October 23, 2014

(++++) THINKING SMALL – AND BIG


Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People Who Track It. By Loree Griffin Burns. Photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

The Next Wave: The Quest to Harness the Power of the Oceans. By Elizabeth Rusch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     These two entries in the always excellent Scientists in the Field series take readers from their own yards to the farthest reaches of Earth’s oceans. Beetle Busters is about the challenges of trying to find and eliminate an invasive pest that is a significant danger to North American trees: the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB). This is an attractive-looking inch-and-half-long insect with very long, striped antennae. Female beetles chew into trees to lay their eggs, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae chew their way out. If a tree harbors enough larvae, they can kill it. So just kill the beetles and their larvae and problem solved, right? Not so fast – Loree Griffin Burns explains why this is a difficult and complex situation: the only way to kill the beetles when they are inside a tree is to cut the tree down and run it through a wood chipper, which means destroying some trees to protect others. To get young readers involved in this difficult scientific issue, Burns repeatedly asks what readers would do if they had to make the decision, and brings them along (with the help of clear and informative photos by Ellen Harasimowicz) as scientists work on eradication. Making the task even harder is the fact that the ALB closely resembles other insects, and scientists must rely on people watching for, spotting and accurately reporting ALBs – a difficult situation: “I’d been called hundreds of times throughout my career by people thinking they had seen an Asian longhorned beetle,” says one scientist, “and every single time, it wasn’t ALB.” But then comes a call that is about the ALB, and scientists soon find out just how bad the infestation is: very bad indeed. The book’s narrative and photos take readers to forests infested by the ALB, to labs where studies of the beetles and the trees they attack are done, and to the U.S. Forest Service, where attempts are being made to predict where the ALB may show up in the future. There are no easy answers to this infestation, and Burns, to her credit, does not claim that there are. She ends the book by repeating questions raised early in it about whether readers feel it is right to cut infested trees – and whether they would feel the same way if the trees were the only ones in their home’s neighborhood. Scientists themselves are not sure about the tree-cutting program: there is nothing better available to stop the ALB, but even those who cut the trees are unhappy that it is necessary – and are involved in reforestation to try to replace, eventually, what is lost in the battle.  Beetle Busters is especially valuable because it shows that ecological and scientific problems, even when acknowledged by all parties affected by them, do not necessarily have neat solutions – or ones without significant costs to us humans.

     The Beetle Busters lesson is important because it needs to be applied thoughtfully to issues on which people agree far less than they do about the danger of the ALB. Finding and harnessing alternative sources of energy – alternatives, that is, to fossil fuels – is one such issue. There is a great deal of noise, social and political, surrounding this matter, and even a scientifically oriented “how to do it” book such as The Next Wave must be read within a sociopolitical context. There is no question that Earth’s oceans are sources of enormous power – power that occurs naturally and could, if captured, produce huge amounts of electricity without the necessity of burning oil, natural gas or coal. Devices that can catch and make use of wave energy have, however, proved elusive. Now, Elizabeth Rusch writes, a number of people and companies believe they have solved the problem of harnessing waves’ energy, or are on the verge of solving it. Some approaches involve devices that float atop the waves. Others involve ones that sit on the ocean floor. Some devices have already been tested; others exist as prototypes. Concepts differ; potential funders and investors are lining up behind one approach or another – or failing to do so, being worried about failures in tests and risks of deployment. And there are questions about how animals that live in the oceans would be affected if humans started harnessing wave energy – questions that are simply unanswerable in a laboratory environment, but that could lead to torpedoing promising scientific developments in the name of protecting wildlife. And then there is a broad question not discussed in the book: how to get wave energy to areas far from the ocean. That is no small matter: environmental extremists have successfully delayed or stopped many promising alternative-energy projects by demanding that they be 100% harmless to everything from birds or bats (in the case of on-shore wind farms) to people’s lines of sight from land (in the case of off-shore ones). But moving energy from the source of production to the place of consumption requires transport mechanisms – that is what a nation’s power grid is all about. Without a grid that extends to the area where wave power is harnessed, all that power will simply sit out there, unavailable for use. But moving that power from Point A to Point B will require heavy construction, heavy industry, and development of power-grid sections to which area residents and professional environmental agitators are unalterably opposed. Ultimately, the science to get energy from ocean waves is not enough. There must also be enough social and political will to put nonhuman species at some unknown level of risk for the sake of lessening human dependence on fossil fuels; and there must also be enough will so that transport mechanisms for zero-emission power can be placed where needed to bring that power where it has to go. The Next Wave tells only part of this story – the part involving science and innovation – and tells it very well. Families would do well to go beyond Rusch’s book to discuss the harsh non-scientific realities that will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the scientists profiled in this book to do the social good that they are trying so hard to do.

(++++) FOWL PLAY


A New Chick for Chickies. By Janee Trasler. HarperFestival. $8.99.

