Friday, September 30, 2011


Tonight's TGIF victory dance was a movie, which I chose for the simple reason that it was the earliest available showtime: Moneyball, the story of the 2002 Oakland A's starring Brad Pitt as general manager Billy Beane and, you know, a sport. Sports movies choke me up. This one tried not to but still did.

Beane's 2002 season is historically significant because, on a paltry budget of $38 million (a tiny fraction of what the New York Yankees had), and in spite of an embarrassing losing streak at the beginning of the season, the A's broke the all-time American League record for consecutive wins (20 games) and ignited a revolution in major-league baseball that, the following season, helped the Boston Red Sox win the World Series.

What was Beane's secret weapon? It was a front-office staff of chubby eggheads who crunched player statistics based on a branch of mathematics called sabermetrics, pioneered by Bill James. The idea of sabermetrics is to use statistics to recruit players who are undervalued by the collective wisdom of baseball, so as to put together the winningest team possible on the titchiest payroll in the league. In actual history, Beane wasn't the first GM of the A's who used sabermetrics, but he followed through on it with dogged persistence in spite of being vilified as a heretic, blamed every time his team stumbled, and threatened by dire predictions of organizational doom.

Even the record winning streak only briefly silenced the naysayers, who gave all the credit to team manager Art Howe (played in the film by Philip Seymour Hoffmann), though the film depicts Howe as doing little except interfering with Beane's winning strategy. And when the team failed to make the league playoffs, Baseball (i.e., the collective consciousness of the game) forgot, for the most part, what Beane had accomplished. Except for the Red Sox, which used his strategies even more successfully the following season.

All this the film portrays in an alternation between documentary style and an intimate drama that focuses closely on Brad Pitt. And now that his face is no longer spectacularly pretty, it's interesting to discover that he is more than a pretty face. He may do better than Paul Newman and Robert Redford, previous holders of the title of "proverbial for good-looking leading man," and keep his leading-man chops even after the good looks fade. There are worse fates than becoming an elder statesman of the film industry, but if the acting in this movie is any indication, Pitt may be headed for a better one: continuing to be a box office draw into his fifties (which are coming soon).

The movie also features Jonah Hill of Superbad as a fictional character representing a whole range of people on Beane's staff, Robin Wright as his receptionist, Kathryn Morris of TV's Cold Case as his ex-wife, and a bunch of actors in the same talent bracket as the athletes they play—many of them with professional baseball experience of their own. Where I watched it, it had a surprisingly small audience for such a hyped movie, and such a good one at that. My laughter & snifter (I did get a bit choked up, as I always do at sport movies) echoed disturbingly in the empty hall, out of step with my unenthusiastic neighbors. As a fictionalized version of true events, I am sure it is no more historically accurate than it absolutely has to be. But as a look inside the business of running the front office of a team that is expected to win with a losing payroll, I thought it captured the desperation and drama pretty well. At any rate, it made for good viewing.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Heitz, Skye, Wilson, Yancey

The Dwarves
by Markus Heitz
Recommended Ages: 14+

Girdlegard: a world within a world, cut off from whatever lies outside its encircling mountain barrier by vast wastes swarming with dark creatures. Within that perimeter is a complex map divided between several human kingdoms, overlapped by six enchanted realms under the rule of powerful magi, plus here and there an elven enclave, and around the edges five kingdoms ruled by the dwarves. These folks live together in an uneasy peace, made all the more uneasy by the powers of evil encroaching against them. Already the Fifthlings (one of the dwarf kingdoms) have been conquered by the powers of the Perished Land, which withers everything it touches and which turns all the dead into soulless zombie slaves. Reinforced with armies of orcs, ogres, and älfar (like evil, empty-eyed elves), and joined by an evil magus possessed by more than ambition, the Perished Land is about to make its move to bring all of Girdlegard under the dark.

Little does Tungdil the dwarf know it, but he is his world's only hope for survival. Tungdil is a foundling brought up by humans, especially the good magus Lot-Ionan. After trying without success to teach him magic, Lot-Ionan let Tungdil follow the calling of the blacksmith's forge. But only for a little while. Just before things start to get really nasty, Lot-Ionan sends Tungdil on a wizardly errand, supposedly to deliver a pouch of magical artifacts to one of his former apprentices. How much this errand owes to the magus's far-seeing wisdom is hard to tell, seeing that before very long, Lot-Ionan himself has fallen victim to the loathesome power of Nod'onn. Soon Tungdil is joined by a pair of fierce twins, the first dwarves he has ever met, who inform him that they have been sent to escort him to a council of the leading dwarves as a candidate to be their next High King.

