September 14, 2017

(++++) MAJOR MESSES


Accident! By Andrea Tsurumi. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys. By Esphyr Slobodkina and Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer. Harper. $17.99.

     If ever there was an author’s name that fit almost perfectly with the theme of her book, it is Andrea Tsurumi’s name and Accident! Her name sounds like the word “tsunami,” and her hilarious exploration of mess-making is tsunamic indeed. It all starts when little Lola, an armadillo with distinctly human expressiveness, knocks a whole pitcher of juice onto a chair and makes a huge stain. “I’ve ruined everything!” Lola exclaims, determining immediately that she needs to run away and “hide in the library,” where “they have books and bathrooms,” and stay there “till I’m a grownup.” Dashing out of the house, Lola runs “away from her mess and right into everyone else’s.” And wow, are there messes to be found. Tsurumi is amazingly inventive as she piles trouble upon trouble upon trouble, starting with a bear whose weight breaks the chains of a playground swing and a lamb who cuts through a garden hose, then continuing with mistakes and wreckage everywhere – as the characters proclaim themselves “the WORST” and think about running away “till the END OF THE WORLD!” It is all so awful, so exaggeratedly and obviously overdone – and so hilarious. An anteater into whose shopping cart Lola runs uses her tongue to form the word “yikes.” A blowfish baker into whose cake the lamb falls blows up into a super-spiky ball and joins the race to the library – which takes the hyper-upset characters past a giraffe whose just-baked cookies fall out a window, a bull carrying destroyed dishes out of a shop, a mother duck noticing that the third of her four ducklings is actually a snake, a human turning on a blender that has no top and getting drenched in whatever is inside, and much more. Everyone gets hysterical when things go wrong: Tsurumi does an amazing lettering job to show all the ways characters say “WHOOPS!” and “RUINED!” and “WRECKED!” and more; a narwhal whose horn breaks a child’s balloon and a turtle who ends up on his back in the middle of a pie are two of the many other unfortunate animals. On and on travel Lola, the bear, the lamb and the blowfish, and everywhere they go (they go to a lot of places) they find “Big Big Trouble!” Finally, as a sign reading “CALAMITY!” is seen blowing over the street, they make it to the refuge of the library – where, one stumble and a domino effect on bookshelves later, there is “a huge CATASTROPHE.” And then – well, then a little bird who has been observing all the mayhem looks Lola right in the eye and says, “Accident.” Talk about a teachable moment! “And now we make it better,” says the bird, and that is just what the characters do – lots of them – in the book’s final pages. The cleanup of the entire downtown area is hilariously elaborate and elaborately hilarious – kids will love picking out all the specific repairs going on. And Lola rushes home to apologize, just in time to see her mom make a major mess with doughnuts, coffee, plates, a trash can, papers, and the stained chair. What an object lesson – what a lot of object lessons – in what to do when things go wrong! The highly personal way the story is told (the text type is in Tsurumi’s handwriting and the display type is hand-lettered by her) adds to the considerable impact of a book that is hilarious, touching and useful all at once. And that is no accident.

     Nor is there anything accidental about the happenings in, and the creation of, Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys. This is the second time Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer has created a sequel to Caps for Sale, which has been popular ever since the book by Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002) was first published in 1940. In 2015, Sayer brought out More Caps for Sale, using her knowledge of Slobodkina’s work, of which she is essentially the curator, and ideas that she said came from Slobodkina itself. Now there is a sequel to the sequel, and Slobodkina herself is a character in it, more or less: Sayer has created a friend for the peddler, named her Essie, and based her appearance on that of Slobodkina. As for the story, it is a kind of hybrid of the original Caps for Sale and the story of the shoemaker and the elves: now the mischievous monkeys are still following the peddler and still irritating him, but the new character, Essie, tells the peddler that "sometimes what we don’t want is exactly what we need,” and urges him to clear his mind of negative expectations and see what happens with the monkeys. And sure enough, when the peddler has to leave town to visit a sick friend, the monkeys – who have spent a lot of time watching the peddler make caps to sell – take it upon themselves to make a whole new batch of caps. So when the peddler returns home, expecting to find everything a mess because of the monkeys and worried because he has spent all his money on the trip and has nothing to sell to get the money back, he discovers the monkey-made caps and realizes what has happened. The result is a level of gratefulness for the monkeys that is quite outside the scope of the original Caps for Sale but that certainly fits with this extension, as Sayer creates it. Sayer does a fine job of carrying through Slobodkina’s original art, and she does not attempt to be politically correct by changing anything (for instance, the peddler’s stereotypical appearance remains just as it has always been). Sayer clearly has big  plans for Slobodkina’s legacy: at the end of Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys, the peddler meets four children who originally appeared in other, non-monkey books by Slobodkina, and Sayer says in an afterword that “they will all have adventures with the peddler and the sixteen monkeys in future stories.” Clearly Caps for Sale is in the process of becoming a franchise and an extended series. If Sayer remains true to the spirit of Slobodkina’s original work – which, so far, she has – the peddler and the monkeys should have a bright future ahead of them.

(++++) DOGGY DOINGS


The Adventures of Honey & Leon. By Alan Cumming. Illustrated by Grant Shaffer. Random House. $17.99.

The Great Puppy Invasion. By Alastair Heim. Illustrated by Kim Smith. Clarion. $16.99.

     Dog owners know there is something deeply unsatisfying in being told that their dogs simply sleep all day while the humans are out and about. Surely those wonderful canine companions have something more to do! The technological solution to this burning issue involves buying a “nanny-cam” and actually observing the pups’ behavior. But Alan Cumming and Grant Shaffer have a better idea: imagine what the dogs could be doing. Well, actually, no, they couldn’t really do what Cumming and Shaffer show in The Adventures of Honey & Leon, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if dogs shared a fantasy life with humans to such a degree that they could have these particular adventures? Cumming’s story imagines that Honey, a good-sized rescue mutt, and Leon, a diminutive Chihuahua, take their canine duty to protect owners very seriously indeed, and so are very distressed when their human companions have to go on a business trip – which, Cumming writes, happens “an awful lot.” The dogs decide not to stand for this any longer when they discover that yet another trip is being planned: as soon as the humans leave, Cumming writes that Honey and Leon “quickly packed their bags” – with such necessities as a book on acting by “Marilyn Monruff” and packages of “doggie treats,” “emergency treats,” and “even more emergency treats.” Shaffer’s illustration of the pups enthusiastically getting themselves set for travel is a gem – actually, there are gems aplenty in the amusing and delightful pictures here. The dogs and their humans live in New York City, so the pups hail a taxi to take them to the airport – New York apparently being a place where cab drivers have seen it all, so picking up two dogs and their luggage to take to an airport is no big deal. Somehow Honey and Leon figure out which plane their humans have boarded, and they slip aboard themselves (What? No security?) and take seats way at the back – with Shaffer’s sly drawing indicating that perhaps the humans are not quite as unaware of the dogs as the dogs think. What follows is a European adventure in which Honey and Leon, wearing a variety of improbable disguises, repeatedly protect and help out their humans. Then, at a Parisian fashion show, photographers ask a model to turn their way by calling out requests such as, “Over here, honey!” And Honey the dog decides the calls are for her, and she takes her turn on the fashion-show runway (to the bewilderment of Leon), and she immediately becomes “the talk of the town.” And that means that the next day, Honey and Leon have to spend their time “keeping Honey’s star status hidden” from their humans (which requires, among other things, jamming the men’s cell-phone signals). Exhausted, but satisfied that they have done their guard duty while remaining undetected, Honey and Leon head home – and readers find out that, yes, their humans knew about the dogs’ adventurous diligence all along. The Adventures of Honey & Leon is a lovely little fantasy that strains credibility well beyond the breaking point – a state of affairs that matters not a whit. One thing that may matter to some families, though, is that this is also a book about gay men – the dogs’ humans – who repeatedly show their physical closeness by holding hands and putting arms around each other. This is irrelevant to the story but is clearly a desired element of it from the perspective of Cumming and Shaffer. Parents in traditional families need to be prepared to discuss this aspect of the book if their children ask about it.

