Monday, January 28, 2019

On the Bondage of the Will

On The Bondage of the Will
by Martin Luther
Recommended Ages: 14+

This is the book Martin Luther (not King Jr.) considered his own best work: a rebuttal to a diatribe by Erasmus of Rotterdam about "The Freedom of the Will." Luther basically takes the position that if any part of our salvation depends on what is in us (such as our free will), the sacrificial work of Christ is all for nothing. First Luther responds to Erasmus' attacks on his own (Luther's) position; then he systematically replies to what Eramsus has to say about the subject; then he lays out a positive argument for the bound will in a tour-de-force of biblical theology. I'm the last person who should sit in judgment of Luther's writing, his theology or his interpretation of scripture – apart from noting that at one or two points, he seems to make an argument favoring double predestination, though he elsewhere (even in this book) condemns that false doctrine. Instead, all I want to say about this book is to make a few suggestions that may be helpful to people who start trying to read it and who then find it difficult.

First: This book, which I read in the Wildside Press imprint, is based on Henry Atherton's 1931 edition, which in turn is based primarily on Henry Cole's 1823 translation with some unspecified emendations based on a slightly later translation by somebody or other named Vaughan. I don't know how reliable these Anglican scholars' witness is to the theology of Luther or whether the occasional phrase or sentence that smacks of Calvinism isn't an artifact of their editorial bias. But I will observe this: Part of the difficulty for readers of c.2019 making an attempt on this book is that most of us aren't used to reading English in the style of Jane Austen's period. An updated translation by someone who knows his way around Lutheran theology might be a step toward making this book more accessible to Grandma Smurf and Uncle Smedley of today's Shepherd of the Cornfield Lutheran Church.

Second: Apart from the prose style, which would not have fazed one of the Brontës, there is the small matter of the typesetting – which is so badly out of order, at least in this imprint, that I think it actually impedes the correct interpretation of the text. Placement and non-placement of commas seems to be out of whack. Perhaps this is another matter of the year So Much in the U.K. as opposed to today in the U.S., but I think it actually goes farther than that: There are sentences that seem to make more sense when you experiment with reading them otherwise than the way they are punctuated. Of course, starting over with a fresh translation would also clear this up, but at the very least, do this. Right. Now.

Third: Ignore the glib, smooth-talking voice on the Lutheran radio program who tells you what to think about this book without actually answering your questions about it, and who suggests starting with the last 50 pages (Luther's positive statement of his position) and then going back to the beginning. First reading Erasmus' diatribe may not be necessary or even recommended. But reading straight through from Luther's introduction to his conclusion actually pulls his case together nicely, as one point builds on another. My advice is not to agonize over it or linger upon passages that aren't immediately clear. My approach would be to read it fast, maybe scribble a note (like, a check mark in the margin) next to something you'll have a question about later, and get through it in three or four sittings without over-exerting yourself. Many things not immediately clear will become clearer from what follows later. Other things can come out in group discussion or conversation with someone who studied theology like (say) your pastor. More to the point: Don't sweat the details. The case Luther makes, in its broad strokes, is overwhelming enough. And if the after-parts to this book (the Wildside imprint, at least) have anything to tell us, it's that Luther was really remarkably restrained in his treatment of Erasmus in this treatise. His final conclusion was that Erasmus was really not a Christian at all, and the case he makes for that opinion is pretty convincing, too.

Three Movie Reviews

A Dog's Way Home – I think this is the third movie in the series that started with A Dog's Purpose, which I didn't see, although I read the book by W. Bruce Cameron that it was based on. Remembering the original book as a sentimental tear-jerker that would appeal to dog lovers, I dragged my parents to see this movie during a weekend visit with them. I think we all pretty much enjoyed it. This movie follows the progress of a dog named Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) who is sent away to stay with her owners' relatives while they look for a different place to live when she is falsely accused of being a pit bull – part of a corrupt campaign of retaliation against them by a developer they crossed and the animal control officers in his pocket. It also stars Ashley Judd as the mother of the college boy who belongs to Bella, and whom she tries to find again in a multi-year journey through the wilds of the Rockies. Along the way, she is mistaken for one guy's dog when she helps his actual dog dig him out after an avalanche buries him in snow; she runs with the dogs that beg for food at the back doors of restaurants, only to realize that each of her packmates has a human family to go home to; she almost gets adopted by a couple of nice guys, but he just isn't Lucas; she almost dies of thirst when a hobo chains her up and then kicks the bucket; she befriends a mountain lion cub and almost chooses to become its mom; and everything finally comes together in a stand-off at a veterans' home against a couple of improbably wicked dogcatchers.

