July 21, 2016
My Favorite Pets: By Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski’s Class. By Jeanne Birdsall. Pictures by Harry Bliss. Knopf. $16.99.
Woodpecker Wants a Waffle. By Steve Breen. Harper. $17.99.
Harry Bliss and Steve Breen are outstanding cartoonists who regularly produce delightful material for adults, Bliss in The New Yorker and elsewhere, Breen in the San Diego Union-Tribune, through his Grand Avenue comic strip, and in other venues. Turning them loose on children’s books would seem a calculated gamble: high artistic quality will surely result, but perhaps matters will be a touch abstruse for the picture-book set. Not to worry: as it turns out, Bliss (abetted by Jeanne Birdsall, best known for the Penderwicks series) and Breen have an absolutely delightful sense of what works for kids ages 4-8, including some nearly surreal scenes and just enough amusing absurdity to attract young readers and keep them coming back again and again. Anyone familiar with the Bliss style will immediately recognize the look of the characters in My Favorite Pets: By Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski’s Class, and anyone who does not know the style will be thoroughly familiar with it by the end of the book. The story is cast in the form of a homework report by Gus, who lives on a farm where the family keeps 17 sheep – all 17 shown with Gus in a single two-page illustration early in the book. Gus is quite a troublemaker, almost but not quite endearingly so – he does overdo things, as Bliss makes clear in the pictures even though Birdsall resolutely keeps the writing on the level to be expected if Gus himself had written the book…err, report. Thus, Gus blandly writes that a ram’s horns do not come off, but Bliss shows how Gus knows that: he tied a rope around the horns and pulled with all his might (and managed to escape injury; that is one tolerant ram). Gus has a thing about his little brother, Sammy, at one point swapping him for a lamb and at another putting Sammy’s favorite pajamas on a sheep’s head and taking cell-phone pictures of the result. Gus is busy reading comics when a sheep eats a scarf that his teacher, Ms. Smolinski, lent him; he cuts enough wool from one sheep to make himself a fake beard; he forces a crying Sammy to ride on top of a sheep; he tries to put a sheep on a bicycle – again and again, Bliss shows Gus making more than his share of mischief, while Birdsall produces words that make everything seem innocent and even inventive. Worst of all, Gus lets the sheep into the house, where they make a major mess of the kitchen, eat part of a rug and part of a pillow and several orchids, and destroy many household items – as Gus uncaringly uses several of them as an obstacle over which to jump on his skateboard, then tries to blame Sammy for everything. In truth, Gus is not a very nice boy and not a very nice brother, but Bliss manages to make him endearingly disobedient rather than genuinely nasty; and Birdsall’s writing wonderfully captures the flavor of a must-do homework report that a clever child might produce – with some unexpected twists. The fact that Ms. Smolinski gives the report a B+ and compliments Gus’s handwriting is right in line with the book’s skewed but eminently relatable sensibilities.
Breen, as both writer and illustrator of Woodpecker Wants a Waffle, lets his creativity flow in a different way. Bliss’s sheep mostly act like real animals, despite an anthropomorphic expression here and there; but Breen’s Benny the woodpecker is more a Looney Tunes character than a genuine woodland creature. Benny lives in the woods, true, but as soon as he smells something delicious when a waffle restaurant opens nearby, he sets off to investigate. He has no idea what waffles might be, but they look good and smell good and, Benny thinks with impeccable logic, must taste good, too. So he tries to get into the restaurant – in a series of scenes that really are reminiscent of ones in Warner Brothers cartoons. He clings to the bird-patterned dress of a woman entering the restaurant, for instance, and disguises himself in several improbable ways (including as a carton of milk and as a health inspector with Groucho Marx face mask). But he is always discovered and booted or broom-swept out. The other animals, talkers one and all, mock Benny’s wafflemania in sentences that perfectly fit the ethos of kids’ books: “Lizards don’t eat lasagna!” “Skunks don’t eat scones!” “Turtles don’t eat turnovers!” “Snakes don’t eat snow cones!” And so on. Benny refuses to accept what they say, asking why woodpeckers don’t eat waffles. That’s a poser – and the only answer anyone can come up with is Bunny’s “because I SAID so,” which does not satisfy Benny at all. So Benny devises a super-elaborate plan (not exactly along the lines of a Wile E. Coyote plot, but with similar complexity), in which he will singlehandedly put on a spectacular entertainment routine that will surely get him some waffles. The animals scoff, snicker and head back into the woods – but the next morning, they cannot resist turning up for Benny’s big show. And sure enough, Benny’s plan does get him into the diner and does get him a waffle – not at all in the way he told the animals it would, but in a manner showing just how clever a planner Benny is and just how determined he is to give the other animals (and the waitress who repeatedly tossed him out of the restaurant) their comeuppance. The ending is a sweet one – for Benny, anyway – and the whole book has a kind of sendup-of-children’s-books vibe even as it makes a thoroughly delightful children’s book itself. And th-th-th-that’s all, folks.
Rocks, Minerals & Gems: The Definitive Visual Catalog of the Treasure Beneath Your Feet. By Sean Callery and Miranda Smith. Photos by Gary Ombler. Scholastic. $19.99.
The amazement of the ordinary is what drives this wonderful look at things we encounter constantly but to which we generally pay very little attention. “We could not live without rocks – we would have nothing to stand on and build with!” explain Sean Callery and Miranda Smith, and when you think about things that way, rocks are absolutely remarkable. Yet they are mundane, too, so familiar and commonplace that it is hard to recognize the astonishing processes that create them: a simple curbstone, for example, is “born in magma; blasted from a volcano; collected, ground up, and transformed into an unnoticed, everyday part of our world.”
That is, rocks would be unnoticed if it were not for authors like Callery and Smith and, to at least as great an extent, a photographer as skilled as Gary Ombler, whose work – added to a great many photos taken from a great variety of other sources – makes the nonliving rocks, minerals and gems in this book seem to come alive. For one thing, the extreme closeups of rocks show details of their appearance in ways not normally seen in our daily life, and those details, the crystalline regularity and layered beauty and hugely varied colors, make for splendid viewing. Add to that the many photos showing how rocks and minerals are used structurally and decoratively: the malachite foyer in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, the Aztec sacrificial knife with a chalcedony blade, the 11th-century Peruvian mask using pigment made from cinnabar, the fossil-containing shale in which creatures from half a billion years ago may be found – there are wonders aplenty here, and a great deal to explore and marvel at.
The uses of rock are nearly infinite. Rocks, Minerals & Gems shows an airplane whose fuselage is based on graphite, a 300-year-old flintlock pistol in which the explosion that fires the bullet is made by striking a piece of flint, a camera lens whose focusing ability is due to fluorite, the magnificent Pantheon dome built out of pumice during the rule of the Roman emperor Hadrian, a set of 34 monasteries and temples carved out of a basalt cliff in India, and much more. And then there are gemstones: as the authors point out, only 130 of the 5,000 or so minerals on Earth are considered good enough to become gemstones, and only about 50 of those 130 are commonly used. Here readers encounter topaz and citrine, beryl and carnelian, agate and morganite, aquamarine and ametrine, as well as the more-familiar diamond, garnet, ruby, and emerald.
This is a visual book above all, but there is also plenty of well-put-together information in it for readers. It is easy to forget, with all the areas into which Scholastic has moved (notably including U.S. publication of the Harry Potter books), that the company has its roots in education – and still handles that field remarkably well when it comes to books like this one. For example, in the discussion of quartz, the most common mineral on Earth, there are photos and clear explanations of the ninth-century enamel-and-quartz Alfred Jewel, the use by Roman soldiers of tigereye, the belief that rose quartz can heal a broken heart, the association of chalcedony with the goddess Diana, the use of smoky quartz in crystal balls, and more. The authors explain why opal is referred to as a mineraloid rather than a mineral (mainly because it does not have a crystalline structure), and tell readers that many gems in crowns around the world are said to be rubies but are actually spinels. This is a book to read in any direction, choosing pages sequentially or at random, paying attention for any amount of time – a work to explore at your own pace and browse through as your curiosity motivates you. Parents and children alike will find here a mixture of science and beauty, fact and myth, fascinating history (arsenic has been used in mineral baths and to improve breathing, as well as to kill) and up-to-date information (graphene, a layer of graphite only one atom thick, is 100 times stronger than steel). Rocks, Minerals & Gems is a book that makes the ordinary extraordinary – or, more accurately, shows that what seems to be mundane is in reality quite remarkable.
