September 29, 2011


Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea: A Fairly Fabricated Story of a Pair of Pants. By Tony Johnston. Illustrated by Stacy Innerst. Harcourt. $16.99.

Lives of the Writers: Comedies, Tragedies (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Sandpiper. $12.99.

Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Sandpiper. $12.99.

     Real stories – or, well, stories about real people – are entertainingly presented in all these books. But it helps to take one of them, Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea, with several grains of salt. This is nominally the tale of the man who invented blue jeans during the California gold rush of 1848-55. Uh…well…no – jeans did not emerge in the form in which we know them until 1873. But still, just as the West spawned tall tales about characters ranging from Paul Bunyan (who wasn’t real) to Calamity Jane (who was, but was not at all like the person described in the stories), Tony Johnston and Stacy Innerst create a jeans story that reads like a tall tale rather than a recitation of facts. In truth, it is a tall tale, deliberately laced with enough humor and ridiculousness to make the factual elements more enjoyable (for readers who can sort them out). So the gold rush was real enough; but Johnston explains that miners’ pants couldn’t handle the stresses of the search for gold, and rapidly disintegrated: “That predicament started another, lesser-known stampede – the Great Barrel Rush, in which the miners swarmed a barrel man and bought up his wares.” Uh…well…no, but this could have happened, maybe in some alternative universe where “hunks of trousers clogged the streams and rills and rivulets.” Then along came Levi Strauss, who frequently said “Dang!” when he realized, for example, that he was too late to get any of the gold. He set out “to build a better trouser” from, for example, tree bark or blankets. Uh…well…no, but he did make pants out of tent canvas, although he was not the first to do so (the inventor is unknown; but Levi Strauss was the first to mass-produce the pants and market them successfully). Anyway, soon Levi’s tent-canvas pants were so popular that the barrel-clad miners chased after him in “the Great Pants Rush.” Uh…well…no, but you get the point: there are bits of truth here, mixed with larger bits of fantasy and silliness. Innerst’s amusing illustrations have just enough of a folk-tale quality about them to complement Johnston’s writing neatly. And Levi’s eventual disposition of the no-longer-needed barrels – he uses them to build San Francisco – is pure folkloric ridiculousness. Johnston explains, in an afterword, some (but not all) of the liberties he takes with the truth in the book – and none of his comments diminishes the delights of the story in the slightest.

     Lives of the Writers does not misstate or even exaggerate things. But Kathleen Krull’s book – originally published in 1994 – focuses on trivia and offbeat elements in the lives of 20 writers (12 men and eight women). This is a motley crew indeed: Krull never explains how or why she chose this particular group. Shakespeare is here, along with Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Jack London. But putting them into a mix with Zora Neale Hurston, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Murasaki Shikibu (about whom one of the few known facts is that Murasaki Shikibu was not her name) is rather hard to explain. This literary compilation is a decidedly personal, even quirky one. It is also great fun to read. The trivia-laced biographies are only a couple of pages long apiece, but each contains noteworthy tidbits: Cervantes “had a lifelong stutter, bad teeth, and arthritis.” Hans Christian Andersen, “when he was feeling especially melancholy…would get bad toothaches (even – after he lost all his teeth – in his false teeth).” Emily Dickinson, who may be “the most mysterious and eccentric of all writers,” became ill but “allowed the doctor to examine her only from the next room; he would watch her walk past the doorway.” Whenever Mark Twain “went bankrupt, he would do another lecture tour to make his money back.” These are the sorts of “factoids” that humanize writers who tend to be put on pedestals by teachers, librarians and literary critics. Krull does not demean the writers in any way – each short chapter ends with a brief “Bookmarks” section that gives straight information on the author’s legacy. But she is well aware that she is giving a skewed view of these literary lights. Kathryn Hewitt’s illustrations do much the same thing: each shows a writer in a more-or-less-appropriate costume, with an enormous head (nearly as big as the rest of his or her body) and engaged in an appropriate activity or appearing in appropriate surroundings. The illustrations are sometimes a touch at odds with the words: Krull notes that “few people ever saw [Edgar Allan] Poe smile,” for example, but Hewitt shows him with a distinct twinkle. Furthermore, some of Krull’s narrative is questionable: to choose another Poe example, she comments that he sometimes wrote, for magazines, jokes that “weren’t very funny,” but she does not mention that he wrote more funny (or intended-to-be-funny) stories than horror tales. Still, Lives of the Writers does not pretend to be more than a once-over-lightly look at some less-known elements of the lives of writers of varying degrees of fame. Taken at face value, it is fun to read and fun to look at, and some of the revelations in it are just plain funny.

     The same is true of Lives of the Musicians, originally published in 1993. The cover gives a fair idea of just how eclectic this book is: it depicts Mozart, Beethoven, Clara Schumann, Scott Joplin and Woody Guthrie. Actually, of the 20 musicians here, 17 are from the realm of classical music, the three exceptions being Joplin, Guthrie and Stephen Foster. But anyone who thinks classical composers led lives of little interest will be surprised by the facts that Krull offers. “Bach loved food and coffee (once he wrote a whole cantata about coffee). Among his most prized possessions were two silver coffeepots.” “When [Beethoven’s] clothes became too dirty and disgusting, his friends took them away during the night and brought new ones. Beethoven never noticed the difference.” “The roar of approval [for the opera Nabucco] was so loud that Verdi was frightened – he thought the audience was booing.” Brahms “smoked cigars constantly and usually wore a shabby brown coat with cigar-ash smudges all over it. …He kept his pockets filled with candy and little pictures, which he handed to neighborhood children on his walks.” As with the writers’ book, this one represents Krull’s personal selection of people to profile, and not everyone will agree with her choices. Also as in the writers’ book, Hewitt’s illustrations, although highly attractive, are not always in accord with the text. One chapter, for example, opens “Was there ever anyone so unhappy as Peter Tchaikovsky?” But the picture on the facing page shows Tchaikovsky looking very distinguished, quite well-dressed and, although not smiling, certainly not with any expression bespeaking unhappiness. On the other hand, Hewitt’s picture of Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan is a gem, communicating both the puckish humor that pervades their operettas and the uneasy personal relationship between the famous collaborators. As for Krull’s text, it sometimes ventures into areas with which even musicologists or well-read listeners may not be familiar – for example, with a comment that Charles Ives’ cat, Christofina, ate asparagus. Both this book and the one about writers manage at the same time to skim their subject matter and to make it intriguing enough so that readers will want to learn more about these famed creative people – and, hopefully, familiarize themselves with the works that brought them renown.


Animal Planet: Incredible Journeys—Amazing Animal Migrations. Kingfisher. $19.99.

Animal Planet: My Life in the Wild—Cheetah; Penguin. Kingfisher. $9.99 each.

Animal Planet: Weird and Wonderful—Attack and Defense; Show-offs. Kingfisher. $12.99 each.

     Pick your age range, pick your topic, and you can pick up an Animal Planet book to fit your preference. Preteens (ages 8-12) get Incredible Journeys, an oversize book crammed with foldout pages the size of posters – and crammed as well with spectacular photographs of animals migrating across the Serengeti, through the Arctic, across the oceans and beneath the waters. Amazing Animal Migrations shows journeys with which TV viewers have long been familiar: those of Monarch butterflies, zebras, whales and more. But there are less-known migrations here as well – those of the European eel and Mexican free-tailed bat, for example. The text here is minimal, with most information in short paragraphs or communicated through tables, lists and diagrams. The primary point is the photographs, which, not surprisingly, are spectacular: locusts swarming (and also seen in closeup), flamingos launching themselves into the air, dozens of garter snakes raising their heads in unison from their den, a wolf pack separating a mother caribou from her calf, humpback whales breaching, a huge colony intermingling penguins and elephant seals, and much more. This is a book to marvel at, and also one in which surprising facts peek out from among the photos: “People used to think zebras were white with black stripes. In fact, they have black skin and white stripes.”