Not a subtle movie, this. It has some nice scenery and good human and canine performances, though some of the animal business seems to have been handled with CGI. The connection between Bella and her boy Lucas is adorable. If I was expecting something quite as poignant as A Dog's Purpose, I was disappointed. But I don't recall feeling disappointed. Visually appealing, with a nice journey story-line for the hero dog and a hard-won happy ending, it left me nothing to complain about. Three things that made it for me: (1) The scene in which the avalanche guy rejects not only Bella, but his own dog after they both saved his life. Ouch. Sad as it is, a lot of the pathos in this scene is sold by dog body language. (2) The recurring theme of Bella being tempted to stay and become part of a family where she's at – both with another dog and with a wild cat. (3) Grizzled Wes Studi's resolution of the standoff with the gung-ho dogcatcher.

The Kid Who Would Be King - Louis Ashbourne Serkis, a son of Andy "Gollum" Serkis, headlines this film about a present-day London teen who comes to realize that he is destined to draw Excalibur from the stone and become the "future" part of the Once and Future King. Alex, not Arthur, is his name, and among his central circle of knights are a pudding of a boy named Bedders (Sir Bedivere, anyone), a girl named Kaye (only the girl part is a surprise) and a handsome bully named Lance (like, Lancelot, right?). The latter two are really sketchy converts to the cause, however. Together with a rather flamboyant teenage avitar of Merlin (dude lives backward in time, you know), who sometimes transforms into Patrick Stewart, they travel all the way to Tintagel in Cornwall to learn stuff Alex would rather not know. For example, his book of Arthurian legends, the obsession of his childhood, was not a gift from his mysterious, missing dad but from his mum, who wanted to protect him from knowing that his dad didn't spare a thought for him. In spite of disappointments along the way, however, Alex leads his sidekicks on a pretty successful quest, and they make it back to their school in time to head off an attack by Morgana and the forces of evil.

That's enough to go on with. Three things that made this movie for me: (1) The whole "defending the school" sequence, in which they somehow train the entire student body in swordplay in a couple of hours, while at the same time rigging the gym with anti-demon booby traps. (2) Alex belatedly explains everything to his mum, then proves it's all true by summoning the lady of the lake – in the bathtub. (3) The recipe for Merlin's power-restoring tonic. However, I must add one thing that somewhat un-made this movie for me: All that hand-jive stuff young Merlin does, way too many times during the movie, to execute spells. It really got irritating.

The Mule - Just when you think you can write off Clint Eastwood as a piece of film history, the nearly 90-year-old actor/director pulls this off. Supposedly based on a piece of journalism about an elderly man who smuggled Mexican cartel drugs under the noses of law enforcement before finally surrendering himself to the authorities, the movie is a grim, emotionally stifling spectacle from one end to the other. Clint plays a day lily enthusiast whose obsession has caused him to become estranged from his wife (Dianne Wiest) and their daughter (Clint's real-life daughter Alison Eastwood). Hoping to retrieve the good graces of his family by contributing to his granddaughter's wedding, he responds to a job offer that leads him to become a drug mule, driving a pickup truck to and fro across the country and not asking questions about who takes the drugs out and puts money in while the truck is parked overnight. At first things are going great. He buys a new truck, saves his day lily farm, gets his VFW local remodeled, impresses the fam. But all the while, he gets in deeper and deeper, becoming a trusted favorite of the cartel chief – just in time for a bloody change of management, which puts the old guy on the wrong side of the hombres in power. Meantime, the feds have a confidential informant, with whose help they are slowly closing in; and then Clint goes AWOL in the middle of a drug run to rush to his wife's bedside and hold her hand while she dies, which puts him rather between a rock and a hard place. His survival becomes the matter of supreme suspense, leading to something like a modern-day version of the bittersweet ending of a classic western, where the tough guy ends up all alone.