Dodsworth in Tokyo. By Tim Egan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $3.99.

     The latest of Janee Trasler’s books about three adorable chicks and the “adult” pig, cow and sheep who take care of them ups the ante for babies and grown-up animals alike: a new chick hatches, followed in short order by jealousy. “Get your feathers off our pig,” say the three original chickies as the pig and the new baby brother dance together. Pig quickly defuses the situation by inviting everyone to form a conga line. But then the original chickies object to the new one throwing a beach ball to the cow – so the cow forms a beach-ball team that includes everybody. And then: “No more singing! Not one peep! We sing backup for our sheep!” So say the original chicks – but the sheep sets up a five-piece band so everyone can take part in the musical merry-making. Problems noted, problems explored, problems solved, all within the two dozen pages of an attractive and sturdy board book. That, is, problems almost solved, because Trasler ends the book with – oops! – not one but several additional chicks hatching. Now what? Presumably kids, certainly including big brother and big sisters, will find out in the next adventure of the chickies.

     The adventures continue for world-traveling Dodsworth and the duck in a Level 3 edition of Dodsworth in Tokyo, an entry in the “Green Light Readers” series (with this level, the highest, designated for “reading independently”). Tim Egan builds the whole book, which was originally published last year, around the duck’s now-well-known propensity for getting into all sorts of trouble. Dodsworth worries about this from the start of the book, noting that “Japan is a land of customs and manners and order” but that “the duck wasn’t very good at those things.” The duck, of course, promises to be on his best behavior, but Dodsworth keeps a very close eye on him and repeatedly reminds him of the right way to behave – and, surprisingly, the duck does quite well. But Dodsworth is sure, as readers will be, that this cannot go on forever, and that is the tension in this modest, well-told story, which as usual features reasonably accurate depictions of various locations that Dodsworth and the duck visit. The duck becomes fascinated by a toy called a kendama – a ball attached by a string to a cup – and proves highly skilled at cupping the ball, which Dodsworth himself cannot manage to do. A little girl leaves her kendama behind in a park, and Dodsworth and the duck wait for her to return so they can give it to her, but to no avail; so they take it with them on the rest of their tour. Part of the fun here involves how un-ducklike the duck is: Dodsworth has to rescue him from water at one point, since he cannot swim. The duck cannot fly, either, and that fact is what Egan uses to bring the good-behavior and kendama stories together in an amusingly appropriate climax. And yes, eventually of course the duck makes a huge mess, as young readers will have anticipated all along, but it all happens in so good-humored a way that even Dodsworth finds himself laughing. Kids will laugh along with him.

(++++) THE FRIGHTS NEARBY


The Killer Next Door. By Alex Marwood. Penguin. $16.

The Wicked Girls. By Alex Marwood. Penguin. $16.

     Really good crime writers do not need to set their novels in an isolated, brooding castle or on a remote island, nor do they require twisted-looking, visibly demented characters either as killers or as red herrings. What they do, what makes their books truly frightening, is to set stories in everyday surroundings and people them with characters so ordinary that even the notion that one of them may perpetrate great evil is chilling. In other words, to quote Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase in a different context, writers such as Alex Marwood explore “the banality of evil,” and their books are all the more frightening as a result.

     Marwood is the pseudonym of British author Serena Mackesy, who wrote four books under her real name – The Temp, Virtue, Simply Heaven and Hold My Hand – before turning to intense crime fiction with The Wicked Girls, published in 2012 and now available in paperback. Mackesy/Marwood is, like her settings, mundane on the face of things: a fiftysomething sometime journalist who taught English for a while and even did some door-to-door selling. Her father was a military historian and both her grandmothers were authors, but there is nothing specific in her background that would seem to connect her with the gritty, realistic and thoroughly ominous settings in which The Wicked Girls and her new book, The Killer Next Door, take place.