     The only thing parents may have to explain about Alastair Heim’s The Great Puppy Invasion is how anybody could possibly resist the adorable, enormous-eyed puppies drawn with such overwhelming cuteness by Kim Smith. But the town of Strictville does resist them – well, at first. This is a town whose motto is, “All work and no play makes for a great day!” Everybody is dutiful here, and suitably sour-faced, and no one has seen puppies before. But the people start to see them as the book begins – and soon see lots of them, despite the town’s “long history of ridiculous rules,” which include “fun was forbidden,” “play was prohibited,” and “cuteness was downright criminal.” But not even a police officer ticketing three adorable pups for daring to be cute can stop this invasion! And to make matters worse, one child, little Teddy, keeps reaching out to the puppies, despite his sensible mother’s repeated warnings not to touch them. “This is too much cuteness for just one town!” a resident exclaims at a hastily called emergency meeting. The residents think they know what they have to do to get rid of the puppies: they throw sticks at them (but the puppies delightedly fetch the sticks and bring them back), and they run toward the puppies to chase them away (but the puppies think it is a game and grow “even more delightful”). Soon the townsfolk are on the run, the puppies chasing them and yipping with happiness – until the townspeople run into their houses and slam the doors shut. But Teddy, still outside after his parents have run in, sees “the tiniest puppy of all” and wonders “how something so sweet and so playful and so adorably sad could possibly be scary” – and Smith pulls out all the stops here to show the little puppy taking up a full page, with brightly shining eyes as big as half its head and a head as big as its entire body. Awwwwww! Then the utterly adorable puppy lifts its paw to Teddy, and Teddy takes it, and soon all the other townspeople – who have been watching from inside their homes – “cautiously stepped forward” to shake paws with the other puppies. And a lickety-split (and a few licks) later, Strictville has become Not So Strictville and the people “would never be afraid of cuteness again.” The story and its illustrations are so over-the-top that kids and adults alike will likely find themselves laughing out loud at The Great Puppy Invasion – especially at the very end of the book, when another invasion is about to begin: a tiny, ultra-adorable, huge-eyed kitten winks at readers from the far right-hand side of the very last page. Awwwwww!

(+++) WHO AM I, ANYWAY?


The Princess Imposter. By Vivian Vande Velde. Scholastic. $16.99.

Confidentially Yours #6: Vanessa’s Design Dilemma. By Jo Whittemore. Harper. $6.99.

     Vivian Vande Velde’s offbeat ways of handling fairy tales are always fun to read, even when she is not at her best – as she is not in The Princess Imposter. The basic concept of the book is right out of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, with two characters changing places to learn what each other’s life is like and eventually ending up wiser and with a better understanding of themselves and the world. Vande Velde neatly pulls the idea into fairy tales by using the old trope of a changeling: fairies are known to exchange one of their own for a human infant, so why not have them make a similar exchange (although only for three days) for a preteen princess? Well, all right. So we get: “Princess Gabriella used to dream of the wonders of the fairy kingdom, its delicacy and its magic. She just knew that if she could pay the fairies a visit, all the beautiful things in her own royal life would seem ordinary and even dull by comparison. When she actually got to meet the fairies, though, things did not work out quite the way she expected.” That sounds about right, but no – actually this is what we don’t get, and that is the flaw in the setup of what is otherwise an enjoyable exchanging-places book. Vande Velde instead has Princess Gabriella kidnaped by the fairies in what humans and fairies alike agree is an exceptional situation, since she is not an infant – and once she is exchanged for a fairy named Phleg, the princess is bullied, abused physically and mentally, repeatedly humiliated, and made to go hungry. This is not the recipe for an amusing book, especially because Phleg wants to change places so as to win a bet with her annoying brother, Parf. In other words, the Twain formula has both sides interested in the exchange, or at least thinking that it might be interesting, and as a result the various mishaps are balanced and the learning-about-oneself is, too. But in The Princess Imposter, only one girl wants or has thought about this sort of exchange, so the other is at a distinct disadvantage and is badly treated into the bargain. True, the book is called The Princess Imposter rather than The Princess and the Imposter, so presumably Vande Velde wanted the focus to be on Phleg more than on Gabriella; but the fact remains that there is more awkwardness to the tale-telling here than is usual in Vande Velde’s books. The good news is that things proceed considerably more smoothly after the initial chapters in which Gabriella is mistreated and misused – and all the chapters involving Phleg are handled with Vande Velde’s usual wit and charm. Of course the whole book turns on the idea of finding out who you really are and where your skills really lie. Phleg meets Prince Frederic, to whom Gabriella was betrothed in childhood, and after a series of misunderstandings (Phleg uses magic to look just like Gabriella, but she knows almost nothing about the ways of humans), he falls in love with her and she with him. That is, the prince falls in love with Phleg, and at the very end of the book finds her even more beautiful when she resumes her fairy form than in her disguised appearance. As for Gabriella, she slowly learns some fairy ways – even though she never had any desire to do so – and eventually brings her royal human abilities with words and analyses to get Parf’s father out of a very serious legal situation into which he has been thrust by the machinations of a bad-guy fairy relative. Vande Velde realizes that the nature of the two girls’ relationships is not quite equal: she ends the book with happily-ever-after for Phleg and Frederic but says of the budding relationship between Gabriella and Parf, “that one took a little more work.” Nevertheless, all’s well that ends well – although in the case of The Princess Imposter, all’s well even when not all begins well.

     Jo Whittemore’s Confidentially Yours series began five books prior to Vanessa’s Design Dilemma, and by this sixth book you would think that middle-school would-be clothing designer Vanessa Jackson would have a sense of who she is and where she is going. But no – each of these books (each narrated by a different girl in a group at Abraham Lincoln Middle School united primarily by involvement in an advice column called “Lincoln’s Letters”) poses a different difficulty and gives each protagonist a chance to explore, on a very superficial and easy-to-read level, a different aspect of her developing personality. In the case of Vanessa’s Design Dilemma, there are two issues. One is that somebody is bullying the people who submit personal letters about embarrassing problems to the advice column. Vanessa and the others involved in the column need to figure out who is undermining the column and why – and put a stop to the trouble. The other issue is that Vanessa is co-leader of KV Fashions (with friend Katie Kestler), and the girls are planning to introduce their designs to the entire town at a fashion show. They find out, to their surprise, that the buyer for a local boutique is interested in attending the show and may actually buy some of the designs – and that sets off a flurry of excitement along with what passes here for soul-searching. The problem is that Vanessa and Katie have a great sense of their own style and stylishness, but what they like is very, very different from what the boutique stocks. Do they stay true to themselves and their designs even though that means the boutique will not be interested? Or do they accept the real-world necessity of compromise and create items for the fashion show that resemble those they know the boutique favors and sells? This is a pretty narrow problem and is not likely to appeal to the preteen girls at whom this series is aimed, except for those who also consider themselves fashion-forward and care more about clothes and appearance than just about anything else. The lesson here, it turns out, is that the real world does not require or even desire compromise, and that staying true to yourself is the one and only way to succeed. That finding is quite out of tune with everyday real-world reality, but it works as a self-esteem builder and a way to create an “aww, too bad” moment when Vanessa finds out that her willingness to make compromises has had an effect that is opposite from the one she intended. Well, no matter – she and Katie have plenty of resilience, and the book ends on the same upbeat note as all the previous ones and, it is safe to say, the ones still to come. And yes, the person responsible for the advice-column problems is caught and suitably punished – by being maneuvered into helping KV Fashions have a successful show. It is a fair bet that Vanessa and the other girls who narrate the Confidentially Yours series will be back again (and again) with more situations through which they need to learn who they really are and how many limits they face as a result (hint: not many).

(+++) GETTING DEAD AND GETTING OVER IT


They Both Die at the End. By Adam Silvera. HarperTeen. $17.99.

Graveyard Shakes. By Laura Terry. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

