June 13, 2019

(++++) BLUE AND BLUER


The Blue Day Book: A Lesson in Cheering Yourself Up—Illustrated Edition. By Bradley Trevor Greive. Illustrated by Claire Keane. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Apologies That Never Came. By Pierre Alex Jeanty. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.

     Thank goodness there is still so much goodness, and thank simplicity that there is still so much simplicity, in Bradley Trevor Greive’s 20-year-old “cheer yourself up” meditation, The Blue Day Book. Were it not for the continuing need for something upbeat to counter the ever-present sense of being relentlessly downtrodden by life nowadays (and 20 years ago, and 10 years ago, and so on), the book would long since have outlived its usefulness and would have fallen victim to well-intentioned rethinkings such as the new “Illustrated Edition.” The reality is that The Blue Day Book has always been illustrated, and a great part of its charm and effectiveness came and still comes from its use (in earlier editions) of wildlife photographs in which animals seem to reflect, comment on, think about, or otherwise respond to the human concerns expressed in Greive’s simple prose (the book contains fewer than 100 sentences). What is different in the new edition is that the illustrations are done cartoon-style (or graphic-novel-style) by Claire Keane, the animal photos are absent, and the narrative now has a single central character in the form of a woebegone elephant (no doubt as in “the elephant in the room”) who eventually “snaps out of it” (the “blue day,” that is) and is thereafter seen against light-colored backgrounds rather than the dark-colored ones that dominate the first part of the book.

     What could possibly be wrong with this? The answer depends on how you see the value of The Blue Day Book, whether in its early incarnation, its 10th-anniversary edition, its version for children, or in any other guise. The book is certainly a worldwide phenomenon in terms of sales and therefore, presumably, in terms of its ability to connect with diverse audiences. But for that very reason, it has become a place, in this 20th-anniversary illustrated edition, for Greive to hold forth rather immodestly: “Writing this little book in the winter of 1998 helped me smile at a time when I needed it most, though of course I had absolutely no idea that it would eventually become the world’s bestselling gift book of all time.” Um, yes, there is that – and it is, um, a bit full of oneself to draw attention to it this way rather than to, say, let one’s publicists do it. It also makes perfect sense to draw one’s attention to the need for perspective on one’s life, the notion that as bad as any “blue day” may be, someone else is surely having a worse one, and there is always an opportunity to have a brighter tomorrow. And the animal photos were a big part of that, helping keep the book’s message light and serious at the same time, making it easier to laugh at one’s problems by imagining how, say, a grumpy-looking toad must feel. But what have we now? We have one person’s (or animal’s) story; we have a narrative structure in which the same imagined person/animal endures the various depredations of life and eventually overcomes them. In other words, we have personalization of The Blue Day Book, which is exactly what it does not need. What if a reader does not identify with the elephant as an apt central character here? What if the “turnaround” two-page spread, with the disheartened elephant in the dark on the left and a smiling human woman carrying a guitar case and seen against a light background on the right, doesn’t work for a reader? Well, too bad – because that is the turnaround two-page spread, and the elephant is the character with whom (or with which) it is necessary to identify. The Blue Day Book still carries its marvelous message of keeping downbeat times in perspective, its wonderful realization that there is always tomorrow until, eventually, there isn’t: “Live every day as if it were your last, because one day it will be.” Greive’s message, simple and thoughtful and meaningful specifically because it does not pretend to be profound, continues to resonate through all editions of The Blue Day Book, including this new one. And it really can be a recipe for getting through the inevitable “blue day” that we all encounter from time to time. Whether the message works better with Keane’s illustrations is a matter of opinion. Happily, for readers for whom it does not, plenty of earlier editions of The Blue Day Book continue to be available.

     To see just how valuable the uplift of The Blue Day Book is in any form or edition, consider Pierre Alex Jeanty’s (+++) Apologies That Never Came, another book dealing with the tribulations of everyday life and attempting to give readers ways to cope with them. This is a book of short poems about love and loss, and one of them is actually called “Perspective,” beginning as follows: “Cloudy days are nothing to love unless/ you’ve known the loneliness that will try to/ swallow you through dark nights.” Greive would never put it that way – and never did – but Jeanty is getting at much the same issue as Greive, namely that even when some days are cloudy (literally or emotionally), others will not be, need not be. Being unillustrated, Jeanty’s poems succeed or fall short solely because of their words, which are certainly heartfelt but tend to lapse into cliché, even when Jeanty knows he is starting out from a cliché: “You hear that time heals all wounds, but/ your clock seems to have the seconds/ mixed with the hours and the hours with/ the months./ The days come like molasses dripping,/ the minutes like a snail traveling.” Some of the sentiments in Apologies That Never Came directly address the same issues that Greive explores: “Grow from your failures,” Jeanty writes at one point, and at another, “There are phases in our lives that will drag us down. …The bad is not that it’s happening, the bad is staying in it and allowing it to destroy you.” There is no humor in Apologies That Never Came, no attempt at lightness despite the recognition of the importance of perspective – instead there is wallowing in might-have-beens with the intent, having wallowed, of emerging cleansed. Whether this works better than the admittedly simplistic “brighter days to come” notion underlying The Blue Day Book depends entirely on each individual reader’s response to heartache and heartbreak – depends, in short, on different people’s differing perspectives.

(++++) SEASONALLY SPEAKING


Boo, Boo, I Love You! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

Five Little Pumpkins on Halloween Night. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

Camp. By Kayla Miller. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.99.

     Most of Sandra Magsamen’s hyper-adorable board books are suitable for enjoyment anytime, but Magsamen occasionally comes up with ones that are strictly for a specific purpose – such as Five Little Pumpkins on Halloween Night and Boo, Boo, I Love You! The latter is superficially designed just like most of her other books, with a tightly bound-in feature, in this case a felt triangle projecting from the top of the book and being incorporated into the writing and pictures on every page. But unlike most Magsamen works, this is really a Halloween book, as is clear not only from the title but also from the fact that the cover illustration shows a ghost with a big smile appearing to wear the felt triangle as a hat. The sentiments in the book are classic Magsamen, but all are given appropriate seasonal twists relating to Halloween-ish costumes: “You can be a raccoon singing to the full moon” (with the felt triangle taking the place of one raccoon ear), or “a cat and wear a witch’s hat” (now the felt triangle looks both like a cat’s ear and like a witch’s peaked hat). The cutest illustration here shows a broadly smiling spider in a web, sporting a bow tie and wearing the felt triangle as a hat whose brim is drawn to match the bow-tie pattern. But all the pictures are adorable, not the slightest bit scary, and the concluding “boo, boo, I love you” (the first two words shown with each of their three letters in a different color) is strictly in line with the endings of other Magsamen board books. The final message is similar in Five Little Pumpkins on Halloween Night, which lacks a special bound-in feature but combines two topics, Halloween and counting. Each of the five pumpkins simply has something to say to young children, within Magsamen’s rhyme scheme: “The second one said, We shine so bright!/ The third one said, Yes, we’re a beautiful sight!” And so it goes through all five brightly smiling and not-even-a-tiny-bit-scary pumpkins, until Magsamen has the final one deliver a line that fits with everything she includes in all her books: “We spread a lot of love, that’s what we do!” In both these attractive little board books, the specifics are timely, but the message is timeless.

