Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Caroling the Gospel (But Not Really), Bonus Round: Some Children See Him

[NOTE:  This is from a series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The full series is available here.  Enjoy!]

This Christmas carol doesn't actually include the gospel, but it does address an aspect of the Christmas story that is often overlooked.  Written by an American jazz musician in the 1950s, it's probably one of the most politically correct Christmas songs around--which accounts for its popularity among recording artists (though lots of folks are unfamiliar with the song).  I love this Tennessee Ernie Ford version. 

Caroling the Gospel XII: I Wonder as I Wander

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

This carol--one of my favorites--has an unusual backstory.  In 1933, a folklorist/singer collected a song fragment in Appalachian North Carolina--he heard a little girl sing it, and after asking her to sing it several more times, he used the song fragment to compose "I Wonder as I Wander."  Perhaps that's why the song always sounds best when sung by a female voice with little or no instrumental or choral backing, and the best backing usually has a bluegrass feel to it.  It is a solitary song (hence the use of the first person singular) and the haunting melody works well unadorned by musical accoutrements.  I really like the Jewel/Sarah McLachlan version, which strips the song down to just the melody with a single subtle vocal harmony, but I can't seem to find the video online.  Joanie does an ok job though.

Caroling the Gospel XI: Of the Father's Love Begotten

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

This is, I think, the oldest carol I've looked at.  The words date from the early 5th century, and the music--Divinum Mysterium--was written in the 11th century.  Which makes a lot of sense--the music feels old.  This song works best sung by an acapella men's choir, largely in unison (in other words, as monks in the 11th century might have sung it).  It was translated from the original Latin into English in the mid-19th century.  With nine verses, it's usually truncated in church services or musical performances--the first, sixth, and ninth verses are the ones I've heard most often, though the third and seventh verses are particularly gospel-filled.

Caroling the Gospel X: O Holy Night

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

As this song is also known as Cantique de Noel, it's hardly surprising that this beloved carol originated in France.  Written in the 1800s to a pre-existing poem, the literal translation of the French is actually quite a bit meatier than the modern version--check it:
Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God-man descended to us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior. 
People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!
May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness, 
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies. 
People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer! 
'To erase the stain of original sin and to end wrath of His Father . . . for all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.'  This is some striking gospel language.  But a few years later, along came a Unitarian minister who did his own 'translation' and surprise!  Most of the gospel-y bits got removed.  This new sanitized version is the one we know today, more's the pity.

Caroling the Gospel IX: The First Noel

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

'Noel', of course, is the French word for 'birthday' (as in 'joyeoux noel'), from the Latin 'natalis'.  Despite this French connection, the carol has its origins in 18th century England, specifically Cornwall (which is why you may have seen it anglicized as 'the first nowell').  This is yet another carol that tends to be excerpted in popular versions (of which there have been many).


Caroling the Gospel VIII: Good Christian Men, Rejoice

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

Set to a tune knowns as 'In Dulci Jubilo', this German/Latin hymn dates back to the Middle Ages.  That's right--it was originally a macaronic blend of both German and Latin.  The most well-known English translation dates from 1853. 

Caroling the Gospel VII: Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

This lesser known carol--both lyrics and music--hails from 16th century Germany (though a fifth verse was added later).  The 'rose' referenced has been connected to Mary (by the Catholics) and to Jesus (by the Protestants) since the song first appeared.  The slow pace and eerie harmonies make this a less common choice for carolers, though it's yielded some interesting professional arrangements.  Usually only the first two verses get any attention, but it's worth examining in its entirety.

Caroling the Gospel VI: We Three Kings

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

We're back to the 19th century with this one, but we're staying on U.S. soil.  Originally written for a Christmas pageant in New York City, this song has been covered time and again by popular artists, from the Beach Boys to the Barenaked Ladies (I actually really like their version) to BlondieJose Feliciano even recorded a version.  However, as with many other carols, the pop versions (and sometimes even the church versions) are usually somewhat truncated.

