October 25, 2012
Mutts: A Shtinky Little Christmas. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Stupid Ancient History. By Leland Gregory. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
You Are Old: Sobering Affirmations for Your Rapidly Disappearing Life. By “Dr. Oswald T. Pratt” and Scott Dikkers. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Gross America: Your Coast-to-Coast Guide to All Things Gross. By Richard Faulk. Tarcher/Penguin. $13.95.
Back in 1997, Patrick McDonnell created a wonderful Christmas fable for what was then a rather new comic strip, Mutts. It involved the discovery by Earl the dog and Mooch the cat, the strip’s two central characters, of a little lost kitten that Mooch decided to call Shtinky and Earl wanted to name Puddin'. So the kitten became Shtinky Puddin' and the three animals had some modest but amusing cold-weather adventures until they all became stuck outdoors in a snowstorm and had to be rescued by a certain white-bearded gentleman in a bright red coat who sported a most un-Santa-like hat. This is the story retold 15 years later in a lovely small gift book called Mutts: A Shtinky Little Christmas, and it is just as charming now as it was when McDonnell first wrote and drew it. The Mutts strip has become more of a “cause” comic over the years, sometimes a bit too much so, but it retains the warmth and gentle amusement of its early days a great deal of the time – and this little book, a seasonal delight that readers can enjoy all year, shows just what made the strip great in its early years and why it so often retains the ability to touch readers’ hearts today.
The attitude that readers will have toward McDonnell’s characters and story is clear from those elements themselves, but lesser writers seem determined to tell readers what their attitudes should be…even if the words of the writers are at odds with what they want readers to feel. Thus, Stupid Ancient History, despite its title, is really not stupid at all. In fact, this (+++) book contains fascinating insights into the mores and interests of ancient Greece, Rome and other civilizations – presented, unfortunately, with a sense of smirking superiority that is designed to make readers feel “better” than those of an earlier time and “above” them. This is ridiculous, and not in a good way: it represents ridicule of civilizations that were, of course, very different from our modern Western ones, but that made many of the best elements of the modern world possible. And in fact, some of the most remarkable things in this book were not stupid at all. For example, there are numerous examples given of the famous graffiti discovered written all over Pompeii, the town that was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. It is fascinating, not stupid at all, to learn that the walls in a gladiator barracks contained such messages as “On April 19th, I made bread” and “Antiochus hung out here with his girlfriend Cithera,” and to learn that the wall of one house bears the writing, “Satura was here.” On a different level, it is amusing but certainly not stupid to learn that King Tut’s tomb contained a royal toilet seat and to discover the belief that well-played flute music could cure snakebites – this may be wrong but is surely no stupider than many folk beliefs still held today. Indeed, many of the supposedly stupid things in this book are wise, such as the comment in a book by a Greek physician that a wet nurse should not drink, because it could lead her to “leave the baby untended or even fall down upon it in a dangerous way.” There is little stupid in Stupid Ancient History, and little that deserves laughter from modern readers – even though Leland Gregory insists that that is an appropriate response.
Yet the attitude that Gregory seeks is superior to that sought by Scott Dikkers, supposedly writing with the fictitious “Dr. Oswald T. Pratt,” in You Are Old. There is certainly nothing wrong with jokes about aging – provided there is also nothing wrong with jokes about religion, skin color or ethnicity. Oh, those are off limits? Then that is one issue with this book: it attempts to make fun of things that are unfunny and is, perhaps more to the point, unkind in the way it goes about what it does. It is easy to say “oh, that’s just a joke,” but jokes can be so mean-spirited that they lose all or most of their humor, as do many of the “affirmations” here. “Your muscles are like dry and brittle string beans,” writes Dikkers. And: “Why would your children invest in a dying generation?” And: “Are you in a nursing home now. Look out the window. What do you see? Nothing, because you’re old, and you can’t see.” And: “Nobody respects you. Nobody disrespects you either, which is worse, because you aren’t even crossing their mind. You’re just some old person.” Page after page of this, and nothing but this, make this 122-page book seem much, much longer, although a few of the cartoons (such as “the devolution of a pony tail” – it turns into a bun) are amusing enough to gain the book a (++) rating. Really, for whom is this book intended? Dikkers is former editor-in-chief of The Onion, which sometimes overshoots the mark but generally has pretty good aim in its satire. You Are Old doesn’t bother to aim at all – it is a scattershot piece of unrepentant, poorly written nastiness that has less dignity than it ascribes to all the elderly. Presumably Dikkers never intends to be among them, as his pages recommending suicide suggest.
Gross America is better, funnier, and more pointed, earning a (+++) rating as a guide to odd attractions in 26 states and the District of Columbia. These museums, roadside stops and other things and places are not always “gross,” even if that is how Richard Faulk wants readers to think about them. Much of the time they, like the thoughts of the ancient Greeks and Romans, are simply interesting in a very offbeat way. There are, for example, the “vampire redwoods” of California, which have colorless leaves and weak trunks and live by feeding parasitically on other trees, and the Berkeley Pit of Butte, Montana, a four-mile-circumference lake that represents the remnants of what was once the nation’s largest copper-extraction mine and is now an unplanned monument to ecological disaster. There are tin-and-lead nipple shields, seen at a museum in Louisiana and used in the 19th century to protect nursing mothers, and the largest collection of live rattlesnakes in the world, in New Mexico. Faulk writes about these and other attractions sometimes with tongue in cheek, sometimes with a certain degree of acceptance and even understanding, as when he says of the museum containing all the rattlers (and a number of other dangerous creatures), “The point is not to strive for purity, but to win some love for the whole maligned family of venomous animals.” Faulk includes information on visiting the various places about which he writes, and Web sites where readers can find out more – a nice service. The book meanders quite a bit, not only geographically but also in its approach to its material, which ranges from the overtly humorous to the reasonably serious to the wry: “Today’s surgeons may see themselves as the top guns of the medical profession, but it wasn’t so long ago that they were considered its bottom feeders.” Gross America combines elements of travel guide with ones of a trivia contest – not always successfully. But there is enough in it that is intriguing to provide a bit of thoughtfulness in readers, if not necessarily to inspire them to tour all the oddities that Faulk has ferreted out.
Wild Horse Scientists. By Kay Frydenborg. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.
A Strange Place to Call Home: The World’s Most Dangerous Habitats & the Animals That Call Them Home. By Marilyn Singer. Illustrations by Ed Young. Chronicle Books. $16.99.
Growing Up Muslim: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Islam. By Sumbul Ali-Karamali. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The scientists who study the wild horses of Assateague Island, which lies between Maryland and Virginia on the Atlantic coast, are certainly less prominent in the public’s mind than those who study, say, Mars. But even though the geography of Assateague is more fully understood than that of the next planet out from the sun, the lives of the horses were not for many years. Wildlife reproductive physiologist Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick has devoted decades to the horses, for a reason that readers may be surprised to learn: the animals are protected under federal law, but reproduce so quickly that without some form of management, they would quickly overwhelm their fragile environment. Dr. Kirkpatrick’s search for humane equine birth control, and the careful charting of the horses’ lives by his colleague, Dr. Ron Keiper, are the heart of Kay Frydenborg’s Wild Horse Scientists, an unusual and fascinating study of the men who have spent decades learning about these horses – and of course about the animals themselves. With pauses in the narrative for discussions of horse color, size and hormones, the book takes readers through the unusual and fascinating details of life and death on the fragile island, including a whole series of marvelous photos: one shows a horse carrying a whole flock of birds, which eat the biting insects that otherwise torment the herd; some show fights between wild stallions; one shows just how close Assateague is to the tourist attractions of Ocean City, Maryland; one shows a helicopter hovering above mounted cowboys rounding up wild mustangs; and there are many others. Watching the horses interact with humans who come to see them is interesting in itself: some of the horses are quite at home wandering among car bumpers in a parking lot. Assateague is not idyllic – the weather runs to extremes and the insects can be brutal – but the horses (112 as of January 2011) have found ways to cope with their unusual life circumstances and location, and the study of how humans have helped them do so is an intriguing one from start to finish.
