October 31, 2013
The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs. By Robert T. Bakker, Ph.D. Illustrated by Luis V. Rey. Golden Books. $16.99.
The Watermelon Seed. By Greg Pizzoli. Disney/Hyperion. $16.99.
Hush, Little Horsie. By Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. Random House. $7.99.
Paleontologist Robert Bakker, whose wide-ranging and sometimes controversial theories about dinosaurs are a significant element in modern thinking about them, brings those ideas to children in the 3-7 age range through a well-written book whose narrative is more challenging than the norm for this age group – and whose illustrations, by well-known paleoartist Luis V. Rey, incorporate the most modern findings and scientific understanding of what dinosaurs looked like and how they lived. Bakker knows how to get to his audience: “Some dinosaurs were heavier than two dozen elephants duct-taped together.” And he knows how to show young children the ways in which science advances, for example when explaining how and why scientists in the 19th century made serious mistakes while trying to figure out what one dinosaur, Megalosaurus, looked like – a section in which Rey’s “megalosaur wrong” and “megalosaur corrected” illustrations are particularly outstanding in their contrast. Bakker does a wonderful job of showing how the study of dinosaurs is in part a mystery story, as scientists piece together – generally from pieces of dinosaurs! – information on how the dinos lived and what they looked like. Bakker even takes young children along on this journey of exploration, for example by explaining how the search for dinosaur footprints in the 1830s led an early paleontologist to conclude that Jurassic predators were, in effect, colossal birds. Continuing uncertainties about dinosaurs get their due in this book as well. For instance, there is the question of how it was possible for dinosaurs to live in what is now Alaska, and how fossil leaves, in providing at least part of the answer, make it more likely that carnivores had feathers. And there is of course the extinction question, in which Bakker explains why he does not accept the prevailing hypothesis about a huge meteorite strike killing off the dinosaurs and instead believes that and other theories may need to be combined to arrive at the truth. Bakker also does a fine job of connecting prehistory with young children’s world today, by showing how mammals evolved during the age of dinosaurs and then began to dominate the world after dinosaurs were gone – thus explaining how “the dinosaur story is really our story, too.” The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs tackles a large and complex subject in clear, understandable form, and hopefully will serve as an introduction for yet another generation of young people to prehistoric creatures that continue to fascinate so many of us today.
Crocodilians are among the dinosaur-era groups that survived the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous and continued evolving until today. And they certainly look dinosaur-like to most people. But as big and powerful as real crocodiles and their relatives are, they have also become favorites in children’s books, thanks to artists who make them much smaller and rounder than they are in real life and give them problems to handle that only seem large. Done well, as in Greg Pizzoli’s The Watermelon Seed, a crocodile-based book for very young readers can be thoroughly delightful, thanks to the humor of the story and the fact that the croc is really just a stand-in for a child. The particular croc in Pizzoli’s book absolutely loves eating watermelon – indeed, the chance to write “CHOMP! CHOMP! CHOMP!” in big letters may have influenced Pizzoli to choose a crocodile as protagonist in the first place. The croc’s problem is a small one indeed: a watermelon seed that he accidentally swallows. Oh no! Now he starts imagining all the things that are going to happen to him: vines coming out of his ears, his skin turning watermelon pink, and so on. The poor croc gets so upset that he start crying (yes, crocodile tears, although this is a book for very young children and Pizzoli makes no overt reference to them). But then, wonder of wonders, a burp! And the seed comes out, and the croc decides he had such a close call that he is done with watermelon forever – well, except for “maybe just a teeny, tiny bite.” With seeds, of course. The Watermelon Seed is fun from start to finish, and can even be used by parents as an object lesson in not overreacting to small things.
The small things in Jane Yolen’s lovely, gentle board book, Hush, Little Horsie, are colts, each rendered beautifully by Ruth Sanderson in more-than-realistic style – that is, each is drawn anatomically accurately, but portrayed with an extra-high level of focus on the eyes, the body position and other elements to which Sanderson, interpreting Yolen’s text, wants to draw attention. Those elements all have to do with sleep – this is a bedtime book from start to finish, with each rhyme about horses in a different place ending, “And when you are tired,/ She’ll watch as you sleep.” Beautifully colored horses of various types are seen in the barn, out on the plain, at the seashore and elsewhere, the gentle cadences of Yolen’s rhymes mixing soothingly with the warmth of Sanderson’s illustrations to produce an overall feeling of quiet, relaxation and motherly protection. The book ends with a human mother and her daughter on the little girl’s bed, in a horse-themed child’s room, as the mother assures her daughter that she will be watching over the sleeping girl – who drifts off, cuddling a stuffed horse, into a dream of the horses seen earlier in the book. Obviously intended only for children with strong equine interests, Hush, Little Horsie will for them be a sweet little bedtime tale, comforting and tender and thoroughly relaxing.
There Is a God! 1,001 Heartwarming (and Hilarious) Reasons to Believe. By Richard Smith and Maureen McElheron. Tarcher/Penguin. $14.95.
Here’s a shamelessly exploitative book filled with tiny snippets of amusement and loads of white space – a pamphlet disguised as a $15 paperback. And darned if it isn’t worth it. Richard Smith and Maureen McElheron simply throw together 1,001very, very short comments on things that make life wonderful, sometimes for a moment and sometimes forever (or at least for a very long time). Then they toss in 46 “miracles” (of modern life, that is), stir briskly, and lo, the result is a book in which the juxtapositions are as delightful as the individual items – sometimes more so.
Here you will find the occasional touch of depth, such as #898: “Your unshakable faith in your faith.” And the more-frequent touch of the risqué and/or trendy, such as #854, which is both: “Trading sex for Invisaligns.” The somewhat thoughtful, such as #566: “The mystery of genius.” The one-worders, such as #820: “Bach.” The faint whispers of illegality, such as #915: “Disney World on Ecstasy.” The touches of absurdity, such as #673: “Finding a little lost penguin while cleaning out your freezer.” The touches of everyday wonder, such as #643: “Your little girl’s eyes when she shakes a snow globe.” The items you have to think about for a moment, such as #766: “Your sweetheart left her husband and needs a place to stay.” Or #754, “God-fearing atheists.” And the items requiring no thought at all, such as #450: “Make-up sex.”
And then there are the “miracles.” No. 13: “Claiming your tree house as a home office is cool with the IRS.” No. 19: “Ikea’s furniture now assembles itself.” No. 37: “An okay from your doc to start smoking until you get over her.” Yes, that last one is weird, and so are a lot of the items here, but because there are so many comments on so many topics with so many degrees of wryness, it’s just fine to skip over something you don’t like (or just don’t get) and move quickly on.
In fact, moving quickly on is a big part of the point here, to the extent that there is any point at all other than pure enjoyment. For it is only by zipping from item to item that you get the full flavor of the juxtapositions that bring so much fun to There Is a God! For example, here are items 79 through 83: “He didn’t feel threatened when you asked for a key.” “The club car.” “The tapas at that little place in Barcelona.” “Singin’ in the Rain gets better each time you see it.” “A morning-after pill that alleviates serious hangovers.” And here are numbers 516 through 520: “You find a warm waffle tucked into your JetBlue seat-back pocket.” “Freckles are back in style.” “Air-conditioning.” “You unclogged the sink yourself.” “They didn’t check your references.”
It helps not to think too much about the snippets that don’t bear thinking about – that waffle on the airplane, for example – and in fact this is not much of a book about thinking at all. It’s a book that goes straight for the emotions, wiggling in by way of the funnybone to implant occasional bits of seriousness here and there. It is certainly no confirmation of any deity, and is not intended to be; but as a compendium of the little things that make life better than it would be without them, it is decidedly reassuring.
Deep in the Sahara. By Kelly Cunnane. Illustrated by Hoda Hadadi. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree. By Jane Kohuth. Illustrated by Elizabeth Sayles. Random House. $12.99.
My Pen Pal, Santa. By Melissa Stanton. Illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell. Random House. $9.99.
