review of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”

harold fryThe author of this novel, Rachel Joyce, has had a successful career writing over thirty “afternoon plays” for BBC Radio. These include both adaptations and original stories. I mention this fact because Joyce has a gift for narrative flow and gripping storytelling that is in full evidence in this, her first novel. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and received many accolades when it first appeared in 2012.  I vaguely remember seeing it on various recommendation lists, but the story of a retired man finding himself wasn’t very attractive to me. However, a few weeks ago my friend Les Schroeder asked me if I had read it, because he had just finished it and wanted to talk about it. That was enough recommendation for me! I eagerly started reading this book as soon as I had finished The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu (see my previous post for a review).  I was ready for something completely different, and that’s what I got.

As a character, Harold Fry is an everyman and yet totally unique. As the story begins, we find him sitting at the breakfast table in his nondescript home, watching his wife obsessively vacuum and clean while he wonders what he should be doing. He has recently retired from an unremarkable job at an unremarkable firm, and the despair of inactivity settles on him like volcanic ash. How many times can he mow the lawn? Then a letter arrives for him, opening a door to both his past and his future.

The letter is from Queenie Hennesey, a former co-worker whom Harold has not seen or spoken to in twenty years. She has written to Harold to tell him goodbye, explaining that she has an inoperable cancerous tumor and that she is now living in hospice care, waiting to die. The return address is Berwick-on-Tweed, a small village on the far northeast coast of England. This comes as a surprise since Harold and Queenie worked together in a town on the southwest coast, where he and his wife Maureen still live. Harold decides that he must respond to the letter, but he can’t settle on exactly what he should say. In spite of resentful and derisive comments from his wife, he determines to take his reply to the nearest mailbox so that it will be posted that very day. Setting off for the corner mailbox, he begins to experience a sense of purpose and freedom that has long been missing from his life.

When Harold arrives at the corner, he finds that he can’t bear to drop the letter in and return home. Walking a little further won’t hurt him, he figures. He walks on to the next box, and when the same reluctance to turn back occurs again, he keeps walking. He’ll go on to the town’s central post office, to make sure it gets posted, he rationalizes. But once at the post office, he still can’t let go of the letter. So he keeps walking. As he approaches the far edge of his town, he is gripped with the irrational notion that if he keeps walking, Queenie will keep living.

Harold calls his wife, who scoffs at his foolishness, of course. Then he calls the hospice to let Queenie know that he is on his way, insisting that she must continue living until he gets there. Without supplies, appropriate clothing, or even his cell phone, Harold embarks upon a remarkable journey, determined to walk across England to deliver his letter, in person, to his friend.

Along the way, Harold alternates between despair and hope, between despondency and faith. Every time he is ready to call it off and go back home, someone comes into his life to encourage him and restore his resolve. He begins to understand the generosity of receiving, the paradoxical knowledge that allowing others to help him will help them, as well.  As he walks, he discovers lost memories, reconsiders his past, and learns to appreciate each present moment. Facing occasional pain, hunger, and bad weather, he discovers that not all dangers approach from the outside; some memories have more potential for damage than the trials of nature.

I don’t want to spoil the plot further for anyone who may choose to read this delightful book. But I do want to mention the narrative technique that the author employs because I think this is what sets the book apart from many other novels. Joyce very carefully rations out the facts of Harold’s life so that the reader is always discovering something new, not only in the current story of his pilgrimage but also in the backstory of the intertwining lives of Harold, Maureen, and Queenie. The narrative point of view revolves mostly around Harold, but occasionally switches to his wife Maureen, whose experiences of loss and confusion in her husband’s absence elicit her own memories and revelations.

The author uses Harold’s story to poke holes in the mythical fabric of the traditional, quiet English life, a life of social conventions and propriety. It seems that those heavy expectations are what Harold must throw off in order to find meaning in his life, and his walking pilgrimage serves to liberate not only Harold, Maureen, and Queenie, but also the many people with whom they come into contact.  In fact, England herself becomes a character in the book – her geography, her weather, her people, and their idiosyncrasies.  Anglophiles, like myself, will love it, as will those who enjoy tales of personal adventure and redemption.

review of “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu”

bada libraransI just finished reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts, by Joshua Hammer.  Hammer is an accomplished journalist who has written for the likes of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and the New York Review of Books, among others. At the time this book was published, he was a contributing editor at Smithsonian magazine.  So the man knows his stuff, and this book is based on at least a decade of deep research and personal experiences in Timbuktu and other parts of Mali and Saharan North Africa. This is a major strength of the book, but it also can be a weakness. Hammer goes into so much depth and discusses so many details that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of who is who and what is going on. To compound the matter, Hammer tends to move forward and back in time, so that just when you think you understand what has happened, he reveals something from a time past that changes your perception. So that’s the biggest negative I have to share in what will, overall, be a very positive review.