Assateague Island is a harsh environment for life, but it is ease itself compared with some of the places where animals live and flourish. A Strange Place to Call Home visits some of the most difficult places for life on Earth, and discusses the animals that survive and even thrive in them – and does so in a very unusual way, through the poetry of Marilyn Singer and wonderful collage illustrations of Ed Young. This is an informative book with exceptional entertainment potential as well – quite a combination. Some of the difficult environments discussed here will not be a big surprise to young readers, since the animals themselves are familiar: mountain goats on mountain tops and camels in the desert, for example. But then there are less-known creatures that live in very harsh circumstances indeed: ice worms that survive “beneath the glacial ice,/ helped by their own antifreeze,” for example, and blind cave fish: “Who needs vision/ as long as this world remains/ so wet/ so dark?” The tube worms that thrive near deep-sea hydrothermal vents are here, and so is the humble limpet that clings to life where tides rise and fall: “In other words, its thing/ is mightily to cling.” Then there are environments that seem ordinary enough to humans but can be quite challenging to animals: mangrove trees, where strange fish called mudskippers climb out of the water onto roots and rocks; and cities, where urban foxes “find it/ full of plenty – but plentiful/ in risk.” There are even petroleum flies, which hatch in pools of oil. To make the book still more interesting, Singer creates her poems in multiple formats, from haiku to sonnet to villanelle, and explains at the book’s end which poems are written in which forms (she also refers readers to a Web site with further explanations – a nice touch). A Strange Place to Call Home is quite an amazing book, a highly creative mixture of text and illustrations that showcases a variety of unusual environments and the animals that inhabit them – while also drawing attention to how the author writes about the subject!
A very different sort of explanatory book, Growing Up Muslim deals with a wholly human issue, religion, as Sumbul Ali-Karamali, who holds a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African studies and has taught there, tries to present the basic tenets of her faith to young Americans. Ali-Karamali – who would not be permitted to study, much less teach, in some Muslim societies – repeatedly goes out of her way to show that Islam is much like other religions: “Most of what Muslims should do or not do is the same as what people of other religions (or no religion) should do or not do. The rules of behavior in Islam have much in common with universal ideas of right and wrong.” She specifically discusses the ways in which Islam is similar to Judaism and Christianity, and offers a variety of old stories to explain differences such as differing holidays, prayer requirements and dietary restrictions. She personalizes whenever possible, as when she mentions that Milad an-Nabi “celebrates the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. I never realized it was a holiday when I was growing up.” She makes passing reference to issues that divide Muslims from others, as when she explains that it makes sense for non-Muslims to be prohibited from visiting Mecca or Medina because “in order to keep the crowds down, while allowing as many Muslims to perform Umrah [a pilgrimage] as possible, it does make practical sense (though it seems unfair) to exclude the people who do not need to be there for their religion and are coming only for tourism.” However, she carefully ignores the fact that this explanation is not put forth by the authorities that ban non-Muslim “infidels” from these cities. Everything in Growing Up Muslim is reasoned, careful, certainly non-threatening to those of other faiths. Ali-Karamali, who is from India, comments that Islam, “like most traditional religions, disapproves of physical relations between unmarried people,” and says that limiting opposite-sex contact is perfectly reasonable “to prevent men from taking advantage of women (and vice versa).” She says she never went to a school dance when growing up, and met her husband “at my summer job one year while I was in law school” – a place where, under many Muslim governments, she would not have been allowed to be (a fact she does not mention). “Islam itself has no rules saying that men and women can never interact,” Ali-Karamali asserts, but she ignores the power structures in many nations and portions of nations where such rules are not only made but also enforced in violent, grotesque and frequently gruesome ways. Except for an occasional aside (“in Saudi Arabia an extreme interpretation of Islam is implemented, one that’s not the norm in other Muslim countries,” “some Muslim extremists isolate the ‘fighting’ verses [of the Qur’an] and ignore both the ‘peace’ verses and the historical context, all so that they can justify warfare”), Ali-Karamali makes Islam out to be a reasonable, thoughtful, mainstream religion whose followers readily coexist with people of other faiths or of no faith at all. It is a very pleasant picture – but one very much at odds with the daily realities of the real world in the 21st century. Growing Up Muslim gets a (+++) rating: it answers many questions, but it evades and avoids many others, and will likely leave thoughtful young readers intrigued but deeply unsatisfied by all the things it does not say.
Red Roger to the Rescue. By Rianna Riegelman. Illustrated by Bill Schorr. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
My Brave Year of Firsts: Tries, Sighs, and High Fives. By Jamie Lee Curtis. Illustrations by Laura Cornell. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $16.99.
It is nice when entertaining books for young readers teach something at the same time, but the balance of enjoyment and instruction has to be well-handled to avoid the creation of something too preachy for children to pay attention. Red Roger to the Rescue leans more toward entertainment than education, with the sort of book design for which Accord Publishing is known: here, wheels and tires poke through holes drilled all the way through the book, so that every vehicle seems to have motion when the pages are turned – the tires “float” and therefore work for both left-hand pages and right-hand ones. Red Roger is a fire truck and “the town’s most trusted truck of all,” the town being Hubcap Hollow. But, Rianna Riegelman explains, “The town had grown much bigger than it had been in the past,/ And old Red Roger’s creaking wheels no longer moved as fast.” Adults will clearly see where this is going, but kids may not: Red Roger is not exactly put out to pasture, but he does need more mechanical attention (“his oil leaked, his ladder squeaked,” and so forth), and the town gets a brand-new fire truck that is almost twice Red Roger’s size, relegating Red Roger to the role of also-ran. But of course he does not stay there: the big new truck gets stuck on the way to a call (rather improbably being too big to fit through the end of an alleyway but managing to go through the first part of it). Luckily, the call is not a huge fire emergency – it is a cat stuck in a tree – so Red Roger has time to find out what is happening, get to the scene, rescue the cat, then help free the big new truck and prove himself still a hero. The message is clear: old things (and presumably people) are still useful and deserving of respect. And there is a second educational message, too: the last two-page spread shows the equipment on a modern fire truck (not Red Roger!) and explains how the sirens, gauges, hoses and other items are used. Bill Schorr’s pleasant illustrations go well with Riegelman’s text, and young readers will enjoy the somewhat over-simple story with its somewhat over-emphatic moral.