My dad and I had an argument after seeing this movie. There was a scene where the cartel guys caught up to Clint and were about to kill him, but when they realized why he had gone AWOL they questioned their orders and considered maybe just roughing him up, to teach him a lesson. Clint is all, "I'm ready to take my medicine." Then the scene cuts to him driving down the road with a truckload of drugs and getting caught by the law. Asked how he came to look so badly beaten, he says something like, "I only got what I deserved." I took this at face value: the cartel guys took pity on him and only gave him some bruises and scrapes, then let him continue on his run. My dad, however, is positive that "between the lines," Clint killed the cartel guys and that later, when he pleads guilty on all charges, the murder charges are due to their deaths. I just assumed the murder charges had to do with the court throwing everything at him because he was the only member of the cartel they had to charge with stuff; and if anyone dies in connection with a felony you're committing, you get charged as if you killed them. So, on at least this point, the film is open to multiple interpretations.

Also co-starring in the movie are Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Andy Garcia, Richard Herd and Loren Dean. Three scenes that made it for me: (1) The one in which Earl's (Clint E.) controller, who has gradually warmed to him, is basically forced to tell him they're not friends anymore in front of the new thugs who run the show. Perhaps meaningfully, they never see each other again. It puts salt on a previous scene in which Earl tells the young guy he should get out of the business and find something else that he loves to do. Too late for him, right? (2) The scene in which Clint bamboozles a Texas state trooper into leaving without interfering any further, after he stops him along with the two cartel guys tailing him and starts to give them a hard time. For a minute, you're sure the two Mexican guys are going to waste the trooper. They're pretty sure, too. (3) Clint sings at the wheel of his truck, not caring what the cartel guys who have him bugged think about it. I love the scene in which they start to sing along with him.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Two More Sixths

I spent some time during the weekend adding stanzas to my "Acrostic Psalm." In order to break up the tedium, I decided to split it into separate hymns of four or so stanzas each, each with its own tune. Here, therefore, are the Second Sixth with its appropriately titled, original tune; and the third, which I wrote in the sleepless wee hours of this morning, together with its own tune. Excuse me if it seems a little repetitive; but observe, Psalm 119 covers the same ground more than a few times. Also, one of my goals is to ensure that Law and Gospel are explicit in every stanza, just in case somebody chooses just one letter of the alphabet to deal with on some occasion or other.

265. Acrostic Psalm, Part II
Tune: SECOND SIXTH by moi, sometime this weekend.
Eternal Christ, who into time
Essayed to answer for our crime,
Ennobling, by incarnate grace,
Each facet of our fallen race:
Erase our sins of unbelief;
Ease, if You will, our time of grief;
Encourage us, by promise sure,
Earth’s fleeting sorrows to endure.

Firstborn of all the risen dead,
Fit us to live with You our Head:
Forgiven through the font’s dear flood;
Filled with Your body and Your blood.
Form us in faith: firm, fixed on You;
Forsaking false friends, not a few;
Frustrating foe and our frail flesh;
Freed from the grave each day afresh.

God, whose it is to bless or damn,
Garb us in Christ, Your spotless Lamb!
Grant us the grace, in faith to grow;
Ground it on You whose love we know.
Guide, who proceeds eternally,
Gird us in Your full panoply;
Guard us along the way, till we
Gaze on Your glory openly.

Hope of the sinner, Lord of life,
Help us resist the hour of strife.
Heal that disease which faith’s eye dims,
Halts holy hands, hamstrings our hymns.
Have mercy on the sinner – yes,
Hide us in Your own righteousness;
Hence will we in Your footprints live,
Held fast by ev’ry gift You give.

