June 23, 2016

(++++) UP IN THE AIR, DOWN IN THE WATER


Box of Bats. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

Flip & Fin: Super Sharks to the Rescue! By Timothy Gill. Illustrated by Neil Numberman. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $15.99.

     Brian Lies’ books about bats are individually wonderful and, in a three-book boxed set, virtually irresistible. Lies has clearly studied animal anatomy carefully, and just as clearly thought through how animals’ bodies would look if the animals engaged in human pursuits. As a result, his books look like no others in their combination of realism and anthropomorphism: a Lies illustration is immediately recognizable. Box of Bats includes small hardcover versions of Bats at the Ballgame (originally published in 2010), Bats at the Library (2008), and Bats at the Beach (2006). All are thoroughly wonderful to see and sometimes exceptionally funny. The cover of Bats at the Beach, for example, shows a bat in the foreground with a nicely toasted marshmallow from which cricket legs stick out – many bats are insectivores, after all. And the background shows a bat on the sand “flying” another bat like a kite. The concepts are outrageous, but Lies’ illustrations are so good that if activities like these were to be done by bats, this is exactly how the bats would look when doing them. Bats at the Ballgame eschews easy puns on batting and batters for a wonderful imagining of how bats would play baseball if they could play it. The fans, for example, hang upside-down, while “A flying vendor flutters near./ ‘Mothdogs! Get your mothdogs here!’/ Raise a wing and catch a snack:/ ‘Perhaps you’d like some Cricket Jack?’” And a grandfather bat, with eyeglasses neatly perched on his face, remembers baseball back through the years in a marvelous series of pictures that start in color and end in sepia. Bats at the Library features a wonderful view of bats hanging upside-down from a lampshade while reading and an even-more-wonderful one in which illustrations from famous children’s books are reinterpreted by Lies in bat-focused ways: for instance, the well-known traffic-cop picture from Make Way for Ducklings now has the policeman allowing a mother bat and her babies to cross the street. Young readers may not know all the references, but adults can provide them (if they know them!) and can use them as entry points to the original stories. Bats at the Library ends with Lies writing, “For now, we’ll dream of things we’ve read,/ a universe inside each head.” Children lucky enough to have Box of Bats – which even comes with a page of bat stickers as a bonus – will encounter their own universe of wonder, thanks to a remarkably skilled and clever author.

     Timothy Gill’s second book about sand-shark twins Flip and Fin is far more mundane fun – or watery fun, given that it takes place in and near the beach. But Super Sharks to the Rescue! is clever in its own way, with Neil Numberman’s illustrations neatly displaying the characters’ personalities and keeping the action going. And there is plenty of action here, as the title characters decide to become “super sharks” like their cartoon favorites, Sammy Saw Shark and Harry Hammerhead. So, after some hijinks and bad jokes, and after getting together with their friends Swimmy and Molly, Flip and Fin look for super deeds to do. They discover a beach ball floating in the water and realize that it must belong “to the human people,” so they decide to become heroes by returning it. And they head for the beach – where, of course the beachgoers spot them, are terrified, and dash out of the water, yelling for help. Flip and Fin are puzzled: what’s the problem? Then they realize that the people must be scared, not of course of the sharks, but of the ball. So they heroically decide to help out by playing catch with the ball and then popping it and getting rid of it “far out to sea.” Their super-work done, the sand sharks and their friends head into open water as the people on the shore cheer their departure – which the sharks interpret as cheering for their rescue of the people from the scary ball. This sort of misunderstanding seems right in character for Flip and Fin, and so do their exclamations of “Faster than a sailfish!” and “Tougher than a clamshell!”  Gill offers a concluding page about real sand sharks, which indeed like to live close to beaches and are not generally considered dangerous to humans. Kids should not, however, expect the real ones to have the ebullient personalities and thoroughgoing silliness of Flip and Fin!

(++++) DOGS AND OTHER TEACHERS


Teddy the Dog: Be Your Own Dog. By Keri Claiborne Boyle. Pictures by Jonathan Sneider. Harper. $17.99.

Frank and Lucky Get Schooled. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Can I Tell You a Secret? By Anna Kang. Illustrated by Christopher Weyant. Harper. $17.99.

     In the real world, people can learn a lot from dogs about living in the moment, about greeting each day with enthusiasm, about accepting reversals mostly without complaint, and of course about responsibility – dogs do require walks, cleanups, medical care and more. In the world of children’s books, the lessons are somewhat different, whether given for the sake of amusement or in seriousness. Keri Claiborne Boyle’s Teddy the Dog: Be Your Own Dog keeps the “teaching” light. Teddy is a rather self-involved, self-important pooch, seen always wearing blacked-out celebrity-style sunglasses, since he is, after all, a celebrity – in his own opinion, anyway. Actually, Teddy’s self-described ways of being helpful may well strike readers as something less than ingratiating: he howls what he calls “sweet lullabies” at night, for instance, and gives “a helping paw” to house painters by dipping his paws in multiple colors and touching newly painted homes. Teddy is oblivious to the damage he causes: at the book’s very start, he leaves behind him a trail of spilled trash, mud from the flower box in which he has been exploring, and evidence that he regularly uses fire hydrants and nearby street areas as a bathroom. But Teddy does none of this out of mischief – he just lacks self-awareness. And that puts him in a strange position when, one day, a cat arrives at Teddy’s home in a box, with a note asking him to take care of her. Teddy does not want to keep the cat, Penelope, but he does not have stamps for return postage or thumbs to use to write a letter of complaint (although he apparently does have a computer: its logo is a bone). Realizing that he is “stuck with this unexpected arrival like a burr in [his] fur,” Teddy puts a leash on Penelope and starts trying to dog-ify her. This goes about as well as could be expected, which is to say not well at all: Penelope will not do the dog-paddle in the backyard kiddie pool and has no interest in hanging her head out of the window in a moving car. For his part, Teddy finds that staring at a mouse hole for long periods of time is not on his agenda. After a while, though, Teddy realizes that he and Penelope do have some things in common, such as a fondness for catnaps and an unwillingness to fetch. And the two eventually evolve a mutual friendship based on the idea that “you just gotta be your own dog – even if it means being a cat.” Not a bad lesson at all.

     The lessons are a good deal more lesson-y, so to speak, in Lynne Rae Perkins’ Frank and Lucky Get Schooled. The book has a great start, showing Frank having a really bad day as a boy and Lucky having a really unlucky one as a dog – to the point of being left cowering in the back of a cage at an animal shelter. The two find each other, courtesy of Frank’s parents’ agreement to let Frank adopt a dog, and soon they start learning about each other, as when Lucky thinks, “You like food? I like food!” Soon enough, though, matters get more overtly didactic, and while this approach starts off well, it wears thin after a while. Matters start with Lucky being “very interested in Science,” in which you “observe [something] and ask questions about it and try to understand it.” In Lucky’s case, he helps Frank learn about the sciences of Botany and Entomology when Frank must get the burrs and bugs out of Lucky’s coat. So far, so good. But Perkins lays on the learning more and more thickly, losing sight of the interactivity and entertainment values that make it worthwhile for young readers to deal with Chemistry, Astronomy, Taxonomy, Reading, Math, History, Art and more, all suitably capitalized and defined. “Math is puzzles,” writes Perkins. “Math is how much and how many.” True, Perkins uses Lucky-oriented material to explain this, but things start to seem forced: “The symbol means ‘infinity,’ which means that whatever is the biggest number you can think of, you can always add one and make an even bigger number. That is the number of biscuits Lucky was willing to eat.” And then Perkins pushes things further with a series of questions that seem like math but really aren’t, such as, “Frank has 2 legs. Each is 23” long. Lucky has 4 legs. Each is 11” long. Who has more fun? There is no answer. We do not have instruments precise enough to measure the difference.” As Frank and Lucky Get Schooled continues, matters get further and further afield, with a History section focused on dog domestication and heroism, an Art section dealing with Composition, Perspective, and the Horizon Line (all capitalized), and then Geography, Foreign Languages and more. The result of all this is a (+++) book that tries very, very hard to be both entertaining and educationally meaningful, but that ends up, like many dogs, biting off more than it can comfortably chew.

