July 30, 2015
2016 Calendars: Wall—Cats We Love; Anne Geddes—Down in the Garden. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 (Cats); $14.99 (Garden).
2016 Calendars: Desktop—Dilbert; Peanuts. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.
One of the nice things about physical calendars, as opposed to electronic ones, is the way they provide instant change and uplift, amusement, or some other emotional “zing” for your workspace or home. By picking one of Andrews McMeel’s 2016 calendars and displaying it where you see it all the time, you guarantee that you will have a smile on your face, a tingle of enjoyment, or some other positive reaction to the day – at least once! The calendars cannot do anything about what happens after you glance at them, but at least they can be a small dose of “up” feeling to counter anything drab or difficult that may come along later. The key in selecting a calendar, therefore, is to choose one you will really enjoy seeing day after day, week after week, throughout the year. Cat lovers have an excellent choice for 2016 in the form of Cats We Love, which features the art of Sueellen Ross – who creates cats with near-photographic realism and places them “just so” in a variety of appropriate and often adorable settings. These are not kittens, to which adorableness comes naturally: they are full-grown cats planted in entirely appropriate places. In fact, the very first cats in this 16-month calendar – shown with four small versions of September through December 2015 – are interacting with a planter, one of them lying on its side in front and the other inside it, looking out of the picture directly at the viewer. And thus the cat theme is “planted” for the year. It continues with a lovely series of indoor and outdoor cat portraits, several including red flowers of various types and several showing cats in positions that cat companions (sometimes called “owners”) will immediately recognize: a cat lounging on a rocking chair, one looking straight ahead while snuggled on a pillow, one perched in a tree and gazing about in mastery of the universe, and so on. Cat lovers will find this a delightful all-year foray into the feline world, which intersects the human one but seems to coexist only through the benign permission of the cats that occupy it in whatever way they wish.
Amusing world-blending of a different sort is the basis of all the art of Anne Geddes, who delights in combining utterly adorable babies with costumes and settings that go beyond the improbable into the surrealistic – but always with an eye on enjoyment, not anything disturbing (as surrealism can be). The 2016 Down in the Garden calendar features a dozen perfect examples of Geddes’ approach. An especially adorable one is the illustration for July, in which there are four rows of beautifully decorated plant pots on four shelves – with babies costumed as flowers peeking out of every pot. There is much more along the same lines here: for June, one of Geddes’ frequent forays into babies perched atop red-capped, white-spotted mushrooms; a baby-as-yellow-butterfly for November that deliciously parallels and contrasts with a baby-as-snail for December; some almost-laugh-out-loud babies within pea pods for April; and on and on throughout the year. Geddes’ art is not to all tastes – some people find it a trifle on the weird side or a touch too sentimental – but if her work does engage you, this calendar will provide a year-long chance to revel in it and enjoy scenes that can be really remarkable, such as the one for March that shows three babies still in chrysalises and a fourth already hatched from one as a beautiful butterfly.
If you prefer your calendar amusements more on the wry side, one way to get them is with desk calendars – those spiral-bound, open-flat planners that let you see a week at a glance and take an overview of your schedule and appointments. Predictions that physical planners would disappear in the rush to follow schedules electronically have turned out to be incorrect, and in fact some people have found clever ways to combine the two forms of tracking: the physical planner is large enough to give you a whole week’s overview, while the smaller screen of a smartphone can then give you specifics about individual meetings. The comics that appear on pages opposite the ones for tracking appointments can let you enjoy whatever type of humor fits your life best, and fits the place where you are keeping the planner as well. It is easy to imagine, for example, keeping the 2016 Dilbert desktop planner at the office and the 2016 Peanuts one at home. Scott Adams’ calendar this time is called “What can I say to make this conversation end?” The cover shows Dilbert asking that question while attempting to work at his computer as the Pointy-Haired Boss hovers behind him, clearly ready to offer the latest bit of mismanagement. There is a great deal of useful advice here for people trapped in the surreal corporate world that Dilbert inhabits – and unlike Geddes’, this world is one whose surrealism does have teeth (so to speak). Here you can be inspired by Wally’s non-work ethic (“when I get to within four years of retirement, I’ll only work on projects that have a five-year payback”); by Alice’s incessant “arguing with the GPS navigation system,” in which she repeatedly shouts at it, “Change your mind! Change your mind! Change your mind!”; by the Pointy-Haired Boss attempting to inspire by leadership clichés and then reporting to Catbert, evil director of human relations, “I drilled until I hit bile”; by Dilbert’s discovery, which he reports to the company’s CEO, that “there’s no correlation between our predicted and actual outcomes”; and much more. The comic strips may not make you feel better about any meetings scheduled on the opposite pages, but they can help put all those meetings, along with the rest of office life, into some sort of perspective.
