July 31, 2014
2015 Calendars: 365-Day—Dilbert; Non Sequitur; The Argyle Sweater; Medical Cartoon-a-Day. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.
Say what you will about keeping electronic notes, datebooks and schedules – there is still something highly enjoyable about tracking the days of the year in physical form, actually tearing off a calendar page to mark the passing of the day, the week, the month. And there is still something delightful about having those pages filled with some of the best comics being drawn by cartoonists today – ones that will bring you a different laugh or sigh of wry amusement day after day. Yes, you can get cartoons electronically (even if they were not created for electronic media); and yes, you can look at the small screen of a cell phone or the somewhat larger one of a tablet or the even bigger one of a computer to see comic panels. But there remains something unsatisfying, for many people if not for everyone, about living all of one’s life electronically, including the tracking of each day of it. And so there are lots of excellent Andrews McMeel calendars based on top cartoonists’ work available each year to help fans of the strips mark the year to come. And they are always welcome – they were this year and will be again in 2015.
Dilbert is beyond being a classic and has become an integral part of society for everyone who works in a soulless, faceless major corporation, and for plenty of people who don’t work in such a place and are quite sure they wouldn’t enjoy themselves if they did. The cover of Scott Adams’ 2015 Dilbert calendar says it all: it features the Pointy-Haired Boss (PHB) asking a hapless employee, “Did you get the E-mail I texted you?” Dilbert, mouthless as always and his tie curled up as usual, sits next to the boss, marveling at this latest instance of cluelessness. And it is scarcely the only such instance, as this calendar’s pages show again and again. In one, Dilbert explains that after computers learn to program themselves, machine intelligence will grow so quickly that civilization will likely be destroyed, so humans can now decide whether to live an unhealthy lifestyle or engage in techno-terrorism; the boss blandly selects Option A. Dilbert tries Internet dating and has to choose between a woman addicted to Facebook and another addicted to prescription pain medicines – a tie, Dogbert points out, but Dilbert notes that only one of the two will likely make eye contact. The company CEO tries his hand at creating a new brand and comes up with “herthlokel.” The PHB declines to motivate Dilbert, saying that “a monkey could do your assignment while eating a banana.” Dogbert starts “a pump-and-dump newsletter for thinly traded stocks,” carefully arranging things so “my bad stock picks can be attributed to honest mistakes.” The company hires an intern’s intern, who must wear a leather hood at meetings. And so on, so forth and so it goes. With a year of this in store, any vestige of interest that Dilbert fans might have in finding a job at a big company will soon decide he or she would be better off on the proverbial desert island.
And that is just where two characters find themselves on the cover of the 2015 calendar based on Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur, with a man on one tiny island sending a note in a bottle to the man on the next-door tiny island, with a note in the bottle saying, “You have a friend request.” Characters do not always follow logic in Dilbert, or follow it only to extremes, but Non Sequitur actually means “it does not follow,” and although the title refers to the fact that one day’s work usually has nothing to do with that of the day before or after, it also shows just how illogical (or too precisely logical) life can be. A woman visits a store looking for an old-fashioned greeting card for Valentine’s Day and finds a rack labeled as being for “imaginary Internet fiancé.” Up above the clouds, God looks with puzzlement at an Oscar statuette, wondering “if they gave it to me just so I won’t smite them.” A graveyard labeled “Testosterone Acres” includes a headstone inscribed, “Let me show you a faster way to do that.” Another cemetery contains the “tomb of the unknown celebrity,” who was “always sober, stayed faithful, obeyed the law.” A crowd of cars is seen by the side of a road in the desert, next to a sign reading, “Last Chance to Tweet: no reception for next 250 miles.” Wiley’s characteristically befuddled, feckless non-repeating characters are interwoven in this calendar with a few that are recurring, notably little Danae of the dark personality, who (among other things) creates a “shut up and mind your own business zone” that quickly provides her with “a new crop of devoted minions.” And there is Danae’s brightly optimistic compatriot, the pygmy Clydesdale, Lucy, who takes Danae to a place where there is no cell or Internet service and tells her to “sit, relax and just be,” a notion that Danae finds particularly appealing when Lucy points out that in nature, you can go to the bathroom anywhere you want. Plenty of other characters, recurring and non-recurring, make Non Sequitur a delight and surprise day after day – a sure way to brighten the year to come.
To make your days not only bright but also strange, consider Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater in calendar form for 2015. Here too the panels do not follow from one day to the next – and for that matter, not even the species of characters can be predicted. In one panel, Death applies for a newspaper job and is told he has an impressive résumé based on the obituaries. Spongebob’s mother warns him to stop wringing himself out in his bed. A knife-wielding cookie cutter demands that two chocolate-chip victims “hand over the dough.” An airline passenger gets a row to himself by coughing constantly while making sure people in the aisle see the books he has brought along about overcoming tuberculosis and living with leprosy. A mother and father sausage worry about their kids being “spoiled brats.” A praying mantis warns the young mantis taking his daughter out to have her back before midnight and to be sure his head is still attached. A dog husband compliments his wife on her disgusting breath, which she attributes to her new “hot garbage scented” mouthwash. Wonder Woman tries unsuccessfully to describe her invisible jet to a policeman after the plane is stolen. A subway rider encounters “the likeness monster,” who closely resembles the man’s father. Elmer Fudd reads the instructions on a box of “bwownies.” Dogs go shopping at Victerrier’s Secret, Foot Licker, Puppy Gap and other canine mall stores. A pirate dentist tells patients to say “arrrrr.” And so on and so forth all year – a collection of puns, pop culture, talking animals, and lots of absurd characters doing absurd things. And no actual argyles were harmed in the making of this particular sweater.
Speaking of harm, doctors and other medical professionals are supposed to be sure not to do any, but for anyone who finds that an iffy proposition – or simply thinks laughter may be better medicine than most prescription drugs – Jonny Hawkins’ Medical Cartoon-a-Day may be just the thing to lift spirits throughout 2015. Hawkins produces old-fashioned black-and-white cartoons of the type that used to appear in magazines and still show up in some print publications, such as The New Yorker. One shows medics – or are they mechanics? – carrying a man on a stretcher to a body shop. Another offers an I chart – that is, a optometrist’s chart containing only the letter I. Elsewhere, surgical students are forced to learn from the “Operation” game because of funding cutbacks; a doctor tells a patient that “your HMO will pay for a pound of cure, but not an ounce of prevention”; and another tells a man, “We’re not even sure how many syllables there are for what you have.” A man who passes out during a Star Wars marathon is diagnosed with “a near-Darth experience.” Patients in a crowded waiting room are told the “naturalist healer” is giving them plenty of time to heal naturally. A hot-dog cart offers “all-natural health supplements” with the frankfurters. And then there’s the man who is in counseling for his addiction to counseling. The simple line drawings are mildly amusing but are not the main point here – it is the one-line insights into (and critiques of) modern medicine that will keep you chuckling throughout the year. Or keep your doctor chuckling – this is one of those calendars that can provide a daily dose of gentle humor to the very people at whose expense it generates laughs.
The Croc Ate My Homework: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrew McMeel. $9.99.
Pow! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
My Weirder School #11: Miss Klute Is a Hoot! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $4.99.
My Weird School Special: Back to School, Weird Kids Rule! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $5.99.