But the book is nowhere near as emphatic as My Brave Year of Firsts, which practically pounds its message about new experiences into kids’ heads on every page. There is a certain exuberance to the book, notably in Laura Cornell’s illustrations, but Jamie Lee Curtis lays things on very thickly indeed. Curtis’ poetry doesn’t quite rhyme and doesn’t quite scan, either: “The first time I rode a two-wheeler alone,/ I crashed and my mom filmed it on her iPhone./ I crashed and I crashed. Dad ran out of steam./ He let go, I went straight. Mom filmed as she screamed.” And the “PC” approach of the book is really a bit much: the first-grade classroom boasts “what I did last summer” essays such as “we opened an orphanage in Bosnia” and “my family started a sustainable living program and fair trade cooperative in Somalia.” Come on! Just how wealthy and politically correct are these first-graders and their parents? Curtis tries to balance positives with occasional negatives, such as this: “Not all firsts were fun. Some firsts were hard./ When I stole Zoë’s pencil, I couldn’t play in the yard.” And this, after telling her first lie (although it is hard to believe a first-grader has never lied): “I learned a first lesson, that to stand up and say/ I did something wrong starts to make it OK.” Most of what happens here is upbeat, though, with new friends, working in her father’s restaurant, taking ballet class, playing T-ball, being in “my first pony show” and trying truffles for the first time (oh yes, definitely upscale!), and so on. Families in the same economic, educational and political tier as the one in this book will enjoy it far more than will any with a different social or financial background or differing sociopolitical viewpoints.
Always October. By Bruce Coville. Harper. $16.99.
Scary School 2: Monsters on the March. By “Derek the Ghost” (Derek Taylor Kent). Illustrated by Scott M. Fischer. Harper. $15.99.
Invisible Inkling: Dangerous Pumpkins. By Emily Jenkins. Illustrations by Harry Bliss. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $14.99.
Expanded from his short story, “My Little Brother Is a Monster,” Bruce Coville’s Always October is a little thinner in plot than his best books but still contains plenty of fun and humor in the combination that his fans have come to know and enjoy. This is Coville’s 100th book, and he is nothing if not consistent (as well as, obviously, prolific). The story involves a baby left on the doorstep for Jake Doolittle and his mother to find; his mother’s decision to keep the child, identified by a note as Little Dumpling and thereafter called LD by her and Jake; and a discovery that would be unsettling in a book by anyone other than Coville: “In the crib where LD should have been, wearing the same yellow duckie pajamas he had gone to sleep in, lay a creature with bright green fur, the beginnings of a snout, and enormous pointed ears that curved over his head.” LD, it seems, is an LM…little monster. But never mind – he is still Jake’s brother, after all (in Coville, this sort of thing makes sense). Well, enter some other elements, notably including Jake’s friend, “Weird Lily” Carker, who hangs out with Jake in the local cemetery and won’t tell anyone about LD because she has a secret of her own, which involves the fact that she is living with her grandfather instead of in the foster home where she is supposed to be. And then there is Always October, which is not only the title of the book but also the name of a fantasy land created by Jake’s grandfather in a series of stories that are “weird and scary” and that Jake and Lily find they must enter to help protect LD and maybe, oh, save the world. The whole plot is bizarre and outlandish enough to pull young readers in and keep them intrigued, and the alternating narrations by Jake and Lily do a good job of providing somewhat different perspectives on events. The actual writing is the same throughout, though: the two protagonists are not particularly well differentiated. The monsters in the land of Always October, however, are differentiated, with some good and some bad and some just ridiculous. The book eventually turns on a Jewish concept called tikkun olam, which Jake points out means “repairing the world” and which his mother tries to live by “even though we’re Methodist, not Jewish.” By the time Coville gets to the epilogues – yes, there are two – all sorts of mysteries and transformations have occurred and everything has been put together neatly, as Coville usually does, including the fates of Keegel Farzym, Sploot Fah and various other oddly or aptly named characters.
There are characters galore in Scary School 2: Monsters on the March, which is also a combination of the slightly weird and scary with the amusing – and, also like Coville’s book, is for ages 8-12. The school is one where the teachers have a bad habit of eating the students and the students are mostly ghosts, ghouls or goblins anyway, so it doesn’t much matter. The storyteller is 11-year-old Derek the Ghost – or, well, 11-years-old-when-he-died-in-a-science-experiment-gone-wrong Derek the Ghost. In this second book in the series, the students of Scary School are about to collect their reward for winning the Ghoul Games: a trip to Monster Forest to meet the Monster King, King Zog. The Monster Forest is, well, a forest full of monsters: bearodactyls, fearsome pirates, a toad-faced princess, that sort of thing. The problem is that Princess Zogette falls for Charles Nukid and follows him back to Scary School, leading King Zog and Captain Pigbeard (Zogette's fiancé) to declare war on the school. In addition to Charles (the new kid at the school; hence his name), some characters from the first book who return are Penny the Possum, Principal Headcrusher, and Frank whose name is pronounced "Rachel.” And there are such new characters as Mr. Grump, the elephant-man teacher; Ms. Hydra, the seven-headed hall monitor; and Tanya Tarantula, a new student who is, yes, a giant spider. As in the first book, Scott M. Fischer’s art contributes a great deal to the amusement: his drawings of the characters make them funny, strange and just a little bit scary, which is also a pretty good description of the narrative.
One more light-and-slightly-scary book, for slightly younger readers (ages 7-10): Emily Jenkins’ Invisible Inkling: Dangerous Pumpkins. This one is set at Halloween, which fourth-grader Hank Wolowitz dreads because his big sister, Nadia, always manages to scare him. But maybe not this year, thanks to the invisible bandapat (that would be Invisible Inkling) living in Hank’s laundry basket. Now, it happens that Inkling loves pumpkins – not to look at but to eat – so he just adores Halloween. This is a problem for Hank, who really does not want Inkling eating all the pumpkins in Brooklyn. Hank also has to come up with a good costume and maybe get revenge on Nadia. As for Inkling: “Sometimes, it doesn’t matter that I can speak Yiddish and Mandarin – or that I’ve traveled the globe,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter that you humans have art projects and clean apartments. Sometimes, everything else in the world disappears but me and a pumpkin.” That clears it all up, right? Anyway, eventually there is a climactic scene in an elevator, with Inkling playing the part of a ghost and Hank figuring out a way to get Inkling more pumpkins while also learning that Nadia really cares about him…but at the same time getting revenge on her for all the scares of previous years. And so everybody learns something about family and pumpkins and even about ice cream, thanks to a Halloween-themed flavor called “loose tooth.” The book, a sequel to Invisible Inkling, does not make a whole lot of sense, but Jenkins tells the story with relish (well, not relish…ice cream…but you get the idea); and Harry Bliss provides illustrations that capture the characters’ personalities (including Inkling’s) quite nicely. Much sillier than it is frightening, Invisible Inkling: Dangerous Pumpkins will be more fun for readers of the first book than for ones who have not met Hank and Inkling before, although there is enough amusement here to please even people meeting this duo for the first time.
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble conducted by Marc Minkowski. Naïve. $41.99 (4 CDs).
Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5. Sinfonieorchester Basel conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Sinfonieorchester Basel. $18.99.
Honegger: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (“Liturgique”). Sinfonieorchester Basel conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Sinfonieorchester Basel. $18.99.
