Sunday, November 19, 2017

225. Childbearing Hymn

This hymn and the previous one (the prayer for a pious mate) are part of a single concept - a kind of extended litany about the times of life that people generally experience, and the added meaning Christ brings to them. Because the idea of a litany came to me early in the planning process for this series of hymns (and there will be a least a couple more), I'm planning to set each one to a different tune in the same meter, as it were, the "litany" meter (7.7.7.6.). In fact, two of the eight tunes I have curated in that meter are titled LITANY, and more than one of them have been paired with a hymn that has the general character of a litany: an extended prayer calling on God for mercy in a full range of contexts. The tune, in this instance, is SCHEFFLER, from the 1657 book Heilige Seelenlust by Johann Scheffler (a.k.a. Angelus Silesius), whose conversion (only four years earlier) from Lutheranism to Catholicism led many Protestant hymnals to downplay his authorship of the hymns they took from him - a testimony not only to the offense caused by his caustic invective against the Reformation, but also to the undeniable beauty and devotional value of his hymns, such as "Come, follow Me, the Savior spake" and "Where wilt Thou go, since night draws near." Without embarrassment, I give him full credit for publishing the first known instance of this tune.*
1. God, whose Seed was given room
In the blessed Virgin’s womb,
Sown to reap the serpent’s doom:
Help all hopeful parents.

2. From her first, unconscious glow,
Guard the mother’s embryo;
Health and cheer on both bestow,
Fruitfulness increasing.

3. Shelter, like a precious flame,
New life’s miracle, and tame,
By the music of Your name,
Two hearts’ clashing rhythms.

4. If their term be fraught with pain,
Send your servants to sustain
Their endurance, lest in vain,
Father, they may suffer.

5. Should You, in mysterious love,
Summon one or both above,
Give us the conviction of
Resurrected glory.

6. Comes the grueling time of birth,
Ease her pain with love and mirth;
Introduce her child to earth,
Cradled in Your mercy.

7. Bless them with the means to live;
Willing hands, relief to give;
Faith, to share the hope of Eve
In Your gospel promise.

8. By baptism, soon unite,
Christ, to You that little mite;
Death and darkness change to light
And to life eternal.



*Extra credit: This may be the first hymn in history to incorporate a line that its author initially thought of adding as a joke at the expense of its own tune. Have you spotted it?

224. Prayer for a Pious Mate

Here is another item I can cross off the list of hymns I have been planning to write for Edifying Hymns, the projected sequel to Useful Hymns. It's kind of a scary prayer to write, since I'm one of the single adults whose numbers seem to be increasing in the Lutheran church. I've been single so long that I don't know what I would do if God answered it, in my case, with "OK, here you go." Like the best prayers, it uses God's own words to twist His mighty arm. Scriptures specifically cited in this prayer include Genesis 1:18ff; Genesis 24:63-65; Proverbs 18:22; John 2:1ff; 1 Corinthians 7:1-9; Ephesians 5:22ff; and more or less the whole book of Ruth. The tune, which was literally the first one I looked at out of an alphabetical list of eight hymn-tunes in the same meter, is titled ACK, VAD ÄR DOCK LIVET HÄR and is from the 1697 Swenska Koralpsalmboken of Stockholm.
1. God, who deemed it was not good
Man should live in solitude,
Though in paradise he stood:
Bless Your unwed children.

2. Some have not the gift to spurn
Impure lust with scant concern;
Would You not, than they should burn,
Rather have them marry?

3. Isaac, fifty, did not fail
His forlornness to curtail;
Seeing him, her bridal veil
Donned Rebekah gladly.

4. Solomon, too, understood
That to find a wife was good;
Ruth rejoiced that Boaz would
Claim from her that favor.

5. Christ Himself, at Cana’s feast,
Bride and groom’s delight increased;
May we, too, though last and least,
Taste such joy and blessing.

6. Be the unwed woman’s guide,
Fitting her to be a bride;
Place a husband at her side,
Pious, kind, and faithful.

7. Let him learn, who needs a mate,
Chastely for but one to wait;
Make their shared devotion great,
And their marriage fruitful.

8. Let her happiness and gain
Claim his willing toil and pain,
That Christ’s love may tune the strain
Of the praise he sings her.

9. Shape, as well, her wifely ways,
That each service she essays
Such a faith in him displays
As the church owes Jesus.

10. More and more, your graces lend,
Till as one their hearts shall blend,
Letting none their union end
But Your heav’nward summons.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Justice League

I don't go to the movies very often any more, and when I do, as a rule, I try to avoid sequels or installments in long-running franchises - a policy that I think has saved me many a time from feeling my ticket money was wasted. But Thursday night, when I went to see the DC Comics film Justice League, I made an exception. This was an easy decision to make, for two reasons: first, because I would have had to wait an additional hour to see Murder on the Orient Express, and the other choices (including a "Thor" movie and a comedy sequel starring Will Farrell and Mark Wahlberg) didn't interest me in the slightest; and second, because I haven't seen any of the films to which Justice League could be construed as a sequel. So, with little danger of being let down in my expectations based on a previous film, I went and had a good time.

Yes, comic book movie fans, it is true. I have never seen Man of Steel, the first film in which Henry Cavill played Clark Kent/Superman, though I have seen a few excerpts of it. Also, I have never viewed even a tiny bit of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Cavill was joined by Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne / Batman and Gal Gadot in the role of Diana Prince / Wonder Woman, who had a movie of her own earlier this year. So this is kind of a sequel to three movies, all helmed (except Wonder Woman) by this movie's director Zack Snyder. The difficulty in reviewing this movie without committing a major spoiler becomes apparent when I have to bleep out part of the following sentence: Although Superman dies at the end of Batman v Superman, ### ##### principal stars return for this outing, in which they are joined by Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) in his first full-strength outing as Barry Allen / the Flash; Jason Momoa, best known as Ronon Dex on Stargate: Atlantis and the title character in 2011's Conan the Barbarian, as Arthur Curry / Aquaman; and Ray Fisher, unknown to me, as Victor Stone / Cyborg. All three of these new superheroes have been teased in cameo appearances in earlier DC films (including Suicide Squad and BvS), and each of them is slated to headline his own movie within the next 3 years (Aquaman next year, and both Flashpoint and Cyborg in 2020).

In the "also starring" category, some of them making repeat appearances in the current franchise1, are accomplished stars Diane Lane as Clark's mom, a still photo of Kevin Costner as Clark's late dad, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Jeremy Irons as Bruce's man Alfred, Connie Nielsen as the Amazon queen who happens to be Diana's mom, and Joe Morton (who played a quirky inventor on Eureka) as an ethically-challenged scientist who happens to be Victor's dad. I didn't notice it at the time, but my research tells me David Thewlis (Remus Lupin in the "Harry Potter" films) appears in this film too, reprising a role from Wonder Woman. Also joining the cast for the first, or in some cases only, time in this film franchise are Ciarán Hinds - an actor of many faces and accents - unfortunately submerged beyond recognition in the stop-motion CGI role of Steppenwolf; J.K. Simmons, who has played Peter Parker's publisher in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as Police Commissioner Gordon; Billy Crudup as Barry's jailbird dad; and an uncredited Holt McCallany (TV's Medium) as the burglar who tangles with Batman in the opening scenes.

