - when I was due to clock in for my new job - to pack the truck, hook up the tow-dolly, and make tracks from the southwest-central-Missouri burg of Versailles (rhymes with "whales") to the northwest-central-Minnesota småby of Park Rapids (which doesn't rhyme with anything). I figured on driving up to my parents' home, an hour short of my destination in Verndale, Minn., estimating it was going to take me between 12 and 13 hours to get there - possibly more, if I had to maneuver carefully over ice, snow, and slush with a tow-dolly that technically wasn't to be pulled faster than 55 mph. Packing complete, I hit the road at approximately 4 p.m. Friday afternoon, planning to arrive by my folks in the morning, take a nap, and meet some people they had wrangled to help me move into my new place.

Sometime around 10 p.m., about 10 miles south of Indianola, Iowa - approximately halfway through my trip - I was turning at a well-lit highway junction when I suddenly felt as if the front right wheel was about to come off the truck. I pulled over next to a light pole, took a look, saw nothing wrong, tried driving a bit, found the condition unchanged, and pulled over again. At this point, I was in an area of almost pitch darkness on a windy night with sub-zero temperatures and double-digit-sub-zero wind chills. I could not get any service on my cell phone (thanks, AT&T). I saw a light ahead and to the right, correctly guessed it was a floodlight on a nearby farm, and nursed the truck up the farm's long driveway to where I could get out and get a better look by the light of a floodlight mounted on the side of a barn. Nobody answered at the door of the farmhouse; the place looked deserted. It turned out the homeowners were there, but they were hiding from me because they drew the reasonable conclusion that I was there to rob and murder them. During the shrinking window of time I had left before the State Police showed up, I did manage to reach U-haul roadside assistance on my cell, called my dad to tell him there would be delays, and (while the cop was checking my record) heard back from roadside assistance that I could expect a truck service tech to show up in about 35 minutes to an hour. After that, the cop insisted that I pull back out on the highway, where I could no longer reach anybody or be reached by phone.

The cop took a while soothing the nerves of that farm couple - long enough for me to start to worry about whether or not he was ever going to return my driver's license. After a few more minutes of chat, he took off and left me with the engine running, waiting for the truck service guy. It took him until about 12:30 a.m. to show up, and then until about 12:31 a.m. to determine that the problem - a busted wheel bearing - could not be fixed there on the side of the road, nor would parts be available that night. He and I went back and forth between my warm truck cab and his (he had his wife with him), tag-teaming the use of his phone, so each of us could receive the proper instructions from Uhaul roadside assistance. It was very, very cold. I felt at times like I was going to lose digits. At length, we got my car warmed up and backed off the tow-dolly, and I followed the truck service guy to a motel in Indianola, where Uhaul put me up for the night. I was also advised to buy myself a meal and expect up to $15 reimbursed, provided I saved the receipt.

I didn't get much sleep that night. I was kept awake well into the wee hours by repeated calls to and from Uhaul roadside assistance, working out our plan for getting me the rest of the way to my new job. We seriously entertained the idea that I might leave all my stuff in Iowa for a week and come back the next weekend to fetch it. We tried (without success) to find Moving Help providers, to transfer my stuff off one truck and onto another; none were available, according to that service's website, in that area and on the date in question. They found a repair shop/Uhaul rental business in downtown Des Moines, about 18 miles away, that would open on Saturday just for me and do the transloading - which was supposed to be done under my supervision. They found a tower who could pick up the truck where I had left it and move it to that shop in Des Moines, but what with one delay or another, it took until well into the afternoon to manage that. By the time I knew where to go, and had checked out of the motel, and had reached the service place in Des Moines, they had already cut my padlock off the truck and were mostly done transloading. The guys at the shop hooked up the tow dolly and put my car on it and sent me on my way. I hit the road at about 10 minutes to 3 p.m. - by which time all my moving help at the Minnesota end of my trip had given up the project.