However, I would like to challenge the assumptions made in the book’s title and subtitle.  For one thing, while the manuscripts that were in danger are indeed precious and rare, I’m not sure they would qualify as MORE rare than, say, the Dead Sea Scrolls or a fifth-century copy of Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana or even one of the six surviving Shakespeare signatures.  And I’m sure there are equally rare and precious Asian manuscripts that deserve careful preservation. So my first quarrel is only with the term “Most Precious” in referencing the manuscripts in question. I might also challenge the term “Librarians.” Technically speaking, the people who were involved in saving the manuscripts were either the owners of the documents, or their relatives. These people had never done the kind of work we associate with traditional librarianship: the manuscripts had not been listed, categorized, or even counted until the rescue operation was under way. The man whose story begins and ends the book, Abdel Kader Haidara, obtained and collected manuscripts for the Ahmed Baba collection, and raised the funds to house and restore them. He also built a library containing his family’s personal collection of manuscripts, the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu. None of these documents have ever been catalogued in the common sense of the term.  Some of them were on public display until their evacuation, and restoration work had been started. So, in my opinion, Haidara and his colleagues were collectors and curators, but not really librarians, unless your definition of a librarian is anyone who owns books. Many of the people who actually rescued the manuscripts were concerned friends and neighbors, and in some cases, simply unemployed young men who needed cash and were willing to put themselves at risk for it. Were these people courageous and daring? Yes, so they could definitely be called “bad-ass” in my opinion. But were they really librarians? No. It makes a great book title, though.

Now to address the actual contents of the book. The author, Joshua Hammer,begins by teasing the story of Haidara’s dilemma and how he resolved it. Priceless manuscripts were in danger of destruction when Islamic jihadists and Tuareg rebels combined forces with Saharan smugglers and drug-runners to overthrow the government of Mali. The Tuaregs wanted to establish their own homeland nation; the jihadists wanted to establish a caliphate based on strict Shariah law; and the criminals just wanted to destabilize the region to facilitate their own nefarious activities. Timbuktu sits at the edge of the Sahara, at the northern end of Mali, and was a logical entry point for their invasion.

But before going on with that story, Hammer provides background, surveying and summarizing the social and political history of the regions of north-central Africa containing Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Libya, and Burkina-Faso, primarily. I found this portion of the book extremely interesting. Like most Westerners, especially Americans, I had no idea of the high level of scholarship that flourished in that region during the early Middle Ages and again during the later Renaissance.  Some of the manuscripts in Timbuktu’s collections were a thousand years old or even older. They contained treatises on mathematics, astronomy, physics, and medicine, as well as copies of the Quran and commentaries on Koranic passages, Islamic law, and the life of the Prophet Mohammad.

Hammer also spends a good deal of time explaining the various factions in the region, their histories of conflict and conquest, and the complex political realities of that part of the world. These passages were often difficult to follow and, to me, quite mind-boggling. He references the effects of French colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as Muammar al-Qaddafi’s revolution and rule in Libya in the recent 20th century. (I say “recent” because I remember it!)  One thing that has become increasingly clear to me over the last several years is that periodic American, European, and Russian interference in places like northern Africa and Afghanistan have done nothing except serve to arm and expedite the goals of terrorists and rebels in those regions. The attackers in this case were able to gain access to abandoned armaments and military supplies left behind by Western intervention in previous conflicts.

Another fact that became frighteningly clear to me from reading this account is the absolute mayhem and devastation intentionally caused by jihadist militants. Once they gained control in Timbuktu and other towns, successful businesses closed their doors, people lost their incomes and means of support, and even basic utilities were stopped. Unmarried men and women caught together, even if they were just holding hands or talking, were executed on the spot, sometimes by stoning. People accused of resisting were shot, and those accused of thievery had various limbs chopped off, without benefit of trial or defense. Westerners were frequently taken hostage, and many were killed, while the fates of others remain unknown. After reading about the horrors of Timbuktu’s occupation, I have a new sympathy for the people of Syria and other places where ISIS remains in control.

So as you can see, it takes the author a long time to get back to the story of the manuscript rescue operation. Those who were involved in the actual packing and removal of the documents were tireless in their efforts to preserve these precious artifacts. They had to work under the cover of darkness and with the constant threat of exposure and capture. Discovery would almost certainly have meant death. The extent of the operation was much larger than I would have expected. The manuscripts had to be packed into footlockers and other large containers, then transported almost 600 miles south, through rough and often unpaved terrain, to the capital city of Bamako, which was still safely in the hands of the Malian government. Thousands of crates were transported via trucks over land, but that became more difficult to achieve as the invaders flooded the region. A final operation was devised which involved transporting thousands of footlockers via donkey carts to the Niger River, where they would then be placed on boats and floated downstream for over 220 miles to government-held territory, where they were then off-loaded into trucks, cars, and taxis for the remaining 330 miles to Bamako. This part of the book is thrilling, although the author’s style of storytelling sometimes left me confused.

