April 20, 2017
The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors. By Drew Daywalt. Pictures by Adam Rex. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Plankton Is Pushy. By Jonathan Fenske. Scholastic. $14.99.
One of the cleverest, oddest and most successfully offbeat picture books of recent times, Drew Daywalt’s The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors is a near-perfect melding of utter absurdity with storytelling panache and absolutely superlative Adam Rex illustrations. It has such a mundane thing at its foundation – and that is what makes it so fabulous. It is a super-heroic telling of the entirely fictional and utterly hilarious “origin” of the rock-paper-scissors game that kids (and some adults) love to play: rock crushes scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper wraps rock, and so on and so forth. What Daywalt and Rex do so brilliantly here is turn this silly, simple game into a ridiculously overblown story of legendary heroes – a melodramatic-but-mundane masterpiece of overstatement and over-earnestness. It starts in “the Kingdom of Backyard,” where scowling hero Rock (in the utterly ordinary setting of a lawn, with a garden hose behind him) sets off for “the mysterious Forest of Over by the Tire Swing” in search of a challenge to his prowess. And he encounters “a warrior who hung on a rope, holding a giant’s underwear” – that is, a clothespin. And Rock challenges the “ridiculous wooden clip-man” to battle, and the clothespin promises to “pinch you and make you cry,” and the exaggerated angles used to display the scenes are right out of the basic playbook of movie and TV directors seeking to build up the size and importance of their characters. The words “Rock versus Clothespin!” are so huge that they barely fit on one page, and “Rock Is Victorious!” covers half of the next one as Rock smashes the clothespin into pieces. But Rock, “still unsatisfied,” continues his quest, and soon ridiculously accepts the challenge of “an odd and delicious fruit” – an apricot – after Rock says it looks “like a fuzzy little butt” and it promises to defeat Rock with its “tart and tangy sweetness.” One smooshed apricot later and the quest continues – and we cut, in perfect cinematic style, to another quest, this one from “the Empire of Mom’s Home Office,” where Paper, “the smartest warrior in all the land,” also seeks his equal. Threatened by a computer printer, he causes a paper jam in the “giant box-monster,” and he too progresses against other astonishing foes, including the absolutely hilarious “half-eaten bag of trail mix.” And then there is the third quest, from “the Kitchen Realm, in the tiny village of Junk Drawer,” from which Scissors emerges to do battle with a “tacky and vaguely round monstrosity” with “adhesive and tangling powers.” Scissors defeats the roll of tape and, soon afterwards, encounters and conquers the “dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets” from “the frigid wastes of Refrigerator/Freezer.” The three quests eventually bring the three battle-hardened heroes together, and each defeats each in the time-honored way of the kids’ game – and each is happy to be defeated, for all have sought only to meet their match, which they finally do. And thus begins a friendship for the ages, memorialized in the game that children (and some adults) still enjoy playing today – and anyone who does not enjoy this fabulously fabricated “origin” story deserves to be pummeled by Rock, tightly wrapped by Paper, and cut up by Scissors, all at the same time.
Jonathan Fenske’s Plankton Is Pushy is not at this level – very, very few kids’ books are – but it is hilarious in its own way, which is very much the way of Fenske’s previous book, Barnacle Is Bored. There is something particularly engrossing and intriguing in Fenske’s super-simple drawings and super-brief narratives with an edge to them. Plankton Is Pushy starts with pink, sort-of-shrimplike Plankton swimming along (in a scene in which Barnacle makes a cameo appearance) and encountering large, squat, huge-eyed, scowling Mister Mussel. Plankton likes to greet everyone he sees, and expects a greeting in return – sort of like Br’er Rabbit, whose pleasantries ended with him stuck fast to the tar baby. But that’s another story – although possibly a precursor of and influence on this one. For here, as in that much older tale, the protagonist gets no response, and that bothers him. And then upsets him. And then makes him angry. And then makes him furious. And as Plankton goes through all those feelings about Mister Mussel, who he says is “just RUDE,” Mister Mussel simply sits there doing nothing. He does nothing when Plankton gets louder. Nothing when Plankton slows down the words of his greeting. Nothing when Plankton goes “Grrrrrr” or “Hmmmph.” Nothing when Plankton taps his foot…or whatever appendage that is. Nothing when Plankton gets down on his knees…or whatever body parts those are…and begs Mister Mussel to say something. But then, finally, finally, finally, Mister Mussel responds to Plankton, gradually, gradually, gradually opening his shell as Plankton drifts closer and closer and closer. Kids will immediately know where this is going to end up, or where Plankton is going to end up, and yup, sure enough, “SNAP!” And then, at the very end, Mister Mussel does have something to say – for which Plankton, pushing the closed shell open, is suitably grateful. The absurdity here is on a level wholly different from that of The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors, but in its own less-violent, much-less-elaborately-drawn way, Plankton Is Pushy is just as much fun. However, Plankton is darned lucky not to have encountered Rock, Paper or Scissors during their heroic quests.
North, South, East, West. By Margaret Wise Brown. Pictures by Greg Pizzoli. Harper. $17.99.
Places to Be. By Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Renata Liwska. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Kids in the 4-8 age range have a great deal to learn and balance, including the wish to explore and the simultaneous wish to stay with what is familiar. This desire lies at the core of North, South, East, West, a previously unpublished story by Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952) brought charmingly to life by Greg Pizzoli with illustrations that superimpose simple shapes like layers of tissue paper and in so doing produce lovely color changes: a bird’s light-blue wings, for instance, when seen over her red body, turn a darker shade that blends both hues. The story, as befits a tale for this age range and as is typical of Brown’s work, is at its core very simple and charmingly poetic. A mother bird gets her nestling ready to fly away to a home of her own by teaching her “to fly above and below the storms,/ and to glide on the strength of the wind.” But where shall the young bird go? She wonders aloud, “When I fly away, which is best?/ North, South, East, or West?” This is left for her to discover on her own, just as young readers must eventually discover it for themselves. And so the little bird flies “to the North,/ to a land of ice and snow,” but finds it too cold. Then she flies to the South, but “it was too hot there to build a nest,” so she rests a bit and flies to the West – only to find herself thinking that for all the interesting things she has seen in the North, South and West, “the East was home.” And so she flies back “to where the land was soft and green with rain,/ and the sycamore trees grew tall,” and that is where she remains to grow bigger and have a family of her own. And of course, when her nestlings come out of their eggs, they ask exactly the same question that the bird asked at the beginning of the book – which way is best to fly? Now the bird and her mate (who has one of his wings wrapped delicately around her) smile at the three little ones asking the question; and the very last page of the book, which has no words at all, shows the small birds flying off in three different directions – to discover their own “best” place or, perhaps, to return, as their mother did, to the place that will always be home. North, South, East, West has a deeply reassuring message that is beautifully conveyed by Brown’s text, and Pizzoli’s art fits so well with the words that it is almost as if the previously untold story was waiting for these illustrations to come into being so its message could be properly conveyed.