Peanuts put life in perspective, too: Charles Schulz’ much-loved strip had more depth and bite to it than many people realized during Schulz’ lifetime. Nevertheless, the 2016 Peanuts desktop planner offers gentler, less-snarky humor than the Dilbert one. Here, Lucy contemplates marrying Schroeder but being so poor that they would have to sell his piano to buy saucepans; Snoopy, in his World War I Flying Ace persona, must bail out of his plane – only to land in his supper dish; Charlie Brown’s team gets deeply upset about playing baseball on Mother’s Day, which makes them “no good” and “thoughtless” and “selfish and cruel,” although Charlie Brown points out that he himself “sent my mother a very nice card and a dozen pink roses”; one of Charlie Brown’s interminable failures to kick a football held by Lucy is caused by “an involuntary muscle spasm,” against which Lucy says the odds were “ten billion to one”; and much more of the unique Peanuts brand of humor. There is something reassuring about all calendars: they lay out an entire year neatly and seem to provide evidence that all will be nicely organized and proceed according to a well-designed grid, illustrated by something pleasant and/or amusing. Real life doesn’t exactly work that way, to be sure, but calendars’ implication that it might work that way next year is one of the reasons they provide so much enjoyment, time after time.
Little Blue Truck’s Beep-Along Book. By Alice Shertle. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
5-Minute Berenstain Bears Stories. By Jan, Stan, & Mike Berenstain. Harper. $12.99.
The Fog Diver. By Joel Ross. Harper. $16.99.
Although publishers can never predict which of their books for children will be top sellers and which will not do well, they can and do predict which age ranges will be attracted to specific books. In fact, they are quite good at the business of targeting kids by creating works that – for all their surface uniqueness – have certain important elements in common with other books intended for children of roughly the same age. Books for pre-readers and the youngest readers, for example, are highly tactile as well as simply written, often taking the form of board books and sometimes including interactive elements – meaning things to push, turn, pull or twist. Or, in the case of Little Blue Truck’s Beep-Along Book, beep. Actually, the sound made by Little Blue Truck, a bound-in plush toy with big googly eyes and a smiling, waving frog behind the steering wheel, is closer to a cheep than a beep, but kids in this age range will not care. The truck sticks through the middle of all the pages of Alice Shertle’s book as the author urges kids to “beep along” throughout the story: “If the cows are in the corn, beep along – Beep! Beep!” “If the pigs are in the clover, beep along – Beep! Beep!” And so forth. Jill McElmurry’s illustrations appear in the margins around Little Blue Truck, showing various animals smiling, waving and generally having a good time as the truck passes them. The oversize board book, its strongly reinforced pages making it unlikely that young children will be able to yank Little Blue Truck out of the binding (although some of them will certainly try), is only eight pages long, but manages to convey a pleasantly upbeat, amusing, beep-ably rhythmic story for kids up to age four.
The 12-tale collection called 5-Minute Berenstain Bears Stories targets the next age group, 4-8, and is – as usual when the Berenstain Bears are involved – intended to instruct and advise, not just entertain. These stories are drawn from various times in the Bears’ history, but all contain the mixture of homespun adventure and moralizing that Bears fans find attractive but that may lay things on a bit too thickly for those not already enamored of these characters. For example, “The Berenstain Bears Hug and Make Up” shows a rarity: the family having disagreements, resulting in “a bad day in the tree house.” The problem is quickly solved with a round of giggles and some hugs. “The Berenstain Bears and the Spelling Bee” features Sister Bear winning the school-level contest and then deciding that she does not want to go to the “All-Schools Spelling Bee” because she just wants to “play soccer, and do things with my friends” – and that is just fine with her parents, even though Papa has been training her in spelling and urging her to do better. “The Berenstein Bears at the Aquarium” features Brother and Sister Bear rushing through most of the exhibits because they are so interested in seeing the now politically incorrect “Whale & Dolphin Show,” which they thoroughly enjoy. “The Berenstain Bears Come Clean for School” is about germs, which for some reason the Bear family (except for Mama) does not understand, so everyone (particularly including Papa) sneezes loudly, fails to wash hands, and so forth – with Papa of course coming down with a cold at the end. The tales are simple, straightforward and preachy, easy enough for kids in the target age range to read and understand, but somewhat overwrought in their eagerness to provide simplistic lessons. Whether adopting a kitten “so covered in mud that you couldn’t tell what color it was” or going out to a restaurant (“If you eat your broccoli, you get dessert”), the Bear family has answers for everything – which, however, may not be the answers that human families favor. 5-Minute Berenstain Bears Stories is a (+++) book for kids and adults who have already met the Berenstain Bears and who find their particular brand of interaction attractive.