I think this book could be the basis for a great movie, but a lot of re-working and compressing of the story would have to take place in order for it to work. A similar project was accomplished with the story of the Monuments Men. I read the original book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Dallasite Robert M. Edsel. The book was well-researched and fun to read, but because it was based on real-life events, the narrative was fractured and contained too many different people and incidents to make a successful film. So George Clooney’s cinematic version of the book takes liberties with the truth, combining individuals and events into a more cohesive story line that captures the essence of the recovery effort in a way that could be realized theatrically. The same kind of process could be taken with the story of the “Bad-Ass Librarians,” and I think it would make a compelling and dramatic movie in the same vein as The Monuments Men and Argo.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy non-fiction, history, and geopolitics.





review of “Missing, Presumed”

missing-presumedI just finished reading Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner (Random House, 2016).  This is a complex suspense story told with skill and insight. The author is a journalist and featured writer for The Guardian, and she takes advantage of her experiences in the press to subtly critique the devastating effects that media exposure can have on individuals caught up in a criminal investigation.  The story centers around two weary police officers, bored with their night-shift responsibilities,  who eagerly grab the chance to take the lead on a missing persons case.  Manon and Davy fulfill many of the typical buddy-cop tropes: Manon is female, late thirties, and jaded by the job and her disastrous love life; Davy is male, twenty-something, optimistic and upbeat, and happily occupied with his steady girlfriend and his volunteer work with underprivileged youth.

The missing person is Edith Hind, the beautiful and accomplished daughter of a wealthy and well-connected doctor, Sir Ian Hind, and his wife, Miriam.  Edith and her live-in boyfriend, Will Carter, are post-grad students at Cambridge.  It’s Will who discovers that Edith is missing and reports her disappearance to the police.  Evidence found in Edith’s house lead the police to conclude that foul play might be involved, and that the “misper,” Edith, might be in danger.  The investigation also reveals the fact that Edith was last seen in the company of her best friend, Helena.

So far, this may seem to be a common, trite, and derivative story, one that we’ve seen on TV and in movies dozens of times.  What sets this story apart from others is the author’s skillful use of point-of-view.  Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of one of the main characters–detectives Manon and Davy, mother Miriam, and friend Helena.  It’s Manon’s viewpoint that dominates the narrative, however, and therefore it is her character that is the most completely developed.  There is humor to be found in the way she sees herself versus the way the other character view her.  We discover that her acerbic wit and grouchy misanthropy form a protective shell around a heart that has been hurt and disappointed too many times.  Again, this may seem like a standard, worn-out character type, but Steiner’s honest portrayal of Manon’s grudges, self-doubts, failures, and suspicions, as well as her genuine sympathy and dogged determination to solve the case help us to care deeply about Manon.

The same holds true for the other characters.  We glimpse into the heart of a mother who can’t accept the possibility that her daughter might be gone forever.  We agonize with the friend whose private life is painfully exposed to the public just because of her association with the missing girl.  We marvel at the resilient idealism of a young man whose earnest desire is to do good in the face of frustrating obstacles.  Finally, we peek into the insatiable greed for salacious gossip and sensational headlines that has become the hallmark of the modern-day press.

An unexpected plunge into romance, a seemingly unrelated murder, and a heart-breaking look into the complexities involved in helping at-risk urban youth round out this satisfying police-procedural novel.  I have only one caveat: because the story takes place in England, the author employs acronyms and other terminology that may be difficult for the American reader to decode.  Having said that, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will highly recommend it.  The story is engaging and features enough revelations and plot twists to satisfy a mystery-lover like myself. Manon and the other characters will stay with me for a long time.

review of “Killers of the King”

killersI just finished reading Killers of the King: the Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I, by Charles Spencer. (2015)  I really enjoyed reading this book, although it was not an easy read, and I sometimes got a bit weary of it.  I’ve never known very much about the English Civil War period, which began in 1642 and was effectively over by 1646.  Charles 1 was a weak and irresponsible king, and he shut down parliament because he was tired of hearing them complain about his constant spending on unnecessary luxuries.  He was also very high Anglican, nearly Catholic, and the Puritans and Presbyterians were angered when he tried to enforce his high church views on them, especially when he insisted in a strict order of bishopric control.  Because of the curtailment of both civic and religious freedoms, many people were deeply disturbed by his rule and worried about his lavish expenditures from the national treasury.  Rebels rose up, created their own parliament, formed their own armies, and the King had to respond.  His armies were finally beaten and he was captured, but he refused to admit defeat or recognize the validity of the new government. Since he still had supporters, both foreign and domestic, who were willing to fight for him, the rebels convened a meeting in which they tried to decide what to do with the King.  Eventually, they came to believe that the only way to completely stop him was to kill him.  He was executed in 1649.

They tried to establish a republic, and probably would have done so successfully if it weren’t for their leader, Oliver Cromwell.  He was brutish, power-mad, and dangerous in the extreme.  The well-meaning republicans saw their ideals begin to crumble, and when Cromwell sickened and died, leaving his ineffectual son in charge, the son of the executed king, Charles II, saw his chance to re-claim the throne.  The book explains all of this fairly clearly in the early chapters, but the main focus of the narrative is what happened next.

After Charles II successfully returned to power, he began to systematically wipe out the men who had attended the convention and signed the king’s death warrant.  At first, he determined that he would only execute a few of the men as a warning to others, but eventually he became obsessed with finding and killing them all.  This book tells the story of the ones who surrendered, the ones who were captured, and the few who escaped.

