October 30, 2014
The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel, Volumes 1 and 2. By Neil Gaiman. Adapted by P. Craig Russell. Illustrations by Kevin Nowlan, P. Craig Russell, Tony Harris, Scott Hampton, Galen Showman, Jill Thompson, Stephen B. Scott and David Lafuente. Harper. $19.99 each.
Bruce Coville’s Magic Shop Tales. By Bruce Coville. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $34.99.
Neil Gaiman’s strange and wonderful The Graveyard Book (2008) has spawned a strange and differently wonderful graphic-novel adaptation that incorporates Gaiman’s words, abridged and modified by P. Craig Russell to fit the graphic-novel format, and features illustrations by Russell and seven other first-rate artists. Published as a two-volume hardcover set, this adaptation is costly and is clearly intended to stay on bookshelves for a long time to come – and deserves to. Gaiman’s story of a boy whose entire family is assassinated by a mysterious man named Jack, and who flees the scene of butchery to seek and improbably find solace amid the ghosts in a nearby graveyard, is a tale of old-fashioned wonder, a creepy, thought-provoking, occasionally amusing canvas peopled by people long dead and by creatures that are people-shaped but are really something else. The marvelous thing about Russell’s adaptation is how clearly it hews to Gaiman’s story while enriching it through illustrations that effectively highlight the tale’s visual underpinnings. There are little touches of strictly visual humor here and there: for example, in Russell’s illustrations of the chapter in which the boy, named Nobody Owens by the denizens of the graveyard, meets a girl his own age, Scarlett is seen sitting on a bench, reading – and what she is reading is Life magazine. The wry humor of Gaiman’s original is here, too, as in his giving ghouls such names as the Duke of Westminster, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Emperor of China, and the 33rd President of the United States; and in the wonderfully fairy-tale-like chapter called “Danse Macabre” (illustrated by Jill Thompson), in which the living and dead temporarily, joyfully and mysteriously interact. The frights are present as well: in the murder scene of the opening chapter (illustrated by Kevin Nowlan entirely in dark colors, except for the bright red blood); in the chapter with the ghouls (illustrated by Tony Harris and Scott Hampton), showing the bizarre, almost Lovecraftian city of Ghûlheim; and in the cruelties of the purely human world, especially in “The Witch’s Headstone” (illustrated by Galen Showman) and “Nobody Owens’ School Days” (illustrated by David Lafuente).
The multi-artist approach does have some weaknesses, as the appearances of Bod’s guardian, Silas, of the ghost witch, Liza, and of Bod himself, all change disconcertingly from time to time – a particular issue when it comes to the supernatural characters, since one of Gaiman’s points is that for those in a graveyard, nothing will ever change again (one reason the dead agree to help raise Bod to adulthood). A notable example of this issue occurs in the first volume, in the final panel of the chapter that ends on page 108 and the splash panel of the chapter starting on the opposite page, 109: Bod abruptly changes from an anime-inspired, large-eyed, wide-mouthed youth with an almost feminine appearance to a much more realistic-looking boy of the same age. It is also worth pointing out that some notable aspects of Gaiman’s story, such as the death of Miss Lupescu, have less impact in the graphic novel than in the original. These, however, are minor matters in the overall excellence of the visual presentation. The adaptation does not try to gloss over the few weaknesses of the original, such as the eventual explanation for the murder of Bod’s family – a reason that readers could not have anticipated and that comes so far out of nowhere that it seems to have been grafted onto an otherwise taut and well-told tale. The fact is that The Graveyard Book Graphic Novel enhances Gaiman’s novel in some ways even though it is somewhat less effective in others, inevitably playing up some points and playing down others because of the need to compress and illustrate what happens. These are the pleasures and perils of any adaptation to graphic-novel form – and in this case, the resulting work is a masterly one that, for those willing to spend $40 for it, will be a highly welcome addition to a collection of tales of the weird and wonderful.
The Magic Shop books by Bruce Coville are considerably milder and, by design, a great deal more amusing than The Graveyard Book, but they are just as delightful in their own way as Gaiman’s novel is in its. Paperbacks of all five are now available in a slipcase edition quite suitable for gift-giving or simply for rediscovering these delightfully offbeat fables – or discovering them for the first time. They are The Monster’s Ring (1982, revised 2002); Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (1991); Jennifer Murdley’s Toad (1992); The Skull of Truth (1997); and Juliet Dove, Queen of Love (2003). The connective tissue among the books is one of those quintessential fairy-tale devices: a magic shop that really is magic and really does contain magical objects, but that can only be found when people really need to find it – or it really needs to find them. The proprietor is, of course, enigmatic if not downright spooky, and his name is Mr. Elives (pronounced “mystery lives” – what else?). In all the books, the kids who visit the shop get just what they have coming to them, whether they know it or not; in fact, they do not know it at first but come to know it eventually – whatever “it” may be. In the first book, Russell Crannaker, victim of bullies at school and at home, finds himself bullied (so he thinks) into buying a peculiar green ring that can give him a way to stop bullies forever – if he dares to take it. The shortest of the books, The Monster’s Ring was updated by Coville in 2002 to fit more neatly with the later ones, notably by the author’s addition to it of two talking rats that he had not actually introduced until the third book, Jennifer Murdley’s Toad. The second of the Magic Shop books is the best known: Jeremy gets a strange egg from the magic shop, soon discovers that it hatches into a creature with which not even his father, a veterinarian, could possibly be familiar, and learns as the dragon grows just how much he and it need each other. In the third book, Jennifer, who has always longed to be pretty, somehow leaves the magic shop with an especially ugly toad that, however, can talk – and that eventually helps her confront her fears and discover that there is more than one way to have a beautiful life. The skull in the fourth book gets into the hands of habitual liar Charlie Eggleston, who discovers that it lets him say only the truth, no matter how painful that may be for him and those around him. In this book, Coville produces the very apt and thoughtful statement, “You can have truth, or you can have mercy. …Generally you cannot expect both.” Finally, Coville has shy Juliet Dove be given a magic-shop amulet that makes her irresistible to everyone she meets – and that she only begins to understand when Jennifer Murdley’s rats show up to help her figure out what is going on and why. The biggest problem with the Magic Shop books, as young readers will likely realize after reading them, is that there aren’t any more – Coville has since moved on to other topics, albeit ones with similar mixtures of silliness and depth. The complete Magic Shop set is no bargain – bought individually, the paperbacks would cost $34.95 – but families that do not already have the books should certainly consider getting them this way, neatly slipcased and presented with all the elegance they deserve (that is, some, but not too much). Individually and together, they are delightful to read – and more thought-provoking than their continual bouts of humor make they seem at first to be.
Colors. By Kate Stone. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.
Numbers. By Kate Stone. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.
Animals, Animals, Animals. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Illustrations by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Dogface. By Barbara O’Brien. Viking Studio. $16.
T-Rex Trying and Trying. By Hugh Murphy. Plume. $13.
As board books go, the two new ones from Kate Stone are exceptionally attractive – and unusual, too. Although they lie flat when closed, the books have spines that are wider than the pages, allowing some particularly cute art to appear on the spines and making the books stand out from others. The oversize spines mean that the books stay open quite nicely at any chosen page, but the left-hand pages do not open flat – the spines hold them slightly elevated. The unusual design, which also includes much-thicker-than-normal pages, makes these books stand out among the many others designed to show the youngest children a few things about colors and numbers. Colors has bright left-hand pages featuring designs in each color mentioned – a red design and the word “red,” then a blue design and the word “blue,” and so forth. Right-hand pages show an item of each color and use even more of that color in the illustration: the apples and the word “apple” are both red, the pig and the word “pig” both pink, the frog and the word “frog” both green, and so on. This is a charming and visually attractive way to convey simple information – and a similarly pleasing approach is used in Numbers. In this case, each page, whether left or right, gets a number and illustration: “2 Houses,” for example, and “7 birds.” The number and objects, attractively colored, are shown inside a circle within each more-or-less-square, rounded-corner page; outside the circle are designs in complementary or contrasting colors – blue waves on the “4 sailboats” page, pink squiggles on the page with “9 flowers,” and on and on. Stone’s board books are very sturdy, easy for even little hands to hold, and so nicely drawn and colored that small children will take to them immediately and enthusiastically.
