Saturday, October 29, 2011

Three Musketeers

The new "Three Musketeers" film is a delightful entertainment. It is also, I think, immune to complaints about historical anachronisms & taking liberties with Dumas, since Dumas, after all, took great liberties in history when he first wrote his entertaining romance.

D'Artagnan is played by Logan Lerman, an American kid lately known for playing the title role in "Percy Jackson and the Olympians." He's still good at adding a touch of impish humor to everything he does. Unlike the last two D'Artagnans I've seen in film--Chris O'Donnell (1993) and Justin Chambers (2001)--Lerman neither makes you want to plant your fist in his face nor turns the role into a manga comic book. So that's nice.

The brooding, cynical Athos is played by Matthew MacFadyen, whom I think of as the dude who played Mr. Darcy opposite Keira Knightley in "Pride & Prejudice" (2005). He's the romantic lead type, should probably play Rochester in a "Jane Eyre" pic any day now, has already done Arthur Clennam in "Little Dorrit," and he plays Athos at a moment in his long suicide by alcohol poisoning when he can still pull off heroic derring-do now and then.

Aramis, the sometime priest who remains devout even as a musketeer, is played by Luke Evans who, in a couple of weeks, will be seen as Zeus in "The Immortals." He plays Aramis as the bitterly disillusioned intellectual among the friends. Porthos, the brawny musketeer who is always flush with cash thanks to his affair with a wealthy married woman (remember, these guys are FRENCH), is played by Ray Stevenson, an action film maven who has played vampires, gangsters, Norse gods, and the Punisher. Stevenson plays Porthos with directness and a touch of humor.

I would take this set of musketeers any day over Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt & Chris O'Donnell. And I like almost everyone else in the cast too, including Milla Jovovich as Milady de Winter, Christoph Waltz as Cardinal Richelieu, and other familiar & unfamiliar actors filling out a cast in what turns out to be a surprisingly faithful adaptation, apart from the Da Vinci's Vault bit and the airships.

My only complaint is what they did with Buckingham. Orlando Bloom makes him absolutely repulsive. Both historically and in Dumas, Buckingham was an amazing dude. Bloom makes him look like Count Olaf from "A Series of Unfortunate Events."

On the video front, I've finally signed up for Netflix (at a time when hundreds of thousands of others are bailing out--my usual good timing). I figured this might, at least, be a cheaper alternative to buying disks and selling them back to FYE, especially where "TV on DVD" is concerned. My first two rentals were films by Hayao Miyazaki, whose Howl's Moving Castle I already knew and loved. First I saw Kiki's Delivery Service, a young witch's coming of age story with broomsticks, airships, a pedal-powered flying machine, and a touch of teenage friendship that could develop (as the kids grow up) into true love. It also features a talking cat voiced, in the English dub, by the late Phil Hartman, who was so right for the role that I now wonder how Billy Crystal's part in Howl would sound if Hartman had lived.

My second Netflix rental was Spirited Away, also written and directed by Hayao and widely regarded as his masterpiece. It draws on the Japanese animistic tradition in which everything in nature has a spirit behind it, such as the spirit of a given river or the spirit of radishes, etc. The main character is a small girl named Chihiro, whose parents drag her against her will into what they think is a derelict theme park, but which is actually a magical resort where the spirits go to hot-tub after a hard day's work. The parents get turned into pigs, Chihiro gets signed into servitude, and in order to get herself and her parents out she will have to remember her real name (taken from her when she signs her contract). Now known as Sen, she sets out on an adventure involving a mysterious boy who can turn into a dragon, a pair of identical twin witches with dangerous power, an enormous baby shrunken into a chubby mouse, a stink spirit, and a creepy "No Face" spirit who starts out friendly but develops into a dangerous monster.

All three of Hayao's films that I have seen share several story elements. They are essentially built on the frame of a classic quest. They focus on a seemingly powerless girl finding her own inner strength, often in friendship or true love. The beauty of these films is in their details, their rich and strange imagery, often involving movement across a picturesque landscape with atmospheric music stretching across gaps in the dialogue. The individual films vary by the type of setting they depict (ranging from the Austro-Hungarian look of Howl's world to the modern Japan of Chihiro's), the type of magic in them (from western witches and wizards to eastern spirits), and the age level they address (from Chihiro's small child to Kiki's early teen to Howl's Sophie on the cusp of sexual maturity). But they have a similar appeal, which a bookworm like me can describe no better than to say that the story for only one of them came from the mind of Diana Wynne Jones... but any of them could have.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Starred Reviews

As a confirmed Shelfarian, I know of two approaches to awarding up to 5 stars to a book: the "Critic" approach and the "Booster" approach.

The Critic says * is a mark of distinction an author has to earn; ** is for going above and beyond the reader's expectations; *** is for blowing the reader's mind; **** is for changing the world for the better; and ***** is for bringing about the millennial kingdom of God by the sheer power of the written word. Most books will have only one or two stars, and authors will have to fight hard for more than that. A critic who regularly gives out a lot of stars will often be read as over-generous, soft, or indulgent; yet, on the other hand, a truly obnoxious book simply cannot be rated at all, dropping off the scale with a zero-star rating that, ironically, has no effect on the book's average, as though it hadn't been scored at all.

For the Booster, however, ***** is a book that meets all expectations of reading pleasure. **** means there were a few off-moments, but overall the book is very good. *** means the book is all right, but it has serious problems. ** means it's not the reviewer's cup of tea. * means that the memory of this book rankles, like the taste of sickness, long after one has gotten over it. Ironically, although the Booster's 5-star scale has more scope for measuring the badness of a bad book, Critics will accuse Boosters of throwing softballs because most books on his Shelfari shelf have 4 or 5 stars; the ones that are really exceptional are tagged as "favorites."

