April 17, 2014

(++++) PUZZLED


Techie Tiger 300-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle. By Robert Pizzo. Pomegranate. $14.95.

When I Am Not Myself. By Kathy DeZarn Beynette. Pomegranate. $14.95.

     If books can be puzzling, it seems only fair that puzzles can be “book-ing.” Or at least book-ish. Techie Tiger is a character in Robert Pizzo’s very clever The Amazing Animal Alphabet of Twenty-Six Tongue Twisters, published by Pomegranate last year. The page devoted to him reads, “Techie Teenage Texas Tiger Texts Text To Tennessee Toads.” And there you see Techie, complete with 10-gallon hat, sprawled on a bed amid typical teen technology, with a poster of the Tennessee Toads rock band on the wall, texting “C U @ the show” to the musicians. It is a very funny scene, made more so by the realistic-looking-but-deliberately-overdone tiger art on which it is centered. It is also a very colorful scene, with primary colors splashed everywhere and complemented with judicious use of black, white and grey. It is, in fact, a scene that lends itself very well to enlargement, and now it is available in a two-foot-by-18-inch size. The catch: you have to put it together, slowly and carefully. Pomegranate has turned Techie Tiger into the star of a 300-piece jigsaw puzzle, which comes packaged in a sturdy cardboard box inside which the pieces are presented within a resealable one-gallon plastic bag – the better to keep them together. The “ArtPiece Puzzle” line is a unique bit of entertainment from Pomegranate, with puzzles drawn from fine art, architecture and other fields as well as, in this case, a book for young readers. An unusually clever spinoff, Techie Tiger 300-Piece Jigsaw Puzzle is a great deal of fun to look at, a challenge (but not an unreasonably difficult one) to assemble, and a fine tie-in to encourage reading of Pizzo’s book for anyone who may encounter the puzzle without having read the work from which it is drawn. The book itself is offbeat and unusual, the pulling of a puzzle from Pizzo’s pages perhaps proving the perceptive perspicacity of Pomegranate’s promotional penchant. See? Pizzo’s alliteration is catching.

     The puzzling is of a different sort in Kathy DeZarn Beynette’s When I Am Not Myself and is altogether more existential – not that that word itself appears in a short, small-size hardcover book intended for young readers. The “who am I?” notion, though, can be a puzzle at any age, and that is what Beynette explores wittily and a touch wistfully here. Each page features a full-color illustration of a four-line piece of poetic whimsy and thoughtfulness focusing on an animal that the reader may “be” at one time or another: “When I’m a Giraffe/ My food’s high on a shelf;/ I put it up there/ To share just with myself.” Most entries also show an earlier version of the finished illustration – one in which words, art or both differed from the final product. The Giraffe, for example, has its neck bent much farther back in the early drawing than in the final one, but the quatrain is the same. For the Zebra, the animal’s entire pose changes subtly between the two pieces of art, and the original plain background becomes a checkerboard. The poem changes, too, ending up: “When I am a Zebra/ My stripes look OK,/ But I’d like to try/ Wearing checks for one day.” In the original version, the middle lines read, “I’m sure stripes look okay,/ But I just want to try.” Small differences, perhaps, but ones sufficient to induce Beynette to make changes before completing the page. There is some social commentary in When I Am Not Myself, as in the piece about kittens, which has the word “adopt” at the top: “When I am a Kitten/I wait in a row/ For someone to love,/ For someplace to go.” But by and large, the book is simply an imaginative journey through the minds and appearances of various animals as a child might think of them. And it ends, suitably and winningly, with a page that starts, “When I am Myself,” featuring eight different self-imaginings as animals – not all of which have appeared previously in the book, but all of which are both charming and amusing….as is the entire book itself.

(++++) SIMPLE AND SWEET


Peanut Butter and Jellyfish. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $16.99.

Peek-a-Boo Bunny. By Holly Surplice. Harper. $9.99.

     For the earliest readers, meaning from around age three or four up to age seven or eight, simple, straightforward stories with a touch of humor can have a great deal of impact – and can influence kids’ interest in learning to read more-complex books over time. Peanut Butter and Jellyfish has Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s usual slightly skewed view of the world, along with his oddball drawings: Peanut Butter, a seahorse, does look somewhat like a real seahorse; but Jellyfish, a, well, jellyfish, has a big, irregularly oval head with huge smiling mouth and big eyes, and some sort-of-tentacles trailing behind. The point here is not verisimilitude, of course: this is a simple story of friendship and of what to do if someone is not very nice to you but is basically an all-right character. That someone is Crabby, who is true to his name, sitting on a rock and taunting the two friends as they swim past: “You guys swim like humans!” “I’ve seen sea snails swim with more style.” That sort of thing. But then Crabby gets in trouble: he gets caught in a lobster trap (which Krosoczka shows being tossed into the water not during the story but beforehand, on the inside front cover). Crabby, being lifted toward the surface, admits he is frightened, and the two friends realize they have to help him even though he has never been nice to them. So Peanut Butter and Jellyfish unlock the cage – and when Crabby admits he cannot swim and is afraid of heights, they untie the trap from the rope holding it and lower it gently to the ocean floor (leaving the fisherman, who reappears on the inside back cover, looking unhappy and bewildered). Crabby is safe, he “was brave enough to apologize” for all the unkind things he has said, and now there are three friends happily exploring the ocean. Clearly having a moral but not told in a moralistic tone, Peanut Butter and Jellyfish is easy and enjoyable to read and look at, and makes its point both gently and firmly.

     There is no ethical point in Holly Surplice’s Peek-a-Boo Bunny, but this too is a simple, nicely told story with a twist. The whole book is about Bunny being “it” in a game of hide-and-seek – and repeatedly missing the hiding places of his friends, because he is so enthusiastic about the game and, it must be said, so unobservant, despite attempts by his friend Mole to help him.  Mole, for example, points to Turtle hiding among some rocks, but Bunny “rushes by and speeds right past.” As Owl flies directly overhead, Surplice writes, “Bunny searching on the ground –/ if only he would turn around!” But again and again, Bunny is in the right place but not focused on locating his friends. Eventually “his smile is turning to a frown,” but just then, all the other animals come out of hiding and shout, “Peek-a-Boo!” And everything ends with smiles and a little Bunny-and-Mole dance that is especially charmingly drawn. Peek-a-Boo Bunny is particularly easy to read, and the very simple rhymes are fun for young children – or adults – to say aloud. Early readers will soon move beyond the book, but until they do, they will be charmed by Bunny’s misadventures and likely want to enjoy them again and again.

(+++) PRETEEN PERSONALITY PIECES


Alice-Miranda 4: Alice-Miranda at Sea. By Jacqueline Harvey. Delacorte Press. $14.99.

Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits. By Michael D. Bell. Knopf. $15.99.

Lost Children of the Far Islands. By Emily Raabe. Knopf. $16.99.

     The fourth adventure of ever-perky, decidedly rich, unassuming and always-helpful Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones continues in the vein of the first three by offering a mild mystery and tons of charm oozing from every page. Jacqueline Harvey’s books may be formulaic, but the formula is enough fun to keep fans of Alice-Miranda and her decidedly upscale adventures reading. The posh doings this time occur aboard a ship – a royal yacht, no less – aboard which Aunty Gee is hosting the wedding of Aunt Charlotte to Lawrence Ridley. Absolutely all the upper-crust types are there, even the insufferable Ambrosia Headlington-Bear, who is invited because she is the mother of Alice-Miranda’s friend Jacinta but who does not even realize that Jacinta is aboard until Alice-Miranda tells her: “I was invited because I always get invited to these things,” Ambrosia declares, and is less than thrilled to find out that in this case she was invited because of her daughter. Amid the family snootiness is the mystery that Alice-Miranda needs to figure out, which involves a possible jewel thief aboard and some jewels perhaps hidden in a trumpet case – and a ship’s doctor who looks entirely too familiar for someone Alice-Miranda is sure, or pretty sure, she has never met before. Alice-Miranda has a good word for everyone, as usual. Typical dialogue, from one single scene: “Please, I’m a very good listener.” “Your mother was famous.” “That’s so beautiful.” “That’s a wonderful story.” “I’m just glad that things have worked out.” In reality, it talks a little bit of effort for things to work out here, as secrets are revealed, an evil (and silly) scheme is uncovered, and bad guys make comments such as, “Keep your hair on, little one.” Eventually, parents and kids are reconciled, friendships are made or cemented, and Alice-Miranda is so sweet and nice and wonderful that she has plenty of heroism left over to share with friends and carry over to the next book.