Animals, Animals, Animals is for older kids, who can read the simple texts themselves and appreciate the details that Steve Jenkins and Robin Page provide. The umbrella title is for a slipcase box that includes hardcover reprints of What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? (originally published in 2003), Move! (which dates to 2006), and My First Day (initially released in 2013). These are short, well-written books that neatly describe elements of the lives of the animals they show. The earliest of them deals not only with tails but also with other distinguishing features, such as ears, eyes and feet. Jenkins’ illustrations offer closeups of each feature, and the following pages explain something about the way the animals use those parts of their anatomy. For example, “If you’re a cricket, you hear with ears that are on your knees,” and “If you’re a gecko, you use your sticky feet to walk on the ceiling.” The animals are drawn realistically rather than anthropomorphically, posed to show some of the fascinating things their anatomy allows them to do: “If you’re an egg-eating snake, you use your mouth to swallow eggs larger than your head.” In Move! – which is slightly larger than the other two books, being rectangular rather than square – what one animal does connects cleverly in the narrative to what the next one does. For example, “A blue whale dives deep, deep, deep…” appears on one page; on the next page the sentence continues, “…and swims below the ocean waves.” And then, on that same page, comes the start of the next sentence, beneath a picture of the next animal: “An armadillo swims across a stream…” And on the following page: “…and, when startled, leaps straight up.” That page then has a crocodile leaping to grab a meal – and so forth. The flow of this book – which, again, features accurately portrayed animals shown in such a way that their actions go well with the text – will pull young readers along from start to finish. The third work here, My First Day, is written in a different way, one that explains, as the subtitle has it, “What Animals Do on Day One.” Here the animals themselves are made narrators of their first-day-of-life stories, although, again, there is nothing anthropomorphic in the illustrations. The Siberian tiger cub, for example, explains, “I was helpless. I couldn’t even open my eyes. My mother cleaned me, fed me, and kept me safe.” And the illustration shows a mother tiger gently licking her cub. The leatherback turtle, on the other hand, says, “I raced to the water. The beach was a dangerous place, and I was on my own as soon as I hatched.” All three of these books feature pages at the end that give more information on the animals shown – and the neat package called Animals, Animals, Animals contains a page of 20 stickers as a bonus. This is a highly informative, very well-presented set of three books that will be especially attractive as a gift in the upcoming holiday season.
A single gift book that will be as much fun for adults as for children, Barbara O’Brien’s Dogface is pretty much exactly what its title says: a book filled with photos of expressive canine faces. Except for an introduction, O’Brien provides no text here – just the name and breed of each dog she has photographed. That leaves readers free to read whatever they wish into the poses. Sam the whippet has his mouth wide open – is that astonishment, perhaps? Jack, a mixed breed, has his ears perked up and his eyes looking slightly (perhaps slyly?) to the right. Sophie, also a mixed breed, is winking – yes, winking – with her long pink tongue sticking all the way out of her mouth. Sampson, a goldendoodle, offers a big yawn – no mistaking that! Butters, an American Staffordshire terrier, has a tilted head and eyes looking up to the right in an expression that seems decidedly quizzical. Gus, a Dogue de Bordeaux, is all wrinkles and seriousness and seems decidedly downcast. Sassy looks right at the camera with lips in a straight line, as if asking what exactly is going on – the expression may have something to do with the bright red-and-black bow clipped neatly atop the Yorkshire terrier’s head. This is one of those “pass-around” books: $16 is a high price for a small, short, all-photo book that is a delight to go through once or twice but will not likely have a great deal of staying power, but Dogface is the kind of book that is a lot of fun to share with other people – bringing plenty of smiles and knowing expressions to fellow dog lovers and turning the book into a bargain through its content of sheer enjoyment.
There are lots of smiles to be had as well in Hugh Murphy’s second foray into the life and times of a modern T-Rex family – or what would be their life and times if they existed. As in his first book, T-Rex Trying…, Murphy in T-Rex Trying and Trying uses the anatomical oddity of T-Rex – huge, powerful body with tiny, apparently useless (to human eyes) upper limbs – to create absurd cartoon sequences in which the gigantic predator wants only to fit into modern life, but finds the simplest of tasks simply impossible for him and his family. He cannot use a magnifying glass, because his arms are too short to put it in front of his eyes. He cannot swat a fly, even with two flyswatters, because his arms do not reach beyond his own body. He cannot bait a hook – there is no way to get the hook close enough to his arms for him to reach it. He cannot blow a whistle, because he cannot get it to his mouth. And so on and so forth, in a series of ridiculous, imaginative drawings that make perfect sense within Murphy’s thoroughly skewed world. Really, T-Rex’s anatomy makes all sorts of modern activities impossible for him – selfies, eating a lollipop, picking his nose – and Murphy’s line drawings hilariously (and rather pityingly) show what happens when T-Rex tries ever so hard to do any of these things. Just imagining the hapless gigantic predator trying to flush an airline toilet or eat an airline meal is funny enough – seeing him try those things through Murphy’s illustrations is even funnier. There is ultimately a degree of pathos in T-Rex’s many plights, and this makes T-Rex Trying and Trying something more than a book of one-liners. We can empathize with this wholly fictional character because we too, even with our more-adjustable anatomy and greater brain power, have trouble at times dealing with the expectations and inconvenient conveniences of modern living. T-Rex may have anatomical reasons for being unable to reach the snooze button, and She-Rex may have similar reasons for struggling to put on a bra or eye shadow, but anyone who has ever had difficulties of his or her own with these and similar tasks will empathize with these T-Rex troubles. By the time T-Rex and She-Rex have Wee-Rex, and T-Rex struggles to play peek-a-boo or install a car seat, anyone not already dissolving in laughter will have to face the fact that he or she has only a prehistoric sense of humor.
The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family, and a Family Saved a Cat. By Lissa Warren. Lyons Press. $21.95.
The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Enzo Races in the Rain! By Garth Stein. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.
The optimism and gratitude pervading Lissa Warren’s memoir will be immediately clear to anyone who reads the book with its title in mind. This is a work that could just as easily have been called “The Bad Luck Cat,” but no: through trouble and turmoil with the cat at the center of her family’s life, Warren persists in identifying Ting, a seven-pound Korat, as a positive force. To outsiders reading The Good Luck Cat, this may on the face of it seem to be something of a stretch. One example among many: new to the Warren home, Ting goes exploring and falls into the toilet, and “we heard a huge splash coming from the half-bathroom by the kitchen, followed by what can only be described as a death yowl. We went running and Mom got there first, reaching into the bowl just as I plowed into her, unable to stop because I had on socks and we have hardwood floors. We fell, and Ting, who had hooked a desperate paw into the sleeve of Mom’s sweater, came with us. Mom whacked the back of her head on the bathroom wall, ‘Mommy Lissa’ (as I had come to be called) whacked the back of her head on her mom’s front teeth, and Ting whacked both of us with her now-free scissors-paws in an effort to get the hell out of Dodge as the towel bar came down with a clatter.” This is a good luck cat?