     The lesson is of a different sort, the teacher is of a different species, and the involvement of readers is very different indeed in Anna Kang’s (++++) Can I Tell You a Secret? Although aimed at the same 4-8 age group as Boyle’s and Perkins’ books, Kang’s has fewer words, larger type and a lot more white space in Christopher Weyant’s art than  Jonathan Sneider provides in the pictures for Teddy the Dog or Perkins offers in her elaborate illustrations for Frank and Lucky. In Kang’s book, the focus is on a small frog named Monty, who has a big and highly embarrassing secret: he is afraid of water and cannot swim. This is obviously a very big deal for a frog, and Monty needs help – for which he turns directly to the reader in a clever breaching of the fourth wall (the conceptual space between character and reader). Monty answers a “reader” question about how he has kept the secret, then takes “reader” advice to discuss his problem with his parents, then chickens out and apologizes to the reader for being afraid to talk to his mom and dad – and so on. Eventually, with “reader” help, Monty does explain his fears, and it turns out that his parents understand them and will help him overcome them. Monty, still frightened, wants to “bring my new friend who’s been helping me,” giving his parents a chance to break the fourth wall in their turn and welcome readers to join the frog family. And sure enough, Monty, with plenty of encouragement, is able to get into the water – and quickly finds that he enjoys it. So there is a happy ending here, with an underlying educational message about facing your fears with the help of parents and buddies: at the end, Monty is all smiles as he thanks the reader “for being such a great friend.” The unusual concept is carried through very well here, and children with fears of any sort may well be more able to ask for help with them thanks to Monty the frog and Can I Tell You a Secret?

(++++) CHILDREN: AN OWNER’S MANUAL (OR TWO)


Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life. By Stuart Shanker, Ph.D., with Teresa Barker. Penguin Press. $28.

The Silenced Child: From Labels, Medications, and Quick-Fix Solutions to Listening, Growth, and Lifelong Resilience. By Claudia M. Gold, M.D. Da Capo. $24.99.

     Given the uniformly wrong way in which many authors say the medical community and society as a whole deal with children, it is a wonder that any kids grow up to be reasonably responsible and even marginally healthy. The authorial prescription for what is really needed is for today’s parents, no matter how overwhelmed they may be by the vicissitudes of everyday life and their own needs (emotional, psychological, financial, etc.), to spend time they do not have reading scores of books by scores of experts on scores of different (and generally mutually exclusive) ways of helping their children cope with existence and (if you choose the right expert with the right guidance) be more successful in life than kids whose parents spend their time in different ways – such as, say, interacting with their kids and reading decidedly non-adult books to and with them.

     That extremely bleak and cynical overview of the fertile “better ways to raise children” field is admittedly an over-simplification – but so are a great many of the books in the field, no matter how well-constructed and sincere they may be. There are some very good ones out there, and Self-Reg and The Silenced Child are among them, but responsible adults must not simply accept the notion that any author has all the answers for any situation involving any child. And they must not waste their minimal free time focusing on books about everything they are doing that is wrong and everything they should be doing instead – devoting extra time to children is far, far more important than reading how you should do this and you need to do that.

     With those caveats firmly in mind, parents will find considerable value here. Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg starts from the wholly unsurprising premises that there are no “bad kids” and that the ubiquitous stresses of everyday life are responsible for children’s dysfunctional behavior. That is, the issue is not the child but the child’s environment. Refining this formulation further, Shanker focuses on what he calls “hidden stressors,” meaning ones in addition to those that parents can readily identify as affecting their children and themselves (such as time pressure, school requirements, social issues, financial matters, relationship difficulties, etc., etc., etc.). Shanker suggests that kids’ behavior is an acting-out provoked by stressors of which the child and parent may be totally unaware. For example, certain specific sounds at certain specific levels may be a stressor, or particular smells at certain intensities, or needing to wait in a line or sit in a waiting room. Self-Reg correctly points out that stressors are as varied as people, and that just as people change over time (the book covers early childhood through to adolescence), stressors change as well. Thus, what creates a kind of subliminal stress one day may not create it a day later – and, as a corollary, what helps a person cope with stress one day may not be helpful the next. Therefore, constant parental awareness of a child’s feelings and moods is crucial, and a child’s ability to recognize and talk about his or her emotions is key to finding ways to manage them better.

     Shanker uses the metaphor of a light’s dimmer switch to indicate the importance of “dialing down” stress after correctly identifying it. Awareness is central – not awareness of stress itself and its overt symptoms, but awareness of the causes of stress, both the ones readily identifiable and the ones typically ignored. Only upon recognition and understanding of those stressors, Shanker argues, is it possible to develop techniques for managing them. The logic is impeccable, and Shanker’s repeated reminder that there is no perfect stress-management solution for everybody is welcome in a world (and publishing industry) where one-size-fits-all solutions are regularly trotted out as the Holy Grail. Shanker backs up his analyses with information on human physiology, explained clearly and without talking down to readers. His recommendation is that parents harness their and their children’s own bodily self-regulatory processes to dial down the levels of hidden stressors sufficiently to end the counterproductive behavior that results from high stress levels. This is unexceptionable – it is akin to recommending that patients facing medical stress from disease find ways to engage their placebo response, which is tied to the body’s ability to self-heal and which results in approximately 30% of patients in clinical trials getting better even when given a placebo rather than an active medication. But how to dial down stress reaction is a slippery issue, just as slippery as how to engage the placebo response. Shanker’s recommendation of self-aware meditative mindfulness, modified as needed for each individual, is a good one, and one that does not require pharmaceutical intervention. But this is scarcely a perfect solution: Shanker correctly notes that the requirements of learned and (at least initially) supervised mindfulness can themselves be stressors for some people – the requirement of focused breathing is not for everyone. And of course not everyone can come to Shanker’s Mehrit Centre in Canada to experience his approach directly. However, readers of Self-Reg can at least learn to redefine certain behavior of their children as being maladaptive and stress-related rather than caused by lack of self-control or any sort of “bad” impulse. This alone can be a big step when a child is restless, aggressive, impulsive, frequently frustrated, withdrawn, hostile – the list goes on and on. Parents who can manage their own stressors well enough to step back from their children’s behavior and reevaluate it, and can then use mindfulness techniques themselves and also help their children utilize them, will have gotten the full benefit of Shanker’s book. However, and it is an important “however,” there are very, very few hyper-stressed parents who will have the time to read this book carefully and absorb its lessons thoroughly – and indeed, the requirement to do so and the importance of following Shanker’s analytical and perceptual model will themselves be significant stressors for exactly the people who stand to benefit the most from his analysis. That is a Gordian knot that even a Herculean effort may be insufficient to cut.