     Kayla Miller’s Camp is for a different season, summer, and is much more extended (more than 230 pages), more elaborate, and more serious in intent. A graphic novel, Camp is Miller’s second exploration (after Click) of the everyday world of Olive, a middle-school girl whose mundane life and adventures are clearly intended by Miller to provide a series of teachable moments. The story of Camp is encapsulated in the one-word title: Olive goes to camp, engages in camp activities with other campers, and returns home after camp is over. But of course there is more to it than that. Attending camp with Olive is her friend Willow, whose mother is shown at the start of the book to be rather overprotective – with Willow shown to be far more nervous about camp than Olive is. Sure enough, although things go well for Olive, and although a helpful counselor tries to smooth camp life for Willow, Olive’s friend does not adjust very well, and clings to Olive instead of getting out there and playing sports, interacting with other campers, and so forth. The clinginess cause a rift between the girls that is resolved only after they have a heart-to-heart talk in the middle of the night – and eventually everything ends happily, with both Olive and Willow having great camp memories and looking forward to returning next summer. What could be wrong with such an uplifting story? Well, nothing when it is summarized – but there are some issues in the telling that turn Camp into a (+++) book that parents should look through carefully to decide whether or not it will be a pleasant, upbeat and perhaps even encouraging read for middle-schoolers about to have their first sleepaway-camp experience. One difficulty here is that Willow clearly does have real health issues – she needs an inhaler and must take medicine regularly – but these are minimized and are used by Miller primarily to make it seem that Willow’s mom is just too worried about her daughter. But genuine health concerns are quite legitimate matters, not symptoms of over-protectiveness. In addition and even more significantly, Miller, intentionally or not, shows Willow as a classic introvert, preferring to be alone much of the time, enjoying reading, not wanting to participate in team sports, and so on. But instead of using the book to show the real difficulty that introverts have when thrust into a super-extroverted community such as a summer camp, Miller manages the story so that it is only when Willow stops being an introvert – when she joins a band, suddenly starts making friends, etc. – that she and Olive can re-cement their friendship. The underlying message here, intentional or not (presumably not), is that introversion and genuine health issues are problems to be overcome, that introversion is somehow not as “good” as extroversion and makes people unhappy. Certainly introverted children will be unhappy in situations that force them to be outgoing, dealing constantly with new people and new activities and group requirements. And Camp could have had valuable teachable moments if Miller had chosen to show how both extroverts (Olive) and introverts (Willow) can find ways to negotiate the challenges of a new environment. But Miller takes the easy and unrealistic way out: she simply shows that the way to do this is for introverts to become extroverted – which is at least deeply uncomfortable and at most flat-out impossible. So Camp will be great fun for extroverted middle-school girls looking forward to a new summertime experience, and it may be useful for families that want to show more-introverted children what will be expected of them in a camp setting. But “teaching” introverts that the “right” way to behave at camp (or elsewhere) is to become something that they are not is a losing strategy that may well make inward-focused children even more uncomfortable and unhappy when they are thrust into an outward-focused environment such as summer camp.

(+++) IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SOUND


Spinning in the Wheel: Music for Berimbau Sextet. Projeto Arcomusical. National Sawdust Tracks. $20.

Piano Music from Romantic Manila. Sally Pinkas, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Renderings: A Musical Landscape for Violin and Harp. Crimson Duo (Matt Milewski, violin; Jaymee Haefner, harp). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Bach: Goldberg Variations—arranged for Baroque ensemble. Repast Baroque Ensemble (Amelia Roosevelt, Baroque violin and viola; Emi Ferguson, Baroque flute [traverso]; Katie Rietman, Baroque cello and piccolo cello; Stephanie Corwin, Baroque bassoon; Gabe Shuford, harpsichord). MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Defiantly different: here are four excellently performed CDs that may be well outside the musical mainstream but that invite hearing and rehearing simply because they offer sonic discoveries. Spinning in the Wheel presents sounds that listeners will not have heard before and may even find bizarre – unless they are Brazilian or familiar with Brazil’s culture. Projeto Arcomusical is a sextet of berimbau players, and the berimbau is a musical bow – a single-stringed instrument with a gourdlike resonator attached to the string, the size of that object determining how high or low the string sounds. The berimbau is revered in Brazil because of its connection with, of all things, a martial art that is nowadays performed as a kind of multifaceted game: Capoeira, originally learned and practiced by slaves and developed by them as a form of resistance and a battle-worthy manner of repelling troops sent to wrest control of escaped-slave enclaves from those who had set them up. The history is fascinating and so, to some extent, is the music on a new National Sawdust Tracks release. The reason for the “to some extent” qualifier is that there are expressive limits beyond which single-string musical bows, however well played, cannot go: the sounds here, highly intriguing at first, tend to blend into sameness as the disc progresses. This is so even though Projeto Arcomusical has arranged the CD cleverly in a wheel-like sequence of “sextet – trio – duo – solo – duo – trio – sextet.” The recording opens with the four-movement Roda by Elliot Cole and then proceeds to six single-movement works by members of the ensemble: Ondulaçāo by Alexis C. Lamb; Berimbau Duo No. 6, Berimbau Solo No. 5, and Berimbau Duo No. 2 by Gregory Beyer; Echoes by Kyle Flens; and Berimbau Sextet No. 2 by Beyer. The concept here is to make music modeled in part on a wheel, because the wheel is an important symbol in Capoeira. This is all very well thought out, but for listeners not steeped in Brazilian culture, and interested primarily in how the music sounds as music, there is less depth in the hearing than in the design of the presentation. Certainly Projeto Arcomusical is highly adept with its instruments, and certainly there are nuances of sound from piece to piece – Echoes, for example, really is filled with echoing effects. But for most listeners, the attraction here will be the sheer unfamiliarity of the berimbau and the discovery that this apparently simple instrument is capable of producing a wide variety of individual and combined sounds, some bowed and some percussive, with the pieces on the CD displaying the performers’ skills at varying tempos and in rhythms that, for all their differences, attain a certain degree of familiarity as the disc progresses. An audience without the cultural background or interest underlying the berimbau may not find this a disc to which it will return often, but it is worthwhile hearing once or even twice simply for the opportunity to expose oneself to a new-to-most-listeners musico-cultural environment.

     The nation on which a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Sally Pinkas focuses is half a world away from Brazil: it is the Philippines, whose musical heritage will likely be just as little-known to many listeners as is that of Brazil. Although the instrumental sound here is very familiar, being simply that of the piano, the material that Pinkas performs is definitely not. Written during 80-plus years, from the 1870s to 1960, these short salon pieces are grouped on the disc not by year or decade but by type: three “Literary Inspirations,” seven “Danzas Filipinas,” three “Romances,” seven “Waltzes,” and three “Civic Pride” works. The composers’ names will be wholly unfamiliar to most listeners. The one heard most often here is Francisco Buencamino Sr. (1883-1952), while others whose music is offered by Pinkas were born as long ago as 1846 (Ignacio Massaguer, who died in 1906) or died as recently as 1960 (the long-lived Julio Nakpil, born in 1867). When a composer here is responsible for more than one work, the pieces are scattered according to the category into which Pinkas places them, so there is little chance to develop a feeling for individual composers’ styles. But that is not the point of this disc. What Pinkas does here, and does very well and very stylishly, is to sample works of both the Spanish and American colonial periods in the Philippines, showing both how the nation’s music reflected that of other lands and how it differed. The differences are especially clear in the habanera, which in these pieces is a Cuban-originating dance of considerable delicacy, and the waltz, which is not at all like the famous Viennese variety but instead has its own kind of piquant swirl. Indeed, one of these waltzes, Gratitudo by Buencamino Sr., has something Brazilian about it; but another, In the Orient by Francisco Santiago (1889-1947), blends Oriental colorations with Latin ones to fine and rather amusing effect. Another Santiago work here, a Nocturne in E-flat minor that is included in the “Romances” section, offers an attractive adaptation of European Romantic models. Each listener will easily find different works congenial, and those familiar with Philippine history will enjoy hearing the differing influences on the music from the days of the Spanish and American periods. Nothing here rises much beyond the level of a trifle, or tries to: these are, by and large, drawing-room and occasional pieces of no great consequence and no substantial length (only one lasts more than five minutes). However, there are charms aplenty here, undiscovered ones that Pinkas has done a fine job of displaying in the best possible light.