Yes, anecdotes like this are common in pet-loving families, and they attain a veneer of pleasant nostalgia once the inevitable physical hurts have healed. But things get more difficult for the Warren family, not less, as The Good Luck Cat progresses. It is not just that Ting climbs to the top of the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve to perch, “a silver star atop the highest bough,” and then manages to “lose her balance and take the entire tree down with her.” That event, and similar ones, are only preludes to grimmer occurrences. Halfway through the book, “around the time Ting became a teenager…Dad’s health really started to decline.” Ting, along with the other family members, knows something is not right, and then begins a series of events with which, unfortunately, families must cope all the time – and which are never easy. Warren details her father’s pain, his depression, his back surgery, his diagnosis with myeloproliferative disease (which frequently progresses to leukemia), his angina, and his eventual hospitalization and death in December 2008. Warren both personalizes the emotional pain and keeps it at something of a distance by focusing on how Ting, as a member of the family, responds to Jerry Warren’s death. And then there is more: Ting is diagnosed with a heart condition, and the book becomes the story of saving her by arranging for implantation of a pacemaker – a human pacemaker, further cementing the bond among family members. “Soon her fur grows back. She is her old self again, save for a pronounced bump near her ribs – like the face of a watch atop a tiny wrist. She is completely oblivious to it.” But the Warren humans are far from oblivious to Ting’s condition, and the cat seems equally aware of developments around her – which become still more complicated when Warren herself starts having a series of mysterious symptoms and eventually gets a serious diagnosis of her own: she has multiple sclerosis. The Good Luck Cat? The fact that Warren calls Ting that is testimony to the close bond we humans feel with our companion animals – and to the level of unquestioning support we receive from them in a way that is so often sadly lacking in those of our own species. Over time, Ting needs ever more medical care, as Warren herself comes to terms with her own illness and her mother “mothers” both human and feline. The depth of the family’s bond with Ting is shown in Warren’s comment, “When I lose her, I will mourn her like I’ve mourned all the other people I’ve lost.” All the other people…not “all the people.” Turning Ting into an honorary human may be hopelessly anthropomorphic, but it testifies, as does Warren’s entire book, to bonds not easily explained and, like all bonds of love, never sundered – not really. Good luck, indeed.
Luck is much worse for a hamster named Sweetie Pie in a Chris Van Allsburg book that, although intended for younger readers, raises some of the same issues of human-animal interaction that Warren presents. The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie is a happy-sounding title, but just like The Good Luck Cat, it is a title not fully descriptive of the events detailed inside. A pet-shop hamster, deliberately drawn by Van Allsburg with human mannerisms and expressions, goes home with a girl he calls Pigtails, who names him Sweetie Pie and holds him constantly. Van Allsburg makes it clear that this is not a story of warmth, though, stating, “Since [holding and petting time] was the only time he was let out of his small cage, he pretended to like it.” Clearly, this is scarcely a typical warm-and-fuzzy story: the girl soon loses interest in Sweetie Pie as she spends more and more time using the computer, and the hamster has nothing to do but eat – getting fat and feeling lonely. The girl ends up selling the hamster to a boy who takes Sweetie Pie home on his bike, and “for the second time in his life, the hamster felt the wind in his fur and smelled the great outdoors. He breathed in deeply, but was back inside before he exhaled.” Unfortunately, the boy’s family has a dog that repeatedly attacks the hamster’s cage – the picture of the teeth-bared canine attacking the cage bars, seen from the hamster’s point of view, is genuinely frightening – so the boy gives Sweetie Pie to his cousin. She is something of a nightmare, forcing the hamster into doll clothes and then into a hamster ball that rolls away down the street, into and through traffic (another scary scene), and eventually into a park. The girl does not even go after the ball, leaving Sweetie Pie abandoned. Another girl finds the ball the next morning and, delighted, takes Sweetie Pie home, but her mother screams and refuses to have the “rat” in the house. So the girl brings Sweetie Pie to school, where he becomes a class pet and gets more and more lonely, especially when he notices a squirrel on the window sill, in the outdoors that Sweetie Pie can never reach. Then winter break comes, and a boy takes Sweetie Pie and his cage out of school for the holidays – but he forgets all about the hamster while playing ball, and leaves the cage behind to be covered with snow. The picture of Sweetie Pie blanketed in white, with only his ears and nose showing, is filled with pathos, and by this time the book has become genuinely depressing in a way that is highly unusual for a children’s picture book. Van Allsburg, however, manages to figure out a way to create a happy ending, in which it turns out (in a scene after winter ends) that Sweetie Pie was able to escape the cage and is now living in the trees with the squirrels, “with no bars between him and the deep blue sky.” Unfortunately, this conclusion feels tacked-on and is scientifically inaccurate: hamsters are burrowers, not tree climbers, and the notion of one being in effect “adopted” by squirrels is an outlandish one. The Misadventures of Sweetie Pie is really a cautionary tale, from which sensitive children can learn a great deal about the right and wrong way to interact with any companion animal. But it is also a sad story, one that those same sensitive children may have difficulty handling on their own if they are not taken in by Van Allsburg’s valiant attempt to craft a happy ending. This can actually be an important book for a child to read before getting a pet – but parental oversight is advised to be sure that the child ends up feeling reassured, not saddened, by the tale.
Another cautionary people-and-pets story, whose happy ending is less contrived and whose overall tone is somewhat lighter, is Garth Stein’s Enzo Races in the Rain! Enzo himself – a puppy named after race driver Enzo Ferrari – narrates the book, explaining “I feel more like a person” than a dog, but people “don’t understand my barks. It drives me crazy.” Enzo lives on a farm until he is sold to a man and his daughter, Zoë. The man himself is a race-car driver – it is he who suggests the name Enzo – and just like the unfortunate Sweetie Pie, Enzo gets to see a lot of the world on the way to his new home: “Who knew the world was so big?” Enzo soon finds that he needs to adapt to a lot of non-farm things: there is nowhere to run with abandon inside a house, and Zoë’s stuffed animals are scary. Before Zoë can put a collar on Enzo, he pushes through the pet door into the yard, and then under the fence through a small gap – suddenly finding himself in the middle of traffic, and soon after being pursued by a whole crowd of people. Enzo simply wants to run and play, but even young readers will quickly see that he is in real danger, made worse by the people’s inability to catch him – he is simply too speedy. Then it starts to rain, and Enzo is soon miserable – until he realizes that he can use his speed and his nose to find his way home. He does just that, returning to find Zoë in tears and her father trying to reassure her. “I run into Zoë’s arms like a race car driver speeding home,” Enzo says, and the book ends in a burst of warmth and enthusiasm – and a firmly attached collar (and presumably some fence repair). R.W. Alley’s illustrations do a fine job of conveying the many moods of the story’s characters, and the final, wordless page – showing the now-three-member family eating dinner on the home’s porch – is a real charmer. Still, there is a lesson about responsibility and proper pet care for young children in Enzo Races in the Rain! Parents who extract and reinforce it will find the book genuinely helpful in turning children into responsible stewards of companion animals as they – kids and animals alike – grow.
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar.” Alexander Vinogradov, bass; Men’s Voices of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society, and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $9.99.
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Christa Ludwig, contralto; Waldemar Kmentt, tenor; Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Wiener Symphoniker. $18.99.
Prokofiev: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Dreams—Symphonic Tableau. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $9.99.
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet—Suite. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti. CSO Resound. $14.99.