The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life. By Rodney Dietert, Ph.D. Dutton. $28.
It has recently become fashionable to regard the human body not as an integrated organism but as a colony of trillions of microorganisms. On that basis, some 90% of human cells are microbial. This is reductio ad minimum if not ad absurdum, but it is not as peculiar or scientifically or philosophically abstruse as it may at first seem to be. The fact that our bodies are populated by trillions of bacteria is not news, nor is it revelatory to state that an appropriate balance of “good” bacteria helps protect us against periodic invasions by “bad” bacteria – and that, indeed, maintaining such a balance is a key to overall health.
A key, not the key. The distinction matters, because stating that microbial balance is the key to health opens the door to any number of scammers, “nutraceutical” peddlers, “probiotics” pushers and others who are only too eager to jump on the latest bandwagon and use it to make all the profits possible before the next big thing comes along.
Rodney Dietert, thankfully, is no peddler or pusher, even if he is a trifle too intense in his advocacy of microbiome balance as the key to living well. Dieter starts from the inarguable premise that despite many decades of advancement in medical technology, nearly two-thirds of deaths today are caused by illness – and particularly by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Furthermore, says Dietert, a professor of immunotoxicology at Cornell University, there is an epidemic of non-fatal but nevertheless serious diseases that can also be tied to microbiome disturbance, including celiac disease, psoriasis, asthma, osteoarthritis, autism, depression and many more. All these diseases share an improperly regulated immune system, Dietert argues, and because that is what they have in common, appropriate alteration of our microbiome can return our biological superorganism to health through a rebalancing act that involves treatments such as prebiotics and probiotics.
The problem, Dietert asserts, is that we as a species have spent so much time in recent decades deregulating rather than balancing our microbiome. Here he cites the usual suspects, including antibiotic overuse and insufficient nutritional diversity. We have pushed our bodies into a state of chronic inflammation, says Dietert, and that in turn makes us susceptible to an ever-increasing number of chronic illnesses.
Little of this is really new, although Dietert is to be commended for backing up his assertions with so many citations of responsible research, much of it cutting-edge. The notion that we live symbiotically with helpful bacteria that, for their part, protect us against a host of diseases caused by lack of homeostasis, allows us to imagine a fairly simple rebalancing act that will end the inflammatory response and present us with a holistically healthy future. But of course things are not as simple as that. Pretty much every aspect of modern life needs to be rethought in order to restore microbiome balance, Dietert suggests, ranging from altered birth practices (no more elective C-sections, no excuses for failing to breastfeed) to new approaches to geriatrics. The basic problem, Dietert says, is that in waging war against harmful microorganisms, we have been causing collateral damage to the helpful ones that are crucial to our health – in effect, fighting ourselves and defeating the very elements of our biological makeup that keep us healthy. We have suffered “the loss of a higher order of self-integrity involving our microbiome,” and medical treatments make matters worse insofar as they ignore the preeminent importance of microbiome management.
Dietert veers perilously close to fanaticism as he brings up instance after instance in which a problem, pretty much any problem, is caused by mismanagement of the microbiome. His strong scientific background and research-based arguments prevent his book from sounding entirely like a jeremiad, but there is a certain hectoring tone about his insistence that whatever may be the matter, he, Dietert, knows what the problem is, and what can be done about it. Of course, what can be done differs for every individual, so there is, after all, no easy solution in The Human Superorganism. In fact, Dietert’s insistence on the importance of personalized medicine is right in line with the increasing realization among clinicians that one-size-fits-all treatments really fit almost no one: individual people respond differently to an identical dose of the same medicine given for the same condition, for example. Unfortunately, Dietert’s statement that everyone can benefit from a microbiome makeover (“rebiosis,” he calls it) runs head-on into his statement that “what works wonderfully for one person might not work as well for someone else,” which rather begs the question of how to implement the program that Dietert recommends.
“The bottom line is that even with some uncertainties, more information to come out, and risks greater than zero, there is little reason simply to live with NCDs and treat the end-process with heavy-duty pharmaceuticals while never addressing the root of the problem,” Dietert opines. That certainly makes sense – as does Dietert’s emphasis on exercise and improved nutrition, the latter meaning that “you need to consume a diet that allows the microbes you are installing in your gut to thrive, to have an ecological advantage in you, and to function fully.” Even non-holistic medical practitioners would surely agree with the notion of improving diet and increasing physical activity, although they might not accept the specific terms in which Dietert presents his ideas. In the absence of specificity, however, Dietert’s well-meaning recommendations to reset one’s microbiome in a way that one discovers for oneself after substantial research and experimentation turn into just another of the many “here are the start and finish on a map so you can find your own road” healthcare self-help tomes. Some of what Dietert discusses is exceptionally interesting, especially his research-based assertions and his comments on ways in which he personally has applied his “rebiosis” approach. However, readers looking for the how of microbiome reorientation rather than the why of it will likely be disappointed to learn that the best Dietert can tell them is to figure out what to do on their own.
In the Shadow of the Gods: A Bound Gods Novel. By Rachel Dunne. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
The Fog Diver. By Joel Ross. Harper. $6.99.
The Fog Diver 2: The Lost Compass. By Joel Ross. Harper. $16.99.
There is a reliability to genre novels that makes them attractive to adults and young readers alike. Without knowing a specific author or a specific setting, readers can nevertheless pick up heroic adventure/fantasies with the knowledge that good and evil will be clearly delineated, quests will be undertaken, “guidance” figures will appear as needed, settings will be designed to seem exotic but not so exotic that readers will be genuinely puzzled (as can happen in science fiction), characterization will take a back seat to action, and descriptive passages will be used primarily to heighten tension or elucidate plot points. There are more standard elements than these, but this is a good basic set of them, and all are to be found – for better or worse – in both In the Shadow of the Gods and The Fog Diver and its sequel. Being intended for adults, In the Shadow of the Gods has a particularly gritty feel about it, starting with a first chapter whose sudden outbursts of violence in a suitably portentous setting are intended to convey the seriousness of the issues to be explored. The issues themselves, however, are nothing special, involving the rebellion of certain gods against others and the determination of the defeated ones to return one day and overthrow their oppressors. That those oppressors are the god-father and god-mother of the losers is scarcely unusual in genre novels like this or, for that matter, in many of the mythic systems on which books like Rachel Dunne’s draw willy-nilly. Unfortunately for those seeking a genuine feeling of dark designs within the entirely formulaic setup of the book’s premise, Dunne has assembled a world that is supposed to be totally unlike ours but that somehow seems to use Latin (or at least vaguely Latin-sounding) roots for almost everything of significance. Thus, the elder, “parent” gods are “father” Patharro and “mother” Metherra (pater and mater plus the respective “o” and “a” endings); a helpful priest of those gods is Parro (as in padre); and the numbered acolytes of the fallen Fratarro (frater, brother) and Sororra (soror, sister; and again one “o” ending and one “a”) include Uniro (first), Duero (second), Trero (third), Noviro (ninth), Quindeira (fifteenth), Septeiro (seventeenth), and so on. This is just plain silly – laughably so if you know Latin and Latinate words, as Dunne apparently assumes readers will not. However unintentional, it is also the only thing laughable in a book distinguished as much by its complete humorlessness as by its preoccupation with gore. The novel’s plot jumps and meanders about as plots in this genre generally do, and certainly there is plenty of scheming and violence and plotting and fighting – and some hard-to-fathom plot twists, such as the decision that all twins must be killed at birth because otherwise they will somehow lend strength to Fratarro and Sororra, whose desire, incidentally, is simply to return, overthrow Patharro and Metherra, and plunge the world into everlasting darkness. Ho, hum. Or maybe fee, fi, fo, fum. Dunne does have a generally sure sense of pacing, despite some tendencies to meander and to stretch scenes to and beyond the breaking point; and her limning of the cold wastelands where many scenes take place is well done and produces more chills than does the action. In the Shadow of the Gods is Dunne’s debut novel, and the second part of its title, A Bound Gods Novel, makes it quite clear that there is more to come. So does the book’s conclusion, which unfortunately descends into vastly overdone “revelatory mode” and near incoherence – all in the name of setting up future novels. It is safe to assume that the followups will also be written with a sure hand; a mostly strong, if somewhat inconsistent, sense of pace; and a set of highly predictable occurrences fitting neatly within the book’s well-defined genre.
