October 30, 2008


Nation. By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Illustrated Wee Free Men. By Terry Pratchett. Illustrated by Stephen Player. HarperCollins. $24.99.

     There are so many marvels in Terry Pratchett’s world…err, worlds…that just when you think he has reached the limit of his inventiveness, he peels back another level of wonder and reveals that you’ve barely begun to see anything. Like onions within onions, his books are many-layered within multi-layered within so many layers that it is not even worth beginning to count. Just sit back and be beguiled.

     Remarkably, Pratchett is usually cast as a children’s author: both his new works are from HarperCollins Children’s Books. This is probably a way of concealing the fact, long suspected by adults and apparently known to Pratchett, that children are far wiser than grown-ups, losing not only their sense of wonder but also their senses of adventure and profound understanding as they age. Pratchett’s books are nothing but wonder, adventure and profound understanding. Nation is fantasy and alternative history with Lord of the Flies resonance and a bit of travelogue thrown in. The heir apparent to the throne of England must be taken from his current position as governor of an island chain in the South Pelagic Ocean, because the king and the next 137 people in line to the throne have inconveniently died of the Russian Plague. The heir apparent’s daughter, Ermintrude (also called Daphne), who is heading toward the island chain to join him, is shipwrecked by a tsunami that also wipes out an entire group of island people except one: a boy named Mau, who was on another island when the wave hit. It falls to the unlikely team of Ermintrude/Daphne and Mau to reestablish Mau’s nation (with a little help and a lot of interference from its spirits) using the motley collection of tsunami survivors that washes ashore here and there. But this bare plot outline says almost nothing about the book, and does not even mention the enthralling subplots (such as one involving deeply religious cannibals). Nation is filled with Pratchett’s inimitable mixture of high seriousness and lowbrow, even gross humor, and with characters in whom one cannot literally believe but about whom one comes to care deeply. There is so much here: the drive to empire paralleling the drive to build or rebuild a single nation; the certainty of straitlaced religion contrasted with Mau’s dual searches – for the meaning of his defunct nation’s gods and for his own soul; questions of gender, justice, society, and much more. And there is lots and lots of humor, often of the wry sort, as frequently as not in footnotes: “The lonesome palm…is unusual in that an adult tree secretes a poison in its root that is deadly only to other palms. Because of this it is not unusual to find only one such palm on the smaller islands and a thousand cartoons are, therefore, botanically correct.”

     And while you are imagining those cartoons, try to imagine the pictures that Stephen Player has provided for one of its Pratchett’s very best tours de farce for an edition called The Illustrated Wee Free Men. This is the story of Tiffany Aching, potential witch on Discworld, and the tiny blue Pictsies whose leader she temporarily becomes while rescuing her candy-addicted little brother from another and far more malevolent Queen whose realm is the world of dreams and for whom the Nac Mac Feegle used to steal things until even they couldn’t stand her, the Feegles having little to fear because they think they are already dead and so all their fighting and drinking are just fine because the worst that can happen is they get returned to life if they go at it too hard. Got that? Tiffany’s tales – The Wee Free Men has so far spawned two successors, A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith – are among the most freewheeling and multidimensional that Pratchett has written. They call up marvelous images in a reader’s mind, and Player has done a remarkable job of capturing many of those images in ways that look and feel just right. The phases of the moon; the pages of a journal; the red-headed little men who are the most feared of all the fairy folk because there are so many of them and they simply will not stop (“Pictsies,” their nickname, is Pratchett’s sly reference to the ancient and very warlike Picts, who painted themselves blue for battle – see how he ties so many things together?); the archway through which time does not pass quite correctly; the horrific grimhounds, with fire for eyes and razors for teeth; the many creatures of dream and nightmare conjured up by Pratchett’s words – Player shows them all, and all with astonishing effectiveness. And the words of this book (which was originally published in 2003) are as wonderful as ever, right down to names ranging from Rob Anybody to Not-as-big-as-Medium-Sized-Jock-but-bigger-than-Wee-Jock-Jock. Player’s pictures capture both the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of The Wee Free Men and a great deal of the darkness lying beneath it. They do not make the book better, but they make it different in an exceptionally effective way. And although both this book and Nation are theoretically for ages 12 and up, adults who are wise enough to see things as children do will get even more from these works than young readers will.


Inkdeath. By Cornelia Funke. Chicken House/Scholastic. $24.99.

Inheritance, Book III: Brisingr. By Christopher Paolini. Knopf. $27.50.

     These are heavy tomes with weighty aspirations – the one concluding a fascinating trilogy, the other intended to conclude a trilogy that has spilled over its banks (so to speak) and will now include a fourth book.

     Inkdeath is almost wholly successful in pulling together all the strands that Cornelia Funke wove in Inkheart and its sequel, Inkspell. Funke is a marvelously inventive writer, and her whole concept – real-world characters trapped within a cursed story inside a book – is a tremendously intriguing one (and which world is the real world, and how can you be sure?). The book Inkheart initially pulls Meggie and her father, Mo, into its pages; then a series of battles and sacrifices ensues, leading eventually to the death of the fire-eater Dustfinger and the rule of the evil Adderhead, whose immortality Mo has bound into…yes, a book. The characters of the troubled fairy-tale land within the Inkworld are the creations of the author Fenoglio, but the story has spun out of his control. In Inkdeath, a dark tale indeed, the Adderhead’s thugs lay waste the countryside, while the peasants turn for help to outlaws led by the Bluejay – Mo’s fictitious double, whose identity Mo himself needs to adopt in order to help. The Adderhead, now diseased and rotting since Mo bound the Book of Immortality for him in Inkspell, is desperate to have the Bluejay repair the fraying book before the White Women can take him to “the place where all stories end.” So he rounds up all the kingdom’s children and forces them into slavery in the silver mines until Mo/Bluejay surrenders. For his part, Mo has some inking of his own to do – with Death, in a last-ditch attempt to save the fairy-tale world and return himself and Meggie to the real one. “Have you forgotten that everything in this world is made of words?” asks a character at a crucial juncture. That is a clue and a continuing theme, and Funke returns to it again and again through all 684 pages of Inkdeath. “Like so much else in his book, Fenoglio had written nothing about it, and that was just why he would go north,” writes Funke about the writer Fenoglio who wrote the Inkworld whose books Funke has written. The whole writing-within-writing theme, the notion of characters outgrowing their author and acting in unwritten ways, makes Inkdeath, like its predecessor novels, odd and fascinating and convoluted and, in the end, immensely satisfying.

     Brisingr, at 764 pages, is even more massive than Inkdeath, and Christopher Paolini has said that his editor cut some 200 pages from it. Brisingr still sprawls and, despite reaching again and again for profundity and meaningfulness beyond the standard heroic-fantasy mode, lapses repeatedly into long descriptive passages, predictable character interactions and quests on which readers of fantasy have gone uncounted times before (“find the weapon under the Menoa tree”). The book’s title means “fire” in an ancient language, and is the first word Eragon speaks in that tongue; the word will clearly have importance beyond the obvious one of being able to call up fire for use in battle. Brisingr is a novel of entanglements and competing loyalties – standard issue in heroic fantasy – although the interplay between Eragon and Arya is better here than in the previous novel, Eldest, in which it was just too coy. Eragon, whose name is the title of the first book in the Inheritance series, is in demand from many sides – indeed, Brisingr is subtitled, “The Seven Promises of Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Bjartskular.” Eragon’s cousin, Roran, needs Eragon to rescue Roran’s beloved; the Varden need Eragon’s help; the dwarves seek him; so do the elves. There is simply not enough of Eragon to go around. Paolini’s writing remains derivative, although it is more assured in Brisingr than in Eragon or Eldest, and there are occasional flashes of what may even be self-referential humor, as when a character explains where he is looking for information on a possible tunnel that could lead into a city: “Histories; myths; legends; poems; songs; religious tracts; the writings of Riders, magicians, wanderers, madmen, obscure potentates, various generals, anyone who might have knowledge of a hidden door or a secret mechanism or something of that ilk that we might turn to our advantage.” This sounds a lot like Paolini’s own research project for his books: he pulls a little from this source, a little from that, creating a world that mirrors many earlier fantasies rather than one that he himself builds up from a unique foundation. Brisingr gets a (+++) rating: it is derivative and it rambles, although it certainly shows Paolini, who started writing Eragon when he was 15 and will be 25 in a few weeks, to be a writer clawing his way toward maturity and greater expressiveness.