     Tear-jerking to the point of being laughable, melodramatic to the point of being utterly undramatic, Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End is pathetically desperate to be with-it and to make IMPORTANT POINTS about, you know, life and death and relationships and family and all that stuff. Written with Hollywood-cinematic storytelling flair, which means the whole book is essentially a series of unbelievable coincidences and politically correct handling of characters, They Both Die at the End tries so hard to appeal to teenage readers that its manifest absurdities are almost forgivable. Silvera really, really wants to be taken seriously, you know? So here’s the plot: there’s an outfit called Death-Cast, a kind of telemarketing service for people’s last days, that has bored, low-level, mistake-prone workers call random people (or maybe not random, because how many people die every day and how many phone calls  can telemarketers, real live ones rather than robocallers, actually make?) and tells them they will die that day. Death-Cast (which also, natch, has a Web site) is always right, never makes mistakes, and exactly what it is and how it knows and where it gets the information and why it does all this is never even hinted at because, you know, this is an important book where the focus is “what would you do if you knew you only had one day to live?” Silvera apparently thinks that’s an original idea. But since it isn’t original, even in the slightest, Silvera has to conjure up things to make it seem original. So in addition to Death-Cast itself, there is the Last Friend app that Deckers (those who got the call) can use to connect with some random someone with whom to spend their last day, or however much of the 24 hours they actually get, which either Death-Cast doesn’t know or doesn’t bother to tell them, because, you see…well, just because. So this is the story of two Deckers named Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio who meet through the app and fall in love for the last time (it is apparently important to Silvera that the boys be gay/bisexual, although he never says why). The two teens are of course super-different but find they have a deeper connection somehow, not spiritually (there is nothing the slightest bit spiritual here) but in their inmost personalities, which have been damaged in different ways but which are ultimately similar because that is, like, you know, the human condition and all that. The one thing Silvera does well here, among all the ones he does badly, is to show the monumentally coincidental ways in which the things Mateo and Rufus do affect people they do not know and never will. For example, there is Deirdre, who “works at Make-a-Moment, where she’s charging Deckers for thrills and fake experiences, fake memories,” and who is about to jump to her own death when she sees the boys (whom she does not know) riding on a bicycle on the street below – so she “makes the right decision and lives.” Ah, yes, “this day has some miracles” – yes, Silvera actually writes that, putting the words in Mateo’s part of the multifaceted narration, specifically in the chapter where Mateo and Rufus go to Clint’s Graveyard, a place for Deckers where the woman welcoming people and checking their IDs says, “Sorry to lose you,” the same words the Death-Cast telemarketers use on their calls. Then there is Dalma Young, whose chapter, like many others, begins with, “Death-Cast did not call Dalma Young [or whoever] because she isn’t dying today.” Dalma is the creator of the Last Friend app and is “in town meeting with developers from both Twitter and Facebook,” which apparently have not yet snapped up this spectacular enhancement of life in a world where a shadowy unknown organization is fully aware of everybody’s death day. Anyway, Dalma sees two teen boys – Mateo and Rufus, of course – run past her, and that makes her contemplate what her own Last Message would be if (when?) she gets the Death-Cast call. You know, when you think about it, Romeo and Juliet could also have been titled They Both Die at the End. But Shakespeare’s work, unlike Silvera’s, has warmth, depth, style, meaning, sensitivity, and an understanding of the human condition.

     Silvera’s work barely squeaks into a (+++) rating by virtue of skillful writing and pacing and some clever use of its omnipresent coincidences. Laura Terry’s graphic novel, Graveyard Shakes, lacks the narrative intensity and writing quality of They Both Die at the End but is, all in all, a better book – albeit for preteens and young teens rather than for the older teenagers targeted by Silvera. Terry takes some of the tropes of ghost stories and boarding-school stories and kids-who-don’t-fit-in stories and weaves them together into an attractive mixture that hangs together better than might be expected from its uneasy mix of plot elements. The story is set at tony Bexley Academy, where home-schooled farm girls Victoria (the older, slim, organized, wants-to-fit-in one) and Katia (the younger, chunky, messy, doesn’t-care-what-anyone-thinks one) have been admitted on scholarship. Katia refers to the other students, all of whom are wealthy and stuck up, as “sparkly show ponies,” and makes up a song about them that she sings, loudly in the cafeteria, resulting in humiliation to Victoria, who has already been denigrated for wearing her favorite tasseled hat. But readers already know something is odd before this scene occurs, because there is a prologue in which Little Ghost, the ghost of a small boy, flies through the earth beneath a graveyard and encounters one of those traditional mad-scientist/magician types, a man named Nikola, who is keeping his son, Modie, alive by stealing lives from other children – one every 13 years. It is clear that these two unrelated stories will come together soon enough, and they do. Victoria tries out for soccer and it goes badly. Katia plays piano in a chamber-orchestra tryout for which Victoria has signed her up, and she turns out to be enormously talented; but the other kids will not accept her because of her appearance and mannerisms (“she does look pretty weird” and “you flop around like an angry squid when you play” are two of the comments). Katia storms out of the audition, tells Victoria she has no intention of fitting in, and ends up in a real storm – a snowstorm. And that leads to her being captured by the evil Nikola and his three ghost henchmen (the leader being actually and improbably named Hench), since it is now time to steal another child’s life to prevent Modie from “fading.” While none of the story makes a lick of sense, it is nicely managed by Terry and drawn in an attractive variety of styles and colors – deeper reds and ochres contrasting with blues to highlight the differences between moods and locations, for example. Victoria’s search for the missing Katia takes her to the graveyard, where she encounters Little Ghost and, after getting over her fright, joins forces with him to rescue Katia. Modie eventually becomes a ghost himself – as he has wanted to do for a long time, being stopped from passing on only by his fanatical father. Modie and Little Ghost end up interacting with a band that Katia forms (she plays a keyboard) as the living kids rehearse in the graveyard, with Victoria watching. Nikola departs to “try to make up for the terrible things I’ve done,” leaving Modie with Little Ghost and the living girls, and everything ends reasonably cheerfully. There is nothing deep, and nothing that tries to be deep, in Graveyard Shakes, but Terry does a nice job of gently raising issues of conformity (an issue for Little Ghost as well as for Victoria and Katia) and how one shows love (Nikola with Modie and Victoria with Katia are both misguided, albeit in different ways). The fact that the messages here are soft-pedaled rather than used as cudgels to insist on their importance is scarcely a flaw in this graphic novel – indeed, it is a big plus, allowing the book to come across as entertainment with some depth rather than as a hard-edged, self-important lecture on what is supposed to be meaningful in life.

(++++) THE RUSSIANS, THE AMERICANS, THE ENGLISH


Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2; Études-tableaux, Op. 33; arrangement of Kreisler: Liebesleid; arrangement of Franz Behr: Lachtäubchen, “Polka de W.R.” Boris Giltburg, piano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. Naxos. $12.99.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).

The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz: Programs 13 & 14; 15 & 16. Naxos DVDs. $22.99 each.

     The broadly emotive nature of the Russian repertoire during the tremendous upheaval of late czarist times and the Soviet years continues to give musicians extraordinary opportunities to produce evocative and deeply satisfying performances. Pianist Boris Giltburg rises to this challenge yet again with his latest foray into the field for Naxos. This time he offers a strongly virtuosic, deeply emotional and satisfyingly unmawkish approach to the familiar Piano Concerto No. 2, producing a reading that emphasizes the grandeur and intensity of the first movement, which is taken at a slightly slower tempo than usual, with the result that all three movements are almost the same length. This leads to a rendition that is more tightly knit and carefully structured than those that the concerto often receives – it is easy for the work to spiral out of control into overstated turbulence, but Giltburg will have none of this, insisting on the concerto’s structural integrity throughout and handling its formidable technical demands on the basis that they exist to elucidate the composer’s communicative desires rather than simply as virtuosic display. This is a very thoughtful approach to the concerto, one in which Carlos Miguel Prieto and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra provide solid if not particularly idiomatic backup – lusher strings and a broader, warmer brass section would better have matched Giltburg’s approach. Nevertheless, this is a very fine recording, and the CD gets even better when Giltburg performs on his own in the Études-tableaux, Op. 33. As in his previously released recording of the Études-tableaux, Op. 39, Giltburg approaches the eight Op. 33 pieces (the original No. 4 is lost) with sculptural elegance, shaping the music carefully: Nos. 1 and 8 here clearly show Rachmaninoff’s debt to Chopin, while the exceptionally difficult No. 6 shows why it is nicknamed “The Snow Storm” in Russia – Giltburg’s octave leaps and right-hand travel up and down the whole keyboard sound like nothing less than a blizzard. Two interesting encores complete this very attractive CD. One is Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Fritz Kreisler’s charming Liebesleid, reinterpreted by the Russian with some unusual harmonies, and the other is Rachmaninoff’s delightful version of Franz Behr’s Lachtäubchen (Scherzpolka), known as “Polka de W.R.” in a tribute to Rachmaninoff’s father, using the spelling Wassily Rachmaninoff to produce the letters of the title. The two short pieces make for a very effective contrast, the former gently sorrowful (the title is Liebesleid, “Love’s Sorrow,” not Liebeslied, “Love Song”) and the latter light and bright. Clearly Giltburg has considerable affinity for Rachmaninoff in all the composer’s moods.

