Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag
by Alan Bradley
Recommended Ages: 12+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

Friday, May 22, 2015

Life of Pi

Having grown up on a steady diet of schoolyard jibes about my name, I fully sympathize with this book's main character's decision, on his first day at a new school, to shorten his embarrassing name to Pi Patel. It is the sort of act of self-reinvention I have gone through several times myself. At a certain grade level I stopped letting my teachers and classmates call me Robbie and insisted on Robin, my actual given name. This got really awkward once or twice when I was the only boy invited to a girl's birthday party, and when business mail came to me addressed as "Ms. Robin Fish." Going into high school I shortened my name to Rob and only regretted it when hearing-challenged people thought I said "Raw Fish," or when officious snobs dubbed me "Robert." A couple people even called me "Bob." Moving on from undergrad to seminary studies I reverted back to Robin. Writing for MuggleNet I adopted the pen-name Robbie Fischer as a weak feint toward anonymity. And most recently, when I joined the staff of a newspaper where my father (also named Robin) works, I started identifying myself publicly as R.D. - a handle some people can't seem to grasp. I keep getting called J.D. by the absent-minded and Artie by the hearing-challenged. I'm already looking forward to going back to Robin again.

And of course, the last name Fish has been a constant throughout. Even as an adult I occasionally have to defend it against people who frankly don't believe it's a real name. Just imagine what it's like to be a child among children with a name like that. I've thought about undoing the family name change in my great-great-grandfather's generation, but Poisson isn't much better; it looks too much like "poison," it evokes a ghoulishly silly Disney cartoon chef, and after all it means "fish." Put both together with a middle name whose best-known representatives are a cartoon duck and a douchebag billionaire, and the picture is complete. If I had an alternative as simple as shortening "Piscine Molitor" to "Pi," I would have done it long ago. But enough about me. We have a book to review!

Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
Recommended Ages: 14+

Most of this book is a first-person account of a sixteen year-old Indian boy's experience spending 227 days alone with a Bengal tiger in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean. It spares us the suspense of wondering whether he survives by telling us up front that he lives to graduate from college, get married, father children and tell his story to a second narrator who cuts in briefly now and then. It begins with a good thirty chapters about the boy's background, including how he came to call himself Pi and what led him and his family to be on board a ship full of zoo animals bound from India to Canada that suddenly, for no apparent reason, sank in the Pacific. It ends with a transcript of his conversation with two Japanese men, representatives of the company that owned the ship. But apart from these structural details it is mainly memorable as a unique story of endurance and religious faith.

The population of the lifeboat at the start of the ordeal includes a swarm of flies, some cockroaches, a rat, a zebra with a broken leg, a female orangutan, and a hyena, besides tiger and boy. It shrinks rapidly and violently to two, and stays at that number for the rest of the trip, except for some fish and turtles the boy catches for food and bait. It doesn't take long for him to realize that his only hope of survival is to tame the tiger, and that brings with it the obligation to feed and water it. Lost adrift without any idea how to navigate, all he can do for the better part of a year is pray, suffer, and struggle to survive.

Along the way, if way it may be called, the strange pair of survivors encounters another castaway literally by blind chance. But that episode doesn't end happily. Pi, brought up a vegetarian, learns to eat many things he would never have dreamt of trying, and some things that would turn the stomach of anyone who wasn't starving. He makes full use of remarkable survival technologies such as solar stills and raincatchers. He learns to use his own urine to mark territory which, contrary to the cover art, is not the bow half of the bottom of the boat but only a tarpaulin stretched over it. He overcomes seven months of the strain of being separated only by a foot of space and a thin layer of canvas from a fierce predator. And he discovers a strange, almost surreal floating island where there is abundant fresh water and food for both boy and tiger, but only at a gruesome price.

Pi's story is sad and inspiring, and it overflows the boundary of pure narrative to meditate on the nature of storytelling and the love of God. From a theologian's perspective, I don't buy Pi's argument that one can be a devout Hindu, Christian and Muslim at the same time, but his quirky religion adds to the charm of the story. His background as a zookeeper's son in India has the makings of an entertaining young adult novel even without the survival ordeal that follows it. There is also a clever surprise, revealed at the point where the main attraction begins, but I don't want to spoil in any way.

This book was an international bestseller and Man Booker Award winner. It was made into a movie that won Ang Lee an Oscar for Best Director. There is also a stage version by Keith Robinson, an illustrated edition, and an audiobook narrated by Jeff Woodman, with the secondary narrator played Alexander Marshall in an audible nod to this novel's unusual structure. I personally recommend this audio version. Woodman is good with gentle Indian, Japanese and French accents, but his special gift to this book is the charm he lends to the character of Pi.

