March 06, 2014
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch. By Anne Isaacs. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art. By Barb Rosenstock. Illustrated by Mary GrandPré. Knopf. $17.99.
The End (Almost). By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $16.99.
Whether wholly fictional or fact-based, some books for young readers succeed because of the way their stories are presented – a way that can at times be delightfully far-out. Anne Isaacs’ Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch is a tall tale terrifically told, featuring a sweet British widow who inherits $35 million from her late husband and hightails it from Greater Bore, England, to By-Golly Gully, Texas, where she now owns a ranch. Determined to make a go of things in Texas, widow Tulip Jones shows up just when it’s so hot that chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs and lizards “hobbled around on tiny stilts to avoid burning their feet on the ground” – and if you think that’s a bizarre image, wait until you see Kevin Hawkes’ marvelous illustration. Things just get stranger and stranger down Texas way. For one thing, the tomatoes grow huge (again, wait until you see them), and for another, “potatoes got so big that it took only seven of them to make a dozen.” And the 12 tortoises that Widow Jones brought from England grow so big that Widow Jones and her three helpers ride them everywhere, because they grow fast as they get large and “eventually, they could outgallop any racehorse.” Well, shucks, things aren’t strange enough yet, because that $35 million is mighty attractive to all the unmarried men in Texas, and “in 1870, every man in Texas was unmarried.” And soon Widow Jones is besieged by a thousand unwanted suitors, including Sheriff Arroyo and his brother Spit, leaders of “the infamous Hole in the Pants Gang.” The sheriff is a lyin’ pack of horse manure, and Spit never says anything but “riprocious!” and has a habit of eatin’ barbed wire and rocks (and his teeth show it). Will Widow Jones find a way to get rid of a thousand suitors, sew up the Hole in the Pants Gang, keep those big tortoises happy, keep runnin’ her ranch, and maybe even find a happy endin’ for herself? You betcha! Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch knits all the loose ends beautifully and hilariously together, complete with fairy-tale trappings such as setting the bachelors three impossible tasks, and a sound “so bone-chilling that coyotes all over Texas covered their ears.” A delightful romp with impossible premises piled atop each other and some absolutely wonderful illustrations propelling the story from high point to high point, Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch is a show-stoppin’ bit of fun all the way to the tip-top of the weddin’ cake made with two tons of sugar and 10,000 gallons of milk.
Far more modest, fact-based rather than wholly fictional, but just as unusual in its own way, Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paint Box tells the story of abstract painter Vasily (Vasya) Kandinsky (1866-1944), one of the earliest abstractionists and the fortunate possessor of a form of sensory intermingling called synesthesia. In this congenital condition, stimulation of one sense causes response from a different one – so, for example, Kandinsky could hear colors while listening to music. Kandinsky was scarcely the only artist with synesthesia – composer Alexander Scriabin, who, like Kandinsky, was Russian, lived at about the same time and was also famously synesthetic. The mixing of visual and aural senses affected the two men very differently, though. The Noisy Paint Box imagines the very proper, straightforward upbringing Kandinsky had in Czarist Russia, and his eventual willingness to break away from formal art lessons and traditional teachings to try, starting in 1910, to paint what he heard when he looked at colors. Rosenstock makes Kandinsky a pleasant, slightly befuddled boy and young man, trying to understand the way he perceives the world around him and the reasons he is simply not comfortable with traditionalist models. Mary GrandPré provides highly involving illustrations, showing young Kandinsky bored to tears before discovering the sounds within paint colors, then increasingly fascinated by what the colors sound like to him. The emerging sounds from the boy’s box of paints are particularly effectively shown, and the thoughts of Kandinsky as a young man especially nicely portrayed, such as “the scarlet sunset haze ringing above the ancient Kremlin walls.” At an opera performance, Rosenstock writes, “Vasya heard the colors singing. Vasya saw the music dancing.” And GrandPré does her best to communicate visually what Kandinsky experienced. The Author’s Note at the back of the book gives additional information on Kandinsky and should be enough to send young readers fascinated by this introductory book – and their parents – to additional resources about this highly influential artist, and perhaps even to some of the many museums around the world that display his work.
The work of Jim Benton is scarcely museum-quality, either as writing or as art, but if there were a “just for fun” museum, his would surely be in it. Master of gently absurd concepts such as the snarky “It’s Happy Bunny” series and the unfailingly clever “Dear Dumb Diary” middle-school sequence, Benton has now turned his hand and brain to picture books, producing in The End (Almost) just about what readers familiar with him would expect: a story that stops at the beginning. Very simply drawn and written with a minimum of words, the book is about a blue bear named Donut who burps, and that is all that happens. The end. No more. Finished. Gone. Over and done with. This, however, does not satisfy Donut, who comes up with a series of ruses to keep the story from being over, even though the narrator repeatedly tells him to go home. Eventually, Donut’s antics get the narrator to expand the story after all – at which point the book runs out of pages and really does end. Oops. This is frustrating not only to Donut but also to his robot and “a talking ice-cream cone,” both of which are introduced solely so they can promptly be removed from the tale. Clearly the only thing readers who want to help Donut keep going can do is to read the book again, which is just what Donut and the ice-cream cone recommend. Exceedingly silly and featuring humor reminiscent of that of Monty Python, but for a much younger audience, The End (Almost) is a little too thin to be read again and again and again, but there are probably a few “agains” in it before kids start asking when the next book about Donut will show up. Which, knowing Benton, it undoubtedly will.
Dream Dog. By Lou Berger. Illustrated by David Catrow. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Where’s My Homework? By Michael Garland. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Taking Care of Mama Rabbit. By Anita Lobel. Knopf. $11.99.
The places where reality meets fantasy are especially fascinating ones for kids ages 4-8 to explore. Dream Dog takes them there in style. It is the story of a boy named Harry, whose dad works at a pepper factory and is allergic to everything, which means a family dog is out of the question. But Harry really, really wants one. What to do? The answer is the X-35 Infra-Rocket Imagination Helmet, which Harry uses to conjure up his very own dog, Waffle. This occurs after a misadventure with a color-changing lizard, which Harry’s dad buys to try to satisfy Harry’s desire for a pet. “Harry tried to like the lizard, and he did, a little. He just didn’t love it.” So he gives it to his friend Mathilda, who does love it, and returns to pining for a dog – until the helmet idea occurs to him. This is a fairly straightforward plot, or would be if illustrated in a straightforward way, but David Catrow’s pictures are what make Lou Berger’s pleasant if rather ordinary story come vividly to life. The illustrations are, in a word, weird. But wonderfully weird. The lizard turning green and plaid, the enormous shopping-cart-pushing woman who almost runs it over, the ridiculously exaggerated thought thing that coalesces into Waffle, the sheer joy in Harry’s whole body when the dream dog appears, even the odd decorations hanging on walls and sitting atop tables at home – Catrow brings all these absurdities into the realm of delight, while at the same time beautifully illustrating the strong bond between boy and imaginary dog. The two-page illustration of Harry and Waffle in the bathtub, while Harry’s thoroughly befuddled father looks on, is just priceless, and so is the much smaller picture in which Harry’s dad – after finding a new job at the Ping-Pong-ball warehouse, where his allergies do not act up – shops for a real dog for Harry and gets to choose among some mighty strange creatures, one of which appears to have an eye the size of dad’s entire head. The rest of the book involves the way in which Harry takes the new dog, Bumper, into his life, finding a gentle and thoroughly satisfying way for Waffle to exit joyfully: “Harry was happy that Waffle was happy,” and that is the end, charmingly, of that.
