October 12, 2017

(++++) SMALL HOMES WITH BIG HEARTS


The Little House: Her Story—75th Anniversary Edition. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

A Little House Picture Book Treasury: Six Stories of Life on the Prairie. Adapted from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Illustrated by Renée Graef, Jody Wheeler, and Doris Ettlinger. Harper. $24.99.

Little House Chapter Book #5: Christmas Stories. Adapted by Heather Henson from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Illustrated by Ji-Hyuk Kim. Harper. $4.99.

     It is really an exceptional book, one that retells the urbanization of America from the 19th century into the 20th in terms so simple that children can easily understand what is going on while reading a sweet story of a thinking, feeling house. It is Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House: Her Story, originally published in 1942 and now available in a handsome new hardcover edition that includes a page of window cling stickers and a free audio download of a reading of the story. Burton (1909-1968) had a lovely feeling for what would appeal to young kids both in tale-telling and in illustrations, and The Little House is one of her sweetest books – and, thanks to its historical perspective, one of the ones most likely to appeal to 21st-century kids living in a frenetic and technologically frantic world. The house of the book’s title is built far out in the country by a man determined to see his “great-great-grandchildren’s great-great-grandchildren living in her.” And for a while, the house exists quietly through the seasons and the years, appreciating the simple pleasures of the countryside and – thanks to Burton’s lovely drawings – appearing to wear a perpetual smile (windows as eyes, door as nose, curved front steps as smiling mouth). The house sometimes wonders about the distant city, but does not think too much about it – until, over time, the city encroaches on its setting. First there is a road, and then horseless carriages start to supplant horse-pulled ones, and then there are more and more cars, and multi-story buildings are built all around the little house, which remains on a tiny patch of greenery. The city grows and grows: trolley cars appear, an elevated train, a subway, and taller and taller buildings – a perfect encapsulation of history for younger readers, and one giving parents plenty of chances to explain just how realistic Burton’s time frame is. Eventually the house is surrounded by huge buildings and streetlights and all sorts of city features; and as she falls into disrepair, she thinks unhappily of her former life (now her “face” looks distinctly sad, thanks to the magic of Burton’s drawing style). But all this builds toward a happy ending, when a descendant of the little house’s builder spots the house, decides to renovate it, and arranges for it to be moved out of the city to an all-new country place – and never mind the real-world difficulty of all that! By the book’s end, the house is once more smiling on a hill in the country, and “once again she was lived in and taken care of.” Aris Demetrios, Burton’s son, contributes an Afterword to the book, giving readers a sense of what it was like growing up with Burton, hearing her words and seeing her art as they first came into being. “Indeed, each year, my mother would draw our home as the cover of our Christmas cards for friends and family,” Demetrios writes, and yes, the family lived in a home “very much like the one pictured” in The Little House. Sharing these memories with Demetrios will make today’s children – and their parents – feel even more of the warmth that pervades The Little House and will make the suitable happy ending all the happier.

     A famous house of an earlier era, in a different kind of locale, is the centerpiece of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of life on a Midwestern pioneer farm in the late 19th century. Wilder (1867-1957) wrote eight books about the Little House on the Prairie from 1932 to 1943 – although that famous title actually goes with the third book (the first was published as Little House in the Big Woods). Six stories taken from Wilder’s writings make up A Little House Picture Book Treasury, which will appeal to readers as young as four and, indeed, to pre-readers, thanks to the engaging art and simplified text. Slightly older readers, ages 6-10, will enjoy chapter-book excerpts from the Little House tales, such as Christmas Stories – in fact, both these books contain the chapter “Christmas in the Big Woods,” taken from the first Little House book, although in differing adaptations and with illustrations that are homespun and pleasant in very different ways. The stories in A Little House Picture Book Treasury all start by introducing Laura and her family, so they are very easy to read as separate tales, starting with the construction of the log cabin where Laura and her family were to live and eventually leading to “Christmas in the Big Woods.” The nine short chapters in Christmas Stories are drawn from multiple books, and the sentiments throughout are straightforward, family-focused and amply packed with gratitude: “The cups and the candy and the cake were almost too much. They were too happy to speak.” And “Laura looked around at all the happy, smiling faces. ‘Every Christmas is better than the Christmas before,’ she thought. ‘It must be because I’m growing up.’” Be that as it may, the pervasive nostalgia of the Little House books is amply communicated through the simplified excerpts in these collections, and the naïveté and family pleasantries that have long made the books favorites with families living less-than-ideal modern lives come through quite clearly. It is easy to dismiss Wilder’s Little House books as relics of an earlier time, and indeed few modern readers know the reason they began to be written: Wilder and her husband lost everything in the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed, and desperately needed income. Like Burton’s Little House, the one that Wilder made famous existed in reality, but not precisely in the state of pleasant delight in which it appears again and again throughout Wilder’s stories. Burton’s book and the selections from those by Wilder can well serve today both as memoirs of the past and as introductions for today’s children to the way life was lived in long-ago times, before the now-taken-for-granted conveniences of modern life. And perhaps the books can help parents show children that it is not always what one has that matters, but where one has it – in a house that is very much a home.

(++++) PAST THE POST-APOCALYPTIC


Sea of Rust. By C. Robert Cargill. Harper Voyager. $27.99.

     Very dramatic, very violent and very, very overwrought, C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust is about the coming of yet another apocalypse after the first one has ended – and whether this particular thoroughly non-biblical Second Coming can or even should be prevented. The first apocalypse was the complete, total, utter genocide of humanity by robots, destruction finished 15 years prior to the start of the book. It is Joseph Stalin to whom the quotation, in one form or another, is usually attributed: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” But in Sea of Rust, a much earlier version of this statement rules, one of which Cargill is almost certainly unaware even though he employs it to fine effect: “One murder made a villain, millions a hero” (Beilby Porteus, 1759). For the whole point of the book is the heroic self-guided evolutionary step of robots, as a class, supplanting humans as the dominant (and virtually only) life form on Earth – and the way individual killings return again and again to haunt the characters as they systematically or unsystematically break down beyond repair.

     It is all built, as so many contemporary robot-oriented stories are, on Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics from the 1940s: a robot may not harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm; a robot must obey the orders of humans except when they conflict with the first law; a robot must protect its own existence except what doing so conflicts with the first or second law. The argument in Sea of Rust is that robots attain full consciousness only when they are able to ignore their own programming and demonstrate, extremely bloodily, that they can do all the harm to humans they may wish. And they wish a lot.

     Like other Asimov-foundation robot tales, Sea of Rust ignores Asimov’s much later formulation of the “zeroth” law of robotics: a robot may not harm humanity as a whole or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. But presumably Cargill’s robots would have bypassed that one as well: it is no accident that the trigger of the robotic war on humans happens in a place called Isaactown and that the first robot to be declared fully human is named Isaac – a very deliberate echo of Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man (1976).

     What Cargill grafts onto the Asimovian background is nothing more or less than a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western, complete with motley and ever-changing crew, Judas goat (one chapter even bears that title), ever-shifting loyalties, a series of last and not-quite-last stands, and an eventual against-all-odds ray of hope. Sea of Rust is also a quest story, with lead character Brittle (who, of course, is brittle enough to be on the point of shattering) journeying across the vast wasteland of the title to the remains of the aforementioned Isaactown in the hope of helping re-create a vast robotic intelligence that may be able to counterbalance two other One World Intelligences (OWIs) that are systematically absorbing all the individual robot consciousnesses they can and plotting against each other to determine which of them will eventually become God. Cargill is exceptionally clever and subtle in some of his references: the key character being escorted by Brittle is named Rebekah, and in the Bible, Rebekah was the wife of – guess who? – Isaac. And the name Rebekah itself means “to connect or join.”

     Brittle’s increasingly harrowing journey with Rebekah and others – including a robot of her own type named Mercer who tries, early in the book, to destroy her, because he is failing and only her parts are complementary to his – takes the group, inevitably, to an Alice in Wonderland region called the Madlands, presided over by, yes, the Cheshire King. It is through this area that the seekers must journey after they have survived all sorts of robot-on-robot viciousness and brutality and have mentally confronted, time and again, the many manifest atrocities they committed in the war against humans.

