Monday, September 30, 2013

My Heart Is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall (2010)

This is another picture book Goodreads "told" me to read, and I'm torn.  I like the premise actually - the copyright page on this one does as good a job as I could in describing what the book is about:  "Depicts in rhyming text how love can be many different things, such as eager as a beaver, steady as a yak, or silly as a seal."  It's like a love poem to love.  All the animals in the book - bull, hornet, penguin, fox, etc. - are all highly stylized  modern art collages made of hearts, sort of like if Modrian was illustrating a picture book and used all heart shapes to create his animals.  It is a clever concept, comparing love to various animals, like John Donne and Dr. Seuss wrote a poem together.  But maybe just a little too cutesy cute for my taste.  Perfect for Valentine's Day, though.  That's what I mean by torn.   My Heart is a Zoo belongs on the same shelf as Guess How Much I Love You and other books about emotions and feelings and love; they are usually not my favorite style of book.  I can appreciate them, I can understand why they exist, but I don't really enjoy them.  Picture books about mothers and fathers tend to end up on that shelf too.   Love You Forever , which definitely sits on that shelf, is an exception to my indifference to these books.   I can't say I like this book, but it has sentimental value which always counts for something with me.  Always.  These kinds of books tend to pick themselves up and smack you over the head with their sentiment (love, or else; although the "or else" is never made clear).  My Heart Is A Zoo does that, only with a cuter concept than most.

My Heart Is Like a ZooMy Heart Is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm really torn here.  The premise of this book is quite clever, a poem comparing love to different kinds of animals - eager as a beaver, steady as a yak, angry as a bear (why bears should be singled out as angry, I'm not sure). It's sort of like John Donne and Dr. Seuss got together and wrote a poem (in writer's heaven, I guess, considering they are both dead).  The illustrations are brightly colored heart shapes, done in a collage to create the different animals, very modern art (a "heartist" rather than a cubist).  That said, it's very cutesy.  I understand why books like this, and Guess How Much I Love You and Todd Parr's multiple books about love and family and emotions exist, I understand why people like them.  But I always feel like the books pick themselves up and smack you over the head with themselves.  Love, or else (the "or else" is never quite made clear, a very veiled threat).  The king of this type of book is Love You Forever which is both adored and despised (like Lady Gaga or the Tea Party).  My Heart Is Like A Zoo sits on the same shelf as these types of books, but I think its saved from causing the reader diabetic shock by the clever conceit and the interesting art.

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Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie (1924)

Poirot Investigates First Edition Cover 1924.jpg
The original cover.  After
only three books, Poirot already
has his distinct look and style.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Murder By Death, the spoof on detective novels.  As with all detective novels, there is a big reveal at the end where the true nature of the crime is revealed.  Lionel Twain reveals this little fact, that all readers of mysteries know:  "You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I've outsmarted you, they'll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents. "  

That is how I felt about Poirot Investigates.  It's a collection of short stories, featuring Poirot and his (unlikable, in my opinion) sidekick Hastings.  The stories are all pretty weak; if you are trying to outwit Hercule Poirot and figure out "whodunnit" before he does, this isn't the book for you.  There certainly isn't the delightful twists and turns and red herrings of later (favorite books).  Like Lionel Twain's beef in Murder by Death, most of the "clues" are things only Hercule Poirot knows, clues he's withheld until he can dazzle us at the end of each story with the reveal - and prove what an idiot Hastings is, again.  That got really tiresome.  

This was certainly not one of my favorite Agatha Christie books.  I was actually pretty bored by the end.

Poirot's French Lesson
Au fond.  "Mr. Rolf was handsome, he had an air about him of romance.  But au fond, he is very businesslike, ce monsieur."  According to the all powerful Google translate, au fond means "at bottom."  Online dictionaries say is means "essentially" or "fundamentally."

Épantant.  Poirot "murmurs" this word twice.  In the first instance, he's looking at a jewel; in the second instance, he's talking about the mysterious story behind the same jewel.  I think synonyms for the first use of épantant might be "magnificent" while the second instance, he may be marveling at a splendidly romantic (if implausible) story.  

Dernier cri.  "But there is a fashionable detective.  Oui, my friend,  it is true - I am become the mode, the dernier cri."  A French phrase for "the latest thing."

Tout doucement.  "Tout doucement, mon ami!"  Slow down, Hastings; you are jumping to conclusions.   In his first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot is already talking about his "little grey cells."  I'm surprised he didn't remind Hastings to use his little grey cells in this instance.

Bien entendu. "There, mon ami, I fear that you must forswear your beauty sleep to-night, and join me in my alll-night vigil in the flat below - armed with that excellent revolver of yours, bien entendu!"  Simply French for "of course."

Tourjours pratique.  "What are we going to do about it?"  "Tourjours pratique, the good Hastings!"  French and English may be pronounced differently, but often spelled similarly.  "Always practical, the good Hastings!" (of course, then you have a word like au fond which does translate to the same word in English at all).

"Enfantillage!" replied Poiort promptly.  "One can hardly take it seriously."  Enfantillage, according to Google translate, literally means "childishness."  An English idiom might be "child's play."

"Que faites vous lá, mon ami?"  Poirot asks Hastings "What are you doing, my friend?"

Dépêche.  "Which reminds me, we will return the compliment of a dépêche to  Japp."  A dépêche is a telegram.

Other Interesting Items of note.

"You will oblige me by refraining from talking so much, Hastings.  I can assure you that our friend will not shoot until I give the word."  "Youse sure o' dat, eh?" said the Italian leering unpleasantly.  Agatha Christie's character sketches are often broad, occasionally politically incorrect (Poirot Investigates includes Asian slurs), and ethnically dubious (Italians and foreigners, save Poirot, always seem to be swarthy).  In "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat," Poirot and Hastings become involved with the New York mafia, and Christie attempts to give us a picture of a typical Italian criminal, including what I suppose she thought Italian New Yorkers sounded like.  I'm not sure if by 1924 Agatha Christie had been to New York, or where she got her idea of the linguistics and accents of New Yorkers in the 1920s -- it couldn't have been from the movies, because talkies hadn't yet been invented; radio perhaps?  Or other books?  Her Italian mobster (who in another line says "Who was it dat croaked Luigi Valdarno?"; he also leers) sounds more like the son of a Bronxite and Patrick O'Flannigan.  