The Nightmare Factory, Volume 2. Based on stories by Thomas Ligotti. Fox Atomic/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Doonesbury.com’s The War in Quotes. Edited by David Stanford. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Wounded Warriors: Those for Whom the War Never Ends. By Mike Sager. Da Capo. $16.95.

     Thomas Ligotti is a modern horror master with some of the old-fashioned sensitivity that makes the works of writers from Poe to Dunsany so effective. Yes, he trades in brutality and explicitness in ways that were simply not done a century or more ago; but the primary ingredients of his tales are psychological ones, and that is what makes his stories effective. Ligotti has done some thinking about horror writing and seems clearly to have read Lovecraft’s masterly Supernatural Horror in Literature. For in Ligotti’s introduction to “Gas Station Carnivals,” the first story in the second graphic-novel collection of his tales, the author explains that “in supernatural horror stories…the characters contending with what seems to be the work of magic will deny until the very last moment that anything magical is going on. …But readers of these stories are rarely, if ever, on the side of these characters.” Just so – certainly in Ligotti’s case. His protagonists are weird, unpleasant, perhaps deranged, certainly outside the bounds of even a very generous definition of “normal.” And that gives the writers compressing these tales and the artists illustrating them a great deal of latitude in portraying the people in them. Joe Harris distills both “Gas Station Carnivals” and “The Clown Puppet” quite effectively; Stuart Moore is somewhat less adept as writer of “The Chymist” and “The Sect of the Idiot,” relying more on shock and less on creeping tension. Buyers of this book, though, will likely be more interested in the effectiveness of the illustrations – which varies. Vasilis Lobos uses weird, somewhat overdone tilted-camera angles throughout “Gas Station Carnivals,” a story in which versions of reality get mixed up and none of them may be “real.” Bill Sienkiewicz draws the scary and ambiguous “The Clown Puppet” as if the story is seen through a Vaseline-smeared lens, a technique that highlights both the unreality and the oddity of the tale. For “The Chymist,” in which a bar pickup is part of a deranged experiment, Toby Cypress’ art and Rico Renzi’s coloring are rather obvious and over-the-top – but so is the story, which is not one of Ligotti’s best. For “The Sect of the Idiot,” a vaguely Lovecraftian tale that tries rather too hard to be ominous, Nick Stakal’s art and Lee Loughridge’s coloring provide angularity and starkness, if never really a sense of menace. All these adaptations are worthy enough, but none of them is really as effective as Ligotti at his best can be without pictures.

     There are no illustrations in Doonesbury.com’s The War in Quotes, but many readers will find it scarier than anything shown – or written – in the Ligotti graphic novel. It is no more or less than a collection of quotations about the war in Iraq – remarks by President Bush and his father, the former president; by Vice President Dick Cheney; and by a variety of high administration officials. It is a “gotcha” book, but also the chronicle of a set of policies gone horribly wrong. A timeline appears along the bottom of the pages, with quotations making up all the text – eight separate “Time is running out” remarks from officials speaking during January 2003, for example. There are quite a few “Bushisms” – presidential malapropisms spoken by a man who often has difficulty expressing his thoughts clearly: “You know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.” But Bush bashers, of whom there are many, have plenty of this sort of ammunition already, much of it collected by Garry Trudeau in his Doonesbury comic strip. More telling are the contradictory comments by people who do know how to say what they mean – for example, a general saying in 2003 that several hundred thousand soldiers are needed in Iraq, three days before Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls that number “far off the mark.” The book mainly condemns Republicans – who, after all, launched and pursued the war – but it is interesting to read quotations from now-stalwart Democratic war opponents: Senator Edward Kennedy saying in 2003 that “we have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction,” for example, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi commenting in 2002 that Hussein “certainly has chemical and biological weapons. There’s no question about that.” This thin book will change no minds about the war in Iraq and does not seem designed to do so – it is mostly a chronicle of confusion, of wrong choices by people whom one would have wished to be more intelligent and aware with foresight than some of them have turned out to be with hindsight. If there is a real-world nightmare factory, for many American soldiers it is Iraq. These quotations show how the factory was built.

     And here are its products, in the first of 11 magazine articles that collectively make up Mike Sager’s Wounded Warriors: Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the Wounded Warrior Barracks, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Trained and dedicated Marines, they were severely injured in combat and now have to cope with limbs and brains that just don’t work properly. And then there are the Vietnam vets who stayed in Thailand when their war ended, “a bunch of guys over here who think they just might have found a better way.” Sager profiles these people with sensitivity but sometimes with a hint of patronizing. His book includes not only military warriors but also a 13-year-old boy from a bad part of Philadelphia who sells cocaine but says he is not involved in pit-bull abuse; Al Sharpton, provocateur and would-be political heavyweight; Kobe Bryant, “misunderstood” basketball star who quotes Latin phrases; a 650-pound man living in a world where fat is frowned upon – with his 120-pound wife; and more. The mixture of celebrity and ordinary-people journalism is a bit unsettling, again and again leaving the impression that the real subject of all these stories is Sager himself, in a “look what I’m doing now!” mode. This is truest of the final piece, “Hunting Marlon Brando,” which almost chokes on the frequency of the pronoun “I.” Sager himself is not much of a warrior; his book is best when it looks at non-celebrity, non-rich fighters being forced to cope, day after day, with the realities of living with broken bodies in a world they hoped to remake but that instead remade them.


Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography. By Dave Zimmer. Photographs by Henry Diltz. Da Capo. $19.95.

The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. Edited by Bill Morgan. Da Capo. $30.

     As baby boomers age into retirement, the nostalgia industry geared to them sees huge opportunities. Hence the release of such a book as the “40th anniversary, fully updated” version of Dave Zimmer’s Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography, which dates originally to 1984 (it is the group’s 40th anniversary, not the book’s). Amply illustrated with photos by Henry Diltz and others, this is the place to turn for a 1975 closeup picture of David Crosby and Graham Nash, or the official 1977 White House photo of Crosby, Stills, Nash and manager John Hartmann with President Jimmy Carter. A well-organized book, Zimmer’s biography includes each musician’s early years (with a discussion of Stephen Stills’ involvement with the Monkees and Buffalo Springfield), the way in which the three-man partnership came about, the way it expanded to four with Neil Young’s addition, and the breakup and solo and duo careers and re-formation and re-entry of Young and return to just Crosby, Stills & Nash…and more. Much more – to the extent of more than 400 oversize pages. The biographical details and juxtapositions of the musicians’ world and the world at large are everywhere: the same page that includes a nude photo of Crosby with then-girlfriend Christine Gail Hinton (who died in a car crash in 1969) discusses the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Crosby’s reaction to it (the song “Long Time Gone”). Fans of this group – the one and only audience for the book – will be thrilled by the inside information and exhaustive discussion of each musician, both within the group and outside it. The book’s updates will be a pleasure, too – such as a full-page 2008 photo of Stills with his wife, Kristen, and two youngest children, who are 3 and 11 (he has five others, the oldest being 36). Non-fans, and people obsessed with different music and other celebrities, will find this whole project bewildering and easy to ignore. But that’s really the point: target a niche audience of aging baby boomers with fond memories of a particular group, and let them bask in historical nostalgia created just for them. You either get it or you don’t.