     There is heroism aplenty in Michael D. Bell’s Lantern Sam and the Blue Streak Bandits as well – much of it in the person of Lantern Sam, who is not a person at all. He is a male calico cat (those are very rare: almost all calicoes are female), looking quite bedraggled and very much the worse for wear, who lives aboard a fictional train called the Lake Erie Shoreliner in the 1930s and who just happens to be a great detective. He also talks a mighty good game – yes, talks, although only a few people can hear him. Such as 10-year-old Henry Shipley, who is aboard the train and who meets a girl named Ellie who soon disappears, with a ransom note shortly to follow and a mystery to be unraveled as the train barrels along. Lantern Sam is preoccupied with two things: solving mysteries and eating sardines that he gets from the train’s conductor, Clarence, who helps cat and boy in their search for clues and culprits. The cat detective contributes chapters called “The Almost Entirely True Autobiography of Lantern Sam” that are interleaved with Henry’s narrative of the long-ago train ride and search for Ellie. The cat’s musings are along these lines: “I give Clarence a hard time every now and again, but all in all, he’s a good egg, and he did save my life. Well, one of my lives, anyway.” Lantern Sam – he has a lantern-shaped spot on his side, and was also once, in his own words, “incinerated by a railroad lantern” – is sarcastic in expression and darn good in a fight: “The image of that calico missile flying through the air with all seventeen claws extended and teeth bared while screaming ‘Mrrrraaaaa!’ is one that no one in that dining car will ever forget.” And of course he does help Henry solve the mystery – and at the end of the book, which takes place 75 years later than the events on the train, we find out what all this ended up meaning to Henry and Ellie many years later. Actually, the book’s conclusion seems to preclude a sequel – unusual in books of this kind – but maybe, just maybe, one of Lantern Sam’s descendants will turn out to have some of his mystery-solving and communicating-with-selected-humans abilities.

     A darker and more serious book whose fantasy elements are of a much more traditional kind, Lost Children of the Far Islands, by first-time author Emily Raabe, also features animals; but these are actually shape-changing humans, or rather Folk, among whom are twins Augusta (Gus) and Leo and their little sister, Ila, who never speaks (in the first part of the book). They do not know of their ancestry and special powers, though – at least not until their mother becomes ill and the children realize that what is sapping her strength is her increasingly desperate attempt to protect them from one of those ancient and unfathomable evils that inevitably crop up in fantasies of this ilk. This one is a very toothy and multi-jawed creature called the Dobhar-chú or King of the Black Lakes, which is given to the typical pronouncements of bad guys (or bad things) in gloating language whose sole purpose is to keep the plot moving – for example, saying to Ila: “Child, you are fun! …I’d almost like to keep you. But, alas, bigger plans, bigger plans! Once I am rid of you and your sister and brother, nothing will hold me on this scrubby little island.” Yes, this is yet another tale in which a super-powerful ancient being can somehow be conquered only by three modern children – admittedly, in this case, two who can change themselves into seals and one who can transform into a fox. As usual in books like this, the kids have a teacher, too, called the Mórai. And of course there is an ultimate confrontation that begins when “something swam back and forth in the water, just under the surface, something dark and massive and unmistakably evil.” The eventual rescue of Ila and saving of the world and all that results from a reconsideration of what the words “Lost Children” actually mean in a poem within a book called The Book of the Folk. It is all very mystical and very transformational and very meaningful and very, very conventional, including a conclusion in which the kids are not sure they will ever be able to shapeshift again but there is a last hint that there may be further adventures to come. Lost Children of the Far Islands is no better and no worse than many other fantasy adventures for preteens – Raabe gets the pacing right, uses old legends (notably that of the selkies) as the basis of her story, and makes sure that there are numerous coming-of-age elements to go with the straightforward elements of adventure. Young readers seeking a world of wonder – any world of wonder – may enjoy the book. But those who have read other fantasy adventures may well have the feeling that they have seen all this before, in similar if not identical guises. They will be right.

(+++) REMAKING IT ALL


The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch. By Lewis Dartnell. Penguin. $27.95.

     It is hard to imagine a book more ambitious than this one – Lewis Dartnell’s protestations of simply being engaged in an intellectual exercise notwithstanding. Dartnell, a 32-year-old astrobiologist and research fellow at the University of Leicester in England, here offers a road map for the relatively rapid restoration of human civilization after a massive worldwide disaster that wipes out virtually all human beings but not – this is a crucial assumption – all existing technology. This could be anything from an asteroid impact to a pandemic to bombardment with neutron bombs, but not all-out nuclear war, which, Dartnell correctly notes, would destroy too much of everything to make his prescriptions for technology rebuilding practicable.

     Before considering those prescriptions, it can be instructive to do a small thought experiment of one’s own – a mundane, everyday one relating to a form of disaster that thousands of people face every day. Think for a moment about computer-data backup and restoration. Assume you have carefully arranged offsite backup either on standalone hard drives or in the much-hyped “cloud.” Since constant backup is an onerous task, you have automated the procedure – every available form of backup allows this, and virtually everyone does it. Assume the backup has done its job perfectly well day after day for a number of years; thankfully, you have never needed to call on it. Now assume that your computer is destroyed – utterly wrecked by whatever calamity you choose. How adept will you be at using the backup to restore your precious data?

     This is not a trivial question. Do you know how to access the backup? Do you remember the passwords and other protections associated with it? Do you have a disk image, and if so, how old is it? How do you use it? Do you have data but not program backups – as most people do? How do you restore the programs? The initialization settings? How will you get your data back in a timely manner so you can use them? And if you are under understandable post-disaster stress, whether personal or work-related, or are in a significant time bind, how will you get everything you need restored quickly?

     You see the problem. Even in a mundane situation, our meticulous preparations for disaster can come unglued after an actual disaster strikes, because we set things up to protect us on an ongoing basis and we do not constantly rehearse the post-disaster steps we would need in case of calamity. Yes, in the case of data restoration, anyone who wishes can practice restoring data and/or programs and/or configuration settings and/or anything else – in his or her spare time – but how many do? And how many have the spare time? How much spare time is needed? With what frequency?

     And this is a simple issue by comparison with the one Dartnell presupposes. Yet he, like the legions of dismal scientists who believe that Homo economicus invariably makes rational decisions, assumes that in a post-apocalyptic world fraught with division, dismay, despair, desperation and deep depression, copies of The Knowledge will survive – or will have been committed to memory by intelligent, rational people who are prepared to begin at once the task of rebuilding technological society. And said people will not only be among the survivors of the worldwide disaster but will also be sufficiently focused on re-creation and remaking so that they will stand above the ruins of the world and begin the gigantic task of making it anew over a comparatively short time span – some hundreds of years, say, rather than some thousands or tens of thousands. A further underlying, if unstated, assumption is that when the initial Homo postapocalypticus generation passes on to its dubious reward, it will smoothly hand over the Dartnell wisdom to an equally committed and dedicated later generation – and The Knowledge will flow thence to another, another and another. Dartnell may be a fine scientist, but he would benefit from reading some good science fiction – the type that accepts the impossibility of faster-than-light travel and therefore posits the necessity of building multi-generational spaceships for interstellar transport, and focuses on the likely human scenarios as generation follows generation, getting farther and farther from “Earthhome” but having little sense of coming closer to a destination that no one in any intermediate generation will ever see. Heck, he could get some of the flavor of this by watching the Pixar movie WALL-E.