A French Canadian author who prefers to write in English, Yann Martel traveled widely in his youth due to his father's diplomatic career. Among his other works to-date are the novels Self and Beatrice and Virgil, a short story collection, and a series of book reviews that he wrote in the form of letters to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Left on the Layout Room Floor

This week one photo shot and captioned by yours truly was left over after laying out next week's edition of The Morgan County Press, Stover, Mo. Please note, the caption was written on the assumption it would be printed on a black and white page.

School bus driver Esther Danner drives in style for the students’ final ride home of the school year Friday, May 22 at Morgan County R-I school in Stover. The fireman’s helmet is pink and decorated with a cartoon dog, and the hillbilly teeth come out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

114. Exaudi Hymn

Exaudi is the mass for the Sunday after the Ascension, which may also possibly be described as the sixth Sunday after Easter or the seventh Sunday of Easter. Its Latin name comes from the introit taken from Psalm 27, beginning with verses 7-8 by way of an antiphon. This Psalm, together with the gospel from John 15:23-16:4 and, to a lesser degree, the epistle from 1 Peter 4:7-11, sets a tone or a theme of sober preparation for persecution of the church and "the end of all things." Even though I'm a bit late for this year's Exaudi Sunday, current events suggest this may yet be a timely bit of devotional verse.

Lord, hear our cry of prayer and pain
And answer us by grace,
Lest Your command should be in vain
That bade us seek Your face.

The end of all things is at hand;
With sober, watchful prayers
Help us to walk the road You planned
And bear each other's cares.

As You have given gifts to each,
So too make fit and call
Some who Your oracles will teach
And minister to all.

Lend us Your Spirit's helpful light,
His witness strong and true,
That we may face men's stinging spite
With faith's eye fixed on You.

Though for Your sake we be cast out,
Though some perhaps be killed,
Our heart is proof against all doubt
If it with You is filled.

With You, Lord, as our saving Light,
What darkness shall we fear?
Though foes and devils fill the night,
Your strong arm yet is near.

When round us camps a brutal host,
Lead us between their ranks!
Give ear not to their lying boast
But to our song of thanks!

One thing we ask of You, dear Lord:
To dwell in Your household,
Fed by the bounty of Your board,
Your beauty to behold.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

An Irish Country Wedding

An Irish Country Wedding
by Patrick Taylor
Recommended Ages: 14+

I had just resolved not to skip ahead in a series of books I was following when I borrowed this audiobook read by John Keating from the county library. Looking back, I think the librarian told me at the time that it wasn't the fourth book in the Irish County series - that would be An Irish Country Girl, which the library also holds - but I must have been in a hurry, or something broke my concentration, because instead of going back for Book 4, I went ahead and borrowed Book 7. And yet, oddly enough, I don't feel that I've missed much. Maybe at least a couple of the intervening books were prequels. We'll find out in due time.

The first three books of this series, set around 1965 in the Northern Ireland region of County Down, features a young general practice doctor named Barry Laverty and his mentor, the crusty Dr. Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly, and their doings in and around the village of Ballybucklebo. While Barry fell in and out of love, O'Reilly has revived an old flame and is now set to marry Kitty O'Halloran, a sweetheart who waited for him while he married another girl and lost her in a World War II air raid. A second shot at family happiness may lie before him, if only he can work out a way for Kitty to live in harmony with the housekeeper, Mrs. Maureen "Kinky" Kincaid, a Corkwoman with a heart of corn but one who is very territorial about her kitchen.

Kinky's anxiety about her future in the doctors' household is nothing helped by the bout of sickness that lays her low during the weeks leading up to the wedding. While both doctors try to find ways to smooth her way back into their altered family circle, they must also hire someone to help them answer the phone and organize their practice. They hire a spirited young woman whose ambition to become a doctor inspires O'Reilly to do another good deed above and beyond a family doctor's regular call of duty. Barry, meanwhile, tries to help one of his patients get her job back and hatches a plot to save the misbehaving pet of one of his rambunctious younger patients. And both doctors do their share to help a young family redeem the home of their dreams from under the schemes of a greedy county councilman.