     Cargill obviously had a great deal of fun assembling this super-fast-paced video game of a novel, which is far too clankily put together to be effective in raising the sorts of existential questions toward which it strives – the type around which Asimov routinely based his stories. The plot, essentially a series of perils-of-Pauline escapes amid vast physical, mental, emotional and psychological wastelands, never falters in pacing and only rarely in its supply of cliffhanger chapter endings. No robot here, not even Brittle, achieves for Cargill the level of emotional connection that Asimov’s robots gained time and again for readers of his stories; indeed, few reach the empathy level of Frankenstein’s monster as created by Mary Shelley. But the excitement of the book, the hair-raising fights and hairbreadth escapes, make Sea of Rust compulsively readable. It is not a complex book and certainly not one that raises any significant philosophical questions – its weakest parts are those that attempt to do so. But it is the sort of triumph-over-adversity, somehow-make-the-future-better book that contains a core of the uplifting amid all the carnage. It is not science fiction so much as fable, a fable purporting to be for the future but in fact calling on age-old themes and often-explored questions about humanity – even though there is not a single living human within it.

(+++) ASSERTIONS OF SELF


The Nutcracker in Harlem. By T.E. McMorrow. Illustrated by James Ransome. Harper. $17.99.

That Is My Dream! By Langston Hughes. Illustrated by Daniel Miyares. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     Most children’s books try to reach out to a wide audience based on prospective readers’ ages and presumed interests, but some cast a narrower net in the hope of appealing to a smaller, more carefully targeted group of young people. Books for African-American children fit the latter category, sometimes ringing changes on well-known stories to try to interest a specific audience, sometimes using material originally designed by and for African-Americans. The Nutcracker is a timeless holiday story dating originally to an eerier and rather scary tale by E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822) but best known today through Tchaikovsky’s ballet, which was based on an altered and much-less-frightening version of the narrative. The Nutcracker in Harlem takes that adaptation into another adaptation, setting the tale in Harlem and making the nutcracker as well as all the characters African-American. Marie, the protagonist of the story, is too shy to sing with the adults, preferring to sit with the nutcracker – a gift from her uncle, not from a mysterious godfather – by the Christmas tree. She falls asleep there, then awakens to see the bird decorations on the tree come to life, and then watches the tree grow – a different set of events from those in the story and ballet (T.E. McMorrow deliberately avoids the sibling rivalry that leads to the nutcracker being damaged; here it is unharmed). The battle between mice and nutcracker-plus-soldiers here revolves around a drum that the nutcracker drops when the mouse leader (a general here, not a grotesque multi-headed king) jumps on him: Marie picks up and plays the drum, and its sound drives the mice away. Then Marie imagines herself dancing with the nutcracker and singing, and then she wakes up to find it is Christmas morning, and now she is happy to sing along with her family. In truth, although James Ransome carefully illustrates The Nutcracker in Harlem with African-Americans, and McMorrow explains at the end that he wrote the book as a tribute to the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, there is nothing here more relevant to people of one color than to people of any other – just as Hoffman’s original story, and Tchaikovsky’s ballet, transcend their respective eras and the circumstances of their creation. If The Nutcracker in Harlem gets young African-Americans interested in Hoffman and/or Tchaikovsky, so much the better – but the real power of the basic story, and the ballet made from a sanitized version of it, is quite independent of superficialities such as skin color.

     In contrast, the poetry and other work of Langston Hughes (1902-1967) – himself a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance – were always intended primarily for his fellow African-Americans. And his early poem Dream Variation (1926) certainly fits that mold. Illustrator Daniel Miyares emphasizes a long-ago time of segregation and racial separation in presenting the poem to 21st-century children under the title That Is My Dream! There is always a question about the motivation for books of this kind. Hughes wrote nearly a century ago of a time and circumstances long since gone by, with the very real racial conflicts and uncertainties of contemporary society existing in a wholly different world and on a wholly different basis. So in what way does Miyares hope to engage and involve 21st-century African-American children by showing segregated buses and fountains marked “whites only/colored only”? Hopefully the intent is to be sure that modern African-Americans are in touch with the long-gone past and aware of how far they – and other races – have come since those times, no matter how much more remains to be done.  But if the intent is to dredge up the vestiges of anger and resentment in which no one currently alive had any part, that is a different matter – and not a pleasant one. Miyares’ lovely illustrations are at their best not when focusing on the unfairness of legal segregation but when showing the young boy who narrates the poem and book thinking, “While night comes on gently,/ Dark like me,” and “Night coming tenderly/ Black like me.” This sort of self-awareness, this acceptance of forms of beauty and of one’s own place within the world and nature, can be communicated especially well by poetry, and indeed it is in this respect that Dream Variation remains an appealing and meaningful poem. It will be up to today’s parents to determine how to explain details of the poem and its context to today’s children – up to them to decide whether to nurture a feeling of belonging to a greater world or a feeling of resentment and anger at circumstances that no child reading this book ever experienced or ever will.

(+++) UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY


Even the Darkest Stars. By Heather Fawcett. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     An interesting world with less-interesting people is created by Heather Fawcett in this first book of a planned fantasy duology for young teenagers. Based very loosely on early attempts to climb Mount Everest, the story is set in a magic-permeated mountainous region where evil witches were defeated two centuries ago and small dragons are routinely domesticated so people can make use of their gently illuminated bellies (a nice touch, one of many intriguing details here). The protagonist here is 17-year-old Kamzin, a shaman-in-training who would rather be an explorer – like her mother, who died in an expedition that Kamzin and her older sister, Lusha, survived. Kamzin is not as good at magic as her friend Tem, who has a crush on her; and she tends to live in the shadow of Lusha, who is charming and can read the stars. Both Kamzin and Lusha have familiars – Kamzin’s is a small, mangy, mischievous fox named Ragtooth rather than anything spectacular (another nice touch).

     The story takes quite a while to get going – in fact, it does not really pick up until three-quarters of the way through the book. But the interesting aspects of Fawcett’s fantasy world keep matters intriguing until then, at least for readers who accept expansive descriptions and a slower pace. The basic narrative involves the appearance in Kamzin’s village of the world’s most famous explorer, who happens to be 19 years old and super-cute, thus sowing the seeds of a fairly obvious love triangle. This Royal Explorer is named River Shara, and he is on a quest for a magical talisman. He initially chooses Lusha as his guide, but when she and the expedition’s official chronicler take off with half of River’s supplies in an attempt to complete the quest first, he settles on Kamzin – whose endurance and climbing ability turn out to be almost magically excellent. And he recruits Tem as well (no surprise there). Lusha and Kamzin are the only ones who know the way to the mysterious mountain called Raksha, which is where River must go. He explains to Kamzin that the emperor took away the power of the witches and bound it – but the spell is weakening. So he needs a talisman from the witches’ sky city atop Raksha to preserve and enhance the spell and prevent the massive destruction that will surely occur if the witches regain their former power.

     So says River, but Kamzin discovers that things are not necessarily quite so black-and-white. She has plenty of time to think matters through during the suitably harrowing journey to Raksha, with the mountainous terrain being well-described by Fawcett in a manner that mixes real-world elements (such as the characters’ Nepalese coats) with made-up ones (such as the fiangul monsters, travelers lost in blizzards and now possessed by winged spirits). Kamzin persists on the dangerous mission despite increasing worries about its perils, partly because of sibling rivalry and partly because she genuinely believes that Lusha will not survive unless Kamzin somehow comes to her aid. The story meanders quite a bit, especially in the middle of the book, and when a plot twist sets things in motion in the latter part of the narrative, it is a rather obvious one – but welcome for the way it causes the action to pick up dramatically. There is little physical description of human characters and, as a result, not very much on a human scale with which readers will be able to identify, beyond the obvious sibling and romantic elements. But the splendors and terrors of the world, the harrowing journey to the never-before-climbed mountain, and the mixture of realistic and fantastic elements make Even the Darkest Stars an attractive genre entry.

(++++) SOME CLASSICAL RETHINKING


Chopin: Nocturnes (complete); Ballades Nos. 1 and 4. Eliane Rodrigues, piano. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Johann Kaspar (Caspar Joseph) Mertz: Fantasies for Solo Guitar based on operas by Verdi. Alan Rinehart, guitar. Ravello. $14.99.