The interactions occur at a different level in books for preteens, ages 8-12. These are more-complex narratives, filled with adventures that are often set in exotic places where magic or pseudo-science is a big element of the story. There are central protagonists, but they are almost invariably surrounded by other important characters – all of them preteens or young teenagers, of course – so that the stories emphasize the importance of friends and of one’s peer group rather than individuality, and frequently dwell on the evils of the adult world. There is usually a positive adult character or two, cast in the role of mentor and/or rescuer, but the main action and the main success belong emphatically to the young people featured in the story. Every single one of these elements is present in Joel Ross’ The Fog Diver, a future-dystopia tale (a very popular type in recent years) in which the Earth is cloaked in a white mist that is deadly to people but not to other living things – and that conceals within it the precious objects of long ago that poor slum dwellers like the four protagonists of the tale must hunt and trade to survive. It is inevitable in stories like this that the members of the group are different but complementary, and that the most-central of them has a deep secret that will eventually be revealed. Chess, the 13-year-old “tetherboy” who makes the actual dives into the fog, has that secret: one of his eyes actually appears to contain some of the fog, the result of a vicious experiment conducted by the evil Lord Kodoc in years past. This feature may (or may not) help him survive longer and perhaps find things that others cannot locate. The other three young people who crew the airship from which Chess explores are Hazel, the captain; Swedish, the pilot; and Bea, the mechanic. All are one-dimensional characters and are as bold and supportive of Chess as can be. And all four are involved with Mrs. E, a woman who serves as mentor and rescuer but now (unsurprisingly) needs rescuing herself, having come down with a fog-related sickness that subsides long enough for her to play a commanding role one single time, at exactly the right moment in the story. There are some clever elements in The Fog Diver, including misstatements of what the past must have been like (the kids believe there were once a ruling Burger King and Dairy Queen), decisions on what things from olden times have real modern value (paper money is only good for toilet paper), and the fact that Lord Kodoc’s airship is a kind of transformer whose “harmless” version is called the Teardrop while the name of its battle version is an anagram: Predator. Nevertheless, The Fog Diver is for the most part yawningly predictable, even though Ross keeps the pace fast and makes sure to have adventure and peril lurk around every corner (and up in the air, too). The notion of machine awareness lies in the background here – the fog is actually made of nanoparticles deliberately designed to block only humans – but this is fantasy, not science fiction, despite a smattering of science thrown about as a veneer. Like so many stories for this age group, this (+++) novel is a quest tale, in this case involving the young crew’s search for a place called Port Oro, where Chess will be safe and hopefully Mrs. E can be cured. But the book’s ending – after an unsurprising, inevitable encounter between Chess and Lord Kodoc, which is disappointingly dull, as is the supposed master villain himself – is abrupt and unconvincing, with the kids approaching Port Oro at last and saying that everything will be fine now because they are “home.” But they have never before been to Port Oro, do not really know what is there, have not quite reached the place by the book’s end, and are not sure whether Mrs. E can really get proper care there. Perhaps all these loose ends are designed to set up a planned sequel, but whether or not that is the case, they make for a distinctly unsatisfying conclusion to a book that quite clearly targets a specific age range and makes no attempt to move outside the straitened conventions of novels planned for that specific group of readers.
Wumo: Something Is Wrong. By Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Friends and Frenemies: The Good, the Bad, and the Awkward. By Jennifer Castle and Deborah Reber. Illustrations by Kaela Graham. Zest Books. $11.99.
Guidebooks for life come in many forms. Sometimes they are serious; sometimes they are humorous, skewed ways of looking at the world – ones that elicit a chuckle or outright laugh, helping you see things a bit differently and maybe get through your day a touch more easily. The latter angle, using humor to highlight everyday situations, is a very common one in single-panel cartoons: Close to Home, The Argyle Sweater, F Minus, Speed Bump and others have refined the approach, each in its own way. A new entrant in the field, named for the first two letters of each of its creators’ names, is Wumo, and like the nonsensical title, the comics are high on the nonsense scale. But they have enough perception and social commentary to be more than “merely amusing.” And Wumo has a European sensibility that helps set its panels apart from those originating in North America: the strip is popular in Germany, Denmark, Norway and elsewhere. One panel shows a man putting a costume on a microphone-holding robot; the caption is “the reason all pop music sounds alike,” and costumes on the wall are labeled “50 Cent,” “Madonna,” “Justin Timberlake” and “Milli Vanilli.” Think about it. Elsewhere, “Murphy’s first attempt at writing his law” shows a man trying to do just that with a badly leaking fountain pen. More samples: a pod of whales is seen beaching itself and struggling to get to a seaside Weight Watchers location. In the nonfiction section of a bookstore, Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse and Yoda are standing and talking: “I love these kinds of books. They’re like a whole universe that you become totally absorbed in!” Two woodpeckers are on a tree, one pecking in the usual way and the other using a power drill. Frightened lions, riding in a locked vehicle, observe corporate smartphone users during a “Safari on Wall Street.” A “DIY leather sofa” from Ikea comes with a heavy mallet and a cow. Some of these panels require more than a moment’s thought to get the point – and that is all to the good, since the extra time usually results in louder-than-usual laughter. Wulff, a stand-up comedian, encapsulates modern-life absurdities with skill, and Morgenthaler’s distinctly odd-looking drawings fit the often-peculiar concepts very well – as in the panel featuring “12 Tykes Demolition,” which shows toddlers starting to dismantle a building as their adult supervisor comments, “In 10 minutes, these babies will have the whole thing torn apart!” That concept itself is funny – but for parents who have seen what even a single little one can do to a house, it is twice as amusing. Much of Wumo is like that: it is not just the fact that something is wrong that is amusing – it is how the thing is wrong, and what that implies about modern society. Just imagine, for example, “if people had acted like they do on Facebook when Facebook didn’t exist.” The scene is an ordinary street, with a man yelling about his latest relationship, another calling out through his window that he just stepped out of the shower, and a woman telling the world, “Cookies taste good!” That is funny in itself – and much more so in Facebook context.
