Saturday, August 30, 2008

U.S. Vice Presidents

The 2008 race for President of the U.S. seems to have been going on since the Iron Age, but the race for Vice President just started yesterday - a race to hold an office that "isn't worth a bucket of warm piss" according one of its incumbents (John Nance Garner, V.P. under Franklin Roosevelt, 1933-1941).

This year's VP race seems like it might be interesting. We have a choice between a Democrat who has been in the Senate since I was born (Joe Biden's experience serving as a counterweight to Obama's image as the outsider coming to Washington with a fresh perspective on things) and a young, attractive Republican with a newcomer image (balancing McCain's 25 years of congressional experience). If the "experience" end of the ticket is what makes you tick (or rather, vote), your choice is pretty much a wash. If, however, you are more concerned with the "newcomer" end of the ticket, I think Sarah Palin may make a stronger case than Obama.

If Palin's slim record of public service scares you - 2 years as governor of Alaska, so far - at least she has also served two terms each as city councilwoman and mayor. It may be early days yet, too early to really tell if she can lead; but she has a reputation for upsetting the status quo after climbing into office over the bodies of two previous governors of Alaska and blowing the whistle on corruption within her own party. Her candidacy should scare the Democrats, though it might scare a lot of Republicans as well... but then, so might McCain's. There's no telling what direction they will steer the party - or whether Palin and McCain will really be able to work together at all.

But if they win, what a stunner it will be! In the very year in which Hillary Clinton came so very close to being nominated for President, a Republican may become the first woman to stand a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Which is just about all there is to say about the importance of the Vice Presidency.

Here's a little historical brush-up on the Vice Presidency for you.

The Vice President of the United States serves as the President of the Senate. In reality, this is mostly a ceremonial title. Most day-to-day Senate business is actually chaired by freshman Senators, supposedly to give them experience in legislative procedures, but most likely because it's hard, thankless, often boring work and they're at the bottom of the pecking order.

Many Vice Presidents have not had a good relationship with the President, so their influence in the cabinet was small. Cases like Garret Hobart (VP 1897-99), who wielded considerable power before his untimely death, are historically rare - though the last few Vice Presidents may have been among them. More often one hears of cases like Charles G. Dawes (1925-29), whose bitter feud with Pres. Coolidge gave the vice-presidency a very bad odor in its time; or like Thomas Marshall (1913-21), the first Vice President to be re-elected in 88 years, and the first since Daniel Tompkins (1817-25) to serve two full terms.

While serving under Pres. Woodrow Wilson, Marshall frequently made light of his office's insignificance. One gathers humor was his way of dealing with pain and humiliation, as Wilson went out of his way (even to the extent of changing a long-standing precedent of letting the VP serve as his go-between with the Senate) to neutralize Marshall's influence. Marshall could have exploited Wilson's disability, following the President's paralytic stroke in 1919, to take over the powers of the Presidency; but he refused to do so on principle. (From what I have read about Wilson's character, the same would not have happened if their situations had been reversed.)

Other than the chance of becoming President in the event of a vacancy in that high office, the only power the Vice President has is to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Wiki has a table showing how many tie-breaking votes each U.S. Vice President cast. These figures don't particularly make the Vice Presidency look like an important job. Of the last five Vice Presidents, Walter Mondale (1977-81) cast one tie-breaking vote; George H. W. Bush cast 7 of them in 8 years (1981-89); Dan Quayle (1989-93) never cast a single one; Al Gore (1993-2001) cast 4 tie-breakers in 8 years; and Dick Cheney's count currently stands at 8 tie-breakers since 2001. If he casts one more before his term runs out, Cheney will move up in the rankings to a tie for the seventh tie-breakingest VP in American history, ahead of any other Vice President since 1873. Averaging more than 1 tie-breaking vote per year is that unusual. So the tie-breaking function of the Vice Presidency is, practically speaking, about as useless as its role as President of the Senate and "second in command" to the President.

This narrows down the signifiance of the Vice Presidency to the possibility of succeeding to the Presidency in the event of the President's death, resignation, or disability. That has only happened nine times since 1789. For a while there seemed to be a tradition of having a presidential succession take place every 20 years or so; but we haven't had one since Ford succeeded Nixon in 1974. It's been 34 years since the Vice President had anything to do but hope, and hope in vain, that the unthinkable would happen and he would become President. No U.S. President has been assassinated in 45 years; none has died in office by natural means in 63 years. We might put this down to our nation's political parties, media, and voters doing a better job of vetting presidential prospects in terms of health risks; improvements in security; and the development of a culture whose sensitivity to political scandal has been deadened to the point that Bill Clinton faced impeachment and trial without blinking. Bringing down the President, as Nixon was brought down, will only get harder from here on out. Being the Vice President, therefore, will have fewer compensations.

But even that chance of becoming President isn't necessarily such a big deal. Consider some of the undistinguished men on whom that chance has fallen. Being on the list of U.S. Presidents has done little to raise them above the haze of obscurity covering most of our past Vice Presidents. Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, and Chester Arthur (who all succeeded a President who died in office) are just as forgettable as many of the Vice Presidents before and after them. Andrew Johnson's chief claim to fame, after succeeding the assassinated President Lincoln, is surviving his impeachment trial by a single vote.

No "accidental president" until Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) went on to be elected President in his own right. Some of them weren't even renominated by their own party, often having been nominated for Vice President as a backhanded insult, consigned to obscurity and impotence by a party that had no use for them, and then left off the ticket four years later by a party embarrassed by their unexpected elevation to the Presidency. Gerald Ford (appointed VP in 1973 to fill a vacancy caused by resignation, only to become President in 1974 by the same means) obtained, in his electoral defeat in 1976, the distinction of being the only U.S. president who was never elected either Pres. or VP. As time passes and the living memory of Ford's presidency passes away, he may become as hard to remember as Tyler, Fillmore, and Arthur.