     The unfamiliar sound combination of violin and harp is a major attraction on another new MSR Classics release, this one featuring six composers and seven pieces written as long ago as 1895 and as recently as 2017. The Crimson Duo opens with the oldest pieces on the CD, Andante Religioso and Scherzo-Fantaisie, both from 1895, by Henriette Renié (1875-1956). At the age of 20, Renié was fully and firmly steeped in Romanticism, and if these slight pieces break no new ground, they are effective in introducing the lyrical and pleasant sounds that characterize the entire recording. They are followed by one of the most-recent works here, Still/Nervous (2017) by Gary Schocker (born 1959). The juxtaposition is quite interesting, because just as the slower and warmer Renié work contrasts with the speedier and somewhat more intense one, so the two parts of Schocker’s piece produce a comparable contrast in a much-more-recent musical language. Also contemporary in sensibility is Violin and Harp Music (2015) by Patricio Da Silva (born 1973). This work’s three movements bear titles intended to help direct listeners’ perceptions: “West Is the Way,” “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore,” and “Hands On.” Whether those titles accurately reflect the music is a matter of opinion, but certainly the work offers a series of interesting contrasts and provides both violin and harp with opportunities for some virtuoso showcasing. This is the world première recording both of Violin and Harp Music and of the next work on the disc, Flutter (2017) by Kirsten Soriano Broberg (born 1979). Broberg’s piece is something of a short étude, pleasant enough but not very substantial. It is certainly less interesting than the piece that follows it and concludes the CD: a violin-and-harp arrangement of the Sonata for Flute and Harp (1937) by Nino Rota (1911-1979). Rota is far better known for the film scores he wrote for directors Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, and Francis Ford Coppola: he scored the first two Godfather films and won an Academy Award for his work on the second. But Rota also wrote a considerable amount of music in classical forms, and this sonata is a charmer and rather sweet. Written in the traditional three movements, it encourages camaraderie rather than any sense of competitiveness between the performers, and if the violin-and-harp version does not quite have the effervescence of the original, it nevertheless gives Matt Milewski and Jaymee Haefner plenty of chances to blend their respective sounds with skill and beauty.

     And what could possibly be outside the aural mainstream in yet another recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations? Quite a bit, as it turns out on another MSR Classics release. This is a fascinating version of the music, in a performance by the original-instrument group called Repast Baroque Ensemble. It does not entirely turn its back on the harpsichord, for which Bach’s work was written: the closing Aria da capo is, intelligently, given to the harpsichord solo, as if to remind listeners of what the music was intended to be all about, and seven variations (Nos. 5, 11, 14, 20, 23, 28 and 29) are also played by the harpsichord – and very well, too. But no listener will want this disc for its solo-harpsichord elements: the fascination here, the sonic attraction, lies in the Goldberg Variations that are performed by the ensemble, or some portion of it. All the individual members get their own chances to shine forth, but it is the decisions made by the performers as to what instrument should be front-and-center in which variation that provide most of the enjoyment. For example, using the bassoon to open and close what Wanda Landowska called the “Black Pearl” variation – No. 25, the third and last in G minor – seems a decision that is sensible and almost, in this context, obvious. But within that variation, the decision to have the bassoon and the piccolo cello play at the extremes of their respective ranges is unexpected and quite affecting. The musical decision-making that underpins this performance is what gives the reading such a high level of interest. The flute-bassoon-cello mixture in Variation 4, to cite one example, is as interesting as the choice of a viola rather than violin in Variation 6, to cite another. This should scarcely be any listener’s first choice of a Goldberg Variations to own or hear: the recording is something of a connoisseur’s delight, most likely to be enjoyed by an audience that is thoroughly familiar with the music already and is intrigued by the notion of hearing it played in a totally non-authentic but highly knowledgeable form on correct period instruments or first-rate copies. Compared to hearing this work on a modern piano, hearing it performed by the Repast Baroque Ensemble is a joy: the players understand Bach’s style very well, and the overall instrumental sound, if not correct for this specific piece, is certainly right for music of this time period. This may not be a recording to which listeners who love the Goldberg Variations will return frequently, but it could easily become one to which Bach lovers turn if they ever feel the desire to imagine what might have been if Bach had chosen to arrange this music for a highly skilled and sensitive chamber ensemble.

(+++) LOW PRICE, HIGH QUALITY


Sibelius: Symphony No. 1. Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. ATMA Classique. $12.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR Music. $8.99.

     Some modern CDs are throwbacks to an earlier time – the days of vinyl records that could generally hold just one symphony on a disc, and nothing else. The compensation for CDs containing much less music than the medium is capable of (today, a CD can hold about 80 minutes of material) is that at least some of these releases are offered at prices significantly below those of $16.99 and up per disc, which have become standard. A few companies offer all or substantially all their releases at low-for-the-21st-century prices of $12.99 or less – Naxos and Brilliant Classics come to mind – but other firms match or even undercut that price with recordings that can be very worthwhile indeed, at least for listeners looking for well-interpreted versions of music as perhaps a second or third addition of pieces to their collections. For example, although serious classical-music listeners almost certainly have at least one complete set of the Sibelius symphonies already, some may want to own a well-priced new ATMA Classique release featuring Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal under Yannick Nézet-Séguin as a supplementary version of Symphony No. 1. This is a middle-of-the-road interpretation, without major excesses or any significant chance-taking in the reading. The opening clarinet solo, for example, meanders a bit before introducing a main theme that flows nicely but shows less of the lushness of strings that works particularly well in this most Romantic of Sibelius’ symphonies. The orchestra’s brass, strong and strident, does more to set the tone of the performance than do the strings, and the rocking motion of the woodwinds creates a pleasantly pastoral impression. This first movement is something of a stop-and-go affair, without as much forward momentum as in other readings, but Nézet-Séguin elicits some attractive details periodically, notably from pizzicato strings and harp. The gentle second movement is more effective, a trifle sadder than usual because Nézet-Séguin uses the tempo marking Andante ma non troppo lento to keep matters a touch more lento than other conductors do. The third movement has good bounce and particularly fine playing by the winds, but is marred by an unexplainable and inappropriate speedup at the end. This does, however, make the broadly conceived opening of the fourth movement a stronger contrast. Nézet-Séguin seems more comfortable with the mood and speed changes of this movement than he is earlier in the symphony, with the result that the finale is the most-effective part of the reading. As a whole, this is a respectable if not particularly idiomatic performance – unlikely to be any listener’s first choice for the music, but a worthy additional CD for some collections. It is worth noting that one thing listeners give up here, and in quite a few other lower-priced CDs as well, is a useful booklet. The one included with this disc offers only two short paragraphs – a total of 11 lines – about the music. It then gives two full pages to information on Nézet-Séguin, one page to the orchestra as a whole, and four pages to a listing of every musician in the ensemble. The focus on performers rather than on what is performed is not confined to lower-price CDs but seems more common there than in costlier recordings, and is very unfortunate, unnecessarily and inexplicably diminishing the importance of the music.