Boïndil and Boëndal turn out to be excellent companions for a dwarf just starting to learn about who he is, while numerous people seem to be intent on killing him. The twins give Tungdil his first taste of dwarven cheese, his first experience of dwarven ballads, and his first lessons in dwarven martial arts. He has to learn fast, what with the armies of the Perished Land always right behind them and sometimes in front of them, and with a contract out on his head at least due to the magical parcel he carries, if not for the threat he represents to certain dwarves he hasn't even met yet. When the three dwarves finally arrive at the stronghold called Ogre's Death, however, it is only to begin a new and even more dangerous quest: to race against a savvy, experienced dwarf chieftain to be the first to forge the axe Keenfire, the only weapon which can destroy Nod'onn.

Tungdil's adventure is a test of his courage, tenacity, and blossoming leadership skills. Though he cares not so much for winning the race as for saving Girdlegard, Tungdil has to rein in the hostilities within his party, including dwarves of different clans, separated by personal grievances, character problems, political issues, and romantic tensions. Besides the dwarves whose skills he needs to forge Keenfire, Tungdil is joined by a troupe of actors, a tempestuous maga, and her mysterious bodyguard who can best be described as "someone (or something) who eats orcs for breakfast." Their journey underground and overland is hampered by rockfalls, enemy attacks, assassination attempts, spooky goings-on, and heartbreaking losses that call forth a courage stronger than death itself. But the outcome of the final battle will depend on Tungdil learning to accept who he truly is and what it may mean for the future of the dwarves.

A bestseller in its original German, this book comes to us in English through the translation skills of Sally-Ann Spencer. It is the first part of a trilogy that continues with The War of the Dwarves and The Revenge of the Dwarves.

by Obert Skye
Recommended Ages: 12+

The author of the "Leven Thumps" quintet brings us this first book in an exciting new series which, strangely enough, seems to be packaged for an age group younger than its main character. When we first meet Beck Phillips, the smart-mouthed, fifteen-year-old mischief-maker has just lost his mother, a casualty of mental illness. Abandoned by his father at an early age, Beck has nobody except an uncle he has never heard of until the latter sends for him.

Even after a spooky train ride to a secluded valley, followed by a chauffeured drive up a mountain to the enormous mansion that will now be his home, Beck's resentment understandably grows. His Uncle Aeron lives as a recluse in the copper dome above the seventh floor, and seems uninterested in meeting the boy. The small staff keeps the huge old house up as best they can, occasionally selling pieces of furniture to pay the taxes, and they refuse to explain the reasons for all the strange rules they impose on Beck—rules such as "Don't go in the back yard" and "There is no basement, there never was a basement, and even if there was a basement, you are never to go down there."

Pretty soon Beck is in trouble at school, as he discovers that making enemies is only the least of his gifts. Even his two best friends show concern when Beck proves that he can make plants move and grow at his command. And that's before his exploration of all the forbidden places in and around his new home lead him to discover his family's long tradition of hatching dragons to pillage the countryside for them. Before Beck understands what is truly at stake, he is caught up in a scaly, fire-breathing, winged disaster that all goes back to an evil magician's curse. And unless Beck breaks the curse, either he or his newfound father will die a horrible death.

This is an exciting, scary, and emotionally complex book, beyond anything that the cover design and marketing would lead you to expect. Beck's first-person narration laces the drama and adventure with irreverent humor and teenage rebellion. And while the full realization of what he is up against builds slowly, its unfolding is rigged with cool surprises—including betrayal, deception, insane heroism, and the discovery of both friends and enemies in unexpected quarters. It is such a fun book that it may be hazardous to come to its end without having the sequel, titled Choke, on deck.

by Obert Skye
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the sequel to Pillage, sixteen-year-old Beck Phillips continues to wrestle with the curse that drives every female in his family to madness and every male to a gruesome death... a curse connected to dragons.