A dog figures as well in Michael Garland’s Where’s My Homework? But this dog, whose name is Frumpy, appears in a story that goes well beyond the standard the-dog-ate-my-homework theme that Garland seems at first to be exploring. The boy narrator knows he did his homework, but he can’t find it anywhere; and after he searches for it on his desk, under his bed and in the bathtub, his speculations about what happened to it get wilder and wilder – with Garland’s illustrations going right along. Maybe aliens took it? Green, big-headed ones emitting red light from their eyes are seen scrutinizing the pages. Pirates, perhaps? One has a page on his hook, another two pages on his sword. Could a boa constrictor have slithered away with it? Could it be with the clowns at the circus? Maybe a wicked witch or dragon or some monkeys had something to do with the mysterious disappearance? As the boy gets more and more worried, as he imagines scenes in which Frumpy is frequently watching the weird things happening, readers will figure out what is going on; and yes, it turns out that Frumpy really did eat the homework. But all is not lost: the boy takes Frumpy to school, where a timely doggy burp brings all the pages right back, apparently legibly enough so the teacher and boy are both pleased with the way things have turned out. Young readers will be pleased, too – and highly amused.
The amusement is gentler and the story sweeter in Anita Lobel’s Taking Care of Mama Rabbit, which is intended for ages 3-7 but will probably be most enjoyable for kids at the low end of that age range. It is simply about a day on which Mama Rabbit stays in bed, not feeling well, while Papa goes out to get medicine for her and the family’s 10 little rabbits search for ways to make Mama feel better. A toy, a cookie, a pretty ribbon, a picture, a book – these and more help perk Mama up, so by the time Papa returns, she does not need the medicine at all, and she and Papa watch the “nicest, sweetest, cleverest little rabbits in the whole world” put on a show. The book is a touch too sweet for any but the youngest children at whom it is targeted, and the story will likely be too thin for many kids who are old enough to read it for themselves. The pictures are pleasantly old-fashioned, reminiscent of classic ones in Little Golden Books, although some of the expressions – such as those of Mama and Papa while watching the little rabbits’ show – seem a bit strained. Taking Care of Mama Rabbit is a (+++) book that will be most enjoyable for adults to read to kids who are not quite ready to read on their own, but who will like seeing ways in which children can make their parents who are a touch “under the weather” feel better.
The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe, 1940-1945. By Richard Overy. Viking. $36.
Perpetual fascination with the war that ended almost 70 years ago has led historians and scholars to continue to produce dense, detailed books about nearly every aspect of World War II. It could be argued that fictional books about the war, such as Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five, tell modern readers, the vast majority of whom were not born when the war ended, at least as much about the ethos of the war as extended factual accounts. There is nevertheless a sure place among war scholars and those who remain fascinated by the conflict for works such as The Bombers and the Bombed, a 562-page summation and dissection – including 125 pages of notes, bibliography and index – of the bombing campaign carried out by the Allies against Germany and its occupied territories in Europe.
This is not a book to be read casually, because its exhaustive level of detail can be daunting to wade through, and the style of Richard Overy, a professor of history at the University of Exeter, favors lengthy sentences and arguments parsed so carefully that they must often be read and re-read before a reader can be sure to have absorbed them. Just one typical example: “American officers had in many cases been drafted into the air force from business and professional backgrounds, which prepared them for the vocabulary and categories typical of modern managerial practice. The formal procedure laid down in July 1943 reflected that culture: a conference of key personnel at four in the afternoon before the operation at which the prospective weather determined the target to be attacked; target folders checked; fighter escort informed; calculation of type and weight of bombs and number of aircraft; notification of assigned combat groups; finally, determination of axis of attack, rendezvous point, route out, initial point (near the target run-in), altitudes, aiming point, rally point (just outside the target area), and route back.”
Readers unwilling to put up with page after page of this precision plodding may want to skim The Bombers and the Bombed to examine some of the ethical dilemmas posed by the air war in Europe – issues that continue to resonate today. The notion of “precision bombing” is itself imprecise, bombs and bombers never having become accurate enough during the war to avert very high civilian casualties. The extent to which civilians were deliberately targeted rather than becoming collateral damage is still a matter of dispute, but the fact is that, one way or the other, the Allied bombers killed bystanders by the many, many thousands. Some of the instances of extreme bombing have become well-known, such as the firestorm destruction of Dresden in the war’s waning days – actually just one of several firestorms that obliterated large portions of German cities. After the war, Dresden’s Frauenkirche was deliberately left in ruins, as were prominent churches in Hamburg and Berlin, as memorials to civilian suffering beneath the bombs – with the Frauenkirche finally being rebuilt early this century in an attempt, decades after the war, at reconciliation.
Overy’s book should give 21st-century readers some idea of just why reconciliation was needed, and why it took so long to come – if indeed it has. Many of the work’s most interesting and moving passages, and its most telling photographs, show civil defense efforts in Germany during and after bombing raids. Overy points out that nine million Germans eventually were evacuated from bombed cities – an astonishing number. Photos of the Hamburg firestorm of 1943 and of the circus elephants and concentration-camp inmates required to help clean up afterwards drive home, with an emotional punch that Overy’s highly detailed and scholarly text lacks, just how desperate matters were on the ground because of the Allied bombs.
One view is that the raids were intended to cause desperation in order to force the unconditional surrender that eventually was offered in 1945. Certainly air power was decisive in World War II: it was the nuclear bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the enormous number that fell in Europe, that ended the war. The Bombers and the Bombed is much more than a paean to air power, however. By including stories about the ground-level effects of the massive European bombing campaigns alongside detailed information on the campaigns themselves, by showing (among other things) a propaganda poster in which President Roosevelt smiles jauntily as bombs destroy Italy, Overy contrasts the “wide popular endorsement of the bombing campaign” with the realities of what the cost of the campaign was, both militarily and among civilians on the ground. Certainly postwar euphoria led to a belief that bombing was the long-sought solution to the difficulties of pursuing modern war – a belief given the lie in Vietnam. But the postwar response to the Allied bombing campaign in Europe is beyond the scope of The Bombers and the Bombed. What readers who want a great deal of detail about the intricacies of modern warfare will find here is an extremely carefully researched, well-balanced portrayal and explanation of a prime component of the Allied victory of 1945 – and its cost to all involved, both during the war and afterwards.
Hummel: Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 38, 39 and 40 Arranged for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano. Uwe Grodd, flute; Friedemann Eichhorn, violin; Martin Rummel, cello; Roland Krüger, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 4—Il barbiere di Siviglia; Il Turco in Italia; Sinfonia in E-flat; Ricciardo e Zoraide; Torvaldo e Dorliska; Armida; Le Comte Ory; Bianca e Falliero. Prague Sinfonia Orchestra conducted by Christian Benda. Naxos. $9.99.
Glière: Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Muromets.” Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos $9.99.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1; Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 12. Leon Fleisher, piano; Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester conducted by André Cluytens (Beethoven) and Georg Ludwig Jochum (Mozart). ICA Classics. $16.99.
Mozart: Symphony No. 35; Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche; Brahms: Symphony No. 1. Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Andromeda. $14.99 (2 CDs).