     At the other end of the age range for the latest Animal Planet offerings, My Life in the Wild is intended for kids ages 4-8. The approach here is first-person, or rather first-animal: Cheetah and Penguin are both “narrated” by the young animals whose lives the books describe. “Our ears prick up as we hear a cheeping sound,” the young cheetah tells readers. “It’s Mom, back from the hunt with our dinner.” In Penguins, the text explains, “My life begins inside an egg. Mom catches me on her feet. …If she drops me on the ice, I will freeze!” The simple narratives make it easy to follow the animals’ stories, but again it is the photos (which take up most of the room on the pages) that are the main attraction here. Instead of including a variety of facts within the story, the My Life in the Wild volumes put them at the end, in a section called “Did You Know?” This is where the homey stories get a firmer scientific grounding. “Female cheetahs leave their male siblings at around two years of age and set up their own territory, called the ‘home range,’” for example, and “Penguin calls can be heard from 0.6 mile (1 km) away.” Young readers then get to “meet the family” of each animal profiled. The cat family, for example, includes the margay, serval and lynx, while the penguin family includes the gentoo, chinstrap and fiordland types, among others. Attractive books that simplify animals’ life stories effectively, the My Life in the Wild volumes are both easy to read and informative.

     For kids ages 6-10 – more or less between Incredible Journeys and My Life in the Wild – there is an Animal Planet series that goes for the unusual. Weird and Wonderful looks at what the series describes as “astonishing animals, bizarre behavior,” although of course the animals and their lives are strange only to human perception. These books are somewhat more sensationalized than the other new Animal Planet releases, with sections called “little monsters” and “shocking hunters” in Attack and Defense, and “dressed to impress” and “scare tactics” in Show-offs. Once again, the pictures are the main attraction here, but now they are selected for dramatic value as well as information: an emerald tree boa with wide-open mouth showing its long, fanglike teeth; a Burmese python with a death grip on a Siamese crocodile; army ants swarming over a doomed scorpion; a vampire bat with open mouth – pictured atop the sentence, “Vampire bats sometimes feed on human blood!” Those examples are from Attack and Defense. In Show-offs, things are a bit milder: “The blue-tongued skink surprises attackers by poking out its alarmingly colored tongue.” “The male emperor moth has the best sense of smell of any animal.” “To impress females and frighten rivals, male alligators make a deep rumble, like silent purring, then bellow loudly.” Even with the less-intense text, though, the photos are bright, punchy, and intended to intrigue, from a closeup view of the nose of the male elephant seal to a look at the bright blue of a mandrill’s buttocks. All these new Animal Planet books are designed to pull young readers into a world of visual brilliance, intrigue them with stories of surprising or outlandish (to humans) behavior, and – hopefully – get them interested in more-sober science and animal studies in the future. But whether or not the books produce adult animal lovers or animal scientists, they certainly help familiarize young readers with the visual wonders of the creatures with which humans share the planet.


3:15, Season One: Things That Go Bump in the Night. By Patrick Carman. Scholastic. $12.99.

3-D Thrillers! Bugs and the World’s Creepiest Microbugs. By Paul Harrison. Scholastic. $4.99.

     The approach of Patrick Carman’s new book is either a stroke of genius or an insult to readers everywhere. It has become common for books, especially book series, to include multimedia elements. In fact, Carman contributed to one such sequence, writing The Black Circle, the fifth book in The 39 Clues – an ongoing series that encourages readers to collect and trade cards and also spend time online obtaining new clues and gathering additional facts about what is going on. However, 3:15 goes a step beyond this by requiring readers to use multimedia elements. The book itself most closely resembles a murder mystery with the last few pages torn out: none of the 10 stories here has an in-book conclusion. The tales, which are sort of creepy in a predictable way, are essentially the middles of stories. Readers go online and enter a password (given in the book) to get an audio introduction to each story. Those intros are not really necessary to understand the tales or figure out what is going on – they are more in the nature of scene setters, as in the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone television shows. Then the story itself appears in the book, up to but not including the climax. For that, readers must again go online, to the same Web site (, and this time enter a different password (also given in the book). The second password of each story leads to a video clip that shows the reader what happens at the end. Actually, the videos don’t show very much – no blood and gore, and only modest implications of awful things occurring – but the point is that the book is completely valueless without use of the online elements. Now, that’s new. Whether it is good or bad is distinctly a matter of opinion. Other books with multimedia elements have made those elements optional: they enlarge a story, give more information, aid in understanding, provide additional background, and so on. But the outside-the-book aspects of the stories have not been crucial to the tales themselves. Here they are. Perhaps this packaging will appeal to young readers who spend far more time online than they do with books. But will it appeal enough to make them want to read the book elements at all? That is, for now, an unanswerable question. But certainly Scholastic, the publisher, is going all-out to make 3:15 attractive to reluctant readers: the cover and in-book introduction both point out that the series title refers to three elements (listen, read, watch) and to the fact that the total experience of each story, including all those elements, lasts no more than 15 minutes. Is this where books are going?

     Or are they going toward the same sort of 3-D mania that now afflicts movies? 3-D Thrillers! Bugs and the World’s Creepiest Microbugs is, on the face of it, a book of facts – but the facts are not what the book promotes. What is emphasized, through the layout and design of this thin paperback, is the three-dimensional element – the sense that the pictures “pop out” at readers/viewers who use the included red-and-blue-lensed 3-D glasses. The pictures of the many bugs and microbugs (which “you can see properly only under a microscope”) are of course blown up many, many times, so readers (with or without the glasses) can see every strange and presumably creepy part of each creature’s anatomy. There are lots of exclamation points in the simple text: “Some bugs have enormous eyes!” “Some bugs use their mouths to taste food, but many flies and butterflies use their feet!” “Some bugs eat other bugs, which is good news for gardeners!” As for the specific critters here, they range from mosquitoes, termites and locusts to nematodes, head lice and mites: “Not only do you share your bed with house dust mites, you share your food with food mites!” Certainly the bugs, whether they can be seen with the naked eye or normally only under a microscope, look weird in the much-blown-up pictures here, and certainly the sparse text gives some interesting facts about each critter. The main point of the book, though, is to provide visual impact – with the 3-D glasses intended to accentuate the strangeness inherent in the photos. The underlying idea seems to be to get young readers interested in some science facts by presenting them in the punchiest possible visual form. But whether readers fascinated by the pictures will even bother to read the facts, much less absorb them, is by no means certain.


Fateful. By Claudia Gray. HarperTeen. $17.99.

Dark of the Moon. By Tracy Barrett. Harcourt. $16.99.

The Princess Curse. By Merrie Haskell. Harper. $16.99.

