January 30, 2014
A Baby Elephant in the Wild. By Caitlin O’Connell. Photographs by Caitlin O’Connell & Timothy Rodwell. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Scholastic “Discover More”: Dolphins. By Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris. Scholastic. $7.99.
The Little Duck. By Judy Dunn. Photographs by Phoebe Dunn. Random House. $6.99.
The Little Rabbit. By Judy Dunn. Photographs by Phoebe Dunn. Random House. $6.99.
Jasper & Joop: A Perfect Pair—One Tidy, One Messy. By Olivier Dunrea. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Striking photographs and straightforward text combine to provide young readers with fascinating information on such animals as elephants and dolphins – and even the more-mundane ducks and rabbits – in a variety of attractive new books. A Baby Elephant in the Wild features remarkable photos of a just-born elephant calf – remarkable because witnessing an elephant birth in the animals’ natural habitat is rare. Caitlin O’Connell, who has studied elephants for more than two decades, focuses on the new baby, Liza, using her to tell young readers what elephants are like from birth through their early life. O’Connell explains that Liza weighs 250 pounds at birth and will double in weight within three months. Then, with spare text and plenty of fascinating photos taken by herself and Timothy Rodwell, O’Connell shows how elephant herds protect and care for babies, and explains the challenges that even the largest land animal faces – from lions to poachers and deforestation. O’Connell is writing for very young children and does not delve deeply into these issues, but she also does not simplify or sugar-coat them, noting, for example, that elephants “could eat a small farmer’s whole crop in one night, leaving the farmer’s family with no food for the year. This makes sharing land with elephants difficult for farmers.” Most of the book, though, is strictly about the elephants themselves, not their relationship with humans. O’Connell includes such interesting information as the fact that elephants continue to grow throughout their lives and that their closest land relative is a small rodent called the rock dassie. Most of the book’s considerable attraction, though, comes from the chance to see elephants in their native habitat – and observe how they care for the youngest members of their herds.
The story of dolphins in a Scholastic “Discover More” book also features photos of the animals in the wild, but this book’s structure is quite different. Like all the works in this series, it is a highly visual introduction to its topic, with tidbits of information scattered around pages dominated by multiple photos. As in O’Connell’s book, there is a lot to learn here, ranging from the fact that dolphin pods normally have 15 to 20 members to the observation that the orca, one of the greatest enemies of dolphins, is in fact the biggest dolphin of them all. There are 42 kinds of dolphins, and this book shows pictures of many of them, including river dolphins (smaller than ocean dolphins but with longer snouts – and sometimes colored pink) and the recently discovered Burrunan dolphin (found in Australian waters). As with the story of elephants, that of dolphins includes references to the animals’ relationship with humans – both positive and negative. But in this book too, the focus is on the animals rather than on people, and the fascinating photos are the best part by far, showing dolphins herding fish into a tight ball so they can pick them off more easily, using clicks and whistles to communicate, tending their calves, and playing games such as chase and catch (using a piece of seaweed). Young readers will have a new appreciation of these intelligent water-dwelling mammals after reading this book – and can learn even more from a free digital companion book available for download by entering a code found in the printed work.
The animals are more-common ones and the photos are intended to provide an “aww” factor of cuteness rather than to communicate substantial information in two books from Random House’s “Phoebe Dunn Collection”: The Little Duck, originally published in longer form in 1976, and The Little Rabbit, which dates to 1980 and has also been abridged for this new edition. The new board-book versions of these books retain all the works’ charm. The duck is seen hatching, growing bit by bit, sitting on the family dog’s back, interacting with a chicken, rabbit and goat, and eventually encountering a girl duck and swimming happily with her in a pond. The text here is thin, trying for an anthropomorphized story about Henry the duck searching for a friend, but the toddlers at whom the book is aimed will have more fun with the photos than with the story the pictures are supposed to be illustrating. The same is true for The Little Rabbit, in which a girl named Sarah has a bunny named Buttercup that she loves – but one day in the meadow, Sarah falls asleep and Buttercup wanders away, encountering a turtle and butterfly before it starts to rain and the bunny runs for cover and becomes “stuck between some stalks.” Sarah soon rescues her and all ends happily, in a book that does not even attempt to provide as much information on a rabbit’s life as The Little Duck provides about a duckling’s – but that is every bit as warm and heartfelt.
And speaking of warmth, Olivier Dunrea’s entirely fictional books about goslings are just as cute and sweet as anything in the “Phoebe Dunn Collection.” But they are books drawn as well as written by Dunrea – nothing photographic here. Jasper & Joop: A Perfect Pair—One Tidy, One Messy, originally published last year, is just as much fun now that it is available in board-book form. The simple story of two best-friend goslings, one “who likes to be tidy” and one “who likes to be messy,” features predictable minor mishaps with puddles, piglets, mud, chicks and, eventually, a beehive, into which Joop just has to poke his bill – resulting in a madcap chase, through which Jasper learns that being messy is sometimes necessary and not really so bad, while Joop finds out that getting cleaned up is also no big deal. The goslings have so much fun together that it is easy to see why they are best friends despite their differing personalities – which is, of course, exactly the point that Dunrea is making in this gentle, amusing little fable, with which parents will have a fine time entertaining infants and children up to around age three.
Ten Eggs in a Nest. By Marilyn Sadler. Illustrated by Michael Fleming. Random House. $9.99.
Max Makes a Cake. By Michelle Edwards. Illustrated by Charles Santoso. Random House. $17.99.
Here are two coming-of-spring books for kids ages 3-7 – but not just any kids. Ten Eggs in a Nest is a “Bright and Early” book, which means its simple story is written in super-simple and repetitive language, the aim being to have parents read the book to young children – who will then become intrigued by the pictures and the large, easy-to-read words, and will use the book as a springboard to reading on their own. This is a “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” book with an amusing twist that turns it into a counting book as well. The easy-to-follow story line has Red Rooster excited about becoming a father after Gwen the hen lays eggs – but Gwen says it’s bad luck to count the eggs before they hatch, so Red Rooster doesn’t know how many chicks there will be. When one pecks its way through the shell of its egg, Red goes to the market to buy the chick a worm. But then two more chicks appear – Red needs two more worms. And then three additional chicks show up, and then four more, so Red goes to the market again and again, his trips described in virtually the same language each time, making it easy for pre-readers and the youngest readers to follow along. Eventually Red, Gwen and their 10 chicks start to settle into their nest and, of course, everything ends happily, providing young children with a pleasant platform for an early reading adventure.
Intended specifically for Jewish children in the same age range, Max Makes a Cake is about the springtime celebration of Passover – which coincides, in Max’s house, with his mother’s birthday. Max and his father want to make a surprise birthday cake for Mommy, but baby Trudy keeps acting up, so Daddy has to leave the kitchen to settle her down for a nap. Max waits as patiently as he can, until he finally can stand it no more and decides to create a cake by himself. Since he cannot use the oven on his own – but, this being Passover, there is plenty of matzoh around – Max concocts a matzoh-based cake with frosting made from cream cheese and jam. Of course, the cake is a big success, and everything ends well; and the book weaves information on Passover, matzoh, the biblical story of the Jews’ flight from Egypt, and the Four Questions asked at the seder meal into the cake-making story. There is even a recipe for the matzoh-based cake at the end. Jewish families are clearly the expected audience for this book, although non-Jewish parents wanting an easy-to-understand introduction to Jewish traditions for their children’s Jewish friends will find it enjoyable as well. The cake-making story is simply told and simply illustrated, and the back of the book provides a one-paragraph version of the Passover tale. However, the Four Questions asked at the seder table, to which the cake story refers and which are also mentioned at the book’s end, are never given in full or explained, limiting the book’s usefulness as a teaching tool. As a result, Max Makes a Cake is more for fun than for learning.
Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 13. The Central Band of the RAF conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $9.99.
Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony No. 12, “In memoriam D. Shostakovich”; The Golden Key—Ballet Suite No. 4. St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos. $9.99.
Sarasate: Music for Violin and Piano, Volume 4—Transcriptions and Arrangements of Works by Moritz Moszkowski, Chopin, Jean-Pierre Guignon, Jean-Joseph de Mondonville, Jean-Marie Leclair, Handel, Jean-Baptiste Senaillé, Bach, and Joachim Raff. Tianwa Yang, violin; Markus Hadulla, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Panorama Argentino—Piano Music of Argentina, Volume 2. Mirian Conti, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
The 13th volume in Naxos’ excellent series of the music of John Philip Sousa proves yet again, if more proof were necessary, that the “march king” was far more than a maker of marches. It also proves yet again that his quintessentially American music has considerable international resonance – something Sousa himself showed during his band’s many world tours and something that conductor Keith Brion is now demonstrating by conducting a series of bands outside the United States. This time, instead of the Royal Swedish Navy Band heard on the last two volumes or the Royal Norwegian Navy Band heard on the two before those, Brion conducts the United Kingdom’s Central Band of the RAF, which proves every bit as adept as the Swedish and Norwegian ones in Sousa’s music – and every bit as attuned to these works as any American band would be. There are several world première recordings here that show Sousa to be as clever and tuneful in his less-known works as in his better-known ones: the overture to an 1879 operetta called Katherine; an excerpt called Mama and Papa from Sousa’s 1899 retelling of the Aladdin story, Chris and the Wonderful Lamp; waltzes known as Paroles D’Amour from 1880; and two works from 1923: a humoresque for a comedy duo called Gallagher and Shean and a pastiche of popular and march tunes called When Navy Ships Are Coaling. Every one of these heretofore unrecorded works is reflective of Sousa’s creativity and essentially bright outlook on music and on life – but not all the pieces here are light. President Garfield’s Inaugural March and President Garfield’s Funeral March “In Memoriam” both date to 1881, when Garfield was assassinated four months after his inauguration, and while the first of these works is suitably grand and lyrical, the second is a moving dirge that shows how deeply Garfield’s death must have affected the composer. This 13th Sousa volume also offers four early marches that have been recorded from time to time but are scarcely common fare: Occidental March (1887), Mother Goose March (1883), Resumption March (1879) and White Plume March (1884). Also here is the late Camera Studies—Suite, a three-movement work from 1920 that includes a Spanish dance, a lyrical interlude and a bright and happy conclusion in the positive mode that listeners generally associate with Sousa, even though this top-notch series has shown him to be anything but a one-dimensional composer.
Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) was a substantial composer as well, writing at more length and with greater depth than Sousa did and justifying his reputation as the third great Soviet-era composer, after Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Naxos has not officially announced a Weinberg series, but it has been releasing a few of his 19 numbered symphonies along with a selection of his other orchestral music, with CDs including the Sixth and Nineteenth conducted by Vladimir Lande and one containing the Eighth conducted by Antoni Wit. A new Naxos disc is the third featuring Lande, and this time the symphony is especially significant, having been written in 1976 in memory of Shostakovich, who was a major supporter of Weinberg’s music and his close friend for three decades, and who died in August 1975. This hour-long work is not only massive but also very close structurally to many of Shostakovich’s symphonies, and the elements of its tribute to the older composer are many and varied – and subtle enough so they will not all be obvious to listeners. There are, for example, various uses of the D-S-C-H monogram that Shostakovich incorporated into many of his works, and there are many touches of themes and orchestration that are drawn from Shostakovich’s works and draw upon them structurally if not in any overt imitative sense. Weinberg’s Symphony No. 12 is recognizably “Shostakovich-ian” without being a forthright tribute: it is a highly worthy work in its own right as well as a heartfelt memorial to a major influence on Weinberg’s music. Lande conducts it feelingly and with fine attention to detail – and its seriousness is well balanced by the fourth of four suites drawn from Weinberg’s The Golden Key, one of the composer’s two surviving ballets. A satirical work in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, but with many distinctly Russian elements and music that often recalls the theatrical productions of both Shostakovich and Prokofiev, this is a lively and amusing work that, on the basis of its fourth suite, is filled with character pieces that flit by quickly while evoking amusement, lyricism, rustic dances, humor and geniality. The light ballet suite makes a fine complement to Weinberg’s weighty Twelfth Symphony while confirming, as has each of these Naxos releases, that Weinberg is worthy of high regard among 20th-century composers.
Two other new series entries, from Naxos and Steinway & Sons respectively, offer music that is much less consequential. They therefore get (+++) ratings, even though the works are performed with consummate skill. The fourth and last CD in Naxos’ series of violin-and-piano music by Pablo Sarasate is entirely devoted to encore-style salon music transcribed or arranged by Sarasate for his own use in concert performances. There is a substantial piece here in Sarasate’s early Souvenirs de Faust (on themes from Gounod’s opera), and there are five Chopin arrangements (Waltzes 3, 4 and 8 and Nocturnes 2 and 8) that are very much worth hearing in the composer-violinist’s arrangements. But the rest of the music on this CD is rather thin gruel. One piece, Joachim Raff’s La fée d’amour, has considerable historical interest, since it was Sarasate’s own favorite concert piece – and it is the longest work on the CD. It is pleasant music and highly virtuosic, but without the Sarasate connection has little to offer on a strictly musical basis. Also here are Sarasate’s version of the famous Largo from Handel’s Xerxes and of the Air from Bach’s D Major Suite (BWV 1068) – plus a number of pleasant handlings of pleasant-enough music by less-known to nearly unknown composers, including Guitarra by Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925), the Allegro from Sonata No. 1 by Jean-Pierre Guignon (1702-1775), “La Chasse” from Sonata No. 5 by Jean-Joseph de Mondonville (1711-1772), the Sarabande and Tambourin from the Violin Sonata, Op. 9, No. 3, by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), and the Allegro from Sonata No. 9 by Jean-Baptiste Senaillé (1687-1730). Sarasate had no particular affinity with Baroque music and made no attempt to focus on its style – his whole approach involved making the simple more complex so as to showcase his own very considerable violinistic abilities, and all these arrangements and transcriptions fill the bill nicely for a concert virtuoso of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Tianwa Yang scales the summits of the works’ requirements highly effectively, and Markus Hadulla provides exemplary support while remaining firmly in the background, as any accompanist of Sarasate would have been expected to do. This is a fine and highly listenable CD, but lacking in real musical substance: had Sarasate not been shown to be a skilled composer through works on the other discs in this series, he would come across through this one as a very accomplished dilettante.
Argentine pianist Mirian Conti also brings very considerable skill to engaging but less-than-profound music in her second release of piano music from her homeland on the Steinway & Sons label. The 10 composers whose brief works – some of them very brief indeed – appear on this disc are almost wholly unknown, although Conti argues strongly in her booklet notes that they deserve more than obscurity. The music itself makes a weaker case than the words do, though: Remo Pignoni, Enrique Albano, Anibal Troilo, Carlos Guastavino, Mario Broeders, Cayetano Troiani, Angel Lasala, Julián Aguirre, Horacio Salgán, and Mariano Mores tend to blend together in these pieces into creators of well-constructed, rhythmic, folk-music-based piano pieces, many of them taking off from traditional Argentinian dances. There is expressiveness here but little subtlety. To cite one example among many, a listener would expect Troilo’s Milonguero triste to sound sad, simply on the basis of the second word in its title, and so indeed it does, in entirely unsurprising ways. The six very short pieces by Pignoni – four of them last less than a minute apiece and the other two not much longer – are highly enjoyable vignettes; the overtly nationalistic and more-extended Impresiones de Mi Tierra by Lasala and Aires Nacionales Argentinos—5 Tristes by Aguirre are somewhat more substantive; Guastavino’s Sonatina for Piano shows a firm grasp of classical form; and so on. All the music here is easy to hear and nicely constructed, and the use of Argentinian melodies provides a pleasantly exotic flavor to many of the pieces. But there is little distinctive among the composers, at least in these brief works – a fact that the excellence of Conti’s playing does nothing to conceal.