The way to a young reader’s literary heart – and head, for that matter – may lie in words, pictures or a combination. The combined approach is the most popular, implemented in a wide variety of ways. The series that Andrews McMeel calls “AMP! Comics for Kids” takes excerpts from current and older strips and binds them in easy-to-handle 224-page paperbacks designed not for narrative continuity (which they lack) but for easy reading and immediate appeal to younger readers. Presumably these books will become a gateway to larger collections of the same strips – or to other comics and other visually striking offerings. Choosing strips for a Stephan Pastis collection of this type is by no means easy, though. Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine is a dark strip filled with multi-day continuity that is broken up by extended and generally awful puns that are a highlight because they are so terrible (and that inevitably lead Pastis, who appears as a character in his own strip, to be roundly condemned and physically attacked by the other characters). Because this strip is filled with characters being killed, drinking beer, and committing all sorts of mayhem, it scarcely seems suitable for the young-reader treatment. But The Croc Ate My Homework turns out to be just fine. True, there is a strip in which the inept crocodiles, trying for the umpteenth time to trap and eat their neighbor, Zebra, grind up one of their own in a wood chipper, and another in which one of the crocs devours one of Santa’s elves. But by the standards of this strip, this sort of violence (which always happens off-screen or, rather, out of panel) is quite mild. A sequence in which a young crocodile has a fling with a young zebra, refusing to see her as prey, fits well here, as do strips in which one of the crocs offers his son bedtime stories and nursery rhymes – suitably rewritten from a predator’s point of view. And then there is the strip in which the croc’s conscience appears to warn him against killing other creatures – so the croc makes a snack of the conscience itself. The Croc Ate My Homework is croc-centered (although no homework appears to have been eaten in its creation), but the book also features plenty of appearances by other Pearls Before Swine regulars, including Rat, Pig and Goat. It does not give the full (and sometimes bitter) flavor of the strip, but as an introduction to Pastis’ oddities, it serves quite well.
Pastis has written about the extent to which he owes his success in cartooning to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, not only because of the influence of the Peanuts strips themselves but also because of Pastis having actually met Schulz (1922-2000) and talked with him about comics. Peanuts was a considerably darker strip than many adults remember when thinking back on their own experience of it – not as dark as Pastis’, certainly, but packed with considerable emotional negativism and disappointment. It also had plenty of grown-up language (it originated as a strip in which little kids said grown-up things) and a wide variety of complex themes, including a religious one (which led to a book by Robert Short called The Gospel According to Peanuts). Many of these themes are evident in Pow! – which features on its cover one of the classic panels in which baseball pitcher Charlie Brown is partially undressed by the force of a line drive hit right back at him. Like his inevitable failure to kick a football held by Lucy, Charlie Brown’s feckless attempts to pitch well and manage his team of misfits provided a sports-based foundation for the put-upon protagonist to fail again and again in ever-more-creative and ever-more-disappointing ways. Just how much failure there was in the baseball context is quite clear in Pow! The entire book is made up of baseball-themed sequences from Peanuts, to the point of repetitiveness – which the stories did not have when Schulz was alive, since he spaced them out over months and years. The dates of the panels are not given in this reprint, which is understandable in terms of not wanting the comics to seem old to the young readers for whom the book is designed. There are some unintended consequences of the decision, though: references to cartoonist Willard Mullin, mid-1960s baseball commissioner William Eckert, conductor Leonard Bernstein and pitcher Sandy Koufax will make no sense whatsoever to today’s young readers. Neither will the sequence in which Charlie Brown and Linus place a newspaper want ad to try to find Charlie Brown a new team to manage. But in general, annotations are not necessary for this book – in which, time after time, Charlie Brown tries his very best while, time after time, events and his own wishy-washy personality conspire against him. Schulz’ art remains as intriguing and effective as ever here, and so does his writing: “How can I run a baseball team and solve moral issues at the same time?” And: “Just what I’ve always been afraid of: my team has built up an immunity to losing!” Like Charlie Brown himself, Peanuts just keeps coming back again and again, and hopefully young readers will continue looking for these classic strips after they get started with Pow!
As good as Schulz’ writing was, and as Pastis’ writing is, comic-strip collections inevitably put the focus on visual impact when trying to attract younger readers. Dan Gutman’s My Weird School series and its spinoffs and successors, in contrast, focus primarily on writing, even though the Jim Paillot illustrations are important to the books’ overall effect. The fact that these books read and look like clones of each other gives them a (+++) rating; but the reality is that any book’s resemblance to any other is, in this case, purely intentional. Gutman wants kids to know exactly what they will be getting before they ever get past a book’s cover. So it will be obvious from the get-go that My Weirder School #11: Miss Klute Is a Hoot! will feature A.J. narrating a story about yet another oddball, offbeat occurrence in school. This time the focus is a dog called Miss Klute, who shows up at reading time to help encourage the kids to read out loud. This approach works so well that even reluctant readers (who, by the way, are the target audience for Gutman’s books) want to do more reading to Miss Klute, and ask to do so with enthusiasm: “If you ever want something really badly, just say ‘please’ over and over again to a grown-up. That’s the first rule of being a kid.” To be sure, there turn out to be some unexpected complications involving Miss Klute, but before things get too serious, everything is nicely resolved. Of course. And so it also goes in My Weird School Special: Back to School, Weird Kids Rule! The narrator here is Andrea – her first time narrating, as a matter of fact – and she sprinkles reasons she loves school throughout the book. The book features the kids going to a camp that, instead of being a summertime alternative to school, is a camp to help them get ready to go back to school; they react pretty much as expected (except that, remember, narrator Andrea loves school and everything resembling it). Most of the fun here actually comes from having Andrea tell the story: she not only creates a list of things she loves about school but also decides that she loves list-making so much that she should make a list of her favorite lists – and does. Like Gutman’s other Weird School books, this one is easy to read, lightly plotted and filled with silly humor as well as amusing illustrations. With any luck, these two new Gutman books will help kids get into the right frame of mind for their real and hopefully not too weird school days.
Huff and Puff and the New Train. By Tish Rabe. Pictures by Gill Guile. Harper. $16.99.
Diary of a Worm: Nat the Gnat. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by John Nez. Harper. $16.99.
Flat Stanley: Show-and-Tell, Flat Stanley! By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $16.99.
Riff Raff the Mouse Pirate. By Susan Schade. Pictures by Anne Kennedy. Harper. $16.99.
Monster School: The Spooky Sleepover. By Dave Keane. Harper. $16.99.
Plants vs. Zombies: Save Your Brains! By Catherine Hapka. Harper. $3.99.
Batman: Batman Versus the Riddler. By Donald Lemke. Pictures by Steven E. Gordon. Colors by Eric A. Gordon. Harper. $3.99.
The I Can Read! series from HarperCollins is distinguished not only by its five levels of writing for differently advanced young readers but also by its use of characters that tie into longer, more-complex books outside the series itself. Kids who learn reading from simple adventures of Pinkalicious or Little Critter, for example, will have a wealth of other books to choose from when they move beyond the series itself and are ready to explore reading on their own. Not all the characters in the I Can Read! series are necessarily well-known, and some are certainly more important in modern children’s literature than others – but what makes the series work so well is the way any and all the characters are used in stories that intrigue kids at all reading levels and help them move into more-complex tales as their reading ability grows.
The series starts at the My First level, identified as “ideal for sharing with emergent readers” – that is, books at this level are intended to be read with a young child to help introduce him or her to reading that will eventually be something he or she can do alone. Huff and Puff and the New Train is an example: Huff is an engine and Puff is a caboose, and together they make trains go. But a new, sleek train shows up and is much faster than the old-fashioned friends. The trains have a race – and in unsurprising tortoise-and-hare fashion, the new train is so far ahead that it stops to rest, which lets Huff and Puff pass by and win. The language is very simple and presented in very large print: “The two trains raced uphill and down,/ in the country, in the town.” And the colors and settings are pleasant and enjoyable for pre-readers and the youngest readers: the book is officially intended for ages 4-8, but is more likely to attract kids in the 3-6 age range.
Also designed for ages 4-8, and more reasonably targeted there, Level 1 books offer “simple sentences for eager new readers” – an example being Diary of a Worm: Nat the Gnat. The original Diary of a Worm, which young readers may seek out after they become more adept with books, is by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss; but as usual in this series for the youngest readers, the Nat the Gnat entry is an adaptation based on the original book, not a work by Cronin and Bliss themselves. The approach and characterization remain true, though, in a story – slightly more complex than those in the My First level – that has Worm allowed to take care of the class pet, Nat the Gnat, until Worm accidentally leaves the cage open. Not knowing what to do, Worm has to decide whether or not to tell everyone what happened. His decision is to catch another gnat – with the help of his friend Spider – but even then, he feels bad and eventually does tell the class that he lost Nat. Telling the truth helps everything work out when it is discovered that Nat is not lost after all – a simple moral, no more overstated than the tortoise-and-hare one in the Huff and Puff book, with the language here slightly more complex: “This morning, I brought Nat a nice wet leaf. I opened his tank to put in the leaf. Then I closed it and went out for recess.”