I haven't seen any of the recent DC Universe films, but I've been equally remiss in following Marvel Universe franchises. It sometimes takes me a while to remember which is which. For example, I spent a few minutes during this movie wondering why Spiderman wasn't in it. So, obviously, you shouldn't take me as an authority on these things. But I saw a recent video review of the latest X-Men movie Logan, which made an interesting case that the superhero film genre is responding to changes in the needs of society by turning in a more pessimistic, dystopian direction, and increasingly exploring doubts and ironies about the very concept of heroes. This movie continues that trajectory somewhat, depicting a world that is teetering on the brink of apocalypse, that is almost beyond saving, and some may wonder whether it deserves saving, or whether the superheroes are really doing it a service by attempting to save it.

This downkey atmosphere is partly, but not entirely, a result of Superman no longer being around, having (the early scenes explain, for those of us who missed it) sacrificed himself to stop a monster/weapon of mass destruction brought to life by a power from beyond this world. Now the world is in even worse danger, because a supervillain-alien-demigod named Steppenwolf, who was once stopped from conquering the world by a coalition of Atlanteans, Amazons, Olympian gods, and men, has decided now is the perfect time to make a second attempt. The aforementioned power from beyond this world proves to be but one of three "mother boxes" that Steppenwolf plans to bring together into "the unity," which will destroy the whole planet and create a new world in the image of Steppenwolf's hellish homeworld.

There's a lot of CGI in this movie, and unfortunately, not all of it is of the most convincing quality. But when the eye is able to follow the action and the mind can be persuaded to believe what it is seeing, it has a remarkable look and a lot of exciting battles. However, and perhaps to an extent that will leave rabid comic-film fans squirming with impatience, this movie's particular strength is its treatment of its six main superhero characters as human beings, and the development of their relationship.

So, without any further blather, here are the three scenes that made this movie for me:

(1) When Barry Allen walks into his apartment, switches on the light, and finds Bruce Wayne sitting in his second-favorite chair, waiting to recruit him for the Justice League. This whole scene, extending to where they drive off together in the Batmobile, is superbly written, and both Affleck and Miller deliver their dialogue with comic flair and character chemistry. I particularly liked Barry's hilarious attempt to explain his costume (made of a material designed to withstand space shuttle re-entry conditions), and Bruce's answer when asked what his superpower is.

(2) Lois Lane's confession to [### bleeped out for spoiler reasons ###] that she hasn't been strong since Clark died, and he would be disappointed with her. The emotions surrounding the entire plot of this act of the movie, which I can't describe without ruining it for you, cover an enormous range and are very effective.

(3) Barry's attempt to say goodbye to a little Russian girl, which left me guffawing and thinking, "Did he really say that?"

There are plenty of runner-up scenes, like the one in which Bruce counts his injuries after getting the stuffing beaten out of him, or when he tells Diana that Clark - who, you may remember, is actually Kal-El of the planet Krypton - is the more human of the two of them, or when Arthur unexpectedly opens up about his emotions (a perfectly timed moment that pays off brilliantly just when you're starting to wonder whether it's going to work). I think Diana is a great character (quite a looker too), and Victor has interesting problems to work through, and to be sure, Jason Momoa and Henry Cavill both supply enough masculine animal attraction that it's a wonder the picture doesn't distort around them, for relativistic reasons.

Nevertheless, my vote for the most fun character has to go to Barry Allen. He's just so endearingly insecure, chatty, funny, charged with nervous energy that keeps him running fast even when he isn't moving, afflicted with numerous fears and insatiable dietary needs. I predict his solo movie will be more of a hit than the Aquaman and Cyborg ones, because even though Jason Momoa is the epitome of unreconstructed male coolness - I mean, seriously, he makes Hugh Jackman ("Wolverine") look like a nebbish - the average person isn't going to identify with him, or feel close to his character; while Cyborg just isn't very human. Also, in a way that strangely parallels Cavill's role in this franchise, it seems Miller's character in an upcoming Fantastic Beasts sequel is going to #### #### #### ### ####. Oops. Had to bleep another spoiler there. If he keeps this up, he'll be a shoo-in for the list of "best multiple franchise actors"2 - which, I was amazed to notice, doesn't have Jeff Goldblum on it. But that's a rant for another time.



1Not that I would notice, but those of you following the series would.
2Anyone below Danny Trejo on this list is apparently being damned with faint praise.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Razing Arizona: A Parable

To what may I compare the politics of the present generation?

How about this map of Arizona. Just look at it. Have you ever seen a more unequal distribution of altitude? The difference between the highest elevation (12,633 feet at Humphreys Peak) and the lowest (70 feet above sea level, on the Colorado River) is horrendous. While a very small percentage of the state's area is at a lofty elevation above 9,000 feet, the Colorado Plateau forms a big, bourgeois, middle class of elevations between 4,000 (the statewide average) and 8,000 feet. A significant part of the state - almost the whole southwest quarter of the state, in fact - is below the average, with the hottest, driest, loneliest parts of the state forming a basin ranging below 3,000, 2,000, or even 1,000 feet above sea level.

Having lived there two and a half years, I can personally bear witness that life in Yuma - one of Arizona's lowest, hottest, and least rainy areas - is completely unbearable from May to September. Forget it. Only scorpions, Gila monsters, saguaro cacti, and the occasional javelina can survive there, without terraforming projects on the order of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The planet Tatooine is literally just across the river, which means California gets all the tax revenue from the Mos Eisley cantina. (It's also the planet from the original "Stargate" movie, but I digress.)

Arizonans Against Altitude Inequality (A3I) recognized the injustice of these disparities. So they got a constitutional amendment on the state's referendum ballot to shave the top 3,633 feet off the state's elevation. What area really needs to be higher than 9,000 feet, anyway? All prominences above that altitude will be converted into gravel and either thrown into the Grand Canyon, or spread around that big basin in the southwest part of the state, depending on which version of the ballot language gets the final nod from the Commission for Elevation Equalization (CEE), which the amendment will establish. Just think how much that gravel will raise the elevation of the low desert!

Just think!

All right, that amount of gravel - or the parts of it that don't end up being sold to road paving companies, with profits to be disbursed at the CEE's discretion - won't raise the elevation of that basin by any measurable amount, but it will close the gap (by up to 3,633 feet!) between the highest and the lowest points in the state. Plus, the CEE will continue to entertain proposals about shaving off even more of the rock from the higher-altitude regions of Arizona, and perhaps moving some of the middling-high peaks more-or-less intact to lower areas.

Sure, the net result will only be that the highest elevation in the state becomes lower, and maybe establishing a few additional high-ish spots (though they'll never be quite as high). And of course, those high altitudes, and whatever benefits or resources depended on them, will be gone for good. But at least the playing field, by which I mean the desert, will be more level on average. Right?

Let him hear who has ears. Let him think who has something between them.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller
by Henry James
Recommended Ages: 13+

This little trifle of a novella, almost a short story, weighs in at 59 pages in the "Dover Thrift Edition" in which I read it - an extra-thrifty purchase at some used-book store, whose price tag lists it at all of 10 cents. A list of other Henry James titles, printed in the back of my copy of The American, lists some full-length novels going for 50 to 75 cents. Somewhere between a clue to how old this book is and the fact that its author, dead now more than 100 years, can no longer control the rights to his work, there is a lesson about something or other - like, "Thus far the fortunes of (in some people's estimate) the finest novelist in the English language." But I don't have that lesson in sharp focus yet, because this isn't exactly a novel, and it's only the first thing I've read by Henry James.