Johann Strauss Jr.: Die Fledermaus; Eine Nacht in Venedig; Der Zigeunerbaron; Simplicius; Wiener Blut. Chor der Wiener Staatsoper in der Volksoper and Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Willi Boskovsky (Fledermaus); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Symphonie-Orchester Graunke conducted by Franz Allers (Venedig); Chor und Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper München conducted by Franz Allers (Zigeunerbaron); Chor und Kinderchor des Opernhauses Zürich and Orchester der Oper Zürich conducted by Franz Welser-Möst (Simplicius); Chor der Kölner Oper, Wiener Schrammeln and Philharmonia Hungarica conducted by Willi Boskovsky (Blut). Warner. $38.99 (10 CDs).
It is hard to decide whether to set off celebratory fireworks or to pound one’s head against the wall in frustration at this re-release of recordings of five Strauss operettas. On the one hand, the set brings together four good-to-outstanding analog recordings: Die Fledermaus from 1972, Eine Nacht in Venedig from 1967, Der Zigeunerbaron from 1969, and Wiener Blut from 1976, and packages them with a digital recording – indeed, the world première recording – of Simplicius from 1999. The sound ranges from very good to exemplary, and the singing is idiomatic and features some of the best operetta performers of recent times: the ubiquitous and ever-smooth Nicolai Gedda, Anneliese Rothenberger, Renate Holm, Hermann Prey, Piotr Beczala, and even Grace Bumbry. And the pricing of the set is simply wonderful.
On the other hand, the whole box smacks of a bargain-basement approach to music that deserves much, much better. Even the old EMI boxed re-releases were handled with more care than this: for instance, a seven-operetta Lehár collection listed all the tracks on every CD in the enclosed booklet and presented scene-by-scene summations of the works. Not so this Warner release. Librettos for the operettas may be too much to hope for – although links to places where they could be found online would have been a huge help to listeners, especially when it comes to such a rarity as Simplicius – but here listeners never even find out what the works are about, each operetta being reduced to a single-paragraph summation that is completely inadequate and disappointing in the extreme. Truncated track lists appear only on the backs of the cardboard CD sleeves (each of which, ironically, says “see booklet for details,” although no such details are given). And those track listings are riddled with errors and sloppiness that ought to embarrass a world-class music company. For example, all eight references to numbers sung by soldiers in Simplicius misspell the word as “soliders,” and the word “prisoners” is misspelled “prisonsers” as a bonus. This is beyond sloppy: it is insulting to the music and those interested in it.
Yet there is so much to be interested in that it is difficult to stay angry for long at the disappointingly poor packaging of this set. Willi Boskovsky was one of the great Strauss interpreters, and was in his prime when he recorded this Die Fledermaus and Wiener Blut. The works zip along smartly, the tempos are judiciously chosen, the singing is uniformly of high quality, and the music – which, after all, is the point here – is just wonderful. It is worth remembering that Strauss got into theater not for any grandiose reasons but because he was looking for a steady source of income that would not require him, personally, to be present constantly as violinist/conductor. This helps explain why the librettos of his operettas were so often execrable, in contrast to the marvelous tunes with which he bedecked the insipid and often-confusing words. Of course, English speakers will have no luck following the operettas’ dialogue, which is frequently extensive and is crucial to the stage experience: the spoken parts tend to advance the action, while the musical ones comment on it. But, again, it is the music that provides the joy here, and there is much joy to be had. Indeed, there is somewhat more enjoyment than the operetta titles themselves indicate, since several of these particular performances include interpolations from other Strauss operettas. This Die Fledermaus, for example, omits the Act II ballet or any of the various substitutes for it usually offered, but gives Falke an aria from Waldmeister, while this Eine Nacht in Venedig includes so many interpolations, mostly from Ralph Benatzky's Strauss-based 1928 Casanova, that it is practically a pastiche. Wiener Blut, of course, is a pastiche, assembled at the end of Strauss’ life from music by him and his brother, Josef, and first performed some five months after Johann’s death.
The performances led by Franz Allers do not have quite the sparkle of those conducted by Boskovsky, but Allers too has a fine sense of pacing and balance, and this Eine Nacht in Venedig and Der Zigeunerbaron are wonderfully tuneful trifles packed with delightful numbers. As for Simplicius, it is a work that sounds far more familiar than its extreme rarity on stage would indicate, since Strauss used its music in a number of other works that are played considerably more frequently. It is an unusually serious operetta with an even-more-than-usually complicated plot and much of the flavor of a stage play with musical elements included from time to time: numerous scenes contain no music at all and are omitted from the recording. Franz Welser-Möst does not have the sort of easy comfort with this music that Boskovsky and Allers possessed, but his performance is creditable, well-paced and sung adequately, even though the soloists here are not in the same league as the excellent ones in the other operettas. Having Simplicius available at all is a joy for Strauss fans, and having it available in what is overall a very fine performance is a bonus. Add in the wonders of the older analog recordings and you have here a set that will bring great musical pleasure for a great many years – even as it keeps reminding you, through its frustrating imperfections, of how much better it could have been.
January 23, 2014
The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. By DuBose Heyward. Pictures by Marjorie Flack. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Seven Stories Up. By Laurel Snyder. Random House. $16.99.
Lunch Lady No. 10: Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $6.99.
Bud, Not Buddy. By Christopher Paul Curtis. Laurel-Leaf. $7.99.
The Mighty Miss Malone. By Christopher Paul Curtis. Yearling. $7.99.
Reissues, updates and repackagings are an inevitability of publishing for books aimed at young readers, inviting reconsideration of books that made quite a splash in the past or providing a chance to read companion volumes for ones that proved popular. Or, once in a while, a revival is of a genuinely interesting book, such as The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, a soupily sentimental and somewhat dated but nevertheless charming work by DuBose Heyward, who is far better known for Porgy (1925) – which became a play in 1927 and formed the basis for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1935 – than for this little child-oriented work from 1939. Originally a story told by Heyward to his daughter, Jenifer, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes was written down after family friend Marjorie Flack suggested Heyward do so; and Flack then provided lovely, gentle illustrations that prettily complement the attractive period tale. The careful republication of this little Easter-time story is a small joy: the tale is about a country rabbit who longs to become one of the world’s five Easter bunnies, succeeds because she has done such a wonderful job bringing up her 21 baby bunnies, and is given magical gold shoes to help her complete an especially difficult Easter-egg-delivery task. Heyward – whose first name, oddly, is incorrectly spelled as two words in this new edition – was very much a man of his time in writing this story, which for that reason will not appeal to thoroughly modern families in which single mothers face down adversity daily and train their children in skills that go far beyond housekeeping. So The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes is a period piece, but it is a heartfelt one that will bring much enjoyment to kids and parents willing to step back a few decades in time and experience some story elements that are timeless.