Life has almost returned to normal after Beck inadvertently unleashed ten rampaging dragons on the sleepy valley town where he moved after the suicide of his aunt, who had raised him from infancy. His newfound Dad, previously known to him as Uncle Aeron, still lives in seclusion in a copper-roofed dome at the top of their seven-story mansion. His real family seems to be the small staff that runs the house. And while we don't see much of his magical ability to make plants grow in this book, we do see a lot of Beck's strongest power: the power to make trouble for himself and everyone else.

Never good at following instructions or even advice, Beck starts this adventure by blowing up a big balloon in a small shed. He almost gets killed in the process. During his stay in the hospital, he gets few visitors except for a nosy reporter and a mysterious, cloaked figure with deathly-white skin. Neither of these characters does Beck any good as, against his better judgment, he seeks out the last dragon stone left after his previous brood perished and plants it in a secret hideout inside a nearby mountain cave. The beautiful but deadly creature that emerges is a queen dragon named Lizzie. Though Beck is enchanted with her, he knows that he will be held responsible for everything she pillages or destroys.

By the time he accepts the hard fact that he has to destroy Lizzie, Beck doesn't know how he can do it. Worse, he is hindered by not one, but two villains who pretend to be helpful just long enough to put Beck's life and that of his friend Kate in terrible danger—to say nothing of everyone else in the valley. To clean up this mess, and to bring his family a step closer to being free of its curse, Beck will have to ride a fast train to all but certain death. It's an exciting and scary ride, brightened by Beck's roguish humor, a twinkle of romance and a touch of family drama. Plus, of course, dragon fire. Expect another sequel; enough said!

The Dragon's Tooth
by N. D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

You probably didn't know this, but Columbus wasn't the first European explorer to discover America. And nor were Vikings such as Leif Ericson. According to this book, the first colony in the new world was planted by Saint Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk whose followers started a community of hermits on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Now only one of several Estates that the Order of St. Brendan operates around the world, the community of Ashtown, Wisconsin, is a world apart from the world: not only a home for monks, but also headquarters for a worldwide society of explorers, an academy for a secret army of renaissance men and women trained to fight not only on the ground but in the air and by sea, a museum of magical artifacts, a zoo of freakishly deadly creatures, and (gulp) a prison in which the world's most dangerous villains are held in a state of suspended immortality.

But for siblings Cyrus and Antigone Smith, the story does not begin there. They do not even learn that Ashtown exists until they have lost pretty much everything and everyone they care about. Since the accident two years ago that killed their father and left their mother in a coma, Cy and Tigs have been raised by their older brother Dan, not in the family's oceanview home in California, but in a decaying wreck of a motel outside of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. (Take extra points for knowing how to pronounce that town.) And then the motel burns down, their mother and brother are kidnapped by a creep who alternately calls himself Dr. Phoenix and Mr. Ashes, and the godfather they never knew dies before their eyes and leaves them... well, among other things, a set of keys that can open any door, and a few other trinkets whose magical properties are the very thing Dr. Phoenix would kill for.

Suddenly Cyrus and Antigone are thrust into the world of Ashtown, the only place that can protect them from Phoenix and his semi-human goons. Only it can't protect them, not really. It starts not protecting them the moment they show up. Their induction into the Order of St. Brendan is deferred until they can meet the criteria for journeymen in the order—and not just the ridiculously demanding modern-day standards, but the all-but impossible pre-1914 ones. They have until New Year's to learn two foreign languages, master several forms of armed combat, learn to fly and sail like a pro, and more, while living in a dungeon infested with deadly Whip Spiders and being sabotaged at every turn by all the people who don't believe the Smiths have a right to be there. Befriended only by misfits, and menaced by bad guys who somehow never seem fazed by Ashtown's heavily armed defenses, they must finally rely on their own talent for trouble and a keychain loaded with magical goodies.

Here is the first book in a new series (titled "Ashtown Burials") from the author of 100 Cupboards and its sequels. Like that earlier trilogy, this new story presents an amazingly original new dimension of the "school of magic" concept. This book is anything but a cutesy romp in a world of sparkly hocus-pocus. It is an intense, scary, deadly-serious bullet train of danger, conflict, suffering, and loneliness. It shows a couple of good kids struggling not to be overwhelmed by an evil of terrifying proportions. It is a gallery of flawed characters, booby-trapped with betrayal and loss, and yet enlivened by the possibility of friendship, excitement, and awesome adventure.