The writing becomes still more complex in Level 2 books, which offer “high-interest stories for developing readers.” These too are for ages 4-8; with the natural differentiation of reading skills, that age range continues to make sense – earlier readers will be done with them by about age six, but some kids may not even start at this level until that age. In any case, there are many, many characters at this level from whom to choose, some quite well-known and others less so. Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley, for example, is at the center of Show-and-Tell, Flat Stanley! – although, as usual in this reading series, the book is based on Brown’s work but not created by him. Stanley’s little brother, Arthur, takes Stanley to school for show-and-tell, where the teacher, Miss Plum, has something of her own to show the class: an engagement ring. In a series of misadventures, the ring ends up on the head of another show-and-tell offering, a mouse, and Stanley alone can get into the ceiling crack where the frightened mouse has gone to hide. The mistakes and heroics happen quickly and amusingly; kids who already know Flat Stanley – perhaps through an older sibling – will enjoy this book and look forward to reading more about the flattened-by-a-blackboard boy.
Speaking of mouse matters, Riff Raff the Mouse Pirate commands a crew consisting of Cheddar, Munster, Swiss, Colby, Blue and Brie on a treasure quest complicated by the fact that the map they are using is partially torn. Riff Raff promises cheese to the first mouse pirate who spots the right street – all they know is that its name starts with PLU. Several misspellings later, the correct street is located and the treasure is found – and proves not to be what the mice expected, although they are quite happy with it nevertheless. Riff Raff’s story was created specifically for this reading series rather than spun off from other books – but there is more of Riff Raff within this series for kids to enjoy. There are several Monster School books by Dave Keane, too, such as The Spooky Sleepover. These feature entirely nonthreatening monsters with eyes on stalks, a single eye, 10 eyeballs, and various non-eye-related anatomical features, such as the ability to change into a bat or werewolf, two heads – that sort of thing. Keane carefully draws the kid monsters to look as much as possible like ordinary children – such as Norm, who in The Spooky Sleepover is having his first-ever sleepover, which happens to be at Monster School. Norm interacts with Gill (who has gills), Gary (a ghost), Harry (a werewolf who eats two whole pizzas, plus the boxes they come in), Miss Grunt (the zombie librarian), and other at the school. But Norm cannot sleep – not because of the monstrousness around him but because he does not have his usual sleeping environment. So the monsters help Norm out – for instance, Hilda the witch turns her salamander into a cat to keep Norm company – and everything ends happily. The gentle lesson here, that everyone worries on his or her first sleepover, is nicely meshed with the unusual setting.
Some Level 2 books draw on characters originally created for purposes having little to do with learning to read – video games and comics, for example. Kids who enjoy the Plants vs. Zombies game and comics featuring Batman can easily find Level 2 books that they will like, such as Save Your Brains! and Batman Versus the Riddler. The first of these is essentially an introduction to the silliness of a world where brain-craving but slow and ridiculous-looking zombies are easy to fight off by using various helpful, anthropomorphic plants, such as potato mines, two-fisted Bonk Choy and (for Pirate Zombies) Snapdragons. The second is a typical story in which a supposedly smart bad guy cannot outwit Batman (helped in this case by Batgirl) – and the villain ends up foiled by his own miscalculation, leaving the Bat duo (drawn in contemporary hyper-craggy style) triumphant. These books are not as carefully designed to advance kids’ reading ability as are many of the other I Can Read! books, and therefore get (+++) ratings. And neither of these books will appeal to early readers who are not already involved in their subject matter. But those who are interested in the video-game or comic-book background of these books may be encouraged to read more-traditional books by seeing the characters they know and like in this context. And that is ultimately what all the I Can Read! books are after, with whatever characters they contain: getting kids interested in reading in a systematic way that is progressive through multiple stages of difficulty.
Oliver and the Seawigs. By Philip Reeve. Illustrated by Sarah McIntyre. Random House. $12.99.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher. By Dana Alison Levy. Delacorte Press. $15.99.
Kevin Spencer 5: Family Ties. By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $12.99.
The Never Girls #7: A Pinch of Magic. By Kiki Thorpe. Illustrated by Jana Christy. Random House. $5.99.
Families are the ties that bind preteens in a great many novels for ages 7-12, although “family” is differently defined in various books – sometimes even involving characters who are not related to each other but who feel like family members (generally idealized ones). Fantasy adventures frequently involve the preteen family member(s) rescuing parents, lending grounding of a sort to stories that are otherwise fairly far out – such as Oliver and the Seawigs. This is an amusing, amply illustrated tale in which Oliver and his explorer parents have an adventure that revolves around Oliver rescuing his mom and dad from a living island that is using them, encased in bubbles, as decoration. Oliver’s folks are to become part of the “seawig” contest in the Hallowed Shallows, where the moving islands all get together to decide who has the best seawig and therefore deserves to, in effect, lead all the rest. The fact that this makes not a lick of sense is wholly irrelevant: Philip Reeve’s book is created entirely for fun, and Sarah McIntyre’s two-color illustrations dial the amusement up a notch. Of course, Oliver will need help to rescue his folks, so he turns to a mermaid named Iris who does not fit in with the other mermaids because she is on the plump rather than svelte side, has a much-less-than-mellifluous voice, and is quite nearsighted. Also helping Oliver out are some jumbo-sized sea monkeys and Mr. Culpeper, a self-described Wandering Albatross, who is able to talk – which seems unlikely, Oliver points out, until Mr. Culpeper explains that parrots can talk (which, again, makes no logical sense, but so what?). On the bad-guy side are the Thurlstone – that’s the bad island holding Oliver’s parents captive – and a boy named Stacey de Lacey, who is upset that his first name sounds like a girl’s and has therefore turned to rather undifferentiated evil. The mixed-up mishmash of these characters provides a roller-coaster ride for readers, and includes some ideas that go beyond chuckles into genuine amusement – such as the Sarcastic Sea, which is. Reeve and McIntyre call this book “a not-so-impossible tale” and are certainly planning more of the same in the future. One hopes.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, in contrast, is – except for one thing – an entirely ordinary book about growing up and facing everyday issues involving school, homework, friends, neighbors, animals, holidays and so forth. It is intended to be amusing, too, although the hilarity in Dana Alison Levy’s debut novel is far more studied (and ultimately less funny) than in Reeve and McIntyre’s work. This is the story of four boys, one aged 12, two aged 10 and one aged six, and their various interests and preoccupations, which range from soccer and books to an invisible cheetah. The book’s cover shows two Caucasian and two African-American boys, but mixed and blended families are nothing particularly new in preteen books anymore; in fact, authors often bend over backwards (to the point of extreme obviousness) to create racially and ethnically balanced character groups. What is out of the ordinary here, and what turns this into a “cause” book, is the family parents: Dad and Papa. Levy’s point is quite clearly to show that families headed by two men are every bit as usual, typical, ordinary and worthy of acceptance as any other kind of family. Indeed, the ordinariness of the Fletcher boys’ adventures seems intended to make the point that their family is just like every other one. That this is transparently not the case is what makes this (+++) novel a subtle advocacy book rather than a straightforward coming-of-age tale. Context matters, and Levy’s point is that once you get past the issue of who the Fletcher parents are, what happens with them and their kids (misunderstandings, discipline issues, worries, concerns, celebrations) is just like what happens with other families. Parents in families headed by a man and woman, or a single mom or dad, will need to think about Levy’s advocacy before deciding whether this book will work for their kids. Sam, Jax, Eli and Frog (real name: Jeremiah) are cardboard characters, their individuation minimal and patterned on that of characters in many other books for this age group. Their adventures and misadventures (including an amusing one involving a skunk) will be quite familiar to parents and young readers alike. But the context within which those adventures occur is one that will invite considerable discussion in at least some families – and that, more than the book’s formulaic plot, seems to be what most interests Levy.