One Vice President (William Wheeler, 1877-81) was such a nonentity that when the President-to-be heard that Wheeler had been nominated as his running mate, he said: "I am ashamed to say, who is Wheeler?" VP candidates were not routinely picked by their presidential running-mate until FDR chose Harry S Truman (1945) to second him as he ran for his fourth term in 1944; before that time, most presidential candidates had to make do with whomever the party foisted on them. By the time he came to run for re-election, however, a President was entitled to a certain veto-power when it came to Vice-Presidential nominees. This explains why some Vice Presidents didn't get renominated when the President they served with ran for another term. Vice Presidents dropped from their Presidents' reelection ticket, for whatever reason, include Aaron Burr (1801-05), Richard M. Johnson (1837-41), Hannibal Hamlin (1861-65), Schuyler Colfax (1869-73), Levi P. Morton (1889-93), John N. Garner (1933-41), Henry A. Wallace (1941-45), and Nelson A. Rockefeller (1974-77). Don't weep for them, though. The Presidents who sacked three of these VPs reaped what they sowed when the voters sacked them. Thus the tickets Ford-Dole (1976), Harrison-Reid (1892), and Van Buren-T.B.A. (1841) went down in flames.

Having served as Vice President is no guarantee of being elected President afterward. The only Vice Presidents who successfully ran for President while serving as Vice President were John Adams (1789-97), Thomas Jefferson (1797-1801), Martin Van Buren (1833-37), and George H. W. Bush (1981-89). Besides them, only Richard Nixon (VP 1953-61) won the Presidency in his own right without succeeding to that office first; though he failed in his first attempt at it in 1960. So, based on historical precedent, a Vice President Sarah Palin would be more likely to become our nation's first woman President by succession than by election.

Several Vice Presidents ran as major-party Presidential nominees but never won. Aaron Burr actually tied with Thomas Jefferson for President in 1800 at a time when the runner-up was made Vice President; it took 36 ballots in the House of Represenatives to decide the election in Jefferson's favor. Other Veeps and former Veeps who failed in their bid to become Prez include John C. Breckinridge (1857-61), Hubert Humphrey (1965-69), Walter Mondale (1977-81) and Al Gore (1993-2001), all of whom were Democrats. Many others tried and failed to be nominated as their party's presidential candidate. FYI, the Vice President named Adlai E. Stevenson (1893-97) was the grandfather of the later presidential candidate by the same name (1952, 1956).

Vice Presidents are also, apparently, transferrable commodities. Two Veeps - George Clinton (1805-12) and John C. Calhoun (1825-32) - stayed in office while the President changed. Calhoun antagonized both of his Presidents, playing an instrumental role in John Quincy Adams's reelection loss and later, under Andrew Jackson, becoming the first of two Vice Presidents to resign (Spiro Agnew [1969-73] - the epitome of a rapid rise and equally rapid fall in politics - being the other).

On the other hand, having a Vice President is not strictly necessary. In the absence of a Vice President, the President pro tempore of the Senate becomes its presiding officer. Only since the 25th Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1965 has there been a procedure for appointing a replacement when a Vice President fails to complete his term. This procedure was used to appoint two consecutive Vice Presidents, Ford and Rockefeller (in 1973 and 1974 respectively). There have been 18 periods of vacancy in the Vice President's office since 1789. These periods include those following the deaths of Vice Presidents George Clinton (1812-13), Elbridge Gerry (1814-17), William R. King (1853-57), Henry Wilson (1875-77), Thomas A. Hendricks (1885-89), Garret Hobart (1899-1901), James S. Sherman (who died while running for reelection; 1912-1913), and the resignations of Calhoun (1832-33) and Agnew (2 months in 1973, before Ford was appointed in his palce). The remaining vice-presidential vacancies occurred when the incumbent Vice President succeeded to the Presidency, including the five months it took to get Rockefeller's appointment confirmed in 1974.

Some of the vice-presidential vacancies lasted nearly a whole term. The longest followed John Tyler's succession to the Presidency after William H. Harrison died one month into his term (April 4, 1841-March 3, 1845). Presupposing the same March 3 end date four years further on, similar almost-full-term vacancies occurred after the death of William King (April 18, 1853), the succession of Andrew Johnson (April 15, 1865), the succession of Chester Arthur (September 19, 1881), the death of Thomas Hendricks (November 25, 1885), and the succesion of Theodore Roosevelt (September 14, 1901). Since the FDR years, presidential and vice-presidential terms have begun and ended at noon on January 20, which is the date to compare to Harry S Truman's succession on April 12, 1945, again producing a nearly 4-year vacancy in the country's second-in-command post.

During these uneasy times, the first person in line of succession to the Presidency was sometimes the President Pro Tempore of the Senate (following the 1792 Presidential Succession Act), sometimes the Secretary of State (following the 1886 ditto), and most recently the Speaker of the House (since the 1947 ditto). Actually there is a whole line of succession behind the President: the Vice President, the Speaker, the President Pro Tem, and all the cabinet secretaries in order of the creation of their departments. The first in line to succeed the President has often been a member of the opposing party in Congress. To date, none of these rules have been called into play, though there have been close calls; for example, if one more Senator had voted to convict Andrew Johnson at his impeachment trial, President Pro Tem Benjamin Wade would have become President. Another close call came in 1844, when a gun exploded on a steamship carrying President Tyler (who had no Vice President). The explosion killed two members of his cabinet among others, including the father of a girl who fainted into the president's arms and, perhaps coincidentally, married him a few months later.

There has been one relatively recent improvement in the fortunes of the Vice President. The 25th Amendment allows the Vice President (or whoever is next ine line) to serve as "Acting President" during a time of the President's temporary disability. This clause has been invoked three times to date. In each instance, the President briefly transferred his powers to the Vice President while undergoing a colonoscopy. In this way George H. W. Bush was Acting President for a few hours in 1985, and Dick Cheney in 2002 and 2007. If McCain is elected, and if he continues having melanomas burned off his skin on a regular basis, VP Palin may pull some shifts as Acting President.