     The Wicked Girls is a story about a horrible crime that, in a sense, simply happened. The book’s impact comes from the fact that the perpetrators, 11-year-olds named Jade Walker and Annabel (Bel) Oldacre, who are responsible for the death of a four-year-old named Chloe Francis, are themselves victims of social-class expectations and their childhood environment – and may or may not be able to escape those forces as adults. Narratively set 25 years after the crime, featuring the girls of the title as grown women with new names – Jade is now Kirsty Lindsay and Bel has become Amber Gordon – the book seesaws between present and past, revealing details of the original crime bit by bit as Kirsty, now a journalist, looks into a series of attacks on young women in the seaside town of Whitmouth. Kirsty’s work brings her into contact with Amber for the first time in 25 years, after Amber discovers a dead body at Funnland, the amusement park where she works. Aside from the obvious irony of the place’s name, it is very well-chosen for the events of the book: like clowns, intended to bring enjoyment but frequently seeming downright creepy, amusement parks – with their prepackaged rides, modest thrills and general air of seediness – have something vaguely disturbing about them, and it is this undercurrent of things being not quite right that Marwood explores and exploits with considerable skill. Amusement parks are, by definition, crowded, and much of The Wicked Girls deals with the scary aspects of crowds – not only the physically scary ones but also those derived from the tendency of crowds to change subtly, almost imperceptibly, into mobs, motivated by a strange sort of groupthink that prejudges, interprets reality based on those prejudgments, and then acts as if that imagined reality is identical with truth. The Wicked Girls, which won an Edgar Award, has its expected share of twists and turns – it would not be in the murder-mystery/psychological-thriller genre if it did not – but it also has something more: compelling, carefully limned characters who are just ordinary enough so it is easy to imagine living next door to them, totally unaware not only of their past lives but also of their past and current potential for good and evil. The very mundanity of the settings is what makes them most ominous: like the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the Robert Bloch book on which the movie is based, Funnland and Whitmouth are just real enough to make readers look over their figurative shoulders while reading about what happens there. You never really know, do you, just who lives next door or down the block? If you think you know, based on what you have been told, you can never be quite sure that anyone’s stated biography is true, can you? Thinking too much about this invites paranoia, and that is just what The Wicked Girls produces: a feeling that there are depths in ordinary people that it is not wise to explore too thoroughly, depths from which monsters can spring.

     The identical underlying theme is explored from another angle in The Killer Next Door, an otherwise very different mystery set not in a creepy seaside amusement park but in an ordinary urban rooming house. The book’s structure is a well-worn one: a group of people, thrown together by circumstance but otherwise unrelated, bonds because of something horrible that happens – and then the bond starts to sever as people realize that someone in the group perpetrated the gory crime (and it is gory, possibly too much so for some readers). The rundown rooming house where the book is set – think Bates Motel again – stands for the anonymity of big cities everywhere, although Marwood skillfully turns the story into a specific-to-London tale through careful scene painting (indeed, U.S readers should be prepared, here as in The Wicked Girls, to look up some of the British references and vocabulary with which both books are packed). The building’s residents could easily descend into cardboard types, and a couple of them do, but by and large they are well-developed enough so readers will genuinely care about them and fear for them. This is especially the case with Lisa, also known as Collette, who is on the run after seeing her shady ex-boss and his goons beat a man to death. Because Lisa’s mother is dying in a nursing home and Lisa wants to be nearby, she has rented her threadbare room in the shabby boardinghouse – putting herself under the thumb of repulsive landlord Roy Preece (who is a bit too typecast: oily, lecherous, miserly, grossly obese and focused on getting room deposits and rents in cash so he can spend time ignoring the building’s awful-smelling backed-up drains). The other building residents are political-asylum-seeker Hossein Zanjani, elderly longtime resident Vesta Collins, part-time worker Thomas Dunbar, music teacher Gerard Bright, and teenage runaway Cher Farrell. Lisa/Collette moves into an apartment that used to belong to Nikki, a murder victim – and, yes, it gradually becomes clear that she was far from the only one, and that someone in the building is responsible. The story is loosely based on a famous British serial-murder case in which a man named Dennis Nilsen killed at least 12 people between 1978 and 1983. But even readers familiar with that story, which few U.S. readers will likely know, will not find The Killer Next Door spoiled by their knowledge, because what the book is really about is how well you know, or ever can know, the people living just a few feet away from you. It is this theme, so similar to the one Marwood explores in The Wicked Girls, that gives The Killer Next Door both its power and its ability to evoke suspense: there is something chillingly real about the realization that even a person’s stated background may be true or false, may reveal little or much about that person’s true feelings and motives, and may or may not be a good guide to what that person will do and how others should deal with him or her. Both The Wicked Girls and The Killer Next Door are self-contained: Marwood appears to have no interest in centering her mysteries on a recurring detective or other character, and for that reason, she can take the figurative gloves off and have things happen to her characters that are as scary and brutal as she wishes, which in these books can be quite brutal. Indeed, Marwood’s descriptive passages will be a bit much for some readers, taking parts of her books closer to the horror genre than to that of mystery/thriller. Readers should be prepared: the depths of depravity are not to be explored lightly, and Marwood does not shrink from bringing readers into them. Those depths create a decidedly uncomfortable place – made all the more so by the realization that it may be located right next to you.

(+++) TO THE FUTURE, FROM THE PAST


More Awesome Than Money: Four Boys and Their Heroic Quest to Save Your Privacy from Facebook. By Jim Dwyer. Viking. $27.95.

John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $27.99.