There is a certain sense of desperation in some circles to portray the positive side of Islam as a counterweight to the numerous acts of mass murder and viciousness perpetrated by criminal fanatics in the name of the religion. It is certainly true that the vast majority of those who practice Islam are peaceful and law-abiding, as are the vast majority of those who practice other religions or adhere to none. But it is also true that, at this stage in world history, Islam alone among religions has spawned worldwide terrorist fanaticism that has claimed the lives of many, many thousands of people of all faiths – Islam included. This makes the attempt to portray Islam as a benign force difficult, perhaps especially so in a book for children ages 4-8, which is what Deep in the Sahara is. Set in Mauritania, where Kelly Cunnane lived from 2008 to 2009, the book is avowedly intended to show that the full-body veils required to be worn by many Muslim women are not repressive but are simply colorful expressions of culture. Accordingly, the book tells the story of a young girl who very much wants to wear a malafa, the full-body garment of Mauritania, but who is repeatedly told that she wants one for the wrong reasons: it is not a garment intended for beauty, mystery, or even longstanding tradition, various relatives tell her. Eventually, the girl tells her mother that she wants a malafa “so I can pray like you do,” and her mother approves and allows her to wear one for prayer. Hoda Hadadi, an Iranian illustrator here producing her first book published in the United States, presents a very pretty, very sanitized view of Mauritanian and Islamic culture, with lovely stylized homes, prayer shown in many houses’ windows, a bare glimpse of men here and there to indicate that they even exist in the same society as do women, and other felicitous touches carefully designed to show off and showcase what seems to be an entirely benign, if somewhat unusual, system. There is no mention of any harsh realities, such as the recent announcement that an anti-slavery charity has designated Mauritania as the nation with the highest percentage of its population in slavery in the entire world. Parents who are comfortable providing their children with a one-sided, extremely positive viewpoint will like the simplicity and even-tempered nature of Deep in the Sahara. Those wanting their children to have a more comprehensive view and understanding of the world, and of the place of Islam within it, will need considerably more than this book to provide it.
Religion underlies Anne Frank’s Chestnut Tree as well, in a very different way. Anne and her family were Jewish, and her famous diary was written as she and others hid in Amsterdam from the Nazis, who eventually found them and murdered them in the name of expunging Jews and all their supposed evils. This is a Step 3 book in the “Step into Reading” series, which means it is for “Reading on Your Own” for ages 5-8. This is a serious book that tells the story, in simplified but accurate form, of what happened to Anne and the other people who tried to hide from the Nazis in the same place. Young readers will find out about how Anne and the others lived day to day, who helped them, and how their lives developed – including the pervasive fear with which they all had to contend. The book’s title refers to a chestnut tree, outside the hiding place, that Anne saw and about which she wrote: “Nature made Anne feel that God had not left her.” The book explains that visitors can still visit the place where Anne was hidden, but that the tree she saw was knocked down by a storm in 2010 – yet saplings from its chestnuts are now growing in Amsterdam and throughout the world. This message of hope is the basic one of the book, which Jane Kohuth writes in a matter-of-fact narrative voice and Elizabeth Sayles illustrates in very somber tones that are quite suitable to the story. Despite the clear intent to provide uplift, this is not a pleasant story, and the attempt to find a happy ending is less than successful – although readers in the target age range may accept it. Although written so it can be handled by those readers on their own, this is a book that might better be used as a teaching tool by parents, who may want to read it – at least for the first time – with their children, and provide an explanatory gloss beyond what the book itself offers.
Religion is the foundation of Christmas, of course, but the holiday’s secular elements dominate in many households. And many families with kids ages 3-7 will enjoy My Pen Pal, Santa, for its unusual handling of the letter-to-Santa notion. The book starts with a six-year-old girl’s thank-you letter to Santa, written soon after Christmas – such an unusual occurrence, Melissa Stanton suggests, that it leads to Ava receiving a letter back from Santa himself. Ava continues writing to Santa throughout the year, and Jennifer A. Bell amusingly shows Santa’s delight and surprise when he gets letters at Valentine’s Day, Easter, the Fourth of July, and on other occasions. There are a number of amusing elements here, including one about Ava’s brother not believing in Santa, one about the Tooth Fairy’s wand working like a flashlight (“it can’t zap anyone”), and one about swimming – which Ava and her family do at the beach in summer, and Santa and his reindeer and elves do with “friendly seals, walruses and polar bears.” Eventually the next Christmas season rolls around, and Ava starts asking seasonally appropriate questions about how Santa gets down the chimney, how he delivers to homes that don’t have chimneys, and whether he makes it snow (“That’s Mother Nature’s job,” Santa writes back). Eventually Ava makes a simple, special Christmas wish that, it turns out, Santa is willing to grant, and the book ends very happily indeed. This is an unusual seasonal offering that families seeking an alternative to typical Christmas books will find attractive as the holiday draws near.
The Boy on the Porch. By Sharon Creech. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Great Unexpected. By Sharon Creech. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $6.99.
The League. By Thatcher Heldring. Delacorte Press. $15.99.
Novels for preteens and young teenagers tend to be in the action/adventure mode most of the time, whether directed at boys or girls. They may be set in the past or future, in this world or an alternative one, but they are generally plot-driven rather than character-driven and tend to move ahead at a steady pace, if not a frantic one. Sharon Creech’s books, though, are an exception. She writes novels that are something like toned-down, detuned adult books of the type focused on character interactions in semi-realistic settings, and she does this consistently – as in The Boy on the Porch and The Great Unexpected (the latter originally published last year and now available in paperback). Both these books have improbable setups that Creech uses to explore the possible emotional reactions of fairly realistic (although generally one-dimensional) characters. Believe in the characters and you will be pulled into the novels and pulled along with them; find them lacking and the plot disconnections will leave you disappointed. The Boy on the Porch, for example, starts with the depositing on the veranda of a rural American home of a boy who is about six years old; the young owners of the house, John and Marta, know only that someone will be back for him sometime (a poorly written note says so). The boy can tell them nothing – he is mute – but he soon wends his way into their hearts, becoming so integral to their thoughts and feelings that they dread the inevitable day when someone will return to claim him. The rural lifestyle portrayed here is quite idyllic and idealized, and the obvious questions about why John and Marta simply take the boy in and worry about his eventual departure, instead of going to authorities or taking any action outside their small homestead, are glossed over. All this is typical of Creech, whose taste for realism extends only so far. The boy turns out to have considerable artistic talent, and he has something almost mystical in common with the couple’s silent beagle and a cow that they found tied to their fence: John and Marta seem to draw misplaced characters to themselves. But the boy, Jacob, seems more a symbol than a full-fledged individual throughout the book, and in fact John and Marta do as well: readers who get involved in the story will respond emotionally to it, especially to the tear-jerker ending, but the book has a certain obviousness and self-righteousness as it explores questions of right and wrong. Still, it does explore them, and with some subtlety, which is more than books for preteens and young teens usually do.
Creech also mixes the believable with the far-fetched in The Great Unexpected, which starts with a boy falling out of a tree onto protagonist Naomi Deane, who is the primary narrator of a book that in part explores the ups and downs of Naomi’s relationship with her best friend, Lizzie Scatterding, and in part is a mystery involving Ireland, to which the scene shifts periodically (and rather jarringly). This book is written in a mixture of styles that takes some getting used to – it can be hard to tell when a chapter begins if it follows the one before immediately, or if several weeks have passed. The book is also filled with alliterative names that some may find charming and others irritating: Crazy Cora, “the dapper Dingle Dangle man,” and so on. The underlying mystery of the book – that is, the mystery of the boy in the tree – requires an eventual uniting of the two story lines, the one involving Naomi and Lizzie and the other involving the Irish estate that shows up periodically. There should be a sense of wonder within the realism here – that is clearly what Creech is striving for – but the book does not hang together particularly well, largely because of its confusing structure and also because of a few too many narrative tricks, such as having the two women in Ireland talk in what seems like a crazy way that turns out at the end to make sense. Whether this plays fair with the reader will depend on whether that reader is charmed by Creech’s quirkiness or comes to find it tiresome. Creech certainly writes stories that are gentler and more heartfelt than most for a preteen and young-teenage audience, and as such are a welcome relief from formulaic adventure tales. But she has formulas of her own, and readers will not necessarily find them as sweetly thoughtful as Creech obviously intends them to be.