The genre is the same for The Fog Diver, originally published last year and now available in paperback, and its brand-new sequel, The Lost Compass. The intended audience is different, though: these are books for preteens and young teenaged readers, and as such offer somewhat less extreme violence, a somewhat reduced intensity of action, and fewer grandiose “adult” themes. There is plenty of action, though, even more than Dunne offers, because the fantasy/adventure genre for this age group does not spend time being atmospheric. It is all about camaraderie, the bonds of friendship, ways to support each other, and a constant stream of “Perils of Pauline” occurrences (even though virtually no readers of these books will have any idea as to what Pauline and her perils might mean). Genre stories like this one emphasize the importance of friends and of one’s peer group rather than individuality, and frequently dwell on the evils of the adult world. There is usually a positive adult character or two, cast in the role of mentor and/or rescuer, but the main action and the main success belong emphatically to the young people featured in the story. These two Joel Ross novels fit these elements together neatly. The books take place in a standard-issue future dystopia; in this one, the Earth is cloaked in a white mist that is deadly to people but not to other living things. The mist conceals within it the precious objects of long ago that poor slum dwellers like the four protagonists of the books must hunt for and trade to survive. The first novel neatly sets the scene while presenting the essentially formulaic characters. It is inevitable in stories like this that the members of the central group are different but complementary, and that the most-central of them all has a deep secret that will eventually be revealed. Chess, the 13-year-old “tetherboy” who makes the actual dives into the fog, has that secret: one of his eyes actually appears to contain some of the fog, the result of a vicious experiment conducted by the evil Lord Kodoc in years past. This feature may (or may not) help him survive longer and perhaps find things that others cannot locate. The other young people who crew the airship from which Chess explores are Hazel, the captain; Swedish, the pilot; Bea, the mechanic; and Loretta, the best fighter in the group. All are one-dimensional and are as bold and supportive of Chess as can be. And all four are involved with Mrs. E, a woman who serves as mentor and rescuer but in the course of the story comes (unsurprisingly) to need rescuing herself: she develops a fog-related sickness that subsides long enough for her to play a commanding role one single time, at exactly the right moment in the narrative. There are some clever aspects of The Fog Diver, including misstatements of what the past must have been like (the kids believe there were once a ruling Burger King and Dairy Queen), decisions on what things from olden times have real modern value (paper money is only good for toilet paper), and the fact that Lord Kodoc’s airship is a kind of transformer whose “harmless” version is called the Teardrop while the name of its battle version is an anagram: Predator. Aside from these elements, the book is predictable, including its cliffhanger ending, in which the young people escape from Lord Kodoc and head for the supposed sanctuary of a place called Port Oro.
The Lost Compass picks up there. Far from being a sanctuary – it is a trope of novels like this that supposed havens turn out to be anything but – Port Oro is in danger of being swallowed by the mist. This can only be prevented if someone can find a long-lost object known as the Compass – and, naturally, the only one who may be able to find it is Chess. And so this book’s quest begins. The Compass is said (by legend, of course) to be “a nano-machine that controls the Fog,” and of course legend also says that the Compass “would emerge when the time was right.” The “nano” reference makes sense in context: it was revealed in the first book that the Fog is actually made of nanoparticles, originally designed to stop pollution but then becoming a threat to humanity after a spate of self-determination leads them to conclude that humans are pollutants. This is not particularly believable, but it is important to remember that this story is genre fantasy, not genre science fiction, despite a smattering of science thrown over it as a veneer. What matters here is the seeking and the finding, the revelations of how special Chess is and why, and the true meaning of some of those legends – one character aptly comments, “Sometimes old stories get garbled.” Actually, sometimes language does, too, not only in amusing post-apocalyptic ways but also when Ross has a character use some very old slang indeed as if this sort of language just happened to survive the destruction of most of Earth nearly unchanged: “After hundreds of years, everything got cattywampus.” Eventually, with an inevitable additional confrontation between Chess and Kodoc as a climax, everything gets sorted out, and this particular chess game (surely that is why Ross gave his hero that name) leads inevitably to checkmate of the bad guys. The Lost Compass wraps up the story begun in The Fog Diver, although Ross could probably figure out further adventures to tag onto this second one – and probably will, if fans of the books decide they want once again to revisit this particular version of an exciting but ultimately unsurprising genre adventure.
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 (version by Deryck Cooke). Seattle Symphony conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Brahms: Symphony No. 2. Chloë Hanslip, violin; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Beau Fleuve. $17.
Schumann: Cello Concerto; Dvořák: Cello Concerto. Carmine Miranda, cello; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.
John Corigliano: Symphony No. 1; Michael Torke: Bright Blue Music; Copland: Appalachian Spring—Suite. National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller. Naxos. $12.99.
Arthur Butterworth: Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 4. BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arthur Butterworth (No. 1) and Christopher Adey (No. 2); BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bryden Thomson (No. 4). Lyrita. $14.99 (2 CDs).
Rudolf Haken: Music for Viola. Rudolf Haken, viola; Rachel Jensen, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life—A Film by Georg Wübbolt. C Major DVD. $24.99.
The pull of the Romantic era extended well beyond the 19th century, with which it is usually associated, and indeed continues in the 21st. The bending of form to emotional expressiveness, one of the most salient characteristics of Romanticism, continues to attract composers even as their techniques for evoking expression evolve. Thus, those who try to determine a Romantic endpoint are doomed to failure. Was Sibelius, who died in 1957, the last Romantic? Then what about Einojuhani Rautavaara, also Finnish, born in 1928 and self-described as a Romantic? He still writes music with a Romantic bent – and Sibelius himself stopped composing anything new of significance about the time Rautavaara was born. Perhaps Rachmaninoff, who died in 1943 and wrote his final work, the Symphonic Dances, in 1940, was the last of his kind? But there is really no “last.” There are only composers who accepted, adopted and adapted the approaches and techniques of Romanticism and bent them to their will in new ways, whether by deliberately turning their backs on key elements (as Schoenberg did) or by accepting those elements and giving them a new, distinctive and highly personal stamp (as Mahler did). Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10 manages to be both a pinnacle of Romanticism and a very clear bridge beyond it. It is a work whose artist-as-tragic-hero elements are abundantly clear, to an even greater degree than in his Sixth Symphony: by the time of the Tenth, Mahler’s wife, Alma, was having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius and Mahler was desperately trying to cope. Mahler’s final symphony is both intensely emotional (and emotive) and extremely carefully structured. It is an arch whose central movement, “Purgatorio,” is the shortest symphonic movement that Mahler ever wrote; and it is a work whose unique-in-Mahler elements range from an extremely dissonant climactic first-movement chord to the genuinely eerie sound of a muffled bass drum at the conclusion of the fourth movement and in the fifth. It seems inevitable that the symphony end peacefully but with a measure of inconclusiveness, and it does, in a quietly ambivalent close. Mahler completed the first and third movements of his Tenth and left the others tantalizingly close to being playable. The first and still best performing version of the entire symphony, by Deryck Cooke, is spare, at times even harsh, in ways that show how far past Romanticism Mahler looked in this work – or would have looked if he had finished it as Cooke did. Of course that would not have happened, but perhaps Mahler would have made his Tenth even more intensely ascetic than it is in Cooke’s performing version. It is best to regard Cooke’s Mahler Tenth as a very fine completion of an extended sketch of a work whose shape Mahler had determined but whose ultimate orchestration and overall sound would likely have been different in important respects from the ones Cooke proffers. Yet ultimately this does not matter: Mahler, whose temperament was even more wholly Romantic than his techniques, so clearly communicates anguish and uncertainty in his Tenth that a conductor has only to follow the music, scarcely to lead it, for it to have a deeply moving effect. Thomas Dausgaard seems fully to understand the emotional underpinnings of the Tenth, and his live November 2015 performance with the Seattle Symphony, presented on the orchestra’s own label, glows with fine playing, abundant emotional involvement and a clearly articulated sense of the music’s careful structure. This is in every way a very fine Mahler Tenth – not the one Mahler would have created if he had lived to and beyond his 51st birthday, but as convincing a reading of this more-than-sketched, less-than-finished work as listeners are likely to encounter.