Spencer balances the large cast of characters deftly, but still it was sometimes difficult to keep track of the large group of fifty-nine individuals who were the signers of the death warrant.  One technique he uses is to group them into clusters, based on either their past roles in the rebellion, or personal characteristics that they had in common.  He highlights some of the men with carefully constructed character studies.  One thing that I admired about this book was Spencer’s faithful adherence to the rules of good historical writing: never put words into people’s mouths or thoughts into their heads, and always make sure that your conclusions are supported with primary sources and other indisputable evidence.  Much of Spencer’s understanding of the events that took place during this period is drawn from correspondence not only between the men  involved, but also from their wives.  I especially appreciated reading segments from some of the letters exchanged between some of the regicides and their spouses, as well as diary or journal entries from the wives, which sometimes included their own unique insights about their husbands’ friends and co-conspirators.

One thing that I took away from this book is how very fortunate the American colonists were to have George Washington as their leader and eventual first president.  When I consider what happened because of Cromwell, as well as the example of Napoleon, who two centuries later exhibited many of the same flaws of character and judgment, I find myself rejoicing over the character and personality of Washington.  There were many who wanted to name him as king or emperor of the new country, but he refused.  He was insistent also on the concept of term limits and regularly-scheduled elections.  These are blessings that we tend to take for granted.  Had he been as power-hungry as those other revolutionary heroes, we might have ended up back under England’s control, and perhaps a part of the British empire even up to the present day.  Well, probably not, but there could have been serious and regrettable consequences had he not been so reasonable and civic-minded.

The other thing that I will remember from this book is the deep and sincere faith of many of the regicides.  They believed they were making the only sensible decision in killing the first Charles, and many of them signed the warrant with regrets that there seemed to be no other way to guarantee the success of their mission to free Britain from the tyranny of the crown.  Many of them faced their torturous executions with incredible grace and strength.  And they weren’t afforded the kindness of beheading, as they gave to Charles.  Instead his successor, Charles II, insisted that they be hanged until almost dead but not quite, so that they could then be taken down, cut open while still alive, castrated and disemboweled, then drawn and quartered, while their heads were placed on pikes for others to dishonor and revile.  Their lands and homes and fortunes were confiscated, so that they went to their deaths knowing that their families would remain impoverished and ruined.  Yet facing all that, many of them went to their deaths quoting scripture and praying, some even expressing eagerness to pass through to heaven on the other side. Most of them were confident that they had done the right and the only honorable thing to do in sending Charles I to his death.  I will remain impressed by their courage and moved by their fates.

On Serving as the Light of the World

Jesus told his disciples, “You are the light of the world.”  (Matt. 5:14)  As believers, we try to take that task seriously.  Christians should provide illumination and dispel the darkness of the world.  In the previous verse, Matthew 5:13, Jesus likens his followers to salt – “the salt of the earth.”  Salt has gotten a bad reputation in the last several years because overuse can lead to health problems.  But in the ancient world, salt was essential for preserving food and bringing out its flavor.  So we, as Christians, are charged with preserving the world and making life palatable.  These two concepts, “salt and light,” have become very popular with Christians in recent years – we are always being encouraged to be salt and light in the world.  So lately I’ve been thinking about what that means, especially concerning the idea of light, and here are some of my tentative conclusions. 

In Matthew 5:15, Jesus uses the metaphor of a lamp: “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”  While I would never presume to contradict the Savior’s choice of metaphor, I think another analogy might also be useful.  If we tend to think of ourselves as lamps, we might begin to view ourselves as the source of light.  We might start to wonder, “Am I creating enough light here?  What can I do to shed light in this situation?” 

So I think another helpful metaphor might be found in the moon.  We know that the moon is not a source of light itself.  It shines only because it reflects.  The moon is useful at night because the world is enveloped in darkness; while the moon’s glow is dim, it’s better than nothing.  However, it certainly could not replace the sun.  The sun is the source of power, radiation, warmth, and life.  The moon is not really the source of anything, other than the slight gravitational pull that creates the tides.  I think this is how we should view ourselves and our relationship to our Creator.  He is the source of everything, including the sun.  He gives us our power, our life.  All we can do is reflect him to the world in darkness. 

And here’s the most important point of this metaphor: we can only shed a powerful light when there’s nothing between us and God.  When the moon is full, it shines brightly and lights up the earth.  The light is incomplete – colors are lost, and details may not be clear.  But the light is sufficient to guide the way through the darkness until the world returns to the sun.  But when the moon is “new,” no light issues forth at all.  The world is dark; travelers lose their way.  Why?  Because the earth stands between the moon and the sun, blocking the source of light, blocking the moon’s ability to reflect.  How often have I let the world come between me and God, so that I don’t reflect him at all? 

Yes, I realize this analogy is flawed.  The moon doesn’t choose its position in the sky relative to the sun and the earth.  The moon can’t be held responsible for being “new” anymore than it can be celebrated for being full.  But we can choose our position in relation to the Son, the source of our light. We can let the world get in the way; in fact, we can hide behind the world.  Or, like the half moon or crescent moon, we can let our light be diminished because the world is blocking our full access to the source of light. 

In this scenario, we are living in the night.  Until the dawn arrives and Christ returns, the world depends upon us to reflect his light into the darkness.  Clouds of sin, confusion, and distraction may block or diffuse the light we reflect.  If the light is to penetrate the clouds and illuminate the night, we must position ourselves to be fully reflecting the source of light by clearing away any obstacles that remain between us and God. 