The story, dating from 1878, is touching and sad, told from the point of view of a young American expat studying in Switzerland, named Winterbourne. While visiting his very proper, upper-class, widowed aunt in the lakeside resort town of Vevay, he is fascinated by a beautiful young American named Daisy Miller. Unlike Winterbourne, who was educated in Europe and who doesn't really understand American manners, Daisy is entirely a creature of Schenectady, N.Y. - a gregarious, fashionably dressed, spoiled banker's daughter who doesn't understand the way her every act, whether innocent or defiant, is judged by the exacting mores of the European nobility. She loves being in society, but has no consciousness of its proprieties or improprieties. She loves having gentleman friends, and risks scandal by going all over town with them unchaperoned. Her mother doesn't have the spirit to check her, and neither of them can tell the difference between a real gentleman and a charlatan. So, while Winterbourne watches her - first in Vevay, and later in Rome - he can never quite make up his mind whether to censure her for acting improperly, or excuse her for her innocence. So, while her head is seemingly turned by a handsome Italian adventurer, Winterbourne never succeeds in cutting in and saving her before her lack of good judgment leads her to irrevocable harm.

The word "bittersweet" is not enough. The ending of this brief novella (novelette?) is downright painful. Seventy years earlier, in the hands of a Jane Austen, approximately the same raw materials would have been the making of a comedy of manners. This, instead, is a tragedy of manners, in which the manners themselves are subtly indicted, and in which the difference between the manners of old world and new actually claim an innocent and vivacious life. Class snobbery; traditions - then more prevalent in the aunt's circles than elsewhere - such as single young women needing to be chaperoned in public; the health risks of visiting certain parts of Rome at certain times of day - which would probably give today's doctors a good laugh; and the heart-deadening consequences of a young man, so long separated from his home country, being unable to read the signals a beautiful girl is sending him, all combine to leave the reader sighing at the end.

The next book I plan to read is Henry James' 1877 novel The American. It's the only other one I have by me at the moment. The back-cover blurbs of both books, and the introduction helpfully inserted into this one, suggest there are common themes between them, and perhaps in most of James' better-regarded books. A native New Yorker who, like Winterbourne, was educated abroad and spent the better part of his career in Europe, James wrote such well-known novels as The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, and famous short stories and novellas including The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers, plus lots of less-well-known stuff, long and short. Since I felt the impact of this little work, I think I might be up to exploring some of his bigger ones and deciding for myself whether he is as some say, in spite of Hardy and Eliot, our language's best novelist.

The Naming of the Dead

The Naming of the Dead
by Ian Rankin
Recommended Ages: 14+

In my recent review of The Snowman, I said something about Jo Nesbø moving hardboiled fiction to a climate where it will keep. I guess I shouldn't be surprised to see more hardboiled crime hanging out in Edinburgh, Scotland, which is about 578 miles southwest of Oslo as the plane flies, or about four degrees less in latitude - within about a degree, at each end, of the difference between Juneau and Anchorage. If climate change is driving mystery genres to northerly climes, I should be paying more attention to the writings of Ian Rankin. Based on this book, I probably will.

DI (Detective Inspector) John Rebus is an aging, hard-drinking, maverick detective in the Edinburgh CID (i.e., the plainclothes police). He and his lower-ranking partner, DS (Detective Sergeant) Siobhan Clarke - her first name isn't pronounced the way you think - catch a couple of inconvenient cases just as the July 2005 G8 conference, and the massive demonstrations surrounding it, are about to make their part of Scotland a mad place to be. Things get even madder on July 7, 2005 - the date that made "7/7" mean to the U.K. something like what "9/11" means to the U.S. In the midst of that, nobody wants a couple of insubordinate, boundary-crossing detectives poking into an MP's (member of parliament) plunge from a castle rampart - suicide? accident? murder? - or even chasing a serial killer whose trophies are found just up the road from the conference.

There are some odd things about that serial killer evidence, though that probably goes without saying. For one thing, the victims - three, so far - are all convicts recently let out on parole, chronic offenders with a record of rape or sexual assault. These are big, bad men: not exactly your typical, high-risk victim; but because they had victims of their own, no one has worked very hard to catch their killers, or rather killer, until now. A connection between the three men and a pro-victim website seems too obvious, too on-the-nose. A psychology professor at the local university points out the key may be anomalies in the evidence concerning one of the crimes. A computer nerd (who happens to be Siobhan's ex-boyfriend), a journalist (who collaborated on a book with John's criminal nemesis), and Big Ger Cafferty, the selfsame underworld kingpin John has spent most of his career chasing, all make themselves suspiciously helpful to the crime-solving pair, while a Special Branch operative, a city councilman, and their own chief constable put up every imaginable roadblock to their investigation, including (in the chief constable's case) suspending them from duty. Also, by the way, Siobhan's parents come to town, her mum ends up in the hospital, the whole southeast of Scotland gets snarled up in a series of demonstrations, riots, and traffic jams, and London gets bombed; so yes, there are a lot of distractions. But in spite of all these things, they keep plugging away at their puzzles.

What makes my nose twitch to the scent of something hardboiled is how, while the mystery slowly comes into focus, problems arise in the hero detectives' lives that aren't as easily cleared up. No amount of persistence will make them go away. Chuck in a dash of disillusionment with the state of the world, a specter of mortality with a nice side of nihilistic futility, some heart-tugging struggles with loneliness and (ahem) alcohol, and some of those breathtaking moments when the sleuth is forced to consider whether some of the bodies wouldn't have dropped if it hadn't been for him or her, the occasional surprise where the hero is scrobbled by villains and held prisoner overnight, and the sense that the toughest crimes are best solved by a detective who follows his own ideas about how things are done, rather than sanctioned police procedure... Yes, indeed, the Dashiell does not fall far from the Hammett.

This is the 16th of (so far) 21 "John Rebus" mystery-thrillers by Scottish author Ian Rankin, and though it is not the first of the series I have read (that honor belongs to No. 8, Black & Blue), it is the first I have reviewed. Since I've reviewed every book I have read since at least 2003 and perhaps a bit farther back, that tells you about how long it's been since I've dipped a toe in the waters of Rankin's popular series; Black & Blue's 1997 release date provides the yonder boundary of a relatively narrow time window. One of the things that may have deterred me from going back to Rebus is my recollection of Black & Blue being so full of regional dialect and slang terms, such as "paraffin budgie" (meaning, I believe, "helicopter"), that I found it heavy going. I was surprised to find no such difficulty in reading The Naming of the Dead - no budgies, paraffin or otherwise. This suggests either that my recollection was off, or that my reading since sometime between ages 25 and 31 has vastly improved my language comprehension, or that the U.S. editions of Rankin's more recent books are being more heavily edited (if "translated" is too strong a word) to give American readers more of a fighting chance. Assuming the prize lies behind Door No. 3, please remind me not to complain next time I see a publisher's note to American readers, advising them the book has been expurgated of idioms you'd have to be Scottish (or English, Irish, etc.) to understand. If English-to-English translation has become a thing, there may be a good reason.

John Rebus has been portrayed by actors John Hannah (2001-2004) and Ken Stott (2006-2007) in a series of films for British television. He is also, as I mentioned, the star of 21 novels, plus a volume or two of short stories. Their titles include Knots and Crosses, The Black Book, Set in Darkness, Fleshmarket Close, Exit Music, and Rather Be the Devil. Rankin's career goes back to the 1980s, and also includes two "Malcolm Fox" novels and seven other novels, including three originally published under the pseudonym Jack Harvey.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen
Recommended Ages: 12+

This book's heroine is the sort of person, the narrator tells us, no one would have expected to be a heroine. But from that opening sentence on, that's exactly what we expect - that, and a story that will stand the conventions of sensational, Gothic fiction on their ear.