Speaking of stepping back in time, that is just what Annie Jaffin does in Laurel Snyder’s Seven Stories Up, a companion to Bigger Than a Bread Box that shares with the earlier book a mixture of magic and rather overly earnest family-connection storytelling. It is not necessary to have read the earlier book to understand Seven Stories Up, but it does help, since the context within which Annie’s new adventure occurs is established in the prior book – in which the discovery of a magical bread box (which delivers whatever you wish for, provided that it fits inside) leads to difficult coming-of-age questions. Similar questions, for a similar narrative purpose, pervade Seven Stories Up, in which Annie meets her dying grandmother in 1987 and is then magically transported 50 years back in time to meet Molly, the girl who would become her rather embittered grandmother, when Molly herself is a child. The two girls form a friendship over which hang Annie’s concerns about whether what she does in the past will change her own future. Seven Stories Up is filled with events intended to reflect meaningful elements of growing up. For example, Molly is at first an invalid living on the top floor of a Baltimore hotel, but Annie entices her downstairs and then farther and farther afield, through the streets of the city – and it is as their explorations carry them to greater and greater distances from the safety of Molly’s hotel room that matters become complicated and Annie realizes how much of her own future she may be risking. In other words, going farther and farther from your comfort zone is a recipe for new experiences and coming of age, but also carries real risks of leaving childhood behind – and real rewards as well. This sort of structure is typical in Snyder’s books and most definitely pervades Bigger Than a Bread Box. Fans of that book and of the family-focused warmth of Snyder’s novels will enjoy Seven Stories Up, although in truth many of its plot points – including its conclusion – are scarcely unexpected.
Jarrett J. Krosoczka has specialized in the unexpected in his series of Lunch Lady graphic novels, but Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle is full of strictly expected material – expected, that is, by readers of the previous nine books, who will be the only ones likely to enjoy this 10th series entry. The problem here is that Lunch Lady and Betty have been unceremoniously laid off by the new school superintendent (readers will need to be familiar with the ninth book, Lunch Lady and the Video Game Villain, for this to make sense), and now evildoers from all the earlier books in the series have returned to take over the school and help bring an even-more-ridiculous-than-usual evil plot to fruition. There are so many characters here that Krosoczka can give very little time to any of them, and readers not already familiar with the bad guys – or the good ones, for that matter – will quickly find themselves confused by who is doing what to whom, why and how. Even the kitchen-implements-as-weapons elements of the book get short shrift and are less interesting than usual. As a series summation, Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle will satisfy readers who have followed all the earlier adventures, but as a standalone book – much less one in which someone might first encounter Lunch Lady, Betty and the three-kid Breakfast Bunch – the book unfortunately falls well short of several of the earlier ones.
Bud, Not Buddy was never intended as part of a series, but like Snyder’s Bigger Than a Bread Box, Christopher Paul Curtis’ novel spawned a companion book, The Mighty Miss Malone, and both novels (the first from 1999, the second from 2012) are now available in new paperback editions. These are books set in the same time frame as Seven Stories Up – the Depression years – but the focus is very different, in large part because Snyder’s characters are white and Curtis’ are African-American. Both Bud, Not Buddy and The Mighty Miss Malone take place in the industrial heartland of the 1930s – the former in Flint, Michigan, the latter in Gary, Indiana and then in Illinois. Both novels are fairly conventionally plotted coming-of-age tales – the former focusing on motherless 10-year-old runaway Bud, the latter on 12-year-old Deza Malone. Both books have a strong family orientation: Bud is seeking the father he has never known, and Deza is trying to help her mother maintain some semblance of family togetherness after her father leaves Indiana in search of work and her brother becomes a singer in the Chicago area. The trials and tribulations of the young protagonists are nothing special, but the local color of the places they visit and the period history found in both books make the novels interesting, while Curtis’ well-paced narratives keep young readers involved. The new paperback versions, presumably aimed at bringing the books to readers who do not already know them, will be attractive to families who find that these stories have resonance for them and who respond well to tales of a time when economic circumstances in the United States were far more dire than in recent years – putting children and adults alike under even greater pressures than those they have recently been facing.
Plants vs. Zombies: Plant Your Path Junior Novel. By Tracey West. HarperFestival. $5.99.
Plants vs. Zombies: Brain Food. By Brandon T. Snider. HarperFestival. $10.99.
PopCap has a big hit with the thoroughly ridiculous video game Plants vs. Zombies, and it is scarcely surprising that spinoffs in the non-video-game world have been, um, growing rapidly. Never mind that the spinoffs, like the game itself, seem already to have eaten the brains of participants – the whole Plants vs. Zombies ethos is designed to be mindless fun. Even on the printed page, in two new Plants vs. Zombies activity books, the whole idea is to have as much fun as possible while doing so little thinking that it seems as if zombies really have eaten your brains. Thus, Plant Your Path Junior Novel does not require readers to follow a plot from start to finish – nothing that complicated! This is one of those choose-your-own story books, in which you read a snippet of narrative, then pick which of two choices you would like to follow, then go to whatever page that choice leads to. The story itself is just like other Plants vs. Zombies tales – there is, in fact, only one story in this whole world, which involves running away from zombies and using plants to fight them. Sample narrative: “Poof! Poof! Poof! The little Puffshrooms pummel the zombies with poisonous fumes. Magnetshrooms tear the helmets off Football Zombies and rip the screens from the bony hands of Screen Door Zombies. Hypno-shrooms turn the zombies on each other.” And so on – and on and on and on, but only in little bits before another fork in the road, or fork in the story, has readers deciding which way to go next. There are a couple of endings in which the zombies eat readers’ brains and a couple in which they do not, but the story is sufficiently brainless either way to be amusing for fans of the video game on which it is based.
As for Brain Food, it doesn’t really require much thinking, which sort of makes sense. From coloring Crazy Dave to answering trivia questions to drawing anti-zombie plants to counting zombies to unscrambling words to filling in the blanks of a story to finding the differences between two zombies, the book is filled with simple, non-brain-intensive games and puzzles that won’t really feed readers’ brains but at least won’t eat them. There are secret messages to decode, puzzles to solve, pictures to finish, dots to connect, mazes to work through, even some tic-tac-toe games to play. But most of the fun here comes from giving fans chances to see the characters they enjoy from the whole Plants vs. Zombies world: Zombot, Dr. Zomboss, Gargantuar and Imp, Jack-in-the-Box Zombie, Newspaper Zombie, Buckethead Zombie, Pogo Zombie and others. In fact, one recurring activity here involves looking at silhouettes of zombies and guessing which ones are which. There is nothing particularly difficult in this book and nothing particularly outlandish except for the underlying premise itself. As a way for Plants vs. Zombies fans to pass the time when they are not immersed in their video-game universe, Brain Food is silly fun that – who knows? – may even make fans’ brains more spicily attractive to zombies! Oops…hmm…could that be the insidious point of the whole thing?
North of Boston. By Elisabeth Elo. Pamela Dorman/Viking. $27.95.
The latest hard-boiled reluctant woman detective to appear in a mystery thriller is one of the best. Pirio Kasparov, protagonist of Elisabeth Elo’s debut novel, North of Boston, is a very familiar type nowadays – the dedicated, violence-prone male detective of decades past, the likes of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, having largely disappeared. Nowadays the descendants of Nancy Drew are as strong, intense and determined as any hard-boiled male, and often have a great deal more personality – as Pirio does.
Like so many other fictional investigators, Pirio is a reluctant one, spurred on by personal circumstances – several sets of them, in her case. The book opens after she has surprisingly survived four hours in ice-cold water after the boat on which she and her friend Ned had been setting lobster traps is rammed and sunk by a huge freighter. Ned is gone and presumed drowned (frequent thriller readers will wonder if he is really dead); he leaves behind a son, Noah, and the boy’s mother, Pirio’s longtime friend, Thomasina. In addition to guilt and uncertainty about the accident – if it was an accident, which Pirio increasingly comes to doubt – Pirio is pulled into the usual web of dark doings because of the perfume company founded by her father and (now dead) mother, because perfumes used to use a whale byproduct called ambergris as a fixative, and ambergris, Pirio comes to realize, has a lot to do with what has been going on north of Boston.