I'll be up front about it, I'm a book booster. Because of my affiliation with MuggleNet, I am particularly a children's & young adults' book boster. I don't write critical reviews (though I don't withhold honest criticism either). I recommend books that I have enjoyed, hoping others (especially children) will read them & share my enjoyment.

Ironically, I have also been accused of "book censorship" because my book reviews routinely include "adult content advisories," "occult" ditto, and other hazard warnings where Christian parents may be concerned (such as books that promote the theory of evolution, anti-Christian polemics, disturbing ethical values, etc.). But my intent is never to discourage people from reading them; rather, these advisories are a "heads up" to Christian parents who are engaged in their children's inner lives, to be prepared to discuss things that may challenge the values they are trying to form. Banning, forbidding, or refusing to look at something is never the right response to "off-message" content. Children (and adults) should be encouraged to experience everything, apply critical thinking skills & discuss what they are reading openly and intelligently.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rehearsal Dinner Whimsy

FATHER OF THE BRIDE (standing up to make a toast).

Honey, it seems like only yesterday I held you in my arms, tugging on your little nose. But of course, it wouldn't come off, because it was real. I'm not saying you weren't a beautiful baby... but when you were born, the doctor slapped your mother.

Since that day, we've been proud to have you living under our roof for twenty-one wonderful years. The other fourteen years, not so much. Every time I thought about the day some man would come along and take you away from us, the agony I felt was unbearable. But you know how sharp your mother's elbows are. And now that day has come. Well, almost. I'm keeping my fingers crossed until two o'clock tomorrow.

I felt sure you had found your soul-mate the moment I met your husband-to-be. I'll never forget the look on his face. My heart went right out to him, he was so nervous. I don't know if it was the surprise when I sat up in the backseat, or if it was the click of the safety coming off my shotgun. I know exactly what he saw in you, though. I never realized till then how much the dashboard lights of an '82 Monte Carlo flatter you.

I am sure your father-in-law feels honored to have you as part of his proud family. Tears come to my eyes when I recall our first meeting, forty-five minutes ago. He said to me, "You're what's-his-face, aren't you?" I said, "That is undeniably true." Some of the greatest friendships in human history have been founded on less. And in our case, I look forward to a great deal less in the years to come.

I just want my little girl to know that, no matter what happens, there will always be a place for her to come back to, given at least thirty days' notice. We'll be renting out your room on a monthly basis, and we already have a tenant lined up. Don't worry about all your girlhood things. They're being well-cared for in a storage unit up by the airport. Your mother and I paid the first month's rent in your name, and the key and contract are tucked inside the card with your gift. Just our little way of showing how much we love you. And without further ado, I propose the bride!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tonality Unraveled

This tiny excerpt comes at the beginning of a magical moment in Maurice Ravel's magnum opus, the ballet Daphnis et ChloĆ©. I have gotten to know it lately because I'm singing in a chorus that will be performing it next month with the St. Louis Symphony. And even though it's just one microscopic detail from a vast score—almost an hour's worth of sumptuous, impressionistic music—nevertheless this example has seized my imagination. It is a relic of a unique musical genius that could have been extended almost infinitely, but which Ravel throws away in a handful of brief phrases that only hint at their potential.

It is a harmonic progression of exquisite, almost arabesque symmetry that could form a chain going all the way round to where it started, obliterating any semblance of functional tonality while at the same time uniting intricate logic with a sense of lush exoticism as only Ravel could.

Observe the first two bars of the sample: They form a descending sequence, each bar starting with a minor triad (A minor and G minor, respectively), followed by a dominant-ninth chord whose root is a major third higher (C# and B, respectively), thus standing in a false relation to the Tenor II note of the preceding chord and a tritone (augmented fourth) from the root of the next chord. (The third bar of this sample breaks the pattern in going back to A minor, but in a later instance the pattern extends to the expected F minor chord.)

The remoteness of these chords from each other is what destroys one's sense of functional tonality in this phrase. The sense of musical logic, however, is restored, firstly, by the parallel progression of bar one and two (a descending harmonic sequence); and secondly, by the smooth symmetry of the chord voicings. The initial A minor chord is spaced with the root doubled at the octave (Bass I & II), and the remaining members of the triad closely stacked above (Tenor I & II forming the interval of a major third). The tenors then descend by half-steps, doggedly maintaining the same major-third interval between them, while the basses in contrary motion alternate between leaps of a major third and a major second—B1 down and B2 up a third, then B1 up and B2 down a second, so that on the second chord they find themselves a major third apart, and then an octave apart again, only a full step lower than at first. The chromatically descending tenors, meanwhile, move to create the same chord types in a pattern that could, in theory, continue through an entire descending octave, leading back tonally to where it began.

In the second iteration of this pattern, the one that follows through to F minor, Altos I & II take over the chromatically-descending tenor role. Meanwhile the basses, now in unison, alternately leap down a minor sixth and up a tritone, as though switching back and forth between the B1 and B2 parts of the initial pattern. In this way, Ravel seems simultaneously to compress and expand his tonally unsettled harmonic pattern, while an additional melody line (at first with the Sopranos in unison) cuts across it with a harmonically and rhythmically displaced melodic thread. Iteration 3 transposes this second version of the pattern up an octave, continuing the descent from F minor to C# minor, with the chords in an SST voicing and the countermelody—like a brushstroke that deliberately blurs the lines of a painting—crossing it in the Alto part. Thus Example #2:The fourth phrase of this amazing passage—evocatively scored for textless, a capella chorus in the middle of a huge orchestral masterpiece—introduces another variation of the original idea. Now with the chords in an SSAA voicing and the tenors continuing the descent of that line-blurring line, the chord pattern changes. Now the top Soprano line is spreading upward by half-steps, but for the moment Ravel has thrown aside the symmetrical motion of the other three chord parts. Also, the chord types have changed, moving from A major (2nd inversion) to A-sharp minor (ditto), to a root-position F-sharp major chord, and finally to a huge, first-inversion, G dominant-7th chord for the full chorus—again, a succession of harmonies from regions tonally remote from each other.