     It would be fascinating to be the proverbial fly on the wall during a conversation between Shanker and Claudia M. Gold, whose The Silenced Child devotes just two pages to stress-related “behavioral dysregulation” and two more to an innovative school program that reframes disruptive behavior as maladaptive communication and that requires trauma training for all those who interact with children – teachers, parents, bus drivers, even cafeteria workers. Yet behavioral reframing is an approach as crucial for Gold as it is for Shanker; Gold just sees it in a slightly different context. Her book is about the importance of listening – not just observing difficult behavior and analyzing it, but listening to what a child is trying to say through the behavior (and verbally as well, when there are verbal components of a child’s actions). In other words, Shanker sees maladaptive behavior as primarily reactive, to stress, while Gold sees it as primarily proactive, as a flawed attempt to communicate. The two views are not mutually exclusive but complementary – as are the two books. Gold, a pediatrician, is especially incensed at the current psychiatric standard of care, in which children’s difficulties are quickly labeled with an acceptable diagnosis and then treated with medication. This is in fact the current model for all psychiatric care, driven partly by insurance-reimbursement rates and partly by government insistence 50 years ago that the mentally ill should be “mainstreamed” rather than hospitalized long-term. Gold argues – from a research base supporting her analysis, just as Shanker argues from one supporting his – that every behavioral problem arises from a story of some sort that gives rise to the difficulty, and that evidence about brain growth, from neuroscience and genetics, shows the folly and potential harm of simply giving children behavioral-modification medicines without taking the time to listen to what they are trying to say, both verbally and otherwise.

     Gold repeatedly and usefully cites the work of D.W. Winnicott – a pediatrician turned psychoanalyst – in support of her notions of resilience and stress response. Stress management in Gold’s book is an important developmental milestone and, indeed, one that continues well beyond the childhood years. Relationship difficulties are inevitable between parent and child, Gold argues, so what matters is whether those disruptions are or are not repaired. If they are, the child develops resilience – the ability to handle all sorts of disruptors (Shanker would say stressors) throughout life. If they are not, the child’s resilience is compromised and his or her ability to self-repair breaks down or does not develop – and this is the root of much mental illness. Catching the poor development of resilience through careful, extended listening early in a child’s life would go a long way toward stabilizing people in later years, Gold suggests – but this will not happen as long as insurance regulations and coding requirements force clinicians to see more patients in less time and devalue those professionals who do set aside more time for listening. Gold does not deny that medications can reduce or eliminate problematical behavior, but she says that doing this without understanding the meaning of the behavior results in a lack of comprehension of what the behavior is communicating – thus silencing a child who desperately wants to express something important.

     Gold’s statement that we need an entirely new paradigm of mental health care – one that is relational and developmental – is utopian and, unfortunately, unrealistic. Among other things, it flies in the face of recent scientific research on the biological basis of psychological symptoms. Gold does not deny the research, but says that it lacks proper context because it involves scanning the patient’s brain but does not include listening to the patient, as better-designed studies would. Be that as it may, the most useful part of The Silenced Child is its fourth and last section, “Ways of Listening,” which contains chapters on listening to the body and finding creative, individually tailored responses to emotional maladaptations that have physical manifestations; listening for loss, which means considering not only a major loss, such as a death, but also the loss felt through relationship disruption; and “Listening with Courage,” by which Gold means accepting uncertainty so as to allow a child to find his or her own method of adaptation and growth without the encumbrance of a diagnosis of a medical condition and without the use of drugs that suppress outward symptoms but do nothing for inward turmoil. Like Shanker’s book, Gold’s contains a great deal of useful information and enough prescriptive specificity so that parents who have the time will benefit from exploring its suggestions. The issue with both these books – and they are just two among hundreds of works, if not thousands, that try to help parents better manage the difficulties of child rearing – is that the people most likely to benefit from them are those least likely to have the time to read them and absorb what they have to say. Neither Shanker nor Gold addresses that problem – which, indeed, has no solution. Hence the attraction for many people of lesser books than these, ones that suggest just a few simple, easy-to-learn things that parents can do to “cure” their children and their own child-related difficulties. The very complexity of raising children, and indeed of human development in general, renders those “easy solution” books valueless; but the time and effort needed to negotiate better and more-thoughtful works such as Gold’s and Shanker’s make them much more difficult to absorb and use. How Gold and Shanker themselves might address that issue would be interesting. Maybe they should have a conversation.

(+++) PITFALLS OF FRIENDSHIP


Swing Sideways. By Nanci Turner Steveson. Harper. $16.99.

This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker. By Terra Elan McVoy. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Preteen readers who do not have enough emotional upheaval and sadness in their own lives seem to be the intended audience for Nanci Turner Steveson’s Swing Sideways. It is a summertime story about Anabel (Annie), a city girl, and California, a country girl, their unlikely friendship – and the secrets that both deepen and ultimately end it in one of those life-changing ways that authors do not suggest that young readers avoid but actually invite them to experience. This is all supposed to be cathartic, but it comes across as rather manipulative – skillfully manipulative, since Steveson writes very well and knows how to build melodrama effectively. The book is melodrama rather than drama, with the relationships forced in ways that are designed to heighten tension rather than resulting from characterization. Annie suffers from panic attacks. Her parents are typecast Type A schedulers, her mother in particular filling Annie’s life with demands and spreadsheets. For her part, California is determined to heal the estrangement between her mother and her grandfather – who, she says, is going through a cancer drug trial. The healing will occur when California rediscovers some ponies that her mother rode as a child; California believes they are still alive, somewhere on the rundown farm where she is spending the summer. The two girls are, unsurprisingly, opposites, with Annie timid, anxious, sheltered and having an eating disorder, and California brave, wild and a free spirit. Equally unsurprisingly, both learn from each other in the usual coming-of-age manner, with Annie especially forging new relationship patterns within her family as she develops confidence and assertiveness. Annie’s parents are cardboard characters through and through, and California’s relatives are not much better. The whole secrets-within-secrets plotting has a contrived feeling, and the eventual wrenching sadness of the novel’s conclusion so clearly seeks to tug at every reader’s heart again and again that, after a while, the tugging itself becomes formulaic. That does not undermine its effectiveness: young readers who stay with the book will almost certainly cry at what happens, and so will many adults, even when it becomes obvious how things are going to go. Emotional manipulativeness is an authorial skill that Steveson has in abundance, and she certainly knows how to create a protagonist who finds out through unexpected adventures and revelations that she is stronger – and braver – than she ever knew. But that is part of the issue with Swinging Sideways: the directions in which it will go are the ones in which tearjerkers for this age range (and often ones for adults) typically go, and this becomes increasingly apparent as more and more secrets are revealed. This is a book that is easy to love if you are looking for an emotional wringing-out and do not examine too closely the techniques the author uses to provide one.

     It is instructive for those so inclined to compare the structure of Swinging Sideways with that of This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker, another book set in summertime that is also about best friends, their relationship, their families and their multitude of problems and issues. The problems here are mostly those of Fiona Coppleton, whose onetime BFF, Cassie Parker, circulated Fiona’s diary and thereby exposed Fiona to all sorts of pain, humiliation, etc. It is rather hard to believe that Fiona would have brought her diary to school, which is where other kids were able to read it, but except for that element, this novel has the believability of events that seem as if they really could happen to girls in this age group (unlike Swinging Sideways, whose occurrences are over-the-top and extremely unlikely to parallel those of most readers). After Cassie and Fiona have their falling-out, school ends for the year and Cassie takes off on a summer adventure that Terra Elan McVoy previously wrote about in Drive Me Crazy, to which This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker is a companion (not a sequel: the books take place at essentially the same time). With Cassie gone, Fiona has to face her own family problems, which tie to her parents’ divorce. Fiona’s younger sister, Leelu, is fine with their dad and his girlfriend, but Fiona is not, and she ratchets up the drama in her own mind to such an extent that she opts for a summer writing workshop rather than a family trip to Disneyland. This turns out to be a good decision: she makes new friends among the other would-be writers and comes to terms with what happened between herself and Cassie. Reader reactions to Fiona herself will be central to their feelings about the book as a whole. Fiona can sometimes be rather annoying and unsympathetic, and her interest in a writing seminar, a linchpin of the plot, seems rather forced (although not to the very overdone extent of events in Swinging Sideways), even though it is tied to her keeping of that fateful diary. Once Fiona is in the seminar, though, her decision to get back at the girls in the humiliating-diary incident by writing them into her stories makes sense. And Fiona does seem to grow in believable real-world ways without McVoy needing to resort to the sort of extreme events favored by Steveson. Neither of these books is really new – very similar plots have been done many times before, by many authors. But both have their appeal: Steveson’s to those seeking emotional release through weepy melodrama and McVoy’s to those searching for possible role models to help them through their own difficulties in trying to negotiate middle-school angst.