     Optimistic in the face of a glaringly pessimistic climax, focusing on the naïve optimism of tech-savvy young men as if it is a story never before told, Jim Dwyer tries to make of More Awesome Than Money something more than a tale of high hopes and ultimate failure. Slow-paced and cogently but not excitingly written, the narrative instead comes across as an unsurprising story of youthful dreams and overreaching, of pizza-chomping coders overwhelmed by practical realities as they march forth to save the world. Dwyer, a New York Times reporter, seems blissfully unaware of just how clichéd his story of Dan Grippi, Max Salzberg, Rafi Sofaer, and Ilya Zhitomirskiy seems: he tells it as if these four New York University undergraduates were the first young people ever to dream a technological dream and try to scale the heights of its implementation. Dwyer followed their story for years and seems to be fascinated by it, but readers will likely be less gripped by a narrative that takes them through far too many unsurprising tech-geek events and far too much self-sabotage. The four tried to create a social-media alternative to Facebook called Diaspora, based on the notion that social-media companies should not have such extensive control of users’ personal data – users should retain that control, and would in a Diaspora world. There was initial financial success through crowdfunding (a Kickstarter campaign that raised $200,000), but the four principals never really had any idea of what their project was or might be worth: they completely alienated a venture-capital firm by asking for $10,000,000. During a three-year time period, Grippi, Salzberg, Sofaer and Zhitomirskiy lived in what appears to be an utterly standard San Francisco tech-startup pressure cooker, trying to satisfy their crowdfunders, attract bigger money, and actually write the code needed to launch Disapora into the world.

     Comparing the project’s eventual failure to the flare-out of a comet – itself a clichéd metaphor – Dwyer explores the personalities of the four principals without ever giving a sense that they differ in any fundamental way from other tech-oriented members of the millennial generation. Calling them “boys” in the book’s subtitle borders on insult, for example; and does it really signify anything that they, like thousands of others, attend the Burning Man festival? The skimming of the inner lives of the four would-be tech entrepreneurs undermines what could be strong emotional impact when the most idealistic of them commits suicide at age 22 – an occurrence that ought to lead Dwyer to tamp down his enthusiasm for what the four tried to do, or at least to put it into a stronger context, but that does not. The shock at the suicide thus becomes a generic reaction to the death at a young age of a man with high ideals and considerable talent – but there is little sense that his ideals and talent were fundamentally his rather than an example of beliefs, hopes and abilities shared with a large number of others of his generation (including his three compatriots in Diaspora). There is some irony in the fact that the word “diaspora” refers to people with similar heritage (originally the Jews) who have dispersed widely, since the suicide – and the ultimate failure of Diaspora as a project – did indeed scatter the four principals. But there is little sense of irony in More Awesome Than Money, which takes its story very seriously indeed and very much at face value, to the point of including within it a history of the Internet as a whole from the start of the World Wide Web through the creation of the Firefox browser. Dwyer notes that digital innovation occurs so quickly that innovators can find themselves left behind: some useful features intended for Diaspora were quickly copied, modified and introduced by major tech companies even as the Diaspora protagonists were struggling to pull them together. Indeed, the Diaspora concept is similar to that of Ello, which specifically proclaims that it was created to counter a world in which “your social network is owned by advertisers” and which has been designated by several media organizations as “the anti-Facebook.” Ello may become what Diaspora was intended to be – but because non-electronic book publishing takes so much time, there is no mention of Ello in Dwyer’s book. More Awesome Than Money is ultimately the chronicle of people who failed, largely through unworldliness and hubris, to achieve what they idealistically and unrealistically sought. But because the people seem more types than fully formed individuals, it is a story that seems not “heroic,” the book’s subtitle notwithstanding, but one filled at most with pathos and never with tragedy.

     The issues are far older, drier and more complex – and incomparably more important – in Harlow Giles Unger’s John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation. This is an extended biography of a man who, if remembered at all by non-scholars and non-lawyers today, is known for having served longer than anyone else on the Supreme Court (35 years) and for presiding over an important but little-understood-by-non-specialists case called Marbury v. Madison. So the title of Unger’s book may seem a vast overstatement to most people – and, indeed, his hagiographic arguments are so pro-Marshall (and so strongly condemnatory of other Founding Fathers, notably Thomas Jefferson) that the book may be difficult for people unfamiliar with early United States history to follow and accept. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating if often one-sided read, clearly celebrating a jurist who went beyond the letter of constitutional law to establish the balance-of-powers system we have today. Unger traces Marshall’s pre-Supreme-Court life as a Revolutionary War officer, congressman, member of the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention, diplomat, and Secretary of State under John Adams – who initially appointed Marshall to the court and even named him Acting President  one summer, during which Marshall supervised the planning of what would become Washington, D.C. Yet all this political material, and the personal information on Marshall that Unger also lays out with care and attentiveness, serves as window dressing for Marbury v. Madison and a second case of nearly equal significance, McCullough v. Maryland. The details of the cases are arcane: Marbury v. Madison had to do with whether or not Secretary of State James Madison could be compelled to deliver papers commissioning Maryland financier William Marbury as a Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia, a position to which Marbury had been named during a lame-duck congressional session at the end of President Adams’ term; McCullough v. Maryland dealt with the state’s attempt to impose a tax on all banks not chartered within the state – specifically targeting the Second Bank of the United States. What matters to American jurisprudence today, and what was recognized in Marshall’s own time as being supremely important, was the rationale for the decisions the Supreme Court made – decisions by means of which it immensely elevated its stature from that of a mere “final appeals court,” which heard only 11 cases in its first 11 years, to that of a branch of government as powerful as the executive and legislative.