     So with all these primarily psychological caveats aside – psychology not being Dartnell’s field – what do readers get in The Knowledge? They receive a remarkably thoughtful and often fascinating glimpse of the underpinnings of our current technological civilization, an explanation of the way we got where we are and of the fact that we did not have to take that specific route to get here, and a set of suggestions regarding the basics of “civilization recovery” that would allow a new form of technology-savvy humanity to arise on the remains of the old, without necessarily getting there via the same route. Dartnell is well aware that the paths we actually took to get where we are would be foreclosed for future rebuilding – the Industrial Revolution, for example, depended on the availability of cheap and readily reachable fossil fuels, but those are long gone, and there is no way a post-apocalyptic world could get at most remaining stores of coal or oil. So again and again, when discussing the items that he deems crucial to remaking civilization, Dartnell mentions ways of obtaining them that would be easier in a post-apocalyptic future than the ways in which we actually did get them in the past. Just one example: “The trick [of making sulfuric acid] is to employ a chemical pathway that was never used industrially in our development.  Sulfur dioxide gas can be baked out of common pyrite rocks (iron pyrite is notorious as fool’s gold, and pyrites also form common ores of lead and tin) and reacted with chlorine gas, which you get from the electrolysis of brine…using activated carbon (a highly porous form of charcoal) as a catalyst. …Once you’ve reacquired sulfuric acid, it serves as a gateway to the production of other acids.”

     This short excerpt is a fair sampling of Dartnell’s incisive thinking, willingness to make broad statements about the foundational needs of technological society, and thoroughly unreasonable expectations regarding survivors’ ability to put into practice what he recommends. To Dartnell, the single most valuable thing that humanity has produced is the scientific method – that is, the process of forming a hypothesis, testing it by observing what happens in nature or can be made to happen through experimentation, then modifying the hypothesis accordingly or granting it the stature of a theory that can then be extrapolated to other circumstances. This is a highly intriguing perspective, and scarcely a surprising one from an intellectually gifted scientist. But how many of them will likely survive an apocalypse? How many Dartnells are in the world today, compared with, say, creationists and other religious determinists, fanatical fans of professional sports, and people far more familiar with the couplings of reality-show celebrities than with any scientific theorem whatsoever? Dartnell’s handbook for a bleak future is fascinating and in many ways brilliant, and if the survivors of the putative apocalypse were a set of Dartnells or people willing to listen to and be led by Dartnells, The Knowledge – if the book itself survived – could indeed be a reasonable blueprint for starting over. But what are the odds that The Knowledge – again, if it survived – would end up in the hands of people equipped and inclined to use it? What are the chances of a future so radically different from the present day that Dartnell’s blueprint would have even a minuscule chance of adoption and implementation? These questions, which Dartnell does not address, are every bit as germane to a potential after-a-disaster future as the ones Dartnell does bring up. And, unfortunately for all of humanity, the answers to those unasked questions point toward a time when The Knowledge and all the knowledge within it is far more likely to disappear than to be used.

(++++) VOCAL VIRTUOSITY


Orff: Carmina Burana. Sarah Tynan, soprano; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Rodion Pogossov, baritone; Trinity Boys Choir, London Philharmonic Choir and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Graf. LPO. $9.99.

Mozart: Requiem (reconstruction of first performance); Misericordias Domini. Joanne Lunn, soprano; Rowan Hellier, alto; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass; Dunedin Consort conducted by John Butt. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).

Bach: St. John Passion. James Gilchrist, evangelist; Matthew Rose, Jesus; Ashley Riches, Pilate; Elizabeth Watts, soprano; Sarah Connolly, alto; Andrew Kennedy, tenor; Christopher Purves, bass; Choir of the AAM and Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Richard Egarr. AAM. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Shostakovich: Six Romances on Verses by W. Raleigh, R. Burns and W. Shakespeare; Annie Laurie, Scottish Ballad; Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Gerald Finley, bass-baritone; Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling. Ondine. $16.99.

     Excellent singing, some unusual repertoire, top-quality sound – these recordings have all it takes to delight listeners both immediately and over the long term. Not that Orff’s Carmina Burana is unusual: it may be the most-familiar music heard on any of these releases. The deliberate vulgarity of the words and avowed “primitiveness” of the scoring come through especially clearly in Hans Graf’s performance on LPO, a live recording from April 2013. This grand choral celebration of life and love has become so much a staple of the modern repertoire, both choral and orchestral, that it is easy for singers and orchestra members to “coast” while performing it – the music is so infectious that it stands up even when handled mundanely. But there is no coasting here: the London Philharmonic plays with great verve and spirit, all the soloists deliver their lines with gusto and firmness, and the Trinity Boys Choir and London Philharmonic Choir complement each other beautifully and make what is essentially a secular, choral oratorio into the deliberately over-the-top paean to worldly pleasures and their inevitable loss that Orff intended when he wrote it in 1935-36. It is worth mentioning that Orff saw the piece as a stage work, including in its full title a reference to imaginibus magicis (“magic images”); but although Carmina Burana is almost never given as originally intended – and is only rarely performed as the first part of Orff’s Trionfi, which also includes Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite – the work has truly achieved a concert-hall life on its own merits, as music that seems simple because of its bounce, rhythmic vitality and hummable tunes (including its actual “humming chorus”). There is real brilliance in Orff’s assemblage and orchestration of these medieval poems in three languages (Latin, French and German, all in forms not much like those known today); and one thing Graf does particularly well is to allow the music to flow naturally while also letting Sarah Tynan, Andrew Kennedy and Rodion Pogossov extract from it what depth it possesses.

     Plumbing the depths of Mozart’s incomplete Requiem is a more-difficult task: this is far weightier music, for all its considerably lighter scoring. John Butt and the Dunedin Consort have come up with a remarkably effective and moving way of handling the music – one that affirms the work’s greatness while at the same time allowing the imperfections of its completion by Franz Xaver Süssmayr to remain. It has become commonplace in recent decades to find “better” ways to finish the Requiem than those of Süssmayr, which have long been acknowledged as lacking, notably in the Sanctus and Osanna. As a result, the Süssmayr version is no longer as well-known as it used to be, and Butt’s decision to revive it for Linn Records is a rather bold one. Even more intriguingly, what he has done is to use David Black’s new edition of the Süssmayr version as the basis of this recording, and that edition makes some details of Süssmayr’s completion clearer than they were in the past. Black does not obscure the deficiencies of Süssmayr’s work, notably in orchestration, but his edition does allow the Requiem to flower forth as it was heard in Mozart’s own time, shortly after the composer’s death. Butt actually makes a strong attempt to re-create the first public performance of this work, on January 2, 1793, and while the extent of his success is a matter for Butt and his fellow scholars to discuss, there is no doubt that the Dunedin Consort reading is an absolutely first-rate one. It is also one that truly does sound the way it would have sounded in Mozart’s own time, to the extent that modern scholarship can determine that. This alone makes for a superb recording – that is, this plus the absolutely assured singing and historically informed, top-quality instrumental playing. And Butt provides context for the Requiem in other ways as well: the recording includes Mozart’s early Misericordias Domini, K. 222, an offertory that is in the same key as the Requiem and offers a thorough exploration of contrapuntal techniques as Mozart understood and employed them. This makes Misericordias Domini a fascinating companion piece for the Requiem – and even that is not all. Butt also offers a reconstruction of the first two Requiem movements, the Requiem aeternam and Kyrie, as they were played (or are believed to have been played) at a mass for Mozart held five days after his death – that is, on December 10, 1791. They differ in sound in some fascinating ways from the movements as we now know them – and, again, while the details of the differences will be of most interest to scholars, the excellence of the Dunedin Consort performance makes the music accessible and highly involving for every listener.

     The excellent Academy of Ancient Music performance of Bach’s St. John Passion, on the group’s own AAM label, is equally penetrating and emotionally trenchant.  This is the earliest surviving Passion by Bach, dating originally to 1724 (in which version it is heard here) and revised by him many times, into the 1740s. To a greater extent than the better-known St. Matthew Passion, this one is intense and highly expressive, less peace-pervaded and more dramatic. And it is the drama on which Richard Egarr’s direction focuses, with the recitatives and choruses displaying near-operatic intensity (albeit within appropriate historical bounds) that contrasts in fine fashion with the more-reflective chorales, ariosos and arias. Egarr, who conducts from the harpsichord, has a very strong sense of period style, instrumental balance, and relationship between singers and instruments – and between soloists (including Andrew Kennedy, also heard in Graf’s Carmina Burana) and chorus. One of the most-apparent excellences in this recording is the pervasive sense of appropriate balance – everyone plays or sings with just the right level of involvement with everyone else. Yet despite its technical excellence, this reading is by no means dry – indeed, it is quite the opposite, being presented with considerable flair and a greater sense of dramatic development than is heard in many readings of Bach’s solemn music. Whether the St. John Passion is in any sense “better” than the St. Matthew Passion, or alternatively of less account, is a question that is ultimately unanswerable and meaningless: Bach wrote the works at different times in his life (when considering the 1724 version of the St. John Passion) and used texts that, for all the familiarity of the story, emphasize different elements of it. There is more immediacy and personal involvement in the St. John Passion, a greater sense of transcendence and fervor in the St. Matthew Passion – and no reason whatsoever to prefer one over the other, especially when such a top-quality performance of the earlier work is now available.

