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Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Soprano Wore Falsettos - A Liturgical Mystery

I sure wish the Pirate Liturgy featured in Mark Schweizer's fourth Liturgical Mystery The Soprano Wore Falsettos (#496) was coming soon to a church near me.  Arrrgh!  I'd be there w' me matey and me faithful Holy Parakeet in the blink of Davy Jones' eye, I would!  (And wouldn't you know that we were discussing the term Paraclete in EfM just this week!)  Warning!  If you take your religion seriously, without a hint of humor, this mystery series is definitely not for you!

This book made me laugh out loud several times, with my husband prompting me each time,"Oh, did you get to the part where....?"  We both agreed that the Pirate Liturgy was a vast improvement over the Clown Liturgy in the first book of the series, although we enjoyed that one, too.  But since we both belonged to a Savoyard group in our days of living in New England, you've got to know that a Gloria based on the rousing tune "For He Is A Pirate King" from the Pirates of Penzance was bound to win over our hearts.

There is a credible mystery buried in the fun, and an end I did not see coming to make the story as much as a draw as all the liturgical and musical "in" jokes.  (Loved the name of the new bar Hayden Konig's alter ego detective found in this book!)  I can't wait to read about the further adventures of Police Chief Konig and the other denizens of St. Germaine, North Carolina.  I wish he'd come and be the substitute organist at our church!  Enjoyable on so many levels.

And finally, thanks, Mark Schweizer, for giving the nod to Gerald Finzi, one of my favorite Twentieth Century composers.  Definitely worth giving a listen to if you've never been fortunate enough to run across him.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Without You, There Is No Us - My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite - A Memoir

I had heard about Without You, There Is No Us (#495) by Suki Kim in my library book group.  Her subtitle - My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite - A Memoir gives you an excellent idea of the topic of this non-fiction work.  It is, in fact, a rare glimpse of how the future leaders of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea are being educated, as this time period covers the last remaining months of Kim Jong-Il's life when the students of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) are basically in a holding pattern, even though almost no-one on campus is aware of that fact.

Suki Kim was born in Korea and both sides of her family experienced great losses when the country was divided following the Korean War.  Brought to the United States as a young girl, Ms. Kim seems to have never settled down completely anywhere, although she is constantly driven back to both North and South Korea.  She seems to have fallen into the profession of journalism, and found herself in Pyongyang covering the New York Philharmonic's concert there some years ago.  She had already been to Pyongyang a number of times herself, and she is amazed by what the Western journalists believe are "ordinary" North Korean families encountered in staged interviews, and that they cannot see that they are being fed a strict diet of DPRK propaganda.  Of course, she does point out that she was the only journalist on this publicity junket who actually spoke Korean herself, so it was no wonder that all the other journalists were missing the big picture.  It was at a reception on this trip that Ms. Kim met one of the benefactors who told her that PUST would be operating with an English-speaking faculty of Christian missionaries and that they were currently seeking teachers.  Ms. Kim immediately applied for a job at PUST herself, with the idea of doing some clandestine journalistic reporting.  After two semesters of teaching at PUST, Without You, There Is No Us is the result.

The cover blurbs mention, "haunting", "lyrical" writing and a vision  of North Korean life unlike any other.  That is certainly true, and much of it was both fascinating and appalling.  Ms. Kim was assigned to teach both the highest-ranked English speakers at this new university, and the lowest-ranked group in a society that lives and dies by its ranking.  She is disturbed by the ease with which these "beautiful" young "gentlemen" lie to her, to each and to themselves as they are deceived and manipulated by the DPRK infrastructure.  What she fails to see is that she is every bit as deceiving, manipulative and lying to everyone around her.  She obtains her post in a Christian college by omitting the fact that she has no faith herself, lest it eliminate her chances of landing the position.  She is contemptuous of the very people who made her prolonged visit to North Korea possible, and mocks their zeal for what they perceive to be their mission.  Worse, she cannot even recognize that she came with her own missionary agenda: to open her students' eyes to the world beyond North Korea by dropping ever more obvious heavy-handed hints about forbidden topics -  the Internet, Google and Mark Zuckerberg, to mention just a few. 

She knew that such references were dangerous not just for her, but for her students and the other teachers at PUST as well.  With such a reliance on Google, you would have thought she would have bothered to do even the tiniest bit of research on the faculty at PUST so she would have an idea what these Christian missionaries' thoughts and beliefs were so she could blend in better and not stir up a dangerous brew.  Instead, she explodes in righteous indignation when one of the other teachers approaches her about violating a taboo. 

It made me angry that despite what she claimed was her love for her students, she regarded
their safety so little that she purposely created pitfalls for them in her teaching.  But of course, only she understood them.  I think this memoir would have been much more aptly named Without You, There Is No Me.

Introducing the New Testament

This is the second year that the course I am taking through University of the South, Education for Ministry, has used Mark Allan Powell's textbook Introducing the New Testament - A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (#494) for their second year of study.  I must say I think that they've made an excellent choice with this book.