     The very-little-information approach is at its height (or depth) in SWR Music releases such as that of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, performed by the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. These CDs, offered in trifold cardboard packages at a truly exceptional 21st-century price of $8.99, represent compromises on a variety of levels. The inexpensive packaging and very brief notes on the music – and even briefer ones on conductor and orchestra, which at least means the ratio makes sense – are only part of the cost-cutting. The performances themselves are releases or re-releases from some time ago: this one, a live recording, dates to 2006 (the Sibelius with Nézet-Séguin is a 2018 performance). On the other hand, Mahler’s Fifth is a considerably longer work than Sibelius’ First and would not have fit on a single vinyl record in the past, so this release and others on this label qualify as genuine bargains – as long as the performances are worthy. In the case of Norrington’s handling of Mahler’s Fifth, the reading is certainly worthwhile. The Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, which subsequently merged with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, was always a first-rate ensemble and almost ideally suited for Mahler, who – as one of the great conductors of his time – knew exactly what different sections of the orchestra could do and what he expected of them. Norrington opens this Mahler Fifth a tad more quickly than is usually heard, but once the movement settles into its somber, funereal pace wie ein Kondukt, he paces it admirably, with fine attention to little details, notably in the percussion. There is no section of this orchestra that is less than excellent, with the bite of the brass especially impressive – and brought to the fore by Norrington. The second movement here is appropriately stormy and dark, and in the contrasting material one-third of the way through, Norrington offers substantial respite. But of course that does not last, and the intensity of the later part of the movement comes through quite strongly here, with the brass chorale, which is to reappear at the symphony’s conclusion, played especially impressively. The central third movement flows beautifully here, dancing along at just the right pace, with the brass being exceptional, the horn solos making those instruments first among equals. The timpani are also particularly impressive here. The gorgeous fourth movement, however, gets somewhat short shrift: Mahler wanted it played Sehr langsam (“very slowly”), but Norrington makes it more of an Andante (albeit a rather slow walk) than the Adagietto it is supposed to be. Because this movement uses only strings and harp, it showcases the orchestra in ways that the prior ones do not, and again the ensemble proves first-rate. But the movement lacks emotional depth: it is pleasant-sounding and beautifully played, but without the warmth and heartfelt feeling that it can possess. The return of the brass to open the finale restores the excellence of the reading, and here Norrington really pays attention to the tempo marking Allegro giocoso – as few conductors do. This is a monumental symphony, true, but Mahler wanted it to conclude “playfully,” a word very rarely associated with this composer and his music. Actually, Norrington plays with the music a bit too much – there is considerably more rubato in this movement than there should be – but to the extent that he lets the recurring rondo elements lighten and brighten the overall atmosphere, he manages to balance the serious and playful to fine effect. What Mahler called Part Three of the symphony (the fourth and fifth movements) is not at the same level in this performance as Part One (first and second movements) or Part Two (third movement). But the finale’s climactic re-entry of the brass chorale here becomes a true capstone of the symphony, and despite some shortcomings, this is a more-than-creditable performance, exceptionally well played although, in the final movements, somewhat over-interpreted. And the CD’s price makes it an exceptional value. Mahler’s Fifth (1901-02) is of the same time period, the cusp of the 20th century, as Sibelius’ First (1898-99); but the works occupy very different musical worlds – as the music of these two great composers would continue to do (leading to their famous disagreement about what a symphony should do and should be). The chance to own well-performed and well-priced versions of both these important works is one that belongs firmly and fortunately to the 21st century.

June 06, 2019

(++++) TOIL AND TROUBLE


Calling All Witches! The Girls Who Left Their Mark on the Wizarding World. By Laurie Calkhoven. Illustrated by Violet Tobacco. Scholastic. $14.99.

     The world that J.K. Rowling built around Harry Potter has its own form of “girl power,” and that is what is celebrated in this book about girls and women who were important in the eight-film Harry Potter sequence and the Fantastic Beasts spinoffs. Using mostly illustrations by Violet Tobacco, but including some stills from the movies as well, the book offers brief “biographies” of dozens of women, sometimes as individuals and sometimes within the context in which they appeared in the films: “Girls Who Ruled the Quidditch Patch,” “Tough Mothers,” “Women Who Ran the Wizarding World,” and so forth.

     Inevitably, the book starts with Hermione Granger, to whom eight full pages are devoted – far more than to anyone else. “Hermione had a world to save, and she didn’t care what anyone thought about it,” reads a typical bit of the somewhat breathless text here. In addition to the basics about Hermione and her tremendous skills, there are pages called “Eight Times Hermione Came to the Rescue,” “Seven Times Hermione Overcame Obstacles,” and more. These give film fans plenty of opportunities to relive high points of the various movies: her use of the Time-Turner in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, her destruction of a rogue bludger in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, her organizing of Dumbledore’s Army in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and many others. But the section on Hermione is just the start of a series of pages focused on familiar-to-fans characters, including fellow students Luna Lovegood and Ginny Weasley, Hogwarts professors Minerva McGonagall, Sybill Trelawney and Pomona Sprout, and others. In fact, it is the portraits of the less-central characters that are often the most interesting elements in Calling All Witches! Filmgoers (and readers of Rowling’s novels) may not remember that Professor Sprout’s first name was Pomona, or that healer Madame Pomfrey also had a first name (Poppy). Nor will readers necessarily remember Quidditch-patch stars Katie Bell, Angelina Johnson or Alicia Spinnet – but this book gives each of them her due (in brief, to be sure, but that is better than nothing!).

     There are a few times that the book goes beyond personality profiles to give extra information on the world of Harry Potter. The Quidditch section is notable for this: it has a page called “Major Quidditch Moments” and another called “Quidditch Positions,” the latter being especially helpful for readers who learned about the game only through the action-focused films rather than the more-explanatory novels. And it is not only the positive, heroic characters profiled here – there are some evil female characters in Rowling’s novels and the films made from them, and they also appear in Calling All Witches! The odious Dolores Umbridge, who forced Harry to use his own blood to scratch messages into his skin in one of the creepiest scenes in the films (and books), gets three pages detailing her villainy. Bellatrix Lestrange, the closest thing on screen to the traditional notion of an evil, cackling witch, is here as well, as is the somewhat more ambiguous Narcissa Malfoy – younger sister of Bellatrix, as fans may or may not remember.

     It is certainly true that this book never pretends to be more than a once-over-lightly look at female characters in the films made from Rowling’s books. And it is true that the richness of the novels’ descriptions and of the visual scene-setting in the movies never comes through here: the entire climactic Battle of Hogwarts, for example, is described in half a page that merely mentions the roles of various girls and women in it. But this is not a book for people unfamiliar with the world of Harry Potter: it is strictly for those who already know that world well, in particular those who know it through the movies rather than the more-in-depth novels. Straightforward movie-souvenir books are rather common and tend to be disappointing, but there is more to Calling All Witches! It is not just a collection of film scenes with little or no connective copy: it is a calling-out of specific characters and specific elements of the films, allowing readers to refocus on the movies and the stories they tell while seeing them from the perspective of the female characters in them. Rowling’s world may have Harry Potter at its center, but the girls and women in the books and films are absolute necessities in the stories – not hangers-on, but full-fledged and crucial characters in their own right. And that is the “girl power” that comes through clearly in this book.

(++++) LARGE THOUGHTS FOR SMALL PEOPLE


The Little Book of Big What-Ifs. By Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $13.99.

     It is a mistake to believe that young children, even very young children, do not contemplate some very important issues indeed. They may think in simple language and without substantial philosophical musings underlying their contemplation, but they wonder many of the same things that their parents wonder – and will continue doing so until they are themselves adults. It is this reality into which Renata Liwska adeptly taps in The Little Book of Big What-Ifs, a thoroughly age-appropriate consideration of small childhood things and big whole-world things, couched in small words and filled with adorable illustrations that are just quizzical enough to engage children and parents alike.