The standard classical-music repertoire is filled with so much beauty and so many attractions that it is easy to dwell within it constantly, rarely if ever exposing oneself to music that is off the beaten track. But at some point, for most people, the familiar, no matter how grand and beautifully performed, will begin to pall, and that is the time to explore less-known music – which can actually be done while hewing very closely to works with which most classical-music lovers are already thoroughly familiar. If that sounds like a contradiction, consider Mozart’s onetime house guest and pupil, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and the tribute he paid to his adored master by arranging some of Mozart’s symphonies as chamber music. No matter how well one knows Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 38, 39 and 40, it is unlikely that he or she is familiar with the Hummel arrangements that are quite wonderfully performed by Uwe Grodd, Friedemann Eichhorn, Martin Rummel and Roland Krüger on a new Naxos CD. Krüger takes the lead here – Hummel, a superb pianist himself, gave most of the thematic material to the piano – but these arrangements give plenty of scope to the other instruments as well. And they are not “mere” arrangements: Hummel inserted new accent patterns and changed some of the dynamics of the symphonies to try to bring out characteristics that he considered particularly significant. Whether or not one agrees with what Hummel did, the fact is that he worked with great skill and with full appreciation – near-reverence – for these works, producing versions with a fascinating sound (thanks in large part to attractive use of the flute) and considerable musical interest beyond their curiosity value. This is a disc that will send listeners back to the orchestral versions of the symphonies with a new understanding of what Mozart created and a new appreciation of his original instrumentation – a state of affairs of which Hummel would surely have approved.
There is nothing unfamiliar in the instrumentation of the Rossini overtures included in the fourth and final Naxos volume featuring the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra under Christian Benda. The exploration here comes from the music itself. Yes, the CD includes one of the best-known Rossini overtures of all, to Il barbiere di Siviglia – a work already heard in Volume 1 of this series as the overture to Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, Rossini never having hesitated to reuse and recycle his own music. Another of the composer’s most popular overtures, to Il Turco in Italia, is here as well. But the remaining works on the CD are much less known. They include the early Sinfonia in E-flat that the composer later adapted – in another instance of self-borrowing – to create the overture to his first operatic hit, La cambiale di matrimonio. And the remaining overtures are all tuneful and very adeptly constructed, from the very brief one to Le Comte Ory to the more-extended openings to Armida, Ricciardo e Zoraide, Torvaldo e Dorliska, and Bianca e Falliero. The creativity of Rossini’s overtures, and indeed of his operas, is sometimes underestimated because the composer was so facile at producing fine music and did use and reuse forms as well as actual sections of works (or entire pieces). But just as it is a mistake to consider Rossini’s operas formulaic – Armida, for example, calls for six (!) tenors – it is wrong to think of his overtures as all cut from the same musical cloth. As this very fine series has shown since its first volume, there is a great deal of variety as well as a great deal of pleasure in Rossini’s overtures, whether frequently performed or not.
Just as Rossini is generally known for only a handful of his overtures and a smaller handful of his operas, the music of Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) is generally heard only in performances of his Horn Concerto and his ballet The Red Poppy, particularly the Russian Sailor’s Dance from the stage work. But there is a great deal more worth exploring in this composer’s music, which includes three early symphonies – of which the huge Third is Mahlerian in scale and scope and dates to 1911, the year of Mahler’s death. More a set of connected tone poems than a fully integrated symphony – many listeners will no doubt be reminded of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred – Glière’s Third is known as “Il’ya Muromets” because it revolves around that legendary Russian hero (much as Tchaikovsky’s work focuses on Byron’s Manfred). The Glière work requires a very large orchestra that includes eight horns, two harps and a celesta, and it needs a conductor who can sustain the scene-setting as well as the dramatic elements without allowing the 70-minute work to flag (Tchaikovsky’s Manfred is shorter by some 20 minutes). JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic acquit themselves splendidly in their recording for Naxos, with the orchestra rising to the occasion with warmth and grandeur of sound and Falletta doing a first-rate job of contrasting Glière’s instances of extreme quiet with those of overwhelming massed sonority. The story, well-known in Russia but exotic elsewhere, is similar to those of many other legendary heroes, with Il’ya rising from powerlessness to become a great warrior, capable of defeating supernatural foes as well as earthbound ones – until led by his hubris to challenge the Celestial Army, resulting in the defeat of his forces and their being turned to stone. Glière’s grand-scale music is evocative and highly expressive, very much in the Romantic mode. Falletta’s accomplished conducting brings it to vivid life and should lead to a reconsideration of Glière’s music in general – perhaps even to a revival of interest in his other two symphonies.
Interestingly, it is not necessary to venture into unfamiliar repertoire in order to do some off-the-beaten-track musical exploration. Another way to broaden one’s horizons is to delve into unfamiliar performances of well-known works – particularly by listening to historic renditions by artists with soaring reputations, but ones concertgoers can no longer hear, for one reason or another. ICA Classics and Andromeda make this sort of exploration possible through their releases of music that is very well-known indeed – but not in the performances offered on these CDs. Leon Fleisher, before severe problems with his hands forced him off the concert stage for decades, was an absolutely phenomenal interpreter of the music of Beethoven, Mozart and others. The March 1960 live performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and March 1957 live recording of Mozart’s Concerto No. 12 (K. 414) show just why Fleisher (born 1928) left so many concertgoers awestruck. The fluidity of these performances, the lightness of touch and absolute command of the instrument under Fleisher’s hands, add up to a highly involving and engaging experience even though the ICA Classics monophonic sound is only so-so and both conductors are more workmanlike than inspired when leading the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester (subsequently renamed WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln). Fleisher has only been able to perform again with both hands within the last few years – his first CD release marking the occasion was in fact called “Two Hands” – and the pianist no longer gives concerts like the ones memorialized here. So this recording, although it gets a (+++) rating because of its sound and the less-than-stellar (although perfectly adequate) conducting, will be a real and rare treat for anyone wondering what all the fuss was about Fleisher in his youth.
Similarly, those interested in the continuing fascinating with the personality and musical abilities of Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) will be delighted to discover the two-CD set of the concert he gave at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in February 1955 – the first time the Berlin Philharmonic appeared in the United States after World War II, which had ended a decade before. The political importance of the concert was extremely high, a fact that makes the way it opens – with the national anthems of both the United States and Germany – especially significant. In many ways, this concert cemented the postwar geopolitical order, in which the United States and West Germany (with East Germany still under control of the Soviet Union) were firm allies against the spread of Communism. Many modern listeners will find the historical realities quaint, even irrelevant, but even they will be moved by the power and intensity that Karajan and the orchestra bring to this concert, especially in their grand and glorious handling of Brahms’ First Symphony. As with the Fleisher disc, this two-CD set is lacking in excellence when it comes to sound; no one will buy it as a first (or even second) version of the Brahms, much less as a definitive version of the Mozart and Strauss works. That makes this (+++) release one for those interested in Karajan’s conducting skill, his role as a musical ambassador in the years after World War II, and his ability to galvanize an orchestra and an audience with precisely played, finely honed performances of familiar works that sound poised, fresh and beautifully balanced under his leadership. This recording explores a vanished time and vanished set of political realities, and at the same time celebrates the enduring power of music that is both familiar and undeniably great.
Meine Seele: German Sacred Music. Matthew White, countertenor; Tempo Rubato conducted by Alexander Weimann. ATMA Classique. $16.99.
Il Diario di Chiara: Music from La Pietà in Venice in the 18th Century. Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Glossa. $18.99 (CD+DVD).
C.P.E. Bach: Complete Keyboard Concertos, Volume 20—Concerto in E-flat, Wq 47 (H 479); Concerto in F, Wq 46 (H 408); Sonatina in D, Wq 109 (H 543). Miklós Spányi and Cristiano Holtz, harpsichords; Tamás Szekendy, fortepiano; Concerto Armonico Budapest. BIS. $21.99.
E.T.A. Hoffmann: Missa in D minor; Miserere in B-flat minor. Sibylla Rubens and Jutta Böhnert, sopranos; Rebecca Martin, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Cooley, tenor; Yorck Felix Speer, bass; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln and WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Rupert Huber. CPO. $16.99.