Schubert gets little respect as a symphonist. Oh, two of his symphonies get a lot of respect – the “Unfinished” and No. 9 (the “Great C Major”). But symphonies were not this composer’s strong suit in the way that chamber music and, in particular, songs were. Schubert had trouble getting symphonies finished – he started at least a dozen of them, meaning the “Unfinished” is not the only one deserving that title. Some contain fascinating and forward-looking elements, such as No. 10 (a partial work written, yes, after the “Great C Major”) and No. 7, which the composer completed in short score but of which he orchestrated only 110 bars (it is this symphony that is responsible for the confusion in numbering the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major”). The first six, written for amateur performance, are tremendously charming and jam-packed with melodic delights, but they have some awkwardnesses in construction and really give no hint of what was to come in later works (it is actually No. 7 that is the transitional work – a reason it deserves more-frequent performance in one of the several completions that have been made). Cycles of Schubert’s symphonies are at their best when they give the first six symphonies plenty of scope for lightness and melodic flair, reserving greater intensity and a stronger sound for the final two (assuming No. 7 is omitted, as it usually is). Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble get the contrast between the earlier and later symphonies just right, resulting in a beautifully scaled and delightfully played set that can be enjoyed as much for the warmth and lovely proportions of the earlier symphonies as for the profundities of the “Unfinished” and No. 9. Minkowski is equally adept at bringing home the Haydnesque elements of the first three symphonies, the Beethovenian ones of No. 4 (called “Tragic” even though it achieves only pathos), and the Mozartean feeling of No. 5. No. 6, now called “Little C Major” even though Schubert himself called it “Grosse sinfonie [Grand symphony],” takes on the role of transitional work here, in the unfortunate but typical absence of No. 7: Minkowski allows No. 6 a larger scale and grander presentation than the first five symphonies receive, but not at the level of the final two. He handles those as the pinnacles of Schubert’s symphonic achievement, which they indisputably are. The “Unfinished” gets a somewhat-slower-than-usual first movement, broadly and emotionally interpreted, followed by a somewhat-greater-than-usual feeling of the second movement being essentially its continuation (its tempo indication is virtually the same as that of the first movement – one of many Schubertian innovations here). As for the “Great C Major,” here Minkowski – whose orchestra performs on period instruments or replicas – adds woodwinds and a double bass to double some parts, creating a full, rich sound that portends that of Bruckner (for whom Schubert was a greater influence than is usually acknowledged). Minkowski’s emendations may strike some listeners as sacrilegious, but they do succeed in giving additional weight and gravitas to a work that remains thoroughly remarkable on all levels. The one real peculiarity – and irritation – of the Minkowski set is the way the CDs are set up: the first offers Nos. 3, 1 and 2, in that order, for no good reason; the second presents No. 5 before No. 4; and the third includes the “Unfinished” and then No. 6. This is just silly – the only disc that makes sense is the fourth, which is wholly devoted to No. 9. But these performances are so fine that the strange sequencing is only a small annoyance.
Sinfonieorchester Basel is not an original-instrument orchestra, but this large (100-piece) Swiss ensemble proves itself just as capable of lightness and elegance in early Schubert as Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. Sinfonieorchester Basel is yet another orchestra that has recently established its own eponymous CD label, featuring recordings of live performances, and the Schubert disc shows Dennis Russell Davies firmly at the ensemble’s helm and fully comfortable with the lilt and spirit of these early Schubert symphonies. The finale of No. 3 is especially exhilarating – it is marked Presto vivace, and Davies decides that means just what it says, conducting at a breakneck pace that a lesser orchestra might have had trouble maintaining. Sinfonieorchester Basel keeps up without apparent difficulty, and the result is a rousing conclusion to a work that is otherwise played with just the right light touch. No. 5, the most lightly scored of the first six Schubert symphonies, sounds fine, too, with Davies’ tempos slightly more deliberate than Minkowski’s but not therefore making this piece seem any more profound than the pleasant divertissement that it is. The pairing of these two particular symphonies is a trifle odd – why not Nos. 3 and 4, or 5 and 6, for example? But hopefully this CD will be just the first part of a Schubert cycle by Davies and Sinfonieorchester Basel – although the orchestra’s label’s use of live recordings means that further releases will depend on concert programs.
It would also be wonderful if the new Honegger CD from Sinfonieorchester Basel were the start of a cycle of this composer’s five symphonies. Honegger is Swiss, so perhaps the orchestra will pay more attention to him as a countryman than he generally receives. Unlike the Schubert pairing, the one of Honegger’s First and Third symphonies is intriguing, because the “Liturgique” is one of his best-known works, while No. 1 is almost never heard in concert. Honegger’s First, which dates to 1929-30, is a three-movement piece whose central Adagio is almost as long as the two outer movements put together. It will remind some listeners of Pacific 231, the composer’s best-known work, or of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 of 1924, with which it shares a similar sense of cacophony within structure. Honegger’s rhythms are stark and intense, the symphony’s sound generally dissonant, and the overall feeling is one of considerable percussion focus even though there are no kettledrums called for. In contrast, Honegger’s “Liturgique” (1945-46), although it too is dissonant and even stark in sound, deliberately contrasts the horrors of World War II with prayers for hope and peace – each of the work’s three movements is prefaced by words from the Requiem Mass. Honegger drives home the terrors of war repeatedly, even at the start of the final movement (“Dona nobis pacem”), allowing a sense of calm and resolution only at the very end. Sinfonieorchester Basel plays these works with knowing skill and idiomatic attentiveness, and Davies leads them with as much care and attention to detail as he provides to Schubert on the orchestra’s disc devoted to that composer. Both these Sinfonieorchester Basel releases are very worthy additions to the catalogue of their respective composers’ works, and mark a fine start to yet another top-notch label presenting the performances of yet another first-class orchestra.
Menotti: Violin Concerto; Barber: Violin Concerto; Theodore Wiprud: Violin Concerto (“Katrina”). Ittai Shapira, violin; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling (Menotti, Barber); Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neil Thomson (Wiprud). Champs Hill Records. $16.99.
Claude Baker: The Glass Bead Game (1982-83); Awaking the Winds (1993); Shadows—Four Dirge-Nocturnes (1990); The Mystic Trumpeter (1999). St. Louis Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin and Hans Vonk. Naxos. $9.99.
Alfredo Casella: Suite in C; Pagine di Guerra (“War Pages”); Concerto, Op. 61. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.
An interesting pairing of a brand-new American violin concerto with two that have become classics, Ittai Shapira’s CD of Menotti, Barber and Theodore Wiprud showcases a wide variety of moods. Menotti’s 1952 concerto is a restrained and lyrical work, with the intimacy of chamber music and a minimal amount of display – certainly none of the extended virtuoso pyrotechnics often heard in other violin concertos. The solo instrument frequently plays in its highest register, and a challenge for soloists – which Shapira meets quite well – is to prevent the solo line from sounding thin rather than songful. Barber’s concerto, first performed in 1942, has considerable subtlety as well, to such an extent that the man who commissioned it rejected the first two movements as insufficiently virtuosic. Barber subsequently added a short finale that is so difficult that it was at first deemed unplayable. The music radiates sincerity and personal expression, having in common with Menotti’s concerto an absence of unnecessary ornamentation or virtuosity for its own sake – although the emotional effects of the two works are quite different, and Shapira expresses those differences well. Theodore Wiprud’s “Katrina” concerto, of which Shapira gave the première in 2011, also seeks emotional involvement and release, but it is not at the level of the other two works. Wiprud’s piece is dedicated to the musicians displaced by Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in August 2005, but it is rather too obvious a tribute, from a first movement called “Les Bons Temps” that mixes classical and, of course, jazz elements, to a rather affecting second movement based on an Acadian song, to a finale called “Fly Away” whose vigor and final hopefulness are exactly what one would expect. The piece has its pleasant moments, and Wiprud (born 1958) handles the pervasive jazz influence nicely, but the concerto never quite gels either as an acknowledgment of tragedy or as an assertion of better times to come.