After some preliminary introductory chapters, each book of the New Testament has its own commentary chapter.  This is not dry textual reading, either.  Powell has a sense of humor, and he uses it here with great effect to engage the reader to pull him or her into the meat of his commentary.  I didn't always agree with what he says, but that also provided fodder for some great discussions during our seminars.  Not only does he present the material in an organized way in each chapter, there are also links online to additional brief essays about sources, cultural and social aspects not included in the text, as well as study guides and flash cards! 

The book is lavishly illustrated with a wealth of eye-catching paintings, sculptures and objects from around the world along with photos of actual Biblical locations and maps.  These pictures invariably became part of the seminar we shared with Year 1 students as we passed our textbooks around the group so everyone could see what the Year 2 students were talking about.  (I do have one bone to pick with Powell about one of these illustrations, though.  In the chapter on Ephesians, he includes a carving he labels as a "well-prepared Roman soldier".  Even a cursory glimpse should be enough to tell the viewer that this is, in fact, a depiction of a Roman gladiator, not a common foot soldier.  I knew my minor in Classic Studies would pay off one day!)

That aside, any text book that serves its purpose so well to inform and enlighten the reader on its subject, and to make the acquisition of such knowledge both interesting and painless to boot has done its job superbly.   Powell's Introducing the New Testament is just such a book.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Voyage of the Basilisk - A Memoir by Lady Trent

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Voyage of the Basilisk - A Memoir by Lady Trent (#493) by Marie Brennan.  This is actually the third book in this Victorian-era adventure series following the career of dragon naturalist Isabella Camherst, but you don't have to have read the previous two volumes to easily follow the protagonist as she sets sail for ports of call around the world where she can observe a variety of dragon species in an effort to advance the scientific research being done on them.

Isabella inhabits a world with as rigid a class system as England ever boasted, although here her native land is called Scirling.  As she sails aboard the Basilisk, it is easy to recognize most of the countries and cultures she encounters, although the names have all been changed to fictitious kingdoms and dynasties.  Victorian dress and mores prevail here, though, as she creates a scandal by departing on her expedition in the company of Tom Wilker, one of her oldest friends and colleagues, since she is a widow and Tom is unmarried.  Tongues will wag, even as Isabella pooh-poohs the thought of there being anything between the two of them other than mutual interest in serious scientific research.  Besides, she has her young son Jake and his governess along with them on the two year voyage.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, plenty!  Encounters with sea serpents, hostile soldiers and forbidding environments could easily end with Isabella's death, and she comes terribly close several times.  She does wind up playing a key role in a rescue that will have later ramifications on her life, and she winds up making a momentous discovery that will advance her own professional reputation when she judges the time is right.  There's a hint of romance, but the emphasis here is always on the dragons and Isabella's quest to learn more about them

A small thing that I also enjoyed about this book was the way it was published; an interesting and eye-catching cover thoroughly in tune with the theme of the book, but what really struck me was that it is printed in blue ink, with occasional wood-cut type illustrations throughout.  I found the blue printing remarkably easy on the eyes.  I also liked the fact that as in many Victorian-era novels, each chapter title has a number of subtitles.  As the story progresses, the subtitles at the top of the right hand page change to reflect where the reader is in the chapter.  It certainly helped me decide whether or not to keep turning the pages at night or quit until the next day! 

If you've enjoyed Naomi Novick's wonderful dragon series, Isabella is a heroine for you.  I can't wait to go back and read the previous two novels, and look forward to the further adventures of Isabella Camherst as they become available. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Jesus Cow

Holy cow!  That's exactly what bachelor farmer Harley Jackson gets one Christmas Eve when a calf is born in his barn with the unmistakable image of Jesus Christ on his flank.  Harley is flabbergasted.  He doesn't want things to turn into a three ring circus around what's left of his struggling family farm, but his attempts to conceal the calf's birth mark fail in a spectacular manner, just when he finally feels he has a chance in the romance department.

Michael Perry gets to skewer all kinds of stereotypes in his humorous novel, The Jesus Cow (#492).  There's the failed academic, earth-mother type with a secret; the Wisconsin farm bachelor you've met on Prairie Home Companion, the overly-aggressive developer and the wimpy town lawyer, not to mention the slick LA talent agent.  Everyone has their own secrets, and their own agendas, but the discovery of the - wait for it! - cash cow in Harley's barn brings everything in the small town of Swivel, Wisconsin, to a boil.  How things eventually play out make for a most entertaining and off-beat read.  Better get those cheese curds ready to snack on while you indulge in this treat!

Friday, May 8, 2015

17 Carnations; The Royals, The Nazis & The Biggest Cover-up In History

It's really too bad that the late Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth, could never let go of her vendetta against Wallis Warfield Simpson, or "That woman", as she always referred to the American Duchess of Windsor.  After reading Andrew Morton's non-fiction account 17 Carnations: The Royals, The Nazis & the Biggest Cover-up In History (#491) it seems very clear that Wallis Simpson did Britain the immeasurable favor of distracting the king from ruling at a critical juncture in history.  George VI stepped in and did his duty, firmly steering England away from the Axis powers. 