Harrison Birtwistle: The Moth Requiem and Other Choral Works. Roderick Williams, baritone; BBC Singers and Nash Ensemble conducted by Nicholas Kok. Signum Records. $17.99.
It is a commonplace to speak of the enormous influence of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), but like other clichés, it is at once true and somewhat off the mark. Bach was not especially influential during or immediately after his own lifetime, being labeled “old Bach” when his music was considered rather passé – and then largely passed over in favor of his sons, notably Johann Christian and Carl Philipp Emanuel. It is also important to remember that J.S. Bach did not himself appear out of nowhere, having been substantially influenced by other composers and organists – and not only Dietrich Buxtehude. An excellent ATMA Classique CD called Meine Seele does a fine job of placing “old Bach” in historical perspective while giving listeners a chance to hear some genuine rarities of sacred music (and a touch of the secular as well) by composers who have long since vanished into total obscurity, as well as a couple who have not quite disappeared. The CD begins, quite fittingly, with one of Bach’s own sacred works, the cantata Widerstehe doch dir Sünde (BWV 54). Then it launches into a series of beautifully sung and played works that have in common the period in which they were written and the heartfelt nature of their communication. The only two reasonably familiar composers here are Bach’s great predecessor Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), represented by the brief concerto Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott, and Bach’s contemporary, Georg Muffat (1653-1704), from whom a very well-made secular organ passacaglia is offered. The other composers and works on this fascinating CD are Franz Tunder (1614-1667), with a very short Sinfonia sur “Da pacem Domine” and a motet, Salve, mi Jesu; Philipp Heinrich Erlebach (1657-1715), with Overture and Suite No. 3 and a cantata, Trocknet euch, ihr heissen Zähren; Johann Rosenmüller (1619-1684), with a motet, Ascendit Christus, and a pleasant set of secular dances; Johann Michael Bach (1648-1694), with an aria, Auf, laßt uns den Herren loben; and Christoph Bernhard (1628-1692), with the concerto Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele. The blurred boundaries between the sacred and secular are quite apparent on this CD – the notion that forms such as the concerto were entirely worldly was yet to emerge – and the elegant expressiveness of all the music is very well conveyed throughout.
As with J.S. Bach, so with his equally renowned contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), whose music influenced Bach and was arranged by him. Vivaldi was long associated with the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, but was scarcely the only important musician involved with the famous convent, orphanage and music school – although his accomplishments far overshadowed those of others, both composers and violinists. The intriguingly titled Il Diario di Chiara, which includes a CD of music and a DVD of the eponymous 32-minute film by Lucrezia Le Moli and Fabio Biondi, features works by Vivaldi and six other composers, all within the context of the life of Chiara (or Chiaretta), who was taken into the Ospedale della Pietà after being abandoned at the age of two months – and who rose to become one of the most acclaimed violinists and viola d’amore players in Europe in the middle of the 18th century. The personal diary of Chiara – who was taught by Vivaldi – is the underlying connection among the musical works on this Glossa release, which offers a series of concertos and sinfonias: two by Vivaldi, two by Antonio Martinelli, and one apiece by Giovanni Porta, Nicola Porpora, Gaetano Latilla, Fulgenso Perotti and Andrea Bernasconi. All these composers taught at the Ospedale della Pietà, and all were clearly highly accomplished in creating the music of their time, which is played by Europa Galante with real élan and close attention to period style. None of the pieces here is a particular standout musically, but that is not the point of this release. Three of the works, one of Vivaldi’s and both by Martinelli, are specifically dedicated to “S.ra Chiara,” and all the others are associated with her in one way or another. The recording thus stands as a tribute to an important virtuoso of her time and to the music that swirled around her and that she inspired – and it also serves to show how Vivaldi fit into the musical life of his time and place, just as Meine Seele does for J.S. Bach.
As the music of Vivaldi’s and J.S. Bach’s time evolved toward the Rococo and then the Classical, one of the primary figures in musical life was Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, whose middle name was a tribute to his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, who like “old Bach” is considered a grandest-of-the-grand Baroque composer. The transitional nature of C.P.E. Bach’s work, which is more dramatic and intense than the more-mannered Rococo compositions of his time and therefore leads more directly toward the world of the Mannheim Orchestra, Haydn and Mozart, is especially clear in his keyboard works, which have been explored in a wide-ranging and excellently played series from BIS. The 20th and final release in the series in many ways encapsulates C.P.E. Bach’s place in musical history, offering three works for double keyboard: a sonatina and an F major concerto for two harpsichords, plus an E-flat major concerto for harpsichord and the newer fortepiano – the most interesting work on the disc, showing clearly how the composer was trying to move beyond the Baroque models of his father while striving for expressiveness and use of new instrumental combinations within accepted but still-evolving forms. The influence of “old Bach” is still heard here, particularly in some of the virtuosic requirements placed upon the harpsichord, but the musical language is less contrapuntal and more emotionally direct than it generally was in the secular compositions of J.S. Bach – although still several steps from the intensity of later composers’ music.
The influence of “old Bach” on sacred music was in many ways deeper than his influence on instrumental works, permeating in sensibility, if not necessarily in structure, much later works from differing religious traditions. Thus, there are echoes of Bach’s time, if not directly of any specific work by him, even in the avowedly Catholic Missa and Miserere by E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822), who is far better known for his writings on music, his adoration of Mozart, and his creation of eerie stories that were enormously influential on composers and dramatists alike in the 19th century, than he is for his own compositions. There are about 85 of those, and although Hoffmann was Lutheran, one-quarter of his pieces are sacred works for use in Catholic worship – including the Missa in D minor and Miserere in B-flat minor that are beautifully performed on a new CPO disc. The Mass – for soloists, four-part choir, strings, organ, woodwinds (excluding flutes and oboes) and brass, with two horns added in some sections – has some small textual departures from the standard form but is otherwise rather conventional in design and approach, looking back toward the Classical era that in turn looked back through C.P.E. Bach to “old Bach.” The Miserere is more impressionistic and stronger in feeling, being more of a Romantic work – and one written almost entirely at a slow pace. Varied instrumentation among the piece’s 11 movements helps provide contrast despite the similar tempo indications and the exclusive use of flat keys. Interestingly, despite the somewhat Romantic feeling of the music – Hoffmann was a transitional figure between the Classical and Romantic periods, as C.P.E. Bach was between Baroque and Classical – Hoffmann’s Miserere actually looks directly back through a tradition that stretches to Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere of the early 17th century, before the days of “old Bach,” all the way to that of the Renaissance of Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521). This very well sung disc of Hoffmann’s sacred music not only shows him as a composer of considerable skill but also makes clear the extent to which his time owed a debt to the Baroque and even before.
Nor does the debt end there, as may be seen in a very fine Signum Records release that includes six world première recordings of choral works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934). The clearest connection between this very modern composer, whose theatricality pervades his music even when it is not overtly written for the stage, and the music of J.S. Bach and other antecedents, is heard on this CD in Three Latin Motets from “The Last Supper” (1999), taken from Birtwistle’s operatic retelling of the Last Supper story through a character meant to represent the audience, and in The Moth Requiem (2012), a work for 12 female voices, three harps and flute that manages to be thoroughly modern-sounding while still evocative of Requiem settings of the past. Birtwistle’s complex music, which often involves juxtaposition of sound blocks and sometimes, especially in earlier pieces such as Carmen Paschale (1965), has a distinctly ritualistic feel, will surely not be to all tastes; but this (+++) disc provides an effective introduction to it – and is particularly well performed. Birtwistle’s music certainly sounds nothing like that of “old Bach” or, for that matter, of E.T.A. Hoffmann, but it does draw on similar themes and reinterpret them through a contemporary lens. The Ring Dance of the Nazarene (2003), the longest work on the new CD, does so clearly, just as Birtwistle’s very brief Lullaby (2006) and lengthier On the Sheer Threshold of the Night (1980) recall atmospheric music of the past without being directly beholden to any specific work or composer. Those seeking insight into a significant modern British choral composer will find a good deal of it here.