Like the previous books in the series, or at least the three I had read, this installment kept me laughing, guessing how things were going to work out, and borrowing charming turns of phrase that pour continually from the lips of the Ulstermen and -women in this book. I particularly liked O'Reilly's description of the life of a poor student as "living off the smell of an oil-soaked rag." And trust me, when I've gotten through the next couple of audiobooks on deck, I will be back for more escapes into An Irish Country something or other.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Left on Layout Room Floor

Among this week's leftover photographs after the newspaper was put to bed were two submitted photos, three photos taken by another reporter, and this one shot and captioned by yours truly:

Chloe Brotherton brought her canine friend Charity, a boxer, to pet day Friday, May 8 at St. Paul Lutheran School in Stover.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Notes of Interest 9

Here are the April 2015 numbers of my weekly column in the Morgan County Press of Stover, Mo.

April 1: Sentencing of a Child Killer

I had a rare opportunity this past week to see the wheels of justice grinding with my own eyes. I sat in on Ronald Blowers’ plea hearing and T. J. Presley’s sentencing Friday, March 27 at the Morgan County Justice Center in Versailles.

One of the things I took away from these experiences was the unforgettable sight of families in pain, waiting silently for justice for the victims of awful crimes.

Two members of Blake Litton’s family spoke up briefly. What they said was no less moving. Their statements, and the sentence Presley received, show something that lends hope for our culture and community.

In short, I saw love at work, a side of love that is no less important because it is hard to bear.

Love for the victims of a heinous crime can be weighted with grief and loss, even anger. These dark feelings may dampen the survivors’ joys for years to come, perhaps the rest of their life.

But those feelings, and the actions and desires that come from them, also bear witness to the value of each life that was taken. And so does the long prison sentence that, certainly in Presley’s case and probably in Blowers’, will basically cost them the rest of their lives.

The justice served Presley may seem harsh to some. Others may not deem it harsh enough. But it basically comes down to a life for a life. To some this may seem a barbaric equation, but on a level I think many of us understand, the equation balances.

All that young Blake Litton could have made of his life, had he lived, was taken away from him. The man convicted of taking it won’t be doing much more with his life from here on.

In his punishment, the value of little Blake’s life is proved to be equal to Presley’s. That equality is a precious thing that protects every one of us, so long as it is recognized. It is a mark of a civilized and well-ordered society.

It is sad and perhaps ironic that it takes such a terrible violation of that order to show that it is there.

But it would be even worse to live in one of the more lawless places in the world, where human lives are cheap and where the slaughter of innocents is often justified and sometimes even celebrated.

Seeing what I saw at last Friday’s hearings, I feel the grief of the families whose loved ones can never be replaced, and who will not be brought back to life by these acts of justice.

But I also feel thankful for this testimony that all lives, even mine, are equally precious and will be defended by the law.

I also feel a deeper grief, though, for the innocent people who suffer under a rule that does not value or protect them.

Those who live every day with misery, terror and injustice deserve our compassion, our prayers, and any help we can send their way.


April 8: Covering Easter

Thanks to a slow news week, I decided to try to set a record for the number of churches visited in one morning Easter Sunday, April 5.

I shot pictures of worship and fellowship activities at Stover United Methodist, Pyrmont Trinity Lutheran, First Baptist, Christ Lutheran, St. Paul Lutheran, and First Assembly of God West Chapel.

Unless my fingers miscounted, that adds up to six churches. Can anybody beat that?

A side effect of all this church-hopping is that I didn’t get to sit down and participate as a worshiper through an entire service. I caught a bit of children’s recitation here, a couple of hymns there, some special music, and some of the unique worship customs of each congregation.

I also had the unholy advantage of being able to snack at multiple church breakfasts. I paid dearly for it, however. $.99 for a roll of Tums was only the downpayment.

My heartburn may have come partly from running back and forth between churches, trying to catch all the things that were happening at once.

It was fun, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Having been either a preacher or an organist every Easter but one this century, I really missed being part of just one complete worship service.

In spite of what you might call a churchgoing binge, I didn’t really get the full meal deal.

It gave me a glimpse into just what folks are missing when they skip church, whether at Easter or all the other times of year.

I also glimpsed some of the reasons perhaps ordinarily non-churchgoing people make an exception for Easter.

The food was plentiful and good, as I found at no fewer than four churches.

The hymns and special music were beautiful, such as the piano and organ duet played by Myrna Schroder and Shelley Hodges at the Methodist sunrise service and the solos sung by Kathy Flockhart at the Baptist church.

People were friendly and welcoming, from the Baptists with their prominent hand-shaking ceremony to the Lutheran church basement where everybody crowded into the kitchen.

