Monday, January 31, 2022

Maxwell Cooper and the Legend of Inini-Makwa

Maxwell Cooper and the Legend of Inini-Makwa
by Simon Hargreaves
Recommended Ages: 14+

This tale of magic goes where others fear to go when, in the very first paragraph, 14-year-old Max gets a stiff, er, attack of puberty in science class and has his first wet dream only a few paragraphs later. You suspect that pubescence is somewhat of the essence of the magical power the young aspiring artist begins to show soon afterward, during a family retreat to a lakeside resort in the middle of a remote forest. Maybe it's also connected to the fact that Max was born under the most powerful Southern Lights the native midwives of a South American tribe could remember ever seeing, and that this year's Northern Lights are unusually active as well. Or the fact that Bear Tooth Point is steeped in the folklore of an ancient tribal people who believe that the barrier between this world and the spirit world grows especially thin there. Any or all of these issues may be in play when a monster that stalked the point ages ago returns and begins attacking campers at the resort. And Max becomes increasingly convinced that it's all his fault.

Everything being Max's fault is nothing new. He doesn't get along well with his father, who doesn't approve of the fantasy art Max loves to draw. His parents are always fighting. His kid brother Ben often strays into danger, always when Max is responsible for what happens to him. There's a girl he likes at the resort, but he doesn't understand the signals she keeps sending him. And of course, his charcoal pencil has somehow started summoning things into reality, including one that deeply resents being summoned. A thing that kidnaps people and sometimes (gulp) kills them. With each abduction, it gets closer to the person it's really after. And as Max slowly accepts what's going on, he begins to face the awful knowledge that he may have to sacrifice himself to save everyone else.

I'm putting out Adult and Occult Content Advisories for this book, with its frank depiction of a crucial moment in Max's sexual development and a fictionalized version of Native American spirituality. I recuse myself from discussing any political implications of the (apparently) Anglo author's use of Indigenous themes; personally, I care about that less than the question of how Christian parents will prepare their children for the religious challenges in this book. However, I'll admit that whatever misgivings I held in the back of my mind, I found this book entirely entertaining out in front. It could be improved to a slight degree; for example, I felt the author backed down a bit too conveniently from the conflict between Max and his dad, and left his mom looking pretty useless. Also, something in Ben's character changed at the end, for perhaps understandable reasons, but I thought this change needed more exploration. Maybe the author is holding back material for a possible sequel; the fact that the title begins with "Maxwell Cooper and" tends to hint that way.

So much for the cons. On the "pro" side lies pretty much everything else, from a level of descriptive detail about the way Max views and draws the world around him that suggests the author knows something about the artist's eye, to a grim depiction of toxic relationship dynamics that at one point, at least, hints at the father's failings being passed on to his son. It has a very flawed hero who rises to the occasion with courage and self-sacrificing heroism. It has dark atmospherics, scary violence and relentless suspense. And it juggles a lot of subtle characters and complex relationships, without dropping any. Another thing I admire is the author's smart approach to storytelling, setting you up to expect one thing to happen and then thwarting the expectation – a practice I've admired in some of my favorite writers. Whether this turns out to be a series or not, the book gives me a hopeful feeling about a fresh talent emerging from my own backyard.

This book's author lives a couple towns away from me and runs a resort in the Paul Bunyan State Forest, the thinly disguised setting of the book. (The names of the county and nearby towns mentioned in the book are only lightly altered from the places I know.) I hope it's OK for me to reveal that his name is actually Ryan Neely and that he sent me a pre-publication proof of his book to read before I interview him for a local newspaper. According to his website, he is also the author of a series of books featuring characters named Darwin and Danforth, and he specializes in "supernatural suspense for kids" – a bill this book definitely fits. Also, it says he studied photography, digital animation and creative writing, and has worked as a private investigator and on Hollywood film sets. He has also published mature, adult fiction as Bethany Fine.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Not to toot my own horn, but ...

I received my first solo, first-place award from my state's journalism association yesterday. After about seven years as a newspaper writer, it's pretty encouraging. It's in the category of human interest stories for multi-day newspapers with a circulation of 5,000 or less, and the story for which I won it was about a local young man who died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and, after his remains were finally identified, came home to be buried last summer.

It was a beautiful thing to experience, and the story practically wrote itself, although it was also a lot of work. The words people said while I was there to record them were beautiful; I just had to put them down on paper. The many photos I shot may have also been a factor in my win, but again, they were only great photos because of the wonderful images I was there to witness. Far from being a brilliant photographer, I actually fell flat on my back while shooting a military jet flyover and consider myself lucky to have gotten a sharp image.