Caroling the Gospel V: Sweet Little Jesus Boy

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

Another lesser known carol--dating not from 18th or 19th century Europe, but from the 1930s in this very country.  Composed by Robert MacGimpsey in 1934, it was written in the style of an African American spiritual, and some versions even include the non-standard grammar and spelling associated with the genre. 

Caroling the Gospel IV: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

The lyrics to this classic carol were originally penned by the great Charles Wesley, though according to his preference they were set to a much more sombre tune.  Also, he opened with the amusing line "Hark! how all the welkin rings" ('welkin' being an archaic term for 'sky').  By the time William Cumming updated the music to the tune we know today (by Mendelssohn), the words had changed, too. 

Caroling the Gospel III: Joy to the World

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

Not the Three Dog Night one.  Originally composed by hymn-writing rockstar Isaac Watts as a celebration of Christ's second coming, this hymn was quickly adopted for use at Christmastime and is now the most published Christmas hymn in North America.  Though I suspect the full, four-verse version is considerably less popular.

Caroling the Gospel II: The Holly and the Ivy

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

This lesser-known carol may have roots in pagan traditions--ivy and holly songs were symbolic of the competition between male (holly) and female (ivy)--but the version handed down to us today is rich with gospel imagery.

Caroling the Gospel I: What Child Is This?

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

I've been reading through an online devotional on Christmas carols, and while it's been sort of interesting, it's not terribly well done.  And as Stephen King says, sometimes inspiration comes not in good writing, but in bad.  The kind of writing that makes you think "hey, I can do better than that!"  So I decided to think/write about some Christmas carols.  Specifically, I want to focus on the Christmas carols that contain the gospel.  Which is not to say that the ones that don't contain the gospel are bad.  But sadly, there are a lot of Christmas songs that non-Christians could sing (and mean) without any understanding of or belief in the gospel.

I'll start with one of my favorites--What Child Is This?

Alienation (C.H.A.O.S. Trilogy #2), by Jon S. Lewis


The adventures of orphaned surfer teen Colt McAlister continue as he and his two best friends--hacker prodigy Danielle and uber-buff warrior-to-be Oz--prepare for their training at the super secret C.H.A.O.S. academy.  Which would be more than enough to keep these teenagers busy without the near-fatal 'accidents' that seem to dog Colt's steps everywhere he goes.  Is someone out to kill him?  Who?  And why?  Can Colt solve the mystery before it's too late?

In this sequel, Lewis wisely returns to the most interesting plot thread in Invasion--the super secret training school.  Sadly, most of the book is focused on simply preparing to go there.  The characters don't actually arrive at the academy until Chapter 28 (more than 130 pages into this 250 page book), and the climax occurs mere days after their arrival, so we still don't really know what super secret spy school is really like.  Not that it takes 130 pages for the action to start--during that time, Colt endures giant viper wasps, rogue combat robots, jellyfish monsters, a shape-shifting alien assassin, high speed car chases, and more in his never-ending quest to simply survive.  Then, too, he discovers some rather unwelcome and surprising information about his own past.

This new information helps explain why Colt is expected to be such a prodigy (and his rather unlikely survival in the face of danger).  And since Oz's father runs C.H.A.O.S. and has been training his son since birth, it's hardly surprising that Oz is such a capable fighter.  Danielle remains a mystery, though--her computer skills are impossibly convenientSomehow, this high-schooler is able to hack the most sophisticated defense systems in the country . . . and just happens to be friends with a pseudo messiah and one of the toughest fighters around.  Fortunately, there are a few things Danielle can't do, hacker-wise, but she's still enough of a genius to be unsettling.  Perhaps the next volume will explain away the coincidence of their friendship (as well as finally showing us what it's really like at super secret spy and alien school). 

The characters continue to be rather two-dimensional (possibly a result of the author's background in comic book writing), but the plot holds up better, even if the villain's motivation is a bit underwhelming.  Having established that a super-competent alien assassin is after Colt (with specific instructions to make the death look accidental), Lewis is free to come up with a variety of creative life-threatening sequences for Colt and his friends.  The end result is a much more cohesive product than the previous volume, though there is still plenty of room for improvement. 

Bottom Line:  Better than the first book, but still mostly just something fun and clean for kids.

[Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”]

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick


Undercover narcotics investigator 'Fred' has been masquerading as Bob Arctor--a big time dealer of Substance D, the latest addictive drug to sweep the nation.  He hopes to trace the ultimate source of Substance D, while struggling to avoid the suspicions of his druggie roommates (including psychotic and possibly malevolent genius Jim Barris) and his dealer/platonic girlfriend Donna.  However, as he himself begins to feel the drug's effects, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to keep track of his two identities. 

Set in a near-future dystopia, this book is less science fiction than cautionary tale (though Dick did not intend it that way) and memoriam for Dick's lost comrades.  There are elements of science fiction, to be sure--Fred's surveillance is conducted using holographic scanners, and when he deals with other law enforcement officers, he wears a 'scramble suit' to render his appearance and voice completely unrecognizable.  But the bulk of the story centers around the drug culture and the effects of illegal drugs on those who use them. 

The language is a bit dated--you can tell it was written in the seventies--but the story still holds up.  Dick is particularly adept at navigating the labyrinth of the drug-addled mind.  Arctor flips back and forth across and between trains of thought, and his perceptions are increasingly distorted by the chemicals he has ingested, but the reader always knows what is going one--whether it's a dream or a hallucination or just confusion.  Even the audiobook version preserved this clarity.  Dick relied heavily on his own experiences with drugs and the drug culture--there is a distinct ring of truth to his vivid descriptions of the varying hallucinations, and he immerses the reader in tortuous and paranoid trains of thought that somehow make sense and no sense at the same time.   In particular, Jerry Fabin's struggle with imagined aphids all over his house and body (and dog) was fascinating and horrifying at the same time--and a great way to set the tone for the novel and pull the reader in.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World, by David F. Wells


Professor David Wells has written four books on the topic of Protestantism in the postmodern world:  No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, Losing our Virtue, and Above All Earthly Pow'rs.  This book is, in a sense, both a summary and an expansion of those books. 

Wells thinks well about the issues raised by the 'marketers' (those treating church as a business, aka mega-churches and seeker-oriented churches) and the 'emergents'.  He delves deeply into the theological issues raised by these movements and the way postmodernism has affected evangelicalism.  This book is not just a reactionary rant against anything that deviates from the 'norm' of the 1950 evangelical movement--Wells has a gift for incisive analysis and perception that enables him to get to the heart of what is really at stake.  He writes well, and assumes a largely objective tone.  He does not villify his opponents, but coolly and respectfully points out serious issues in their approaches.  His criticism is solidly grounded in the gospel, first and foremost, and he persistently and effectively ties each 'problem' back to the gospel.

I do think he over-relies on statistics from various Barna studies.  Polls are a difficult way to determine the spiritual state of the nation--so much depends on wording and context and people's self-perception.  Still, the trends he describes are well-documented, so the reliability of the Barna study does not affect the validity of his overall point.  The evangelical church is currently in flight from truth, self is the focus, and we see religion and faith as an increasingly individualistic experience.  I doubt very much that anyone needs a survey to tell them that.

Bottom line:  This is a fantastic book, and I very much look forward to reading his other works.  And I look forward to discussing postmodernism and emergent theology with their defenders--after all, Wells takes a clear position on the issues and may well suffer from bias.  Still, this book makes me feel much better equipped for such conversations.  Whether or not Wells wins every point in the long run, he does a great job of identifying the problem areas that must be addressed by any evangelical movement seeking to adapt to culture while maintaining gospel-focused orthodoxy.

The Scroll, by Grant R. Jeffrey and Alton L. Gansky



Biblical archaeologist David Chambers, along with his professional nemesis and his ex-fiancee, have been recruited to investigate the Copper Scroll--an ancient artifact rumored to contain the location of a host of treasures from the second Jewish temple.  From the start, their quest is plagued by violence and setbacks.  Someone is determined to keep them from succeeding--but who?  And why?  And how do these opponents know so much about their work?  And how far are they willing to go to keep Chambers' team from finding the lost treasures?  And will Chambers find what he's looking for--the temple treasure and, more importantly, the treasure of his lost faith?