There is actually an amazing "book trailer" for this book, featuring young Joel Courtney of Super 8. Mr. Wilson has also written the young adult novel Leepike Ridge, a couple of Christian-themed children's picture books, and a nonfiction book about the Shroud of Turin. Visit his website for more information.

The Curse of the Wendigo
by Rick Yancey
Recommended Ages: 13+

As the nineteenth century winds up, a self-absorbed monstrumologist (i.e., scientist who studies monsters) named Dr. Pellinore Warthrop is drawn out of himself, and out of his headquarters in a small New England town, along with his faithful apprentice Will Henry. It's difficult to be precisely certain what it is that draws him. It could be the anguished plea of the only woman he ever loved, begging him to save her missing husband (who, up until he broke up their engagement, was Warthrop's best friend). It could be his altruistic love for a man who shared his youthful apprenticeship to the legendary Dr. Abram von Helrung. Or it could be his determination to prevent Meister Abram from cheapening the science of monstrumology with superstitious nonsense.

Whatever may be his true reason, Warthrop takes his "indispensible" young assistant along on a gruelling and terrifying journey, first to the wilds of Canada and then to the streets of New York City. Their quarry is a beast whose existence Warthrop never accepts, but whose call Will Henry hears: the Wendigo. It is the voice that rides the high wind, the hunger that is never satisfied. While Pellinore Warthrop insists that his friend John Chanler is merely the victim of the well-documented "Wendigo Psychosis"—the belief that one is possessed by an evil spirit that craves human flesh—Dr. von Helrung and some other members of the Society of Monstrumologists think that such creatures really exist and that Chanler has become one. This raises a conflict between Pellinore and his old mentor, not to say everyone else, as to whether Chanler is a beast who must be destroyed, or a man who must be saved.

Whatever the true answer may be, there's always room for doubt—even from the point of view of narrator Will, who has heard the Wendigo's voice call his name. What is not beyond doubt is that John Chanler has become terrifyingly dangerous. Make no mistake, this is a horror novel. Though it is marketed for young adults, please do not mistake it for a children's book. Besides a smattering of PG-13 language, it contains imagery so disturbing that it may give even a seasoned adult bad dreams. Living conditions in the tenements of the era of Jacob Riis and Thomas Byrnes are so graphically depicted that your stomach might do flip-flops, even without the violence and gore that takes place in them. But what puts the final chilling touch on this horror novel is the conceit that it is not Rick Yancey's fictional brainchild, but a transcript of journals left behind by an impossibly old man, who may have been delusional or even writing fiction himself. Who knows?

This sequel to The Monstrumologist is by no means the end of the series. Book 3, titled The Isle of Blood, came out in September 2011. Mr. Yancey is also the author of the "Alfred Kropp" trilogy, the "Teddy Ruzak" mysteries (four books so far), the novel A Burning in Homeland, and the nonfiction book Confessions of a Tax Collector.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stravinsky Week

Last weekend was the season premiere of the St. Louis Symphony, and I was in it. The Symphony Chorus joined four vocal soloists (plus one soloist from the chorus), four pianists, seven percussionists, and music director David Robertson to perform the amazingly underplayed 1923 ballet Les Noces, a.k.a. Svadebka, a.k.a. "The Wedding."

For the chorus, this piece meant months of preparation. In its 25 minutes of music, unfamiliar to nearly everyone in the group, there are only a handful of bars without singing and most of them are right at the end. Its four tableaux form one continuous movement of almost relentless energy. Its tunes and lyrics, loosely based on Russian folk songs, dramatize the surprising customs and emotions surrounding a Russian peasant wedding, and more to the point, they comprise yards of tricky-to-pronounce Russian text, declaimed at times in a breathless rush. The bride mourns her girlish freedom, the mothers mourn their lost children, the groom poses as a warrior marching to victory, and the wedding party alternates between bawdy humor and invocations of the saints, while (according to Stravinsky's disciple Robert Craft) the real message has to do with Russia's loss of innocence in the communist revolution.