     Werewolves on the Titanic! Why didn’t anyone ever think of that before? Maybe because it’s laughably outrageous, so absurd that it’s not worth thinking about? Well, maybe it wasn’t, but it is now – for now there is Fateful. It is not enough for Claudia Gray to reimagine the 1912 sinking of the White Star Line’s most famous ship – that, after all, has been done many times. Nor is it enough for her to use the Titanic as the setting for romance – again, that is an oft-told tale. Gray wants something more, and to find it, she merges the myths surrounding the Titanic (which, although certainly real and tragic enough, has long since passed into the realm of the imaginary, or at least reimagined) with those of the werewolf, suitably reinterpreted for today’s teenage readers. Gray’s protagonist is an 18-year-old maid named Tess, who is aboard the Titanic with her employers, the Lisles, from whom she cannot wait to escape after the ship reaches America. The plans Tess has been making are upended when she meets first-class passenger Alec, and the attraction is mutual – but it turns out that Alec has paranormal problems: he is being hunted by werewolves. Besides, there is something more than a little strange in his own background – a secret that readers will guess long before Tess learns it. Tess may be, in Edwardian terms, of the lower classes, but it takes her little time to adapt to what is going on and absorb traditional paranormal-fantasy methods of talking about it: “Before today, I thought [a future with Alec] was impossible, and for more reasons than I could count. But those reasons are falling like trees beneath the woodsman’s ax. The Brotherhood may lose any chance of having power over him, now that he has the Initiation Blade. If Alec can find someone else who knows the initiation magic, then he will be free from the need to change every single night. His life will become almost normal, save for once every twenty-eight days.” Of course, things are not so easy – not that Tess’s ideas sound simple. There are the usual plot twists and the usual heartbreak: “We kiss again, but now tears are swimming in my eyes and neither of us can bear it. I break away from him and walk out of the cabin without saying good-bye.” And there is, lest we forget, an iceberg in Tess’s future, and Alec’s. There is also a deadly enemy who survives the sinking and is overcome only at the novel’s very end. Fateful is formula romance throughout, its juxtaposition of werewolves and the Titanic being both its most absurd element and its only significant distinguishing feature. Genre fans will enjoy it, but it is scarcely a memorable book.

     Dark of the Moon twists old tales in a different way. It is a retelling of the story of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur, with Ariadne depicted as a 15-year-old princess who is destined to become a moon goddess; she is desperately lonely when Theseus shows up as one of the planned sacrifices to the monster – Ariadne’s brother. The Theseus legend, taken in its totality, has an unusual amount of resonance, even for modern readers, with Theseus eventually abandoning Ariadne on the island of Naxos and inadvertently killing his father by failing to switch the sails of his returning ship to white from black. And elements of that legend are retold at the end of Tracy Barrett’s book – as if they are erroneous versions of the “true” story told in the book itself. But the focus in Dark of the Moon is on the earlier part of the story, which is narrated in alternating sections by Ariadne and Theseus, who is 16. Ariadne has family issues involving the Minotaur (who in this book is not the offspring of Ariadne’s mother and a sacred bull), and Theseus has some of his own. Among them: “When Iason decided to take another wife, as was only to be expected of a ruler, Medea flew into a rage, and in her passion and fury she did something unspeakable. To punish her husband, with her own hand she killed her own children, hers and Iason’s. And this same Medea – this woman smiling across the table at me – this is my stepmother.” One thing that Barrett does in this retelling is to rethink the character of the Minotaur, whose name is Asterion: “Seeing him absorbed, I addressed Theseus. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Came to see the monster.’ I was lucky that Asterion was engaged in twisting the limbs of his new toy, or he would have been upset at my indignant gasp. ‘He’s not a—’ ‘I know, I know,’ Theseus hastened to assure me. ‘I know he’s not that. Anyone can see it. People call him one, though, don’t they? But I don’t think he’s so bad.’” Barrett transforms many elements of the story, emphasizing family connections and humanizing mythic figures to the extent possible, even when Ariadne becomes the Goddess or is possessed by her: “Far, far inside me, I was still Ariadne. I wondered what to do next; I worried that I did not know how to find my husband. …But mostly, Ariadne was gone. …I looked out over my people and felt a rush of love. They were so imperfect, and different one from the other, yet so similar. They were beautiful, even the old ones deformed with stiffening bones and the tall, young ones whose faces bore the angry red marks of youth. …Yet at the same time, they were hideous, because every one of them was dying. As I gazed at them, I saw rotting corpses, even the babies, even the rosy maidens and the youths hanging over them.” Dark of the Moon will be of most interest to readers already familiar with the Greek myth on which it is loosely based, for it is that myth that gives the book its resonance. The ins and outs of the story are interestingly enough told, but it is the unseen presence of the original mythic tale that lends this one a great deal of its effectiveness.

     Merrie Haskell’s debut novel, The Princess Curse, retells a myth of a different type – one that is usually called a fairy tale. It is the Grimm brothers’ story of the 12 dancing princesses, who mysteriously disappear from their bedroom every night and whose shoes are found to be worn through the next morning. In the Grimm story, the king declares that he will give a princess bride and his kingdom to anyone who can solve the mystery, but will put to death anyone who cannot do so in three days. Interestingly, and somewhat atypically for fairy tales, it is an older soldier who eventually figures everything out – and chooses to wed the eldest princess, since he is not a young man. Haskell makes of the story something quite different. Like many Victorian editors of the Grimms’ tales, she drops the put-to-death element; she replaces it with a kind of “Sleeping Beauty” notion – that anyone who interferes with the princesses falls into an unending sleep. And Haskell turns the tale into the story of an apprentice herbalist named Rebeka, who is 13 years old and wants the promised financial reward from undoing the curse so she can move to a convent and have her own herbary: “I would have all the time I was supposed to be devoutly praying to think about herbs.” Here, the older soldier of the Grimms’ story is Konstantin, Rebeka’s father (the girl’s mother died shortly after giving birth to her), and the tale is told with more humor and fewer sexual implications than the original. It is also made into a Romanian story, with some Romanian vocabulary and a comment that Konstantin was serving in the army of Vlad Ţepeş (known nowadays as Vlad the Impaler and thought to be the model for the vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) when Rebeka’s mother became pregnant. Haskell’s transformation of the tale makes it more remote and exotic than the original Grimm version, and her focus on Rebeka provides an opportunity for some levity and even outright humor. So far, so good. But Haskell also tries to turn The Princess Curse into a rather serious coming-of-age book involving questions of good and evil, life and death; and there is romance here, too. There are explanations of herbal medicine as well: “The whole of betony [woundwort], from root to flower, is medicinal, and it is good for fevers, spasms, peeing more, peeing less, high blood, bad stomachs, worms, flatulence, excessive bleeding, and even wounds.” And there is a “Beauty and the Beast” metamorphosis of the story that is not really convincing, along with elements of the myth of Persephone. The many ingredients of Haskell’s novel do not always blend smoothly, but they are mostly enjoyable in their own right, and Rebeka comes across as more than the typical spunky-and-energetic young teen encountered frequently in books for ages 10 and up. The Princess Curse ends with more than a hint of a possible sequel, and plenty of readers will look forward to it.


Jeffrey Ryan: The Linearity of Light (2003); Equilateral—Triple Concerto for Piano Trio and Orchestra (2007); Symphony No. 1—Fugitive Colours. Gryphon Trio (Annalee Patipatanakoon, violin; Roman Borys, cello; Jamie Parker, piano); Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey. Naxos. $9.99.

Hubert Howe: Clusters (2010); Inharmonic Fantasy No. 2 (2007); Timbre Study No. 7 (2008); Pi (2011); Macro Structure 2 (2006); 19-Tone Clusters (2010); Groans (2007). Ravello. $12.99.