Gary Paulsen’s short (+++) books about Kevin Spencer are somewhat over-plotted and on the obvious side, but Kevin does have real personality, and Family Ties, the fifth book about him and those around him, does as good a job of bringing that personality out as did the previous four: Liar, Liar; Flat Broke; Crush; and Vote. Family drama is front-and-center throughout the latest book, as Kevin decides to use his uncle’s planned wedding – which quickly turns out to be one of two planned weddings – to bring his dysfunctional family together and impress his too-good-to-be-true girlfriend, Tina. Add in a mismatch of affection between Kevin’s cat, Teddy, and Uncle Will’s huge and bladder-challenged dog, Athena, and you have all the ingredients for a romp. But wait – there’s more; there is always more in these books, which accounts for their frantic pace and somewhat overdone hyperactivity. The “more” here is the family-focused school project that Kevin is working on with classmate Katie Knowles while he is also trying to juggle two weddings and an increasing number of oddball relatives oozing out of the figurative woodwork. The project has Kevin and Katie as make-believe husband and wife, dealing with joblessness, financial trouble and a baby girl named Dumpster Assassin. Kevin’s hopes that he will excel at pretend-marriage and thereby prepare Tina for eventual not-pretend marriage go awry, of course, and in fact pretty much everything goes awry, which is the story arc of all the Kevin Spacey books. Paulsen, who is nothing if not an expert at untangling the skeins that he tangles in the first place, eventually knits things up as neatly as usual, and Kevin aptly concludes, “I always knew that a guy like me had to get one of his big ideas right eventually. I just needed a whole lot of help from people who care about me.” And that, of course, is what family, and Family Ties, are all about.
The seventh Never Girls book continues the adventures of four human girls – Gabby, Kate, Lainey and Mia – who are able to travel between the human town of Pixie Hollow and the fairies’ Never Land. Their portal is a mere broken fence slat; their adventures are equally mundane in most respects. In A Pinch of Magic, the focus is mainly on Mia – different books give different girls the limelight – and the bake sale for which she is preparing. Mia enlists the help of Dulcie, a fairy with talent for baking little (of course, little) cakes. But as in other books of this series, one must not rely solely, or too much, on magic: Mia must finish the cakes on her own after Dulcie returns to Never Land. But Mia does not have baking talent, which is why Dulcie has been helping her in the first place. What to do? This sort of minimalist worry is typical of these easy (+++) chapter books, in which the girl protagonists invariably discover that they are more self-sufficient and talented than they think they are, and can use a little magical help (who couldn’t?) but do not really need it. Thus, Kiki Thorpe makes sure that after all the misunderstandings and humorous occurrences (such as Dulcie being temporarily trapped in a grocery-store freezer and inadvertently using her dress to butter a saucepan), Mia herself makes her baked creations – which she labels “Fairy Cakes” – a big success, raising plenty of money to help a neighborhood family recover after a house fire. Fans of this series, which extends the Disney version of Never Land from Peter Pan, will enjoy A Pinch of Magic as much as any of the other Never Girls books, and will find themselves enjoying the notion that even humans and fairies can become members of the same family, more or less – you just have to believe it can happen.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8. Konzerthausorchester Berlin conducted by Mario Venzago. CPO. $16.99.
Bruch: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 1—Violin Concerto No. 2; Scottish Fantasy; Adagio appassionato. Antje Weithaas, violin; NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Hermann Bäumer. CPO. $16.99.
Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—Othello; Záboj, Slavoj and Luděk; Toman and the Wood Nymph; The Tempest; Spring. Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.
The exceptionally interesting CPO Bruckner cycle conducted by Mario Venzago reaches its penultimate release with Venzago’s reading of Symphony No. 8 – for which, once again, he has made a superb choice of orchestra. One of the main distinguishing characteristics of this Bruckner sequence is the conductor’s use of different ensembles for different symphonies, his intention being to highlight the ways in which the sound of each symphony is distinct by performing it with an orchestra whose own sound elicits what Venzago believes Bruckner intended. This is more than an academic exercise: Bruckner’s symphonies too often come across as massive gouts of sonic grandeur throughout, but Venzago shows persuasively that they have clarity and even delicacy that is all too frequently unobserved or unnoticed. So Venzago used the Tapiola Sinfonietta for Nos. 0 and 1; the Northern Sinfonia for No. 2; the Berner Symphonieorchester for Nos. 3, 6 and 9; the Sinfonieorchester Basel for Nos. 4 and 7; and now the Konzerthausorchester Berlin (known from its founding in 1952 until 2006 as the Berlin Symphony Orchestra) for the massive and highly complex No. 8. This is an inspired choice: the orchestra has richness in the strings, a burnished brass section and woodwinds that are quite able to hold their own amid the other sections. As usual nowadays, Venzago performs the 1890 version of this symphony, which is considerably different from its original 1887 version (which Georg Tintner recorded for Naxos back in 1996 and Franz Welser-Möst has conducted more recently, but which remains very rarely heard in concert or on disc). The huge scope of the work and Bruckner’s very carefully designed relationships among the movements produce a symphony that is at once tightly knit and broadly expansive. Venzago not only understands this intellectually – he is a very thoughtful conductor – but also knows how to bring out both the work’s forward-looking design and its tremendous emotional impact. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin has a great deal to do with this, playing with sumptuousness, firm rhythmic control and sectional balance so good that it is always possible to follow the complexities of Bruckner’s thematic groups and rhythm changes and to feel their impact – as, for instance, in the choice of 2/4 time for the trio of the third movement rather than the much more typical 3/4. This is above all a dramatic symphony, its emotional sweep capturing listeners at the start and continuing through a finale that eventually recalls themes from all four movements. Venzago carefully builds sections within the movements, the entire movements, and the overall symphony with great care and skill, and the result is a thrilling and highly moving performance featuring first-rank orchestral sound that beautifully matches the composer’s emotive qualities. Only the Symphony No. 5 remains to be released in Venzago’s Bruckner cycle – an odd choice for the final building block, but one that, on the basis of all he has done so far, Venzago is likely to prove a well-considered and well-thought-out one.
Another cycle on CPO is just beginning, and this one too has fascinating elements. It will offer the complete works for violin and orchestra by the notoriously prickly and difficult Max Bruch, who for most listeners is a one-work composer – known solely for his violin concerto. But Bruch wrote three violin concertos, and the decision to launch this series by featuring No. 2 is a bold and highly interesting one. Bruch was a marvelous tunesmith, spinning long-line slow movements so gorgeous melodically and so balanced in orchestration that it is perfectly possible to be swept away by their beauty to such an extent as to be disappointed by the frequently more workmanlike faster movements that succeed or surround them. Antje Weithaas clearly sees and accepts Bruch as a poet; but at the same time, she acknowledges the structural skill he brings to his works even in their less-inspired elements. The Violin Concerto No. 2 comes across as something of a parallel to Schumann’s Piano Concerto: the long first movement can stand on its own as a fantasy, making it difficult to integrate the second and third movements in such a way as to produce a convincing whole. Weithaas does a first-rate job of this: the opening movement sings, swoons and explores with transcendent beauty, and the second and third – although they are not its equal – come across as more than mere appendages. This is a highly satisfying performance of the concerto, immensely helped by the elegant accompaniment by the NDR Radiophilharmonie under Hermann Bäumer. The Scottish Fantasy, one of the few works beyond the first violin concerto for which Bruch is at least somewhat known, also sounds splendid here, its folkloric elements clearly at the service of a concerto-worthy violin part that stands above the orchestra’s while still being integrated into the ensemble. By turns emotionally stirring, graceful and rhythmically bouncy, the Scottish Fantasy here sounds like a folk-song-based suite for violin and orchestra in which both soloist and conductor show a high level of sensitivity to the music’s nuances. Also here, and very welcome, is the Adagio appassionato, Op. 57, which Bruch originally intended as the first movement of what would have become his fourth violin concerto. As so often in Bruch, the melodies are stirring and passionate, and the piece emerges as an extended fantasy – much as the opening of the second concerto does, but in this case without added movements to complement the work or distract from it. This is an excellent first volume in what promises to be a thoroughly delightful exploration of the music of a man whose personality was so difficult that it infected many people’s regard for his work. Nearly a century after Bruch’s death in 1920, it is now becoming possible to evaluate his music without needing to know about, or pay attention to, its biographical surroundings.