Also on the program were three other pieces by Igor Stravinsky: his 1941 arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner," his ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring (for orchestra alone). Unfortunately I did not get to hear the latter, though I did hear Petrushka on Saturday night. It was wonderful to watch David Robertson conduct it, or rather dance it, with his big expressive gestures and his relish of rhythmic challenges. Projected above the stage were stage directions and scenery from early productions of Petrushka, including images of Vaclav Nijinsky in the role that defined his career (see his tombstone, pictured here).

I didn't get to see so much of Robertson when I was facing him on the stage because, frankly, I had a lot to keep track of in the score of Les Noces and for several long passages, I had to rely on peripheral vision to pick up his gesture. But the chorus came through heroically, in spite of a multitude of tricky entrances in a piece in which the meter changes every third bar, on the average, and in which the tempo was liable to change suddenly at the exact moment the chorus was to come in. Somehow we made all our entrances (or at least, we didn't mess up in the same place both nights), and in spite of a few rough spots we sold the audience on a piece that one chorus member said would be the perfect piece to take to Carnegie Hall.

Plus, there is something uniquely gorgeous about an orchestra consisting of four Steinways fanned out across the middle of the stage, backed up by an arc of percussion instruments ranging from bass drum, timpani, and xylophone to snare, toms, triangle, and crotales. The piece ends with a sound like church bells ringing while everyone else waits in silence, their seemingly boundless energy for once held back.I regret missing The Rite of Spring, but after a traffic jam made me late for Friday's performance (so that I missed Petrushka) I decided to go home after Les Noces, during the second of the evening's two intermissions(!); while on Saturday, I was overcome by a physical weakness during Les Noces and only just managed to get through the whole piece without collapsing. So I decided, I think wisely, to take myself home immediately afterward. It's a bitter disappointment, because if I could only choose to hear one piece conducted by David Robertson, it would be The Rite of Spring. I was also interested in it because the piece opens with a famous bassoon solo that would have been a terrific icebreaker for the orchestra's new principal bassoonist. Thousands of listeners in radioland were blessed to hear what I, a participant in the concert, ironically missed. But perhaps the broadcast will be repeated one of these days!

This focus on Stravinsky made for a daring opening-weekend program, but also sets the theme for the year: dance. The next piece the chorus takes part in, for example, is Ravel's ballet Daphnis et Chloe...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Looming Tackiness

This week's lighted-sign message at the neighborhood ELCA Tabernacle of Tackiness:


OK, I'm not sure I get this. Is it saying faith is that in which you weave, like underwater basket-weaving except with faith instead of water? Or is faith a thread that you are weaving into something? It rather sounds like the latter. Which is really an odd analogy coming from a "Lutheran" church. It makes faith out to be a merit you contribute in the hope that God will notice it and be pleased, rather than the funnel God uses to pour His undeserved gifts into you.

Maybe what they mean is that God will pull the thread...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

LaFevers, Malone, Reeman

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris
by R. L. LaFevers
Recommended Ages: 11+

It's tough to be a swashbuckling hero when you're a twelve-year-old girl in Victorian England. No one feels this more deeply than Theodosia Throckmorton, who at one point in this novel observes that even a jackal statue come to life and run amuck in the streets of London has more freedom than she does. Partly this is a result of the expectations held over young ladies of the time, embodied by her sternly disapproving Grandmother. Partly it is a side effect of being as deep undercover as possible for a secret agent battling the combined forces of ancient Egyptian curses and an international conspiracy to sow conflict between the English and the Germans.

Yes, the Serpents of Chaos are back, even after the drubbing Theodosia gave them in her previous adventure. This time their scheme involves an ancient staff of tremendous magical power. It can make mummies walk the streets of London at night. But it has even nastier powers, which will soon be aimed at one of Britain's most valuable military assets. Meanwhile, Theo's father is in trouble with the law, her friend Sticky Will is in trouble with someone on the other side of the law, and some of the quirky assistant curators at Father's museum reveal their own surprising secrets. With loads of evil magic to lay to rest, a plot against her country to foil, a kooky secret society on her trail, and a series of demanding governesses trying to mold Theo into a proper young lady, she has more trouble than time to deal with it. Luckily, she is a resourceful girl with the wit to be prepared for almost anything.