Axiom: Music of Michael Boyd, Joo Won Park, Israel Neuman, Liviu Marinescu, Jay C. Batzner and Peter Van Zandt Lane. Navona. $16.99.

Neil Thornock: No Stopping, Standing, or Parking; Traptalk; Syncrasy; All the Goods Are Stolen; moon garden; Fractured Compound. Navona. $16.99.

William Vollinger: Raspberry Man; Emmanuel Changed. Juventas Ensemble. Navona. $9.99.

     Music has always been intended to communicate something, but what it transmits from composer to listener has changed dramatically over time. Even the notion of program music, intended to convey a specific story or specific emotions, has changed significantly, reaching a point in many modern compositions at which it is necessary for listeners to know what the composer wants them to experience for the music to make any sense at all. And as what music communicates has changed, how it communicates has changed as well, through the use of new musical language, new instruments, and new concepts of what the very word “music” means. Only one of these new CDs more or less meets the traditional definition of classical music, but each of them is intended to use music of some sort – under some type of definition – to communicate in some way.

     The composer here who comes closest to using traditional classical models is Jeffrey Ryan (born 1962), who was composer-in-residence for the Vancouver Symphony for five years and remains closely associated with the orchestra. This is one of Canada’s fine and underrated regional orchestras that is likely to be heard more often on the new Naxos Canadian Classics series, in which the Ryan CD is the first issue. Most of the music on the CD is light-inspired, not connecting sound with light in the manner of Scriabin (who had synesthesia) but using light as a formative element of the sonic environment. The Linearity of Light does this in a specific way, by trying to use pitch combinations to suggest the brightness of light. This is not a completely unheard-of approach: as far back as the Classical era, certain keys were considered “brighter” (C and D major, for example), while others were considered “darker” (the minor keys), and composers chose keys and constructed their music accordingly. But those “dark” and “light” concepts were not tied specifically to perceived light – they were emotional labels as much as anything. Ryan actually tries to make the audience see or experience forms of light through his choice of pitches and instruments. A willing audience will likely perceive (or at least try to perceive) things much as Ryan wants it to, although listeners unaware of the work’s structure would have no particular reason to associate it with brightness. Ryan’s first symphony, Fugitive Colours, is light-inspired in a nearly opposite way, being based on the notion of colors that fade when exposed to light. The work’s third movement is actually called “Light,” while the second and fourth are labeled with colors (magenta and viridian, respectively). Whether audiences unaware of Ryan’s structural principle will find anything particularly blue-green about the finale, for example, is doubtful. The extent to which the first movement (“Intarsia,” a knitting technique involving multiple blocks of color) makes the others more coherent is also arguable. Ryan handles his orchestral forces well, and there are a number of interesting instrumental effects in this symphony, which (like all the music here) is played with strength and close attention to detail. But only people who know in advance of the symphony’s intended connection with color will likely react to it on the basis that Ryan desires. The third piece on this CD, paradoxically the most emotionally complex and the easiest for audiences unacquainted with its underlying foundation to appreciate, uses the same forces that Beethoven employed in his Triple Concerto: violin, cello, piano and orchestra. But Ryan’s work is less classically poised and more emotional and meditative, its elements of lamentation and joyfulness being clearly expressed and relatively easy (and satisfying) for an audience to respond to.

     Audience reaction will likely be very different to new Hubert Howe and Axiom CDs, which in some ways stand at opposite poles from each other. Howe, professor of music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, is an unreconstructed and unapologetic computer-music creator. The titles of the seven works on the new Ravello CD are interchangeable, really – except for the title Pi, which ties into the work’s length (exactly 3.14.16 minutes). Howe’s explanations of his music sound much like those given by electronic and aleatoric composers in the middle of the 20th century. Inharmonic Fantasy No. 2, for example, he says, is “based entirely on sounds containing inharmonic partials, that is, overtones that do not so much create a timbre for the sound as they create a kind of cluster above the fundamental.” As for Clusters, it is a piece in which “the overtones are all clusters of five-note chords duplicated through three to four octaves above the note. In other words, harmony becomes spectrum.” Will any listeners actually hear any of this in the music? A few, perhaps, but certainly not many. This is music written for Howe himself and for other initiates into his approach, more than for listeners in general; the works tend to come across as shimmering soundscapes without any particular momentum or direction.

     In contrast, the six composers on the Axiom CD offer six different styles and a wide variety of influences. As in any anthology, their works bear little relationship to each other – the disc will be of most interest to people who want to hear something of what their local region is producing (Jay C. Batzner from Dubuque, Iowa, for instance, and Michael Boyd from the Baltimore/Washington area). Boyd offers Bit of Nostalgia… (including the ellipsis in the title); Joo Won Park has a Florida orientation with Gainesville Soundscape; Israel Neuman present Turnarounds; Liviu Marinescu takes a firm-for-this-group classical approach with Bach Variations; Batzner goes for the abstruse in Blue Jaunte (whispers of Gouffre Martel), whose title refers to pioneering speleologist Édouard-Alfred Martel; and Peter Van Zandt wraps things up with Triptiek. The works have little in common thematically, harmonically, structurally or technically; each composer brings a different sensibility to his piece. What each communicates, and how effectively, will depend entirely on resonance – not the resonance inherent in the scoring or instrumentation, but that between composer and listener.

     Neil Thornock draws on multiple influences for his music and offers a variety of ways of connecting his musical thoughts to the audience. There is electronic music here, but also orchestral and instrumental music, and Thornock seems as comfortable writing for a chamber ensemble as for a saxophone quartet. The titles of his works show that they are clearly intended to make listeners see or feel specific things. Syncrasy, for example, has as its title a non-word that is part of “idiosyncrasy,” and includes two movements called “Helix” and “Clunk.” Amusing – but how exactly does Thornock want listeners to react to the piece, and how will listeners react to its strictly aural (rather than verbally explained) impact? In what different way will listeners hear moon garden, whose title uses no capital letters, in comparison with Fractured Compound, whose title does use them? Thornock absorbs inspiration from many sources and surely intends to present what he has felt or experienced to listeners: No Stopping, Standing, or Parking, for example, is a response to and interpretation of highway travel. To communicate in a variety of ways, Thornock not only writes in different genres but also uses a range of instruments, from flute to keyboard. But whether the messages he intends to put forth are the ones that listeners will take away is by no means certain; it is not even clear that it matters all that much, provided that these works evoke some response.

     William Vollinger, on the other hand, wants something very specific from those who hear Raspberry Man and Emmanuel Changed. These pieces, like Thornock’s, take off from real-life occurrences, one involving a man who made a loud raspberry noise outside a New York bar and the other about a troublesome chorus student. In both cases, Vollinger uses lyrics to guide audience response: Raspberry Man is for narrator/singer with flute, clarinet, two pianos and two percussionists, while Emmanuel Changed is for narrator, saxophone and piano. Vollinger’s idea is to take the first impressions that he had (and that the audience would likely have had) of each person profiled, and change those reactions by imaging the subjects’ personalities and the motivations that could have led them to behave as they did. Vollinger does not get into deep or musically extended territory here – the whole CD runs only 13 minutes – but he tries, within two short-form pieces, to guide listener response in clear ways. The words certainly help: they provide an anchor that is altogether missing in, for example, the work of Howe. Listeners will nevertheless have very different reactions to what Vollinger has produced, depending largely on how deeply involved they become in the narratives and how interested they are in the subject matter in the first place. In a sense, all musical communication is always different from person to person; but in the works of contemporary composers, the whole notion of shared experience seems different from what it once was, with audiences not necessarily hearing the same thing at all when they listen to these works – whether the color-inspired ones of Ryan, the amorphous ones of Howe, the more classically based ones of the Axiom composers, the wide-ranging ones of Thornock or the carefully directed ones of Vollinger.