     The appeal of Shostakovich to Manfred Honeck is somewhat more intellectual and rarefied. The first-rate playing of the Pittsburgh Symphony on a new Reference Recordings SACD of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is only part of the experience here. What makes the recording stand out is the opportunity not only to hear this now-familiar symphony but also to understand why a knowledgeable conductor handles it in his particular way. Honeck’s well-thought-out, scholarly booklet notes explain in considerable detail what he sees and hears in this symphony, what he thinks Shostakovich put into it, and what he believes the audience should take from it. It is up to readers/listeners to decide whether they agree or disagree with Honeck’s written and musical approach – for example, the first movement here is considerably stretched, to a greater extent than is the first movement of Giltburg’s Rachmaninoff concerto. Whether or not Honeck’s pacing works will depend on whether listeners find it a touch too deliberate or whether they see it as building tension effectively and exploring niches within the music with great care. Of course, Honeck argues that the effect is the latter, but the performance itself needs to be convincing whether or not listeners have read the conductor’s arguments. Similarly, Honeck’s remarks on the many ways in which he sees Mahler’s influence in this symphony may shed new light on Shostakovich’s thinking at this time – or may seem to be pushing an analytical point too far. Listeners need to hear how Honeck incorporates his thoughts on the Mahler/Shostakovich connection to decide how well this performance works. Similarly, Honeck’s assertion that the symphony’s third movement is its heart and is free of double meanings, while the finale is fraught with duplicity and sarcasm, is well-argued – but needs to convince listeners based on the music alone. This recording offers a rare chance to get inside the mind of a thoughtful and experienced conductor, understand what he is trying to evoke from specific music and why, and decide on one’s own whether his approach is intellectually correct and emotionally satisfying. It is a fascinating experience – and the top-notch playing of the orchestra certainly strengthens Honeck’s arguments. The Russian (actually Soviet) nature of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is paired rather oddly here with that of American composer Samuel Barber’s Adagio, the orchestral version of the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. This is a work that is straightforwardly sad (more so in orchestral than quartet guise) and has none of the odd balancing of forthrightness and ironic ambiguity found in the Shostakovich Fifth. Here Honeck argues, not entirely convincingly, that the text chosen by Barber for an a cappella version of the movement – the Agnus Dei from the Catholic Mass – was in Barber’s mind when he first composed the movement for string quartet. Again, though, Honeck’s thinking is worth considering, and the dramatic expressiveness of his performance is convincing in and of itself.

     Russian and American composers – and British ones, too – are represented in the two latest volumes of The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz on Naxos DVDs. These are the seventh and eight entries in a series in which Schwarz explores a variety of forms of musical communication with an orchestra whose members are drawn from the ranks of multiple U.S. ensembles – and who play efficiently, if not always passionately. These offerings are essentially a modernized update of the famous Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts that ran from 1958 to 1972. However, commentary in the Schwarz series is by composers, performers and various experts rather than – as in Bernstein’s material – by the conductor himself. And unlike Bernstein, Schwarz offers programs designed for listeners of all ages, not just young people – and, more intriguingly, sometimes mixes well-known works from the standard concert repertoire with new pieces that even people steeped in classical music may never have heard before. And all the pieces are performed complete. Bernstein’s programs reached across age lines by virtue of the strength of Bernstein’s personality and the excellence of his conducting. Schwarz is a lesser conductor and by no means a raconteur, but his shows reach across generational lines as well – because of the choice of music and form of commentary. The Schwarz shows are much better produced – they were done in HD with 19 cameras – although the extensive technical capabilities are not always fully utilized to explore elements of the music. The seventh DVD, including programs 13 and 14, has a strong Russian accent, including (as program 13) Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (in the familiar Ravel orchestration) and excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. There is interesting complementarity in program 14, which is devoted to a single work: Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. Given the fraught and difficult relationship between Russia and Sibelius’ Finland, this entire DVD can be said to cast light on Russian elements in music, although in Sibelius’ case, the nationalistic composer was primarily concerned with driving a wedge between Finland and its Russian occupiers. The orchestra plays all the music well, although the Sibelius is somewhat lacking in the broad grandeur with which the composer paints his very expansive canvas. All three works on this seventh DVD are well-known, but Schwarz returns to his periodic habit of mixing better-known and less-known music when it comes to the eighth All-Star Orchestra DVD. Program 15 is distinctly British, including Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – a piece that could more appropriately have led off the entire series of these performances, being an excellent jumping-off point into orchestral playing not only for young people but also for older ones unfamiliar with classical music. The orchestra gives spirited performances of both works and appears especially to enjoy the Britten, which, after all, is supposed to be enjoyable. Program 16 is the one on this DVD with less-known material, starting with American composer Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain.” The piece seems less forward-looking today than it did when created in 1955: it anticipated the spiritual and meditative music of several later composers, but now seems rather awkwardly put together, uncertain in its attempts to blend Eastern mysticism and Western symphonic structure. The more-interesting work in program 16 is the unpublished Jubilee Variations by British composer/conductor Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) – a piece to which 10 of Goossens’ friends contributed in somewhat the same way that multiple composers created parts of Liszt’s Hexameron, which Liszt then turned into a unified entirety. The Jubilee Variations are only nominally British music, since the composers represented are all American: Aaron Copland, Deems Taylor, Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Roy Harris, Anis Fuleihan (actually born in Cyprus), Bernard Rogers, Ernest Bloch (born in Switzerland), and Paul Creston. Unsurprisingly given their title, the Jubilee Variations are generally upbeat and bright, although some are colored by wartime worry and uncertainty (the work dates to 1944). It is the chance to hear this piece and the Hovhaness symphony that makes the eighth DVD in this series so intriguing; the seventh DVD, in contrast, is fine, but it is rather straightforward in repertoire and performances. The recordings of The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz remain excellent ways for people unfamiliar with classical music to learn about it in an enjoyable rather than strictly educational way. These DVDs are not as groundbreaking as the Bernstein concerts that are their musical and educational heritage, but they are uniformly well-produced, well-played and packed with commentary that can help make classical music as understandable and vibrant in the 21st century as Bernstein’s TV shows made it in the 20th.

September 07, 2017

(++++) DAY BY DAY, WEEK BY WEEK


2018 Calendars: Desk—Dilbert; The New Yorker. Andrews McMeel. $16.99 each.

     A funny thing happened on the way to the all-electronic life and the paperless office: they didn’t happen. Yes, when it comes to scheduling, it is now possible to do everything on computer and/or cell phone, but “possible” is a long way from “as easy as it can be” or even “desirable.” If you want a quick look at your week at a glance, or an overview of a month of plans and appointments, or even a detailed hour-by-hour plan of a specific day, and you want to take brief notes and keep them readily accessible within the day to which they relate and easy to glance back at later (or glance forward at if they are reminder notes for something coming up), there is still no substitute for the stay-flat, open-book desk planner. And the planners that include a dash of humor on every two-page spread have the added advantage of giving you something to smile about even if your list of duties, meetings, phone calls and requirements is on the dour side.

     However, two of the new Andrews McMeel desktop planners sport a design for 2018 that may give some users pause: the typical spiral binding is gone, and the Dilbert and The New Yorker planners simply have standard book-style binding – which makes it somewhat challenging to keep them open on a desktop or table top, especially near the beginning or end of the year, when there are many fewer pages on one side than on the other. Staying open starting in January is a somewhat simpler matter with The New Yorker if you use it only in 2018, since it is a 16-month planner (September 2017-December 2018); the Dilbert planner is only for 12 months. But the comparative ease or difficulty of keeping the planners open is not likely to be the determining factor in which one an individual prefers. Nor are the differences in right-hand-page design: Dilbert has lined spaces for each day of the week, with a single space for Saturday and Sunday, while The New Yorker has unlined spaces and treats all seven days of the week equally. The left-hand-page design is also unlikely to be a major reason for picking one of these planners or the other: The New Yorker has a small full-month calendar on each left-hand page, while Dilbert has both the current month and the next month on the left, and each of its full-month calendars is larger than the full-month ones in The New Yorker. Ultimately, though, these differences are simply matters of taste.

     So is the factor that will determine which of the planners you prefer: the cartoons. The Dilbert planner includes eight-panel Sunday cartoons for each week (albeit not in color), and of course every cartoon focuses on the absurdities and Kafkaesque requirements of the workplace, that being the stock-in-trade of Scott Adams’ strip. The New Yorker has single-panel cartoons covering a wider range of topics in the magazine’s signature style, which is sophisticated (if you like it) and pseudo-sophisticated (if you don’t). An office-focused cartoon from Dilbert, for example, has the boss demanding that employees “pretend to suggest good ideas,” while one from The New Yorker shows someone being burned at the stake in the middle of a set of cubicles as one worker explains to another, “He replied all.” But in The New Yorker, there also cartoons in which a display of fruit in a market is labeled “locally grown by a guy with a masters in philosophy,” and in which a SWAT team bursts into a cow-filled apartment and announces, “Police! Nobody moo!” The type of amusement that helps get you through an average week is the determinant, ultimately, in choosing which of these desk planners you find more congenial and will be more likely to enjoy having around for a full year (or a full 16 months if you start using The New Yorker immediately). With either planner, you get a well-made track-your-days book that makes it easy to see your week at a glance and look back (and ahead, to see what is coming up) without having to squint at a small screen or use software designs that do the job but are sometimes the opposite of intuitive. It is certainly true that electronic tracking of appointments, phone calls and all the rest works well for many people, and certainly someone who is frequently on the go and needs a readily portable way of staying in touch with appointments and meetings will do well with smartphone apps or a laptop computer. But if you have a central location in your everyday life – whether at home or in an office – and you do your planning and phone calls and at least some meetings there, then desktop planners such as Dilbert and The New Yorker still have advantages over anything electronic. And the cartoons should help keep the everyday stresses and frustrations of life in perspective – even as you chronicle and act upon them.