     The Allen Ginsberg cult actually reaches back before the boomers to the Beat Generation of the 1950s, although Ginsberg’s continued popularity makes it at least possible for writings about him to reach a wider audience than fan fanatics. Still, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg – a selection of 165 from more than 3,700 assembled by his longtime literary archivist, Bill Morgan – is tough going for anyone who is not already thoroughly immersed in the Ginsberg world. Here is part of a 1955 letter to Jack Kerouac: “Guy Wernham the translator of Lautreament is in furnished room across street, comes over and translates Genet for me, Genet poetry, drinks tea and shudders dignified and lost like Bill, looks like a sort of Bill without Bill’s genius charm.” And this is part of a 1959 letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Leaving for Chicago next week to read several times to raise money for [Irving] Rosenthal’s independent magazine, he has almost enough now and the manuscripts are at the printers already. Mag to be called Big Table and that issue lovely, the Burroughs selection is very good.” More interesting in many ways are the letters Ginsberg wrote to journalists, discussing issues of art and life, and to newspapers and magazines, usually responding to criticism of his work and the work of others to whom he was close. There is often a pithiness and lack of self-pity in these letters that makes them easier to read than Ginsberg’s self-referential ones – but they are also less revelatory than his stream-of-consciousness writing, such as this small part of a long 1960 letter to Gregory Corso, written after Ginsberg used the drug mescaline: “I realized I was a God, I am the God I always longed for, I could make same babes in this dimension, or imaginary ones in others, wouldn’t let Peter blow me (till I came down) – was naked, saw star of Bethlehem like Giotto miniature outside New England window, realized all consciousness was waiting for me the Messiah to make a break, all were waiting for one to say I am One, and announced to all the new Birth of Millennial Union One Mass of Endless Consciousness….” And what is the point of all this? To Ginsberg fans and scholars, his letters provide insight into his personality, his creative process, and his works. To others, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg will be of minimal interest – a 468-page exercise in the presentation of self-important ramblings of little or no significance.


Messiaen: Chants de terre et de ciel; Troi mélodies; La mort du nombre; Vocalise; Thème et variations pour violon et piano. Suzie LeBlanc, soprano; Lawrence Wiliford, tenor; Laura Andriani, violin; Robert Kortgaard, piano. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Bartók: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; Divertimento for String Orchestra; Danses populaires roumaines. Les Violons du Roy conducted by Jean-Marie Zeitouni. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

     Classical performers can find real value in specialization, becoming adept at the intricacies of a particular style or period of music and therefore becoming connected with that music and its composers in the minds of audience members – and concert promoters. But some musicians come to find the intense focus stifling after a time, and long to branch out, which they do with varying degrees of success. When they explore widened horizons successfully, they can bring a new perspective to the works outside their previous areas of involvement – as occurs in both these new CDs featuring performers who have moved from Baroque specialties into the 20th century.

     Suzie LeBlanc’s experience with Baroque and other early music stands her in good stead in a CD of early works by Olivier Messiaen. This is simpler music, happier in a more surface-level way, than Messiaen’s later works would be, and LeBlanc’s clarity of tone and forthrightness of expression serve it well. Thème et variations pour violon et piano, the only non-vocal work on this CD, was composed by Messiaen for his wife, violinist/composer Claire Delbos, in the year they were married: 1930. Chants de terre et de ciel (1938) was inspired by Delbos as well, and it shows a certain charm as well as emotional naïveté coupled with religious faith, beginning with “Bail avec Mi” (“”Mi” being the composer’s affectionate name for his wife) and ending with “Résurrection.” Laura Andriani and Robert Kortgaard play the violin-and-piano work with warmth and affection, and LeBlanc handles the songs the same way, expressing their emotionality without overwhelming their essentially simple sentiments. The other works here are from the same period, before World War II and Messiaen’s capture at Verdun in 1940: Troi melodies dates to 1930 (it was written to honor the composer’s mother, poet Cécile Sauvage); Vocalise is from 1935; and the very interesting La mort du nombre dates to 1930. The title of this work translates as “The Death of Numbers,” and it is a cantata for soprano, tenor, violin and piano – the only Messiaen work before the opera Saint-François d’Assise (1975-1983) that he wrote for a solo male voice. Although this piece lacks the depth and intensity of later Messiaen, it partakes of some of the same underlying philosophy, and the interplay of voices is well handled and well balanced against the two instruments. LaBlanc’s Baroque experience places her in particularly good form here, since this Messiaen work has some of the flavor – in vocal and instrumental use, if not in structure or harmony – of a small-ensemble Baroque-era piece.

     Their previous Baroque and Classical specialization also effectively underlies the approach of Jean-Marie Zeitouni and Les Violons du Roy to Bartók. This ensemble made its reputation playing music written before 1800, but moved outside that time period with a well-received CD devoted to the music of Ástor Piazzolla. Now comes a mixture of familiar and less-known Bartók, played with the sort of attention to detail for which this group is known – and the sort of respect for inner voices and contrapuntal lines that musicians familiar with the Baroque bring. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is played with vigor and enthusiasm, perhaps without the intense angularity of some performances but all in all very effectively. The Divertimento for String Orchestra gets a pleasant, well-paced reading in which all the string sections participate as equals, lending the performance a satisfying chamber-music feeling. And the Danses populaires roumaines, in an orchestration by Zeitouni himself, proceed with a great deal of gusto, ending with a Polka and Marunţel that race to an exciting finish, giving the players a workout that they seem to relish. The subtleties of Bartók are quite different from those of Bach, but Zeitouni and Les Violons du Roy are doing a good job of showing that they are equal to both.


Verdi: La Traviata. Angela Gheorghiu, Ramón Vargas, Roberto Frontali; Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of the Teatro alla Scala conducted by Lorin Maazel. ArtHaus DVD. $29.99.

Classical Archive: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Medici Arts DVD. $19.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3. Anna Larson, contralto; Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Tölzer Knabenchor and Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

Zubin Mehta with the Los Angeles Philharmonic: Mozart, Bartók, Dvořák. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

     Classical-music DVDs occupy a somewhat precarious position. Listeners accustomed to CDs and their predecessor media (audiocassettes, tape, vinyl records) are used to imagining themselves in a concert hall as they hear recorded performances. DVDs pull in that visual element, but this is not always an advantage: camera angles may be jarring (or at least different from the sights a person would see while actually watching a performance), and close-ups of performers and instruments may detract from rather than add to the musical experience.

     When a DVD is well done, both musically and visually, it certainly does add new pleasures to a work, as is the case with La Traviata featuring Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta and Ramón Vargas as Alfredo. This 2007 La Scala production is warm and evocatively emotional, and Gheorghiu makes Violetta a multifaceted character quite in keeping with Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto. She is all brilliance and gaiety in Act I – although her coughing and weakness are, as intended, ominous – and seems fully to enjoy domestic life in Act II, where she stands up regally to the conventionality-driven demands of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (a stolid Roberto Frontali) before finally acceding to them. Gheorghiu traces Violetta’s downward spiral effectively through the last two acts: her return to the party scene in Act II, Scene II is quite different from her embrace of it in Act I, and her final-act death scene is rendered with considerable pathos. Costumes and settings seem right for the opera but remain generally unobtrusive, with the result that this Traviata comes across as human drama rather than spectacle – making its characters all the more believable. Lorin Maazel conducts with a sure hand and well-chosen tempos, and the camera work is involving without being self-consciously arty or overly distracting.

     The wonderful operatic roles of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf are nowhere in evidence on the new DVD showcasing some of her performances between 1961 and 1970. There is little rhyme or reason to this hodgepodge, which includes recitals with pianists Gerald Moore (who is wonderful) and Geoffrey Parson as well as performances with Orchestre National de l’ORTF conducted by the virtually unknown Berislav Klobucar. There is more Richard Strauss here than anything else – eight songs in all, from two recitals – but the repertoire is really all over the place, including bits of Brahms, Gluck, Mahler, Menotti, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Verdi and Wolf. There are a few pleasant, little-heard songs here, such as Mozart’s “Ich möchte wohl der Kaiser sein,” K. 539; and hearing Schwarzkopf sing the anonymous “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” is a special pleasure. But the switching between piano and orchestral accompaniment and the varying camera work and quality make the DVD seem rather choppy and uneven. Schwarzkopf fans will welcome the chance to see her anytime, but this is in fact a “fan DVD” rather than one worth owning for its musical value.

     The music is in the forefront in Claudio Abbado’s 2007 Lucerne Festival rendition of Mahler’s Third Symphony, the composer’s most monumental work and an exceptionally difficult one to bring off successfully. The performance was heard on TV, and director Michael Beyer knows that the medium requires close-ups and frequent changes of camera angles and perspective in order to involve the viewing audience. Unfortunately, TV’s needs are at odds with Mahler’s, especially in the long-drawn-out and very slow finale, into which a listener is immersed and through which he or she is ultimately exalted. Here the visuals actually interfere with Abbado’s sensitive, thoughtful interpretation in a way they do not in earlier movements (especially the choral ones). The difficulty of a DVD of Mahler’s Third is that the visual elements must, of necessity, be those chosen by the director, not those that a sensitive listener would select in the concert hall. And while closing one’s eyes is certainly an option (and can be a good idea during a concert performance), it seems a bit self-defeating to do so while a DVD plays. There is, in the final analysis, something a little jarring about this production, despite the excellence of the music-making itself.