I was fortunate to get the assignment at all because, in a previous article about the same family, I was actually filling in for another reporter who did the initial work before being sidelined by an injury. Again, I did most of the work, but it wouldn't have even been my story if it hadn't been for my co-worker's painful accident. So there's a humbling side to this story, despite the fact that this is the highest recognition I've received so far as an individual reporter.

Mind you, I had received a second-place award from the Missouri Press Association, back when I worked at a newspaper in Missouri. Of course that's "second place in my newspaper's weight class," which is to say, weekly papers in its rather low circulation range. I believe it was for an editorial I wrote around my coverage of a murder trial in which the victim was a small child, an emotionally crushing experience. That same year, I think, I also won a second-place National Newspaper Association award for a human interest story about a local bar owner who up and poured out all his opened bottles of alcohol on the parking lot because he was disgusted with people wearing open-carry guns while sitting on his barstools. I worked on that paper for three-and-a-half years and I think those were the only MPA or NNA awards I got, partly because the ownership of the paper changed and the new owner wasn't interested in promoting work done under the previous publisher's watch.

A couple years ago, and a couple years after I moved to my current newspaper, I shared a first-place Minnesota Newspaper Association award with two other reporters (again, in our somewhat larger weight class for a multi-day weekly). It was for social issues reporting, in a special issue in which each of us contributed stories about school bullying. That year, our newspaper carried home three MNA awards (also including a 2nd and a 3rd place). The next year, which was last year, I think our editor won something and that was about it. This year, my award was the only one our newspaper got.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to collect the certificate in person, because the MNA convention was held in the Twin Cities area and they're having a COVID surge there, so our company advised its employees against going. Still, like I said, I appreciate the encouragement to continue making a contribution to quality local news coverage.

Friday, January 21, 2022

315. Blessedness Hymn

I heard a funeral sermon on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) yesterday, and it got me thinking about an idea for yet another hymn on that text – though, I believe, I've covered it twice before. Of course I want to put the kind of spin on the Beatitudes that points to Christ and, through Him, to the faithful; but I also wanted specifically to contrast what Christ calls blessed to what the world thinks. In other words, theology of the cross vs. theology of glory. Stand by for an update when I decide what tune to put it to.
You may have heard it said
What blessedness entails,
By human judgment led
To weigh with worldly scales;
But now believe instead
The Word who never fails:
Who triumphed as He bled
And rose, still marked by nails.

Men say the truly blest
Lay up an outward store;
But Christ's approval rests
On those in spirit poor.
With nothing in their hand
But sin's indicting stain,
Theirs is the promised land
Where priestly princes reign.

Men say the blest feel cheer,
A right heart's just reward,
And on a conscience clear
The oil of joy is poured.
But Christ says those who mourn
Find comfort in their grief:
His cross, whose way men scorn,
A beacon for belief.

Men say the blest are bold
And glow with righteous pride,
While Christ, for silver sold,
Went quietly and died.
Nay, rather 'tis the meek
He styles the heirs of earth:
Who turn the other cheek
And bear the mocker's mirth.

Men say 'tis blest to eat
And drink till one is filled;
Yet Christ, His work complete,
Felt thirst as He was killed.
Full righteousness He brings
To those who for it pine;
Those whom that hunger stings
Will in His kingdom dine.

Men say 'tis blest to see
Sharp judgment on one's foes
And vindicated be,
Repaid for all one's woes.
But Christ says those are blest
Who full of mercy live;
For they know mercy best,
Forgiv'n as they forgive.

Men say the blest are clean
By every outward norm:
Kept from all things obscene,
They hew to custom's form.
Christ says the pure in heart
Will view God's very face,
Who sees the inward part
And justifies by grace.

Men say the sons of light
Are armed by tithe and fast
To carry on the fight,
Resisting to the last.
The blest in Christ make peace
As He has made for them,
Proclaiming their release
From all things that condemn.

Men speak as man's eye sees,
A glory way in view.
God's wisdom disagrees;
And what He says is true.
Though you may bear a cross
For Jesus' righteousness,
Rejoice, despite all loss:
He will not fail to bless.

EDIT: You might have noticed that the rhyme scheme didn't turn out to be what you would have expected based on the first stanza, with only two rhymes per eight-line stanza. I'd like to say "that just goes to this hymn's theme of things not being what they seem at first look," but yeah, I chickened out. Feel free to tell people the story that makes me look smart, though.