September 22, 2011


Jumanji. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

Tuesday. By David Wiesner. Clarion. $7.99.

Folk Tale Classics: The Gingerbread Boy; The Three Billy Goats Gruff. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99 each.

     Good things hold their value. That includes good children’s books. Each of these four has been around for at least 20 years – and each proves, in a new edition, to be just as enthralling as ever. Jumanji, first published in 1981, brought Chris Van Allsburg the first of his two Caldecott Medals (the second was for The Polar Express, published in 1985). The handsomely produced new 30th-anniversray edition of Jumanji provides a chance for adults to rediscover, and their children to discover, a story that is part fairy tale, part role-playing game, part Indiana Jones adventure (not that 21st-century kids will pick all those elements up). The story is actually pretty simple: bored kids find a box containing a board game whose instructions warn that the game will not be over until one player reaches the goal – a city called Jumanji. It turns out that this jungle-themed game has the mysterious power to make all the descriptions of events happen in the real world: land on a square that describes a rhinoceros stampede, and you get one at home; land on one about a lion attack, and a lion materializes and chases the player unlucky enough to have called it up. This is a sort of The Cat in the Hat for older kids: all sorts of mischief takes place while the parents are out, the entire house is left in shambles, but by the time the adults return, everything is normal and there is no evidence that anything was amiss (because siblings Peter and Judy have in fact played the game through to the end). The amusing absurdity of the premise stands up well after three decades, and Van Allsburg’s excellent black-and-white drawings are as effectively atmospheric as ever. And there is a neat bonus in this 30th-anniversary edition: a CD of the text read by Robin Williams, who starred in the film version of Jumanji, made in 1995. The film was only so-so, but the book was a treat when first published and remains one today.

     So does another Caldecott Medal book, Tuesday, first published in 1991. David Wiesner’s story is even simpler than that of Jumanji, and is told almost without words. There is magic here, too: the book starts on an apparently ordinary Tuesday, when the lily pad on which a frog is squatting suddenly becomes airborne, to the delight of the frog – and the other frogs nearby, which also find themselves aloft. Wiesner draws the frogs and other characters in the book in color and very realistically, but gives them human and often exaggerated expressions: a frog’s joy at flight, a turtle’s alarm as the lily pads pass overhead, a man’s puzzlement as he sees (or thinks he sees) frogs flying past his kitchen window, and at the end – well, the end suggests that it is not only frogs that can fly unexpectedly. But that’s another story for another Tuesday. This particular Tuesday is all fun, all the time, and the new paperback edition is a delight from start to finish.

     Jumanji and Tuesday are original, modern folk or fairy tales, and they stand up quite well in comparison to the much older tales that Paul Galdone (1907-1986) retold and illustrated in a series of attractive books. The Gingerbread Boy (1975) and The Three Billy Goats Gruff (1973) are now available in new editions, and they are fun to read and very pleasant to look at. Galdone’s illustrations provide the stories with quite a few elements of humor – for example, the horse’s wide-eyed expression as it chases the gingerbread boy, and the enormous nose and flyaway hair of the bridge troll who threatens the goats. The stories themselves are told pretty much in traditional form. The pileup of people and animals chasing the gingerbread boy is well narrated and well pictured, and the troll’s threats and eventual comeuppance (he is head-butted into the river) are both effective and funny. There is a little “snip, snap” to both books, too. In The Gingerbread Boy, Galdone writes, “Snip, Snap, Snip, at last and at last he went the way of every single gingerbread boy that ever came out of an oven.” And in The Three Billy Goats Gruff, Galdone ends the story with, “So snip, snap, snout,/ This tale’s told out.” Concluded it may be, but both it and its companion folk tale bear rereading and re-enjoying visually, too, thanks to Galdone’s skill with both the old words and his new pictures.


The Smartest Portfolio You’ll Ever Own: A Do-It-Yourself Breakthrough Strategy. By Daniel R. Solin. Perigee. $22.

Into the Storm: Violent Tornadoes, Killer Hurricanes, and Death-Defying Adventures in Extreme Weather. By Reed Timmer with Andrew Tilin. New American Library. $15.

     The worst part of Daniel R. Solin’s book is the subtitle: there is nothing “breakthrough” about his strategy. The second-worst part is what he, like other authors of investment books, conveniently omits: does he follow his own advice, and if so, how has his personal portfolio performed over the past several years, decade or more? But just about everything else in The Smartest Portfolio You’ll Ever Own (which hopefully he owns as well, as in “do as I do, not just as I say”) is intelligent, straightforward, and very close to common wisdom. Or would be, if wisdom were common and if people paid attention. Not to keep anyone in suspense: Solin, a senior vice president of Index Fund Advisors, recommends investing in…index funds. And not just any index funds, but well-diversified ones with low expenses, including but not limited to ones from Vanguard and iShares. There is really nothing new here, but Solin’s emphatic presentation of his material – and his insistence on boiling down every short chapter to a nugget of wisdom called “What the Point?” – lead to a punchy presentation that may well get through to people who have ignored longer, denser arguments whose bottom line is the same. What Solin does is demolish a series of investment myths (“the excellent company,” holding individual stocks or bonds, and others), then discuss “the right focus” and show specifically how to apportion your holdings according to your comfort level with risk. He is not the first to do this and will not be the last. But he is knowledgeable enough and entertaining enough to make his lessons go down easily. In “What You Can Really Learn from Dr. Doom,” for example, he details errors by economics professor Nouriel Roubini, then points out that “Roubini is not alone in making bad predictions.” In “The Myth of Skill,” he refers to studies that “are powerful evidence of the lack of skill of actively managed mutual funds (where the fund manager attempts to beat a given benchmark).” In “Taxes and Costs: Stealth Enemies,” he explains the huge gap between before-tax returns (which are what funds report) and after-tax returns (which are what investors receive), and shows how much more efficient index investing is than investing in actively managed funds – and how ETFs (exchange-traded funds) are even more tax-efficient. And in this chapter, he returns to a recurrent theme that, he says, “bears repeating: Avoid all calls from brokers at the firms you decide to use to purchase your ETFs. They will try their best to lead you astray!” Solin is, understandably, a strong advocate of Vanguard funds, which are low-cost, efficient and excellent at tracking the indexes to which they are tied. But he recommends different allocations to these funds – and, separately, to alternative portfolios that he offers to investors with slightly different priorities – based on each person’s risk comfort: low, medium-low, medium, medium-high and high. He also shows, historically, how the various proposed portfolios would have performed, in bad years as well as good. It really is a shame that he doesn’t say which of them, if any, he personally uses. But Solin’s basic advice on how to manage the turbulence of the stock and bond markets (and other investments) is extremely sound, his presentation is both breezy in style and serious in tone, and his overall set of recommendations – emphasizing after-tax returns and diversification based on the different focus of various index funds – is an excellent one for investors with the discipline to follow it and avoid the overwhelming “noise” that unendingly accompanies stock-market reporting and commentary. Alas, Solin must leave it up to investors to find that discipline for themselves.