The time frame for the book is a bit unclear and is a weakness of what is otherwise a very strong narrative. There is no doubt that the book is set in 2013: Pirio specifically states that certain key evidence has not been updated for three years, since 2010. But ambergris is no longer a factor in the perfume business – synthetics are used nowadays, ambergris being difficult to find and uncertain of supply. Also, it becomes clear early in the book that Pirio uses an answering machine, and this later becomes a plot point -- and confusingly pushes the novel’s time frame back a few years. In other respects, though, North of Boston stays up to date: Pirio, who is 30, narrates the book and certainly sounds contemporary. Indeed, her distinctive voice is the main quality that separates this book from other thriller/mysteries with strong female central characters. Pirio’s personality and concerns are modern but, within that context, thoroughly ordinary: uncertainties about love and sex, rebelliousness without any particular cause, difficulties with her strong-willed father and her stepmother, cynicism and recklessness tightly bound together, and so forth. Pirio really isn’t a Sam Spade, although her father, Milosa, pointedly says that she ought to be exactly that. But she is tenacious, determined, observant when she puts her mind to it (something she does not always do: she can be a bit lazy), and true to herself – a necessity for someone who is the moral center of an amoral universe, which is the usual role of the central character in books like North of Boston.
Although entirely a genre novel, Elo’s is not merely a genre book, thanks to its compelling protagonist. Readers get quickly pulled into Pirio’s life and concerns – the first-person narrative is quite well done – and as a result have an emotional investment in the story that is often missing in thrillers that appeal more to one’s intellect and craving for excitement than to one’s heart. Pirio has the usual interactions with subsidiary characters: a journalist who helps her seek the truth, ex-lovers, and so forth – and these people are not nearly as well-formed as Pirio herself, although her father does have depth beyond that of an autocratic Russian businessman. Actually, what takes on the most life in North of Boston, aside from Pirio herself, are the places where the story plays out, especially the frigid northern environs that Elo presents with a sure hand for atmospheric description. There are interesting similarities between Pirio in North of Boston and Edie Kiglatuk, protagonist of White Heat and The Boy in the Snow by M.J. McGrath, and other parallels with the Cassie Maddox books by Tana French: McGrath and French also rely on detailed scene-setting and characterization as much as overt action and traditional elements of mysteries, thrillers and detective stories. Elo is a less polished writer than French, but not much less of one than McGrath, and Elo’s followup to North of Boston – which is already in the works – is likely to show the author developing her style and her characterization abilities even further. North of Boston itself is an impressive debut that never pushes beyond the boundaries of its genre but that makes the genre itself seem sufficiently intriguing so that readers will want to read more of Elo’s entries in it, especially insofar as they remain focused on the harsh but well-modulated voice of Pirio Kasparov.
Dvořák: Symphony No. 2; Slavonic Dances—Op. 46, Nos. 3 and 6; Op. 72, No. 7. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Warner. $16.99.
Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ. Yann Beuron, Véronique Gens, Stephan Loges, Alastair Miles; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra & Choir conducted by Robin Ticciati. Linn Records. $34.99 (2 SACDs).
Julian Anderson: Fantasias; The Crazed Moon; The Discovery of Heaven. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and Ryan Wigglesworth. LPO. $16.99.
The pleasures and frustrations of José Serebrier’s Dvořák cycle for Warner Classics are yet again in evidence in its fourth volume – but, thankfully, the pleasures in this case far outnumber the irritations. The entire sequence in which Serebrier’s performances are appearing is decidedly odd: the first release focused on Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” and also included the Czech Suite and two of the Slavonic Dances; the second offered Symphony No. 7 with another of the dances, the Scherzo Capriccioso and the entirely out-of-context tone poem, In Nature’s Realm (which is the first part of a trilogy and would much better have been offered that way); the third presented Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6. This hop-skip-and-jump handling of Dvořák’s symphonies was made more confusing by Serebrier’s way with the works themselves: he has repeatedly changed tempos for attempted emotional effects, indulging in the sort of unwarranted rubato that today’s best conductors have long since forsworn. And this is very curious, since Serebrier is not only a knowledgeable conductor but also a composer of some skill himself – he would surely not put up with other conductors treating his works as he has been treating Dvořák’s. It is perhaps inevitable, under the circumstances, to approach the fourth release in this series with a certain amount of trepidation, but the good news is that here Serebrier has not only gotten control of his more extreme change-what-the-composer-wants impulses but has also delved quite deeply into the structure and mood of a symphony that he refers to, in his booklet notes, as a masterpiece. Indeed, this may be the first time that a conductor has awarded that accolade to Dvořák’s Second, but Serebrier’s sensitive performance, so attentive to the nuances of the score, makes a strong argument for the appellation.
Symphony No. 2 is the earliest of the nine that was played during the composer’s lifetime – he never heard No. 1, “The Bells of Zlonice.” The Second is a big work in every sense, treating the orchestra with a sure-handedness beyond Dvořák’s 24 years at the time of its composition, overflowing with melodies and emotions of considerable maturity and managing to have a somewhat Brahmsian flavor without ever actually sounding like the older composer’s music (in contrast with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 6, which for all its originality is in parts almost imitative). All four movements of Dvořák’s Second are constructed on a large scale, and all four employ lower strings and darker orchestral colors to fine effect. Under Serebrier, and with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing with a more-burnished tone than is its wont, the symphony breathes deeply, sighs feelingly and eventually emerges in a sort of equivocal triumph. The second movement, lovely as it is, tends to meander a bit, and Serebrier does interfere with its smooth flow to some extent – but the rubato is mild enough not to distract listeners from the heartfelt nature of the overall interpretation. The finale, which never quite lives up to the promise of its very unusual first few measures, gets a bit too much of the “Serebrier treatment” that the other symphonies in this series have received: unwilling to let the music speak for itself, Serebrier tries to boost its emotive potential through tempo changes that succeed only in restricting the smooth and lovely flow at which Dvořák, even at age 24, was adept. Still, this is on balance a lovingly expansive reading of a symphony that has never deserved its near-total neglect – indeed, this is the best release so far in Serebrier’s Dvořák sequence. The three Slavonic Dances are nice filler items. In one of them (Op. 46, No. 3) Serebrier again insists on putting a bit more into the music than Dvořák did, but as a whole, these are pleasant, well-paced, upbeat readings with fine sectional balance, and all the dances are played with enthusiasm.
Dvořák was never the master of orchestration that Berlioz was – very few composers have approached the Berlioz level – but listeners who know Berlioz mainly through the drama of Symphonie Fantastique, Les Troyens and the concert and opera overtures may be far less aware of the subtleties of orchestral writing that give the composer’s music much of its unique sound. Those subtle touches are fully in evidence in the new recording of L'enfance du Christ conducted by Robin Ticciati, who has already proved his understanding of the composer in Linn Records SACDs of Symphonie Fantastique, Les nuits d'été and La mort de Cléopâtre. A dramatic oratorio with elements of opera, especially in the first of its three parts, L'enfance du Christ is quieter, gentler and more reverent than Berlioz’ more-familiar works. Perhaps its most accessible elements are the scene in Part I between Herod and the soothsayers, and the well-known L’adieu des bergers (“Shepherds’ Farewell”) in Part II. The peculiar sonorities at the very opening of the music clearly show Berlioz’ expertise in orchestration, and the composer’s use of a rather old-fashioned style through much of the overall work shows how elegantly and eloquently he could express himself without needing the sort of forward-looking effects that pervade Symphonie Fantastique. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays this music very well indeed, although the strings’ use of considerable vibrato is at odds with Ticciati’s usual concern for historically correct (nearly non-vibrato) performances of Berlioz, which is what the Scottish Chamber Orchestra delivered in Ticciati’s prior Linn recordings. Still, the Swedish ensemble’s approach provides a comfortable lushness that listeners will find quite attractive, with particular warmth in L’adieu des bergers – a scene in which the Swedish Radio Symphony Choir also excels. The four soloists are all very fine indeed. Alastair Miles impressively handles both the nervous tension of Herod in Part I and the highly sympathetic portrayal of the Father of the Family in Part III. Véronique Gens and Stephan Loges, as Mary and Joseph, blend well together and sing feelingly. And as the narrator, Yann Beuron provides the context of the work with skill and expressiveness. L'enfance du Christ is not one of Berlioz’ most immediately attractive pieces and not one of his most carefully worked through: he assembled it over a number of years before eventually presenting it in final form in 1854. Yet the gentle lyricism of this work, when managed with the skill that Ticciati brings to this performance, is winning, and gives the music considerable staying power – abetted by Berlioz’ very high sensitivity to the expressive potential of all the sections of the orchestra, both individually and in combination.