I have to admit, I was not impressed.  The characters were caricatures at best--the boorish and bitter former Christian, the pious and compassionate Christian ex-fiancee, the jaded and smarmy atheist, the devout Jew, the crazed Muslim radical, the wealthy American businessman . . . The most interesting character in the mix is the head of security, and he's hardly front and center in the plot.  But then, the characters are really just vehicles for that plot, which is part redemption story (will the disillusioned Chambers find his lost faith?) and part 'end times' adventure. 

The theology here is a bit hard to pin down.  A Jewish character repeatedly reminds the Christian characters of God's sovereignty, which is certainly a plus.  However, the details of the Christian faith are muddy at best--Jesus and the Bible are mentioned, but the gospel is never spelled out.  Even Chambers' return to the faith is suspect--he originally left the faith because he resented his (Christian) father for being gone while his (Christian) mother succumbed to disease.  When Chambers finally returns to the faith, it is not because he has learned or accepted something about God, but because he finds out that his father didn't know his mother was dying.  This restores his father in Chambers eyes, and allows him to embrace his faith again.  Thus his 'redemption' is based more on the actions of humans than on a relationship with Christ.  And of course, there's some eschatology here that some Christians won't agree with (i.e., the rebuilding of the temple being 'God's work'). 

A couple notes on the writing: the exposition was particularly ham-handed and awkward.  I realize that some exposition is necessary in order to equip the reader for a trip through an unfamiliar field like archaeology, but Jeffrey (who teaches eschatology, prophecy, and biblical archaeology) and Gansky (novelist) should have come up with a more organic means of communicating information to their readers. Instead, they use such obvious ruses as a) explaining the backstory to a (random) back-up pilot on a private jet who has questions about their plans (she is never heard from again), and b) a preeiminent biblical archaeologist giving a junior-high level lecture/crash course in biblical archaeology . . . to two of the other leading professionals in the field. There are better ways to fill your readers in on the necessary details.

The authors also had a funny habit of telegraphing their reveals, and sometimes even double revealing (as in, a character would say something, and then a page later say the exact same thing to the exact same people and this second statement would be treated as a dun-dun-dun moment).  Even the premise itself made for a weird 'reveal'. If you tell a bunch of archaeologists that you want them to work on a 'secret project' connected to an artifact that is rumored to show the locations of lost temple treasures, telling them later that--surprise!--they're looking for lost temple artifacts . . . well, it's not actually a reveal. 

Bottom line:  This is a Christian novel, and I highly doubt that anyone other than self-identified Christians will have any interest in it whatsoever.  It simply does not stand up to the objective standard of good fiction--the writing isn't great, and the story isn't particularly compelling.  If you want an eschatological novel of unimpressive quality filled with cliches and featuring ostensibly Christian leads, then this might be the book for you.  Everyone else is probably better off steering clear. 

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lewis, Chesterton, and the Incarnation

[T]he Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left. [...] Conversely, once you have accepted that, then you will see that all other well-established Christian miracles [...] are part of it, that they all either prepare for, or exhibit, or result from the Incarnation. 
~C.S. Lewis, in "The Grand Miracle", from God in the Dock
The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation.  They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. [...] What can be meant by 'God becoming man'? In what sense is it conceivable that the eternal self-existent Spirit, basic Fact-hood, should be so combined with a natural human organism as to make one person?
~C.S. Lewis, in "The Grand Miracle", from Miracles
We tend to gloss over the miracle that is Christmas, fixating instead on the miracle of Easter, or even Christ's miracles of healing and provision while on earth.  Christmas doesn't seem that big a deal, theologically.  A baby was born to virgin, but we aren't really sure why it matters.  After all, he doesn't really do much until he's a grown man.  It's his death that matters most, right?  And his subsequent resurrection?  Heck, the early church didn't even celebrate Christmas as a distinct holiday--not for a couple hundred years, anyway.  They celebrated the resurrection by meeting every Sunday, but there's no mention of observing Christmas (or Easter, for that matter--at least not as an annual thing--and because of its connection to Passover, we actually know when Easter was).  And the Puritans weren't big on Christmas at all; they rebelled against it as a Catholic invention and claimed it was infested with pagan elements and lacked any biblical justification.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore


Decent enough graphic novel, if not quite up to the standard set by Lovers and Madmen and The Dark Knight Returns.  Here, the newly escaped (again) Joker shoots and paralyzes Commissioner Gordon's daughter Barbara (a.k.a Batgirl), and then kidnaps the Commissioner himself, with the goal of driving him insane. If successful, the Joker hopes to prove that all sane men are just one bad day away from insanity, and there's not such a difference between the light and the dark after all.