(++++) ISSUES OF SELF-IMAGE


The Bad Seed. By Jory John. Illustrations by Pete Oswald. Harper. $17.99.

Twindergarten. By Nikki Ehrlich. Illustrated by Zoey Abbott. Harper. $15.99.

I’m Smart! By Kate McMullan. Illustrations by Jim McMullan. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     A simple sunflower seed with a troubled past tries to move beyond his negative history in Jory John’s The Bad Seed, a book that manages to be entertaining while confronting some serious topics, including negative life events and the difficulty of getting away from them. A big reason it works is Pete Oswald’s handling of the watercolor/digital illustrations, beginning with his portrayal of the Bad Seed himself – shown shaped like a teardrop with huge eyes toward the bottom, a nearly perpetual scowl, and stick legs and arms. The Bad Seed narrates the book, explaining just how bad he is: always late, often untruthful, never washing his hands or feet, staring and glaring at everybody, telling “long jokes with no punch lines,” and more. Other seeds are suitably upset about all this, especially the ones waiting to use a portable toilet when the Bad Seed cuts in front of them. On several pages, the Bad Seed is shown in extreme close-up, with little visible except his scowl, apparently reveling in being “baaaaaaaaaaad.” But then comes a flashback in which the Bad Seed reveals his happy early family life on a sunflower – and the terror of being harvested and packed in a bag labeled “Fresh Sunflower Seeds, Delicious,” where he was left in the dark (he is barely visible in Oswald’s excellent picture). Then the bag is opened by “a giant” (a human at a baseball game) and the Bad Seed is dumped into the giant’s mouth. He is starting down the giant’s throat when he is “spit out at the last possible second,” landing on old gum beneath the bleachers and now having a decidedly bad, angry attitude. After that, things just went from bad to worse in his life, the Bad Seed explains – “until recently.” Now he is “ready to be happy” and wants to change his ways. And he is trying, even though it is difficult: he still shows up late and forgets to listen and does “all kinds of other bad stuff,” but he also does some good things: “Not always. But sometimes.” The fact that self-improvement is a process, a journey rather than a destination, is made clear at the end of the book, when another seed comments that the Bad Seed is “not all that bad anymore,” as the not-so-bad seed walks toward a big, bright burst of sunshine. This is a story that is fun but is also more instructive than picture books usually are, with a moral that is not neatly summarized at the end but that pervades the whole narrative. Kids (and adults) who are trying to do better and finding how difficult that is will discover in The Bad Seed a substantial level of understanding that may make their own journey easier – even if parts of it are still hard.

     The journey of Dax and Zoe is a physical one, and it does not seem to be all that long: they are simply going to kindergarten together. But Dax and Zoe are twins, and very close ones at that, “like peanut butter and jelly.” As a result, the start of school carries emotional and psychological weight that seems just as overwhelming to them as the journey away from badness does to the Bad Seed. The problem is that the twins have been assigned to separate classrooms, Dax to the Cool Cats and Zoe to the Awesome Alligators, and that makes both of them very nervous. Their parents (an interracial couple, in an unnecessary bow to political correctness that has nothing to do with the story) try to reassure them; but the night before school starts, Dax is super-upset and needs to push his bed closer to Zoe’s so she can hold his hand, which is “what she always did when she knew her brother was worried.” The worries turn out to be reversed once school actually starts: Dax adapts quickly and well, but as soon as he moves away from Zoe, she starts to feel worried and upset. So first-day-of-school jitters take on an extra dimension in Nikki Ehrlich’s Twindergarten – but Ehrlich and illustrator Zoey Abbott balance the worries with realistic elements of kindergarten, presented to show how Dax and Zoe handle things in different ways. Zoe meets a girl who has the same backpack, and that helps smooth her day; and Dax makes a new friend named Max, the two of them getting along as soon as they realize their names rhyme. The thing Ehrlich does so well here is to let the twins have differing experiences while showing that they still keep each other in mind. Dax works on something in the morning that he slips into Zoe’s pocket at the end of recess – the one time the two can again be “back together like peanut butter and jelly.” Zoe still feels a bit down in the afternoon, but when she looks at the paper that Dax put in her pocket, it turns out to be a drawing of a heart in which she and Dax are holding hands – and now she really does feel better about everything. And so does Dax, who peeks in from the classroom across the hall as Zoe unfolds the heart and smiles broadly. The colored-pencil illustrations lend warmth and charm to a story that ends as it began, with the twins happily together, having learned – as other kindergartners hopefully will, whether they are twins or not – that it is just fine to have fun both with and without someone super-special.

     A school-related story of a different, much more straightforward kind is I’m Smart! It is nothing but the tale of a school-bus ride. Hmm…but maybe not so straightforward after all, since the bus is the narrator. Kate and Jim McMullan have written a number of books about self-assertive machines – a garbage truck, a fire engine, and others – and this one fits right into the series. The McMullans’ vehicles all swagger and brag a bit, but always with such good humor that they do not come across unpleasantly. The school bus is especially proud of being “able to HALT TRAFFIC with the FLICK of a SWITCH,” and considers himself brainy because he not only gets kids to school but also has to keep them safe. His route is a simple one: two stops, one at the top of a hill and the other at the bottom, and then on to school. He takes readers along as he shows which lights he uses to warn traffic to slow down and which ones require everybody to stop “and don’t move till I quit flashing!” Kids of all sorts board the bus at the first stop, but at an intersection close to the second one, a silver car keeps going despite the bus’s red lights and warning that “you gotta STOP.” And sure enough, a police car zips out from behind a billboard and gives the silver car a ticket (like the school bus, the cars all have big eyes and, apparently, drive themselves). The road from the second stop to school is not quite smooth: there is construction holding things up, with a backhoe hard at work – the one used by the McMullans in I’m Dirty! What is the school bus to do to prevent the kids from getting anxious and antsy? This is where the bus’s brains come in: his impromptu questions about pets, birthdays and breakfast get the kids interested in listening and raising their hands instead of being fidgety about the delay from the closed lane ahead. And then the bus gets the go-ahead, gets everyone to school, and promises to wait for the kids to be dismissed so he can take them all safely home. The idea of vehicles taking pride in their work is an enjoyable one that the McMullans have turned into a pleasant series. True, there is nothing very challenging to read or see in I’m Smart! The school bus is, after all, more familiar to kids than, say, the Zamboni ice resurfacer in I’m Cool! Still, the combination of basic information and the bus’s no-nonsense attitude makes for a satisfying series entry that may help kids enjoy their daily school-bus rides just a little bit more.

(++++) THINKING PERIODICALLY


Periodic Table: The Definitive Visual Catalog of the Building Blocks of the Universe. By Sean Callery and Miranda Smith. Scholastic. $19.99.

     The periodic table is something of a marvel. First arranged by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, to provide an orderly display of the 62 elements known at that time, it has stood up with additions but no essential modifications as more and more naturally occurring elements have been discovered and synthetic ones have been created – 11 of those by a team led by 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry co-winner Glenn Seaborg and four others more recently. Now there are 118 named elements, and the periodic table – beautifully displayed over two very colorful pages in Periodic Table by Sean Callery and Miranda Smith – looks as if it is finally complete. It almost certainly is not: the same science that has produced elements that decay in milliseconds will likely produce more of them in the future, or some more-advanced science will. But for now, the table’s neat and apparently complete appearance makes Periodic Table an especially wonderful, exciting and often surprising guide to the building blocks of the universe and some scientifically created supplements to them.

     One wonderful aspect of Mendeleev’s design was its predictive value: the care of the elegant arrangement meant that the table had holes into which yet-undiscovered elements would theoretically fit once they were found. And sure enough, over time, new elements were discovered that did indeed fit where they were supposed to. The “elements yet to be discovered” notion is one highly amusing, umm, element of a Tom Lehrer song from 1959 in which the entertainer and Harvard math lecturer rapidly listed all the then-known elements (102 of them) to the tune of the Major-General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. At the very end, Lehrer sang that “there may be many others but they haven’t been discovered.” Or, as it turned out, manufactured.