At this point the "blurring" melody line acquires a shadow, becoming two lines moving in parallel minor thirds, while underlying chord alternates between G7 and G#7 over a sustained B in the bass. And so we come to the next interesting variant of Ravel's musical thought, as shown in Example #3:Here Ravel seems to have taken his initial arabesque and turned it inside out—and yet it remains instantly recognizable. Notice that Bass I & II parts are now moving in parallel perfect fifths, down a whole step, then up a half-step, and repeat. Before the pattern can repeat for a third bar, it gets a surprise twist, first rhythmically delaying its expected half-step-up movement by a bar, then kinking it around for another whole-step down. Meanwhile, the Tenor I & II parts are the ones moving in contrary motion, starting a minor third apart to complete the minor-triad above the basses, then spreading apart a half-step in each direction to form a perfect fourth so that the T2 part adds a dissonant note (the second of the chord) to what would otherwise be an open-fifth chord. This T2 note, doubled in the soprano line, comes across as something of a passing tone as that voice continues to descend by half-steps, while the T1 part hops down the equivalent of a minor third to begin the second repetition of this pattern. Soprano 2, meanwhile, doubles the first B1 note of each bar and sustains it across the whole bar, in effect adding a 7th to the second chord of the pattern, while the Altos in unison cut their rhythmically and harmonically blurring swath across everything.

So, the effect is a harmonic progression from B minor to something G#-ish, or possibly a last-inversion D# thirteenth-chord, either of which is a leap of cosmic distances in terms of functional tonality; then, in sequence the same harmonic pattern descending from A minor to F#-and-change, resolving in an unexpected direction (and a beat later than expected) to good old E minor.

Ravel continues to develop and refine this idea in musically unexpected ways for a couple more phrases, swapping things around so that the chords are rhythmically offset and the counter-thread (now in the bass line) moves on the beat, and blending the colors of the other choral parts in a variety of ways. As the instruments begin to enter the argument, the mood darkens to a soft SATB chord in which another distinctive variant of the first pattern emerges, with B2 describing a spiral (M3 up, P4 down; m3 up, M2 down), T1 and T2 in chromatically descending major thirds, and B1 sustaining first an E, then a D across breathtakingly dissonant pairs of chords. Out of this emerges a chromatically climbing pattern that morphs into a crescendo for the full chorus, starting with:This phrase always gives me a Bartok flashback; something about the Bass parts reminds me of Cantata Profana. In complete disregard of traditional harmonic function, but confidently affirming the use of triadic harmony, Ravel proceeds from D# minor to D major in three chord-changes. As the crescendo continues, the sopranos rising chromatically and the chorus dividing into as many as six parts, overagainst C tremolos in the orchestra's lowest register and a tonally ambiguous swirl of accompaniment, the chorus surges thrillingly through a progression of chords no less bizarre than B major—A major—D# minor—D augmented—F# major—C major—A-flat—F major (with a G-flat added in the bass)—E-flat minor—and at triple forte, covering a three-octave spread, a climactic but extremely brief B minor chord. If you called this "taking the long way around a change from major to minor," you would be making an understatement. This harmonic route combines just about every possible shift between tonal areas that sound a world apart, in a broadening spiral of remoteness while, at the end, its chord-shapes flare outward like a colossal wedge.

It's dramatic. It's exciting. It's disturbing. It's music that pulls the threads out of the weave of traditional harmony and twists them into something altogether new. I hope I can figure out how to sing it within the next couple of weeks. It's very challenging and the chorus is so exposed! But it is also music that shakes the world in a peculiarly colorful way that could have been created by no one but Ravel.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Westerfeld, Westerfeld, Wilson

by Scott Westerfeld
Recommended Ages: 12+

I surprise myself when I look back on the thousands of books I have reviewed and see so few, if any, that really belong to the Steampunk genre. The whole "alternate history of Queen Victoria's era with armed airships and high-tech high jinks" concept holds an immense appeal for a fantasy and historical fiction buff like me, but somehow I have only grazed the edges of this flourishing field. Books I have read by Stephen Elboz, Kenneth Oppel, and R. L. LaFevers are about as close to that type of story as I have wandered, more by chance than by design. So when I saw the cover of this book, I thought I was going to really plunge into the world of Steampunk once and for all. I won't say "alas," but I was mistaken. This book takes the world of Steampunk into the next generation, and gives it a twist all its own.

The alternate universe in which Leviathan takes place seems to have split off from the Steampunk waveform at the time of Charles Darwin. Not content with disabusing half of Europe of their belief in a divine creator, the Darwin of this world founded a branch of science devoted to combining the "life threads" (read "what they called DNA before they discovered DNA") of different animals into fabricated creatures that had all kinds of uses. Britain, France, and other "Darwinist" aligned nations have gotten a head-start on high tech, using these artificial beasties instead of gadgets and motors. So by the dawn of what we call World War I, they have vehicles drawn by elephantines and wolftigers, bio-engineered krakens serving in lieu of submarines, and most exciting of all, living airships ranging from single-passenger "Huxleys" (giant, hydrogen-breathing jellyfish) to airborne battleships built around flying whales like the good ship Leviathan herself!

Enter Deryn Sharpe, an aviator's daughter whose only ambition is to serve in the Royal Navy of the sky. So she cuts her hair, puts on a boy's uniform, and enlists under the name Dylan, relying on her androgynous looks, her innate "sky sense," and her incredible natural courage to overcome the disadvantage of being the one girl among a midshipmen's berth full of boys. Then a female boffin (that's British slang for "scientist") comes on board with a load of luggage and a secret cargo meant to play a role in sensitive negotiations with the Ottoman Empire. Suddenly, thanks to weight restrictions, Dylan finds herself one of only two middies left on board.