266. Acrostic Psalm, Part III
Tune: IMMENSE IMMORTAL, by the same guy as before, around 3 a.m. today.
Immense Immortal, for our need
Into our flesh You came, indeed:
If God imbibes our nature thus,
Is any ill designed for us?
Impress on us Your image, Lord,
Implanted by Your living word;
Imbued with life, let us at length
Invest death’s doors of iron strength.

Jehovah, whose discerning flame
Job felt throughout his wretched frame:
Judge not by what our hands have done,
Jet though our deeds be, every one.
Join justice to the love that sent
Jesus, our cause to represent;
Joy, therefore, may we feel within,
Justly absolved of ev’ry sin.

King of creation, clothed in light,
Keen to be known, yet hid from sight:
Knock on our hearts, that we may find
Ken of Your favor, free and kind.
Keep from us all that smacks of sin;
Kit us in You, our pride, our kin.
Key our replying anthem, when
Kiss we the Son and cry, Amen!

Lamb, who for us was pierced with pain,
Laid in the dust, yet lives again:
Lend light upon our darkened way,
Lest loss and lowness lead astray.
Let smiling lip and laugh return;
Loose heart and mind, that we may learn
Love for the lot of last and least,
Lord, till we see Your longed-for feast.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

264. Hymn for the Liturgy

Here is another addition to my ongoing work-in-progress, EDIFYING HYMNS, with a suitably smells-and-bells-inspired tune in the Mixolydian mode. While I'm mentioning it, I'm wondering if anyone will notice the musical symbol, or one might say musical joke, that I embedded in my tune ABECEDARIAN the other day. Extra credit if you did before I mentioned it just now.

Tune: LEITOURGIA, written last night with the hymn itself.
Lord, who above all heavens dwell
Respecting neither offering’s smell,
Nor burning light, nor clanging bell:
Take pity on our hopeful fear;
By word and sacrament draw near
And tabernacle with us here.

As we in prayer and praise unite,
Let all our rev’rence, all our rite
Be pleasing in Your gracious sight;
Attentive ears and voices grant
Unto the words we say or chant,
Nor let them firm conviction want.

Before Your grave, majestic law
We quail, just God, in guilty awe.
Lest the accuser cry “Aha”
In haste our souls like wheat to sift,
Your gospel send on pinions swift,
That we clean hands and hearts might lift.

What we repeat and what is new
Lead us to draw alike from You,
Distinguishing the false from true:
Yet, knowing what we oft repeat
Is welded in with holy heat,
Let us account that doubly sweet.

What we receive from saints of old,
Help us with humble hearts to hold,
As we would cherish precious gold.
Their witness keep within our reach
Where they are faithful, apt to teach;
Thus each age ministers to each.

What we present as sacrifice
Accept as but Your due, O Christ,
Who once paid our redemption price.
Yet let us ever fix our view
Upon the purer gifts that You
Extend to us, each morning new.

Now, God, whose works of old attest
That what You give is always best,
Be active on this day of rest.
Redeem this time; this space defend,
Dear Father, Son and Spirit; send
Your light and peace, world without end.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Hymn and a Sixth

I've been having somewhat of a hymn-writing dry spell lately. Last night, prompted by an opportunity to compose and arrange an original hymn tune for another Lutheran poet, I opened the work-in-progress EDIFYING HYMNS for, I believe, the first time since early August. Meantime, I had scribbled down the beginnings of two original hymns. So, I completed one of them and whipped up original tunes for both. First, the one I finished; then, the one I still have some work to do on. I reckon I have five-sixths of Hymn 263 to write yet. It's an attempt at something like Psalm 119.

262. Hymn on the Efficacy of God's Word
Tune: EFFICACY, written last night by Yours Truly.
God is not dead, nor does He sleep,
Nor from His purpose turns aside,
Nor lies, nor jests, nor idly speaks;
What He affirms is not denied.
What He commands, straightway is done,
Pledged on His dear, eternal Son.

God’s word is strong, active, alive,
Speaking the darkness into light;
It both can heal and can divide,
Kindling faith and shaming sight.
Let reason sneer, law’s bailiff brood;
God’s foolishness is true and good.