(++++) MUCH-VARIED MODERNS


Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra. Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $20.99.

Samuel Adler: Symphony No. 6; Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Drifting on Winds and Currents. Maximilian Hornung, cello; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Linn Records. $20.

Keys to the City: The Great New York Pianists Perform the Great New York Songs. Roven. $19.99.

Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 10. Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violins; Brek Renzelman, viola; Karl Lavine, cello). New World Records. $15.99.

Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 6, 7 and 8; Quietness. Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violins; Brek Renzelman, viola; Karl Lavine, cello). New World Records. $15.99.

     The definition of “contemporary” changes over time – by definition. But the notion of “modern” is a bit different.  In Western music, it has to do with the sound of a piece – not the specifics of its structure or its compositional method so much as the way the composer approaches the music and the way listeners perceive it. “Contemporary” is an objective adjective, “modern” a much more subjective one. This is why Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring still seems so modern, a century after it was composed. There is something in the strangeness of the orchestration, the irregularity of the rhythms, the pounding ostinato of some sections and the instrumental screeching of others, the willingness to entice the ear for a moment and then attack it with noise the next, the frequent alterations of dynamics, the unpredictability of tempo changes, that makes this work feel unfailingly “modern” no matter how often it is played. A tour de force for conductors and orchestras, The Rite of Spring is also a work that inexorably pulls audiences along even though very few people have seen it as a ballet. The best performances are cognizant of the remarkable modernity of the score and go out of their way to accentuate it – and the Recursive Classics release featuring the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under David Bernard is an exceptional one. Using a newly edited and revised version of The Right of Spring to which Bernard himself contributed, this performance brings extraordinary clarity, instrumental balance and an unending series of elegant touches to what is still a very complex score. Percussion emphases are pointed and intense, timpani penetrate the ensemble with clarity, woodwinds vary in sound from lyrical to screechy, strings run the gamut from fleet to oppressively heavy – every section of the orchestra is highly soloistic as well as incorporated into an overall sound world that is every bit as evocative as Stravinsky intended it to be. The revisions in this new edition are technical ones that will largely be inaudible to casual listeners, but anyone hearing this outstanding performance will be captivated by the enormous skill of the musicians and by Bernard’s near-perfect handling of pacing, sectional contrast and overall sound. The pairing of The Rite of Spring with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is a particularly happy one in this case, since Bernard treats Stravinsky’s work itself as a concerto for orchestra – which, listeners to this recording will realize, it is. Bernard brings the same clarity of purpose and intensity of execution to the Bartók as to the Stravinsky. The seriousness of the opening movement emerges from the first quietly emerging notes and remains throughout, making the contrast with the second, Giuoco delle coppie (“Game of Couples” – for some reason, the CD gives the translation but not the original title), all the more apparent. The multiple duets are given with a lightness and bounce that make the following Elegia all the more effective, and Bernard does a first-rate job of showing the connections between this movement’s themes and those of the first movement. Then there is genuine hilarity, as well as a clear Lehár parody, in the Intermezzo interrotto (called “Interrupted intermezzo” on the CD); and the concluding perpetuum mobile, a litmus test of any orchestra’s ability to play together and stay together for 10 nonstop minutes, comes across brilliantly – a genuine capstone to a remarkably fine and highly recommended performance.

     The music of Samuel Adler (born 1928) partakes of both modernity and contemporaneity: the works on a new Linn Records CD are no more than 30 years old. Interestingly, although these pieces are in no way beholden to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, they include, to some degree, some of the same tension between traditional form and distinctly modern harmony and orchestration. Adler’s Symphony No. 6 here gets its first performance as well as its first recording, and it proves to be a substantial, energy-packed three-movement work with a fine sense of instrumental balance. José Serebrier and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra make sure the first movement has plenty of headlong motion and excitement, with the result that the mysterious and rather dark second movement provides very strong contrast, its interjections of lyricism bringing a brief sense of naïveté to what is otherwise a sophisticated-sounding piece. The final movement’s mood resembles that of the first, but here a primary impression – as in The Rite of Spring – is of constant rhythmic changes that sweep the listener along. The symphony as a whole is energetic and intense, if not particularly deep from an emotional standpoint; perhaps this makes it especially reflective of much of contemporary life. It is coupled here with Adler’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, played with fine tone and musical understanding by Maximilian Hornung. This four-movement work effectively highlights the tonal beauty and virtuosic capabilities of the solo instrument, the first movement offering considerable lyricism while the second has a pleasantly jazzy and perky feel to it, notably in the use of pizzicato double basses and a drum set. The meditative, fantasia-like third movement is followed by a final rondo that well reflects its marking, Fast and playful. This fascinating CD concludes with a piece poetically titled Drifting on Winds and Currents, commissioned as an in memoriam work and offering a mixture of soothing textures with some underlying feelings of uncertainty and even anxiety. It is a short, effective tone poem whose dramatic central section only briefly disturbs the comparative calm of the opening and closing. All the works are played with skill and understanding: Serebrier seems quite comfortable with Adler’s music, and the orchestra plays very well throughout.

     The modernity of a new Roven release called Keys to the City is as much in concept as in music. This is a disc for lovers of fine piano performances and of classical musicians “letting their hair down” by playing popular standards and show tunes rather than the “long-hair” pieces that classical works are sometimes described as being. The disc includes 14 piano players: Robbie Kondor, Axel Tosca, Dick Hyman, Bette Sussman (co-producer of the recording), George Whitty, Billy Stritch, Mike Renzi, Frank Owens, Paul Shaffer, Glen Roven (the CD’s other co-producer), Lee Musiker, John Kander and Fred Ebb (as duo pianists), and Leon Fleisher. The music is uniformly pleasant and generally quite well known, all of it focused portrayals of or reactions to elements of New York City. There is nothing particularly challenging here for the pianists or for listeners’ ears, and in truth, there is little distinctive about some of the performers’ stylistic handling of these short pieces. But there are several high points: Tosca’s Latin-tinged approach to Take the “A” Train; Whitty’s funky and interestingly updated New York, New York; Stritch’s unusual instrumental and vocal handling of Gershwin’s There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York; and Fleisher’s evocative way with The Man I Love, offered as a bonus track since it is not overtly New Yorkish. This is easy-listening music, to be sure, a contemporary (and in some cases distinctly modern-sounding) version of the salon recitals of the 19th century, and its overall milieu is that of jazz and nightclubs rather than recital venues or concert halls. It is, simply, fun, and a chance to hear numerous skilled pianists tackling some well-known works and, at least in some cases, putting their personal stamp on the material.