Backing up a few decades into the height of Romanticism lands listeners amid some of the most popular classical works of all time – which retain their appeal despite the many, many times audiences have heard them both in concerts and in recorded form. The opportunity to make a new recording of such works can be irresistible, but it is one best approached cautiously, since the bar for a quality performance is extremely high when a work has been played and recorded so many times. The new Buffalo Philharmonic recording of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, offering readings recorded live in January 2016 on the orchestra’s Beau Fleuve label, has one hit and one miss and gets a (+++) rating. The Tchaikovsky concerto is a delight. Twenty-nine-year-old Chloë Hanslip treats this work by the 38-year-old composer as a burst of youthful joy and passion, subsuming its darker elements beneath warmth, lyricism and a joie de vivre that one rarely experiences in Tchaikovsky but that makes perfect sense in this particular piece. JoAnn Falletta goes along with and helps heighten the effect of the interpretation with accompaniment that carefully includes Hanslip’s instrument at times and holds back and thus heightens the soloist’s effects at others. Ultimately this is a superficial performance, making no attempt to discover, much less plumb, any depths in the concerto. But this piece happens to be one that can survive and even thrive under this kind of treatment, especially when the soloist simply sounds so good. The orchestra sounds excellent here as well, with plenty of warmth and fine ensemble work. It almost seems to be a different orchestra and a different conductor in Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. This reading is a genuine disappointment, almost wholly without warmth and filled with the sort of unnecessary rubato that lesser conductors use to try to heighten audience involvement but to which a leader of Falletta’s caliber should not have to resort. The very end of the symphony, for example, proves only that the musicians can stay together at a breakneck pace that is wholly inappropriate for the music. Also, for some reason, Falletta omits the exposition repeat in the first movement – a serious error that badly damages the expansiveness of the movement and the overall balance of all the symphony’s elements. Falletta is better than this. So is Brahms.
A new Navona CD includes two other highly popular and very Romantic concertos, those for cello by Schumann and Dvořák, and here too one performance is more attractive than the other – although the disparity is less than in the Buffalo Philharmonic’s case. Carmine Miranda, another superb twentysomething soloist (he is 26), is filled with fire and expressiveness in the Dvořák. There is nothing surface-level here: Miranda delves deeply into the work’s emotional core, contrasting its occasional ebullience with a level of dark intensity that never seems far away. Many cellists emphasized the considerable disparity between the basic march tune and the emotion-soaked slow section in the final movement, but Miranda goes beyond this, finding similar antitheses throughout the work and highlighting them again and again. This is an unusual interpretation and one that bears repeated listening. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský is not quite as convincing as is Miranda – tutti passages here will often make listeners eager for a return of the soloist – but the musicians’ playing is very good and quite idiomatic, even if the conducting is rather foursquare. Soloist and conductor seem more fully attuned to each other in the Schumann concerto, but the result is a somewhat weaker reading of this work than the Dvořák receives. Miranda’s approach is similar: he looks for areas of strong contrast and seeks to highlight them repeatedly. But Schumann’s concerto is more thoroughly through-composed than Dvořák’s and offers fewer opportunities for delving into disparate moods and emotions. Here Miranda’s handling of the concerto seems somewhat forced, as if he is trying to make Schumann’s expressiveness into something akin to Dvořák’s when in fact it is quite different. Again, the interpretation is unusual and interesting enough to be worth hearing repeatedly, and the CD deserves a (++++) rating for its innovation as well as the sheer quality of Miranda’s playing. But on balance, the intriguing approach here fits Dvořák more comfortably than it fits Schumann.
Romantic expressiveness, if not the officially designated Romantic era, persisted into a time very remote from that of Schumann and Dvořák. By the late 1980s, nearly a century after Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and more than that after Schumann’s, a distinctly modern composer, John Corigliano (born 1938), turned to a Romantic form and approach to communicate the same sort of strong emotions for which Romantic music is known – but using techniques honed many decades later. Composed in 1988 and first heard in 1993, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 used a very large, certainly late-Romantic-scale orchestra to try to express feelings associated with what he described as a “world-scale tragedy,” in the form of AIDS. This is essentially a war symphony, of AIDS as a war against Corigliano’s friends and of the medical war against the disease. Corigliano uses an orchestra large even by Mahlerian standards, primarily because of a gigantic percussion component that includes two glockenspiels, crotales, two vibraphones, xylophone, marimba, chimes, snare drum, three tom-toms, three roto-toms, field drum, tenor drum, three bass drums, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, three temple blocks, tambourine, anvil, metal plate, brake drum, triangle, flexatone, police whistle, whip, and ratchet – plus harp, piano, four mandolins and a large complement of more-traditional orchestral instruments. But where Mahler used his huge orchestras primarily as extended chamber groups, presenting individual elements within them with tremendous delicacy and using the full instrumental complement with care and in contrast to the sections involving relatively few instruments, Corigliano goes for all-out intensity and noise time and again, seeking an epic scale by piling on climax after climax at insistently high volume. The symphony is filled with personal references, not personal to Corigliano himself, as in Mahler’s works (which are largely about himself), but references to three specific people who died of AIDS and were meaningful to the composer. Listeners need to know the references to get the full effect of the music – one reason this rather bloated symphony has not aged very well, even when played as effectively as it is on a new Naxos recording by the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by David Alan Miller. For all its brashness and intensity, the symphony is less effective than another work on the CD, Michael Torke’s Bright Blue Music (1985), which offers a much more downplayed form of Romantic-style communication through its lyricism and beauty. And the simplicity of the suite from Copland’s well-known Appalachian Spring (1945) trumps both the newer works precisely because of its simplicity: the music is actually constructed with great skill, but it does not constantly call attention to itself and its message, instead unfolding with balletic warmth and a deliberately naïve but nevertheless heartfelt style of communication that shows one effective direction composers were able to use when going beyond Romanticism while not abandoning some of its precepts, such as tonality. The orchestra here is made up of conservatory students, and it sounds fine in all these pieces; the CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating because the three works on it fit rather uneasily together and the main piece, Corigliano’s, simply does not wear very well in its overdone intensity.
Corigliano is not, by a long shot, the only post-Romantic composer to have gravitated to the symphony when seeking to communicate on a large scale. The relatively little-known British composer Arthur Butterworth (1923-2014) composed seven symphonies, along with more than 150 other works in forms usually thought of as Romantic (including concertos for violin, viola, cello, guitar, bassoon, trumpet and organ). Like Charles Ives in the United States, Butterworth was inspired by band music, becoming a trombone, cornet and trumpet player because of his love of the sound of massed brass. Although he was a professional orchestral trumpeter for a time, he gave up performing when in his late 30s in order to focus on composition. His works are well-constructed and show considerable sensitivity to the real-world requirements of performance. A new two-CD release on the Lyrita label offers the unusual chance to hear three Butterworth symphonies and listen to the composer himself conducting his favorite, the First, which was his breakthrough work. This symphony was first played in 1957. This recording, from 1976, is unfortunately of poor quality (it was made from a BBC transmission), but it is an interesting historical documentation of music that might be called post-post-Romantic – because the symphony, with its strong British and Scandinavian flavor, clearly recalls (but does not slavishly imitate) Vaughan Williams, Sibelius and Nielsen, each of whom found his own way past the Romantic era and into new forms of symphonic expressiveness. Butterworth’s Symphony No. 2 (1964), heard here in a 1975 performance, offers less tone-painting and a greater sense of drama and lyricism in a kind of film-music package. It is a work of considerable variety, with pastoral elements, periods of calm, folklike material, a bit of a march, and an effective contrast of jollity and solemnity. Symphony No. 4 (1986), presented here in a recording of its première performance, is closer to No. 1 in spirit, the first movement in particular reminiscent of Sibelius (the ostinato passages are directly in the Finnish composer’s debt) but with a Nielsen-like passage of insistent timpani at its climax. The second movement starts suspensefully, then lightens; the third has stillness at its core but is occasionally interrupted by brass outbursts using more-dissonant harmonies than Butterworth generally employed; and the finale, a moto perpetuo, recalls elements of the first three movements and whirls to a well-wrought climax. Strictly in performance terms, this is the best reading of the three here, but all the recordings, despite some technical imperfections, are well worth having for anyone interested in exploring Butterworth’s music. The limited reach of the composer, and the less-than-ideal sound, make this a (+++) recording, but it is one well worth hearing for those interested in 20th-century British symphonies as they evolved from works of the Romantic era.