EDIT AGAIN: Here's a tune I whipped up for this hymn, though it could also be sung to John Stainer's BLESSED HOME, or DENBY, or certain versions of ICH HALTE TREULICH STILL and MEIN SCHÖPFER STEH MIR BEI.

Monday, January 17, 2022

One Shot

One Shot
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 15+

Fourteen years ago, a U.S. Army sniper named James Barr went a little crazy and killed four people in cold blood on a street in Kuwait City. The victims turned out, by sheer luck, to have been bad guys, and the whole incident was swept under the rug. But Jack Reacher, then a captain in the Military Police, swore to Barr that if he didn't keep his nose clean, Reacher would track him down and bury him.

So when the news breaks that a sniper just opened fire on a crowd in a small Indiana city and all the evidence points to James Barr, Reacher hops on a bus with the clear intent to keep his promise. Only something is just a bit off. Barr actually asked for him – practically the only words he spoke since being arrested. He hasn't confirmed or denied anything, but the evidence is overwhelming. And that's before he gets beaten within an inch of his life in the town jail and wakes up with amnesia reaching back to the day of the shooting and beyond. Normally, Reacher wouldn't mind seeing a man like Barr hang for such a crime. But until days before the shooting – the last Barr can remember – he really seemed to have reformed, and the thought of shooting a bunch of innocent people hadn't entered his mind. And the way the shooting went down, it's as if Barr was purposely laying a trail of evidence to ensure that he'd get caught.

Most suspicious of all, almost as soon as Reacher arrives, shady characters start following him and setting up situations to mess with him, apparently thinking (ha, ha) that he'll get scared off and leave town. This only makes him think there must be more going on than the obvious. That maybe James Barr didn't act alone. That maybe he was coerced or manipulated somehow – like by a threat to his sister, the only person he cares about. That maybe someone actually helped arrange the clues that point to Barr. Or maybe, that out of the six shots the sniper fired, there was one shot that really mattered.

Contrary to what the bad guys suppose, messing with Reacher doesn't inspire him to back off. Killing an innocent person and trying to frame him for it just ticks him off and ensures that, at the very least, he'll try to bury them along with Barr. As he goes after the puppet master behind the killings, Reacher and a small group of confederates search for a connection between one of the victims and anyone with a motive to kill them and make it look like a random act, and the power and viciousness to orchestrate such a deadly ruse. Finding them isn't really all that hard. But the part that will keep the suspense simmering until the last few pages is how Reacher and Co. will get to them without being gotten first, when the bad guys' lair is surrounded by a perfect killing ground and they have an inside guy in local law enforcement.

This is the ninth of 24 Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, not counting ones lately ghost-written by his brother Andrew Child (a.k.a. Andrew Grant). It's a series you can read out of canon/publication order, luckily, because I'm nowhere close to reading the books in the correct sequence. But yeah, you know Reacher's going to win. That doesn't take away from the tension, the thrills, and the mystery that starts with you knowing exactly whodunit and then proceeds to surprise you anyway. And if you've read even as few of these books as I have (this is the 11th for me) you'll expect there to be a lot of extreme violence in this contest of wills, between a bad guy with a well-honed talent for survival and a good guy with an knack for death and destruction. And talk about sending a guy to do the impossible? It's Reacher with a borrowed cell phone and a combat knife against a half-dozen hardened killers with guns and surveillance equipment, all aimed at a landscape with nowhere to hide. Despite the odds, he isn't the one you'll be worried for. Being on the wrong side of Reacher isn't a safe or healthy way to live. But as this book shows once again, having him between you and the enemy can give you, like, one shot.

Monday, January 10, 2022

American Underdog

Sports movies almost always get me emotionally, which is weird because I'm not much into sports. But show me Field of Dreams, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, Miracle, and lo, many more whose names I could rattle off, and I always get choked up and teary-eyed. American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story was no exception, when I saw it last night at the local movie house. And it gave me the added pleasure of glimpsing my former city, St. Louis – still the place I've lived longer than anywhere else, even seven years after leaving – although the story reaches its climax (the 2000 Super Bowl) before I moved there. Nevertheless, I was able to (kind of) answer a fellow audience member's question about the story. There's a scene where starting QB Trent Green goes down with a knee injury and the lady thought he had been killed. I was able to reassure her that, at a later date, when I was living in Kansas City, Trent Green played football there (and, indeed, he went back to play in St. Louis again, years later, and is alive to this day.)