The emotional expression and musical forms are more varied in the work of Claude Baker (born 1948); indeed, listeners cannot really know what to expect from one of his works to the next. Two of his pieces on a new Naxos CD have literary tie-ins, but their structures are as different as the poems that inspired them. Shadows is a set of four fairly short movements that attempt to tie together musical expression with the pithy elegance of haiku and the short poems’ close focus on intimate details and snippets of particular moods. The Mystic Trumpeter is inspired by Walt Whitman’s poetry and consists of a very brief introductory movement followed immediately by a much longer second one, with elements of tone painting mixing with a variety of musical quotations. Such quotations – or, more accurately, evocations – are present as well in The Glass Bead Game, a kind of collage whose unusual movement titles reflect the music’s dreamlike and evanescent form: “Age of the Feuilleton,” “League of Journeyers to the East” and “The Glass Bead Game.” The work is more interesting analytically than emotionally, but its subtleties of orchestration are well handled. The fourth work on the CD, Awaking the Winds, is the least programmatic, being a single-movement piece that, aside from its evocative title, comes across simply as a late-20th-century tone poem employing typical composition techniques of its time. The St. Louis Symphony plays the pieces well, with Leonard Slatkin and Hans Vonk (who conducts The Mystic Trumpeter) bringing confidence and a sense of involvement to all the music.
Francesco La Vecchia is equally committed in conducting three world première recordings of music by Alfredo Casella (1883-1947). La Vecchia and Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma have been exploring a considerable amount of 20th-century Italian orchestral music recently, and unearthing some gems along the way. The three Casella works on a new Naxos CD are not quite of the first water, but each of them has interesting elements and all are well-constructed. The best of the three is the latest, simply called Concerto, which dates to 1937. Commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, this work was designed to highlight all sections of the ensemble, much as Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra would do in the following decade. Casella’s piece is more ordinary structurally and less involving thematically; nor does it give orchestra or audience a real workout unraveling its formal structure. Nevertheless, it provides a chance – which the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma seizes – to showcase warmth and expressiveness as well as out-and-out virtuosity in the various sections. Two of its movements draw on Baroque and Classical-era forms – a sinfonia and a passacaglia – and Casella’s Suite in C not only draws on such forms but is written in one. This is an early work, dating to 1909-10, featuring a traditionally formed Ouverture, followed by a very extended Sarabande and a lively if perhaps somewhat over-long Bourrée – fewer movements than in a Bach or Telemann suite, but partaking of the spirit of the old composers even though its harmonies are more modern and at times even Mahlerian. The third piece on the CD, War Pages, is essentially a musical interpretation of the mechanized warfare of World War I, dating to 1915-1918 and featuring five short movements set in Belgium, France, Russia, Alsace and the Adriatic. From a Cossack cavalry charge to the contemplation of a ruined cathedral, this is music intended to evoke specific pictures and emotions, which it does with moderate success. The CD as a whole is certainly worthwhile for listeners interested in hearing some 20th-century music that has not been recorded before, by a composer who was very much of his time but also strongly influenced by the forms of earlier centuries.
October 18, 2012
Stuck with the Blooz. By Caron Lewis. Illustrated by Jon Davis. Harcourt. $16.99.
Sleep Like a Tiger. By Mary Logue. Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.
One of these books starts with a little girl in bed and the others ends with one there, and both deal with the ups and downs of everyday life – and some creative ways of handling them. But there the resemblances end. Caron Lewis’s Stuck with the Blooz not only has a very Seussian title but also comes with some remarkably Seussian digitally painted illustrations by Jon Davis. Not that this is a tribute to Dr. Seuss, at least overtly – but the notion of translating “feeling blue” into a creature called the Blooz is one that recalls the good doctor. And the idea that the creature cannot be kept out by a very determined-looking little girl – but insists on tromping through the house, leaving squishy blue footprints everywhere, and being “very big and very wet and very blue” – is a Seussian one as well. The huge-nosed, oversize Blooz, which looks slightly like one of Al Capp’s Shmoos (but with a downcast expression), dribbles into the girl’s chocolate milk and squeezes into her lemonade – and if there were ever a perfect metaphor for just feeling blue, this dribbling is it. The determined girl, her posture and gestures and expressions reminiscent of those of Dr. Seuss’s characters, asks the Blooz questions to try to get rid of it – and, in another Seussian touch, one question is accompanied by a picture of an upside-down goldfish that looks downright imitative. The lesson here, which the girl learns bit by bit, is that you cannot talk the Blooz away, cannot feed the Blooz away, cannot tempt the Blooz with a blanket or pillow: “It just sat there, large and lumpy.” The girl eventually just accepts having the Blooz, slinks into her room with the creature (in identical postures), and hides (with the Blooz) under her bed. Then, gradually, she starts to do things – painting a picture, going outside to collect leaves, kicking the dirt, riding her bike – and slowly, although the Blooz is still there, the girl’s expression changes, becoming happier and more focused, until the bike hits a bump and the Blooz flies off, into the air, merging into “the brightest, bluest day” with a clear and beautiful sky. A book that teaches brilliantly by not seeming to teach at all, Stuck with the Blooz has Seussian sensibilities, for sure, but its mixture of sensitive writing and wonderfully apt art makes it a joy in its own right.
The art in Sleep Like a Tiger, which includes computer illustrations plus mixed-media paintings on wood, is immensely appealing as well: Pamela Zagarenski’s illustrations are fun to look at even without reading Mary Logue’s text. But they complement the text very well, too. The story is a simple one about a little girl who is just not sleepy – apparently a princess, given the crown she wears, the ones her parents wear as well, and the book The Little Prince that her mother holds on one page. The parents, whether really royal or imagined to be, move things ahead bit by bit: it is all right not to sleep, but put on pajamas; wash your face; brush your teeth; climb into bed. Still not sleepy, the girl asks whether everything sleeps, and her parents say yes, talking about the family dog and cat, and bats and whales, and snails and bears. Then the girl thinks about a tiger sleeping in the jungle; and then her parents leave the room (keeping the door open a crack) and say it is all right if the girl stays awake all night if she wants to. So the girl thinks about how animals sleep – dog, cat and so on – and by the time she thinks about the tiger, she falls asleep herself. The story is lovingly told, and the illustrations, particularly those of the whales, are beautifully done and fit the real-but-dreamlike milieu exactly as they should. This is a lovely bedtime book, with parents who handle the “I’m not sleepy” routine just the right way, and a little girl who learns how to put herself to sleep – and can teach the technique to other non-sleepy children who become involved in the story.
All Souls Trilogy, Book Two: Shadow of Night. By Deborah Harkness. Viking. $28.95.
The second books of trilogies are notoriously hard to write. They have to pick up in the middle of things and end somewhere else in the middle of some other things, all while tying back to what has come before and hinting at what will come after, but without giving too much away or taking too much for granted in terms of readers’ memories of earlier events. Shadow of Night is not quite as striking and brilliant as Deborah Harkness’ debut novel, A Discovery of Witches (whose title still remains unexplained as of the end of the new novel). But there is more than enough of the Harkness erudition, writing style, and sure-handed plotting to make readers happy.