Without any further event, I reached my parents' house at 9 p.m. Saturday. My brother Ryan was there, willing and available to help me move the next day. We went to Sunday service at my dad's church, then joined one of the parishioners and my stepmom (who came along to do some apartment cleaning and to serve lunch). The only other fun thing to report is that I got to experience, for the first time since I bought it 18 years ago, the challenge of moving my Yamaha studio piano up a flight of stairs. At a certain point, I believe its full weight was resting against my breastbone, compressing my rib cage. I thought I was going to asphyxiate. Well, that and the fact that we were moving all my worldly possessions, including some awkward and heavy items, up and down a steel ramp while it was pelting down snow - correctly-predicted weather I had hoped to avoid by driving all through Friday night - and the management of my building refused to let us back the truck up across the frozen-solid front lawn so we wouldn't have to muscle everything up the entire length of the front walk. It was slippery, it was messy, yet except for that incident involving the downhill end of the piano and my sternum, the move-in process was miraculously free of horribleness.

There was one more thing to add zest to my first evening in my new town. The management told me the apartment building's parking lot was going to be plowed the next day while I was at work. So, I had to make arrangements to park the Uhaul and its tow dolly somewhere else, and do it that night before I went to bed. Fortunately, the management team at the local Walmart were good sports about letting me park overnight in their lot.

Uhaul eventually, but very reluctantly, coughed up a $130 refund for my pains - or rather, for the $15 worth of food roadside assistance had promised to reimburse, another $15 for destroying a padlock that had served me faithfully since high school, and $100 just for the sheer aggravation and the delays that almost interfered with my plans to be on time for my first day at the new job. The guy who haggled with me about all this challenged everything I said, actually trying to claim the Des Moines shop replaced my padlock (I remember that they tried, but the lock they had could not be made to fit) and having fits about roadside saying they would pay for my meal (they never do that) and the truck service dude saying, "The only thing keeping this wheel on is the fragments of bearing that are still in there" (you're never supposed to tell a customer something like that, apparently). He didn't even have to live through the trip, and he yelled at me as if I wasn't just telling him what happened.

So, in retrospect, I stand by what I told the manager of my apartment building after I had finished moving in... "I hope I die in this apartment, because I never want to move again."

Monday, February 12, 2018

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Goodbye, Mr. Chips
by James Hilton
Recommended Ages: 13+

I picked up this 1934 classic for 25 cents at the local library's book sale. Getting 12 excellent, culturally significant paperbacks for $3 made my day. This novella promptly demolished it, leaving me blowing my nose, wiping tears out of my eyes and lying awake through half the night. Valued in its time (according to a cover blurb) as second only to "The Christmas Carol," it may not be so well-known these days, though it has been the subject of an Academy Award-winning feature film (winning Robert Donat a 1939 "Best Actor" statuette for his role as Mr. Chipping), a 1969 musical film featuring Peter O'Toole, and a more recent TV movie.

The story looks back over the long career of a beloved and lovable Latin classics and Roman history teacher at a private boys' school somewhere in England. It makes efficient use of its 113-page length to grab the reader's heart in a warm embrace of nostalgia, quirky charm, bittersweet romance, and respect for an honorable but under-appreciated profession (teaching) and the small, everyday acts of courage some teachers perform. The result is a powerful upwelling of emotion that lingers after the close. Part of the sadness one feels, I think, derives from the book's viewpoint that a person survives as long as he or she is remembered - but most things are forgotten in time. Mr. Chipping, affectionately known as Chips, spends a good deal of his long retirement recalling things whose memory will die with him - the names and faces of thousands of boys, for example; the softening, brightening influence of the young wife he buried so long ago; the... yup, that did it. I'm crying right now. Thanks a lot, Mr. Chips.

I was unfamiliar with the work of James Hilton (1900-1954) until I read this. According to the British author's preface to the edition I picked up, he wrote this story on a tight deadline for a British magazine, adding that it flowed out of him more easily and required fewer alterations than anything else he had written. He based Chips on a combination of his own schoolmaster father and a couple remarkable teachers he'd had. Chips didn't become popular until it was reprinted in the U.S., after which it caught fire in his native land. It seemed everyone in the world remembered having a teacher like Mr. Chipping.