Speaking of presidential succession, Levi P. Morton blew his chance to become President. In 1880, when presidential candidate James Garfield invited him to run for Vice President on his ticket, Morton turned him down. Garfield got elected, then died six months after taking office, and Chester Arthur became president instead. Incidentlally, Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled office-seeker who was after the very job - Minister to France - that Morton had accepted instead of Vice President. This could almost inspire one of those "chicken or egg" questions: Would Morton have become president in 1881 if he had accepted Garfield's first offer? Or would that circumstance have changed matters enough to save Garfield's life? Chances are good Guiteau would have shot Garfield regardless; he was, after all, completely bonkers and would never have gotten the job he believed he was owed. All the same, Morton accepted the next time he was invited onto a Prez-Veep ticket, served his four years, and retired to the obscurity to which former Vice Presidents are evidently entitled.

An aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said: "Once the election is over, the Vice President's usefulness is over. He's like the second stage of a rocket. He's damn important going into orbit, but he's always thrown off to burn up in the atmosphere." Thomas Marshall liked to joke about the two brothers, one of whom went to sea and the other became Vice President; neither was ever heard from again. Marshall also claimed: "Indiana is the mother of Vice Presidents, home of more second-class men than any other state." He was misinformed; 11 Vice Presidents have come from New York; Indiana comes in second place with 5 (compared to only one President from Indiana). Neither Delaware nor Alaska has had one yet. One of them is likely to have a Veep to its name a few months from now.

A major political party has only nominated a woman for Vice President once before (Geraldine Ferraro, Democrat, 1984). There have been other female presidential and vice-presidential candidates, however. Wiki this to find out more about them. As far as minorities, there isn't much to note; Charles Curtis (1929-33), who was half Native American, is the only U.S. Vice President to date descended from non-European stock; if he wins, Obama would be the first such President.

Wait, vote, and see what comes of this year's race for Vice President of the United States. Historically speaking, it might not end up mattering much. You can forget everything you know about our nation's Vice Presidents without suffering serious brain damage. But whoever does get elected - don't count him or her out. The historical odds may be stacked against Vice Presidents amounting to anything noteworthy, but they do have a chance - a chance to become somebody like Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, or Harry Truman. Or a chance to completely blow it, like Spiro Agnew. I have a feeling this year's Vice President-elect will be interesting to watch, one way or the other.

IMAGES: Left column from top: Adlai E. Stevenson I; William A. Wheeler; Thomas Marshall; Nelson A. Rockefeller; Richard Mentor Johnson; Henry A. Wallace; Levi P. Morton; Walter Mondale. Right column from top: Aaron Burr; James Sherman; Spiro Agnew; Schuyler Colfax; Hannibal Hamlin; John C. Calhoun; Charles G. Dawes; Daniel D. Tompkins; Charles Curtis.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Heroic Tackiness

This week's ELCA lighted sign tackiness:


...which is probably why novels sell better than biographies...

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Female Governors

A great way to blow time, in my opinion, is to learn tons of useless information by surfing around on Wikipedia. Today I was brushing up on my Female Governors of U.S. States when I discovered a remarkable fact. Although Missouri has never had a female governor, four (4) Missouri-born women have served as governor of other states. Take note of: Nellie Ross, the nation's first female governor (Wyoming, 1925-27); Jane Hull, who as the second of Arizona's three female governors (1997-2003) served at a time when the state's top five elected officers were women; Jeanne Shaheen (1997-2003), who was elected governor of New Hampshire three times; and Linda Lingle, Hawaii's current governor (since 2002), now in her second term as the state's first Jewish, first female, first childless, and first twice-divorced governor.

Yes, folks, they all came from Missouri. We supply the raw materials - other states make history.

And if you think the history of the U.S. presidency is wild and woolly, Wiki the governors of the several states sometime. There are some scorching-hot stories! Governors being assassinated (possibly by political opponents); governors committing suicide in office; multiple governors claiming to hold office in the same state at the same time; governors serving for unusually long and ridiculously short periods of time (six men served 16 years); two governors who were successfully recalled; and women governors Ma Ferguson of Texas and Lurleen Wallace of Alabama, who were little more than figureheads, holding office while their husbands governed. Mrs. Wallace, the only female U.S. governor who died in office, made the ultimate sacrifice to help her husband become the longest-serving governor in U.S. history. Gads, what a piece of work that man was! You want drama? Get into the dirty details of the the political history of our country and its states!

EDIT: Who knew, when I wrote this, that a female governor - Sarah Palin of Alaska - was about to become only the 2nd woman nominated for Vice President of the U.S. by a major political party! After seeing her "coming out" speech today, I realized McCain may have a clever streak in him after all. Amazingly, his is the ticket that looks like the "choice for change" these days!

Why the Ass Is Their Symbol

Well, history has been made. Barack Obama is the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. This is a historic moment. Why? Because we are now officially halfway to having a presidential contest between the most undistinguished pair of candidates in U.S. history. The Democratic Party has shown the world why the ass is their symbol by putting forward their most inappropriate candidate since Franklin Pierce (1852).

The world has already seen that Obama is neither particularly nice, nor particularly bright. What the world cannot possibly know is what Obama will do in office if he wins the election. Why? Because, as a freshman senator with a scant record of public service, the only thing we know he can do is campaign. Whether he can lead the country - and whither he will try to lead it - are wrapped up in a big, shiny, surprise package marked "Don't Open Until 1/20/09." Perhaps the most merciful outcome would be that, like Jimmy Carter, he sweeps into office on a tide of shiny promises and national goodwill, then proves stubbornly idealistic, arrogant, uncompromising, incapable of making deals with either party; and finally fades away, four years later, having done little active damage and (with the blessing) not too much of the inactive kind.

In another week or so, when the Republicans inevitably nominate John McCain, the set piece will be completely arranged. Or rather, deranged. A John McCain victory would be only slightly better for our country than if the city of Washington suddenly sank to the bottom of the Potomac River. My 12th-grade poli-sci teacher's quip about a plane called "Air Head One," though never funny, will no longer be a joke. How Republicans can nominate a candidate with so little party loyalty is beyond me; how the country could select a man of such limited intellect, principle, and charisma - well, all I can say is, "Please bring back 2000 and Bush vs. Gore!" That didn't seem like much of a choice (it still doesn't), but at least we can hate those guys with all the good will in the world. But how are we supposed to choose between this year's nominees? They don't even got what Bush and Gore had.