     Marbury v. Madison established, or at least solidified, the principle of “judicial review,” a concept that appears nowhere in the Constitution and that allows the Supreme Court to nullify laws, duly passed by Congress, if the court finds them to be in violation of the Constitution. McCullough v. Maryland affirmed federal sovereignty over the states and severely restricted the actions that states could take affecting matters outside their borders. Together, these decisions, reinforced by others in the Marshall years, created the delicate and complex tripartite balancing act within which the United States government operates – establishing and affirming a system very different from the parliamentary democracy of Great Britain. Unger does a good job of explaining these decisions, their implications and the controversies they generated – and in so doing makes it clear that he favors Marshall’s arguments over those of Jefferson, who himself exceeded explicit constitutional authority by authorizing the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. The back-and-forth of early American politics resembles the push-and-pull of today, albeit with more resonant language and more physical violence (from fisticuffs to duels). Unger, however, is less interested in the rough-and-tumble of political infighting in the young nation than in the way Marshall’s own political savvy helped his controversial decisions stand up to objections and even stopped Jefferson from packing the Supreme Court with his own supporters (as Franklin Roosevelt notoriously tried to do many years later). A treat for scholars interested in early American history and an eye-opener for non-historians seeking insight into the unusual balance of powers within which the U.S. government functions, John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation will be slow going for others – a worthwhile task to read, but a task nonetheless.

(+++) ’TIS ALMOST THE SEASON


Mediæval Bæbes: Of Kings and Angels—A Christmas Carol Collection. QOS (Queen of Sheba). $12.98.

Suzie LeBlanc: La Veillée de Noël. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Christmas in Harvard Square. The Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School conducted by John Robinson. Decca. $18.99.

Season’s Greetings—The Allentown Band. Allentown Band conducted by Ronald Demkee. Allentown Band. $14.99.

John Tavener: Ypakoë; …Depart in Peace; Trisagion; Two Hadiths of the Prophet Mohammed. Linn Records. $19.99.

Missa Conceptio tua: Medieval and Renaissance Music for Advent. Schola Antiqua of Chicago conducted by Michael Alan Anderson. Naxos. $9.99.

Madrigals of Madness. Calmus Ensemble. Carus. $18.99.

     Every year, the approach of Christmas provides singers and listeners alike with chances to revisit familiar seasonal musical territory and, at times, explore some less-known works that tie into winter and its holidays. Many recordings are released for this purpose, and these days almost all of them are high-quality in both performance and sound, their only inherent flaw being a determined seasonal focus that makes it unlikely they will be listened to very often (if at all) at other times of the year. Two entirely typical examples are the new Mediæval Bæbes collection of Christmas carols on the QOS label and soprano Suzie LeBlanc’s almost entirely French-language release for ATMA Classique. The Mediæval Bæbes CD is distinguished not only by fine singing but also by accompaniments that render even familiar carols such as We Three Kings, Good King Wenceslaus, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Silent Night unusual and exotic in sound. The arrangements, done mainly by the group’s founder, Katharine Blake, include folk instruments such as saw and hurdy-gurdy along with decidedly old-fashioned recorders, lyres and violas da gamba. Most of the 17 accompaniments are simple and straightforward, allowing the vocals to be the center of attention throughout. The medieval elements are especially appropriate for such carols as Gaudete, Veni Veni Emmanuel, In Dulci Jubilo and the Corpus Christi Carol, but they are attractive in the more-modern, English-language works as well. Listeners will find the words and tunes familiar but the ambiance unusual here – a pleasing combination of well-worn and less-known elements. On the LeBlanc disc, English speakers will find fewer items that they recognize – even the two pieces sung in English, Up and down the southern shore and Sir Symon the King, are scarcely household tunes. The rest of the 16 tracks are in French, and while some of the works will be known to English speakers (such as Les Trois Mages as We Three Kings), most will not be. That means this CD provides an enjoyable opportunity to hear well-sung versions of Christmas music quite different from the everyday: La Veillée (“The Vigil”), O Dieu l’étrange chose (“Oh God, the strange thing”), Plus on est de fous, plus on rit (“The More the Merrier,” sung in two separate versions), and many others. The individual items are not especially distinguished and will not likely supplant more-familiar Christmas music for English speakers, but they supplement better-known carols very well and offer, through this sincere and attractively performed CD, some interesting cross-cultural opportunities that nations such as Canada take for granted in a way that the United States does not.