Even that (Trent Green's later career in KC) was before my time in SL, so clearly what moved me about this movie wasn't any particular crossover with my life or the fact that I followed the story when it happened (which I didn't). It's not even, particularly, the blandly Christian spirituality portrayed by the movie, as it depicts Kurt and Brenda Warner's spiritual struggles as their fortunes rose and fell; or rather, fell and rose. I can't even claim to really understand the appeal of watching football, let alone playing it, though I've done a tiny bit of both (way, way back). I think what really grabbed me about this movie was the instant bond that formed when Kurt Warner, still a college football player having a tough time getting off the bench, paid a surprise visit to his future wife's house after sparks flew between the two at a barn dance, and her blind, brain-damaged son pulled him into the house, made him lie down next to him on the bathroom floor, and sang "You and me goin' fishin' in the dark" along with the radio. You could see this big jock falling instantly in love with a mentally handicapped kid and you just knew they were going to be a family, and watching that happen meant more to me emotionally than whatever football heroics Warner managed to pull off.

And yes, he pulled of some serious stuff. Despite not being drafted by an NFL team – despite languishing for four years in poverty, trying to support his family with a job at Hy-Vee and later, settling for a stint in the Arena Football League – he ended up becoming a starting quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, league MVP, Super Bowl MVP, the first quarterback ever to win the Super Bowl in his first year in the NFL, the first undrafted quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and breaking Joe Montana's record for passing plays in a Super Bowl game; and it wasn't the only Super Bowl he won, either. Successful, 12-year career, yadda yadda, all very nice, but the real underline goes under the bit where he and Brenda raised seven kids and her oldest, whom Kurt eventually adopted, is still doing great.

You feel glad that the guy proved himself despite everyone laughing at the idea of him leading an NFL team; you feel a share in the pride of the people who knew him at his lowest, and during his rise, when they see him eking greatness out of a seemingly hopeless situation; but in the last analysis, what gets you (and by you, I mean me) choked up, and keeps you up thinking about it all night afterward, is the part where an ungoverned man-child gets caught by a divorced woman and her two kids and becomes the man and the dad they need. The little kid's note to "Daddy Kurt" before his first game as an NFL starter opens the floodgates, if they haven't burst already, by recalling to mind their whole journey as a family in a few, loving words.

Besides these Kurt-becomes-a-daddy scenes (and there are a few others in that arc that I haven't mentioned), here are the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Kurt tries to propose to Brenda, but she says "yes" before he can finish. (2) In general, the football scenes that mercifully, and effectively, compress hours of tedious back-and-forth to the big plays where Warner either gets sacked, or throws and interception, or (increasingly often) nails the receiver. (3) His man-to-man talk with Brenda's father in the garage, challenging Kurt to man up and make a commitment to the family.

I could name a bunch of others. I enjoyed pretty much the whole movie, including the sad parts (like Brenda's parents' sudden fate), the frustrating parts (like Kurt's brief stint with the Green Bay Packers), the grim and gray parts (like when they're so broke they can't pay their electric bill and Kurt has to run several miles in the snow to buy a can of fuel to put in their empty gas tank), and yes, even a sequence where Kurt and Brenda break up. Ouch. But even I knew, to a certain point, that things turned out all right in the end; watching it actually do so is very satisfying, and seeing a picture of the Warners' big family really is the big payoff.

Playing the Warners themselves are Zachary Levi of Chuck and Shazam and Anna Paquin of The Piano, X-Men, Almost Famous and True Blood. It also features supporting turns by Dennis Quaid, Adam Baldwin and Bruce McGill.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

UH does YouTube: G

Again, here's an opportunity to hear more or less how I hear some of the tunes from Useful Hymns in my mind's ear, give or take bad sound quality due to sub-par equipment. This time, they're the stretch of tune index whose names start with G.







UH does YouTube: F

Here are piano recordings of another group of hymn tunes (names beginning with F) from Useful Hymns, which you can buy here if you like. Please don't judge based on the quality of my cellphone-and-electric-piano recordings, however.







Thursday, January 6, 2022

Tacky Hymns 99

We continue our run-through of Christian Worship: Hymnal (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2021), I repeat:
Please understand the following three "types" of comments for which I'm interested in singling out hymns for special mention. "Type 1" means I wish the editors had shown better taste than to include such-and-such in the book, because it clashes with the decor (i.e. doctrine and spiritual culture) of an intentionally Lutheran church body. "Type 2" is just a point of trivia that I want to raise, like "what an interesting choice of a tune to go with this hymn," etc.; not necessarily an example of tackiness, as such. "Type 3" is the reverse of tackiness: a hymn so marvelous that its appearance in CWH shows up other hymnals that don't include it. (Also, let's assume references are "Type 3" unless otherwise specified, and "tacks" are awarded on a five-tack scale of tackiness.)
We resume with the "Witness" section.