Can anyone imagine a crummier choice? Not I. I believe the country's best chance in 2008 is to stir up enthusiasm for a non-partisan write-in candidate. I hate to say it, but the only one who probably has a chance is Hillary. Yes, she's scary. Yes, she's entitled. Yes, she's a leftie. But she's already spent 8 years sleeping in the Presidential Suite (including the 6 years Bill spent sleeping on the Oval Office couch). She knows how many states are in the union, how many stains are under the Oval Office desk, and where all the dead bodies are buried. The country survived 8 years of her; 4 more are merely chilling to contemplate (as opposed to paralyzingly dreadful). We know what kind of crap she'll pull; no surprises there. Know your enemy, I say. Write in Hillary in November, and save our country from having to choose between a Jimmy Carter of color and a postmodern Warren Harding!

Holy Hardware Advisory

I'm not a big supporter of the "holy hardware" industry, but there are a couple of outfits I would like to bring to your attention. What they sell is more than trinkets; it can really bring encouragement to baptized Christians, especially when their faith is tested.

First, check out Agnus Dei Printing. They produce gorgeous reproductions of classic Lutheran certificates of baptism, confirmation, marriage, and ordination. We're talking the level of stuff you can frame and hang on the wall, a treasure for life.

While you're at it, visit Creative Communications for the Parish. They produce a lot of junk, but their series of annual baptismal birthday cards for kids up to confirmation age (example pictured) could be a powerful tool for keeping young Christians in mind of the blessings of their baptism. I have also made use of their cards for welcoming visitors, cards asking after people who have been missing from church, and sympathy cards.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How to Order a Pizza

Tonight, for only the second time ever, and the first time at home, I ordered pizza delivery online. I started by visiting the Papa John's website. They're the best nationwide pizza-delivery chain - and that's a fact, not an opinion. Once you sign up, remember your password because they'll remember your email address, phone number, home address, credit card info, etc. You can even put the tip on your card without having to add the total in your head, which is nice for a mathematically-challenged clod like me.

The crucial part of the art of ordering pizza delivery is, of course, deciding what kind of pizza to order. I'm not just talking about choosing Papa John's over the competition, though I should note that their "original crust" is truly excellent - and in my opinion, it's the crust that makes the pizza. If you don't start with a great crust, nothing you put on the pizza will ever raise it above "so-so." This is why St. Louis's local pizza joints are not to be trusted; they have a fetish for flat, crispy crusts (a.k.a. cheese and crackers) - plus, they use a pestilential concoction, found nowhere else in the civilized world, called Provel Cheese; which is no more natural than Michael Jackson's face.

Somehow folks in this town got the idea that the ideal pizza contains the highest ratio of toppings to crust and its slices pull apart without any annoying, stretchy strings of cheese. Such people are to be pitied, truly. Pizza is bread with stuff on it, people! And if clingy strings of mozzarella don't stretch from the slice in your hand to the platter 3 feet away, how can you possibly tell whether it's cooked properly? Pshaw! That's like drinking flat beer without a foamy head! Or eating Chinese food without rice! Who does that?

Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes. Papa John's. They're not just the best because they have good crust. Theirs is also, for the record, the only delivery pizza that remains yummy after a night and a day in the fridge. I say this on the basis of repeated experiments. Cold, room temperature, or microwave-hot, PJ's pie is almost as good the next day as when it was first delivered - which, one realizes after trying to swallow many other brands of reheated pizza (from frozen as well as delivery), is really something special. Most leftover pizza registers somewhere between "disgusting but satisfying" and "don't even discuss it or I'm going to puke."

The next step: Choose your size. That's easy. Since the leftovers are so good, you can always go large. Then, decide whether to buy one of the "specialty pizzas" or to build your own. Advice: build your own. The specialty pizzas are for people with the taste and discrimination of dumpster-diving raccoons. Most of them have so many flavors on them that you can't really enjoy the taste of the ingredients; it ends up tasting like the smell of a defrosting refrigerator. All you really need are one, two, or three toppings. Choose wisely, knowing that some day, God willing, you will have a chance to order pizza again and can then try another combination.

I like some unusual combinations. Ham (or Canadian bacon) and pineapple are all right. Now and then I jones for Buffalo chicken pizza. I have also ordered all-cheese or all-vegetable pies. I can take any kind of meat commonly served on pizza, including ground beef, ground pork, and spicy Italian sausage - which, in my opinion, is the perfect topping to try when you want to find out whether a pizza place is any good. But since I know Papa John's is good, I usually start with pepperoni and add one or two of the following, more or less at random: onions, mushrooms, black olives, extra sauce, extra cheese. All of these "extras" share the property of enhancing the quality of any pizza they are on - but only one or two of them at a time; otherwise you might as well dump the trash can behind a supermarket produce counter onto your pizza, for all the enjoyment you will get out of the flavors.

Papa John's serves their delivery pizzas with a peel-open cup of garlic butter and a pepperoncini pepper. My advice: throw the pepper away immediately, so it doesn't stink up your refrigerator. Wash your hands after touching it. If you really must, rub it around the edge of the crust before you toss it. And keep the sealed cup of butter dip to use with the leftovers. Once the crusts become a skosh stiffer with age (rigor mortis, don't you know), you'll be glad of something to dip them in.

Finally, no pizza party is complete without side-dishes, pop, and dessert. Restaurants like Papa John's would be glad to sell them to you at a premium. My advice: plan ahead and buy that other junk, dirt cheap, at your local supermarket. Or skip it altogether. Pizza goes well with milk, too, you know.

Rejected Dwarf Names

Many dwarves auditioned for parts in Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. I have recently come into possession of a list of the names of dwarves who didn't make the cut. Here are a few of them. You decide whether or not Disney should have given them a chance...