Car of fly.  My edition has an error - it's supposed to read "car or fly."  Which makes far more sense.

E.P.D.  "Money's confoundedly tight in the City.  All this infernal E.P.D."  E.P.D. stands for "Excess Profits Duty."  Introduced by David Lloyd George in 1915, 

Peace by negotiation.  One evening after dinner - I will not particularize the date; it suffices to say that it was at the time when "Peace by negotiation" was the parrot-cry of England's enemies..."    The only references I can find to "peace by negotiation" were from the struggling Central Powers in 1917.  

David MacAdam.  The fictionalized Prime Minister who appears in the story "The Kidnapped Prime Minister" and apparently in another short story, "The Submarine Plans" which I have not yet read (and which does not appear in this collection).  The actual prime minister in 1917, the approximate time period of this story, was David Lloyd George.  I'm curious as to why Agatha Christie just didn't use the real prime minster's name, although I assume there were some legal reasons this could not be done.  I would have thought this was related in some way to the famous disclaimer "All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental" but according to Wikipedia, the disclaimer came about because of a lawsuit from 1932 between MGM and a Russian princess.  Of course, libel laws existed before the disclaimer, so I'm sure they were the culprit here.  

Leader of the House of Commons.  "I recognized no less a personage than Lord Estair, Leader of the House of Commons."  The actual leader of the House of Commons in 1917 was Andrew Bonar Law.  

Portiére.  "Behind a portiére in Mr. Davenheim's study stands a safe..."  A curtain hung over a door or doorway.  

"Pas de finesse, seulment de l'audace!"  Literally "No finesse, only the audacity."  Poirot was getting dissatisfied and restless in " The Veiled Lady" because the criminals of England are no longer trying to outwit him.  They commit blatant crimes without even trying to cover their tracks - they are shameless without being skillful or clever.

Sapastri.  Poirot says:  "Ah, sapistri, is Hercule Poirot to be beaten?" in "The Veiled Lady."    French slang, similar to English "Good heavens."

New Woman.   "I am not a great admirer of the so-called New Woman myself, and, in spite of her good looks, I was not particularly prepossessed in her favor."   Henry James coined the term "the new woman;" essentially she's the early feminist who works outside the home for a living and has gone to school beyond elementary education.   While Hastings makes his feeling clear about a "new woman" client in "The Case of the Missing Will," I wonder if he's parroting Agatha Christie's views, or she puts these words in his mouth to form his character as an old fashioned conservative?

Poirot InvestigatesPoirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is one of Agatha Christie's early Poirot books (only the third one), and one of the weakest.  Hastings is a tiresome sidekick - thank goodness Christie eventually dumps him; in these stories, Poirot has his usual confidence, but he isn't as developed as he later becomes (he's not so fussy as the Poirot of Evil Under the Sun, for example).  The stories aren't particularly interesting if you are trying to outwit Poirot either; most of the time, he's kept back information from us until the big reveal, making it nearly impossible to solve the case with him (something I enjoy doing, at least).  Poirot Investigates is certainly not the place to start if you're dipping into the Christie pool; I can imagine people starting here and never returning.  As with all books of short stories, some are better than others; in this case, the first stories in the book seem to be best, saving the mediocre ones until the end.  Good in a pinch, but if you have a choice, try another Christie.

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The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett (2008)

I am not a fan of Goodreads recommendation algorithm finding them odd at best, and completely wrong at worst.  I thought I would try an experiment, do some additional rating, and see if Goodreads could recommend some good books...  My experiment has been semi-successful.  For whatever reason, I can only get Goodreads (for now, at least) to recommend good picture books.  They (whoever "they are" - the binary code gremlins) suggested I try Emily Gravitt.  I was aware of her work in a collection development way - library jargon for "I've ordered her stuff and seen it in catalogs" but never had sat down and read on.  The Odd Egg is my first, and I definitely was pleasantly surprised.  I divide picture books into four piles (which sometimes venn-diagram each other) - books I personally love because they appeal to something witty or personally moving for me; books I would purchase for a child (perhaps a nephew) for a gift; books I would read aloud to a class or use for a storytime, and books that I think should be put through a paper shredder.  Odd Egg falls into three of those categories.  If I were doing a regular storytime, I would try to read it aloud; I would definitely give it to my nephew, and I thought it was really, really cute.  Not overly clever - this isn't Mo Willems territory, and it doesn't have that strange appeal of Barbara McClintock where the animals all have people's hands instead of hooves and paws, which some find disconcerting and I find funny.  But I loved the story, I thought the illustrations, which appear to be watercolor or gouache, are soft and beautiful, with some the intricate details I like in picture books.  There is a hint of wit ( the baby owl speaks in mathematics as well as owl).  A sweetheart of a book!

The Odd EggThe Odd Egg by Emily Gravett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this picture book.  I usually divide picture books into four piles (which sometimes venn-diagram each other) - books I personally love because they appeal to something witty or personally moving for me; books I would purchase for a child (perhaps a nephew) for a gift; books I would read aloud to a class or use for a storytime, and books that I think should be put through a paper shredder.  Odd Egg falls into three of those categories.  If I were doing a regular storytime, I would try to read it aloud; I would definitely give it to my nephew, and I thought it was really, really cute.  Not overly clever - this isn't Mo Willems hipster territory (almost though), and it doesn't have the strange appeal of Barbara McClintock which I adore,  where the animals all have people's hands instead of hooves and paws, and which some find disconcerting and I find funny.  But I loved the story, I thought the illustrations, which appear to be watercolor or gouache, are soft and beautiful, with some the intricate details I like in picture books.  There is a hint of wit ( the baby owl speaks in mathematics as well as owl).  A sweetheart of a book!

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Friday, September 27, 2013

The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Dave McKean (2003)

Another trip to the Gaiman world (the Gaiman islands?), this time to The Wolves in the Walls, a long picture book I first read as a teen librarian many moons ago, and even attempted to book talk to teens at the time.  Wolves has that same sense of odd menace and foreboding that present in - well, every Gaiman book I can think of.  There is the World, where Mom makes strawberry jam, and Dad plays the tuba, and Brother plays videos games, and where Lucy hears wolves scrambling around inside the walls.  And, as all Dads and Moms and Brothers do in the world, they pooh-pooh her fears - except they leave the door open at the end of their pooh-poohs, and you the reader are puzzled and fearful, just like Lucy.  If the wolves are merely figments of Lucy's overactive imagination and fears, then why do Dad, Mom and Brother all end their discounting with "If the wolves come out of the walls, then it's all over... everybody knows that."  Maybe everybody in the real world, but in the Gaiman world, we (like Lucy) are just learning what everybody knows.  The wolves are real, they are living in the walls, they do come out, and - it may be over (I won't spoil).