     “Fun” is not the word for the string quartets of Ben Johnston, which are very serious indeed as well as very contemporary and very modern – except insofar as they reach all the way back to Bach in a significant way. Johnston (born 1926) is a fascinating composer who uses the microtonality of Harry Partch in further-developed and intriguing ways. His quartets are created through an extremely complex methodology that – unlike the methods used by many other composers of recent times – is not necessary for listeners to know about or understand for them to find the music involving and highly effective. This in itself would make Johnston’s quartets more-frequent concert items were it not for the fact that they are fiendishly difficult to play, thanks to his technical innovations and notational system. Johnston’s quartets are essentially an argument for just intonation in the same way that Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier was a demonstration of how best to produce music in well temperament rather than meantone temperament. Although modern listeners often think “well” refers in Bach’s work to “properly” or “correctly,” it does not: Bach’s music constituted an auditory exploration, explanation and advocacy of a particular type of tuning system (which, by the way, is not the same as the equal temperament generally in use today, which became dominant after Bach’s time).

     Academic discussion of tuning methods aside, Johnston clearly shows a firm grasp of musical history in his quartets: he writes fugues and variations as well as serial movements, and even dips into folksong from time to time. The accretive catholicity of his style is presented in a system using an exceptionally large number of pitches – potentially hundreds per octave. Again, though, the enormous complexity of the system belies the surprising communicative power of the music, which comes through especially clearly in the Kepler Quartet’s recordings of six of the quartets. These date from as early as 1959 and as late as 1995, and show definite progress, or at least variation, in Johnston’s use of compositional techniques: from a start in fairly straightforward serialism, his music moves into more and more refined and difficult-to-pin-down methods that produce often very surprising sonic beauty despite the difficulty of bringing that beauty forth. Thus, his quartets by and large are the opposite of other ones by recent composers that may seem to have been written more for performers and fellow composers and less for audiences. The difficulties inherent in the performance of Johnston’s quartets bring to mind Joseph Joachim’s initial epigrammatic reaction to Brahms’ Violin Concerto, to the effect that Brahms had written a concerto “not for the violin, but against it.” It requires tremendous skill and dedication, as well as virtuosity, to cut through the performance complexities of Johnston’s quartets to the consonance and beauty that lie at their heart and that microtonality and just intonation make possible in ways that standard equal temperament does not.

     The New World Records releases of these quartets are recorded warmly – in a way that fits the music quite well – and with plenty of clarity, so details of the performances shine through. The performances themselves, which Johnston supervised, appear to deserve to be called definitive for that reason alone. They are also, to put it plainly, exceptionally well done. Different listeners will find different elements of the quartets appealing. No. 1, called “Nine Variations,” is the closest to traditional in tuning and also the most derivative in use of a pre-existing style, in this case serialism. It is clear in the Webern manner and also rather hard-edged. The single-movement No. 5 is an extended transformation of an Appalachian gospel song called “Lonesome Valley,” and here Johnston’s approach may put listeners in mind of some of the works of Charles Ives. No. 10 delves into folksong territory as well, in a finale in which the tune of “Danny Boy” repeatedly appears. On the other Kepler Quartet disc, No. 6, whose creation Johnston says gave him considerable trouble, is a piece that tries to do multiple things, including merging just intonation with twelve-tone composition and exploring ways of producing melody without being either dramatic or programmatic. In this quartet, the techniques do tend to subsume the music – Johnston used the Fibonacci series as a primary tool – and so the work feels rather distanced and distancing in its elaborate permutations. Nos. 7 and 8 have not been recorded before, and their prodigious difficulties of performance, especially in No. 7, are certainly part of the reason. Yet the fluidity with which the Kepler Quartet handles these works at least makes them approachable for listeners, if scarcely forthright or easy to absorb and understand. Actually, the most readily accessible piece here is a brief Rumi setting called Quietness that stands as an epilogue or afterword to the quartets: Johnston is himself the vocalist in this work, whose communicative simplicity belies the extremely complex and innovative mind that produced this piece as well as the quartet sequence. The most surprising thing about Johnston’s quartets is not their complexity, not their adherence to a variety of modern compositional tenets, not the centrality to them of a tuning system different from the one to which most performers and listeners are accustomed; rather, it is the way that Johnston overcomes the challenges he has set for himself in expanding Partch’s microtonality and applying twelve-tone and other techniques while at the same time not eschewing melody or even, from time to time, lyricism. The Johnston quartets may be easier to listen to than they are to perform, but that does not mean they are easy to listen to – by and large, they are not. But unlike many modern and/or contemporary compositions, these quartets repay the attention and attentiveness they require of listeners by producing a set of sounds, and through those sounds a set of feelings, different from anything to which most listeners will be accustomed. They are not really an argument for just intonation instead of equal temperament, any more than Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was an argument for well temperament instead of meantone temperament. Rather, they are an assertion that by using just intonation, it is possible to communicate thoughts and feelings and emotions effectively, in ways that will be new to listeners in general but recognizable at an almost subliminal level. Just intonation may never take its place beside equal temperament in terms of its frequency of use, but Johnston shows how it could be the foundation of a different set of music-making and music absorption that is just as valid as the much-more-common tuning almost always now used in Western musical works. Johnston’s is music filled with possibilities, and the Kepler Quartet deserves enormous credit for bringing so many of those possibilities to the fore.

June 16, 2016

(++++) PETS PLUS PEOPLE


Dirt + Water = Mud. By Katherine Hannigan. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Fly Guy Presents: The White House. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.

     Amusing adventures add up to a lot of learning when pets and kids get together in books that not only tell stories but also promote “official” school topics in ways that can be a lot more appealing than the ones used in classrooms. The additive imagination of a girl and dog is a good example in Katherine Hannigan’s Dirt + Water = Mud. The book’s inside front and back covers, and the pages facing them, are maps of the area where the girl and dog are spending the day playing. The map key shows just where the giant mud puddle is and also makes it clear that the tree house is an airplane and the flowerpot is a queen’s crown. Kids can read the map before, during or after the book’s adventures. Of course, they do not have to use it, but it does “map to” the book’s events and make it more fun to follow them. The story starts with the girl making that big mud puddle, jumping into it, and splashing about until she is a complete mess – as the dog says “Ah-roo?” (helpfully translated by Hannigan as “are you okay?”). The girl invites the dog into the puddle, the two friends splash about and make a gigantic mess, and thus we have “mud + splash + splatter = very mucky.” Obviously it is time to get clean, so we move on to “hose + high up = shower,” with the girl turning on a garden hose and holding it above their heads to wash the mud off. Then comes the next bit of play, with a sheet from a clothesline, a stick, and the aforementioned flowerpot adding up to “her majesty, the queen (+ knight).” The adventures-in-addition theme is carried through the book, even when things go a bit awry: the excited girl climbs up to her tree house (= airplane), but the dog cannot get up there and is left on the ground to bark and whine and say, in dog language, “I miss you! Please come back to me!” But soon the friends are reunited, and playtime – with minor misunderstandings here and there – continues throughout the day, until the tired-out best friends head for home, the dog already asleep in the girl’s arms, as visions of tomorrow’s possibilities (dinosaur, spaceship and more) are scattered around the final pages. With just two characters, only a few words, and a very simple “play day” story, Hannigan does a wonderful job of showing the ties that bind in friendship and the amusing ways that math and imagination can mix to produce a whole batch of delightful adventures. Sum fun!

     The learning is somewhat more straightforward in Fly Guy Presents: The White House, the latest book in which Tedd Arnold uses Fly Guy and his boy, Buzz, to give young readers some real-life information. Of course, a fly narrator is not exactly ordinary, as is shown when he contributes to the book by referring to the president as “prezzz!” and the president’s home as being a “big houze!” The Fly Guy Presents books are always thin, but they manage to pack in a good deal of information of both the expected and unexpected sort. Any book about the White House will give its address, explain that the president of the United States lives in it, explain that it contains 132 rooms, and mention that the British set fire to it during the War of 1812. Arnold naturally includes all this. But he also makes it a point to give the name of the architect (James Hoban), the number of gallons of paint needed to keep the building white (570), the number of seats in the White House movie theater (46), the number of doors in the building (412), and the year when the name “The White House” was made official (1901, by Theodore Roosevelt). A list of some White House pets naturally mentions the menagerie of Teddy Roosevelt’s kids (hyena, pig, snakes, badger and more), leading Fly Guy to ask, “No pet flyzz?” Well, no, but Arnold does include a picture of the White House beekeeper. Fly Guy Presents: The White House offers the usual informative-amusing-and-offbeat approach that other Fly Guy Presents books use to intrigue young readers about the real world. It even contains a couple of pages about supposed White House ghosts – fitting, somehow, in a factual book narrated by a cartoon boy and his pet fly.