“Friending” on Facebook is an easy thing to mock, but the difficulties and pains of friendship, especially in the already angst-laden middle-school years, are not at all funny for those experiencing them. Friends and Frenemies explores this territory with seriousness and a heaping helping of good intentions – rather too earnestly, true, but in as well-meaning a way as possible. Jennifer Castle and Deborah Reber describe what friends are, how to make them, what happens when friends fight, what to do about gossip and rumors, how to help a friend, and how to manage the thorny issues of opposite-sex and long-distance friendships. To avoid seeming preachy or appearing to give lectures, they enlist comments from “mentors,” teenagers who remember their recently passed years as preteens (at whom the book is aimed). Castle and Reber also include stories, quizzes, polls – lots of elements intended to make the book interesting and “interactive” to the extent that that is possible in print. Much of the material is simplistic or clichéd (“friends are the family we choose”), but it is presented clearly and with empathy for preteens already involved in all sorts of socially difficult situations. Castle and Reber try hard, sometimes a bit too hard, to accommodate differing views about friends: “Because we’re all different, we all want different things from our friendships, but there are several qualities that rank pretty high on everyone’s list of friend ‘must-haves.’” Although the authors repeatedly recommend that friends work things out together, they also state many times that when matters get serious, adult help is needed: “If it feels like you and your friend have hit a wall or are going around in circles, it’s time to call for backup. Talk to a teacher, school counselor, or other neutral authority figure about helping you and your friend work out your differences. …Your parents or older siblings can be leaned on, too.” This will be a bit of a tall order for some readers, especially introverted ones and those with a dispiriting family life. And suggestions from the “mentors” are not much better: “Usually what I do to resolve a problem is give my friend and myself some time to cool down.” Still, the authors try to point out ways in which preteens can handle not-too-serious friendship matters on their own – and even some genuinely troubling ones, such as rumor mongering, which Castle and Reber point out is a form of bullying. If victimized, they recommend, try to find out where the rumor comes from and why; see if someone you know is willing to take a stand by saying he or she knows the rumor is not true; ignore the rumor-creating bully and stay calm if at all possible; and then, predictably, if the rumor is a serious one, “it’s time to get someone with authority, such as a school counselor or a teacher you really trust, to help cool things off.” Friends and Frenemies is a solid (+++) advice book that tries a little too hard to find entertaining ways to present real-world issues: Kaela Graham’s illustrations are too sweet, the “journal kickstart” sections are rather lame, and in terms of identifying response patterns, would you, for example, rather be a “dirt deflector” or “muddy waters” when it comes to gossip and rumors? However, the chapter on helping friends is a particularly valuable one, and some significant issues are raised throughout the book, although often only in passing: in the chapter on opposite-sex friendships, for instance, there is a paragraph about crushes on same-sex friends. It is hard to see this book as a guide to making friends and becoming a friend, but comparatively easy to see it as a place to turn when friendships become difficult and young readers do not feel comfortable going to a “neutral authority figure,” or do not have one they trust.
Taking Care of Your Child, 9th Edition: A Parent’s Illustrated Guide to Complete Medical Care. By Robert H. Pantell, M.D., James F. Fries, M.D., and Donald M. Vickery, M.D. Da Capo. $21.99.
10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, 2nd Edition: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child’s Difficult Behavior. By Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. Da Capo. $16.99.