Or almost enough. A Discovery of Witches ended abruptly, with a real cliffhanger in which witch Diana Bishop and her husband, vampire Matthew Clairmont (or de Clermont), step into the past to try to solve the mystery of a manuscript called Ashmole 782 while keeping themselves alive – something that is in doubt after Diana’s horrifying capture and scarring by another witch and Matthew’s near-death at the hands of fellow vampires. The two have transgressed and branded themselves by falling in love and marrying, this being forbidden by the Congregation, the nine-member group charged with enforcing the Covenant under which the three supernatural species (witches, vampires, daemons) do not intermingle in matters of procreation.
Shadow of Night picks up exactly where the first book left off, and many readers may need to go back to the earlier volume to figure out just what is going on, since Harkness rehashes the first novel only sparingly and incompletely. No wonder: even in a book of nearly 600 pages, she barely has enough space to include all the new things that happen and all the new people they happen to, much less to go over what has occurred already. Nevertheless, some readers will be thrown by the abrupt start of this book, and others by its relatively slow pace once it does get started: Harkness is a history professor, clearly adores her subject, and wastes no time in getting into minute details of life in the year 1590 – which does waste time in terms of getting back to the plot.
Still, the writing is so good, the descriptions of everyday events in the 16th century so well done, and the characterization of famous people with whom Matthew (who is 1500 years old) is on close terms is so intriguing that readers will be swept into the story even if it is not the story they were led to expect. Christopher Marlowe, Henry Percy, George Chapman and other noted Elizabethans make their appearance almost at once, their doings intermingled with those of a host of fictional characters and some that are both fictional and nonfictional – including Matthew himself, who as Clairmont is a fiction but as Roydon in Elizabethan times is known to real-world history. Harkness, in fact, does a better job of spell-weaving than does Diana. And therein lies a point worth making: the characters around Matthew and Diana are here often more interesting than Matthew and Diana themselves, who seem to have undergone personality transplants. Matthew, in particular, has changed from self-assured and urbane to indecisive and impulsive. Diana, for her part, has become somewhat shrewish, as when she remarks, “So far Matthew’s hasty decisions had not worked out well”; “There were times when Matthew behaved like an idiot – or the most arrogant man alive”; and, even more bitingly, “Matthew was taking charge, which meant that things were about to take their usual turn for the worse” – a statement that, for all its, umm, witchiness, is justified in this book as it was not in the prior one.
Yet the book still enchants, and it does move the story ahead, albeit in fits and starts. Readers will learn whether Matthew and Diana can in fact conceive a child; they will find out the nature of Diana’s powers (although the implementation of those powers is not entirely clear); they will discover just what the goddess Diana took from Diana Bishop in allowing her to save Matthew’s life; and, yes, they will find out what was in the three missing pages of Ashmole 782 and why the book was broken. As these bits and pieces are dribbled out here and there, the action flits back and forth between the 16th century and the 21st, in the latter of which the Congregation is trying to prevent Matthew and Diana from accomplishing their objectives while the Conventicle is trying to help them succeed (or make sure they have succeeded: language gets twisted when time travel is involved).
Shadow of Night is somewhat overly complicated, lacking the straightforward (although highly involved) narrative force of A Discovery of Witches. Indeed, readers would be well advised to start the new book at the very end, where Harkness thoughtfully provides a part-by-part list of the characters in Shadow of Night and indicates which are “acknowledged by historians” (although not necessarily as Harkness portrays them!). The book does indeed end right in the middle of a set of new things, and readers exhausted by the complexities of its structure may breathe a sigh of relief just before they start feeling frustrated by all the things that Harkness has left hanging while exploring the 16th century in such detail and with so much authorial enjoyment. It will be very interesting indeed to see whether the final volume of the All Souls Trilogy is written in the dramatic-adventure style of the first book or the wider-ranging and more discursive one of Shadow of Night – or perhaps in a style entirely different from that of either Book One or Book Two. Harkness is a remarkably skilled and entertaining writer, quite capable of turning a simple sentence into a tension-relieving, laugh-out-loud moment: “Gallowglass returned to Sporrengasse with two vampires and a pretzel.” If she seems to have entertained herself in Shadow of Night a bit more than strictly necessary, after entertaining and intellectually stimulating her readers quite thoroughly in A Discovery of Witches, she has certainly earned the right to some sheer enjoyment of revamped (pun intended) and reinterpreted history. In fact, it was probably inevitable in Book Two that Harkness would indulge herself a bit: she is a scholar of the work of John Dee (1527-1608 or 1609), and how could she resist dwelling on the time in which Dee lived and giving him a role in her story? In fact, Harkness herself discovered, in the real-world Bodleian Library, a long-lost treatise on magic that Dee once owned. In a world only slightly different from ours, that book could have been Ashmole 782. How could Harkness not revel in that slightly different world?
Her challenge in Book Three, though, will be the usual one encountered in the final book of any trilogy: to pull all the threads of the earlier books together and provide a satisfactory and satisfying conclusion. And Harkness will face an additional challenge as well: to find the right style in which to deliver the knitting-together and summing up. The evidence of Books One and Two is that she will succeed, and readers will be richer (and much better informed about history) as a result.
Coraline. By Neil Gaiman. Illustrations by Dave McKean. Harper. $6.99.
Gravediggers: Mountain of Bones. By Christopher Krovatin. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Whispering House. By Rebecca Wade. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Vampire Combat Manual: A Guide to Fighting the Bloodthirsty Undead. By Roger Ma. Berkley. $15.
Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained. By Oliver Doyle. Scholastic. $6.99.
Here, just in time for Halloween, we have one (++++) book and a batch of (+++) ones designed to be scary enough for the season and interesting enough to be read and reread throughout the year…or at least through the dark days of winter. The (++++) book is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, whose 10th-anniversary edition is illustrated by Dave McKean in some genuinely eerie ways – the picture of the “other mother” swallowing the key is truly nightmarish, and that of the “other crazy old man,” with a rat perched on his head, is chilling as well. But it is Gaiman’s text that continues to cause shivers after a decade of editions, animations and film interpretations. The heart of the story, which it takes Coraline some time to figure out, is: “I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?” Well, “what then” has a great deal to do with the almost-identical house that Coraline finds, complete with a much better mother and father and much better toys and much better neighbors and much more interesting life – and the horror she discovers underlying all of it. The scariness of the discovery, the way Coraline rescues not only herself but also the souls of three long-dead children, and the overall creepiness of Gaiman’s scene-setting, combine to produce a short novel (just 160 pages) that is far more effective than longer and more-elaborate books for young readers. Gaiman has a wonderful way of humanizing Coraline and expressing her fears and, after her escape, her sense of wonder at everyday things: “The sky had never seemed so sky, the world had never seemed so world. …Nothing, she thought, had ever been so interesting.” Indeed, this is a book that remains interesting, and more than interesting, after a decade – and many readings.
Other, newer books strive mightily for effects of this sort without ever quite attaining them. Gravediggers: Mountain of Bones is the story of three sixth-graders who become separated from their group during a class trip and find themselves confronting zombies and other frights. The three protagonists are types: Ian is athletic, impulsive and not overly thoughtful; PJ is mostly the opposite, nerdy and easily scared, devoted to his video camera, but with inner strength; and Kendra is smart, analytical and given to the sort of overdone language that some adults imagine smart young people use. The chapters are narrated by the three in turn, but there is not very much distinctive about the kids’ personalities, although Christopher Krovatin does try to make their styles different – it would have to be Kendra writing, “The forest is a pitch-black labyrinth, and the icy, persistent rain is destroying both our peace of mind and whatever morale is left among us, and so in our panic we almost don’t see our very salvation.” And Ian gets lines such as, “Please, oh man, let this be real.” And PJ, busy filming zombies, somehow also manages to be narrating, with such lines as, “Whoa, look at that one. How’s it moaning without a lower jaw?” All right, the whole setup is absurd, and the eventual explanation of what zombies are and how they are created is more absurd yet, but it doesn’t really matter, because “virus, curse, science, magic – it still means the dead walk the earth. Only two things are certain – one, they’re real hard to kill, and two, you’re a goner if they get you.” It ends up falling to PJ to figure out how to stop the zombies after Kendra’s intelligence leads to a major mistake (smart narrators tend to make big mistakes in books like this); and eventually the zombies are gone, the protagonists’ parents are enraged, and the three sixth-graders find out that they have now become “gravediggers,” which means zombie killers, which they have no desire to be but which they have to be in order to get to this book’s sequel – which will be coming up quite soon enough.