This fun, magical romp is Book 2 in a series that continues with Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus and Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh. Because Theo uses, and interacts with, magic based on the religion of ancient Egypt, I owe concerned Christian parents an "occult content advisory." Besides these books, R. L. LaFevers is also the author of (at present) four books featuring "Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist," a trilogy titled "Lowthar's Blade," and juvenile fantasy novels The Falconmaster and Werewolf Rising.

The Sixty-Eight Rooms
by Marianne Malone
Recommended Ages: 11+

If copies of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The Castle in the Attic got together in the Hogwarts Library and magically brought forth a baby book, it might be this first installment in what promises to be a nifty series. And to think that it all started in the imagination of a woman named Narcissa. No, that isn't another Hogwarts reference. I'm speaking of an honest-to-history Narcissa who spent a lifetime, to say nothing of a considerable fortune, collecting miniature works of art and assembling them into a series of tiny scale models of historic rooms from Europe to America and around the world. Her name was Narcissa Niblack Thorne, and the sixty-eight rooms in this book's title are the Thorne Rooms (not a typo) on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

There are actually more than 68 of these amazing works of art, if you count the ones displayed in other museums, but many children who have visited the collection in Chicago would agree that however many of them there may be, these miniature rooms are magical. While the rooms are real, the magic in this book comes from the imagination of an author who fell in love with the Thorne Rooms at age six, when her artist mother brought her to the Art Institute for the first time. Now an artist, a mother, and a teacher herself, Marianne Malone leads us into a world of magic discovered by only a few lucky children in each generation.

The present-day pair are best friends Ruthie and Jack, who discover an enchanted key that (in Ruthie's hands, at least) enables them to shrink down to just the right size to fit the scale of the Thorne Rooms. But even this discovery, and the after-hours mischief in the museum that it leads to, isn't all the magic has in store for them. For soon it seems that time travel will also be on the itinerary. Jack and Ruthie touch the lives of children in other eras of history, as well as a heartbroken man and a wistful old lady in present-day Chicago.

Jack and Ruthie are adorable but imperfect kids. They mean well, but they make mistakes. To make their magical dreams come true, they find it necessary to lie to their parents and break a number of other rules that exist for good reason. Ruthie feels guilty about this, but she is too caught up in the magic to stop. Nevertheless the kids face some pretty sobering problems, including uncertainty about whether they hurt the people they visited in the past, not to mention some dangerous wall-climbing adventures (revealing yet another use for duct tape) and a scary battle against a giant bug. They respond to all these challenges with a combination of courage and clever problem-solving skills, and above all with the sweetness of spirit that makes them the right people for the magic to choose. If you choose to join them on their strange adventure, prepare to make some wonderful new friends. And if you find it hard to say goodbye to them, cheer up. A sequel is coming in 2012, titled Stealing Magic.

The First to Land
by Douglas Reeman
Recommended Ages: 14+

OK class, pop quiz time. Can you name the 20th-century war in which the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Japan were all together on one side? Hint: While saber-wielding hordes rushed at them wearing white gowns and turbans, screaming "Kill!" with all but inhuman ferocity, the allies fought for survival behind defenses designed by an engineer named Herbert Hoover. Do you give up? Oh, well. I'm sure you'll pick up the answer later...

In this second book of the Blackwood Novels, also known as the Royal Marines Saga, one of naval fiction's most prolific authors carries his account of Britain's sea soldiers into a new generation. Whereas Blaze of Glory introduced us to Crimean War hero Philip Blackwood and his younger half-brother Harry, this novel finds their sons serving "by sea or by land" at the turn of the 20th century. This was the troubled tail-end of Queen Victoria's reign, when the sun seemed to be doing its damnedest to set on the British Empire.

David Blackwood is the eldest of three sons of the old General (whom we know as Harry) who have followed the family tradition of serving as Marine officers. While he mourns the death of his middle brother, killed by a sniper in the Second Boer War, and wonders what has become of his youngest brother who has only lately put on the uniform of an artilleryman, David finds himself in the disagreeable position of having to look after his wretched cousin Ralf. The latter is nothing like his heroic father, but David has neither the time nor the inclination to stroke the lad's petulant temper. For thanks to a combination of diplomatic and military blunders and the rise of a fanatically xenophobic cult known as the "Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists," the two cousins are about to land right in the middle of the Boxer Rebellion. Oops! There's the answer to our one-point quiz! How did you do?