Mac Barnett’s Places to Be has some of the same simplicity of style as books like Brown’s, and Renata Liwska’s illustrations fit it very well (if not quite as seamlessly as Pizzoli’s fit North, South, East, West). But Places to Be is a different sort of book, about an older and younger sibling – bear cubs, in this case – who together explore both their neighborhood and their emotions. Together they find “places to be tall” (the smaller one stands on the larger one’s head to reach a ball stuck in a tree), “places to be loud” (they yell as the bike they are on careens down a hill), “places to be mad” (they face opposite ways on a bench after a quarrel), “places to be brave” (a high diving board), “places to be picky” (at the table with nothing on their plates but vegetables), and so on. What makes Barnett’s book special is that it does not sugarcoat childhood or the bears’ relationship. The bigger bear’s place “to be bored” is in a hospital bed while his broken leg heals; there is a place “to be sullen” (a good vocabulary word, explained by the two bears being unable to buy ice cream because the stand that sells it is closed); and there is a place “to be jubilant” (another good vocabulary word, associated with a fireworks display). The interaction of the two bear siblings seems completely natural and unforced, certainly with the inevitable ups and downs that all brothers and sisters face, but with an underlying current of real love. This is shown through a kind of “framing story” in which, near the book’s start, the bigger bear’s skateboard breaks, putting him in a place that is “blue and purple” – and at the end, the two bears work together to make a new skateboard that the bigger bear rides on the final page as the smaller one rides a bike. The warmth of the bears’ relationship does not prevent all problems or solve all difficulties – a very good lesson for kids in the target age range – but it persists despite the inevitable bumps in the emotional road, and that is what really matters. Places to Be would be an especially good read-aloud book for a child, whether younger or older, who is trying to cope with the irritations and hassles of a brother or sister. The book shows that the ultimate place to be is together – a worthy lesson for kids of any age.
American Gods. By Neil Gaiman. William Morrow. $19.99.
This book, Neil Gaiman’s first major solo novel, has been around since 2001, and was released in its expanded “author’s cut” version on a limited basis in 2003 and then for the mass market in 2011. It is certainly fair to ask why the book is coming around again, and what is left to say about it.
Well, the “why” is easy enough to explain: this is a TV tie-in edition for a series based on the book. (Gaiman is also reputed to be working on American Gods 2, but that is not relevant to this reissue.) The “what to say” is less evident. Gaiman was amazingly accurate when he said that this was the kind of book that people would either love or hate. Long after its initial publication, it is still a book that inspires strong emotions, one way or the other. The literary community itself adored and presumably still adores it: the book won multiple awards in multiple genres, which if nothing else provide testimony to the difficulty of placing it in any specific category. And American Gods sold gobs and gobs of copies, first in its original incarnation and then in its subsequent, 12,000-word-longer one (the one that is here reissued).
But there are nagging problems with the book that make it understandable if a minority of readers, perhaps a sizable minority, finds it exceedingly off-putting. Its underlying premise is nothing new: gods are only as powerful as people’s belief in them. (When you stop to think about it, that is not even a premise – it is a description of how religion works.) And it is certainly possible to posit that old gods, Norse and Native American and so on, might resent the coming of new gods (of wealth, technology and such) that have taken over all those worshippers. It is even possible to imagine that the old gods might want to engineer a war against the new gods with the aim of ousting or destroying them – although the method of doing so is a bit obscure, since what the old gods need is not victory in battle but a vast increase in people’s belief in them.
However, in American Gods the promised battle royal never happens: the climax of the book is that Shadow, the central Everyman character, prevents it by the simple expedient of explaining that the old gods have been pulling everyone’s strings in order to foment hostilities. But these are, you know, gods, whether old or new, and their inability to figure out what has been going on without some help from the rather dim Shadow strains credulity even in a fantasy novel (which is one thing that American Gods is).
Shadow is rather weak and rather dull for a central character – for example, it takes him an unconscionably long time to figure out that Mr. Wednesday is the American incarnation of Odin (for whom the weekday Wednesday is named). But in a picaresque novel (another thing that American Gods is), an overly naïve central character who makes discoveries along with readers, or even after readers have figured things out, is perfectly acceptable. Less clear are some of Gaiman’s foundational premises, such as the whole nation-based incarnation thing: there are different versions of gods in different places, but given the fact that nations are themselves artificial constructs whose borders can and do change, it is hard to justify the idea that the power of a particular god-incarnation rests with the belief of humans who happen to inhabit what happens to be a nation whose boundaries happen to be what they are at any given time. At the very least, this would seem to mean that gods fade in and out as nations’ boundaries contract or expand (actually, that is an intriguing notion, but not one that appears in American Gods).
And yet for all its structural flaws, and some narrative ones as well, American Gods is a powerful, involving, intricate novel that stands up very well in its episodic way. It is deliberately episodic, filled with subplots and cutaways and explanatory sections and other techniques that will be as maddening to some readers as they will be intriguing to others. It is a book packed with clever names, such as Mr. Nancy for Anansi the spider god, Low Key Lyesmith for the Norse trickster Loki, Whiskey Jack for the much-less-known trickster Wisakedjak (from Algonquian mythology), Mr. Jaquel for the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis, and so on; again, though, some readers will find the whole naming thing overdone, overused or just over-the-top. And not everyone will enjoy the occasional bit of subtle sociopolitical commentary in American Gods, such as the creation of the Intangibles as modern gods of the stock market – personifying the famous notion of an “invisible hand” and wanting to avoid direct confrontation with the old gods because they think market forces will take care of any dispute. Certainly the book has its over-obvious elements, such as the idyllic town of Lakeside that anyone familiar with horror stories or films will realize must hold a gruesome secret. But it also has considerable subtlety, including Shadow’s use of coin tricks and his eventual departure without waiting to see how his last such trick turns out.
Ultimately, American Gods is a mishmash – a deliberate one – with elements of fantasy, horror, mystery, science fiction and more. Readers looking for consistency of tone, voice or plot will not find it here; whether this is deemed a strength or a weakness will depend on each individual who picks up American Gods. And that, in the final analysis, is what is still (or again) worth saying about Gaiman’s book. It is admiration-provoking, anger-provoking, and, more important than either of those, thought-provoking. The new edition offers readers familiar with it an excellent chance to reacquaint themselves with what they like or hate about it, while giving those who do not yet know the book a perfect excuse to become involved in disputes about it that have already stretched through the better part of two decades.
Tin Can Titans: The Heroic Men and Ships of World War II’s Most Decorated Navy Destroyer Squadron. By John Wukovits. Da Capo. $28.
Followers of World War II stories can, it seems, never get enough of them, and authors such as John Wukovits are there to continue supplying them before the war’s survivors are gone forever. It is hard to feel anything less than admiration for the fighters whose stories are chronicled in books such as Tin Can Titans and Wukovits’ previous foray into writing about destroyers of the era, Hell from the Heavens. And yet these books will likely produce a sense of weariness in all readers but those most committed to the subject matter, because while the individual stories of ships, crews and battles differ, the basic underlying narrative – of turmoil, trouble, and eventual triumph – remains essentially the same in book after book.
This time the focus is on Destroyer Squadron 21 (DesRon 21), which Wukovits follows from mid-1942 to its remaining ships’ eventual honor of leading the United States Fleet into Tokyo Bay to accept Japan’s surrender in August 1945. In many ways, the earlier sections of the book, which is in three parts, will be the most interesting for war buffs, since Wukovits here details the origins of the destroyers in the squadron, the way the squadron itself was organized, and how matters fared when DesRon 21 faced its initial long and bloody campaign at Guadalcanal. One thing readers will learn here – and it may be genuinely new to anyone not already steeped in knowledge of World War II – is that destroyers were the jacks-of-all-trades of the U.S. Navy in the war’s early days, simply because the U.S. economy had not fully recovered from the Great Depression and was not yet capable of the level of warship construction that would eventually turn the tide (so to speak) in the Pacific. Indeed, there is an ongoing dispute as to whether World War II was an economic necessity, albeit a terribly grim one, for reviving a moribund economy, or whether the policies instituted by President Roosevelt and Congress through the 1930s were finally beginning to have a salutary effect by the early 1940s. Such issues are absent from Tin Can Titans, however, and are of no apparent interest to Wukovits or the readers he seeks. But they are worth keeping in mind as the author explains the necessity of destroyers doing such a long list of duties: fighting enemy surface vessels, hunting submarines, escorting larger warships and supply ships, doing anti-aircraft duty, and more. In a very real sense, destroyers were the workhorses of the war, especially in the early days of U.S. involvement in it. Their crucial role explains why they and not a larger and more elegant ship were chosen to enter Tokyo Bay at the war’s end.