Ferenc Farkas: Orchestral Music, Volume One. Miklós Perényi, cello; MÁV Symphony Orchestra conducted by Péter Csaba. Toccata Classics. $18.99.
Peter Boyer: Symphony No. 1; Three Olympians; Silver Fanfare; Festivities; Celebration Overture. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Boyer. Naxos. $9.99.
Vincent Persichetti: Works for Violin and Piano. Hasse Borup, violin; Heather Conner, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Lent at Ephesus. The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. Decca. $12.99.
Listeners interested in forays into some unfamiliar territory that is very, well, listenable, have many directions in which to turn as classical-music labels explore composers and compositions that are well outside the standard repertoire – for whatever reason. The music of Hungarian composer Ferenc Farkas (1905-2000) is very little known outside Hungary itself, never having achieved the international status accorded the music of Bartók and Kodály. But on the basis of a new Toccata Classics release, the first disc of a planned series devoted to him, Farkas has more than enough skill and charm to belong in international concerts, at least from time to time. The works on this CD were written over a span of more than half a century, but all share certain pleasant characteristics: a fondness for dance tunes (not necessarily folk dances) and for Baroque forms, often-bright and always well-articulated rhythms, and generally very enjoyable tunes that are far less overtly modern than those of Farkas’ more-famous contemporaries. That means this music has less of a “modern” sound than much of the music of Bartók and Kodály, and accordingly is less distinctive – but often more immediately accessible. All the music here is easy to listen to and very well-crafted: Divertimento for Orchestra (1930), the earliest work here and the longest; March Suite for chamber orchestra (1947); Lavotta Suite (1951), also for chamber orchestra; Concertino all’antica (1964) for cello and string orchestra, a particularly enjoyable blend of solo virtuosity with Baroque-era forms; Trittico concertato, also from 1964 and also for cello and string orchestra; and Maschere for chamber orchestra (1983), which despite its late date shows no flagging of Farkas’ creativity – and also no significant formal or emotive advances over the earlier works, which some will deem a lack while others consider it a strength. Four of these six pieces have never been recorded before – only the two cello-and-orchestra works have previously been available – and it is quite pleasurable finally to have a chance to hear this well-constructed and appealing music, which is very effectively and idiomatically performed by cellist Miklós Perényi and the MÁV Symphony Orchestra under Péter Csaba .
Peter Boyer (born 1970) offers accessible and well-made works, too, his American sensibility brought out in different structures and forms as well as a different handling of thematic material. And Boyer actually gets somewhat more-frequent performances, at least in some quarters, than does Farkas. A new Naxos CD shows him to be a very effective conductor of his own music, and shows that music itself to be pleasant and generally forthright. There are three overtly celebratory works here that come across particularly well: Celebration Overture (1997, revised 2001), Silver Fanfare (2004), and Festivities (2011). They are just as upbeat and easy to hear as their titles imply, and the London Philharmonic delivers them with considerable panache. Three Olympians (2000) is more of a musical-portrait piece, the three Greek gods portrayed being Apollo, Aphrodite and Ares – and if the music for each is on the predictable side, it makes for strong characterization and an interpretation of these immortals’ roles quite different from that of, say, Gustav Holst, whose juxtaposition in The Planets of Mars (Ares) and Venus (Aphrodite) is far more familiar but no more valid than Boyer’s. The most-thoughtful work here is Symphony No. 1, a very recent piece (2012-13) whose three movements parallel in some ways those of Three Olympians, with the symphony having an opening Prelude followed by Scherzo/Dance and then an extended and often moving concluding Adagio that is nearly as long as the first two movements combined. It would be overstating to call this a profound piece, but it does have things to say, and it communicates them in a musical language that is characteristically modern without being at all off-putting – indeed, it will remind some listeners of the music of Leonard Bernstein, to whose memory it is dedicated.
Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987) had a modern language of his own, one that he used prolifically in a dozen piano sonatas and 25 so-called Parables, as well as a good deal of vocal, band and chamber music. The fact that his works are infrequently played may be attributed to the reality that he was more a stylistic integrator than an innovator: he absorbed, melded, used and reused various 20th-century musical approaches and clearly understood them well, but was more influential as a teacher (of Einojuhani Rautavaara, Philip Glass and many others) than as a composer. Still, Persichetti’s works are well worth hearing, and the chamber music very ably performed by Hasse Borup and Heather Conner on a new Naxos CD shows Persichetti to be undeserving of his comparative neglect. In fact, none of the 10 pieces here has been recorded before – a state of affairs that is hard to imagine when listening to these well-wrought miniatures, none of them running even 10 minutes and most being considerably shorter. Among the works here are Persichetti’s six piano sonatinas, written in 1950 and 1954 and lasting from 90 seconds to four minutes – miniatures indeed. His Op. 10 Sonata for Solo Violin (1940), a very early work, gives the performer ample opportunity for expressiveness. And there are three pieces here for violin and piano together: the Op. 15 Sonata of 1941; Serenade No. 4, Op. 28, of 1945; and Masques, Op. 99, which dates to 1965. It was not until the 1950s that Persichetti developed his own distinct musical voice through the absorption and blending of various styles, so among the works here, only Masques can really be said to represent “mature” Persichetti. But all the pieces show his understanding of the instruments for which they were written and his ability to produce works that lie well on them and provide performers as well as listeners with well-thought-out material that is certainly worth exploring.
The explorations of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, are of a different sort, being wholly focused on the use of music to express and expand upon their contemplative religious mission. The monastic life of these nuns, who spend most of their non-praying time making vestments for priests and taking care of gardens and a small farm, would likely seem constricting to most of those who hear their new Decca recording. But like their two previous CDs, Angels and Saints at Ephesus and Advent at Ephesus, this disc actually shows the artistic depth of the lifestyle lived by this highly devoted Midwest order as the Sisters use their eight-times-daily prayers as occasions for singing together. The charms of Lent at Ephesus are purely musical ones, the 25 short tracks in English and Latin being uniformly uplifting and one and all beautifully harmonized and sung with feeling. It is, however, true that there is a certain degree of sameness to the material, both because of the highly traditional religious subject matter and because of the very similar sound of the Sisters from track to track. Thus, the CD as a whole is somewhat less compelling and involving than are its individual elements, or small groups of them. Those who are highly devout and dedicated to traditional organized religion will find the disc more congenial than will those whose spirituality is of a different sort. But even nonbelievers will likely be moved by the sincerity and musical clarity that is so much in evidence here in every one of these brief, deeply felt short vocal pieces.
February 27, 2014
Ever After. By Kim Harrison. Harper Voyager. $27.99.
The Undead Pool. By Kim Harrison. Harper Voyager. $27.99.
Reconciliation and forgiveness, it turns out, together make up the overarching theme of the marvelous series of novels of “The Hollows” by Kim Harrison, the pen name used for this sequence by Dawn Cook. Whether Harrison intended this theme from the beginning or evolved it as the books went on is an open question and, this far into the series, a moot point. What is going on now as the planned 13-book grouping nears its conclusion with its 11th and 12th entries is that the increasingly complicated and elegant structure of the books is beginning to wind tightly toward an eventual form of gathering-together that is sure to have its unhappy, even tragic moments, but that will prove fully satisfying to readers who have followed the adventures of Rachel Morgan since the first Hollows novel, Dead Witch Walking, appeared a decade ago.
