September 18, 2014
Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My! By Artie Bennett. Illustrations by Pranas T. Naujokaitis. Blue Apple. $17.99.
Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. By Molly Bang & Penny Chisholm. Illustrated by Molly Bang. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $18.99.
I’m Brave! By Kate & Jim McMullan. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Hmm. Yes, there certainly are different ways of providing factual information to young readers. Very different ways. Artie Bennett’s involves tackling bodily functions that are not usually discussed, much less written about, in polite society, and doing so in such an amusing way that readers will not know whether to be fascinated or grossed out. Or both at the same time. Actually, the response depends on the reader, and perhaps on the reader’s age: adults may be horrified at Bennett books such as The Butt Book and Poopendous, but the kids for whom the rhyming text and abundant illustrations are intended will more likely be, if not charmed, at least amused. Oh – and informed, too, since Bennett does get the science (and anatomy) right. And that brings us to Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My! With inside covers adorned (if that’s the right word) with Pranas T. Naujokaitis illustrations of kids, babies, snakes, giraffes, dogs, cats and other creatures emitting gas, with a copyright page on which a baby’s farts turn into boilerplate information on the book’s publication, this is a book that never takes itself seriously – but does take its subject matter seriously. That is a curious combination, and one that works exceptionally well. Even parents who find the whole topic uncomfortable will have to admit that Bennett has dug up some fascinating facts: we cannot burp while on our backs; belching during a meal in China is a compliment, not an insult; jellyfish, sponges and anemones cannot fart – while the dubious distinction of champion farter goes to the termite; humans average 14 farts per day; and so forth. More-mundane information is here, too, in Bennett’s well-structured rhymes: “Animals that chew their cud/ Pass a massive gaseous flood!” Naujokaitis offers pages ranging from one showing a boy belching the alphabet in class to one diagramming the intestinal process that leads to gas expulsion, complete with smiling and tooting bacteria. The pictures are so exaggerated that they make it difficult to dislike a topic that simply doesn’t find its way into kids’ books – or doesn’t usually show up, anyway. Bennett has a way with words that neatly complements Naujokaitis’ with pictures. For example, on one page, the words are, “The more you belch,/ the less you’ll fart./ You could even keep a chart!” The picture shows a boy and girl studying and, yes, charting the various emissions of a baby. The back of the book offers two pages of “Fart-tastic Facts & Burp-tacular Bits” that add some additional science to the narrative, such as “flatus” being the medical term for farting and “eructation” being the official word for belching, and what happens when someone burps in space (the lack of gravity usually means some food comes up as well). Funny, factual and unafraid to tackle topics usually untouched, Bennett and Naujokaitis produce…err, emit...err, expel…err, offer an offbeat winner of a book in Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!
Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm tackle a much more conventional topic in a much more conventional way in Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. The presentation here is more along the lines of what is typical in nonfiction picture books – although having the sun itself as narrator is a clever touch (and one also used in three previous Sunlight books). Buried Sunlight tackles complex scientific subjects in clear, if necessarily simplified, form, explaining how photosynthesis works and what “the cycle of life” is (with Bang’s pictorial representation of the cycle being particularly attractive and clearly illustrative). The slow transition of Earth from a planet without oxygen to one with an oxygen-rich atmosphere is explained, and the way that change relates to the eventual formation of fossil fuels is presented clearly – including an explanation of why such fuels are, in a sense, “buried sunlight.” Bang and Chisholm then explain how carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere and what it means when “burning fossil fuels and burning your forests puts more CO2 into Earth’s [atmospheric] blanket every year.” They explain climate change, but also note that “Earth has changed a LOT over the billions of years since it was born” – the issue now being not change itself but the pace of change, which is “VERY VERY VERY VERY fast.” The book ends with the sun asking whether humans will “risk the changes” of continuing to use fossil fuels or “work together to use my ancient sunlight more slowly.” The question is reasonable, whatever one’s attitude toward climate change may be, and the extensive back-of-book notes (six pages of comparatively small type, with only a few small illustrations) can be excellent discussion points for families or classrooms. The book’s perspective is an intriguing one: “Since the 19th century, human civilization has been run on ancient sunlight stored in fossil fuels.” And the authors state directly that “there are things we left out, or greatly oversimplified, in writing this book.” Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth is nevertheless a surprisingly comprehensive overview of a complex and difficult subject, presented in easy-to-follow text with very engaging illustrations. The one omission that parents or teachers will have to bring up on their own – and it is a serious one that is not discussed even at the end of the book – is that of Earth’s population. All the technology and good will in the world that may be devoted to limiting fossil-fuel use and finding alternative energy sources cannot possibly cope with the enormous and continuing increase in the number of humans on the planet. Of course, that is more of a Malthusian book than an energy-centric one, but the population reality is the “elephant in the room” when energy use and conservation are discussed – an elephant that is overlooked here, as in so many other books on the same subject, whether for children or adults.
Fact-based books need not be as funny as Bennett’s or as serious as Buried Sunlight – they can fall somewhere in between, as in the case of I’m Brave! The title does not make it clear what the book is about: fire engines. But the smiling, rather self-important-looking engine on the cover points clearly enough to the topic. Just as the sun narrates Buried Sunlight, the engine itself is the narrator of Kate and Jim McMullan’s book. This is an engine with an attitude and a pronounced accent, proclaiming that he carries “a whole lotta, WHOLE LOTTA HOSE” and has a water cannon “sproutin’ from my HEAD!” Oh – and he makes it clear that he is “GOOD LOOKIN’, that’s what.” There is serious commitment behind that on-the-verge-of-bragging way of talking, though, and the engine gives young readers an interesting guide to firefighting tools – including not only familiar items such crowbars and drills but also “duck-billed lock breakers, rabbit-tool door forcers,” and “Halligan tools.” Kids will actually have an issue with the tool lists, and for that matter, so will parents, since the McMullans do not provide a key showing which tool is which – the engine simply asks, “Can you match ’em?” The rest of the book is clear enough, though, as an alarm comes in and the engine gets down to business, using blinkers, flashers and light bar to race through traffic and, at the fire, sets about ordering chocks, hydrant wrench, twin connector, pump and other equipment to get going – the engine itself issuing commands and dispatching the tools, there being no human firefighters seen in the book. There is good, solid information in I’m Brave! And there is enough that is amusing in the book’s presentation to make the facts easy to understand and absorb – all in all, a potentially dour subject handled with a fine combination of the serious and the lighthearted.
Our Solar System. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
In the Rainforest. By Kate Duke. Harper. $17.99.
Books are a wonderful way for young readers – and adults, too – to visit places where they will probably never go in person. Seymour Simon’s ubiquitous simplified-science books take kids ages 6-10 just about everywhere on Earth – and, in the case of Our Solar System, elsewhere. Originally published in 1992 and updated in 2007, Our Solar System is now available in an again-updated edition that explains, among other things, why Pluto has been “demoted” in designation from planet to “dwarf planet.” There are three requirements for a planet, and it turns out that Pluto does not meet the third of them: it cannot clear other, smaller rocky or icy bodies out of its way as it orbits the sun. It is also interesting to learn that the dwarf planet Eris, discovered only in 2003, is larger than Pluto. Simon’s photo-essay here – most of his books are in photo-essay form – goes well beyond focusing on the sun and its planets. It certainly has plenty to say about the planets, including such fascinating tidbits of information as the fact that Venus has large craters but no small ones – because its “atmosphere is so dense that it stops smaller incoming meteors before they can hit the ground and make a crater” – and that Earth is 27 miles wider at the equator than at the poles. But there is also a lot here about the planets’ moons: Jupiter’s Ganymede and Saturn’s Titan are larger than the planet Mercury; Jupiter’s Io has exploding volcanoes; Uranus’ Miranda has strange and extensive surface features even though it is only 300 miles across; Neptune’s Triton is colder than any other object ever measured in the solar system; and so on. Add well-researched information on comets, asteroids and the sun itself, and you have another of Simon’s always-interesting, amply and very beautifully illustrated introductions to science – one that in this case is not only of this world but also out of this world.