741 (Types 2-3) is "We have a gospel to proclaim" by Edward J. Burns, "alt." – not the actor who was in Saving Private Ryan, and nor the former Roman Catholic bishop of Dallas (who actually shares the poet's middle name, Joseph), but rather an Anglican priest – who does a good job in this hymn (give or take the help of "alt.") in actually saying what the gospel is that we have to proclaim; which is more than one can say for most mission hymns. It's basically a creed hymn, set to the catchy tune WALTON sometimes attributed to Beethoven. CWH calls the tune GERMANY; there are other books that call it FULDA; and its most credible source is William Gardiner's Sacred Melodies of 1815. Other hymns you might associate with it include "Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts" and "Where cross the crowded ways of life."

743 (Types 1-2) is "I hear the Savior calling" by John C. Lawrenz, set to the tune ANTHES (named after its composer), which you might associate with "Come unto Me, you weary" or "Today Thy mercy calls us." I don't care for Lawrenz's subjective, first-person language, his equivocal faffing with the concept of "calling" or vocation (which, depending on how this hymn is used, could blur the line between the pastoral vocation and that tired old "everyone a minister" twaddle), stanza 4's strange phrasing that "He changes hearts for me" (literally the last person Jesus does that for) and its business about "from door to door I witness," which reads 1970s evangelism programs back into the Great Commission. And of course, the last stanza plays the "souls are dying" card; but nowhere (except that strange line in stanza 4) is there a whiff of the efficacy of the word or (saving one line in stanza 2) what the gospel actually is. 3 tacks.

744 (Type 1) is "Rise, shine, you people," about which I previously commented at length. At that time, however, I didn't say anything about the tune (Dale Wood's WOTKIEWIECZ), which I can say, as a pianist and organist, is on the harder side to play, with its massive chords written in the register of Vaughan Williams' SINE NOMINE. Five-note chords, definitely a presumption that Mrs. Schmeckpepper will be on her toes (and heels) with the pedal part. But being guilty of writing hymn tune settings on the difficult side, I won't make that a factor in the 1 tack I give this hymn for just not being very well written.

746 (Type 1) is Katherine Hankey's "I love to tell the story" (abr., alt.) with its famous refrain and attractive melody HANKEY by W.G. Fischer. I previously commented on their collaboration here and here. But behold, a strange thing has happened to Hankey's hymn, evidently in the mysterious crack between the author credits "abr." and "alt." Compare the original text in which, as my previous comments on the hymn point out, never tell the story that it professes to love to tell, with the CWH version that (as of this writing) hilariously gives out as the "representative text" of this hymn. (Please don't tell me if Hymnary comes to its senses on this and restores Hankey's original text; I'm enjoying this moment too much.) So, with new and improved stanzas correcting the faults I criticized before, and author credits that conceal how little these lyrics owe to Katherine Hankey, CWH's version of "I love to tell the story" ends up perpetrating an even greater sin: pious fraud. It's an extreme example of a bone I've been picking with "alt." for many years: Getting rid of a bad hymn is good. Tarting it up with orthodox lyrics, not so much. It only creates confusion, misrepresenting the author's original intent and muddying the historical-cultural-literary record. And it encourages bad taste, possibly leading people to accept the inferior, original version because they don't notice the difference. 3 tacks.

747 (Types 2-3) is "Christ high-ascended" by Timothy Dudley-Smith, set to the 17th century French tune CHRISTE SANCTORUM. LSB paired it with ISTE CONFESSOR. It's a mission-and-witness hymn that takes its departure from Jesus', er, departure (ascension) and ends each stanza with the line "we are his witnesses." It both tells the story that we are to witness (nudge, nudge, Katherine) and acknowledges Christ as the source of power that flows through our witness.

748 is "Brothers, sisters, let us gladly," a stewardship hymn by Henry Bateman († 1872), set to the tune NETTLETON ("Come, Thou fount of every blessing") of which I'm sure I've said, many times, that it makes me think of my grandparents' Presbyterian church. The hymn, which was also in CWALH, is otherwise blameless and I realize it wouldn't be fair to stick a tack in it because of my own weird mental hang-ups. Darn it.