Thatcher Heldring’s The League is a far more typical tale for this age group, and a far more boy-oriented one. It is the usual “sports make the man” story, with the emphasis being on the right kind of sport, specifically with American football being good, strong and manly and golf being some sort of lesser activity. Wyatt Parker wants to play football, both because it will make him a tougher “real man” and because it will impress his next-door neighbor, Evan, who naturally has eyes only for the town’s star quarterback. Wyatt’s parents, though, are significant obstacles, with their droning on about how people get hurt in football; so they have signed Wyatt up for golf camp, where he emphatically does not want to go. Then Wyatt’s older brother, Aaron, drops hints – which Wyatt picks up on – about some sort of secret football program, and eventually lets Wyatt know (dramatically) that it is called the League of Pain, and that Wyatt can join if he dumps golf camp. So of course Wyatt does that, lying to the camp about needing to cancel because, he says, he is going to Space Camp instead. And of course he then has to lie to his parents, too (Evan, however, thinks the idea of Wyatt playing football is cool). And so Wyatt gets into a cascade of lies, exposing considerable angst in the process: “I wished I could run right through Mom and keep going. I was so sick of doing whatever anybody told me to do when other people just did whatever they wanted. In fact, this made me want to play football even more. …I wanted to kick a hole in the wall. It wasn’t enough to tell me what to say, Mom also had to tell me how to say it.” Well, of course sports, specifically football, are here portrayed as a fine, socially acceptable outlet for this sort of aggressiveness. And Wyatt gets subjected to more and more problems – for instance, when his parents give him an old, worn pair of golf shoes that his father used to own and says he kept for 30 years so he could pass them on. The characters in this book are so unpleasant that it makes perfect sense for the League of Pain to have teams called the Morons and the Idiots. Obviously Wyatt is going to get caught (he does), and obviously his clueless (and really rather mean-spirited) parents are going to punish him and make him miserable (they do), and obviously Aaron is going to get in trouble as well (he does). And obviously nobody is going to say that football itself is anything but wonderful (nobody does). The League, a (++) book, is so unthinking an endorsement of the American version of macho sports that it could almost be funny – except that there is nothing amusing in the attitudes it endorses and expresses through Heldring’s cast of smarmy, thoroughly unpleasant characters.
Wagner: Siegfried. Tomasz Konieczny, Stephen Gould, Violeta Urmana, Anna Larsson, Matti Salminen, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Christian Elsner, Sophie Klußmann; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $49.99 (3 SACDs).
Wagner: Overtures to “Die Feen,” “Christoph Columbus,” “Das Liebesverbot,” “Rienzi,” “Faust,” “Der fliegende Holländer,” Act III of “Lohengrin,” “Tristan und Isolde,” and Act I of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).
Jake Heggie: Moby-Dick. Jay Hunter Morris, Stephen Costello, Morgan Smith, Jonathan Lemalu, Talise Trevigne; San Francisco Opera Chorus, Dance Corps and Orchestra conducted by Patrick Summers. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.
The ninth in PentaTone’s excellent 10-release series of Wagner’s 10 mature operas tackles the most difficult opera of the Ring cycle to bring off – and as with all of these releases conducted by Marek Janowski, produces a resounding success thanks to the conductor’s intimate familiarity with the music and his willingness to take chances with tempos, characterizations and the complexities of a live performance (this one dating to March 1, 2013). Siegfried (which Wagner originally called Young Siegfried) is a very talky opera, more so than usual in Wagner – whose music dramas are talky by design and for that reason are unappealing to some operagoers. A voyage of self-discovery climaxed by returns to events of earlier operas, Siegfried brings back Alberich and Mime – giving the latter, whose portrayal owes much to Wagner’s anti-Semitism, more prominence than in Das Rheingold. Fafner also returns, the giant of the first opera now transformed into a dragon that is conquered rather abruptly. Nothung, the sword shattered by Wotan’s direct intervention in Die Walküre, is forged again here in the opera’s most-famous scene; and Wotan himself, rapidly becoming a shadow of the powerful (if flawed) god he has been before, is back as well, rehashing much of the plot of what has come before (leading the wonderful parodist of classical music, Anna Russell, to comment that Wotan comes down from Valhalla to play “Twenty Questions” with Siegfried). The comparatively static Siegfried stands in strong contrast to the nearly frenetic activity of Die Walküre, although after the death of Fafner and Mime, as we return to the fire-surrounded rock from the ending the previous opera, and Siegfried discovers the sleeping Brünnhilde, there is certainly drama enough. Janowski builds the opera toward this climactic moment throughout the nearly four-hour running time of the recording, with the contrast between Tomasz Konieczny’s increasingly feckless Wotan/Wanderer and the rather simple-minded, straightforward strength and bravery of Stephen Gould’s Siegfried communicated particularly well. Christian Elsner is suitably slimy as Mime, and his confrontation with the sly vengefulness of Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Alberich is handled with skill. Violeta Urmana is not an ideal Brünnhilde – Petra Lang was more intense and fiery in Janowski’s Die Walküre – but Urmana certainly sings well and with considerable emotion. Anna Larson as Erda – another revenant from earlier in the cycle – handles her scene with Wotan well; Matti Salminen has plenty of depth to his potent bass voice as Fafner; and Sophie Klußmann does a fine job with the small but crucial role of the forest bird. Janowski again conducts with a sure hand and very considerable intelligence, and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin turns in yet another of those first-rate performances that the players seem to produce effortlessly. Siegfried is a particularly difficult opera to bring off effectively, and Janowski’s success here – a success that includes PentaTone’s consistently excellent SACD sound – virtually guarantees that Götterdammerung, the final Ring opera and concluding entry in PentaTone’s Wagner-bicentennial sequence, will also be a splendid production.
Wagner’s purely instrumental music – what there is of it – tends to get short shrift in comparison to his operas, but some of the opera overtures and preludes have become reliable staples of the concert hall. Some, however, have not, a fact that makes Chandos’ new recording led by Neeme Järvi particularly welcome. This is actually a compilation of Järvi performances from 2009-2011, plus one (Der fliegende Holländer) not released before. The SACD is notable for sound quality, length (a full 80 minutes), and inclusion of some rarities along with the more-familiar works. Christoph Columbus, a 1907 concert-overture version by Felix Mottl of Wagner’s 1835 opening for a stage play, may not be top-flight Wagner; but Faust, written in 1840, revised in 1855, and originally planned as the first movement of a symphony, is certainly worth more-frequent performances. So are the overtures to Wagner’s first two operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, in which the music may not sound “Wagnerian” as that term later came to be used but is certainly well-made and effective. As for the overture to Wagner’s third opera, Rienzi, it is broad, exciting and exceptionally tuneful – deserving, like the opera itself, of being considerably better known. The remaining works on this SACD are familiar, and all are very well played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – although Järvi’s tempo choices are occasionally questionable and he does not come across as a top-notch Wagner conductor in terms of sensitivity to the nuances of, say, Tristan and Meistersinger. Nevertheless, all the readings here are better than serviceable, and the fine playing and sound, along with the intriguing mixture of well-known and little-known music, makes this a very worthwhile recording indeed.
Wagner’s pervasive influence extends to the present day, and it is certainly noticeable in Jake Heggie’s fascinating Moby-Dick, adapted from Herman Melville’s novel by librettist Gene Scheer. The DVD of the San Francisco Opera’s 2012 production features four of the five singers who presented the opera at its world première in Dallas in 2010. The exception is Jay Hunter Morris as Captain Ahab (the role was created by Ben Heppner); but Morris handles the increasingly mad captain with plenty of fervor and intensity, making him an effective center around whom the action swirls. Scheer’s libretto hews closely to the actions of Melville’s book – which, it should be remembered, is in large part not an action/adventure novel, since much of it is taken up with discussion and exploration of whales and the whaling life. Eliminating all of that, as Scheer does, makes the story manageable as a libretto, and emphasizing the tragic elements and psychological darkness of the book is an intelligent decision – simply treating the whole work as a morality play, which is essentially what Melville did, would result in an overly rigid presentation for modern audiences. Nevertheless, Scheer is basically true to Melville’s approach, and manages to retain enough of the author’s language to give the opera a feeling both old-fashioned and up-to-date. Heggie does the same thing with the music: in addition to Wagnerian elements and a few approaches borrowed from Debussy and from Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, there are distinct echoes of Philip Glass and other minimalist composers, plus an overarching sense of the drama and emotional turmoil of film music – which, indeed, is exactly what the work’s instrumental opening sounds like. The music’s accessibility makes this a very approachable opera indeed: what Heggie does is scarcely innovative, but it is very well tailored to audience involvement and to the dramatic story line. Leonard Foglia’s stage direction – the same in San Francisco as in Dallas – is also integral to the success of the presentation. And this is an opera that is decidedly better served by DVD presentation than it would be in an audio recording, where the comparative straightforwardness of Heggie’s music would make the work less appealing than it is when seen as the multimedia totality it is intended to be: opera has in fact always been a multimedia format, and the projections and perspective shifts of this production make Moby-Dick even more so. There are occasional elements that do not work – renaming Ishmael as Greenhorn is simply too obvious and comes across as a bit silly, for example – but by and large, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and effective music drama, not in the Wagnerian sense but in an equally valid post-Wagnerian world, where Melville is as much a part of the United States’ shared literary and mythic heritage as the Nibelungenlied was part of Wagner’s and Germany’s in the 19th century.