The outfits were gorgeous, as were some of the people in them, people you don’t see every week wearing colors that make them look like a slice cut out of the glorious Easter sunrise.

And amid the comfortingly familiar words and rituals, I also heard tidings that shake the world. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead!

I regret missing the outdoor sunrise service at Christ Lutheran cemetery. I once belonged to a church that threatened to hold such a service every Easter for more than 10 years, but the weather never permitted. What place could be more appropriate to celebrate the resurrection than among the graves of believers?

The weather cooperated with my comings and goings, to say nothing of the kiddies’ egg hunts. The whole weekend was a beatiful sunny interlude in what looks likely to become a two-week ordeal of rain, rain, and more rain.

The sun favored not only Sunday’s celebration but also Saturday’s egg hunt at the Golden Age Living Center. As a photographer I appreciated the light. As a fan of this community, I appreciated the opportunity for lots of people to get together and have fun.

But first I had to crawl out of my warm nest in Laurie at about 5:30 a.m. and drive up Highway 135 on an empty tummy. I hadn’t even had a drop of caffeine until after my second stop. I was risen, but I wasn’t risen indeed.

When I stopped at Casey’s to buy a cuppa, the cashier on duty told me about an Easter egg hunt I would have missed otherwise. Nobody had told me about the West Chapel’s plans until then. So I got my caffeine with a news tip. That’s service!

The world looked a lot clearer after a plate of delicious breakfast served by the Methodists... and Lutherans... and Baptists...

But I hope you won’t mind if, next time Christ rises from the tomb, I’ll greet him from a pew or perhaps an organ bench. His rising is good news, but it doesn’t need me to cover it.


April 15: Sports Writer Wanted

Once again, The Morgan County Press could use your help. But don’t check out just yet. There’s a job offer in it.

Vernon Publishing, Inc. is looking for a sports and general assignment reporter to serve both The Press and The Versailles Leader-Statesman.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t make this the theme of my personal column, but I also want to lay people’s worries to rest. Since the Help Wanted ad started appearing in the paper, a few people have asked me whether I’m leaving and told me they’d rather I stayed.

This is very encouraging feedback for me, but you don’t need to worry about it. I have no current plans to do anything but the job I’m already doing.

The writer we’re losing is H. B. Dodds, who has been working the sports beat on both papers for a couple years now. Dodds will still be working for VPI, but in a different department, starting as soon as he can train his successor.
I wish him well.

So I am personally asking your help to find the right person to replace H.B. Maybe you already know him or her. Maybe he or she is you.

It might be someone who has retired but has too much energy to just putz around the house and garden.

Maybe it’s somebody fresh out of college, or soon to graduate, looking for a first step up in the career world.

Or maybe it’s somebody who has a job but could be doing something better, something more suited to their talents or training.

Being a sports and general news reporter might not be their ultimate career goal, but it could be a step up towards the kind of career they deserve. It might be a chance to make money doing something they already enjoy - such as writing, shooting pictures or following high school sports. Or it might just mean a better paycheck and a little pride in what they’ve done to earn it.

We’re not holding out for someone with a degree in journalism and a minor in photography. Training will be provided. Being teachable is the thing - or at least one of the things.

Other traits of a highly effective sports writer include a flexible schedule, the ability to put in time during evenings and weekends, being able to drive, an openness to learning how to use digital cameras and computer software, the ability to do research, collate statistics and (of course) write.

A familiarity with sports lingo, box scores, stats and rules is a plus, but a quick learner may be able to pick it up.

If you like the sports page but ever wondered what it would be like to put it together, this might be your chance to find out.

If you love the home teams but can’t find enough ways to boost them, here’s a way that might be fun not only for you but your future readers as well.

If sports writing would be OK but you want there to be more going for you, consider this: the job also includes picking up papers at the press room and delivering them every week; writing feature stories and covering news as needed; shooting and editing digital photos; attending banquets, awards ceremonies, and the occasional conference; and helping lay out pages.

Interested? Know someone who might be? Applications are available at the Leader-Statesman office in Versailles.


April 22: Juggling Newspapers

Last week was like my first week on this job all over again.

My father Robin, the editor of The Versailles Leader-Statesman, was out of town on vacation from Sunday, April 12 to Saturday night, April 18.

With no one else available to fill in for him, I tried to do so while still editing this paper. Wow. What an experience.

The Leader-Statesman takes a lot of time and energy even when it’s the only paper you’re working on. At times I felt like it was. It gave me a new appreciation of the guy in the next office over.

It’ll be my turn one of these months, and I will be avenged. Ha, ha! (Evil cackle.)