The illustrations are extremely well done, and the concept is interesting.  And the setting for the Joker's 'experiment'--an abandoned carnival--has a lot of potential.  But the Joker's depraved creativity seems a bit sub-par in comparison to his other exploits.  Though, to be fair, I suspect this is mostly due to the different in length--Lovers and Madmen clocked in at about 140 pages, and this is less than half that.  So really, the Joker is barely getting started on Commissioner Gordon by the time the cavalry arrives.  As a result, the fact that the 'experiment' was not successful in this case doesn't necessarily mean it wouldn't be, especially if the Joker were given more time to exercise his disturbing genius.  And indeed, the Commissioner's mental fortitude would be much more impressive if the Joker had held him in his clutches a bit longer.

Still, it's not bad by any means.  And the undercurrent of darkness that lurks behind the best Batman graphic novels is definitely there.  But it's not one of my favorites.

Friday, December 9, 2011

'Salem's Lot, by Stephen King


The town of Jerusalem's Lot (called 'salem's Lot by the locals) was the closest thing to a childhood home that writer Ben Mears ever had, and Marsten House, a creepy old mansion overlooking the town, was the site of the most terrifying experience in his life.  Until now.  Now, Ben has returned to 'salem's Lot, ready to write another book and face down Marsten House and the terrors of his youth, only to find that--for the first time in decades--the house is occupied.  But who would live in such an eerie place?  And could these newcomers be connected to the such rash of deaths and disappearances in 'salem's Lot? 

What a deliciously scary book!  King's take on vampires is fairly standard--he sticks to the usual lore (though his description of 'killing' a vampire is much more graphic than any I've seen).  The victims, however, are much less standard.  King takes the time to introduce the reader to many of the residents of 'salem's Lot, showing us their lives, their concerns, their joys and sorrows.  It comes as a bit of a shock, then, that these characters are not immune from violence at the hands (or teeth) of nefarious vampires.  When the vampires go on their inevitable rampage, the entire town suffers--even characters we've actually met in some meaningful way, characters we like.  This widespread vulnerability really raises the stakes (heh), and allows us to share in the protagonists' horror at the events going on around them.  These are not just faceless extras.  These are people they know--people we know.  It's a chilling and sickening thought for readers and characters alike.

Speaking of the characters, they are remarkably well-drawn.  King's New England upbringing and intimate knowledge of small town life really shine through in his descriptions of the town and its residents.  'Salem's Lot is, perhaps, a bit seedier than we would like, but King allows some very nice, normal people to live there alongside the drunks and reprobates.  The protagonists in particular are well-developed.  Ben Mears, an author, works as a stand-in for King himself.  The high school English teacher Matt Burke is compared to Van Helsing, and with good reason.  And young Mark Petrie stands out from the get-go, in a sequence reminiscent of the opening pages of Ender's Game.  With a line-up like that (Stephen King, Van Helsing, and Ender Wiggin walk into a bar...), the outcome is bound to be worth reading.  And it is. 

Definitely scary, and not for kids.  And, because I respect you and think you have a right to know these things, I will tell you that a dog dies in this book.  But if you can handle a bit of a fright and have a strong stomach, you could do a lot worse than this book. 