For slightly younger readers, ages 4-8, and anyone fascinated by tropical rainforests and interested in learning more about them and the creatures that live there, In the Rainforest is a well-written Stage 2 book in the “Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science” series – this stage being one that explores comparatively challenging concepts. Nicely paced by the late Kate Duke (1956-2014) and pleasantly illustrated by her using a variety of media – pen and ink, watercolor, acrylic, pencils and pastels – In the Rainforest starts by telling readers what to bring on their imaginary tour (bug repellent, waterproof box for snacks, etc.) and what to leave at home (blue jeans, which take too long to dry; chocolate, which will melt). The make-believe journey shows a guide taking children through the understory region (where plants and animals live on the ground) as well as the arboreal one (up in the huge trees). The book explains epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants), the emergent forest layer (the tops of the tallest trees), different kinds of ants, and living places underground that can only be seen with “magic X-ray goggles.” There is a kind of “circle of rainforest life” illustration – shaped more like a rainbow – that shows the interrelationship among the forest’s sections. There is a discussion of the reasons people cut down some parts of these forests, and the effects of those actions. And there is a list of some of the things that have been discovered in rainforests, such as chocolate, vanilla, sugar, rice, coffee, dyes, rubber and medicines. The back of the book not only lists some places with rainforest exhibits but also contains instructions on making your own rainforest terrarium – a neat and not-too-difficult do-it-yourself project for home or school. Far from comprehensive but serving as a highly useful introduction to a complex topic, In the Rainforest may whet (if not “wet”) kids’ appetites for more information on a part of our planet that few will likely have a chance to visit on their own.
Nuts to You. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Scavengers. By Michael Perry. Harper. $16.99.
The Mortality Doctrine #2: The Rule of Thoughts. By James Dashner. Delacorte Press. $18.99.
Animal-based fantasies are as old as Aesop and, in more-modern novels, as elaborate as Watership Down. And they remain ways for authors to explore human concerns while also inventing societies sharing some human foibles while avoiding others – and creating some of their own. It should not be surprising that there is something squirrelly about the society invented by Lynne Rae Perkins in Nuts to You, since it is a society of, well, squirrels. Or not exactly a society, but certainly a story about squirrels. And what a story it is! It almost does not matter what happens in the tale, because Perkins’ writing is so entertaining that it scarcely matters what she is writing about. Early in the book, for example, a squirrel named Jed is seized by a hawk and tries to escape using “the ancient squirrel defensive martial art of Hai Tchree, not well known because it doesn’t work most of the time.” It does work for Jed, though, and he slips through the hawk’s talons like water – or, as a footnote tells us, “thick water. Or perhaps like a non-Newtonian fluid. Look it up on YouTube.” There are other squirrels here, too, such as TsTs, pronounced “by making two tongue clicks, very close together. It is currently the most frequently given girl squirrel name, the ‘Emma’ of squirrel names. If you sit and watch squirrels, you will no doubt hear it.” And so we meet various squirrels, various non-squirrels such as screech owls and humans, various squirrels who talk with vaguely Cockney accents, and – well, the whole story is about squirrel problems and issues, involving humans and non-humans, and about tree cutting for power lines and how that displaces squirrels and other animals and about how screech owls speak fluent cliché: “It is what it is. …Move on. Get a grip. Deal with it.” The book is a quest story – nothing unusual there in a fantasy – but also a story about what it must feel like to be a squirrel trying to avoid foxes and bobcats while learning how to stay away from humans except sometimes to get food from them. It is a story in which readers learn that disasters can “throw us together with those who are our adversaries. Who play for a different team. For a short time, a common enemy dissolves our differences and makes us realize what we share. Until someone gets hungry.” Eventually some of the squirrels get other squirrels to do the right thing, which involves moving lots of nuts, because squirrel nature involves enjoying games and stories, so coming up with the right stories and games can get things going the right way. And if that sounds confusing, just wait until you read Nuts to You and find out what happens. Do not forget to read all the way through the five epilogues.
Human dystopias are not much like squirrel dystopias, although calling Nuts to You a dystopic novel would be stretching things. Not so giving that designation to The Scavengers and The Rule of Thoughts, which don the dystopic mantle immediately and wrap it carefully around their entire stories. However, The Scavengers is different from most dystopias because of its hearty helping of humor – which, it must be said, makes it difficult to be sure whether to laugh or gasp at some of what happens. This is a fairly standard post-apocalyptic tale in which electricity has ceased to power anything, the weather has gone wild, food is scarce, and most people live in Bubble Cities – but not Maggie and her family, who live OutBubble despite the many risks posed by daily survival needs and by the zombie-like GreyDevils. Maggie decides she needs a better, stronger name, so she determines to call herself Ford Falcon – a choice that adults who know cars will surely find laughable, although it may pass muster with younger readers. The adventures are not, in the beginning, all that scary, such as an encounter with the GreyDevils, which “are most dangerous when they start running in packs. Although GreyDevils aren’t really healthy enough to run. Shuffling in packs, I guess. And they’re not so bright, what with their brains all cheese-holed by chemical smoke and PartsWash…” Yes, there is a typical-for-the-genre invented vocabulary here, with weapons such as the Tooth Club, Spit Stick, Whomper-Zooka and flingshot. There is a fighting rooster named Hatchet, and there are people named Toad and Dookie and Tilapia Tom, and dangerous creatures called solar bears. “Whatever sort of world you live in, it will get boring if you live there long enough,” Maggie/Ford opines, but of course Michael Perry wants to be sure that this world does not get boring, so he trots out all sorts of characters and creatures while producing a typical plot in which Maggie/Ford must rescue her family after everyone mysteriously disappears. Eventually her father turns up, explaining that he must turn himself in to the Bubble Authorities because he possesses a Great Secret (you can hear the capital letters even though they are not shown), and giving himself up is the only way to get the authorities to free Maggie/Ford’s mother. Maggie/Ford’s quest – yes, this too is a quest tale – takes up the second half of the book, which is complete with bad guys called Fat Man and Lettuce Face and that most evil thing of all, a corporation in partnership with the government. Bit of a letdown and non-surprise, that, but even if The Scavengers contains numerous unsurprising elements, even if it teeters at times between cliché and overdone amusement, it has enough pacing and plot cleverness to pull readers along to the end.
There is no end, yet, to The Rule of Thoughts, because this is the second book of a mundane James Dashner trilogy called The Mortality Doctrine. Dashner’s work follows predictable patterns: teenagers, chosen by authorities for never-explained reasons to do something extremely complex, find themselves confronting more-difficult choices and problems than they ever expected, all of which they overcome thanks to a series of coincidences and overt plot manipulations. In The Eye of Minds, the first book of the trilogy, Michael, Sarah and Bryson agree for no good reason to go on a life-threatening mission (for free, yet), when asked to do so by VirtNet Security (VNS). What the three poorly imagined and not-very-interesting protagonists do is “code” (never explained) in a world containing such stuff as The Chair, The Path, The Sleep, The Wake and The Coffin. The central character, Michael, is a standard-issue rich boy who doesn’t care about much of anything until he gets involved in saving the world. When he eventually does appear to save it, by completing The Path, he finds out – and here comes The Rule of Thoughts – that all he has really done is bring the Master Plan called the Mortality Doctrine one step closer to realization. This evil plan, perpetrated by cyber-terrorist Kaine, is a kind of virtual Invasion of the Body Snatchers, designed to implant sentient computer programs called Tangents in human bodies. Kaine is doing this because, being a Tangent himself (itself?), Kaine is, well, the evil mastermind here, and this is what evil masterminds do. Michael, Sarah and Bryson, who are scarcely first-rank intellects, try to figure out what is going on, with Bryson saying, “‘Maybe [Kaine] wants all the humans to start a big war and kill themselves.’ ‘That doesn’t make an ounce of sense,’ Michael countered. ‘What’s the point of the Mortality Doctrine if he wants to wipe out humans? Doesn’t he want to be a human?’ It was Bryson’s turn to shrug. ‘I guess that’s the question of the year.’” Or the question of this (++) book, anyway. Sarah follows it up by commenting, “‘We all need to chill and rest today,’ she said. ‘Get some sleep tonight. Because tomorrow we have a very big day.’” There are many such big days, actually, but the characters are so wooden, the author’s self-indulgence in the plot so obvious, that when Dashner writes at one point, “Michael felt like an idiot,” readers may well echo, “So do I.” There is, however, a sequel to this sequel still to come, and it too will undoubtedly contain chapters broken into subchapters for no discernible reason, and comments like this from Bryson: “‘I can’t wait for this to be over.’” He is not the only one.
Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians. By Justin Martin. Da Capo. $27.99.
Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher. By Jon Meacham. Crown. $19.99.
Enthusiasts for the byways of American history will enjoy Justin Martin’s exploration of the crowd that used to hang out at Pfaff’s Saloon in New York City – an establishment that was the first gathering place of Bohemian-style thinkers and possibly the young nation’s first gay bar. Henry Clapp Jr., a little-known name today, brought together a poetic and philosophical group that included Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain and such lesser lights as Artemus Ward, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Fitz-James O’Brien, Adah Menken and Ada Clare. The gatherings in the late 1850s, as the forces built that would lead to the Civil War, featured discussions of literature and art, daily living and work, and the meaning of life – the same sorts of concerns that would engage the Bohemians of a century later. Pfaff’s was the headquarters of the artists’ own journal, Saturday Press, which published both Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! and Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was a place where Whitman, a homosexual, felt comfortable, catering as it did to people of all tastes and what were then considered eccentricities. Martin writes about Pfaff’s and its coterie with skill and attentiveness, although his style is on the dry side and sometimes unintentionally humorous, or simply grammatically challenged: “Emerging from the lake, Ludlow’s hair and beard were thickly caked with salt… No other Mormon Ludlow had encountered wore their hair in this fashion.” The Pfaff’s story is the heart of Rebel Souls, but halfway through the book, the focus changes – because the Civil War begins, which meant, writes Martin, that “most of these artists would manage to carve out their own unique places in a nation at war. To do so would require leaving New York City and the cloistered safety of Pfaff’s, though the group members would return to their favorite haunt whenever they passed back through Manhattan.” The book becomes somewhat less interesting as it follows the individual tales of the Pfaff’s Bohemians, and the book’s title seems a bit of a gaffe, since “rebel” comes to refer to the Confederates and is never applied to the Pfaff’s group. The focus on Whitman makes the book somewhat less interesting than it could be, since Whitman’s work is well-known and the poet has been so often collected, discussed and analyzed. On the other hand, Whitman did one thing that other Pfaff’s regulars did not: he lived a long time. Martin chronicles the early demise of most of the proto-Bohemians in a matter-of-fact way, much as he details John Wilkes Booth’s approach to and assassination of Abraham Lincoln. There are many small items of interest in Rebel Souls, but the book never quite catches fire as the portrait of an era, or of an unusual group, or of the special place that Martin asserts Pfaff’s to be. It comes across as an extended exploration of a historical footnote – of interest primarily to readers whose fascination with Whitman extends to a desire to explore some of his formative interests in the years before he wrote Leaves of Grass.
The exploration of Thomas Jefferson by Jon Meacham is more involving in Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher, even though this is a simplification of Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power and is intended to attract younger readers through its ample illustrations. Actually, the book so effectively strips away many of the details of Jefferson’s life that it makes the third U.S. president a more compelling figure: Meacham focuses reader attention on the ways in which Jefferson was absolutely crucial to the establishment of a new nation, and the quotations he offers from Jefferson’s extensive writings help make this consummate statesman and intellectual come vibrantly alive: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” John Adams was “always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes absolutely mad.” “I know well that no man will ever bring out of that office [of the presidency] the reputation which carries him into it.” It is fascinating to contrast Jefferson’s approach to the presidency with that of modern presidents: “Jefferson governed personally. …Making speeches at other politicians was not the best way to earn their loyalty or their help. Inviting them to dinner was much more effective.” And it is equally fascinating to note ways Jefferson acted that would provoke howls of anger and significant political opposition today: “Nothing in the Constitution gave the president power to sign treaties such as this one [for the Louisiana Purchase]. …A slower or less courageous politician might have bungled the purchase; one who was too idealistic might have lost it by insisting on a constitutional amendment. Jefferson, however, was neither slow nor weak nor too idealistic.” What Jefferson was, however, was highly intelligent as well as highly practical, a combination that served him in good stead in founding the University of Virginia – one of his enduring legacies. Meacham’s simplified biography gives somewhat short shrift to Jefferson’s other legacies, especially those unrelated to politics, but it is, after all, a simplification; and young readers intrigued by elements at which the book only hints, or to which it gives only passing mention, will have many other places to go for additional information – inspired, perhaps, by the “Revolutionary War Times” appendix to Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher, or by another of the several back-of-the-book items included here, from Jefferson’s family tree to a recipe he wrote for macaroni.
Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite; The Wood-Nymph. Lahti Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $34.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 5. The Colburn Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Yarlung Records. $19.99.
Some orchestras take to some music with an intuitive understanding that comes through clearly to listeners even if they cannot quite put their finger on what makes the performances so effective. That is the case with the early Sibelius works played by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. The sprawling Lemminkäinen Suite and almost totally unknown early tone poem, The Wood-Nymph, are among the pieces that most strongly show Sibelius’ debt to Wagner. They are ones written before Sibelius started to develop his own strongly personal style, for all that they draw on mythic and poetic subjects that would continue to fascinate the composer throughout his artistic maturity. Only The Swan of Tuonela, the second movement of the Lemminkäinen Suite, is frequently played – rather too frequently, some might argue, although its absolutely magical tone-painting makes it a joy to hear anytime. Still, it makes more sense within the suite as a whole: the work’s four movements constitute an episodic exploration of legends from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, to which Sibelius was strongly drawn. The varying moods of the suite – the extended erotic playfulness of Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island; the timeless-sounding The Swan of Tuonela; the extended and meditative Lemminkäinen in Tuonela; and the galloping Lemminkäinen’s Return – show Sibelius exploring orchestral writing with a deft hand and a strong rhythmic sense, albeit without any particularly innovative scoring aside from the use of English horn to represent the swan. The overall Lemminkäinen Suite, whose movements were composed at different times, remains episodic, more so than – for example – Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. But the feeling of Sibelius’ music is so well communicated in Vänskä’s performance that it sweeps listeners along from start to finish. As for The Wood-Nymph, it sounds like and is structured like one of the late fairy-tale-based tone poems by Dvořák, offering effective and affecting tone-painting for a fairly straightforward story of a hero who, led astray by forest dwarves, falls in love with a wood nymph and thus gives up any chance of worldly happiness. Vänskä neatly highlights the contrasting themes of the hero, the dwarves, the nymph and the final realization of loss – and here as in the Lemminkäinen Suite, the orchestra plays with a sure sense of rhythm, balance and strength on a BIS recording accorded .very fine SACD sound
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, although smaller than a modern full-size ensemble, also offers considerable strength and warmth in Robin Ticciati’s Schumann cycle, but this is a less-successful release – not because of the playing but because of the conductor. Ticciati, a fine and strongly intuitive proponent of Berlioz and a generally well-focused leader, shows his immaturity here, disappointingly letting the finales of the first two symphonies get away from him as he indulges in wholly unjustified rubato and brings the musical progress repeatedly to a crawl or even (in the last movement of Symphony No. 2) a screeching halt. This is a real shame, because when Ticciati lets the music unfold naturally, as in the first three movements of the first two symphonies, there is a lightness and agility to the performances that listeners will find altogether winning. In trying, apparently, to assert greater control over the progress of the first two finales, Ticciati simply makes the music episodic (in Symphony No. 1) or inarticulate (in No. 2, which until the last movement has progressed in a strong and unusually stately manner). The last two symphonies fare much better than the first two in this (+++) Linn Records release. No. 3 is well framed by outer movements in analogous tempos, the three inner ones progressing nicely toward ever-greater seriousness until the finale releases the building tension. The last movement has a few quirks of tempo and rhythm, but not nearly as many as in the finales of the first two symphonies – with the result that this overall performance is significantly more successful. The best reading in this set, though, is of Symphony No. 4, whose careful integration (each movement following immediately upon the conclusion of the prior one) was so important to the composer. The 1851 version of this work, used here and in most recordings, tends to sound heavy and even dull because of the many doublings that Schumann inserted in revising what he had originally created a decade earlier. Here, though, Ticciati benefits enormously from the smaller size of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, managing to convey an impression of transparency along with solidity – and pacing the music with more care and attentiveness than he displays in the other three symphonies. The result is a very fine reading, at a level that one can only wish the other three symphonies also attained.