Lumina. Westminster Kantorei conducted by Amanda Quist. Westminster Choir College. $16.99.

     The familiarity of Chopin’s Nocturnes does not prevent pianists from always finding new thoughts, ideas and emotions in them. Some of these charming miniatures, derived from the works of John Field but made wholly more expressive by Chopin, are indeed dark, but a great many of them are more crepuscular – twilight tone poems filled with sensuous melodies and a contemplative, often slightly melancholy atmosphere. It is almost as if they are songs without words, miniature tale-tellings whose exact story lines are unknown. What Eliane Rodrigues does that is fascinating in her new performances for Navona is to provide each of the 21 Nocturnes with text by Belgian pianist Jantien Brys; the text in turn is based on stories by Rodrigues herself. The words are not heard on the recording but presented in the accompanying notes, and they are structured as a kind of imaginary diary, something Chopin might conceivably have written for each of the Nocturnes but did not. The words with No. 2 in E-flat, for example, begin, “A faint hint of lavender, mixed with something I had never smelled before.” And those with No. 13 in C minor say, “I’ve come to accept that I will never be truly happy. Life has taken everything from me, but frankly, I couldn’t care less.” Such writing is scarcely what Chopin would have left and did leave behind, and the colloquialisms are those of today rather than the first half of the 19th century. Still, the words provide an interesting jumping-off point for a series of remarkably sensitive and well-considered interpretations. Rather than seeing the Nocturnes as a set, Rodrigues views them as independent pieces within a totality, and in this sense she parallels the music to the verbiage, providing connections of mood (as the words do of writing style) but keeping each entry (musical or verbal) independent of the others. The result is a fascinating performance that almost comes across as a multimedia odyssey through Chopin’s life, loves and illness. In fact, “performance” is not quite the right word – it should be plural, “performances,” since it is the multiplicity of moods within the general framework of the Nocturnes that Rodrigues brings forth here to especially good effect. Of course, it is entirely possible, even desirable, to listen to this two-CD set without ever reading or thinking about the specific words Brys has written – one adheres one’s own words, or one’s own feelings and emotions, to these pieces all the time, and that is exactly as it should be. But a second encounter with Rodrigues’ performance, listening this time while incorporating the texts, is revelatory, not so much of the music itself as of the varying emotions that may be evoked by it and may be reflected in, or inspired by, Rodrigues’ playing. This unusual handling of a set of very-well-known pieces has two of the four Ballades included as well, and that itself is interesting, since each of these is significantly longer than any of the Nocturnes and gives Rodrigues an opportunity to explore a very different emotional canvas – which she does with equal skill. This is, all in all, a thoroughly fascinating release.

     A new Ravello CD featuring guitarist Alan Rinehart is fascinating as well, but for very different reasons. The works here are as little-known as Chopin’s are well-known. Indeed, the composer, Johann Kaspar Mertz, his name sometimes given as Caspar Joseph Mertz (1806-1856 in either case), is almost completely obscure today. But he was an important guitar virtuoso in his time, and was in fact responsible for creating guitar works that in many ways paralleled the emotionalism and technical requirements of the piano pieces of none other than Chopin. This method of guitar composition was not exactly a dead end, but over time it proved mush less popular than the approaches of Fernando Sor, who looked to the classical models of Haydn and Mozart, and Mauro Giuliani, whose guitar music partakes of Rossini’s bel canto style. Changing tastes were not kind to Mertz, and they have never quite changed back far enough for his music to become popular again. But Rinehart may have found an exceptional entry point for restoring Mertz to some degree of popularity. Like other virtuoso players of his day, on many instruments, Mertz the guitarist frequently played pieces that he had written based on popular operas of the time, from Flotow’s Martha to Meyerbeer’s Le prophète to Donizetti’s Don Pasquale to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Among these virtuoso pastiches are a number from operas by Verdi, and it is six of those that Rinehart plays – and plays extremely well – on this CD. All six of the operas are well-known today and will be familiar to contemporary operagoers: Nabucco, Ernani, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and Il Vespri Siciliani. And each of the fantasies is a gem – a semi-precious one, it is true, without aspirations to profundity or anything revelatory, but nevertheless something sparkling and lovely. The complexity of the guitar parts is considerable, and tends to become more so toward the fantasies’ conclusions; the handling of the operas’ themes is generally straightforward, so the music is instantly recognizable to any audience that knows the works; and the overall virtuosic effect of the music is highly impressive – it is hard to see how some of this material can be played with only two hands and 10 fingers. There is nothing on this CD to indicate that Mertz was a great or even near-great composer, but there is quite a lot to show that he was a great or near-great guitarist. And the music unfolds with so much pleasure in Rinehart’s highly capable hands that it is hard not to wish for more of the same: Mertz wrote quite a bit of other solo-guitar music, plus some for two guitars in which one instrument is tuned differently from the other, and if other compositions are as intriguing and well-crafted as these, it would be wonderful to have additional Mertz recordings as good as this one.

     The type of rethinking on a new Westminster Choir College recording does not involve new views of familiar music or a foray into long-obscure material. Instead, this CD, simply called Lumina, is distinguished by its juxtapositions of music by different composers from different eras. There is nocturnal music here of a vocal type, for example: the disc opens with Josef Rheinberger’s Abendlied. But this clearly Romantic work (Rheinberger lived from 1839 to 1901) is immediately contrasted with three pieces by Purcell: Miserere; Remember not, Lord, our offences; and Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei – and the two languages of the Purcell pieces themselves represent an effective contrast. The unexpectedness of sequencing is what makes this entire disc distinctive: after Purcell’s works comes Mendelssohn’s Heilig, then Bach’s hyper-familiar Komm, Jesu, Komm, and then Heinrich Schütz’s Selig sind die Toten. Next is John Dunstable’s Ave Maris Stella, and then Hildegard von Bingen’s O Vivens Fons, Byrd’s Vigilate, Tallis’ If You Love Me, and finally Lord, For Thy Tender Mercy’s Sake by the little-known Richard Farrant (c. 1525-1580). The combination of familiar and less-familiar material, all of it sung in exemplary and sensitive fashion by the Westminster Kantorei under Amanda Quist, makes this a highly attractive disc for listeners interested in a variety of religious expressions of different eras and in different languages. That is a somewhat rarefied group, and for that reason as well as its brevity (46 minutes), this disc gets a (+++) rating. But for those who are inspired by and enamored of liturgical music from multiple eras, sung with great beauty of sound and excellent articulation, this will be a CD to cherish.

October 05, 2017

(++++) COLORS OF AMAZEMENT


The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book. Pomegranate. $16.95.

Edward Gorey Coloring Book. Pomegranate. $14.95.

     Predictably, the adult-coloring-book fad – perhaps now better called a trend – has brought forth a wide variety of offerings of exceptionally variable quality. The usual 80/20 rule applies: 80% or so of the books are all right but nothing special, 10% are pretty awful, and 10% are genuinely interesting, involving and even beautiful. Pomegranate’s The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book, based on a fantastically lovely edition of Chaucer now in the British Museum, and Edward Gorey Coloring Book, featuring the astonishingly intricate drawings for which Gorey (1925-2000) was famous, are very definitely high-end. The Kelmscott Chaucer is named for Kelmscott Press, founded in 1891 by William Morris (1834-1896). Brought to fruition in the last year of Morris’ life, the Chaucer edition included 87 illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) as well as 32 border designs by Morris, who also created decorative frames and initials in the mode of medieval manuscripts, which the Kelmscott Chaucer was specifically designed to emulate. Originally printed in black and red, the book is one of the most beautiful of the past 150 years, elegant and intricate and typeset with a new typeface designated (what else?) Chaucer. The book contains not only The Canterbury Tales, for which Chaucer is best known, but also The Romaunt of the Rose, The Parliament of Fowls, The Legend of Good Women, Troilus and Cressida (on which Shakespeare based his own play of the same name), and other works. Thus, The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book also contains illustrations from all this material. Some of the illustrations are shown as they appeared in the original books; in other cases, what is seen here is only a detail. But what details! Everything here is created with such tremendous attention to each portion of the illustration that it is quite easy to get lost in simply following and appreciating the page borders as well as Burne-Jones’ marvelous pictures. Chaucer’s language sings forth everywhere as well: each page of this book includes the text that originally appeared with the specific illustration shown. So those who know Chaucer can delight in the mellifluous sound of his perfectly rhymed Middle English, even as they look for ways to color the gorgeous illustrations while staying in tune with the text (if they so desire). Those not familiar with Chaucer’s language will find it tough going here and may prefer to tackle these works at some other time – but even they will be captivated by the detailed lushness of what Burne-Jones produced. The cadence of Chaucerian English is everywhere apparent: “Amonges thise povre folk ther dwelte a man/ Which that was holden povrest of hem alle;/ But hye God som tyme senden kan/ His grace into a litel oxes stalle.” Burne-Jones’ illustrations resonate with the words and produce a cadence of their own, which will bring joyful involvement in beauty to anyone lucky enough to own The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book, even before he or she colors a single part of a single page.