     The Zubin Mehta DVD with the Los Angeles Philharmonic is, on the other hand, great fun to watch – at least as a historical document. This two-concert DVD dates to January 1977, when Mehta was 30. He had become the youngest person ever to head a major U.S. orchestra when he took over in Los Angeles at age 26. The circumstances make Mehta himself more of an attraction than the music – like the Schwarzkopf DVD, this is one for fans of the performer. That is not to say that all the works are minor, since the DVD includes both Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 (which gets a bright, propulsive performance) and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (which effectively shows off the orchestra’s versatility). But the music – which also includes Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto, very well played by David Breidenthal, plus Dvořák’s “Carnival Overture” and Slavonic Dance No. 8 – is better known than is Mehta’s approach of 30-plus years ago. His conducting is vivid, enthusiastic and well paced, perhaps a little lacking in subtlety, but making up for it in attention to color and orchestral detail. Given the familiarity of the music, this DVD is one that is at least as much for the eyes as for the ears.

October 23, 2008


Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant: Far from Camelot. By Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

The Potpourrific Great Big Bag of Get Fuzzy. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Here are two oversize “Treasury” volumes of comics that serve very different purposes. Prince Valiant has had a continuing story line for an astonishing 71 years, since its first appearance on February 13, 1937. Hal Foster (1892-1982) created the strip – whose full title is Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur – and drew it until 1971. From then until 1980, Foster wrote the strip and John Cullen Murphy drew it. Several transitions later, the strip has since 2004 been written by Mark Schultz and drawn by Gary Gianni (with Scott Roberts handling coloring). In its original incarnation, when it was largely mythological in content, the strip was magnificent, and Foster’s art attained a pinnacle never reached by his successors. Over time, Foster turned the strip somewhat more realistic, downplaying magical elements and monsters and setting the strip largely in the 5th century, although with quite a few intrusions of much-later elements (Viking warriors, Renaissance armor and weapons, etc.). It is patently unfair (although probably inevitable) to compare the workmanlike Gianni/Schultz strip with the brilliant Foster original, with which most potential buyers of the new Andrews McMeel book will probably be unacquainted. Foster’s strip was above all a work of visual beauty, with extremely well-done use of perspective and huge panels that were often works of art (an early Mad parody called Prince Violent played on Foster’s approach to hilarious effect). Many Foster strips were designed to take up a full newspaper page – an impossibility nowadays (and indeed for many years); the new strips take half a page and run in Sunday papers. The Gianni/Schultz strips are more plot-driven than were Foster’s, although the family connections at the heart of Prince Valiant are still present and still help drive the narrative. The new strips have some irritating continuity errors, both visual and narrative: a character who has lost an eye has that eye shown as solid white, except that once in a while it looks like an ordinary, seeing eye; in one strip, we are told of a boy’s half-year absence from Camelot – which becomes a year’s absence in the next strip; the Biblical name Saba is repeatedly used, except that at one point it inconsistently becomes Sheba. This new “Treasury” collection includes strips that date to Schultz’s November 2004 start as the Prince Valiant writer, and continue until May 2008. In the course of this collection, Val and his youngest son, Nathan, travel widely, encounter treacherous humans and frightening sea monsters, come to a haunted tower, and – for much of the book – have an extended adventure involving lost Biblical treasure and a journey to Africa. The pace of the strips, although faster than in the early days of Prince Valiant, is still slow by modern comic-strip standards, and it can certainly be argued that Prince Valiant is now an anachronism – especially since its art is no longer close to the level to which Foster brought it. Still, the strip is largely art-driven – a real rarity nowadays – and is more effective in book form than in its usual glacial Sunday-to-Sunday pacing. A very unusual kind of comic, Prince Valiant is for readers seeking something quite different from the manically paced strips created more recently.

     One of those manic strips is Get Fuzzy, which has been steadily improving over the years and became really first-rate in the collections I’m Ready for My Movie Contract and Take Our Cat, Please! Those collections have now been…well…collected in The Potpourrific Great Big Bag of Get Fuzzy, which offers little to attract readers who already own the earlier books (the “Treasury” has color Sunday strips, but the color does not add much here) but which will be great fun for anyone who has not already bought those smaller-size collections. Bucky Katt’s scheming (against monkeys, ferrets and many other forms of life) and self-absorption remain the main attraction, although Satchel Pooch (a mixed Lab and Shar-pei) has become more interesting as he has retained his naïve charm but become less willing to put up with Bucky’s constant abuse. Rob Wilco, the human third of the group, remains the least interesting character and is drawn to appear singularly unattractive (wide eyes, no chin, lots of body hair everywhere). Many of the best strips do not include him at all: a series on “rejected story lines” that involves Bucky and Satchel with characters from other strips; suggested “alternative career opportunities” for the cat and dog (cat evangelist, dog lounge singer, etc.); and a dozen random-facts panels, half about cats and half about dogs – most of the facts actually being factual. Get Fuzzy is all over the place, with few continuing story lines beyond its overall “odd trio” approach. But many of the places it goes to are very funny – and it goes to a lot of them in this fourth “Treasury” collection.


The Donut Chef. By Bob Staake. Golden Books. $14.99.

Toy Dance Party. By Emily Jenkins. Pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

     A delightful – even delicious – book for children ages 3-5, Bob Staake’s The Donut Chef celebrates not only the yummy fried circular treats but also the notion of old-fashioned comfort food. The chef is a huge, round man drawn in Staake’s inimitable circle-upon-circle style; indeed, he looks a bit like a donut (or doughnut) himself. And he succeeds by diligence and skill: “That donut chef, he worked so hard/ By mixing flour, sugar, lard./ He baked his donuts fresh at dawn,/ Then hoped by noon they’d all be gone!” In fact, the chef is so successful that he attracts a competitor – obviously a bad guy, since he is drawn as a thin, angular character with a perpetual smirk. The two side-by-side shops compete first on price, then on frills (extra frosting, weird flavors), and then by baking their wares in really odd shapes: “Some were square and some were starry,/ Some looked just like calamari!/ Some were airy, some were cone-y!/ Some resembled macaroni!” Staake’s illustrations here are hilarious – but there is a serious (well, semi-serious) point made as well: the chefs are so wrapped up in their competition that they are neglecting their customers, especially the children, for whom the new baked goods had “lost their soul.” It is left to “little Debbie Sue,/ A teeny girl, just barely two,” to point the original Donut Chef in the right direction – back toward the traditional glazed donuts that the little girl and, it turns out, many, many other customers remember fondly and want to be able to eat again. So all ends happily, except for the upstart chef, who is left with trays of weird concoctions that no one wants to buy anymore – as all the good citizens of the town (drawn in very different, equally amusingly misproportioned ways) celebrate with the original chef and Debbie Sue. This is a delightful book with a throwback message – and definitely not for calorie counters.

     Older children, ages 7-11, will get some of the same flavor (so to speak) from Toy Dance Party, which also has an old-fashioned feeling to it. Emily Jenkins’ book of six interconnected stories is a sequel (or companion) to her lovely fantasy, Toys Go Out, featuring the same characters. In fact, the new book’s subtitle reads: Being the Further Adventures of a Bossyboots StingRay, a Courageous Buffalo, & a Hopeful Round Someone Called Plastic. Lumphy the buffalo, StingRay the stuffed stingray, and Plastic the rubber ball love belonging to the Girl, but she is starting to grow up and is spending less time playing with them – and more time with Barbie dolls. So the toys are left on their own, and they have a delightful series of adventures – one in a snowstorm, for example, and one with a vacuum cleaner from which they rescue a mouse. Kids who have seen the Pixar Toy Story movies may especially enjoy these “toys have lives of their own” tales, but the sentiments here are closer to the surface: “Lumphy climbs down from [StingRay’s] broad plush back and pulls [the faded yellow towel] TukTuk behind him. ‘The Girl still loves us,’ he says. ‘Okay,’ says StingRay meekly. ‘I just got concerned for a minute.’” In truth, though, there is little unhappiness in Jenkins’ narrative and none at all in Paul Zelinsky’s lovely illustrations. The growing-up of the Girl is just a way to give the toys more time and space for their own adventures – including, of course, the dance party of the title, which features silly songs sung by Frank the washing machine. By the end of the book, the toys have taken revenge on the Barbies and all they represent, making a horrible mess that the Girl misinterprets as being an attempt to give her a present: “’I know I haven’t played with you much lately. …But I love you. And I will always keep you.’” The ending, like the stories throughout the book, is heartwarming and just a bit overly sentimental; perhaps too sweet for preteens who consider themselves sophisticated, but just right for children who know they are growing up but who do not want to leave all their fond memories of earlier childhood behind.