Lengthy, involved, complex, but laid out with clarity and filled with cross-references that make it easy to find what you need to know about any particular subject, Taking Care of Your Child is a true reference work. That is, it is not a book to be read but one to be referred to when you need the information it contains – much like a dictionary or encyclopedia (in book rather than online form, of course). Physicians and emeritus professors Robert Pantell and James Fries, working together and with contributions from the late Donald Vickery, have assembled a book that parents, whether first-time or experienced, can turn to in order to take better care of a child at home. The new, ninth edition of the book contains updated information on various treatments and scientific advances, but its underlying premise remains the same, as the authors tell parents at the outset: “Your care and judgment are still the most important ingredients for fostering a lifetime of health for your child.” With that in mind, the book’s focus is on various things that are likely to occur in the vast majority of children, not on rare events that may occur but probably will not. This is intended as a day-to-day guide for children who fit, very generally, within the normal bell-curve distribution: the 80% or so who do not have serious challenges of one sort or another.
It is certainly possible to read Taking Care of Your Child sequentially, and that may be useful for first-time parents interested in details about pregnancy, birth and the early period of adjustment to being a family. But reading the book this way is both time-consuming and rather boring. That is because the book is not a narrative but a series of suggestions for handling specific child-rearing situations that may arise over time. For example, a discussion of “animal bites” takes up two pages of the book’s 550. Those pages discuss rabies risks and cross-reference separate pages on Lacerations, Puncture Wounds, and “Does My Child Need a Tetanus Shot?” There is also a cross-reference to “ways in which parents can teach their children to get along with dogs and avoid bites.” And one to “Pain and Fever Relievers.” Then there is a flow chart with three questions: “Is the face or hand involved?” “Is this a bite by a dog or cat whose rabies immunizations are current and who is currently being observed?” “Has this bite left a cut or puncture wound that might require a physician’s attention?” Answering “yes” or “no” to each question connects the chart-following reader either to the next question or to something specific to do immediately. And all of this is packed into a two-page section. That gives some idea of the scope of Taking Care of Your Child. The book does have room for non-clinical matters, and these can relieve the somewhat droning and rather overly careful nature of the text, as in, “Teething is important and necessary and can be done on almost any hard rubber object. Certain pacifiers, such as the Nuk pacifier, can be used in teething infants and may have the advantage of ensuring proper tongue thrust for proper jaw development.” In contrast to prose like this are, for example, comments by parents on their experiences with their own children – a welcome dose of “someone like me” to go with the “someone with extensive knowledge” writing by highly experienced medical professionals. Taking Care of Your Child has sections on non-traditional and alternative approaches to children’s health, but in the main it offers a solid, scientifically backed set of medically sound recommendations, and one laced with some genuine cleverness – such as a diagram of an arm splint made from magazines and cardboard. There is plenty of reassurance to be found here (“The only children who never have diaper rash are those who never wear diapers”), but there are also plenty of warnings about times to seek medical care immediately. Taking Care of Your Child is balanced, thoughtful, accurate, and immensely useful even for experienced parents. The tradeoff is that it is not particularly readable – but that is the curse of many a top-notch reference book.
Jeffrey Bernstein’s 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, on the other hand, clearly is intended to be read as a narrative, even though it has “reference” elements as well. The book really is arranged as a set of recommendations for 10 days, and Bernstein writes, “Whether or not you actually read this book in ten days, I recommend that you go through each of the ten days consecutively.” This second edition includes some new approaches to working with a defiant child – and with one’s own anger – and also incorporates diagnostic criteria for what is now called “oppositional defiant disorder.” And there are some significant changes in emphasis, notably involving a greater focus on the necessity of parents employing a “calm, firm, and noncontrolling approach” to their children’s defiant behavior. The foundational element of Bernstein’s approach is understanding and acceptance, with parents expected to bear the full burden of learning about a child’s behavior and making changes in their own words and actions to defuse difficult situations. This is unfair – parents have more than enough to deal with already – but clearly necessary, since, in Bernstein’s formulation, the parent has the problem with the defiant child; the child does not have a problem with his or her behavior (although in fact it may be evidence of underlying troubles or traumas). The parent wants change; therefore, the parent must change. This is a necessary mindset for anyone hoping to benefit from this book.