Foreshadowings of where this outstanding fantasy series are going now appear everywhere, although they do not indicate precisely where things will end up or, equally important, how they will get to whatever that place is – Harrison is far too skilled a writer for that, and is becoming better with almost every book despite a touch of backsliding here and there. For example, in the 11th novel, Ever After, Ceri, a subsidiary but important character, tells Rachel – who narrates all the books – that Trent Kalamack, a decidedly non-subsidiary character who is becoming ever more central to the narrative, is “more than he ever was, more than just himself.” And readers will immediately connect this statement to Rachel, whom we initially meet as a witch but who, in various books, has assumed an important intermediary role among the weres (werewolves) and vampires as well, who is connected with such disparate species as pixies and gargoyles, and who is now known to be a day-walking demon – a role that makes her existence crucial to the survival of the entire demon species.
If the names of these various species seem unclear or too clear, you are not familiar with Harrison’s series, in which the supernatural beings are not at all what they are elsewhere in popular culture – or are what they are expected to be but are, at the same time, more. This is one thing that gives the Hollows novels their depth and staying power. Another is the sheer intricacy of the plots of each novel and of the series as a whole. New readers should not try to jump into the Hollows with Ever After or the 12th book, The Undead Pool, because they will quickly find themselves in over their heads (speaking of pools!) through the most apparently casual of references, which in fact are quite deep and are crucial to the ever-developing plot – such as Rachel’s throwaway lines in Ever After, “I’ve had four relationships in two years. One was a thief, one died as a political gift, one walked away because I was shunned, and the last is a slave in the ever-after.” This is absolutely true and, in a sense, recapitulates the plots of several lengthy and dense novels in a couple of sentences, while reminding readers of how much has happened in a very short time span. In fact, to fans of this series, the statement will be tremendously resonant as well as predictive, or at least potentially predictive, of where things are going. To anyone trying to get into the series now, however, it will make little if any sense – with the result that any newcomers will get less than they could from it and from the events that follow.
Those events, in both these books, not only expand but also tighten the “reconciliation” theme that underlies so much here. Rachel’s need to reconcile the different elements of her own personality – witch and demon – is only one part of it. The greater part involves reconciliation of the entire world, or rather worlds, of magic and non-magic. The overt plot of Ever After involves the shrinking of “the ever-after,” the world parallel to reality in which the demons live – and the place responsible for the existence of all magic, which will disappear if the ever-after does. Rachel, who is responsible (more or less) for the shrinkage in the first place, has to find a way to arrest and reverse it for the sake of all magic-wielding species. There is much, much more to the plot that that – Harrison’s plots are complex to the point of convolution – but readers who focus on the “save the ever-after” elements of the book will readily see how they fit into the theme of reconciling opposites.
And that theme is inexorably moving toward a reconciliation of the two races whose genocidal war, long in the past, set in motion all the events of the entire Hollows series: demons and elves. Rachel’s inborn demon nature makes an eventual relationship between her and Trent, who is not only an elf but also the elves’ greatest hope of rebounding from the near-extinction that they face because of their long-ago war with the demons, inevitable; and there have been many, many hints of it in previous books, dating back to the childhood that Rachel and Trent shared in fraught and complicated ways. However, this is not a straightforward Romeo-and-Juliet story and is far from a simple “opposites attract” plot – it is a tale not of two enmity-filled families but of two species that have almost succeeded in destroying each other and that can be reconciled only at great mutual peril, through a series of near-disasters with Rachel at the center of pretty much all of them. The fact that the posed cover of The Undead Pool includes, for the first time in the series, a model portraying Trent as well as one portraying Rachel, is scarcely an accident. By the time of this 12th book, there is a deeply felt and entirely believable relationship not only between Rachel and Trent but also between the forms of magic they represent: here, Trent’s elven magic, which is as unreliable as it is potent, is the only way of stopping a kind of “magical misfiring” of the forms of magic with which Rachel is familiar – and “misfiring” is too mild a word, since the events of the book (which, like almost all the Hollows novels, takes place in and around Cincinnati, of all places) involve what could become an all-out war among the supernatural species.
Looking at Rachel as the ultimate reconciler, in this book and throughout the series, is important, but is scarcely necessary to enjoy the novels as pure entertainment, which they manage to be (through elements such as their titles’ references to Clint Eastwood movies) even as they are something more. Using far deeper characterization than is offered in the vast majority of fantasy novels – indeed, far more than most mainstream novels provide – Harrison allows Rachel to be a highly flawed character (whiny, unsure of herself, romantically and sexually confused, impulsive, frequently indecisive until the last possible instant and sometimes just a shade afterwards) while still making her centrality to the individual books’ stories and the sequence as a whole abundantly clear. Trent is himself no angel – far, far from it, having proved at various points in the series to be a drug lord, killer and torturer, and a businessman who is ruthless almost to the point of parody (although Harrison handles his story so well that even the worst of his crimes turn out to be only apparent crimes – a fact that is not always clear, however, within the specific novels in which they occur). But the reality of the Hollows series is that Rachel and Trent, who needed each other (or whose families needed each other) in childhood, need each other as adults, too, for purposes that go far beyond their individual lives. This is becoming clearer and clearer as the books progress, but Harrison is so good at managing the story (and her readers) that it remains tantalizingly uncertain, even at this late stage in the Hollows series, exactly where things are going to end up and exactly how this very complex tapestry will eventually be completed and displayed.
It will be, though. Any reader who doubts it has missed one of the most important reconciliation elements in the books to date: Jenks, Rachel’s pixy partner and one of Harrison’s most wonderful creations, has accepted into his family and become dependent on a now-wingless fairy named Belle – who in turn has become surrogate mother to Jenks’ many children after the heartbreaking death of Jenks’ wife, Matalina, for which Belle’s clan was responsible. Pixies and fairies are sworn mortal enemies, have been from time immemorial, and fight to the death at every opportunity. If this sounds like the situation involving elves and demons, it should, because the parallel is very clear to anyone who wants to see it. Thanks to Rachel, there has been a breakthrough – not a universal or perfect one, but a major one nonetheless – in the relationship between two species that have long sought nothing less than to exterminate each other. Inept and uncertain of herself and her powers Rachel may be, but she has proved, again and again, to be an (imperfect) peacemaker against impossible odds. She proves it again in Ever After and The Undead Pool, as Harrison inexorably moves the Hollows series closer to a conclusion in which the reconciling of opposites is sure to be the major theme – but with enough complications and uncertainties remaining to keep fans of the Hollows novels talking about them long after the sequence comes to an end.
Belly Laughs: The Naked Truth about Pregnancy and Childbirth. By Jenny McCarthy. Da Capo. $13.99.
Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide. By Heather Dakota. Illustrated by Ali Castro. Designed by Bill Henderson, Ali Castro, and Heather Dakota. Scholastic. $10.99.