The performance itself is fine in a new Mahler Fifth for Yarlung Records, with the Colburn Orchestra – a first-rate conservatory ensemble – performing under Gerard Schwarz. What is not so fine here, though, is the conductor’s view of the music. Schwarz is no Mahlerian: this Mahler is pretty rather than profound. The intensity of the opening two movements is altogether missing, as if Mahler’s emphatic designations Trauermarsch and Wie ein Kondukt were missing from the first movement and Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz from the second. Mahler knew exactly what he wanted, here as elsewhere in his work – in this case, something dark, brooding and intense, from which the final three movements of the symphony would represent a climb to higher spheres. By giving insufficient weightiness to the symphony’s opening movements, Schwarz undermines the work’s overall “story arc.” The third movement, nicely paced and featuring fine solo horn playing by Johanna Yarbrough, becomes just another scherzo, not the expansive “second part” of the symphony, as Mahler designated it. And the fourth movement, the famous Adagietto, is simply too sweet, a saccharine meander without any hint of bite or emotional depth – very nicely played, but to very little purpose. The result is that the finale has nowhere in particular to go: there is little dark from which it can emerge into light, and little chance for this consciously plainspoken rondo to become a capstone of a work of considerable strength and intensity. The orchestra’s playing makes the disc deserving of a (+++) rating, and the sound of this recording of a live performance is quite good. But sensitivity to Mahler is missing: the orchestra members may have it as individuals, but Schwarz does not ask them to display it, and they obediently give him a reading that is too bland to deserve a wholehearted recommendation.
Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals; Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, transcribed by Claude Debussy; Variations on a Theme of Beethoven. Ferhan and Ferzan Önder, pianos; Zürcher Kammerorchester conducted by Howard Griffiths. Christophorus. $14.99.
Scarlatti: Sonatas K96, 381, 119, 197, 135, 322, 109, 141, 492, 146, 11, 17, 27, 87, 380, 209, 101 and 29. Igor Kamenz, piano. Naïve. $16.99.
Scott Pender: Music for Piano and Strings—Veil of Ignorance; Rhapsody, Elegy and Finale for Violin and Piano; Sonata for Viola and Piano; Sonata for Cello and Piano. New England String Trio (Julia Okrusko, violin; Lilit Muradyan, viola; Ming-Hui Lin, cello); Peter Sulski, violin and viola; David Russell, cello; Geoffrey Burleson, piano. Navona. $16.99.
Music for a Princess—works by J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, Buxtehude, and Nicolaus Bruhns. Annette Richards, organ. Loft Recordings. $18.99.
Yves Ramette: Organ Music. Yves Ramette, organ. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).
Considered as a work for two pianos rather than a jocular, lighthearted portrayal in music of multiple creatures, Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals is music requiring considerable virtuosity and a fair amount of nuance. The section called Pianists is, of course, purely for amusement, with the two performers sounding as if they are walking impatiently back and forth in a cage, like many animals in zoos of old. But the rest of the work is considerably more subtle where the pianos are concerned, requiring very different treatment in, for example, Royal March of the Lion, from what is needed in Aquarium and Aviary. It is the subtlety of Ferhan and Ferzan Önder that makes their 1997 performance of this work, now available as a Christophorus release, so delightful to hear and at the same time so aptly amusing – and the accompaniment by the Zürcher Kammerorchester under Howard Griffiths is in entirely the same spirit. The result is a thoroughly engaging performance. Debussy’s transcription of the violin showpiece, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, is another matter: the transcription itself is very well done, and certainly the work is quite well played here, but this music is distinctly violinistic rather than pianistic, and falls somewhat flat despite the quality of the Önders’ performance. There is no such quibble, however, about their handling of the Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, an infrequently heard Saint-Saëns piece originally written for two pianos and displaying considerable skill with the variation form as well as what is clearly a heartfelt tribute to a composer whom Saint-Saëns greatly admired.
Igor Kamenz clearly admires Domenico Scarlatti, and there is no question that his playing on a new Naïve CD is at the highest level. That is the good news. But while the performance itself is a (++++) one, listeners who remember that Scarlatti composed his wonderful sonatas for harpsichord rather than piano will find this more of a (+++) release – giving Kamenz full credit for skill but not for the way he expands the sonatas and fully utilizes the piano’s sound palette. There are some composers whose work seems often to transcend the instruments on which it is played – Bach is the clearest example – and certainly pianists have long since adopted Scarlatti’s music as their own. But Kamenz here seeks to make 18 of the 555 sonatas into something they were never intended to be: a kind of suite, organized by key, content and emotional impact. This is interesting, but it is not Scarlatti. It is far more justifiable, for example, to present a selection of the sonatas by giving some of the earlier ones, then some of the middle-period ones with their enormously complex hand-crossings, and then some of the later ones – in which the hand-crossings largely disappear and the emotional compass takes center stage. Kamenz, however, deliberately juxtaposes sonatas from Scarlatti’s fairly well-delineated compositional periods, then performs the works with fluency and even pathos beyond what the harpsichord can communicate. The result is a highly effective Kamenz piano disc that is not a highly effective Scarlatti one. Admirers of first-rate pianism will revel in this recording; Scarlatti aficionados, however, most likely will not.
The audience is certain to be smaller for the Scott Pender music on a new (+++) Navona CD entitled 88+12, an overly cute reference to the use of the piano’s 88 keys and the 12 strings of violin, viola and cello combined. Actually, only Veil of Ignorance (2010, revised 2011 and 2013) fits the “88+12” description, and it is a work filled with gestures, from the dramatic to the lyrical and from the modernistic/minimalist to the almost-Romantic. The title refers to the work of philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), who is unlikely to be familiar to most listeners and whose thinking is in any case not reflected in the music in any particularly apparent way. The “veil of ignorance” concept is a form of social contract in which participants do not know in advance where they stand in an imagined society. That would seem to invite aleatoric music, which, however, is not what Pender produces. However, listeners, unlike the performers, may find themselves somewhat unsure about where they are at any given time during the three movements of Veil of Ignorance. The remaining three works on this CD are “88+4” ones, and they are more immediately appealing. Rhapsody, Elegy and Finale for Violin and Piano (2009), its title but not its sensibility reminiscent of Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale, is filled with mood and textural contrasts. Sonata for Viola and Piano (2009) is a more-intense work, subtitled “From Old Notebooks” because Pender created it using material he sketched in the 1980s. Sonata for Cello and Piano (2009, revised 2013) is the longest work on the disc and a piece of considerable lyricism and mostly deliberate pace. All the performers handle the music with considerable skill and a level of give-and-take that is appropriate for even the most recently written chamber music. The solidity of the piano parts in the three works for solo string instruments helps anchor the music effectively.
There is fine keyboard playing of another sort, on the organ, in a recital by Annette Richards of music from the library of Prussian Princess Anna Amalia – who, like Anna Magdalena Bach, maintained a “notebook” (really an extensive music collection) of works that she herself played. A number of these works were in fact by J.S. Bach; those performed here include the Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 537; the Pièce d’Orgue, BWV 572; “Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele,” BWV 654; and “Ich ruf zu dir,” BWV Anh. II 73, arranged by C.P.E. Bach – whose own Sonata in G minor, a comparatively forward-looking work, also appears on the CD. In addition, Richards offers Buxtehude’s Toccata in F, BuxWV 156, and “Nun komm, der heiden Heiland,” the only surviving chorale fantasia by Nicolaus Bruhns (1665-1697). There is also a brief Duetto (Fugue) here by Princess Anna Amalia herself. Richards performs on a new (2011) Cornell University organ modeled on the 1706 Schnitger instrument of Charlottenburg Castle, Berlin; this is the first recording of the new Anabel Taylor Chapel organ. The melding of the new instrument with this particular blend of music is not always ideal, given the difference in sonic quality between the Cornell space and that of old Berlin. But Richards’ performances themselves are well-proportioned and carefully structured – although the works do not flow from one to the next in any particularly apposite sequence. This Loft Recordings release is a (+++) CD featuring fine playing of some music that is, in the main, not especially unusual; the “library of the princess” frame is more a convenience than a doorway to any particular profundity.