     The performances are also top-notch, and the music highly involving and almost completely unknown, on a new Shostakovich CD featuring Gerald Finley in his debut recording for Ondine. All three works here are sort-of or partial world première recordings: this is the first-ever recording of Annie Laurie; the first recorded offering in the original Italian of Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti (Shostakovich set the poems in Russian); and only the second time Six Romances on Verses by W. Raleigh, R. Burns and W. Shakespeare has been recorded in its orchestral version (the disc describes this as a world première, but there was a 1986 Russian recording by Gennady Rozhdestvensky with bass Anatoly Safiulin; this is, however, the first time the work has been offered in the orchestral version and sung in English). Hearing a full CD of Shostakovich’s vocal music with words in English and Italian is a rather dislocating experience, and quite a pleasant, even invigorating one. There is nothing special in his Annie Laurie orchestration, but Finley’s rich voice makes the folk song involving and heartfelt. The Six Romances on Verses by W. Raleigh, R. Burns and W. Shakespeare are more substantial, with, for example, the pessimistic intensity of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXVI dovetailing neatly with  the composer’s lugubrious side – and providing a fine contrast to other views of mortality, such as Burns’ Macpherson’s Farewell. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling participates fully in the music, serving as partner rather than merely as backup – a stance that makes perfect sense when playing Shostakovich, and is particularly apt in the longest and most substantial work here, Suite on Poems by Michelangelo Buonarroti. This dates to 1975, the last year of Shostakovich’s life, and was one of the final works he completed – and it has all the pointedness and carefully sculpted peculiarity of pieces such as Symphony No. 15 of 1971. The 11 poems in the suite are highly expressive in a generally forthright manner, arranged so they move cleverly between the brackets of the first, Truth, and the last, Immortality. The full participation of the orchestra is crucial to the effect of such poems as Creativity, while its willingness to remain delicately in the background is equally important in ones such as Morning. Finley performs the entire suite with high involvement and understanding, and his pronunciation is exemplary; Sanderling, who was a friend of Shostakovich, brings to the CD an intimate understanding of the composer’s mindset and compositional techniques. This is an unusual and highly rewarding disc that is a significant addition to the recorded Shostakovich repertoire.

(++++) VIDEO VARIETIES


Gershwin: Porgy and Bess. Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell, Lester Lynch, Chauncey Packer, Karen Slack, Angel Blue, Eric Greene, Alteouise deVaughn; San Francisco Opera conducted by John DeMain. EuroArts. $24.99 (2 DVDs).

Paths Through the Labyrinth: The Composer Krzysztof Penderecki—A Film by Anna Schmidt. C Major DVD. $39.99.

Tianwa Yang Live in Concert in St. Petersburg: Music of Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Ysaÿe and Bach. Tianwa Yang, violin; St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos DVD. $19.99.

     The value of video for classical music varies greatly according to the repertoire – but there is one type of music for which video definitely adds a dimension, and that is fully staged opera. Although concert performances of opera do not necessarily gain anything from video, and may in fact lose something by depriving listeners of the chance to devise their own visuals, staged performances were, after all, meant to be seen, and seeing them at home can be a highly involving experience. That is certainly true of the San Francisco Opera production of Porgy and Bess, whose dramatic staging by Francesca Zambello and strong and assured conducting by John DeMain are highlights of a new EuroArts two-DVD set. This recording is of a live 2009 performance in which the singers sizzle as much as does the summer weather on Catfish Row. The nobility of Eric Owens as Porgy, the turbulence of Laquita Mitchell as Bess, and the menacing intensity of Lester Lynch as Crown combine to make this reading come across as verismo in the melodramatic style of Puccini or Wolf-Ferrari, but with wholly American settings and characterizations. From Angel Blue, as Clara, singing the ever-memorable “Summertime,” to Chauncey Packer stealing the show every time he appears on stage as Sportin’ Life, this is a production that engages the audience – the home audience as well as the one at the opera house – and shows Porgy and Bess to be a true grand opera as well as a uniquely American one. The work’s emotional punch comes through more strongly than usual in this staging, notably when Karen Slack as Serena sings “My Man’s Gone Now.” And the choreography fits the story notably well – although it also points up the performance’s major flaw, which lies in Zambello’s decision to move the action from the 1920s to the 1950s. The reasoning here is hard to understand, and while the quality of the sets by Peter J. Davison is uniformly high, the notion of Porgy and Bess – which is, among other things, a snapshot of a particular time – happening in the 1950s makes no more narrative sense than would the idea of La Bohème taking place after the invention of antibiotics. The very fine DVD video and sound make watching this Porgy and Bess a pleasure, although the enjoyment is somewhat compromised by the odd sense that the opera has become unmoored from its appropriate time and place.

     Another form of classical-music video that makes perfect sense is film: clearly, only a visual presentation is worthwhile for an offering such as Anna Schmidt’s Paths Through the Labyrinth: The Composer Krzysztof Penderecki. The issue with this (+++) C Major DVD and similar projects is mostly one of audience limitation and involvement: a work like Schmidt’s is intended only for viewers who are intimately familiar with the music of Penderecki (born 1933) and are seeking 104 minutes of insight into the man behind that music. Schmidt followed Penderecki for a year to make this film – an approach typical of that for profile/personality pieces – and, equally typically, got comments on the composer from musicians who know his work well, such as Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lorin Maazel. Somewhat less expected here are the remarks by artists including Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and film director Andrzej Wajda; but their commentary makes perfect sense in the context of who Penderecki is and where he fits into today’s music scene. All personality profiles like this one smack of hagiography, and Paths Through the Labyrinth is no exception, but Schmidt paces the film well and gives Penderecki himself plenty of time to expound on his music, the ideas underlying it, and his personal life (to the extent that he chooses to delve into it). For listeners familiar with and fascinated by Penderecki, Paths Through the Labyrinth will be a chance to feel closer to the composer; but ultimately, what his music communicates on its own matters far more than what Penderecki and the others interviewed by Schmidt have to say about the works, their genesis and their intended meaning. Paths Through the Labyrinth works well as a DVD release but does not reach out, or try to reach out, to any viewers beyond those inherently interested in the subject matter at its core.

     The Interest will be much wider in the repertoire offered by violinist Tianwa Yang on a new Naxos DVD, but here the production comes up against the limitations of DVD value in classical music. The recording captures Yang’s 2011 Russian debut and features her performing two highly familiar and ever-popular works: the Tchaikovsky and Brahms violin concertos. Both are close to inevitable for a violinist to offer on a first tour of Russia – the Tchaikovsky, in fact, really is inevitable. The DVD also includes two attractive encores, Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3, “Ballade,” and Bach’s Partita No. 2. But it is for the Tchaikovsky and Brahms that listeners will come to this DVD, if they choose to come at all. And why would they? That is a reasonable question for this repertoire in this packaging. Yang plays both concertos with assurance, style and considerable skill, but interpretatively, she does not offer any particularly new insights – everything is there that would be there in any other fine performance, but there is nothing to distinguish Yang’s from that of other high-quality young virtuosi. The St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra plays with its entirely typical warmth and beauty, but there is a sense of “going through the motions” in this well-worn repertoire rather than one of discovering anything new or plumbing any previously unexplored depths. Vladimir Lande is one reason for this: he is a fine journeyman of a conductor but does not seem particularly challenged by this repertoire – somewhat like Marin Alsop, he is more involved during his frequent performances of contemporary music than in his handling of standards of the 19th century. As for the DVD itself, it is well-made and nicely directed, but as always in a visual presentation of a concert, it requires home viewers to look only at what the director wants them to look at – a different experience from what they would have in the concert hall, and a more-dislocating one here than in watching an opera. This release gets a (+++) rating because of the quality of the performances and visuals, but it is unlikely to be a top choice for either listening or viewing for most people – except perhaps for those who have as strong a “fan” interest in Yang as Penderecki fans do in him.