Dvořák: Symphony No. 8; Brahms: Symphony No. 1. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Swiss Festival Orchestra conducted by George Szell. Audite. $14.99.
Spohr: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5; Overture “Der Matrose.” NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).
Clementi: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4; Overture in C. Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 1; The Isle of the Dead. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.
Sometimes it is worth taking a step back in time to hear how a real master of symphonic conducting handled works that have in recent years become, if anything, over-familiar. Audite’s CD of a 1969 Dvořák performance and a 1962 one of Brahms, both by George Szell (1897-1970) with ensembles other than the Cleveland Orchestra that he led with such distinction for so many years (1946-1970), is one such worthwhile examination of the past. Szell did not bend over backwards to create anything “new” or “different” in his interpretations – instead, he carefully refined the work of conductors of earlier times, seeking to evoke composers’ intentions for their music by bringing forth the lines and the balance of instruments with precision and detail that few conductors since have ever managed. Indeed, when the Cleveland Orchestra under Szell played Mozart, it did so with the clarity of a chamber ensemble, so perfectly did every single element balance every other one and so well did Szell understand the precise workings of every instrument under his command. The Czech Philharmonic and Swiss Festival Orchestra heard here (the former in Dvořák’s Eighth, the latter in Brahms’ First) do not bring quite that level of clear-headedness to the music, but both ensembles play with fervor and understanding, and Szell’s influence on them is clear in the excellent balance of their sections, the rhythmic vitality of both readings, the very clear delineation of sections of the music (recapitulations contrasted with the developments that come immediately before, for example), and the overall sense of inevitability in the flow of both works. These are robust performances but scarcely heavy ones: Szell makes these Romantic symphonies grand but not portentous. The CD will be something of a revelation for listeners familiar with the music but not with Szell: there are many fine performances of both these works, but Szell’s method of presenting them meticulously, as if they are fresh and new, makes them sound fresh and new to the audience as well – including an audience in the 21st century.
Most conductors, Szell included, have paid little attention to lesser symphonic lights of the Romantic era, such as Louis Spohr (1784-1859) and Muzio Clementi (1752-1832). The rediscovery of the symphonies of these composers is largely a phenomenon of the late 20th century as well as the 21st. And in some ways it is a curious re-emergence, particularly in the case of Spohr, whose works were so well-regarded in his time that Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado contains a line about “Bach, interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven.” The very fine CPO recording in which Howard Griffiths leads Spohr’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies – along with his overture to a stage work called Der Matrose (“The Sailor”) – puts Spohr’s strengths fully on display as well as hinting at the reasons his music did not have much staying power after his death. Spohr’s Symphony No. 4 (1832) is called Die Weihe der Töne, “The Consecration of Sounds,” and is an avowed attempt to produce a new symphonic form through musical illustration of the eponymous poem by Carl Pfeiffer (1803-1831). Pfeiffer was librettist for two Spohr operas, and Spohr created his Fourth Symphony partly as a tribute after his friend’s death and partly as an entry into the burgeoning controversy about the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of “program music.” This is an argument long since settled; and indeed, in the symphonic realm, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique was written two years before Spohr’s Fourth. But it was a lively topic in musical and intellectual circles in the 1830s, and Spohr’s Fourth – a huge success when first performed, even among those who did not care for program music – helped make the debates about tone-painting even livelier. The work as a whole is very well made and has some innovative elements (notably in the martial third movement and gentle finale), but to modern ears – and even to those of the late 19th century – its pedestrian portions outnumber its unusual ones. The lack of familiarity with Pfeiffer’s poem (fortunately presented by CPO in both German and English) also makes it hard to find Spohr’s Fourth fully involving. His Fifth was also a well-received work (although less so than the Fourth), and it too is crafted expertly – but here the reason for its lack of durability in the repertoire is fairly easy to explain. In this symphony (and also in his Third), Spohr was overtly looking for an alternative to Beethoven’s approach to symphonic structure – and in so doing invited comparisons with Beethoven, which did not work to Spohr’s benefit. Spohr wanted symphonies of dignity and close-knit development rather than the somewhat sprawling and (by the standards of the time) ill-mannered ones that Beethoven produced. The Fifth certainly works well by Spohr’s own standards – but it tends to sound somewhat stodgy and even prim, lacking not only Beethoven’s innovative approaches but also the forthright emotionalism of other Romantic-era symphonies. The monothematic overture to Der Matrose is as well-ordered and carefully assembled as the symphonies heard here, and all this music is interesting in its historical context; but none of it is likely to raise Spohr’s reputation much above its current modest level.
Clementi was not the symphonist that Spohr was: Clementi’s four surviving mature symphonies were not even published in the composer’s lifetime. Nor was Clementi much interested in striving for new symphonic forms or moving ahead in new directions. His symphonies show him to be a transitional figure, largely wedded to the structures and harmonies of the past, handling them well and producing pleasant, eminently listenable works tied closely to those of their direct antecedents, Mozart and Haydn. Clementi’s Third, which makes considerable use of the tune “God Save the King” as a theme and as a result is known as “The Grand National,” is in many ways his most interesting symphony: the popular tune is not only developed skillfully in the second movement but also brought in as an “interruption” in the third and then used as part of the thematic grouping in the finale. The Fourth Symphony, like the Third, is well organized and conventionally assembled – and the same may be said of the Overture in C, which is actually the opening movement of a symphony that is now lost. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia plays the symphonies and overture with straightforward skill, and the Naxos sound is quite good. All these works are reconstructions, made in the 1970s by Pietro Spada; the original manuscripts have long since disappeared. Whatever their provenance, these pieces fit well into the time of their composition and into what is known of Clementi’s compositional style – and they are quite pleasant to hear, even if they are scarcely earthshaking in any way.
Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was earthshaking for its composer, in a sense – and not a good one. The work was a disaster at its première in 1897 and not heard again until after Rachmaninoff’s death – although it has since become reasonably popular. The symphony’s failure led Rachmaninoff to abandon composition entirely for a time, not returning to it until after his famous treatment with hypnotherapy and psychotherapy by Nikolai Dahl in 1900. The likely differences in Rachmaninoff’s creative life if this symphony had succeeded, even modestly, are impossible to know, but there is no question that its failure became a seminal event in Rachmaninoff’s future endeavors as conductor and pianist as well as his eventual return to composition. Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony get the youthful exuberance of the symphony right in their new recording, although Slatkin does not cope especially well with the work’s sprawl and its tendency to meander, wandering off its emotional track for a while before finding its way back. The orchestra plays well but without the sumptuous string tone and warm brass that would fit Rachmaninoff – particularly this symphony – to better effect. Therefore, this well-recorded Naxos CD, which completes Slatkin’s Rachmaninoff symphonic cycle, gets a (+++) rating. The symphony is paired with The Isle of the Dead, a highly atmospheric and suitably gloomy tone poem pervaded by the Dies irae that Rachmaninoff used so often. Slatkin handles it skillfully, although it is less evocative than it can be: the ghostly stillness with which it begins and ends, for example, is here on the matter-of-fact side. These are good but not particularly idiomatic presentations of significant works for which Slatkin seems to have some affinity, but not enough for complete involvement.
October 24, 2013
Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled: How Do We Know What Dinosaurs Really Looked Like? By Catherine Thimmesh. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.
The Dolphins of Shark Bay. By Pamela S. Turner. Photographs by Scott Tuason. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.