Meanwhile, in the opposing half of Europe—the half devoted to developing machine might beyond the coal-powered whimsies of the Steampunk era—the so-called "Clanker" powers have been gearing up for a war to end all wars. Their armored vehicles now run on diesel fuel, but instead of rolling on tractor treads they walk on legs, like giant insects or spiders carrying battleships over land. Just as in the real world, hostilities are ignited by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The twist is that the Germans poisoned the Archduke and his wife in the middle of the night, forcing their teenaged son Alek to flee for his life with a handful of loyal men.

Just when Alek's party makes it to the safety of a royal villa hidden in the Swiss Alps, Deryn's Leviathan is shot down by German fighter planes in the adjacent valley. With their airbeast crippled, an Alpine winter closing in, and German reinforcements on the way, they won't survive long... unless Alek risks exposing his safe haven, and his politically explosive family secret, to help them. What is it that brings these two desperate groups together? Necessity? Fate? Compassion? Fatal foolishness? Whatever it is, Alek, Deryn/Dylan, and their companions are about to share an adventure full of danger, daring, complex lines of loyalty and duty, and tremendous import for the life or death of millions of people. Their adventure only begins in this book, however, continuing in the sequel, Behemoth.

American author Scott Westerfeld is also the author of the Midnighters, Uglies, and Peeps series, and seems to specialize in writing fantasy thrillers about issues such as popularity, popular taste, and the perception of beauty. Married to Australian author Justine Larbalestier, he also writes contemporary ballet music and software while leading a forever-summer lifestyle, divided between New York and Sydney. Which, you know, kind of makes him my fantasy hero.

by Scott Westerfeld
Recommended Ages: 12+

In Book 2 of the Leviathan trilogy, an alternate-history version of World War I continues to play out between two great powers of Europe: the Clankers, whose war machines have advanced at an accelerated rate to include walking tanks and helicopter drones, as well as planes, submarines, and battleships; and the Darwinists, who have replaced mechanical technology with bio-engineered monstrosities such as the whale-sized, hydrogen-breathing airbeast Leviathan, known to our protagonists as home.

But the friendship between Alek and Dylan has become increasingly complicated. For one thing, Alek lets Dylan in on the secret that he is the rightful Archduke of Austria, heir to the elderly Emperor, and if he can hang on until the Emperor dies, he may be in a position to stop the war. But Alek is caught in a tricky situation when Austria enters the war on the Clanker side. Now he is at best a prisoner of war; if his secret gets out, he may even be forced into the role of traitor to his people. Meanwhile, Dylan hasn't yet figured out how to tell Alek that he is really a girl named Deryn, who posed as a boy in order to get into the air service and who now carries a hopeless torch for a young prince who can never, ever get romantically entangled with a commoner. And now their friendship and loyalties are put to the test in a diplomatic disaster over the Ottoman Empire's capital Istanbul, where the Clankers have all but sealed the deal on the Turks entering the war on their side, and where a lady boffin (i.e., scientist) is hatching a genetic surprise that may tilt the balance of power.

Things get out of hand before you can say, "Barking spiders!" Alek makes a reluctant escape from the Leviathans, only to get caught up in a popular revolution. Uncomfortable in his role as a freedom fighter (given that he is first in line for the throne of a vast empire), Alek nevertheless contributes the last of his Archduke father's hoard of gold and a genius for driving walking battle machines to the cause of keeping the Ottomans out of the war. He also obtains a new grandmother and the friendship of a beautiful female warrior. At the same time, Deryn has fallen to earth in a secret sabotage mission that has gone pear-shaped, and her only way out is through a furious and deadly battle that tests all her courage, loyalty, and strength. Caught between a prince who can never love her and an amorous girl she can never love (well, probably not...??), Deryn plays a crucial role in the fate of nations while risking, at every turn, putting her head in a noose for treason or mutiny. Nevertheless, her greatest test remains ahead, along with whatever difference Alek is meant to make in his alternate history of the 20th-century world. But to find out about that, you'll have to get the third book in this trilogy: Goliath (released in September 2011).

In my frank opinion, this is a smashingly entertaining series, sparkling with verve, derring-do, technological magic and scientific wonder. The main characters effervesce with personality, their catch-phrases and slang words are infectious, and their situation brims with whimsical humor, romantic tension, and a grim sense of fast-approaching obstacles to their happiness, and to the survival of millions across Europe—obstacles that threaten to be impossible to overcome. While the book is innocent of anything requiring an "adult" or "occult content advisory," however, I feel it is my duty to let concerned Christian parents know that among the conceits of Westerfeld's fantasy world is the assumption that Darwinism could (should? already has?) debunked the "superstition" and moral scruples of Christianity. One of the tensions between Deryn's and Alek's respective worlds is, after all, the spiritual repugnance that Clankers (as Christians) hold toward the Darwinists' "abominations." You may want to take this into account as you decide whether to gift these books to your kids, or in planning to discuss the series with them as you read it together. Either way, I believe this book will bring teens (and upward) enjoyment, enrich their inner world, and perhaps even stimulate them to explore the amazing worlds of history, mechanics, genetics, and the culture of what is now Turkey, all on their own.

The Chestnut King
by N. D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

In this final sequel to 100 Cupboards and Dandelion Fire, Henry York Maccabee girds himself for his final battle with the witch queen of Endor, knowing that if he fails, all life in the world he has learned to love will turn to ashes... beginning with those nearest and dearest to him. He must not lose, but how can he win when a drop of the witch's blood is eating away at his body and mind like an incurable cancer? How can a boy who, not so long ago, was a timid, insecure weakling, overcome such a powerful evil with nothing but a knack for baseball, a magical gift tuned to the key of dandelions, and a powerful new name he has only started to understand? How can he fight back against the combined might of an entire empire, an elite force of virtually unkillable killers, and an enemy who can find him anywhere he tries to hide—even in another world—even in his dreams?