In the book’s third part, Wukovits follows DesRon 21 through the latter part of the Pacific war, discussing the well-known island-hopping concept that forced the Japanese back from island after island and eventually to Okinawa. Wukovits details the elements of the strategy and the campaigns within it, emphasizing the loss of ships as well as crew members – often from mines and kamikaze attacks. And then, at the book’s end, Wukovits brings the three surviving destroyers to Tokyo Bay – and, in an epilogue, summarizes the squadron’s accomplishments and tells briefly of the postwar lives of a few of the many officers and crew members of the ships. The approach is wholly conventional throughout the book, mixing strategic information with personal stories and eventually (in two appendices) detailing the squadron’s awards and showing where each vessel was at the war’s conclusion. There are the usual photos, some of ships and some of crew members, and the book as a whole draws on the usual mixture of first-person stories and contemporary coverage of DesRon 21’s activities. The result is a well-researched, well-paced book that will certainly have considerable meaning for the families of the crews that served in DesRon 21, and that will please readers who simply cannot get enough of World War II minutiae. However, Wukovits makes no attempt whatsoever to turn this book into anything more than yet another untold (or previously imperfectly told) tale of war heroism. The book is strictly for people who are already enamored – that is not too strong a word – of the exploits of fighters in a war three-quarters of a century ago that remains, for many, a shining example of pure and just combat whose every nook and cranny deserves full exploration and consummate praise.
Franz Reizenstein: Sonata in G-sharp; Geoffrey Bush: Sonata; John Ireland: Sonata No. 2 in A minor. Louisa Stonehill, violin; Nicholas Burns, piano. Lyrita. $18.99.
Martinů: Variations on a Theme of Rossini; Ariette for Cello and Piano; Seven Arabesques; Suite Miniature; Nocturnes for Cello and Piano; Variations on a Slovakian Theme. Meredith Blecha-Wells, cello; Sun Min Kim, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Karl Höller: Fantasie for Violin and Organ; Triptychon for Organ Solo; Improvisation for Cello and Organ. William Preucil, violin; Roy Christensen, cello; Barbara Harbach, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Altius Quartet: Dress Code. Joshua Ulrich and Andrew Giordano, violins; Andrew Krimm, viola; Zachary Reaves, cello. Navona. $14.99.
Stories for Our Time: Contemporary Music for Trumpet by Women Composers. Thomas Pfotenhauer, trumpet, flugelhorn and E-flat trumpet; Vincent Fuh, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Zhen Chen: Music for Piano and Chinese Folk Instruments. Zhen Chen, piano; Jiaju Shen, pipa; Feifei Yang, erhu; Yixuan Pang, voice. Navona. $14.99.
Three little-known wartime violin-and-piano sonatas from two different wars show just how effectively composers can communicate with a paucity of instruments. Franz Reizenstein (1911-1968) wrote his Sonata in G-sharp in 1945. There is a reason that the sonata is not designated as being in G-sharp major or G-sharp minor: it moves restlessly between the major and minor keys, which the piano establishes at the outset. The uncertainty is a formative element of the work’s first movement. The second movement is a bouncy Scherzo with some obeisance to Shostakovich. The third and last is complex, abrupt and fast-changing, and eventually leads to a juxtaposition of B natural and B-sharp that reinforces the work’s ambiguous tonality. The underlying feeling of being deeply unsettled by a world at war comes through far more clearly than the work’s tonality does. Louisa Stonehill and Nicholas Burns, who call themselves the Steinberg Duo, play the work sure-handedly and with empathetic understanding. They do an equally fine job with the sonata by Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998), who wrote this piece in the same year as Reizenstein’s in G-sharp, 1945. This is the world première recording of the single-movement work, whose thoroughgoing chromatic uncertainty somewhat parallels that of Reizenstein: Bush never allows any key to establish and maintain itself for more than a few measures. The melodies of the work are quite lovely and perhaps reflective of Bush’s hopes for a better postwar world (he was an avowed pacifist); but the setting within which those melodies are heard is that of a world that is at best uncertain of where it stands and where life is going. The second sonata by John Ireland (1879-1962) dates to the previous world war and was first heard in 1917, at which time it caused such a sensation that the first printed edition sold out even before publication. It is an attractive three-movement work whose instant popularity, from the standpoint of a century later, is a bit hard to comprehend. Certainly, though, it has effectively expressed emotional ups and downs: there is clear anguish in parts, balanced by warm lyricism that elicits pity for the horrors of the conflict. The central second movement is the most interesting, evoking the feeling of a death march but containing a beautiful, optimism-filled tune in the center that surely reflected the initial audience’s hopes for the future. The Lyrita recording is technically fine but has bizarre errors in the dates of both Bush and Ireland (the enclosed booklet is correct).
Many of the works of Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) were also influenced by war, but that is not the focus of the new Navona CD on which cellist Meredith Blecha-Wells and pianist Sun Min Kim offer five of his suites of short pieces plus a very brief Ariette. Although one of the four Nocturnes lasts six minutes and another almost four, nothing else on the CD reaches three minutes in length: this is Martinů as miniaturist. The style of the works is generally conservative, but the frequent overlay of Czech folk music gives the works a distinctive touch that is typical of Martinů. The brightness of the Rossini variations contrasts nicely with the flowing, lyrical line of the Ariette. The Arabesques are generally upbeat and pleasant and not very consequential. Suite Miniature, in seven movements, has the delicacy and some of the flippancy of a piece for or about children, although it is neither. The Nocturnes are somewhat more expansive and the only works here with a modicum of depth of feeling, although even here the overall impression is mostly one of gentle play and contemplative relaxation. The Variations on a Slovakian Theme show Martinů’s skill in variation form even better than do those on Rossini’s theme, and they allow the cello a kind of broad folkloric expressiveness that fits the material very well and that Blecha-Wells carries off with considerable skill. The interplay between cellist and pianist and their fine ensemble work are major attractions of this disc of mostly lightweight music.
The three Karl Höller works on a new MSR Classics release focus neither on violin nor on cello, although both are present. The dominant sound here is that of the organ, which is scarcely an instrument usually associated with chamber music. Barbara Harbach, a very fine organist as well as a skilled composer in her own right, clearly finds the music of Höller (1907-1987) congenial. The tonal language here is primarily that of the late Romantic era, but it is blended, generally rather seamlessly, with the neoclassicism of Paul Hindemith and some of the approaches to organ music favored by Max Reger. Indeed, two of the works on this disc have neo-Baroque sensibilities despite their more-modern harmonic structure. Triptychon is a three-movement solo organ work “on the Easter sequence ‘Victimae paschali laudes,’” and Improvisation is a five-movement piece “on the spiritual folksong ‘Schönster Herr Jesus.’” The religious underpinning of both these works ties to the traditional centrality of the church in organ music, yet Höller’s use of a folksong as the basis for Improvisation pulls the instrument our of a strictly ecclesiastical setting and into the wider world. Unlike Martinů, Höller does not seem to take the folk elements of his underlying material deeply to heart, at least in this work, but he writes just as effectively for cello and organ as Martinů does for cello and piano – and in fact Höller’s integration of the stringed and wind instruments is so well done that listeners may wonder why the combination is so rare. As for Triptychon, it is a more conventional piece in its sacred theme and in Höller’s handling of the material, and at nearly half an hour it is somewhat overly expansive, without the tight integration of form that, for example, Widor and Vierne brought to their organ symphonies. Harbach certainly plays the piece very well, though. As for the somewhat slighter Fantasie, here the balance of violin and organ is attractive – and in some ways more immediately appealing than that of the lower, more-resonant cello with the organ in Improvisation. Again, though, the single-movement Fantasie uses the two instruments in such interesting ways that listeners may wish for further examples of this type of strings-and-organ combination, which in skilled hands like Höller’s offers a very intriguing mixture of sounds.