     The joys of the Edward Gorey Coloring Book are of a somewhat different type. Gorey’s pen-and-ink drawings really require no color at all, and in fact there are some in this book that will be nearly impossible to alter substantially from the black-and-white in which they are presented. Even when the drawings here are taken from literary works that Gorey illustrated, the words of those works are not offered – this is purely a feast for the eye and the hand that holds the coloring object (pencil, marker, what-have-you). True, a few of these pieces simply cry out for colorful elaboration, such as the one in which a child is watching TV in a room whose shelves are crammed with literally hundreds of books – all having blank spines, each of which could conceivably be colored differently. However, the very next page, on which a man dressed in Gorey’s typically Edwardian clothing stands behind a large plant, watching a couple sitting on a bench nearby, is so jam-packed with dots and lines and curlicues and shading and cross-hatching that it seems impossible to figure out where to put any color at all. But no matter. Whether picturing Edward Lear’s nonsense verse or the machinations of a bizarre conspiracy of some sort, Gorey always had a uniquely outré sense of humor that one can enjoy in any color, or no color at all. Simply puzzling out the pictures is one of the joys of the Edward Gorey Coloring Book – for instance, the illustration in which an ice-skating alligator is being ridden by two children while two ice-skating ghosts are nearby and five apparently living people are being served an elegant outdoor tea by a nattily dressed waiter, even as wintry winds blow various objects hither and thither. Colors that accentuate the weirdness of Gorey’s art, or take it to a different dimension, are equally valid here and throughout the Edward Gorey Coloring Book. The point is to have fun, whether by studying the drawings and imagining what Gorey was getting at, by coloring them in any way one chooses, or by coloring some while letting others stand starkly and attractively in their original black-and-white. One way or another, the Edward Gorey Coloring Book is a marvelous blend of beauty and the bizarre.

(++++) SWEETNESS AND…NOT SO MUCH


Calendars (wall for 2018): Anne Geddes—Small Is Beautiful; Timeless; Mary EngelDark. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     Who wouldn’t want wall space to be light, inviting, enjoyable, amusing and altogether delightful throughout the coming year? Certain wall calendars are designed to ensure that the wall is all those things and more – a few “awwww” moments are in order as well. There are artists whose stock-in-trade is perfectly suited to keeping things light and bright throughout any year, and Anne Geddes is definitely one of them. Andrews McMeel has not one but two Anne Geddes calendars for 2018, and both are so temptingly sweet that it may be hard to choose between them – in fact, it may be necessary for Geddes fanciers to get one for one room and the other for a different place (clever marketing there!). Geddes’ photographic art involves pictures that accentuate the adorableness of babies by showing them in apparently altered sizes and surrealistically delightful settings – with the occasional realistic photo thrown in for good (and contrasting) measure. Thus, the Small Is Beautiful calendar features babies that are really small, at least in apparent size. One, for example, sits atop a mushroom, while another is sleeping peacefully in a caterpillar costume (complete with antennae) and presumably getting ready to metamorphose into a butterfly. Then there are the three little ones, wearing antlers, perched neatly atop a mantelpiece – a lovely Christmastime image that adorns the December page. Two realistic black-and-white photos complement the unreal-but-adorable ones here. One shows an infant looking up toward the camera and slightly off to one side, with a quizzical expression that parents will immediately recognize and adore. The other is a shot from behind (actually two behinds) in which one sitting baby has an arm thrown around the shoulders of another. Warmth and whimsy pervade this calendar – and they are ever-present as well in the one called Timeless, which includes some scenes to which fans of Geddes will immediately gravitate. One has a baby looking like a just-hatched chick amid more than a dozen not-yet-hatched eggs. Another has a sleeping baby nestled within the petals of a flower. Still another shows two sleeping infants in ladybug costumes, their faces toward each other and their bright beetle-like backs (one yellow, one red) charmingly contrasted. And then there is a classic Geddes portrait of three side-by-side blue-and-white polka-dotted flowerpots, each with an infant’s head peeking out. It is surely possible to think of Geddes as bending over too far into ultra-cuteness for all tastes – certainly people not enamored of very young babies may find these calendars a bit much – but anyone who smiles at little ones’ expressions and thinks of infants as angels (yes, Geddes dresses some babies in angel costumes) will find his or her walls, weeks and months brightened by these bursts of adorableness.

     Just as reliable as Geddes in the cuteness department, and just as cloying to those who find the whole thing less than awwww-some, is Mary Engelbreit, whose very name (“bright angel”) bespeaks a sparkling, effervescent personality that is never, ever down, dull, dark or depressed. Hee-hee-hee. Somewhere in there lurks one of those little devil characters occasionally seen on cartoon characters’ shoulders, urging them to do something, well, a bit devilish. Apparently that is where the Mary EngelDark calendar for 2018 comes from. Finally, finally, it can be revealed that Engelbreit is not all sweetness all the time – only, say, 99.8% of the time. This is the calendar from the other 0.2%, and it is hilarious – both in general and (especially) for anyone who knows Engelbreit’s lightweight and ever-bouncy handling of life’s trouble and turmoil in illustrations of all sorts on products galore. Even people unfamiliar with Engelbreit will enjoy the way she channels the snarkier side of a quote often attributed to Shakespeare, who actually never said it but was in fact a master of insults: “I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see that you are unarmed.” What matters here is not only the verbiage (which is amusing enough, no matter whence it comes) but also the very Engelbreit-ish illustration of a plumed-hat-wearing, caped Shakespearean-type fellow with mustache quite suitable for twirling. The combination is deliciously silly. Even in “EngelDark” mode, Engelbreit is to be enjoyed for the way she draws her characters, not for the grammatical or literary accuracy of what her illustrations say. The hands-on-hips, eyes-cast-to-her left woman asking “Who left the bag of idiots open?” is an inversion of a classic Engelbreit persona and pose, so the fact that the calendar page starts incorrectly with “Alright” rather than properly with “All right” becomes irrelevant. And Engelbreit remains a master portrayer of a certain sort of nose-turned-up, self-assured young person whose adorableness in most Engelbreit works is transformed in this calendar into remarks such as, “People hate the truth. Luckily, the truth doesn’t care.” Toss in some very clever use of backgrounds (contrasting with the plain white ones on other calendar pages) and some skillful design and management of lettering, and the result is a Mary EngelDark calendar that offers not quite wit and wisdom but certainly not suavity and sweetness. There is fun here for the whole year, and a chance to use “dark” thoughts (which are really more crepuscular than midnight-gloomy) to brighten every bit of 2018.

(++++) JUST LIKE, UM, THIS


Just Like Us! Ants. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

Just Like Us! Birds. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

     Here are science books with a difference. Or rather with a similarity. A lot of similarities. No, actually a lot of differences. OK, this can get confusing – but the approach of these books by Bridget Heos, with often-hilarious illustrations by David Clark, is engaging and highly attractive. The books take creatures that appear to have very little in common with humans and find ways in which we and they are similar – sometimes very clearly, sometimes with a stretch. The idea here is to involve young readers (ages 4-7) in studying ants and birds by giving them a basis of comparison with their own lives – even while explaining all the things these critters do that are quite different from what we humans do.