     All the currently known elements, natural or created, are discussed accurately and often quite entertainingly in Periodic Table. For instance, a section on “the wild bunch” includes “fizzy, excitable elements” that “are always mixing with other elements to form compounds” – that is, elements such as hydrogen, potassium, sodium and magnesium. “Mighty metals” are distinguished because “if you heat and hit them, they can change shape without losing strength or falling apart” – these include iron, titanium, mercury, vanadium and others. Elements are discussed both in groups and individually. Cobalt, for example, “can be a show off, but is also sneaky,” because on the one hand it brings “rich, deep blue to pottery and glass” and on the other hand can be mixed with water to create invisible ink. The transuranic elements – heavier ones than uranium, which is the heaviest naturally occurring element – get brief mentions here that indicate just how little is known about them. For example, element 114, flerovium, is made “from a nuclear reaction between plutonium and calcium. Not enough flerovium has been made to measure its physical or chemical properties, but it is most likely to be a soft, dense metal that changes color when exposed to air.”

     There are some elements that are quite strange enough even though they occur in nature – including some that are quite dangerous, as explained on a page labeled “Poisonous Elements.” Here the authors discuss, among other things, the killing in 2006 of former Russian secret agent Alexander Livinenko: he “was murdered in London when his tea was poisoned with a high dose of polonium,” an element that “is found naturally in the human body because it exist [sic] at low levels in our environment, and it is present in the food chain.” Yes, there are some typos and some inelegant phrases in Periodic Table, but there is so much here that is fascinating that the book’s flaws are minor and quite easy to overlook. Page after page contains amazing material. For example, the authors write about element 67, holmium, that its name is “the Latin name for Stockholm, the city of this element’s discoverer. [Holmium] is not magnetic, but it boosts the magnetic field of other metals, making them more powerful. Added to yttrium iron garnets, it makes lasers for surgery.” That is the sort of fascinating real-world fact to be found everywhere in this book. Readers wanting basic details will certainly get them here: atomic number and weight, boiling and melting points, number of electrons, protons and neutrons, and more. Those seeking a journey of discovery will find that, too. Periodic Table is a book whose fascinations are so many that it can be dipped into again and again for new tidbits of information – or read section by section or page by page for material on a single specific element or group of them. Visually striking, filled with gorgeous photos and other images as well as packed with absorbing facts, the book is a feast not only for the eyes but also for the mind – a science book that can, and should, be read as much for fun as for finding out about the fundamentals of the universe.

(+++) CHINA CONNECTIONS


An Excess Male. By Maggie Shen King. Harper Voyager. $15.99.

Breath of Earth #2: Call of Fire. By Beth Cato. Harper Voyager. $14.99.

     China and its people loom large in these novels, one a near-future dystopia and the other a magic-infused alternative history. Dystopias are all the rage these days, probably because there is so much rage floating about, but Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male stands out for its setting: a China whose one-child policy and preference for boys over girls have had the inevitable effect of creating a population with substantially more men than women. There are unintended consequences, of course; that is what the novel is all about. With 40 million more men than women, “excess” males abound, one of them being fortysomething protagonist Lee Wei-guo. A master personal trainer – voted one of the top men in his field in Beijing five years in a row – Wei-guo leads his team in the Strategic Games, established by the government as an outlet for aggression. There are also government-sanctioned ways of obtaining pleasure, although homosexuality has been criminalized (along with mental illness). Although successful in his professional life, Wei-guo desperately wants the companionship of marriage, which is difficult and expensive for excess males to arrange despite society’s acceptance of polyandry (women are allowed, even encouraged, to take multiple husbands, the hope being that the extended families will breed more girls to correct the gender imbalance eventually). Wei-guo meets Wu May-ling through a matchmaker and immediately thinks that she and her family are the place for him. She already has two husbands, brothers Hann and Xiong-xin (known as XX), and a toddler son named BeiBei. May-ling is in love with Hann, but he is secretly gay, which is to say “willfully sterile” in a society where homosexuality is illegal. May-ling does not particularly want to be married to XX, or he to her, but that is how things are. King does a good job of providing some insight into the characters beyond their physical descriptions, by having chapters narrated by different people; nevertheless, the main things readers need to know about May-ling’s husbands are that Hann is big, brash and forthright, while XX is brilliant but shy and socially awkward. There is the inevitable uneasy mixture of personalities when Wei-guo is matched with this family; and then the story takes on a sinister air when a Strategic Games battle goes beyond the usual bounds in a deadly way. Or is what happens in the games not a comparatively harmless way to handle aggressive impulses? After all, the society is totalitarian, and its primary goal is to maintain order and stability… King’s book draws to somewhat too great a degree on prior dystopias, from 1984 to Ender’s Game, with a touch of The Handmaid’s Tale in gender reversal; as a result, many of its plot points seem familiar, even though the specific events are not necessarily predictable. But if the underlying exploration of love in an Orwellian society is scarcely new, the insight into ways people try to keep their emotional connections alive despite societal repression are explored with care and sensitivity.

     Beth Cato’s Call of Fire is a far more superficial novel, with few pretensions beyond that of the usual fantasy-genre entertainment. Here there is a Chinese connection both through the use of some aspects of China’s culture and through the way in which protagonist Ingrid Carmichael becomes horrified by the racism and segregation that Chinese people face from the Unified Pacific (UP) – a world-dominating alliance of America and Japan. Being female and of mixed race, Ingrid has her own personal experience of being marginalized, cast out and looked down on – not to mention the fact that she and her Japanese mentor, Mr. Sakaguchi, are on the run from the military and the powerful and ruthless Ambassador Blum, who in addition to his aspirations for world dominance by the UP is a shape-shifter. If this sounds rather mixed up and overly complicated, that is because it is rather mixed up and overly complicated. In her previous book, Breath of Earth, Cato imagined a world in which geomancers play a crucial role by absorbing earth energy and moving it into storage crystals that power cars, homes, flying cars and so forth. It is a geomantic failure – the geomancers’ base is destroyed, with Ingrid and Mr. Sakaguchi the only known survivors – that leads to the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which is caused by the unleashing of untamed energy. It is because of their survival that Ingrid and her mentor come under suspicion of doing dastardly deeds and are therefore on the run – specifically, aboard an airship belonging to Ingrid’s friend-and-mild-love-interest, Cy Jennings. (And speaking of China, Mr. Sakaguchi has a Chinese servant named Lee who is, guess what, concealing a secret.) Anyway, Ingrid and her compatriots head out of San Francisco toward Seattle, encountering mythical-but-real-in-this-series creatures such as thunderbirds and the Chinese qilin. They also have to deal with a fox spirit masquerading as one of the 12 directors of the UP. And then there is Theodore Roosevelt, here portrayed as an ambassador whom Ingrid has known since childhood – and an ally against Ambassador Blum. In the midst of all the helter-skelter activity, Ingrid is trying to learn more about her magical abilities and where they come from. It looks as if her father, whom she met at the end of Breath of Earth and who has more than a few screws loose, may be the son of none other than Pele, the volcano goddess of Hawaii. Over-complicated and overly concerned with tossing out multiple plot points so they can be followed up in future books, Call of Fire will be fun for readers who do not take Cato’s alternative-history world building too seriously and do not mind having characters and incidents appear willy-nilly out of the woodwork from time to time. This is clearly a “continuation” novel, using the world created in the previous book as background for one of those standard good-vs.-evil, escape-to-learn-about-yourself plots that recur in fantasy after fantasy. The Chinese cultural elements here (and a few from Japan) do lend the book a kind of exotic charm, but its basic structure is unsurprising, as is the way Cato leaves plenty of loose ends so she can explore things further in books still to come.

(+++) VOICES’ EXPRESSIONS


Franck: Mélodies (Songs); Organ Works. Amy Pfrimmer, soprano; Thomas Kientz, piano and organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Robert Hugill: Songs. Johnny Herford, baritone; Anna Huntley, mezzo-soprano; William Vann, piano; Rosalind Ventris, viola. Navona. $14.99.

Fleeting Realms: Music of Bruce Babcock, Joyce Wai-chung Tang, Nora Morrow, David Maki, Craig Madden Morris, and Joseph Summer. Navona. $14.99.