     The excitement of stock-market investing often runs away with people and their money. The excitement of storm chasing is of a different sort: more dangerous physically, less so financially. Most people will be content to watch stories about violent storms on TV, not needing to experience the heavy weather for themselves – in contrast to investors, who (like it or not) expose themselves to daily Wall Street storms and, if they are not cautious and unemotional along the lines Solin recommends, can quickly find themselves whipsawed by events over which they have no control…and poorer as a result. Of course, Reed Timmer (star of Storm Chasers on the Discovery Channel) has no control over the storms he chases, and he deliberately runs toward rather than away from them – but he makes money doing this (ever since, as he recounts in Into the Storm, he first sold tornado pictures to a TV producer for $500). Timmer’s book is intended for Timmer enthusiasts and storm enthusiasts: it includes a certain amount of science, a certain amount of autobiography, and a fair amount of self-aggrandizement. Timmer, whose enthusiastic and dangerous storm-chasing methods are controversial, has only enough self-awareness to denigrate those who disagree with him: “My hard-charging, predatory style for intercepting storms is very different from the approaches taken by some influential chasers who came before me. I’d argue that my fanatical methods represent an evolution in storm chasing.” Be that as it may, Timmer does a creditable job introducing science, history and science history into his recounting of his personal adventures, although the way he fits elements together can be a little creaky: “The roof, as is usually the case when a big tornado strikes a house square, was the first to go. Credit the Bernoulli effect, named after the eighteenth-century Dutch-Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli. Bernoulli was a master of fluid mechanics, and one of his discoveries (‘Bernoulli’s principle’) helps explain why fluid, when flowing horizontally over a given object’s top surface faster than it flows over its bottom surface, creates a pressure difference – there’s lower pressure on the top surface than the bottom surface.” Timmer fans may wonder by this point what happened to that tornado-hit house. But they will likely stick around for the stories in chapters such as “Blown Back” and “Just the Trouble I Needed,” which Timmer tells entertainingly and with considerable gusto. The eight pages of color photos, including one of the “Dominator” storm-chasing vehicle, will be a big plus for fans as well. Of less interest will be what passes for introspection, as when Timmer seems uncertain, even in retrospect, of his own reactions to a day on which he gets great footage of a tornado but cannot sell it to anyone, because other storm chasers and local TV stations have footage of their own: “That day, part of me cared a lot that I didn’t sell my incredible footage. I needed the money, and badly. …This was a rare day where I just didn’t care to fight. I’d been so amazed by the storm’s many personalities and moments that – destruction of the house aside – I enjoyed filming the storm just for me. Too bad I didn’t return home from that chase with any sales. But I did have lots of memories.” Those interested in Timmer’s memories will find this (+++) book a pleasant enough journey through them, but may be distracted by Timmer’s forays into meteorology and history. Those more interested in the science of storms and in weather phenomena in general may find Timmer’s highly personal narrative intrusive. Into the Storm does not quite work as anything more than a book for storm fans and Timmer fans – but if you are among those, you will not find it disappointing.


The Last Apprentice, Book Seven: Rise of the Huntress. By Joseph Delaney. Illustrations by Patrick Arrasmith. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $7.99.

The Queen’s Thief, Book 4: A Conspiracy of Kings. By Megan Whalen Turner. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $7.99.

The Family Hitchcock. By Mark Levin & Jennifer Flackett. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     The paperback publication of two entries in long-running series provides a chance to revisit some interestingly created fantasy worlds, or visit them for the first time. The Wardstone Chronicles, a British dark-fantasy series being published in the United States as The Last Apprentice, has had eight U.S. volumes so far. The seventh, Rise of the Huntress, takes place after apprentice Tom and his master, the Spook, have returned from Greece to find their home burned to the ground – and with it, the Spook’s library of knowledge about the dark and how to fight it. Like the other books in the series, this one is intense and fast-paced, as Tom and Alice – who are now bound to each other by a blood charm that keeps the Fiend at bay, but only as long as they stay together and keep it close – are accused of witchcraft by a creature called an abhuman, then forced to deal with a buggane, “a demon that usually lurks near a ruin” but “can roam quite a distance from this central point,” and which sometimes appears as a huge bull, sometimes as a gigantic hairy man. Picking up some help along the way, as they usually do – from people who, as often happens in these dark works, are doomed – Tom, Alice and the Spook fight through the various dark forces until they eventually must confront and deal with a key evil character: Alice’s mother. Joseph Delaney’s books have distinctions that often earn them (++++) ratings, including characters with genuine depth, a sense of the ways in which duty and life itself can be compromised by ties that bind in unpleasant ways (such as Alice’s with her mother), and excellent Patrick Arrasmith illustrations in which the artist makes Delaney’s world come to life with considerable intensity. The drawings are particularly good in Rise of the Huntress. One simply shows a man – rendered eerie by the fact that the picture begins just below his waist and ends at his nose. Another is the head of a woman, her lips sewn together – it looks like a severed head, although readers soon learn that it is not. Another shows a tree, its black branches covered with black birds. And for contrast, there are such pictures as a mundane one of food and drink upon a table. Delaney paces his books well, and includes enough lore about denizens of the dark to give the stories a feeling of underlying solidity, if not reality: “A buggane takes the animus, the life force of a human, and stores it at the center of its labyrinth. …It whispers, it threatens, then it sucks out the animus and kills its victim, but we don’t know why.” The wonders of these books – most of them frightening – make for harrowing reading and considerable excitement.

     The adventure is of a different sort in The Queen’s Thief, a four-book series named by its fans rather than by author Megan Whalen Turner. The first three books – The Thief (1996), The Queen of Attolia (2000) and The King of Attolia (2006) – set the scene in a time period more or less like that of ancient Greece, but in a civilization that has produced such modern inventions as rifles, glass windows, telescopes, cannons and printed books. The central character is Eugenides, the Thief of Eddis, but in A Conspiracy of Kings, the focus is equally on Eugenides’ friend, Sophos, heir to the throne of Sounis – who has mysteriously disappeared. It turns out that he has been sold into slavery, a state of affairs with which he finds himself surprisingly content. Eventually, though, he escapes, assumes his land’s throne, and turns to Eugenides for assistance in securing his kingdom. A Conspiracy of Kings, which gets a (+++) rating, follows reasonably well from the three previous books, and somewhat expands their canvas by refocusing a good part of the story on Sophos. But it is not, in and of itself, an especially interesting book – the plots and counterplots, battles and conspiracies have a quality of formula about them. Still, fans of The Queen’s Thief sequence will enjoy this addition to it.