April 10, 2014

(++++) MEANWHILE, BACK WHERE IT’S FLAT


Turtle Recall: The Discworld Companion…So Far. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs. Harper. $27.99.

     An absolute must-have for fans of Terry Pratchett’s 40-book series set on the thoroughly unbelievable but almost believable Discworld, Turtle Recall – despite an abundance of irritating flaws – will enthrall and delight Pratchett’s constant readers and is quite likely to change inconstant ones to the constant type. There is just so much here, so much richness and variety and depth and utter, complete and unremitting silliness! Turtle Recall is an alphabetical presentation of places, people, non-people, objects, gods, small gods, characters, characterizations, and other miscellany from 55 sources – yes, 15 more than the total number of Discworld books, and that is because some of the material comes from ancillary sources and thereby confuses things somewhat, a fact that (irritatingly) Stephen Briggs, who assembled the project using snippets and sometimes extended elements of Pratchett’s prose, never discusses.

     The 55 sources are abbreviated for ease (ease?) of cross-reference at the end of entries referring to them. The abbreviations, however, do not always make sense. Thud! very logically becomes T! But Guards! Guards! becomes GG, without exclamation points. And Maskerade, whose title lacks an exclamation point, becomes M!!!!! (yes, five of them). Also, The Wee Free Men, which ought to become TWFM, since other books starting with “The” have the “T” included, is actually listed in the table of abbreviations as WFM; but in the alphabetical entries within the book itself, it is indeed TWFM. Irritating. Also, the dates of the books, which it would have been very helpful to include, are not included, except that the dates of Diary books (e.g., Reformed Vampyre’s Diary) are given, thus ensuring confusion and frustration, which do not appear to be the point here, but perhaps are.

     Oh, and Turtle Recall, which is actually a not-quite-thoroughly revised version of earlier Briggs “companion” material, is cleverly subtitled, “Fully updated and up to Snuff!” – or that would be clever if Snuff! were the most recent Discworld book. But it isn’t – it is the 39th, and the 40th, Raising Steam, is actually listed on the “Also by Terry Pratchett” page but is not included in the Turtle Recall contents or comments. Irritating.

     But Pratchett’s world is so wide and wonderful that this companion book is most welcome, for Discworld is so complex that pretty much any companionship while navigating it would be. Welcome, that is. Discworld perches on the backs of four elephants that in turn stand upon the carapace of a “star turtle” named A’Tuin, and while this compendium of mythologies shows what has grown for years in Pratchett’s fertile mind, it does raise some questions that Pratchett resolutely refuses to answer: “People have asked: how does the Disc move on the shoulders of the elephants? What does the Turtle eat? One may as well ask: what kind of smell has yellow got? It is how things are.” This begs the question in many ways, not the least of which is that yellow does have an odor, at least to those with synesthesia, but it matters little: acceptance of “how things are” is a necessity for enjoyment of the Discworld books, and is a smaller willing suspension of disbelief than Samuel Taylor Coleridge would likely have expected, given the outré nature of Pratchett’s creation.

     What Turtle Recall does well is to collect bits and pieces of Discworld lore in a single spot and elucidate them wonderfully, frequently through generous descriptive helpings drawn from Pratchett’s writing. Here are the deliciously awful puns and the words that you simply must say aloud, or at least within your own mind, to get what Pratchett is driving at – the kingdom of Djelibeybi, the village of Bad Schuschein, and the N’tuitif people, for example. Here are characters such as the Igors, “a clan which, instead of myths and legends, passes on the secrets of incredibly skilled surgery (except in the area of cosmetics), plus various associated hints and tips, often to do with weird chemistry and lightning rods. …Igors do not so much die as get broken down for spares.” And they typically work for such typical-sounding typical mad scientists as “Mad Doctor Scoop, Crazed Baron Haha, Screaming Doctor Berserk, Nipsie the Impaler, Dribbling Doctor Vibes and Baron Finkelstein.” All this on Igors, who are ancillary characters. Turtle Recall also includes extensive discussions of central protagonists, such as the perfectly Machiavellian Lord Vetinari, ruler of the endlessly fascinating and endlessly corrupt city of Ankh-Morpork; Granny Weatherwax and other witches; the self-important, strutting wizards of Unseen University, and the thoroughly incompetent Rincewind, who may be the most powerful of them all; Sam Vimes of the City Watch; and many, many more. Dabbling at random in this book – a great pleasure, and one that will be new to anyone accustomed to the directed search at which the Internet excels – also shows just how marvelously inventive Pratchett is with names: Eumenides Treason, ‘Gobbo’ Nutt, Troglodyte Wanderer, Banana N’vectif, Malicia Grim (not to be confused with Agoniza Grim or Eviscera Grim), Casanunda (the Discworld variant of Casanova), Cripple Mr Onion (a card game), Death (the character) and New Death (a temporary replacement), Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Cosmo Lavish, Frankly Ottomy – and on and on and on.

     The ways in which Discworld turns in on itself are amply reflected in Turtle Recall, as in the entry on “Laws of Ankh-Morpork,” which begins, including an ellipsis: “There aren’t any. Well… Not entirely true.” The first-mentioned “known and somewhat fossilized” law is the “Being Bloody Stupid Act” of 1581. But if there are not laws, there are rules, some of them quite explicit, laid down by the various guilds, several of which get extended descriptions. There are mundane rules, and then there are the rules, most of them quite flexible, governing magic and magical interactions. Turtle Recall is a good place to find out why wizards are not the same as magicians, who are not the same as conjurers. It is a good place to learn about the city of Ephebe (“major export: ideas”) and the continent of Fourecks, spelled Xxxx; the demon Wxrthltl-jwlpklz; the Glingleglingleglingle Fairy, whose “sole job is to make the ‘glingleglingleglingle’ noise which heralds the arrival of any other fairy”; Gaspode, a dog that can talk, “but not many people pay any attention, because everyone knows that dogs can’t talk”; the Apocralypse, “the Half-Hearted End of the World”; Kaos, “the Fifth Horseman of the Apocralypse, although he left before they became famous”; and, yes, on and on and on.

     Discworld is a wonder; Turtle Recall, basking in reflected glory, is less so. It is not, for example, the place to turn to explore Pratchett’s marvelously garbled Latin mottos for the Guilds: the book gives them but does not explain most of them. These are hilarious if you know Latin – and when they are translated, may not be given accurately. One motto of Ankh-Morpork, for instance, is stated to be “Merus In Pectum Et In Aquam,” which is “literally” translated as “Pure in mind and water” but actually translates as “Pure on the site and in the water” (either way, it is pure in neither way). Turtle Recall is also not the place to turn for unquestioned accuracy or consistency, with Ankh-Morpork referred to at one point as being nicknamed “the Big Wahoonie” – the comparison is with an unpleasant 20-foot-long vegetable – and at another as “the Great Wahoonie.” Nor is this book the place to explore the Guilds’ coats of arms, which Pratchett creates with remarkable heraldic understanding but which are all shown incorrectly, as mirror images, in Turtle Recall: when Pratchett says something is in the top right quarter, it is shown in the top left, and when he says something is in the bottom left, it is in the bottom right – an unconscionable book-design error.

     Pratchett himself, who was diagnosed in 2007 with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, continues to produce remarkable works that mix out-and-out absurdity and a great deal of fun with some barely concealed social commentary and occasional hints of profundity (lightly sprinkled throughout). He is the greatest British fantasy writer since J.R.R. Tolkien, whose work somewhat influenced Pratchett’s early Discworld books but beyond whom Pratchett has long since moved. Pratchett does like to throw in sometimes-subtle allusions to the work of other fantasists, though – for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s “Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young,” becomes, on Discworld, “Tshup Aklathep, the Infernal Star Toad with a Million Young,” and you can look him (it?) up in Turtle Recall. But you cannot look everything about Discworld up here – not even some things that the book says you can find. For example, the entry for “Curious Squid” cross-references the land of Lesph (sic), but there is no entry for Lesph – only one for “Leshp (sic), Brass Gongs of.” And “Genetics” cross-references a supposed entry for “God of Evolution,” but there is no such entry under either G or E. Maybe it evolved into other letters.