God opens hearts, calling to faith;
God speaks through men and calls to men,
Bringing to life relics of death,
Making the broken whole again.
What He calls clean is clean indeed;
Likewise forgiven, favored, freed.

God’s word can do; it will suffice:
Trust it to do the Spirit’s will.
Use but the means that God supplies;
All that He vows, He will fulfill.
All that He has, already Yours,
Thereby into Your hands He pours.

263. Acrostic Hymn
Tune: ABECEDARIAN, also written last night by Moi.
Almighty God in heaven above,
Answer our cry with faithful love.
Account our cause before Your throne
According to Your holy Son.
As He descended to our state,
Anointed with the sinner’s fate,
All who by faith are grafted in
Are thereby reckoned free of sin.

Bend down with mercy in this hour
Before we perish by the pow’r
Beëlzebul, with thousand pranks,
Brings forth against Your City’s ranks.
Build up Her walls with words of strength;
Breathe peace throughout their height and length;
Bless them who, girded for the fray,
Bear arms in spirit night and day.

Cause angels from the realm of light,
Chaste warriors, to aid our fight.
Commit, as well, through storm and calm,
Clay vessels, charged with healing balm;
Call servants, feeble though they be,
Christ’s little lambs to oversee,
Correcting those who go astray,
Cleansed, fed and guided on Your way.

Delude the enemies who would
Destroy our peace, pollute our good;
Derange the counsels that devise
Deception in the gospel’s guise.
Defend the faithful, who defy
Denial of Your name most high;
Deliver us from all distress,
Decked daily in Your righteousness.

Monday, January 7, 2019


Jason Momoa, late of Baywatch and Stargate: Atlantis, debuted as Aquaman in last year's Justice League. He seemed to be right for the role, and this film confirmed it while earning the dubious distinction of sucking less than the previous handful of Marvel and DC movies. I really quite enjoyed most of it, and a lot of its imagery sticks in my head. There are some gorgeous fantasy-world vistas under the ocean, terrific creatures, rip-roaring fight scenes and, of course, the unreconstructed masculinity of Jason Momoa to deal with. When he cracks a smile, or at least smiles with his eyes, he goes the distance that Black Panther never can (i.e., showing even the slightest evidence of a sense of humor). He takes a serious beating and keeps going. He breathes air and water, whichever is most convenient at the time. He bridges two seemingly unbridgeable worlds, and steps up to protect the one (above the waves) against the other (deep below). He holds the screen against such acting powerhouses as Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman, not to mention the voices of Julie Andrews, John Rhys-Davies and Djimon Hounsou, perhaps more by an excess of charisma than by qualitative acting ability. He also gets to play around with such stars as Amber Heard (Zombieland, Pineapple Express), Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Insidious), Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV, Johnny Mnemonic) and Michael Beach (Third Watch). He battles a high-tech villain named Manta, challenges his own half-brother for the throne of a powerful underwater nation, survives attacks by swarms of creatures that amply illustrate how savage sea life can be, and succeeds in a quest to recover the McGuffin that entitles him to command everything that swims in saltwater. It would really be awesome if... if... well, if 40 percent of it wasn't so obviously computer-animated.

Tip: We're not as dumb as we look. Movie audiences can still tell whether we're watching something shot with live action, with lots of special effects layered on, or something entirely conjured inside a computer. And stuff entirely conjured in a computer just isn't as interesting to watch. Massive swarms of characters moving within a huge canvas just isn't that much fun to see. Epic battles stop feeling epic after less time than you think. Take note, DC Studios. Put everything that had live action in it on one side of the scales, and everything that had CGI in the other side, and I don't know how it balances out frame-for-frame but in terms of entertainment vs. boredom, this whole movie was pretty much a wash. Sorry! And I mean it. Because if you took some of that battle extravaganza out, I actually think this would be a more watchable movie with the added attraction of not being quite so trying on my 46-year-old bladder.

Also, Manta could have stood to be a more serious threat. Really, having two different boss conflicts going on in the story is probably what ultimately hurts this movie the most.