Well, it won't be easy. In the most powerful stories, these kinds of things are as far from easy as anything can be. And this is one powerful story, emotionally moving at a deep level that tends to be difficult to move. It is an electrifying story told in vibrant language that sometimes teeters between poetry and prose. It is a work of pure fantasy that taps into truths from under spiritual sands that most modern writers seem loath to explore. It even made me cry until boogers ran out of my nose. You may find this hard to believe, but to me a book that can do that is a rare treasure. From Henry's determination to die for those he loves when it seems he can do no more, to his grandmother's touching farewell in a visit to Henry's dreams, this book resonates with Christian imagery without being preachy, sentimental, or even allegorical.

It's just a great story, give or take the longer-than-usual coda (two whole chapters and an epilogue after the resolution of the chief crisis) which, in all fairness, provides a satisfying glimpse into the surviving characters' ultimate fate. While, for me, the final floret on the proverbial cake-icing is the fact that my review of 100 Cupboards is quoted on the jacket—a proud achievement I showed all my friends, like a parent passing out baby photos—you may even feel yourself getting nostalgically choked up when the story turns full circle, back to the bus station in Henry, Kansas, where it all began. And so I congratulate Mr. Wilson on a most satisfying end to a great trilogy!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Top Ten Reasons Fall Is Good

10. The leaves change color, fall from the trees, and drift into heaps that you can lose a child in. For a minute, anyway.

9. The melancholy pleasure of a rainy day, the sweet earthy smell of moldering leaves, and the subdued, gaslight quality of a sun that rises late and sets early.

8. The perfection of a blue-sky, sunny day when the high temperature is around 65° F, give or take 5 degrees, when a sweater or windbreaker gives just enough warmth but not too much.

7. The happy necessity of a daily cup of rich, dark, hot chocolate.

6. The sudden prevalence of pumpkins set out as decorations and baked into pies and other desserts. (Roasted pumpkin seeds are also a nice fall treat, by the way.)

5. The nighttime luxury of snuggling down under a heavy quilt or comforter, without fear of overheating.

4. Your favorite cat's tendency to snuggle down with you, in an especially well-behaved way, all night long.

3. The clarity that the air has when it is neither too damp nor too dry, too hot nor too cold.

2. The brief, exquisitely peaceful pause between the rumble of air conditioning and the rattle and clank of central heating.

1. The realization that, just for once, the climate is even nicer outside than inside...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tackiness Boogie

This week's new message on the lighted sign at the neighborhood's ELCA Tower of Tackiness:


I believe this is known, in dogmatics textbooks, as the "beat me, Daddy, eight to the bar" theory of atonement. It is closely related to the theory that the apostles were a hair band, although the general, unwashed public doesn't know this as it stumbles past this church, laughing themselves sick on a mental image of a bunch of stiff, Scandinavian Lutherans grooving to a backbeat. To me, however, it brings to mind Matthew 18:6 and the fact that one particular stone that rolls is called a millstone...

Saturday, October 15, 2011

New Camera

Here are some shots I took while playing with my new digital camera, figuring out how it works. Out of over 40 snaps I've taken over the past few days, just a handful really struck me as keepers. I guess I have a lot more to learn!

Here is Tyrone, the cat who has been my main dawg for over nine years now. He's still looking good, don't you think? And in this picture, slightly touched up by a bit of Photoshop magic, he looks like he's saying to me, "Dude, you gone."

This rust-colored classic is parked across the street from my office in the rustic burg of Defiance, Missouri. I thought it went nicely with the shed next to it, but I masked in the background foliage (from another photo I took yesterday) to conceal a rather ordinary house on the neighboring lot.

Here is the nice-looking bed-and-breakfast next to the building where I work in Defiance, Missouri. The painting and woodwork actually still need a little work, but overall it doesn't look half bad!

Here is a fancy birdbath on the grounds of the B&B pictured above. I'm mostly proud of the fact that I kept my hand still enough to get a good shot with the optical zoom cranked up most of the way. Also, I like the slightly wild, antique-looking settings. But I wish I had taken a picture of the gargoyle on the building next door! Ah, next week....

And here is a glimpse of the space I work in every day, fulfilling orders for a Christian doctrinal journal that has been published in some twenty languages and read around the world. While bulk shipments and single-copy subscriptions are shipped from other facilities, all your day-to-day back-issue orders, new subscriptions, and donations cross this desk and the packaging/mailing work bench next to it!

Tackiness World Series 2

This week, another baseball-related message from the neighborhood ELCA church, whose book of whimsical bumper-sticker slogans must come equipped with a pun for every conceivable occasion:


Yeah, but what about you turkeys?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Most Historic Organ

I thank Alan Creek for sending me these pictures of the historic pipe organ at St. Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS) in St. Louis, almost in the same neighborhood as the church I attend. Besides these pictures he sent me many additional snaps of the innards of the organ, but I post these for the enjoyment of those more generally interested in the pipe organ.
First, here's a nice view of the pipes and of the space they fill with sound. Judging by the decorations (as well as an exterior shot of the church which showed snow on the roof), I gather these pictures were taken around Christmastime. It looks like an instrument that could create an impressive volume of brilliant, festive holiday music.

Second, here's a close-up of the console, with emphasis on the pedals. Note that the pedal board is flat, and that the pedals are all lined up parallel to each other. This reflects the historic pedal design favored in may parts of Europe to this day. American organs of the last few decades have spoiled organists (like me) with easier-to-reach pedal keys splayed out in a radiating, concave pattern, like the ribs of a folding fan that curves upward at both ends. The splayed configuration makes it easier to reach notes with your heels, so that you don't have to twist your ankle so much when reaching heel-to-toe across intervals of a third or fourth; the concave shape brings notes at the upper and lower end of the keyboard closer, so that you do not have to stretch your legs so far. Playing a straight pedal-board like this will really put hair on a guy's chest. But, it may also help performers develop a more historically authentic approach to works by Bach and other composers who played their own works on instruments like this.