(++++) ANIMALS AWAY!


Chicken in Space. By Adam Lehrhaupt. Illustrated by Shahar Kober. Harper. $17.99.

Paddington Sets Sail. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $16.99.

Gary’s Garden. By Gary Northfield. David Fickling Books. $7.99.

     Animals of all sorts have adventures of all sorts in children’s books of all sorts – including these. Chicken in Space is not really about a chicken in space, but about the power of imagination. In the book, a chicken named Zoey (who, Adam Lehrhaupt immediately explains, “wasn’t like the other chickens”) plans to go to space and then imagines doing so. Zoey has a friend, Sam, who happens to be a pig, and whose main interest is not space exploration but pie. No matter: Zoey can dream big enough for them both. And she does, despite the skepticism of the local dog, eyeglasses-wearing mouse, and cow. Zoey appears to read a lot of corporate motivational posters, although kids ages 4-8 will not realize that.  For example, Zoey says one issue is not a problem but an opportunity; then, when she and Sam actually get into “space” – that is, use a basket topped with balloons to rise a bit off the ground – Zoey redefines a flying baseball as an asteroid, a kite as a comet, and birds as “alien attack ships.” Later, after the basket crashes (Zoey calls it “a perfect landing”), Sam gets to tell the other animals about the asteroid, comet and alien ships, and “everyone was impressed.” Asked just how they made their remarkable space journey, Sam explains that “Zoey always finds a way,” and sure enough, she even finds a way at the end to get Sam the pie he has been hoping for throughout the book – it is a moon pie, of course. The gentle absurdity of Chicken in Space, highlighted by Shahar Kober’s amusingly appropriate illustrations, may even encourage kids in the target age range to indulge in some big dreams themselves.

     Paddington Bear’s goals tend to be much more modest, despite his original journey from “darkest Peru” to London back in 1958, when Michael Bond wrote the first book about him. One of Paddington’s numerous small adventures takes place in Paddington Sets Sail, which is in the “I Can Read!” series as a Level 1 book (“simple stories for eager new readers”). Because the book was actually done by Bond and frequent Paddington illustrator R.W. Alley, not by others “based on” Bond’s work, the story, simple as it is, has plenty of soft-pedaled charm. It is a beach story – Paddington’s first-ever trip to the beach, in fact – and involves a sand-castle contest in which Paddington makes the best castle he can, puts his hat on top of it, and then, tired by all his work, falls asleep. When the tide comes in, it knocks the castle down and sweeps Paddington out to sea in his pail, clutching his little shovel as if it is an oar – with his bemused expression, directed right at readers, being the book’s most-amusing illustration. Of course, Paddington does not get far, and is soon hauled in by a helpful fisherman who snags the pail with a hook. Paddington ends up a celebrity – other beachgoers think he has floated in from far away – and then is reunited with the Brown family for the trip home. The book manages to be true to its reading level and to the spirit of Paddington-style adventures at the same time – a winning combination.   

     The adventures in Gary’s Garden are also mundane, and they are rather strange, too. Gary Northfield – who pictures himself as a bearded guy sitting in a lawn chair and doing not much of anything – imagines the worms and caterpillars and butterflies and birds and spiders and stick insects and snails and other garden denizens having all sorts of conversations and taking part in all sorts of activities just beyond human ken. In this series of short, illustration-driven stories that collectively make up a simple graphic novel, the events are small-scale – and so is the lettering, a fact of which adults who may want to read with their children should be aware. Some of the brief stories are standalones, while others present recurring themes. One tale, for example, is “First Legs,” in which a tadpole (whose name, readers learn at the book’s end, is Jennifer) is the very first to grow a pair of legs, and thoroughly enjoys zipping about among the other, legless tadpoles. But soon, all the rest grow a first pair of legs – and then a second pair, which Jennifer does not. This leads to a “sigh” at the end of the story and a later piece called “Last Legs,” in which Jennifer strains mightily to grow more legs and ends up, instead, with – a head of hair. Elsewhere is the story of Ronald the Spider, an enthusiastic entertainer who plays to a captive audience of insects caught in his web; and there is a two-part tale in which “Professor Ladybug Zarpov” discovers the bizarre land of Zarpovia (actually the inside of Gary’s house) and explores it along with “Larry Ladybug, lord of the jungle” (introduced in an earlier story) and “John Ladybug, explorer of Mars” (ditto). There is also the story in which Rupert the squirrel gathers worms for a mole who is too nearsighted to catch them and is therefore eating Rupert’s acorns – except it turns out that the mole is not nearsighted but is simply a vegetarian. There are also meetings of the camouflage and mimicry clubs, causing some confusion for bugs that are not sure what the difference is. And so on. There is nothing profound in Gary’s Garden and, for that matter, nothing exceptionally amusing – but the series of offbeat antics featuring small-scale adventures and small-scale adventurers will please kids looking for stories told from unusual angles and with a series of humorous twists.

(+++) THE LONG GOODBYE


The Long Earth 5: The Long Cosmos. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Harper. $25.99.

     Fans of the late Terry Pratchett will want – oh, how they will want! – the conclusion of The Long Earth series to be a spectacular windup, a fitting capstone of some sort to Pratchett’s long and distinguished career. They would be the same fans who wanted Raising Steam, the last of the main-sequence Discworld books, to be wonderful and magic-filled and a summing-up of all the marvels that Pratchett invented and envisioned. Alas, what The Long Cosmos and Raising Steam have in common is that while both are perfectly serviceable novels that would be considered to “have promise” if written by an unknown author, neither is much more than adequate in a Pratchett context; and neither has sufficient heft – or, for that matter, sufficient lightness in the form of the satirical cleverness of which Pratchett was such a master in earlier years – to be dubbed a “classic” or to repay multiple readings.

     This is not intended as a gloom-and-doom appraisal. The Long Cosmos is fine, really. It reintroduces characters with whom readers of this five-part series have become familiar, even if they have never been ones with whom anyone can strongly identify or come to care deeply about: Joshua Valienté, whose adventures are the core of the series; Sister Agnes, revived from the dead and determined to return there once her new work on Earth – or many Earths, that being the premise here – is done; Lobsang, the distributed intelligence with powers that sometimes seem godlike but at other times seem all too constrained by human feelings; the trolls, those noble savages who are not savage at all and whose wisdom exceeds that of humans in so many not-understandable-by-humans ways; and the Next, whose knowledge and wisdom exceed those of humans in ways that are understandable, resulting in ongoing suspicion if not outright conflict.  The interactions of the characters in The Long Cosmos are plausible within the design of The Long Earth series, and the eventual outcome of those interactions is sensible and satisfying enough to bring the sequence to a perfectly reasonable close.

     The real problem here is one of expectation. We expect (or expected) better than this from Pratchett. Stephen Baxter, while a competent writer, is in no way as distinctive an authorial voice or as clever a plot designer or language user as Pratchett, and although it is impossible to be sure how much of The Long Earth flows from Baxter and how much from Pratchett at a time when his creative powers were diminishing (as Raising Steam shows), The Long Earth for the most part reads too conventionally and moves in too many expected directions for it to feel like a Pratchett series. It is also much too long: the five books feel padded, then padded again – the whole plot would have made a solid single long novel, perhaps a pair, maybe a trilogy, but even with millions upon millions of not-quite-Earths on which to set stories, The Long Earth feels insufficiently rich and inadequately packed with events and characters to go on for five books. Furthermore, to the detriment of The Long Cosmos, the authors killed off two of the most-interesting series characters by the end of the fourth book, The Long Utopia: prickly, good-hearted and multi-world-spanning explorer Sally Linsay, and Shi-Mi, the artificial cat that, like Lobsang (and, for that matter, like Pinocchio), simply wanted to be a real one. There are glimmers of personality and attractiveness in the remaining characters, but there is really no one, not even Joshua, with whom readers can readily identify: even Joshua, after thousands of pages, seems more a figurehead protagonist than a fully formed human being.

     What The Long Cosmos tries to do is to explore some of the grand questions of humanity’s meaning (if it has one) and importance (if any) – questions that the great SF authors have been asking for well over a century. To do this, the Pratchett and Baxter create a specific way to widen the story. The Long Earth concept has always included a lot of arbitrary, unexplained elements. One such is the reason the authors give such exact numbers to various planets where events take place: why those numbers? The Long Cosmos gives a rather-too-cute answer for certain planets but not for the approach in general. And it does not even try to explain other elements of the story, such as the reason travel from world to world is possible for people and some but not all objects (notably, iron cannot be carried). But one unexplained item that does become crucial in this series finale is the apparent impossibility of world-to-world communication: it has been true throughout The Long Earth sequence that you can go to an alternative Earth but cannot tell anyone you are coming, and no one can invite you into another world or warn you away. The Long Cosmos is built around a violation of this lack of interworld communication, as the enigmatic message “Join Us” suddenly shows up throughout the linked Earths, in whatever language or form particular people and groups need it to be in for comprehensibility. Fans of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick will likely think, appropriately, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, although – to give Pratchett and Baxter credit – the authors do not simply adopt the “advancement of humanity” notion (which in any case long predates 2001) but adapt it in several ways.

     The Long Cosmos is, in essence, about the response of individual characters and the human race (and the troll race and the Next) to the “Join Us” call. Joshua pretty much sits things out at first, being tended by trolls after breaking his leg and thus developing his insights through greater understanding of troll society. The Next are central to the plot, having realized that the “Join Us” message includes instructions on assembling a continent-size computer simply called The Machine; this in turn requires them to obtain the help of “dim-bulbs,” which is what they call ordinary humans. The Next – individually and collectively – are less interesting than Joshua and several other characters, so there is a certain disconnect of effectiveness between the main and subsidiary plots here, although Pratchett and Baxter are skilled enough to pull everything together eventually. For readers of a somewhat cynical bent, the notion of The Machine may recall Fredric Brown’s wonderfully pithy short-short story, Answer, in which humans build the most powerful, gigantic computer possible and ask it whether there is a God – to which it replies, “Yes, now there is a God.” That is not quite where the far-more-discursive story of The Long Earth ends up, but where the five-book sequence that concludes with The Long Cosmos does go is less clever and insightful, and much less chilling, than where Brown took readers in just a few hundred words in 1954. In the final analysis, there is nothing particularly “wrong” with The Long Cosmos, and it does a good job of bringing its over-long novel sequence to a satisfactory conclusion. But readers, whatever they may think of Stephen Baxter, have long since become accustomed to Terry Pratchett being far more than satisfactory. The Long Earth, including The Long Cosmos, is simply not memorable enough to feel like a story (or set of stories) to which readers will return again and again – neither in the short term nor in the long run.

(+++) RETAKING CONTROL


The Meals to Heal Cookbook: 150 Easy, Nutritionally Balanced Recipes to Nourish You During Your Fight with Cancer. By Susan Bratton and Jessica Iannotta. Da Capo. $18.99.

     One of the serious psychological elements involved in cancer is the feeling that your body is no longer your own – that it has been “taken over” by the disease and that, in fact, the disease is “in charge of” your life. The impression is exacerbated by the reality that cancer treatments can be time-consuming – and not only the treatments themselves, but also the time needed to go to doctors or medical facilities to receive them, to wait to be seen, and so on. The result is that a lot of one’s waking time can be tied up by and with cancer – and one’s mental time gets tied up as well, with thoughts about the disease, the treatment, the prognosis, the reactions of friends and family, and more. So anything that can restore a cancer patient’s sense of control over his or her life can be a genuine aid to healing.

     Furthermore, a frequent effect both of cancer and, sometimes to an even greater extent, the treatments for cancer, can be appetite disturbance, which may range from having no interest in food at all to finding formerly delicious foods nausea-inducing or simply so bland that it is hard to muster the enthusiasm to eat them – or, indeed, anything. It is this aspect of the cancer fight that Susan Bratton and Jessica Iannotta address in their over-optimistically titled The Meals to Heal Cookbook. The meals in this book will not heal cancer or even slow its spread, but they do have the potential to keep cancer patients occupied doing something positive – preparing the meals means asserting control over one aspect of life – and may, by strengthening the body and thus its immune system, help marshal the body’s own defenses as a supplement to whatever therapy doctors are prescribing.

     Many of the specific recipes in The Meals to Heal Cookbook will be familiar to vegetarians – the book has a strong vegetarian orientation and will be of little value to those who prefer a mixed diet (it contains only a single recipe that uses shrimp, for example). The details of ingredients and food preparation are also middle-of-the-road for vegetarian cookbooks, expecting readers to know or familiarize themselves with buckwheat groats, agave nectar, hemp milk and more. However, where Bratton and Iannotta excel is in understanding that people fighting cancer may not have the time or inclination (or strength) for extensive food preparation: many of the recipes are time-consuming, but some can be prepared quickly, and a special icon indicates which those are. Even more important is the list of nutrition-related side effects of cancer and/or cancer treatment that the authors provide with every recipe, in a bar along the side of the page. They suggest, by using plus signs next to specific feelings, what side effects a particular recipe can help counter. This list of side effects is reasonably comprehensive and very helpful in choosing specific recipes to try. It includes lack of appetite; nausea, vomiting or heartburn; constipation; diarrhea; fatigue; mouth sores; dry mouth; chewing or swallowing difficulty; taste aversion, with separate categories for sweet and for sour-and-bitter; lack of taste; and being bothered by smells.

     Few cancer patients will experience all these side effects, much less all of them at the same time – response to the disease and to treatment changes as therapy progresses – but virtually all people with cancer will encounter some of these side effects some of the time. There is no chapter list giving recipes for specific side effects, but the book’s layout allows readers to use the pages as a flip book to find side effects containing a check mark and then look at whatever recipes turn up. If your primary complaint is mouth sores, for example, and you are looking for something in the “Soups & Stews” chapter, a quick flip-through turns up “cool cucumber avocado soup,” “Tuscan white bean vegetable stew,” and “carrot ginger soup with cashew cream,” among other recipes; and the flipping shows not to try “orzo kale soup,” “asparagus potato curry,” “sweet potato black bean chili,” or other recipes in which the “mouth sores” box does not contain a check mark.