I opened this book under the influence of a rumor that it is primarily about a silly girl whose habit of reading novels like Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho leads her into an embarrassing misunderstanding while staying in the stately home named in its title. Actually, that is only a minor subplot in a book that, like everything else by Austen that I have read so far, is really about a girl's dramatically fraught struggle to land Mr. Right.

In this case the girl is literally a girl: 17-year-old Catherine Morland, the eldest daughter of a clergyman and his wife who have 10 children. Mr. Right, right enough, turns out to be the first eligible male to whom she is introduced while accompanying a childless local couple to a season in the then-fashionable spa city of Bath. Unfortunately, Catherine has no experience in society, and the flighty Mrs. Allen, her chaperone, isn't a reliable instructor. So, she blunders her way into one fix after another, partly through her ill-judged friendship with the coquettish Isabella Thorpe. Isabella has designs on Catherine's brother James, and Isabella's odious brother John has designs on Catherine, but in spite of their best efforts, they seem unable to sabotage Catherine's growing attachment to the clever Henry Tilney and his lonely sister Eleanor. Things are looking really promising when Catherine is invited to visit the Tilneys' romantic pile for a while, but the Thorpes haven't played their last trick.

In addition to the romantic suspense of the story, this book contains an impassioned defense of the habit of novel reading, some superbly comic passages, and a daring number of authorial intrusions into the narrative, reminding us that Catherine & Co. are, after all, characters in a novel. It's a piece of romanticism with an anti-romantic wink, and sometimes more than just a wink. And it all goes by so quickly that you'll notice the dwindling number of unread pages with a sigh of regret.

Although one of Austen's earliest mature novels - she sold it to a publisher in 1803 - it was not printed until after her death in 1817. She is also the author of Persuasion (originally published with this book), Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park. I can personally vouch for them all, except Mansfield Park (which I haven't read yet), as delightful pieces of Regency-era romantic comedies/comedies of manners, written with transparent style, economy of language, gentle irony, and sparkling wit.

On the other hand, I would rather not recommend the edition of this book I read, due to its preface by literary maven Margaret Drabble, who seriously entertains some of the most obnoxious and destructive feminist criticism of this book. I recommend enjoying this book for what it is, and for what generations before us have prized it for: a piece of lightweight, lighthearted entertainment by a self-taught authoress who scarcely lived long enough to be anything but a sheltered young lady, who knew never lived anywhere but under her parents' roof, who knew nothing but the provincial drawing room, the social hothouse of places like Bath, and the "marriage mart" of the late Regency period when, thanks to the Napoleonic wars, eligible English women significantly outnumbered their male counterparts. She wrote what she knew; she wrote it convincingly; she filled it with charm and a touch of good-natured good sense; and somehow, she bequeathed on English literature a small body of prose that remains among the most prized novels of her time. The books enjoyed by this book's characters, and lampooned by its storyline, are now almost forgotten. But we remember Austen. And we forgive her for not being the battle-axe people like Drabble seem to believe she should have been. I wish those people would get over it; but it doesn't matter. Austen triumphs in spite of them.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera
by Gaston Leroux
translated from French by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

In this book, the Palais Garnier - a truly fabulous structure that was built during the author's lifetime - is only described as The Opera. With a similarly light touch that belies the gruesome, sensational subject matter, author Leroux (or, at least, his translator) refers to his title character, within the book, not as the Phantom of the Opera, but as the Opera Ghost - sometimes O. Ghost, or even O.G. In early chapters, a thread of whimsical humor runs through the Ghost's eerie manifestations. For example, I laughed aloud at the Ghost's letter to a certain diva, warning her not to sing that night - particularly its opening sentence, "You have a bad cold." Only after the narrative destroys the illusion that O.G. is a supernatural entity does he become truly terrifying. A phantom he may not be, but a monster he most certainly is. And yet the narrator and the reader together cannot view that deeply flawed, twisted character with complete loathing. Even after seeing him at his worst, one pities him. I think this is why, of all the writings of a prolific and popular novelist, this one book has left an enduring mark on world culture.

The Opera Ghost has a real name - at least, a first name - which, to today's ears, seems bracingly un-melodramatic for the antihero of a horror tale on the level of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Of course, its setting is closer to us in time, so the light of modern technology shines on it to such an extent that, in spite of the opera house still being lit by gas lamps, the Ghost's torture chamber can make use of electric lights and heating elements. The phantom's history is the stuff of a potboiler all its own, but we learn it only at the end, when he has done his best to seduce a sweet young diva named Christine, who is already in love with a pretty-boy viscount named Raoul. Luckily for the young couple, they have an ally in a mysterious opera-goer known as the Persian, who has known the Ghost (whom he is unembarrassed to address as "Erik") since a chilling period of his career described as "the rosy hours of Mazenderan." (Somebody actually has written a book about this.) Nevertheless, their only path to happily-ever-after leads through a series of secret passages, deadly traps, torture, murder, kidnapping, imprisonment, sexual obsession ("I want to be loved for myself!"), and an attempt to coerce a promise of marriage with a credible terrorist threat that, today, would turn a GIGN leader's hair white.

So, in brief, I laughed. I shuddered. My flesh crawled. My guts knotted with suspense. I entered willingly into the romance of the young couple, the intrigues of the opera house, the stimulating mysteries of how the Ghost pulled all his pranks, and some uneasy encounters with uncanny beings in the bowels of the Opera who, after all the Ghost's ghostliness has dissipated, remain tantalizingly unexplained. The Ghost himself may not be supernatural, but what about the Siren? Who is the man in the black felt hat? And what, in Gounod's name, is the deal with the rat catcher? We may never know. And that's just part of what makes the Opera itself perhaps the most fascinating character in this book.

The Puffin Classics edition of this 1909-10 Gothic horror/mystery classic says "complete and unabridged" on the front cover. However, when I did some online research into who translated it (because the translator is not named in the book), I found out that the original English translation by Teixeira, the only one published before 1990 and (thanks to the copyright laws of the time) the only one likely to be published without a translator's name on it, was a rushed, "slash and burn" job that "removed nearly 100 pages of content from Leroux’s novel" and "introduced numerous mistranslations." The only thing good about it, my informant says, was the "authentic 'vintage' sound" of Teixeira's writing style. So, sad to say, my "complete and unabridged" experience of Leroux's best-known novel is neither quite complete nor even particularly faithful to the original text. But it still, for my money, beats the hell out of listening to Gerard Butler try to sing the part of the Phantom in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical adaptation. (True story: My stepmom rented this movie and tried showing it to my dad and me. We didn't even get through the first musical number before she turned it off, offended at my tsking and groans of disgust.)