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

4 More Book Reviews

Beyond the Deepwoods
by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
Recommended Age: 10+

This book is the first in "The Twig Trilogy," which itself is part of "The Edge Chronicles," an ongoing series by the Brighton, England-based team of author Stewart and illustrator Riddell. It's interesting to see more than one current series of kids' books giving equal credit to a writer and an artist for creating a fantasy world together; the hottest American example is the Spiderwick series. Impossible as it may seem, The Edge is even more creatively far-out.

The Edge, as the identical introduction to all three books of this trilogy points out, is the type of place where one really could fall off the end of the world. Descending from the dense, dark highlands of the Deepwoods to the hypnotic Twilight Woods, the bleak Mire, the squalid bustle of Undertown, and the floating city of Sanctaphrax (secured to terra firma by a heavy chain), the known world finally comes to a point at the end of the Stone Gardens, where lighter-than-air rocks slowly grow out of the ground. The Edgwater River runs through it all, and finally plunges off the very tip of this bizarre country into the unknown mists, where anyone who falls off the edge might fall forever. It is a land of many mysteries and dangers, populated by a variety of trolls, elves, goblins, gnomes, and other creatures so strange that I haven't room to describe them. It is a fantasy world exploding with curiosties, whimsies, and horrors, many of them with names that suggest that its creators' favorite author might be Lewis Carroll.

Twig is a slim youngster with matted hair who looks and thinks quite differently from the woodtrolls who raised him. The day finally comes when his "mother-mine" admits that he isn't a woodtroll at all, but a foundling that she raised as one of her own children. When Twig set out to visit some woodtroll relatives, he inadvertently wanders from the path (a very un-woodtroll thing to do), and so strikes out to make his own fortune. Along the way he meets all kinds of creatures, some of them friendly, some deadly - from huge, shaggy, fanged banderbears that howl to each other across lonely distances, to the man-eating blood oak and the cult of "termagant trogs" that worship it; from the dangerously stupid gyle goblins to the diabolically clever gloamglozer. Eventually Twig finds out where he came from and gets the first whiff of his destiny as a great sky pirate captain . . . but not before he must face great fears, griefs, shame, and despair.

This is a hugely promising beginning to an original fantasy series. Though it has enough strange and wonderful flights of imagination to make your head swim, it is firmly anchored in a story we can all recognize, a journey we are willing to join and follow. Though Twig has his not-so-sympathetic moments, he is basically a hero to cheer for - and, in the narrower spots, to wring one's hands over. Save yourself some hand-wringing now and get the whole trilogy, which continues in Stormchaser and Midnight Over Sanctaphrax.

by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
Recommended Age: 10+

Book Two in both "The Twig Trilogy" and "The Edge Chronicles," this lavishly illustrated volume continues the adventures of a young sky-pirate captain in a strange world where certain kinds of wood and stone are lighter than air, and where lightning bolts form a solid substance when they strike the ground - a substance that is immensely heavy in darkness, unmanageably weightless in bright light, dangerously explosive, and that can only be handled in twilight conditions.

This substance, known as Stormphrax, is a hot commodity. For one thing, it is very rare. No one remembers the last time a sky-pirate ship returned from a quest to bring stormphrax back - back to the floating city of scholars called Sanctaphrax and the earthy Undertown that serves it. Only a quantity of stormphrax in its darkened treasury can keep Sanctaphrax from breaking its anchor chain and flying off into the sky. But since the current Most High Academe discovered that phraxdust - powdered stormphrax - can also purify water, nearly all of the stormphrax supply has gone into futile (not to say fatal) attempts to repeat the experiment. Now both stormphrax and phraxdust are in short supply, and conditions are growing desperate. The local economy revolves around the forging of additional chains to hold down the increasingly unstable city. This means more water pollution, increasing the desperation of the poor people of Undertown, who can no longer afford enough phraxdust to obtain drinkable water; while there will soon be nothing left with which to pay the merchant guilds who supply the chains.

Into this desperate moment steps Cloud Wolf, a great pirate captain who is willing to chase a great storm out over the Twilight Woods, hoping to bring back the stormphrax his city needs. Unfortunately, one of Cloud Wolf's crew is a traitor - a sneaking spy from the Merchant Guild, who dupes Cloud Wolf's son Twig into stowing away on board, only to use him as a hostage. The resulting fracas has tragic results, and forces Twig to exercise his natural leadership skills in a desperate attempt to save his crew and redeem their failed mission. The perils of the Twilight Woods and the adjacent Mire turn out to be an unexpectedly gruelling (and gruesome) challenge to survival.

Brace yourself for some shocking nasties, loads of weird creatures, gut-shredding losses, and high-tension battles against man, machine, and nature in this most strange and inventive fantasy world. But don't worry about the time or effort of reading a trilogy. The richness of the imagery, both in word and in picture, will beguile you - though not in the nasty way the Twilight Woods beguiles people. It might help to read Beyond the Deepwoods before this book, and of course you'll want to read Midnight Over Sanctaphrax after it. But I think you will find this such a strong, solid story in its own right, that everyone in the family will want a turn.

Midnight Over Sanctaphrax
by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
Recommended Age: 10+

If you read Stormchaser, the previous book in "The Edge Chronicles" as well as "The Twig Trilogy," you will already know that Twig's first command as a sky pirate captain didn't end happily for most of his crew. Nevertheless, he brought home the stormphrax that saved the scholars' floating city of Sanctaphrax and guaranteed clean water for all the poor goblins, trolls, elves, and whatnot of the industrialized Undertown. Things turned out so well that Twig got a new skyship, a new crew, and a new mission: to find his father, lost in a storm. But this means going where no one has ever gone and returned: over the Edge, into the infinite mists beyond.