Another thing I appreciated anew was how eventful one little town can be, even during a week when a somewhat bigger town is trying to hog all the attention.

The Versailles high school prom, this past Saturday, reminded me that the Stover prom is right around the corner. Debbie Mueller leaked the theme to me, but I’m not telling. Journalistic ethics may not be selling for much these days, but nobody likes having the surpise spoiled.

Running around Versailles covering the city-wide garage sales psyched me up for doing the same in Stover on Friday and Saturday, May 8-9. Don’t forget to advertise your family’s sale. It will help me decide where to go and shoot pictures that weekend.

I was tipped off about a teacher at Versailles middle school, Mark Reger, who plans to retire at the end of the year. I wrote a story on him for the Leader-Statesman. Then I turned right around and interviewed a new special education teacher, Heather Oelrichs, coming in to the Stover school district. Truly, these things go in pairs!

Early in the week I interviewed a World War II veteran who lives west of Versailles for a story in the Leader-Statesman about the honor flights. At the end of the week I interviewed a Stover World War II vet about achieving 70 years of continuous membeship in the American Legion.

And so, Buck Donald’s memories of being a Seabee in the Pacific theater bookended those of Alfred Hicken as an Air Force mechanic from the European theater. It was the kind of double scoop a writer may only enjoy when he’s working on two papers at once.

It made me want to editorialize in a big way. All of us still have a window of opportunity to hear the history of that great war from the lips of living witnesses - but that window is closing quickly.

A video I saw on the internet about the last survivor of the last combat flight of World War II going to visit Iwo Jima underlined the point even more boldly. If your granddad or great-granddad is one of the shrinking number of World War II vets still living, don’t wait any longer to spend time with him. Listening to his memories and make them your own.

I had this chance many years ago and I’m glad I made use of it while it lasted. And I’m glad Marvin Johnson put me on the scent of Mr. Hicken’s story.

Of course, grandma’s memories are just as important. I heard memories of a remarkable lady shared at a VFW memorial service in Gravois Mills. Shirley Dunn ran a cafe in Versailles before cancer took her, and she served her community for many years through organizations like the VFW.

We could use more stories like that about the women who have been the backbone of the community, even when many of the men were away at war. But please, let’s work on them one newspaper at a time.


April 29: Trail's End

I went to Trail’s End Western Heritage Days Friday, April 24 in Sedalia.

I wanted to see how our local folks were doing at their vendor booths. I could only find two out of the three businesses I knew of, and it turned out to be the wrong day to see chuckwagon races.

Also, it was an overcast, chilly, drizzly afternoon. Other than the people who were committed to being there, there weren’t a lot of people around. And I overheard some of the vendors talking about packing up early.

It wasn’t a great first day for the first-time shindig. I blame the weather and the fact that, after all, it wasn’t Saturday yet.

I looked around at the hippodrome, the quilt show and the concession stands and hoped with some hopefulness the weekend would get better from there.

But I also started to feel excited about attractions yet to come in Morgan County, like the Stover Fair June 18-20 and the Morgan County Fair July 16-18.

I look forward to having more time to cover them than a quick three-hour round trip, two thirds of which I spent driving.

I look forward to seeing some live entertainment, admiring the animals, hearing the screams of children on the carnival rides, and recognizing the winners of various contests and prizes.

I look forward to sampling more of the fair-time treats, like funnel cakes and shish kabobs and hand-squeezed lemonade.

I look forward to the smell of pork crackling, warm popcorn, and the occasional pile of horse dirt. I know that’s gross, but it’s such a part of the summer experience that a mere whiff of it on a cold dark April day almost made me feel sunshine on my face.

I did see Diane Cutler and Ruth Hillers at the Light & Grace Stained Glass booth in the Commercial Building. Their work was beautifully displayed.

I also caught a beaming Vi Dale, who rounded up some of her quilting cohorts for a snapshot. I’m no authority on these things, so feel free to correct me, but I do believe I caught them posing in front of a Surrey with a fringe on top.

I saw one family dressed in old west outfits. The low Friday turnout must have been a disappointment to them. But their spirit was a highlight for me.

I ate a pulled pork sandwich to console myself for not being able to track down the Marriott clan. Also, the booth smelled too good to pass by.

I was a day early for the barbecue contest, but the sandwich I ate could have been a contender.

Can you smell it in your mind’s nose? Is your mouth watering yet? Yes, now you’re feeling it. The summer fair season is just around the corner, and it can’t come too soon.