The Whispering House is a standalone novel, not the start of a series, and this is a ghost story rather than a zombie tale. It has the usual trappings: mysterious house, mysterious death, and a call from the past to a modern-day helper. That would be 14-year-old Hannah Price, who finds herself pulled into the life of Maisie Holt, who died at age 11 in 1877 and apparently wants Hannah to figure out what happened. Maisie’s book of fairy tales falls into Hannah’s hands when Hannah’s family moves into the house called Cowleigh Lodge, intending to stay for only a short time. The book unlocks secrets: Hannah draws a portrait of Maisie, the house seems to be moving back in time to what it was in the 19th century, and Hannah is getting messages – from Maisie, it seems – that do not allow her any rest: “I think I’m having her dreams,” Hannah remarks to her best friend, Sam. Rebecca Wade uses conventional ghost-story elements reasonably well (including a cat that refuses to come into the house as things get stranger, magnetic letters rearranged to spell “help me,” and so forth), and the notion of a house deteriorating into its past “self” is an intriguing one. But the book’s unsurprising elements outnumber its unusual ones: the bishop who cannot quite believe Hannah or help her, the legend of the magic in an old well, the “struggling to reconcile the opposing forces of fantasy and reality.” It is inevitable that Hannah and Sam will figure out what happened, and that Maisie will make an appearance at the end, and that everything will be clear thereafter; and that is exactly what happens. The Whispering House is not especially scary, but its affecting moments make it a pleasantly spooky read.
The Vampire Combat Manual handles spookiness in a different way: by trying to tread the line between fantasy and reality. Roger Ma, author of The Zombie Combat Manual, here turns his attention – in very much the same way – to another batch of supernatural baddies. “The same way” means that the book is never quite sure whether it is a sendup of vampire lore or is being written in a very serious tone for some other reason. Supposedly a manual from the “Institute for Undead Combat Studies,” Ma’s book gets into often-excruciating detail about vampires, their powers, the ways to fight them, and so forth. It is the extent of the writing about small matters that makes the book a rather difficult one to read. For instance, in an extended section about the stake (“such an ordinary weapon that its subtleties are often lost on the untrained citizen”), Ma gives a table of high-density and low-density woods, then explains that “stakes should be crafted from wood that has already been harvested and seasoned, and not taken directly from living ‘green’ specimens. Using material from a living plant means that your wood will contain a considerable amount of moisture, which can affect its density and resiliency in combat.” He also warns readers to “avoid any synthetic or engineered wood products.” He provides and “debunks” several misconceptions about vampires: for example, they cannot fly or shapeshift and are not sexually attracted to human beings. He analyzes various possible anti-vampire weapons, noting, for instance, that a shotgun has a range of one to five meters with “fire rate: medium” and “skill level: medium,” while a compound bow has a 10-to-20-meter range with “fire rate: slow” and “skill level: extremely high.” He offers “principles of undead combat,” discusses and illustrates offensive and defensive tactics, and even includes a section on “protecting children from vampire attack.” The earnestness of the writing, coupled with the underlying ridiculousness of the premise, could combine to make The Vampire Combat Manual amusing, but somehow the elements do not come together very well, and the book turns out to be, for long stretches, simply dull. The “Combat Report” sections, supposedly detailing real-world vampire encounters, help break up the flow of the book without really adding much to it. As a whole, the book seems designed for people who really enjoy thinking about vampires but are not particularly interested in modern notions of them as intriguing, even alluring creatures – seeing them simply as evil things to be killed as efficiently as possible. That seems a rather limited audience.
The audience for Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained is one that is easily intrigued by once-over-lightly accounts of Bigfoot, aliens, Easter Island statues, Stonehenge, and other real, maybe-real and not-real peculiar things. With brief paragraphs of text and lots of photos – many of them unrelated to what is being discussed – Oliver Doyle’s book is somewhat too hyped to be taken seriously. But maybe it is not supposed to be taken that way. An item about the “Big Gray Man” of the Scottish Highlands includes a picture of a gray-cowled figure that is certainly not the being under discussion. A piece about the Loch Ness monster features a picture of a plesiosaur, because if there is something in Loch Ness, maybe that is what it is; or maybe not. A discussion of the “Mongolian death worm” includes a picture of a hugely magnified tapeworm, because if the Mongolian creature exists, maybe it looks something like a tapeworm; or, again, maybe not. There are pieces about crop circles (which the book does not mention have largely been debunked), the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, the Mothman of West Virginia, the Great Pyramid at Giza, the ghost ship Mary Celeste, Atlantis and Lemuria, and other genuine or largely made-up mysteries. Strange Mysteries of the Unexplained makes no claim to being complete or even particularly scientific – it just throws out some notes about things that may or may not exist, may or may not have happened, may or may not be significant, and leaves it up to readers to decide what it all means. If anything. The book does have serious elements, including scientific speculation about various matters, but as a whole, it is not to be taken seriously and, partly as a result, is not particularly scary or even, despite its title, particularly mysterious.
Darwin: Portrait of a Genius. By Paul Johnson. Viking. $25.95.
The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen. By Stephen R. Brown. Da Capo. $27.50.
Biographies of great historical figures tend to be weighty, lengthy and packed with as much detail as an author can cram into them. Paul Johnson’s Darwin is an exception. It has fewer than 150 pages of text, and is written in a breezy and accessible style: Darwin “took great delight in investigating, dissecting, classifying, and recording organic things and creatures. And the smaller they were, he more he liked it. It is a curious reflection on the emphasis of his research that he never did any serious research on vertebrates.” It was Darwin’s predilection for the small and for detail that, according to Johnson, brought him both his greatest triumph and into ultimate trouble. For if The Origin of Species is a work of genius, carefully informed by meticulous research and a lifetime of thought and analysis, Johnson argues that The Descent of Man is a lesser work, because Darwin’s knowledge of anthropology was far less than his understanding of plants and animals, his research was less meticulous, and as a result he created a book that gave a scientific or pseudo-scientific basis to the eugenics movement and the ideology that came to be called Social Darwinism. Johnson, who has written numerous biographies (of Jesus, Churchill, Socrates, George Washington and others), strains a bit to find negatives about Darwin, tending to attribute to the man himself the excesses to which his writings were put by others. But at the same time, Johnson offers some remarkably well-thought-out analyses of what Darwin really did say. For example, he writes about Darwin’s literary style, “What he does do, and it is highly effective in conveying an impression of endless antagonism within and between species, is to use a selective, repetitive and emotional vocabulary of strife. …The word struggle is found on almost every page, sometimes two or three times. The ‘struggle for existence,’ the ‘race for life,’ the ‘battle for life,’ and ‘great battle for life’ crop up continually. We hear again and again of ‘forces,’ ‘war between insect and insect,’ ‘invasion,’ ‘intruders,’ of ‘foreigners’ who are ‘taking possession of the land,’ of plants and animals being ‘rigidly destroyed,’ of constant ‘attacks,’ of species being ‘beaten’ or being ‘victorious.’” Johnson does lay this on rather thickly – what alternative verbiage would he suggest Darwin have used in a popularizing work in the mid-19th century? But the explication remains fascinating, giving hints as to why Darwin’s theories took the world by storm and, by implication, continue to cause tempests today. Johnson’s biography is by no means the last word on Darwin and his work, but as a short study with a focus on the different effects of Darwin’s two great books, it is a worthy read and often a fascinating one.