The solo-organ music of Yves Ramette (1921-2002) is a doorway not only into the composer’s thinking but also into his performing: the works on a new two-CD Navona release were recorded by Ramette between 1965 and 1993. Ramette played a Cavaillé-Coll organ in Paris, with all the grandeur implied by that instrument’s provenance coming forth in the four pieces heard here. An extended Toccata et Fugue is titled “In Memoriam Georges Guynemer” and is a tribute to the World War I flying ace (1894-1917); the work has all the grand gestures one would expect from its form as well as its dedication. Pour une Nuit de Noël is a three-movement celebration of the religious meaning of the season. Solum in Modum is a lengthy two-movement work in which Ramette carefully explores old forms in movements called Concerto and Riccercare. And Pastorale, which is also quite extended, ventures beyond its title into general expressions of beauty and wonder. The music could probably have fit on a single CD – the first disc here lasts only 28 minutes, the second 54 – but releasing it on two may encourage listeners to hear only some of it at any given time. The music benefits from that treatment: it is well-constructed and clearly heartfelt, but elements of several of the pieces are on the portentous and even pompous side, and Ramette does not always sustain throughout a work the moods and emotions he evokes early on. This (+++) release will be of considerable interest to anyone familiar with Ramette who wants to hear him as performer as well as composer. The music here is not, however, as readily accessible to listeners unfamiliar with Ramette as are some of his works for orchestra or instruments other than the organ.
September 11, 2014
The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories. By Dr. Seuss. Random House. $15.
Horton and the Kwuggerbug and More Lost Stories. By Dr. Seuss. Random House. $15.
The inimitable although often imitated Dr. Seuss (1904-1991) – whose pen name rhymes with “voice,” not with “loose” – continues to bestow gifts upon us even though he has long since departed this world. Thanks to the diligent research of Seuss aficionado Charles D. Cohen, short illustrated stories originally published in magazines – mostly in Redbook – are now available again in book form, their original illustrations color-enhanced to book quality. These are not “big” stories – there are no huge thematic revelations here, no introductions of outstanding but previously unknown characters, no new paths to follow for Seuss lovers of any and all ages. But there are some delightful further adventures of existing characters (or characters very similar to known ones), and some ongoing explorations of areas of continual Seuss focus: greed, imagination, very strange creatures, invented words, and the entirely logical extension of an initially ridiculous premise.
The seven stories in The Bippolo Seed and the four in Horton and the Kwuggerbug were not so much “lost” as misplaced, and Cohen’s introductions to the books explain how he found them and what the tales’ backgrounds are. The intros are fine for adults, but kids will justifiably skip straight to the stories themselves, as well they should. The Bippolo Seed is about a wondrous wish-granting seed and two characters who become overly greedy in imagining what they can get from it. The Rabbit, the Bear, and the Zinniga-Zanniga shows a quick-thinking rabbit outsmarting a hungry bear by noticing, or pretending to notice, something very small. Gustav, the Goldfish features a Seussian fish (resemblance to the one in The Cat in the Hat is scarcely surprising) that responds at great length, or rather great size, when overfed. Tadd and Todd is about twins trying to differentiate themselves through more and more outlandish approaches. Steak for Supper features a parade of oddball creatures following a boy home in hopes of sharing the family’s steak dinner. The Strange Shirt Spot is about a migrating spot, very much like the one in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, and the trouble it causes. And The Great Henry McBride is the story of a boy daydreaming of all the jobs he will do – simultaneously – when he grows up.
In the second book, Horton and the Kwuggerbug is another look at the always-honest elephant, here trapped in the phrase “a deal is a deal” by a crafty and devious bug. Marco Comes Late is one of those wonderful Seussian tall-tale stories, in which a boy explains at greater and greater length just why he did not get to school on time. How Officer Pat Saved the Whole Town is a hilarious logical-extension story, in which the policeman of the title imagines how one small event might cascade into larger and larger and larger ones, eventually putting the entire municipality at risk – if he fails to take action. And The Hoobub and the Grinch features a different Grinch from the one who stole Christmas, trying in a manipulative way to sell something unnecessary to a naïve Hoobub – and succeeding. Dr. Seuss, who himself did advertising work for a time, knew this subject particularly well, and parodied it here and elsewhere to considerable effect. But he was always gentle about it, and that is what all these formerly “lost” stories have in common: a gentle kind of humor, with gently delineated characters, making the tales’ morals and messages go down so easily that readers will scarcely be aware they have been given messages at all…until they think about the tales a bit more. It is the extent to which Dr. Seuss stories invite that sort of thoughtfulness that makes them so special – that is one thing that makes them exceptional, anyway. For more – plenty more – regale yourself with these rediscovered stories and re-meet a doctor whose influence has scarcely waned in the two-decades-plus since his demise.
Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $17.99.
Fancy Nancy’s Fabulous Fall Storybook Collection. By Jane O’Connor. Pictures based on the art of Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $11.99.
Fancy Nancy and the Fall Foliage. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Carolyn Bracken, based on the art of Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperFestival. $4.99.
Fancy Nancy: Sand Castles and Sand Palaces. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Carolyn Bracken, based on the art of Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperFestival. $4.99.
Pete the Cat and the New Guy. By Kimberly and James Dean. Harper. $17.99.
Pete the Cat: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. By James Dean. Harper. $9.99.
Pete the Cat’s Super Cool Reading Collection. By Kimberly and James Dean. Harper. $16.99.
Some characters in children’s books are distinguished by the way they and their adventures can happen anytime, can be specific to a particular time, and can be used for teaching reading as well as simply being sources of enjoyment. Fancy Nancy and Pete the Cat are two of the most versatile of these characters around. Nancy, the little girl with the tremendously overdone outfits and the fondness for French words (and big English ones), is one of the most attractive creations found in books for girls today. Jane O’Connor’s little girl is a planner and a schemer, a wisher and a dreamer, and her preoccupation with looking and being “fancy” makes her thoroughly endearing as well as giving O’Connor and illustrator Robin Preiss Glasser plenty of opportunities to present overdone, overly complicated but always amusing scenes in which Nancy’s imagination and penchant for fanciness lead her astray. In Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century, for example, she falls asleep on a car trip to the planned wedding of her uncle, and dreams of the fanciest possible wedding and her own super-fancy appearance in it. Then she wakes up, the family arrives in the wilderness where the wedding is to take place, and Nancy realizes that nothing is going to be fancy after all. She eventually discovers that even some not-clearly-fancy things can be unusual, involving and delightful, and has a wonderful time at the early-morning ceremony and the pancake reception afterwards. That’s Nancy: determined, driven, delightful.
Fancy Nancy’s Fabulous Fall Storybook Collection contains six Fancy Nancy tales originally published between 2009 and 2013, written by O’Connor and illustrated by – well, that is not quite clear, since the art is listed as being “based on” that of Glasser, but Glasser herself holds the copyright to all of it. The book’s cover is certainly by her, and it is a charmer, showing Nancy dressed for Halloween, in a tutu replete with fall colors, carrying a bag that says “Treat merci!” The stories here are Fancy Nancy: Halloween…or Bust!; Fancy Nancy: Fancy Day in Room 1-A; Fancy Nancy: Splendid Speller; Fancy Nancy: Apples Galore!; Fancy Nancy: The 100th Day of School; and Fancy Nancy: Our Thanksgiving Banquet. The tales’ titles make the fall focus clear; equally clear is the way in which Nancy’s aspirations to fanciness will sometimes be indulged and sometimes be brought up short by everyday reality. Nancy rebounds neatly from all sorts of minor disappointments – this is another of the many elements of her charm. To cite one example among many, she wears a clever “grapes” costume to a Halloween party, using balloons to make herself grapelike – but the balloons pop one by one, until all are gone, leaving Nancy distraught: “‘This is disastrous!’ I cry. That is a fancy way of saying very bad.” Within a couple of pages, though, “after some punch and many bonbons, I feel much better. Then I get a brilliant idea that is both fancy and smart.” You can’t keep Nancy down – the six tales in Fancy Nancy’s Fabulous Fall Storybook Collection show just how impossible that is.