Above the pedal-board are four additional pedals. The three on the left are simple on-off switches for couplers, which combine the stops for more than one keyboard onto a single keyboard. I am guessing that these couplers, from left to right, are "Great to Pedal," "Swell to Pedal," and "Swell to Great," where "Great" means the lower keyboard (controlling the pipes exposed on top of the organ) and "Swell" means the upper keyboard (controlling pipes enclosed inside a wooden chest). The larger, fancy "volume-pedal" looking thing to the right of these three is the Swell pedal, which opens and closes the jalousie doors on the swell chest, allowing the performer to raise or lower the loudness of at least part of the instrument. This may seem like a Rube Goldberg machine to you, but organs have been around a lot longer than electronics. This is simply the only way to adjust the volume on pipes, which in themselves are an "all or nothing, on or off" kind of instrument.

Here are the stops for Great and the Pedal. One pulls a piston out to bring a stop into action, and pushes it back in to shut it off. Bottom row first, L to R: "Bellows Signal" activates a signal (bell?) to alert the dude cranking the bellows that the organist needs more wind. It's interesting to see this on an organ in these days of electric air pumps! Next is the Bass Flute 8 ft., a pedal stop that plays a note at the actual pitch of the corresponding note in the score. Then there's the Bourdon 16 ft., which sounds an octave lower. On the middle row of pistons you have four 8 ft. stops on the Great (lower manual keyboard). The most important one is on the right: Open Diapason, a.k.a. the Principal -- the type of pipe with the most quintessentially "organy" sound, frequently used as the foundation of a strong, solid-sounding registration. To the left, apparently a more recent addition, is a trumpet stop, whose flaring pipes create a brilliant, brassy sound. Then there's the Gamba, a pipe whose tapering shape gives it a mellow, breathy sound that organists strangely associate with strings; and finally the Melodia, which I take to be a flute stop, lighter than the Diapason but clearer than the Gamba. Above these, from right to left, are: Octave 4 ft., a sound similar to the Diapason but one octave higher (adding strength and brightness to a tone-color combination); Flute d'Amore 4 ft., a flute sound at the same higher octave, probably contrasting gently with the Melodia but less forceful than the Octave; Super Octave 2 ft., another diapason two octaves above the written note and thus making the total combination even brighter; and the Mixture 3 rks., which is to say 3 ranks of pipes tuned to such intervals as a 4th or a 3rd above the 4-ft. pitch level, and sounding all together to create a buzzy mixture of tone colors, shrill and out of tune by themselves, but in combination with 8' and 4' stops gilding the total sound with a shimmer of brilliance.

The "Swell" stops are situated on the other side of the console, controlling the pipes in the swell box. The bottom row duplicates the coupler kick-switches above the pedal board, in a form that the performer may feel more confident using, provided he can spare a hand. The middle row, from left to right, starts with another 8 ft. Diapason, this one "stopped" as opposed to the "open" Diapason on the Great. This is to say, each pipe (probably made of wood put together in a boxy shape) has a plug stuck in the top end, forcing the wind through a narrower opening and creating a more flute-like sound. The Oboe Gamba 8 ft., like the trumpet, is a "reed" type of pipe, relying not just on air blowing across a slit in the pipe but on a little metal tongue inside the pipe to create the essential vibration that determines its vaguely oboe-like sound, best used for delicate solos. The Salicional is a stringy type of flute, and the Geigen Principal is a sort of cross between a string stop and a diapason, possibly with a hornlike tone color. On the top row of stops, from right to left, you have: the Tremolo, which puts a little shake in all the notes; the Flute Harmonique 4 ft., a type of flute pipe that is built to 8 ft. dimensions and then "overblown" so that it sounds an octave higher; the 4 ft. Violino, obviously a string stop sounding an octave higher than the written pitch; and the 2 fl. Flautino, a sharp flute sound two octaves up.

This would be an interesting instrument to play. I may prove to be wrong, but the feeling I get from looking at the design of this historic instrument is that it is inspired by the British school of organ building, so that its stops will tend to pile up in rich, dignified, solid masses of not very brilliant sound, with a slight tendency to blur independent lines together. In accompanying services on this organ, I predict that I would probably overuse the trumpet as an expedient for making the melody line "pop out" against the background, and the pedal couplers would be in nearly constant use. Pieces giving the pedal part a distinctive solo line against two contrasting lines of accompaniment in the manuals would be difficult to pull off. But for light, intimate pieces at a softer dynamic level, there would be a world of contrast and variety to play with. Now I look forward to test-driving this organ to see how far off my predictions are, and how quickly my ankles and knees can adapt to the straight pedalboard!

Raising the Widow's Son

I get to preach tonight at the midweek "Parlor Mass" at a certain LCMS church in the city of St. Louis. The text, taken from the historic readings for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, is Luke 7:11–17.
Not one but two large crowds witnessed the miracle, plus many of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus arrived in Nain with a crowd following Him, just when another crowd came out of the city following the bier of a young man who had died. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow. And then Jesus says these awesome words—or maybe they are terrible words—or maybe they’re just plain silly. Jesus looks at this poor widow who now has no one left in the world to care for her, and He says: “Do not weep.”

He’s kidding, right? “Do not weep”? Why would He say this to the widow of Nain? Even though Luke tells us exactly why Jesus says it, there are a lot of weird ideas about what those words mean and why Jesus said them. Chances are, most of us have been taken in by these strange ideas.