You Are What You Remember: A Pathbreaking Guide to Understanding and Interpreting Your Childhood Memories. By Patrick Estrade. Da Capo. $16.95.

Global Soundtracks: Worlds of Film Music. Edited by Mark Slobin. Wesleyan University Press. $34.95.

     “Memories serve the same purpose as dreams.” This is but one startling statement in You Are What You Remember by French psychotherapist and author Patrick Estrade. Drawing on the works of Freud and his onetime colleague (and later rival) Alfred Adler, Estrade argues cogently that most people can unlock early childhood memories – and, at least as significantly, the feelings and emotions associated with them. Memories, according to Estrade, have both manifest and latent content: “A memory’s manifest content arises from the relationship between reality and our conscious (one thing makes me think of another via a chain of connections or via linked thoughts). …A memory’s latent content emerges from the search our unconscious initiates for a memory corresponding to an actual internal emotional state or perception, rather than to a predictable framework.” This analysis can be tough to follow for anyone not undergoing analysis, although those who are in therapy are likely to find it more transparent and useful than will the general population. The translation (by Leah Brumer) reads clearly but makes no attempt to simplify or gloss over the complexities of Estrade’s thoughts. Estrade seeks to combine Freud’s notion of dreams as fulfillments of repressed desires with Adler’s view of them as problem-solving opportunities (Estrade approvingly quotes from Adler: “The aim of the dream is the feelings it leaves behind”). Using examples from his own therapeutic files, Estrade explores “core nuclear relationships in memories” and offers a basic guide to interpreting your own recollections. He also discusses, although not at length, false memories and mental manipulation – as well as trauma, guilt and other negative mental affects that memory can elucidate. Deciphering memories is not easy, Estrade states emphatically: “Every interpretation is based on the assumption that reliable information and a stable foundation support the analysis. However, like dreams, memories are eminently subjective creations.” The reason for Estrade’s deep delving into memories is that “wounds of the spirit heal if we treat them,” and memories can be a way of understanding those wounds and making healing possible. Estrade is a thoughtful guide through a difficult subject; his book may be most useful if read while undergoing therapy and discussed with a therapist who has also read and absorbed it.

     Film can have the characteristics of both psychoanalysis and memory – indeed, some directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock, have famously exploited the relationships. But it is surprising how often the memorable elements of film are not visual but aural. Soundtracks reinforce the action and pull it in the direction the director seeks – if you doubt that, try watching any action or romantic movie with the sound turned off. But music is used very differently in films from around the world. The essays collected in Global Soundtracks give some idea of film music’s evolution over the past century while showing the many different ways in which music is incorporated into films from particular parts of the world, or those of specific directors. Editor Mark Slobin, a professor of music at Wesleyan University, is also a major contributor to the book, offering three fascinating chapters on Hollywood film music in the time of Max Steiner (“who largely is credited with making the filmscore work”) and afterwards. Slobin also writes a final chapter called “Comparative Vistas” that neatly and even elegantly assembles the themes of the book: “Music and storyline are like threads from two different balls of brightly colored yarn. Filmmakers weave them together, and sometimes tie knots to fasten the narrative, as well as the viewer’s attention.” Indeed, for the general reader (rather than the film student), Slobin’s chapters will be the most intriguing sections of the book. Everything else is a great deal more specialized: “Music in Indonesian ‘Historical’ Films,” “Diversity and Orality in Euzhan Palcy’s La Rue Case-nègres,” etc. Some chapters hold more interest than others: “That Bollywood Sound” by Greg Booth, for example, provides considerable detail on the technology, economics and, yes, sound of the highly productive Indian film industry. Other chapters, though, are clearly for specialists only. Global Soundtracks is scarcely a comprehensive study of film music, globally or otherwise, but it dips into some fascinating elements of the field – albeit generally from an academic or “insider” perspective that may at times be difficult for non-students to follow. It is as an introduction to selected trends in the global film-music industry that Slobin’s book is most effective and, in its own way, memorable.


The Good Neighbors, Book One: Kin. By Holly Black & Ted Naifeh. Graphix/Scholastic. $16.99.

So Far from the Bamboo Grove. By Yoko Kawashima Watkins. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

Bullyville. By Francine Prose. HarperTeen. $6.99.

Listen! By Stephanie S. Tolan. HarperTrophy. $5.99.

     The bad things that happen to people – some natural, some supernatural – and the way the survivors cope lie at the heart of all these books. Kin is Ted Naifeh’s graphic-novel interpretation of Holly Black’s first book about the intersection of the worlds of humans and faeries. But these are not tiny, wand-carrying beings, and Rue Silver’s question to one of them about whether she is the tooth fairy is just as grotesque as Black intends it to be. These faeries are human-sized, powerful and inimical to the human race, as one explains to Rue: “Long ago, mortals called us the fair folk, the people of peace, the good neighbors. They called us these things not because we were fair or peaceful or good, but because they feared us. As they should.” Rue, it turns out, has highborn faerie blood because of her mother – who has mysteriously disappeared. And Rue’s father, a professor, has been accused of murdering a student. But the real brutality in Kin is emotional, as Rue learns more and more about her heritage and must decide whether to join the faeries or remain with mortals: “A lot of kids have this fantasy that secretly they’re really the princess of a foreign country. Turns out that pretty much sucks.” Naifeh’s atmospheric art – the book is very dark – and Black’s intense story combine into a tale that, like Black’s Spiderwick Chronicles, is filled with threat, illusion and questions of identity.

     The brutality in So Far from the Bamboo Grove is that of war, and the story really happened. Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ book, originally published in 1986 and now available in a new paperback edition, follows Yoko through the last days of World War II, when the Japanese occupation of Korea was crumbling. Yoko is a child of both countries: Japanese and living with a Japanese family, but residing in northern Korea and knowing nothing about Japan – to which she must try to escape as the Koreans fight to throw out the occupying forces. Both Yoko and her brother, Hideyo, go through a series of harrowing events in making their escape from the North Korean Communists – often surviving purely by chance. But in Japan, they find all their relatives dead; and then their mother dies as well. Told in straightforward prose, Yoko’s story is no less horrific for being stylistically unadorned.

     Bullyville – first published last year and now available in paperback – is fiction, but the brutality of which it speaks has, unfortunately, plenty of real-world parallels. In fact, Francine Prose pulls the real world sharply into the book by having the father of Bart, the narrator, die in the collapse of the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. When Bart goes to Baileywell Preparatory Academy – the Bullyville of the title – things get even worse for him. This is a school where everyone bullies or is bullied, and Bart gets his very own master tormentor in the person of Tyro Bergen, the sort of young sadist who makes you understand why Bart remembers reading books about Nazi concentration camps. The evil culture of the school makes no impression on Bart’s mother, who seems incapable of seeing anything she does not want to see (her willful blindness – or unremitting dimness – is a flaw in the novel). There are powerful scenes in Bullyville, but the book is too preachy and feels too manipulative to have the sort of staying power that Prose surely wants it to have.

     Listen! presents the brutality of life in a different way, laying it on very thickly indeed. Stephanie Tolan’s book, published in 2006 and now offered as a paperback with a number of pet-related extras at the end, is about a sixth-grade girl named Charley who has a broken leg, a dead mother and a father who flees the family’s pain by working 80 hours a week. Despite the bleakness of Charley’s life, this is an uplifting book, because Tolan uses it to celebrate the special bond between people and animals. Charley meets an abused dog that has been running wild – and clearly has his own too-large-to-bear share of pain. Predictably but still movingly, Charley feels a connection to the dog and decides to help him; and in doing so, she slowly but surely moves beyond her own pain and finds more inner strength than she knew she possessed. The most heartwarming sections of the book are those in which Charley talks to the dog, Coyote, as if he is an equal – as when she explains why he has to wear a collar: “I won’t use it to make you do stuff you don’t want to do. …Well, sometimes I will, but only if it’s absolutely necessary and only if it’s for your own good. Like when a doctor comes to see you. There’s a law, and there’s nothing I can do about it. You need a shot – a couple of shots – to keep you from getting sick.” Although Listen! tries a little too hard to be moving, it still succeeds, thanks to the warmth evident both in Coyote and in Charley and the love that develops between them – love being, in the final analysis, the most effective antidote to brutalities of all types.