The remarkable Shostakovich symphonic cycle led by Vasily Petrenko for Naxos comes to a superb close with the release of the absolutely first-rate performance of Symphony No. 13, a vocal work so tightly knit into symphonic form that it is nearly impossible to say at which point one shades into the other. Petrenko has consistently gotten a nearly Russian sound from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in this sequence, perhaps a touch lacking in deep lushness in the strings but otherwise a formidable competitor for the sounds of Russian-based orchestras, with piercing woodwinds, growling brass and an overall balance and feeling reflecting both the solemnity and the comedic aspects of Shostakovich’s music. In No. 13, known as “Babi Yar” for the poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that is the basis of the first movement, Petrenko conducts a work that sounds like the sort of symphony Mussorgsky would have written if he had worked in the form. The rumbling, growling bass of Alexander Vinogradov and the full-throated men’s voices from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Huddersfield Choral Society produce, in their back-and-forth antiphonies and their combined power, a paean and challenge to the Russia of 1962, when this symphony was written and had its première. Petrenko paces the work magnificently, the expansiveness of the “Babi Yar” movement standing in striking contrast to the following scherzo on humor, and the three final movements, played attacca, building relentlessly from the drudgery of everyday Soviet life to an affirmation of individual power and accomplishment – a progression that still resonates deeply but that was surely very uncomfortable for Soviet authorities even in the comparative openness of Khrushchev’s rule. Petrenko does an excellent job of keeping the vocal elements in the forefront most of the time, while allowing the purely orchestral ones to weave in and out among the voices and enhance or comment upon the words. By the time the symphony fades into silence, looking forward as it does so to the conclusion of Shostakovich’s final symphony, No. 15, Petrenko has taken the full measure of this work and shown how much more it is than its “Babi Yar” title indicates. This is a triumphant conclusion to a Shostakovich cycle that has been absolutely top-notch throughout, giving the lie to the notion that only Russian orchestras can perform Shostakovich with all the understanding and gravitas he requires. Petrenko here establishes himself as a pre-eminent conductor of this composer’s works – a true master of their many moods.
Even a masterful conductor can, however, sometimes fall shy of complete mastery of particular repertoire. The fascinatingly flawed Wiener Symphoniker performance of Carlos Kleiber conducting Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, on the orchestra’s own label, is a case in point and something of a cautionary tale. Kleiber (1930-2004) was a quirky, difficult and highly demanding conductor, indifferent or hostile to being seen on camera or recorded. A meticulous craftsman who depended on multiple rehearsals of even well-known music in order to craft performances whose sweep and detail were remarkably involving and revelatory, he was never a Mahler conductor, and in fact this 1967 live recording of Das Lied von der Erde lets listeners hear the one and only time Kleiber ever conducted Mahler’s music. The circumstances that brought this about, explained in the CD’s accompanying booklet, created a situation that was far from ideal for conductor or orchestra – or acoustically: the recording required considerable restoration before it could be released. It is therefore somewhat surprising that this CD is good enough to get a (+++) rating and is more than a historical curiosity – although it has value even on that basis. Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is in some significant ways a prototype for Shostakovich’s “Babi Yar,” with Mahler intermingling the lied tradition with that of the symphony and creating something tremendously powerful that combines elements of both. As in the much later Shostakovich work, Das Lied von der Erde has a vocal focus with interspersed instrumental material – the two more balanced in Mahler than in Shostakovich. Mahler’s music is more personal than Shostakovich’s: written after the grand Symphony No. 8, Das Lied von der Erde offers an intensity of individualism within which to explore the grandest themes of life and death. Kleiber was blessed with two outstanding soloists in Christa Ludwig and Waldemar Kmentt: their expressiveness, especially Ludwig’s, helps overcome Kleiber’s rather cool and distanced approach to the music. Kmentt delivers his drinking songs with a strong voice and considerable fervor, but it is the delicacy of Ludwig’s singing and her heartfelt handling of Der Abschied that are the high points of the performance. Kleiber asks less of the Wiener Symphoniker than the ensemble was capable of providing – being limited to four rehearsals certainly being one reason. The orchestra sounds too often as if it is going through the motions of playing a work it knows well: a sense of discovery, of seeking and extracting the full emotional impact of Das Lied von der Erde, is missing. This is a fine recording in many ways, but it is the performance of a mid-level conductor and orchestra, and that is not an apt description of either Kleiber or the Wiener Symphoniker. The presentation also has some oddities: the titles of the fourth and fifth movements are reversed on the back cover (although not in the booklet), and there are no texts provided. These matters make the release seem almost like a throwaway, and it deserves better – even if it is scarcely an ideal showcase for the excellence of this conductor and this orchestra.
Marin Alsop’s Prokofiev cycle with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, on the other hand, is shaping up as a strong one for both the ensemble and the conductor. The third Naxos release in this series, after ones including Symphony No. 5 and the second, longer version of No. 4, gets a (++++) rating for showing Alsop’s considerable strength in the more-modernistic elements of Prokofiev’s music and for giving the orchestra a chance to show off its fine sectional balance. Symphony No. 1, the “Classical,” is bright, even ebullient here, with Alsop and the ensemble seeming to have genuine fun with most of the work – although, frustratingly, Alsop shows one of her weaknesses as a conductor when she tinkers with the brief third movement, the “Gavotta,” by turning it into an interlude of stops and starts rather than a piece flowing as smoothly as the rest of the symphony. Symphony No. 2, Prokofiev’s entry into the spirit of deliberate modernism, 1920s-Paris-style, is here as craggy and intense as can be, filled with a great deal of clatter and outright noise but retaining classical underpinnings structurally traceable to, of all things, Beethoven’s final piano sonata. Alsop likes the clangor here and never attempts to bring out what softness the music has – not that there is a great deal of it. This is unsubtle music, and Alsop seems quite comfortable with it, pulling great gouts of sound from the orchestra and eschewing any attempt at warmth. It is a very effective performance, although one that never attempts to look much beyond the raucous elements of the work. The short, early Dreams, written when Prokofiev was 19, is somewhat less effective here: this is a work of color and lyricism, considerably influenced by Scriabin, and while the orchestra plays it well, the work itself drifts and does not seem to have captured Alsop’s imagination. Still, it makes a nice contrast to the two symphonies: Alsop’s cycle is shaping up impressively.
The symphonic elements of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet are clear throughout the ballet and the suite drawn from it, and Riccardo Muti emphasizes them in his performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the ensemble’s own CSO Resound label. Muti is generally more comfortable with the Romantic and neo-Romantic repertoire than Alsop is, but less adept with the more-modern-sounding elements of a score like this one. The result is a performance of mixed intensity and only occasional affability, its warmer elements brought out effectively but its more-dramatic ones, such as “Death of Tybalt,” somewhat lacking in force. Even in the more lyrical sections, the rhythms and forward thrust tend to be a bit flabby at times, as Muti dwells on some emotive sections while holding the overall progress of the music back. Individually, all these matters are mere details, and this recording gets a (+++) rating for its many fine elements and the first-rate orchestral playing. But this is not a wholly convincing performance, and unfortunately, the 49-minute Romeo and Juliet Suite is the only music on the disc – a highly unusual decision when working in a medium that can readily accommodate 80 minutes. This means that the suite is the only reason for purchasing the CD – and although there are certainly many pleasures in the recording, that will not be reason enough for listeners other than ones highly devoted to the Chicago Symphony and/or to Muti’s podium manner.
Boito: Mefistofele. Ildar Abdrazakov, Ramón Vargas, Patricia Racette; San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Nicola Luisotti. EuroArts. $39.99 (2 DVDs).
James MacMillan: Clemency. David Kravitz, Michelle Trainor, Christine Abraham; Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by David Angus. BIS. $21.99.
Janáček: Glagolitic Mass; The Eternal Gospel. Soloists, Prague Philharmonic Choir and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tomáš Netopil. Supraphon. $19.99.
Ensemble LaCappella: Shimmering. Rondeau. $18.99.
Eric William Barnum: Choral Music. Choral Arts conducted by Robert Bode. Gothic Records. $18.99.