One way to decide just how truthful, amusing and involving you find a celebrity-written book to be is by imagining it is not written by a celebrity. Would you find everything just as worthwhile if you had no idea who the author was? If the answer is no – as it likely will be, for most readers, in Jenny McCarthy’s Belly Laughs – then you are reading the book because of the celebrity connection, not for the work’s content. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you are gaining great insight into something or other – pregnancy, in the case of McCarthy’s book – when what you are really getting is a bunch of thoughts from some celebrity whom you happen to like and whose words (or whose ghostwriter’s words) you are therefore interested in seeing. This 10th anniversary edition of McCarthy’s book is the same as the one originally published in 2004, except for a new introduction. The intro asks readers to sympathize with the “tough” life of the co-host of ABC’s “The View” at the time she wrote the book: everybody to whom her agent sent it rejected it, McCarthy writes, until, “just as I was about to spend my last bit of savings, the phone rang.” And the rest, of course, is history. Readers who believe this and find it heartwarming are definitely the target audience here. Oh – and about that ghostwriting thing – “No one helped me write it. I even typed with one finger so I could hold [son] Evan the entire time.” And now that McCarthy has, as she says, written seven more books, “I love writing so much that I would type with just my pinky toe if that’s all I had left to write with.” So McCarthy fans will have a great time with the book. Will others? Well, the target audience is mothers-to-be who want to read about “the gross and vulnerable side of pregnancy,” and the question is whether potential readers who have no idea who McCarthy is will want that information from her. If you do, this is where you will find out, for example, that “everything in that [grocery] store disgusted me” early in pregnancy, and that “the only healthy [sic; she means “healthful”] thing I ever got down in nine months was an apple. …Health food DISGUSTED me.” You will find out about the ultrasound that revealed “the largest baby penis on the screen that I have ever seen (not that I’ve seen all that many, mind you).” You will learn that “hemorrhoids are no laughing matter” and that if you have them, you should ask your doctor for a stool softener. You will be introduced to “a giant rack of the ugliest, biggest, and most comfortable-looking bras I had ever seen. A MATERNITY BRA! …Surrender to the maternity bra and your world will be transformed.” You will find a suggestion to “carry a little air freshener in your purse” and “invest in some scented candles” for your home because of how gassy pregnant women get. “Obviously, this whole book is devoted to all the strange things that happen to you while pregnant,” writes McCarthy, and if you are interested in reading about those things in deliberately coarse language from a B-movie actress and TV personality, Belly Laughs is a good place to do so. Would you find this information, written in these words and with this attitude, interesting or helpful if you had no idea who wrote it? On that question depends the answer to another: will you find this book refreshingly plainspoken or merely gross and trashy?
Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide is supposed to be gross, but in the “ewwwww” sense in which kids use the word rather than the way adults do. It is an odd little book, a spiral-bound, nicely designed volume intended to cash in on the current craze for zombies (which have largely replaced vampires and werewolves as the creatures-of-the-moment). Tabbed sections called “The Zombie Virus,” “Zombie Identification Guide” and “Survival Skills” are supposed to lead young readers through the coming zombie invasion – which is actually presented here as a fait accompli. The peculiarity of this book is that its instances of humor are coupled with material designed to be taken very seriously indeed. On the one hand, “Due to decomposition, a zombie is going to smell really bad. …They do breathe, but it is more out of habit than anything.” On the other hand, the book contains accurate (if very brief) discussions of the Black Death, the plague of Justinian, the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, the first cholera pandemic (early 19th century), smallpox and yellow fever and SARS – all genuine, frightening and truly deadly events that the book places in the same category as the nonexistent “zombie virus” and discusses in very similar language. This may be intended to provide a sense of what-if or potential realism to the whole zombie fascination, but it is rather creepy, and not in the sense that the book’s creators intend: it reduces genuine human turmoil, terror and death to the level of something make-believe. Granted, this is not the main part of the book, but the discussions of genuine occurrences are prominent and prolonged enough to give Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide a bit more of a grossness factor than its creators likely intended. What they really want, of course, is to present sections such as “Zombie Biology 101,” which includes statements including this: “Eventually, a zombie will lose all its teeth because they are not adapted to the force applied by the jaw.” And “how to defend yourself” information that is adapted for various zombie types: fresh, walker, runner, crawler, rambler. And such “helpful” notes as this: “Domestic animals will be your companions or helpers as they alert you to the approach of a zombie horde. However, if food is scarce, they may be looking at you as their next meal.” The book includes warnings to “travel light” and “double knot your shoelaces.” Also: “Avoid heavily populated areas. That’s where the zombies are.” Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide proffers the contents of a survival kit and contains suggestions for finding water (including accurate information on purifying it – another part of the book that mixes the real with the make-believe); information (again, accurate) on cloud patterns and weather prediction; and material on first aid, knot tying and much more. Then there are distractions: “There is nothing better than setting zombies up for a practical joke,” such as throwing a glow-in-the-dark, super-bouncing ball toward zombies and watching them shamble and shuffle as they try to grab it (this is what passes for humor here). There are even back-of-the-book presentations of a zombie identification quiz and a glossary. Of course, none of this is intended to be taken seriously, and all of it (including the lenticular cover, in which a smiling boy turns into a snarling zombie) is supposed to give readers a few chills and, as noted, a big helping of the “ewwwww” factor. Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide does all that, but it also mixes reality and unreality in some rather unsavory ways, not all of which seem to have been intended to produce the effects that they do in fact create.
Road Rash. By Mark Huntley Parsons. Knopf. $16.99.
Love Me: A Starstruck Novel. By Rachel Shukert. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
Just Grace, Star on Stage. By Charise Mericle Harper. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $5.99.
Ah, the lures of fame! They include money, notoriety, sex, money, independence, an entourage, money, and did we mention money? Mark Huntley Parsons, a recording-studio owner who has played drums with various club bands, creates a coming-of-age novel built around a band’s quest for fame in Road Rash. It has every element readers will expect: stagings, group dynamics, relationship issues, travel, finding-out-who-you-are situations, and there’s even some music in there somewhere – although it is scarcely the focus of the book. Zach, the book’s central character, writes songs that help him cope with life’s usual reverses and which imply that his difficulties are somehow special but at the same time universal (typical for popular music). He loves drumming: “There’s something about playing the drums that’s different from any other instrument. Maybe it’s the physical part. I man, you’re generating sounds by hitting things. …It’s just so – primal.” He doesn’t love audiences that fail to respond to his band’s original music and prefer tunes they already know. He also doesn’t love being dumped by his band and needing to find another, although when he does find one and starts on a summer road trip, things are pretty cool. Until, inevitably, they aren’t. But sometimes they are, as when Zach sends a song that a fellow band member has shot down to a radio station for a second opinion, and it gets picked up for a compilation CD. There’s plenty of “in-sounding” rock-music writing here: “So I set up a microphone while he got his Strat and his little Fender practice amp. He dialed up the perfect tone – dark, dirty-sweet, drenched in spring reverb, with a little tremolo added, set to pulse in time with the eighth notes.” And there are the usual girl-back-home vs. girl-on-the-road complications, and the entirely unsurprising “Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy” (a real chapter title) climax, and everything is so all-fired great and wonderful that every garage-band member reading Road Rash will be convinced again, if additional convincing is needed, that he (or she) is destined to be the next rock god. It is all total nonsense, but feel-good nonsense, and feeling good is what the book is all about.