When the wolves do come out, the family and "huddled at the bottom of the garden."  I want to have a "bottom of the garden" to do things in.  Huddle, and sit and think, and sleep, and read a book, and drink a glass of wine.   English people in books always seem to have a "bottom of the garden."  If you Google "bottom of the garden,"  fairies pop up - so magical things happen there.

I'm not a huge fan of Dave McKean's artwork, but it pairs perfectly with the groovy creepy writing style.

The Wolves in the WallsThe Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To get to groovy creepy Gaiman world where The Wolves in the Walls, and most of his other books, seem to take place, it's similar to going to Never Never Land - take the second star to the right, but in this case straight on until midnight.  Hovering over every Gaiman book I've read is  that sense of the unearthly and macabre - the humor is dark, the palette is darker, the plot flavored with henbane and eye of newt.  In the Real World, no one has heard about wolves living in the walls, and when our little protagonist tells her Dad and Mum and Brother about them, they - like all grown ups (or nearly grown ups) discount her fears and try to comfort her.  But they also, every one of them, leave the door wide open with this disclaimer: "For you know what they say... if the wolves come out of the walls, then it's all over... everybody knows that."  Everybody in the Real World doesn't know that, but in Gaiman's world, second start to the right, weird things happen regularly to normal, everyday people.  Suffice it to say, wolves do indeed inhabit the walls, and what happens when they come out is how storytelling began among cavemen a thousand thousand years ago.   Dave McKean's illustrations, while not my favorite in any way, do make a perfect pairing to this creepy kooky story.  It's Good Night Moon for Wednesday Addams.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (1894, 1895, 1995)

I'm unsure how to proceed in writing about this edition of The Jungle Book because I really hated it.  I love The Jungle Books too; not adoration like I reserve for some childhood books (The Hobbit,  Narnia) but love just the same.  I can't actually remember the last time I read The Jungle Books, but it's not been recently enough to either have blogged about the book or reviewed it on Goodreads.  That's several years ago.

The illustrator of this version is Jerry Pinkney, an illustrator I tend to really like.  For example, his Caldecott winning The Lion and the Mouse was a book I gave five stars to on Goodreads, and (as I admitted in the review), I rarely like wordless picture books.  Although I haven't really reviewed any of his other books officially, I'm aware of many of them, and haven't had a visceral reaction to them.  I was certainly aware of his version of The Jungle Book.  I've probably even read bits and pieces of it, and may even have read this version the last time I read the book.

But this time, I hated it.  For at least three reasons (there may be more).  The first being, the pictures seem to cramped and pushed together.  Mowgli's jungle is this huge, lush, green place in my mind.  Pinkney's jungle is cramped, dark, brown.  Each illustration has been squeezed - for some reason - into postcard size.  They are awful.  Why, Pinkney, why such disappointing illustrations to such a vivid book?  India can be pictured many ways, but it is hardly brown.  Boring, boring, boring illustrations.  Not one stood out.

Reason two:  Mowgli is ugly.  He's so ugly.  This isn't a realistic story; boys aren't adopted by wolves (they are eaten by wolves).  It's a legend, brought to life by Kipling.  It's a fantasy.  So why the realistic pictures? I understand portraying the animal realistically, but Mowgli is just plain ugly.  Here is a direct quote, from Mowgli's mother:  "Have any told thee that thou art beautiful beyond all men?"  Pinkney doesn't make him look that way.  He's ugly from the first moments suckling with his wolf brothers to the last illustrations as a teenager, going back to the man world.  He is especially ugly on the cover!  To exclaim like a Kipling character in exasperation:  "Bah"

Reason Three has to do with editing.  I know that The Jungle Book is also The Jungle Books, and if I remember correctly, the Mowgli stories were split between both (from my childhood public library or elementary school library where I read them - I think they had green covers).  I also know that editions since then and before this have plucked all the Mowgli stories and put them in one volume.  But why include Rikki-tikki-Tavi and exclude something like The White Seal?  I also remember liking The Undertakers as well. This is a minor quibble - I can go find those stories elsewhere.  But I'm sorry for the poor kid who picks this version up, is stuck with an ugly stepsister of a Mowgli, and can't even read The White Seal.  Again, "bah," I say.

That said, I don't recall reading each and every story in The Jungle Books, although since they aren't all here, I can't prove that, can I?  So I'm not going to swallow crow until I absolutely have to!

Kipling's poetry sure leaves a lot to be desired.  They all sound exactly the same.

I still love Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,and I think of all the stories in the book, this is still the most accessible to young readers today.  I think it's an exciting story even as adult, and the characters are great - really vivid and alive.

I'm struck again as an adult by the Biblical language in most of the book.  Many "thees" and "thous," for reasons I've never quite understood.  It makes the book sound so archaic.  At the same time, that apparently didn't bother me all that much as a kid.  Perhaps we were most used to reading the King James than kids are now, and already had caught the flavor.

In looking at the stories, I really don't have a favorite.  I loved - and still love - "Red Dog."  "Kaa's Hunting" is also one I enjoy.  "The King's Ankus" is interesting as well.  The stories about Mowgli and the villagers make more sense now as a grown-up than they probably did to me as a kid, and I probably like them more now.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (which prompted me to read The Jungle Book) is still more paying homage to Kipling than retelling Kipling.  "The Hound of God" has flavors of "Kaa's Hunting" without being exactly alike.  "Dance Macabre" reminded me of "Spring Running" without being even derivative.  The treasure of the Sleer owes something to the white cobra and the King's ankus, but again aren't exactly the same.  I suppose for some, this is what makes The Graveyard Book annoying but I found that quite clever and interesting (obviously, the Newbery committee that year agreed with me, so bah to Gaiman haters).