I am really intrigued by Leroux's biography (1868-1927). I get the impression he was something like a turn-of-the-20th-century French mash-up of Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle - audacious journalist (one of his stories was titled "How I failed to interview Joseph Chamberlain"), heir whose wild living burned through a huge fortune, theater critic, eyewitness to a political revolution, author of a series of early detective novels featuring an amateur sleuth named Rouletabille, and prolific novelist across a number of sensational genres, with such titles as Nomads of the Night, The Haunted Chair, The Bride of The Sun, The Man who Came Back from the Dead, The Veiled Prisoner, The Burgled Heart, The Kiss that Killed, The Man of a Hundred Faces, and The Perfume of the Lady in Black. If I ever make it all the way through the Sherlock Holmes canon, perhaps I will take up a bit of Rouletabille.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

223. Interpretation of Scripture Hymn, Mark 2

As I said in my explanation of yesterday's original hymn, I over-planned for a projected "hermeneutics hymn," so I was forced to decide to split it into two hymns. Also, if you're looking for a polemic or a rhyming, metrical compendium of rules to understand Scripture the way I think it should be read, I'm sorry; you won't find it in either of these hymns. Their real goal is to support the (Lutheran) Christian's faithful prayer for those engaged in the task of biblical interpretation, and to fill that prayer with the truths and promises God himself provides in Scripture. I have two tunes in mind for this hymn: UNDE ET MEMORES by William H. Monk (1823-89), and YORKSHIRE (STOCKPORT) by John Wainwright, c. 1749. I'm slightly partial to YORKSHIRE, but variety is the spice of life.
UNDE ET MEMORES
YORKSHIRE (STOCKPORT)
O Father, in prophetic speech made known:
One with Your Word, Your sole-begotten Son:
One with Your Spirit, who moved holy men
To set Your pow'r at work by tongue or pen:
As You are one, unite our mind and heart
To serve Your word, and bear a pupil's part.

As true disciples, may we first believe
All that Your word reveals, and so receive
By faith the very gifts You promise there;
To change one letter, may we never dare.
All things are Yours; Your Yes is surely Yes:
Thereby depends our hope of blessedness.

Help us to reason from Your holy writ,
That we draw comfort, patience, hope from it.
Therein You wound and heal, You kill and raise;
Therein You bid us both repent and praise.
Conform our judgment to its holy light,
And help us handle law and gospel right.

Help us, who search Your word, not search in vain,
As those who sought salvation without gain.
We would see Christ; Lord, teach us how to look
And, looking, find Him filling all the book.
Help us, by daily searching of Your word,
To verify the gospel we have heard.

No private parsing of Your word can bless;
May we with all the saints one faith confess.
As You are one, one word in us abides,
Partial to none, nor moved by winds or tides:
So solid is this rock on which we stand
Our hope of entering the promised land.

Your word is proof against the devil's rage;
So armor us, Lord, with its sacred page.
Gird us with truth, and boot with words of peace,
Until the fiery darts of Satan cease;
Clothe us in righteousness, Your strong cuirass,
That we may stand, though earth and heaven pass.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

222. Interpretation of Scripture Hymn

A cuter title might be "Hermeneutics Hymn," but I'm not as sure as I once was that a systematic list of hermeneutical rules is where it's at (as in, "Any blockhead can correctly interpret the Bible if he reasons from these 16 rules in the order in which they logically flow from first principles," etc.). Nevertheless, I've wanted for a long time to write a hymn that reflects the things the Bible says about itself, and prays those things back to God as an appeal for faith in His word. The evidence of that desire is more than a page of closely handwritten notes, with way too many key points, each followed by at least one Bible reference. The challenge, which has kept me hesitating while other planned hymns have practically written themselves, is to keep the hymn reasonably short and not bludgeon the topic to death with a too-exhaustive treatment. So, here's a hymn that attempts to cover about half of that material, in a prayerful manner that I think, after all, might be more useful to Christians than a doctrinaire treatment. I reserve the remainder of my hermeneutical notes for a later hymn. The only obvious tune for this hymn is ACH, WAS SOLL ICH SÜNDER MACHEN, ad. from J. Flittner’s Hirtenlieder, Altdorf, 1653.

Lord, whose writ cannot be broken:
God, whose voice can never lie:
By Your truth now sanctify
Those who read or hear it spoken.
All its benefits supply,
Changing hearts and minds thereby.

Cause it to be preached in season,
Out of season, just the same;
Nor let it go forth in vain.
Captive take men's sinful reason;
Form their minds, their hearts inflame
By the power of Your name.

Give them eyes for faithful reading,
Ears to hear the word of life;
Let the seed so planted thrive.
From Your folly, far exceeding
All man's wisdom, men derive
Pow'r to make the dead alive.

By its living, mighty function,
Your word called all things to be,
Blessing them abundantly;
Even now, it spreads its unction,
Causing sinful men to be
Justified eternally.

Send Your Spirit, eyes unveiling
To the myst'ries of Your word,
Which the nations call absurd.
Let men see its pow'r prevailing
Where Your promises are heard,
As dead hearts to life are stirred.

Open, Lord, men's understanding,
Though they be of earth and dust;
Break their hearts' dead, stony crust.
Open Scripture to them, branding
On their minds, with searing trust,
Him whose blood bespeaks them just.

With salvation thus enlightened,
Make them daily more adept
In Your promise and precept
Till, of death and hell unfrightened,
For a season having slept,
Into glory they be swept.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Snowman

The Snowman
by Jo Nesbø
translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Recommended Ages: 15+

This serial killer thriller set in Norway struck a chord with me. It might be partly because it features characters with a certain hereditary disease that, I recently learned, runs in my family. But I doubt it. It's also possible that the timing of when the book appeared before me on a supermarket book rack was ideal, with the movie based on it having just come out in theaters. But since I'm too broke to see the movie, that's also pretty iffy. If you bring up the fact that I immediately spotted something about the main character, Oslo police detective Harry Hole, that fit the profile of a profiler as presented by the genuine article - for I paused in the middle of reading this to devour John Douglas' FBI memoir Mindhunter - I would say you're getting warm. But in my opinion, the strongest theory about why this book grabbed me has something to do with this quote, which I scribbled on a notepad that I keep within reach while I read: "When he was young and inexperienced, he thought that a bad memory was a handicap for a detective. Now he knew better" (The Snowman, p. 16).

It isn't just that this sentence was an early clue that I was reading the work of a terrific writer, with a powerful insight into the heart of a complex, troubled character, and the ability to establish a pervasive, unforgettable mood. It's also that I suddenly realized, from those two sentences alone, that hardboiled mystery is not dead. Thank God!

Like the best hardboiled detectives, the cooking fluid that cooked Harry Hole contained a significant percentage of alcohol. In this seventh of (so far) 11 Harry Hole novels, the brilliant detective has gone sober, and is trying to stay that way in spite of daily, almost unbearably strong temptations. It is apparent that he went straight a beat or two too late. The love of his life, Rakel, whose son Oleg in a moment of distraction inadvertently(?) calls Harry "Dad," has decided she can't be with him any more, and is getting married to a nice doctor named Matthias, who works in the anatomy department at the university. His best friend and partner, the late Jack Halvorsen, seems - if I'm picking up the right hints - to have died, just as he was about to become a father, as a result of Harry's drunk driving. He is too afraid of hospitals to visit his beloved mentor, who has had a stroke. And, in spite of his brilliant crime-solving skills, he is still too erratic to have the full confidence of his superiors at Police HQ. They're watching for him to make one misstep, so they can fire him. And unlike Harry, they don't think there is, or ever will be, a Norwegian serial killer. He keeps hoping to spot one.

And then, in this book, he does. But I think he ends up wishing he hadn't.