Butterworth was unapologetic about writing music that remained largely within the Romanic purview. The same is true of Rudolf Haken (born 1965), a fine violist whose early works for his favored instrument – heard on a new MSR Classics CD – are so firmly within Romanticism as to qualify as throwbacks. Four of the five pieces here are the creations of a teenager – a remarkably skilled one who, by age 10, had conducted his own orchestral music. The most-recent work on the CD is Polonaise for Viola and Piano (1990), a virtuoso showpiece filled with unexpected harmonic and rhythmic twists. It keeps sounding as if it is veering off the tracks into unexpected territory, then abruptly pulls back, as if Haken is having fun at the expense of performer and listener alike. It contrasts well with Für Fritz (1980), also for viola and piano, a playful, harmonically rich and very difficult display piece in the Kreisler mode, filled with chromaticism and delicacy that are almost impossible to balance – although Haken himself clearly knows how to produce the effects he wants. This is the earliest work on the CD: Haken was 14 when he wrote it. The remaining three pieces here – all five works are world première recordings – date to only one year later, 1981. One is the Suite in A minor for Solo Viola, a classy updating of the Baroque suite that invites, indeed requires, Romantic interpretation: there is some of the poise of Bach and Telemann here, and the movements’ dance titles are those of the old suites, but the music itself has definite Romantic flair and expressiveness. Also here is Fantasia in F-sharp minor for Viola and Piano, an easier work to play than some of the others on the CD, but no less attractive for its comparative simplicity. Indeed, the grace of its first movement, brevity and panache of its Scherzo, lyricism of its Adagio and drama of its finale make it a particularly satisfying piece for both performer and listener. The last work on this (++++) disc is Sonata in D minor – Haken has a notable fondness for minor keys, another of his Romantic leanings. This is the longest and most substantial piece on the CD, its three movements running a full half-hour and requiring intensity of focus from both violist and pianist (Rachel Jensen is a very fine accompanist and partner throughout the recording). The sonata is firmly Romantic in structure and almost equally so in tonality. The first movement uses sonata form effectively and includes a nicely integrated central fugato section; the second is a well-wrought theme and variations; and the finale is all energy and joy – a very impressive conclusion to a work that it is hard to believe was created by a contemporary composer in his mid-teens. Haken has moved away from Romanticism more recently, falling into the now-familiar contemporary habit of mixing classical elements with ones from genres such as jazz, rock and Oriental music. But his early and largely Romantic viola works are in many ways more intriguing than his later ones, because they explore territory on which so many modern composers have turned their backs and show that there is still a great deal to be said in the Romantic idiom.
Romanticism had its time on the podium as well as in composition – indeed, Mahler as composer-conductor exemplified it in both venues. In more-recent times, another composer-conductor was often considered to be the epitome of the Romantic temperament. That was Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), a strong advocate and prolific conductor of Mahler’s music and a podium showman whose excesses and exploits have been the stuff of musical legend for decades. There have been many attempts to explore Bernstein’s complex personality, none of them fully satisfying but virtually all offering some degree of insight. A 52-minute documentary by Georg Wübbolt fits the pattern well, if not particularly innovatively. It offers the usual mixture of scenes of Bernstein, snippets of his activities (conducting and otherwise), background on his life and his musical interests, and comments by those who knew and interacted with him. Actually, the film is most notable for those comments, because there are so many of them – not only from fellow conductors (Gustavo Dudamel, Kent Nagano, Marin Alsop, Christoph Eschenbach) and from Bernstein’s own children but also from members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Additional comments by Dudamel, Nagano and Alsop appear in a 24-minute bonus section of the C Major DVD on which the film has been released, resulting in an hour and a quarter of material on Bernstein in all. Wübbolt makes an attempt to showcase aspects of Bernstein’s life and career that sometimes get short shrift, such as his roles as an educator and as a sort of American musical ambassador to the world. Unfortunately, this material gets short shrift here as well, since Wübbolt packs his film with so much of the usual material on Bernstein: his highly involving (and, to some, vastly overdone) podium performances; his popular compositions (but there is virtually nothing here on his more-serious, less immediately appealing music); his accomplished pianism; his use of television to reach young people; and so on. One of the things that made Bernstein a Romantic figure was his larger-than-life emoting on the podium and sometimes off it, including his willingness, even determination, to play to the largest audience possible – as when he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at Christmas 1989, with "Freiheit" ("Freedom") replacing "Freude" ("Joy") in the final movement. A consummate showman, Bernstein was nevertheless not always the best advocate of the music he conducted: his many unwarranted tempo changes, his stretching and compressing of works (especially Romantic ones) in ways the composers never intended, were as much a part of his conducting as were his sometimes surprising attentiveness to music with which he was not usually identified (some of his Haydn, for example, was excellent). What Leonard Bernstein: Larger Than Life misses are some of the controversies and negatives that balance the positive elements with which the film is filled. Romantics of all kinds lived and worked on a grand scale, but their lives writ large were scarcely perfect exemplars for their time or the times that came afterwards. Wübbolt’s film is a (+++) production that plumbs no new depths where Bernstein is concerned, but does a fine and generally forthright job of showing the many ways in which he was admired and some of the many people who admired him. It will take a more nuanced director than Wübbolt to produce a more-balanced view of Bernstein, one showing how his Romantic temperament sometimes betrayed him and brought him, at least in some quarters, as much disdain as admiration – a fate indeed befitting many Romantic figures as far back as the 19th century.
Verdi: I Due Foscari. Plácido Domingo, Francesco Meli, Maria Agresta, Maurizio Muraro, Samuel Sakker, Rachel Kelly, Lee Hickenbottom; Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Antonio Pappano. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.
Puccini: La Rondine. Dinara Alieva, Charles Castronovo, Alexandra Hutton, Alvaro Zambrano, Stephen Bronk; Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. Delos DVD. $19.99.
Nicolas Kaviani: Te Deum (2005); Tous les Matins du Monde (2014). Janáček Opera Choir and Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský; Prague Mixed Chamber Choir conducted by Jiří Petrdlík. Navona. $18.99 (CD+DVD).
Alan Beeler: The Sutton Songs; Symphony No. 3, “Shaker Hymns”; Jabberwocky; Inhuman Henry. Navona. $14.99.
Opera performances that have strengths and weaknesses onstage retain them on DVD, even though the DVD-viewing experience, guided by the decisions of a video director, is quite different from that of attending a performance and deciding where to focus one’s attention at any given time. New DVD releases of less-known Verdi and Puccini operas provide ample opportunity for one’s attention to wander despite the necessity of watching just what the video displays – rather than making one’s own decision about how to combine visual and auditory elements. Verdi’s sixth opera, I Due Foscari, is one of his darkest, its score filled with deep brass and low strings to an extent unusual in Verdi’s music. When well done, this is a deeply sad work, in which the adherence of the Doge of Venice to the letter of the law leads him to turn his back on his own son – and on justice. That was the point of Byron’s fact-based drama, on which Verdi’s opera is based. But the point comes through with less than total clarity in the production by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on a new Opus Arte DVD. The problem is not with the music, which Antonio Pappano conducts with suitable intensity and attentiveness to detail. Nor is it with Plácido Domingo, who, as the older Foscari – the Doge, Francesco – shows himself as strong-voiced and convincing in this baritone role as he used to be in tenor parts (although he does not have a full, warm lower baritone range). The issue here lies more with the younger Foscari, Jacopo (Francesco Meli), who offers appealing pathos but little subtlety; and his wife, Lucrezia (Maria Agresta), whose wildness is always on the verge of being overdone – and becomes so at the very end, when she goes mad (which Verdi did not intend) and even tries to drown one of her children, thus distracting from Domingo’s final aria. The opera’s conclusion is tragic only by the excesses of Romantic melodrama: both Francesco and Jacopo die of broken hearts, within minutes of each other. But the ending can work when sufficiently well sung and well staged. The staging by Thaddeus Strassberger, though, is the biggest disappointment here: individuals and groups move about to no special purpose; inserted scenes of torture are presumably supposed to be chilling but simply seem meaningless; and both the costumes and the exaggerated, rubble-like settings draw mostly negative attention, more or less fitting the era of the story (the 15th century) but adding very little to the impact of the libretto or the singing. Fans of Domingo will enjoy the DVD, which shows him doing quite well in one of his new baritone roles, but fans of Verdi will find they are not so well served.