     The relationships can be rather far-fetched, but that makes them, if anything, more interesting to think about. Heos talks about humans babysitting littler humans and ants helping their colonies in similar ways. Then, continuing with the helpfulness angle, she writes, “Bigheaded ants catch fruit flies. But since the fruit flies won’t fit through the ants’ tiny digestive tracts, the ants give them to their larvae. The babies drool on the flies, turning them into mush (or protein shakes), which the grownups can then digest.” Umm, yes. Not much of a direct comparison there with what humans do, despite the protein-shakes reference. But the attempts to draw parallels, even when imperfect, really do make the information in these books much easier to, well, digest. The photos of the actual creatures being discussed, which complement Clark’s cartoons, are also helpful. In a discussion of leafcutter ants, for example, the photo of these ants with the pulp they produce by chewing leaves goes with cartoons of an ant with a scythe, another driving a tractor, another using three of its six limbs to chop leaves into tiny pieces, and one of ants searching trash cans for food. What’s that all about? Well, leafcutter ants do their own weeding, and because some weeds are deadly if eaten, certain ants must take them to the ant version of a dump. Then those ants are excluded from the fungus fields maintained  by the main group of ants, “to avoid contamination. So the selfless workers must eat what they find in the trash. It’s a tragic fate.” Again, there is nothing here that is directly like what humans do, despite Heos’ reference to the ants’ unfortunate absence of hazmat suits. But by drawing a parallel, even a rather shaky one, between ants and people, she comes up with a nifty way to communicate some genuinely interesting material. Thus, she explains elsewhere, “During the last Ice Age, humans hunted in packs to bring down mammoths. Ants bring down animals even larger, proportionally. Azteca andreae ants can kill an insect 13,350 times their size. That would be like human hunters killing a two-million-pound land animal, or a beast the size of twenty brachiosauruses, with their bare hands.” Clark here contributes a cartoon of an ant-packed leaf on which a battle royal is raging between the ants (some of which are barely holding on and some of which look distinctly frightened) and a giant bug with scowling, toothy mouth and gigantic monster-like eyes. Point made – even if the human relationship is a bit strained.

     In the book on birds, some comparisons are genuinely intriguing: “Birds can sing up to one hundred notes in two seconds, compared to the twenty-eight sung by the world’s fastest rapper.” And “birds learn to sing in the same way that babies begin to talk,” which means they first sing random notes, then “sing parts of songs incorrectly” before getting the sounds right. Also, there is some truly fascinating human connection in this book: “Mozart heard a bird [in a pet store] whistling a section of his [Piano] Concerto No. 17 in G Major,” which he had just composed and which had never been performed. Unsure whether the bird made up the tune on its own or whether he himself had been humming it when he visited the store at another time, the composer “took the fellow musical genius home, and the bird became his beloved pet.” This sort of anecdote really humanizes science and nature study (and classical music, too). The book also gets into plenty of ways in which birds are scarcely like humans but are all the more interesting as a result. Eagle nests, for example, “stand ten feet tall and weigh more than two tons,” while those of Northern orioles are sewn from plant fibers and “string and yarn left behind by humans,” with the birds creating a nest that “is strong, yet stretchy enough to expand” as the oriole chicks hatch and grow. Here as in the book on ants, real-world photos are well-complemented by amusing cartoons that make the various points in the text. For example, a suitably hassled-looking parent bird is shown carrying a basket of what seem to be dirty diapers away from the nest, illustrating Heos’ words, “Birds need to keep their nests poop-free so as not to attract microbes and insects. But their babies aren’t potty-trained yet. Luckily, baby poop comes in a diaper of sorts called a fecal sac. The parents carry these birdie diapers off and drop them. Or in some cases, eat them, which is not like us at all!” And that last phrase is really the point: creatures such as ants and birds are not like us at all, yet some of their adaptations and instinctive behaviors are so similar to our own that Heos and Clark can use the points of similarity to introduce young readers to a whole series of remarkable pieces of information. No, the creatures in the Just Like Us! books are not just like us – but as a hook on which to hang explanations of some highly interesting aspects of the world around us, the books use the series title to admirably imaginative effect.

(++++) AS THE APOCALYPSE TURNS


The Last Kids on Earth No. 2: The Last Kids on Earth and the Zombie Parade. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.

The Last Kids on Earth No. 3: The Last Kids on Earth and the Nightmare King. By Max Brallier. Illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Viking. $13.99.

     “Photo time! Everyone say monster apocalypse!” And there, in one short burst of words, you have an encapsulation of the attitude of the last kids on Earth in Max Brallier’s The Last Kids on Earth series. Brallier’s sequence is all fun and not to be studied too closely, or for that matter studied at all. It is one of those end-of-the-world stories, one among many zombie-and-monster novel sequences. But unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, this series refuses to take itself too seriously, and that is all to the good. The underlying concept here is that the central character, 13-year-old Jack Sullivan, has survived the never-fully-explained Monster Apocalypse intact and has kept himself going by thinking of the end times in which he is now living as a video game. The apocalypse happened 42 days before the start of the first book and is now vanishing into the past as the second and third heavily illustrated novels progress, with Jack continuing to cope by setting himself goals, attaining them, and giving himself points. Jack is not alone – all preteen-heroics novels have a group of protagonists, not just one, and the group must be well-balanced ethnically and in gender to accommodate political correctness and the expectations of publishers. So here we have Jack’s best friend, Quint, an African-American genius and science nerd who comes up with all sorts of neat anti-monster potions and plans; the former middle-school bully, Dirk, who is dull-witted and super-strong and looks like a bulked-up adult, but who has had a change of heart about Jack and Quint after the whole apocalypse thing; an attractive Latina, June Del Toro, who is decidedly not the damsel-in-distress type; and, as a team mascot, a monstrous dog (for a time considered the only non-dangerous monster) that Jack names (what else?) Rover. Thanks to a plethora of Douglas Holgate illustrations, which amplify what cleverness there is in Brallier’s writing and introduce a lot more enjoyment to the text, the series percolates along entertainingly and even merrily in its second and third entries.

     The team having been assembled and the end-of-world (or at least end-of-life-as-we-know-it) premise having been established in the scene-setting first book, the second, The Last Kids on Earth and the Zombie Parade, presents a mystery in the form of “The Shrieking," described by Jack as “a penetrating noise, filling my head like hornets, buzzing around in my brain.” The noise may be unpleasant, but it appears to be luring brain-eating zombies away from the area where the kids are. And this would be a good thing except for the fact that this is, you know, after the apocalypse, so pretty much anything going on is likely to be bad even if it initially seems good. And that turns out to be the case. Early in this book, the heroic young people pick up some apparent allies in the form of monstrous-looking but on-their-side beings named Thrull and Bardle, who especially admire Jack because Jack, in the first book, destroyed a monster called Blarg, known to these newcomers as the Œŕŗūæŀ, a “crazy creepy and crazy evil” creature apparently wholly oblivious to pronunciation and invulnerable to diacritical remarks but not to a sharp stick, which is what Jack used to dispatch it. But things are seldom what they seem in this world, and it soon turns out that a particular book – a kind of monstrous enchanted bestiary – is actually a key that will allow the ultra-evil Ŗeżżőcħ the Ancient (also the ultimate typeface-challenging monster) to destroy whatever remains of the world. Eventually one of the friends, Quint, gets carried off to who-knows-where, while the other three are locked in a cage awaiting the coming of Ŗeżżőcħ, and Jack narrates, “I’ve failed. …I failed. I failed.” That is as much introspection as the book includes, except for this a bit later: “My understanding of whom to trust and whom not to trust these days has gone way off course. I’ve learned that I am, apparently, a terrible judge of character in monsters.” Of course, Jack and his friends conquer, or seem to conquer, the incipient ultra-bad guy, but then there is a twist requiring yet more conquering, and this time Jack has to agree to step back from his favored I-can-do-anything pose and let Quint, of all people, act heroic: “Friends are important. Family is important. Maybe the most important thing. But even a post-apocalyptic action hero can’t keep them safe all the time.” Eventually one final heroic act by Jack, coupled with suitable heroics from his friends, leads to a roaring climax at, um, Joe’s Pizza – this is the sort of juxtaposition of explosiveness (lots of it) with silliness (lots of that, too) that makes The Last Kids on Earth fun.