There is nothing unusual in the instrumental combination on a new Navona release featuring the Altius Quartet – but the quartet itself is determined, absolutely determined, to make the recording as unusual as possible. Thus, while the performers do play one of Haydn’s wonderful, balanced, carefully structured quartets (Op. 74, No. 1), they apparently think it would be beneath them to perform the piece as Haydn intended. Oh, no – that would not have sufficient “contemporary chic.” So after the first movement of the quartet, the players perform two other, entirely unrelated works; then they give the quartet’s second movement; then another unrelated piece; then the third movement; then two more pieces having nothing to do with Haydn; and then the finale – followed by something else. The whole approach is reminiscent of the classic Monty Python line, “And now for something completely different” – an indication of a deliberate non sequitur. And that does indeed seem to be what the Altius Quartet here pursues. Among the pieces that interrupt Haydn is William Bolcom’s Three Ghost Rags, given here in the order 2-1-3 (for no apparent reason): this work itself suffers from being broken up into component parts. And then there is something called Take It that meshes Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” with Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” And a medley of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and “Kashmir.” And Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” And, at the CD’s very end, there is “Take on Me” by a-ha (sic). Certainly the disc is intended to be playful and with-it and all that, and certainly there are playful elements both in Haydn’s quartet (1793) and Bolcom’s music (1970). And in everything else here, for that matter. But a juxtaposition of, say, the Haydn (played as a whole) with the Bolcom (played in the order the composer intended) would have made for quite a fine contrast without the necessity of breaking the pieces up into their component parts and tossing in little bits of this and that as well. The Altius Quartet – which, by the way, plays all the music quite well – seems to be trying too hard to be cool and contemporary and cognizant of the extremely short attention span of many listeners today. The longest track on the CD runs less than seven minutes, while the full Haydn quartet would require that people pay attention for (horrors!) 23 minutes. This CD turns out to be testimony to the superficiality of far too much music and far too many listeners in our time.
There is contemporary flair as well on a new MSR Classics CD that is also trying perhaps a bit too hard to be, well, contemporary. It features the very fine trumpeter Thomas Pfotenhauer in six world première recordings of six pieces by six female composers. It is the combined emphasis on all-new material and all-female material that makes this into something of a “cause” recording – which is actually a shame, since the works here all contain elements of considerable interest independent of their provenance. That simply means they are worthy when judged as music, not as music from a specified era or by someone of a specified gender – that kind of musical “identity politics” is really quite unnecessary here. Jazz Professor Glasses for solo trumpet and flugelhorn (2008) by Anne Guzzo (born 1968) is especially interesting, its three movements exploring some of the outer reaches of both instruments to good effect – and with a strong flavoring of Chinese influence in the first movement and of jazz in the finale. All the other works pair Pfotenhauer with pianist Vincent Fuh, who provides very able backup and accompaniment. The longest piece is Framed (2009) by Cecilia McDowell (born 1951), an interesting seven-movement Pictures at an Exhibition derivative intended to capture the artistic styles of Auguste Renoir, James McNeill Whistler, Alberto Giacometti, Hendrick Avercamp, Andy Warhol, Simon Marmion, and Alexander Rodchenko. Whether it does so or not will depend on each listener’s response and on how well an individual knows the painters – but whether or not the musical portraits are wholly successful, they certainly do show the wide range of colors and emotions of which the trumpet is capable. Two nicely compressed three-movement works here effectively contrast the trumpet’s lyrical capabilities with its martial side: Concertino (1989) by Ida Gotkovsky (born 1933) and Sonata (2002) by Elaine Fine (born 1959). There is also the disc’s three-movement title work by Faye-Ellen Silverman (born 1947), Stories for Our Time (2007), and this piece takes trumpet style further than the others do, through greater dissonance, a wider variety of performance techniques, and stronger contrast among the movements. Silverman’s work follows and stands in strong contrast to the lovely single movement called Look Little Low Heavens (1992) by Hilary Tann (born 1947). Inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Spring, Tann’s work is gentle, serene and lyrical except for a central dramatic section. Tann, interestingly, is another composer who, like Guzzo, has drawn inspiration from the Orient, although in Tann’s case from Japan rather than China.
Neither Guzzo nor Tann has, however, absorbed the influence of Chinese music in the way than Zhen Chen has – as is abundantly clear from a new Navona CD. The 10 works here sound as if they are drawn from Chinese folk music, but in actuality they are not – instead, Chen has studied and analyzed the sounds of the music and brought it into forms that allow some of the material to be played on the piano. The other instruments here are the lute-like pipa and bowed erhu. Two pieces, Jade and Dance Floor Banter, are for piano and pipa; two, Regret and Longing, are for piano and erhu; two, Plum Blossom Chant and Lament, are for piano and voice; two, Springfield and Turpan Tango, are for piano, pipa and erhu; one, Stroll by the Lake, is for piano, pipa and voice; and the final work on the disc, Recollection, is for solo piano. The combinations show clearly that Chen has carefully thought through the ways in which these instruments (including the voice, which is used here primarily as an instrument, whether speaking words or singing a vocalise) can interweave with and complement each other. To ears more accustomed to Western music, the works here have a sameness of sound that makes them seem longer than in fact they are: the CD runs just 42 minutes but seems to stretch out much farther. As background music or music designed to enhance meditation or contemplation, the works come across well; but except for Turpan Tango and Dance Floor Banter, which are more upbeat than the other pieces and have some Western-style dance rhythms at their core, there is little to distinguish the pieces here except for their titles. As a showcase for the ways in which Oriental and Occidental musical thinking can be blended and hybridized, Chen’s creations are interesting. But the hybridization wears thin rather quickly and seems more appropriate for contemplative mood-setting than for any focus on the music as music.
April 13, 2017
Lines and Triangles and Squares, Oh My! By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Carey Hall. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.
Claire Winteringham’s Alphabet Parade. By Claire Winteringham. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.
I Love My Daddy. By Sebastien Braun. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $7.99.
I Love My Mommy. By Sebastien Braun. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $7.99.