As King himself says in the introduction, it may be trash . . . but not bad trash.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Door in the Forest, by Roderick Townley


Another review posted on Children's Books and Reviews--here's an excerpt:
When it comes to fantasy literature, the charm is in often in the details, and Townley fills this tale right to the brim: an obese old woman who reads the future in bath bubbles, a magic pearl necklace, windows to the past and future, a boy who cannot lie, snow leopards you can ride, cryptic maps, riddles, a mustachioed villain, the aforementioned human-faced snakes, and a seemingly impregnable island . . . this book is a veritable cornucopia of precisely the sort of delightful touches that are relished by lovers of fantasy, whether young or old.
For the full review, see "Children's Fantasy Novel: The Door in the Forest" at Children's Books and Reviews.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens


A beloved Christmas classic fully deserving of its reputation and popularity.  Dickens inserts himself as narrator from time to time, not intrusively but subtly, lending a 'storytelling' quality to the tale.  While not quite a 'ghost story' as such, the otherworldly nature of Scrooge's adventures makes this storytelling quality particularly appropriate.  It feels like a story that should be told to wide-eyed children in front of a crackling fire after a big meal. 

For Dickens, Christmas is about generosity, joy, and showing kindness to your fellow man.  None of which are bad things in the least.  However, any sense of Christmas's more explicitly religious foundations is utterly missing.  The story is still moving, and I still choke up a bit at the idea of Tiny Tim's passing, and when Scrooge lavishes his wealth on friends and family--to their utter consternation.  In fact, it almost makes me wish I'd been more miserly, so that I could see such a reaction to my change of heart.  There is something extremely touching in this kind of generosity--it moves us.  But it's not the whole story of Christmas, not by a long shot.  Then again, it doesn't have to be, provided that parents remind their children and themselves that Christmas is more than just a reminder of the benefits of kindness and prodigality.

This latest version--an audiobook narrated by Simon Vance--is a decent enough production.  As I've mentioned, the tale works remarkably well as an oral presentation.  Vance does a good job with it, though I think there have probably been better versions.  Tim Curry, Patrick Stewart, Basil Rathbone, Jim Dale, and Martin Jarvis are just a few of the notable names who've taken a crack at this classic, and I expect their narrations are all first rate. 

There are some excellent film renditions as well--George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart are fairly well respected, though I've always been partial to A Muppet Christmas Carol (which preserves the present narrator in Rizzo the Rat) and Mickey's Christmas Carol.  Then, too, Bill Murray's modern day take in Scrooged has its moments.  I cannot speak to the Alistair Sim, Kelsey Grammar, Albert Finney, Henry Winkler, or Jim Carrey versions, having never seen them. 

All in all, it's a great story, and you could do a lot worse than this audio version. At just under three hours, you could probably get through the whole thing in an evening, and it would make a nice break from Christmas music during holiday baking or gift-wrapping or what-have-you.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hugo (2011)


Hugo lives in a clock.  Or, more precisely, he lives in a lot of clocks.  The orphaned son of a clockmaker, he now haunts the passages in and among the various clocks in the Paris railway station, carefully winding and maintaining them each day.  In his spare time, he works on restoring and mending a broken automaton his father found abandoned in a museum.  Along the way, he must avoid being apprehended by the station inspector (a surprisingly restrained and inoffensive Sacha Baron Cohen) while earning the trust of a crotchety old toymaker (brilliantly portrayed by Ben Kingsley) and his wide-eyed goddaughter.  While the story seems to revolve around clockwork--it is, after all, the common thread connecting Hugo, his father, his father's unfinished project, and the toymaker--this is really a movie about movies, the profound impact they can have upon a person, and the sheer joy of making and loving movies. 

The film adopts a slow pace, appropriate for the sense of awe and wonder the audience is supposed to feel.  Then, too, with so many excellent 3D effects, a slower pace allows the audience to absorb the images leaping out at them from the screen (and with minimal nausea).  The film allows us to spend time with the characters instead of being barreled along by the plot--a wise choice, indeed, as these are characters who are more than characters who do. 

While this has by no means been a blockbuster hit, I suspect it will do well over the holidays.  A kid-friendly film set in Paris, in the winter, full of wonder and joy and family, with a vaguely Dickensian feel (Hugo is an orphan, after all) . . . it should do quite well indeed.  I don't know that I loved it as much as many seem to, but it was pleasant and sweet and lovely, and, at Christmas, that sells.