Not so Love Me, sequel to Rachel Shukert’s Starstruck, in which the yearning for stardom and money and love and sex and, yes, money, takes place in Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, where three teenage girls are trying to claw their way to the top. And “claw” is the operative word, since everyone is out to scratch, grab and attach herself to film fame by any means necessary, heartbreak and trouble notwithstanding. Margo is the girl who is closest to living this wholly evanescent dream, being talked about as a possible Oscar contender for her very first film role (the book is a fantasy, remember). Amanda has broken up with a writer named Harry Gordon and is thoroughly miserable, sure that she can get him back and show him that she is the one for him, if he will only listen. And then there is Gabby, who is well on the way to becoming an alcoholic, busily drinking when she is not popping pills. As the book’s title hints, Amanda is not the only protagonist with man issues: Margo and Gabby actually have men in their lives, too. Margo is living with Dane Forest, and everything about that is great except that it is important for her image and his that the public not find out. And Gabby has her sights set on a musician named Eddie Sharp, who is every bit as unreliable as she is, which makes them so not a perfect pair. The writing here is the sort of breathlessly silly type associated with old-fashioned Hollywood romances: “He cares. The words thrummed through Amanda over and over again, like a heartbeat. Harry still cares.” “He held out his hand to her. A little shiver went up Gabby’s spine at his touch.” “Margo drank the rest of her brandy in one gulp and reached forward to pour herself another very small one. She was beginning to feel better. …The lights of Hollywood receded as the limo began the slow climb into the hills.” “Everything in the hushed lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, from the crystal chandeliers to the giant potted ferns to the exquisitely arranged groupings of antique gilt furniture, screamed money.” Trials, traumas and trouble abound here – well, of course – and portentous comments such as, “There was too much sparkling chaos in Hollywood. When you looked up, you couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t.” You can, however, tell what is real in Love Me – exactly nothing, including a conclusion that sets up the next book in this sequence for the starstruck.
Younger and more innocent readers can, of course, be starstruck as well, and they are the target audience for Charise Mericle Harper’s Just Grace, Star on Stage. Harper fills the book with cute illustrations that nicely complement writing of this sort: “If someone is behaving perfectly good on the outside, there’s nothing you can do about what they are doing on their insides.” It is a bit hard to tell whether the grammatical and expressive errors in the book are accidental or intended by Harper to reflect third-grader Grace’s first-person narration – sometimes they seem to partake of both reasons. The plot of this ninth book about Grace, which was originally published in 2012 and is now available in paperback, involves a class play in which Grace is determined to be the capital-s Star. Grace, however, does not get the Fairy Queen part that she wants, but she does get an important part – the play’s narrator – and comments, “Why I am an even better actress than everyone knows: I went to the play practice and did an excellent job of pretending that nothing was wrong” (a statement that Harper neatly illustrates with “what I look like on the outside” and “what I feel like on the inside” drawings). The book meanders through play rehearsals, not-too-serious pettiness and jealousy, and eventually a surprise that puts Grace on stage in a way she never expected – leading to a successful performance that everyone enjoys, in spite of (or because of) some unanticipated elements. The Just Grace books are unfailingly pleasant and upbeat and are easy to read, with the many illustrations and frequent all-capitals headings and subheads breaking up the narrative into small, easily digestible bits (“The Play Invitation,” “What Had Never Happened Before,” “What I Was Knowing,” “The Good Idea to Fix It,” “What Is Really Fun to Do,” and many more). The incessant cheerfulness can be a bit much to take, but certainly fans of the first eight books will enjoy this ninth entry as well as those to come: Grace is, within her small universe, a star that shines brightly.
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. By danah boyd. Yale University Press. $25.
An apologia for teen behavior and a book that is a mixture of the obvious and the unexpected, presented at times with genuine insight and at others with overweening self-importance that borders on arrogance, It’s Complicated uses a combination of primary research and a large number of comments by teenagers – all taken at face value – to try to explain just how, why, to what extent and for what purpose today’s teens seem to remain electronically in touch with themselves and the larger world practically all the time.
There are some genuinely fascinating insights here, but readers must decouple them from statements so bland that it is hard to take them seriously: “Childhood has changed.” “Learning is a lifelong process.” And it also helps to pass over lightly such non-revelatory revelations as: “A gap in perspective exists because teens and parents have different ideas of what sociality should look like.” Well, duh.
Stylistic quirks abound here as well. One involves author danah boyd’s insistence on not capitalizing her name – a decision she explains (online, not in the book) with specious, self-indulgent reasoning that is so convoluted as to call into question her ability to make objective judgments in other matters. (The argument essentially comes down to “I get to define myself and call myself whatever I want,” the same sort of statement that has historically been used and abused in discussions over whether to use such words as Negro, colored person, black, Afro-American, African-American, person of color, and so on.)
Another oddity, more germane to the book, is boyd’s insistence on using the plural word “media” as if it is singular, resulting, among many other things, in a chapter called
“Is Social Media Amplifying Meanness and Cruelty?” There are also many sentences along the lines of, “Social media does not radically rework teens’ social networks.”
To the extent that these and other peculiarities become distractions, they interfere with the power of boyd’s arguments and the discoveries she has made. And that is too bad, because It’s Complicated does have revelatory elements. “Taken out of context, what teens appear to do and say on social media seems peculiar if not outright problematic,” writes boyd, and she then works on providing the context. One of her most interesting observations is that networked teens make a distinction between “being public” and “being in public,” which means, from teens’ perspective, that in many cases, adults such as parents and potential employers can see what teens are doing online but shouldn’t. This is a very naïve attitude (although as with other statements made by the teens she talks to, boyd simply accepts it at face value), but it is in line with typical teenagers’ feelings of self-importance and of being able to control their environment, shaping it to their liking. Indeed, one of boyd’s comments is that “teens fabricate information…seeking to control the networked social content”; this, boyd says, explains outright falsities posted online. Teens then claim to be puzzled or even angry (again, boyd takes the reactions at face value) when adults respond with concern or worry about false postings involving, among other things, sex and drugs.
One of boyd’s theses is that “teens’ mediated interactions sometimes complement or supplement their face-to-face encounters,” with social-media communication today being in effect an update on teens’ endless talks on landline phones some decades ago; indeed, boyd remarks on the pre-cellphone days in which teens used portable phones to go into rooms where they could have some privacy while talking – those were, in a sense, prototypes of “chat rooms,” which are predecessors of social media (although boyd does not state the connection). The burden of accepting and understanding the behavior of networked teens lies squarely with adults, boyd argues – perhaps taking a little too seriously her own self-description as “a researcher passionate about the health and well-being of young people.” Teens have no obligation to explain themselves or their online behavior to adults, according to boyd: “Teens’ engagement with social media – and the hanging out it often entails – can take up a great deal of time. To many adults, these activities can look obsessive and worthless. …[A]dults must recognize what teens are trying to achieve and work with them to find balance and to help them think about what they are encountering.”
It is certainly in the interest of adults, especially parents, to understand what always-networked teens are doing and why, although boyd’s overview of the matter is not entirely helpful in noting that “few ask why teens embrace each new social technology with such fervor. …Both entertainment and sociality are key reasons.” What is helpful in It’s Complicated is the way boyd explores some genuinely intriguing elements of teenage interconnectedness, such as the phenomenon of “digital self-harm,” in which some teens behave in ways that adults find troubling and puzzling, for example by posting nasty questions that appear to be thrown at them by others – and then answering them. This is an up-to-date version of the “cry for help” that teens have engaged in, often in self-destructive ways, for many years. Unfortunately, boyd does a better job of exploring the phenomenon than of prescribing a way for adults to deal with it, falling back on the tired “society has to be different” non-solution: “Although not all youth who are struggling cry out for help online, many do. And when they do, someone should be there to recognize those signs and react constructively. …But it requires creating a society in which adults are willing to open their eyes and pay attention to youth other than their own children.”
The Internet, boyd repeatedly indicates, is not in itself a force for societal change (“the mere existence of new technology neither creates nor magically solves cultural problems”); but it certainly is responsible for changes in the ways in which teenagers relate to each other and to the world at large. It’s complicated, true, as the book’s title asserts. But ultimately “it” (whatever “it” is) is no more complicated than the angst-ridden uncertainty and immaturity of teenagers of prior generations. The difference is that “it” is now played out in a far more public and easily scrutinized manner, even if teens’ misguided sense of immortality and empowerment makes them feel that they can control what they do and how society perceives their activities, and that they have an inalienable right to exercise that control.