It is also high time for a reconsideration of the music of Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900), who has lain so deeply in the shadows of Dvořák and Smetana that he has been all but invisible. The third volume in a very fine Naxos cycle featuring the Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec shows Fibich to particularly good advantage in five tone poems composed around the same time as Smetana’s Má Vlast and a decade or more before the ones Dvořák wrote based on ballads by Karel Erben. It is very easy to hear the many folklike elements of Fibich’s music in these pieces, and to hear some striking cadential similarities with the work of Smetana (in particular). The two Shakespeare-based tone poems, Othello and The Tempest, are particularly effective encapsulations of the emotional core of those plays, with tone-painting that is very well-wrought if, on the whole, rather straightforward. Záboj, Slavoj and Luděk and Toman and the Wood Nymph trace their origin to Czech folk tales, and both build effectively and recount their stories with appropriate measures of (in the first case) grandeur and (in the second) lovesickness. And Spring is fascinating because of what it is not: it does not simply portray the season as a bright emergence from winter, but shows it to be far more variegated than seasonal tone-painting usually does. It is probably inevitable to compare Fibich with Dvořák and Smetana, noting that he does not have the melodic gifts of the former or the storytelling drama of the latter. But while this is true, it is also unfair: Dvořák lived to be 62 and did much of his most-popular work in his 50s, while Smetana lived to age 60 and finished Má Vlast when he was 55. Fibich died before his 50th birthday, and much of his work as heard in the first three volumes of this series is early: all the tone poems in this volume were written when he was in his 20s or 30s. So while it may be true that Fibich lacked some of the inborn gifts of Dvořák and Smetana, it may also be true that he never had the chance to develop fully the talent that he undeniably possessed. The tone poems heard here, all of them very well-orchestrated and played with considerable élan, continue to show what this series’ first two volumes did: that Fibich is most certainly deserving of the rediscovery that he is now beginning to receive.
Beethoven: Missa Solemnis. Helen Donath, soprano; Doris Soffel, mezzo-soprano; Siegfried Jerusalem, tenor; Hans Sotin, bass; Edinburgh Festival Chorus and London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti. LPO. $16.99.
A Thing Most Wonderful: Music from Lent to Easter. Alistair Reid, organ; Victoria Hoffmeister and Richard Wyton, flute; St. Cecilia Choir of Girls conducted by Jamie Hitel. MSR Classics. $12.95.
William Averitt: The Deepness of the Blue—Three Choral Cycles on Poems by Langston Hughes. Conservatory Singers conducted by Robert Bode; Lee Thompson and Melissa Loehnig, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Robert Aldridge: Parables—An Interfaith Oratorio. Monica Yunus, soprano; Adriana Zabala, mezzo-soprano; Joseph Okeli, tenor; Philip Zawisza, baritone; University of Minnesota Choruses, University Singers, Dancers of the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, and University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kathy Saltzman Romey. Naxos DVD. $24.99.
Anyone interested in hearing an approach to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis that has the sort of operatic intensity more usually heard in Verdi’s Requiem will welcome the Georg Solti performance from 1982 recorded live in London and released on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s own label. The playing and singing here are strong and virtuosic, with the four soloists bringing tremendous intensity and very fine projection to their roles, and with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus offering outstanding and very clear vocal delivery. The palpable intensity of this reading is sustained throughout: this is a recording that never flags. At the same time, though, it never contemplates. Beethoven’s own religious ideas and ideals were unsettled and sometimes changing, and he seems to have had an overall humanistic bent grafted onto an essentially Catholic orientation. But there is no doubt that he intended the Missa Solemnis to offer the highest possible level of holiness in sound and devotional substance, and that is what is missing here. Certainly there is considerable drama in Beethoven’s setting of the Mass, but there is not only drama. Solti leaves the impression that the Missa Solemnis was conceived, first and foremost, as a dramatic work – a proposition that is arguable at best. He captures the intensity of the music thrillingly, and elicits fine playing from the orchestra to complement the excellent vocal elements; but after the performance ends, one misses a sense of uplift, of something that transcends the facile realm in which most opera dwells. This is a first-rate Missa Solemnis from its particular point of view, but the viewpoint itself is inherently flawed in the way it minimizes (if not trivializes) the sacred aspects of the music.
The seriousness is undoubted on a new MSR Classics CD called A Thing Most Wonderful, which offers music by Bach, Handel, Pergolesi, Purcell, César Franck, John Ireland, Charles Villiers Stanford and others – 17 tracks in all, all of them heartfelt and delivered devotionally by the St. Cecilia Choir of Girls from Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut, conducted by Jamie Hitel. There are nine tracks designated “Lent and Passiontide” and eight for Easter, with music of various eras juxtaposed: Stanford’s A Song of Hope is immediately followed by My Song Is Love Unknown by Malcolm Archer (born 1952), for example, and Handel’s If God Be For Us is succeeded by Lift Your Voice, Rejoicing, Mary by Thomas Foster (born 1938). The varying styles of the vocal works make for a somewhat uneasy mixture, despite the fluidity with which the chorus approaches each piece; the fact that all the music has a sacred purpose unites the recording but not the succession of works. Two of the pieces here were commissioned by Hitel from Philip Moore (born 1943): Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing and Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100). Both fit well into the Easter segment of the CD, but neither shows Moore to be a composer so skilled as to deserve two entries here while Bach, Handel, Purcell and all the others receive one apiece. This CD will be of most interest to listeners intrigued by hearing the juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary church music, sung by an adept and well-led girls’ choir.
Another MSR Classics release features avowedly secular works by William Averitt (born 1948), whose three cycles based on Langston Hughes’ poetry are gathered under the umbrella title The Deepness of the Blue – which is also the title of the most-recent cycle itself, from 2012. The musical concept of these cycles is an interesting one: all are for chorus and piano four hands, scarcely a typical combination. The earliest, Afro-American Fragments, dates to 1991 and contains six songs; The Dream Keeper (2009) contains four; and the title cycle includes five. Afro-American Fragments is a stylistic mixture of jazz, ragtime and blues, arranged in three short-long movement pairs. The Dream Keeper, the most musically interesting of the three cycles, ranges from chordal and other slow passages to fast-moving ones and contains a particularly impressive setting of “As I Grew Older,” a song about how age suppresses youthful dreams that features, at the end, a strong reaffirmation of creative thinking, expectation and hope. The Deepness of the Blue tries a little too hard for deep meaning and profundity, its most impressive movement being the intense and strongly syncopated “Drum,” which sounds quite different from the rest of the cycle. Lovers of Hughes’ poetry will certainly enjoy hearing the many ways in which Averitt sets it in these cycles, and these world première recordings are impressively sung throughout, with a particularly nice solo turn by soprano Natalie Lassinger in “Song for Billie Holliday” from Afro-American Fragments. The appeal of the disc, though, is somewhat limited by the exclusive use of poetry that, while involving enough in small doses, is neither sufficiently varied nor sufficiently thoughtful to sustain Averitt’s level of attention and intensity through nearly 50 minutes of music.