The subtitle of Catherine Thimmesh’s fascinating book about paleoart – that is, artists’ renderings of the appearance of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures – is one of those very good questions that ought to be asked more frequently than they are. How do we know what dinosaurs looked like? Many people who are interested in dinosaurs know that views of the ancient creatures that dominated Earth for 200 million years have changed dramatically over time, with recent scientific analyses indicating that they were warm-blooded and frequently had feathers being only the latest modifications of prior views of the dinosaur world. But few people really think about how the illustrations of dinosaurs, ubiquitous everywhere from scientific treatises to children’s books, have changed as our knowledge of the deep past has improved. Thimmesh uses illustrations by six modern renderers of dinosaur appearance to show how today’s expert artists show dinosaurs, how these artists’ own conceptions have changed as knowledge has increased, and how today’s pictures of dinosaurs and their world differ, often dramatically, from those done in the past. The six are Stephen Czerkas, Sylvia Czerkas, Mark Hallett (who coined the term “paleoart”), Tyler Keillor, Greg Paul and John Sibbick. These are not well-known names outside their rarefied field, but their illustrations are pervasive in works from the technical to the entertaining. The husband-and-wife Czerkas team, for example, created the models that were used for the raptors in the movie Jurassic Park – but this book shows that more-recent science leads to an entirely different look for those dinosaurs, and the juxtaposition of the two renditions is extremely striking. So is the difference between a famous 1901 drawing of a hulking Triceratops by Charles R. Knight – contrasted with Hallett’s portrayal of active, agile Triceratops whose appearance is so different that they almost seem to be different animals from Knight’s altogether. And then there is the revelation that no single skeleton of a Triceratops has ever been discovered: the well-known specimens in museums worldwide are composites made from partial specimens. Thimmesh’s book is filled with narrative revelations like this, as well as fascinating information about illustration. Apatosaurus, for example, is traditionally shown wallowing in swampland – but no fossils have ever been found in ancient waterbeds, and the consensus today is that this was a land-dwelling dinosaur. And Seismosaurus, possibly the longest dinosaur of all, is known only from a single skeleton. Packed with pictures and facts, Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled is a fascinating look at how little we know about animals about which we think we know a great deal. It is a book about how much scientists and artists alike can do with what is really only a small amount of information. And it is about the limitations of even the best investigations of the deep past: Thimmesh devotes a chapter to the color of dinosaurs, which with current technology is simply impossible to know, rendering every single drawing of them speculative in this important regard. Three Sibbick renditions of Parasaurolophus make the point in visually stunning fashion while Thimmesh makes it in clear prose and the artists address it directly, as in this comment by Paul: “‘Except for the improbability of gaudy colors like pink and purple, any pattern is both speculative and possible.’” There are many, many dinosaur books out there, nearly all of them amply illustrated. Readers of Thimmesh’s book will see all those others in a new way.
There are many books about dolphins available, too, but in this case as well a new Houghton Mifflin release will have readers looking at the animals in a different way. The Dolphins of Shark Bay is about the only known tool-using dolphins on Earth, ones that find and tear off sponges, use them to uncover edible fish, drop the sponges to eat the fish, remember where they dropped the sponges so they can go back and get them again, and then repeat the process. These dolphins live in the waters off Australia and have been studied for more than 25 years by a research team led by Janet Mann, whose work is at the center of this entry in the always-excellent “Scientists in the Field” series. Pamela S. Turner provides some basic biographical information on Mann, who initially studied baboons before becoming enthralled by dolphins, and then gets into details of what Mann has learned about these highly intelligent aquatic mammals. For example, Mann discovered that humans were unwittingly raising infant mortality rates among one group of dolphins, at a place called Monkey Mia, by feeding them: dolphin mothers who took food from people learned to beg from beachgoers and boaters, but did not spend enough time nursing their calves or protecting them from sharks. As a result, the calves had a high mortality rate: “Monkey Mia’s baby dolphins starved in a stew of good intentions.” This is a nuanced book, scarcely a condemnation of human behavior toward dolphins, but it is also a book that shows again and again just how delicate – and amazing – the balance of nature can be. Scott Tuason’s photographs bring the scientific research to life in truly remarkable ways: a dolphin leaps high out of the water, possibly to dislodge an irritating lamprey or possibly just for fun; a shark makes a meal of a dugong carcass; a newborn dolphin calf pops above water to breathe; a dolphin hydroplanes in the shallows to catch a fish; another holds a trumpet shell out of the water and shakes it. These and other photos, along with Turner’s narrative, never quite answer a question posed early in the book: why are dolphins intelligent? This is a query with profound implications – after all, sharks have small brains, as Turner points out, but are extremely successful in evolutionary terms. Brain power is only one survival strategy – one to which we humans gravitate, since we share it, but not necessarily the “best” in any significant way. Turner ends the book with a discussion of whether dolphins can be said to have culture, and what “having culture” really means. Mann has, of course, thought long and hard about this, and although neither she nor Turner offers or can offer a definitive answer to the question, Mann certainly has enough understanding to make a trenchant observation: “‘The dolphins’ interactions with each other,’ she says, ‘are far richer, more complex, and more interesting than any interactions they have with us.’” The Dolphins of Shark Bay raises some difficult and unanswerable questions about these marine mammals – questions that scientists like Mann study for nearly a lifetime without finding answers, but while learning a great deal about some of the other inhabitants of Earth and sharing that knowledge through sensitively written, beautifully illustrated books like this one.
The Invisible Boy. By Trudy Ludwig. Illustrated by Patrice Barton. Knopf. $16.99.
Lucky Dog: Twelve Tales of Rescued Dogs. Scholastic. $15.99.
The title The Invisible Boy conjures up images of superheroes, of comic-book-style escapades, of great battles between good and evil. It certainly does not make a reader expect the gentle and touching story that Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton actually produce. For this is the tale of a boy who is not really invisible but who feels invisible –largely ignored and occasionally mocked by classmates, receiving little attention from his teacher because of his quiet unobtrusiveness, and being left out of everyday activities because he just doesn’t seem to be there. Much has been made recently of overt bullying and attempts to stop it, but what happens in The Invisible Boy is something subtler and in its own way equally painful. Brian is simply treated by most people as if he does not exist, receiving neither the positive attention of those who excel nor the negative focus of those who act out. Ludwig gives Brian a special talent: he likes to draw, creating superheroes “with the power to make friends wherever they go.” But Ludwig stops short of making the story maudlin: she finds a way out of invisibility for Brian when a new student, Justin, joins the class, and Brian, who is sweet and good-hearted but just not very attention-getting, uses one of his drawings to make Justin, who is Korean, feel welcome after other students mock the bulgogi he brings for lunch. Justin soon gets included in school activities, while Brian remains invisible to the other students – but Justin insists on starting to include Brian, and soon, Brian’s talents begin to blossom and he becomes more and more visible. Literally so: Barton moves the story along visually with great skill, initially showing Brian in thin black-and-white amid the colors of school life, then gradually filling him in and filling him out as he is accepted and noticed by more and more classmates, until he is finally just as visible and colorful as they and participates to the same degree. The Invisible Boy is quite clearly intended as a teaching tool: Ludwig, a frequent speaker on bullying prevention, includes discussion questions and recommended readings for kids and adults at the end. And yes, the book is somewhat on the preachy and obvious side in some of its narration. But it highlights a real issue for many families, works on its own as a well-wrought story, and (thanks to Barton) really shows what left-out children feel like – potentially making it easier for families to discuss the fears and worries of real-life Brians.