The killer seems to like women who are married with children. They disappear, never to be found (except the first one) on the day of the first snow every year, and somewhere nearby, a snowman is always found, watching over the scene. As Harry and his new partner Katrine Bratt investigate the crimes, they gradually connect the latest woman's disappearance to the others, and to the vanishing of another hard-drinking, troubled cop 11 years ago in the rainy city of Bergen. At first the missing cop is a suspect. Then a plastic surgeon looks good for it. Then another suspect. Then another, whose identity will blow your mind. But don't worry, the red herrings haven't finished dropping yet. It won't be over until a monster's story is revealed - a story so disturbing it has wrecked my sleep for the last two nights - and he faces off with Harry in a deadly game in which the detective's life, limb, love, and sanity are all at stake.

If I set this book down with the impression that I have been mightily well entertained, it isn't just because the revelation of whodunit was an immense surprise; I've said before that I have a knack for guessing the solution of mysteries, and accordingly, I had this one spotted. But it was the character details that made me shiver, and the bleak, depressive outlook on life that left me aching for Hole, as I have ached in times past for Marlowe, Spade, and Ned Beaumont of the most perfect detective novel of all time, The Glass Key. And don't think I didn't notice the Oslo depicted in this book contains a bar named after that book. I see what you're doing here, Mr. Nesbø. You're transporting hardboiled mystery to a climate where it will keep.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Mindhunter

Mindhunter
by John Douglas & Mark Olshaker
Recommended Ages: 15+

This 1995 book, recently reissued with a new introduction by the authors and currently serving as the source material of a made-for-Netflix TV series, is the personal memoir of the original guy who took FBI behavioral profiling on the road, using revolutionary techniques to help police departments all over the country solve serial rape and murder cases. It tells how, from the early 1970s on, the bureau's Investigative Support Unit (or whatever it was called at different times) literally wrote the book on classifying crimes according to behavioral evidence, preparing for interviews with dozens of convicted creeps by a thorough study of the case files. The conclusions they drew started a process, still ongoing, of changing the way law enforcement agencies catch the perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, and the way psychiatrists and psychologists evaluate them as they come up for parole.

It is a sometimes terrifying, sometimes sickening, emotionally grueling review of some of our society's darkest nightmares. It does depict some uplifting moments and acts of heart-touching courage. But it also shatters some of the myths that movies and TV dramas perpetuate about serial killers and other psychopaths who feed at the fringes of society. There were passages in this book that stirred up feelings of injustice as I read them, and frustration at a system whose slowness to accept change and "paralysis by analysis" probably cost additional lives.

You probably remember many of the stories related in this book from news coverage of, or pieces of entertainment based on the events. If you're looking for a sensationalized account, you may be disappointed. The fascinating thing about each anecdote is the lesson the behavioral-evidence analysts took away from it. Some of them may seem like no-brainers now, but within my lifetime, they have made it possible to solve crimes that might have gone unsolved much longer. You might think Douglas is being boastful when he describes cases in which his team's profile fit the guy who did it to a T, but it goes toward his thesis that what they were doing wasn't mumbo-jumbo or armchair philosophy; it was scientific, and it brought real results.

It isn't all about creating a profile that led to capturing the bad guy, either. Douglas and Co.'s techniques also extended to taking proactive steps to flush the killer out of hiding; effective approaches to interrogation; courtroom tactics to ensure a conviction; and reconsidering the penal system's and the psychiatric establishment's methods for deciding whether a convict should be turned loose on society once again. His views on some of these issues may be controversial, but he marshals convincing evidence to back them up.

I haven't seen the Netflix series based on this book, but reading books about cops chasing serial killers is one of my many pastimes (most of which can be described as "reading books about" something or other). I'm intrigued by the possibility that I'll be a more critical reader of that genre in time to come. For example, I temporarily put down Jo Nesbø's The Snowman to read this book, and when I picked it up again, one of the first things I noticed was something Norwegian sleuth Harry Hole has in common with Douglas: a preference for reading a case file himself, and drawing his own conclusions, to listening to the cops on the case defend theirs. He provides cautionary examples of half-assed attempts at criminal profiling, like one psychologist who focused on a single piece of behavioral evidence at a murder scene, rather than the whole of the scene; again, it gave me an appreciation for the task of real-world crime solving that should keep me humble about my knack for guessing the solution of a mystery novel, which is quite a different thing. Finally, I was intrigued by the connection Douglas himself drew between his knack for storytelling and his ability to craft an accurate profile of a serial killer, even one based on scientific principles. The latter ability makes this a worthwhile book to read; the former, an enjoyable one.

John Douglas, frequently in collaboration with Mark Olshaker (as in this book) and sometimes with other co-authors, has also written a half-dozen other true-crime books, a couple of non-fiction books about law enforcement careers, two crime novels, and some works on crime-solving theory. He also claims to be the real-life inspiration for the character Scott Glenn played in The Silence of the Lambs. Olshaker is an Emmy-winning filmmaker and author of both fiction and nonfiction books. Other titles they have in common are Journey into Darkness,
The Cases that Haunt Us
, and Obsession.

Friday, October 27, 2017

221. Cancer Hymn

This is in honor of a long-time friend of mine, and sometime colleague in the holy ministry, who is currently fighting cancer. In part, it was also prompted by another minister's observation about a text that doesn't get preached on very often. I didn't do myself any favors by imposing such a difficult rhyme scheme on myself. After writing it, I had enough trouble finding a tune to fit its metrical pattern that I decided to write an original tune, titled BLAKE, on the spur of the moment and with no pretense toward inspiration.
Dear God our Father, You are over all,
Work through all things, and occupy all places:
Help, when our flesh is frail and lies in thrall
To evil things that swarm our inward spaces.

Surround us with Your word's ne'er-broken wall;
Restore our hearts through daily minted graces.
Bind what we suffer to Your upward call,
That should we die or live, we'll sing Your praises.

Use our ordeal to teach us of the fall,
Sin's cancer growing in all tribes and races;
Bid us repent, as You admonished Saul,
"It's hard for you to kick against the traces."

By our own cross, show us one yet more tall,
That dwarfs our sin, and our disease embraces.
Let Jesus' hand our sickness overhaul,
The touch that filth with cleanliness replaces.

Our spirits fail; our throats close on this gall;
Our ears rebel against consoling phrases.
Still, blend baptismal water with this squall;
Feed us with Christ, whose death the lifeless raises.

Our darkest hour clothe in Your spotless pall;
Our cold bed lighten with a hope that blazes,
Till we be gathered to Your banquet hall,
Where no eye weeps, nor any fear amazes.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Sword of the Rightful King

Sword of the Rightful King
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Ages: 13+

Here's a book that plays with the notion that pulling Excalibur (in this book, known as Caliburn) out of the stone was a public relations gimmick that Merlin set up to help Arthur solidify his political base. But though he knows in advance he will pull it out and why, we see here an Arthur who is torn about whether he wants to be a king, or whether he deserves to be. We see him facing an early crisis in his reign, which, without a happy outcome, would have spoiled the bittersweetness of the tragedy destined to play out later. And we see a Merlin confronting the end of his time and the limits of his power as an evil power looms over Arthur's hopeful young court.