"All the jungle was his friend, for all the jungle was afraid of him."  They aren't really your friends then, are they Mowgli.  He sounds like a tyrant.  Teenage boys with too much power are usually.  Interesting - the free online version I read, The Second Jungle Book is slightly different, and gives this phrase a different meaning: "all the Jungle was his friend, and just a little afraid of him."  The first phrase, which I assume was edited later, means the jungle was his friend because they were afraid of him; the second phrase, which I assume is the original, means they were his friend regardless of their fear of him.  Makes him sound far less intimidating and dictatorial.  Regardless, this line is from the first paragraph of "Red Dog" where Kaa says "Tell me Master of the Jungle, who is the Master of the Jungle?" and Mowgli admits that even he turns aside for the Little People, the black bees.  Mowgli is put in his place.

The Jungle BookThe Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My love for The Jungle Books doesn't approach the adoration I have for some other childhood classics (The Hobbit comes to mind first), but it is something I read and liked as a kid, and still re-read occasionally as an adult.  Whatever library I checked them out from, they came in two books The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book.  I'm always struck as an adult by two things - the Biblical language of the Mowgli stories (all thees and thous) and what a great story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" still is over a century later.  It's the most accessible story in the collection for the modern child, I think.  (that said, all of those "thees and thous" didn't really bug ME much as a child reader, but perhaps the King James Bible was more heard and read 30-some years ago).  I want to complain a moment, though, about the edition I read.  The Pinkney illustrations are god-awful.  And I love Jerry Pinkney's work; The Lion and the Mouse is gorgeous (and I generally hate wordless picture books).  India brings to mind many images and colors - lush greens, brilliant reds, blue waters and orange tigers.  Pinkney's cramped, postcard-sized illustrations are mostly dark and brown.  Plus, the stories they left out - "The White Seal," "The Undertakers" are quite good; I'm not sure why they were excluded.  To quote Shere Khan, "Bah!" What a shame that kids today have to rely on this as their introduction to a great classic of children's literature.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Church Musings: Acts 8: 26-40

Today's scripture was:  Acts 8: 26-40.  The New Revised Standard Version at
26  Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31 He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
   and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
     so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
   Who can describe his generation?
     For his life is taken away from the earth.’
34 The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’  38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

While King James says it this way:

26 And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. 27 And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, 28 Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. 29 Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. 30 And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? 31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him. 32 The place of the scripture which he read was this,
He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: 33 In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.
34 And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. 36 And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. 38 And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. 39 And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.

Today's sermon was all about Philip, who I really knew nothing about.  I had never heard this story from the Bible before.  That may be because it deals with something sort of unpleasant, which is an eunuch.  Although the word was read today in the scripture, no one really talked about the nameless Ethiopian eunuch, who he was, why he was in Jerusalem, and what happened to him later.  He was the the most intriguing part of this scripture to me this morning.  Eunuchs have served as court officials in various empires since the dawn of time.  Just off the top of my head, without any further research (or wikipedia-ing), they probably were made eunuchs for two reasons:  they could serve in a harem or for a female ruler or female consort without fear of impregnating her and they couldn't ever really have families of their own, so they were devoted to the government and ruler.  They were radically different from other men.  Because they were emasculated, they were considered less than a man.  They looked differently and spoke differently.  Although not outcasts in the sense of an untouchable, they would have been other than the norm.

The Eunuch is reading a passage from Isaiah when Philip shows up, and asks him to explain it.  It's a telling passage.    Obviously, the passage is about Jesus being a sacrificial lamb.  But I wondered about why the Eunuch was looking at that passage to begin with and came to this conclusion, which is probably wrong, but oh well: wasn't the eunuch also like a lamb led to the slaughter as well?  Maybe he was sitting pondering that passage from Isaiah, musing about his own personal humiliation.  Eunuchs were usually castrated before puberty set in, which is a technical and dispassionate way of saying they were little boys when it happened.  They did not have a choice.  The eunuchs were too, "like lambs dumb before the shearer."  They could not reproduce, so too their lives "were taken from the earth."  Their line would go no further.  This must have been both sad and humiliating for them.  

Eunuchs were not allowed to worship in the Temple; Deuteronomy specifically forbids their being able to enter the assembly of the Lord.  But Philip didn't care.  He talked with him about Jesus and ended up baptizing him. The Eunuch was Ethiopian, which probably means he was black.  In fact, in the tradition he's given a name, Simeon the Niger (Black), and is mentioned later in Acts.  So if we project this story into modern times, Philip seems to be asking Christians to accept people into the faith regardless of skin color.  And quite frankly, it doesn't take much to compare the Eunuch, a despised sexual minority, to gays and lesbians. That was almost my first thought today, and Biblical scholars are arguing about this (I wikipedia-ed).   There is this theologian named John J. McNeill who called the Eunuch "the first baptized Gay Christian" and this other theologian, Jack Rogers, writes that "the fact that the first Gentile convert to Christianity is from a sexual minority and a different race, ethnicity and nationality together" calls Christians to be radically inclusive and welcoming."  I'm going to have to look up more about these theologians.

After today's scripture, I have a new hero in the Bible:  The Ethiopian Eunuch.  You go girrrl!

By the way, Philip wasn't given a choice in any of this - the Holy Spirit moved him to do it.  I loved the last line too - "snatched Philip away."  The Bible is sure like a fantasy novel sometimes.  J.K. Rowling couldn't have written it better.

Candace, or kandake, is actually an honorific, a title for the queens of Kush.  They were known as warrior queens.

Azotus still exists; today it's known as Ashdod and is the fifth largest city in Israel.  It is one of the oldest cities in the world - seventeenth century B.C.  It's also a sister-city with Los Angeles!  And Tampa.  Weird.

A few other musings from church today.

Our speaker today talked about some of the things we should be doing to be more like Philip.  This included reading and studying the scripture (trying to do this), prayer and silent listening (not so good at this), become comfortable with everybody (always trying to do this, but with varying degrees of success), share what we know about Jesus (mmmm....), follow Jesus everywhere he goes (double mmmm.... but worth thinking about....), use our talents and gifts for others (trying to do this daily, with varying degrees of success).

John Wesley wanted Methodists to be a singing church, and instructed us to "sing lustily and with courage."  I am trying to do that!

Music today included:

Ich Liebe Dich (I Love Thee) by Edvard Grieg.  Originally an art song, from a grouping of four called Melodies of the Heart, from one of my favorite composers, with lyrics by Hans Christian Andersen!  Written in 1864-65, the three other pieces are "Two Brown Eyes," "The Poet's Heart," and "My Mind Is Like a Mountain Sheep."