Nor do Puccini fans have much to hold onto in the Deutsche Oper Berlin version of La Rondine. A simplistic opera originally commissioned as an operetta and dismissed by Puccini’s publisher, with some justification, as “bad Lehár,” La Rondine is yet another of those tales of a courtesan with a heart of gold who nobly gives up true love for the sake of the honor of her lover’s family. It has elements not only of La Traviata but also of Die Fledermaus, and suffers by comparison with both. It does have some gorgeous music (and Puccini’s only dance music), and it can work when all the main singers are attentive to the work’s dramatic and comedic elements and the production emphasizes the human scale of the drama. Unfortunately, few of these elements are present in the new Delos DVD performance conducted by Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. As the more-or-less-tragic heroine, Magda, Dinara Alieva is smooth-voiced and convincing, but as her lover, Ruggero, Charles Castronovo is scarcely warm or seductive enough to seem a worthwhile match – although their final exchange, before Magda returns to her former life as the mistress of Rambaldo (a strong, stolid Stephen Bronk), is appropriately emotional. The work’s second couple (part of the typical design of an operetta of this vintage) also suffers a mismatch. As Magda’s maid, Lisette, Alexandra Hutton is appropriately spirited; but as her lover, the poet Prunier, Alvaro Zambrano offers ragged-edged vocals and little sense of the buffo spirit of his role. And here as in the new Verdi recording, the sets get in the way of the performance. This is Roland Villazón's Berlin debut as stage director, and what he does with it is update the story from the 1890s to the 1920s so he can bring in surrealistic elements that do not fit at all and are a constant distraction – notably three faceless men who lurk around Magda at all times, as if representing the ghosts of her many past lovers and indicating the impossibility of her finding happiness with Ruggero. The conceit is both over-the-top and over-obvious. And there are other visual oddities, too, such as costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s decision to have Lisette show up at one point in a tuxedo and top hat despite the libretto’s explicit call for her to be in a black silk coat. On top of all this, the orchestra’s playing is subpar, with many passages so thick they sound muddy and some parts of the score simply dragging. La Rondine is not often performed, and it does deserve to be heard more frequently; but this recording does it no favors.
There is a DVD as well in a new Navona release of half an hour of music by Nicolas Kaviani – a presentation implying high significance of both the composer and his music. Neither really deserves so strong a focus: the 25-minute Te Deum has interesting elements and the five-minute Tous les Matins du Monde, for 16 unaccompanied voices, shows real skill in vocal writing, but nothing here justifies a very short full-price CD packaged with a “making of” DVD documentary. There is a certain grandiosity of intent and purpose here: Kaviani has the interesting notion of turning the distinctly religious Te Deum into a secular work appropriate for a modern era that is less accepting of the certainties of organized religion. The concept deserves praise for its boldness even though it does not really work emotionally: those who know the Latin words will find it hard to accept them as humanistically directed, while those who do not may simply find the whole experience puzzling. Kaviani certainly strives for emotional connection here, and uses a great many classical styles to do so, reaching back to Gregorian chant and forward to a variety of contemporary techniques. He gets the underlying celebratory nature of the old Te Deum right, but his method of presenting it as humanism devoid of strict religiosity comes across as more quixotic than convincing. Tous les Matins du Monde is actually a more successful and involving piece, its alternation of sadness with thoughtfulness readily comprehensible and its eventual sense of transcendence almost palpable. The performances are fine, and so is the music, but “fine” does not really justify the unusual attention lavished on this release.
By contrast, the vocal music of Alan Beeler is presented in a more-standard way on another Navona CD, and is the better for it. The CD is more reasonable in length – over 50 minutes – and more varied in tone. The seven movements of The Sutton Songs are settings of poetry by Dorothy Sutton, a former Beeler colleague at Eastern Kentucky University. As sung by soprano Aliana de la Guardia with accompaniment by pianist Karolina Rojahn, the works come across as comparatively straightforward emotional miniatures with impressions ranging from the tart and slightly sarcastic to the warm and lyrical. Symphony No. 3, “Shaker Hymns,” is performed by the Choir and Orchestra of the Târgu Mureş State Philharmonic, conducted by Ovidiu Marinescu. It explores some familiar Shaker music in pleasantly involving ways, and never strays far from the tonality and simplicity that continue to make these hymns moving in simple but thoughtful ways. Some of this work – arranged in a traditional four-movement symphonic structure of Allegro, Andante, Scherzo and Finale – bears inevitable comparison with the music of Copland, which in some ways it distinctly and perhaps deliberately echoes. But Beeler uses the hymns differently and with some interesting touches in turning them into a convincing vocal symphony (and a brief one, lasting less than 15 minutes). Also on this disc are two pleasantly quirky works whose humor contrasts nicely with the generalized seriousness of classical vocal music. One is Jabberwocky, to the familiar Lewis Carroll nonsense poem, done to a fine turn by baritone Brian Church and the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Jiří Petrdlík. The other, Inhuman Henry, is less-known but more intriguing. The poem here, by A.E. Houseman, is about things unexpected, unusual and surprising. Tenor Eric Christopher Perry and the Moravian orchestra under its more-usual conductor, Petr Vronský, revel in exploring Houseman’s doggerel, which is about a “bloody-minded boy,” a “sanguinary lad,” who sets a lion upon some unicorns and finds himself consumed when the lion cannot catch them – and which ends with the admonition to “be kind to unicorns.” Tenor and orchestra present the material with suitable gentle strangeness and amusement. Beeler here exhibits a fine sense of fun at the chance to use atonality to tell an out-of-this-world tale; indeed, the CD as a whole displays the composer’s skill in mixing tonal and atonal elements in ways that allow vocal and instrumental lines alike to flourish with their own individual and generally very effective expressivity.
July 14, 2016
Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird. By Pamela S. Turner. Photographs by Andy Comins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Prissy & Pop: Big Day Out. By Melissa Nicholson. Harper. $17.99.
Otter Goes to School. By Sam Garton. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Pete the Cat’s Got Class. By James Dean. Harper. $9.99.
Animal learning, and animals – real or imaginary – as guides to learning, can make education much more interesting for children. The excellent “Scientists in the Field” series focuses directly on the learning experience in Pamela S. Turner’s fascinating Crow Smarts, which looks specifically at the crows of the South Pacific island group known as New Caledonia. These crows have made remarkable adaptations to their environment, using tools that they make themselves to dig grubs, a favorite food, out of the wood in which the grubs hide. The crows practice genuine learning, not merely instinctive behavior, as the scientists who study them learn through a series of amazingly revelatory experiments. Andy Comins’ photos show some of what those experiments involve, but in this book, unlike many others in this series, the pictures are less impressive than the text, which details just how the crows learn to make tools from native vegetation and just how scientists have figured out that the crows’ behavior is a combination of “nature” and “nurture” – the birds seem to have an instinct to perform some of the toolmaking acts, but appear to need instruction from other crows in order to do the rest of them. Where the photos do excel is in showing the differences among the tools the crows make, the most remarkable of which is a hooked piece of pandanus leaf whose hook the crows create on their own – they do not simply accept a pointy end, but twist it until it forms a hook that can be used to extract a grub. In doing this, the crows become one of only two species known to make hooked tools – humans being the other. The intelligence of these crows is at times difficult to believe: in one test involving dropping objects into water to raise the water level and get a treat, “the New Caledonian crows outperformed seven-year-old children who were given the same test.” Crow Smarts does contain a few annoying errors that undermine its many fascinations, such as the comment, regarding exploration of New Caledonia, that “Captain James Cook visited in 1174 [sic]” and the explanation that in scientific research, “A paper tells (often in mind-numbing detail) what the scientists did and what results were found, and discuss [sic] what the results might mean.” But most of the book is excellent. Gavin Hunt, the primary scientist profiled in Crow Smarts, offers a lot of insight into how New Caledonian crows shape and are shaped by their environment, and Turner’s explanations of ways in which crows demonstrate intelligence are nicely complemented by easy-to-follow tables (such as one explaining that only five species make multiple kinds of tools – humans, chimpanzees, orangutans, capuchin monkeys, and New Caledonian crows – while, as noted, only humans and crows make hooked tools). There is also some useful art by Guido De Filippo, a graduate student involved in crow study, including a particularly revelatory page illustrating how crows manage complex thought even though they lack a neocortex, the part of the brain used by mammals to do such thinking. Crow Smarts raises as many questions as it answers, and from it, young readers will learn not to accept what “everyone knows” as fact, such as the notion that “birdbrained” inevitably means “not very intelligent at all.”