Downton Abbey (Season 1)


Plot summaries for series such as this present something of a difficulty.  Because it isn't really about plot at all. Not that there aren't story arcs--there are.  Downton Abbey is subject to an entail, and when the heir presumptive and his son are killed in the sinking of the Titanic, the Crawley family struggles to adjust to the new heir--a distant cousin working as a middle class attorney.  The entail itself and whether it can--or ought to--be broken is the focus of much of the season.  Then, too, the series follows the romantic misadventures of the eldest Crawley daughter, Mary (who was informally engaged to her now-deceased cousin, and thus expected to eventually share in his inheritance of the title and fortune), as she explores her options.  Younger sisters Edith (plain, overlooked, and eventually spiteful) and Sibyl (kind, modern, and supportive of women's rights) also get smaller story lines, but Mary and her marital prospects are the primary focus of the 'upstairs' crowd.

Below stairs, other crises take center stage, most notably the new valet to His Lordship--an old army friend injured in the Boer Wars.  As the household adjusts to his handicap, soulless footman Thomas and his scheming cohort O'Brien, maid to Her Ladyship, seem hell bent on getting rid of the new valet.  Who is, by the way, pretty much awesome.  Or at any rate, Anna, the head housemaid, certainly seems to think so... 

The Last Synapsid, by Timothy Mason


An excerpt from my first review for Children's Books and Reviews:
If you thought that 8-year-olds were too young for Shakespeare, think again! Excerpts from The Tempest are sprinkled all throughout the climax of the book. Rob and Phoebe face off against the Gorgon during a community production of the Shakespearean play, which the Gorgon, in all his travels, has learned by heart. The Gorgon sees himself as Caliban, manipulated and mistreated by the selfish Jenkins, his Prospero. Indeed, it is his love for Shakespeare that tempts him to stay in the present day, and his love of Shakespeare contributes to his decision to return home (so that humans—including Shakespeare—will one day exist). This is an extremely appealing introduction to the Bard, particularly for young men: Shakespeare is not just long words and romance and tragedy—it has monsters! And (pre)dinosaurs love it! While this book is no guarantee that young readers will develop a taste for Renaissance plays, it should at least whet a few appetites.
For full review, see "Shakespeare for Children: The Last Synapsid, by Timothy Mason," at Children's Books and Reviews

Friday, December 2, 2011

Stoneheart, by Charlie Fletcher


Young George Chapman is having a very bad day.  In a fit of rage, he broke the head off a stone dragon outside the Natural History Museum, and now he's running for his life from gargoyles, dragons, minotaurs, and monsters as the statues of London come alive!  Somehow, George is the only one who can see them--well, George and a young runaway named Edie, a 'glint' who can see the past.  With the help of some human statues ('spits'), George and Edie try to figure out why the evil statues ('taints') want him dead.

This is a fantastic concept, very reminiscent of the superior (and more adult) Neverwhere. And a fun read, even if Fletcher is not as strong or whimsical a writer as Gaiman.  There's tons of action, and the descriptions are vivid.  With so many fantastic creatures, the book simply cries out for a film adaptation (which is already rumored to be in the works, so here's hoping they don't botch it). 

And it's not just a fun adventure--there are some sophisticated themes here, as George and Edie deal with guilt, loss, fear, courage, and sacrifice.  Both George and Edie start out as loners, coping with their different betrayals and abandonments by alienating and avoiding others.  But their shared experiences (and the selfless loyalty and courage of a particular 'spit') gradually break down their internal walls and teach them the value of friendship.

This is the first entry in a trilogy, and Fletcher does an excellent job avoiding the usual 'book one' pitfalls.  Rather than cheating by leaving the reader hanging, he resolves the primary story arc while still leaving plenty of room for future installments.   

Fletcher, or the publishers, wisely opted to have the story read by Jim Dale, the inimitable narrator of the fantastic Harry Potter audiobooks, and the result is impressive.  Fletcher's strength lies in his imagination, not his writing style, and Dale's narration elevates the otherwise average prose to a higher level.

Bottom line:  An exciting, imaginitive story filled with wonder and danger.  Great for kids, though I suspect plenty of grown-ups will enjoy it, too.