I’m not sure I know how to do this.  I’m not sure I know how to move away from the world that distracts me, that blocks me from the source.  But I want to try.  I suspect that I need to stop scooting around from spot to spot and allow God himself to place me in the position that will allow me to be the reflector he created me to be. 

The surprising benefit of making music

A few weeks ago, some fellow church musicians and I went to lunch following our Sunday morning service.  The sermon that day had centered on Romans 12:4-8, a passage discussing various spiritual gifts and encouraging believers to use their gifts in service to the Body of Christ.  I had been thinking about the sermon while waiting for my friends to arrive at the restaurant.  When they joined me, we talked, as we do on most Sundays, about the music in that day’s worship service.  What went wrong, what went right, what we could do better next time, etc.  We always tend to pick our performances apart, as we’re all perfectionists in our own ways.  But the music had gone really well that week, with fewer glitches than usual (not that we ever have big mistakes, but like I said, we’re perfectionists).  I was flushed with satisfaction and gratitude, and still considering the sermon’s emphasis on spiritual gifts, I burst out with, “Isn’t having music as your spiritual gift the very best gift you can have?  I wonder if people with other gifts wish they had the gift of music – or are they just as happy with their gifts as we are with ours.”

Looking back on that question, it seems more than a little immature to me.  As the Bible clearly and consistently points out, we’re not to envy or covet each others’ gifts, or roles in the body of believers.  The Message (paraphrase version of the Bible) puts it like this: “Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.”

I try to take that message to heart – to avoid envy or pride. Still, I consistently find myself rejoicing over the fact that God granted me the gift of music.  The process of rehearsing and performing with the church choir, or practicing with the praise band, fills me with satisfaction and gratitude.  The words of the songs are energized by their musical context, and they fill my heart with joy and with a deep sense of fulfillment.  With repeated rehearsal, the lyrics settle themselves into my heart and mind and become a very real part of who I am and how I think.  But the process of practicing involves more than just the words of the songs – the melodies, harmonies, phrases, and interludes speak their own mysterious, whispering messages to my soul.

This may sound really strange to some people.  I would guess that most people would assume that practicing would be tedious, repetitious, even boring.  Occasionally that may be true, but only infrequently, at least in my experience as a church musician.  What, if anything, lifts the rehearsal experience beyond the pedestrian and on to the level of transcendence?  Beyond that, why is the experience of performance, of mutual music-making, so exhilarating, so much pure fun?

A few days after the conversation at the restaurant, I read a review of a new book titled Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson.  (Read the article for yourself here.)  The author’s project in this book is to explain the neurobiological, physical, bodily implications of love.  As I read through the review of this book on one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pickings, some of the reviewer’s remarks sparked some connections in my brain with the thoughts on music I had been exploring earlier in the week.  Allow me to share some of these connections here.

Fredrickson states, “Perhaps counterintuitively, love is far more ubiquitous than you ever thought possible for the simple fact that love is connection… The new take on love that I want to share with you is this: Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong.”  When I read this, I immediately thought of the shared positive emotions experienced, for example, during a typical choir rehearsal.  We laugh together; we sing together; we strive for improvement, if not perfection, together.  We hear each others’ voices, strong or weak, and we share the task of blending our voices together, in harmony or unison, to make pleasing, even beautiful, sounds.  We definitely fit the definition Fredrickson provides: a group of people connecting over a shared, strong, positive emotion.  If we accept her premise, then what we experience when we sing together is nothing short of love itself.  We feel love, we share love, we are immersed in love.  No wonder we leave the rehearsal space feeling better, more alive (although maybe more tired) than when we entered.

Frederickson points out the fact that in Western cultural traditions, especially the American cultural tradition, individuality is valorized above almost any other quality.  According to her, this emphasis on the individual experience causes us to view emotions, including love, as something felt personally, rather than something shared – “my anger,” “his devotion,” “her despair.”  Fredrickson would have us re-think this perspective, widening our horizons to consider the impact the feelings of others have on us.  She uses the term “positivity resonance” to explain the shared, mutually interactive feelings that come into sync when people experience love, whether as partners or in a group.  She explains: “Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belongs to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections.”

When I first read this, I was immediately struck by the implications this theory would have regarding my ruminations on my music-making activities.  What could be a more positive shared experience than that of making music?  What could be a more perfect conduit for reverberating connections between people than the blending of voices, the most personal of musical instruments, in the act of singing?  Add to that heady mixture the emotional intensity of expressing faith through praise, in songs that relate the truths of the Bible and meditate on the qualities of our God.

I realize, however, that this “positivity resonance” is not exclusive to church choirs or church musicians.  My daughter and several of my friends sing in a community chorus that practices every Thursday night.  Most of the members work a full, eight-hour day, and then spend an additional three hours in rehearsal.  You would think that these chorus members would come home exhausted and ready for bed, but this is not the case.  They are full of energy, hyped-up and euphoric, and have trouble settling down and preparing for sleep.  In fact, my daughter and some of her friends have dubbed this condition “Post-Chorale Syndrome,” in recognition of the heightened state of awareness and vitality they encounter each week, both during and after chorale practice.