Pigs are reasonably intelligent animals, too, although not at the level of New Caledonian crows. But the mini pigs named Priscilla (Prissy) and Poppleton (Pop) contribute to education in their own way. They are the class pets of the first-grade class taught by Melissa Nicholson in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida – and they are, not surprisingly in view of their adorableness, Internet stars, with a big following on Instagram. Prissy & Pop: Big Day Out is a very simple, pleasantly imaginative story in which the two pigs star as buddies heading for the beach – if they can get their different personalities to work together. Pop is beach-focused, but Prissy has all sorts of other things she wants to do before going there and even while on the way. Eventually they arrive and have a good time – which is not the point of the book at all. What matters here is the chance to see Prissy and Pop pose in varying, always adorable ways. When selecting clothes for their trip, for instance, Prissy stands at a mirror and seems to be admiring her pink outfit and strand of pearls; Pop, meanwhile, is inside a dresser drawer of clothing, apparently trying to figure out what to put on. In another picture, in which the pigs are about to eat breakfast, Prissy leans cutely toward a stack of small pancakes while Pop, open-mouthed, seems to be marveling at the banquet laid out for the two pigs. There is a precious getting-into-a-toy-car picture, a Prissy-at-the-playground series (with Pop acting impatient), and a cute little walking-on-the-sand photo in which the pigs are seen from behind, heading toward the water. It would be stretching things to say that there is anything remotely educational about Prissy & Pop: Big Day Out. But there is surely an educational experience to be had in Nicholson’s classroom from interacting day in and day out with these two unusual companion animals – and this book, along with the Internet, is about as close to that experience as most people are ever likely to get.
Authors who create fictional, anthropomorphic animals can, of course, more easily use them to give human children lessons. But there has to be plenty of fun there, too, to keep kids involved. There is nothing special to be found out from Sam Garton’s Otter Goes to School except that, in a very general sense, learning is fun. Otter – companion animal to a man known as Otter Keeper – decides one day to start a school for her friends, the toys, after Otter keeper explains that “when he was little he went to a super-fun place called school” where “you learn a lot and get really clever.” Otter Keeper goes off to work, and Otter piles the toys into his toy car and races off to “school,” dropping off the “children” and then dressing up as “the best teacher ever” to introduce herself to the class. What follows is a series of mildly amusing misadventures. For math, Otter writes down lots of numbers and then cannot decide what to do with them, so she and the toys “took turns holding the calculator,” and Otter decides that Giraffe (on whose back the calculator balances neatly) should get gold stars for being good at math. Then Otter and the toys are seen on the piano bench, and Otter declares that Pig has a beautiful singing voice and should get gold stars for music. Then, for story time, Otter reads a book to the toys and decides that she herself should get gold stars for reading so well. And so the day goes – except that Otter cannot decide what one toy, Teddy, is good at, and that makes Otter sad: Garton’s picture of Otter looking downcast next to Teddy is both sweet and hilarious. When Otter Keeper comes home, Otter explains that Teddy is not good at anything and that she herself is not a very good teacher. To perk things up, everyone has an art class before dinner, and Otter Keeper makes sure that “Teddy” draws “the best picture ever,” one showing Otter as “My Favorite Teacher.” So, with silly certitude and a nod toward the notion that everybody is good at something, Otter Goes to School ends with everyone happy.
The lessons are more explicit for human readers in James Dean’s Pete the Cat’s Got Class. This is one of those “multimedia” books, including a dozen flash cards, a fold-out poster, and a page of stickers: school bus, poster saying “Meow Math,” pencil, guitar with the words “Math Rocks,” lunch box, “Numbers Are Groovy” sign, and so on. As the stickers indicate, the story itself is about – what else? – math. Pete loves it, but his friend, Tom, has trouble with it. So Pete decides to “help Tom become awesome at math,” explaining that Tom does not really hate it: “You just don’t love it yet.” At Tom’s house, Pete finds Tom unwilling to do “boring” math problems – until Pete gets the idea of using Tom’s race cars, which he loves, to create number problems. Soon enough, Tom gets the idea that adding and subtracting can be done with cars or simply with numbers, and everything goes well – until the class takes a math test and Pete and Tom both get one question wrong: the same one. The teacher, Mr. G, suspects that some copying is going on, so Pete gets Tom to bring the race cars to school and shows Mr. G why Tom can now do math and did not need to copy from Pete in order to get a good test grade. The final words of the book are, “Math is neat!” And while that may not be the sentiment of all kids who read Pete the Cat’s Got Class, it is a feeling that can better be evoked by teachers who take the time to find ways to connect an abstract subject such as math with students’ everyday lives, through race cars or anything else. Parents can learn that lesson, too, and use it if they find that their own children come home from class at some point complaining that they hate math or find it boring. The approach might not work for calculus, but it is a pretty good one for basic arithmetic.
The King of Kazoo. By Norm Feuti. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.
Big Nate Doodlepalooza. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $6.99.
Nancy Clancy, Book 7: Nancy Clancy Seeks a Fortune. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $9.99.
Words and pictures are complementary in graphic novels, but the effect of these not-quite-comic-books, not-quite-novels tends to depend more on visual elements than plot. Norm Feuti’s The King of Kazoo is a lot of fun, and will appeal to a younger age group than many graphic novels do: there are no adult or almost-adult themes here, no real violence, no significant complexity. Instead there is a straightforward story of a capricious and self-important king who spends his time trying to come up with an appropriate legacy instead of listening to people who might actually help him create one – notably his daughter, Bing, and the royal inventor, Torq. King Cornelius is mostly interested in claiming credit for what others do: Bing knows magic, but when she turns up information of interest, her father takes credit. Torq, who does not speak, invents a “gonkless carriage” (this kingdom has kangaroo-like gonks rather than horses) and suggests calling it “Auto-Mobile,” but the king insists that it is a “Cornelius carriage.” He also insists on driving it, with predictably sloppy results. In fact, whenever the king takes matters into his own hands, he messes things up – he is the traditional bumbling, incompetent father seen in so many movies and TV shows. Thus, when a mysterious explosion on a nearby mountain sends Cornelius, Torq and Bing on the road to find out what is going on, and a damaged bridge forces them to take a detour through Kroaker Swamp, the giant frogs living in the swamp promptly capture the trio – and Cornelius’ attempts to lie their way out of the fix only make matters worse. Eventually Bing explains what really happened, and the frogs’ leader tells Cornelius, “You should listen to advisor. Good leader know how to listen.” The king replies that “a good king doesn’t need an advisor,” and the Grand Kroaker fires back, “Maybe not, but you do.” Score one zinger for the frogs. Eventually, inevitably, Cornelius learns a touch of humility and gives credit where it is due after Bing and Torq rescue the kingdom – with the king himself displaying an unexpected touch of bravery, to show that he is not really all bad. This is not an especially inventive graphic novel: there is little unusual in panel design, character creation, or color. But the drawings propel the story along effectively, and the comment on the cover from Big Nate cartoonist Lincoln Peirce, to the effect that Feuti’s work has “plenty of humor and heart,” pretty well sums things up.
Peirce actually packs more humor and heart into the Big Nate strip than is to be found in The King of Kazoo, but Big Nate Doodlepalooza is a kind of sidelight on Nate’s adventures rather than a sequential selection of them. It is an activity book, Nate style, abundantly sprinkled with cartoon panels designed not for storytelling but for decoration around Nate-focused puzzles. A Sudoku-like square called “Dance Disasters,” for instance, shows sixth-grade dance scenes and portraits of the four P.S. 38 denizens described by Nate as the school’s worst dancers – the objective is to “fill out the grid so they all appear once in each row, column, and box.” Another entry shows “super-cool toys” (such as a music-playing robot and a customized skateboard) and asks readers to come up with ads for them. There is a section called “What Smells?” in which readers are supposed to rank “outrageous odors from gross (1) to gag-a-thon (10).” There are secret codes to decipher to find out what grown-ups are saying, a place to “list all the possible things Nate might be grounded for,” a blank space in which to draw “your dream school,” a pop quiz based on events that take place in the Big Nate comic strip, a fill-in-the-speech-bubbles “pretend you’re a reporter” page, a quiz to figure out which Big Nate character you most resemble, an unscramble-character-names game, a snow-day word scramble, and much more. Strictly for dyed-in-the-wool Big Nate fans, this book offers a way to participate in Nate’s world, refresh your memory of what happens in the strip, and maybe pick up a few pieces of trivia along the way – all while getting a heaping helping of Peirce’s always-clever art work.