And then there are short Fancy Nancy seasonal books that include extras, such as the stickers in both Fancy Nancy and the Fall Foliage and Fancy Nancy: Sand Castles and Sand Palaces. The autumnal book has Nancy and her little sister, JoJo, helping their parents rake leaves, as Nancy collects the especially fancy ones and tries to come up with a suitable project for displaying them – which, of course, she does. The summer book has Nancy and family, with Nancy’s best friend, Bree, braving “terrible, awful, and horrendous” traffic during a ride to the beach, then building a sand castle so fancy that Nancy dubs it a “sand palace,” and then losing the whole thing to a wave. But, of course, Nancy rebounds quickly from the disappointment, and everyone just starts building all over again. These are short and simple books in which the stickers provide a nice added attraction – nothing profound here, but plenty of chances to enjoy Fancy Nancy in new guises and new circumstances.
Pete the Cat is a more boy-oriented character and just as redoubtable in his own way. In some stories by James Dean and some by him and his wife, Kimberly, the sleepy-eyed Pete, usually wearing an expression of befuddlement, encounters situations from the everyday to the absurd, overcoming minor difficulties with a combination of good luck and persistence. A lot of the fun of these rather thin stories is in the drawings, whose absurdity is highlighted by (for example) Pete’s wearing of four orange sneakers and the persistent appearance in scenes of a turtle. The writing is repetitious and geared for very young children: both the Pete tales and those about Fancy Nancy officially target ages 4-8, but in the case of Pete the Cat, 3-6 is more accurate. You do have to give the Deans credit for some unusual ideas: in Pete the Cat and the New Guy, for example, the new kid in the neighborhood turns out to be – a platypus. As in many Pete books, there is a frequently repeated refrain. Here, it is, “Don’t be sad, don’t be blue. There is something everyone can do!” And of course there turns out to be something that Gus can do after all – despite his initial concern about being unable to do things that Pete’s other friends do with ease. The use of repetitious writing, and the frequent inclusion of references to music, make it natural for some Pete books to be illustrations of nursery rhymes, an example being Pete the Cat: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Here are the familiar words of the song’s first verse and the less-familiar ones that come afterwards, and here are some typically amusing illustrations, the funniest of which shows Pete in star-spangled pajamas, walking on all fours – with a bedroom slipper on each of his four feet.
Both Fancy Nancy and Pete the Cat appear in some books in the I Can Read! series, and both characters can be good guides for kids who are just learning to read on their own and who already enjoy these characters from books that have been read to them. Parents who especially like Pete will welcome the chance to get five paperbacks from the “My First” reading category (“ideal for sharing with emergent readers”) in Pete the Cat’s Super Cool Reading Collection. The books, some dating to 2013 and some just published this year, are Pete the Cat: Too Cool for School; Pete the Cat: Pete at the Beach; Pete the Cat: A Pet for Pete; Pete the Cat: Pete’s Big Lunch; and Pete the Cat: Play Ball! The amusing adventures and misadventures all explore Pete’s personality and his interactions with his friends in much the same way, and the stories are all designed to be as simple as possible to read and understand. In Pete the Cat: A Pet for Pete, for example, Pete gets his first pet, a goldfish named Goldie, and paints a picture of the fish for his mom. Then Pete’s friends notice the picture and start asking Pete to make pictures for them, too, and soon everyone wants a painting of Goldie: “‘I wish I could paint pictures for everyone. I just don’t have time,’” says Pete. But with his typical enthusiasm and a little help from his mom, Pete figures out what to do – and young readers (and almost-ready-to-be-readers) will find the solution clever and enjoyable. Parents who want this particular book in a standalone hardcover edition can get it that way, priced at $16.99. Parents who prefer to have this book along with several others featuring Pete will prefer the paperbacks in Pete the Cat’s Super Cool Reading Collection. Either way, Pete, like Fancy Nancy, can be a fine character for young children to meet, spend time with, and use as a guide to becoming ever-better readers.
How to Speak Brit: The Quintessential Guide to the King’s English, Cockney Slang, and Other Flummoxing British Phrases. By Christopher J. Moore. Gotham Books. $20.
Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas. By John Pollack. Gotham Books. $27.
Incomplete rather than “quintessential,” Christopher J. Moore’s How to Speak Brit is nevertheless enjoyable enough, and fact-packed enough, to be both informative and a lot of fun. The book professes to show English speakers (American version) how “real” English speakers (British version) talk, why they use particular phrases in specific ways, and where some idioms come from. It largely fails in the last of these endeavors, with Moore quite often saying no one is sure where this word or that, this phrase or that, comes from. But in other respects, this short book (a mere 120 pages) has a good deal of highly engaging information. There are numerous explanations of British words and phrases that Americans are unlikely to know, such as “send someone to Coventry” (ostracize or ignore the person), “gone for a Burton” (World War II phrase used of an airman who had been killed or was missing in action), “pottering” (Americans would say “puttering,” the reference in Britain being specifically to doing little things in one’s garden), “curate’s egg” (something that is good in parts but not as a whole), and “lollipop man” (“crossing guard” in the United States). Oddly, though, there are also a number of entries of words and phrases that Moore seems to think are uniquely British but that will be quite familiar in the U.S.: “Dickensian,” “binge-drinking,” “goody two shoes,” “lame duck,” “by hook or by crook,” “raining cats and dogs,” and many more. When Moore does present the history or derivation of a word or phrase, the information is often fascinating: “yob” (hooligan), for example, is “boy” spelled backward, while “whinge” (complain or moan) derives from “whine” but refers to the content of the complaint rather than its sound. There is a lot left out of How to Speak Brit – for example, the very brief entry on Cockney rhyming slang, under the entry “dog and bone,” is a tremendous disservice to some highly colorful language, compounded by the fact that Moore does not really explain how the system works or why. But this is a book to enjoy for what it is rather than one to criticize for what it is not. There is something purely delightful in reading about shandy (beer mixed with lemonade or ginger beer), toff (someone with more money than sense), and argy-bargy (a playful word for a disagreement) – far better to enjoy what is here than to bemoan what is left out.