Julian Anderson (born 1967) also has a good deal of skill in developing works for orchestra, but he has marshalled that skill in different ways over time – as a new London Philharmonic Orchestra recording on the orchestra’s own label makes clear. Anderson, the London Philharmonic’s resident composer since 2010, was strongly influenced in his early career by spectralism, one of those self-consciously modern compositional approaches created more to showcase the cleverness of those using it than to try to connect with those listening to it. Spectralism, which uses computerized analyses of sound spectra as a compositional tool, is a significant element in the earliest work on this CD, The Crazed Moon (1997). This is a dense and complex work whose effectiveness is insufficient to justify the effort required of listeners to decipher it – although Vladimir Jurowski certainly leads it as if he fully understands its ins and outs and is doing his best to communicate them. Ryan Wigglesworth is equally adept in leading the most-recent work on the CD, The Discovery of Heaven, which was recorded at its world première performance in 2012. This is a work of considerably greater clarity than The Crazed Moon, being just as full of ideas and just as energetic, but a great deal easier to follow and more immediately engaging, even if it is unlikely to be immediately appealing to many listeners. The Discovery of Heaven is more effective as an intellectual exercise than an emotional plunge. It is the third work here, written between the others, that is the most gripping and involving. Fantasias (2007-09) is an extended concerto for orchestra, requiring tremendous deftness of playing, which the LPO delivers, and considerable sensitivity in conducting, which Jurowski provides. This is a work that keeps the audience guessing, its changes of rhythm, tempo and structure so frequent and abrupt that the experience of listening to it is a bit like riding a roller coaster while sitting on a see-saw. Exhilarating and vivid, filled with modern compositional techniques and a very deft use of the orchestra, it is nevertheless a very approachable work – and one that well repays repeated hearings. As a whole, this is a (+++) CD, but Fantasias, which here receives its world première recording, is a top-notch offering from both the composer and the performers.
January 16, 2014
Scholastic “Discover More”: Titanic—A Picture History of the Shipwreck That Shocked the World. By Sean Callery. Scholastic. $15.99.
Winter Sky. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.
The sheer scale of the disaster of the sinking of the Titanic, along with the sheer scale of the ship itself, keeps the 101-years-ago disaster fresh in many people’s minds and makes it worthy of a top-notch entry in Scholastic’s “Discover More” series. Details about turn-of-the-20th-century shipbuilding, of competition between the White Star and Cunard lines, of customs such as promenading, of the designer of the Titanic (who was aboard on the maiden voyage and one of the victims), of cabin layout and design, of children’s deck games aboard the doomed ship – these and much more appear in Sean Callery’s well-designed retelling, which is crammed with eyewitness and passenger accounts and many, many photos, some in black and white and some colorized. Like all the “Discover More” books, this is an oversize paperback designed to be looked at as much as read – the text is short and tied closely to the photos, but is nevertheless packed with facts and interesting information. There is, for instance, a photo of a countess who steered a lifeboat all night long after the ship’s sinking – while other survivors let crew members do all the work. There is information on the final meals served aboard the ship, the differences in service among the three passenger classes, and the fact that of the 1,517 people who died, 685 were crew members – many of whom helped rescue passengers or stayed aboard the ship to try to stop the water from pouring in. Big stories like this one are difficult to tell without personalizing them by making them into multiple small stories, and Callery does this very well indeed, making this oft-told tale seem fresh and every bit as tragic as it ever has. A free digital book, available to buyers of the print version, gets into more detail about what happened by presenting the stories of five survivors of the ship’s sinking. But even without seeing that book, readers of this “Discover More” volume will find out a great deal about Titanic, what happened to the ship and the people aboard it, and why the story remains such a compelling one after so many years.
The Titanic story is a century-old wintertime one on a large scale – and winter continues to provide an effective backdrop for modern stories as well. Winter Sky is fiction, is decidedly small-scale, and ends without great tragedy or, indeed, any loss of life. But it is an affecting story nevertheless, told with Patricia Reilly Giff’s usual sensitivity to family matters and skill at characterization. It is the tale of a girl called Siria, named for the brightest star in the winter sky, who loves the stars that make her think of her now-gone mother – and who tries to bring luck to her firefighter father by sneaking out of her house at night to chase the trucks heading to blazes. Abetted by her best friend, Douglas, Siria continues her adventures until she discovers that someone appears to be setting fires – putting her dad and the other firefighters in jeopardy. And to make matters worse, the clues she discovers make Siria think Douglas may be the arsonist. Complicating matters further is Siria’s rescue of a dog that has become stuck in a pipe, a dog she cannot possibly keep but that seems to know something about the fire-setting situation, so she cannot possibly take it to a shelter. Matters get more and more complicated as the mystery of the fires deepens and as Siria copes with her father being hospitalized after being injured on the job. In fact, the story gets somewhat too complicated as Giff has Siria juggle a few more issues and difficulties than the rather frail plot can withstand. Winter Sky is never quite sure whether it is mainly a family story, a mystery, a girl-and-animal story, or a coming-of-age tale, and is not really solid enough to succeed as a mixture of all those elements. It is nevertheless a very affectingly written (+++) book that has a not-very-surprising solution to the fire mystery and a feel-good ending that leaves everyone in the story happier and more satisfied than they have been. Fans of Giff’s books will be happy and satisfied, too.
The New Science of Overcoming Arthritis: Prevent or Reverse Your Pain, Discomfort, and Limitations. By C. Thomas Vangsness, Jr., M.D., with Greg Ptacek. Da Capo. $15.99.
Scared Stiff: Everything You Need to Know about 50 Famous Phobias. By Sara Latta. Zest Books. $12.99.
Titles tend to overstate. The new book by C. Thomas Vangsness, Jr., and Greg Ptacek will not really show readers how to overcome arthritis, which is an incurable disease – although it will show how to manage the condition to prevent it from ruling your everyday life. The book by Sara Latta will scarcely explain everything about 50 phobias, not all of which are in fact famous, but it will provide an interesting, if superficial, look at some things that some people fear well beyond all reason – and explain why this may be so, and what phobics may be able to do to cope better.