First, there’s the idea that Jesus means you shouldn’t mourn for the dead. Don’t be sad! They’re in heaven, right? And of course, as the story unfolded at the gates of Nain, the young man came back to life and went back to his mother, just as each of us will see our loved ones restored to life some day. So does this mean funerals should be tear-free zones? Is Jesus telling us all not to cry? Is this where the Bible says that Christian death and burial should be a joyful celebration rather than a time of sorrow and grief? Good luck trying to enforce that rule! I have shed more tears at the death of dear, believing brothers and sisters in Christ than for some members of my own family. I won’t tell you that a Christian funeral should be happy or that you shouldn’t cry when a loved one departs. Even knowing that our loss is their gain, it is nevertheless our loss. We will miss them.

As David said when his infant son died, “He will not come to me, but I will go to him.” And in the meantime, the dear departed leave us full of hurt, longing, and loneliness. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, both in his own grief for a beloved friend and in his compassion for the dead man’s family.

Another strange thought that people link with the words, “Do not weep,” is the idea that death is OK, that we shouldn’t dread it or hate it, but embrace it as a friend. That’s not true either. Death is still the wages of sin. It is not a natural part of the world order God created. It is not part of the destiny God has in mind for us. Death is a perversion of all that is good and lovely. Death is a parasite that has attached itself to our world through the wiles of Satan and our own (that is mankind’s) rebellion against the God of all life. Death is an enemy that snatches up young and old, strong and weak, good and bad without distinction. Death is a destroyer.

It is because of death that our need for a Savior is so urgent. We need someone stronger than death. We need someone with the authority, with the power, to halt death in its tracks and turn it back into life. More to the point, we need God to care about us enough, in spite of our sins and errors, to do for us what Jesus did for that widow’s son. We need God’s Son to enter into combat with death, and to prevail on our behalf.

This is what Jesus came to do. Because that is the kind of God we have—a God who has compassion on us, sinners though we be. And that, little children, is why Jesus said to the widow at Nain, “Do not weep.” For as Luke tells us, “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her.” He wasn’t issuing a commandment from some lofty seat of authority, like “Thou shalt not weep.” He wasn’t delivering a philosophical nugget of wisdom, like “Death is nothing to cry about.” He wasn’t even teasing the miracle about to take place, like “Shush, wait till you see this!” It’s as simple as this: Jesus felt bad for the woman. It’s like when you see a child fall down and hurt himself, and you pick him up, and you see tears in his eyes, and you feel such pity that you almost start to cry yourself; so you wipe his tears away and you say, “Don’t cry. It’s going to be all right.” This is what Jesus is saying. He’s saying, “Your pain is My pain. Your sorrow is My sorrow. Your death is My death. I love you. Please, let Me comfort you, like a mother comforts her child.”

And then he touched the bier, so that the bearers stopped. Nowadays we are apt to miss the drama in this small gesture. But in Jesus’ time, touching a dead body was a serious no-no. People who handled the dead were regarded as unclean. But when Jesus touches the bier, something different happens. His authority over life and death is so apparent that it stops the pallbearers in their tracks. They’re waiting for the next thing to happen, which is simply that Jesus tells the young man to get up, and the dead man sits up and begins to talk. Obviously contact with the uncleanliness of death does not make Jesus unclean. And it’s not just because He is stronger than death. For even apart from that, all holiness dwells in Jesus. In Him, the holy and eternal God takes bodily, human form. And God cannot be desecrated, because He is holiness in and of Himself. So what He touches, no matter how unclean it may be, becomes clean. Neither the bier nor the corpse on it can make Jesus impure. Rather, Jesus makes the dead man pure. Likewise, as the Author of life in the flesh, it is in Jesus’ gift to make the dead alive.

This miracle at Nain matters to us now, and not just as historical trivia or as a demonstration of Jesus’ super powers. It matters to us because it shows in a very down-to-earth way how Jesus takes away our sins and delivers us from death. If Jesus is so clean that nothing can make Him unclean—if, indeed, whatever He touches becomes clean—then when He touches us in all His purifying purity, we too become pure. When He was poured onto us in Baptism, when He is breathed into us in Absolution, and most certainly when His body and blood sacrificed for sin is given for us to eat and drink, we are instantly and fully forgiven and righteous before God. For in His compassion for us sinners, Christ gave Himself up to be punished by God and men, to be flogged and hanged and pierced with a sword like a common criminal. He was made sin for us, and became a curse; and yet, since He is forever righteous and sinless, He cannot be stained by guilt, or held captive by any curse. Rather, by becoming sin and a curse on our behalf, He has removed our curse and guilt. And now by Word and Sacrament He touches our impurity and makes us pure. We know he can do this because, at Nain, Jesus made the unclean clean.

Likewise, death cannot overpower Him because He has power over death. Jesus showed this, too, at Nain, when He raised the young man from the dead. And on the cross He does the same for all of us. He absorbed death in all its horror and violence. He let death close its jaws around Him and swallow Him whole—but only so that He could burst its gizzard once and for all. For death cannot hold captive the Lord of life. It can touch him, but not claim Him for its own; rather, when Jesus lays His hand on it, death itself is transformed.

By His death and resurrection, Jesus has changed your death, and my death, into a brief sleep from which we will soon awaken. Death is now a gateway to heaven, where we but pause for a moment to await the fulfillment of all things. Then we will be raised from the dead—not like the young man at Nain, who eventually died again, but like Jesus, who is arisen never again to die. Then will begin a new life where we will never be troubled by death again. It is hard for us even to imagine that now. But we believe it, because God has promised it in Christ. And by doing miracles like raising the widow’s Son, Christ has proven His power to keep that promise, many times over—and not only the power, but also the love. By his love for the young man’s mother, by His holiness that cleanses the unclean, by His glory that banishes the shadow of death, Jesus shows us the forgiveness and life He now gives us, and will give us, because He loves us so. Let the report go out: God has visited His people—visited and saved us. Hallelujah!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Polly Shulman

The Grimm Legacy
by Polly Shulman
Recommended Ages: 12+

Elizabeth has always had a soft spot for fairy tales. Maybe her own Cinderella-like situation has something to do with that. But her research paper on the Brothers Grimm leads her social studies teacher to recommend her for a job as a page at the New York Circulating Material Repository, a kind of library where people can check out historical artifacts rather than books; and there, in the basement, filed under "Special Collections," is a closely-guarded collection of the actual magic objects described by the Brothers Grimm. So Elizabeth's mental habit of being prepared for magic to happen might really pay off!