You'll want to read what I said about Beyond the Deepwoods and Stormchaser to get most of that. But once you've read those books, it's a gimme that you'll read this too. Paul Stewart's writing is crammed with inventive imagery and tightly-wound urgency; Chris Riddell's illustrations are simultaneously charming, weird, scary, and expressive; and when Twig's new mission and crew are blown to pieces even faster than the last time, you'll know you are in for a thrilling quest into the heart of a highly original fantasy world. This chapter offers all the sensory noise of a busy slave market and its cruel games, a wide-open menagerie of threatening and fascinating creatures, the unlikely friendship between a swashbuckling hero and a scholarly apprentice, and the suspense of knowing that a whole world depends on the hero's getting to one end of his world by a given date while he travels, ignorant of what fate holds in store, all the way to the other end. And it weaves all these things into a mythopoeic account of a unique world's cycle of death and rebirth.

It would be awesome enough without Riddell's irreplaceable pictures. The frontispiece's map of the Edge alone is certain to inspire wonder and fanciful contemplation. It is no wonder the Stewart-Riddell team can't seem to stop crafting new stories about this world, including The Curse of the Gloamglozer, The Last of the Sky Pirates, Clash of the Sky Galleons, and others. Plus, they are also the creators of the "Far-Flung Adventures," beginning with the book Fergus Crane. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for the paperbacks. You'll hear more from me about these terrific ink-and-paper entertainers.

The Pictish Child
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Age: 10+

The entire "Tartan Magic Trilogy" seems to squeeze its happenings into one family vacation, a visit by the American twins Jennifer and Peter, their kid sister Molly, and their parents to relatives in Scotland. In this second installment, they have scarcely recovered from their first battle against an ancient, evil, Scottish wizard when a girl from far in the past suddenly turns up in their lives. Ninia belongs to the pre-Christian race of Picts, and has been snatched out of her time at a moment when her life and the future of her people were in jeopardy.

Now Ninia's story is mixed up with the present-day affairs of three children who are still coming to terms with the existence of magic. What would they do without a witchy grandma, a talking dog and a talking horse who, like the girl, belongs to the time of the Picts? They certainly wouldn't stand much chance against a vaporous darkness that could seep under doors and windows, if the sills hadn't been salted. How long can the kids stay indoors with a horse, a dog, and a wild child whose life story is carved on enormous stones in the town museum? How can they change history while stopping an evil plot to steal the magical powers from Gran and her friends? And how will they have time for a third adventure and before their vacation ends?

This could be a cautionary tale against blowing your vacation in a rainy country full of narrow streets where they drive on the wrong side of the road. Or, it could be a delightful adventure in Scottish magic, tailor-made for young American readers. If you're a kid who yearns for a break from the modern and mundane, here is a quick-reading romp for you, complete with twins who complete each other's sentences and a glossary of Scottish lingo, so you will ken what everyone is havering aboot. If you missed Book 1, it is titled The Wizard's Map. The third and final book is The Bagpiper's Ghost.

Monday, August 25, 2008

4 Book Reviews

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Age: 17+

The fifth adventure of alternate-reality literary detective Thursday Next takes place some 14 years after the events of Something Rotten. In the years since the 1988 SuperHoop (the croquet final that decided the fate of the world), a lot has changed in Swindon. Spec-Ops, including Thursday's literary division, have been disbanded. As far as her stay-at-home husband Landen knows, Thursday has settled down to a quiet life as a partner in a carpet-laying firm.

But actually, the carpet business is only a front for her continuing, off-the-books detective work. In this parallel version of 2002 England, time travelers, genetically-engineered monsters, the undead, and large-as-life literary characters mix with regular folks - folks like Thursday's stalker, who moonlights as her partner in a cheese-smuggling ring; like her writer husband, who has been trying to sell a book titled Fatal Parachuting Mistakes and How to Avoid Making Them Again; like her son Friday, who was supposed to join the ChronoGuard at age 13, invent time travel, and save the world numerous times over, but who at age 16 lies in bed until noon, speaks in monosyllabic grunts, plays in a garage band, and smells nasty; and like her elderly mother and aunt, who spice up their spare time by detaining market researchers in their parlor with feigned dementia and uncomfortable small-talk.

So even slaying demons, chasing rampaging dinosaurs, talking with ghosts, and smuggling illegal cheese isn't a big stretch for Thursday's weird world - a world where the government's biggest worry is the Stupidity Surplus, and where the worst criminals are imprisoned in a time-loop in the checkout line at T. J. Maxx. But actually, Thursday's spec-ops work is itself a front for her really secret job: policing the border between reality and literature as an agent of Jurisfiction.

In Book World, Thursday is a very important person. She is the only "real" person who regularly and legally drops in, and as such she serves as the "Last Bastion of Common Sense" on the high-and-mighty Council of Genres. But trouble is brewing. Forced to babysit two hopeless agents-in-training - both of whom look just like her, because they are her fictional counterparts from the Thursday Next books - she must also get to the bottom of a Goliath Corporation attempt to drive busloads of tourists into fiction, the reappearance of an assassin who was last seen gunning for Thursday years and years ago, a government scheme to turn Sense and Sensibility into a reality show, and most seriously of all, the steadily falling number of people reading books. This is a lot to battle when your ability to jump into fiction is slipping, when a mind-bending baddie has planted false memories in your mind, when a badly-written lookalike is trying to steal your life, and when the end of time may be at hand - and the fate of everything depends on a spotty teenager who hasn't washed his hair in weeks!

My reviews of the Thursday Next books are, necessarily, full of run-on sentences. How else am I supposed to give you even the daintiest sip of the full-flavored fun Fforde has in store for you? It is wild. It is wacky. It is sexy, scary, and drop-dead smart. And above all, it is side-splittingly funny. At times the characters seem to be reading their lines off cue cards - they're just too perfect to come out of the mouths of real people! Nevertheless, the weirdness and originality of Fforde's fantasy continue to fascinate. His gags (such as a clandestine cheese sale, and an encounter with a demon) leave you gasping and crying with laughter. And his complex, kaleidoscopic narrative reminds you, page after page, that no form of entertainment can touch a good book. You'll probably finish this one with a good-sized list of other books to read, from Conan Doyle to Austen and beyond. If you belong to practically any fandom (including Harry Potter), you will spot a reference to your first love while you fall in love with this book. And if you notice, as I did, that not all the loose ends get tied up (for example, the minotaur), you will be warmed by the hope that this First Among Sequels will not be the last.