Bernstein’s reasonableness can actually become irritating after a while: “A healthy child may be rambunctious, noisy, emotionally expressive, and have a short attention span. All of these ‘problems’ are not problems at all, but normal qualities of a normal child. …Your child has very little life experience, and he will inevitably make mistakes. …Yes, I know that being called nasty names by your own child and not dwelling on how this hurts may seem like a tall order, to say the least. This is where switching your mind-set from parent to coach can give you some emotional objectivity…” And there you have one of the kernels of Bernstein’s book: suppress or repress your own emotions by altering your mental attitude, changing from regarding yourself as a parent to thinking of yourself as a coach. Sports lovers may find this easier than will non-sports fans, but it is doubtful that any parent living 24 hours a day with a defiant child will find the prescription easy to take. The difficulty in Bernstein’s book is that although he says he knows how painful defiant behavior can be – and mentions enduring it with his own children – he recommends approaches as if what he is urging is not particularly difficult. That is, he offers a series of eminently sensible concepts and implementations, involving school as well as home life, as if their reasonableness makes it easy for a caring parent (or “coach”) to implement them. But this is very far from the case in real life, when simply getting through the day and dealing with one’s partner, other children (his, hers or both of theirs), other family issues, financial matters, and all the rest of the stressors of modern life can leave a parent with precious little time to take a deep breath, much less to reconsider his or her entire relationship with a defiant child. Yet unceasingly calm, cool, rational handling is what Bernstein recommends throughout 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child. To avoid power struggles, for instance, he says to “be courteous when you make requests,” “think ‘compromise,’” and “work on your own confidence and self-esteem.” Again and again, he writes recommendations such as, “Using these words repetitively (like a broken record), in a calm, firm, and noncontrolling manner will serve to de-escalate the situation.” Bernstein is right about this and, indeed, about a great deal of what causes defiant behavior and what can be done to change it, at least to some extent – his book’s title intelligently promises a less defiant child in 10 days, not one cured of the defiance habit. Despite all the intelligence and knowledge here, though, parents will find this a (+++) book – its positives being its underlying content and the thoughtfulness of its author (a licensed psychologist specializing in child and family therapy); its negatives being a lack of understanding of how difficult its ideas are to implement, and a failure to have (or at least to express) sufficient empathy for parents whose defiant-child issues are likely only one element of lives that already feel stressed, pressured, time-constrained and out of control on many levels and in many ways.
Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder; “Tristan und Isolde”—Prelude to Act I; Elgar: Sea Pictures; “The Dream of Gerontius”—The Angel’s Farewell. Sarah Rose Taylor, mezzo-soprano; Nigel Potts, organ; Grace Cloutier, harp. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 9, 15 (“Pastorale”), 24 (“À Thérèse”), 25 and 27. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.
Ravel: Miroirs; Rachmaninoff: Études-Tableaux, Op. 33; Chen Peixun: Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake; Tan Dun: Eight Memories in Watercolor. Shen Lu, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Sometimes the juxtaposition of pieces of music makes for a more-interesting listening experience than do the individual items on their own. This is the case with a new MSR Classics recording in which elements relating to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which is, after all, a sea story (even if not primarily one), are heard along with Elgar’s Sea Pictures – a very unusual pairing of material. To complicate matters further, all the material has been arranged or transcribed for organ by Nigel Potts, producing, especially in the Wagner song cycle, a very unusual effect. The Wesendonck-Lieder have, to be sure, appeared in many versions: Wagner himself made a chamber-orchestra version of the fifth, Träume; Felix Mottl produced a version of all five songs for large orchestra; Hans Werner Henze made one for chamber orchestra; and there have been others as well. But using the organ, with its inevitable association with religion and transcendence, produces an almost eerie effect in these songs, particularly in the two that Wagner himself labeled as studies for Tristan und Isolde, those being Träume and Im Treibhaus. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Rose Taylor does a fine job exploring the über-Romantic pathos of the songs, and the works gain in intensity when Potts follows them with the prelude to the first act of Tristan und Isolde itself. Hearing this on the organ is an odd experience, uplifting in some ways and just plain strange in others. And then, after the Wagnerian canvas has been laid out, hearing the Sea Pictures cycle (which dates to 1899) puts a whole new perspective on matters oceanic. Originally written for contralto but often sung by mezzos, Elgar’s cycle is less emotionally fraught than Wagner’s Wesendonck songs and, despite the recurrence of elements of the first song in the later ones, less musically unified. This is at least in part becaue the five songs are by five different poets (one of them being Elgar’s wife), but it is also because Elgar uses the cycle to explore multiple moods of the sea and those who interact with it, while Wagner – in Tristan as well as the Wesendonck songs – seeks always to focus and intensify the emotions he is portraying. Concluding this fascinating CD with The Angel’s Farewell from The Dream of Gerontius produces an effect quite different from the one that would result from the more-usual conclusion of Tristan-related recordings with the Liebestod. Here there is an ultimately hopeful, if somewhat ambiguous, conclusion to this foray into Wagner and Elgar; and the result, especially in light of the pervasive presence of the organ, is to encourage listeners familiar with these works to rethink them and their implications in some highly intriguing ways.