Arrigo Boito’s version of the Faust legend is not performed particularly often, and the San Francisco Opera’s version on DVD, released on the EuroArts label, helps show why. Boito was a fine librettist – for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, and other works – and his book for his own opera is well done, even including the latter part of the story, in which Faust travels back to the ancient world to encounter Helen of Troy. Furthermore, Boito had some skill as a composer, creating an opening scene for Mefistofele in which the music mounts up and up, seeming to rise to impossible heights before eventually settling, as it must; a moving death scene for Margherita; and some fine choral writing. But the opera is woefully uneven, with more pages of uninspired music than engaging ones. It takes a really excellent Mefistofele to smooth over the many rough edges and hold the work together. Unfortunately, Ildar Abdrazakov is not up to the task: his voice is neither powerful enough nor of sufficient intensity to sweep the audience into the story and captivate listeners. And Ramón Vargas, as Faust, has a too-tight high register and some difficulty in phrasing in a number of his arias – although his dying aria is very effective, as if he has saved his best for last. The most consistent performer here is Patricia Racette as Margherita (and Helen, called Elena in the opera). She manages to sing with naïveté, nobility, grandeur and remorse as required, and her pronunciation and phrasing are first-rate. Unfortunately, even she is at the mercy of the rather flabby conducting of Nicola Luisotti, who dwells far too long on far too many unremarkable elements of the music, resulting in a performance that too often simply drags (the DVD set runs 145 minutes). The visuals do not really make up for the musical lacks here, although they too have their moments. This is an updated version of a Robert Carsen production from 1989 (restaged in 1994). But the new version is directed by Laurie Feldman with altogether too much ponderousness. The Prologue has the best setting to go with its wonderful music: it takes place in God’s private opera house. A similar touch of offbeat almost-comedy would serve other parts of Mefistofele well, but that is not what the production delivers: pretty much everything is taken very much at face value, and unfortunately, this opera’s face value is not of the highest. Certainly this is a worthy recording of a work that operagoers may have few chances to see in a live performance – but it is simply not a terribly compelling production of an opera that also, alas, is not terribly compelling.
Religion gets a different, Old Testament treatment from James MacMillan and librettist Michael Symmons Roberts in the chamber opera Clemency, now available on BIS in a live recording of a Boston Chamber Opera production. Even without visuals, the opera’s intimate setting and its concerns are easy to follow: Abraham and Sarah are visited by three strangers, who reveal that when they return in a year, Sarah will have a child – something she finds hard to believe, given her age. Asked where they are going, the strangers reveal themselves as angels and say they are on the way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah – leading Abraham and Sarah to argue with the angels and try to save the townspeople in what is ultimately a futile attempt. David Kravitz and Christine Abraham sing well in this world première recording, and the string orchestra under David Angus provides a fine accompaniment. MacMillan’s work is paired with an English translation of Schubert’s Hagars Klage (“Hagar’s Lament”), in which Hagar (sung by Michelle Trainor), mother of Abraham’s firstborn child, sings of her sadness and anger after the two of them are abandoned in the desert. Bible readers will know that Hagar’s story ends better than that of Sodom and Gomorrah: God miraculously produces a well with water for Hagar and Ishmael, who survives to marry and settle in the land of Paran. Schubert’s song ends before this happens, but listeners who know these Bible tales will see how well the Schubert and MacMillan works fit together, both dealing with aspects of clemency – granted or not. The quietly contemplative conclusion of MacMillan’s work is its most attractive element; by and large, the music is chant-like and faintly Middle Eastern in flavor, pleasantly unchallenging to hear and more than adequate to the story.
The music is thornier and more complex in Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, heard in the world première recording of its original 1927 version on a new Supraphon release. There are a number of differences between this version and the 1928 one usually performed, but nothing that reduces the impact of the music or its vibrant, rhythmic writing for soloists and chorus. The highlight remains the penultimate movement, a fascinating organ solo that does not draw on any particular church precedents and that practically explodes with wild, continuous energy in a kind of perpetuum mobile that is challenging for organists and surprising to anyone hearing this mass for the first time. The organist here, Aleš Bárta, plays skillfully and with feeling, although perhaps a little too matter-of-factly – indeed, the whole performance under Tomáš Netopil is reverent enough, maybe even a little too narrowly so: a touch more fiery enthusiasm would have been welcome. Nevertheless, this is a fine reading of this major Janáček work, and it is accompanied by a piece that is much less known: The Eternal Gospel, a four-movement “Legend for Soloists, Mixed Choir and Orchestra after the Poem by Jaroslav Vrchlický” that dates to 1914. This is nothing less than a cantata, featuring soprano and tenor soloists in a work in which the composer transforms overt religiosity into an expression of the contemporary world’s need for reconciliation (the piece was first heard during World War I, in late 1917). Forthright and direct, filled with lyricism and expressiveness, The Eternal Gospel is in some ways more accessible than the Glagolitic Mass, although the better-known work is unquestionably more ambitious and innovative. The chance to hear the two pieces together is one that all listeners interested in Janáček’s music will welcome.
Music that is mostly religious and mostly more recent than Janáček’s is offered by the ensemble LaCappella (Antonia Bieker , Marie Tetzlaff, Rosalie Schüler, Magdalena Bauer, Madeleine Röhl and Karen Tessmer) on a new CD entitled Shimmering. The attraction here is as much the beauty of the voices and the overall subject matter of the disc – explorations of facets of Mary, mother of Christ – as it is the specific works, which vary in quality and level of interest. There is little repertoire for female choir before the Romantic era, but one piece here is quite old: Sancta et immaculata by Francesco Guerrero (1528-1599), which is quite beautifully harmonized. From later times, there are three pieces by Schumann: Im Meeres Mitten, Der Bleicheren Nachtlied, and Das verlassene Mägdlein. And there are three early-20th-century works: Reger’s Mariae Wiegenlied and Ravel’s Toi le Cœur de la Rose, both arranged by Clytus Gottwald, and Maurice Duruflé’s Tota pulchra est. The pieces are not presented chronologically or with any apparent reason for the sequence in which they are offered – a weakness in a generally strong presentation that features particularly fine ensemble cooperation. In addition to the seven works of the early 20th century or before, there are eight more-recent ones: Shimmering—Ave generosa by Ola Gjeilo (born 1978); Ave Maria by Simon Wawer (born 1979); Assumpta est Maria by Vytautas Miškinis (born 1954); De Angelis by Petr Eben (1929-2007); Lux aeterna by Wolfgang Drescher (born 1990); O magnum mysterium by Colin Mawby (born 1936); O salutaris hostia by Ēriks Ešenvalds (born 1977); and, as a final offering, Es saß ein klein wild Vögelein arranged by Morten Vinther (born 1983) and Magdalena Bauer (born 1990). The selections show that even in the modern age, Latin is generally the favored language for writing works about Mary; and even in our largely secular time, aspects of her story continue to resound with composers from many places and many backgrounds. There is a certain uniformity both to the works and to the performances, lending the disc a sense of evenness and timelessness that sometimes threatens to become dull but never quite does – probably because the individual pieces are generally short, and the entire CD lasts only 47 minutes. This Rondeau release will appeal mainly to fans of female chamber choirs – a rarefied group, to be sure, but one that will quickly warm to the skill with which LaCappella performs this repertoire.
Listeners who prefer a mixed chorus and works with a secular orientation will enjoy the very fine performances of 11 pieces by Seattle-based Choral Arts on a new CD of the music of Eric William Barnum (born 1979). The LaCappella disc about Mary focuses on transcendent, sacred love, while the Gothic Records release of Barnum’s music has a distinctly secular flavor. Although Requiescat and, in a different way, Remembered Light have spiritual elements, other pieces here have a certain worldly abandon: Jenny Kiss’d Me, Afternoon on a Hill, Moonlight Music and more. As a totality, these pieces look at aspects of love under various circumstances and at different times of life – the CD progresses through its 55 minutes more or less chronologically in terms of the ways in which people’s attitudes toward and experiences of love change. Choral Arts features great purity of tone, a fine blending of different voice ranges, sure and solid ensemble work, and a pacing under Robert Bode that brings out the varying elements and effects of Barnum’s music. The music itself is interesting enough to sustain hearing and occasional rehearing, having elements of folk and pop orientation within settings that are primarily classical in style. None of the individual works is a particular standout, but as a whole, the disc provides a warm and pleasant feeling of imagining and reimagining love in its many mostly secular guises.