Intended as they are for ages from birth through three or four, board books would seem to offer little room for creativity in writing, illustration and design. In fact, however, the opposite is the case: the short, restricted form of these books frequently inspires authors and illustrators to produce very pleasant and highly creative stories and ways of communicating information. Two new offerings from Pomegranate Kids are particularly intriguing for their educational value. Zoe Burke’s Lines and Triangles and Squares, Oh My! is exceptional. Starting with straight, colored lines and using the services of a cartoon cat named Bluebell, Burke and illustrator Carey Hall show young children how a triangle is made and what sorts of things are triangle-shaped (mountains, Bluebell’s hat and ears, and so on). Then, starting with four straight lines, Burke and Hall create a square and show all the square-shaped things around Bluebell. And then they spin the square to make a diamond – using the same four lines in the same four colors, so kids can easily see what is going on – and show diamond-shaped objects. And then they stretch the diamond – the visualization here, using arrows, is quite clear and easy to follow – and now have a rectangle, which they can once again show in a number of places that kids will be able to identify (a table, a door, a bed, etc.). Finally, Bluebell is seen playing with a wiggly line that is smoothed and tied to itself to form a circle – and, yet again, there are plenty of circles to be found in the book’s illustrations. This is a lot of learning to pack into board-book format, and the final two pages – in which Bluebell appears as a train engineer in a scene containing all the shapes explained in the book – make an excellent conclusion. Both the concept and the execution here are well beyond what parents would likely expect from a board book – an impressive achievement.
Almost as intriguing is Claire Winteringham’s Alphabet Parade, which has no story at all: it simply shows attractive watercolor illustrations of various animals and objects beginning with each letter of the alphabet. The fun here is in the quality of the pictures, the unusual choices of some items to illustrate the letters, and the attractive juxtapositions on some pages. The letter E, for instance, includes elephants and egg – no surprise there – but the egg is balanced right on the end of one elephant’s trunk, and that makes the illustration quite interesting. Furthermore, this letter’s page also mentions egret and eucalyptus tree, and neither that bird nor that plant is commonly found in alphabet books (and the egret is actually perched in the tree). This is Winteringham’s approach throughout the book. The letter I has only two entries, iguana and insects, but there are 11 different insects shown, from beetles to butterflies. The letter N includes not only a nest but also the baby birds in it, referred to as nestlings – and the specific bird species is nuthatch (there is a newt in the picture, too). The letter D has a dinosaur following a duck past date palms and daisies as a dragonfly soars overhead. The letter R has the unusual combination of rabbits, rhinoceros and rocket. And the letter O is an ocean scene (“ocean” is one of the words) in which a very large octopus has one tentacle gently wrapped around an owl and two others cradling oranges. Colorful and clever, Claire Winteringham’s Alphabet Parade makes a fine introduction to the letters of the alphabet, the typical sturdy board-book format making it particularly easy for little hands to hold.
Other board books, although quite pleasant, are considerably more conventional in telling simple stories and illustrating them pleasantly but not in any exceptional way. Two by Sebastien Braun, I Love My Daddy and I Love My Mommy, fit this description. Each two-page spread of the “daddy” book shows a big brown bear and his small cub together as the cub tells, in just a few words, something that the two of them do: “My daddy wakens me.” “My daddy washes me.” “My daddy chases me.” The bears play hide-and-seek in the forest, run about in a meadow, sit looking out at a mountain vista, play a tickling game, cuddle, and more – and the final page, “I love my daddy,” simply shows the cub curled up in the sleeping big bear’s arms, about to fall asleep himself. I Love My Mommy follows a somewhat different path: here, the basic narrative is similar, but every two-page shows a different animal-mom-and-child scene. “My mommy watches me while I play” features rabbits; “my mommy takes me swimming” has river otters; “my mommy helps me to climb” shows squirrels; “my mommy works really hard” uses beavers; “my mommy cuddles me” features foxes; and the final “I love my mommy” shows a mother bird with two little ones, one tucked within each wing. Braun’s books are simple, straightforward, warmhearted and designed for reading aloud to children who are too young to read themselves. They are sweet and cozy, even a little overdone in their determined delicacy – fine for the very youngest infants, but likely of less interest as babies start becoming interested in reading on their own and are ready to absorb the more-complicated concepts found in Claire Winteringham’s Alphabet Parade and Lines and Triangles and Squares, Oh My!
“Mutts” Shelter Stories: Love. Guaranteed. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Big Mushy Happy Lump: A “Sarah’s Scribbles” Collection. By Sarah Andersen. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
I Feel Bad. Every Day. About Everything. By Orli Auslander. Blue Rider Press. $20.
The notion that comics are only for children was the result of the emasculation that comic books suffered in the 1950s, the McCarthy era, in a wave of hysteria drummed up largely by Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) and skillfully manipulated by moral crusaders of the time for purposes of their own. In more-recent years, comics have been slowly but surely reestablishing themselves as a highly effective form of visual-plus-verbal communication not only for children but also for adults – with adult themes ranging from sex and violence (underground comics in the United States, hentai cartoons in Japan) to equally adult but less flashy matters such as becoming a grown-up, entering the workplace, developing relationships, handling student debt, and more. There are, however, very, very few cartoonists who can create strips that appeal both to adults and to children. One of that elite group is Patrick McDonnell. His Mutts strips are done in an outwardly simple drawing style that is in fact very difficult to manage (much as was the case for Charles Schulz’ Peanuts). Many of the strips are simple, child-friendly adventures in home, school and yard, with interesting anthropomorphic animals talking to each other and interacting with the humans who show up from time to time. But there is always an undercurrent of seriousness in McDonnell’s work, never more clearly than in his excellent Shelter Stories – a kind of strip-with-a-strip in which he presents lovable, love-desiring adoptable animals (usually but not always dogs and cats) and imagines what they would say to people if they could talk. By literally giving shelter animals a voice, McDonnell makes a very strong case for adoption rather than purchase of a pet – a case that, while it can sometimes be overdone and become strident, is most of the time delivered with exceptional artistic skill and emotional punch. A hardcover collection of Shelter Stories, with comics interspersed with photos of actual adopted animals and comments by the people who gave them homes, was published in 2008 and is now available in paperback – and it is more than worth a second look. The material here, both McDonnell’s and that taken from the real world, is enough to bring tears to a reader’s eyes. McDonnell’s endearing portraits of caged, rescued animals are amazingly sensitive, and his occasional use of his enormous talent for incorporating famous fine art into his strip – a touch of Matisse here, a bit of Raphael there – makes this book very special indeed. In fact, it is every bit as special as the many, many wonderful adoptable animals whose lives McDonnell, a strong advocate for animals, has been responsible for saving. The inclusion at the end of information on how to go about adopting a pet makes the heart-tugging plight portrayed in the book easy to diminish, and – as the photos and stories of real-world pets show – enormously satisfying.
Adult matters of a different sort are explored by Sarah Andersen in her Sarah’s Scribbles cartoons, the second collection of which, Big Mushy Happy Lump, offers more of the wry and amusing (but, beneath it all, rather serious) observation found in the first, Adulthood Is a Myth. In the new book, Sarah’s big-eyed cartoon alter ego has everyday adventures to which adults of any age (not just millennials) should be able to relate. In one sequence, she looks around her messy home and thinks of how much she has to do – after which a stick figure labeled “Motivation” leaps away from her, out the window, and runs away, leaving Sarah as, well, a big mushy happy (and unmotivated) lump. Elsewhere, there is a sequence that every cat owner will recognize: the cat tries to decide where to nap, considering all the comfortable spots around the house (cat bed, human bed, couch) before deciding to flop on the computer keyboard while cartoon Sarah is trying to work. Then there are “Costumes to Scare Millennials,” one of which is “gluten” (a bread-slice costume) and another of which is “cell phone bill” (a Dracula-like figure saying, “I have come to drain your finances”). There is an occasional fashion strip here, such as “Describe Your Style,” in which spring is “casual and pretty,” summer is “light and fun,” fall is “comfy, cozy layers,” and winter is “ball of hatred trying to stay warm” – each description perfectly illustrated. There is a growing-up sequence showing cartoon Sarah being praised for intelligence in elementary school, middle school, and high school, until – in college – another of those stick figures, this one labeled “Reality,” slaps her in the face and says, “You are utterly average.” Toward the end of Big Mushy Happy Lump, Andersen provides some self-evaluative writing and then illustrates it, instead of having her feelings communicated strictly through cartoons. For instance, she writes, “I’m not good at interacting with the world. In fact, I’ve never been good at interacting with the world.” And then she shows various sorts of people in social situations: social butterfly, chameleon, wallflower – and herself as “a social blobfish.” Then, explaining her tendency to overthink and thus over-worry, she imagines “a superhero whose super power is the ability to say, ‘I don’t care.’” And then she draws a stick figure labeled “Over Thinking” worrying about possible social problems, only to be knocked down and defeated by a caped hero who flies in to state, “I don’t care.” Both the adult themes and the ways of coping with them are particularly skillfully handled in these “essay” parts of the book as well as in the part that communicate strictly through cartoon sequences.