Our introit today was How Excellent Is They Name by Eugene Butler. We sang some Butler last week.  This one was written around 1967.  I am not a fan of this piece, one reason being, it's the worst I've personally ever done while singing.  I've made some clinkers before, but never anything so noticeable.  UGH.  I hate sticking out like that.  I was so embarrassed.  So now I hate this piece.  Plus, it has sprechgesang, which I hate.  I just told the conductor that sprechgesang was Hitler's favorite kind of music and I don't think we should be doing it anymore, but he wasn't buying it and gave me the fish eye.

Blessed Assurance, words by Fanny Crosby, music by Phoebe P. Knapp.  This song was written in 1873.  Fanny Crosby was blind; she was the "mother of modern congregational singing" with many hymns to her name.  Her husband was blind too, which has this whole Little House on the Prairie Mary and Adam sort of vibe.  She was a life long Methodist.  Her musical partner was Phoebe Knapp, who married to one of the founders of Metropolitan Life Insurance; he was described as one of the richest men in New York City.    This was the Gilded Age too, so imagine Phoebe  and her husband lived quite well.  Both she and Fanny attended St. John Methodist Episcopal Church.  Phoebe wrote over 500 hymn tunes but Blessed Assurance was probably her most famous one.  Legend has it that Mrs. Knapp was touring Fanny's school for the blind where she taught, played the tune on a piano, and Fanny instantly wrote the words for it.

My Eternal King by Jane Marshall.  Our anthem today was one of the most beautiful songs we've ever sung.  The neat story behind this was for the century anniversary of the Methodist church in Anaheim, a 100 voice choir sang this song at an honor, 35 years ago.  This anthem was written in 1954; the words are based on a 17th century Latin text.  According to what I can find out about her, Jane Marshall is a Methodist.

Our second hymn was Ye Servants of God by Charles Wesley; music attributed to William Croft; the tune name is called Hanover.  Written in 1744, from Hymns For Times of Trouble and Persecution. Charles Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns.  The hymn tune, Hanover, is named for King George III, of the House of Hanover.

Our offertory today was Impromptu by William Stickles.  I can't find a thing about William Stickles online.

Our last hymn was I Sing A Song of the Saints of God, words by Lesbia Scott; music by John H. Hopkins, Jr., hymn tune Grand Isle.  The song was first published in 1929, and is an Episcopal hymn.  It's from a collection called Everyday Hymns for Little Children. "Each hymn was devised for a different occasion, and one of them, Saints' Days, found its way to the United States and was set to a new tune ('Grand Isle') composed especially for it by retired Episcopal priest John Henry Hopkins, Jr."  What's funny about this last line, which I lifted from Wikipedia, is that John Henry Hopkins, Jr. died in 1898 - well before Lesbia Scott wrote this song.  If you follow the link for John Henry Hopkins, Jr. he's the composer of the famous Christmas Carol (actually Epiphany Carol!) We Three Kings of Orient Are.  Here is what I found with a little research:

"Music: John Henry Hopkins, the composer of Grand Isle, can easily be mistaken for other members of his illustrious family. He was the son of the Rev. Theodore Austin Hopkins; grandson of the first bishop of Vermont, also named John Henry Hopkins; and nephew of John Henry Hopkins, Jr., author and composer of "We three kings of Orient are"... Grand Isle was written in 1940 specifically for use with the irregular metre text "I sing a song of the saints of God" by Lesbia Scott. The tune was first published in the Layman's Magazine of the Living Church, 1, io (November, 1940), page 39, and named for the community on the island of the same name in Lake Champlain in Vermont where Hopkins lived in his retirement."

Our postlude was Trumpet the Glad Tidings by James Mansfield.  As of 2011, Mansfield had self published a book for sale on called Lavender.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Crazy Hair by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Dave McKean (2009)

Crazy HairCrazy Hair by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sort of an updated tale from Dr. Seuss, or something lifted from the unpublished works of Shel Silverstein and molded into life. Or a story a grandpa with crazy hair would tell his granddaughter (a really creative and poetic grandpa, mind you). Crazy pictures accompany the crazy hair.

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 This one doesn't seem to fit as neatly into "the Gaiman world" although if I really tried, I could probably squeeze it in. I think the pictures are really what make it "Gaimanesque."

The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman; pictures by Dave McKean (1998, 2004)

This definitely fits neatly into the Gaiman world. It's sits on the gently wacky, definitely absurd corner of Gaiman world, and it's not dark (like most of Gaiman) but definitely getting dark; sort of right before twilight. It has a bite to it too; the newspaper reading dad, oblivious to all that's going on, frequently shows up in television commercials, although he's in far stupider and bumbling garb on television than Gaiman and McKean's newspaper reading dad who gets swapped for two goldfish. The pictures, which at first bugged the shit out of me - like all modern art, I guess - I grew to appreciate and even love (around about the gorilla mask). The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two GoldfishThe Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The world of Gaiman can be a dark and scary one. The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish isn't as dark as a Gaiman novel, but it definitely is at least right before twilight. It's also amusingly absurd, gently wacky, with pictures that pack a sort of postmodern punch. In the middle of this clever and humorous story is a bit of bite as well; the newspaper reading dad, oblivious to being swapped here and there for various articles, is the kind of dad that in other, more grown-up works, cause men to go into therapy. That may be taking this picture book too far down the road, but it's Neil Gaiman afterall, and peeling away layers often reveals creepy crawling things underneath - and sometimes light too.

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All this talk of saving souls by Linda M. Underwood

All this talk of saving souls.
Souls weren't made to save,
like Sunday clothes that
give out at the seams.

They're made for wear; they come with lifetime guarantees.
Don't save your soul.
Pour it out like rain on
cracked, parched earth.

Give your soul away, or
pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out, or
laugh it up the wind.

Souls were made for hearing breaking hearts, for puzzling dreams,
remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.

These men who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies
who blow out candles before
you sing happy birthday,
and want the world to be in alphabetical order.

I will spend my soul,
playing it out like sticky string into the world,
so I can catch every
last thing I touch.