     “What if you slept through your birthday?” opens the book, with a scene of five cute, furry, anthropomorphic animals clustered in front of a tree within which a sixth animal is sleeping – likely hibernating, this being a winter scene with snow falling gently. There is in fact an answer to this first question, very near the end of the book, on a page with the words, “What if you’re surprised?” Now it is spring, the same five characters are still (or again) at the tree, and a sixth one – yes, a small bear – is awake and delighted by all the attention, which includes the same gifts shown at the book’s start but, thankfully, a different birthday cake rather than a months-old one.

     Most questions here, though, do not get explicit answers, although many invite further questions that Liwska also illustrates. “What if no one could hear you?” features a character leaning out a window and calling to others, who are oblivious because each of them is plugged into a phone or music player. The next page is “What if everyone could?” – and this shows most characters sitting quietly in pews, while one has fallen asleep and is snoring. The contrasts between the questions and between the illustrations are apt, pleasant and thought-provoking for the young readers for whom The Little Book of Big What-Ifs is intended.

     Some questions here are designed to encourage imagination. “What if you swallowed a seed?” shows a bear sprouting apple-tree branches, blossoms and an apple from ears and nose while a panda looks on, amused – and parents can assure kids that this will not happen and ask them what they think really will occur. Similarly, “What if your imagination runs wild?” shows a bear acting as barber for a wide-eyed pineapple while a carrot stands nearby, apparently next in line, and broccoli sporting a bow on top takes a selfie after presumably having been suitably groomed. Other questions are intended as teachable moments: “What if you made a mistake?” shows an elephant who has fallen into a deep hole, after which “What if we all work together?” shows seven other animal characters (who have appeared earlier in the book, in various places) cooperating to get him out.

     In fact, Liwska builds the book to a final what-if that is directly intended to be carried along by young readers to their friends now and then into later life. “What if everyone shared?” Liwska asks, showing two characters giving out hearts, or heart-shaped something-or-others, to two others. “What if it spread?” she asks next, using two full pages to show “it” spreading in a figurative sense – not actual heart-giving but the giving of help and kindness, whether with hugs or by assisting in cleanup after a spill. And the final page, the only one that does not end with a question mark, states emphatically, “What a difference it would make!” And that is the point here: ask questions of all sorts, at any age, and think about what the answers might be and how you might feel if you are the questioner or the one answering – and then think of the power of your response and the way in which your answers (hopefully helpful, positive ones) can resound with others and spread far and wide. But of course that is far too philosophical and far too adult an approach to make sense to the very young readers for whom Liwska wrote The Little Book of Big What-Ifs. What she does so well here is to take the overall issue of what-if – one that adults encounter all the time – and present it in a way that children can find enjoyable and intriguing at the same time.

(++++) ALL THOSE EMOTIONS


Rachmaninoff: Trio élégiaque No. 1; Trio élégiaque No. 2; Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14. Hermitage Piano Trio (Misha Keylin, violin; Sergey Antonov, cello; Ilya Kazantsev, piano). Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).

Franz Ignaz Danzi: Sinfonia Concertante for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra; Joel Puckett: Concerto Duo; Saint-Saëns: Tarantelle, Op. 6; Michael Abels: Winged Creatures. Demarre McGill, flute; Anthony McGill, clarinet; Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Allen Tinkham. Cedille. $16.

James Lentini: Concerto for Guitar and Strings; Rain Worthington: Full Circle; Jan Järvlepp: Camerata Music; Peter Castine: Aperture; Beth Mehocic: Left of Winter. Navona. $14.99.

     The resemblances between the emotional expressiveness of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff are well-known, and the way the two composers were deeply imbued with their Russian heritage is equally familiar. Indeed, the two men knew each other, although Rachmaninoff, born in 1873, was only a young teenager when he played his 1886 piano-four-hands transcription of the Manfred symphony for Tchaikovsky. But the composers’ connection is notable in much of their music, and especially so in two early Rachmaninoff works that are far less familiar than his piano concertos and symphonies. These are piano trios, each marked Trio élégiaque, both in minor keys (G minor and D minor), and both composed in the early 1890s: the first in 1892, the second in 1893 – although the latter was revised in 1907 and again in 1917. The spirit of Tchaikovsky pervades both the first work, which is short and in one movement, and the second, which is quite long – 50 minutes – and in three. And the pervasive melancholia of both the trios, so redolent of much of Tchaikovsky’s output, would in later years become a well-known characteristic of some of Rachmaninoff’s music as well. The two trios receive absolutely splendid readings, filled with warmth and passion and presented in exceptionally full and elegant sound, on a new Reference Recordings SACD featuring the Hermitage Piano Trio. This is the ensemble’s first recording, although its members have featured elsewhere as soloists – but the group’s impassioned, deeply involving beauty of phrasing and cooperation is worthy of trios that have been around far longer. The first Trio élégiaque has a specific tie to Tchaikovsky’s Manfred through a piano opening marked Lento lugubre, which is exactly how Tchaikovsky marked the Manfred beginning. The work as a whole, which opens despondently and ends with its main theme as a funeral march, certainly deserves to be designated an elegy. And the second trio really is one – for Tchaikovsky, whose death in 1893 led directly to Rachmaninoff’s composition of the trio, which is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s memory. This is a brooding, grieving work almost throughout its substantial length, and would be difficult to absorb in its sheer outpouring of emotion if the Hermitage Piano Trio did not find so much sheer beauty and profundity in the themes and their intensity of expression. The piano often dominates in this second Trio élégiaque, but the strings have plenty of opportunities for virtuosity as well, and all the players handle their parts with assurance and a healthy helping of heart-on-sleeve passion that fits the music of both Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky exceptionally well when not allowed to overflow into formlessness. The performers’ tight control of the material ensures that that never happens in either trio, and the result is a pair of deeply moving and wholly convincing performances. As an encore, the trio plays the famous Vocalise of 1915 in a 1928 transcription by Julius Conus. This is a work whose melancholy aptly complements the forthright emotionalism of the two trios. This disc could easily be a dour recording, and certainly it is one better heard on a sunny day than amid dark clouds and looming thunderstorms. But as an exploration of the emotional depth that Rachmaninoff could extract from a three-instrument combination, it is as much an impressive achievement as a depressive one.

     A Cedille recording of far more varied moods, featuring works by very different composers from three distinct time periods, is a showpiece for the McGill brothers: Demarre, principal flute of the Seattle Symphony, and Anthony, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. The two extended works here were composed two centuries apart and provide a fascinating contrast in the ways in which writing for the flute-and-clarinet combination has changed, and has not. The Sinfonia Concertante by Franz Danzi (1763-1826) is beautifully poised, elegant in themes and structure, and excellently balanced between the two soloists and between the solo performers and orchestra. The bubbly concluding Polonaise showcases the two solo winds to particularly pleasant effect. The Concerto Duo by Joel Puckett (born 1977), on the other hand, is jazz-inflected throughout, percussion-heavy, and often sounds like TV or film music in its onward propulsiveness. Here the solo instruments seem always on the verge of competitiveness (and sometimes immersed in it), but their cooperative moments provide a fine contrast to their somewhat jarring ones. Like many contemporary works, this one has titles for each of its movements: “The Great American Scream Machine,” “Mama Dee’s Song for Joel,” and “For Audrey.” Interestingly, the second movement is as long as the other two put together – but Puckett’s finale, like Danzi’s of so many years earlier, neatly ties up the relationship between flute and clarinet into a combination that highlights each instrument’s range and sound very well. The CD also features Winged Creatures by Michael Abels (born 1962), and this piece really does sound as if it is ready to take off at any moment, with the flute’s musical flights, in particular, seeming always on the verge of soaring skyward. And then there is a real charmer of an encore, not as early as the Danzi or as recent as the Puckett and Abels works: Saint-Saëns’ marvelously exuberant Tarantelle, where the solo winds are constantly on the verge of tripping over each other but never quite do – instead, they chase each other around the stage (metaphorically) in a perpetuum mobile whose only real fault here is that it is placed between the Danzi and Puckett works and is therefore more a placeholder or punctuation point than an encore. And that is about as small a quibble as it is possible to have about a thoroughly engaging recording.