Before Elizabeth is allowed to try on the glass slippers, and so on, she must first pass some additional tests. She learns to find items requested by patrons, and to put returns back where they belong. She begins to master the Repository's low-tech communication system (pneumatic tubes!) and proves herself reliable enough to learn the password to the Grimm Collection.

But trouble is already brewing. Trouble worse than the basketball star from Elizabeth's school borrowing the Seven-League Boots to fly his little brother to the babysitter between practice and work. Someone is sucking the magic out of the pieces in the collection. Or rather, someone is stealing the real items and replacing them with weakly-enchanted fakes. The Repository is about to shut down access to the collection for good. And Elizabeth can't let that happen, not when her sense of direction has been pledged for the return of a mermaid's shell-comb. And most certainly not when some of her best friends have been snatched by magical villains.

Elizabeth and her fellow pages make an interesting team, bound together by criss-crossing romantic interests and divided by teenage jealousies and suspicions. The magic of first love gets mixed into the fairy tale mash-up while a shrink ray, a giant bird, a bossy little sister and an even littler brother, a piece of knotted string, and a snarky talking mirror each play a pivotal role. It's all lots of fun, with laughter and warmth, a few shivers and shudders, and a quirky inventiveness in its approach to fairy tale, fantasy, horror, and sci-fi gimmicks. (Wouldn't you like to see the Bradbury Bequest? Meanwhile, you wouldn't love to visit the Lovecraft room. Trust me!) With her friends, her sense of direction, and quite possibly her firstborn on the line, Elizabeth runs amazing magical and emotional risks. But it's all in a day's magic in this charming adventure from the author of a Pride and Prejudice spoof titled Enthusiasm.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Baking at Work

Today I'm making pork chops with wild rice & mushrooms. Right now. At work. Something that requires a couple of hours in the oven & can be shared with some folks coming over towards lunchtime. It's nice to have a kitchen at the office!

I don't know how long I've had this box of Minnesota Wild Rice in my cupboard, but I've been saving it for this. Last weekend I picked up the remaining ingredients, save for the butter, which was already in the fridge at work. I even bought a disposable baking pan, to fill a void in my office kitchen. Today, finally, I got it all organized in one of those zip-up cooler bags they sell at Sam's Club and hauled it to work.

Here's what I brought to work with me today: the wild rice, 4 small cans sliced mushrooms, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, a pillow-pack of 4 pre-cooked, bone-in pork chops, and a shaker of blended seasonings. Plus a carefully folded length of aluminum foil & a 9"x13" aluminum foil pan. And, of course, the photo album full of recipes my stepmom put together when I went away to college. And finally, fingernail clippers. You'll know why in a bit.

Already in the fridge at work: sticks of butter. When I had time to take a break from my morning duties, I quickly breezed through the following steps...

Step 1: Warm a cube cut off the end of a stick of butter in the microwave for 30 seconds at 50% power, just to soften it a bit. Then holding it in a paper towel, smear it around the bottom of the pan.

Step 1.5: Pour a pot of water into the coffee maker, drop in a filter & pour the wild rice into it, then brew a pot of wild rice water. Pour the water down the drain & dump the contents of the filter into the greased pan.

Step 2: Use a coffee cup to measure 1.5 cups of water & pour it over the rice.

Step 2.5: Open the cans of mushrooms & pour them over the rice, juice and all, so that the bottom of the pan is evenly covered with mushrooms.

Step 3: Open the can of cream of mushroom soup & drop spoonfuls of it onto the mushrooms, distributing the glops evenly throughout the pan. There is no need to try to spread it around.

Step 3.5: Shake a generous amount of your spice blend over everything in the pan so far.

Step 4: Arrange the pork chops on top of everything else in the pan. They will probably take up almost all the room.

Step 5: Didn't I mention preheating the oven to 350? Oh, well. Do that now while you unfold the aluminum foil & cover the top of the pan, crimping the edges so that there is a tight seal all the way around. It won't hurt to let the mixture sit on the counter while the oven finishes preheating.

Step 6: Set the microwave to do a 90 minute "kitchen timer" countdown, starting when the pan is in the oven & the door is closed. When it beeps, set the timer for another 30 minutes. Or, you know, make a mental note of the time, add 2 hours and look for it to be done then.

Step 7: You forgot to bring potholders, you ass. All you have is 2 hand towels, one in the kitchen and one in the bathroom. You're going to need them both to get this thing out of the oven.

Step 7.5: Clip your fingernails. (That's why you brought the clippers.) You don't want to scratch yourself when the delicious aroma of baking pork, rice, and mushrooms begins to drive you crazy.

Step 8: Hide the recipe album. Your guests don't need to know that you didn't invent this culinary masterpiece. Heck, you're in Missouri; they've probably never seen wild rice, which used to grow, like, wild where you come from.

Step 9: Take small bites to make this food last. This may be the hardest step, because the meat and rice will be so tender, and the flavors of mushroom, pork, and wild rice so perfectly blended, that you'll be tempted to inhale it.

Step 9.5: Make a mental note to bring 6 chops next time. Then you can enjoy the leftovers as well. This recipe also works with fully-cooked chicken or turkey breasts, by the way.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

World Series of Tackiness

Hear this, ye St. Louis Cardinals! Thus saith the lighted sign at the city ELCA parish whose former pastor literally wrote the book on lighted church sign messages:


This may sound like it's coming out of left field, but... well, it is.