Besides stories published in periodicals, Hilton also wrote 13 or 14 books during a 34-year career, including Lost Horizon - also made into a serious film (1937) and a musical (1973) - in which he coined the term "Shangri-La." I bet you didn't know that. Now you're beginning to sense there may be some importance to this guy, eh? His other titles, now that I've got you interested, include Catherine Herself, And Now Goodbye, Murder At School (a.k.a. Was It Murder?, under the pen-name Glen Trevor), Contango (a.k.a. Ill Wind), We Are Not Alone, Random Harvest, The Story Of Dr Wassell, So Well Remembered, Nothing So Strange, Morning Journey, and Time and Time Again. There is also a follow-up to this book titled To You, Mr. Chips.

The Alloy of Law

The Alloy of Law
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 13+

The "Mistborn" trilogy - Mistborn (a.k.a. The Final Empire), The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages - all took place in a fascinating magical world where everything was adapted to survive amid swirling mists and ashfalls. It had a medieval level of development, with combat being done with staves and swords, and transportation dependent on horses and canal barges. Now some 300 years have passed, and the world has been transformed. The landscape is green and fertile, especially in the Elendel Basin - though perhaps not so much in the surrounding Roughs. Technology has advanced to about the equivalent of the early 20th century. Motorcars are gaining on horse-powered transport. Railroads connect the capital city, Elendel, with the hinterlands. And frontier lawmen like Waxillium "Wax" Ladrian and his goofy sidekick Wayne carry rifles and pistols.

Other things have changed, too. One of the reborn world's major religions follows the wisdom of Sazed, who at the end of The Hero of Ages ascended to become the god known as Harmony. Wax, for example, practices this faith, which includes an unusual tenet forbidding the worship of its god. Also, you don't see a lot of Mistborn anymore. Some folks still use Allomancy - a variety of magic that involves burning certain metals in one's stomach - but they are limited to one metal each, their specific power dependent on which metal it is. Some also use Feruchemy, which alternately deposits and withdraws a person's supply of some property such as sensory perception, mental quickness, physical strength, etc., each in a specific type of metal. Some metalborn, known as Twinborn, have one allomantic power and one feruchemical at the same time. Wax is one of those: he can burn steel, allowing him to push against metal objects; he can also store and retrieve his own weight in iron bracers that he wears on his arms. So, in effect, he can often deflect bullets in flight, and can practically fly himself. His buddy Wayne has a similar pair of Twinborn powers, combining fast healing with the ability to form a bubble of accelerated time around himself.

Powers like these make them good at surviving battles with bad guys in the roughs. But when Wax inherits the title to one of the most powerful noble houses in Elendel, he finds it even more challenging to survive in the center of civilization than out in the Roughs. A member of his household staff tries to assassinate him. A band of robbers, whose bizarre power of making property disappear has earned them the nickname "Vanishers," has vanished with Wax's fiancee as their hostage. There seems to be a sinister plot behind how the Vanishers are choosing their hostages, none of whom has yet returned. And Wax has recognized their leader as one of his former colleagues in the lawman business - a guy whose "double gold" abilities make him virtually unstoppable. Will it be the end for Wayne, Wax, and the latter's unsettlingly attractive sister-in-law-to-be Marasi? No doubt. But then again, this is only the first book in a second series of Mistborn novels that currently also includes Shadows of Self and The Bands of Mourning.

This is a shorter, more quickly-read book than any of the previous Mistborn titles. At the same time, it is a fully absorbing, addictive pleasure, introducing an all-new and equally fantastic world built one the old one, which itself seemed to overflow with possibilities. I am already devouring Shadows of Self, and I look forward to Mr. Sanderson writing even more Mistborn books - including some that he hinted about in his acknowledgments to this book, possibly including Scadrial versions of our present-day and future world. (Scadrial is apparently the name of the planet these books are set on.) I'm also on the scent of a local source of his "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" books. If Sanderson wrote it and I can get my hands on it, it will have my full attention before I read anything else. Put that in your metal reserves and burn it.