     The solo flute figures as well on a new Navona anthology release that includes five composers, four conductors and three orchestras. Not surprisingly, this (+++) CD lacks any centrality of theme or significant musical cohesiveness, but it has numerous highlights that listeners who enjoy contemporary orchestral works will find congenial. The work here that features flute is Aperture by Peter Castine, in which soloist Barbara Hill performs with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek. Written after the terrorist murders that struck New York City on September 11, 2001, this is one of many works of the time expressing a mixture of horror and sadness through dissonance and, in this case, a rather fragmented feeling, in which the flute and string orchestra seem mostly to be at cross-purposes rather than working together. Castine’s work is one of three solo-and-ensemble works on the disc. Rain Worthington’s Full Circle is for cello solo (Petr Nouzovský) and small orchestra (the Moravian Philharmonic again, this time conducted by Petr Vronský). This is an interestingly structured work: in it, musical elements emerge from the orchestra’s members as well as from the soloist, then recede into the overall texture – an attempt to show the way emotions arise and subside, intriguing conceptually if not always clear in the execution. The Concerto for Guitar and Strings by James Lentini is the third work here that features a soloist (Iliana Matos). Here the ensemble is the Zagreb Festival Orchestra under Miran Vaupotić. The work itself is efficiently structured to highlight the guitar against the orchestra and produce the expected ups and downs of its traditional three-movement form – it is well-made music but rather characterless. Also offered here is Camerata Music by Jan Järvlepp; this is another performance featuring the Moravian Philharmonic under Vronský. This is a nicely bouncy piece, essentially tonal, with some dance rhythms inspired by the folk music of Colombia; and at less than eight minutes, the work does not overstay its welcome. Even shorter – indeed, the shortest piece on the CD – is the concluding offering, Left of Winter by Beth Mehocic, which is for full orchestra: the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jiří Petrdlík. This has an interesting history, having been conceived as a prelude to a production of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre de Printemps. Even without knowing that, listeners familiar with the Stravinsky would hear echoes of it in the extended and heavy use of percussion and the frequent changes of rhythm. Mehocic’s piece lacks the sheer drama of Stravinsky’s and tends to be rather loud and insistent, while Stravinsky’s is subtle. But the comparison is unfair to Mehocic, who has created a work of drama and intensity that could function as a Stravinsky prelude but can just as well stand on its own as an effective curtain-raiser or, as here, an encore to a very variegated program.

(+++) THE WORDS, THE MUSIC


Tenore di forza: Favorite Tenor Arias. Kristian Benedikt, tenor; Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Modestos Pitrénas. Delos. $14.98.

Treasures of Devotion: European Spiritual Songs ca. 1500. The Boston Camerata conducted by Anne Azéma. Music & Arts Programs of America. $14.95.

Michael Hersch: das Rückgrat berstend; Music for Violin and Piano; Carrion-Miles to Purgatory—13 pieces after texts of Robert Lowell. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin and voice; Jay Campbell, cello; Miranda Cuckson, violin; Michael Hersch, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Richard Strauss asked the question wittily, and with a lightness belying its underlying seriousness, in his final completed opera, Capriccio: which is more important, the music or the words? Capriccio (1942) takes place around the year 1775, and surely Strauss and co-librettist Clemens Krauss (who conducted the Strauss work’s première) were aware that the same question had been posed at just about that time in Antonio Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole (1786). Never answered by either Salieri or Strauss, it is a question worth asking about vocal classical music in general, and one that will likely elicit different answers depending on the specifics of individual works and – in our modern age of recordings – the purpose of presenting those works in a form suitable for hearing at home again and again. It is surely not the specific words of the arias on a Delos CD featuring Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt that will attract listeners, since all the words, as always in presentations such as this, are taken wholly out of their operatic context. It is the music that will be the main attraction here, specifically the music as Benedikt handles it with backing from the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra under Modestos Pitrénas. The purpose of the CD is to introduce Benedikt to a wider audience – this is his first recording – and to showcase his vocal abilities in music of highly varying character. Most of the arias heard here will be thrice-familiar to opera lovers: they come from Verdi’s Otello, Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, Halévy’s La Juive, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West and Turandot, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, and Massenet’s Le Cid. There is nothing surprising in any of these performances, and there are some arias that do not show Benedikt at his best, such as Nessun dorma, where the dramatic octave drop at the start comes across as a throwaway. It would be good to hear more of Benedikt in Wagner, for which his voice seems well-suited – here only a single excerpt, from Die Walküre, is offered. And it could be interesting to hear him in some less-known repertoire that would not result in his voice inevitably being compared with those of other tenors who have had more time to hone both their musical instincts and their dramatic ones. An excerpt from Ponchielli’s I Lituani and one from Lithuanian composer Vytautas Klova’s Pilėnai are more than usually interesting here, their rarity making it possible to focus on the fine, mostly even quality of Benedikt’s voice without inviting comparison with the many other tenors who have sung the more-familiar fare on the disc. This is a fine if not especially outstanding debut recording, one that indicates that Benedikt is already quite a capable tenor even though he is not at this point especially distinguished in presenting the better-known material written for his vocal range.

     It is the words rather than the melodies that are likely to be the primary attraction for most listeners in a series of heartfelt and often very beautiful performances by the Boston Camerata on the Music & Arts Programs of America label. The 25 works here, ranging in length from less than a minute to just under four, are not the grand choral devotionals that listeners will likely expect in music of this era. They are mostly quiet and reserved works, many in the expected Church Latin but some also in the languages of the regions where they originate: French and German. With very few exceptions, this is music by composers almost entirely unknown today – Josquin Desprez is the one most likely to be known to a modern audience – and the music itself has a tendency to blend from one piece into the next, not only when there are multiple settings offered of the same words (De tous biens plaine, O bone Jesu, Tant que vivray) but also when the words are entirely different. Yet it is those words, or rather the sound of the words even for listeners who do not know their meaning, that is the primary means of involvement and emotional evocation here. There is a purity to all this music, a simplicity and beauty of appeal to God that the words evoke no matter who sets them to music. This is especially clear when tracks in different languages follow each other: Pécheurs souffrez, then Ewiger Gott, aus des Gebot, and then O bone Jesu, for example. By the standards of half a millennium later, the musical settings here sound very similar to each other, even though scholars and those familiar with other works of this time period will notice numerous differences from piece to piece. But the similarity of sound and instrumentation (lute and viola da gamba being prominent throughout the CD, with some appearances by harp and the violin-like, long obsolete vielle) actually helps the messages of the words come through with greater clarity. This is indeed devotional music, as the disc’s title indicates: meditative, inwardly focused, always sensitive, and intended to connect performers and listeners with a higher spiritual plane. To the extent that the words of each of these works – some of which are actually secular rather than religious – help make the connection with something above, the pieces are indeed treasures.