Kids who are left out and dogs that are left out can make a great combination: children not fortunate enough to have a Justin through whom they can make peer connections may find themselves feeling much more a part of everyday life thanks to a canine in the family. Indeed, one story in Lucky Dog, C. Alexander London’s “Big Dogs,” is specifically about bullying and the breakthrough that an adopted dog brings to a boy named Simon who is teased mercilessly because he sometimes lisps. This is one of the dozen stories, by a baker’s dozen authors, in a book that works better than many anthologies because the tales (tails?) are genuinely connected through the Pawley Rescue Center, a fictional and almost too-good-to-be-true place where rescued dogs await the permanent homes that they find with entirely appropriate families throughout the book. Would that all pounds, kennels and rescue centers were as effective as Pawley, and staffed by so many wonderful, caring and deeply involved people as the ones in this book! And would that all potential adopters were as sensitive to the needs of lost and abandoned animals as are the families here! In Marlane Kennedy’s “Package Deal,” for example, two rescued dogs have bonded, but a family can only afford to adopt one – and that dog, Bagley, so misses his shelter friend, Lena, that the family realizes Bagley must go back to the shelter. But then Rudy, the boy who chose Bagley, arranges to have Lena adopted by the next-door neighbor by promising to help with all aspects of Lena’s care, and the neighbor agrees, and so two dogs are adopted; and Rudy is true to his word; and everything works out beautifully. Sometimes life would be a lot better if it imitated art, and it is wonderful to report that all royalties from sales of Lucky Dog, an estimated $0.22 to $1.60 per copy, are being donated to an animal-welfare nonprofit group called RedRover. But of course that will not be the reason most people will buy this heartwarming story collection. The stories work as stories, not merely as teaching tools – much as The Invisible Boy works on its own despite its larger agenda. In Lucky Dog, there is Leslie Margolis’ “Bird Dog and Jack,” in which a boy whose parents have divorced gets a dog for his 11th birthday and realizes that, even though times will be difficult for the split-up family, for now he can count on some stability. There is Tui T. Sutherland’s amusing story from a dog’s point of view, “The Incredibly Important True Story of Me!” – in which the self-described “Pomeranian Perfection Personified” and his very best canine friend get to go home together with just the right family. Other contributing authors are Kirby Larson, Ellen Miles, Teddy Slater, Michael Northrop, Randi Barrow, Jane B. Mason & Sarah Hines Stephens, Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, and Allan Woodrow. Story after story explores the wonderfulness of human-canine bonding and the importance of adopting from a shelter, a teachable moment for parents who may be understandably upset because President Obama’s family, like far too many others, chose not to adopt even though shelters have large numbers of purebreds as well as mixed breeds. Lucky Dog is filled with stories of dogs lucky enough to be chosen to go home with just the right families – but the book could just as well have been called Lucky Human, for this is a relationship that decidedly works both ways.
Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses. By Kimberly and James Dean. Illustrated by James Dean. Harper. $17.99.
Fancy Nancy: Apples Galore! By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Ted Enik. Harper. $16.99.
Fancy Nancy: Budding Ballerina. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Carolyn Bracken. HarperFestival. $3.99.
One Direction: Where We Are—Our Band, Our Story. Harper. $21.99.
Here are some books aimed squarely at existing fan bases – not deep, not at the height of the authors’ creativity, but certainly enjoyable for those who just cannot get enough of the characters, human and otherwise. “Otherwise” would include Pete the Cat, the sad-eyed but usually peppy creation of Kimberly and James Dean, whose adventure in Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses is nothing particularly special but will be amusing for kids in the target age range of 4-8 – especially the younger half of that age grouping. The whole story here involves “COOL, BLUE, MAGIC sunglasses” that cheer Pete up when he is feeling down – after he gets them from Grumpy Toad, who is not grumpy on this particular day, thanks to the sunglasses. Pete feels much better with the glasses on, and goes along using them to cheer up Squirrel, Turtle and Alligator. Upon donning the sunglasses, each character proclaims in identical language how good things now seem – the exact repetition is one reason the book will appeal mainly to very young readers – and each finishes the comment with a grammatically incorrect, “I’m feeling ALRIGHT!” Surely it would not have hurt the Deans to make that word, correctly, into two, ALL RIGHT. But instead it is emphasized, in capital letters, in all its incorrect glory, repeatedly. Ah well. As for the story, Pete eventually breaks the glasses, but then finds out that he didn’t need them anyway: Wise Old Owl tells him, “‘Just remember to look for the good in every day.’” This is a little sappy and not at all surprising, but it buttons up the book nicely enough, and the final illustration – showing all the characters on skateboards except for Grumpy Toad, who is riding a motorcycle – is a high point. The final non-word, “ALRIGHT,” is not.
The verbiage is just fine, if not quite as fancy as usual, in two spinoffs of the Fancy Nancy series by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser – who does the covers for both these books, but not the interior illustrations. Fancy Nancy is a wonderful character, bubbly and ebullient and enamored of all things French and of all sorts of big words. Her personality is shrunken somewhat in these two books, though, because they are designed for early readers – again, ages 4-8, with special appeal, most likely, to those in the younger half of that age spread. Apples Galore! is a Level 1 book in the “I Can Read!” series – written with “simple sentences for eager new readers,” like other books at the same level. There are a few slightly fancy words here – autumn, orchard, tasty – but they are scarcely at Nancy’s usual “fanciness” level, which would not work for this age group. Nancy herself narrates the book but is not its focus: a troublemaking classmate, Lionel, is the central character, “crying wolf” repeatedly during a field trip and then getting into some real (but mild) trouble requiring a rescue by Nancy and Ms. Glass, the kids’ teacher. Nancy herself is a more-attractive central character than she has a chance to be here. She is at the center of Budding Ballerina, but her at-home performance focuses as much on her dad’s clumsiness as on Nancy herself – again, a bit of a miscalculation in terms of the book’s structure. In fact, Glasser’s cover – showing Nancy, her little sister, JoJo, and the family dog, Frenchy – portrays a more-interesting scene than anything that actually happens in the story. Nancy and ballet would seem to go well together – Nancy’s fondness for tutus is one element of her considerable charm – but this tale falls a bit flat, even though it does contain, of necessity, some “fancy” ballet terms (en pointe, arabesque, pirouette and others).
Well, there is certainly no question about where the focus is in the thick and handsome hardcover, One Direction: Where We Are—Our Band, Our Story. This is strictly, 100% for devoted fans of Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan and Zayn Malik. The band members may or may not have had something to do with writing the book – no author is credited, but there is a legal statement to the effect that “One Direction assert the moral right to be identified as the authors of this work.” There’s not all that much to the writing, in any case – no one is going to buy this book for the deathless prose or the entirely ordinary comments: “We’ve been so lucky because we’ve been able to go to some incredible places.” “Wherever we go the fans are always amazing, and they mean everything to us.” “I think with every album we get more and more confident with our sound.” No, the words are not the thing here – the photos are what fans will want. And there are lots and lots of them, serious ones and clowning ones, on-stage ones and behind-the-scenes ones, ones of the band performing and ones of its members relaxing, ones of fans (including a delightful one of two teenage girls flanking their grandmother, or maybe great-grandmother, who is proudly wearing a “One Direction” T-shirt) and ones of instruments. The extreme closeups will let fans gaze longingly at their personal favorite heartthrob, and the smiles and laughter shown repeatedly in group and individual photos will let fans fantasize about how wonderful the band’s life must be. Bands like One Direction come and go, often going even more quickly than they arrive – especially in our media-saturated age, when the next big thing always waits just around the corner to displace the current big thing. Still, One Direction fans who are living strictly in the here-and-now, and want a great big souvenir of this particular time over which they can ooh and aah, will not be one bit disappointed in One Direction: Where We Are—Our Band, Our Story. And of course, they alone are the people for whom the book was created and, like the band itself, neatly packaged.
We Are What We Pretend to Be: The First and Last Works. By Kurt Vonnegut. Da Capo. $12.99.
Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code—The Graphic Novel. Adapted by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin. Art by Giovanni Rigano. Color by Paolo Lamanna. Disney/Hyperion. $19.99.
The Heir Chronicles IV: The Enchanter Heir. By Cinda Williams Chima. Hyperion. $18.99.
The late movie critic Judith Crist made an interesting distinction between “masterpiece” and “masterwork.” The former, she believed, was just what most people think it is: something superlative in its field. But the latter, she thought, was not a synonym for “masterpiece” but the description of a work by a master that was scarcely of masterpiece quality. This is what comes to mind when reading We Are What We Pretend to Be, which contains the novella Basic Training, written by Kurt Vonnegut two years before Player Piano was published, and the piece-of-a-novel If God Were Alive Today, which scarcely stands on its own and even in its existing form could use some polishing. Neither of these works is polished, the early one because it is a rather cloying piece of juvenilia and the late one because Vonnegut did not live to do much with it. Certainly Vonnegut’s legions of fans will welcome the chance to read his earliest, previously unpublished work, and the one he was working on when he died in 2007 at the age of 84. And certainly both of these works have some attractions. Basic Training is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story whose pacing and characterization are far more interesting than its decidedly mundane plot. If God Were Alive Today features some trademark Vonnegut acerbity in its budding portrait of a comedian who, like Vonnegut himself, looks primarily to seriousness and tragedy for sources of humor; and this snippet of what would have been a novel includes some very pointed dialogue sections written as if for the stage (where one can imagine they might have eventually ended up). Nevertheless, We Are What We Pretend to Be, whose title is taken from one of Vonnegut’s more-famous assertions, is thin gruel even for Vonnegut fans, offering sidelights on his brilliance rather than anything that speaks firmly to it. A masterwork, then, but surely no masterpiece.