     The Family Hitchcock, a hardcover that reads like the start of a new series, is an adventure of a lighter sort, with some fairly mild mysteries that are quite obviously hinted at by giving the family that particular name. This (+++) book is all about a European vacation gone awry, as the Hitchcocks do a house swap with a French family named the Vadims (surely a reference to French film director/screenwriter Roger Vadim: first-time novelists Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett are husband-and-wife moviemakers and TV writer/producers). Pretty much everything that happens here is surprising in an unsurprising way: the Vadims turn out not to be the people they seem to be; strangers show up, uttering threats and demanding a mysterious object; there are family troubles, including financial matters that led to the house swap in the first place; and there is the usual sort of bickering, such as this father-and-daughter exchange: “He turned back to Maddy. ‘You ask him. You’re the French speaker.’ ‘I’m also the girl who just told the driver to speed up. I’m the C-minus student, remember?’ ‘Because you don’t apply yourself.’ ‘Because I’m not into it.’” Readers who like this kind of dialogue will find plenty of it here. Husband Roger and wife Rebecca are estranged and may even be in the process of planning a divorce – a worry, of course, for son Benji and daughter Maddy – and the parents are, in their bumbling way, trying to solve the mystery alongside their kids: Roger “didn’t want to jeopardize the gains he had made with his wife that afternoon and evening. But when the first screw [of the cabinet] came loose in his fingers, he dropped it on the kitchen counter and moved right on to the next. Yes, an otherwise fine day had taken a sharp turn into the world of scary and strange. But now that he was taking action, he couldn’t stop.” Action is the main point here – there is nothing really interesting about anyone in the Hitchcock family – and the story piles unbelievability upon unbelievability until, by the time the family tells it to someone at the American Embassy, it sounds as ridiculous as it is. But of course it is all true – the two sets of Vadims, the mean dog, the man atop the Eiffel Tower, and all the rest of it, including the not-explained-until-the-very-end vial of MGF that lies at the heart of the whole story and that is unbelievable as everything else in the plot. The Family Hitchcock is not quite a romp, not quite a mystery, not quite a spy story, but is an attempted combination of the three genres. It never quite works in any of its guises, but young readers looking for some enjoyable (if easily forgettable) entertainment will have fun with it.


Thrive Foods: 200 Plant-Based Recipes for Peak Health. By Brendan Brazier. Da Capo. $20.

Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally. By Alice Feiring. Da Capo. $24.

     Many of today’s recipe books are advocacy books in disguise. Sometimes barely in disguise. Thrive Foods is Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier’s attempt to persuade readers to adopt a plant-based diet, not only for themselves but also for the world as a whole. Boxes called “Thrive at a Glance” appear intermittently in the book, giving lists of statements intended to connect the way individuals eat with the condition of the planet as a whole. A short one of these, with only three entries, begins, “Our fresh water supply is dwindling”; continues, “Producing animals for food requires more water than producing plants for food”; and concludes, “Industrialized animal agriculture pollutes large amounts of scarce ground water.” A longer box, with eight entries, starts, “The burning of fossil fuel releases CO2 into the atmosphere” and works its way to, “For the average American, switching to a plant-based diet would prevent more CO2e [carbon dioxide equivalent] from being released into the atmosphere than by [sic] eliminating driving altogether.” These arguments for plant-based eating are somewhat novel, but their connection to the health arguments that are more usually put forward (including in the book’s subtitle) is not readily apparent. And the rather strident political tone of the “Thrive at a Glance” boxes will likely be a turnoff for readers more interested in dietary advice and experimentation than in adopting Brazier’s personal sociopolitical viewpoint. Those who already share his feelings will, on the other hand, nod their heads and agree with his positions from start to finish – and are therefore more likely to pay close attention to the book’s recipes. They will also likely go along with some Brazier statements that are, at best, arguable: “Energy derived from good nutrition – cost-free energy – does not take a toll on the adrenal glands and so doesn’t need to be ‘stoked’ with stimulating substances.” (Aside from the dubious medical statement here, “cost-free energy” would be the equivalent of perpetual motion: consumption that burns more calories than it takes in.) As for the recipes themselves, they are mostly simple and fairly straightforward; many are unlikely to be anything that people preferring a plant-based diet have not tried already. Puréed white bean soup, smoothies of several types, candied grapefruit salad, guacamole, fresh fruit strawberry jam – these are scarcely surprising. Some of the dishes, though, are a bit more complex and interesting: summertime succotash with creamy rosemary-garlic sauce, beet ravioli with basil macadamia ricotta, West African yam and bean patties, BBQ red bell pepper kale chips, quinoa pilaf with Swiss chard and lemon, and others. Thrive Foods is unlikely to convince many people to adopt a plant-based eating regimen, except for people who find themselves instantly comfortable with Brazier’s worldview; but for those who already prefer a plant-based diet, there will be at least some recipes worth trying here.

     If Thrive Foods is for a relatively small audience, Naked Wine is for an even smaller one – although food-and-wine journalist Alice Feiring believes its ranks are growing. “Naked” wine is neither more nor less than wine made from grapes alone, without any of the 200 or so additives that the U.S. government has approved for use in creating it. The additives have value, which Feiring knows but downplays: some help preserve the beverage, some make the speed of wine production more predictable, some change the texture or color, some enhance (or are intended to enhance) the flavor. But Feiring argues that oenophiles find wine without the additives much preferable, despite its not-always-predictable flavor and inconsistent availability. Casual wine drinkers will find a lot of Feiring’s arguments rather arcane, and some of the discussions with winemakers rather abstruse: “‘You know, Alice, I don’t like sulfur. In the wine I make from the Fukuoka vineyard, there’s none at all. The wine is completely pure, but sometimes you have to add sulfur. Do you know that some people who are very vocal about not using sulfur use a particular enzyme called lysozyme?’ He laughed and shook his head. ‘The people who manufacture that stuff say that carbonic maceration users are their main customers in the wine industry.’” The interest in “naked wine” is part of a larger-scale movement arguing that anything “natural” in foods is inherently better than anything processed or manipulated by manufacturers – a movement peopled largely by individuals with the time and money to indulge in their predilection for the esoteric. “‘Carbonic is not the only way, Alice, just one. You see, inside the vintage, there is no dogma. When you work without sulfur, you must work very carefully, very cleanly, and work with nature. If you change your regions, you must adapt your ways of working. You have to notice everything. You cannot adapt if you follow a recipe.’” Wine lovers wondering what the naked-wine movement is all about, wanting to be part of it, or already taking part in it and wanting to hear extensive comments on its intricacies from other aficionados, will enjoy Naked Wine. Others are likely to find it to be much ado about not very much.


Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer. Matti Salminen, bass; Ricarda Merbeth, soprano; Robert Dean Smith, tenor; Silva Hablowetz, mezzo-soprano; Steve Davislim, tenor; Albert Dohmen, bass-baritone; Rundfunkchor Berlin and Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

     Operagoers and at-home listeners may be forgiven if they think of The Flying Dutchman as Wagner’s first opera, since it is the earliest one performed with any frequency. But it is really his fourth. Die Feen had Wagner doing Marschner better than Marschner did himself; Das Liebesverbot was a kind of Wagnerian take on Rossini; and Rienzi, a long and difficult opera that deserves to be heard more often, was quite deliberately written in the manner of Meyerbeer. Then came The Flying Dutchman, the first opera in which Wagner began to establish a style of his own, complete with early use of a leitmotif approach to themes. PentaTone plans to release 10 Wagner operas from now until 2013, the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, and has started with a remarkably fine live recording of a concert performance of The Flying Dutchman, conducted by Marek Janowski and recorded in outstandingly clear and wide-ranging SACD sound.

     The Flying Dutchman is not as tightly knit as Wagner’s later operas and is more traditional in form and characterization; it is not quite the “music drama” that later operas would be. But it is filled with elements of later Wagner that are striving, as it were, to escape from their developmental chrysalis. The magical, fairy-tale-like relationship between Senta and the Dutchman looks ahead just as surely as the folksy tunes of the Steersman and the girls with their spinning wheels look backward; the chorus of Daland’s sailors is from an older operatic form, while the response from the Dutchman’s crew – including two extended periods of silence – looks decidedly forward in creativity and eeriness. What Janowski does exceptionally well in this performance is make all the disparate elements into a coherent whole, giving The Flying Dutchman considerable scope and grandeur.