The intensity has both secular and religious elements in Robert Aldridge’s Parables, a work from 2010 in which Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein make yet another of the many recent very-well-meaning attempts by artists to use the power of performance to build bridges among the primary Abrahamic faiths. Using words from the Torah, New Testament and Koran, Garfein attempts to show the many ways in which the religions have common roots and common thoughts, with the secular intent of the work – abetted by Aldridge’s sensitively varied music – being to counter the forces that make it seem that these religions are and must be at war, both philosophically and physically. This is a piece that works particularly well on DVD: the Naxos release is not merely a visualization of a concert but a fully worked-through performance in which choreography, lighting and costume design are just as important to the overall impact as are the words and music. Stage director David Walsh and conductor Kathy Saltzman Romey offer an operatically conceived oratorio that will surely appeal to people who already believe that the major faiths can and should, even must, appreciate each other. These are the sorts of people who have car bumper stickers in which the word “coexist” is assembled from a Muslim crescent, a peace symbol, an “e” bearing male and female symbols, the Jewish star, an “i” dotted with the yin/yang symbol, an “s” with that same symbol in a larger size, and a Christian cross. Very nice, very pretty, very simplistic, and ultimately very useless – the bumper stickers, that is. There is far more substance than this to Parables, but this is nevertheless a work of supreme naïveté, a feel-good “can’t we all get along?” piece that will appeal to people who are already predisposed to accept its undoubted, underlying good intentions. It is hard to tell just how seriously Aldridge and Garfield, who previously collaborated in Elmer Gantry (2007) – a work in which the sacred and secular collide quite overtly – expect the audience to take Parables, and whether they hope that the work will in fact produce any increase in tolerance whatsoever. In the real world, after all, even the Muslim crescent does not mean the same thing to the 85% of Muslims who identify themselves as Sunni as to the 15% who are Shiite; and the Jewish star cannot even be used in international lifesaving operations in many countries in the Middle East. So this Aldridge/Garfein “interfaith oratorio,” with its accessible music, its clear verbal parallels among the three faiths from which it draws its text, and its very fine singing, dancing and stage presentation, ultimately comes across as yet another instance of preaching to the choir: it will surely please those who already agree with its precepts, and just as surely have neither meaning nor interest for those who do not.
July 24, 2014
Bats in the Band. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Charley Harper’s A Partridge in a Pear Tree. By Charley Harper. Pomegranate. $9.95.
One of the best-drawn of the always engaging Bats books by Brian Lies, Bats in the Band more than makes up in illustrative endearment for poetry that does not scan quite as well as it does in Lies’ other books. The wonderfully pictured bats, which are highly realistic and at the same time thoroughly anthropomorphic in their postures and behavior, get together this time to make music – all kinds of music. “And every last one of us knows where to go:/ a summertime theater, after a show.” (That second line is a syllable short unless “theater” has three; this is one of many rhythmic shortcomings here – a trifle odd in a book about something as rhythm-driven as music!) The bats assemble in the darkened theater and soon start putting together the concert to end all concerts – using a riotous mixture of real instruments plus “things [made] up out of straws, out of spoons.” Backstage chatter, with some bats hanging upside-down while practicing as others stand and compare, umm, notes, makes it clear that this will be a concert like no other: guitar, sitar, bagpipes, pocket comb and serpent (an old wind instrument) are all shown in loving detail. The bats perform both standing and hanging upside-down, too, with a chorus that fills the entire page (top and bottom as well as side to side) and includes a wide variety of bat species, from big-eared to flying fox. A classical string quartet is shown playing upside-down, its instruments and music stands held aloft by stage wires, its members’ feet clinging to matchsticks arrayed like trapeze bars. A hilariously depicted “one-bat band” includes instruments from the violin to the bass drum to the unnamable – no wonder just watching tires the audience! There is country-and-western music, music for bat kiddies “who can’t sit through a concert yet,” a bat wailing the blues on a page that is entirely blue-tinted, and of course a rock band that has everybody (or everybatty) dancing: “We bounce, we hop, we twirl, we groove –/ the music makes our bodies move.” The sounding of a gong, whose vibrations are shown gradually diminishing to silence, eventually ends a concert filled with a multiplicity of melodies, leaving the bats to return to their roost at dawn with a new realization: “Heading for home, we hum or we sing,/ and discover there’s music in everything.” (Again, that last word needs to be in four syllables for the line to scan – a note for metrical purists.) The delights of Lies’ books about humanlike bats in unlikely locations – beach, library, ballpark – are many, and the celebratory mood of this latest entry fits beautifully into the series.
The celebration is a seasonal one, but the amusement is for anytime in Charley Harper’s A Partridge in a Pear Tree, which takes the familiar carol about the gifts of the 12 days of Christmas and adds some gentle commentary to a series of drawings created by Harper (1922-2007) not originally for publication but for his own family to enjoy. Now other families can delight in them , too: pastel sketches of the various, increasingly elaborate gifts are accompanied by the well-known text of the song, with just a line added here and there. The initial partridge in a pear tree gets the parenthetical comment, “(He always gives me something unusual.)” As the birds, which Harper differentiates beautifully and with his usual ability to encapsulate a creature’s essence in just a few lines and shapes, begin to mount in number, the recipient comments, “(My place began to look like an aviary.)” Eventually there are swans swimming in the bathtub, one French hen is re-gifted, the cow for the maids a-milking has to be tied up outside, and by the time the nine pipers piping arrive, gaily bedecked in alternating red and green outfits, “(I began to wish I’d never heard of Christmas.)” A neighbor calls the police because of the noise the drummers make, the leaping lords “knocked over the Christmas tree and frightened the cat,” and eventually the entire house is shown simply crammed with the evidence of the giver’s enormous, if misplaced, generosity. And this leads to an absolutely marvelous conclusion that sets just the right tone of acceptance, love and humor: “On the first day after Christmas, I, carrying on though daunted,/ Called the zoo, a hotel, and my love,/ And said, ‘You dear! Just what I wanted!’” Anyone who does not laugh at that ending needs a heaping helping of Christmas spirit – and had better start developing it in midsummer to be sure there is enough of it before December 25. Charley Harper’s A Partridge in a Pear Tree is, or should be, a book for all seasons.
The Bone Seeker: An Edie Kiglatuk Mystery. By M.J. McGrath. Viking. $27.95.
M.J. McGrath is really hitting her stride in the third and best of her mystery stories featuring Inuit hunter, guide and reluctant detective Edie Kiglatuk. Both Edie and the supporting cast emerge as more fully human, better-developed characters in The Bone Seeker than in White Heat and The Boy in the Snow, and the largest character of all – the remote High Arctic setting – is more thoroughly plumbed and is a fuller participant in the action this time. As before, the region is a source of bitter cold, of multiple kinds of ice (each with its own dangers), and of the rich Inuit history in which all the books are steeped – a history that McGrath cleverly connects with southern readers (meaning anyone from Alaska on down the map) by having Edie herself be half Inuit and half qalunaat (meaning southerner or non-Inuit; her father’s desertion of the family when Edie was a child thus stands for qalunaat neglect of or unconcern for all things Inuit). But here there is more: the distant Arctic is a staging ground, chosen for its extreme remoteness, for now-decaying observation posts left over from the Cold War, for modern-day military training and maneuvers, and maybe for something so dangerous and shadowy that secretive arms of the Canadian and U.S. governments will to go frightening lengths to conceal its existence.
The government-conspiracy angle could easily drift into cliché, and in fact has some weaknesses that almost cause the book’s otherwise tight plotting to unravel: a too-dedicated investigating lawyer from Guatemala who is “disappeared” in a less-than-believable scene, and a change of heart from a character that is crucial to the wrapup of the plot but is quite unrealistic in context and never satisfactorily explained. Nevertheless, the Cold War overlay is what makes The Bone Seeker more than a murder mystery – it begins as one but soon, as Edie and her associates seek the killer, starts to have resonance that reaches well beyond the killing of one of the girl students that Edie teaches in the remote hamlet of Autisaq. That resonance comes from the past, or rather from two different pasts: that of the southerners who have long exploited the Arctic for their own political and military purposes and that of the Inuit, for whom the past lives side-by-side with the present in a land where bones do not decay and remnants of history may reappear anytime as the ice shifts unpredictably.
This is not the first time McGrath has explored the ways in which these two pasts intersect in Edie’s life and the life of those around her. For example, White Heat refers to the contamination of Arctic sea life by PCBs whose source may have been “Russian nuclear plants [or] wartime radar stations [or] U.S. naval submarines.” But McGrath pulls the elements of this story together with a surer hand than she has shown before. The difficult and crotchety Inuit elders, long a thorn in Edie’s side, are crucial to the plot of The Bone Seeker, and the old Inuit beliefs and superstitions turn out to have completely germane connections both to the murder and to the mysteries of the Arctic’s military past and present. The way in which McGrath ties together Inuit reproductive difficulties and government indifference to Cold War policy effects makes this book far more tightly knit than the previous two, and far more chilling in ways that go beyond the bleakness (to southern eyes) of the landscape in which the events play out. The fact that The Bone Seeker is loosely based on real events may be one thing that gives it particular resonance, but it is McGrath’s growing skill at showing Edie and the other fictional characters as real human beings – whose actions are intimately connected with their personalities rather than dictated by the exigencies of the plot – that really gives this novel its impact.