Prokofiev: The Symphonies. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Phoenix Edition. $34.99 (5 CDs).

Kabalevsky: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. NDR Chor, Choir of Hungarian Radio and NDR Philharmonie conducted by Eiji Oue. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     One of these 20th-century Russian composers is known for less than half his symphonic output and one is not known as a symphonist at all. As a result, these sets of symphonies offer an unusual chance to explore less-than-familiar orchestral repertoire and discover some surprisingly attractive music.

     Sergei Prokofiev has the distinction of having written eight symphonies numbered 1 through 7: there are two entirely different versions of No. 4, one from 1930 and one from 1947. But only three of his symphonic works are heard with any frequency: No. 1, the “Classical” (1916-7); No. 5 (1944); and (to a lesser extent) No. 6 (1945-7). The excellent playing of Gürzenich-Orchester Köln and knowing interpretations of Dmitrij Kitajenko notwithstanding, this is unlikely to change: the three most-popular Prokofiev symphonies are in fact his most attractive works in the form. No. 1 is a perfectly poised, elegant 20th-century tribute to Haydn (as Weber’s two symphonies were 19th-century tributes to that quintessential symphonist); No. 5 is a brilliant and biting World War II work of substance and intensity; and No. 6, which essentially looks back at that war, is a gigantic three-movement structure, somber and agitated, with a pervasive sense of loss even in triumph. The remaining symphonies pale beside these three, yet each has interesting elements and each shows something about Prokofiev’s compositional development. No. 2 (1924-5) is a product of the ferment of Paris in Weimar Republic days, and is a great, complex, noisy work whose two movements were inspired by Beethoven’s final, two-movement piano sonata (No. 32, Op. 111). Prokofiev’s second movement, a theme and variations, lasts nearly half an hour and is the longest symphonic movement he wrote. The work clatters and bangs and is percussion-heavy (it requires three percussionists). It is more reflective of its time than of Prokofiev himself, but certainly shows how he handled the commission of a work specifically designed to be “modernistic.” No. 3 (1928) is based on music from Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel and mixes mysticism with the sounds of hysteria (in the third movement, the strings are divided into 13 parts). The first version of No. 4 is also based on theater music – in this case, the ballet The Prodigal Son – and actually sounds a bit like a dance symphony. It was the last symphony Prokofiev wrote before returning to the Soviet Union. The second version of No. 4 is larger, longer, heavier and more self-consciously emotional – it was in fact finished after No. 6. Prokofiev’s final symphony, No. 7 (1951-2), is rather lightweight and was designed, like his other late works, to convince Soviet authorities that he was toeing their mandated musical line. It is charming and nostalgic, but in many ways a throwback after the anguished grandeur of No. 6. Kitajenko, born in 1940 in what was then Leningrad, has tremendous affinity for Prokofiev’s music, and his cycle of the symphonies effectively showcases their richness as well as their shortcomings.

     There was one major Soviet composer, and only one, who was never condemned by state authorities – not a single time. That was Dmitri Kabalevsky, whose works were considered bastions of Socialist Realism and always sufficiently uplifting (especially of Soviet youth and therefore of a Bolshevik future) to be deemed correct and appropriate. In post-Soviet times, and indeed during the Cold War, this put Kabalevsky at a worldwide disadvantage, making it easy to dismiss his output as mere propaganda. It was that – much of the time, anyway – but it was also more than that, as the first-ever recording of his four symphonies shows. Eiji Oue has clearly studied this music and figured out how to present it to best effect, downplaying some of its crudities and giving it as much respect as possible. The sensitive conducting does not turn these compositions into major works or their composer into a first-rate symphonist, but it does make as good a case for them as is likely to be made. Kabalevsky’s first three symphonies are all in minor keys: No. 1 (1932) in C sharp minor, No. 2 (1934; actually the third written) in C minor, and No. 3 (1933; the second written) in B flat minor. No. 1, originally planned as a cantata comparing czarist and Soviet Russia, is a two-movement work that contrasts the oppression of the past with the uplift of the Soviet era; but the subtext is unnecessary to enjoy this highly accessible music, which starts in darkness and proceeds to light – albeit rather too obviously. No. 3, known as “Requiem for Lenin,” is a choral work written for the 10th anniversary of Lenin’s death and having more the feeling of liturgy than of the concert hall. Its music and text are designed to mirror the notion of struggle leading eventually to triumph, in Lenin’s footsteps and his name; thus, this is the most overtly propagandistic of Kabalevsky’s symphonies. No. 2 is a much more interesting work, its melancholy central slow movement framed by two brighter, pleasant faster ones – a light work, all in all, but one with some solidity at its core and no overt propaganda purpose. Kabalevsky’s longest and most interesting symphony, though, is his last, No. 4, which is in C major and dates to 1955-6. It is based largely on themes from the composer’s opera, The Family of Taras, in which heroic Soviet workers fight the Nazis, suffer and die for their country. The symphony works, however, without knowing this background; works better, in fact. This is the only Kabalevsky symphony that succeeds in a traditional way, through the development of interrelated themes and the contrast among movements (it is his only symphony in the traditional four movements). The orchestration is also more successful here than in Kabalevsky’s earlier symphonies, and the work as a whole conveys emotion as well as structural assuredness. Even this is not a great symphony, but it is a very good one and is worth at least occasional hearings as more than a curiosity of Soviet days.


She’s Sweetest When She’s Naked: Flute Music from 18th-Century Scotland. Alison Melville, baroque flute and recorder; Michael Jarvis, Paul Jenkins and Charlotte Nediger, harpsichord; Mary-Katherine Finch, baroque cello; Kirk Elliott, harp and guitar; Ben Grossman, bodhrán, tambourine and snare drum. EarlyMusic.com. $16.99.

J. Henry D’Anglebert: Pièces de clavecin. Hank Knox, clavecytherium. EarlyMusic.com. $16.99.

     Here are some utterly fascinating explorations of virtually unknown music of the 17th and 18th centuries, performed in authentic style on original instruments (or well-made copies) by specialists in the works and performance practices of this time. Adventurous listeners will be captivated from first note to last by these highly unusual and exceptionally well-played recordings.

     She’s Sweetest When She’s Naked – a titillating title, taken from a song, although there are no vocals on the CD – is a collection of early Scottish music by such composers as James Oswald (Caledonian Pocket Companion, 1742-59), Edward Miller (The Braes of Ballandyne, 1799), Nicola Matteis (Ayrs for the Violin, 1685), Charles Macklean, Alexander Munro, and of course Anonymous. The creators of the music are pretty much beside the point here – what matters is how these works sound, which is to say how they sounded when they were fresh and new to the ear. Thanks to the meticulous scholarship of Alison Melville and her accompanists, the music actually sounds fresh and new right now: the blend of flute or recorder with harpsichord and cello continuo and a variety of percussion (notably the bodhrán, a shallow handheld goatskin drum) results in a level of grace and sensitivity that seems wholly appropriate to the light, almost flighty airs, sonatas and dance tunes. The sets of variations (by Matteis, Munro and Oswald) have a special charm all their own, since their basis is popular music of the time and these variations therefore represent an especially pleasant melding of “low” and “high” art – between which, in truth, there was less distinction in the 17th and 18th centuries than there would be in later years. In fact, all the music here is essentially “popular” in origin – it was collected after Scotland was united with England, as a way to preserve the unique elements of Scottish heritage – and it certainly deserves to attain popularity anew when played with the skill and verve that these performers bring to it.