Stephen R. Brown’s study of Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) is a weightier book, more than twice the length of Johnson’s and more traditional in approach, tracing Amundsen carefully from boyhood through the explorations that brought him worldwide fame and to the fading glory at the end of his life. Amundsen was the first person to reach the world’s four great geographical mysteries: South Pole, North Pole, Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage. But because he was a prickly personality, a stickler – almost a martinet – when it came to details, and a man hounded by creditors for borrowing money he did not repay, he has come through time with a less-than-sterling reputation. It is one of history’s ironies that Amundsen, who made it to the South Pole thanks to meticulous planning and careful execution, frequently comes across as less heroic than Robert F. Scott, the British explorer whose expedition arrived later and perished on the return trip. Brown does not demonize Amundsen and tends, if anything, to romanticize him a bit, as when he writes about a friend watching Amundsen board the plane in whose crash he was soon to die, “When [Fritz] Zapffe saw Amundsen crawl into the fuselage of the biplane, he saw a man already defeated.” Brown could just as easily have made the scene heroic by focusing on the fact that Amundsen, despite a series of personal slights that he must have found hard to bear, was about to set out to try to rescue a rival explorer whom he disliked. But Brown does not seek nobility for Amundsen, telling the explorer’s story in a mostly straightforward way. In addition to the tales of Amundsen’s triumphs, which the explorer himself wrote about in half a dozen books, Brown discusses his money troubles, his impatience with routine and constant desire for new adventures, and his pursuit not only by men who wanted to join his expeditions but also by women (often married ones) who found him and his heroism compelling. Brown’s biography, which surprisingly is the first full-length one of Amundsen, breaks some new ground in detailing the explorer’s time spent in New York and the evidence of his sense of humor, which stands in contrast to the usual picture of him as cold, methodical and harsh (a view reinforced by the book’s cover portrait and its 16 pages of photos, even the one of him as a young child). Amundsen generally comes across as being nearly as cold as the polar regions he explored, but with occasional bursts of warmth and humanity that make it possible to see the driven, imperfect but ultimately highly accomplished man who went to so many places where no man had gone before.
Nicolai Medtner: Complete Piano Sonatas, Volume 1—Sonatina in G minor; Sonata No. 1; Sonata-Reminiscenza (Sonata No. 10). Paul Stewart, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Medtner: Fairy Tales (Skazki), Op. 34; Prokofiev: Sonata No. 4. Georgy Tchaidze, piano. Honens. $14.99.
Schumann: Piano Quintet; Piano Quartet; Märchenerzählungen. Fine Arts Quartet (Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Nicolò Eugelmi, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello); Xiayin Wang, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
The Grand Piano label is making its way through the pianistic output of a variety of composers, and it has struck gold with its decision to release the sonatas of Nicolai Medtner (1880-1951). Medtner, a countryman, friend and near-contemporary of Rachmaninoff, wrote no fewer than 14 piano sonatas and, even more interestingly, a total of 38 pieces he called Skazki, a word that translates as “tales” but is usually rendered in English as “Fairy Tales.” Hopefully Paul Stewart, who plays Medtner’s works with excellence, understated virtuosity and clear understanding, will go through the Skazki as well as the sonatas, because it is in the “tales” that Medtner’s creativity really shines – they are as important to his oeuvre as the sonatas. This is not to minimize the significance of the sonatas themselves, however. The early Sonatina in G minor (1898) proves to be melodic, very well structured and assembled at a length (seven-and-a-half minutes) that seems to fit the material perfectly; it is also, especially in its second movement, very Tchaikovskian. The Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Medtner’s first large-scale work, written between 1895 and 1903, is more than four times as long and much more intense, including a sense of spiritual seeking as well as very considerable amounts of drama. It contains reflections of Schumann and Liszt, but also shows clearly that Medtner had already developed his own distinctive style. And the Sonata-Reminiscenza, in A minor and composed from 1919 to 1920, is simply beautiful: poetic, nostalgic and lyrical, filled with melancholy and regret, and featuring much of the originality found in the Skazki.
To hear just how much, listeners can turn to an excellent CD featuring Georgy Tchaidze, on which some of Medtner’s Skazki appear in top-notch performances. There are four of them here, the composer’s Op. 34, dating to 1916-1917, and all are impressive miniature tone paintings with intriguing titles: “The Magic Violin,” “What We Once Called Ours Is Gone Forever,” “Wood Spirit (but a kind, plaintive one),” and “The Poor Knight” – the last inspired by Pushkin. Clever pianism, interesting harmonies, rhythmic and harmonic subtlety, and considerable virtuosity distinguish these works, which along with the sonatas establish Medtner as a very considerable composer and pianist. Tchaidze also delivers an excellent reading of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, beautifully balancing the lighter pieces such as “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” against the serious “Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua” and the highly dramatic concluding “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Tchaidze, a Russian native and winner of Canada’s 2009 Honens International Piano Competition, is clearly thoroughly at home in music of his native land, and interestingly selects one of Prokofiev’s least-known piano sonatas to complete this CD. A personal and rather gloomy work with a passage of surprising delicacy in the middle of the second of its three movements, the sonata does not sound like what could be called “typical” Prokofiev, but Tchaidze clearly has considerable affection for it and plumbs its depths with sensitivity and skill.
Decades before Medtner’s Skazki – indeed, long before the later composer’s birth – Schumann also created fairy-tale pieces to be played by piano, although not by piano alone. Märchenerzählungen, a late piece (1853), is a dark-hued but energetic work. It exists in two versions, one including viola and clarinet and the other using viola and violin. It is the latter version that is performed by Xiayin Wang and members of the Fine Arts Quartet in a reading of considerable warmth that emphasizes the music’s generally upbeat character – which is something of a surprise, given the dour nature of Schumann’s life at the time of composition (he was to attempt suicide the following year). More than a decade earlier, in September 1842, Schumann composed his Piano Quintet, which also gets a bracing and pleasant performance here. This was a groundbreaking work that paved the way for the quintets of Brahms, Dvořák and Franck; the performers here are careful to bring out its many contrasts between lyricism and forcefulness, with the piano frequently taking the lead (Schumann dedicated the work to his wife, Clara, who gave the première performance) but functioning effectively as part of the ensemble at other times. Only a month after writing the quintet, Schumann produced his Piano Quartet, and again the performance here is very well-balanced and sensitive to the nuances of a work whose slow movement, Andante cantabile, is especially affecting, opening with a gorgeous cello theme. Indeed, this work was written for a nobleman who was a skilled amateur cellist – but here too the piano is prominent, and Clara once again played that instrument at the work’s première. The sensitive performances on this Naxos CD are all well-proportioned and a pleasure to hear.