Boxers may not sound very scary. But we're not talking about Kung Fu masters flying through the air, chopping with their feet and fists of fury. We're talking about virtually fearless killing machines who tortured, mutilated, and killed every foreigner they could get their hands on, whether man, woman or child; and who even butchered entire Chinese villages if they were felt to be under the influence of the "foreign devils." "Boxers" was really a whimsical nickname for a group better described as the "Big Knife Society." And because China's royal family and imperial army sympathized with the Boxers, the Boxer Rebellion wasn't just a wave of uncontrolled violence; it was actually an officially declared war. To start with, at least, representatives of foreign governments and business interests on Chinese soil had a rough time of it. No, that's not putting it strongly enough. They got massacred.

David and Ralf Blackwood go ashore to keep the allied supply lines open. But the enemy they face is perhaps more terrifying than any other foe I have yet encountered in my readings of historical naval fiction. Even the Muslim pirates featured in Ramage and the Saracens were less scary, considering that they were more interested in capturing slaves for their galleys and brothels than torturing and killing for its own sake. Imagining the horrors witnessed by the characters in this book will make your flesh crawl. If you have a weak stomach, you may even join some of Britain's finest marines in throwing up.

To make up for the graphic nature of the violence in this novel, author Reeman treats us to a cast of fully fleshed characters, flaws and all. One Marine sergeant, for example, carries a gruesome secret. A lieutenant finds courage through fear—the hard way, that is. David Blackwood carries on a steamy (not to say adulterous) affair with a German countess, which at times makes this book seem as much a romance novel as a story of war. And Ralf proves his mettle only after convincing us that he has no redeeming character traits whatsoever. But brace yourself. A lot of good men are going to die as wave after wave of screaming fanatics rush at the allies' increasingly frail defenses, cut off from reinforcements in the foreign quarter of Tientsin (now Tianjin). Their endurance in the face of virtually certain extermination is one of the greatest stories of courage under fire that you'll have never heard before. Because, face it, when have you ever read a book about the Boxer Rebellion?

It's an intense and compulsively readable book. Nevertheless I owe an "adult content advisory" to parents, and a "political incorrectness advisory" to schoolteachers, before recommending this book to younger readers. In the first place, do I really need to go back and underline the words "steamy" and "graphic" in my review above? In the second, as unsympathetic as I am to the forces of political censorship, I have to recognize that a book containing the "n" word could stir up trouble in a classroom, especially in a book published as recently as 1984. That a character of that time would have naturally and innocently used that term in the context in which it crosses David Blackwood's mind is obviously no defense, given the criticism today leveled at such books as Huckleberry Finn. I, for one, see no problem with letting history be history. But a word to the wise is sufficient.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Honegger, 2nd Symphony, I. Movement

Further to my series of poems inspired by symphonic masterpieces, which you can read here, here, and here, here is a little verse I improvised in my head during this morning's commute, inspired by a performance of the musical work named in the title, which I had in the car's CD player. I recommend Charles Dutoit's recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Nor sob nor chuckle, but akin to both,
It beats a ceaseless, spiritless tattoo:
Whether machine or madman, I am loath
To name what I would liken it unto;
Perhaps some strigilept, his lifeblood drained,
So muttering shambles, damned and yet unpained.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Temporal Anomaly Blues

Woke up tomorrow morning
Rolled over in bed
Saw that there beside me
I was lying dead
I got me a bad case
Of temporal anomaly blues
Any play that I make will only
Guarantee that I lose

Feel like Schroedinger's pussy cat
Surrounded by death traps
Do this, that, or the other
And wave forms collapse
I got me a bad case
Of temporal anomaly blues
Got the universe wired on a
Forty-two second fuse

[Instrumental bridge]
Them temporal anomalies
Lord you know be bad news
I'm a paradox walking
Singing them temporal anomaly blues.

Come yesterday morning
I'll know better than whine
Can hardly wait for the day I'll
Talk some sense into Einstein
Them temporal anomaly blues
Living back-asswards sure gonna stank
I'm a tell it to Heisenberg
Maxwell Lorentz and Planck

Them temporal anomaly blues
Passing time like a stone
Them temporal anomaly blues
Note to self—never write this song
Them temporal anomaly blues
Temporal ayyyyyy......
[Sound of trio being pulled into quantum singularity]