So. To what can we ascribe these seemingly contradictory and confusing events?  I believe that the excitement, elation, and euphoria experienced by musicians during rehearsal and performance can be seen as the result of the simple fact that these people have experienced love.  They have shared intense, positive interactions with like-minded fellow musicians who mirror their own personal, musical expressions.  Instead of a private, individual emotion felt only in the interior of one’s heart, this kind of love expands the boundaries of fellowship and brotherhood to encompass the entire group.  Fredrickson explains this phenomenon: “While infused with love you see fewer distinctions between you and others. Indeed, your ability to see others — really see them, wholeheartedly — springs open. Love can even give you a palpable sense of oneness and connection, a transcendence that makes you feel part of something far larger than yourself.”  In light of this promise, I can only give thanks for the beautiful, powerful, amazing gift of music in my life, and my heart longs to sing, “Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.”

#24: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982. Directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote, and Dee Wallace.

As #24 on the AFI Top 100 List, E.T. was my next film to watch for my Top 25 project (for more info on this project, see this post).  Although E.T. was one of the films that I was already familiar with, it had been a long time since I had seen it from start to finish — probably close to twenty years, at least.  So while I did have some idea of what to expect from this film, my expectations were cloudy and incomplete at best.

Steven Spielberg is a wonderful director and a consummate story-teller, and this story was perfect for his style. It possesses a satisfying narrative unity – it’s the kind of story that makes the viewer care about the outcome and care about the characters.  In addition to the emotional resonance this film carries, Spielberg endowed it with beautiful visual spectacles, taking advantage of the hilly suburban terrain of the setting to create tension and develop stunningly beautiful shots while keeping the story based firmly in a familiar reality.

Spielberg is masterful at creating suspension, and with this story his techniques were simple but effective.  From the beginning of the film we catch glimpses of the eponymous alien, but we only see him in silhouette or from behind.  Little by little, we are shown a finger here, a foot there, a shoulder, an arm. This technique creates an intensified interest in the film: when do we get to finally SEE him?  When Elliot’s flashlight first illuminates the alien’s face, we are as stunned as he is.  Spielberg does the same thing with the government agents pursuing the alien.  We keep seeing a man’s torso, with keys dangling from his belt, but we don’t see his face until almost the end of the picture.  In fact, in the credits, the actor playing this man, Peter Coyote, is named simply “Keys.”  The other agents working with this man are equally faceless and nameless.  Even when they interact with the central characters of the story, most of them are wearing space suits with helmets that obscure their faces.  They are meant to represent the unsympathetic, mechanistic acts of big government – an anonymous entity that refuses to listen to the desperate pleas of a young boy.

I love the way Spielberg utilizes the hills of Elliot’s neighborhood in so many interesting ways.  On one occasion we see the ominous helmet tops of the space-suited agents rising up from the hillside as they march toward Elliot’s home.  Later, he uses the same effect to reveal the police cars chasing the boys as they aid in E.T.’s escape.  In another shot, we see the boys silhouetted against the setting sun as they ride their bikes across the horizon.  The hills create an exciting setting for the chase scene as well — the police and government cars can’t easily follow the boys’ bikes as they leap over the terraced hillside of a housing development, giving the children a distinct advantage over the might of the adults.

The most exhilarating and definitely most memorable moment of the film is when Elliot is carrying E.T. in his bicycle basket and takes off flying into the sky due to E.T.’s supernatural abilities.  The shot of Elliot’s bike passing across the face of  the moon is so iconic that it has become the symbol for not only this film, but also provided inspiration for the logo of Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio. One thing I had forgotten was the second time in the film that this technique is used.  Against the backdrop of the setting sun, the four boys on bicycles who are taking E.T. back to the forest rise up to fly in silhouette.  This is a stunning effect.

Another interesting aspect of the film was the medical scenes involving Elliot and E.T.  When E.T. appears to be dying, the medical personnel talk over each other, push each other out of the way, and try all different kinds of procedures in an effort to save his life.  It is extremely realistic and exciting.  I was surprised to learn that these “actors” were in fact real doctors – Spielberg’s own internist and a bunch of his colleagues and friends.  Spielberg said that he could never have scripted something so realistic, and that actors would have had a very hard time spouting all that medical terminology.  But these doctors slipped into the roles they were so comfortable performing in real life, even though they were “working” on an animatronic puppet, and brought a realism to these scenes that would be almost impossible to replicate otherwise.

I think one thing that makes this film so successful is the honest and heartfelt acting by the children, especially Henry Thomas as Elliot.  In one of the DVD’s special features, the actors are brought together 20 years after the release of the film to discuss their memories and experiences.  All of the actors talked about the fact that the E.T. puppet was so realistic that they actually experienced real feelings for it.  Drew Barrymore (who was six when she participated in this film) said that while on the one hand she knew that it wasn’t a real creature, on the other hand she came to love it and believe in it, as though it was one of her real friends.  Henry Thomas remarked that the eyes were very expressive, and I think he has touched on the key to this film’s success.  The animatronics effects were so advanced and so lifelike that even adults could sympathize with the alien and his predicament.

Therefore, I think the reason this film made it into the top 25 is due to its emotional resonance, its stunning visual effects, and its ground-breaking portrayal of a space alien as a sympathetic and likable creature.  Its emphasis on friendship, loyalty, and the courage to do what’s right regardless of the consequences has endeared this film to the American and worldwide film audience.

#25: To Kill a Mockingbird

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird.