     The issue of the relative communicative power of words and music must be looked at in an entirely different way when it comes to a New Focus Recordings release of music by Michael Hersch (born 1971). Hersch here uses texts in ways quite different from anything ever offered by Salieri or Strauss: in one case by including vocalizing in a chamber work, in another by having words set the stage (so to speak) for music containing no verbalizations. The spoken words appear in das [with a small “d”] Rückgrat berstend, whose title, which translates as “Bursting the Spine,” is said at one point by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who performs the piece with cellist Jay Campbell. All the words that Kopatchinskaja speaks in this work are by Christopher Middleton, translated into German by Wolfgang Justen. As for how their meaning relates to or suffuses the music – that is very difficult to say. The words carry the usual freight of anomie and portentousness of a great deal of modern expressivism – “dry vine leaves and a few dead flies on fire,” that sort of thing. Neither the spoken material nor the uniformly dissonant and often deliberately screechy music appears to have anything of great significance to communicate. But Hersch surely intends all of this to mean something, since he has shown in works such as his Symphony No. 2 (2001) that he is capable of pulling an audience in a variety of contrasting directions through skillful orchestration. Kopatchinskaja actually commissioned das Rückgrat berstend and presumably has a good sense of what it is trying to say – but neither what it says nor what she says in it comes across to much effect. Carrion-Miles to Purgatory—13 pieces after texts of Robert Lowell uses words very differently: excerpts from Lowell introduce each of the pieces (and, yes, one such excerpt includes the words, “carrion miles to purgatory”), but the words are not actually uttered during this extended piece, which is for violin (Miranda Cuckson) and cello (Campbell). Hersch is a brittle composer, far better at acerbity than lyricism, for which he has little patience; but an occasional meandering into warmth in these pieces comes as a welcome respite from the starkness characterizing most of the material. However, here as in das Rückgrat berstend, the relationship between the verbiage and the musical material is scarcely evident: it is almost as if words and music inhabit two different worlds that barely intersect, rather than a single one of which they are both part. Matters are more straightforward in Music for Violin and Piano, simply because no words are here involved or invoked in any way. Cuckson performs this with Hersch himself at the piano, so it is fair to say that this extremely dry, insistent and often unpalatable performance is pretty much definitive. This is music that almost sounds like a parody of the contemporary, with Hersch zipping up and down the keyboard as Cuckson saws violently away at the violin as if determined to take both the instrument and her bow to their limits. Of course, music need not be pleasant-sounding in order to be communicative, and in fact deliberate unpleasantness can be used skillfully by composers to make specific emotional points. But that usually requires some level of contrast with material that is not unpleasant to hear, and anything of that sort is pretty much absent in these Hersch works. There is little doubt that Hersch puts this music together with skill, but nothing on the CD invites listeners to an experience that most will be eager to repeat.

May 30, 2019

(++++) UNLIKELY BUT LIKABLE


Just Like Us! Birds. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Just Like Us! Plants. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Just Like Us! Fish. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Just Like Us! Cats. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     The predictable unpredictability of the continuing Just Like Us! series by Bridget Heos and David Clark is one of its major pleasures. These short factual paperbacks all begin the same way, by choosing an animal (or, in one book, plants) and stating all the ways the chosen subject is obviously not like us at all. But maybe it is like us…hmm…let’s find out. That is always Heos’ setup – and the mixture of Clark’s cartoon illustrations with photographic material is the same time after time as well. And all the books are enjoyable as well as informative, thanks to the simple reality that they engage young readers in finding ways in which so many living things, however different they may be, also have so much in common.

     Sometimes Heos and Clark use anecdotes to make their points. There is a famous one in the book on birds, about Mozart adopting a pet bird that he heard whistling a theme from one of his piano concertos – a work not yet revealed to the public. This is a small and appealing mystery in Mozart’s life – probably he hummed the tune on an earlier visit to the shop and the bird overheard it and imitated it, but no one really knows – and it neatly makes the point that birds and humans (even humans who are not genius composers) have some musical things in common. This book also includes information on how bird parents (some of them, anyway) care for their young in ways similar to those used by human parents, and how parent birds have to clean up the avian equivalent of dirty diapers when their babies are small. Clark’s illustration here, which includes a real bird removing a fecal sac from a birdhouse but is dominated by a tired-looking cartoon bird carrying a basket of just-washed diaper-like items to be dried on a clothesline, is a particularly good example of the blending of reality and fantasy that makes all these books both fun and useful.

     The book on plants stands out because it is about, well, plants – not animals. Even here, though, Heos and Clark find ways to relate plant life to human life. One page is headlined, “Be Sure to Drink Eight Thousand Glasses of Water a Day,” and explains, “An NBA player produces more sweat than a kid shooting hoops, and the bigger the tree, the more it ‘sweats’ too.” This is a bit of a stretch, but a clever way to explain that tall trees can lose hundreds of gallons of water per day and must constantly replenish their supply from underground. The overall narrative here helps young readers think of things in ways that they probably haven’t: “With the right mix of sunlight, water, and nutrition, plants grow up and have babies – just like people. A plant baby is a seed!” That is both accurate and interesting, as are a great many items here. For instance, one page focuses on the durian, a fruit whose “smell has been compared to that of pig poop, rotten onions, and dead people,” but nevertheless attracts animals that eat its flesh and eventually deposit its seeds so new plants can grow. In addition to showing a photo of a chimpanzee enjoying a durian, this page features Clark’s drawing of a super-happy cartoon pig joyfully hugging the fruit as flies swarm everywhere and a bird on a nearby branch wears a clothespin on its beak. The pages on how plants, like humans, defend themselves, and how they, also like humans, sometimes wage war on other plants, are also fine mixtures of real-world and cartoon illustrations, all in the service of sort-of-like-us facts.

     Fish do not appear to be much more like people than plants are, but Heos and Clark make this case effectively, too. Of course they talk about fish schools, explaining that these large groups protect small fish in two ways: by providing many eyes to watch for predators and by making it hard for most predators to focus on a single fish to attack and consume. They also explain that both people and fish need oxygen – we just have different ways of obtaining it. There is an interesting explanation of the biology of the mudskipper, which “spends up to 90 percent of its time on shore” rather than in the water and can do this even though it “doesn’t have a tiny fish scuba mask” – the sort of thing people would need to spend a lot of time in water – but instead “fills pouches in its cheeks with water” so its gills can absorb oxygen from the stored liquid. There is information here on fish that, like humans involved in warfare, use armor, such as the porcupine fish’s spines, which are not only sharp but also contain poison. And Heos observes, “People dress to impress, and so do fish,” explaining that 25% of ocean species visit coral reefs at some point and often sport “bright colors and bold patterns” to stand out and attract mates. There are also examples of fish that, like human parents, care for their babies – many do not, but seahorses and cichlids do, although not in human-like ways (seahorse fathers have a front pouch to contain babies, while cichlids hold their young in their mouths). The point is not to make fish seem much like people, but to show some ways in which they resemble humans, despite the obvious differences.