     The very first Discworld book was called The Colour of Magic. If there were to be a better compendium of Pratchettiana than Turtle Recall, it could well be called The Direction of Wonder. Until it is produced, though, Turtle Recall will serve very nicely as recollection, exploration and appreciation.

(++++) OH, BABY!


Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck. By Lisa Wheeler. Illustrated by Ivan Bates. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Reasons My Kid Is Crying. By Greg Pembroke. Three Rivers Press. $15.

     The littlest children – or rather the littlest ones with enough attention span to handle a read-aloud book – will have a simply wonderful time with the new board-book version of Lisa Wheeler’s Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck, originally published in 2004. A rollicking rhyming story with a lot more going on than is usual in a board book, and with Ivan Bates illustrations that amplify the fun and keep the pace quick, Wheeler’s poetic tale relates the far-from-simple journey of Farmer Dale (a dog) to town with a load of hay. It seems that various animals keep getting in the way of the truck – first a bossy cow, then a woolly sheep, then a “roly pig,” a goat with an accordion, and…well, at this point the truck, in which Farmer Dale has been obligingly giving all the animals a lift to town, is so overloaded that it can no longer move. How it gets out of that mess – with the assistance of still more animals – is the subject of the remainder of the book, as Wheeler’s poetic cadences keep the story moving even when the truck cannot. “The truck bounced up. The springs all popped./ The bumper bumped. The pickup stopped.” The animals here actually have personalities, in the writing as well as the illustrations: “The pickup rocked and rumbled./ It rolled an inch or so./ ‘It’s moooving!’ shouted Bossy Cow./ The rooster crowed, ‘Too slow!’” For that matter, the truck itself has a personality: “The pickup bounced and shimmied./ It groaned and squeaked and wheezed./ It spit a thankful cloud of smoke/ and started with a sneeze.” Kids from babies to toddlers not only will enjoy the rhymes but also will have fun finding out, at the book’s end, that everyone was heading to town for a talent contest. That explains the goat with the accordion!

     Now, what explains the many and varied expressions of dismay, anger and all-around angst on the faces of the entirely human babies in the (+++) Reasons My Kid Is Crying? Based on Greg Pembroke’s Tumblr blog – whoever thought the Internet would kill printed books did not reckon with this sort of cross-pollination – the book features many dozens of photos of many dozens of boy and girl toddlers, all in the “easy meltdown” age range, all melting down for reasons that run from the possibly real to the entirely fanciful. For a little girl with a scrunched-up face: “She’s not allowed to eat garbage out of the garbage can.” Boy in a highchair: “He threw his dinner on the floor and now he wants to eat.” Boy with two fingers in his mouth and a pained expression: “He wanted to wear socks and flip-flops.” (And that would be terrible…why?) Girl with face and bib coated in spaghetti sauce or something equally red and messy: “I told her that I had to wash her face after dinner.” Little boy next to adult woman who is holding the handle of a sharp tool: “His aunt wouldn’t let him play with this ax.” Boy standing in pool: “Water got on his bathing suit.” Boy in kitchen: “I wouldn’t let him eat this unsweetened cocoa powder by the spoonful.” Boy near television set: “We turned on his favorite show the minute he asked us to.” Enough already? But there is more, much more, some of it funny, some of it mildly witty (but not very witty), some of it silly and some of it instantly recognizable by any parent of a current or former toddler. The problem is that there is much more of this, and a book with an endless parade of unhappy children’s faces, contorted and/or in tears, comes across very differently from a blog into which computer users can dip briefly and from which they can quickly depart at will. True, it is possible to read just a few pages of Reasons My Kid Is Crying and then put it aside, coming back to it later, but this is a book with very few words and a lot of pictures, clearly meant to be read quickly, and the whole point of it – to the extent that it has a point – is to show how many different ways kids of a certain age melt down. The totality of the thing turns out to be more depressing than funny: do you really want to see page after page of young children in full evidence of misery, even if they show it theatrically and even if you know (as you will if you are a parent) that the “slights” are minor and the kids’ tantrums short-lived? A little of Reasons My Kid Is Crying goes a long way, and it is easier to engage with just a little of this sort of thing online than in book form. Still, fans of the blog are likely to enjoy seeing some of the postings in a high-quality printed book. Some of them.

(++++) ANIMALS STRANGE AND WONDERFUL


Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy. By Dr. Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein. Blue Rider Press. $19.95.

Galápagos George. By Jean Craighead George. Paintings by Wendell Minor. Harper. $15.99.

Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Martha Speaks: Play Ball! Martha Habla: ¡Juega al sóftbol! A Spanish Bilingual Book. Based on the characters created by Susan Meddaugh. Adaptation by Marcy Goldberg Sacks. Translated by Carlos E. Calvo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $3.99.

     There is something uniquely Victorian about the odd, whimsical creations of taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918), who took anthropomorphic depictions of animals to extremes by stuffing rabbits, squirrels, cats, mice and other critters and setting them up in dioramas depicting scenes from the mythic to the then-modern. Potter lived in the village of Bramber, in West Sussex, England, and there created a museum in which to display his remarkably detailed tableaux, from items inspired by Goethe to ones that sprang entirely from Potter’s own mind. The stuffed animals in human scenes, a curiosity when created, are something more than that today: they show with remarkable accuracy what everyday life was like in Victorian times, displaying furniture, clothing, events and poses with remarkable accuracy – but in miniature and with animals as the “players.” Guinea pig musicians perform in a brass band; toads cavort in a playground; beautifully dressed kittens attend a remarkably detailed wedding; other kittens play croquet during an elaborate tea party; rabbits attend school, taking notes and reading books; squirrels play cards; and on and on. Potter was a skilled taxidermist, and it was only after his death that his humanizing arrangements of small animals started to seem peculiar to some observers. His mythic scenes, however, have stood the test of time quite well. For example, “The Death & Burial of Cock Robin,” based on the old nursery rhyme, was his first tableau – it took him seven years to create – and one of his most elaborate, containing nearly 100 birds (including some that are now rare or extinct in Sussex). Taxidermy expert Dr. Pat Morris writes knowingly and glowingly of the Bramber Museum and its creator, while the photographs by Joanna Ebenstein display Potter’s remarkable creations in all their beauty and, to modern eyes, peculiarity. The Potter collection, which included not only the tableaux but also preserved oddities such as a two-headed lamb and conjoined twin pigs, was broken up at auction in 2003, its pieces scattered worldwide – a sad ending to Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy and to a collection with remarkable historical importance as well as considerable inherent interest. The reassembly of the collection, as Morris notes, “is precluded,” but at least we have this beautifully made and thoroughly fascinating book to document a footnote to history that is filled with charm, a touch of erudition, and considerable skill in animal preservation.

     Modern taxidermy is altogether more scientific and is handled in museums and laboratories far more often than in small-town museums. It has been brought into play to preserve Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise from the Galápagos Islands, who died in 2012. After a necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy for humans), George’s body was transported to the American Museum of Natural History for extended taxidermy work to allow him to be seen by future generations. But Galápagos George, by the late Jean Craighead George (1919-2012) and Wendell Minor, focuses not at all on George’s postmortem treatment and mentions his death only at the end. The book is about how Lonesome George came to be, who his ancestors likely were, how those ancient tortoises came to the Galápagos Islands in the first place, and how Charles Darwin’s observations of them fueled his theory of evolution. Starting with Giantess George, an imagined ancestor of Lonesome George, author and artist trace the giant tortoises’ heritage and explain, in simple enough terms for kids ages 4-8 to understand, how one type of tortoise became 14 different types over many, many years of life in subtly different environments among the Galápagos Islands. The flowering of the multiple species, and the natural and human-made reasons for their decline, are explored with sensitivity and a clear understanding of the food chain – more accurately, the food web – on which all life depends, and the ways in which people and the animals they brought interfered with the natural balance of the Galápagos Islands and eventually reduced the tortoise population nearly to the point of no return, and in some cases all the way to it. Writer and artist manage to make the ending of their book a positive if not entirely upbeat one; the story will encourage involved young readers to find out more about what happened to the Galápagos Island tortoises and to Lonesome George himself – and the resources at the back of the book will be an excellent starting point for further exploration.