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962. Directed by Robert Mulligan, and starring Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall.

When I have admitted that I had never seen To Kill a Mockingbird until two weeks ago, many people, especially my younger friends, have expressed astonishment.  Most have indicated to me that they saw it in high school when they read the book for their English classes.  So then I am forced to explain that I’m so old that we didn’t HAVE easy access to movies when I was in school.  I finished high school in 1972, at least 10 years before the advent of the VCR, VHS and Beta tapes, etc.  Back when I was in school, we used film reels threaded through clunky projectors manned by the geeky AV kids in order to see a movie in class.  As I recall, we hardly ever saw a movie in class!  Occasionally we would be herded into the school auditorium to see a film, but these were usually educational films about the dangers of drugs or drunk driving — not theatrical release-type films.  And the chances of catching it on TV were slim, too, because we only had five channels in those days: ABC (8), NBC (5), CBS (4), the local channel 11, and the PBS channel 13.  Most programming ended at midnight, and the older movies that were frequently shown as reruns were mostly of the B-grade variety — space and horror films, teen exploitation and beach romances, or gritty cop dramas.  I do remember reading the book, but I have to confess that, until watching the film, I didn’t remember very much about the story.

So I embarked upon my Top 25 project (see my previous post for an explanation of this endeavor) by watching a movie I had never seen before, To Kill a Mockingbird.  I don’t believe I carried many preconceptions into this venture, other than the belief that this movie would be moving and well-made.  (Obviously, since it’s listed in the Top 25!)  What I didn’t expect was the amount of gentle humor in the film, for the most part due to the delightful children portraying Scout, Jem, and Dill.  In an era when most children portrayed in movies were overly cute and precocious, it must have been refreshing to watch such unaffected, naturally authentic performances.  I especially loved Scout’s ham costume!  Jem’s reactions to his little sister – annoyance alternating with protectiveness – were touchingly sweet and felt real to me.  The one scene that seemed a bit contrived to me was the night at the courthouse, when Scout’s innocent questions help to diffuse the tension between her father Atticus and the riled-up menfolk of the town who seem determined to lynch Tom Robinson before his trial.  I just don’t think a 6-year-old girl would continue to speak up when her questions were so thoroughly rebuffed.  I know that scene serves a definite purpose, but it just seemed… I don’t know.  Too easy?  Perhaps Scout’s performance seemed coached?  I’m not sure, but it just didn’t ring as true as the rest of the action involving the children.

I think the most important aspect of this film was Gregory Peck’s quiet dignity as Atticus Finch and the respect he showed for every character in the story.  His interactions with Tom Robinson and his family were beautifully under-played: he was neither patronizing nor overly familiar.  His interactions with his housekeeper, Calpurnia, were similarly restrained, yet respectful.  The examples he set for the children in his interactions with Scout’s underfed classmate, Walter Cunningham Jr., and Walter’s father who was forced to pay off his debt to Finch with produce, and even with the infamous Boo Radley, were more than simple life lessons from father to child – they also served as models of dignity, class, and fairness to the American movie-going public.  Even when the reprehensible Bob Ewell spits in his face, Peck’s Atticus Finch never stoops to seek revenge.  His lack of reaction is what truly condemns Ewell in the eyes of the Finch children, the Robinson family, and in the eyes of the film’s viewers.

One thing that I really appreciated about this film was its slow and measured pace, but this might be a hindrance to younger audiences today who are more accustomed to the rapid-fire editing of the blockbuster style.  Mulligan’s directing lets the story breathe, and creates a very credible atmosphere of small-town life in the Great Depression South.  The deliberate pacing of the courtroom scenes established palpable tension while remaining true to the time period and spirit of the book. I also appreciated some of the interesting camera angles utilized in the courtroom scene.  The societal and cultural divisions between the races were eloquently demonstrated in shots that incorporated the views of spectators on the floor of the courtroom and in the balcony.

I had noticed Robert Duvall’s name in the credits when the film started, so I kept watching to see when he would pop up.  I expected that maybe he would be one of the townfolk, but I never anticipated his role as Boo Radley!  After the way the children talked about Boo, as well as what Dill’s aunt had to say on the subject, I expected Boo to be more visibly frightening – perhaps deformed in some way.  (Maybe I was expecting someone like “Sloth” in the Goonies movie?)  But Duvall, consummate actor that he is, was able to create a frightening, yet sympathetic, character just by facial expression and eye movement (with the help of some low-angle, atmospheric lighting).  How young he looked there!  Boo Radley, by the way, was his first major role in a motion picture.

Although the story is set in the 1930’s, this film was released in 1962.  This was a time of increasing racial tension throughout the country — Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in 1963 — and this movie must have had a positive influence on many who saw it during that time.  I believe it is for this reason, as well as for Peck’s masterful performance, that this movie was listed in the Top 25.