Music for Brass and Organ. Thompson Brass Ensemble with Barbara Bruns, organ. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The Wanamaker Organ Centennial Concert: Music for Organ and Orchestra by Guilmant, Jongen and Widor. Peter Richard Conte, organ; Symphony in C conducted by Rossen Milanov. Gothic Records. $18.99.
Stephen Paulus: Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra; Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra—Three Places of Enlightenment; Veil of Tears for String Orchestra. Nathan J. Laube, organ; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $9.99.
Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28; Mazurkas—Op. 6, No. 1; Op. 17, Nos. 2 and 4; Op. 50, No. 3; Op. 63, No. 3; Nocturnes—Op. 9, No. 3; Op. 27, No. 2. Ingrid Fliter, piano. Linn Records. $22.99.
Scarlatti: Complete Keyboard Sonatas, Volume 15. Orion Weiss, piano. Naxos. $9.99.
Lovers of organ music and of the mellow, mellifluous sound of well-played brass will enjoy the new MSR Classics CD featuring 11 works – most of them transcriptions – from nine composers. Bach and Giovanni Gabrieli are represented twice, the former with the well-known choral prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele and the Fantasia in G, BWV 572; the latter with Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 and Canzon Noni Toni from Sacrae Symphoniae. There is no apparent order to the presentation of these four works or of the others here: Suite of Dances from Les Fêtes Vénitiennes by André Campra; Senza Misura from the Sonata for Trumpet and Organ, Op. 200 by Alan Hovhaness; Dream Pantomime from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel; Adagio from the Four Canonic Studies by Schumann; Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern by Buxtehude; Procession of the Nobles from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada; and Solemn Entry of the Knights of the Order of St. John by Richard Strauss. This is quite a disparate collection, giving listeners a considerable taste of the way organ-and-brass arrangements of music of many periods sound, and showing off Barbara Bruns’ skills at the consoles of three Fisk organs in Massachusetts – at the Old West Church in Boston, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Gloucester, and Christ Church in Andover. Bruns’ sound mingles pleasantly, and frequently with considerable splendor, with that of the Thompson Brass Ensemble, led by trumpeter James Thompson. Not all the music is equally striking: the Gabrieli, Rimsky-Korsakov and Strauss compositions are standouts, the Humperdinck and Schumann less so. Still, the disc is a welcome opportunity for organists and organ fanciers to hear the instrument in a combination that is of relatively recent vintage but that carries with it considerable pleasure as a way of arranging music of earlier times.
The pleasures are manifest as well in a Gothic Records release focusing on the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ in Philadelphia – the largest operational pipe organ in the world. Peter Richard Conte is featured in four works, two of them very substantial indeed, with which this hundred-year-old instrument is at least marginally connected. Symphony No. 6 by Charles-Marie Widor is the best-known piece here, and Conte gives it a fine, full-throated reading with the accompaniment of the ensemble called Symphony in C, conducted by Rossen Milanov. Conte is in his 25th year as Wanamaker Grand Court Organist – a somewhat puffed-up title that nevertheless reflects the importance of this instrument. The Widor symphony was first performed in this version on the Wanamaker organ in 1919, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. A less-known organ symphony, No. 2 by Félix Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911), is also on this disc – and also proves a very substantial piece, its five movements well constructed to show off the capabilities of the soloist. Guilmant did not write the work for the Wanamaker organ, which did not yet exist in its present form, but he gave 40 recitals on its predecessor instrument and is thus closely connected to its history. The connection of the third composer heard on this disc, Joseph Jongen (1873-1953), is a bit more tenuous: he wrote only three pieces for organ and orchestra, and one of them, A Grand Celebration, was indeed composed for the Wanamaker – but that work is not given here. Instead, Conte and Milanov offer Jongen’s other organ-and-orchestra works, Alleluja and Hymne, which both draw more explicitly on the organ as a church instrument than do the symphonies by Widor and Guilmant. Grand-scale organ music performed on a grand-scale instrument is the order of the day here, in a program that bypasses the usual helping of Bach and Buxtehude to deliver pleasures that may be somewhat rarefied – organ music in general is something of an acquired taste – but that are substantial for those who enjoy experiencing them.
The Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra by Stephen Paulus (born 1949) is conceived on a scale nearly as large as that of the Widor and Guilmant works, but its structure and means of communication are quite different. It is a work filled with the very wide contrasts typical of 21st-century classical music (it dates to 2004), and its melodies and keyboard requirements are broad, sweeping and meant to impress. The movement designations are particularly apt: “Vivacious and Spirited,” “Austere; Foreboding,” and “Jubilant.” Nathan J. Laube brings forth exactly those feelings and emotions in a world première recording for Naxos, and the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero – a conductor who has worked with Paulus for many years – delivers strong, balanced and nuanced accompaniment. Nearly as interesting in concept as the Grand Concerto is another work that here receives its world première: Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra—Three Places of Enlightenment. The solo quartet (Jun Iwasaki and Carolyn Wann Bailey, violins; Daniel Reinker, viola; Anthony LaMarchina, cello) is set against orchestral strings that get as much of a workout as the soloists do. And that is saying something, since these soloists are principals of their Nashville Symphony sections (first and second violins, violas and cellos). Where this 1995 work falls short is not structurally but in its rather ordinary journey to the supposed “places of enlightenment.” The movements are “From Within,” “From Afar” and “From All Around and Radiating Ever Outward,” and the overall effect is somewhat too New Age-y to evoke emotions beyond that of admiration for the quality of the performance. The third work on this disc, and the only one previously recorded, is the highly evocative Veil of Tears for String Orchestra, taken from Paulus’ Holocaust oratorio, To Be Certain of the Dawn (2005). Unlike the somewhat overdone Three Places of Enlightenment, this short, quietly reflective piece conveys a sense of mourning in a simple, straightforward and affecting manner.
For listeners whose tastes run more to the keyboard of a percussion instrument (piano) than that of a wind instrument (organ), Ingrid Fliter’s (++++) performance of Chopin’s Op. 28 Preludes will be a real treat. There are many fine recordings of this music, and which one (or which ones) a listener selects will depend largely on the particular emphasis that high-quality pianists choose to bring to the works. Fliter goes for the emotions underlying the Preludes, seeing these pieces as a kind of “salon music with much more depth” rather than chances for virtuoso display – although she is certainly not lacking in technique. Her handling of several minor-key Preludes is especially involving: No. 8 in F-sharp minor, No. 10 in C-sharp minor, No. 22 in G minor and No. 24 in D minor all come off particularly well here. The first three of those all have the word molto before their tempo indications, while No. 24 is marked Allegro appassionato, and Fliter takes Chopin at his word, emphasizing in particular the agitation built into and created by the music. No. 10 is actually the shortest of the Preludes, but Fliter does not allow it or similarly brief works, such as No. 7 in A, to become mere punctuation points: she explores each piece carefully and thoroughly, making up through involvement what the works lack in duration. These Preludes are passionate in some pianists’ readings, emotionally involving in many renditions. In Fliter’s Linn Records recording, they are eloquent. The CD is filled out with five assorted Mazurkas and two Nocturnes, all of them treated with the same degree of respect and the same seeking of their emotional core that Fliter brings to the set of Preludes. The result is a disc that is not only well-played but also strongly emotionally expressive.