From the author of the "Young Merlin" trilogy, not to mention some 200 other books, comes this alternate telling of the first part of the story of King Arthur. It is, as Yolen comments in the extras at the end of this book, the one part in the legend of Arthur you could end with "happily ever after," before it all turns tragic. Like T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone (Book 1 of The Once and Future King), it pretty much ends with the pulling of the sword Caliburn from out the stone, proving Arthur's claim to be "rightwise king born of all Britain." Like Mary Stewart's Arthurian Saga, this book puts the sword-in-the-stone test after Arthur has already become king, and depicts it as a strategem by Merlin (here called Merlinnus) to convince the other noblemen and lesser kings, who have been slow to accept him as high king. Like both of them, it shows Arthur and Merlin being opposed by Morgause, who wants the throne for her sons Gawaine, Agravaine, Gareth, and Gaheris, and who is also secretly the king's half-sister. Unlike both, it depicts Arthur at the time of the sword-pulling as already established at Camelot (here called Cadbury), with his knight companions already gathered at the round table - even including Lancelot, who arrives later in White and never in Stewart.

In this book, Arthur is a strong young king who has proven himself in battle, but who has not taken so well to the administrative side of being a king. He has doubts about himself, and knows less about his true lineage than in any version of the story I have read. He is good at reading people, however, and a flat-out genius where it comes to winning their loyalty. The scene in which he converts Agravaine to his man is simply astonishing; and there are others like it. There are numerous scenes, for instance, in which Arthur schools himself to soothe Sir Kay's insecurities. But his grip on the throne is still precarious, with the "North Witch" Morgause up in her tower, spewing vile magic in his direction - not to mention sending an assassin after him.

In a novelty of this telling of the "old story but a good one," Arthur increasingly relies on Merlin's boy servant Gawen to stay a step ahead of Morgause's plotting. On the other hand, no one who has read Stewart's The Last Enchantment will be very surprised by the trick Yolen plays on Merlin(nus), or by Gawen's secret, since they are like a trick and a secret we have seen before. You can't go over old ground like this without seeing familiar landmarks. What keeps it interesting is how each re-telling infuses the familiar story-shape with new ideas, such as (in this case) a postmodern idea like, "Perception is reality." If you're watching for anachronisms, you might snicker with Schadenfreude on encountering the term "bedlam," supposedly used centuries before the founding of Bethlehem Royal Hospital in 1330. On the other hand, if you're looking for beautiful, lyric writing, you can't beat sentences like, "Pain was an old campaigner on his body's battlefield; they had walked long miles together."

Jane Yolen is a writer whose love of Merlin and Arthur is evident in every paragraph of this book, and who writes with ample skill to make you love them again. For more examples of her passion and her skill, see also the Pit Dragon series (I learned just now this "trilogy" has a fourth book), the Tartan Magic trilogy, the Stuart Quartet (Queen's Own Fool, etc.), the Young Heroes quartet (co-written with Robert J. Harris), the Seelie Wars trilogy (co-written with her son Adam Stemple), and such stand-alone titles as The Boy Who Spoke Chimp, The Dragon's Boy, A Plague of Unicorns, And Twelve Chinese Acrobats, Armageddon Summer, The Scarecrow's Dance, and one about a schoolkid who builds a golem to protect himself from bullies, titled B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy). Written from 1964 to the present day, they all sound so interesting, I doubt I'll grow tired of them anytime soon.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Mistborn

Mistborn (a.k.a. The Final Empire)
by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended Ages: 13+

As I wrap up my third experience reading a Brandon Sanderson novel (after Elantris and The Rithmatist), I recognize what already must be, and is likely to continue being, a common motif in my reviews of his work. It goes something like this: "I don't care how many fantasy authors' works you have read, even the ones known for having a flair for world-building; you've never visited a world remotely like this before, and you won't forget it once you do."

In the world created just for this book, then invited back for at least six return engagements, an apparently immortal being known as the Lord Ruler has ruled pretty much the whole known world for a thousand years. Backed up by a ruthlessly efficient church hierarchy and his own practically godlike power, he has destroyed all previously existing religions and countries, and brought the surviving population under the mailed fist of what is known as the Final Empire. It's a theocracy, basically, with technology and society stagnating at a medieval level of development: war is fought with staves, spears, swords, and arrows; transportation is mainly powered by the horse, or by canal barges; and a privileged nobility lords it over a vast caste of rural peasants and urban factory drudges known collectively as skaa. The skaa are beaten down by a thousand years of serfdom, brutality, starvation, and generally being treated as less than human, so they would never even conceive of rising up against the Lord Ruler. Anyway, if they did, the clerical orders - including the scary, eye-tattooed Obligators and the soil-yourself-terrifying steel-spikes-through-the-eye-sockets Inquisitors - would surely get them before they annoyed the Lord Ruler enough to require him to exert his power. So, even though a lot of evil stuff is going on, and though the land is blighted by falling ash so that nothing green can grow, and though the nights are haunted by a weird mist in which most people are afraid to move about, and though millions of people daily suffer deprivation, discouragement, and death, everyone pretty much agrees there is zero chance any of this will ever change, if they even dared to think about it.

But one guy does dare to think about it, and in less than 700 pages, he makes that change happen. His name is Kelsier, and he's kind of insane. Until a few years ago, he was just a thief who enjoyed robbing the rich and noble. Then he and his wife got nabbed while trying to plunder the Lord Ruler himself. They were both sentenced to labor in the Pits of Hathsin, which is tantamount to a death sentence, mining a rare but extremely valuable substance called atium from narrow cracks in the earth lined with razor-sharp crystals. Kelsier emerged from the pits, the only Survivor of Hathsin ever known, scarred by the crystals, mourning the loss of his wife, but energized with a new purpose. And also, energized with the powers of a Mistborn.

I was afraid this review would get around to explaining what those powers are. It's such a big subject, and such a big part of what I mean by "you've never visited a world like this," there seems to be no way to do it justice in a paragraph. I could, perhaps, blow the whole secret in a series of bullet points, or perhaps a small table like the one in the caboose of this book; but I fear that would spoil the beautifully deliberate way Sanderson feeds you this information - in tiny drops, spread out across numerous pages. You would best learn about it as the main character does. She's a street urchin named Vin, who gets adopted into Kelsier's conspiracy to overthrow the Final Empire. Until now, she never knew she was a Mistborn, like Kelsier, born with the ability to summon eight (or ten, or maybe twelve) distinct, superhuman abilities, simply by consciously burning certain metals in her stomach. The arts, which occupy a unique middle-ground between magic and superhero powers, are known collectively as Allomancy. Some people, known as Mistings, can only burn one of these metals. People like Kelsier and Vin, who can burn all of them at will (provided they swallow enough of each kind of metal), are known as Mistborns.

Keeping the powers of Allomancy out of the hands of the skaa is a major factor in why the Lord Ruler is so harsh on the little people, and for certain practices he requires of the nobility - like killing their mistresses before they can bear children, and killing skaa who show Allomantic abilities. Only the nobility are allowed to have these powers, but Vin and Kelsier are both illegal halfbreeds. So are the members of Kelsier's crew, including a Soother (who can manipulate people's emotions), a Thug (whose metal gives him superior strength and agility), a Tineye (who has heightened senses), a Seeker (who can detect other Allomancers), and a Smoker (who can conceal other Allomancers). These are only some of the types; but with their combination of all the Allomantic metals, Vin and Kelsier can literally fly through the misty night, executing robberies and assassinations that would make ninjas look like complete klutzes.