Title aside, the Vangsness/Ptacek book is both a clearly written discussion of what arthritis is and how to cope with it, and a surprisingly entertaining work about a disease that is anything but fun to experience. For example, Vangsness – professor of orthopedic surgery and chief of sports medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine – interestingly explains the possible connection between a Time magazine cover story in 2004 and the “welcome but unintended consequences” of discovering that the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex appeared to reduce people’s risk of developing intestinal polyps. This in turn led to a new focus on inflammation as a core cause of many bodily ailments – a focus that continues to drive a considerable amount of research today. And this is directly relevant to arthritis, since the notion that inflammation could “actually cause the loss of cartilage that is the main symptom of osteoarthritis” flew in the face of the long-accepted medical belief that arthritis occurred because the body’s cartilage simply wore down with age. Vangsness and Ptacek present this sort of research-oriented diagnostic information with surprisingly amusing chapter subheads: “Of Mice and Meniscus,” “Keeping Your Gait Straight.” And they note that although “more Americans are now at an age when they are likely to suffer from osteoarthritis,” they also comment that this “doesn’t explain the spike in reports of lack of mobility among arthritis sufferers.” This in turn leads to a chapter whose title, enclosed by the authors in quotation marks, is “Obeseritis,” where they explain that “obesity and arthritis have become so intertwined that it warrants a whole new term to describe this phenomenon.” This book is not designed to scold people into better eating habits, though: it offers “seven proven principles” for dietary improvement and weight loss, but does so nonjudgmentally, and also has a brief explanation of the psychology that may underlie the tendency to overeat. And this is just part of the narrative here: arthritis drugs and supplements, surgery and alternative therapies, stem-cell research and other topics are covered with plain-spokenness, in a style that is surprisingly breezy in a medical book – even one written for popular consumption. There are patient case studies here, showing different forms of arthritis (there are more than 100 in all, with the most common, osteoarthritis, affecting one-sixth of American adults and being the nation’s leading cause of disability) and different approaches to treatment; a discussion of the importance of getting the right diagnosis (which may seem an obvious need, but which is complicated when it comes to arthritic ailments); a look at post-surgical sex life; an interesting historical discussion of the original “snake oil,” in the context of the placebo effect leading to improved symptoms in many people; a look at the use of chiropractors, hypnosis, biofeedback and other techniques; and a great deal more. The book’s style prevents this wealth of information from turning into an indigestible lump – and some parts of the book, such as Vangsness’ comments on “my unlikely stem cell journey,” will be intriguing even for people who are not arthritis sufferers. In all, The New Science of Overcoming Arthritis is a first-rate roundup of current thinking about the disease (more properly, “diseases”), about treatment and about where research in the field is going now. Not all that is here is really new, and “coping with” arthritis is more the book’s focus than “overcoming” it, but the book itself has so much of value in it that it can easily be forgiven a certain amount of hyperbole in the title.
There is no significant medical value in Scared Stiff, but treatment is not the purpose of this book, even though Latta ends the work with a few pages about ways in which phobias can be overcome. The idea here is to provide mildly titillating descriptions of such phobias as astraphobia (thunderstorms), botanophobia (plants), didaskaleinophobia (school), gephyrophobia (crossing bridges), and mysophobia (germs). Each short discussion of a phobia explains where its name comes from (most have Greek roots), what the phobia entails, and what may cause it (anything from childhood experiences to genetic predisposition). Many entries list “famous phobics,” such as soccer star David Beckham for ataxophobia (disorder) and actor Matt Damon for ophidiophobia (snakes). There are some rather repetitious “Overcoming the Fear” sections that mostly refer readers to the same few back-of-book pages, and many sections include “Scare Quotes” that are often neither scary nor particularly relevant to the phobia just discussed. The most interesting thing about Scared Stiff is its inclusion not only of well-known phobias such as claustrophobia (confined spaces) and acrophobia (heights) but also little-known ones such as pogonophobia (beards) and swinophobia (pigs). Some phobias discussed here have little currency in modern life, such as wiccaphobia (witches); others are entirely modern, such as nomophobia (fear of being out of mobile-phone contact, which medical authorities rightfully do not regard as anything like a classic phobia). Readers interested in fears such as kakorraphiaphobia (failure) and kinemortophobia (zombies) will get some basic information on them here, but only that: Latta is determinedly superficial, even lighthearted, in writing about conditions that in classic presentation are genuinely debilitating and go well past the ordinarily frightening. Indeed, Latta’s failure to make it clear just how far beyond the merely scary a phobia is tends to trivialize these conditions, which can significantly interfere with sufferers’ daily living and overall quality of life. Nevertheless, this (+++) book has a good deal that is interesting in it, simply because the human mind has so many ways to turn against itself – some with an underlying rational basis, such as pyrophobia (fire) and selachophobia (sharks), others rooted more in superstition and social awkwardness than anything else, such as triskaidekaphobia (the number 13) and urophobia (urination). Expect nothing deep, nothing highly meaningful, but many forays into unusual thought patterns, and you will find Scared Stiff as enjoyable as it is intended to be – which is far more enjoyable than the experience of suffering from any true phobia at all.
Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work. By Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein, L.C.S.W. Da Capo. $24.99.
“Quitters never prosper.” “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” Everybody knows that quitting is a bad thing – it marks you as “not up to the task,” inadequate, a failure, someone unable to “hang in there” and persist until you actually accomplish something and get things done. Remember the Little Engine That Could, the refrain of “I think I can, I think I can,” the persistence that overcame obstacles? That is the route to success!
Except when it isn’t. “The ability to quit fully is as valuable a tool to living well as is persistence,” argue Peg Streep and Alan Bernstein in Mastering the Art of Quitting. Yes, they say, tenacity matters, but so does recognition of the fact that not all endeavors succeed: persisting in some things will lead only to frustration, pulling energy and focus away from projects that have a greater likelihood of working out. “Quitting is a healthy, adaptive response when a goal can’t be reached or what appeared to be a life path turns out to be a blind alley,” say Streep and Bernstein, and in fact persistence can hold a person back from success – often by engaging such fallacious thinking as the sunk-cost fallacy, which says that quitting somehow “wastes” all the energy, money and/or time already invested (all things that, however, are gone already – throwing “good money after bad,” or good energy for that matter, will scarcely improve the situation).
Many people are hard-wired, or at least culturally conditioned, to persist even in the face of multiple reversals – the authors argue that Americans, in particular, often have a difficult time quitting. But conditioning can be overcome, they say, offering yes-or-no statements to allow readers to develop their own “persistence profile”; another set of statements to show how you set goals and handle setbacks; and still others to determine “your quitting aptitude.” Stating that “setting a performance goal isn’t necessarily a good thing,” Streep and Bernstein suggest goal-setting using a series of organizational categories (life goals, career goals, relationship goals and learning/achievement goals), then “using flow to assess your goals.” They provide examples of “goal maps” that include short-term and long-term goals in each category, then explain how to quit and, after doing so, how to manage internal fallout such as regret.
There is an element of “the authors doth protest too much, methinks,” in Mastering the Art of Quitting. The self-tests, self-evaluations and write-it-down exercises are rather tiresome, appearing as they (or similar ones) have in so many change-your-life self-help books. And when dealing with genuinely thorny issues, such as regret over the path not taken, Streep and Bernstein tend to lapse into unhelpful statements: “Understanding how big a role avoiding regret plays in your life facilitates artful quitting and helps elucidate the reasons behind your patterns of persistence.” It is certainly true that most of us try too hard, some of the time, to attain goals that we will never reach. It is true that most of us would do better to let certain matters go and redirect our energy, time and money – all of which are limited – toward things we can accomplish rather than ones that we cannot. But it is not always easy to tell the difference – certainly not as easy as Mastering the Art of Quitting suggests. Streep and Bernstein suggest, early in the book, that we would not admire Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb as much if he had gotten it right the first time rather than after thousands of failures. This is likely true: to many people, overcoming adversity to reach eventual success seems somehow “better” than having things come “easily.” But the authors do not pursue this matter: would it have been better for Edison to abandon the light-bulb project, wholly and without looking back, after, say, a thousand failures? Two thousand? Knowing when to quit is just as important as knowing how to quit. And that when differs not only from person to person but also from circumstance to circumstance within every person’s life. Streep and Bernstein are right in asserting that well-managed quitting is a life skill worth learning, one that can free up our limited internal and external resources for better use elsewhere. Knowing just how and when to employ that skill, though, is a significantly more-complex issue than the authors acknowledge.