The playing quality is certainly there as well in the 15th volume of Orion Weiss’ exploration of the complete Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas, of which there are 555. Weiss, however, follows a rather disingenuous pianistic practice by calling these works “keyboard” sonatas, which they are not. Even more so than other works of their time, these pieces are intended for the harpsichord and specifically designed to be played on it – the complex hand-crossings of the middle-period sonatas, for example, are directly connected to the instrument’s action, scope and capabilities. No one would deny pianists the chance to play these wonderful, compact, highly varied works. But the piano’s lesser elegance and greater emotive power tend to lead to the sonatas being seen as emotional vehicles in a way that Scarlatti never intended. Weiss, like other pianists who perform this music, deliberately looks for connections both musical and emotional, and thus offers 19 sonatas on his new Naxos recording in a sequence having nothing to do with the works’ chronology and everything to do with the ways in which the pianist believes they connect with each other – or wants them to interconnect. The specific sonatas here, using their Kirkpatrick numbers, are: D minor, K. 552; C, K. 326; A minor, K. 265; G, K. 455; E minor, K. 233; D, K. 177; B minor, K. 293; A, K. 220; F-sharp minor, K. 448; E, K. 216; D minor, K. 553; C, K. 72; F minor, K. 365; E-flat, K. 253; C minor, K. 230; B-flat, K. 439; G minor, K. 43; F, K. 296; and D minor, K. 92. The emotional reason for alternating major-key and minor-key sonatas is clear, as is the mixture of early, middle and late ones to attain greater emotive impact. Whether or not this is the best way to hear Scarlatti is a matter of opinion. It certainly plays well to modern sensibilities; but by the same token, it is an inauthentic way to present this music, which is quite capable of standing and succeeding entirely on its own and on the instrument for which it was written. Weiss’ well-played (+++) CD ably continues his Scarlatti project, and will certainly please listeners looking for a 21st-century pianistic approach to this 18th-century music.
October 23, 2014
Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People Who Track It. By Loree Griffin Burns. Photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
The Next Wave: The Quest to Harness the Power of the Oceans. By Elizabeth Rusch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
These two entries in the always excellent Scientists in the Field series take readers from their own yards to the farthest reaches of Earth’s oceans. Beetle Busters is about the challenges of trying to find and eliminate an invasive pest that is a significant danger to North American trees: the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB). This is an attractive-looking inch-and-half-long insect with very long, striped antennae. Female beetles chew into trees to lay their eggs, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae chew their way out. If a tree harbors enough larvae, they can kill it. So just kill the beetles and their larvae and problem solved, right? Not so fast – Loree Griffin Burns explains why this is a difficult and complex situation: the only way to kill the beetles when they are inside a tree is to cut the tree down and run it through a wood chipper, which means destroying some trees to protect others. To get young readers involved in this difficult scientific issue, Burns repeatedly asks what readers would do if they had to make the decision, and brings them along (with the help of clear and informative photos by Ellen Harasimowicz) as scientists work on eradication. Making the task even harder is the fact that the ALB closely resembles other insects, and scientists must rely on people watching for, spotting and accurately reporting ALBs – a difficult situation: “I’d been called hundreds of times throughout my career by people thinking they had seen an Asian longhorned beetle,” says one scientist, “and every single time, it wasn’t ALB.” But then comes a call that is about the ALB, and scientists soon find out just how bad the infestation is: very bad indeed. The book’s narrative and photos take readers to forests infested by the ALB, to labs where studies of the beetles and the trees they attack are done, and to the U.S. Forest Service, where attempts are being made to predict where the ALB may show up in the future. There are no easy answers to this infestation, and Burns, to her credit, does not claim that there are. She ends the book by repeating questions raised early in it about whether readers feel it is right to cut infested trees – and whether they would feel the same way if the trees were the only ones in their home’s neighborhood. Scientists themselves are not sure about the tree-cutting program: there is nothing better available to stop the ALB, but even those who cut the trees are unhappy that it is necessary – and are involved in reforestation to try to replace, eventually, what is lost in the battle. Beetle Busters is especially valuable because it shows that ecological and scientific problems, even when acknowledged by all parties affected by them, do not necessarily have neat solutions – or ones without significant costs to us humans.
The Beetle Busters lesson is important because it needs to be applied thoughtfully to issues on which people agree far less than they do about the danger of the ALB. Finding and harnessing alternative sources of energy – alternatives, that is, to fossil fuels – is one such issue. There is a great deal of noise, social and political, surrounding this matter, and even a scientifically oriented “how to do it” book such as The Next Wave must be read within a sociopolitical context. There is no question that Earth’s oceans are sources of enormous power – power that occurs naturally and could, if captured, produce huge amounts of electricity without the necessity of burning oil, natural gas or coal. Devices that can catch and make use of wave energy have, however, proved elusive. Now, Elizabeth Rusch writes, a number of people and companies believe they have solved the problem of harnessing waves’ energy, or are on the verge of solving it. Some approaches involve devices that float atop the waves. Others involve ones that sit on the ocean floor. Some devices have already been tested; others exist as prototypes. Concepts differ; potential funders and investors are lining up behind one approach or another – or failing to do so, being worried about failures in tests and risks of deployment. And there are questions about how animals that live in the oceans would be affected if humans started harnessing wave energy – questions that are simply unanswerable in a laboratory environment, but that could lead to torpedoing promising scientific developments in the name of protecting wildlife. And then there is a broad question not discussed in the book: how to get wave energy to areas far from the ocean. That is no small matter: environmental extremists have successfully delayed or stopped many promising alternative-energy projects by demanding that they be 100% harmless to everything from birds or bats (in the case of on-shore wind farms) to people’s lines of sight from land (in the case of off-shore ones). But moving energy from the source of production to the place of consumption requires transport mechanisms – that is what a nation’s power grid is all about. Without a grid that extends to the area where wave power is harnessed, all that power will simply sit out there, unavailable for use. But moving that power from Point A to Point B will require heavy construction, heavy industry, and development of power-grid sections to which area residents and professional environmental agitators are unalterably opposed. Ultimately, the science to get energy from ocean waves is not enough. There must also be enough social and political will to put nonhuman species at some unknown level of risk for the sake of lessening human dependence on fossil fuels; and there must also be enough will so that transport mechanisms for zero-emission power can be placed where needed to bring that power where it has to go. The Next Wave tells only part of this story – the part involving science and innovation – and tells it very well. Families would do well to go beyond Rusch’s book to discuss the harsh non-scientific realities that will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the scientists profiled in this book to do the social good that they are trying so hard to do.
A New Chick for Chickies. By Janee Trasler. HarperFestival. $8.99.
Dodsworth in Tokyo. By Tim Egan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $3.99.
The latest of Janee Trasler’s books about three adorable chicks and the “adult” pig, cow and sheep who take care of them ups the ante for babies and grown-up animals alike: a new chick hatches, followed in short order by jealousy. “Get your feathers off our pig,” say the three original chickies as the pig and the new baby brother dance together. Pig quickly defuses the situation by inviting everyone to form a conga line. But then the original chickies object to the new one throwing a beach ball to the cow – so the cow forms a beach-ball team that includes everybody. And then: “No more singing! Not one peep! We sing backup for our sheep!” So say the original chicks – but the sheep sets up a five-piece band so everyone can take part in the musical merry-making. Problems noted, problems explored, problems solved, all within the two dozen pages of an attractive and sturdy board book. That, is, problems almost solved, because Trasler ends the book with – oops! – not one but several additional chicks hatching. Now what? Presumably kids, certainly including big brother and big sisters, will find out in the next adventure of the chickies.