Tales of the Greek Heroes
by Roger Lancelyn Green
Recommended Age: 10+

All right class. What do you know about the gods and heroes of ancient Greece? How many Olympians can you name? Who were the Argonauts and what did they seek? What were the twelve labors of Hercules and why did he do them? Which gods made babies with mortals, and what did those babies do when they grew up? Well? Are you ready for the quiz? Do you even care?

Some kids like science fiction. Some like fantasy. Some like adventure, mystery, what have you. And some kids like reading stories based on the ancient myths. There have always been some kids like that, but there do not seem to be many these days. I was never one of those kids, but I still enjoyed this book. I do know one of those kids, though. He's going to love this book.

Roger Lancelyn Green was a kid like that, too. Inspired by the tales of Andrew Lang and H. Rider Haggard, Lancelyn Green fell in love with the world's oldest tales. He learned Greek and Latin, studied ancient manuscripts, traveled abroad - especially to Greece - and then wrote over a dozen books retelling traditional tales. This is one of the best-known and -loved of them.

You may have read collections of ancient Greek and Roman myths before. I have. I remember reading anthologies about gods and heroes when I was a kid. The stories were not connected. It was often difficult to figure out how they fit together. One sensed complicated lines of relationship between characters and events, but there were so many gaps and seeming contradictions that it was hard to make sense of them. Plus, there would always be boring passages where the editor quoted a bit of the original Greek or Latin at you (of which, thanks to the wonders modern education, you couldn't read a word). Or the clever fellow would put things in a roundabout way, assuming you knew what he was talking about, when in fact you had no frame of reference to pick up on his subtleties. Bottom line, reading about mythology always seemed like work - school work, most likely; dry, dull, difficult, and full of trivial details that you knew you were going to be on the quiz - but other than that, you couldn't make out why you needed to learn them.

The real problem was that you didn't read Roger Lancelyn Green's version first. This is the book you should have started with! This is the one that makes sense of it all! Lancelyn Green fits the main people and events of ancient Greek mythology together in one easy-to-read narrative flow. He uses language of simple grace, rather than obscure poetry, to explain who was who and what they did. His writing style is tight, clear, and vivid. You may disagree with his theories about how and why these stories got started, but it's hard to argue with such a comprehensive and approachable view of the entire body of Greek myth.

Lancelyn Green had a massive wall-chart showing how everyone and everything in these stories connected together. After reading the way he tells the tales, you won't need a chart like that. It's that clear, and it is thrilling to read, and if it gets you hooked on ancient myth you will be better prepared to begin reading the versions by Kingsley, Hawthorne, Rouse, Vernant, and others. Or maybe you'll just get hooked on classic tales told the way Lancelyn Green tells them. If so, you may be interested in knowing that some of his other books include The Tale of Troy, The Tale of Thebes, Tales of Ancient Egypt, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Adventures of Robin Hood, Myths of the Norsemen, A Cavalcade of Dragons, Thirteen Uncanny Tales, and more.

The Squire's Tale
by Gerald Morris
Recommended Age: 12+

As you open this first book in the series known, appropriately, as "The Squire's Tales," you immediately meet a woodsy lad named Terence. Raised by a blind hermit who remembers the future but forgets the past, Terence does not know who his parents are or what he is destined for. But then, in one day, he is visited by a mischievous sprite, witnesses a fatal duel, and becomes the squire to a certain Gawain who aspires to be a knight of King Arthur's Round Table. And that's only the beginning of the great happenings in which Terence plays a humble, but important, part.

Wisconsin-based author Gerald Morris set out to rehabilitate the memory of Sir Gawain, who used to be considered the greatest of King Arthur's knights, until that nickel-plated scrub Sir Lancelot stole the limelight from him. It's rather mysterious how the focus of the legends suddenly shifted round-about Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur. Go ahead and read Morris' "author's note" at the end of this book if you want to know more about what parts of this tale are original and what parts are only a slight re-imagining of very old tales.

Whether that information interests you or not, I think you will like Terence. You will be intrigued by his skills, the hint of fairy magic about him, and the good stuff he is made of. You will be thrilled, amused, and moved by his journey and the adventures of the knights he travels with. And you will understand why the word "romance" is so often linked with the tales of King Arthur and his knights. It isn't just because there are love stories woven in among the feats of derring-do. These are romances of an (all but) ideal age in which (nearly) ideal men accomplished great things that have resonated through history to this day. These are romances that reflect our dreams of what we want to be - ourselves and our world - and if reality never seems in step with fantasy, perhaps it is the fault of reality.

It is such a familiar tale, told in such a straightforward, appealing way, that I feel sure you will devour it and come back hungry for more. That's all right, for there are at least five more books in this series, and the next helping is titled The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady.

The Hundred Days
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

Here is Book 19 of the 20-volume novel of warfare, wildlife, society, and culture in the era of Napoleon, featuring a brilliant British frigate captain named Jack Aubrey and his medical officer, intelligence agent, musical partner, and longtime friend Stephen Maturin. And if book 18 (The Yellow Admiral) was a book of tragic forebodings, The Hundred Days is one in which the forbodings come true.

Don't be shocked when a couple important, recurring characters' deaths seem to have fallen in the crack between these books; a little reflection will show that they were set up very nicely, and you might have expected them had you been paying closer attention. The real surprise is how quickly O'Brian moves on with his narrative, disposing of a likeable, long-running character late in this book without even pausing for breath. If you wanted a taste of the cold, numb shock of the human, and very personal, cost of warfare, you have come to the right shop.

The characters, for their part, do not move on so easily. Stephen's deep, spiritual pain is an undercurrent throughout this book; but there are also foreshadowings of a happiness to come, though one that remains unfulfilled at the end of this book. In the meantime, he and Jack are kept too busy to dwell on their losses, because Napoleon has escaped from Elba; the war is back on; and the H.M.S. Surprise is right in the thick of it.