     Anthropomorphic taxidermy may have gone out of style, but the anthropomorphic use of animals certainly has not, especially in children’s books. Eileen Christelow’s Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree, which originally dates to 1991 and is now available in board-book form, shows just how much times have changed – and not only in the way animals are handled in stories. The book is based on the old nursery rhyme about five little monkeys taunting an alligator and getting snapped up one by one, until at the end there are no little monkeys left. But that is no good for hyper-cautious modern sensibilities, under which much time is spent trying to shield young minds from any hint of violence – even in an amusing, fairy-tale-like setting. And never mind that crocodiles, which (unlike alligators) live where monkeys do, really do eat monkeys if they can catch them! Anyway, Christelow turns the silly old nursery rhyme into a story in which the little monkeys and their mama go on a picnic, mama falls asleep, and the monkeys then decide to tease Mr. Crocodile – who smiles at them even as he snaps his jaws, and who never actually threatens them, much less eats them. One by one, the little monkeys hide from the crocodile, frightened by the snapping, while mama and other on-shore monkey observers become theatrically upset at what is going on. Of course, it turns out that the little monkeys are all just fine, and not even particularly frightened, and their mama tells them, “Never tease a crocodile. It’s not nice – and it’s dangerous.” It’s sort of hard to see how it’s dangerous, in light of what happens here – it all seems like fun, and even as mama gives her warning, the very anthropomorphic crocodile is smiling and resting his head on his front feet in quite a human-like and thoroughly nonthreatening pose. At the end, the little monkeys and mama eat their picnic and do not tease Mr. Crocodile anymore, and he waves jauntily and smilingly at them at the end. The mixed messages here and the unnecessary revamping of the old nursery rhyme for somewhat too-delicate modern tastes mean that Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree is not among Christelow’s best stories of the little monkeys, but it still gets a (+++) rating and will be fun for fans of the series – especially if parents carefully explain just how unrealistic the entire scenario is.

     The Martha Speaks books are always completely unrealistic, at any time and in any language, since the whole point of them is that a dog talks to kids and helps them out. Martha Speaks: Play Ball! Martha Habla: ¡Juega al sóftbol! gets a (+++) rating and fits right into the sequence: it is effective as a dual-language entry at Level 2 in the “Green Light Readers” series – being for ages 5-7 and written with short sentences and simple dialogue. The story is that Martha’s friend Truman wants to run away from home because he is supposed to play softball and cannot catch. Martha says that she can catch and will help Truman learn, and that is just what she does, with a little assistance from several of Truman’s human friends. So during the game, Truman does make a catch – but he does not throw very well, and Martha cannot help him with that because, as she points out, dogs have no thumbs (“no tenemos pulgares”). Word-matching and fill-in-the-blanks activities at the back of the book are in both English and Spanish, along with the story itself, and the whole short work is appropriate for its target age group and will be fun for young children who are both fans of Martha and interested in learning some basic English/Spanish translations. There is nothing consequential about the book, but as one part of early bilingual education, it serves a good purpose.

(+++) EXPANSIVE FANTASIES


The Mark of the Dragonfly. By Jaleigh Johnson. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The 39 Clues: Unstoppable—Book Three: Countdown. By Natalie Standiford. Scholastic. $12.99.

     Engagingly unwieldy, The Mark of the Dragonfly, the first novel for middle-grade readers by Jaleigh Johnson and the start of a series, somewhat uneasily combines elements of steampunk with more-traditional fairy tales. Conceived as a grand adventure for preteens, with friendship and camaraderie at its core, the book is set in a sort-of dystopia that is also a variation on the faux medieval model of kingdoms and fiefdoms populated by high-living royalty and by commoners who are left to scavenge for their livelihood.  The title refers to a tattoo indicating that those who have it are under the protection of King Aron, a ruler of singularly mechanical-minded interests whose kingdom borders a warlike region called Merrow. “There hadn’t yet been open conflict, but relations between the two places had been strained to near breaking point ever since the king [Aron] stopped trading them iron.” As the book’s primary protagonist, Piper, explains, “‘All Merrow wants is weapons, and the Dragonfly’s too busy with his factories. Do you know he wants to have a fleet of steamships ready to set sail for the uncharted lands by next summer?’” Actually, Aron wants more than that – for one thing, he wants the book’s other protagonist, Anna, who has turned up in the downtrodden Meteor Fields where Piper lives, sporting a dragonfly tattoo and compromised memory. The protective instincts and self-interest that lead Piper to take Anna under her wing and attempt to get her back where she belongs are entirely typical in quest tales, and the journey via an unusual method – in this case, a fascinatingly described train called the 401 – is typical as well. So are the encounters with unusual people, or in this case shapeshifters – one of the fairy-tale elements of the story. The idea that the protagonist will assemble an unlikely crew of helpers on what is physically a geographical journey and metaphorically a voyage of self-discovery lies at the heart of genre books like this one, and Johnson has clearly studied the field and absorbed its lessons as well here as in her books for older readers. The dialogue shows this clearly, as when one character (a “chamelin,” who can change his shape) comments on how different Piper and Anna are and Piper replies, “‘That’s the truth—a scrapper from the north and one of Dragonfly’s own from the south. We couldn’t be any more apart in the world.’ Her expression turned serious. ‘I think she’s been through some terrible things. Maybe it’s a blessing that she doesn’t remember most of it. I want her to be safe, to find a home.’” Piper needs a home, too, having decided never to return to her miserable existence in Scrap Town Sixteen. She knows she is “the scrapper who didn’t belong,” and one thing driving the story is having Piper find out where she does belong and who exactly she is – as well as who Anna is. The Mark of the Dragonfly mixes all these entirely expected elements quite well: Johnson has a real knack for creating exciting adventure scenes. The fact that so much of the story is so much like other stories may actually be to its benefit, since the novel will appeal to a ready-made escapist-oriented readership as well as to fans of the steampunk genre. More-experienced readers may sigh in exasperation at plot points such as Anna’s inevitable decision to seek out the apparent “bad guy” who has been pursuing her and Piper, complete with the wholly unoriginal left-behind note in which Anna tells Piper, “I don’t have that many memories, but the ones I have of you are the most important.” But for every reader who sighs and rolls his or her eyes at the predictability of portions of the plot and dialogue, there will be another who is swept away with wonder into Johnson’s created world and who will be eager for the book’s inevitable sequel.

     And then there are sequels upon sequels upon sequels – the stuff of which The 39 Clues is made. Fans are now well into the third multi-book, multi-media series of the adventures of Dan and Amy Cahill, their friends and their nefarious enemies, as yet another author, Natalie Standiford, provides formulaic plot advances and edge-of-the-cliff frights, revelations and surprises. Countdown reads like all the other books in the sequences – it is amazing how well the authors subsume any personal style they may have into series requirements. This entry packs just as much excitement as its predecessors and, presumably, successors, and it is packaged with the usual six game cards. Being a middle-of-the-series book (the Unstoppable sequence will have six in all), Countdown needs to advance the plot so far and no farther, which is exactly what it does as Dan and Amy continue their desperate quest for the ingredients that will let them make an antidote to the super-powerful serum that has made the Cahills the most hyper-powerful family in history. The counter-serum is needed so Dan and Amy can stop would-be U.S. president and world ruler J. Rutherford Pierce (no relation to actual presidents Rutherford B. Hayes or Franklin Pierce, except in the name department) – Pierce has stolen the serum and has nefarious plans for it. In Countdown, the major plot point involves another reason for the increasingly desperate quest for the antidote – one directly tied to a fateful decision made by Amy, who has to make that decision to save Dan’s life. Despite these books’ frequent references to real historical figures and events, and despite plots that take the characters to a variety of far-flung real-world sites, it is impossible to see The 39 Clues as anything more than imaginary-world entertainment, a sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark for preteens. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that: escapism, even escapism according to a tried-and-true formula, is fine for young readers as well as adults, and Countdown continues to deliver what the eager fans of this series look for in every printed entry, on every included game card, and at every associated Web site.