     The well-chosen voices have a lot to do with Janowski’s success. Matti Salminen’s dark bass lets him create a gruff, simple-minded but good-hearted Daland, a fine contrast to Steve Davislim’s light, almost airy tenor – which makes the Steersman barely more than a boy and helps explain how readily he falls asleep while on watch in the first act. In strong contrast to both is Albert Dohmen’s bass-baritone, with which he portrays a Dutchman genuinely tormented by his fate and railing against it with equal parts strength and impotence. Here there is a sense of the defiant captain who once challenged the Devil and earned centuries of unwished-for life – he is bowed but by no means beaten, for all that the weight of years lies heavily upon him. Dohmen makes the Dutchman a tormented but not unattractive character: there is power here as well as anguish. There is more power than usual as well in Robert Dean Smith’s performance as Erik: this is an unforgiving, one-dimensional role, with which it is difficult to do very much, but Smith’s Erik is at least a little bit more than a complainer. He seems to feel genuine anguish at Senta’s growing disaffection, although it remains hard to imagine what she ever saw in him.

     Ricarda Merbeth has a strong soprano and a near-hysterical manner as Senta, her performance teetering on the verge of a mad scene several times but always barely pulling back. She is clearly a woman on the edge (in strong contrast to mezzo-soprano Silvia Hablowetz, who makes a kind but rather simple and thoroughly overmatched Mary). Merbeth’s intensity in singing the Dutchman’s legend is a match for Dohmen’s own strength in recounting his plight, and it is clear from their separate deliveries of elements of the story that they are destined to be together. Their actual meeting is, as a result, almost an anticlimax, except that their intermingled voices bring the story to an even higher pitch of near-ecstatic intensity, just as Wagner intended.

     Add to all the fine soloists some excellent choral singing – the contrasting ships’ choruses in the third act are particularly good – and very fine playing by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, with Janowski keeping a firm hand on the proceedings throughout, and you have a truly outstanding version of The Flying Dutchman, with the added attraction of a strong, solid, book-like package with the full libretto bound inside. The whole presentation creates substantial hopes for the nine other Wagner operas that Janowski will conduct and that PentaTone will release. The operas will not be presented in order of composition – the next one will be Parsifal, the composer’s final work and a particularly difficult opera to present effectively in our highly secular age. Still, if Janowski can make The Flying Dutchman seem as unified as he does in this recording, he may well find an equally creative and musically valid approach to Parsifal and, thereafter, to Wagner’s other great music dramas. Certainly this excellent release raises Wagner lovers’ hopes to a very high level.

September 15, 2011


The Magnificent 12, Book 1: The Call. By Michael Grant. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $5.99.

The Magnificent 12, Book 2: The Trap. By Michael Grant. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Six Crowns, Book 1: Trundle’s Quest. By Allan Jones. Illustrated by Gary Chalk. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $5.99.

     Preteens are luckier than teenagers when it comes to heroic fantasy: they get it with a dose of humor. Before the hyper-serious teenage years, with their angst and worry reflected in fantasy novels, the preteen years (ages 7-12) allow some amusement to be mixed with all the derring-do. Sometimes a lot of amusement. Maybe even too much amusement. It depends on your tolerance for this sort of thing. The Magnificent 12 has a very high amusement quotient; in fact, Michael Grant’s series is far less about plot than about twists and turns. The underlying idea – put forth in The Call, originally published last year and now available in paperback – is that a completely average 12-year-old possesses enlightened puissance (written in italics) and is therefore one of a dozen 12-year-old heroes destined to fight the Pale Queen and prevent her from asserting evil rule over, well, everything. Or something like that. The plot really doesn’t matter much, being mostly an excuse for totally average Mack MacAvoy to have adventures in which he is not totally average after all…accompanied by 15-year-old Stefan Marr, onetime bully and now friend…and advised by Grimluk, age 3,000, who appears to Mack in the shiny chrome pipes of bathrooms and offers admonitions, warnings, help, all that sort of stuff. You can see where this is going.

     Well, no, actually you can’t, which is why The Magnificent 12 is fun. Because Grant does not feel obliged to pay much attention to the niceties of plot or characterization, he is free to produce a romp, taking Mack and Stefan and others in pretty much any direction he chooses. The Call fills in the quest’s background in alternating chapters while moving Mack’s story forward. So we get a little bit of Grimluk’s tale: “This put Grimluk in a rather embarrassing situation. He’d opened his big mouth and announced that he had something he’d never seen and wouldn’t recognize if he tripped over it. And every tear-brimmed eye gazed at him now with hope and anticipation.” And then some of Mack’s: “‘Hey, I’m not flying anywhere!’ Mack said. ‘I’m going home to kick the golem out of my bedroom and call the FBI or whatever and tell them what’s happening.’” And on and on: “Grimluk had seen some ugly in his life, but this was more ugly in one place, all together, than he could ever have imagined.” “Risky’s head was hanging by a thread. Her sharp hands melted to reform her own fingers. (Well, Mack assumed they were her own.) And then, to Mack’s utter horror, Risky, her head horizontal, smiled and said, ‘Ooooh, that pinched.’” And so on, into The Trap, where it turns out that one of the magnificent 12-year-olds is a dragon – whose father is the Dragon King, and is given to heroic pronouncements: “‘The Pale Queen rises again. And who will stop her now? Long has she waited and plotted and prepared. Her allies are many. Her powers great. Her evil without limit. And her foul daughter has come fully into her own.’ Still no question. But Mack was amazed to hear all this. Because it was kind of convincing when you heard it from a spectral bathroom apparition. But it was really, really convincing when you heard it from the King of Dragons.” The telling, more than the tale, is the attraction here, and although Grant does tend to overdo things a bit, piling action on action and event on event to such an extent that it can be hard to keep up with everything, The Magnificent 12 manages to remain enjoyable pretty much all the time – simply because it refuses, absolutely refuses, to take itself, its characters, its plot or the conventions of its genre seriously.

     The Six Crowns pays more attention to those conventions, but Allan Jones too leaves plenty of room for humor – and in the case of Trundle’s Quest, first book in the series, Gary Chalk’s detailed illustrations add a great deal to the humor. The heroic characters here are not humans but hedgehogs, and the setting seems like a small-scale version of Tolkien’s Shire: a little town called Shiverstones, where Trundle lives simply and quietly until Esmeralda shows up at his house one night. She informs Trundle – quickly, because she is being pursued by pirates at the time – that he is destined by prophecy to join her on a quest to find the Six Crowns of the Badgers, icons of power that have the ability to unite the Shattered Lands (which are shattered because, according to legend, a once-round world was smashed into separate pieces by a tremendous explosion in the dim past). Trundle’s Quest, undertaken unwillingly (as usual) by the timid (as usual) hero, leads the partners into a whole series of perils, from which Trundle usually escapes through luck more than skill; and eventually into dismal mines that are worked by slaves whom Trundle promises to help – an impossible task that, at the end, he fulfills in appropriately explosive fashion. Oh…and if it hadn’t been for the mines, the first of the crowns would never have turned up. So there’s more of that “luck” element. By the end of the book, one crown in hand (or in paw), Trundle and Esmeralda have been joined by a squirrel named Jack Nimble and are headed – with the pirates in pursuit – toward their next adventure. The story is simple and fast-paced, with plenty of amusing byways (such as a store called “Honesty Skank’s Gold Star Pawnshop,” where an important plot element not surprisingly turns up). The first book of The Six Crowns sequence is scarcely challenging reading, but it is both amusing and exciting enough to have preteens eager to follow Trundle and Esmeralda through what is sure to be, eventually, a successful quest.