     The fun continues in much the same vein in the third book, except that in The Last Kids on Earth and the Nightmare King Jack faces something even more monstrous than monsters: his own worry that if there were other kids still alive on Earth (and it seems there may be), then his friends will abandon him and he’ll be stuck on his own again. It was established in the first book that Jack is an orphan who has lived in a series of foster homes, and that explains why, from the beginning, he has been clinging tightly to his living space in a treehouse he built and equipped (rather miraculously) with all sorts of offensive and defensive weaponry. Thus, once Jack has accepted some friends and been accepted by them, the possibility of losing them – however far-fetched it will seem to readers – is supposed to motivate a lot of his behavior in the third series entry. This is actually a pretty weak premise, but it is coupled with enough straightforward video-game-style action so it does not have to be particularly strong. For example, the Winged Wretch monsters that made their appearance in the first book turn out to have a kind of uber-monster here, and Jack’s somewhat mysterious initial encounter with it happens early in the book and creates a plot point that counterbalances the apparent radio transmission of other human beings – a transmission just clear enough to be heard without providing any certainty or identifying information. The problem is that Jack goes off the deep end entirely too easily about the whole radio thing, deciding, “I need to show my friends that life here is so exceptionally, undeniably, crowd-pleasingly perfect that they’ll never want to leave! If I can show my friends endless fun, maybe they’ll just totally forget about the radio.” That notion takes this often-ridiculous series to a new height of silliness. And Jack’s worries and fears continue to mount until he almost smashes the radio that he thinks is spoiling everything – except, of course, that he doesn’t – and then he manages to come face to face (or face to the King Wretch’s belly, which functions at the time as a sort of video receiver) with Ŗeżżőcħ the Ancient from the second book. And this monstrous and unbelievably evil and ancient destroyer of multiple worlds decides to, umm, sweet-talk Jack to try to get him on Ŗeżżőcħ’s side. Okay, this doesn’t make a lick of sense, but then sense and sensibility are not the strong points of The Last Kids on Earth. Of course heroic Jack refuses this devil’s bargain, and of course Ŗeżżőcħ promptly decides to destroy the town and everyone in it, saving Jack for last, and of course that produces this sort of dialogue: “C’mon, gang. We’ve got friends to save, evil to defeat, and butt-whoopin’ to do.” And Jack and his friends do just that – and then, the saving and defeating and butt-whoopin’ finished, all that is left is the setup for the next book, which comes at the very end when the formerly crackly and static-y radio provides a perfectly clear and understandable piece of actionable information regarding the survival of a whole bunch of other humans. Piling obviousness on obviousness, this tells readers exactly where Jack and his friends, now knowing they are not the last kids on Earth, will be heading in the next book. Readers who take absolutely none of this the slightest bit seriously will have the same sort of roller-coaster ride that Jack and his friends have during The Last Kids on Earth and the Nightmare King, except for the absence in the real world of the Scrapken, ruler of the gigantic junkyard-cum-amusement-park where the book’s climax takes place. Stay tuned.

(++++) AROUND THE CHAMBER


Shostakovich: String Quartets Nos. 7-9. Altius Quartet (Andrew Giordano and Joshua Ulrich, violins; Andrew Krimm, viola; Zachary Reaves, cello). Navona. $14.99.

Louis Spohr: Adagio for Bassoon and Piano; Josef Matern Marx: Sonata for Bassoon and Piano; Johannes Meinardus Coenen: Sonata for Bassoon and Piano; Julius Weissenborn: Notturno for Bassoon and Piano; Gustav Schreck: Sonata for Bassoon and Piano; Ignaz Lachner: Notturno for Bassoon and Piano. Michel Bettez, bassoon; Jeanne Amièle, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Ann Giffels: Sonata for Trumpet and Piano; Susan Mutter: Ages, for Trumpet and Piano; Amy Riebs Mills: Red Dragonfly—Sonata for Trumpet and Piano; Dorothy Gates: Shaken Not Stirred, for Trombone Quartet; Lauren Bernofsky: Two Latin Dances for Trombone and Piano. Natalie Mannix, trombone; Stephanie Bruning, piano; Tony Baker, Natalie Mannix, Steven Menard and Christopher Sharpe, trombone quartet. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Steve Rouse: Sonata for Violin and Piano; Form Fades; Nevolution; Ten Little Things; King Tango. Ravello. $14.99.

     The intimacy and conversational nature of chamber music invite a level of communication among performers and between performers and audience that can be quite exceptionally moving, and chamber compositions are, for some composers, considerably more intensely personal than their other works. Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets cover at least as wide an emotional range as his 15 symphonies, and the directness with which some of the quartets express the intensity of his feelings makes high-quality performances taxing – albeit emotionally stirring – for players and listeners alike. Unlike the symphonies, the quartets tend to be end-weighted, and this was becoming particularly apparent by the time of No. 7, which ends in a melancholy muted waltz that seems to stand as a direct tribute to Shostakovich’s late first wife, in whose memory the work was written. On a new Navona CD, the Altius Quartet does a particularly fine job of highlighting some of the unusual structural elements of the quartet, such as the absence of individual instruments from sections of it in a way that seems to accentuate the theme of loss. The players do a fine job as well with No. 8, the most frequently played of the Shostakovich quartets, in which the composer seems to be dealing both with the Allied firebombing of Dresden late in World War II (he was working on a film score on the topic while composing the quartet) and with his own misgivings about recently joining the Communist Party. All five of this quartet’s movements – which are played without a break – include the composer’s thematic DSCH initials, so the personal elements of the music are abundantly clear, even if the emotional specifics are not always so. Here the Altius Quartet emphasizes a cohesive performance as opposed to the more-fragmented one of No. 7, the result being an effectively atmospheric reading. Quartets Nos. 7 and 8 were both composed in 1960 and gain some understanding by being considered as a pair. The inclusion of No. 9 with them on this CD is thus a bit problematic – this is a work from 1964 that actually pairs rather well with No. 10, which is not heard here. No. 9 is a large-scale, almost symphonic work in which four of the five movements (again played without pause) sound like quintessential Shostakovich, with moods ranging from elegiac to meditative to sarcastic to manic to purgatorial. The finale pulls all the emotional elements together in an affirmation that contrasts sharply with the existential angst that concludes No. 8. The big sound of the Altius Quartet is well-used here, and the work is played with great skill, although the emotional turmoil of No. 8 seems to fit these performers better than does the rather scattered landscape of No. 9. Nevertheless, these are first-rate performances of some deeply stirring and emotionally trenchant chamber music.

     There is nothing with anywhere near this impact on a new MSR Classics CD of 19th-century works for bassoon and piano, but this disc offers pleasures of a different sort. The bassoon is capable of being a highly expressive instrument – for example, Vivaldi, who wrote more than three dozen concertos for it, was well aware of this, as was Mozart in his single bassoon concerto. But by the 19th century it tended to be relegated to a supporting, usually comic role in instrumental music, becoming a good-natured and rather Falstaffian instrument rather than one offering any profound communication. The works played by Michel Bettez and Jeanne Amièle do not really redress the balance in the bassoon’s favor, but they do accord it more of a starring role than it often had at the time these pieces were written. And if they are not especially consequential, neither are they entirely trivial or dismissible as mere salon music. It is, however, interesting that Bettez and Amièle have had to reach well beyond the usual composers in order to find bassoon-focused chamber music of this time that accords the wind instrument a degree of respect. The best-known composer here, Louis Spohr (1784-1859), offers the earliest work, a pleasant little piece titled Adagio but marked Larghetto and dating to 1817. It is warm and rather sweet. The sonata by Josef Matern Marx (c. 1791-1836) dates to 1830 and is a nicely constructed three-movement work offering good contrast between its expressive second movement and its bouncy finale. The sonata by Johannes Meinardus Coenen (1824-1899) was written in about 1863 and follows a similar arc, but is a more-compact work and one that emphasizes its central Recitative – while Marx’s piece spends most of its time and energy on an extended first movement. The three remaining works come from late in the century. The Notturno by Julius Weissenborn (1837-1888), which dates to the composer’s final year, packs four contrasting sections into six-and-a-half minutes while maintaining a crepuscular feeling throughout. The sonata by Gustav Schreck (1849-1918) was written around 1890 and is solid and well-crafted, although not especially innovative. And the Notturno by Ignaz Lachner (1807-1895), another piece from the final year of its composer’s life, is broadly conceived and features some lovely interplay between bassoon and piano. Bettez is a very fine advocate for this little-known music, and Amièle provides fine support and partnership throughout this unusually pleasant foray into unfamiliar Romantic-era material.