There is less amusement and more seriousness in the use of language as discussed by former Bill Clinton speechwriter John Pollack in Shortcut. Pollack here analyzes analogies, those figures of speech in which something is compared to something else with, ideally, a subtle use of framing to make a difficult subject seem easy or a complex one simple. Pollack, of course, draws largely on politics to make his points; for instance, he discusses President George W. Bush’s comment on criticism of the U.S. war in Iraq, “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.” Pollack correctly argues that this analogy to childhood rules and requirements subtly indicates that the United States will not be treated like a disobedient child by the international community – raising American listeners’ ire even though, in reality, war and school permission slips have nothing to do with each other. The point of analogies, in fact, is that they make things seem to be parallel even when they are not: good analogies can certainly make difficult subjects understandable, but poor or manipulative ones (like some of those created by Pollack himself) can be designed to move public opinion with more subtlety than propaganda but no more truthfulness. Analogies, Pollack writes, meet five criteria: using what is familiar to explain what is not; highlighting the similarities between things while passing over or obscuring differences; identifying useful abstractions; telling a coherent story; and resonating emotionally – a particular requirement for analogies in the political context. “Analogies encourage and sometimes even force our thoughts in certain directions,” says Pollack, and of course this has value far beyond politics – in advertising, for example. Pollack’s discussions of ads and of attempts to change public perception in other ways – by making football games seem less like war in order to draw more female fans, for example – are trenchant and well considered. Other elements of Shortcut go farther afield, though, with somewhat less success, such as his discussion of the Wright Brothers on the basis that flight is analogous to riding a bicycle – a point that could have been made more effectively at less length. Still, Pollack brings up intriguing elements regarding analogies, such as Thomas Edison’s citation of them as one of the three essential qualities for an inventor (the first being persistence, the second imagination, and the third “a logical mind that sees analogies”) and Albert Einstein’s remark that elemental laws cannot be discovered through logic but only through “a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” The usefulness of thinking by using analogies becomes clear in a variety of anecdotes in Shortcut, such as the discussion of Swiss engineer George de Mistral’s analogical development of Velcro after finding his socks covered in tiny burrs. This particular analogy was not exactly a shortcut, since the development took 15 years; but in other cases, the effect of analogies is nearly immediate, and this can be true when analogies compete. Pollack points this out when comparing Ford’s notoriously unsuccessful Edsel being described in positive terms by The New York Times as having taillights with “the graceful wingspread of a sea gull” but by others as having a front grille that looked like a toilet seat – the latter analogy being the one that captured the public’s imagination and doomed the car. Pollack is, unsurprisingly, rather too forgiving of the use (and misuse) of analogies in politics, although he does note that these comparisons can be taken to vicious extremes, as when Adolf Hitler referred to Jews as “a virus” and compared his treatment of them to “the same sort of battle waged…by Pasteur and [German physician Heinrich] Koch.” Shortcut is scarcely a complete exploration of thinking and persuading by analogy, but it is a well-written and often entertaining one, even though it comes to the rather wishy-washy conclusion that “while a good shortcut is a great thing, a bad one can lead us astray.” True. And it is worth remembering that the author was, for a time, in the business of explicitly creating analogies designed to lead people, if not astray, at least in a particular direction. Indeed, he remains in an analogous business – as a communications consultant for politicians and Fortune 500 companies.
The School for Good and Evil 2: A World without Princes. By Soman Chainani. Harper. $16.99.
Kate the Great #1: Except When She’s Not. By Suzy Becker. Crown. $12.99.
There is potential, and then there is potential unfulfilled, and then there is potential not fulfilled yet. Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil was fraught with potential, a wonderful debut novel that not only turned fairy-tale tropes on their head but also raised some genuinely thoughtful questions about good, evil and the many grey areas in between. The book cried out for a sequel, and its conclusion made it clear that there would be one, although how there would be one was a reasonable question, since the novel’s chief manipulator/evildoer was thoroughly defeated (to the point of being dead). Now we know how: through a distinctly inferior followup novel that eliminates the thoughtfulness of the original, creates a substitute for the primary bad guy of the first book, and eventually even finds a way to resurrect that initial evil character – in a bit of plot absurdity that borrows rather too much from the fairy-tale concepts that Chainani neatly twisted and embellished in his first outing. The original idea of a world in which stereotypical Good and Evil characters attend separate academies that are really part of a single school was an excellent one. And the basic plot mover was very clever: two girls being brought to the school and placed – so they believe – in the wrong sections of it. It turns out, in the first book, that the girl placed in Evil belongs there, despite her princess-like appearance and mannerisms, while the one placed in Good may look dark and witchy but is actually in the correct place as well. Eventually reconciled despite many dangers and misunderstandings, the girls at the end escape the school and its fairy-tale world altogether. But in the second book, that world calls to them again, and when they return this time, they find that the opposing school contingents are now not Good and Evil but Boys and Girls. Oh, that’s original. And it is only one of a series of disappointments in A World without Princes. Sophie, who looks angelic but is a very foul witch internally, is so overdone in this book that any balance between her and actually-good Agatha is completely lost. Sophie has become a cardboard character, a type, utterly narcissistic, manipulative, untruthful, scheming, and all the other things one would expect of an Evil character: there is no tension anymore, except insofar as readers will wonder why Agatha is such an idiot that it takes her considerable time to realize what Sophie is and what she is doing. Yes, Agatha has been simplified, too, turned into a slow-witted, slow-on-the-uptake character who knows what she has to do but constantly questions herself and doubts herself and ties herself into knots because maybe, maybe, just maybe all the evidence involving Sophie is wrong. This is simplification to the point of caricature, and this is what Chainani does throughout the book with other characters as well, including other girls as well as the teachers and the absurdly overdone dean of the girls’ school (who is so formulaic that she would be twirling a mustache if she had one). What rescues A World without Princes from the abyss of total mediocrity is the quality of Chainani’s writing: even with so unpromising a plot, he manages to create cinematic scenes whose action-packed pace will keep many readers interested and unconcerned about the gaping plot holes and dumbing-down of the whole story arc. The result is a book that is a lot of fun to read and almost no fun at all to think about – a real shame, since the first book invited both enjoyment and thoughtfulness. However, there is sure to be a sequel to this sequel, and hopefully Chainani will find his way back to an approach that transcends the ordinary instead of becoming mired in it.
Bright writing and pleasant pacing rescue the first Kate the Great book from mediocrity, too, although its plot is so ordinary that it might as well have been taken from a list called “what to write for middle schoolers.” Using the increasingly popular form of a highly illustrated book containing tons of drawings “by” the title character – a format that is not quite novel, not quite graphic novel – Suzy Becker makes Kate the usual caught-in-the-middle middle child, with a too-good-to-be-true older sister and too-cute-to-be-real younger sister. Kate has the usual middle-school issues to handle: school and homework assignments, friends and frenemies (no out-and-out enemies here), and family-relationship matters. There is nothing at all creative about her list of problems and concerns, but there is creativity in Becker’s illustrations “by” Kate, and they are what save the book and make it an enjoyable series launch. The “also known as” self-portraits on the inside front cover give an immediate clue to how “Kate” draws and thinks, and the many illustrations within the story rescue it, time and again, from becoming just another recitation of middle-school sort-of-angst. Becker clearly has a great time with these drawings – she even encloses the book’s back-cover bar code in a “Kate-drawn” zebra – and readers will, too: the moon, carrying an umbrella, three times reminds Kate that her music teacher said “well done, Kate”; a pie chart shows several possible explanations of “why I said ‘what?’”; “Robin’s cross-eyed fish face” is drawn three ways, including “Calder style – my favorite”; a drawing of a building portrays “Mrs. Staughton’s Brilliant Idea Factory”; there are pictures of potential new ways to communicate, including “singing gorilla” and “friendship herbs”; and so on. The underlying plot elements, such as Kate giving “frenemy” Nora a horse figurine belonging to older sister Robin and then having to figure out how to get it back, apologize and mend fences all around, are nothing special. But the way the story is told is special, and that is what can propel the Kate the Great series from now on. Potentially.
Lehár: Wo die Larche singt. Gerhard Ernst, Sieglinde Feldhofer, Yevgeny Tauntsov, Wolfgang Gerold, Miriam Portmann, Florian Resetarits, Sinja Maschke; Chor des Lehár Festivals Bad Ischl and Franz Lehár-Orchester conducted by Marius Burkert. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Bartók: Kossuth—Symphonic Poem; Two Portraits; Suite No. 1. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3—original version (1873). Altomonte Orchester St. Florian conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $18.99.
Mozart: Bassoon Concerto; Françaix: Divertissement for Bassoon and String Orchestra; Vivaldi: Bassoon Concerto in C, RV 472; Villa-Lobos: Ciranda das Sete Notas for Bassoon and String Orchestra; Elgar: Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra. Rui Lopes, bassoon; English Chamber Orchestra. Solo Musica. $18.99.