Andersen’s worries seem like nothing, however, compared with those that Orli Auslander explores at extended guilt-ridden length in I Feel Bad. Every Day. About Everything. Just think about that title – it sounds as if this is a book of therapy affirmations (or de-affirmations), not a book of cartoons. In fact, it is both: Auslander started doing these drawings as a form of therapy to cope with her incessant guilt feelings, but soon found that the panels connected with other people and could be a form of artistic expression – “neurotics love company,” Auslander opines. The fact is that while Auslander’s personal circumstances are entirely her own, her way of expressing her concerns, worries and fears does connect her with people who have concerns, worries and fears of their own, although not the same ones. Auslander helpfully numbers her illustrated “I Feel Bad” thoughts from 1 to 100, although the numbers do not in themselves have any particular meaning. Number 4, for instance, has her packing lunch for her son, who asks what he is having, to which Auslander (worried about the health content of just about everything) is shown saying, “The usual, honey. Cancer on whole wheat, fruit wrapped in cancer, and cancer juice.” On the counter is a roll of “Toxic Wrap.” Number 18 is “I buy my kids too many toys,” with an illustration of a huge Target store bearing a gigantic banner on the front, “Welcome Orli.” Number 31 is “my husband’s always the fun one,” showing Orli on one page encircled by comments such as “That’s bad for you,” “Put him down,” and “That’s too loud,” while the opposite page shows her husband, dressed as a smiling clown, surrounded by comments such as “Candy for breakfast?” and “Fireworks in the yard!” Number 68 is “I want to control everything and everyone,” showing small illustrations of Auslander telling an airline, “Too many delays,” telling her son, “Too much sugar,” telling her husband, “Too much spending,” and so on. Other numbered self-imposed guilt trips involve Auslander’s opinion of her body, her sex life, her enjoyment of vodka and marijuana, and more. None of her worries is really the remotest bit funny, but what she communicates so well here is that everybody has his or her own worries, fears, uncertainties, dissatisfactions and small-scale forms of unhappiness. These cartoons make it clear that Auslander’s particular concerns are specific to her – but at the same time touch a universal cord because she, like everyone who reads this book, has the misfortune…or good fortune…to be human.
And the Robot Went… By Michelle Robinson. Illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier. Clarion. $16.99.
Evil Emperor Penguin. By Laura Ellen Anderson. David Fickling Books. $8.99.
Sometimes an author has so much fun playing games with a conventional element of children’s books and stories that what results is something wholly UN-conventional. And when an author plays games with more than one standard element of kids’ books, what results is – well, something like And the Robot Went… The ellipsis in the title makes it clear (to adults, anyway) that this will be yet another book in which lots of things happen to or with a robot. And so it is – that’s one convention. How they happen is another: various characters do things to the robot, and the results are piled onto each other in house-that-Jack-built fashion. That’s another convention. And to make sure that young readers remember who elicited what from the robot, each page of Michelle Robinson’s book combines a large Sergio Ruzzier illustration of the latest thing happening with small ovals within which the characters that made earlier things happen are seen again. That’s a third convention. But Robinson and Ruzzier refuse to treat any of the conventions conventionally. First of all, the robot is pieced together by a Nosy Fox, Eager Beaver, Wicked Witch and other improbable characters, and what it does as each character performs some action is make a noise – it is the noises that pile up as the book progresses. Secondly, the things done to or with the robot are as entertaining and offbeat as the characters: “The Bear in the Blazer fired the laser,” for instance, and “the Crocodile turned the dial,” and “the Band of Knights polished the lights.” Thirdly, the characters refuse to sit calmly in their oval portraits as the book progresses: the fox falls asleep on one page, the witch ducks down so only her hat is visible on another, the beaver appears upside-down at one point, and so on. Things get mighty elaborate as well as mighty funny. By the time “the King of Dogs [wearing a crown of bones] clobbered the cogs,” the robot is in pieces all over the place and making sounds that include (but are not limited to) Tippa-Tappa, Flash, Clang, Zap and Boooo. And then it turns out that the book’s narrator is a little girl, and she announces, “Then along came me,” and she has a key to get the robot going, and she commands all the other characters to redo what they have already done to the robot – and by now, the robot has a distinct look of alarm on his face. And even though he has no choice but to go along with the manhandling he receives on the girl’s instructions, he certainly does not seem to be enjoying himself. And that would explain why, when everyone is finished doing everything, the robot is fully assembled, no longer in pieces or coming apart, and says “Thank. You.” to everyone – and then gets as far away from this crew of characters as he can. So And the Robot Went… (with ellipsis) turns, at the end, to “And the Robot…went.” The re-placement of those three dots turns out to be what the whole book is about. And a very clever, funny and oddly wistful book it is.
Evil Emperor Penguin is a (+++) book that tries to be clever, but tries rather too hard and stumbles over its own would-be ingenuity. The title is about the neatest thing here: yes, there are emperor penguins, and yes, in various fantasy stories there are evil emperors, so why not create a portmanteau title? Well, that works pretty well. But the rest of Laura Ellen Anderson’s graphic novel is much more forced. Evil Emperor Penguin (EEP to his friends, if he had any friends) loves spaghetti rings and hates pretty much everything else. His chief minion is a small and adorable abominable snowman named Eugene who loves hugs, rainbows and unicorns, but still hangs around with EEP and supports EEP’s plans for world domination. His other cohort is a very tall, intellectual, monocle-wearing purple octopus named Number 8, always called “Squid” by EEP. The headquarters of EEP, Eugene and Number 8 includes a Spy Room of Evil, Parking Space of Evil, Evil Hat Closet of Evil, Living Room of Evil, and so on. The stories in the book – each short but all interconnected – have to do with EEP’s feckless plots to take over the world, and the way they either fail on their own or fail because Eugene inadvertently (or sometimes deliberately) turns the bad stuff into cute rainbows, unicorns and such. The dialogue here wears thin rather quickly: “We have urgent evil matters to discuss.” “Yes, evil master.” And although some plot elements are amusing (Eugene’s greatest fear turns out to be jelly babies in one chapter; in another, the “big red evil button” releases unicorns because EEP is “still working on its evil-ness”), others drag (Number 8 buys a cat that turns out to be an evil, anti-EEP mastermind; EEP’s greatest fear is his mother; EEP’s sister shows up wearing a cape like his and says she wants to be called Ruth-less rather than just Ruth). Actually, the summaries of the events are more interesting than the way they are worked out in the book: Evil Emperor Penguin has enough silliness so young fans of easy-to-read graphic novels will enjoy it. But really, yet another sure-to-fail robot invention that is supposed to be amusing just because it is called “Evil Emperor-Bot of Icy Doom” and is supposed to operate based on EEP’s use of a “Control Pad of Evil”? There is too much predictability and too much repetitiveness in the plotting for Evil Emperor Penguin to be fun for even slightly older graphic-novel readers. But kids just coming to the graphic-novel format will likely enjoy the book before moving on to something a tad less frothy.
Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock. By Barney Hoskyns. Da Capo. $15.99.
Those who think rock ’n’ roll is capital-I Important and capital-M Meaningful will also think that the venues where rock musicians spent their time are capital-S Significant. And those capital-F Fans are the target audience for Barney Hoskyns’ in-depth look at the town of Woodstock, New York, which famously gave its name to the 1969 Woodstock Festival that actually happened 60 miles away because the town refused to give it a permit. The book, originally published last year and now available in paperback, is a 400-page paean to a capital-T Time and capital-P Place that are dear to the capital-H Hearts of true believers in the people and groups of the subtitle and a variety of producers, rock wannabes, hangers-on and others associated with the capital-S Scene.
This is a book for rock-music-celebrity worshipers. Here are Hendrix, Morrison, Todd Rundgren, Paul Butterfield, English jazz bassist Dave Holland, Graham Parker (another Brit), and many more. Comments from a few of the people here have the ring of truth: singer Maria Muldaur and the poet and onetime Fug, Ed Sanders, are particularly good. And of course the inevitable drug binges pervade the book, and there is plenty of sex-with-the-stars stuff as well. But the center of Small Town Talk is someone who is notorious in the rock-history scene and unknown outside of it: Albert Grossman, who managed Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin, and many others. Hoskyns seems to believe that Grossman was like a force of nature in the town of Woodstock, buying up property and opening restaurants and building the Bearsville Studio. But really, Grossman simply comes across as an opportunistic businessman, perhaps not very admirable but certainly not devilish in his doings. Yet Hoskyns clearly dislikes him with nearly visceral hatred, picking up approvingly on a comment from Dylan (who eventually got out from under Grossman’s thumb), “You could smell him coming.”
Well, books need heroes (all the wonderful rock musicians of old) and villains; Grossman largely fills the latter role. But try as he may – and he does try – Hoskyns, a longtime writer about popular music who is based in London, cannot quite make Grossman loom large enough to shoulder responsibility for the deterioration of the capital-G Greatness of the capital-M Music associated with the people who, for a time, congregated in and around Woodstock. Hoskyns is at his best when encapsulating the capital-S Songs he admires (although he is, somewhat surprisingly, rather harsh on Dylan and his work). But writing about the music is not what he does in most of the book. Instead, he offers a chronological story about the coming of the capital-R Rock capital-M Music capital-S Scene to Woodstock – the capital-G Glory capital-D Days of that scene and the people in it – and he then follows matters through a whole series of disappointing, sometimes disastrous, sometimes merely dull endings that collectively show the studied impermanence of this music and the people who made it. The divisiveness and outright hatred spawned by participants in the so-called capital-S Summer of capital-L Love had already started to become clear with the Rolling Stones’ Altamont disaster in December 1969. What Hoskyns sticks around to chronicle is the slower but no less thorough dissolution of whatever spirit the not-held-in-Woodstock Woodstock Festival latched onto and tried to promote and propagate.
Small Town Talk outstays its welcome by about 100 pages. Muldaur’s comments are useful in looking back at what once was (and what some people want to believe once was) a capital-I Important capital-P Place and capital-T Time, but there are rather too many of them. And after a while, it gets tiresome to read name-dropping, detail-drenched writing such as, “Having made three undistinguished albums of his own – and after surviving a bitter custody battle with Libby Titus over their daughter – Levon Holm began talking about a Band reunion in early 1983. The very notion appalled Robbie Robertson, who felt it made a mockery of the Last Waltz, but he opted not to block the Band Is Back tour that kicked off at the Joyous Lake on June 25, 1983. ‘Instead of coming up with new material they just repeated all their old material,’ John Simon said. …‘It had gotten to be what I call the vomit-and-sawdust crowd.’”
In the long run – and we are already in the long run, nearly 50 years after the Woodstock Festival (which gets only minimal coverage), and more than 30 after the death of Grossman (1926-1986) – Woodstock-the-town just doesn’t matter very much as a capital-M Mecca for any but the most misguided aficionados of a long-gone Age of Aquarius era that long since turned out to be less significant than its more-vocal advocates proclaimed it to be. However hard he tries, Hoskyns cannot give this time, this town and these events any greater capital-S Significance than they actually had – which has turned out, except for a hardcore group that continues to pretend otherwise, to be Not Very Much.
Sullivan: Songs. Mary Bevan, soprano; Ben Johnson, tenor; Ashley Riches, bass-baritone; David Owen Norris, piano. Chandos. $18.99 (2 CDs).
Nadia Boulanger: Songs; Works for Piano, for Cello and Piano, and for Organ. Nicole Cabell, soprano; Alek Shrader, tenor; Edwin Crossley-Mercer, baritone; Amit Peled, cello; François-Henri Houbart, organ; Lucy Mauro, piano. Delos. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Let it be said immediately that these are specialty items, fascinating in their way for revealing sides of these composers that will be quite unfamiliar to most listeners – yet in both cases revealing rather too much and, if anything, confirming that the careers for which Sir Arthur Sullivan and Nadia Boulanger were far better known are ones at which they were in fact far better.
Sullivan’s 14 collaborations with W.S. Gilbert are the works for which he is justifiably famed, even though he wrote quite a few other stage works (the grand opera Ivanhoe; the late and rather odd The Beauty Stone; two even later operas, The Rose of Persia and The Emerald Isle, both to libretti by Basil Hood; as well as ballets and incidental music). Sullivan also wrote choral, orchestral, chamber and church music – and a great number of songs. The exact number is rather hard to determine, since he sometimes offered the same music with different words (e.g., “In the Summers Long Ago” is also “My Love Beyond the Sea,” and “Bride from the North” is also “Bride of the Isles” and “The White Plume”). Furthermore, Sullivan’s songs sometimes occur within theatrical works: “Love Laid His Sleepless Head” in The Merry Wives of Windsor, for instance, and “Little Maid of Arcadee” in Thespis. So it is hard to know whether to deem them songs or parts of a larger theatrical production. Be all that as it may, Sullivan’s songs are little-enough known so that the very well-performed and generously proportioned two-CD set from Chandos is extremely welcome for anyone interested in less-familiar (and admittedly lesser) Sullivania. There is almost two-and-a-half hours of music here, and listening to the recording straight through is well-nigh impossible: these songs were mostly intended as individual pieces, and almost all come across better that way. That said, there are two cycles here that are of considerable interest: Five Shakespeare Songs (1866) and The Window; or, the Songs of the Wrens (1871), to words by Alfred, Lord Tennyson – ones that the poet laurate understandably decided after writing them that he would have preferred to retract (Sullivan would not hear of it). In addition to Tennyson, Sullivan favored lyrics by the short-lived Lionel H. Lewin (1848-1874) and a scattering of better-known literary figures: Victor Hugo, Robert Burns, Percy Bysshe Shelley. He also wrote songs to Biblical texts and in several languages: “Oh! ma charmante,” with words by Hugo, is the 1872 French version of a song that also appeared in Italian in 1873 as “Oh! bella mia” and in English in 1874 as “Sweet Dreamer.” Confused though the pedigree and enumeration of Sullivan’s songs may be, the one thing that this fine recording makes clear is that the composer was quite sensitive to whatever words he chose to set. The songs are scarcely trailblazing in expressiveness, harmony or overall construction, but they are without exception written to fit the words, emphasizing the verbal meanings and building upon the feelings and descriptions evoked by the language. In his collaborations with Gilbert, Sullivan was often frustrated at the primacy that the words seemed to receive over the music (shades of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio!). In these songs, though, he seems to have achieved a balance that he deemed suitable: Sullivan wrote songs from 1855, when he was just 13, until the year of his death, 1900, and would surely not have continued doing so had he been dissatisfied with the expressive potential created by words and music together. It is true that nothing in this generous helping of well-sung, well-played music will dislodge the impression that Sullivan was at his best when paired with Gilbert (who provided the words for only one of the songs heard here). But it is also true that this recording shows Sullivan to be a composer whose skills did not lie only on the stage or only in the comic: there is much here that is romantic, delicate, expressive, and simply beautiful.