     The many ways in which composers use the human voice reflect not only the composers’ own predilections but also the time in which they work and the purpose to which they want to put vocalizations – emphasizing the lyrical and expressive, the dramatic and declamatory, or some mixture. César Franck wrote only a handful of songs, 18 in all, and 13 of them appear on a new MSR Classics CD, sung with fervor and emotion by Amy Pfrimmer and accompanied with a fine sense of the music’s nuances by Thomas Kientz. The arrangement of the songs on the disc, though, leaves something to be desired. Franck’s songs (called mélodies in France) use texts by Victor Hugo, Sully Prudhomme and other well-known authors, but the songs’ means of expression changed considerably during Franck’s compositional career. It may be overly facile to divide many composers’ music into “periods,” but the division is apt where Franck’s songs are concerned. The earlier songs are sentimental, lyrical, and often show the influence of Schubert, whom Franck greatly admired: Souvenance and Robin Gray, both dating to 1842-43, are examples on this disc. Later songs are less elaborate and tend to be charming and pretty rather than emotionally profound; examples here are S’il est un charmant gazon (1857), Roses et papillons (1860), and Passez! Passez toujours! (also 1860), all to words by Hugo. Still-later songs are more chromatic and harmonically complex, examples here being Le vase brisé (1879) and Nocturne (1884). Pfrimmer is sensitive to the varying moods and approaches of the songs, but the helter-skelter arrangement of the CD does these works and Franck’s song output as a whole no favor. A chronological approach, or at least groupings of the earlier, middle and later songs, would have served the music better – as is, there is no particular reason for the songs to appear in the order in which they are given, and the insight they provide into Franck’s music is therefore lessened, although the works’ individual charms are not. The CD concludes with two wonderful organ pieces – Franck was a highly respected organist and was much admired by the great organ builder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. It is a Cavaillé-Coll organ on which Kientz performs here, offering the extended Pastorale in E from Six Pièces (a work actually dedicated to Cavaillé-Coll) and the even lengthier Fantaisie in A from Trois Pièces. These are warm, heartfelt works written by someone fully in command of the tonal colors of Cavaillé-Coll organs, and they sound quite beautiful in Kientz’s interpretations. The CD as a whole is revelatory of Franck’s sound world and expressivity, and the chance to hear his little-known songs as well as two of his fine organ works is most welcome.

     Contemporary British composer Robert Hugill (born 1955) uses the voice quite differently from the way Franck employs it, as a new Navona disc shows clearly. The Hugill song cycles here all have clear roots in songs of Franck’s time and before, but their structure is designed to enhance the narrative quality of the words rather than, as in Franck, the underlying emotional expressiveness. No matter what words he sets, Hugill is concerned above all with the clarity of the narrative, even adapting the usual format of art song for narrative purposes – for instance, in the sudden near-disappearance of the sound of the piano at the end of the song “To His Love” in the grouping called Four Songs to Texts by Ivor Gurney. This and two other sequences are performed with considerable sensitivity by baritone Johnny Herford and pianist William Vann; those other two sets are Winter Journey, to words by Rowan Williams, and Four Songs to Texts by A.E. Housman. Also here is a single, separate Housman song, When Summer’s End Is Nighing. And then there is a highly interesting six-song sequence in which Hugill calls not only for voice and piano but also for viola (played by Rosalind Ventris): Quickening, to texts by Christina Rossetti. Here the voice is that of mezzo-soprano Anne Huntley, and the combination of her vocal range with the similar “mezzo” range of the viola gives these songs a sound very different from that of the others on the disc. These are the most unusual settings on the CD, the presence of the viola lending the words a pointedness and immediacy that set them apart from the expressiveness of the baritone-and-piano songs. The viola trills in “Bitter for Sweet,” for example, seem almost to introduce an additional voice – an effect emphasized when the viola turns to a legato passage with piano accompaniment. Many of Hugill’s settings are on the conventional side, notably because of the way they minimize the piano’s role, using the instrument purely supportively rather than in partnership with the vocals. This is in line with Hugill’s emphasis on the meaning of the texts he sets. But Quickening is something different: the words and their emotions still flow freely and clearly, but here the instrumental elements are not merely accompaniment – they are significant contributors to the overall sound and content, with the result that this cycle offers a more satisfying experience than the other music on the disc.

     Only two works on a Navona anthology CD called Fleeting Realms include voice: lengthy songs by Joseph Summer called They Bore Him Barefaced on the Bier and He Took Me by the Wrist. Both take an approach somewhat akin to Hugill’s in Quickening, going beyond the traditional song structure of solo voice and piano. They Bore Him Barefaced on the Bier uses soprano (Kathryn Guthrie), tenor (Neal Ferreira), and piano (SangYoung Kim); He Took Me by the Wrist – a very extended work, lasting more than 13 minutes – includes soprano (Guthrie), bass (David Salsbery Fry), and piano (Kim). The pieces overstay their welcome: the singing is in fairly standard contemporary style, with wide leaps, declamatory passages, hints of Sprechstimme, and a certain level of intentional screechiness. But the use of two voices with piano, rather than the more-typical single voice, gives the settings dramatic intensity and creates a sonic environment in which there are, in effect, three ranges, including that of the piano, which here participates to a considerable degree in the communication. Unfortunately, it is hard to make much sense of the Summer pieces in the context of this CD: the disc as a whole has no central compositional style, no specific emotional attitude, no clarity of musical or emotional communication. The works stand on their own but mix at best uneasily. Summer’s song settings are the last two items presented. The disc opens with the mostly upbeat Irrational Exuberance by Bruce Babcock, for alto saxophone (Doug Masek), cello (David Speltz), and piano (Louise Thomas). Next is Snowy Landscape  by Joyce Wai-chung Tang, for piano (Lucie Kaucká), violin (Vít Mužík), and cello (Jiří Fajkus); this offers scene-painting that is pleasant enough, if not particularly distinctive. Then there are two works by Nora Morrow: Dawn for flute (Arielle Burke), clarinet in A (Michael Norsworthy), bassoon (Daniel Beilman), and cello (Kinga Bacik), and Luca’s Dream for solo vibraphone (Matt Sharrock). The first of these is another modestly Impressionistic work; the second is primarily mild and quiet, using the bell-like tone of the instrument to paint a fairly monochromatic sound picture. What follows the Morrow pieces is a work called Five Impromptus for Two by David Maki, which is for piano four hands (Kaucká and Martin Smutný); the main sense here is one of disconnection of each movement from the others and, in the main, of each pianist from the other one – although there are some neat back-and-forth elements from time to time, notably in the third impromptu. Also here is Crosscurrents by Craig Madden Morris, a work for cello (Nan-Cheng Chen) and piano (Kelly Yu-Chieh Lin). Here too the instruments and their players spend most of their time at cross-purposes, and there is little use of the warmth and emotional depth of which the cello is capable. The disc as a whole is – well, there is no real “disc as a whole” here, since the pieces, their instrumentation, their character and their performers differ so greatly from each other. There is no connection among these works and little connection between them – taken as a group – and listeners. Individual works here may be more or less effective for individual listeners, but it is hard to envision a wide target audience for material that differs to so great an extent in mood, structure, length, instrumentation and approach.

August 31, 2017

(++++) MICE AND MORE


Superbat. By Matt Carr. Scholastic. $16.99.

Tea with Oliver. By Mika Song. Harper. $17.99.

     Bats look a lot like flying mice, but that is not the mouse connection in Matt Carr’s Superbat. The mice appear fairly late in the book – as Pat the bat tries to live up to the book’s title. Pat has trouble sleeping one day and decides to make himself a costume so he can be like his favorite comic-book superheroes. He manages to produce the costume on his mom’s sewing machine even though his wings keep getting in the way and the noise bothers bats who are trying to sleep – after all, it is the middle of the day. Anyway, Pat dons the costume and announces himself as Superbat when everyone wakes up that night. But his friends challenge him: what super powers does he have? Well, Pat says confidently, he has super hearing! But his friends point out that they do, too. Pat admits he cannot lift a car or shoot laser beams from his eyes, but he can fly! But of course all the other bats can fly as well. Aha! says Pat. He can find things in the dark by using echolocation! But the other bats laugh at him: “That’s nothing special. We can all do THAT!” Poor Pat – he decides he is not special after all, “just a normal bat in a silly outfit.” But wait! Someone is calling for help, and Pat hears the cry because of his super-sensitive hearing! It is a family of mice, trapped all the way on the other side of town by “a BIG bad cat.” To the rescue! Pat flies all the way to the scene of danger, flaps back and forth despite the cat’s attempts to catch or swat him, and finally scares the cat away. The mice are saved, and are tremendously grateful – and Pat’s friends, who have followed him across town and seen the rescue, declare that he does have a super power after all: courage. This is a funny and nicely paced story that incorporates a variety of facts about bats – several more of which Carr offers on the final page. And the broadly conceived and simply rendered cartoon illustrations do a great job of making Pat simultaneously silly and endearing. Even the cat, who looks on in puzzlement after running away from the strangely caped crusader, is fun to see and really not very threatening at all. Except, of course, to the mice.