Robin Preiss Glasser’s illustrations, which are de rigueur in the charming Fancy Nancy books, are also key to the enjoyment of the Nancy Clancy series about a more-grown-up version of the French-loving, always-overdressed charmer of a character. The Nancy Clancy books generally lack the bounce, breeziness and sheer joie de vivre of the picture books about a younger Nancy, but Nancy Clancy Seeks a Fortune is a happy exception: from Glasser’s cover picture of a brightly smiling, dressed-up Nancy in ballet pose in front of an open treasure chest, through a series of illustrations of Nancy and best friend Bree’s earnest but unsuccessful attempts to make money, this is a book that connects the older Nancy with her overdone but endearing roots. Jane O’Connor’s story revolves around one of those TV shows that invite people to bring in all sorts of old junk and perhaps discover that something from the attic is worth a great deal of money. Nancy and Bree connect with the “money” idea and look for various ways to earn some, finding out that doing so is harder than it looks – and eventually, a visit to one of those antique-finding shows leads Nancy to realize that sometimes money is not what matters most even when value turns up in an unexpected way. There is nothing particularly memorable in that lesson, but O’Connor’s pacing here is sure-handed, and Glasser’s illustrations go particularly well with the developing story. From a beauty cream made with food ingredients (which Nancy’s dog, Frenchy, gets into and eats) to gold-foil-covered cardboard crowns that littler girls can wear when they have their hair in a bun, the ideas of Nancy and Bree are seemingly clever but turn out to have flaws that help show them, and readers, that inventing things and making money from them is not so simple. Still, by the end of the book, both girls have found out that they or their families have some valuable items whose worth they had not realized – but, even better, they have each other, and music, and the stars, and other free-but-valuable possessions that all of them can share.
Eureka! 50 Scientists Who Shaped Human History. By John Grant. Zest Books. $14.99.
My Weird School Fast Facts: Geography. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.
My Weird School Fast Facts: Sports. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.
The world of once-over-lightly fact books is one in which some entries work a lot better than others. John Grant is at the high end of these short, fact-focused books with Eureka! The 50 scientists about whom he writes briefly, focusing both on their lives and on their discoveries or beliefs, include the typical-for-this-genre mixture of the well-known and the less-known. In the former category are Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur, Curie, Einstein, Heisenberg, Turing, Salk, Hawking and others. In the latter – which proves in many cases the more-interesting grouping – are Gottfried Leibniz, Mikhail Lomonosov, John Dalton, Ignaz Semmelweis, Lise Meitner, Howard Florey and more. What is amazing to realize is how important these less-known names are: Leibniz invented the form of calculus universally used today (Newton is often deemed the discoverer of this type of mathematics, but in fact Leibniz’ approach, created at the same time, proved vastly superior); Semmelweis discovered the now self-evident reality that hand washing significantly reduces infection rates, saving millions of lives even though he was fired because so many doctors of his time resented being forced to wash up; Florey made mass production of penicillin possible after its discoverer, the far-better-known Alexander Fleming, was unable to figure out how to purify it or produce it in quantity. Grant presents information on the scientists in a breezy, easily readable style that is nevertheless fact-packed. He throws in useful footnotes from time to time – for instance, in discussing Carolus Linnaeus, Grant explains that the reader belongs to the species sapiens of the genus Homo. Grant includes a “But There’s More” section at the end of each mini-biography, pointing readers to further information of various types. For instance, in discussing Émilie du Châtelet, mistress of Voltaire and underappreciated scientific thinker, Grant mentions that an asteroid and a crater on Venus are named for her and also tells readers that “a popular and very approachable (but obviously dated) account of the love affair between Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet is Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love (1957).” Grant does a fine job of explaining the difficulties faced by scientists of all eras. “Galileo had to use his pulse in order to time the swing of the cathedral chandelier because there were no proper clocks then,” Grant writes. Much later in history, “It was easy for the geological establishment, hostile as it was to the idea of moving continents, to dismiss [Alfred] Wegener’s conjecture [about continental drift] as the witterings of an amateur.” Grant manages a fine balance between explanations of the important scientific findings associated with his 50 chosen subjects and some offbeat matters regarding them. Among the latter, at one point he notes that Charles Darwin’s son, George, “produced a theory to explain the origin of the Moon that was for decades rejected but is now (in modified form) widely accepted.” At another he remarks that more information related to Ada Lovelace, considered the creator of the first computer program, may be found in “the early steampunk classic The Difference Engine (1990)” as well as in a graphic novel by Sydney Padua. Grant is knowledgeable and, equally important in an “overview” book like this one, able to communicate knowledge in simple but not simplistic language that readers are likely to find attractive enough so that they will be spurred to dig up more material about these scientists on their own – the best possible outcome after reading a book such as this one.
Dan Gutman’s writing is even breezier than Grant’s, and the My Weird School Fast Facts books are enlivened by Jim Paillot’s illustrations, but these (+++) books are not especially effective at communicating information to young readers. Indeed, that almost seems not to be their purpose. These are entertainment books above all, using characters that fans of the various My Weird School series (there are several) will recognize and like. To be sure, the facts are there, but they are presented in a fashion that distracts as much as it informs. In the geography book, for example, A.J. starts the chapter on mountains by saying, “Why do we have mountains? Because if we didn’t, mountain climbing would be really boring.” And then there is a footnote: “It’s almost time for the chapter on natural disasters! I can’t wait!” This sort of approach is presumably supposed to build some heady excitement for learning things, and certainly there is learning here: “The tallest mountain on Earth is Mauna Kea, a volcano on the island of Hawaii. The base of Mauna Kea is at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, so the summit only rises 13,796 feet above sea level. But Mauna Kea is 33,000 feet tall, much higher than Mount Everest. I wonder if Mount Everest is jealous.” Kids who do enjoy the presentation will certainly learn some things: “If you like to fly kites or ride dune buggies, you should go to Namibia. The rust-red sand dunes there are the highest in the world.” There is information in the geography book on various customs around the world: “Every Chinese citizen over eleven years old has to plant at least three trees every year.” And there is material on every state in the U.S.: “Arkansas has the only diamond mine in North America.” “The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Pentagon, the United States Treasury, a dozen other government buildings in Washington, D.C., and fourteen state capitols were built using Indiana limestone.” “Minnesota has more shoreline than California, Florida, and Hawaii combined.” The information here is delivered in scattershot fashion with a minimum of organization – it is accurate, though, and fans of A.J. and Andrea (the two narrators, each of whom says to ignore the other) will enjoy their back-and-forth.
Gutman’s sports book works somewhat better than his geography one: sports are not academically significant in the way geography is, and somehow that helps the facts in the book mesh better with the offhand format. Among the information here is that there is no recording of the first Super Bowl, because the tape was reused; a Supreme Court Justice, Byron White, once played professional football; baseball umpires use hand signals for balls and strikes because a deaf-mute player in the 1890s needed them and they caught on with other players; the man who invented basketball also devised one of the first football helmets; someone once used hockey’s Stanley Cup as a cereal bowl; a Boston dentist invented the golf tee; and on and on – this is really a book of trivia, which makes sense in a sports context. Baseball, football, soccer, basketball, hockey, golf, and auto racing get their own chapters here, with skating and skiing and tennis and volleyball and other sports given the once-over-even-more-lightly in a single chapter. Among the most interesting trivia in the book are the ones involving the Olympics, such as mentions of some of the sports that used to be included: tug-of-war, rope climbing, and live pigeon shooting. And American kids may be quite surprised to find out that the world’s two most popular sports are soccer (No. 1) and cricket (No. 2). Both the My Weird School Fast Facts books are enjoyable expansions of the My Weird School franchise, and if neither is presented in a way that makes its facts truly memorable, both are enjoyable enough so that fans of Gutman and Paillot will likely recall some of what A.J. and Andrea tell them. For a few minutes, anyway.