Intelligence has it that the Turks want to help Napoleon beat the allies. To do this, he must keep the armies of Austria and Russia from coming together, and from meeting with the English and Prussian forces. It's countdown time - the countdown to Waterloo, when a slender difference of timing and the issue of whether or not two historic enemies can work together may decide the fate of all Europe. But all that's happening on land; what does a frigate in the Mediterranean have to do with it? Well, the Turks won't move until their mercenaries are paid. The gold to pay them is coming from Morocco, by way of Algiers. Unless Jack and Stephen can stop the gold by a combination of daring, strength, and cunning, the plan may succeed - and so may Napoleon.

Who knew that a lion-shooting safari into the Atlas mountains of north Africa played such a pivotal role in stopping Napoleon from taking over the world? Who knew that so much depended on Stephen spreading a few simoleons around, ensuring that several Adriatic shipyards would get the torch? Who knew that a long chase along the Spanish coast at the dark of a moon could decide so much? And even if they did know, would they have imagined such a rich backdrop of Algerian culture, wildlife and landscape; the chancy politics of a naval squadron; a surprising discovery in a moorish slave market; the intrigues and assassinations; the duel nearly fought over the stomach contents of a dog named Naseby; and the chilling rise and fall of a captain's steward in the social pecking-order of a deeply superstitious crew? Who would have expected a mere naval adventure to touch on such topics as marital love, jealousy, addiction, suicide, the hydrodynamics of a unicorn horn, and medical malpractice? Who, indeed, would have guessed that Stephen Maturin would possess a creepy talisman last seen in the hands of Draco Malfoy? Well, except for the last question, the answer is probably "anyone who has read books 1-18 of the Aubreyiad." If these questions intrigue you, you should join their number. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Constitutional Tackiness

This week's lighted-sign tackiness from the ELCA church down the street:


Yeah, but don't forget to mirandize him first. You know: "You have a right to remain silent..."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The "Fun" in Funeral

Best and Worst...of the Weekend of Grandpa's Funeral:

BEST: Driving from St. Louis to Minneapolis last Friday was lovely. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the temperatures were mild, and except for one brief stretch I was able to tune my radio to a classical music station the whole way. Iowa Public Radio really does a good job.

WORST: Any trip in the back seat of my brother's car. He drives angry. And commenting on how scary it is only seems to make him more angry. I don't envy my mother, who had to experience it all from a front passenger seat that doesn't have a working seat belt. When I was able to form words around the gorge in my throat, I quoted Scripture at my brother, such as: "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."

BEST: In spite of driving through several places that were disaster areas not long ago, I didn't have much trouble getting around. During a stop somewhere between Iowa City and Waterloo, I spotted headlines counting the shocking cost of this spring's floods in that part of Iowa - but the roads were all in good order. And though part of I-35W in downtown Minneapolis is still closed due to the bridge collapse over a year ago, my brother's directions got me around that bottleneck with no difficulty.

WORST: A bit further south, where I-35W and Minnesota Highway 62 come together by Richfield, the roads are torn up for reasons unrelated to the downtown bridge. This posed a challenge for me right at the point where I needed to get on and off the highway. It took me several trips to work out the best way to do it without traveling miles out of my way. It didn't help that Richfield itself is torn up. The first time I drove through it, I seemed to find road construction everywhere I turned. It was freaky!

BEST: In spite of all the careful planning by my family, my most comforting worship experience of the weekend was Sunday morning Divine Service at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Richfield MN. Poor little Richfield is slowly being squeezed off the map. The church, which used to be well inside the city limits and surrounded by a residential neighborhood, now stands at the edge of a commercial development that, in turn, stands at the edge of town. In spite of all the change, the folks at Mount Calvary still sing the same hymns and liturgy and receive the same Law-Gospel preaching (from the same pastor, even) as when I was confirmed there in 1987. That is where I heard about God's mercy and the forgiveness of sins, a need one feels most acutely when death is on one's mind.

WORST: The burial service at the cemetery was the low point of the weekend, but mainly for a reason I didn't learn about until later. My uncle, who had already paid thousands of dollars in advance to cover the funeral and burial, had just opened his car door at the cemetery when a lady from the cemetery staff swooped down and demanded payment of $15 and change, which we owed because she had forgotten to add sales tax to the original invoice. She refused to accept cash (my uncle offered a $20 bill and said "keep the change") and was in the middle of a homily on properly documented receipts when my uncle held up his hands, palms outward, and very firmly said: "Not now." How tacky is that? Discuss.

BEST: On Saturday night, I met my only first-cousins on my mother's side for the first time. They are the four-year-old twin sons of her youngest brother, whom I hadn't seen for a dozen years. The boys are adorable. S is a lot like I was at that age: shy, brainy, and impossible to shut up once you get him talking. P is like my brother Ryan (the angry driver): a blur of constant movement on the edge of your visual field. I thought my cousins on Dad's side were spread out, but there is a nearly 32-year age difference between the oldest (me) and youngest grandkids on my Mom's side. To be sure, they are "biologically speaking" my second cousins, since their father is actually my Mom's cousin, but he was raised by her parents from the age of 5. It was interesting to be confused with my uncle by several folks from the old neighborhood, who remembered him at that age.

WORST: On Tuesday evening, Mom and I dropped in briefly at my half-brother Jake's house. He and his wife Celia are expecting a baby girl. Besides being very pregnant, Celia keeps herself very busy studying in college and working to support her family. We found Jake at home alone (I still haven't met Celia), shirtless on the couch playing Guitar Hero with considerable skill, and more embarrassed by the state his apartment was in than by his unemployment. I asked him if he played guitar for real but he said, "No, I'm just a video-game version of my Dad." Whoa! That's who he reminded me of! As Mom and I walked out to the car, I quipped: "There's the power of a male role model for you."

BEST: Spotted on the exit where I got off I-35W when I first arrived in Richfield: "HORN BROKEN - WATCH FOR FINGER."

WORST: Spotted in St. Louis as I returned home: a car whose rear end was completely plastered with bumper stickers. Who does that to a car? Where is the pride of ownership?