     The book on cats may seem to have easier points to make, since many people do share their homes with cats and some sort of resemblance therefore seems logical. But cats are not pack animals like dogs, and even house cats retain a great deal of the wild, efficient-hunter predation instincts that lions, tigers and other big cats possess. In fact, as Heos points out, cats are “the world’s most effective carnivores,” and a lot of feline life in the wild is brutal, with cats “ruthlessly conquering other lands” just as humans sometimes do – with invading males overthrowing others and killing their cubs so as to mate with the former ruler’s females. The behavior of wild, big cats certainly has a lot in common with that of house cats, including plenty of sleep (up to 20 hours a day) and lots of playtime-by-wrestling by cubs (babies of big cats) as well as kittens (babies of small cats). There is information here not only on ways cats are similar to humans but also on ways they are quite different – for example, because they “lack the gene that allows other mammals to taste sweetness,” which means they have little interest in any human food that has even a slight hint of sugar. On the other hand, just as humans enjoy swimming, so do some cats – such as jaguars, which actually hunt underwater and are good distance swimmers.

     The point of all these pleasant, easy-to-read nonfiction books is that humans are similar in a number of ways to pretty much all the denizens of the planet that we all share – one earlier volume in the series even dealt with ants. Although Heos and Clark certainly stretch the narrative and illustrations a great deal of the time in order to make the parallels with humans seem more significant than they really are, the concept here is worthwhile: to tell and show young readers just how much we do have in common with the natural world around us, and in so doing, hopefully, to give them more respect for other residents of Earth and a greater inclination to treat the environment with care and concern.

(+++) MIDDLE-SCHOOL MANEUVERS


The Ghost Network, Book One: Activate. By I.I. Davidson. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

My Life in Smiley 3: Save Me! (or not…) By Anne Kalicky. Translated by Kevin Kotur. Illustrated by Tim Jones. Andrews McMeel. $13.99.

     Whether told at breakneck pace with adventure-movie intensity or unfolded in a leisurely manner in which pictorial elements are as important as narrative, books for and about middle-schoolers have certain things in common: awkwardness, self-discovery, team building, stretching one’s comfort zone, and finding out that adults are pretty much useless and/or not to be trusted – among other narrative characteristics. The Ghost Network by I.I. Davidson (pen name of Scottish author Gillian Philip) is a cinematically paced story of magical intrigue and wand-waving battles against evil by young wizards – oh, wait, that’s the Harry Potter series. But in the first book of a planned trilogy, The Ghost Network is redolent of J.K. Rowling’s deservedly famous sequence. True, the four 12-year-olds at the center of the story – the largely interchangeable John, Slack, Akane and Salome – are hackers, not wizards in training, but the computer-focused elements here are handled exactly like the magical ones in Rowling’s works and innumerable others. That is, there is no multi-hour, many-day grinding away at a problem to solve it, there is no extended collaborative effort, there is no building on what others have done – there is generally quick and generally easy discovery of back doors, ways into and around protections, and methods of accomplishing marvelous feats. It all seems like magic and has no more basis in reality than magic does. But because this is a book about and for middle-schoolers, the details of extreme hard work and lengthy, boring experimentation and searching simply do not fit. What does fit is the discovery and solution of multiple mysteries, handled in ways that are absolutely typical of adventure books for this age group. For example, since John’s father’s disappearance and presumed death are formative for John, it is obvious that John will eventually find out that his dad did not die after all, but escaped the nefarious clutches of wizards…err, computer experts who wanted to turn his good-guy findings toward evil. Since John, Slack and Salome end up together at a super-isolated, super-secret hacker school on a small and extremely cold island off the coast of Alaska, it is a given that they will somehow have to escape – and a given that their magical powers…err, computer-based powers will provide their way out. Since Akane is half a world away, in Japan, and since the tentacles of the evil coder network reach everywhere, it is obvious that she will have a harrowing flight from evil minions and eventually have to escape to – well, Alaska, of course, because these preteens have far more magical…err, computer-based resources among them than the entire evil network of adults possesses. Throw in a certain amount of middle-school-style jealousy and bullying at the super-secret school, which is called the Wolf’s Den, and add the inevitable locked door in the basement that readers will know does not lead to a broom closet as soon as the author says it apparently does, and you have Project 31, which is what the Wolf’s Den is really about – and which only John, Slack, Salome and Akane can stop, maybe with a bit of help from John’s not-really-deceased father. It turns out that the four quickly-bonding friends have one crucial thing in common: all suffered extremely severe accidents in earlier life, accidents that should have been fatal, that were fatal until John’s father – a brilliant surgeon – rescued the four, including his own son, using experimental methods that essentially turned their human brains (which store far more information than any computer possibly can) into computers that store far more information than any human brain possibly can. Wait…that can’t be right. But it is – and it is only one of the absurdities here. However, Davidson paces the book much too quickly for its intended readers to pick up on any of the multiple impossibilities that give the book a veneer of science fiction but really relegate it as firmly to the realm of fantasy as anything involving Harry Potter. Activate does a neat job of setting up the basic story line of The Ghost Network, and is packed with enough thrills and chills (some of them literal: this is Alaska in winter, after all) to pull adventure-seeking middle-schoolers into the tale without allowing them to question the whole framework too closely. This is pure and simple escapism, and fun as long as readers do not think too much about it.

     There is also little thinking needed for Anne Kalicky’s My Life in Smiley series. But this is much, much lighter fare, being simply a highly standardized chronicle of the trials and troubles of an ordinary middle-schooler named Max Cropin. The series is made distinctive solely by 12-year-old Max’s strong inclination – that is, Kalicky’s strong inclination – to include innumerable smiley faces throughout the diary-style narrative. These are not by any means only smiley faces: although they do sometimes smile, they more often frown or change into a panda or puppy or fish or three-eyed green Martian, or stick out a tongue or show big bright teeth or wear a crown or become a heart or an orange or…well, the possible variations on the simple, circular face seem nearly infinite, and a big slice of that infinity shows up here. There is a certain, rather mild degree of culture shock involved in North Americans reading these books, which were written in French and originally published in France (this one in 2018). But the surprises, such as they are, show up mainly in characters’ names and in occasional references to sports such as “American basketball.” The basic plots of My Life in Smiley emigrate from Europe very simply. The third series entry takes Max away from school and all its tribulations to summer camp and all its tribulations, which are entirely of the sort to be expected for middle-schoolers: outdoor activities, bug bites, lack of friends, heat, the absence of favored junk food, and so on. The story proceeds exactly as any similar one written in the United States would: Max lists all the things he hates about camp and then discovers, one by one, that they aren’t so bad after all, and there are even compensations for his two-week summer sojourn into the not-so-wild – such as a pretty girl camper and a mysterious diary that Max just knows he is going to figure out, with a little help, of course, from his friends (there must be friend groups in books like this). Max’s narrative skills, at least as translated into English, seem barely to be at his age level: “If I had to sum up my current romantic situation in one word, it’d be: heartbroken! [Sad-face emoji.] And believe me, it really hurts for Maxime Cropin the Great to admit something like that.” What saves the My Life in Smiley series from being simply dull is a combination of the many smiley-and-not-so-smiley faces with Max’s basically pleasant (if inept) personality – and some rather cute illustrations, such as one showing Max’s friend Mehdi telling jokes on stage, with Mehdi drawn as a stick figure, the jokes in cartoon-style balloons, and a couple of laughing smiley faces atop the whole picture. By the end of the book, unsurprisingly, Max finds he has had a good time at camp, the mysterious “Dindin Hood’s Journal” has turned out to be surprisingly useful, and pretty much everyone has become friends with pretty much everyone else – so of course everybody pledges to return to camp next year, Max declares that he has “some unforgettable memories,” and as soon as he gets home, Max starts crossing off calendar days in anticipation of his next trip to camp. All of this is about as corny and easy to anticipate as it can possibly be, but it is sufficiently good-hearted and well-intentioned so that young readers drawn in by the ample, even overdone smiley appearances and multiple illustrations will have a good time following Max to an upbeat if thoroughly unsurprising conclusion.