Symphony for the City of the Dead

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad
by M.T. Anderson
Recommended Ages: 13+

This is a magnificent book, full stop. I say this as a fan of the music of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Seventh Symphony helped raise the morale of Soviet citizens, and funds from the USSR's western allies, during Nazi Germany's record-long siege of Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). It's a story about music, and other forms of cultural activity, giving people hope while a combination of starvation, aerial bombing, artillery bombardment, daring escapes, social collapse, human frailty, despair, and other perils of being caught between two of the most brutal dictators in human history reduced a population of 2.5 million to somewhere in the 500,000 range in a little less than 900 days. It's about survival under a regime that slaughtered millions of its own citizens, during a war against an enemy whose stated goal was the annihilation of their entire race. And it's a story about one man - a coward when it concerned himself personally, a hero when it concerned other people's interests, a mild-mannered intellectual, an obsessive soccer fan, a husband, a father, and a devoted son to his widowed mother - writing music that, at a few crucial points in his life and times, convinced millions of people he was telling the story of their hearts.

I'm a softie, as you know if you've spent much time perusing my book reviews. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to say, with all sincerity, that the ability to make me cry is a useful index for judging the emotional power of a book. Not only did I weep more than once while reading this book, but I got choked up multiple times while describing parts of it during an oral review. I don't dare try to tell you how much Shostakovich's music means to me, though as a weak hint, I might mention that his book of preludes and fugues for piano (in all 24 major and minor keys) is one of my go-to books for daily recreational piano playing. I've listened to every one of his 15 symphonies (not to mention concertos, operas, and other works), and several of them are very dear to me. In this book, though I believe he is a musical layman, M.T. Anderson - National Book Award-winning author of The Pox Party and the highly underrated Norumbegan Quartet - does full justice to Shostakovich's unique genius for distilling personal, and in some cases national, feelings into music in such a way that masses of people immediately understand and feel along with him. Next to that in awesomeness is the amazing story of his survival, in spite of being denounced by his government - twice! - and ostracized; seeing people close to him sent into exile, tortured, and even executed by Stalin's police state; and at times becoming, in spite of himself, a personal threat to a paranoid monster whose word was life or death for tens of millions.

I found this book on the "Young Adult Nonfiction" shelf at the local public library. It may be a challenging read for many young adults, if they are familiar neither with the music of 20th century Russian composers, nor the history of the Soviet Union and World War II. Anderson helpfully explains a lot of concepts and vocabulary; but he also assumes the reader will either know already, or take the initiative to learn, such concepts as "memento mori" (for just one example). His endnotes bear witness to what a tremendous amount of scholarship went into writing this book. He makes responsible use of even some dubious sources, such as the admittedly unreliable reminiscences of Shostakovich's aunt and the supposed memoirs of Shostakovich, Solomon Volkov's Testimony - a book I loved in the 1990s, but about which there has been considerable debate as to whether it is "authentic and true, authentic and untrue, inauthentic and true, or inauthentic and untrue." It must be difficult, wouldn't you think, to write a biography or a history set in a place and time where practically every source is prone to omission, distortion, fabrication, self-justifying or self-aggrandizing deception, etc. And though I would like to have seen a few additional details (like how Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony of 1945, not even mentioned in this book, tweaked the expectation of a grand choral symphony celebrating the Allied victory by, instead, turning out to be a cute little Haydnesque trifle). But I have to admit that Anderson did his job just right, revealing just enough of his scholarship to remain credible while telling a true story that is almost too strange, too heartbreaking, too inspiring to be believed.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

12 Strong

This movie, based on Doug Stanton's book Horse Soldiers, dramatizes the first top-secret U.S. anti-terror mission in Afghanistan after 9/11/2001, in which 12 soldiers on horseback, led by a captain with no combat experience, called in air strikes to help a later vice-president of Afghanistan retake a strategic Taliban-held city - all within three weeks, and with no loss of American life. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, William Fichtner, and Navid Negahban of TV's "Homeland," along with other more or less familiar faces, it's an often exciting, sometimes grim, occasionally thoughtful and sensitive, look at war in "the graveyard of empires," with a bit of philosophy of being a warrior woven in, and a couple stomach-turning scenes of a radical Islamic mullah performing his shtick. My only complaint is the slightly anticlimactic form the horse soldiers' victory in Mazar-i-Sharif takes.