Linda M. Underwood

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)

This is the second time in almost as many years that I've read The Graveyard Book.  I finished it last night, and I was all prickly and tingly and full of the book that I didn't want to really read anything else.  I just wanted The Graveyard Book to settle down over me and in me while I fell asleep.  It's such an electrically charged book; it almost shocks you when you pick it up.  I'm going to re-read The Jungle Books for the umpteenth time, to see exactly how much they are alike and different.  The Graveyard Book isn't just a modern re-telling of The Jungle Books, or a horror/suspense/fantasy re-telling either.  An homage maybe?   There is a hint of Peter Pan ("Boy? What're you doing?"), definitely some Tolkien ("The Hounds of God" is like this marvelous cross between "Kaa's Hunting" in The Jungle Books and "The Uruk-Hai" from The Two Towers, and also something marvelously, magically, mysteriously pure Gaiman as well).  Having read The Graveyard Book a few weeks after The Ocean At the End of the Lane, the Gaiman world is definitely a connected, related, whole world; the books might not be brothers, but they are definitely cousins.  I'm on a Gaiman reading kick, re-reading some older stuff, and reading some other things for the first time, and I'm very curious to see if this rings true throughout the canon of Gaiman.

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My second time to read The Graveyard Book in almost as many years, and I was even more impressed the second time around.  I finished it last night at about 11:30 p.m., and I was so pleasantly prickly and tingly and full of the book that I certainly wasn't ready to pick up and start anything else right away.  I just wanted The Graveyard Book to settle down over me and in me while I fell asleep.  It's not a perfect book - I think the whole Honour Guard thing is a bit cheesy in a summer blockbuster kind of way - but the cleverness and writing and overall feeling of the book smothers than cheese (perhaps if I'm going to follow this idea of cheese down an almost trite rabbit hole, I'm going to say "smothers the stench of limburger").  Gaiman definitely has created a world here, that seems to stretch from book to book; for example, if The Graveyard Book and The Ocean at the End of the Lane aren't brothers, they are definitely cousins.  The Gaiman canon is a magical, mysterious, marvelous one.

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Bertrand Russell quote

“There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it."

The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell (1930).

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson (1997)

I'm really disappointed, because I so wanted to like this book.  Initially it seemed to have elements I would love, such as a setting of the 1930s.  But the plot just meandered too much, without any touch points (at least for me).  I usually like Eva Ibbotson, but this was an (unfinished) disappointment.

A Song for SummerA Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

What a disappointment.  A meandering plot without any touch points finally did it in for me.  I usually love Eva Ibbotson too, which makes not liking this book even more of a bummer.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In Youth Is Pleasure by Denton Welch (1945)

Sort of Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume, only written in 1945 and about English people. With masturbation but without watching a girl next door through the window take off her clothes.  Well, I'm stretching this a bit, but I have to find some hook to write about this weird novella with completely unlikable characters.  And where nothing really happens.  At all.  All painstakingly and really quite beautifully described.  There was that at least, which kept me reading.There is another half of this book, a different story, called I Left My Grandfather's House, but I myself left the book after the first story because I had had it.

I don't remember why I wanted to read this in the first place.  Denton Welch was very cute though.  And gay.

In Youth is Pleasure & I Left My Grandfather's HouseIn Youth is Pleasure & I Left My Grandfather's House by Denton Welch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I think I must be too dense for this book.  It was beautifully written, but nothing really ever happened.  Which makes me sound like a complete idiot - but if there was a plot, I couldn't find one.  A non-traditional plot structure, but whatever.  I didn't actually read the second story in the book - I had it after the first.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The 21 Balloons by William Pene du Bois (1947)

I remember this book quite fondly; I received as a gift as part of  a boxed set of Newbery Award winners that also included The Island of the Blue Dolphins and Roller Skates.  There had to be at least two others in the set, but for now I can't remember what they were.  One could have been The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  I know I also had copies of A Wrinkle in Time and From the Mixed Up Files, but I don't recall them being part of this set.  I have no idea now.

If I had to make a top 10 of children's books I loved reading and re-reading as a kid, this wouldn't probably make that list, but it's probably in the top 20.  As an adult, I think I seem pretty hidebound and home sweet home; travel makes me nervous, particularly since 9-11; flying is a pain.  But as a child, I read voraciously about other places, and dreamed of becoming something else, somewhere else.  I remember devouring some sort of Lowell Thomas travelogue in book form one summer that was tucked away in the back of the library.  I loved National Geographic.  It makes me quite sad to think that that adventuresome spirit has dwindled away somewhat.  I'm not sure I want to explore the reasons why, either here in a public blog or internally.

All that said, The 21 Balloons really fits the mark of a wild travelogue and it's understandable why I would have loved it.  Re-reading the book again, I'm struck as how creatively highbrow it is; so many of the old books take it for granted that kids were smart.  Nothing is dumbed-down.  I think maybe my love of exotic food and willingness to try almost any kind of food begins in books like The 21 Balloons.  

Pene Du Bois's use of verisimilitude is what makes this book particularly lovely.  He uses plenty of real people and events, both balloon related and historically, to make Dr. Sherman's story seem plausible, as if this were a true account. Krakatoa aside, he also drops the names of famous 19th century balloonists John Wise and T.C. Lowe.  The economics of the Gourmet Government are as sound as they are far fetched.  His balloon inventions sound wonderful, and the kid in me wishes I had a balloon merry go round and all those other inventions.  A year in a balloon sounds simply delightful, and I envy Professor Sherman.

This was the Newbery Winner for 1948. The honor books that year were a large list of unknowns (at least to me):  Pancakes-Paris by Claire Huchet Bishop,
Li Lun, Lad of Courage by Carolyn Treffinger,
The Quaint and Curious Quest of Johnny Longfoot by Catherine Besterman,
The Cow-Tail Switch, and Other West African Stories by Harold Courlander, and
Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry (which I've heard of but never read).  Other notable books for kids that year include Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald and Stone Soup by Marcia Brown.

William Pene Bu Bois was one of the founding editors of The Paris Review; he was the art editor.  He was quite, quite handsome.

He served in World War II, stationed in Bermuda, where he apparently wrote most if not all of The 21 Balloons, which was published in 1947.   When he was 31 years old.

The Twenty-One BalloonsThe Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intellectually challenging and creatively highbrow, The 21 Balloons has an essence of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and the various voyages of Doctor Doolittle, but mostly is a slim but fun homage to Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. Pene du Bois's genius, and maybe the reason he won the Newbery Award for this book, was his brilliant use of verisimilitude to add plausibility to an otherwise crazy story. Dropping names of real balloonists of the time such as John Wise and T.C. Lowe, using the explosion of Krakatoa as the climax of the travelogue, adding actual economic theory (of a sort, at least) to the function of the Gourmet Government, mixing in real science and possible inventions.   This all makes for a delightful and fun story, one of my favorites growing up (and still is).  Lovers of steampunk should love this book.