Many, many people know Franz Lehár as the composer of the incomparably tuneful, gorgeously and seductively scored Die lustige Witwe, one of the greatest operettas ever written. Fewer, although still a fair number, know of his longtime collaboration with Richard Tauber after World War I, a relationship that blossomed through works such as Paganini and Das Land des Lächelns. But very few music lovers know of the Lehár who composed between The Merry Widow and the later Tauber-focused works. This is the Lehár of war and the runup to it, the composer whose world of elegant salons and flippant aristocratic dalliances collapsed around him as World War I systematically destroyed rulers and their empires. This is the Lehár of Endlich allein (1914), Der Sterngucker (1916) and Wo die Lerche singt (1918). The last of these was the most affected by the war, having been largely written in 1915-16 and completed in 1917. It is almost wholly unknown nowadays, although it was in its time the composer’s second-most-successful work at Theater an der Wein, trailing only Die lustige Witwe. And it was the only Lehár operetta to have its première in Budapest – fitting, since the whole work is set in Hungary, to which the setting was moved because of the war (the work was originally to take place in Russia, which was on the other side in the conflict). CPO’s recording of Wo die Lerche singt is a very fine one and will be of exceptional interest to those who love Lehár and are interested in the way he developed into a composer of sentimental dramas with unhappy endings – along the lines of his good friend Puccini, whose own La Rondine (1920) shares many of the feelings expressed by Lehár in Wo die Lerche singt. The libretto set by Lehár (based on a German play from the 1840s) is a standard upstanding-country-vs.-corrupt-city tale: naïve young country girl falls for an artist who paints her while visiting her small town, follows him to the city, but discovers after some months that town life is not for her and she is not for him – so she returns to the country and her spurned fiancé, and he goes back to his sophisticated former lover. The ending is bittersweet rather than heartbreaking – less emotionally fraught than the conclusions of later Lehár operettas – and the characterizations are on the one-dimensional side. But the music is highly expressive, especially in the effective way Lehár contrasts country girl Margit (Sieglinde Feldhofer) with city woman Vilma (Miriam Portmann). The various relatives, hangers-on and servants all fill their roles effectively, while Margit’s grandfather, Török Pál (Gerhard Ernst), makes an effective contrast to the superficial, city-focused painter, Sándor Zápolja (Yevgeny Tauntsov). In music and plot, Wo die Lerche singt is neither here nor there – it is easy to see it, with hindsight, as a transitional work for Lehár. It is nevertheless effective on its own terms and as representative of a time of enormous upheaval in the composer’s life and in the world in which he lived and worked. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the recording – of a live performance – is significantly undermined for English speakers by the absence of a libretto or any link to one online. The audience in Bad Ischl frequently reacts to elements of the dialogue and music that those not fluent in German will be wholly unable to understand. CPO’s very brief synopsis of the operetta’s action is no substitute for access to a translated libretto – it is a real shame that the company persists in undermining the excellence of its Lehár releases by preventing non-German speakers from understanding the musical numbers’ words and the very extensive dialogue and thus from enjoying the performances fully.
The Bad Ischl Festival specializes in less-known Lehár; JoAnn Falletta focuses on the obscure, too, but casts a wider net by performing less-known music by well-known composers as well as works whose creators are themselves unfamiliar. Falletta’s new Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra CD on the Naxos label offers works by Bartók that are so intriguing that their comparative obscurity is hard to explain. True, they are early works, in which the composer was still groping toward a unique style and his later intense focus on folk music. But these pieces communicate so well and are so interestingly orchestrated that one would expect orchestras seeking something out of the ordinary to play them at least from time to time. Perhaps this very well-performed CD will encourage some to do so. Kossuth is a dramatic symphonic poem whose subject is the unsuccessful 1848 battle for Hungarian independence – part of Europe-wide protests and rebellions in that year. The scene-setting may remind some listeners of works such as Dvořák’s Hussite Overture, despite the difference in sound and the fact that Bartók’s work does not end with a musical promise of eventual triumph. Bartók does offer some very well-done musical storytelling here, albeit in line with what was being done by others in the late 19th century (especially in Richard Strauss’ tone poems) rather than in any significantly personalized direction. Two Portraits, featuring a fine solo violin performance by Michael Ludwig, is a work of strong contrasts between the initial, comparatively lengthy Ideal: Andante and the following, much shorter Grotesque: Presto. Again, there is nothing new here musically, despite the considerable emotional impact. But Suite No. 1, first performed in 1905 and revised in 1920, does hint strongly at the direction in which Bartók was to go: it follows the well-worn form of the Baroque suite, with five movements in contrasting tempos and expressiveness, but its orchestration is unusual in mixing clarity and fullness – and its demands on performers look all the way ahead to the decades-later Concerto for Orchestra. This is a work of considerable interest that might be heard more often if it were not by Bartók, of whom we expect certain things that this piece does not yet fully deliver. Falletta makes a very strong case for the Suite No. 1 to be performed more frequently.
Another strong case, and an unusual one, is made for Bruckner’s Third Symphony by the Altomonte Orchester St. Florian under Rémy Ballot. This would scarcely seem, at first glance, to be a little-known work – but it is, in the version heard on this Gramola CD. Ballot does something rare here, performing the first (1873) version of the symphony, the one that Wagner allowed Bruckner to dedicate to him (Bruckner had asked Wagner to choose either his Second or his Third for the dedication). The labeling of this work as the “Wagner Symphony” likely puzzles some modern audiences, because in its later, more-often-performed revisions (1877 and 1889), it is not particularly Wagnerian except in scale. Indeed, this is the most-revised Bruckner symphony – there are six versions, and the very first is the grandest, especially when taken at the slow and stately pace that Bruckner wanted: this performance runs a full hour and a half (all of which, remarkably, the engineers at Gramola have managed to fit onto a single disc, in an extraordinary display of technical prowess: a CD almost never includes more than 80 minutes of music). Ballot does a fine job emphasizing the “Brucknerian” elements of the symphony, which is filled with quotations from Wagner’s works but is also the first Bruckner symphony in which the composer’s own unique style comes through clearly, from the opening trumpet motto that unites the work to the overall sense of majesty and monumental structure that listeners will readily identify as “typical” of Bruckner. Various conductors in recent times have successfully emphasized the Schubertian elements of Bruckner’s work and the delicacy with which he sometimes employs sections of the orchestra and even individual instruments – and this is a justifiable approach for the Third, particularly when conducting later versions of it. But in playing the first version, a large and strong sound is clearly called for, and this is what Ballot and his orchestra deliver. Together with their sensitivity to the symphony’s structure, it is the performers’ clear appreciation of the monumental elements of this work that makes this live recording an altogether winning one.
A combination of less-known and better-known music adds up to a very fine Solo Musica CD featuring bassoonist Rui Lopes and the English Chamber Orchestra. Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, with cadenzas by Lopes himself, is the centerpiece of the CD, played with verve and a fine sense of ensemble and fully exploring the bassoon’s varied moods, from the virtuosic to the comedic. Vivaldi’s concerto RV 472, one of more than three dozen that he wrote for the bassoon, is also a pleasure to hear: bright and relatively uncomplicated, it lets the soloist take center stage without requiring too much intensity or expressivity – what matters here is poise and balance. The same is true of Elgar’s poetic Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra of 1909-10, here receiving its world première recording in an arrangement that Lopes made for string orchestra. Elgar himself arranged the work for cello and orchestra, and its songfulness fits well on either solo instrument and also works in the Lopes string arrangement – although there is no particular reason to play it using strings alone as accompaniment, except perhaps to provide an even stronger focus on the soloist. Heitor Villa-Lobos’s 1933 Ciranda das Sete Notas was created for bassoon and string orchestra in the first place, and the blending and interplay during this dance fantasia come through very well in Lopes’ recording. Also here is Jean Françaix’s Divertissement, which receives its world première recording in a version for bassoon and string orchestra and which also sounds very fine indeed. Interestingly, this 1942 work was designed by the composer for full orchestra or string quintet, so the string-orchestra version is not much of a stretch. The Lopes disc bears the rather unnecessary title Through Time, presumably intended to show how the bassoon has been handled by composers from the 18th century well into the 20th. What is more interesting about this CD than the time span is the way in which the works frequently showcase the bassoon’s thoughtful and poetic potential rather than the amusingly bubbly sound with which it is more-often identified. The Elgar is the clearest example of this, but there are elements of this sort of sensitivity in all the works here, and Lopes’ warmth and fine breath control make his instrument’s emotive capabilities very clear indeed.