Whether Eoin Colfer’s eight-book Artemis Fowl series is a “master” anything is a matter of opinion – although the novels are certainly written well and distinctively, and with plenty of flair designed to appeal primarily to a young-adult audience. The way the series eventually turns back on itself, the end becoming the beginning, is scarcely original but is well handled; and the characters of Artemis and some of his compatriots and enemies have more depth than in most SF/fantasy sequences, with Artemis himself changing personality and motivation as the series progresses (although, it must be said, not always completely convincingly). The series is being turned bit by bit into graphic novels, of which the first appeared in 2007 and the second in 2009. Now the third, Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code, is available, and although it is a worthy successor to the two previous adaptations, it is somewhat too talky and text-heavy to be a fully effective graphic-novel presentation. The events of the third novel – and therefore of the adaptation by Colfer and Andrew Donkin – revolve around the theft of the “C Cube” by Artemis’ enemy, Jon Spiro, and its eventual recovery. But the essentially simple plot is not the main point of the book. This is the novel in which Artemis’ bodyguard, Butler, is shot in the chest and almost dies, forcing Artemis to confront his criminal ways and his attitudes toward others with a new level of introspection. Holly Short eventually heals Butler, but he becomes substantially older in the process. And at the book’s end, both Butler and Artemis are mind-wiped by the Lower Elements Police – only to regain their memories in the next book. Being a middle-of-a-series book, The Eternity Code is not a good place for someone unfamiliar with the Artemis Fowl stories to enter into Colfer’s world; and this is as true for the graphic novel as for the original book. Those who already know Artemis, though, will enjoy the way he and the other characters – including Butler, Holly and Spiro – are portrayed by Giovanni Rigano, whose action scenes are effective even though he uses a very ordinary square-and-rectangular-panel design that makes this graphic novel seem more like an old-fashioned comic book. Paolo Lamanna’s colors are attractive but not always logical, as scenes change hue for no apparent reason and in ways that sometimes compromise their clarity. And while the considerable amount of dialogue is true to the original book and certainly in keeping with Colfer’s storytelling, it is just too much for a graphic novel, especially one printed in a rather small size (6¼ inches wide by 9¼ inches tall). One example among many: Spiro and two henchmen appear in a small panel (one-eighth of a page) along with four dialogue balloons – the result being so overcrowded that the characters are almost blocked by their dialogue. This is a perfectly fine adaptation but not a particularly distinguished one, and not a graphic novel that takes full advantage of the visual impact of which this medium is capable.
On the other hand, at least it is clear where The Eternity Code fits within the Artemis Fowl sequence. The Enchanter Heir occupies a much stranger position within the Heir Chronicles: it is the fourth book of a trilogy. The Warrior Heir (2006), The Wizard Heir (2007) and The Dragon Heir (2008) collectively made up an effective three-book group, with different central characters in each novel but enough commonalty of setting and approach to tie the trilogy together. Cinda Williams Chima created a world of colors for her books – not literally in the manner of graphic novels, but in ways that permeated the plots of the three works. Gold and silver for wizards, purple for enchanters, green for sorcerers, blue for warriors, red for soothsayers – the colors were practically characters of their own in the Heir Chronicles, and Chima’s use of them rendered what was essentially just another sword-and-sorcery epic more interesting than it would otherwise have been. It was so interesting, in fact, that Chima could not quite let go of it – or her fans could not, which amounts to the same thing. So she agreed to extend the sequence by two more books, The Enchanter Heir and a fifth book that may be called The Sorcerer Heir (although this is not a firm title). The Enchanter Heir is emphatically not a good series entry point, any more than The Eternity Code is in the Artemis Fowl sequence. A very great deal has occurred before The Enchanter Heir begins, and while Chima provides a brief Prologue, it by no means serves as an adequate introduction to her world. Nor could it, really: the Heir Chronicles are packed with characters and events, and the only way to keep up with everything is to read the series from the start (because even though the books have different central characters, the same characters appear again and again and are referred to even when they are not present). The protagonists of The Enchanter Heir are Jonah Kinlock, a 17-year-old assassin and survivor of the Thorn Hill Massacre, and Emma Claire Greenwood, who bursts into Jonah’s life after finding a note of warning in her dying grandfather’s hand. The two initially connect, rather amusingly, over a guitar that Emma has built – she is trained in music, not magic – and after some awkwardness in which both talk about music as being like sex, and a dramatic fight in which Emma ends up tied on the basement floor, it becomes clear to readers (if it has not already) that Jonah and Emma are destined, one way or another, for each other. Their encounter in the middle of the book sets the stage for the happenings in the second half, by the end of which the two protagonists know a great deal more about each other and are not on the best of terms, to put it mildly. And there Chima stops the book, rather too abruptly, making it clear that the next book will again have to use Jonah and Emma as protagonists – or at least very important characters. Heir Chronicles fans will relish this return to Chima’s world and the fast, sure pace of her writing, although the book’s rather contrived ending will frustrate those who would prefer a more definitive conclusion. Presumably that is what Chima will provide in the sequence’s fifth book – unless, of course, she decides that what was once a trilogy and is now a tetralogy deserves to grow even beyond its still-unwritten fifth entry.
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto; Kegelstatt Trio; Allegro in B-flat Major. Martin Fröst, basset clarinet and clarinet, and conducting the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (Concerto); Antoine Tamestit, viola; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano (Trio); Janine Jansen and Boris Brovtsyn, violins; Maxim Rysanov, viola; Torleif Thedéen, cello (Allegro). BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
Cherubini: Medea. Maria Callas, Joan Carlyle, Fiorenza Cosotto, Jon Vickers, Nicola Zaccaria, Mary Wells, Elizabeth Rust, David Allen; Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Nicola Rescigno. ICA Classics. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Elgar: Enigma Variations. BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.
Comparisons between the great performers of today and those of the past are moot: there is no way to know for sure how many of the best classical musicians of earlier times would stack up against ones trained in today’s concert halls and recording media. But there remains a fascination with famous names of the past, even as new generations of virtuoso performers draw greater attention from audiences whose members know little, if anything, about such famous musicians as Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein. Thus, it is best to consider a release such as the Mozart disk by clarinetist Martin Fröst entirely on its own, without comparing Fröst’s technique or interpretations to those of earlier first-rate clarinet virtuosi. Fröst is in fact a very considerable player by any standards, with excellent breath control and a lovely sense of line. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto receives from him a warm, flowing reading, perhaps not quite as sensitive to the nuances of period performance as are some renditions, but very well thought-through and performed with a highly attractive mixture of elegance and élan. Fröst himself is the conductor here, and he handles the role in fine fashion – although it must be said that the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is such a well-controlled ensemble that it scarcely needs a leader for this music. The remaining pieces on this excellent-sounding SACD are also played at a very high skill level. There is a fine sense of camaraderie, of the sheer enjoyment of sitting down to make wonderful music together, in the Kegelstatt Trio as performed by Fröst with Antoine Tamestit and Leif Ove Andsnes – indeed, this rather dark-hued work, in which clarinet and viola complement each other to such fine effect, here has a feeling of barely suppressed perkiness beneath the warmth of its sound. The short and rarely performed Allegro in B-flat Major (K Anh. 91) is also very nicely played, functioning as an encore of sorts and displaying Fröst’s ability to integrate his sound with that of a full string quartet. The only peculiarity of the disc is its short length, especially for the price: 54 minutes. Given the fact that Fröst, although a fine performer, is not exactly a marquee name in classical music, it would have been nice to showcase his abilities at greater length.
Maria Callas is a marquee name, even 35 years after her death, and those who continue to put her on a pedestal will rejoice at the ICA Classics release of her Covent Garden Medea from June 30, 1959. A monophonic recording under the direction of an undistinguished conductor, this release is really directed only at those who continue to idolize Callas or want to try to compare her voice with those of modern opera stars – despite all the inherent impossibilities of doing so. Callas did a tremendous amount with a voice that was not necessarily of the first water: she brought drama and intensity to everything she did, and Medea gave her a chance to emote in an over-the-top way that might even be a bit too much. With the exception of Jon Vickers, the remaining cast members in this production are adequate but not especially worthy of extended attention – so the opera, in which Medea is already the dominant figure, becomes even more a display piece for Callas than did other works. She certainly gives this performance her all, but unlike her acclaimed performance of a year earlier, this one shows evidence of some vocal strain, some difficulty handling the extended passages and the very considerable vocal demands that Cherubini created. It is by no means a bad performance – indeed, from a strictly dramatic standpoint, it is an excellent one – but some seams are showing in Callas’ voice, and in an opera as focused on her character as this one is, those seams appear more troubling than they otherwise might. This is a (+++) recording, its sound as well as its conducting quite adequate but scarcely outstanding, and it will be of greatest appeal to those with a particular interest in Callas and what all the fuss was, and continues to be, about her.