Three scenes that made it for me: (1) Arthur Curry's (Aquaman) battle with Black Manta in Sicily, complete with rooftop-running exploits, explosions, real estate damage and serious injuries on both sides. (2) The Sahara desert interlude, including an interesting way to exit an airplane and a Raiders of the Lost Ark moment in an abandoned, underground city. (3) The flashback scenes in which Dafoe trains a younger Arthur to give him a fighting chance to claim his destiny under the sea.

I'm not guaranteeing that I'll see a sequel to this, if there is one. I make no promises that I will faithfully follow any film franchise that runs to multiple numbers. Sometimes I tune in; many times I don't. I would, however, be interested in an Aquaman sequel if there was credible buzz about it improving on the deficiencies noted above.

The Chaos King

The Chaos King
by Laura Ruby
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this sequel to The Wall and the Wing, Georgie has a bit of trouble adjusting to the change from being an unwanted orphan to the richest girl in the universe. She has her rare ability to turn invisible, but the boy she cares about has let his fame as a Wing – someone who can fly – go to his head. Though Bug doesn't really enjoy all the perks of being the airborne equivalent of a star athlete, he goes along with everything his agent says because he has to. But he doesn't understand why things aren't working out with Georgie. Meanwhile, she has to face the other girls at an elite school where, it should be no surprise, a girl who went from unwanted orphan to richest girl in the universe isn't kindly looked on. The loneliness of these two kids, and the bad feelings that come between them, are enough to stir the reader's sympathy, even before they get embroiled in a mystery involving a social clique of bored vampires, giant extinct creatures coming inexplicably to life, stone lions that stalk the basement of the public library, secret passages, double agents, an avant-garde art show that goes completely mad, and a seemingly all-powerful villain who has evil designs upon reality as we know it. Or rather, as Georgie and Bug know it, in their somewhat magical alternate world.

Georgie finds a girl who she thinks understands what she's going through, but she ends up disappointed. A homeless man with an army of cats finds himself on the run from a deadly enemy. Plots and counterplots, violent attacks and hostage situations, monstrous rampages and heroic saves, and embarrassing moments captured by news cameras (or worse, missed by them) change the fortunes of the two hero kids, test their ability to rely on each other, and begin to reveal deeper feelings in a story that seems to beg for another installment – though, more than a decade later, none has materialized.

Laura Ruby has also written the two "York" books (The Shadow Cipher and The Clockwork Ghost), plus several other books including Lily's Ghosts, I'm Not Julia Roberts, The Boy Who Could Fly, Bone Gap and, due to be released later this year, Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All.

The Last Kids on Earth

The Last Kids on Earth
by Max Brallier
illustrated by Douglas Holgate
Recommended Ages: 11+

During a fit of not being able to stand looking at their covers on the book rack at Walmart any longer, I bought this book and the previously reviewed Pottymouth and Stoopid one day and read them both before the day was out. Speaking of this book in particular, it was a fun, fast-paced diversion with amusing illustrations about a group of kids fighting to survive the zombie-and-monster apocalypse that has otherwise wiped out their town. The hero group includes a sometime foster kid named Jack, who now lives full-time in a treehouse; his nerdy best friend Quint, who has been studying different kinds of monsters and developing sciency weapons to use on them; school bully Dirk, who used to terrorize them, but who turns out to be a good guy to have on your side when school's out forever; June, the girl Jack has had a crush on since he came to town, and who turns out not to need as much saving as he'd hoped; and Rover, a devil dog who becomes kind of a pet. Together, they must survive swarms of brain-eating ghouls, giant mutant creatures and, biggest and baddest of all, the uncannily canny Blarg.

Told in a format that freely shifts between straight text and graphic novel panels, the story mines thrills and laughs both from Jack's adventures and from the way he imagines them, and himself, as more in line with a comic book hero's exploits. He doesn't let the fact that he's just a kid armed with little more than sports equipment get him down – at least, not for long. The promise of more to come is a welcome one, as the series starting with this book continues with The Zombie Parade, The Nightmare King, The Cosmic Beyond and, due out later this year, The Midnight Blade.