If Sullivan tends to be seen as a narrow composer, Nadia Boulanger tends not to be seen as one at all. The long-lived and brilliant pedagogue (1887-1979) was, however, a composer of some note in her earlier life, although she later devoted herself to promoting the music of her younger sister, Lili, and once famously told Gabriel Fauré, “If there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that I wrote useless music.” Yet this self-deprecating appraisal is not so, certainly not on the basis of a new two-CD Delos recording featuring 37 Nadia Boulanger compositions, including 13 that have never been recorded before. What is so is that unlike Lili (1893-1918), who accomplished much compositionally in her short life, Nadia never moved significantly beyond a variety of models with which she clearly felt close kinship. In other words, all the music here is derivative, to a greater or lesser extent, and all of it has a recognizable resemblance to the music of other, much-better-known composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the Sullivan set, this one offers a generous amount of music – nearly two hours – but little that is likely to keep listeners returning for additional hearings. Nadia’s 26 songs sound very much like the work of Debussy, occasionally shaded not with any highly personal style but with a soupçon of Saint-Saëns and touch of Franck. Nadia was also clearly familiar with Russian composers of the late-Romantic era; and although less prone than Sullivan to settings in multiple languages, she did write three songs to German words – but without anything particularly Germanic in the settings themselves. The performers handle the material admirably and idiomatically, but nothing here is particularly striking or, indeed, especially original in sound or setting: the music is not bad but merely ordinary. As for the instrumental works, those for piano are Vers la vie nouvelle and Trois pièces pour piano; there are also Trois pièces for cello and piano; and, for organ, Trois improvisations and Pièce sur des airs populaires flamands. Although these are not easy works, none of them is especially difficult; all come across as occasional pieces, the occasions perhaps being practice sessions for some of Boulanger’s more-advanced students. The last organ work connects to an opportunity missed in this recording, for although these pieces represent Nadia’s complete works in these specific forms, they are not all the music she wrote. In particular, in 1912, Nadia wrote a flamboyant and rather silly six-movement work called Fantasie (variée) for piano and orchestra – one that goes well beyond the rather mild “airs populaires flamands” in the solo-organ piece to produce a work somewhat on the order of Ernő Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Tune, and written in something of the same thumbing-one’s-nose-at-the-world spirit. It is unfair to criticize this release for what it does not include, but the reality is that Nadia’s Fantasie (variée) shows a far less serious and sober, far less academic side of the famous teacher, and one that it would have been delightful to experience along with the well-made but ultimately rather nondescript items offered here. Perhaps an enterprising recording company will decide to present, at some point, a CD containing Nadia’s Fantasie (variée), Dohnányi’s Variations, Shostakovich’s arrangement of Tea for Two, and a few other works in the same spirit. That would be a spirited release indeed.
April 06, 2017
Hogwarts Library: Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them; Quidditch Through the Ages; The Tales of Beedle the Bard. By J.K. Rowling. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $38.99.
The new editions of three ancillary books in the Harry Potter canon, nicely transformed from their original small paperback format to a larger and more-elegant hardcover appearance and placed within a library-style cardboard slipcase, offer fans of J.K. Rowling’s books a new chance to appreciate the world-creating that has helped make her tales so wildly popular. One way Rowling went beyond traditional fantasy-adventure stories was by suggesting the sorts of things that students of magic might study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – and then producing some of the actual books that the students might have used in their classes. That is what these three slim volumes are. In addition, Rowling wove the “study” books into the fabric of the Harry Potter tales by, for example, having The Tales of Beedle the Bard (“translated by Hermione Granger”) contain “notes by Professor Albus Dumbledore,” and then writing the book in two separate voices – one representing Hermione’s “translation” of that of the storyteller of long ago, the other sounding much like that of the headmaster of Hogwarts in Harry’s time. This authorial complexity, for which Rowling does not always get sufficient credit, helps make the Harry Potter tales a good deal more than just another example of escapist magical fantasy.
Now, of course, these little literary sidelights on the Harry Potter world are in the process of becoming extended items of their own. This actually began within the primary Harry Potter books themselves, since the Beedle stories are crucial to the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and to the two movies made from that book. But now Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them is in the process of becoming its own multi-movie franchise, and although no plans for a quidditch movie have been announced, who knows what the future may bring? Potterphilia has already shown its ability to move beyond the original fans of the seven Rowling novels – many of those fans literally grew up alongside Harry, Ron and Hermione, and now have families of their own and are ready to bring the Rowling universe to a new generation. And the nostalgia value of revisiting a world of magic and miracles, one in which evil is pervasive but conquerable by those of good will and good heart, should not be underestimated.
As for these three books themselves, they are essentially the same in 2017 as they were when they first appeared in 2001 (Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages) and 2007 (The Tales of Beedle the Bard). The ostensible author of Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander, is the central character in the new films, but the focus of the book itself is not its author but the beasts herein discussed. Rowling apparently had a lot of fun with this little book. For example, in a passage about the Fwooper, “an African bird with extremely vivid plumage” that looks amusing even in the black-and-white illustration, and whose song “will eventually drive the listener to insanity,” there is this footnote: “Uric the Oddball attempted at one time to prove that Fwooper song was actually beneficial to the health and listened to it for three months on end without a break. Unfortunately the Wizards’ Council to which he reported his findings were unconvinced, as he had arrived at the meeting wearing nothing but a toupee that on closer inspection proved to be a dead badger.” The beasts themselves are fascinating to read about, including the “Quintaped (also known as Hairy MacBoon,” which has “a particular taste for humans,” the Dugbog, “which resembles a piece of dead wood while stationary,” and many others. The book is intriguing enough so that it could be an entry point to the Harry Potter novels themselves, for those not yet initiated into their pleasures.
The other two books are more rarefied. Quidditch Through the Ages “by Kennilworthy Whisp” is strictly for those enamored of the sport in which Harry excels at Hogwarts and in which many of his friends also participate – it helps to know the books’ passages about quidditch matches before launching into discussions of “creaothceann,” which is “the most dangerous of all broom games,” as well as “shuntbumps,” “swivenhodge” and other games. Details of how quidditch is played, which teams play it, and so on, are for fans of fantasy sports – that is, sports that really are fantasies. As for The Tales of Beedle the Bard, its stories are interesting in themselves, but they are so tightly woven into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that they make a poor entry point to Rowling’s world – they are really best read while exploring that final, very long novel, or as a sort of appendix afterwards. Taken as a whole, these new hardcover editions of the three short books, collected under the overall title of Hogwarts Library, will make an excellent addition to the shelf of anyone who already has the original seven-book Harry Potter sequence. And they will be even more enjoyable for Potterphiles who are eagerly following the expansion of Rowling’s original conception into the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new set of movies featuring Newt Scamander as protagonist, and into who-knows-what other realms of magic and muggles.