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Church Musing: Galatians 3: 10-14, 19-22

Sunday's scripture was Galatians 3: 10-14, 19-22.  The New Revised Standard Version online ( calls these passages Law or Faith, and The Purpose of the Law.  
10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ 12 But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.’ 1 3Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. 20 Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one. 21 Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 22But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Here is good old King James:
10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. 12 And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. 13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: 14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.19 Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. 21 Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. 22 But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.

Faith or works?  The age old question from the dawn of Christianity (add predestination as the bitters this conundrum cocktail).  I don't think I have an opinion on this conundrum; it's not something that really interests me.  I have faith, of sorts, but I also hate religion that spouts faith over works, like all you have to do is believe hard enough, and then you can screw everyone over and be lazy and not help people.  When you make it all about the afterlife, it means you can be awful in this life, and quite frankly, I think the main commandment was "be nice and do good" NOT "constantly worry about going to Hell."  

Pastor did bring up one of my favorite stories from the Bible, about Peter having the dream about the unclean food, and then Cornelius the Centurion shows up, and the Gentiles get folded into the Christian mix.  I like this story, because to me it negates so much of the judgmental and harsh Old Testament laws.   The message here also is "times change, and you can too."  Peter did.

Galatia, incidentally, is in Turkey.

Our music today.  

Organ prelude was Sicilienne by Maria-Theresia Paradis, who was a blind composer, Austrian, living from 1759-1824, a contemporary of Mozart.  Except she probably didn't write it!  Very, very interesting story here about how the editor of this piece when it first appeared in print, Samuel Dushkin, probably wrote it himself, based on another piece by Carl Maria Von Weber. "The obvious motive would be to increase music sales, since a "discovery" of a new work by an 18th-century composer, even a lesser-known one, provides more cachet than yet anothernew work imitating an older style."

Introit was O God Our Help In Ages Past, arranged by Eugene Butler.  Text by the hymn writer and poet I'm coming to love, Isaac Watts, original music by William Croft, an English composer and organist in the 17th/18th century. Dr. Eugene Butler, who arranged the piece, was at Johnson County Community College, Kansas and, as far as I can tell, is still alive but retired.

First hymn was Let Us With A Joyful Mind, words by the old English poet and author John Milton, adapted by Thomas H. Troeger; tune Innocents from The Parish Choir (1850), a 13th century French melody.    John Milton probably needs to no introduction; he wrote this hymn at age 15 in 1623.  The original hymn was Let Us With a Gladsome Mind.  I like the word "gladsome" much better than "joyful" - it's far more fun.  I also like "let us blaze his Name."

Here is the whole original.

Let us, with a gladsome mind,
praise the Lord, for he is kind:
for his mercies aye endure,
ever faithful, ever sure.

Let us blaze his Name abroad,
for of gods he is the God: Refrain

He with all commanding might
filled the new-made world with light: Refrain

He the gold-tressèd sun
caused all day his course to run: Refrain

The horned moon to shine by night,
mid her spangled sisters bright: Refrain

All things living he doth feed,
his full hand supplies their need: Refrain

Let us, with a gladsome mind,
praise the Lord, for he is kind: Refrain

Thomas H. Troeger is the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School.  According to the Yale website, he teaches homiletics (the art of preaching!), plays the flute, writes poetry, and is both ordained a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian (but not, alas, a Methodist).

Our anthem we sang was Day by Day by Mark Hayes.  The more I sang this, the more I liked singing it, which isn't true with every piece we perform.  The words appear to be by a 19th century Swedish author, Caroline Lina Sandell-Berg, who apparently wrote them after the death of her father in a boating accident - he fell overboard right before her eyes, and drowned while she watched.  The tune is by Oscar Ahnfelt, a Swedish composer, who composed all the music for Lina Sandell-Berg's hymns.  Jenny Lind, the Swedish nightingale, popularized these hymns in America.  We sing Mark Hayes all the time; sometimes I like his stuff, and other times not so much.  He's very prolific.

Our second hymn was We Walk by Faith words by Henry Alford, music by Hugh Wilson.  Henry Alford was a 19th century English hymnodist and theologian.    Hugh Wilson was an 18th century Scottish composer and mathematician.  The hymn tune is called Martyrdom.

Our offertory was Flute Solo by Thomas Arne, an 18th century English composer.  He's better known for two of his other works, Rule, Britannia and God Save the King (or queen).  He also wrote A-Hunting We Will Go!

Our last hymn was In the Midst of New Dimensions, words and music by Julian B. Rush.  I can't find any information on Julian B. Rush.  Maybe he (or she) isn't even a real person.

Our postlude was Lead On, O King Eternal by Franklin Ritter.  I can't find any information on him either.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Cloud Book words and pictures by Tomie de Paola (1975)

My brother and I owned this book, although let's be perfectly frank here:  even though the book was given to both of, it was mine by dint of use.  My brother can probably count the books he has read in his lifetime on one hand.  I don't ever recall him sitting still with a book.  Nor most of my family either - I was definitely the reader.  The eminence of egghead-ery knowledgeably declare that in order to get your kids to become readers, they should see you reading. That may be true in some cases, but it certainly wasn't in my case. Making sure kids have their own libraries is also touted as a cure for reading-phobia, but that also didn't prove to be true for my brother or sister.  I loved having a personal library though.

I knew coming into The Cloud Book that it was about clouds.  It's an incredibly cute book, with shades of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are or  In the Night Kitchen (without the nudity), and I love the illustrations.  But don't pick this up thinking you are going to learn everything you ever wanted to know about clouds.  You are going to find out the names of various kinds of clouds, which I remember liking as a kid; some funny phrases about clouds, some quick folklore, and that's about it.  There is one small passage about what clouds are made of, but as to what they actually are, why they float in the sky, why they form in the first place, why fog comes so low and some stay so high - well, forget it.  Hopefully your child doesn't ask any of these questions.  If so, you are going to be forced to make up an answer.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
One of those mid 1970s books that everyone of a certain age probably saw in their local public or elementary school library, and may (or may not) have checked out.  The illustrations, like most if not all dePaola, are cute without being overly so.  Nothing cloying here.  if you have an inquisitive child with questions about clouds, this may not be the book for him or her though.  Much of the book is devoted to naming different kinds of clouds, one page is about what clouds are made of, and some parts of the books have some folklore.  If your child wants to know, for example,why clouds float in the sky but fog creeps along the ground or how clouds form in the first place, you may just have to rely on you making up an imaginative answer.  It's still an adorable book though.  And may spark the interests of a future meteorologist, who knows.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (2001) and Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark (2012)

I tried to read The Eyre Affair once before, and gave up on it then.  Far sooner than I'm giving up on it now.  I should have trusted that first instinct.  I've been told that the rest of the books in the series are far superior, but I don't care.  I'm giving up.  It's too much like Rick Riordan or Artemis Fowl for grown ups.  It occasionally reminded me of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - but I'll just go back and re-read that.