The Enigma Variations DVD featuring Leonard Bernstein and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is also a limited-appeal (+++) item, presenting a performance from April 14, 1982. Few classical-music lovers will relish spending $25 for a single, 39-minute piece, even one led by this conductor. In fact, this is a DVD whose bonus material may be what draws buyers: there is a 25-minute rehearsal of Elgar’s work shown, including an interview with Bernstein, who was always thoughtful and insightful about the music he led and is certainly so here. Even today, many music lovers think that the primary job of a conductor is to lead live concerts from the podium – when, in reality, the vast majority of a conductor’s work must be done before the performance, in exploring the nuances of the music and making sure the orchestral musicians understand exactly how a particular section should be phrased, accentuated and paced, and how that segment fits into the conductor’s total conception of the work. Bernstein was particularly adept at what is essentially a teaching role, and while the rehearsal excerpted here scarcely deals with all the rhythmic, pacing and balance elements of the Enigma Variations, it includes enough of them to give a fine sense of how careful and thoughtful an orchestra leader Bernstein was. His decisions were not always universally praised by musicians or critics, especially because of his overuse of rubato in many works, but they always sprang from careful study and high intelligence – some of which comes through on this DVD. Nevertheless, this is purely a specialty item, offering a single high-quality performance of one particular work and some insight into a famed conductor whose name means far less to the younger members of today’s classical-music audience than it did to listeners 25 years ago and more.
October 17, 2013
The Woodcutter Sisters, Book II: Hero. By Alethea Kontis. Harcourt. $17.99.
The Adventures of Gremlin. By DuPre Jones. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $17.95.
Recent decades have brought a substantial upsurge in consideration and reconsideration of fairy tales as stories for adults – which is what they were for centuries, before Victorian and post-Victorian sanitization. From Freudian interpretations to feminist critiques, the venerable oral histories and stories of wonder have been viewed, re-viewed and done to a turn to serve a bewildering variety of academic and sociopolitical agendas. One result has been the creation of all-new fairy tales that incorporate, accessorize, mock, expand or otherwise play upon the old ones of Perrault and the Grimm brothers – thus falling into the same category as the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, who created his own tales so effectively that many people still believe he merely retold existing ones. One of the very best contemporary authors to march in Andersen’s footsteps is Alethea Kontis, who has figured out how to give fairy tales some thoroughly modern twists while remaining true to their essential undercurrents and making them appealing to preteen and young teenage readers – whose sophistication today is at a level quite different from that of their peers just a few decades ago. Kontis’ Enchanted was an absolutely remarkable mashup of multiple fairy tales, twisted into a Möbius strip of a story whose romantic, heroic, magical and hilarious elements were constantly tripping over each other, to the delight of absolutely everyone (even including most of the book’s characters). It is wonderful that Kontis has decided to turn Enchanted into merely (merely?) the first book in a series called The Woodcutter Sisters, because the second book, Hero, is every bit as…well…enchanting as the first. The “back story” here is of the seven children of a not-so-simple woodcutter and his wife, whose name is Seven because she is the seventh child of her parents, whose contact with the fey provides the underlying magical connection for many of the happenings. Seven herself, who speaks little because her words have the force of commands whether she wants them to or not, has seven children of her own, their appearances and powers largely (but not entirely!) drawn from the old rhyme that begins, “Monday’s child is fair of face.” Kontis complicates matters thoroughly as she draws on, distorts, remakes and occasionally eviscerates the entire fairy-tale world. Enchanted was primarily the story of Sunday; Hero is primarily the tale of Saturday – tall, statuesque, lacking any magical abilities (she thinks), wishing for adventure, good with a sword (especially one that contains a bit of magic), hotheaded, unromantic and something of a whirlwind (whose mouth tends to run away with her, leaving her glad that her words do not have the force of commands). However, any reader who thinks he or she can figure out where Kontis is going with this combination of characteristics has not reckoned with just how good a writer Kontis is. For every expected element of Hero (Saturday wishes for adventure and finds when she gets it that it is not at all what she wished for), there are numerous unexpected ones (she gets stuck in a mountain so high that Time cannot reach it, where two of her companions are a young, somewhat enchanted skirt-wearing nobleman and a chimera that is repeatedly transformed into stranger and stranger two-creature combinations because of the misfiring, dragon-fueled magic of a blind witch). Mistaken identities and not-understood consequences abound in Hero, and the book is so fast-paced in so many directions that it would be a chore to follow if all the directions were not so tremendously entertaining. Hero is every bit as good as Enchanted – a high compliment. And it not only enthralls from start to finish but also whets one’s appetite for the next installment of this utterly captivating series – a higher compliment still.
There will be no followup to The Adventures of Gremlin, because both its creators have passed on – and that is a shame, because the oddly skewed and pun-filled world of this book is another fairy-tale delight, although admittedly a lesser one than that of Kontis’ novels. Note that the title does not refer to a gremlin: Gremlin is the name of the book’s protagonist, a little girl whose brother is named Zeppelin. And those are just mild examples of the peculiar sense of humor of DuPre Jones (1935-2012), whose sole published book is this one, which dates to 1966. The story is not quite as timeless as the best fairy tales – for example, 21st-century readers will likely not understand why the two kingdoms in the story are called Etaoin and Shrdlu, because few people today know what a linotype is and what those letter sequences signify (suffice it to say that they are roughly equivalent to Qwertyuiop and Asdfghjkl on a computer keyboard, but are thankfully easier to try to pronounce). But today’s readers will certainly enjoy Jones’ playfulness with a wide variety of fairy-tale tropes, from the unhappy, adventure-seeking children of a woodcutter (who, unlike Kontis’, is absent from the story), to a thoroughly untraditional fairy godmother who must be summoned with words that Gremlin cannot quite seem to remember, to a wombat much given to lantern-swinging and uttering quotations in Latin. Non-Latin speakers, which would include almost everybody, may find this last element a trifle off-putting; in fact, several characters in the book utter phrases in that elegant language, all of them untranslated; and there are a couple of equally untranslated comments tossed about in French as well. Jones uses his own erudition perhaps a trifle too much as a club to beat his readers about the head. But on the other hand, he is fond of thoroughly bad puns, such as the “buoys and gulls” that the adventuring children find at the seashore and a game in which pirates throw rocks at seabirds as their captain exhorts them to “leave no tern unstoned.” The Adventures of Gremlin is not a book for children, although it has children as its central characters, and in this way it does bear a strong resemblance to traditional fairy tales. The appearance of a giant and a black knight fits the old models, too, as does the discovery – likely to no one’s surprise – that Gremlin is really the princess of Etaoin, abandoned as a baby and then discovered in a thoroughly biblical (specifically Mosaic) way. On the other hand, a bear licensed to eat traitors and a poet who writes really awful limericks and then attributes deep meaning to them are characters right out of Jones’ offbeat imagination. And speaking of offbeat, one truly timeless and completely delightful element of The Adventures of Gremlin is its visualization by Edward Gorey (1925-2000), whose illustrations of the major and minor characters are often laugh-out-loud hilarious (“the muse of mal de mer” and an incongruously dressed pirate leader with one wooden leg and one very hairy flesh-and-blood one are two of the latter). Gorey fans will relish his handling of the portrayal of the Red Cross Knight, whom Gremlin accompanies as he attempts to overcome the seven deadly sins and, falling one short, decides to go back and explore the ones he missed. The skeletal children who “go by the names of the maladies” they contract in a dungeon where Gremlin is held for a time give Gorey a chance to show the “walking cadaver” look with which he is often identified, but it is the touches of humor that are more noteworthy here: the constantly changing words on Zeppelin’s clothing, for example, and the peculiar creature that Gremlin imagines to be the secret admirer with whom she falls in love after he writes her a series of “singularly moving and simple” but decidedly illiterate letters. The Adventures of Gremlin is a pleasure and an oddity, perhaps not in that order – a small book that takes its fairy-tale heritage quite a bit less than seriously and, as a result, produces quite a bit more amusement than it otherwise might.