     English speakers, whether in Canada, the United States or elsewhere, will take more immediately to the almost-angelic purity of the voices of the Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School, whose Christmas in Harvard Square presents 19 works that pass from sacred to secular, Latin to English, familiar to unfamiliar, without apparent difficulty and without any apparent increase or diminution of enthusiasm. John Robinson leads O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and Ding Dong Merrily on High with beauty and fervor, and the 25 boys just as enthusiastically sing Omnes de Saba venient, Mater ora filium, Puer natus est, and Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree. A work from the Matins of Christmas fits as well here as a traditional Irish melody and a piece using the words of Christina Rossetti. Indeed, the weakness of this Decca CD is that all the music gets the same treatment, with little regard for the styles or approaches of the different periods in which it was written; but some listeners will consider this a strength rather than a weakness, since the singing is uniformly lovely throughout and all the music comes across with suitable beauty, dedication and that ineffable Christmas spirit. Christmas in Harvard Square is something of a “souvenir” disc – it feels like the sort of takeaway one purchases after attending a particularly enjoyable live performance – and while it will have little staying power beyond from the Christmas season, it is a CD that will surely receive multiple uses during the season from anyone who enjoys these fine, clear young voices and their well-modulated approach to all the pieces on display here.

     Listeners who prefer instrumental recognition and celebration of Christmas – and Hanukkah as well – will enjoy the 17th volume in a series called “Our Band Heritage,” featuring the Allentown Band and released on the ensemble’s own label. Ronald Demkee leads the band in 13 works both spirited and spiritual: Leroy Anderson’s A Christmas Festival and Sleigh Ride, Percy Faith’s Brazilian Sleigh Bells, an arrangement of Victor Herbert’s March of the Toys from Babes in Toyland and one of the traditional Carol of the Birds, plus Moravian, Celtic, French and Russian Christmas music – the last sampling of these being quite extended and featuring fine organ playing by George Boyer. The Hanukkah offering, called Eighth Candle, is performed with as much sensitivity and care as the Christmas works, and the disc as a whole – which was recorded in 2002 – has plenty of verve and spirit to mark the season, providing a well-chosen combination of tunes that will be familiar to almost everyone and ones that few will know. The Allentown Band, which first performed in 1828 and is the oldest civilian concert band in the United States, performs both the transcriptions and the original works for band with smoothly honed skill and a fine sense of rhythm and flair – even when the music itself is not of very considerable consequence.

     For something significant and truly unusual within the overall Christmas ethos, listeners can turn to a new Linn Records CD of music by Sir John Tavener (1944-2013). None of the four works here relates directly to the Christmas season, but all possess a sense of ethereality and reaching-out in a spiritual context that fit the season very well – even when they draw on non-Christian religious traditions, as does Two Hadiths of the Prophet Mohammed. This motet, for two sopranos, two altos and Renaissance bray harp (an instrument with a drone-bass sound quite different from what a modern harp produces), is performed by Canty, the group that co-commissioned it and gave the first performance in 2008. The Hadiths, which are sayings attributed to Mohammed, reach across religious fault lines in a spirit that seems apt for Christmastime: I was a hidden treasure, And I longed to be known, So I created the world; and God is a beautiful being, And He loves beauty. The emotional communication of the piece is direct and clear. So is that of …Depart in Peace, which Tavener dedicated to the memory of his father and which has a meditative, ethereal quality entirely appropriate for a fond remembrance. It combines the Nunc dimittis (“Now you dismiss,” from the gospel of Luke) with Alliuatic antiphons, focusing the soprano, violin, tampura (a long-necked Indian drone instrument) and cellos on beauty through hypnotic segment repetition, ending in a chant that sounds Middle Eastern. The Scottish Ensemble’s lovely performance of this work, whose focus is Simeon’s words after he takes the infant Jesus in his arms, makes this a beautiful seasonal piece as well as a lovely memorial. The disc also contains two instrumental works, of which Ypakoë, for piano (very well played here by Elena Riu), focuses through its five movements on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ – more an Easter story than a Christmas one, although of course the two are as intimately related as fallow-winter-and-spring-rebirth tales have been for thousands of years. The final work on the CD is Trisagion, a quintet for brass whose title is a Greek word that means “thrice holy” – and is the name of an important hymn in Orthodox churches. Although not directly religious, the piece was created against a religious background (Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox faith in 1977), and its slow-moving, mostly consonant chordal structure is in the spirit of a typical hymn. The Wallace Collection plays this technically difficult music with considerable sensitivity and smoothness. Although Tavener’s music is not to all tastes, not even to the tastes of everyone interested in liturgical and religious compositions, the four pieces here – a fair representation of his work – will have resonance in the Christmas season and beyond.