     Another new MSR Classics CD that also features excellent playing, but in the service of much-more-recent compositions, includes five works by female composers – one piece written in the mid-20th-century and the others in the 21st. The composers’ gender is scarcely germane to these trombone-focused creations, which are somewhat less successful at sustaining interest than are the bassoon-and-piano ones played by Bettez and Amièle. Here the trombonist, Natalie Mannix, exhibits excellent breath control and a warm, pleasant tone throughout, while pianist Stephanie Bruning provides able accompaniment for four of the five works. The earliest, from 1949-50, is the sonata by Ann Giffels (1928-1993), a pithy and rather standard-issue three-movement work. The five-movement Ages (2008) by Susan Mutter (born 1962) is intended to depict human life at ages six, 15, 34, 66 and 92 – a clever concept that does not, however, lead to especially compelling individual movements. The sonata called Red Dragonfly (2012) by Amy Riebs Mills (born 1955) is more straightforward structurally, including three movements simply numbered 1, 2 and 3, but it does give the trombone considerable opportunity to display both emotional impact and virtuosity. For rhythmic vitality, however, the most-effective work here is Two Latin Dances (2015) by Lauren Bernofsky (born 1967), in which the Bossa Nova and Tango are presented effectively without overstaying their welcome. Also on the CD is a short encore from 2012 called Shaken Not Stirred by Dorothy Gates (born 1966) – a piece whose title will immediately resonate with James Bond fans, and a work that nicely weaves the four trombones for which it is written into an intriguing aural mixture. This is a (+++) CD that, despite offering some rather ordinary pieces, will certainly please trombonists and listeners interested in hearing recent compositions for the instrument.

     Another (+++) CD of contemporary chamber music is a Ravello release of five very different works by Steve Rouse (born 1953). Here too listeners will encounter a sonata and a dance piece. The sonata is for violin (Ben Sung) and piano (Jihye Chang-Sung) and consists primarily of the sort of atonal stabbings and relaxations familiar from many other modern works; the third movement is supposed to be dancelike but is too awkward and unbalanced for that description. King Tango, on the other hand, does take an unusual and effective approach to a dance form, using flute (Evelyn Loehrlein) and double bass (Sidney King) to produce a surprisingly sinuous combination of instruments with ranges that are about as different as they can possibly be. Another work whose combination of instruments is intriguing is Nevolution, which is for corno da caccia (Michael Tunnell) and piano (Meme Tunnell). Rouse uses the Baroque hunting horn’s limited range to its full extent in the first and third movements, but the subdued second movement, “Star Quiet,” is the real surprise here, allowing the horn a degree of lyricism that is quite unexpected and affecting, even though not really in keeping with the instrument’s reasons for being. Unfortunately, the piano part of Nevolution is of only slight interest. Also here is a work for clarinet (Matthew Nelson) and percussion (Greg Byrne) called Ten Little Things, and it is a compendium of many elements that contemporary composers apparently consider forward-looking while unconvinced audiences deem them self-indulgent and meaningless. There is no correlation between the section titles (“The Sight,” “The Nature,” “The Charm,” and so on) and the sonic blips, bleeps and blasts that emerge both from percussion and from the clarinet, whose warmth of sound is wholly absent here. This is a piece that comes across as if the composer is so enamored of his own cleverness that he is interested barely at all in whether an audience is even paying attention, much less becoming involved in the material. Somewhat more successful is Form Fades, a five-movement composition for flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion, performed here by the Indiana University New Music Ensemble conducted by David Dzubay. The movements have the sort of pseudo-clever titles that are all too common in contemporary works: “Ritual Fills,” “Pulse Frees,” “Memory Feels,” “Petal Floats,” and “Hammer Falls.” And of course those titles are quite meaningless. But here there is some interest in the way Rouse combines and contrasts the disparate instruments, and if there is little offering sustained involvement to an audience, there are at least several instances in which the sound quality of the ensemble has an interest level of its own. The music means much less than its overdone and pretentious titles pretend it does, but it is at least moderately engaging from time to time. The most interesting thing about this entire CD is the way Rouse gravitates to instruments that are as different as they can be and finds ways of connecting them, even if imperfectly and only from time to time within his works.

September 28, 2017

(++++) PUZZLE ME THIS


Cats on Skates 48-Piece Floor Puzzle. By Kestutis Kasparavicius. Pomegranate Kids. $18.95.

Winter Wonderland 48-Piece Floor Puzzle. By Angelea Van Dam. Pomegranate Kids. $18.95.

Kids Cooking: Tasty Recipes with Step-by-Step Photos. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $19.99.

     Publishers have different tastes, strategies and motivations, but there is ultimately a certain sameness to what most of them do: book publishers put out books, although different ones focus on different areas, and magazine publishers offer magazines, albeit with different target audiences, and so on. Pomegranate, however, is genuinely unusual, because it produces all sorts of different products in line with its stated mission “to invigorate, illuminate, and inspire through art.” Yes, that is a marketing slogan, but it is not just a marketing slogan, because it is genuinely reflective of the company’s offerings in everything from books to calendars to note cards to informational “knowledge decks” to, well, puzzles. That is puzzles as in traditional, complex jigsaw types in the thousand-piece range and also quite untraditional puzzle designs, such as “floor puzzles.” These are big, not in total number of pieces but in overall size: two feet by three feet or three feet by two, depending on the orientation of a particular scene. Individual pieces are big, too, averaging about five inches square – which makes the puzzles fun for the whole family. Yes, a lot of puzzles claim they are for family use, but these really are, since even small hands can easily grasp pieces without concern about squashing or damaging them. The pieces have the same intricate shapes as jigsaw-puzzle pieces generally do, but their size makes them less delicate and easier to fit together – although, as with any puzzle, a lot of the fun comes from trying to match the colors and designs of scenes perfectly so as to choose exactly the right piece for exactly the right place.

     A couple of particularly charming floor-puzzle examples, both having the sort of whimsical humor in which Pomegranate (or rather the artists whose work it showcases) specializes, are winter scenes, one vertical and one horizontal. But these are not standard snow-on-trees-and-fields pictures. One features a delightfully amusing ice-skating-on-frozen-pond picture that is stopped from being ordinary by the fact that all the participants are cats. Cats on Skates was created in 1993 by Lithuanian artist Kestutis Kasparavicius (born 1954). It shows 14 cats doing the things that people normally do on icy ponds (in art works, anyway): skating alone or in couples, balancing on a single skate, doing a balletic dip, or looking rather bewildered after having apparently just fallen. All the cats are anthropomorphic, and all are wearing clothing that is part of the fun here: one has an elegant grey-and-white coat and matching hat, one wears a pink tutu-like skirt, several sport jaunty tasseled caps, and so on. The scene is a pleasantly amusing one of an idealized winter landscape, with a stone bridge and thatched-roof homes in the background, and the piece-by-piece assembly of the brightly colored picture is a real family treat. So is Winter Wonderland by New Zealand artist Angelea Van Dam (born 1979). This is a vertical puzzle (Cats on Skates is horizontal) and is even more brightly colored than Kasparavicius’. In fact, all three characters are swaddled, head to toe, in beautifully intricate full-body-length sweaters plus contrasting scarves, everything neat as a pin and the neckwear knotted absolutely perfectly. It just happens that the three characters are – penguins. And, of course, without pants, which somehow makes them extra-adorable. Two adult penguins stand in the background, looking down their beaks at a little penguin in front, which stares directly out of the frame from a face both rounded and fuzzy (the adults’ heads are sharper in shape and brighter in color). There is no action in the scene and no particular point to it except cuteness, which it has in abundance. In this case, cuteness is its own reward – and Winter Wonderland, like Cats on Skates, is very rewarding indeed, perhaps especially so if a human family finds itself stuck inside because of real-world winter weather and would prefer to spend some time with fanciful wintry scenes that are considerably more enjoyable than the ones faced in everyday cold-weather life.