Edward VIII comes across in this book as charismatic, popular, respected by most, but also vain, self-centered and more in tune with his own pleasures and interests than he could ever have been with the kingdom's welfare.  Wallis Simpson wasn't far behind him in putting her desires before everything else, even to the point of sending her maid from the relative safety of Spain to Nazi-occupied Paris to fetch a favorite green swim suit!  This was definitely a couple meant for each other who couldn't be bothered doing anything worthwhile for anyone or anything else unless there was an angle in it for them.  No wonder Hitler himself was interested in kidnapping the pair and re-installing Edward on the throne of England after the Nazis crushed the British.  Edward himself didn't hesitate to tell everyone around him that England didn't stand a chance against the Nazis, and that if he had stayed on the throne, Britain would never have gone to war, but negotiated a peace instead. 

Probably the most interesting material in the book was the existence of the "Windsor File" in the German Foreign Office documentation captured after the fall of Berlin.  "Operation Willi", the German kidnapping plot, was documented in the files, along with other potentially damaging materials in the dossier.  The British, in collusion with high-ranking Americans, tried to retrieve and  physically destroy all copies of this incriminating file, lest they harm the image of the Royals.  A most unlikely hero in the person of an American historian prevented that from occurring, and the historical records stand.  What suffered in the tug-of-war over whether to maintain or destroy the Windsor File, was evidence vital to the prosecution in the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal, and the loss of trust between former allies Britain and the United States.  History truly is written (or unwritten!) by the victors.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Tenor Wore Tapshoes - A Liturgical Mystery

Where else are you going to find riffs on wonderful liturgical music combined with a character like Binny Hen, the Scripture Chicken and a good mystery to boot than in one of Mark Schweizer's Liturgical Mysteries, in this case The Tenor Wore Tapshoes (#490)?

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in picturesque St. Germaine, North Carolina, is just a hotbed of activity.  Hayden Konig, Police Chief and organist at St. Barnabas is ready for a little peaceful downtime, but things never go as planned.  A Tent Revival will be visiting town for several weeks, a breakfast pastry looks uncannily like the Blessed Virgin Mary, a lawyer new to town is stirring up things at St. Barnabas, and oh, yes, did I mention the body in the altar?  Vandalism all over town, and all the clues point straight to Hadyn himself.  What's going on?  And will he ever propose to Meg?

These questions are all answered in the most amusing fashion in The Tenor Wore Tapshoes, but I have to warn you: Hayden's writing doesn't get any better, despite not only using Raymond Chandler's own antique typewriter, but now Hayden's channeling him, too.  These books make me laugh out loud, a rare, rare thing.  How funny was it that Binny Hen pecked her way to First Corinthians, Chapter 13 in the big Bible at Brother Hogmany McTavish's Gospel Tent Revival when First & Second Corinthians happened to be the EfM reading assignment this week?  Or that Hayden had to attend the Iron Mike Men's Retreat, where taking someone to hospital ER was the high point?  And just for the record, the Gorecki symphony Meg tries to get Hayden to listen to is well worth the effort.  My own copy has Dawn Upshaw as the featured soprano; maybe Konig should try that recording...

Can't wait to read the next installment, and I'll never look at a squirrel the same way again!

The Angel Court Affair

Anne Perry's latest Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mystery, The Angel Court Affair (#489) fittingly enough, concerns Thomas Pitt's assignment to provide security for a visiting Spanish religious cult leader when she visits London to speak.  Her views make her a target for protests from the established religions, but the volatile political atmosphere could create an international incident if she is harmed on British soil.  Add to that Charlotte and his daughter Jemima's interest in hearing her speak, and Thomas has his hands full.

When Sofia Delacruz goes missing, and two of her associates are murdered in a gruesome fashion, the pressure to find her alive is enormous, especially after her connection to wealthy banker Barton Hall is revealed.  Sofia's purpose in coming home to England is expressly to meet with him, but why?  No one seems to know, but celebrity cricket player Dalton Teague very publicly announces his intention to join in the hunt for Sofia.  Does he simply want to make Special Branch look bad before running for Parliament, or does he have a more personal reason himself?

In addition to being an excellent whodunit, this book also offers a meditation on the meaning of religion, the nature of faith and tolerance which adds another entire dimension to The Angel Court Affair.  It made me stop and consider these issues, and how the events portrayed might precipitate the kind of uproar and negative reactions depicted in the novel.  They certainly made Thomas Pitt question his own beliefs.  In fact, I brought this book to my EfM class as a recommendation for recreational reading.  You can certainly read The Angel Court Affair without having read any other books in this series, but once you've read one, it might be like eating peanuts...