     The Schola Antiqua of Chicago performance of Missa Conceptio tua by Pierre de la Rue (c. 1452-1518) has a direct tie-in to the holiday season, not to Christmas itself but to Advent, for which this half-hour Mass was written. The Naxos recording is a world première, and Michael Alan Anderson’s sensitive direction of the half-hour work produces a warm and deeply felt version of the traditional Latin Mass – not the most distinguished of the many settings of the words, but one that is emotionally true and heartfelt. The disc’s Advent focus also extends to seven Latin O Antiphons (that is, O Adonai, O Clavis David, O Rex Gentium and others) and the plainchant Alma Redemptoris Mater (“Nourishing Mother of the Redeemer”); and the disc concludes with three beautifully sung late Medieval English carols: There is no rose of swych vertu; Hail Mary, full of grace; and Nova, nova! This is a CD whose music first anticipates and then, in the concluding carols, celebrates the birth of the Christ child – a very apt seasonal presentation with essentially a single focus on love and redemption.

     The focus is considerably wider in the equally well-performed Carus CD called Madrigals of Madness, which features the works of seven composers of the 16th and 17th centuries. What the Calmus Ensemble explores here is not the madness of the composers themselves – although the four harmonically unusual madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), who is as well known for being a murderer as for being a composer, may make listeners wonder. The disc actually looks into forms of madness as reflected in music: the madness of love and lovesickness, war and loneliness. In addition to the madrigals of Gesualdo, the works here are What is our life? by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625); La bomba by Mateo Fletcher (c. 1481-1553); Lamento d’Arianna by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643); Scaramella by Josquin Desprez (c. 1450/55-1521); La guerre by Clément Janequin (c. 1485-1558); and Too much I once lamented by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656). The madrigal form changed little during the period covered here, but some of the harmonic inventiveness became greater, and not just in Gesualdo’s examples. The expressiveness of the music is substantial, its concerns far more secular than sacred in pensive meditations on sadness, death, war and love. But these works are not mere lamentations: they are expressions, often stylized ones, of deeply felt emotions held in check only by the beauty of the music itself. Unlike discs intended wholly, or at least primarily, for the Christmas season, this is one that speaks to all times of the year and to people of any faith, delving into emotional territory to which any listener captured by the sound of the madrigal will respond – even hundreds of years after these works were created.

(+++) SINGLY AND TOGETHER


Sauro Berti: Solo Non Solo. Sauro Berti, bass clarinet. Ravello. $14.99.

David Liptak: The Eye That Directs a Needle; Freight; Preludes; Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon: yo no / tú sí / yo tú / sí no; Daphne; Flores del Viento III. Ravello. $14.99.

Alan Beeler: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4; Clarinet Concerto; Violin Concerto; Marimba Concerto in Sixths; Marimba Concerto da Chiesa; Mad Song after William Blake; Homage to Roger Sessions. Navona. $14.99.

Jeff Jacobs: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (“Death and Transfiguration”); String Quartet No. 2; Elegy; Adagietto Misterioso. Navona. $16.99.

     Sauro Berti, bass clarinetist of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, is the focus of a performer-oriented Ravello CD of modern clarinet music that, like many other examples of contemporary music, straddles the line between classical and other forms (in this case, primarily jazz). The works here are not so much undistinguished as they are largely indistinguishable: there are no fewer than 13 composers represented, in 14 pieces, but no one here shows a style so distinguished that it would lead listeners to be sure that a given work is by that specific composer rather than someone with a different name. A full hour-and-a-quarter of solo-clarinet music would in any case be a bit much, but most of the works here are for more than a single instrument. Ultraclarinet by Achille Succi is for two clarinets (played by Berti and Succi); Sintesi by Thomas Briccetti is for clarinet and metronome; Peans Giga by Stefano Nanni is for clarinet and bass clarinet (both played by Berti); Oh, More or Less is for tenor saxophone and bass clarinet (Mario Ciaccio and Berti); Due Pezzi Brasiliani by Silvio Zalambani, one of the more interesting works here, is for basset horn and pandeiro, a type of hand-frame drum that looks a bit like a tambourine (Berti and Davide Bernaro); Cosmic Turtles Sidekick by Brad Baumgardner is for two bass clarinets (Berti plays both); Broken Mirror by Carlo Boccadoro is for drums and clarinet (Gianluca Nanni and Berti); Blue Buk by Luca Velotti is for two clarinets (Berti and Velotti); Spasm by Michael Lowenstern is for bass clarinet and electronics; and Weirdo-Funk by Bob Mintzer is for clarinet and drums (Berti and Nanni). Every piece on the CD is essentially an encore: the works run from one minute to five. This means that nothing ever establishes itself and develops to any significant extent, and whatever involvement listeners may start to feel – whether because of the playing or the instrumentation – evaporates soon. This applies to the single-instrument works as well as the others: Walk for bass clarinet by Boccadoro; Prayers from the Ark, another piece of above-average interest, by John Manduell; Adagio e Allegro for basset horn by Teresa Procaccini; and Concerto “Carte Fiorentine N. 2” for clarinet by Valentino Bucchi. The disc is simply a showcase for short-form contemporary works for clarinet and related instruments; wind players will likely find it more congenial than will casual listeners.