     There is skill aplenty in Hank Knox’s CD, too, but this is music of a very different kind – although of roughly the same time period: J. Henry D’Anglebert lived from 1629 to 1691, and his Pièces de clavecin date to 1689. The strange-looking and strangely named clavecytherium is simply an upright harpsichord; but it is not, after all, as simple as that. In the much later world of pianos, an upright involves inevitable compromises in construction, notably of the sound board, compared with a grand; but in the case of the clavecytherium, the reason for whose upright construction remains unknown, what we really hear is an instrument with an interestingly different sound from that of the harpsichord – not a muted version, suitable for small rooms and for practice, as is the case with the clavichord, but simply a harpsichord with an alternative kind of sound. D’Anglebert’s Pièces de clavecin consisted of four suites – a total of 57 pieces. The collection is most famous among musicologists because it contained a very complete table of ornaments and their realizations – an invaluable guide to correct performance that served as the basis for many later such tables. The Pièces de clavecin are also, it turns out, very accomplished music – D’Anglebert was composer and court harpsichordist to King Louis XIV, and the Sun King clearly had high expectations of his court music (as of everything else). Knox offers excerpts from three of D’Anglebert’s four suites on this CD, playing on a reproduction of a clavecytherium made by Albertus Delin in 1768. The works, most by D’Anglebert himself but some being transcriptions of pieces by Lully, are skillfully constructed; the instrument’s sound is at once exotic and familiar; and the playing is impeccable. The result is a courtly disc to charm, if not the commoner, then the uncommon music lover of today.

October 16, 2008


Barnaby Grimes: Curse of the Night Wolf. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $15.99.

The Edge Chronicles IX: Clash of the Sky Galleons. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $12.99.

     It is customary in books containing pictures to note the author and illustrator separately, but it makes perfect sense to give Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell equal billing in their many wonderful fantasies, for they are a sort of Gilbert-and-Sullivan team in children’s literature: each contributes something very important, but the combination adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. Stewart’s narratives are well constructed, nicely paced and cleverly plotted; Riddell’s illustrations are amazingly detailed and quite unlike anything else to be found in books that are ostensibly for young readers – in fact, they more closely resemble Gustav Doré works than modern pictures, and are worth studying again and again by kids and adults alike. The newest Stewart-Riddell collaboration, Barnaby Grimes, for ages 8-12, splendidly carries on this team’s tradition of offbeat plotting, fascinating characters and enough touches of the supernatural and outré to keep pages turning from start to finish. Barnaby is a “tick-tock lad” (a messenger) in a version of Victorian London, and one of the last remaining “highstackers” (boys who travel over the roofs of the city). The atmosphere of long-ago London is beautifully conveyed both in Stewart’s words and in Riddell’s illustrations, some of which are silhouettes – a style appropriate to the period of the story. Barnaby, in narrating this tale, makes many references to strange things he has seen and odd events in which he has been involved, so it is clear that this book is the start of what could easily be a fascinating ongoing series. The occurrences in Curse of the Night Wolf are plenty strange enough: on a rooftop one night, Barnaby is attacked by a huge, vicious, doglike creature – and learns soon afterwards that there seems to be a plague of wolves in London. Barnaby finds himself in the employ of one Dr. Cadwallader, benevolent administrator of health-reviving tonics to the poor and downtrodden – and perhaps something more sinister as well. The mystery element here is fairly thin – many young readers will figure out what is going on before Barnaby does – but the swift pacing and excellent portrayals of even the subsidiary characters lend the book an aura of grittiness that is another Stewart-Riddell trademark. As in their other series – Far-Flung Adventures and The Edge Chronicles – Stewart and Riddell manage here to create a book that is complete in itself but that will leave readers hungry for more of the same in the future.

     Actually, The Edge Chronicles itself is nearing completion – its main sequence will consist of 10 books in all – and has now gone through three separate trilogies, featuring the characters Twig, Rook and Quint. The illustrations in this series are glorious – they are even more detailed and even more expressive than Riddell’s work in Barnaby Grimes, even though The Edge Chronicles is aimed at essentially the same age group (10-12, although many of the books in this series will appeal to teenagers as well as preteens). The chronology of the stories is rather confusing. The first three books focus on Twig, who is of the third generation of the family that the series follows in something less than a straight line. Books 5-7 are about Rook, who is from the fifth generation. Book 4, The Curse of the Gloamglozer, starts the story of Quint, who is of the second generation; his tale continues only in Book 8, The Winter Knights, and is concluded in Book 9, Clash of the Sky Galleons. Quint is, unfortunately, the least interesting of the three protagonists, and even the tale of Quint and his father, a sky pirate named Wind Jackal, aboard the flying ship called Galerider, is less compelling than some of Twig’s and Rook’s adventures. Clash of the Sky Galleons is a more violent and bloody book than many in the series (although The Edge Chronicles is never without violence); but the title battle occurs only fairly near the end and, in truth, seems rather perfunctory after all that has gone before. Among the highly appealing elements in this book are the extent to which it takes place aboard the flying ship, with Stewart giving extended explanations of how the ship works and how the crew handles various duties (explanations that do, however, slow down the forward thrust of the narrative); and the manner in which the characters travel throughout the world of this series – from the Edge itself to the far reaches of the Deepwoods. The plot involves Wind Jackal’s search for revenge against a character named Turbot Smeal, who is responsible for a fire that killed most of Wind Jackal’s family. But Wind Jackal’s lapses of judgment, occasioned by the emotional overload of his desire for vengeance, put the sky pirate himself and his remaining child, Quint (who, despite his name, is Wind Jackal’s sixth child, not his fifth), in jeopardy. Throw in dangerous Shryke warriors (members of a race of huge, vicious birds), unpredictable and deadly weather patterns, and such menaces as the Bloodoak trees, and you have an action-packed book – with, unfortunately, a less interesting young character at its heart than in other Edge Chronicles entries. Riddell’s marvelous illustrations – of everything from the human characters to the numerous wonderfully imagined denizens of the Deepwoods (cray-spinners, wood-whelks, hoglets, halitoads, silver-backed quarms, terrifying landfish, beautiful but deadly skull-pecker birds, and many others) to the sky-shipyard where flying ships are assembled – are an even bigger attraction, in this case, than Stewart’s story. But it is the combination of the work of these highly talented men that continues to make The Edge Chronicles such an enthralling saga.


The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book. Introduction by Robert Manikoff. Andrews McMeel. $24.99.

The Day Phonics Kicked In: “Baby Blues” Goes Back to School. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     They breathe rarefied air at The New Yorker, a magazine considered by some to be the finest in the world and by others to be impossibly pretentious and self-involved. Nowhere is the thinness of the air more evident than in the magazine’s supposedly democratic weekly caption contest, which presents a cartoon without a caption and asks readers, first, to come up with some; then, to vote on which of three finalists (chosen by New Yorker editors, including cartoon editor Robert Manikoff) should be designated the winner. This is a highly popular feature with the self-proclaimed intelligentsia, including the finalists quoted in The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book – a master’s in English here, a couple of greeting-card writers there, a newspaper writer on this side, an advertising copy writer on the other. To allow you to imagine competing in this heady atmosphere, Manikoff thoughtfully provides a series of “helper words” beneath each cartoon – words that occurred frequently in the magazine’s database of entries (larger-type words showed up more often, smaller-type ones less frequently). But to get right down to it: just how funny are the winning captions and the second-place and third-place ones? The answer is: generally extremely funny by New Yorker standards, but perhaps a tad abstruse by any other measurement. One cartoon shows a meeting at which participants, although dressed in business suits, have pirate-like parrots on their shoulders; the winning caption reads, “Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot’s a clip-on.” Another shows a man and woman in bed, she reading a book and he reading a newspaper, but the parts of him visible from behind the paper show that he is some sort of huge bug; the winning caption says, “Two thousand eyes, but it still takes you all day to read the morning paper.” Perhaps the funniest cartoon in the book shows another of those meeting tables, around which sit six fully robed and hooded ominous figures and one smiling man in a business suit – who is saying, in the winning caption, “Perkins here, representing taxes.” That is a New Yorker cartoon at its best: making readers think about the old saying, “nothing is certain except death and taxes,” then playing a game with the whole idea. Neither this book nor The New Yorker itself will appeal to everyone, but neither intends to. If this type of humor tickles you, be prepared to encounter chortles, smirks and the occasional belly laugh here.