750 (Type 2) is "We give the but thine own," William How's classic stewardship hymn set to William Monk's tune ENERGY, of which many Lutheran congregations have sung just the first two stanzas every Sunday after collecting the offering since time immemorial. What makes it noteworthy here is the fact that CWH omits all but those two stanzas, which I guess you could put down to "bowing to the inevitable."

751 is "O God, your hand the heavens made" by Frank L. Cross († 2001), set to the English tune KINGSFOLD (which you might associate with "No tramp of soldiers' marching feet" or Edward Plumptre's "Your hand, O Lord, in days of old"). Setting aside the weird similarity between the opening lines of the Cross and Plumptre hymns, this is a pretty much blameless First Article/stewardship hymn that mentions talents (stanza 2), borrows the "trust from you" language from hymn 750, and includes a well-thought-out prayer for God to guide our use of His gifts.

752 is "Gracious God, you send great blessings" by Gregory Wismar, set to HOLY MANNA, as also in LSB. As a stewardship hymn, it sneaks in a tint of environmental stewardship in stanza 2 ("as we tend that endless treasure may our care encircle all") and goes on, in the next two stanzas, to lean into our social obligations (caring for others). So, it's an angle on the topic of Christian stewardship that carries a subtle political appeal.

753 (Type 1) is "My worth is not in what I own" by Keith and Kristyn Getty and Graham Kendrick, with a keyboard arrangement by CWH show runner Michael Schultz. Starting with the music, I find the chord structure bland, static and uninteresting, and I don't feel the little piano flourishes at the end of each stanza and the refrain really add anything the piece couldn't do without. Also, the whole "let's sing the refrain only after stanzas 2, 4 and 5" concept adds only one thing: the need for first and second endings with score text explaining where to go next, if you're on-your-toes enough to follow these roadsigns in the moment. Yeah, it's basically a solo number, or one for a rehearsed group to sing at the congregation. Text-wise, I like the stanzas but I think the hymn could do without the refrain; which would perhaps free it up to be set to a more suitable piece of music. I'm conflicted, because I like almost everything Schultz has contributed to this book so far, but I seriously question his judgment in getting entangled in a gaffe like this. 2 tacks.

754 (Type 1) is "Forgive us, Lord, for shallow thankfulness" by William Reid, Sr. († 1983), set to the tune SURSUM CORDA on which I've commented, several times in this hymnal review; and the more often I see it, the more I question the judgment of Schultz and Co. who seem to prefer it to so many superior alternatives. Paired with this underwhelming melody is a hymn that I've always considered rather weak, as evidenced by the first line and the entire stanza that follows. Adopting a pose of baring the soul to God in penitence, it confesses such a mediocre sin that it almost smacks of humblebrag. "Behold, I'm such a base sinner, I don't glorify God energetically enough!" Maybe the last line of the stanza redeems it a bit with its hook into "richer gifts (of which) we're unaware," which unfold in the second stanza. Still, it's a hymn that rubs me as having a negative attitude. Where Reid's lines stick at "selfish thanks and praise" and "words that speak at variance with deeds" (stanza 3), "feast that knows no fast" and "joy in things that ... starve the soul" (stanza 5), and at (what I read as) divisions within the church for reasons that Reid views as pure meanness, unworthy of the kingdom (but which, for all I know, could include very serious issues), he could have, instead, devoted the same space to positively thanking and praising God for the right things. Stanza 6 asks God to open our eyes to His love's intent, which after all that has been said up to that point might be read as Reid's way of saying "Care about what I think Christ wants you to care about, people!" I detect a whiff of truth in what this hymn says, but also a stench of passive aggressively forcing words of contrition into people's mouths about things of which they may not be guilty. 3 tacks.

755 is "A life begins, a child is born" by Jaroslav Vajda, set to a tune written for it by Jeremy Bakken. Unfortunately, though it's a new tune, the pew edition of CWH doesn't include the accompaniment, so once again I'm denied the option of playing through it on the piano unless I invest in heftier books from NPH. Also, its opening notes remind me distractingly of Marty Haugen's tune SHANTI. As a "home and education" hymn that focuses on the responsibility of raising up children in the way they will go, etc., it has solid potential. I'm not 100% sure that it quite gets there, but I'll spare it more than, say, 1/2 tack.

759 is "When training up a child" by Michael Schultz, set to the blandly attractive tune DENBY that has made a roaring comeback in recent years (cf. 688, "The gifts Christ freely gives"). This is the hymn that goes where I was hoping Vajda was headed in 755. I particularly like stanza 2, which references Timothy and his mother, and goes on to summarize the gospel thus: "how we had all the sin, but Christ took all the blame, how we've been dressed in righteousness in Jesus' name." Bravo, Michael.