Sleepwalkers I so wanted to like; it's certainly not badly written at all.  But I need my history to be more about people and less about events, and Sleepwalkers , at least up to page 100 or so, was all about events and diplomacy.  I'm also not a big fan of World War I, and this proved it again to me.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Munro Clark

I really, really wanted to like Sleepwalkers, and get hopelessly lost with the Edwardians and the Hapsburgs and the Belle Epoque - but I just couldn't get into this one.  Too much diplomacy and events, not enough people, I think was the culprit behind my dislike.

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The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next #1)The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

I don't know what's wrong with me, but I've tried to read this twice in the last ten years since it came out, and can't finish it.  It's a pity too, because on its surface it has much I enjoy in a book - time travel, fictional characters interacting with "real" fictional characters, mystery, alternative history...  I mean, it has living dodos for goodness sake.  But even with all that, it just falls flat in my hands and head.  There will not be a third attempt.

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The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham (1943)

This is my third foray into Maugham - my first being Theatre (which became one of my favorite movies Being Julia; the second Cakes and Ale, the sexy and fun raspberry to Thomas Hardy and Hugh Walpole.  Third time is most definitely a charm; I'm looking forward to the fourth now.

The point of view in The Razor's Edge extraordinarily divine - I loved how the narrator is Maugham himself, plopped down part and parcel into this fictional tale.  
"My loving in-laws kicked me out of Chicago.  Said I was gumming up their f---- reputations."  So says Sophie MacDonald towards the end of the book.  First of all - this is 1943, and saying the word "fuck" in print could get you put in jail for obscenity!  Here is another of Sophie's exchanges, with her pimp boyfriend:  "J'm'en fous de tes amis.  To hell with your friends..."  "Fous-moi la paix, espéce de con," she cried, with sudden violence.  
"Merde."  "Mange."

My long ago French isn't so rusty that I didn't read this as:  Fuck your friends (rather than "to hell").  "Leave me the fuck alone."  "Eat shit."  That passed the censors.

Sophie herself is a brilliantly rendered character (in a book full of them) - sort of like a "whatever happened to that girl at the Gatsby party ten years ago" sort of scene.  Such a sad character too.  A contrast to cold, cool, calculating - but droll, oh so droll, Isabel.  The wine scene - I won't give it away - was one of the funniest in the book.  A bitchy queeny thing to write, in my opinion - and  fantastic.  

Isabel's mother was another one in the book I liked, there was much "reading between the lines" with her character.  She wasn't some caricature of a Midwestern nouveau riche blowsy frowsy grande dame.  She had her own sense of droll, but more aware than Isabel.  You don't spend that many years in the diplomatic corps and not know something of the world and how it works.

Gray Maturin reminded me of the small town rich boy, all grown up, and playing at business man.  Of course, he will rise again - the square jawed well spread golf players always do.
"Isabel had conceived of a desire to make a tour of the tough joints, and because I had some acquaintance with them, she asked me to be their guide... I took them to the Sphynx where women, naked under their smart, tawdry evening dresses, their breasts, nipples and all, exposed, sit in a row on two benches opposite one anohter and when the band strikes up dance together listlessly with their eyes on the lookout for the men who sit round the dance hall at marble-topped tables.  We ordered a bottle of warm champagne.  Some of the women gave Isabel the eye as they passed us and I wondered if she knew what it meant...     Then we went to the Rue de Lappe.  It is a dingy, narrow street and even as you enter it you get the impression of sordid lust.  We went into a café...  A lot of people were dancing, sailors with red pompon on their hats, men mostly with their caps on and handkerchiefs around their necks, women of mature age, and young girls, painted to the eyes, bareheaded, in short skirts and colored blouses.  Men danced with podgy boys with made-up eyes; gaunt, hard-featured women danced with fat women with dyed hair; men danced with women. "

Sometimes, one gets the feeling that gays and lesbians didn't exist in literature until Stonewall blew the doors off the closet in 1969.  So I'm always pleasantly surprised to see them, here and there, in literature of old.  Maugham was gay himself, and imagine the "café" that "Maugham" takes them to in the book was a place real Maugham had probably frequented himself - he describes in quite well.  I know next to nothing about his personal life (other than his homosexuality) but I would imagine this to be true.  The flamingly homosexual heir in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate is another (and far better) example of paleo-gay, as the gays in The Razor's Edge just get to dance, and "give the eye."  Elliott is implicitly gay, certainly not as gay as the heir, or perhaps so, only not in such a broadly comic way.

Larry reminded me of someone I either saw in a movie or knew - but I couldn't ever quite figure out who.  I had the same trouble with Elliott.  Larry was probably the most unrealistic character - and the most dull (that long chapter about Eastern philosophy stuck out for me in a bad way) but even he was memorable.  Elliott was brilliantly real.  Those last scenes are amazing and amazingly funny.  And sad too.  They were all trying to build up these lives - Isabel and Gray, Elliott, Sophie, Larry - I loved the ending...   

The Razor's EdgeThe Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An extraordinary point of view, brilliantly rendered and memorable characters, a modern narrative that chucks chronological order out the window - certainly one of the most entertaining books I've read in quite a while.  Maugham is so good.  He's not perfect - the chapters on Eastern philosophy stuck out for me, although I understand why they were there; they just seemed heavy handed smack dab in a much lighter place, an injection of academics in a comic setting.  That's certainly not a good enough reason to throw the book down (or never pick it up in the first place).  There is some surprising stuff here too, for 1943 - frank discussions of sex, the f-word, gays and lesbians, prostitution, murder, opium addiction...  sounds like a laugh riot, huh?  More like a riot of wit and drollery.  Great fun and a great book.

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