October 16, 2014

(++++) OLD AND NEW AMUSEMENTS


Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel: 75th Anniversary Edition. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Uni the Unicorn: A Story about Believing. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager. Random House. $17.99.

String Art. By the Editors of Klutz. Klutz. $19.99.

     The books of Virginia Lee Burton (1909-1968) have held up remarkably well over the years, and none better than Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel – although it may be hard for some parents to realize just how long the book has been around. This story from 1939 is dated in many ways now, not the least of which is that modern children are unlikely ever to have seen a steam shovel. But the book’s charm, its message of persistence and pride, its use of a named machine (Mary Anne) that smiles but still functions like a real-world machine, all these remain and are still appealing. And the writing about the inevitable advancement of technology, the supplanting of steam by “the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels” – leading Mike and Mary Anne to one final effort to prove their value – continues to resonate as well. Yes, the cars that Burton drew look hopelessly old-fashioned now, and so do the airplanes, and so do the steam trains that travel on the right-of-way dug by Mike and Mary Anne. But the book’s illustrations are still wonderful, Burton’s creation of expressions for Mary Anne and other nonhumans (such as the sun) still delights, and although the book is now quaint in many ways, it remains both amusing and heartfelt – quite a testimony after 75 years. The handsome new edition shows the parts of a steam shovel inside the front and back covers – a nice touch – and provides a link to a free audiobook version of the story, read by Matthew Broderick. The extras are just fine, but Mike and Mary Anne remain the stars here, still a pleasure after all those years.

     Of course, brand-new books can be delights, too. Uni the Unicorn is a charmer from start to finish. Intended for pre-readers and very young readers, ages 3-7, it is all about a unicorn who, unlike all the other unicorns, believes that little girls are real, not just a fable. Despite all the teasing by the other unicorns, “Uni was certain, absolutely certain, that little girls were real, no matter what everyone else said.” What makes Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s simple story fun is that it switches, after a time, to a focus on a little girl who is “certain, absolutely certain, that there was a unicorn, a strong smart wonderful magical unicorn” – even though her parents give her knowing and indulgent smiles just like the ones Uni’s parents give to Uni. And sure enough, the book ends with Uni and the little girl together – although whether this happens in the girl’s world, or Uni’s, or only in dreamland, is not specified in the text or made clear in Brigette Barrager’s bright, fairy-tale-like illustrations. There is nothing deep about the book, no significant teaching or moral, but its underlying message that it is just fine to believe, even when no one around you does, is one that 21st-century little girls can absorb enjoyably – just as boys and girls have been able to absorb it from other books in the past.

     Some amusements combine elements from then and now, such as the always-delightful crafts books from Klutz. The crafts shown in these project books – which are really “books-plus” rather than traditional to-be-read volumes – are inevitably old-fashioned (no high technology here); but the instructions on how to do the projects are up to date, and the inclusion in each Klutz offering of all the materials needed is an ongoing pleasure. Furthermore, some Klutz titles, although not technology-based, have direct and unusual tie-ins to the computer world: String Art is inspired by projects that have been popularized on the Web site Pinterest. This Klutz offering shows how to make all sorts of craft items from colored string: a star, a locket, a butterfly, a feather, a snail, the word “love,” and many more. The string is included, as is typical for Klutz; also included are pins (both standard and ball-headed), patterns, tracing and background paper, project boards, and a pin-pushing tool for putting the string masterpieces together. Not included, but clearly listed and almost certainly available in your house already, are tape, a pencil or fine-tip marker, scissors and glue. There are enough materials here to make six projects, after which kids who enjoy string-art project-making can always get more of the needed items at crafts stores or by going to Klutz.com. Because this offering does contain pins, it is recommended for somewhat older users than are most Klutz works: ages 10 and up. But with adult supervision, younger kids can enjoy String Art, too, and in fact the projects can be fun for parents to do with children – a very nice rainy-day activity, for example. The instructions, which as usual for Klutz are clearly and amply illustrated, show how to trace a pattern, wrap a project board, choose a background, insert pins, and tie string on and off to create anything from a single-color project to a multicolored one. String Art has a pleasantly old-fashioned feel about it, but is presented in a modern way and with the clarity for which Klutz is known. Hands-on, non-technical crafts projects always have a whiff of the past about them nowadays, but doing them with guidance from Klutz makes them about as newfangled as it is possible for them to be.

(++++) IN PRAISE OF SILLINESS


The Complete Adventures of Johnny Mutton. By James Proimos. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

Robots Rule! Book One: The Junkyard Bot. By C.J. Richards. Illustrated by Goro Fujita. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $13.99.

     Take one baby that just happens to be a sheep, leave it on the doorstep of a woman who happens to be named Mutton and whose “weak eyes and warm heart kept her from even noticing” the baby’s species, and you have the setup for three amusing, offbeat, occasionally strange and always funny books of adventures – written by James Proimos and illustrated by him a style that can best be called “arrested development” (that is, the pictures look as if they were drawn by a six-year-old, and maybe one with sheep’s hooves rather than human fingers). The Complete Adventures of Johnny Mutton includes The Many Adventures of Johnny Mutton (2001); Johnny Mutton, He’s So Him! (2003); and Mutton Soup: More Adventures of Johnny Mutton (2004). The stories wear well because they are timeless: each of the original books contained five very short tales, and each ends with a “Where Are They Now?” chapter that is a story in itself – a very amusing wrap-up. The stories’ titles are part of the fun. “The Pirates Meet the Runny Nose” is about Halloween costumes and Johnny’s budding friendship with Gloria Crust, who dresses as a giant box of tissues. “The Cook-Off” features Johnny’s arch-enemy, Mandy Dinkus, and a cooking contest in which Johnny defeats Mandy by presenting the judges with nothing at all (for good reason: he has kindly given away all his cupcakes). In “Bottoms Up,” Johnny is sent to learn table manners from Ms. Bottoms, who decrees him unteachable – but it turns out that Johnny has learned everything, while teaching the teacher his own previous bad table habits (which she practices with her dog, Mr. Tooshy). Proimos so effectively channels his inner child that one wonders whether he ever really grew up. Momma beats Johnny in a staring contest by “tooting” at just the right time; Johnny and Gloria decide to set the world record for sitting; Momma, a great basketball player, tries unsuccessfully to teach the game to Johnny, who prefers to swim in the water ballet (a decision that is fine with Momma, who says, “Then swim your best”). Readers learn about and get to see food items such as mutton gravy (“the hot maple syrup that goes over the pancakes that have a cherry on top”) and mutton pie (“a whole lot of cherries in a bowl with a cherry on top”). The Johnny Mutton books were fun when they first appeared, they are fun in this new collection, and they will likely continue to be fun for quite some time to come.

     The Robots Rule! series is designed to be enjoyable well into the future, too, but in a different way. C.J. Richards is just starting what is sure to be a multi-entry sequence set in the town of Terabyte Heights, a high-tech enclave where everyone has his or her own robot and plenty of programming skills to go with it. Central to the town is the TinkerTech technical hub and robotics factory, overseen by Professor Droid, whose daughter, Anne, is friends with series protagonist George, who uses the TinkerTech workshop to rebuild his personal robot and best friend, Jackbot, after Jackbot is hit by a car. George, a typical preteen genius, makes some improvements in Jackbot that soon draw some nefarious attention – from Professor Droid’s second-in-command, Dr. Micron, a typical bad guy who has everything his own way until George derails his evil schemes after Dr. Micron boastfully gives George the means to do so. There is nothing especially creative in the overall plot of The Junkyard Bot, but it makes a good series opener by introducing a number of major themes and characters (the vanquished Dr. Micron escapes, of course) and by offering more humor than might be expected. For example, after George’s attempt to defuse a bomb goes right down to the last second, as usual in books like this, Jackbot laughs and reveals that he had actually taken care of everything one minute earlier. Jackbot tends to seem more human than some of the characters, but there is nothing unusual about that: think, for example, of R2D2 in the original Star Wars movies, and he did not even speak. The Junkyard Bot features apt illustrations by Goro Fujita, who has clearly been influenced by anime in creating the robots but has not drawn the humans with traditional anime appearance – resulting in a mixture of styles that works nicely in a series opener that bodes well for future volumes.

(++++) PHILOSOPHICALLY SPEAKING


Does Santa Exist? A Philosophical Investigation. By Eric Kaplan. Dutton. $20.

     Eric Kaplan has definitively solved the problem of what one does with a degree in philosophy: one makes TV shows. Kaplan, who is in the midst of the Ph.D. program in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, is writer and co-executive producer of a show called The Big Bang Theory, a philosophical and largely incoherent scene from which he quotes in Does Santa Exist? But wait – there’s more! The TV show’s promotion is not central to the thesis here – it is only incidental to a highly unusual mixture of absolutely serious discussions of complex philosophical arguments and hysterically funny looks at the implications of those arguments.

     The book’s title gives Kaplan a point of reference to which he repeatedly returns as he considers various philosophical thinkers and their thought systems, often accompanying his analysis with wonderfully apt illustrations, such as one showing a follower of Ludwig Wittgenstein having climbed a ladder beyond the Earth to a far-away vantage point, then pushing the ladder away, as Wittgenstein says is metaphorically necessary – this being intended to go with Kaplan’s remark that “Wittgenstein was very, very smart, but this statement is very, very stupid, as anyone would know who has ever used a ladder to climb up somewhere.” Kaplan’s intent is not, however, to ridicule Wittgenstein, or not only Wittgenstein. He cites numerous philosophers, quotes from a variety of Buddhist teachings, even throws in a complete Wordsworth sonnet and the famous Monty Python cheese-shop sketch, all for the purpose of explaining the way we cope in everyday life with the numerous inherent paradoxes of living. The book sounds, when described this way, considerably more complex than it really is. Kaplan is actually pretty forthright about encapsulating his concept, although you do have to search a bit to find out what he is up to. It is in the footnote at the bottom of page 135: “…It’s basically a pretty boneheaded thesis – life is hard to understand so you should laugh at it – but it’s dressed up with a lot of stuff about [Bertrand] Russell and mysticism so you can brag to your friends about enjoying it.”

     So now that we have that out of the way, what is left? Well, the presentation of the “boneheaded thesis” is the big attraction here. In discussing the philosophical proposition that “everything exists,” for example, Kaplan says that if this is true, then in addition to Santa Claus, there must be “Manta Claus – just like Santa but a manta ray,” and “Mantis Claus – just like Santa but with a praying mantis head,” and “Mylanta Claus – just like Santa but instead of toys, he brings Mylanta to good little boys and girls with acid reflux,” and “Hantavirus Claus who comes on Christmas Eve bearing sacks of infectious rodent excrement,” and others. And yes, there is an illustration. There is not, thankfully, an illustration of the following: “Bill Clinton uses one hand to explore Monica Lewinsky with a cigar and the other to reform welfare as we know it. We reach for moral condemnation to anæsthetize ourselves, but that’s just human life; the president liked his tobacco sex and he also liked welfare reform.” Kaplan’s point, which he repeats frequently but, thanks to his humor, not quite ad nauseam, is that life is full of things that do not go together logically but that nevertheless coexist, and it is worth exploring, philosophically, the way we make sense of matters that on their face are mutually contradictory or otherwise senseless.

     Does Santa Exist? is entertaining and at times even enlightening. It is also irritating, partly because Kaplan tosses out names and concepts with freewheeling abandon, apparently intending to show just how knowledgeable he is (this could be a run-through for his coming Ph.D. dissertation); and partly because, for all his professed erudition, he has trouble keeping his grammar straight. Page 26: “…you are allowed to take an adjective from the box of adjectives that describes [sic; should be “describe”] objects, and NOT an adjective from the box of adjectives that describes [sic] words.” Page 30: “…people were understandably on [sic; should be “in”] the market for radical solutions.” Page 63: “If we assume that what I have said about the limitations of rational choice are [sic; should be “is”] correct…” Page 163: “…quantum fields don’t need to know what exist [sic; should be “exists”]…” And so forth.

     There is also an honest-to-goodness philosophical flaw in Kaplan’s book. His basic discussion of the duality of intellect vs. emotion is sensible enough: “The intellect wants to understand, so its rupture falls between what we understand and what we don’t understand, what we believe and what we can’t believe. In our emotional lives, on the other hand, the paradox we need to overcome is that between safety and danger. We need to be safe, but we know we aren’t, and the fundamental task we are faced with is to achieve a point of view that says we are safe enough to explore the environment but that takes into account the real dangers.” This is fine, so far as it goes, even if Kaplan’s argument that the “solution” to logic vs. mysticism is neither more nor less than humor – as illustrated by (among other things) an eagle stapled to a shark – is rather weak. But Kaplan’s selectivity in propounding his viewpoint is a case of ignoratio elenchi, a sort of straw-man argument in which Kaplan makes a logical case that does not necessarily address the issue he claims to be addressing. For example: “The two expressions ‘Raising kids is hard’ and ‘Raising kids is fun’ are contradictory and paradoxical only if we turn them into written expressions.” No, they are neither contradictory nor paradoxical – not even when written down. They simply refer to component parts of a larger whole (the experience of “raising kids”) and can therefore coexist quite comfortably both verbally and in writing.

     Kaplan has clearly learned his how-to-argue-philosophical-points lessons, often raising an idea and then, to show its truth, saying to assume it is not true – which he demonstrates to be incorrect or even absurd. That is fine, but it is not particularly helpful, certainly not when considering whether Santa (or, for that matter, Odin or God) exists. It is probably most apt, from a philosophical rather than gift-giving point of view, to state that Santa both does and does not exist in the same sense of superposition in which Schrödinger's theoretical cat is both dead and alive in its theoretical box. But that is a matter for quantum theory, which only slightly and not very usefully impinges on Kaplan’s thinking in Does Santa Exist? For most of us, a touch of age-appropriate magic will be far less thought-provoking than is the Santa question for Kaplan. Probably far less angst-laden, too. But does angst exist?

(+++) SCARY STUFF FOR SEVERAL AGE GROUPS


The Bodies We Wear. By Jeyn Roberts. Knopf. $17.99.

The Lynburn Legacy, Book 3: Unmade. By Sarah Rees Brennan. Random House. $17.99.

Guardians of Tarnac, Book I: Lark Rising. By Sandra Waugh. Random House. $17.99.

Nightmares! By Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller. Illustrated by Karl Kwasny. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Frightening fantasy adventures are constructed differently for young readers of different ages: the formulas are often the same, or at least overlap, but the way they are treated is tied directly to the age group at which a sequence or standalone novel is directed. Jeyn Roberts’ The Bodies We Wear is for ages 14 and up, which means it falls into the “gritty” category, in which serious societal issues are blown up into fantasy proportions and used as plot drivers in ways that are intended to seem “adult.” The serious issue here is drugs, specifically a drug called Heam, which is supposed to kill users momentarily and, in so doing, grant them a vision of Heaven. Of course, it doesn’t really work that way: when Faye and her best friend, Christian, are forced to take Heam – Faye is only 11 years old at the time – she gets a horrific vision rather than a beatific one, and Christian dies. Faye is 17 now and for six years has been determined to revenge herself on the pushers and killers who ruined her life and killed her best friend. She is helped, to an extent, by her guardian, Gazer, but he frustrates her by telling her again and again that she is “not ready” despite her growing skills at violence. Complicating her determination is the mysterious appearance of a young man named Chael, who seems to know too much about her for his knowledge to be mere coincidence. “I’m afraid you’re going to wander too far and I won’t be able to pull you back,” Gazer tells Faye, but Faye’s concern is that she is not going far enough, fast enough, to get the revenge that she is determined to have. Then she does start taking revenge, and it does not go as she wants it to, partly because of Chael and partly because, of course, of Faye herself – she is not sure who she is, not really, and not sure of what she wants. Furthermore, Chael’s behavior becomes increasingly intrusive and irritating to Faye: “You are not all mysterious and powerful. You’re just an idiot.” Well, no – readers will realize long before Faye does that Chael is supernatural and is there to protect Faye from the world, from her hunger for revenge, from herself. They will realize who he is, too, before Faye does (she is rather slow on the uptake). Of course Faye finds out that revenge is far from sweet, and when she manages to have it, or some of it, “Most of all I cry for me.” And she eventually grows, develops, learns about herself and about the meaning of life and death, and so on – typical elements of stories like this, told for this age group with deliberate and carefully structured intensity.

     The intensity is turned down a notch in Unmade and Lark Rising, series entries intended for ages 12 and up. These are fantasies of created worlds, not urban fantasies set in cities resembling real-world ones. As such, they are filled with secrets and predictions, prophecies and magic, and of course difficult choices that, yes, result in the protagonists learning about themselves and growing by the time the stories end. Vengeance is key to Sarah Rees Brennan’s trilogy, but it is distanced vengeance rather than something up close, personal and ugly. It is protagonist Kami Glass who must work through an ancient legacy of blood and power to overcome Rob Lynburn, master of Sorry-in-the-Vale (a typical name for a typical place in tales like this one). At the book’s start, Kami has lost Jared, who is presumed dead, and must use her magical link with Jared’s half-brother, Ash, to try to face down the spreading evil detailed in the two prior books. However, Jared reappears rather early in Unmade, but then Ash gets in the way of what is about to be a joyful physical reunion, and matters quickly return to the issue of Rob. Brennan tries to make the evil mastermind less typical by drawing attention to how typical he is, as when one character comments about one of Rob’s utterances, “Doesn’t it sound like a fairly standard evil overlord speech? ‘Mwhahaha! You have no idea what you’re dealing with, Mr. Bond! You have gravely underestimated me. You have no idea of the depth of my iniquity.’” Leaving aside the peculiarity of the James Bond reference in this fantasy world, which goes with other things that don’t quite fit (such as one character reading the book Melmoth the Wanderer), the whole approach breaks down when Rob does in fact speak and behave like an utterly typical master villain in a magic-laced fantasy. Nor is he the only character type here: pretty much everyone is one-dimensional. And pretty much all the key events are, too: “We have to dig [the grave] up. …I think whatever this key opens will be” in it. Still, Brennan tries through dialogue to keep the proceedings unusual and even, from time to time, on the light side: “I always wanted to be able to solve all your problems and keep you safe forever. I couldn’t do it.” “I think it’s awesome she’s become a blond bombshell research ninja.” The oddity of the mixture here does not stop Brennan from dipping into traditional-for-fantasy language at key times: “I went with Rob so that I could learn his plans and spare all your lives. …But I had to come back. I feared you would not hear the communication I sent you, and think I had turned to his side.” The eventual foregone conclusion is firmly in the magical realm, and will satisfy genre fans who have stayed with this trilogy since it began with Unspoken and continued with Untold.

     As one fantasy series for ages 12 and up ends, another inevitably begins, and Sandra Waugh, presenting her first novel, gets the basics of the genre for this age group right. Her protagonist is 16-year-old Lark Carew, an apparently simple country girl who tends her garden and picks medicinal herbs, but who also has Sight – which tells her that monstrous Troths will soon attack her village. Lark is then summoned to seek assistance from the Riders of Tarnec, one of whom she has seen in her dreams. Lark, it turns out, is more than she appears to be (no surprise there): she is the first of four Guardians whose powers must be brought into play in order to recover four crucial protective amulets. Lark is Guardian of Life, and she must bring the world back into balance by fulfilling her destiny and doing what must be done, along with the Guardians of Death, Dark and Light, who are sure to appear in future books. Amid all the world-spanning issues, Lark has a personal one, as is wholly typical for books like this: one thing her Sight has shown her is that she will become romantically involved with a young man who will kill her. So Lark appears to be on a quest in which she herself is doomed, although she may be able to save the world. Waugh’s dialogue, unlike Brennan’s, makes no attempt to be anything but in the genre of typical heroic fantasy: “Choosing is the horses’ right and their instinct, and so the camaraderie is pure. Riders protect the hills from poachers who would breed horses for sale, for such would distort the natural bond.” Never mind that nobody real ever talks this way – in books like this, everybody does. “He wants to make right his error.” “There are other things more deadly to hold our concern.” “It is ignorant to assume that because you do not know me, then I should not know you.” “Do not always use your eyes to determine the value of something.” The dialogue progresses apace, and anon Lark and the Riders accomplish what is meant to be accomplished, and Lark is elevated to the position to which she is meant to be elevated, and the way is prepared for the next book in a thoroughly predictable, if well-crafted, series.

     Move down the target age range a bit, to books for readers ages 8-12, and plots are no less predictable, but they are handled with less loftiness, more humor, and often with illustrations that help enliven the books and move the stories along. Nightmares! is the first book of a series, as is Lark Rising, but the novel by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller is quite different from Waugh’s. For one thing, Nightmares! has pleasant, well-conceived and often amusing illustrations by Karl Kwasny that help break up the narrative while giving readers views of the characters and their actions. For another, the book has multiple protagonists rather than one – novels for this age group are often about friendship and the importance of sticking together to do what is right and push back against what is wrong. What is wrong here is that kids' nightmares are starting to slip across from dreamland to the real world, and this is emphatically not a good thing. Charlie Laird and his friends need to do something about this, but what? Charlie is stuck living in a purple mansion with his dad and stepmom, who he is sure is a witch. And soon he is on a quest with his friend Alfie, guided through the Netherworld by dark-glasses-wearing Meduso, who of course is the son of Medusa, who “had the face and torso of a beautiful older woman, the body of a giant serpent, and a hundred snakes growing out of her head.” Oh, and she calls Meduso Basil. There is a portal, you see, and Charlie and Alfie need Meduso’s help to return back through it to the Waking World, and Meduso needs his mumsie to help out. Then there are adventures that involve not only Alfie but also Paige, such as the one in which Charlie and both friends reach a nightmare forest where Charlie “could feel the thing in the forest – the one that had been stalking him ever since his bad dreams began. It was closer than ever.” Of course it is! This, after all, is the start of a multi-book series, and needs to establish the characters and the general plot line, such as: “Charlie had seen his friends’ nightmares, but it was strange to have them visit his. He felt uncomfortable and exposed – like he’d been caught dancing in his underwear.” The three friends end up sharing their fears – Alfie, for example, is the intelligent sidekick common to stories like this, and he has nightmares involving sports, at which he is no good, but “the truth is, I don’t really mind being a terrible athlete. I have a big brain to make up for it. I think what really bothers me is when people laugh at me. It makes me wonder if being smart really matters.” Eventually Charlie figures out what really scares him, and what the thing in the forest is, and what the head of the Netherworld (President Fear) is really trying to do to and with the kids of Cypress Creek. The eventual outcome, which is quite in line with what books for this age group try to communicate, is, “You’ve faced your fears. …But you also did something far more important. You stuck together.” The conclusion is so, well, conclusive, that the book could work as a standalone – atypically for a series opener, it does not have a cliffhanger ending. But there is a promise at the end that the second book, to be called The Sleepwalker Tonic, will be forthcoming, so obviously Charlie, family and friends have more nightmarish and age-appropriate adventures still to come.

(++++) ON STAGE AND OFF


Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring—versions for orchestra and for piano four hands. Sinfonieorchester Basel conducted by Dennis Russell Davies; Davies and Maki Namekawa, piano four hands. Sinfonieorchester Basel. $18.99.

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Antigone; Oedipus in Kolonos. Anne Bennent, Julia Nachtmann, Angela Winkler, Joachim Kuntzsch and Michael Ransburg, narrators; Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Claudia Schubert, alto; Manfred Bittner, bass; Kammerchor Stuttgart, Hofkapelle Stuttgart and Klassiche Philharmonie Stuttgart conducted by Frieder Bernius. Carus. $34.99 (3 CDs).

Joseph Summer: Shakespeare Concerts 3—Goddesses. Navona. $16.99.

Cantus: A Harvest Home. Cantus Sings. $20.

A Thanksgiving of American Folk Hymns. The Choirs and Orchestra of Brigham Young University. BYU Records. $16.99.

     Although far better known as a concert work – and as a huge challenge for any conductor – Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was always conceived as a ballet. And although it was planned from the start as an orchestral piece, a four-hand-piano version was created as a study and rehearsal guide and was actually published before the ballet’s première in 1913. Hearing excellent performances of the two versions on a new CD on the Sinfonieorchester Basel’s own label is revelatory. Dennis Russell Davies, a fine pianist as well as a conductor, brings both technical and expository skill to the work in its two forms (actually two of its three forms: there was also a version for solo piano, now unfortunately lost). Even without the visual element of the ballet, The Rite of Spring is so carefully structured that anyone who knows its program can envision what is happening on stage – in fact, Stravinsky wrote in detail about the actions that his music portrays. Davies conducts the orchestra with care and a sure hand, letting the music flow and build naturally in a structure that even today sounds revolutionary – for example, in the way in which sections become louder through the addition of instruments rather than through changing dynamics (essentially a bold reinterpretation and highly dramatic use of the Rossini crescendo). The astonishingly dramatic, pounding rhythms and their near-constant changes, the still-bold-sounding use of the orchestra as a rhythmic rather than melodic device, the abrupt section-to-section changes that nevertheless serve an overarching structural purpose – all these come through clearly here, with the excellent playing of Sinfonieorchester Basel making the soft sections of the work as dramatic as the loud and intense ones. The piano-four-hands version, in which Davies is joined by Maki Namekawa, is subtler as well as being more stripped-down. Similar to the orchestral work but not identical to it, the piano-four-hands rendition strips The Rite of Spring to its essentials, lacking the color of the version for orchestra (and this is, to be sure, a huge loss) but having a certain sinewy power that accentuates the matter-of-fact brutality of the story very effectively indeed. This is a very fine release that provides genuine insight into a seminal work not only of modern ballet but also of 20th-century music as a whole.

     Also intended for the stage and also heard far more frequently in concert, Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream sparkles and bubbles in a 1997 Stuttgart performance led by Frieder Bernius and now available on the Carus label. This is a far more complete and authentic rendition than is usually heard on disc, never mind in concert: it includes not only the singing but also all the narration, and places the music for the melodramas properly in context by having it played behind spoken dialogue rather than on its own, in the forefront – a way that Mendelssohn never intended. This sort of musical melodrama, highly popular in Mendelssohn’s time, has long since fallen from favor, but it is important to hear in this work, because it shows how carefully the composer melded – or distinguished – words and notes. The performance is in German, as was the original composition: Mendelssohn learned English quite well, but did not know it at the time of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Carus has done an outstanding job of presenting Bernius’ finely balanced and highly effective performance: there are extensive booklet notes about the work and a full libretto in German and English. The result is a version of the complete A Midsummer Night’s Dream that will be a must-have for anyone who wants to know how the composer really wanted this marvelous setting of Shakespeare to sound. And there is equally fine treatment accorded by Bernius and Carus to two 2004 performances of Mendelssohn works that are far less familiar than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They are Mendelssohn’s settings of the second and third parts of Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy: Oedipus in Kolonos (the last of the plays to be written, but the second in terms of its events) and Antigone (the third in the event timeline). The stately seriousness of Mendelssohn’s setting of these works, where his focus was primarily on the Greek choruses, contrasts starkly with the airiness of his Shakespeare setting. But the works are noticeably similar in their use of spoken dialogue, musical background and faithfulness to their underlying texts. Mendelssohn’s handling of the Greek plays is surprisingly forward-looking, in some ways resembling  Carl Orff’s declamatory Antigonae, which dates to 1949, more than a century after Mendelssohn’s death, and is also in German. Mendelssohn’s settings are essentially encapsulations of the Sophoclean tragedies, presenting much of what happens without attempting to be comprehensive. They are talk-oriented in a way that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not, yet they also contain music that is apt and explanatory, furthering the verbal elements and adding tension and drama to them. Interestingly, Antigone was for a time one of Mendelssohn’s most popular works (although Oedipus in Kolonos never was). Today, when the form in which Mendelssohn worked is rarely used – Orff notwithstanding – the music may seem more of a distraction than an enhancement. But it is worthy in itself, if not at the level of Mendelssohn’s Shakespeare setting, and this admirably paced and sung Oedipus in Kolonos and Antigone provide a rare opportunity to hear Mendelssohn as a stage composer who was adept at working within a form that was highly popular in his time.

     Shakespeare, of course, continues to enthrall composers and stage performers alike. Among modern composers finding inspiration in Shakespeare’s works is Joseph Summer, whose Oxford Songs is a collection of settings of Shakespeare’s sonnets and scenes. The third Navona release in the Shakespeare Concerts series, which focuses largely on Summer’s work, is officially devoted to goddesses – as the CD’s title says – but actually includes both divine and human manifestations of the feminine. There are six selections here, the longest and most elaborate by far (and the most goddess-oriented) being Honour, Riches, Marriage-Blessing, to words from The Tempest. There are also settings from Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and Hamlet – respectively, Gallop Apace You Fiery-Footed Steeds, If Music Be the Food of Love, and There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook. Two sonnet settings complete the disc: number CXXVII, “In the Old Age Black Was Not Counted Fair,” and number XVIII, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” The settings are uniformly sensitive both to the words’ meanings and to their poetic rhythms, and Summer does a fine job of creating varying ensembles to present the music: Sonnet CXVII, for instance, is for four voices, French horn, string quartet and bass, while Sonnet XVIII is for mezzo-soprano, flute, string quartet and bass. The differing ensembles both reflect and emphasize the different cast of the poetry, creating a pleasing musical contrast that parallels the contrasting subject matter. Likewise, the play scenes are set vocally and instrumentally in ways designed to highlight their meaning and emotional underpinning: sparest of all is the Hamlet excerpt, for soprano and piano, but even the extended material from The Tempest uses only a piano as an instrument, weaving above it three separate and harmonized voices – two sopranos and a mezzo-soprano. All the performers handle their roles with sensitivity and apparent understanding of Shakespeare’s fluent and mellifluous language, showing the Oxford Songs to be an effective way of communicating the timeless elements of Shakespeare to audiences in the 21st century.

     The latest release by the vocal group Cantus, on its own label, is more time-bound, being specifically oriented toward Thanksgiving. Its “stage” orientation involves both the group’s physical performances around the United States and their virtual ones on the electronic scene: this disc announces itself as “Recorded Live for Broadcast.” The works here are a touch on the monochromatic side, both musically and thematically, resulting in a (+++) rating for the production. This is certainly not to fault Cantus’ handling of Mendelssohn’s Trinklied or Grieg’s Tyteberet, or for that matter the singers’ performance of America the Beautiful, Simple Gifts or Turkey in the Straw. Everything is beautifully harmonized, warm and even lush in expression, and sung with pleasant but never-too-deep feeling – this is comfortable music and comfort music, quite suitable for chilly autumn evenings if not for in-depth contemplation. Taken as a whole, the disc is seasonal and unlikely to receive frequent reuse, even though some of the songs are quite appropriate anytime: A Thankful Heart, For the Beauty of the Earth, and, on the lighter side, Food, Glorious Food. But the mixture of hymns and secular music, the emphasis on being thankful for whatever sort of abundance one has (material or spiritual), and the overall sound of the arrangements, together make this CD a fine Thanksgiving tie-in – but a touch too narrow in focus to provide all-year-round listening pleasure.

     Similarly, a very pleasant and nicely sung (+++) CD called A Thanksgiving of American Folk Hymns offers music that is mostly unchallenging to hear (although not always to perform) and has a seasonal focus with both secular and sacred elements. Four Brigham Young University choirs are heard in these 18 works: the BYU Singers, conducted by Ronald Staheli; the BYU Men’s Chorus and BYU Concert Choir, both conducted by Mack Wilberg; and the BYU Women’s Chorus, conducted by Amy Dalton. Singing sometimes a cappella, sometimes with support from the BYU Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Dalton, the choirs perform works ranging from the well-known Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts, and martial Battle Hymn of the Republic (a rather warlike offering for the peacefulness of Thanksgiving) to the African-American spiritual Let Me Fly and the American folk hymns The Morning Trumpet, Wondrous Love and Cindy.  Most listeners will know a selection of these works, but relatively few will know them all, making this BYU Records release a journey of discovery as well as celebration. There is even one orchestral piece here – an excerpt from Copland’s Symphony No. 3 – to complement the vocal material. This is a digitally remastered 20th-anniversary edition of a disc that, although tied to a specific time of year, is timeless in its words of thanks and spiritual uplift, and that offers warmth of expression and feeling that is welcome at any time of year.

(++++) TRIBUTES TO VIRTUOSI


Paganini: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-6. Ingolf Turban, violin; WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne conducted by Lior Shambadal. Profil. $49.99 (4 CDs).

Carlo Alfredo Piatti: 12 Caprices for Solo Cello. Carmine Miranda, cello. Navona. $14.99.

Mitch Hampton: Piano Music. Mitch Hampton, piano. Navona. $16.99.

     Whether or not Paganini was the greatest violinist of his time is arguable. Others who studied and adapted his style, such as Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, may well have surpassed him technically. But Paganini was the greatest showman violinist of his era – of that there is no doubt. Fueling and exploiting  rumors of a pact with the devil, highlighting rather than shrinking from a jaw deformity that made his face look distinctly peculiar, deliberately drawing attention to his extremely long fingers, and dressing in a way guaranteed to keep all eyes on him during his performances, Paganini entertained in a way that no virtuoso ever had before. And of course, as was the custom in his time, he wrote music that he would himself then perform – music that was intended to be well-nigh unplayable by others, if not outright impossible. The deliberate confusion he created with his Concerto No. 1 is a case in point: he made it seem utterly impossible to perform by writing the orchestral parts in E-flat and the solo part in D – and he then used scordatura to make the work playable, obtaining an added benefit by having the orchestra fade more into the background in E-flat (because that key limits the use of open strings) while giving the soloist even greater prominence. The point of this purely technical wizardry, and a point brought forth wonderfully by Ingolf Turban in his Profil recording of the complete Paganini violin concertos, is that Paganini was a thoughtful and accomplished composer as well as a brilliant performer. He knew exactly what he wanted and exactly how to get it, and it is no accident that all six of his concertos have a distinctly Rossinian feel to them while also showcasing the solo violin to an extreme degree. Concerto No. 1 is nowadays almost always played in D, but Turban returns to its original version in E-flat and, as a result, lets listeners hear it with all the splendor and, yes, self-importance that Paganini intended it to have. Throughout the concertos, Turban captures much of the wit and songfulness of the music, accepting its technical difficulties and surmounting them, but never letting the works deteriorate into mere display pieces – as it is tempting to do. The fact is that Paganini had considerable talent as a composer – he was more a craftsman than innovator, to be sure, but his craftsmanship produced finely honed concertos that sound quite different from each other even though all six follow the same pattern: a very extended first movement, a second movement that is more an intermezzo than a true slow movement and that is always the shortest of the three, and a finale that blazes with technical brilliance and leaves the audience gasping. Turban plays cadenzas of his own in all the concertos, and does not hesitate to produce some real fireworks in them; but he also allows the music to sound tender, even soulful, when that is appropriate, and he makes the only fairly extended middle movement (in Concerto No. 5) genuinely moving. Throughout the set, he gets strong and creditable backup from the WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne under Lior Shambadal, a conductor who knows enough to get out of the way here and let the soloist’s playing shine through. Concertos Nos. 1 and 3 were recorded in 2000, Nos. 2 and 4 in 2003, and Nos. 5 and 6 in 2005. The sound in all of them is first-rate, and the set as a whole provides an excellent way to appreciate both Paganini’s undoubted mastery of his instrument and his ability to create highly attractive, tuneful and well-constructed music to showcase himself.

     Paganini is even better known for his 24 Caprices, Op. 1, than for his concertos, and those caprices transcend their form to become more than mere études, much as the concertos are more than surface-level technical displays. The caprices are highly listenable music as well as an enormous challenge to perform. Other composers’ caprices are less substantial and therefore less attractive for general listeners. That is the case with the 12 Caprices for Solo Cello by Carlo Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901). Piatti was a very accomplished cellist: Liszt heard him play a borrowed instrument and was so impressed that he gave him an Amati, and Mendelssohn offered to write a concerto for him but did not live to do so. Piatti’s 12 caprices seem to have been inspired in part by Paganini’s 24, but Piatti himself, for all his technical prowess, was clearly less inspired as a composer. His 12 Caprices are often imitative (of violin and guitar, for example) rather than fully involved in the intricacies of the cello, whose wide range opens up even more possibilities in solo playing than the violin possesses – a fact known as far back as Bach’s time. A few of the Piatti caprices actually owe a debt to Bach’s Cello Suites, in particular Nos. 2 and 4, while others show violinistic influence (Nos. 1 and 9, for example) and still others (notably No. 7) make it sound as if Piatti wanted to use the cello as a guitar, or at least with guitar techniques. Carmine Miranda plays this music for all it is worth, and seems sincerely dedicated to bringing out its value as music rather than as technical experimentation and embellishment. The simple fact, though, is that Piatti’s 12 Caprices are not especially interesting for non-cellists: rather than plumbing the depths of the cello, they look into its technical capability of seeming to be something it is not (No. 3, for example, really pushes into the instrument’s high range). Cellists will welcome this very well-played although very short (41-minute) Navona recording and will find it highly interesting, and for them it will get a (++++) rating; but for general listeners, the music simply does not have enough to say – the overall (+++) rating is as much for the excellence of Miranda’s playing as it is for what he plays.

     Another (+++) Navona recording also features virtuosity, but in this case the disc’s title, Hard Listening, is apt. Mitch Hampton’s music lurches from one extreme to another, sometimes incorporating elements of the past (Petite Dirge is reminiscent of Chopin and other 19th-century piano composers) but always focusing more on structural elements than on music’s evocative and communicative power. Like many contemporary composers, Hampton draws on multiple musical fields – jazz is particularly prominent as an influence – and does not hesitate to incorporate elements of other works into his own: Large Dirge in memory of my father draws on the Rodgers and Hart tune “Where or When.” Hampton’s music is the opposite of easy listening – hence the disc’s title – but aside from its wished-for iconoclasm, it does not communicate much beyond the composer’s ability to construct works from disparate sources and in differing styles. Hampton certainly plays his own pieces with enthusiasm: The Royal Blue Trickle Suite for Piano, Goodbye Cornelius and the title work – which is actually four pieces in a “Series for Solo Concert Piano” – are all performed with enthusiasm, as Hampton dwells on and brings out both the derivative and sometimes deliberately trivial elements and the denser, more-complex ones. There is a feeling of experimentation about the entire CD, which may be exactly what Hampton is looking for here and which may intrigue listeners who see music as being an intellectual exercise as much as or more than an emotionally stirring experience. Other listeners, though, may find these works’ lack of stylistic integrity and their somewhat overdone manipulativeness to be less than convincing.

October 09, 2014

(++++) ANIMALS ANTICS AGAIN


The Great Big Dinosaur Treasury: Tales of Adventure and Discovery. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

Circle, Square, Moose. By Kelly Bingham. Pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Dino delights of many sorts are collected in a winning anthology of eight reissues called The Great Big Dinosaur Treasury. Here are Patrick’s Dinosaurs (1983) by Carol Carrick, with illustrations by Donald Carrick; Curious George’s Dinosaur Discovery (2006) by Catherine Hapka, with illustrations “in the style of H.A. Rey” by Anna Grossnickle Hines; If the Dinosaurs Came Back (1978) by Bernard Most; Tadpole Rex (2008) by Kurt Cyrus; Ridin’ Dinos with Buck Bronco (2007) by George McClements; Gus, the Dinosaur Bus (2012) by Julia Liu, with illustrations by Bei Linn; Dinosailors (2003) by Deb Lund, with illustrations by Howard Fine; and Good Night, Dinosaurs (1996) by Judy Sierra, with illustrations by Victoria Chess. Topics, approaches and styles of illustration vary widely, with the book as a whole giving free rein to all sorts of dino-based imaginings, from Most’s wholly amusing and warmhearted visions of colorful and helpful dinosaurs in an otherwise black-and-white world, to the wonderfully imaginative Lund/Fine story, in which highly realistic-looking dinos have an utterly unrealistic nautical adventure. Cyrus’ fact-based story about amphibians in the dinosaur era is a highlight here, as is the utter absurdity McClements brings to a story that nevertheless incorporates some facts about dinosaur names, sizes and more. From time to time, a story shows its age – Carrick’s, for example, refers to a brontosaurus, a now-abandoned name for an apatosaurus. Generally, though, these stories wear very well, and even parents already familiar with some of the newer tales may not know those of decades past. The very reasonable price of this generously sized book (which also includes a link to free dinosaur-themed downloads suitable for parties) provides a great excuse for picking it up and having all the tales, new and old, in one volume – a chance for dino-loving kids to experience the imagination of many writers and artists who, like children themselves, continue to be captivated not so much by what dinosaurs actually were as by their potential as drivers of amusement, enjoyment and adventure 65 million years after their disappearance.

     Speaking of the offbeat and, indeed, the decidedly oddball, the second Kelly Bingham/Paul O. Zelinsky book featuring mischief-making, over-enthusiastic Moose and would-be enforcer of order and neatness Zebra may not deal with prehistoric creatures, but it certainly presents some strange ones. Circle, Square, Moose is nominally a book about shapes, just as its predecessor, Z Is for Moose, was nominally an alphabet book. But “nominally” is the key word here: Moose is a free-spirited intruder into the orderly proceedings, insisting through sheer exuberance on distracting readers from what the books are supposed to be about and turning them instead into focuses on his own hijinks. The frustrated narrator of Circle, Square, Moose simply wants to tell kids about shapes in everyday life, such as a circular button and square sandwich, but Moose, who has already peeked inquiringly into the book several times, makes life difficult for the strait-laced narrative voice by taking a big bite out of the sandwich – turning it into a triangle. Moose tries, in his own intrusive way, to help with the “shapes” theme, showing a cat’s triangular ears, but the narrator fusses, “Cute, but this is not an animal book. It’s a shape book. You both need to leave.” No such luck!  True, Moose walks away dejectedly, but he soon returns within a rectangular window to paint over the words “tall window” with the word “moose” and disobey repeated orders to stop “ruining the book” and get out. This is obviously a job for Zebra, who looks like a referee, complete with cap and appropriately striped jacket worn over his own stripes. Zebra tries to cajole Moose into leaving, but the wayward antlered one refuses, soon leading Zebra on a wild chase through multiple pages, thoroughly messing up squares and curves and eventually getting Zebra stuck in a very long, very curvy ribbon. The oblivious narrator continues explaining shapes, turning to a discussion of circles as poor Zebra, still stuck, eventually falls down a hole that Moose makes with, yes, a solid black circle. The fed-up narrator eventually says “I’m done” and tells Moose and Zebra to finish the book themselves – which they do, with a nice touch of friendship and a look at the shape of a star. Will kids really learn about shapes from this book, or will they be too distracted by the wild comedy? Well, there are plenty of other, more-staid shapes books, and this one could always be a supplement to one in which the narrative voice proceeds with fewer impediments. Certainly Moose makes a great guide to enjoyment, whether or not he is an ideal instructor in shapes or, for that matter, the alphabet. He’s quite a character, and it is very unlikely that we have seen the last of him.

(++++) WHYS AND WHEREFORES


Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Illustrations by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean. By Jane Lynch with Lara Embry, Ph.D., and A.E. Mikesell. Illustrated by Tricia Tusa. Random House. $16.99.

     The reasons things are the way they are can make for fascinating reading – and instructive reading, too. And that applies whether dealing with physical or personality characteristics. Creature Features is a short and wonderful guide to the unusual anatomical structures of 25 animals, some of them likely to be familiar to young readers (panda, giraffe) and some they are very unlikely to know (babirusa, spicebush swallowtail caterpillar). The book’s structure is simplicity itself: using collages made of cut and torn paper, Steve Jenkins provides closeup views of each animal that emphasize a distinguishing characteristic; and Jenkins and Robin Page create a question-and-answer format that explains the animal’s appearance in a very few words. For example, “Dear pufferfish: You’ve got me worried – are you going to explode? No, I won’t burst. I’ve inflated my body with water to make it tougher for a big fish to swallow me.” Or, “Dear leaf-nosed bat: Seriously, is that your nose? I know, I know – it looks strange. But my nose directs the high-pitched sounds I make, which helps me find my way as I fly.” The science here is accurate, and the characteristics explored are not necessarily the ones you might expect – for the giraffe, for example, the question is about its purple tongue, not its long neck. Two well-done pages at the back of the book show where the animals live, what they eat, and how their size compares with that of a human being. This is a book that is easy to read, intriguing to look at, and quite informative despite its brevity and pictorial emphasis.

     The “why” question applies strictly to a person in Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean, a book that tries with mixed success to tackle the issue of bullying and what can be done about it. Intended for very young readers and pre-readers – the target age range is 3-7 – the book is designed to connect the problems of real-world bullying with the use of bullies in fictional presentations: Jane Lynch plays one on TV in the show Glee. Whether very young kids will know Lynch or not is unimportant for the book’s message, though; and the message itself, which appears to have been crafted primarily by clinical psychologist Lara Embry and structured for early-childhood consumption by former children’s-book editor A.E. Mikesell, is certainly clear enough: bullying is bad, and kids can band together to stop it. Unfortunately, the need to simplify both the problem and the solution makes this (+++) book too simplistic to have the value that its creators clearly wish it to have. The title character is described as “a girl seeking glory,” which makes no sense except as a reached-for rhyme with “story.” What really motivates Marlene to her comparatively mild forms of bullying (a few pinches, some yelling, standing in and blocking doorways) is never said explicitly – and is not the point, anyway. “She’d stand on a chair/ to gloom and to glare,/ making everyone/ feel really tense.” All it takes to stop Marlene – if only shutting down a bully were really so easy! – is one boy asking “why” she casts such a large shadow on everyone. A single sentence from the boy to the effect that “we cringe and we cower/ and give her our power” takes that power away immediately – one page later, “the kids were no longer afraid.” And Marlene starts to cry, and “all the anger she felt” (perhaps the root cause of her meanness) “flew from her nose in three sneezes,” and all the other kids immediately help her – and Marlene ends up “becoming a much nicer kid.” There is a nod to the notion of minor backsliding in this transformation, but the basic point is that simply standing up to a bully unravels the bullying behavior, and then the bullied kids can immediately be very nice to their tormentor, and all will be well. But however well-intentioned this formulation is, it is a bit too pat an explanation of bullying and its consequences for even the youngest children. More importantly, the book misses out on an absolutely crucial element of combating bullying: tell an adult what is going on. There are no adults in this book at all; and while it is certainly true that bullies thrive by mistreating their victims out of sight of adults, it is equally true that one major way to shine light on the darkness of bullying is by making sure responsible adults, most specifically including parents, know it is happening. Marlene, Marlene, Queen of Mean is intended to empower kids and show them how to handle bullying, at least of the mild sort practiced by the title character, on their own. But it is such a naïve exploration of this complex topic that it is likely to be less helpful in real-world circumstances than its well-meaning creators want it to be.

(++++) REVISITS


43 Old Cemetery Road, Book Five: Hollywood, Dead Ahead. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Magic Tree House #3: Mummies in the Morning—Full-Color Edition. By Mary Pope Osborne. Illustrations by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $14.99.

Magic Tree House Fact Tracker (#30): Ninjas and Samurai. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Bryce. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $5.99.

Magic Tree House Survival Guide. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Bryce. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $12.99.

     Now available in paperback, the fifth book in the 43 Old Cemetery Road series is as offbeat-humor-packed as it was when the original hardcover came out last year. The Klise sisters have a great deal of fun with Hollywood stereotypes here while telling the story, as always, through printed matter: letters (the only way ghost Olive C. Spence can communicate with the living), newspapers, scandal sheets, even a transcription of a climactic movie scene. In this book are a slimy, scheming studio owner named Moe Block Busters (“more blockbusters”); his even slimier and more-scheming assistant, Myra Manes (“my remains,” with a pun on “mane” as hair, which turns out to be important); and his almost-equally-slimy would-be successor as studio head, Phillip D. Rubbish (self-explanatory). There is also a 92-year-old star who has won every Hollywood award except an Oscar and is therefore named Ivana Oscar. And there are Luke Ahtmee (“look at me”), image-makeover specialist, and tooth-makeover specialty dentist Dr. Miles Smyle, and (back home in Ghastly, Illinois) an overreaching and overconfident handyman named Hugh Briss (“hubris”) who gets his comeuppance, or come-downance, in the end. The rollicking plot has the odd family trio of Olive, Ignatius B. Grumply and Seymour Hope cheated out of their work by Moe Block Busters, who is determined to create a film that instead of featuring Olive will be about an evil ghost named Evilo (“Olive” spelled backwards). A horrendous contract and ridiculous makeovers combine to infuriate and depress Iggy and Seymour, while an even worse contract including a “death clause” almost makes the awful movie into Ivana Oscar’s final performance. But eventually the tables are appropriately turned, and everything works out all right for everyone except the bad guys, Hugh Briss, and FAA inspector Don Worrie, who may tell travelers “don’t worry” but who finds Olive’s presence on flights both worrisome and puzzling. Whether as first-time visitors to the house of the title, or as returning ones, readers will find much to enjoy here.

     The more-formulaic (+++) Magic Tree House series gets some reconsiderations and some renewal from three new entries in the sequence. Mummies in the Morning was the third book (there are now more than 50), and it retains some of the attractive naïveté of the early missions, in which it was Morgan Le Fay rather than Merlin sending Jack and Annie back in time. This book refers to the first two, Dinosaurs Before Dark and The Knight at Dawn, noting that they took place two days and one day earlier, respectively. Mummies in the Morning has not been changed for this reissue, but all the illustrations are now in color, and kids who may have missed the first 28 books (the “Morgan Le Fay” series) should enjoy the now-familiar litany of discovery and mild eeriness (here, in the form of the ghost of an ancient Egyptian queen) in which Mary Pope Osborne and Sal Murdocca specialize. Also new is the 30th Fact Tracker (these were originally called Research Guides). These are nonfiction companion books for the later entries in the fictional series. However, this particular book, Ninjas and Samurai, refers all the way back to Magic Tree House #5: Night of the Ninjas, which did not previously have a factual companion. Like all these nonfiction entries, in which Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Bryce collaborate as authors, this is a once-over-lightly look at the history behind the fictional story – which kids will need to read for the companion book to have its intended tie-in effect. Those who do read Ninjas and Samurai will find out about a Japan vastly different from the modern country and about the wars and warriors that dominated it for many centuries.

     Also new on the “factual” side of the series is Magic Tree House Survival Guide, which differs from the Fact Trackers in not being tied to one specific book. Instead, it refers to a number of the adventures that Jack and Annie have had throughout the sequence, then translates their fictional experiences into real-world information about genuine disasters – explaining how to survive them. Only series readers will immediately understand remarks such as the one that Jack and Annie “had help from friends like a brave knight, a mouse named Peanut, and even a Spider Queen.” But at least in theory, Magic Tree House Survival Guide is for anyone interested in preventing the worst from happening in such dangerous situations as getting lost, being caught in dangerous weather conditions, encountering frightening animals, and so on. There is information here on telling time without a watch (or cell phone!), finding water in the wilderness, coping with lions and alligators, surviving extreme heat and cold, making it through an earthquake and volcanic eruption, and more. And the book contains a special attraction: a compass built into the cover, just in case kids get lost in the woods somewhere but happen to have this book with them to help them find their way out. The information here, although accurate as far as it goes, does not go very far; like the rest of the Magic Tree House books, this one is quick and easy to read but is not intended as any sort of in-depth guide to anything. Still, fans of the series will find Jack and Annie to be their usual pleasant (if rather uninteresting) selves as they offer survival information, and anyone who wants to know more about the issues raised in Magic Tree House Survival Guide will be able to find numerous more-thorough books to provide it.

(+++) TOWARD BETTER LIVING


How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. By Russ Roberts. Portfolio/Penguin. $27.95.

The Complete Guide to Living Well Gluten Free: Everything You Need to Know to Go from Surviving to Thriving. By Beth Hillson. Da Capo. $17.99.

     Adam Smith is what would nowadays be called a one-hit wonder: his The Wealth of Nations is generally considered the founding work in the field of economics, and it is a lively, intelligent and genuinely persuasive argument regarding the reasons for wealth and poverty, not among individuals but among entire countries. Read nowadays less often than it used to be – making economics and economists intellectually poorer as a result – it is not only a seminal work but also a genuinely involving one, stylistically accessible even after 200-plus years and as thought-provoking today as when it was first published in 1776. But then there is The Theory of Modern Sentiments, the book that Smith wrote earlier – and a book, first published in 1759, that was highly popular in its day but that almost no one reads or is even aware of anymore. A confusing and off-putting title, a convoluted style that is worlds away from the clear and simple one of The Wealth of Nations, and a set of arguments involving moral philosophy – scarcely a popular topic for most people at any time – have combined to keep The Theory of Modern Sentiments in obscurity. Well-deserved obscurity, some would argue – but not Stanford University economist Russ Roberts, who asserts in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life that Smith’s first book is at least as valuable today as his second, and in some ways even more so, because it deals largely in the personal rather than the societal. As Roberts explains, “Smith helped me understand why Whitney Houston and Marilyn Monroe were so unhappy and why their deaths made so many people so sad. He helped me understand my affection for my iPad and iPhone, why talking to strangers about your troubles can calm the soul, and why people can think monstrous thoughts  but rarely act upon them.” This is a lot to claim for an old work about morals and ethics, and in truth, Roberts lays things on a bit too thickly in trying to “redeem” Smith’s earlier book. He tends to overinterpret, taking Smith’s admittedly oblique (and sometimes downright obscure) prose to mean pretty much what he, Roberts, wants it to mean. This means that Roberts tends to use Smith’s work as a jumping-off point for his own thoughts: “People do generally prefer having more wealth and a higher income compared with what they already have. …Something inside us drives us to want more. Something else inside us tells us that more isn’t necessarily better. Something else inside us makes us wonder if the price of wealth is worth paying.” This makes sense, but it is Roberts making the assertions, not Smith.

     In fact, when Smith impinges on Roberts’ own life, as in an analysis that undercuts gadget-happy people’s claims that they “need” the latest and “greatest” this or that, Roberts takes Smith to task. Yet Smith has some trenchant observations on gadgetry – such as better and more-accurate watches, the high tech of his time. Someone preoccupied with getting ever-more-accurate timepieces, writes Smith, “will not always be found either more scrupulously punctual than other men, or more anxiously concerned upon any other account, to know precisely what time of day it is. What interests him is not so much the attainment of this piece of knowledge, as the perfection of the machine which serves to attain it. …What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences.” Whoa, says Roberts – he has good reasons for owning multiple Apple products, and an app that explores a DNA sequence, and three separate apps to map the stars, and “gadgets [that] I love the best [and that] do their job extraordinarily well.” Physician, or economist, heal thyself! Yet despite some inconsistencies and some conveniences of interpretation, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is for the most part an engrossing work, as entertaining in its own way as Smith’s as in its. And Roberts’ eventual attempt to reconcile the laissez-faire attitude of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (to give Smith’s famous book its full title) with the altruism and compassion that permeate The Theory of Moral Sentiments is genuinely thoughtful in probing the ways in which the books embellish and complement each other rather than being contradictory or mutually exclusive. How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is not a book for everyone – not even for all economists. But for those interested in a philosophical inquiry into the thinking of perhaps the most foundationally influential economist of them all, Roberts’ book is intellectually salutary and even bracing.

     Beth Hillson’s aims in Living Well Gluten Free are decidedly more modest and down-to-earth. She too writes of life-changing matters, but in a literal and mundane sense rather than a grandly philosophical one. Whether gluten-free eating is a genuine health matter or simply one of the fads of the moment – with multiple companies taking advantage of “gluten-free” package labeling to promote specific products – is a matter of opinion. Certainly some people need to live gluten-free, but whether all those who say they need to really do is something else again. Whatever one’s motivation for gluten-free eating, though, one will certainly prefer “living well” to living, well, less well. Hillson, editor of the magazine Gluten Free & More, does not look at gluten-free life as a choice or a lifestyle, stating directly that only people with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or wheat allergies must avoid gluten. With that established, she goes on to discuss gluten sensitivity itself, explains the many foods in which gluten is found, and then discusses gluten-free shopping, baking and cooking – including, among other things, recipes for “15 Favorite Foods You Never Thought You’d Eat Again” (banana bread, buttermilk biscuits, doughnut rounds, pizza, soft pretzels and more). Especially useful for people who must live gluten-free is the final section of the book, which focuses on lifestyle elements such as eating out, traveling and socializing. Hillson tackles subjects that are scarcely the norm in books like this, such as gluten-free sex: “Body fluids do not carry gluten. …Lubricants, spermicidal/contraceptive jellies, condoms, foams, and sponges are generally gluten-free. …Edible underwear (Candypants and others) is made of either pressed candylike materials or candy pieces strung together…[so] check the labels.” Equally intriguing, although in a different way, are Hillson’s remarks on kissing babies, older children and pets: wipe off kids’ hands and mouths, and pets’ mouths, before any osculation. Hillson’s willingness to handle these elements of gluten-free living, her determination to show people who must live gluten-free that they can do so without making huge sacrifices in everyday life, and her inclusion of easy-to-follow recipes, make Living Well Gluten Free a book that actually lives up to its title. It is a narrowly focused book, to be sure – only for those with gluten sensitivity, their family members, and others who care about them – but for its target audience, its plain-spokenness and thoughtfulness will be both welcome and highly useful.

(++++) OVERPLAYED AND UNDERPLAYED


Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6. Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Philippe Jordan. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.

Reznicek: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie conducted by Frank Beermann. CPO. $16.99.

     Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” is something of a rite of passage for music directors of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, which presumably is one reason the storied ensemble’s new leader, Philippe Jordan, has recorded it early in his tenure. Another reason may simply be a desire to find something new to say about a work that is one of the best-known in all classical music – one that feels as if it has been performed and recorded by pretty much everyone, pretty much everywhere. Jordan’s Tchaikovsky Sixth may not be the first choice for all listeners, but it does combine very-high-quality playing and some genuinely attentive interpretation to produce a reading with a very strong effect. Indeed, the nature of that effect is one reason this is such a fine rendition of the symphony: it is not “tragic,” as in so many other performances, but filled with pathos – “pathetic” in the meaning intended by its title. Jordan produces a big sound with considerable sensitivity to structural elements and fine emphasis in the winds and brass for the first movement, which emerges with some of the same tone-poem feeling as the opening movement of the composer’s Symphony No. 4. The succeeding waltz in its oddly surreal 5/4 time is gentle here, not grotesque or overstated, its rhythms flowing naturally even though they are, for a waltz, quite unnatural. The brilliance of the third movement is downplayed as well: this is a thoroughly controlled Tchaikovsky Sixth, one that does not sprawl and beg and scrape the bottom of the emotional barrel. The playing is exceptionally fine in this Allegro molto vivace, the tempo is middle-of-the-road rather than extreme, the orchestral balance is top-notch, and there is an inevitability about the progress of the march that carries through it all the way to its brilliant conclusion. And then comes a finale that, yes, is as strong a contrast as Tchaikovsky intended, but that does not wear its heart as completely on its sleeve as is the case in many performances. Subtlety is the order of the day here – indeed, “subtle” is a good adjective for this entire performance, which was recorded live in December 2013. The passionate lamentation is certainly there in Jordan’s reading of the fourth movement, but the emotion never becomes so overheated as to belie the title that Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, bestowed on the symphony. In all, this is a first-rate performance throughout – but the release is one that would perhaps have been more appropriate for purchase during the LP era, because the symphony is the only thing on the CD. That was typical in the days when vinyl dominated, but is distinctly old-fashioned – and unreasonably expensive – in the CD era. Whether this recording on the Wiener Symphoniker’s own label is a worthwhile purchase will depend on each individual listener’s evaluation not only of the quality of the performance, which is high, but also of the value for the price, which is considerably lower.

     Tchaikovsky’s Sixth is, if anything, overplayed, but the symphonies of Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945) suffer from the opposite problem: they are almost never heard in concert, much less recorded. Reznicek, in fact, is known to most listeners for a single piece, the sparkling overture to his 1894 opera Donna Diana. But he was actually adept in numerous forms: opera, chamber music, a violin concerto, suites, choral music, works for solo piano and solo organ, plus five symphonies. The problem with Reznicek’s music seems to be that it is hard for listeners to know what to expect from it. Although firmly rooted in late Romanticism, Reznicek’s works are all over the map both emotionally and in terms of their impact. Tell a music lover “Tchaikovsky,” and he or she will most likely conjure up a picture of gorgeous tunes, long-spun-out phrases that dwell on the greatest possible emotional impact, and an overall sense of melancholy. This is only a partially accurate picture, but it is a picture. Thinking up a similar one for Reznicek is well-nigh impossible, and the more of his music one hears, the more difficult the effort becomes. The Third and Fourth Symphonies, now available on CPO in first-rate performances by the Chemnitz-based Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie under Frank Beermann, neatly encapsulate the problem. No. 3 (1918) is called Im alten Stil, but despite an opening that Reznicek says he took from a so-far-unidentified 15th-century folk melody, the work is in Romantic rather than “old” style. In fact, it sounds more like Schumann (some of the time) and Sibelius (some of the time) than like, say, Haydn or Mozart; yet it is never merely imitative, even when it does quote directly from other composers, such as Schubert, here and there. As a whole, it sounds not at all like the works of the composers whose music, in passing, it resembles. It is, for example, fair to call the work’s finale Mendelssohnian, but its rambling through multiple keys more closely resembles what Schubert did, and the actual sound of the music reflects neither of those earlier composers. Thoroughly effective on its own, the music feels a bit like a throwback even though calling it “old style” is pushing matters rather too far. And if one accepts and enjoys this symphony, how does one react to No. 4, written just a year later? It is so different in sound, in tone and in effect that it is as if Beethoven had written his First Symphony and then, a year later, his Seventh – the disconnect is that great. Reznicek’s No. 3 is in D, No. 4 in F minor, but the home keys are not the primary difference between the works. No. 4 echoes different composers – Mahler, Wagner, Richard Strauss, even Bruckner – and is altogether grander in concept, although still not particularly long: 40 minutes, compared with 30 for No. 3 (and 45 or so for Tchaikovsky’s Sixth). But Reznicek’s Fourth work is more stately than somber: it is firmly controlled and executed with care and a certain elegance. It is the only Reznicek symphony without a title, but its second movement does have one: Trauermarsch auf den Tod eines Komödianten (“Funeral March on the Death of a Comedian”), and this only adds to the puzzle of the work – for unlike Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette, Reznicek’s movement is large-scale and, its title aside, unironic, one of a set of shifting moods throughout the symphony that make it difficult to pin down its overall emotional effect. Reznicek’s symphonies require multiple hearings to begin to seem emotionally trenchant – and a key to them is that the emotive power of one is quite different from that of the prior and next ones. Perhaps it is this elusiveness that has kept these works from more-frequent performance. Listeners to Beermann’s finely honed interpretations have a welcome chance to find out for themselves.