761 is "Our Father, by whose name" by F. Bland Tucker († 1984), set to the same RHOSYMEDRE to which this hymnal set "My song is love unknown." I like it better in this connection. It's a nice little hymn praying for the Triune God's blessing on the family.

762 is "Lord, bless your Word to all the young" by Norwegian romantic poet and bishop Johan Nordahl Brun († 1816), set to REUTER (the non-EIN FESTE BURG tune to "God's word is our great heritage"). CWH here cobbles together two stanzas from two different translations of Brun's work, both with the editorial hand of "alt." I believe they are stanzas 2 and 4 of the confirmation hymn that in ELHy begins "Our Lord and God, O(h) bless this day." Other than making the hymn more broadly applicable to the Christian training of youth (without specific reference to confirmation), I don't see what CWH gets out of omitting the other two stanzas, unless it's purely a space-saving measure.

763 is "Lord, when you came as welcome guest" by F. Samuel Janzow († 2001), set to the early Americana LAND OF REST (a tune I associate with "Jerusalem, my happy home"). It's a marriage hymn taking off from Jesus' attendance at the Cana wedding feast. I think it could be a moving addition to a wedding service.

764 (Type 1) is "Gracious Savior, grant your blessing" by Stephen Starke, set to a tune called CIVILITY by my exact contemporary, Gregg DeMey. In this case, CWH provides the full accompaniment in the pew book, including several bars of instrumental bridge between all the stanzas. It's written in a distinctly Christian Soft Rock style that I am surprised to find Starke associating with, like a tender romantic piano ballad that, whatever the poet's intentions may have been, I can only imagine being performed at the congregation by a soloist or rehearsed group. There's actually an italicized stanza that references the Cana wedding with a footnote saying that it may be sung at a wedding ceremony; which one may infer to mean it should not be sung otherwise. This makes it an awkward hymn to choose when you're looking for a hymn for a Sunday sermon about the wedding at Cana, which accounts for 95% of the non-wedding-ceremony occasions on which I would be looking for a hymn like this. 2 tacks.

766 (Type 1) is "Lord, whose love in humble service," about which I have previously commented. 3 tacks.

768 is "Lord of all nations, grant me grace" by Olive Wise Spannaus († 2018), set to O WALY WALY. Set to a different tune in another book, I gave it reserved marks before.

769 is "Your hand, O Lord, in days of old," that Plumptre piece I mentioned earlier, but here set to William Croft's interesting tune ST. MATTHEW. It focuses on Jesus' healing miracles and moves, from there, to a prayer for healing and help today, including guiding medical hands, etc. Could be useful.

770 (Type 1) is Harry Emerson Fosdick's "God of grace and God of glory," every recent Lutheran hymnal's sop toward mid-20th century liberal Protestantism whose apparent enrollment in the list of Hymns We Can't Do Without sets my teeth on edge. Not that it's a bad hymn, as such, but like "It came upon a midnight clear" (which was written by a Unitarian), it shows that being scarcely Christian is no barrier to getting your hymns into today's church songbooks, even in supposedly conservative Lutheran groups. Also, it's another hymn that puts a this-worldly, political complexion on "your (God's) kingdom's goal." 1 tack.

771 (Types 2-3) is "Lord, who left the highest heaven" by Timothy Dudley-Smith, set to the 17th century chorale ALL SAINTS, similar to the tunes DIR, DIR JEHOVA and WINCHESTER NEW. TDS calls on Jesus to bless those who, like him, endure homelessness, oppression, distress, conflict, etc., tying in the entire salvation history with these prayers. I like some of his poetic phrasing, like "sky the roof and earth the pillow" (stanza 4).

Turning from "society" to "nation," 772 is "O God Most High, your saints below" by Michael Schultz, set once again to Hubert Parry's REPTON. Given the tune's somewhat triumphalistic character, it's surprising how softly this hymn peddles patriotism, not naming any particular country and acknowledging that "nations rise and fall" (stanza 3). It also prays for good things, like rulers who don't disgrace us and citizens who "live as salt and light."