Top 25

I teach a class called “Introduction to Fine Arts.”  It’s a survey-type course, designed as the standard arts-appreciation component of a university’s core curriculum.  In addition to critical theory, we cover painting, photography, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, drama, film, and TV/video all in one semester.  When I inherited the course from the previous professor, the assignment for the unit on film asked students to watch and comment on any Oscar-winning movie.  Because the Academy Awards can sometimes be based on political or sentimental motivations, rather than on purely artistic merit, I decided to change the requirement.  Now students are asked to select a movie from among the top 25 films on the American Film Institute’s list known as “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies,” which was updated in 2007 from the original list created by the AFI in 1988 to celebrate one hundred years of film-making.  While this list is far from perfect, I believe it more adequately presents a collection of films that were either ground-breaking in some way or exemplified the best  of a particular genre or format.

Over the years, my students have responded very positively to this assignment, and I have enjoyed reading their thoughts and critiques concerning the films on the list.  However, with the closing of Blockbuster and other movie-rental outlets, the proliferation of Redbox kiosks, and the increased dependence of many on streaming video services like Netflix, I discovered that many students had difficulty in locating some of the older films on the list.  So last year I invested in ownership of all twenty-five movies in DVD format so that I could lend them to my students for this assignment.  I already owned six of the movies on the list, and I purchased the remaining DVDs from Movies Unlimited, an online supplier with good prices and an enormous catalog.

After compiling my collection, I realized that I had not ever seen ten of these films, and there were several others that I had viewed so long ago that I could barely remember them.  If I was going to ask my students to watch these movies, shouldn’t I be familiar with them all?  That was the impetus for this new project.  I plan to watch all 25 movies in descending order, starting this summer, and then write about each one.  If I view one film a week, I should be finished with this plan in mid-November.  But knowing that there will be some weekends filled with other activities, I hope to accomplish this goal by the end of 2012.

I established this blog with great intentions a few years ago, but I’ve let it slide recently.  This project will, I hope, encourage me to keep it more current and to use it as per my original intention.  Wish me luck!!

reactions to The Choir

BBC America  started a new show last night called The Choir.  It’s a reality show in which a handsome and likable young man, Gareth Malone (isn’t Gareth a totally British-sounding name?), visits a typical comprehensive school in a low-income area in England and recruits twenty-five novice singers for a choir.  The goal is to establish the choir and work with them until they’re good enough to compete in a choral competition in China, of all places.

The school is Northolt High School, and – according to the show and to the BBC press release – it has never had a choral music program.  Malone holds auditions and chooses the best from among the many untrained singers who try out.  Either the school doesn’t contain older students, or very few of them try out, because one of his first problems is in finding boys whose voices have changed for the bass parts.  The few that he does manage to find are very weak, and (like the rest of the kids) totally untrained.

Last night’s show followed the progression of announcing the program to the students, holding auditions, forming the choir, and teaching and rehearsing the selected pieces.  It culminated with a recording session in which the new choir made a demo CD to submit with their application to the contest.   The whole process took only six weeks (I believe), with only one rehearsal per week.

The first thing that really jumped out at me was how musically impoverished these children were.  They had never had any sort of music education, did not know how to read music or decode a score, and most of them had never even tried to sing in harmony before.  The personable Mr. Malone got quite a lot accomplished in the short time that he had, but the choir did not sound very good on their audition recording, I have to say.

What distressed me was Malone’s lack of attention to basic singing skills.  Perhaps he didn’t feel that he had the time.  And of course, the show was edited to focus more on the personal stories of some of the students, since that is what sells reality TV programs.  So perhaps there was more vocalization, warm-ups, and coaching than what we saw on the screen.  But there’s no doubt that the students were grossly oversinging, and Malone kept prompting them to get louder and louder, without offering any tips on breath support or vocal technique.  I have always been suspicious of the “Loud equals Good” school of musical training.  The singing was brassy, flat, and raucous – in a way, reminiscent of some of those Eastern-European folk choirs.  I realize Malone didn’t have a lot of time, but I would have hoped that, as a classically-trained musician, he would have taken a little more care with the vocal production.  If they continue to sing like they were in this first episode, his students will end up with vocal problems by the end of the season.

In spite of that, my overall response was positive.  For one thing, it made me so grateful to have had musical training as a child.  Although Garland schools did not have elementary music programs until well after I had graduated, my parents enrolled me in pre-school church choir, and I continued through the children’s church choir program into high school.  My parents were also responsible for buying a piano for our home, and paying for my piano lessons, which started when I was in third grade and continued into college.  In Junior High I played flute in the school band, and in high school I added bassoon and xylophone to my repertoire.  These musical experiences had a vast impact on my life, and I cannot begin to imagine how different I would be had I not had the privilege of a music education.  I watched the children on The Choir as they timidly sang together for the first time, and I could see how they changed and grew as they began to feel the joy of group singing.

An especially gratifying moment in the show occurred after the audition recording had been made.  Malone arranged to have copies of the CD mailed to each of the choir members, and the cameras caught the children in their homes, playing the CDs for their families and for themselves.  One girl’s grandmother began to cry as she listened to her granddaughter’s voice singing among all the others.  You could tell that, for this woman, this was a moment of pure joy and wonder.

It seems to me that this is the essence of the show – that the joy of singing as a group, as a community, is something of immeasurable value that is in danger of being lost.  I know that The Choir was highly successful and award-winning in its British run, and I hope that lots of Americans will tune in to its US broadcast.  There are many parts of America in which music education is on the cutting block, and it’s my hope that interest in this TV reality show will engender a renewed interest in keeping the arts in the public schools.