There is also considerable optimism in the five sonatas performed by James Brawn on another MSR Classics CD, this one being the fourth in Brawn’s Beethoven cycle. It is usually Beethoven’s more-intense, emotive, proto-Romantic piano works that garner the most attention; but some of his sonatas, although surely imbued with expressiveness and considerable feeling, are less angst-ridden and more positive in outlook than others. That general description applies to all five works here: Nos. 9 (1798-99), 15 (1801), 24 (1809), 25 (also 1809), and 27 (1814). These works span Beethoven’s early and middle creative periods and, in the case of the two-movement No. 27, hint at the direction he would take in his last and most forward-looking piano pieces. Brawn performs the five sonatas chronologically, and this adds considerable interest to the disc, allowing listeners to hear the differing ways in which Beethoven expressed essentially positive feelings pianistically over a 15-year time period. There is some melancholy here and some pathos, but no sense of despair or of the depth of emotional exploration to be found in better-known sonatas that Brawn has played elsewhere in this series, such as the Appassionata (No. 23) and Pathétique (No. 8). Brawn brings out the lighter, almost Mozartean elements of No. 9 to good effect, and contrasts them well with the more-expansive argument of No. 15, whose extended first movement is longer than the whole of No. 25. Indeed, both No. 24 and No. 25 come across as miniatures, not quite salon music but certainly not works possessing the sort of heaven-storming, fiery intensity usually associated with Beethoven. Brawn treats them delicately and warmly, bringing out the gentleness of their themes and musical arguments. The concluding sonata here, No. 27, is not only the latest but also the only one in a minor key (E minor); and Brawn – without overdoing the contrast between this work and the others – shows clearly the ways in which this sonata (anticipating the ones written afterwards) diverges from the approach of the others on this disc and starts to move into an emotional and harmonic realm of a very different sort. Brawn’s “Beethoven Odyssey” sequence attempts, unlike most cycles of the composer’s sonatas, to find elements of commonality and contrast among the works and present them to highlight those elements. In the case of this volume, both the selections and the performances do so quite successfully.
There is success through a very different sort of juxtaposition in a Steinway & Sons release featuring pianist Shen Lu. Here, what could be an over-obvious contrast between Western and Eastern piano music becomes something more through careful selection of the works and through the attentiveness of Lu’s playing. One point of connection through much of the music is water. Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake is a 1930s Chinese folk song arranged by Chen Peixun with rippling arpeggios that seem to propel the melody and the listener gently downstream. There is an interesting contrast with Une barque sur l'océan ("A Boat on the Ocean"), the third of the Miroirs by Ravel, which also uses arpeggios to imitate the flow of ocean currents – but which includes broad, sweeping melodies that effectively expand this notion of water beyond that of a lake to that of a much broader expanse. However, the water connection among the works here should not be pushed too far: the four remaining pieces in Miroirs have nothing watery about them, instead mirroring the darkness of night in Noctuelles ("Night Moths"), the wistfulness of birdsong in Oiseaux tristes ("Sad Birds"), a variety of complex, Spanish-inflected themes in Alborada del gracioso ("Morning Song of the Jester"), and the broad harmonies of bells in La vallée des cloches ("The Valley of Bells"). These tonal pictures are extensive and sophisticated, not mere trifles, and Lu accords them the depth and color they deserve. Miroirs makes a fascinating contrast with the eight pieces in Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux, Op. 33, which are at least as challenging as the Ravel to perform but are more concerned with inward human emotions than with impressionistic portrayals of external scenes. Yet Rachmaninoff’s pieces did have direct outside inspirations – ones the composer disclosed only in part, to fellow composer Ottorino Respighi, who orchestrated several of the 1911 piano works in 1930. The second étude, for example, was inspired by the sea and seagulls, thus providing yet another water connection for Lu’s recital. But the Rachmaninoff works, unlike those in Ravel’s set, are best heard without any particular reference to their stimuli, allowing listeners to focus on the underlying emotions brought forth by Rachmaninoff and on the extraordinary technical demands of the études, especially the last four. The Rachmaninoff cycle provides a very well-thought-out contrast with Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolor, a sequence that includes four folk songs – thus tying to Chen Peixun’s piece – and that is based on highly personal recollections. Written in 1978 and revised in 2002, the year before its first performance, Eight Memories in Watercolor is a work in which Tan Dun remembers the last period of China’s Cultural Revolution, when violence was ebbing and Western music was again allowed. The piece thus functions both as a bridge between East and West and as one between Tan Dun’s own later life and his earlier one. Filled with wistfulness and longing, it contrasts technically as well as harmonically with Rachmaninoff’s eight-movement work and allows Lu to show the considerable skill with which he perceives and communicates the very different emotional content underlying these pieces and the others on this first-rate recording.
July 23, 2015
Bucky and Stu vs. the Mikanikal Man. By Cornelius Van Wright. Nancy Paulsen Books. $16.99.
Little Miss, Big Sis. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Harper. $17.99.
Dilly Dally Daisy. By Mark Fearing. Dial. $16.99.