773 is "O Lord of nations, hear our prayer" by Laurie Gauger, set to Ernest Kroeger's († 1934) tune JOSEPHINE. Though new to me, I find this tune old-fashioned, dated sounding and so heavy on syrupy sentimentality that it makes me want to spit. I can't imagine what CWH's editors were thinking when they decided to revive this relic; it's just going to encourage bad taste to grow and spread, like mildew on the wall. Would the hymn be OK with a better tune? Maybe, and I can name 11 other tunes in the same meter that might have been consulted before introducing JOSEPHINE to Lutheranism. As for the poetry, I like the fact that "robin song" is one of the things Gauger wants us to give thanks for. (Wink.) This hymn of thanksgiving also carries a reminder of something we dare not take for granted: "that in this country we are free to worship you above" (stanza 3). It goes on to pray for a lot of the same things as Schulz's hymn before it, and then some more, including a vision of "that shining band of saints from every tribe and land" which, again, improves on what you'd expect out of a patriotic hymn.

Hymn 776 begins the "morning" section, so it seems like an excellent place to stop before this evening grows too late. That's 18-1/2 tacks for today, making the total 140-1/2 in 475 hymns – 29.6 percent tacky overall.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Spy School Goes South

Spy School Goes South
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 12+

Ben Ripley, a second-year student at the CIA's top secret Academy of Espionage, has never been particularly good at the classic cloak-and-dagger arts of disguise, self-defense or combat. But his keen eye for patterns has enabled him to spot, and then thwart, four separate schemes by the evil organization SPYDER to sow chaos and destruction.

Now one of his recurring villains, Murray Hill, has offered to lead Ben and top spy-in-training Erica straight to SPYDER's secret lair, in exchange for his freedom. Naturally, the mission goes sideways as soon as the wheels lift off the runway. The CIA is even more riddled with double agents than even Erica and her grandfather, superspy Cyrus Hale, realized. Together with a couple of stowaways who didn't want to be left out of the fun, they end up crashed in a Mexican jungle. But even that doesn't stop them from scoping out SPYDER headquarters and figuring out their next, most dastardly plan ever.

Their adventure in a luxury resort on the coast of Quintana Roo is as fully loaded with funny gags, teenage romantic confusion, extreme sports action, danger and suspense as fans of this series should expect. While Ben feels torn in his feelings toward two girls, his best friend Mike worries about how to break up with the President's daughter, and his best enemy Murray starts to realize that SPYDER considers him expendable. Meanwhile, some goofy repeat villains continue to prove hard to kill (as much as you'd like to), another plot to terrorize the world hinges on a series of madcap tropical-adventure stunts, and Erica's spy family (she gets it from both sides) gets an unexpected reunion. And so, the series continues to move foward, perhaps putting SPYDER on the ropes in time for the follow-up caper teased at the end of the book.

This is the sixth "Spy School" book featuring Ben and friends (and enemies). The next installment is Spy School: British Invasion, and there are at least two more after that. Stuart Gibbs is also the author of the Last Musketeer, Moon Base Alpha and Charlie Thorne trilogies, as well as the upcoming "Once Upon a Tim" series and seven little kiddie "FunJungle" books.

UH does YouTube: E

My series of posts of bargain-basement videos of the hymn tunes from Useful Hymns, played on the piano the way I like (but not recorded very well), continues with the tune names beginning with E.

EASTER HYMN (setting 1)

EASTER HYMN (setting 2)








ERMUNTRE DICH (rhythmic)







Monday, January 3, 2022

UH does YouTube: D

Going on to the letter D in the alphabetical run-through of hymn tunes in Useful Hymns, which I performed and recorded on the equipment I had at hand (buyer beware). Perhaps this will provide an audible reference point to the style in which I imagine the hymns in that book being played.














DUNCANNON (setting 1)

DUNCANNON (setting 2)



UH does YouTube: C

I continue posting YouTube videos of my mediocre recordings of mediocre performances on mediocre equipment of the, if I may say so, pretty good hymn tunes in Useful Hymns, listed alphabetically by tune name. Here are the Cs:










COURAGE (Setting 1)

COURAGE (Setting 2)




UH does YouTube: B

Further to this, I give you the hymn tunes whose names begin with B from Useful Hymns, for your listening pleasure.







UH does YouTube: A

Here are some videos I posted to YouTube demonstrating how it sounds when I play hymn tunes from my own book, Useful Hymns, on a mediocre digital piano into the mediocre voice recorder on my mediocre cell phone. I'd like to add, as a further disclaimer, that I don't claim to do better than a mediocre job playing them, despite some of these tunes requiring numerous takes to reach a level I was willing to live with. But I do hope some people will find it useful to hear these tunes more or less as I intend them to sound, pianistically. In alphabetical order of tune names starting with A: