July 17, 2014
Learn to Read with Tug the Pup and Friends! Box Sets 1-3. By Julie M. Wood, Ed.D. Illustrations by Sebastien Braun. Harper. $12.99 each.
Comics Squad #1: Recess! Edited by Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm & Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Random House. $7.99.
Ever since the creation of Bob Books in 1976, it has been clear to educators and parents that there is a place for small-size, super-simple, carefully directed books that very gradually introduce young children to reading through easy-to-master stories accompanied by pleasantly engaging drawings. And even before the Bob Books (which continue to be available from Scholastic), HarperCollins had the I Can Read! series, which dates all the way back to 1957. Now the two concepts have merged in an entirely new level of the I Can Read! grouping called “My Very First.” Each of the three boxed sets includes 11 small, very short, simple books with a guide for parents and a two-page sheet of reward stickers. Unlike the Bob Books, which are phonics-based, the new ones featuring Tug the Pup and other animal characters focus on the Common Core State Standards that most U.S. states now incorporate into elementary education. Educational consultant Julie M. Wood not only wrote the books but also included a “Parents’ Corner” in each inside back cover, offering activities designed to reinforce each book’s skills. In addition, the parent guide in each box gives suggested general approaches to the books, such as previewing the book with your child before actually reading it, helping him or her understand that letters stand for particular sounds, showing how to become accustomed to phonemes, and so on. The first box contains very simple, rhythmic and repetitious stories: “This is the barn. This is the nest. This is the egg.” The second box introduces dialogue and slightly more complex plots and sentences: “‘How can I get the corn?’ asks Big Pig.” The third box offers somewhat more-advanced vocabulary and more-complicated plots, although the overall books remain very easy to follow: “‘It walks like a skunk,’ said Tug. ‘It has black-and-white stripes like a skunk.’” Progress from book to book and box to box is easy and pleasant, thanks to the careful storytelling and the attractive characters, which do not have much personality but are fun to follow through their everyday adventures at Little Blue Farm. Sebastien Braun’s illustrations are pleasantly cartoonish, with suggestions of expression nicely done and character motions being clear and easy to follow. Parents especially concerned about teaching emergent readers in a way that will conform to Common Core State Standards will especially appreciate these boxed sets, but even adults who are not focusing specifically on those standards will find Learn to Read with Tug the Pup and Friends! (and the Bob Books, too) to be very helpful series for getting the youngest children interested in books and written words and starting them on the road toward reading on their own.
Cartoon drawings can also be a way of keeping older children interested in books even when the kids are what are euphemistically called “reluctant readers.” This partly explains the popularity of graphic novels and the interest publishers show in books such as Comics Squad #1: Recess! This is certainly not a book intended to teach or re-teach reading or to pull kids toward non-pictorial books. It is, however, interesting and fun in its own right. Edited by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, joint creators of the Babymouse books, and Jarrett J. Krosoczka, who developed the Lunch Lady series, Comics Squad #1 includes eight entries – from the editors and from Dav Pilkey, Dan Santat, Raina Telgemeier & Dave Roman, Ursula Vernon, Eric Wright and Gene Luen Yang. The very different drawing styles of the contributors are a bigger attraction than the plots of the stories, most of which are straightforward and overly familiar. Among the highlights are Pilkey’s comic, “drawn” by two students who insist on being creative even though the school insists they do what everyone else does; Vernon’s distinctively drawn tale of two squirrels and a “magic acorn” that turns out to be a small spaceship; and Santat’s surprisingly moving look at homework and middle-school angst. The Babymouse and Lunch Lady entries are plenty of fun, too. Comics Squad #1 is unlikely to turn reluctant readers into ones eager for, say, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but it will at least make them less reluctant to pick up other graphics-heavy books, including, of course, future entries in this series itself.
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia. By Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade. $18.99.
They are saints now, canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, but in their lifetimes they were reviled, their fall celebrated, their ignominious deaths either unremarked or deemed an occasion for joy. They were the last Romanovs, the final rulers of Imperial Russia, the victims of vicious Bolshevik murder in the waning days of World War I.
Although it proved not to be “the war to end war,” World War I was the war that ended empires: at its conclusion, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were gone, and so was Russia’s. The fall of Russia and its Romanov rulers was particularly dramatic: the last czar, Nicholas II, had been the wealthiest monarch in the world, and the holdings of the czars were so fabled, so extensive, so celebrated, that in their operetta Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan dealt with a matter of impossibility by comparison: “Get at the wealth of the czar (if you can).”
But the end of the Romanovs had been coming for quite some time before Nicholas was shot dead, along with his entire family and their household servants, in July 1918. The assassination of Alexander II in 1881 was a major precipitating factor. A reformist who emancipated the serfs, abolished capital punishment and promoted local self-government, Alexander was murdered by radical revolutionaries for whom his reforms did not go nearly far enough or fast enough: he was killed by a bomb in the fifth attempt on his life. This convinced his son, Alexander III, that reforms would never satisfy extremists, and he cracked down on dissent – hard. The result was a solidifying of opposition to his rule and to the czars in general. Alexander’s son, Nicholas II, would reap the proverbial whirlwind: lacking forcefulness and a hard edge, unable to contain the worker unrest that manifested itself in major strikes in 1905, Nicholas vacillated, signing the October Manifesto granting increased rights but then cracking down brutally on protests in a wave of terror that resulted in more than 20,000 executions.
“Promises Made, and Promises Broken,” reads the subhead of one part of one chapter in Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov, and those five words say a great deal about the entire story told here in simplified but nevertheless highly detailed form. The last czar earned the name “Bloody Nicholas” through the depredations of his secret police and soldiers. But his story is more complicated than the name would suggest. Fleming delves into the ins and outs of a long-ago time, and into family matters ranging from Nicholas’ son’s hemophilia to the curious relationship between the czar’s family and self-proclaimed “holy man” Gregory Rasputin. The family tragedy – and it surely was a tragedy on a family level, whatever one may think of the social and political currents against which it played out – is at the heart of Fleming’s book, but she tells it within the context of a world changing far too fast for the old autocrats to keep up, a world where people such as Vladimir Ulyanov, always known by his chosen name Lenin, would control the future as czarist days receded rapidly into the past. Indeed, in some ways, the fall of the Romanovs seems only a matter of time: the very first item in Fleming’s 32 pages of photos and other visual material, a graphic showing the approximate breakdown of Russia’s social classes at the start of the 20th century, indicates that 1.5% of people were nobility or state officials, while 84% were peasants. Surely it was only a matter of time before the vast, vast majority rose up and demanded its rights in a nation from whose riches the lower classes had always been excluded.
And perhaps the destruction of the Romanovs was indeed inevitable, although the specific method of cold-blooded murder of the entire family in the name of Communism remains shocking even today. Fleming nevertheless manages to show the positives as well as the many negatives of the last czar and his family. Nicholas even attains something approaching nobility in his reaction to Lenin’s decision – for his own self-preservation – to sign a peace treaty with Germany that gave up Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Ukraine and the Crimea: 32% of Russia’s land, 54% of its factories and 89% of its coal mines. Nicholas may have been on the wrong side of history; for all his religious piety (the basis of his and his family’s eventual canonization), and he may never have had either the sensitivity or the administrative skill to be an effective ruler, much less to control a land as huge, sprawling and complex as Russia. But his successors scarcely did better for the Russian population than Nicholas had. Lenin died in 1924 and was succeeded by the incredibly brutal and vicious mass murderer, Stalin, whose brand of Communism “ruled by repression, fear, and iron-fisted control” and lasted 67 years. The Romanovs, both for better and for worse, had ruled for more than 300.
Good Morning, Mr. Mandela: A Memoir. By Zelda la Grange. Viking. $28.95.
Imagine approaching a publisher with a book that chronicles your life with a man beyond goodness, a true saint on Earth, someone who worked tirelessly for his people all his life with never a thought for himself or his own welfare, the purest and highest expression of everything a human can be. And imagine that his name is Winthrop Morris-Huntington III. Will your book get even the slightest consideration? Will any publisher believe your description of it and of its central personality is anything other than self-serving, the creation of privilege, oppression of others and gross miscarriages of justice? Now imagine using the identical description of the book and its central character, but saying that his name is N’dgondo N’bibwe. Will any publisher be Iess than intrigued, willing at the very least to hear you out and find out the wondrousness of this marvelous person?
This is the way subtle, insidious prejudice works today when it comes to the modern sainted, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Whether the willingness to see these people as vastly better than the rest of humanity is fair and reasonable redress for the centuries in which darker-skinned people were viciously oppressed is an open question. But it is a question that is rarely asked, since even to ask it invites identification of the questioner as being that pariah among pariahs, a dyed-in-the-wool racist – and therefore immediately dismissible, under the unwritten but harsh laws of political correctness, without any need to listen to anything he or she may say. Again, whether this is fair recompense for the past is a worthy question, if anyone dares to ask it; but the refusal to ask it masks a fear of reasoned discussion that no avalanche of books about the holiness-on-Earth of men such as King and Mandela can entirely conceal.
As it happens, the fanciful notion of differing treatment has, in the case of Mandela, a clear, real-world demonstration. Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, but he did not win it alone. He shared it with F.W. de Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, the man who released Mandela from prison after 27 years, the man who skillfully dismantled the nation’s old apartheid system and laws and earned, on his own, the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize in 1991 and the Prince of Asturias Award in 1992. Yet to mention him in the same breath as Mandela is close to sacrilege. There are no shelves-upon-shelves of books devoted to de Klerk, who at age 78 is still alive and active.
De Klerk gets a passing mention, and only a passing one, in Zelda la Grange’s Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, one of the latest in the shelves-upon-shelves of books proclaiming Mandela to be beyond great, indeed almost beyond human in his wonderfulness. La Grange’s book is the inspiring story – they are all inspiring stories – of how she, a white South African woman, overcame her personal prejudices because of Mandela, worked in his government as a ministerial typist, later became one of his three private secretaries, and eventually (in 2002) left government to work full-time for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Being la Grange’s autobiography as much as another biography of Mandela, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela has personal touches that set it apart from the many, many other books of its ilk. Its style, unfortunately, is not always equal to its wholehearted and good-hearted attempts to communicate: “Change is inevitable and I was ready to drive myself past the finish line, probably for the first time in my life at full speed. …I probably missed some valuable opportunities to get a deeper understanding of what was historically happening around me.”
Mandela, to whom la Grange often refers by his honorific clan name, Madiba, is never less than wonderful throughout this book: “Madiba was well known to be an outstanding fundraiser.” “Madiba was always well groomed and took great care in making sure that his skin was well moisturized…” “He could never speak of ‘me’ or ‘I.’ It was part of the humble man that he was and everything included everyone around him.” “Madiba had the ability to trust people unconditionally.” There is nothing new here, nothing surprising, nothing revelatory.
There is more of interest in some of the things la Grange writes about herself. “I had to face the fact that a young white Afrikaner woman caring for [Mandela] was always going to be an unlikely and unpopular situation. Yet I was determined to never abandon him for as long as he wanted me.” “People often asked me over the years what exactly my job entailed. I didn’t know where to start but would say, ‘I can type, answer telephones, call press conferences and export springbok and oryx to Saudi Arabia.’” But la Grange tends to retreat quickly from self-revelatory comments, as if unwilling to seem to be sharing even the smallest part of the spotlight with Mandela.
The problem with the near-deification (“sanctification” seems an inadequate word) of Mandela, in Good Morning, Mr. Mandela and elsewhere, is that in the long run it dehumanizes the man, just as similar treatment dehumanizes Martin Luther King, Jr. La Grange mentions occasional flare-ups of temper and other minor peccadillos of Mandela, but by and large, she takes great pains to portray him as very much of the world but not entirely in the world – a pretty good description of a saint or deity on Earth. What was truly remarkable about Mandela, though – and about King and the few others like them – was that they were human, complete with flaws and foibles and mistakes aplenty, in their personal lives as well as their political ones. This does not take anything away from them – in fact, it adds to the profundity of their accomplishments to realize that some people, a very few, are fully human and at the same time truly able to transcend the worst of humanity and maybe, just maybe, take some of the rest of us a step or two higher along with them. Good Morning, Mr. Mandela is ultimately about a figure that no reader can aspire to emulate; he is simply on an unattainable level. And that is too bad, because we need more like Nelson Mandela, many more, and to the extent that their accomplishments seem those of an otherworldly giant, to that extent they appear forever out of the reach of the rest of us – brilliance foreclosed to mere mortals who can only read books like this one and gasp in wonder.
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1; Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 1; Korngold: Violin Concerto; Williams: Theme from “Schindler’s List.” Glenn Dicterow, violin; New York Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel (Bruch), Alan Gilbert (Bartók), David Robertson (Korngold) and John Williams (Williams). New York Philharmonic. $16.99.
Reinecke: Cello Concerto; John Tavener: Threnos, for cello solo; Schumann: Adagio and Allegro for Cello and Orchestra; Bloch: Suite No. 1 for cello solo; Osvaldo Golijov: Mariel, for cello and marimba. Michael Samis, cello; Eric Willie, marimba; Gateway Chamber Orchestra conducted by Gregory Wolynec. Delos. $16.99.
Fauré: Masques et bergamasques; Fantaisie for Flute; Pelléas et Mélisande Suite; Berceuse for Violin and Orchestra; Élégie for Cello and Orchestra; Dolly; Pavane. Demarre McGill, flute; Alexander Velinzon, violin; Efe Baltacigil, cello; Seattle Symphony Chorus; Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.
Dohnányi: Symphony No. 2; Two Songs. Evan Thomas Jones, baritone; Florida State University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Jiménez. Naxos. $9.99.
Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie. Angela Hewitt, piano; Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, ondes Martenot; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. Ondine. $16.99 (SACD).
The position of concertmaster is one about whose intricacies audiences know little. It carries considerable administrative leadership responsibility as well as a requirement that the individual have virtuoso-level talent that he or she is willing to subsume within the requirements of leading the violins and, in effect, the entire ensemble – no matter who may happen to be conducting at any given concert. Glenn Dicterow’s amazing 34-year tenure as New York Philharmonic concertmaster, the longest in the orchestra’s history, is therefore quite deserving of the celebration it receives in a new CD and handsome booklet on the orchestra’s own label. Dicterow’s solo-quality playing finally gets a chance to flourish for listeners at home, as he shows himself to be master of the Romantic and post-Romantic repertoire – playing four works under four different conductors with sure-handedness, interpretative solidity and great skill. The Bruch concerto was recorded in 2009, the Bartók concerto in 2012, Korngold’s concerto in 2008, and the short Schindler’s List encore in 2006, so none of these performances dates to the early years of Dicterow, for whom the 2013-14 season was his last. Now 65, Dicterow shows considerable maturity in all these readings, providing sumptuous tone, unfailingly careful integration with the orchestra he led for so many years, and sensitivity to the nuances of the four conductors with whom he works on this CD. It cannot be said that soloist or conductors bring any significant surprises to the performances or that Dicterow finds more in the music than others have discovered: these are essentially middle-of-the-road interpretations that explore the works’ beauties, emotions and structures without delving especially deeply into them. It is the sheer skill of Dicterow’s playing that is attractive here, more than any way in which he elicits specific meaning from the music. Yet he is at home quite as thoroughly in the better-known and less-known pieces, as comfortable with the Romanticism of Bruch as with the post-Romantic approach of Bartók. And perhaps that is what stands best as a tribute to Dicterow’s skill: of necessity, a concertmaster has to be adept at handling a huge number of works – far more than a typical virtuoso soloist must know – and has to be willing and able to sound good in a wide variety of styles, while accepting and enhancing each conductor’s individual handling of each piece of music. This is what Dicterow did so well for more than three decades; and if this tributary release shows only one aspect of his skill, it shows it to very fine effect indeed.
The solo-cello skill of Michael Samis is displayed more conventionally on a new Delos CD that gives Samis plenty of chances to show his virtuosic mettle. But this is an unusual disc, and a particularly enjoyable one, because of the works selected and the inclusion of solo pieces as well as ones for cello and orchestra. Furthermore, the CD provides a chance to explore some less-known corners of the cello repertoire. The 1864 concerto by Carl Reinecke (1824-1910), here receiving its world première recording, was written smack in the middle of Romanticism and early in Reinecke’s compositional life. Even today, Reinecke is far better known as a conductor, pianist and, most of all, teacher (of Bruch, Grieg, Stanford, Janáček, Albéniz and many others), than as a composer. This concerto indicates that a reconsideration may be in order: although it is very much of its time, it is elegantly crafted and highly sensitive to the cello’s capabilities, and has genuine musicality underlying its virtuoso requirements. It contrasts interestingly with the Schuman Adagio and Allegro – a slighter work of effective contrasts and pleasant sonorities, heard in an orchestration by Ernest Ansermet. Bloch’s suite and the very modern works by Tavener and Golijov give Samis chances to show his considerable abilities to produce lovely sounds while exploring the technical and emotional range of his instrument. The contrast between cello and marimba in Golijov’s work is particularly interesting from a sonic point of view, although the music itself does not have much to say. In all, this is a highly intriguing disc whose contrast between Romantic and much later music is only one of its attractions.
The quality is also quite high in the new Seattle Symphony CD on the orchestra’s own label, another disc showing the excellence that conductor Ludovic Morlot brings to French music, with which he has considerable affinity. Seventy minutes of Fauré may be more than most listeners are accustomed to hearing at one time, but the CD certainly shows the variety of the composer’s music, which became more personal from his early works to his late ones, the latter including jazz and somewhat atonal elements while the earlier ones were firmly in the Romantic tradition. Morlot misses an opportunity to present some of Fauré’s most interesting and unusual works, such as the complete eight-movement Masques et bergamasques rather than the much more often heard four-movement suite; actually, the 1887 Pavane, heard on this disc with the optional choral part, later became the eighth and final movement of Masques et bergamasques. Morlot explores each short piece here with delicacy and care – and in fact, every piece on the CD is short, if you look at Masques et bergamasques as four separate movements, the Pelléas et Mélisande Suite as another four, and Dolly (the 1894-97 suite for piano four hands, as orchestrated by Rabaud in 1906) as a set of six. Although Fauré was not a miniaturist per se, he had considerable skill in evoking a mood or particular form of expression within a brief period of time, and it is that skill that comes through most clearly on this CD. Fauré, like Reinecke, was a well-known and highly respected teacher – of Ravel, Enescu, Koechlin and Nadia Boulanger, among others – and this was a role in which his clear familiarity with instrumental capability surely stood him well. That comfort level is evident in the works for flute, violin and cello on this CD, and indeed, the disc as a whole shows Fauré to be highly accomplished in instrumental combinations of all sorts.
Fauré (1845-1924) was strongly imbued with Romantic sensibility, even when he moved beyond it, while Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960) embraced Romanticism as a technique without having lived through the period of its flourishing. The Two Songs on a new Naxos CD date to 1912 and show, in this world première recording, the vestiges of Romantic art-song settings: both Gott and Sonnensehnsucht (“Longing for the Sun”), using texts by Wilhelm Conrad Gomoll (1877-1951), are very much in the lieder tradition as interpreted and reconfigured by Mahler, although their sound is quite different from that of Mahler’s songs for voice and orchestra. Dohnányi’s Second Symphony is considerably later, written in 1945 and not put into final form until 1957, but its roots in Romanticism are apparent. It is passionate and intense, filled with struggle and intensity that seem to emerge from within rather than being, as might be expected in light of the work’s date, in some way connected to World War II – although there is an air of controlled militarism to some portions of the work. The longest and most complex movement is the finale, which harks back, in Brahmsian fashion, to Bach (although, again, without sounding like Brahms, any more than the songs sound like Mahler). The principal part of the last movement consists of variations and a fugue on Bach’s Komm Süsser Tod, which at the movement’s end is combined with the symphony’s opening theme to produce the work’s climax. The Florida State University Symphony Orchestra plays the music gamely under Alexander Jiménez, but it is not really an ideal ensemble for a work of this scale and scope, sounding somewhat thin and strained at various points. Jiménez himself is not the piece’s best advocate: the symphony tends to drag in spots and lacks an overall sense of scale and scope, and the molto con sentimento element of the second movement gets short shrift. This is thus a (+++) recording: the music has considerable interest that is not fully communicated in the performance.
Nor is the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, although a fine one in many ways, worthy of complete recommendation – although it certainly deserves a high (+++) rating. Hannu Lintu paces most of this huge work well, and Ondine’s SACD sound is quite helpful in elucidating the difficult piano part as well as the otherworldly impression of the ondes Martenot. Both solo instruments are played very well indeed. The difficulty with the music lies in keeping the 10-movement work flowing, finding a way for its disparate elements to coalesce around the theme of romantic love and death, which is the symphony’s central concern. It is here that this performance falls a bit short: the work sprawls a little too much for cohesiveness, and while individual elements are convincing, other specific parts (such as the sixth movement) are less so. The three primary recurring themes – love theme, flower theme, and intense and frightening “statue theme” – are not always brought forth clearly in their multiple guises, so the careful structural underpinnings of the music are less clear than they could be. Nevertheless, this Turangalîla-Symphonie interpretation has many salient points, with Lintu having a strong sense of the driving rhythms of the frenetic fifth movement and not shying away from the complexities of the entirely atonal seventh. The details of Lintu’s reading are pointed and careful; what the performance lacks is an overall feeling of connectedness – an admittedly difficult thing to achieve in a work that was originally intended to be in the conventional four movements (Nos. 1, 4, 6 and 10) and that grew by accretion to its 10-movement final structure. The transcendent quality of love – specifically the love of Tristan and Isolde – is the foundation of the Turangalîla-Symphonie, but Messiaen does not always make that love and its transformational-yet-frightening elements easy for the audience to perceive and explore. The symphony dates to 1946-48 – essentially the same time period as Dohnányi’s Second Symphony – and Lintu’s recording shows the care with which Messiaen built the symphony, but does not fully deliver its impact.
Gershwin: Music for Violin and Piano. Opus Two (William Terwilliger, violin; Andrew Cooperstock, piano); Ashley Brown, soprano. Azica. $16.99.
Jake Heggie: Three Song Cycles—Natural Selection (1997); Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999); Eve-Song (1996). Regina Zona, soprano; Kathleen Tagg, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
William Susman: Camille (2010); Scatter My Ashes (2009); Piano Concerto (2011); Moving In to an Empty Space (1992/2010). Octet Ensemble (Alan Ferber, trombone; Mellissa Hughes, vocals; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; William Susman, electric piano; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Elaine Kwon, piano; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums & percussion). Belarca Records. $16.99.
From This Point Forward. Julien Labro, bandoneon, accordion and accordina; Spektral Quartet (Austin Wulliman and Aurelien Pederzoli, violins; Doyle Armbrust, viola; Russell Rolen, cello). Azica. $16.99.
The give-and-take of chamber music continues to attract both modern composers and contemporary performers, and leads to some interesting handling both of recently composed music and of older works. William Terwilliger and Andrew Cooperstock take a fresh look at some very well-known Gershwin pieces in transcriptions principally by Jascha Heifetz, Eric Stern and Samuel Dushkin on a new Azica CD. Most of the tunes in these seven works are well-known in other contexts, but the violin-and-piano arrangements give them a pleasant freshness even if they also make some of the material sound rather thin. Four of the seven pieces here are world première recordings, an added attraction of the disc: Girl Crazy suite arranged by Stern (1930/2012), excerpts from An American in Paris arranged by Heifetz and Ayke Agus (1928/2000), “Love Walked In” arranged by Stern (1938/2012), and “Nice Work if You Can Get It” arranged by Stern (1937/2012). Also here are the Three Preludes for Piano (1926) arranged by Heifetz, Short Story (1925) arranged by Dushkin, and selections from Porgy and Bess (1935) arranged by Heifetz. In all the pieces, the arrangements give prominence to the violin and relegate the piano mostly to a supporting role, although often an important one. The Jazz Age material generally works well in these versions, and certainly the performers throw themselves into it with enthusiasm and apparent enjoyment. The recently published Heifetz arrangement of An American in Paris is a particular treat because of the familiarity of the music – although here as in several other pieces, the works as arranged sound more like curiosities than full-fledged and individuated music. Ashley Brown’s handling of the two Stern song arrangements is another plus for the recording. On balance, this is the sort of disc to which a listener may turn from time to time for a new perspective on attractive music, but it will scarcely replace the original versions of these pieces, to which Gershwin lovers will undoubtedly return much more frequently.
The Naxos voice-and-piano CD featuring soprano Regina Zona in music by Jake Heggie (born 1961) offers newly composed, small-scale music that seeks to reach out to listeners through a combination – typical for contemporary composers – of art-song, jazz, theatrical and folk music. Gershwin was a pioneer of combining popular and classical forms; Heggie has absorbed the combination thoroughly and uses it regularly, notably in his operas. This CD is called Connection: Three Song Cycles, and connecting with listeners is clearly its purpose – Heggie, unlike some modern composers, does want to write music that will be accessible to audiences in general, not only to specialists or fellow composers. The three cycles here all have effective moments, and the four movements of Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia also offer some particularly affecting ones, which Zona brings out movingly and with very fine support from pianist Kathleen Tagg. The five-song Natural Selection is a somewhat more distanced and less involving work, and the eight-movement Eve-Song, which lasts nearly half an hour, somewhat overwhelms the material and tries a bit too hard to involve hearers. All three cycles are intended to reflect, in the variety of their musical influences and the words of the songs, multiple aspects of the women portrayed. The extent of the “connection” among the cycles, though, is not particularly large; each cycle stands well enough on its own. Heggie does write accessible music, sometimes to the point of superficiality. These cycles are among his earlier works and show him, to some extent, still groping for a satisfactory fusion of various musical influences. They are certainly worth hearing from time to time, but more so as individual cycles than in the full-hour sequence of this CD.
The chamber music of William Susman (born 1960) also shows the multifarious influences on which contemporary composers so frequently draw. Susman is as well known for his film music as Heggie is for his operas; not surprisingly, given his theatrical orientation, Susman is at least as eager as Heggie for audience involvement. Susman’s works are most interesting for their explorations of unusual rhythms, which range from traditional classical ones to those of medieval and Afro-Cuban music. Susman’s movement titles are determinedly popular rather than classical, and the instrumentation featured on his new CD for Belarca Records – a label he founded for recordings by the Octet Ensemble, in which he himself performs – shows his interest in working with unusual tonal combinations and perking up listeners’ ears through strongly jazz-inflected rhythms that tend to turn in unexpected directions. However, Susman is more interested in abstruse and rather academic compositional techniques than is Heggie; whether listeners will enjoy Susman works involving Fibonacci numbers or numerology – or even be able to hear the way these elements are incorporated – is uncertain. The four pieces on Susman’s new CD are all aggregations of short items; even the one-movement, 12-minute piano concerto has six identified sections (“Glide,” “Spin,” “Jagged,” and so forth) plus a cadenza. This is music that is clever and aurally interesting rather than emotionally involving; indeed, there is an overall coolness to Susman’s works here that stands them in stark contrast to other composers’ neo-Romantic, more emotionally involving pieces.
Julien Labro and the Spektral Quartet, on the other hand, reach for emotional connection through what is essentially a jazz-and-classical sensibility on their new Azica release. Labro plays the accordion, the somewhat similar bandoneon, and the accordina – a sort of cross between accordion and harmonica. He says it was Astor Piazzolla who inspired him to learn the bandoneon, and a Piazzolla work, Milonga Loca, is the final offering on this disc:. There are also arrangements of two pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos from A Floresta de Amazonas, with the two – Melodia Sentimental and Veleiro – separated by music by less-known figures: the other composers heard here are Agustín Barrios, Dino Saluzzi, Miguel Zenón, Hermeto Pascoal, Fernando Otero, Diego Schissi and Ernesto Grenet. The pieces, all of them short, tend to blend together to an extent because of the arrangements, although Labro’s use of different instruments keeps the sound somewhat varied; and two works, Zenón’s El Club de la Serpiente and Villa-Lobos’ Veleiro – include a guest appearance by Zenón himself, playing alto saxophone. The classical tone and balance of a string quartet fit rather oddly into some of these pieces, which might sound more idiomatic with folk instruments or a jazz ensemble. Indeed, the combination of Labro’s essentially folk-music instruments with the classical makeup of the quartet creates some unease, as if the music is not entirely sure which way to go. This may, however, be exactly the intention of Labro and the Spektral Quartet – an exploration beyond usual boundaries and a stretching of listeners’ ears. Certainly the music is well performed; 50-plus minutes of it, though, may be a bit too much of a stretch for listeners unfamiliar with the sort of blended chamber-music style that this CD represents.
July 10, 2014
My Pet Book. By Bob Staake. Random House. $17.99.
Chu’s First Day of School. By Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Adam Rex. Harper. $17.99.
Monsters Love School. By Mike Austin. Harper. $15.99.
Pinkalicious and the New Teacher. By Victoria Kann. HarperFestival. $6.99.
Little Critter: Just My Lost Treasure. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $3.99.
The inimitable (don’t even try to imitate him!) Bob Staake offers a wonderful fable for school time or anytime in My Pet Book, a tale of a little boy who really wants a pet but does not want one that “had whiskers, fur, or fleas,/ Or a waggy little tail!” This little boy, who lives in Smartytown, wants a pet book, so he and his parents walk right past the pet store to get him one at “Bookopolis” – and he ends up with a bright red book that obediently follows him on a leash and has many advantages over other pets: “It never needed bathing,/ And its ears would never droop./ But best of all, that little pet,/ It didn’t even poop!” The wonderful expressions of the boy and his parents – and of the townspeople with more-conventional pets – are a constant delight, in a book filled with Staake’s unique and always recognizable style. And the story does make a book seem to be an attractive pet, not only for its bathroom habits (or lack thereof), but also because “Inside the book were many tales/ Of awesomeness and glory./ The boy imagined as he read/ That he was in the story!” Of course, not everything goes well: one day the book disappears while the boy is off at school (and presumably interacting with other books). The result, when he returns home, is a page with the words, “OH. NO!” and the boy’s always large head swollen to twice normal size, his face set in an expression of total dismay. The maid hears the boy crying and remembers packing some old things to give to charity – she fears she must have swept up the book as well. So the two embark on a quest to find and retrieve the boy’s beloved book – but wherever they search, the book is not to be found. Can anything be done? Well, yes – something that shows the book to be more pet-like than even the boy himself ever realized. And all ends happily with boy and book back home, nuzzling at bedtime after the boy explains to his mom “how a book could bring such joy./ ‘It’s cuz every book’s a friend!’/ Said the yawning little boy.”
Books are a big part of school, and school is a big part of kids’ thinking and anticipation – and worry – during the summer, so Chu’s First Day of School is a book that can make a particularly good companion for young readers (and, like Staake’s pet book, it’s red!). Chu is a small panda with all the worries of a child about to start school for the first time. Will the other kids be nice? Will they like him? Will he have a good time? His parents’ reassurances are not especially reassuring, and Chu still feels nervous on his first day, even though “the teacher had a friendly face.” The day’s assignment involves each child giving his or her name and saying something he or she loves doing. But Chu holds back, listening and saying nothing as the other kids – all of them animals that are drawn with great dynamism by Adam Rex – explain what they love to do. Climbing, singing, dancing, running, reading books, hanging upside down – everyone loves doing something, but again and again, “Chu didn’t say anything.” Finally, the teacher (a very fluffy bear who has been erasing the blackboard, producing lots of chalk dust) asks him his name, and Chu gives it – plus a dust-provoked sneeze so enormous that it blows the roof off the school! The entire class is thrown helter-skelter in a wordless two-page illustration that is surpassed only by the next wordless two-page illustration, in which the expressions of bewilderment are seen changing to ones of surprise and delight (although the teacher, it must be said, remains nonplussed). Now everyone knows what Chu loves to do – and when his parents pick him up, the school roof is back where it belongs, and Chu explains that he “not worried anymore” about being accepted in class. Nail Gaiman’s story is simple, straightforward and easy to read – not as special as Rex’s illustrations, but quite good in combination with them.
Chu is not the only one who is nervous about school but then decides everything is just fine. Mike Austin’s little monsters have to get ready for school, too, and all of them really look forward to going – except for Blue, whose reaction is a big “GULP.” Blue has two eyes (most of the other monsters have one) and is one of the smallest and most human-child-like of the little monsters, so kids who worry about school will readily identify with him. All the other monsters reassure him, but the one who helps him the most is Little Gray, who is even smaller than Blue and also has two eyes and a human-like appearance – again, making the reassurance seem more genuine for non-monsters. The various monsters create a school-supply checklist – an accurate one, so human families can use it for their own little “monsters.” Then they head off to school for a day that features Miss Wiggles the crossing guard, one-eyed Principal Blinkin, art teacher Miss Scribble, and plenty of other monstrously helpful adults. Soon all the kids, including Blue, are having fun learning things and making things and going on swings during recess and eating Chef Octi’s lunchtime preparation, “world-famous school gruel,” which comes with either syrup or ketchup. History class, library time, singing club – everything is fun for everyone, leading Blue to proclaim after the day is over, “I LOVE MONSTER SCHOOL!” Even non-monsters will catch a dose of his enthusiasm.
A more-nuanced story for kids who are already familiar with school, Pinkalicious and the New Teacher shows what can happen when someone who already knows and likes school finds herself facing some changes in the new year that she does not like. Pinkalicious has a new teacher this year, which means new classroom rules and seating – she ends up in a corner, but “I hate the corner,” she says. Indoor recess (because of rain) means drawing time, which Pinkalicious likes, but the teacher needs the blackboard for lessons afterwards, so she erases the drawings, upsetting Pinkalicious again. And at reading time, there are beanbag chairs rather than the “comfy, shaggy reading rug” that Pinkalicious remembers and prefers. The whole day is filled with small disappointments, with Pinkalicious finally telling the teacher, “I just miss last year” – which leads to “a PINKERRIFIC idea” that turns the whole day around and makes Pinkalicious realize that change can be a good thing and that the new year, although different, will be plenty of fun in its own way. Victoria Kann’s story is a good one for kids who may be nervous about a new grade even though they are not worried about the concept of school itself. And Pinkalicious and the New Teacher is a participatory book, too: there is a big foldout “Reading Is Pinktastic” poster in the front, plus stickers and bookmarks inside that celebrate school, books and, of course, pinkness. Fans of Pinkalicious will enjoy this – and non-fans may become ones after reading this entry in the extensive Pinkalicious series.
The Mercer Mayer Little Critter books are plentiful, too, and the latest is not about school but about another typical family crisis, solved Little Critter style. This is the case of the missing socks: Little Critter’s mother points out that many of his pairs of socks are in fact singletons. Little Critter says the missing socks “just disappeared,” but Mom will not accept that and tells him to find them. So Little Critter begins a search in the closet, the sandbox, and then at various friends’ houses. No socks turn up anywhere – but lots of other things that Little Critter has misplaced show up: a rocket ship, a bulldozer, a long-lost bugle, a jacket and hat, even a stuffed gorilla that is as big as Little Critter himself but that he someone managed to leave at a friend’s house and then forget. Weighed down by all the toys he finds, Little Critter continues his search, eventually being lucky enough to find his missing wagon – which gives him a way to carry everything else. “I went home with no socks but lots of treasure,” he says, but he is still concerned about what his mother will say when she learns he did not find any socks at all – not a single one. It turns out, though – as always in Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter books – that there is a solution, and it is right at home. So Just My Lost Treasure ends, inevitably, happily, with the socks and all the toys recovered. Just as the latest Pinkalicious book is enjoyable enough to build Kann’s fan base and that of Pinkalicious, the latest from Mercer offers enough fun to build his and Little Critter’s.
Scholastic “Discover More”: Human Body. By Steve Setford. Scholastic. $15.99.
Scholastic “Discover More”: Polar Animals. By Susan Hayes and Tory Gordon-Harris. Scholastic. $12.99.
Scholastic “Discover More” Stickers: Sharks. By Laaren Brown. Scholastic. $6.99.
The ever-expanding Scholastic “Discover More” series keeps finding more things about which kids can discover more – in books whose strong visual orientation is coupled with careful attention to detail in the small amount of text provided per page. Human Body is intended “for expert readers,” which means the information is fairly detailed, but the presentation is as enthusiastically exclamatory here as in all the books in the series: “Life would be difficult if you had to stop breathing to digest a meal!” “Medical illustrators knew as much about the human body as doctors and professors did!” “In fact, you are mostly water!” The relative complexity of the presentation “for expert readers” is more a matter of detail than anything else. For example, the analysis of what elements people are made of is a bright, multicolored two-page spread that not only explains the body’s “big six” elements (oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus) but also lists seven other elemental components – and gives percentages for everything (calcium is 1.5%, for instance, while iron is 0.006%). There is actually a considerable amount of factual information crammed into the illustration-heavy pages. On the pages about hair and nails, for example, is a note that red-haired people have about 80,000 scalp follicles, while ones with blond or brown hair have around 146,000 – and, in a separate note, split ends (of any hair color) occur because “on an old or damaged hair, the cuticle peels off [and] the keratin fibers below unravel.” Tremendously blown-up photos of eyelash mites and head lice are as dramatic and scary as they are intended to be, while fact after fact provides insight into bodily systems, explaining why you can never hear your voice the way others hear it, noting that children laugh 300 times a day but adults only 17 times a day, saying that the fastest nerve signals travel 250 miles per hour, telling why we shiver, pointing out that our skin completely renews itself every 28 days, and much more. As an introduction to anatomy that has far more information in it than many traditionally laid-out books for young readers, Human Body is an excellent way for kids to find out a lot about what makes people tick, with illustrations so well done that even adults can appreciate and learn from them: the layout explaining and diagramming synovial joints, for instance, is one fine example among many here.
Polar Animals is a smaller-size book that is designated as being “for confident readers,” which means it has equally intriguing photos (a two-page spread of basking walruses is a high point) with simpler writing providing information that is every bit as engaging as the contents of more-complex books in the series: “The arctic tern travels 1.25 million miles in a lifetime (that’s the same as going to the Moon and back three times!).” “The Arctic woolly bear moth is a caterpillar for seven years before it turns into a moth.” “No one is sure why a narwhal has a tusk. …Tusks can grow to 9 feet!” “Half of a whale’s or dolphin’s brain is awake at all times.” There are more photos and fewer explanatory diagrams here than in Human Body, but the overall layout of the book is quite similar, giving precedence to visuals – mostly photographs – and fitting sentences or short paragraphs of information amid, between and around the visual material. Polar Animals is not primarily about humans, but it does contain information on ones who live in the polar regions, with photos of Inuit people herding, hunting, fishing and managing their lives in a forbiddingly cold area. The concluding interview with a scientist gives additional insight into how polar animals are studied and by whom. This “Discover More” entry is interesting in its own right, and can be a gateway to the more-complex books in the series as children become more-adept readers.
Not much reading at all is required for Scholastic “Discover More” Stickers: Sharks, which is just what the title would indicate: a book in the form of the “Discover More” series, but containing stickers (260 of them) to peel and adhere to various pages. In truth, the book looks like a “Discover More” entry (a thin one), but its approach is less informational and more for fun – for example, it includes a variety of bad jokes: “Why did the shark cross the coral reef? To get to the other tide.” Some factual information is certainly present, including some that is fascinating: “When a great white is sick, it thrusts its stomach out of its mouth, then pulls it back in.” “You’re more likely to be killed by a hair dryer than a shark.” But the emphasis here is as much on entertainment as on information, with, for example, pages called “Hand-build a hammerhead” and “Produce a predator” – to both of which readers are supposed to add stickers to produce “something REALLY terrifying!” The stickers themselves range from parts of shark bodies (for the create-a-shark pages) to ones showing specific types of sharks and ones used to populate ancient oceans or a modern reef. This thin book may be fun for kids who already have some knowledge of sharks and just want to remember a few selected facts while they enjoy placing stickers here and there. But it falls short of other “Discover More” books by compromising its factual elements with too much irrelevance and too much material that is simply silly. Unlike the other “Discover More” books, it therefore gets a (+++) rating.
The Long Earth 3: The Long Mars. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Harper. $25.99.
Never Coming Back. By Tim Weaver. Viking. $27.95.
Someone Else’s Skin. By Sarah Hilary. Penguin. $16.
The underlying absurdity remains, but the character explorations are much improved and the threads of multiple stories are finally becoming engaging in The Long Mars, the third book in The Long Earth sequence and the best so far. The foundational concept is just plain silly: a multiplicity of Earths, apparently an infinite number, reachable in either “direction” (“East” or “West”) through use of a simple potato-powered device called a stepper – and reachable by some people without any device at all. Why and how the Earths exist has never seemed of much interest to any characters in the books or, for that matter, to authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. But there are finally glimmers of intellectual curiosity in The Long Mars, which helps matters immensely. There are also disparate stories whose apparent lack of connectedness is apparent rather than real, as this book starts to make clear. One involves the “distributed intelligence” Lobsang, a sort-of-godlike artificial creation who nevertheless has been unable to prevent a series of catastrophes on the Datum (the original or central Earth), and who gently manipulates a variety of human pawns for partially disclosed reasons of his own – the most prominent of those being Joshua Valienté, a natural stepper and important explorer of the multitude of Earths. Another plot line involves U.S. Navy Commander Maggie Kauffman – the U.S., a country rapidly fading after a huge natural catastrophe at the Yellowstone caldera, nevertheless claims jurisdiction over all comparable land masses everywhere, and Kauffman is “showing the flag” (what there is of one) while exploring farther along the West axis of the Long Earth than anyone has before. The third plot has to do with Sally Linsay, another natural stepper and a strong advocate of such unpopular causes as the full integration into humanity of alternative sort-of-human beings such as the trolls (so named by humans but scarcely troll-like). In this book, Sally’s father, Willis Linsay, inventor of the stepper box, suddenly turns up after being missing for years, quickly persuading Sally to go with him on a rocket-and-stepper-powered journey to the Long Mars of the book’s title – with Willis having his own secret reasons for the journey. Overhanging everything else, although connected most directly with the Lobsang-Joshua story thread, is the possible emergence somewhere in the Long Earth of a post-human race of super-bright people (or post-people) whose powers are creating a climate of fear and potential violence among “normal” humans. Pratchett’s hand is seen most clearly in the characterizations of Lobsang and Willis Linsay; Baxter seems to be handling the sprawling plot lines and, at last, keeping them straight and interesting. The series does continue, though, to have irritating flaws. There is still the matter of entirely arbitrary numbers that the authors feel obliged to present as if they mean something, such as Kauffman’s team’s fascinating discovery of a wholly unexpected sort of civilization on Earth 17,297,031 (in a series of scenes with more humor than this series has so far evidenced). The authors also continue to make cultural references that are barely up to date in 2014, behaving as if these will be common knowledge decades in the future and among denizens of the Long Earth – for example, having characters remark about former CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite, Dr. Who, Hannibal Lecter, and the town of Stepford (as in the not-quite-human, too-perfect Stepford Wives). It is safe to say that these references would be quite arcane in the world(s) posited by Pratchett and Baxter, given that they are arcane already in ours; but the authors blithely toss them and similar matters about as if everyone in the novel immediately understands them. Despite issues like this one, The Long Mars is more interesting and holds together better than the prior books, The Long Earth and The Long War. Perhaps this series, which gives every hint of being a, err, long one, is beginning at last to come together.
The action is entirely earthbound in Tim Weaver’s Never Coming Back, but this mystery novel nevertheless has a broad orientation – more so than Weaver’s first three and his fifth, none of which has been published in the United States. The decision to make Weaver’s fourth novel his entry point in the U.S. is no doubt connected with the large role that Las Vegas plays in this book; and it is indeed the journeys “across the pond” that lend Never Coming Back its sense of wide scope. However, the novel, like Weaver’s others, is otherwise a missing-persons story, featuring former journalist and dogged (of course, dogged, and with the to-be-expected troubled past) investigator David Raker. Raker is a typically dedicated, driven protagonist, who at one point recalls how accurate his ex was in describing him: “You’re trying to plug holes in the world because you know what it’s like to lose someone, and you think it’s your job to stop anyone else suffering the same way.” Yes, just so – but the suffering occurs anyway, no matter where Raker looks. The book opens with a sinister scene in Las Vegas that draws readers’ attention immediately to someone’s hand – and when the story proper begins, a different hand figures in it at once, in a more grisly way. Weaver is good at this: building suspense, making connections, implying rather than saying that disparate and geographically distant events are in fact intimately related. The search in Never Coming Back has a “mystery of the Mary Celeste” feeling about it: a family has gone missing – parents and two daughters – from a house in which dinner is cooking, the table is set for a meal, and the television is on. It is as if the family simply vanished; but this is detective fiction of a sort, certainly not science fiction, so “they vanished” is not an explanation but the start of Raker’s quest to find them, or at least find out what happened to them. It is this that leads him to Las Vegas, where he finds himself on the trail of a dangerous cover-up involving some very dangerous people. The plot has plenty of twists and turns, which Weaver manages adroitly, although its complexities become somewhat convoluted as the story progresses and the question of motive becomes more central to the narrative. Inevitably, Weaver sketches in Raker’s back story and those of other characters as the search continues, allowing readers to understand what in Raker’s own past makes him so determined to get to the bottom of missing-persons cases. Most of the characters do not have much depth – the bad guys, in particular, tend to be more types than fully formed human beings, with one particularly evil one having a lineage traceable directly to Ian Fleming’s Oddjob. However, that form of surface-level characterization is scarcely unusual in this genre. Raker himself, though, does have solidity and does take actions consistent with his character, and several of those around him are also well-formed and logically presented. It will be interesting to see whether Never Coming Back, which has not one or two but three major plot twists in its final pages, makes a large enough splash so that Weaver’s other Raker novels will also be brought to the United States. A decision to bring them across the Atlantic, even though their focus is narrower than the author’s in Never Coming Back, could be a good one: Raker is an interesting enough character so that readers who meet him through this book will likely want to know more about his background and his other adventures.
Like Weaver, Sarah Hilary is British; unlike him, she is appearing in the United States on the basis of her first novel, Someone Else’s Skin. And a gritty, hardcore police procedural it is, ratcheting up tension and going down multiple well-conceived blind alleys from start until almost finish – with only the very end of the book having unsatisfactory elements that betray this as a debut offering. Getting to that conclusion, though, is a matter of probing more and more deeply into smaller and smaller matters, including one key location that is definitely not for the claustrophobic. The central character here is Detective Inspector Marnie Rome, referred to as DI Rome – there are British acronyms aplenty here, even more than in Weaver’s book, which has its share of them; U.S. readers seeking clarity had best be prepared to look them up. Rome’s case at the start of Someone Else’s Skin involves an “honor killing” that turns into an “honor maiming” and lands the victim in a women’s shelter – but when Rome and her partner, DS (Detective Sergeant) Noah Jake, arrive at the building, they find themselves in the middle of what looks like a domestic-violence eruption in which a hulking brute of a husband is stabbed by his petite, terrified wife. The man’s life is saved by DS Jake, who finds himself working unexpectedly with the maiming victim whom he and DI Rome came to the shelter to find in the first place. And so begins an intricate dance of a novel in which domestic abuse is at the heart of multiple stories and the phrase, “A marriage is private,” has chilling overtones. Hilary has real style, the ability to encapsulate a scene in a few words while creating implications that go beyond the scene-setting itself: “In Finchley, the clouds had beaten the sun into submission.” “Severe strip-lighting, the visual equivalent of nails across a blackboard, cross-hatched the ceiling.” “[T]he colour scheme was white, off-white and guano.” “The walls were papered in orange. Limp curtains at the window let in lymph-coloured light.” “In his shiny white tracksuit on the red sofa, he resembled a maggot in an open wound.” There are maggoty characters aplenty here, and not by any means the ones readers will expect – the story twists in Hilary’s book turn on character to an extent that is unusual in this genre. Rome’s character itself is somewhat overdone: every investigator in books like this has a deeply troubled past, but her response to hers – and the parallels between what happened to her family and what happens in her investigations here – are a bit much, especially since the truth of what happened to Rome’s murdered parents is never revealed (although it will surely come up again in later novels, Someone Else’s Skin being the start of a series). The book’s title comes from the thoughts of one of the distinctly unpleasant characters, a man overwhelmed by domestic life: “He wanted to hide from the three of them, [his wife] Freya and the twins, inside someone else’s skin.” Hilary’s point, though, is that there is nowhere to hide from one’s own needs, demons and personality, although the central evil character in the book does a mighty good job of trying. The ending disappoints because it is at once too neat, too melodramatic (in terms of what the maiming victim does instead of calling emergency services), and too distanced from legitimate police procedures to be fully believable: Rome uses presumably successful threats to get the information she wants, but it seems unlikely that the promised testimony will be forthcoming in calmer circumstances. Perhaps this issue too will be explored in later books. Whether it is or not, Hilary’s debut Marnie Rome novel is an impressive debut, especially insofar as it effectively conveys to readers the sense of powerlessness and helplessness exploited by the perpetrators of domestic abuse.
Clash! How to Thrive in a Multicultural World. By Hazel Rose Markus, Ph.D., and Alana Conner, Ph.D. Plume. $17.
One of the many intriguing elements of recent 20-year retrospectives on the murder trial of O.J. Simpson was the statement by some blacks that even though they knew Simpson was guilty, they nevertheless celebrated his acquittal because it made them feel that something had been thrown back in the face of white justice, which had treated blacks so unfairly for so long. Other people could be forgiven for finding this reaction bizarre, if not monstrous: a murderer escapes punishment, and that is a good thing for everyone who shares his skin color? But this is precisely the sort of multicultural issue that makes modern life seem so eternally, increasingly complicated, with minefields in just about every social, business, governmental and religious context. Stanford Ph.D.’s Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner tackle this sort of complexity (not the O.J. Simpson one specifically, but plenty of others) in Clash! How to Thrive in a Multicultural World, which – as its title implies – is intended not merely to analyze a situation but to show readers how to handle it. The descriptive portion of the book turns almost entirely on the authors’ identification of what they call two “styles of self,” the independent (“individual, unique, influencing, free, equal [yet great!]”) and the interdependent (“relational, similar, adjusting, rooted, ranked”). Of course, each person is a blend of independent and interdependent elements, but the point made by Markus and Conner is that one approach or the other tends to dominate in people’s overall worldview and in specific elements of their lives. And it is the clash of dominations that translates into larger clashes among races, religions, political viewpoints and more.
Clash! is about as wide-ranging as it is possible for a book of this sort to be, examining issues of gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic factors, U.S. regional cultures, faith, the workplace, and the global North and South. Extensively researched (and rather unnecessarily prone to talking in academic jargon, as if doing so helps to communicate the seriousness of the material), the book makes assertions that would seem to be overstated opinions if they were not so meticulously backed up: “Men are more aggressive,” for example, and “women more often display an interdependent self.” In fact, some of these assertions will make readers uncomfortable, precisely because they sound like clichés and therefore seem to encourage biased thinking. But a cliché becomes one largely because of the kernel of truth at its core, and Markus and Conner offer plenty of studies that show those truth kernels in the center of a great deal of thinking. They state, to cite one example among many, that “the business world is home to more independent selves…[while] the nonprofit and government sectors hone more interdependent culture cycles.”
Seeing the entire world, including each individual within it, in independent/interdependent terms is, of course, a vast oversimplification. But like many such ways of simplifying a complex subject (think of Freud’s concept of the id, ego and superego, for example), the descriptive approach of Markus and Conner can be valuable if it leads to prescriptive recommendations that produce benefits to individuals, groups, society at large, or all of the above. Here the authors make a number of suggestions that sound very good indeed but would, in the real world, be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to put into practice. On the personal level of race, for example, they say that “making a friend of another race…is a great way for individuals to break down racial and ethnic barriers” and that “educating ourselves about race, ethnicity, and discrimination is another way to keep the conversation flowing.” Their backup for these statements, though, comes from studies done under controlled conditions, using carefully chosen subjects (white and Latino college students brought together by researchers, for example); implementing the notions in everyday life is another matter. In terms of becoming better educated about race, the authors approvingly cite performance artist damali ayo (who does not capitalize her name) for her recommendation that whites acknowledge “very real present-day racism” and “notice where those practices continue and where you participate in them.” Endorsement by these Stanford professors is all well and good, but on what basis, for what reasons, would they expect whites to accept racism they may genuinely not see and then admit themselves complicit in it? Similarly, Markus and Conner say clashes among business, nonprofit and government groups can be overcome: “For their part, businesses need to brush up on the basics of interdependence and focus more on their relationships, both with their partners and within their organizational walls,” while for nonprofits, “a strong dose of independence could help them speak up for themselves and their beneficiaries,” and governments “need more independence to take risks, tolerate failure, and reward innovation.”
In Utopia, all this would be reasonable – all this and more, for there is a lot of it in Clash! What Markus and Conner overlook, however, is the extent to which – within their own model – conflicts among institutions are bound to be perpetuated because of the relationship between independence and interdependence of the people who, collectively, make up those institutions. In other words, people with a strong streak of independence and risk tolerance are far more likely to go into business than into government, while those seeking safety, interdependence and few of the risks that inevitably accompany attempts at innovation are far more likely to seek out government work. Thus, even within the model that Markus and Conner themselves propound, their proposed solutions fall short, and indeed must fall short to the extent that the model itself is accurate.
This does not mean that readers can do nothing but despair while reading this book or have no choice but to assume that everything in modern life is doomed forever to Clash! It does mean, however, that the careful and well-thought-out analysis by Markus and Conner is far more valuable than the recommendations the authors make about implementing solutions based on their findings. Clash! is worth reading for its analysis and perspective on multiple issues of modern life, both great and small; but readers seeking to improve communications (their own, their businesses’, their religion’s, etc.) will have to find more-practical ways to do so than those offered by Markus and Conner with so much good will and so much naïveté.
Schubert: Piano Quintet in A, “Trout”; Piano Trio in E-flat, “Notturno”; Piano Quartet in F. David Lefèvre, violin; Christophe Gaugué, viola; Guillaume Paoletti, cello; Eckhard Rudolph, bass; Nathalie Juchors, piano. Rewind. $9.99.
Johann Strauss Jr.: Tritsch-Tratsch Polka; “Die Fledermaus” Overture and Czárdas; Nordseebilder Waltz; Im Sturmschritt Polka; Neue Pizzicato-Polka; Perpetuum mobile; Voices of Spring Waltz; “Der Zigeunerbaron” Overture; On the Beautiful Blue Danube; Egyptian March; Éljen a Magyar! Polka; Furioso-Polka, quasi Galopp. Anima Eterna Brugge conducted by Jos van Immerseel. Rewind. $9.99.
Bach: The Art of Fugue; Komm Süsser Tod; Pachelbel: Canon in D; Chaconnes in F and D; Chorale Preludes. Barbara Harbach, organ. MSR Classics. $19.95 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3; Brahms: Tragic Overture; Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder—Orchestral Interlude and Song of the Wood Dove. Mihoko Fujimura, mezzo-soprano; Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado. Accentus Music DVD. $24.99.
Welcome Yule! Choral Favorites for Christmas. Sursum Corda conducted by Lester Seigel. MSR Classics. $12.95.
First-class re-releases can often give listeners a chance to hear high-quality performances at lower prices than the original issues commanded – and such re-releases are just what the Rewind label offers. Its new Schubert and Johann Strauss Jr. discs both include performances from 1999 that originally appeared on the Zig-Zag Territories label, and both recordings stand up quite well to newer ones. The “Trout” quintet gets an expansive reading here, with a particularly broad first movement that contrasts well with a very speedy and intense (indeed, slightly too intense) third-movement Scherzo. The “Trout” variations themselves are nicely handled, although the final Allegro giusto is something of a letdown, as it frequently is: this conclusion is a problematical one for many performers (comparable as a challenge to the difficult-to-negotiate finale of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, although the reasons for the difficulties are different). David Lefèvre, Christophe Gaugué, Guillaume Paoletti, Eckhard Rudolph and Nathalie Juchors play the whole quintet very well, but in the finale seem not quite sure of how to have the music be more than an appendix to the rest of the work. This is nevertheless a very fine performance, and it is well complemented by the single posthumous “Notturno” movement (played by Juchors, Lefèvre and Paoletti) and the two-movement Piano Quartet D. 487 – the latter offering a particularly effective contrast between its Adagio opening and the Rondo concertante that follows.
As for the Strauss disc, it offers some genuinely intriguing approaches to music that is mostly (but not entirely) familiar, with Anima Eterna Brugge under Jos van Immerseel often choosing surprising tempos (in the contrasting fast and slow sections of the overture to Die Fledermaus, among other places) and mixing highly familiar music with works that sound as if they ought to be much better known than they are: Nordseebilder Waltz, Im Sturmschritt Polka and Furioso-Polka, quasi Galopp, in particular. This is small-ensemble Strauss, with all the clarity of line, vivacity and excellent balance that the best small groups bring to this music. The integration of brass and timpani with strings is particularly felicitous: nothing overwhelms anything else, and the cooperative nature of the whole endeavor comes through strongly and very much to the music’s benefit. The wordless chorus in the Egyptian March is a particular treat. Still, as in the Schubert disc, there are matters here worthy of a nitpick or two, the biggest being the players’ lack of comfort with or sensitivity to some of the distinctly Viennese rhythmic snap that is so noticeable when these works are played by the Vienna Philharmonic and similar groups. Whether that familiarity really represents authenticity, though, is an open question, and certainly this disc provides a completely valid and often unusually thoughtful approach to music that is so much more than “merely” for dancing. Incidentally, Rewind has an attractive way of indicating that its releases are in fact re-releases: each CD looks like a vinyl record, with a colored circular portion in the middle surrounded by a black outer section that, in the days when vinyl dominated, would have been the grooves from which the music was reproduced.
Barbara Harbach’s recordings of Bach and Pachelbel date back even farther than the Rewind offerings, having been made between 1983 and 1990 on two C.B. Fisk organs in New York state, one in Rochester and the other in Buffalo. The MSR Classics release is a new digital remastering of Gasparo Records material, and it is quite well done both technically and musically. Harbach has a fine sense of the shaping of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, choosing registrations carefully and allowing the music to move from the delicate to the sinewy and back. She plays with sureness, understanding and a strong sense of Bach’s style, using well-chosen tempos and allowing the various fugal lines to emerge, blend and subside with what feels like inevitability. Organ performances of The Art of Fugue can sometimes feel overwhelming because of an instrument’s sheer sonority, but Harbach’s do not: she manages to provide both intimacy and grandeur, and at the same time to make it clear that The Art of Fugue is far from an academic exercise in musical form. And the other, less-familiar material in this two-CD set is equally well played and equally intriguing, albeit in different ways. There is a veritable plethora of Pachelbel here, and it is very, very welcome indeed, since for most listeners Pachelbel has been reduced to a single super-well-known canon (often called the Pachelbel canon, as if he wrote no others). It is inevitable that Harbach plays this work (in an arrangement by S. Drummond Wolff), but it is scarcely as interesting to hear her reading (although it is a very fine one) as it is to hear two chaconnes and no fewer than 13 chorale preludes by Pachelbel. The preludes have fascinations aplenty, from the two separate ones on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her to those from the Psalms, on Nun lob, mein Seel den Herren (Psalm 103), An Wasserflüssen Babylon (Psalm 137) and Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (Psalm 46). Pachelbel comes from the generation before Bach, and it is fascinating to compare his chorale preludes and other music with works in similar forms that Bach wrote some years later. But an academic comparison is scarcely the point of Harbach’s performance and scarcely necessary to enjoy it. The music here, from the familiar to the very unfamiliar indeed, is wonderful in its own right, played with high skill and considerable understanding, and a notable addition to the collection of any listener interested in the highest reaches of the high Baroque.
The new Accentus Music DVD featuring Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra is not a re-release, but it looks back to the past in a different way. Abbado died in January, and this Summer 2013 recording presents his final appearance at the Lucerne Festival. The live recording is notable primarily for its testamentary value, although the performances are quite good, with mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimjra handling an excerpt from Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder effectively and with Abbado leading the orchestra in Brahms and Beethoven with his customary attentiveness, skill and intensity. The second-movement funeral march of the “Eroica” seems, in retrospect, especially shattering, but whether it would appear that way if Abbado were still living is another matter. It is simply too tempting to read more into this movement – and into the Tragic Overture – than is really there: Abbado’s death after a long illness was certainly sad but scarcely tragic, and his life was anything but funereal. Fans of Abbado will certainly want this DVD for both the quality of the music-making and the chance to see the conductor in performance near the end of his life. They will deem it a (++++) production, but judged strictly on the merits of the very fine but not especially revelatory interpretations – and in light of the inevitable distractions associated with watching a concert at home while the director of the video determines what you see, when and for how long – a (+++) rating is more objective. There is nothing wrong with any performance here, and a great deal right, but had this not been Abbado’s final Lucerne Festival appearance and the last audiovisual record of his podium manner, the DVD would be considered simply a very fine but scarcely earth-shattering chance to see a first-rate conductor and very good orchestra handle standard-repertoire pieces with a skill born of long experience and considerable knowledge.
Sometimes a CD looks back and forth simultaneously – a Christmas-themed one released in the middle of the year, for example. That would be Welcome Yule! – the new MSR Classics recording by Sursum Corda, under Lester Seigel, of 16 Christmas classics and favorites. Release date aside, this is a pleasant (+++) recording that is very well performed but mixes types of music rather oddly and not entirely satisfyingly: Bruckner rubs metaphorical shoulders with Charpentier, and both mingle somewhat uneasily with Angels We Have Heard on High, Jingle Bells, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and Silent Night – four favorites that themselves fit inevitably but not entirely seamlessly on the same disc. The individual tracks are filled with vocal pleasures – this is a very fine ensemble indeed – although a full hour of Christmas music tends to cloy at pretty much any time of year. Sursum Corda means “hearts lifted” in Latin (often rendered less accurately, even by the Alabama-based chorus itself, as “lift up your hearts”); certainly there is much that is uplifting on this disc – and certainly everything on it is performed with feeling and the sort of warmth that is particularly welcome during the Christmas season. Anyone seeking a touch of winter wonderland and the positive experience that the Christmas story provides will find it here, at any time of year.