Brallier is also the author of such middle school readers' titles as Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? and its sequel Highway to Hell, The Galactic Hot Dogs trilogy (second book: The Wiener Strikes Back), two Lego Nexo Knights Academy books, and some humorous nonfiction such as Reasons to Smoke and Reasons to Drink. Under the pen-name Jack Chabert, he has also written 10 books in the Eerie Elementary series. Holgate, who hails from Australia, is also the illustrator of Something's Amiss at the Zoo.

Pottymouth and Stoopid

Pottymouth and Stoopid
by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
illustrated by Stephen Gilpin
Recommended Ages: 10+

As a rule, I don't read books of the type in which James Patterson receives top billing as author, followed by some other writer, usually listed in a smaller typeface. Patterson is only one of a handful of authors to whom this rule applies – authors who have allowed their names to become a brand and who, I rather imagine, did less of the actual writing of most of those books than the less famous writer operating in their shadow. The book racks at Walmart and your neighborhood supermarket tend to offer more of this type of book than any other except, perhaps, those cheesy romance novels whose selling point is the hunky guy depicted on their covers. I might be induced, someday, to peruse the books actually written by James Patterson, Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton; in fact, I've already read one or two by those last two guys. But on principle, I try very hard to avoid books whose big-font author is, for all I know, a front for a sweat-shop talent factory in which almost all the work is done by someone who isn't getting the credit they deserve. Also, there's a legitimate concern that the quality of the work may not be very high, since, on the one hand, you may wonder why it needs a great big brand name stuck on it to make it sell, and, on the other hand, the brand is coming out with new products at such a rapid pace that quality control must suffer.

Now I've gotten that off my chest, I'll give you a hint why I bothered to read this book. One reason is that I was frankly curious. I guess the cover art, and the fact that it was always there when I looked at the book rack at a particular store for months on end, made me wonder. Another reason is that the second-billing author, Chris Grabenstein, is one whose books (credited to him alone) I have already read and enjoyed. So, I gave it a shot. But don't expect me to start spewing reviews of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" or "Middle School Diaries" production line. Not gonna happen.

It is, after all, a nice little book, in an unusual niche between a chapter book and a graphic novel, with lots of illustrations and even bits of dialogue in the form of comic panels. (The Last Kids on Earth had something similar going on.) It features a pair of misadventure-prone, lifelong buddies who, from the first day of kindergarten on, are bullied by their classmates, teachers and even their principal. Nobody calls them by their real name, but always by a couple of hurtful nicknames that, in spite of their mean-spirited intent, everyone comes to assume is all right. Then the deadbeat dad of one of the boys pitches the most hurtful version of their life story to the Cartoon Network, and animated characters based on them become an overnight TV sensation. This doesn't make things any easier for David and Michael – especially when their bullies realize that they, too, are being ridiculed on TV. Only when the media catches on to the fact that David and Michael are the real-life Pottymouth and Stoopid do things start to turn around.

This book isn't outrageously funny, but it has a nice streak of gentle humor that lightens up the touching and often sad story of two boys who can't help being a little different. They are lovable, distinctive characters. As for the talent displayed in this book, I really think Chris Grabenstein and Stephen Gilpin should have been trusted to carry it to success without sticking a great big James Patterson seal of soulless commercialism on it. Most of Grabenstein's numerous titles come under the Patterson umbrella, but Patterson's umbrella shelters so many other ghost writers that it's hard to believe he had much to do with them personally. Meantime, Grabenstein solo-authored the John Ceepak, Christopher Miller, Haunted Mystery, Mr. Lemoncello and Welcome to Wonderland series, The Explorer's Gate and The Island of Dr. Libris, as well as some Christmas-themed short stories and a play for children. Gilpin, meanwhile, has also illustrated at least some of the books in the Super Chicken Nugget Boy, Gecko and Sticky, and A-Z Mysteries series, as well as other children's books and comics, including Fart Squad and What to Do When You're Sent to Your Room. I've just looked through some of his catalog, and they're exactly the kind of pictures I want to look at when I'm feeling like a kid.