The Bone Seeker contains passing references to events of the two prior Edie Kiglatuk novels, and it does help to have read them in order to have a full appreciation of what happens here – Edie’s attitude toward alcohol, for instance, after her abuse of it (a common problem among the Inuit) ruined her marriage and nearly destroyed her life, as well as her feelings toward her ex’s son, Willa, in light of what happened to Willa’s brother, Joe, in White Heat. However, it is perfectly possible to read and understand The Bone Seeker without being familiar with the prior books – and given the skill with which McGrath handles matters here, this novel may be a better entry to the series than either prior one. Readers who start here are very likely to want to go back to the earlier Edie Kiglatuk books to gain additional perspective, much as Edie herself finds that she must delve into the past, hers and the Arctic’s, to solve intertwined mysteries whose tragic consequences are personal and intimate and wide-ranging and far-reaching, all at the same time.
Choosing Raw: Making Raw Foods Part of the Way You Eat. By Gena Hamshaw. Da Capo. $19.99.
Does This Plug into That? Simplify Your Electronic Life. By Eric Taub. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
As life continues to get more complicated – which seems to occur every day, if not every hour – books that can simplify it are more welcome than ever. Nutritionist Gena Hamshaw’s Choosing Raw is intended to simplify decision-making for people who want to include more raw foods in their diets – without being fanatical about it. That is a welcome approach: Hamshaw says forthrightly that she is “not a raw foodist” and therefore does not insist only on “foods that haven’t been heated above a certain temperature (105°-115°).” She likes stir-fries, roasted vegetables and cooked grains, and at times eats less than 75% raw food – especially when traveling or eating out. Hamshaw thus makes an unusually sensible guide to one of those approaches to food that can all too easily descend into perfectionism and fanaticism. “I want you to approach raw foods as a choice,” she writes, adding that there are two basic reasons for making that choice: health, “the ways in which plant foods might benefit your body and help to protect you from chronic disease,” and compassion, “respect for our animal neighbors and an effort to tread lightly on mother earth.” This will still be too New Age-y and touchy-feely for many readers, but it is at least within the realm of possibility that people wondering what is involved in increasing their intake of raw food will be willing to listen to Hamshaw’s comparatively reasonable advocacy – although it is worth pointing out that she is a dedicated vegan and says that “animal rights are the defining feature of my relationship with veganism.” In any case, it is possible, and for non-vegans even desirable, to skip over Hamshaw’s opening advocacy chapters and start to explore one’s interest in raw foods in the chapters featuring “Frequently Asked Questions” and “Myths and Misconceptions.” The latter, for example, says it is a myth that vegan diets are expensive and hard to maintain – “veganism is what you make of it.” The issue of “raw diet” and “vegan diet” tends to blur and blend as the book goes on, but at least Hamshaw often makes comments such as, “This section will help you ease into vegan and raw foods,” repeatedly reminding readers that they are two (somewhat) separate things and that her purpose is to help non-vegan, non-raw-food eaters explore vegan and raw diets and (she hopes) convert to them. The practical side of this involves explaining what foods and ingredients to have on hand at all times (from agave nectar, amaranth and avocado oil to young Thai coconut); how to plan meals 21 days at a time; and what recipes to try – there are 125 of them here, from “basic massaged kale salad” and “no-bake sunflower oat bars” to “toasted pumpkin granola with homemade hemp milk” and “heat-free lentil and walnut tacos,” and many more. Hamshaw arranges recipes in three levels, from easiest to most challenging, so readers who want to experiment with raw and vegan foods can start with some simpler dishes and move into more-complex ones if they wish. What they will or will not wish will be entirely a personal matter: Hamshaw’s “tread lightly” arguments are unlikely to convince anyone not already supporting them, and her health-related ones, although reasonably solid, are by no means universally accepted. But for people already thinking about eating more raw foods – for whatever reason – Choosing Raw can be a reasonable place to get more information on how, if not why, to move into the raw-food arena.
And speaking of simplicity: whatever you choose to eat, it is likely that you choose to use a considerable amount of technology. Maybe “choose” is not even the right word: food types are a choice, but technology use is much less so (even the famously technologically averse Amish are now using cell phones). Technology consultant Eric Taub offers to simplify everyone’s tech life in his short (170-page), easy-to-read Does This Plug into That? And he does in fact labor mightily to clarify and simplify, although he is hampered by a couple of things. One is that technology changes so quickly that some elements of his book are already outdated, and others will soon be. Another is that Taub has a distinct point of view that is not revealed unless you enjoy reading notes (it is the very first note, but on page 165): “If you want an unbiased guide to consumer electronics, this is not the book. I have many opinions (e.g., that Apple’s products are generally better than the competition’s) gleaned over years of writing about technology.” Well, that certainly limits the book’s usefulness. To cite just one example: Apple’s business model involves getting users of its equipment to stampede to stores and replace every iteration of technology with a newer one every year or two – cletely ignoring the environmental impact of discarding so much perfectly good technology for technology that is often only marginally better, and sometimes not even that. And another part of the business model involves locking Apple users into proprietary, carefully managed, tightly controlled Apple-only offerings, from apps to power cords – stifling competition and allowing Apple to jack up prices and boost its profits. There is nothing wrong with any of this – a company’s strategy is its provenance, and there are plenty of alternatives for people who do not like it. But Taub’s admitted bias prevents him from even discussing these downsides of Apple products – and that can be a significant negative for people who are already confused enough by technology to need Does This Plug into That? That caveat aside – and it is a big one, but not big enough to invalidate much of what Taub says – the book has a lot of solid, basic information that can be helpful to anyone who finds modern technology at best confusing, at worst genuinely burdensome. For example, he explains what Dolby Digital and DTS are; why speaker bars work, and how they can be placed in the front of a room to simulate sounds as if they come from all around; why plasma televisions are better than LCD sets for viewing in normally lit rooms; how to find things on your computer (separate instructions for Macs and PCs running Windows 7 or 8); how to set up a DVR; why you may not want to give up your landline for a cell phone; how to call overseas inexpensively; why you might want a tablet – and why you might not; and much more. The book is a grab-bag, and because it is one, it omits some major technology issues. For instance, in discussing tablets, Taub looks exclusively at their pluses and minuses for consuming information (watching movies and TV while traveling is one plus; comparative lack of software is one minus). But Taub never deals with doing anything creative, such as writing papers or reports – something that is far harder on tablets than on traditional computers. This is a major negative for anyone who, whether traveling or not, needs or wants to make some sort of contribution to the information flow; yet it passes unnoticed in Does This Plug into That? Still, there is enough plain-spokenness here, about enough subjects, with enough specificity, to make the book valuable – at least as a starting point – for people who simply feel overwhelmed by computers, printers, TVs, cell phones and other ubiquitous examples of our increasingly technological society.
Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Symphony No. 1; Scherzo from Octet, Op. 20. Alon Goldstein, piano; Israel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Yoav Talmi. Centaur. $16.99.
Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Songs without Words: Op. 30, No. 5; Op. 38, No. 6; Op. 67, Nos. 2-4; Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54. Christian Chamorel, piano; Orchestre de Chambre Fribourgeois conducted by Laurent Gendre. Fondamenta. $21.99 (CD+bonus CD).
Schumann: Kinderszenen; Abegg-Variationen; Fantasie, Op. 17. Lisa de la Salle, piano. Naïve. $16.99.
Michael J. Evans: Cipher—Variations on a Theme by Felix Mendelssohn. Karolina Rojahn, piano; Kyle Milner, spoken word. Navona. $16.99.
Greg Bowers: Gestalt Figures; String Quartet No. 2—By-Products of Mass Media; Perception Etudes; Eurydice Returns. Navona. $16.99.