     A mouse named Philbert has little fear of cats in Mika Song’s Tea with Oliver, because Oliver is a cat whose tastes seem to be the same as Philbert’s. Oliver, like Philbert, enjoys drinking tea and eating cookies, but he has no one to join him and is lonely. What an opportunity for Philbert – if only he weren’t “too shy to come out from under the couch.” Philbert tries to call out to Oliver from beneath the furniture, but Oliver does not hear him. So Philbert writes Oliver a letter asking if they can have tea together – but it is on a very small piece of paper that Oliver sweeps under the couch while cleaning up and singing about having “the lonesome apartment bluuues.” Undaunted, Philbert writes a second letter and launches it toward Oliver, using a slingshot made from a rubber band. But Oliver thinks the letter is a bug and starts scratching himself, and he misses this missive, too. Then a bunch of Oliver’s relatives show up to throw a party, and Philbert decides that if it is going to be a tea party, he will attend, too. No such luck! Philbert gets up his courage and carries a letter toward Oliver to ask if he can join the party, but as Oliver offers the other cats tea, things get chaotic: these cats just want to bounce and dance and make noise until – oh no! – one of them bangs into Oliver, whose teacups fly off the tray on which he is carrying them and break on the floor. “The party ends as quickly as it began,” but now Oliver does not even have teacups anymore, and as he cleans up the mess, he sheds a tear and says, “I’ll never have tea with anyone now.” But Philbert finally comes over and hands Oliver the letter, and after one more misunderstanding (Oliver first thinks the letter is a tissue, and blows his nose in it), Philbert reveals that he was able to save two teacups by putting a sofa pillow under them as they fell. “And the new friends sit down for a nice cup of tea.” And cookies. And the start of what is sure to be a beau-tea-ful friendship. The fact that Philbert is a mouse and Oliver is a cat is barely relevant to the story – all that matters here is that the two have tastes (specifically for tea and cookies) in common. That is a nice, subtle message for Tea with Oliver to deliver, and the pleasant tones of the ink-and-watercolor drawings make the book a sweetly relaxing one. Adults reading it to children may want to sip a cup of tea while doing so – and even offer a bit to the kids.

(++++) ANIMALS SWEET AND/OR SIMPLE


Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager. Random House. $17.99.

Clark the Shark and the Big Book Report. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $16.99.

Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur: School Days. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by John Nez. Harper. $16.99.

My Weird School: Class Pet Mess! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $16.99.

     Very simple stories told in very simple language can be just right for very young readers, their simplicity paving the way for much greater depth and complexity in later years of reading. Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True, for ages 3-7, is as simple as can be. This is Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s second story of the only unicorn who believes that little girls are real – and, of course, a little girl who believes in unicorns. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager in the same warm, fanciful style she used in the first book, in which pretty much everything is rounded and sweet and smiley, the second book actually brings girl and unicorn into the same place at the same time (after they apparently met only in dreams in the first story). The reason for the get-together is that it is raining and raining and raining in the land of unicorns, and since unicorns get their magic from the sun, from rainbows and from “the sparkle of believing,” the magic has just about faded away. Keeping it alive is Uni, thanks to his belief that little girls really do exist. In the little girl’s world, it is also raining – and at one point, girl and unicorn see lightning and hear thunder at exactly the same moment, and right then both have the same wish, and in the book’s best illustration, “Then everything went white and quiet.” The picture looks like a white-out, with girl and unicorn seen more or less in silhouette and tinges of color bleeding through – it is an exceptional scene. And right afterwards, girl and unicorn are together at last! And soon they are running and jumping and playing and helping all sorts of animals and, eventually, finding their way to a huge tree under which all the other unicorns are huddled unhappily. Realizing that Uni was right about little girls, all the unicorns erupt with joy and become, “once again, sparkly, strong, and magical.” And they wish the rain away, and the sun comes back, and everything is super-delightful and utterly happy. And there are two rainbows in the sky, not just one, which means the little girl can use one to go home and Uni can use the other to visit her world – a scene-setter for another book if there ever was one. Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True is super-easy to read and super-straightforward in plot, and its pervasive happiness is just the thing to encourage the youngest readers (and even pre-readers) to start discovering all the wonders that books can bring.

     Some books bring along their delights as part of a sequence specifically designed for early readers of all types, such as the “I Can Read!” series. Here too there are recognizable characters – usually ones whose longer adventures can be found in picture books for slightly older readers. Within the guided sequence, though, the tales are designed for ease of comprehension and simplicity of involvement. Big, bumbling, toothy-but-harmless Clark the Shark, for example, appears in a Level 1 book (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) suffering both from his typical overconfidence and from a case of stage fright. In Clark the Shark and the Big Book Report, Bruce Hale and Guy Francis have Clark hyper-eager to give his report on “The Frog Prince,” sure that he will do wonderfully well because “I know my book like the back of my flipper!” The other fish students are nervous about standing up in front of the class to give their reports, but not Clark, who successfully tries out a joke on his classmates at lunch and then gives his report to his family in the evening – with everything going beautifully. But as usual, things do not go well for Clark when the big moment of the actual report arrives: he has “a brain freeze” and forgets what he wants to say: “His mind was as empty as a seashell.” No big deal! His friends and teacher encourage him and tell him they know he can do it, and Clark finds that he can give the report after all, and everything ends happily. Clark’s misadventures are fun for very young readers specifically because Clark is the biggest and most fearsome-looking fish in his school but is really sweet and befuddled much of the time, and good-natured all the time.

     Even bigger than a shark, but portrayed as equally sweet, is the dinosaur introduced by Syd Hoff nearly 60 years ago in Danny and the Dinosaur (1958). Hoff (1912-2004) created the thoroughly unrealistic, ever-smiling dinosaur – who walks on his back legs but is shaped like the huge, long-necked plant eaters that walked on all fours – as a simple, charming companion for Danny, who meets the dinosaur in the museum. In Hoff’s book, the two have a day filled with small adventures, such as going to a baseball game and the zoo and playing hide-and-seek – and the well-meaning dinosaur takes Danny across a river and lets Danny and other children use him as a slide. Most of what Hoff created translates well to a new Level 1 book in which the dinosaur decides to follow Danny to school. Thanks to apt and sensitive writing by Bruce Hale and pictures in Hoff’s style by John Nez, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur: School Days will be enjoyable for young readers whose grandparents are likely the only people around them who might remember Hoff’s original. In the new story, the dinosaur behaves as expected, mixing easily with the children and teacher, cooperating in lessons, letting the kids learn math by measuring parts of his body, and joining Danny for an outdoor lunch at which the dinosaur munches leaves from a tree while Danny eats what he has brought from home in an old-fashioned lunchbox. The style of writing, the type of adventure and the form of illustration all have a pleasantly nostalgic feeling about them here. Everything is warm-hearted and thoroughly non-threatening.  And this simple story is one to which very young readers will be able to relate – although the classroom does not really look like the type usually used for kindergarten, which is about the right grade for Level 1 books, but more like one for kids in first or second grade.

     Of course, by the time they move beyond kindergarten, most kids will be reading more-complex books than those in Level 1 of the “I Can Read!” series, which actually contains five levels from “My First” to Level 4. A step beyond Level 1 are books such as My Weird School: Class Pet Mess! This is a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”), and again, what Dan Gutman and Jim Paillot offer here is right in line with what they provide in their longer, more-elaborate books for somewhat older readers.  The story here actually fits nicely into what might be called the ethos of My Weird School, because instead of getting a typical class pet such as a hamster or turtle, Mr. Cooper’s class votes to get a snake. It is a small, harmless hognose snake named Bob, and the reactions in class, as usual in other My Weird School books, are divided. Alexia, who narrates the book, considers Bob really cool, but Andrea finds the snake gross. Gutman includes some factual material on hognose snakes and weaves it nicely into the story: the snake “mostly eats live toads,” the teacher explains, and Alexia cannot wait to feed Bob – who takes his meal in “one big gulp,” so Alexia comments, “It wasn’t as disgusting as I hoped.” Several other kids bring their own, sometimes rather weird pets to school over the next few days, including  a ferret, a skunk, and finally Andrea’s poodle. But the dog leaps at Bob’s cage and barks loudly, and Bob collapses on his back and the whole class freaks out, thinking Bob has died of a heart attack. It is left to Mr. Cooper to remind the class that hognose snakes play dead when they are frightened – something he told them before, but a fact the class completely ignored. So all ends happily, especially for Alexia, who says Bob is “the best, coolest class pet in the world” because “Andrea HATES HIS GUTS.” My Weird School: Class Pet Mess! offers a more-elaborate story than kids would get in a Level 1 book, but not much more elaborate, so this and other Level 2 books are effective stepping stones toward the more-complex books that kids will increasingly be reading as they move through school. And of course, the Clark the Shark and My Weird School books are designed by their authors and illustrators to encourage young readers to familiarize themselves with the central characters and look for more of their adventures in longer, more-invoved books as kids’ reading abilities grow.