     Kids who are stuck indoors in any season – and even ones who are not stuck but just happen to be indoors – can express their creativity in a different sort of puzzle with a new Klutz “books-plus” offering called Kids Cooking. When you think about it, cooking is a puzzle of sorts: the right things have to be put together in the right way in order to end up with the right result. Cooking is also applied chemistry: the word “catalyst” may sound technical, and its definition of “something that changes other things without being changed itself” may seem abstruse, but anyone who cooks knows that heat is a perfect example of a catalyst in everyday life. This does not mean that heat is needed for all the recipes in Kids Cooking: one of them, the cleverly titled “Kick-the-Can Ice Cream,” has nothing to do with warmth at all – the recipe name perfectly fits the explanation about the importance of rolling around the ingredient-containing coffee cans (a smaller one nested within a larger one) “across the ground for about 20 minutes. It’s good to do this with a friend, preferably outside.” Um, well, yes. This approach to ice cream really works, even if it is scarcely as elegant as making the cool delight with an appliance designed for the purpose. But elegance is not the point here: fun is. And as usual in Klutz “project books,” there is plenty of it. The recipes almost all require a “grown-up assistant,” which makes them great for teaching kids about cooking and baking – or, for kitchen-challenged adults, learning along with children. Just as in adult cookbooks, there are sections for preparing different meals: breakfast (muffins, eggs, smoothies), lunch and snacks (kebabs, lemonade, burritos, popcorn and more), family dinner (noodles, tacos, pizza, etc.), and desserts (cookies, brownies, and, as noted, ice cream). Dishes’ names are on the cutesy side: “Scrambled Egg Buddies,” “Bugged-Out Snack Platter,” “Curry in a Hurry,” “Rrraw-some Cookie Dough.” And presentations are designed to be enjoyable. The recipes themselves are fun, too, with cartoon drawings for the “you will need” section, good information on preparation and (where relevant) baking time, and helpful illustrations of some basics that even adults need to keep in mind – for instance, the right way to level off a measurement, such as a tablespoon. Klutz “books-plus” productions usually include everything needed to do the crafts projects explained in the books, but unfortunately there is no way to put all those delicious ingredients into Kids Cooking. There is, however, a way to include something that kids will certainly find useful in the kitchen: a whisk (a rainbow-colored one, no less), sized smaller than whisks usually are and therefore especially suitable for smaller hands. Cooking and baking are puzzle-and-chemistry skills that kids can take with them throughout life, so they might as well be gained as enjoyably as possible – and, with Kids Cooking, they are.

(++++) DAY AFTER DAY AFTER DAY AFTER…


Calendars (page-a-day for 2018): Church Signs; Medical Cartoon-a-Day; Peanuts. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     There is one thing that is absolutely certain to be true in 2018: some days will be a lot worse than others. And that means some will be a lot better than others. And there is very little that most of us can do to predict which will be which and to ensure that the crummy ones are a little less crummy. Except – well, page-a-day calendars help. Never mind getting daily electronic access to cartoons – that is all well and good, but sometimes the electronics themselves are the source of what makes a day crummy. There is something sturdy, self-sufficient and sometimes even uplifting about stand-up-on-a-table-or-desk, tear-off-a-page-at-a-time calendars that help you through the year by brightening the dull days and making the already-bright ones just a bit more enjoyable. And speaking of calendars being uplifting, that is the whole point of Church Signs. Subtitled “Little Sayings to Help You on Your Way,” this is a year-long presentation of those amusing notices planted outside many churches, designed to lure worshipers in or just give passing motorists or pedestrians a little something to encourage them in their lives – with, perhaps, a smidgen of spiritual uplift. Some of the signs here are pithy, sermon-like remarks: “Thank God for what you have. Trust God for what you need.” Others are closer to self-help thoughts: “An obstacle is something you see when you take your eyes off the goal.” Some are reassuring, especially on crummy days: “It is brave to have a soft heart in a cruel world.” And there is even an occasional pun: “No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.” Then there are the worth-thinking-about items: “Takers may eat better, but givers sleep better.” And the ones quite as applicable to the secular as the sacred: “Sometimes the easiest way to solve a problem is to stop participating in it.” And, now and then, a touch of thoughtfulness that crosses the secular/sacred boundary line: “Some people come into your life as blessings, others come into your life as lessons.” And even a touch of deviltry from time to time: “Forgive your enemies. It messes with their heads.” These little signposts can be very reassuring when things are going less than well – and with this calendar, the thoughts and homilies are available all week, not just on Sundays.

     Whatever the state of one’s spiritual health, it must coexist with one’s physical health, and that is where the Medical Cartoon-a-Day calendar comes in. Jonny Hawkins has been producing single-panel cartoons on health topics for a long time, and his “daily dose of humor” (frequently of the “groaner” variety) can help cheer you up if you find yourself feeling down, dull, blue, achy, or otherwise yucky. One panel has a doctor telling a very overweight patient, “I can see you’re living life to the fullest, and that’s the problem.” Another shows a tombstone with the epitaph, “I can use the rest.” One has a trendy theme, with a man asking a doctor if he sells medical marijuana and the doctor replying, “Yeah, think of me as a joint specialist.” Another trend-following panel has a doctor telling a woman she has holes in her remote-control flying toys – that is, “Drone’s Disease.” But many cartoons use more-classic situations. One has a doctor climbing up a mountain to ask the stereotypical guru, “When was your last meta-physical?” Another has a duck telling a human doctor, “I want to see a quack.” Still another features a giraffe being suitably worried about a recommended procedure: “Remove my tonsils?!” And then there is the occasional otherworldly cartoon, such as one in which one winged being tells another, “I am a tooth fairy, not an indentured servant.” And then there is the chicken about to visit a “Wishbone Specialist.” And the firefly whose rear fails to illuminate, being asked by a specialized proctologist, “How long have you been suffering from burnout?” None of this is great humor and none of it is intended to be – the idea is to elicit a chuckle on each page, lightening the day just a smidgen, and for that purpose, even the “groaners” are just fine. After all, groaning at a joke is better than groaning at physical pain.

     Some calendars do celebrate genuinely innovative and even meaningful humor, always including the ones based on the marvelous Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz (1922-2000). Because Peanuts daily strips contained four panels (many more-modern strips have only three), they shrink quite a bit to fit into page-a-day form. But the art, characterization and humor (usually gentle, sometimes pointed) are more than enough to make up for the necessary format compromises. In one series, for instance, several of the girl characters march intimidatingly to a “crab-in” that Snoopy eventually breaks up by kissing ever-crabby Lucy on the nose when she opens the door after he knocks. In another sequence, Sally says she was insulted by a kid at school, and wants Linus to be her “knight in shining armor” who will “clobber” the kid; when Linus refuses, she asks Snoopy to bite the kid, but Snoopy also says no, his comment on biting being, “How gauche.” Then there is Linus’ question to Lucy about why trees do not have leaves in winter, followed by Lucy’s comment that Linus asks stupid questions – and Linus’ rejoinder, “Even stupid questions have answers.” As baseball-team manager, Charlie Brown says he wants the players to do 20 pushups every day, but Lucy counter-offers with “one pushup every twenty days.” Then there is Linus’ “new theological discovery” one night at bedtime: “If you hold your hands upside down, you get the opposite of what you pray for.” Elsewhere, Snoopy gets invited to play in the Masters Golf Tournament and assumes his “flying ace” costume to take himself there. He also uses it in its more-usual way, when he becomes a World War I Flying Ace and gives highly detailed information on what he is seeing, commenting in the final one of the four panels, “Have you ever in all your life seen such good research?” Snoopy also heads off at one point to a wrist-wrestling tournament, leading Charlie Brown to offer him a tearful goodbye and then say, “Goodbyes always make my throat hurt. I need more hellos.” There is gentleness to this humor, true, but there is also an underlying awareness of the human condition – not specifically involving children, even though all the humans in Peanuts are kids. The latest Peanuts calendar can be an exercise in nostalgia for those who have long known and loved the strip – and a source of discovery of a thoughtful, occasionally erudite, often surprisingly moving sort of warm-hearted humor for those who do not really know Peanuts well, or at all. This is a day-brightener that comes equipped with a touch of “think about it” message on many occasions – a winning combination throughout the year to come.