Mendelssohn’s two piano concertos neatly encapsulate both the enormous talent of the composer and the reasons he was, in the past, held in less esteem than he is today. No. 1 is absolutely splendid, filled with beauty, virtuosity and a sense of rhythmic and harmonic daring that sweeps the listener along from start to finish and leaves him or her wanting more. No. 2 is more considered, more carefully assembled, every bit as well-thought-through – but lacking a certain spark of sheer ebullience for which its greater maturity of purpose never quite compensates. The two concertos’ lengths allowed them easily to fit on a single vinyl record, so they were often paired at that time; and in the CD era, they tend to be offered together as well. But it is quite difficult for even the best pianists to handle them the same way without losing something in the process. In two new recordings of the works, both of them first-rate in terms of the skill of the soloists, Christian Chamorel’s is the more successful because it offers No. 2 as an entirely different work from No. 1, not in any way a continuation or attempt to recapture the verve of the earlier concerto. Alon Goldstein’s version, while also very well and effectively played, makes No. 2 into something of a pale successor – which many in the 19th century thought Mendelssohn’s later music to be in general (hence the lower level of appreciation of him as a composer at the time). Goldstein’s performance, with the Israel Chamber Orchestra under Yoav Talmi providing strong and committed backup, was recorded live in March 2013, and it has some of the involvement and intensity of a good live performance – but also some of the excesses, such as overuse of rubato, for example in the piano entry in the finale of No. 1. The tempos here are well-chosen and the interplay between soloist and orchestra is well managed, as is the balance between piano and ensemble. Goldstein handles the youthful fervor of No. 1 with considerable élan, but No. 2 is more earthbound: the notes are all there, but the work’s spirit is rather thin, as if the pianist himself does not care for it as much as the earlier concerto. The performance is fine, but it never really catches fire. The concertos are offered on this Centaur CD with Mendelssohn’s First Symphony – like both concertos, a minor-key work – and this gets a strong reading from Talmi, although a less emotionally satisfying one in the Andante than it sometimes receives. As an encore, the orchestra offers the Scherzo from the utterly delightful Octet, Op. 20 – a movement orchestrated by Mendelssohn himself and used by him in the première of the First Symphony instead of the Menuetto, which the composer restored when the symphony was published. The delicacy of the movement comes through in this recording just as well as it does in the music’s chamber version, with the CD as a whole showcasing the tunefulness and beautiful balance that are characteristic of Mendelssohn’s music, particularly the earlier pieces.
Chamorel’s handling of the concertos is perhaps more mature, perhaps simply more considered. It is fascinating to hear how different these works can sound even when performers take them at essentially the same tempo: the difference between Chamorel’s No. 1 and Goldstein’s is less than 40 seconds, the difference in No. 2 a mere 12 seconds. Chamorel’s First Concerto is just as fiery and extravagantly youthful as Goldstein’s, with Chamorel paying even more attention to the con fuoco indication in the first movement while using rubato more judiciously in the finale (although still a bit too much). No. 2 shows the different approaches even more clearly. Chamorel gives the concerto expansiveness that it lacks in Goldstein’s version, allowing the first movement to flow more broadly and the second to emphasize its molto sostenuto marking clearly – even though Chamorel’s reading is almost a minute faster than Goldstein’s. Chamorel gets excellent backup throughout from Orchestre de Chambre Fribourgeois under Laurent Gendre: the ensemble’s suppleness and adaptability match the pianist’s. And Chamorel’s handling of the solo-piano pieces that fill out the CD is exceptional: he treats each of the Songs without Words as a perfectly formed miniature with strong emotional import, and gives the Variations Sérieuses a reading that balances structure and emotional content to fine effect. Fondamenta provides top-notch sound and a very unusual bonus called a “Mobility CD” that is designed to be played on computers, in cars and on other sound systems with audio characteristics noticeably different from those for which the primary “Fidelity CD” is made.
It was Schumann who was largely responsible for the high regard in which Mendelssohn was held in his own lifetime, Schumann who deemed Mendelssohn the Mozart of the 19th century (a somewhat back-handed compliment, since Schumann then noted that if there is another Mozart, there must also be another Beethoven out there). Mendelssohn in turn was a strong advocate of Schumann’s music. The composers’ pieces have many affinities as well as differences, and Lisa de la Salle’s excellent performance on Naïve of three very different Schumann solo-piano works is a fine complement to Chamorel’s handling of some of Mendelssohn’s. De la Salle is a sensitive and highly nuanced performer. She casts a spell of wistfulness over Kinderszenen while neatly encapsulating the individual pieces, so different from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words but just as personal in their own way. The Abegg-Variationen, Schumann’s Op. 1, get a sturdy, solid reading that contrasts interestingly with Chamorel’s handling of Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses. And the Fantasie, Op. 17, is expansive and involving, with strong flow within and between its sections, as de la Salle manages to connect the strongly emotional first and third movements with the more-martial second, giving each its own characteristic flow while uniting the three into a work of both strength and expressiveness. The connection of this piece with Mendelssohn is quite clear, not so much in the music as in the circumstances of its composition: both it and the Variations Sérieuses were contributed to a fund appeal for a monument to be erected to Beethoven in his birthplace, Bonn. As different as the works’ scale and effects are, this point of similarity shows yet another way in which Mendelssohn and Schumann were connected in their lifetimes.
Many years later, in the 21st century, Michael J. Evans has turned directly to Mendelssohn for inspiration in ways both musical and extra-musical. Cipher is an interestingly odd construction that spends an hour using both Mendelssohn’s words and a theme from one of his Songs without Words to explore the different communicative potential of verbiage and music. The original words are spoken, then given in 13 translations – they are transferred between English and other languages and then back – and then, in the 14th variation, they fade into the musical theme, which is subjected to 24 variations and then becomes the basis of an extended final fugue. The pianism required of Karolina Rojahn here is quite different from that needed to perform Mendelssohn or Schumann, but it has roots in the same need to bring out both formal structure and emotional content – the latter being more important in Cipher. The difficulty in this (+++) Navona release is that Evans’ intellectual exploration of the abstraction of music as a more-effective communicator than the specificity of language is somewhat abstruse and not particularly involving, especially in the overuse of words in the first five minutes or so of the work. It is never entirely clear how the variations on the words and those on the musical theme relate to each other – that is, it is clear philosophically, but not by simply listening to Cipher, which has a fascinating intent that does not quite come off in the execution, despite Rojahn’s sensitive playing.
Evans is scarcely alone in wanting to explore the relative efficacy of music and words, the psychological connection between what music is and what it communicates to listeners. On another (+++) Navona CD, this one entitled Rational Passions, Greg Bowers looks into exactly the same subject. Rojahn is the pianist here, too, in Perception Etudes, a nine-movement suite whose weighty intention is to explore ways in which audience, performer and the music itself combine to produce the musical experience. Somehow it seems wholly appropriate that the final movement is called “Confusion,” although the work is not so much confused as rather unfocused. Clearer, at least in strictly musical terms, is String Quartet No. 2—By-Products of Mass Media, whose three movements all try to come to terms with aspects of pop culture: rave music, channel surfing and the online world. The Boston String Quartet (Christopher Vuk and Angel Valchinov, violins; Chen Lin, viola; Christina Stripling, cello) gamely essays a work whose sounds wander around and about without ever settling on any specific meaning – which may be Bowers’ point but can leave listeners feeling somewhat dislocated. Also here are an intellectual exercise and an emotional one: Gestalt Figures (played by Vuk and Stripling with pianist Keun Young Sun) tries to suggest composer-listener connections by showing musically how the parts of a work are used to assemble a sense of the whole; the exercise in toto is about as dry as its description. Eurydice Returns, on the other hand, is a psychologically oriented approach to the Orpheus myth that never quite evokes the drama or pathos of the story, which at its heart is as much about music as about love. The title of this CD is an accurate one in showing what Bowers is trying to do, which is analogous to what Evans seeks with Mendelssohn as a springboard. The issue with the Bowers disc is that its cerebral approach requires an explanatory framework that never allows the emotional content of the music – to the extent that it has any – to shine through. The result is pieces to be ingested rather than experienced.