     There’s no need to invent your own captions for Rick Kirkman’s Baby Blues art – Jerry Scott’s are simply wonderful, and it’s hard to imagine any contest producing anything better. There’s nothing esoteric about Baby Blues – it’s simply filled with the sorts of things with which parents of young children live day after day (after day after day after day). The 24th Baby Blues collection (not counting seven oversize “Treasury” volumes) differs from earlier ones in being a theme book rather than a chronological sequence of reprinted strips. This is a great chance for readers to revisit some earlier strips focusing on the classroom, and what kids learn both within and outside it. For instance, Zoe remembers when leaving for school that she did not do her show-and-tell assignment, so she tells mom Wanda that she’ll get it done really quickly by pretending “that I’m you when people are coming over and you still have to clean the house.” Zoe then runs in circles screaming “AAAAAGGHHH!” – leaving Wanda to ask herself the entirely reasonable question, “Why do they do most of their learning when we’re not teaching them?” Then there is Hammie, Zoe’s perpetually put-upon little brother, who teases girls in preschool – but only ones littler than he is, since that’s the basis on which Zoe picks on him. There’s Zoe examining her closet, which is crammed with outfits; and, in answer to Wanda’s question about what she would like to wear to school, saying, “Somebody else’s clothes.” There’s Hammie having trouble with homework and worrying that he has forgotten all the Sesame Street lessons – in fact, he has “dreamed that Big Bird came over and beat me up.” There’s a head-lice episode, and an elaborate-kindergarten-graduation episode, and plenty of other episodes at which parents will nod or shake their heads knowingly – after they stop laughing. The most educational thing Baby Blues does, day in and day out, is to teach perspective: with only slight tweaking, your harassed and harried parental life can be seen as cute, amusing and occasionally all-out hysterical. (But you should still keep aspirin handy.)


The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. By Terry Pratchett. HarperTeen. $6.99.

A Mystery for Thoreau. By Kin Platt. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.

Paddington Here and Now. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Faerie Door. By B.E. Maxwell. Harcourt. $17.

     “Fantasy” nowadays tends to mean “heroic fantasy,” which means very long books with complex plots and lots of medieval-style weaponry, plus a liberal dose of magic. But some fantasy novels buck the heroic-fantasy trend, and are the better for it. All of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels might be called anti-heroic fantasy, focused as they are on such mundane matters as city governance, cultural differences among races, and the annoying tendency of immortals and natural forces to interfere in the affairs of mere human beings (including those with magic powers, most of whom are distinctly inept). The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, first published in 2001 and now available in a new paperback edition, is even further from heroic fantasy than is the norm for Pratchett. Maurice, you see, is a cat, and the rodents are rats that have become highly intelligent after rooting through the garbage left behind by the wizards (the aforementioned distinctly inept practitioners of magic). And the whole story is a mostly rollicking rethinking of the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – but with room for Pratchett’s distinctive musings on good and evil and on what it means to be human (in one of many touches that show Pratchett’s effective and idiosyncratic style, the rats’ near-humanness is made clear when they bury one of their number who has died – instead of eating him, as typical rats would). The rats bear such names as Darktan, Toxie, Big Savings, Additives and Dangerous Beans – again, oddball names that make sense in context are a Pratchett trademark – and the style is pure Pratchett, as when Maurice contemplates his Retirement Plan: “Once I’ve made a pile, I’m headed for a nice home with a big fire and a nice old lady giving me cream every day.” These musings occur while Maurice is exploring underground, where something very nasty appears to live: “He wasn’t exactly lost, because cats never get lost. He merely didn’t know where everything else was.” It turns out that something is very rotten in the town of Bad Blintz, and it will take all Maurice’s cleverness – plus the help of some cooperative human children – to deal with a genuinely frightening threat. Ostensibly a book for ages 12 and up, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents will be too scary for some sensitive kids and teenagers – and comes across as a slightly-easier-to-read version of Pratchett’s distinctly adult novels.

     A Mystery for Thoreau should appeal to preteens and young teens, too, but it is a fantasy of a very different sort. This is the only known historical novel by Kin Platt, a prolific comic-strip writer and artist who started producing novels in the 1960s. This one has never been published before, and it is something of a find. Well paced and historically accurate as it relates to the Transcendentalists who populated Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840s, it offers accessible style and some neat turns of phrase (“the callous brutality and bravado of children”) as well as a more-than-passable mystery. The fictional central character is 16-year-old Oliver Puckle, a reporter for the Concord Freeman, who finds himself investigating a murder at Walden Pond – yes, that Walden Pond. Town politics and race relations simmer in the background, and so does a hinted-at romance between Oliver and a new arrival from the big city, Margaret Roberts. Where Henry David Thoreau fits into all this is, well, right in the middle. He is not a suspect in the murder – he was in jail when it occurred for refusing, on principle, to pay his poll tax – but he is an observant fellow with a keen feeling for what makes sense at Walden Pond and what is amiss. The events in A Mystery for Thoreau never took place, but the book has enough verisimilitude so readers will imagine that they could have happened. And Platt manages to create, with a few broad strokes, memorable portraits of characters ranging from the real (Louisa May Alcott) to the fictional (Charley Bigbow). Bigbow is especially enjoyable, being quite capable of pretending to be what white settlers expect (“You lost. Me find. Indian see everything. Better than bloodhound, who only smell.”) while in reality being educated and well-spoken (“Stalking silently, carefully noting the presence or displacement of every leaf and blade of grass.”) The mystery turns out to have more than a little to do with another famous American of the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe, and the solution is neat. It is, in fact, a little too neat, as Platt wraps up the book quickly and leaves several threads tantalizingly hanging – notably the possible future of Oliver and Margaret. Platt apparently never wrote a sequel to A Mystery for Thoreau, but it would certainly be nice if one turned up somewhere.

     Paddington Here and Now is itself a sequel – a sequel to sequels, actually – and is aimed at younger children. It is intended for ages 8-12 and will perhaps be a little too treacly for more-sophisticated readers in that age range. This is the first new Paddington novel in 30 years, and it is in many ways a worthy successor to the series that Michael Bond started with A Bear Called Paddington in 1958. Unfortunately, the world has moved on a great deal in the past half-century, but Bond and Paddington have not. Parents drenched in fond memories of earlier Paddington Bear adventures (this is the 12th Paddington story) are likely to find this book more enjoyable than their kids will – in somewhat the same way that the Mary Poppins books do not wear very well for today’s kids, whose experience of magic in novels is quite different from what P.L. Travers offers. Bond keeps Paddington charming and mildly trouble-prone, but his worries continue to be minor ones, with only a few updatings (one funny travel-agency scene involves Paddington’s possession of exactly one frequent-flier mile). Paddington’s adventures – losing his shopping basket, accidentally locking grouchy Mr. Curry outside, ending up in the middle of a benefit concert – have old-fashioned charm, and the book’s eventual affirmation that “home is where you hang your hat” is a simple and pleasant one. But Paddington Here and Now feels as if it belongs to an earlier time, and is not likely to charm nearly as many children today to the extent that it charmed the kids of the 1950s. The book gets a (+++) rating, colored in part by nostalgia.

     The Faerie Door gets a (+++) rating, too – for different reasons. B.E. Maxwell’s first novel for young readers is a deliberate throwback to Victorian-era fantasies, complete with dragons, flying pirate ships and the wonders of Faerieland. The plot, unfortunately, is a creaky one, with the good Faerie Queen and wicked Shadow Knight vying for control of portals that the Queen created long ago so children could summon help from faeries whenever they needed to. The Queen uses two 11-year-olds from different ages as warriors against the Shadow Knight: Victoria Deveny, who lives in a manor house in 1890 Britain, and Elliot Good, from a small town in 1966 America. For many young readers today, 1966 seems as far in the past as 1890, so some of the point of the two-era approach is dulled. And although many parts of the children’s quests – they are seeking orbs of power that can defeat the Shadow Knight – are well written and at least mildly scary (such as a confrontation with a wicked sorceress queen), the book as a whole tends to plod, its events coming across as variations on tales told many times before. To an extent, of course, Maxwell does this deliberately, as homage to the 19th-century stories he used as models. But The Faerie Door finally seems less to be inspired by tales of long ago than to make its way by simply replicating elements of those stories – and not always their cleverest or most interesting aspects. It is, in fact, almost-heroic if not quite heroic fantasy, following clearly in the footsteps of E. Nesbit – whose works, however, are neither as long as The Faerie Door (which runs 471 pages) nor as portentous.