     The recipes themselves are laid out very clearly, with the ingredient list set off from the instructions, prep time and cooking time clearly given at the start of each recipe, and a nutritional analysis provided at the end. Commentary is brief and to the point: hummus and cucumber tartine “is a great light meal for those looking to consume small, frequent meals to manage symptoms and improve nutritional intake,” for instance, and for those considering “baked tofu and broccoli over wild rice,” when “experiencing diarrhea or nausea try replacing the broccoli with well-cooked zucchini or squash and substitute mild white basmati rice.” The types of food given in The Meals to Heal Cookbook are not unusual, ranging from breakfast items to salads, sandwiches, main courses, side dishes, sweets and more. And, as noted, neither are the recipes themselves highly unusual, at least for committed vegetarians. But the purpose of The Meals to Heal Cookbook is not to create new and exciting foods or to help readers find ways to make mealtime more interesting. The book is intended specifically to help people with cancer regain control of a basic element of life – eating, and thus providing the body with the fuel it needs – in a way that acknowledges the special challenges caused by cancer and cancer treatment. For that particular special-needs audience, the book is useful, well-presented and sensitive to the difficult realities of everyday life with a disease whose course and treatment alike can both seem overwhelming.

(+++) THE POWER OF VOCALS


Pergolesi: Stabat Mater; Vivaldi: Sinfonia “Al Santo Sepolcro,” RV 169; Nisi Dominus, RV 608. Silvia Frigato, soprano; Sara Mingardo, contralto; Accademia degli Astrusi conducted by Federico Ferri. Concerto. $16.99.

Dan Redfield: A Hopeful Place. Kristi Holden, soprano; Hollywood Studio Symphony conducted by Dan Redfield. Navona. $14.99.

Paula Diehl: Works for Large and Small Ensemble from 1982-2015. Navona. $16.99 (2 CDs).

     The voice’s ability to communicate emotions intertwined with and more specific than those expressed by instruments has been a basic element of musical composition for centuries, with neither vocal nor instrumental elements of many pieces being paramount – instead, they interact to enhance each other. Composers such as Pergolesi and Vivaldi were well aware of ways to maintain focus on words while using instruments to accentuate texts and expand the impact of the vocals themselves. Whether Pergolesi did this completely successfully in his Stabat Mater is a matter of opinion and, to some extent, a matter of taste. The work is quite popular now and became so not long after the composer’s death – but it is undeniably a comparatively light and operatic treatment of the text, placing it in much the same position as the much later Stabat Mater by Rossini, which also seems on the light side and certainly lacks the gloom that Germanic composers bring to the subject. In our more-secular-than-Pergolesi’s age, the operatic vocal treatment of the Stabat Mater texts is precisely what makes the work appealing (the same is true of Rossini’s Stabat Mater, for that matter). It may simply be that Italian religious expressions, even when dealing with topics as emotionally deep as those in the Stabat Mater, simply take a less gloom-laden view of the material, perhaps with an eye on the blissful eternity ushered in by Christ’s sacrifice rather than the deep pain of his crucifixion. Certainly the performance by Accademia degli Astrusi under Federico Ferri, on the Concerto label, does not lack for emotion, and there is considerable subtlety in the playing as well as the soloists’ singing. Pergolesi’s work is paired a bit oddly with Vivaldi’s early Nisi Dominus (preceded by a sinfonia that bridges the vocal pieces). This extended, ambitious nine-movement setting of Psalm 126 is a rather uneasy mixture of styles and scoring, including two simple continuo arias, one aria in siciliana style, an accompanied recitative, a Gloria that is fascinatingly dark and is not only the longest movement but also the most impressive one, and other material as well. Here too the performance is quite well done, but the Pergolesi and Vivaldi fit rather uneasily together, although the skill of the respective composers in merging and mingling vocal and instrumental material cannot be gainsaid.

     Three centuries on, composers continue to search for ways to use vocal and instrumental elements of their works to strengthen and supplement each other. Nowadays they often look to multiple musical styles to express different elements of a work’s overall emotion. That is Dan Redfield’s approach in A Hopeful Place, a nine-movement song cycle that, unlike Pergolesi’s and Vivaldi’s focus on the promises of religion, is firmly rooted in life in Earth. The work, heard on a new Navona release, traces the full life of a woman, from birth to death, using some of the same operatic techniques employed by Pergolesi – very much updated, to be sure – and combining them with jazz (a favorite of contemporary composers), musical-theater style, and (especially in meditative sections) more-traditional classical approaches. The text, by John Gabriel Koladziej, is absolutely central to communicating the emotions of the work, and while it is not exceptionally thoughtful or moving, it is more than adequate for its and the composer’s purpose. Some listeners may find the expressiveness of A Hopeful Place to be quite appropriate, but others may consider the obviousness of its verbal and musical elements a bit much: the enthusiasm of Childhood, the teenage angst of Words They Never Say, and so on. The movement called Vocalise, as its title indicates, features vocal sounds but no words, and is especially effective as a result; the Vocalise theme appears in several other places and helps knit A Hopeful Place together. The work’s title comes from its seventh movement, which draws on the pain felt by so many after the terrorist murders in New York City on September 11, 2001, and the struggle to regain a sense of hope afterwards. Redfield conducts his music skillfully, and the cycle is well sung by Kristi Holden, who gave the work its first performance, in 2010. The elements of pain and hope toward the end are carefully and clearly communicated both vocally and instrumentally – but they are also, like the feelings explored earlier with greater ebullience, presented in rather obvious ways.

     Things are much less obvious in the music – both vocal and instrumental – of Paula Diehl, one of the composers who insist (like Schoenberg in his time and Harry Partch more recently) that existing methods of music-making are inadequate for what they want to express and that they must therefore invent new ones. Obviously a listener’s interest in and comfort with these new methods is a major determinant, perhaps the major determinant, of the music’s effectiveness. Diehl’s approach, a system called “Separation,” uses what Diehl calls “interlocking fourths” (not the same thing as the “stacked fourths” employed by other composers, including Copland). The objective is to create music that highlights the unique elements of individual instruments and the human voice so as to combine them more effectively. Listeners, of course, cannot be expected (much less required) to know what a composer is doing to create a given piece, and have the right to judge based on their experience of a work rather than the method of its construction. The vocal works on a two-CD Navona release of Diehl’s music are On Wisdom and Prosper the Word, two choral pieces performed by the Slovak Radio Chorus; and Wedding Day and Anyone, which are songs featuring Bradford Gleim, baritone, and Chiharu Naruse, piano. The choral works are filled with strong dissonance and atonality both in the voices and in the organ part (played by Albert Goken), and feature the sorts of interjections (vocal and instrumental) associated with dramatic moments in film and TV scores. The baritone-and-piano pieces have a singsong quality that is not quite Sprechstimme, and both proceed at a slogging pace that drags on their potential for effective communication. The remaining pieces here are orchestral on the first CD and chamber music on the second. The works for orchestra include In Hand (Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský), Right of Way (Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Stankovsky), Till the Walls Fall (Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimír Válek), and Insiders (Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vit Micka). The chamber pieces are Gambit (Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra Chamber Players conducted by Vronský), On Course (Moyzes Quartet), Gusts (for solo piano, played by Naruse), Illumination (Robert St. Cyr, organ, and Jonathan Roberts, piano), and Meeting Places (again, Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra Chamber Players conducted by Vronský). Interestingly, Diehl does have a distinctive style that establishes itself throughout these pieces, which were written (as the release’s title indicates) between 1982 and 2015. It is surely her self-created compositional technique that renders these works recognizable. But it also renders them very much the same – there is little to distinguish a piece with one title from a piece with a different one, and generally not much that is distinctive even from movement to movement with a given work. In addition, there is something exceptionally grating about the instrumentation and the highly angular, stop-and-start nature of the non-thematic material of which these works are built. Listeners who find any of Diehl’s pieces congenial or involving will likely be pleased by all of them; conversely, those who are not attracted to her particular compositional method and the sounds that it produces in one instance are unlikely to find any of these pieces, whether instrumental or vocal-and-instrumental, especially attractive.