Because my recreational writing time is seriously limited, I'm going to confine this review to my customary "Three Scenes that Made It For Me": (1) Fitchner (as Col. Mulholland) interviews Hemsworth (as Capt. Mitch Nelson) for the job of leading the team. After bristling at Hemsworth's repeated, know-it-all interruptions, he surprisingly comments (ballpark quote): "Of the five guys I've seen for this job - and the other four have 100 years of combat experience between them - you're the only one who gets it." (2) Afghan Gen. Dostum (Negahban) deflects Nelson's demands to be kept in the loop about the tactical situations their men will be facing together, accusing him of being merely a "soldier" versus a "warrior." Later, when Dostum puts his rivalry with another warloard ahead of his anti-Taliban mission, Nelson throws it back in his face: "You're not a warrior. You're just a warlord." Ouch. (3) Something about the way Michael Shannon's character, being med-evac'ed by helicopter after receiving a sucking chest wound in a suicide bombing, watches his team gallop into action as his chopper flies away. The moment really grabbed me.

The Hero of Ages

The Hero of Ages
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 14+

The epic "Mistborn" trilogy concludes with this book in which phenomenally gifted couple Elend and Vin Venture race to find a clue to how to stop Ruin - roughly the god of entropy - from bringing their world to a swift and gruesome end. Vin, you may recall, was a street urchin who worked her way up to empress by dealing the death-blow to the Lord Ruler and his thousand-year Final Empire. By her side is Elend, formerly a soft, bookish, philosophical sort of young nobleman, who won her heart, claimed the throne, and developed the powers of a Mistborn, in that order. If you're having trouble with that Mistborn bit, see the previous novels Mistborn (a.k.a. The Final Empire) and The Well of Ascension; they'll bring you up to speed. Let's just say these two have a full collection awesome skills, based on the ability to burn certain metals in their stomach. Other allomancers (op. cit.), known as mistings, only have one of these metal-burning skills. But as we grow to understand in this book, there are other metal-based arts abroad in the world. We already know of feruchemy (the ability to store memories and other varieties of power in pieces of metal, such as rings and bracelets). Now we learn of a third discipline, called hemalurgy, which may blow your mind but is more likely to turn your stomach. It has to do with pounding spikes into people - but enough about that. Behind these powers looms a cosmic conflict between the forces, virtually gods, of Preservation and Ruin. And now Ruin has broken loose and appears to be on the verge of ending everything. It's possible no one can stop him, or it. But if anyone can, most people's bets would be on Elend and especially Vin, who seems after all to fulfill the ancient prophecies of the Hero of Ages.

The only person qualified to interpret those prophecies, however, is a feruchemist named Sazed, an expert in all the extinct religions of the pre-Lord Ruler world. Unfortunately, he has lost hold of his own faith, or perhaps he has lost the ability to believe in anything. His lack of belief is challenged in these last days of the world - challenged by a youth named Spook who, impossibly, develops new powers; challenged by the hopes that gather around a heroic figure, similar to the late Kelsier, whose revolution against the Lord Ruler started it all; challenged by the tidings of a shape-changing kandra who finally puts Sazed in touch with the last surviving members of his people's forgotten religion. But while Vin, Elend, Spook, Sazed, the kandra TenSoon, and other fascinating characters struggle to hold back the tide of Ruin, events are racing ahead of them. A vast army of giant blue berserkers is closing in on the last refuge of mankind. A badly outnumbered defense force stands between a dark god and its heart's desire. And to the very last, the whole truth about the mists that seem to be destroying all life remains elusive.

Whether the story ends in mass extinction or not, may be judged by the fact this trilogy is succeeded by an additional series of three books, starting with The Alloy of Law. How happy or unhappy the ending is, I wouldn't tell you for the world. All I will say, for now, is that it's a surprise of eye-popping, gosh-wow amazement, tying up the loose threads of a phenomenal piece of fantasy world-building. Allomancy, feruchemy, and hemalurgy seem to be an endlessly intriguing, at times disturbing, triad of interrelated magics. The story's richly-textured thought world does not shrink from questions of theology, from creation to destruction, from fanatical belief to cynical despair. Politics, military tactics, moral dilemmas, and relationship issues all see significant treatment. And of course, the combat scenes are out of sight. If you haven't read a book by Brandon Sanderson (such as Elantris or the "Reckoners" trilogy), you have only to read one to believe what I'm telling you: He is a storyteller who can make you forget the hand-cramps that come from holding a really heavy book for hours on end. I look forward to doing elbow curls with more of his books.