Vin's world has some other weird creatures and people-groups in it, like people who can store things like their own strength, intelligence, age, and even weight in metal receptacles, and use them later; shape-shifting creatures known as mistwraiths, feared by many; a specialized type of soldier called a Hazekiller, who specializes in fighting Mistborns; and, it is even hinted, some kind of giant or troll that can somehow be organized into a fighting force. How could anyone bring down a worldwide empire with all these dangers in it, one that has never been seriously challenged in a thousand years, one whose populace is totally cowed and whose nobility, while complicit in the Lord Ruler's crimes, is too preoccupied with internal rivalries to be much of a threat to him? How do you get rid of a ruler most people believe is literally God, or (to be theologically precise) a "sliver of the infinite," indestructible, overwhelming in his power, and possibly even deserving to be worshiped since he did, after all, save the world from certain destruction? The answer may lie in a recently discovered manuscript written around the time of his mysterious "ascension" from mere humanity to apparent divinity, when a now-forgotten prophecy singled out one ordinary, emotionally conflicted man as the Hero of Ages. It might have something to do with the "Eleventh Metal," which Kelsier has discovered can be allomantically burned, if only he can figure out what it does. Or it might just involve one big, complex plot in which Vin impersonates a noblewoman and spies on guests at all the best parties, while other members of the conspiracy raise an army, foment a war between the noble houses, infiltrate the Obligators, and work out strategies to lure the local garrison out of the city, lure the palace guard out of the palace, and rob the Lord Ruler blind.

Sanderson takes big risks as a writer, for example, depicting in detail long conversations in which the main characters hatch their plan. His risks pay off, though his characters' risks are not always so well repaid. Everything, inevitably, goes wrong. And yet hope remains alive, in a dramatic shape that builds to a massive payoff. It is alternately, and at times simultaneously, thrilling like an action adventure, deeply touching in both noble ideals and personal emotions, and mind-blowing in the perfectly-timed resolution of its central mystery. He has lifelike characters, captivating dialogue, and a setting for which the adjective "atmospheric" seems pathetically inadequate. I laughed. I trembled with agitation. I got a lump in my throat. And I took breaks from the book, the better to draw it out and savor it.

I had a book mark jammed 45 pages into this book for a year or two, but it remained close to the top of of the pile of books I planned to read. (Coincidentally, it was right under The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan, part of the "Wheel of Time" cycle, which this book's author completed after Jordan's death.) The trouble is, I kept jumping into whole connected series of books I hadn't planned to read, and reading them first, while stories I was truly enjoying cooled their heels on a table at the end of my couch. Sad to say, the stack goes down so deep, I'll probably never see the bottom of it - but, as some of my recent reviews show, I'm working on it. And the delay has nothing to do with my feelings about this book or Brandon Sanderson's writing. It's only the third book of his that I've read, but I think he's one of the great creative writers working today in the fantasy genre.

Part of the challenge of reviewing this book reminds me of another fantasy great, Raymond Feist: How do I even describe this book in bibliographical terms? I'm not even sure what the title is. The edition I read, possibly an early imprint, bears the title Mistborn, period. But apparently, that is now regarded as the name of the entire series, and current editions are giving this book's title as Mistborn: The Final Empire or simply The Final Empire. One online description of a spinoff novella (Mistorn: Secret History) acknowledges the confusion by referring to this installment as Mistborn, without italics, but adding (The Final Empire), in italics and parentheses; which is just weird. I guess this is how the movie originally known to all the world as Star Wars became rebranded as A New Hope, or sometimes "Star Wars Episode IV." Another problem is that this book is often described, even on its author's own website, as the first book in a trilogy, and the designation of The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages as "the trilogy" persists even in descriptions of the fourth, fifth, and sixth books in the series (The Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self, and Bands of Mourning). So, basically, it's a book that has two or three titles, which is the first part of a trilogy, which begins a six-book series, plus that pesky spinoff book, which is actually described as a Cosmere novella - referring to a separate series of at least three books set in the same universe.

Moving past that, let's give Mr. Sanderson credit for the tremendous body of work he has amassed since about 2005. They include Elantris and its Hugo-winning novella companion The Emperor's Soul; five "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" books; four "Stormlight Archive" books (The Way of Kings, etc.); two "Infinity Blade" books; two "Legion" books, one of which is actually a novella; three "Reckoners" books (Steelheart, etc.); The Rithmatist, which is still hanging out there as the first book in a series but hasn't gotten a sequel yet; and some shorter pieces of fiction. Because I've been so slow reading this book, they've multiplied faster than I can keep up. Nevertheless, I want to read them all!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Memes I've Created

If memory serves, I created these memes before posting them on Facebook sometime during the last two or three years.





Apropos the 2016 presidential election.

The guy on the left is Lyndon B. Johnson.

Photography Potpourri

I've been neglecting the photography thread on this blog, while posting a lot of photos I have taken on Facebook. So, to remedy that, here is a bit of catching up, with selected photos I have shot and posted on Facebook from early 2015 forward. I make no effort to put them in logical or chronological order.

This bird was eating seed off the rail of the deck behind my parents' former home in Laurie, Mo.
That's my dad, then a co-worker in the newspaper business, walking up the path to the Missouri Governor's Mansion in Jefferson City.
A mural in the house chamber in the Missouri State Capitol.
A window in the house chamber in the Missouri State Capitol.
Various birds enjoying the nifty bird feeder my parents used to hang over their deck in Laurie, Mo.
A tree and a shed that I thought looked interesting on an Easter Sunday morning a couple years ago in Stover, Mo.
I shot this graffitied sign a block south of the public school in Stover, Mo.
I don't remember exactly where I shot this butterfly, but it was somewhere in Morgan County, Mo.
This dog found the real thing while straying in the business district of Stover, Mo.
This vehicle was entered in a car show in Versailles, Mo.
These classic cars were displayed in Stover, Mo.
This flag looked great against a clear blue sky outside the nursing home in Stover, Mo.
These and some other flowers shown below were spotted outside a Lutheran church in Stover, Mo.
I think I saw these wildflowers growing near the scene of some bridge construction I was shooting for the newspaper in the vicinity of Gravois Mills, Mo.
More flowers from that Lutheran church in Stover, Mo.
These flowers volunteered themselves in front of a house where I used to live in Versailles, Mo.
More flowers from that Lutheran church, Stover, Mo.
This bug gave me a start in the house where I used to live in Versailles, Mo.
I didn't shoot this. I'm the kid on the left, with my half-brother Jake (middle) and my brother Ryan, circa 1989, in front of our maternal grandparents' house in Minneapolis, Minn.
This killdeer was protecting its nest in the parking lot of the Stover Rural Fire Protection District office.
This was one of the last photos I took of my late cat Tyrone, who died last year age 14.
The late Tyrone with Sinead, who is now 10 years old and currently my sole cat.
I spotted this young goat at the Morgan County (Mo.) fair a year or two ago.
This interesting structure, in extreme western Morgan County, Mo., had something to do with a retention pond from a spring on the site of one of the county's earliest settlements, Byler's (or Boyler's) Mill. Taking this picture led me to write a feature story about the original mill.
Again, I didn't shoot this; this was shot of me, while playing the piano before a Christmas service at a little country church outside Stover, Mo.
Here are some shots I took of my alma mater, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., when I was on campus this past spring.
Shot of me, not by me. From left, my brother Ryan, his son Reece, my parents' dog Rudy, and yours truly.
The Aug. 23 total solar eclipse. I shot this through a special filter from Boonville, Mo.
Marketing, country style. I shot this in Florence, Mo.
Beware the soft ground. I shot this in Florence, Mo.
A beautiful old building that I shot in Florence, Mo.
Barred rays of the sunset, earlier this month over Stover, Mo.