(+++) PERSONALIZED DEBUTS


Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; John Adams: Violin Concerto. Chad Hoopes, violin; MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi. Naïve. $16.99.

Svjetlana Bukvich: Before and After the Tekke; You Move Me; Sabih’s Dream; Over Water Over Stone; Six Letters. Big Round Records. $14.99.

Alexandra Ottaway: The Jakob Trio; Radio Silence Quartet; Four Choral Pieces; The Merlin Études; The Zen Sutras. Navona. $16.99.

Juan Álamo: Marimjazzia. Juan Álamo, marimba; UNC Percussion Ensemble. Big Round Records. $14.99.

Anne Vanschothorst: Works for Harp. Big Round Records. $14.99.

     Many modern première recordings focus not on music that has never been offered before but on artists offering works that range from the well-known to ones created by the performers themselves. There is a celebrity-ization of music that has gone beyond the pop-music world, where it has long been common, to classical music and to the increasing number of eclectic compositions that mix multiple musical forms into what composers hope will produce a unique experience and unique voice. Some debut recordings are merely curious, such as Chad Hoopes’ for Naïve. It lists the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor as “No. 2” in an odd bow to the very early one in D minor; but yes, the one Hoopes plays is the concerto that has been famously described as not the most difficult work of its type to play, but the most difficult to play well. Hoopes’ performance shows the truth of this description. It is technically excellent, swooning in all the right places and smoothing all the others, with the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kristjan Järvi staying firmly, perhaps too firmly, in the background throughout. But the performance is curiously uninvolving: the work’s beauties are put on display, but its soulfulness is not. It is tempting to suggest that this reflects the 19-year-old Hoopes’ lack of maturity, but this is not necessarily so – it is equally likely to reflect an unfortunate increasing focus on the performer rather than the underlying music. A great performer delves into a great work, such as this concerto, in a way that makes the music rather than the performer himself or herself the star. Hoopes does not do this, and he and his contemporaries may no longer consider it necessary to do so. The pairing of the Mendelssohn with the interesting but scarcely great 1993 concerto by John Adams confirms this. These two works do not make for any particularly meaningful musical juxtaposition, but they are effective as a performer juxtaposition, since both focus heavily on the soloist (who plays almost nonstop throughout the Adams) and therefore both shine the spotlight in the same place if the performer chooses to have it do so. The Adams concerto lends itself better to this sort of treatment than does the Mendelssohn, and here Hoopes’ technical prowess is just what the music calls for – this is a strongly rhythmic piece, and Hoopes seems more comfortable with its angularity than with the sweetness and smooth flow of the Mendelssohn. Hoopes is a player of considerable skill who, at the moment, puts his ability more at his own service than at that of the music – a better approach for Adams than for Mendelssohn.

     Svjetlana Bukvich’s debut all-Bukvich CD on Big Round Records has an even stronger focus on a single person, despite the fact that Bukvich herself is only one of the performers. For here the music is by Bukvich herself, and her role in interpreting it is absolutely central: she performs as narrator and voice and on piano, synthesizer and a variety of electronic instruments and tracks. Her work is electro-acoustical and an often bewildering and rather misshapen blend of influences. Clearly she draws on rock and jazz, but old-style electronic music (whose proponents always consider it newfangled) also features here, and so does that catchall form called “world music.” As often in modernistic works, the titles of Bukvich’s compositions are intended to call forth images and meanings that are not necessarily conveyed by the music itself. In this instance, there are differentiations among the pieces as well because they are set with different lyrics, and there are some differences of orchestration as well: Over Water Over Stone features a trumpet, for example, while Sabih’s Dream and Before and After the Tekke have a traditional violin among the electronic instruments and sounds. The issue with the music, though, is that it would be easy to rearrange all the titles and still get the same effect – none of these works really sounds significantly different from any of the others, and the topics (largely of love and loss) are similar throughout. This is a short CD, just 43 minutes, but seems longer than it is because of the many similarities among the works as well as within individual pieces. It is clearly neither for all tastes nor intended to reach out to large numbers of listeners.

     The new all-Alexandra-Ottaway Navona CD is a similar debut with similar pluses and minuses, and is even of similar length (41 minutes). But Ottaway has clearer classical antecedents, and two of the three vocal portions of her music are choral rather than for solo voice. Ottaway offers two very short all-instrumental pieces here, a trio for clarinet, bassoon and piano and a quartet for flute, violin, cello and piano; each is a two-movement work with fanciful titles (“Jakob in Blue” and “Jakob Flying” for the trio, “Radio Silence” and “Radio Silence II” for the quartet). The dozen songs for solo voice and piano called The Merlin Études are more or less in the classical art-song tradition, although they certainly do not sound like most of their predecessors: Ottaway’s musical language is defiantly serial and atonal in what is now a rather old-fashioned way, and none of her half-minute to minute-long songs is especially notable for expressiveness. The two choral works on this CD, performed by the New York Virtuoso Singers under Harold Rosenbaum, are the most interesting pieces here: a couple of the Four Choral Pieces for chorus and piano have some depth to them, notably one based on poetry by John Donne; and the seven movements of The Zen Sutras, for chorus and chamber ensemble, are alternately engaging and overdone, with some interesting aural effects attained by mixing, among other things, xylophone, vibraphone and marimba. Again, this is scarcely music for all or even most tastes, but it does have its moments.

     Speaking of marimba, that instrument is the star of the awkwardly titled Marimjazzia, the debut Big Round Records album from marimbist Juan Álamo – who also composed six of the eight works on the CD. Once again, the “debut” element here focuses on performer as much as on music, and once again – as on the Ottaway CD – multiple influences from classical music are in evidence in Álamo’s works, which also draw heavily on jazz, a medium in which the marimba excels. Just how much it excels is evident from the Álamo arrangements of the two pieces here that the marimbist himself did not write: Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby and Mongo Santamaría’s Afro Blues. Álamo’s arrangements involve his marimba with the very fine UNC Percussion Ensemble, whose mixture of instruments keeps all the works on the CD interesting even when the music itself tends to sound very much alike, as several of Álamo’s pieces do. The Evans and Santamaría arrangements are actually high points of the disc: they are sensitive and involving even though they are the shortest pieces offered. Álamo’s own music tends to be somewhat discursive and rambling, likely most enjoyable for jazz fans who enjoy hearing musical meanderings down a variety of roads and byways. The use of such instruments as conga, shakers, and güiro (an open-ended, hollow gourd with parallel notches cut in one side, played by rubbing a stick along the notches to produce a ratchet-like sound) gives a Latin flavor to much of the music, Álamo’s intention apparently being to reflect his native Puerto Rico. To listeners, much of this music will be pleasant and undemanding.

     The jazz elements are also prominent on the Big Round Records debut of another composer-cum-performer, Anne Vanschothorst. But the harp music composed by this Dutch musician has a very different effect from that of Álamo’s works. The 11 pieces here are mostly in the pop-music time span of three or four minutes, and do tend to some sameness of sound except when Vanschothorst, like Álamo, introduces some intriguing instrumental combinations – here, in particular, trumpet and viola da gamba. The production of this disc clearly shows pop-music roots, since Vanschothorst’s harp was recorded separately and the other instruments were overdubbed, their players reacting to Vanschothorst’s performance and putting their own spin on it. The result is jazzlike without having the freewheeling spontaneity and thematic push-and-pull of the best jazz, since Vanschothorst in effect “hands off” to the other players but cannot take handoffs back from them. Technical elements aside, the music is often intended to evoke and explicate elements of nature: three works’ titles refer to trees, three others to birds. But there is nothing particularly emotive about any of the music, and nothing to prevent title-swapping – no work reflects its label intimately enough so that listeners will realize what Vanschothorst is getting at without the benefit of the label she bestows. Nevertheless, it will be interesting – for some listeners, although scarcely all – to hear the many ways in which a harp can lead or be incorporated into contemporary music that comes across primarily as jazz but that retains a certain level of classical sensitivity, if not formal style.