Idil Biret Solo Edition, Volume 7: Schumann—Papillons; Carnaval; Arabeske; Waldszenen. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $9.99.
Rubinstein: Symphony No. 6; Don Quixote. Philharmonia Hungarica conducted by Gilbert Varga (Symphony); Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Halász (Don Quixote). Naxos. $9.99.
The “Solo Edition” releases from IBA, featuring recent performances by Turkish pianist Idil Biret, have turned into an ongoing celebration of two of her favorite composers, Liszt and Schumann. The first three “Solo Edition” releases featured Liszt works, the second set of three featured Schumann, and now the seventh CD is also devoted to Schumann. And “devoted” is exactly the right word, because Biret plays this music with quite exceptional understanding and devotion. Aside from Arabeske (1839), a pleasantly lyrical rondo that Biret handles with finesse and gentleness, all the works on the new CD are in multiple sections – giving the pianist plenty of opportunities to highlight not only harmonic and rhythmic contrasts but also emotional ones, the heart of Romanticism. The early Papillons (1831) incorporates still-earlier material in its 12 short sections, which are nominally program music but which simply come across as nicely contrasted dance trifles – the whole handled by Biret with suitable delicacy and without overstating the music’s pleasant but rather constricted emotional palette. There is more meat to Carnaval (1835), for all that its subject is overtly lighthearted. The work’s 21 sections include some that are self-referential (“Florestan” and “Eusebius,” pen names used by Schumann in his music criticism), some that reflect other musicians (“Chopin” and “Paganini,” the latter unsurprisingly requiring considerable virtuosity), and some that bespeak figures from the commedia dell’arte (“Pierrot,” “Arlequin,” “Pantalon et Colombine”). The work is designated sur quatre notes, the notes representing Schumann himself and the town of Asch, and it looks ahead to his later relationship with Clara Wieck in a section called “Chiarina.” The challenge in Carnaval is to give each character piece individuation while holding the whole work together through recognition of its four-note structural underpinning. Biret makes the whole of Carnaval flow naturally and with an apparent simplicity that belies the structural care with which Schumann assembled it. Carnaval is fun to hear, as one would expect of a piece whose title refers to the masked balls at carnival time; but it is far from trivial, and Biret understands this and makes it clear through her carefully controlled performance. She carefully manages Waldszenen (1848-49) as well, giving each of its nine sections its own color and characteristics. Several of these woodland scenes approach the level of miniature tone poems, notably Verufene Stelle (“Haunted Place”) and the concluding Abschied (“Farewell”). Biret is sensitive to the nuances of all the pieces and lets them flow naturally through their different moods, producing a wholly satisfying, suitably atmospheric performance that shows yet again just how thoroughly in tune she is with Schumann’s piano music.
There is considerable atmosphere as well in Anton Rubinstein’s final symphony, No. 6 (1886) – especially in its first and second movements, whose drama approaches the operatic, with the second-movement Moderato assai scarcely providing significant respite from the initial Moderato con moto. Rubinstein’s Romanticism was deemed rather stultifying, especially by the composers who came afterwards, and he himself was not always sure where he fit within 19th-century composition circles – he produced both programmatic works and “pure music” (this symphony is of the latter type), but tended to lack the intensity and level of commitment of composers such as Brahms, of whom Rubinstein was not particularly fond. The Sixth Symphony actually has three movements containing the word “Moderato,” the finale being marked Moderato assai, and this helps show why Rubinstein’s music did not have the staying power of that of some of his contemporaries. He seemed unwilling to take a strong, personalized stance at a time when Romanticism led to expectations that serious composers would delve deeply into themselves in producing their works. The Sixth Symphony is certainly well-made, its third movement (a Scherzo in all but name: it is marked Allegro vivace) being particularly propulsive. But the work as a whole does not stay strongly with listeners after it is over. It is coupled on this (+++) Naxos CD with Don Quixote (1870), which follows the basic arc of Cervantes’ novel rather closely, although without the wit and orchestral cleverness that Richard Strauss was to bring to the same subject in 1897. Rubinstein called his Don Quixote not a tone poem but a Humoresque for Orchestra, and it is in fact somewhat on the light-hearted side, despite the underlying seriousness of the picaresque novel on which it is based. The performances on this CD – a re-release of readings from 1985 and 1986 that originally appeared on the Marco Polo label – are solid and substantial, although neither Gilbert Varga nor Michael Halász seems particularly entranced with Rubinstein’s music. This is nevertheless a worthwhile release for listeners interested in the work of a composer better known for his extraordinary success as a concert pianist than as a substantial creator of music of lasting value.
January 09, 2014
A Book of Babies. By Il Sung Na. Knopf. $15.99.
Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble. By Tatyana Feeney. Knopf. $16.99.
Playful and endearing, Il Sung Na’s A Book of Babies is intended – well, for babies. Targeting children up to age three – a group usually reached with board books rather than oversize hardcovers like this one – the book is meant to be read by an adult, with Na’s pictures enjoyed by the child as he or she listens to the simple story of animal parents with their new babies. The animals are drawn anthropomorphically, with human-like gestures and expressions, although Na’s text mostly gives accurate scientific information about them. For example, when it comes to babies, the text points out, “some can walk right away” – and the illustration shows adult zebras with a baby. “Some are carried in their mommy’s pouch,” writes Na, showing a kangaroo mom smiling at her wide-eye joey. “Some are carried in their daddy’s pouch,” Na adds, showing a seahorse family – portrayed in an unrealistic but very pleasant rainbow of colors. The book ends at the end of all the baby animals’ “very first day,” as all settle down to rest. A Book of Babies is a pleasant foray into the animal kingdom, showing very young children creatures born with fur (polar bears) and scales (lizards, shown – inaccurately – with the mother lizard tending the hatchlings), in a nest (ducklings) or in water (fish), and giving parents a chance to introduce very young children to books as well as to non-human infants.
Na comments that the fish in her book “have lots of brothers and sisters,” and that is precisely the issue in Tatyana Feeney’s Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble. This book, for the slightly older age range of 2-5, features the same sensibility and simple, amusing drawings found in Feeney’s Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket and Little Owl’s Orange Scarf. The primary color in Feeney’s new book is, of course, green, although it is not mentioned in the title; even the text is green – but bits of red enliven the otherwise all-green illustrations in some very clever ways. Little Frog and his parents really do not look like frogs at all, except in the vaguest way; but that scarcely matters in a book that features Little Frog jumping rope, playing a drum set and otherwise doing all sorts of un-froggy things. The topic of the book is only frog-related on a superficial level: the subject is the difficulty inherent in becoming a big sibling. Little Frog is happy that the family consists only of himself and his parents, but then he learns that he is about to become the big brother of nine – count them, nine – tadpoles. And he is not happy, since the only thing the tadpoles do is “take up all of Mommy’s and Daddy’s time.” Busy Mommy cannot read a bedtime story to Little Frog, and infant-focused Daddy cannot give him a good-night kiss, because of those “stupid tadpoles,” as Little Frog calls them. But Daddy points out that Little Frog was once a tadpole himself, and the tadpoles will one day turn into frogs just like him – and sure enough, that is what happens, so that Little Frog soon enough finds himself with “nine new playmates,” to whom he is “the best big brother.” This is an even bigger simplification of big-sibling-hood than is usual in kids’ books, but it works well for the targeted age range, and the illustrations are so amusingly silly that the message should go down easily. Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble can be a wonderful book for a child who is destined to become a big brother or sister perhaps a little before he or she is quite ready to face the reality of what that means.