The adventures continue for world-traveling Dodsworth and the duck in a Level 3 edition of Dodsworth in Tokyo, an entry in the “Green Light Readers” series (with this level, the highest, designated for “reading independently”). Tim Egan builds the whole book, which was originally published last year, around the duck’s now-well-known propensity for getting into all sorts of trouble. Dodsworth worries about this from the start of the book, noting that “Japan is a land of customs and manners and order” but that “the duck wasn’t very good at those things.” The duck, of course, promises to be on his best behavior, but Dodsworth keeps a very close eye on him and repeatedly reminds him of the right way to behave – and, surprisingly, the duck does quite well. But Dodsworth is sure, as readers will be, that this cannot go on forever, and that is the tension in this modest, well-told story, which as usual features reasonably accurate depictions of various locations that Dodsworth and the duck visit. The duck becomes fascinated by a toy called a kendama – a ball attached by a string to a cup – and proves highly skilled at cupping the ball, which Dodsworth himself cannot manage to do. A little girl leaves her kendama behind in a park, and Dodsworth and the duck wait for her to return so they can give it to her, but to no avail; so they take it with them on the rest of their tour. Part of the fun here involves how un-ducklike the duck is: Dodsworth has to rescue him from water at one point, since he cannot swim. The duck cannot fly, either, and that fact is what Egan uses to bring the good-behavior and kendama stories together in an amusingly appropriate climax. And yes, eventually of course the duck makes a huge mess, as young readers will have anticipated all along, but it all happens in so good-humored a way that even Dodsworth finds himself laughing. Kids will laugh along with him.
The Killer Next Door. By Alex Marwood. Penguin. $16.
The Wicked Girls. By Alex Marwood. Penguin. $16.
Really good crime writers do not need to set their novels in an isolated, brooding castle or on a remote island, nor do they require twisted-looking, visibly demented characters either as killers or as red herrings. What they do, what makes their books truly frightening, is to set stories in everyday surroundings and people them with characters so ordinary that even the notion that one of them may perpetrate great evil is chilling. In other words, to quote Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase in a different context, writers such as Alex Marwood explore “the banality of evil,” and their books are all the more frightening as a result.
Marwood is the pseudonym of British author Serena Mackesy, who wrote four books under her real name – The Temp, Virtue, Simply Heaven and Hold My Hand – before turning to intense crime fiction with The Wicked Girls, published in 2012 and now available in paperback. Mackesy/Marwood is, like her settings, mundane on the face of things: a fiftysomething sometime journalist who taught English for a while and even did some door-to-door selling. Her father was a military historian and both her grandmothers were authors, but there is nothing specific in her background that would seem to connect her with the gritty, realistic and thoroughly ominous settings in which The Wicked Girls and her new book, The Killer Next Door, take place.
The Wicked Girls is a story about a horrible crime that, in a sense, simply happened. The book’s impact comes from the fact that the perpetrators, 11-year-olds named Jade Walker and Annabel (Bel) Oldacre, who are responsible for the death of a four-year-old named Chloe Francis, are themselves victims of social-class expectations and their childhood environment – and may or may not be able to escape those forces as adults. Narratively set 25 years after the crime, featuring the girls of the title as grown women with new names – Jade is now Kirsty Lindsay and Bel has become Amber Gordon – the book seesaws between present and past, revealing details of the original crime bit by bit as Kirsty, now a journalist, looks into a series of attacks on young women in the seaside town of Whitmouth. Kirsty’s work brings her into contact with Amber for the first time in 25 years, after Amber discovers a dead body at Funnland, the amusement park where she works. Aside from the obvious irony of the place’s name, it is very well-chosen for the events of the book: like clowns, intended to bring enjoyment but frequently seeming downright creepy, amusement parks – with their prepackaged rides, modest thrills and general air of seediness – have something vaguely disturbing about them, and it is this undercurrent of things being not quite right that Marwood explores and exploits with considerable skill. Amusement parks are, by definition, crowded, and much of The Wicked Girls deals with the scary aspects of crowds – not only the physically scary ones but also those derived from the tendency of crowds to change subtly, almost imperceptibly, into mobs, motivated by a strange sort of groupthink that prejudges, interprets reality based on those prejudgments, and then acts as if that imagined reality is identical with truth. The Wicked Girls, which won an Edgar Award, has its expected share of twists and turns – it would not be in the murder-mystery/psychological-thriller genre if it did not – but it also has something more: compelling, carefully limned characters who are just ordinary enough so it is easy to imagine living next door to them, totally unaware not only of their past lives but also of their past and current potential for good and evil. The very mundanity of the settings is what makes them most ominous: like the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the Robert Bloch book on which the movie is based, Funnland and Whitmouth are just real enough to make readers look over their figurative shoulders while reading about what happens there. You never really know, do you, just who lives next door or down the block? If you think you know, based on what you have been told, you can never be quite sure that anyone’s stated biography is true, can you? Thinking too much about this invites paranoia, and that is just what The Wicked Girls produces: a feeling that there are depths in ordinary people that it is not wise to explore too thoroughly, depths from which monsters can spring.
The identical underlying theme is explored from another angle in The Killer Next Door, an otherwise very different mystery set not in a creepy seaside amusement park but in an ordinary urban rooming house. The book’s structure is a well-worn one: a group of people, thrown together by circumstance but otherwise unrelated, bonds because of something horrible that happens – and then the bond starts to sever as people realize that someone in the group perpetrated the gory crime (and it is gory, possibly too much so for some readers). The rundown rooming house where the book is set – think Bates Motel again – stands for the anonymity of big cities everywhere, although Marwood skillfully turns the story into a specific-to-London tale through careful scene painting (indeed, U.S readers should be prepared, here as in The Wicked Girls, to look up some of the British references and vocabulary with which both books are packed). The building’s residents could easily descend into cardboard types, and a couple of them do, but by and large they are well-developed enough so readers will genuinely care about them and fear for them. This is especially the case with Lisa, also known as Collette, who is on the run after seeing her shady ex-boss and his goons beat a man to death. Because Lisa’s mother is dying in a nursing home and Lisa wants to be nearby, she has rented her threadbare room in the shabby boardinghouse – putting herself under the thumb of repulsive landlord Roy Preece (who is a bit too typecast: oily, lecherous, miserly, grossly obese and focused on getting room deposits and rents in cash so he can spend time ignoring the building’s awful-smelling backed-up drains). The other building residents are political-asylum-seeker Hossein Zanjani, elderly longtime resident Vesta Collins, part-time worker Thomas Dunbar, music teacher Gerard Bright, and teenage runaway Cher Farrell. Lisa/Collette moves into an apartment that used to belong to Nikki, a murder victim – and, yes, it gradually becomes clear that she was far from the only one, and that someone in the building is responsible. The story is loosely based on a famous British serial-murder case in which a man named Dennis Nilsen killed at least 12 people between 1978 and 1983. But even readers familiar with that story, which few U.S. readers will likely know, will not find The Killer Next Door spoiled by their knowledge, because what the book is really about is how well you know, or ever can know, the people living just a few feet away from you. It is this theme, so similar to the one Marwood explores in The Wicked Girls, that gives The Killer Next Door both its power and its ability to evoke suspense: there is something chillingly real about the realization that even a person’s stated background may be true or false, may reveal little or much about that person’s true feelings and motives, and may or may not be a good guide to what that person will do and how others should deal with him or her. Both The Wicked Girls and The Killer Next Door are self-contained: Marwood appears to have no interest in centering her mysteries on a recurring detective or other character, and for that reason, she can take the figurative gloves off and have things happen to her characters that are as scary and brutal as she wishes, which in these books can be quite brutal. Indeed, Marwood’s descriptive passages will be a bit much for some readers, taking parts of her books closer to the horror genre than to that of mystery/thriller. Readers should be prepared: the depths of depravity are not to be explored lightly, and Marwood does not shrink from bringing readers into them. Those depths create a decidedly uncomfortable place – made all the more so by the realization that it may be located right next to you.