     Another Ravello CD features two different solo instruments: marimba in Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon’s Daphne and guitar in David Liptak’s Freight. Three works by each composer are combined to produce a disc with the somewhat overdone title of Stars. Stories. Song. These composers’ approaches actually have little in common, so the title is presumably intended as a unifying device, although it is not especially clear or effective on that basis. Nor are the works themselves related particularly closely to each other. Of the works by Zohn-Muldoon, Daphne is about the mythic woman’s flight from Apollo; yo no / tú sí / yo tú / sí no, for soprano, flute, guitar, violin, bass and percussion, sets four poems by Raúl Aceves; and Flores del Viento III, for soprano, flute, violin and percussion, sets seven by Laura Zohn. Of the pieces by Liptak, Freight is a tribute to folk guitarist Elizabeth Cotton; The Eye That Directs a Needle, for soprano, violin and percussion, refers to early professional astronomer Maria Mitchell; and Preludes, for alto saxophone and marimba, proves the most involving work on the disc, its seven movements offering interesting and purely musical contrasts that do not depend on the literary references incorporated into the music. The audience for this CD is hard to pin down: existing fans of the two composers will want it, but neither the individual works nor the theme imposed on the totality by the disc’s title will reach out in a significant way anyone not already interested in Zohn-Muldoon or Liptak.

     At least the Navona CD of symphonic music by Alan Beeler has clear appeal – to listeners who want to hear modern applications of the now somewhat old-fashioned practice of creating and developing tone rows and using them as the germs of extended works. Beeler here shows his command of orchestral forces as well as solo instruments within the concerto format – not hesitating to produce works in a standard number of movements and with traditional tempo indications, but communicating through the pieces in ways designed to bring listeners into an atonal universe. The two symphonies here, played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský, are both quite short (13 minutes apiece); both are in four movements and both use traditional forms. Symphony No. 1 (2003, five years before No. 4) even spells out the forms it includes: sonata for the first movement, song for the second, Scherzo with Trio for the third, and rondo for the finale. Nevertheless, the choice of themes and the persistent atonality make these works, each around the length of Prokofiev’s “Classical” symphony, sound anything but traditionally classical. The same orchestra and conductor offer the 11-minute Violin Concerto (2003), with soloist Vít Mužík, and 10-minute Marimba Concerto in Sixths (2004), featuring Ladislav Bilan. Bilan is also soloist for the seven-minute Marimba Concerto da Chiesa (2007), here accompanied by the Moravian Philharmonic Strings. The Clarinet Concerto (1997-2000), which runs 13 minutes, features Richard Stoltzman with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. And two short concluding pieces written in 1986, which close the CD and function as encores, are played by the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimír Válek. Beeler clearly finds short forms attractive, apparently feeling that all he has to say can be expressed in a very compact manner; and since the music is abstract and not especially emotionally involving, listeners are likely to agree. The performances are quite good – Stoltzman and Vronský, in particular, are strong advocates of contemporary music and handle these works very well. Beeler’s pieces are more workmanlike than inspired: carefully wrought and thoughtfully assembled, making their points in short order and leaving it to audiences to decide afterwards whether those points were well taken.

     Jeffrey Jacob also writes in traditional forms and also gravitates to shorter movements and comparatively brief complete works, but the pieces on a Navona CD show him reaching out for a greater emotional connection with listeners than Beeler seems to seek. The two-movement Symphony No. 1, performed by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Toshiyuki Shimada and featuring Jacob himself as pianist, draws on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in an attempt to depict timelessness through contrasting moderate and quick movements. Symphony No. 3, played by the London Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Spalding and with Jacob himself again at the piano, is intended as a contemporary view or update of Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, its three movements progressing from darkness through delicacy to eventual exaltation – although less effectively than does the Strauss original. String Quartet No. 2, played by the New England String Quartet (violinists Julia Okrusko and Klaudia Szlachta, violist Lilit Muradyan and cellist Ming-Hui Lin), follows a similar pattern in more-compressed form, each of the two movements starting in something akin to despair and ending with affirmation. Elegy, played by the Hradec Králové Philharmonic under Jon Mitchell, is a somewhat thornier piece, working toward resolution through largely contrapuntal means. It stands in contrast to Adagietto Misterioso, performed by the Moscow Symphony under Joel Spiegelman, which is nostalgic and lyrical and the most approachable work on the entire CD. Jacob’s music has sufficient emotive power to draw listeners in, although it does not always repay their involvement with any strongly stirring resolution. It is nevertheless music that reaches out to the audience more forthrightly than do many of the works produced by contemporary composers.

October 16, 2014

(++++) OLD AND NEW AMUSEMENTS


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

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

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

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

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

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

(++++) IN PRAISE OF SILLINESS


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

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

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

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

(++++) PHILOSOPHICALLY SPEAKING


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(+++) SCARY STUFF FOR SEVERAL AGE GROUPS


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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