The hilarity never quite overshadows the underlying story of camaraderie in Cornelius Van Wright’s wonderful Bucky and Stu vs. the Mikanikal Man. A great blend of backyard playtime with a large dose of imagination and a touch of magic, the book features two boys who delight in striking superhero poses – presumably based on their favorite TV show, to which the book refers several times – while fighting off villains made from old boxes, tires, vacuum cleaners and the like. Van Wright’s imagination parallels that of his protagonists as he creates “Baddie Boxman,” “Scetti da Strainer,” “Deter von Tergent,” “Phat Tyre” and other scowling villains that appear on the inside front covers – although only a few of them figure in the story. The inside back covers get representations of Bucky and Stu’s “Power Moves,” such as “Perimetric Defense Stance 360,” in which you “strike this pose to cover your partner’s back while looking totally cool!” Again, not all the moves show up in the story – making the inside covers, both front and back, into bonus material. The story itself has twists and turns beyond those of the two boys and their “wonk ’em time” battle cry. Right in the midst of the friends’ encounter with the evildoers, Stu’s stomach gurgles so loudly that he superheroically walks away from the fray, saying, “Stu hungry. Stu needs snack.” Later, fed and fit again, Stu finds out about Bucky’s secret project: the creation of the Mikanikal Man, thrown together with Uncle Ernie’s help from cycle fenders, a damaged computer, a laser tube, an iron, and other odds and ends. The magic comes in when the Mikanikal Man comes to life, the boys battle him “with great bravery…but to no avail,” and then it turns out that the Mikanikal Man has something in common with Stu: a gurgling stomach. Solving that, they also solve the problem of what to do with Bucky’s creation: turn him into an ally instead of an opponent. The friendship of Bucky and Stu is so strong that it can easily grow to encompass a third battling buddy, even one that needs “batteries, tubes and anything else they can find” to feed him. A marvelous blend of absurdity with folksy charm, drawn in a unique style whose emphasis on superhero posturings is as funny as anything that happens to the characters, Bucky and Stu vs. the Mikanikal Man will delight rambunctious boys in its target age range of 5-9.
For slightly younger children, ages 4-8 – and clearly aimed at girls – Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Little Miss, Big Sis has warmth and cleverness of its own, but is much more homespun, although there is plenty of action in it. The book, whose clever and very appropriate illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds are a big part of its charm, starts with Little Miss eagerly anticipating the arrival of her new sister – only to discover that what infants do is “Sleep. Fuss. Eat. Repeat.” But despite the drooling and crying and diapering and all the other chores the new baby brings, Little Miss retains her optimistic viewpoint and her obvious love for her small sibling. Rosenthal tells the story in the simplest possible language: “Hugging, holding. Love unfolding.” And soon, very soon, Reynolds shows the baby growing bigger, learning to walk and play and exhaust Little Miss and become an irritant from time to time: “Sure, sometimes takes toys. And sometimes annoys.” But none of these bumps in the road of family life cause problems for long, as Little Miss – who is too good to be true, but an absolutely wonderful role model – sticks to her determination to be the baby’s best friend, not just her big sib. Family life will never be as idyllic or trouble-free as Rosenthal and Reynolds make it out to be here, but this is the sort of unreality that is most welcome in stressed and time-pressed real-world families: a pleasant interlude in everyone’s super-busy day, and the portrait of a wished-for relationship toward which real-world big sisters will likely enjoy striving.
The real world is a bit too much for Daisy Marsha Martin in Mark Fearing’s all-too-recognizable tale of Dilly Dally Daisy. This story is aimed at even younger kids than Little Miss, Big Sis: ages 3-5. But most of them will be too young to read the book, whose writing is rather extensive and complex for this age group. That means this is a book for parents to read to children – and a big dose of humor in doing that is called for. Any family with a dawdler in it will appreciate (or recognize, if not necessarily appreciate) the trials and tribulations Daisy’s family goes through as Daisy comes up with reason after reason after reason to be late: playing with her little brother instead of brushing her hair, “going up the stairs like a cat” instead of walking quickly so she can get ready for school, trying to figure out what to do for a bathing suit when she discovers that her favorite one is currently being worn by Penny Penguin, and on and on and on. And on. Again and again, Daisy means well, and again and again, she is determined to do what she has to in order to be on time: “’I can do this,’ she declares.” But the world conspires against her, whether in the form of a too-tight shirt or of shorts that are only fun to put on if you dance while doing so. What Fearing manages to do so well here is to make Daisy not only lovable but also understandable – parents of dawdlers, take note! At the very end of the book, there is a wonderful reversal of sorts when it turns out that Daisy has indeed managed to be on time for the swimming lessons that are so important to her – but there is a slight seasonal miscalculation affecting the outcome of her triumphant on-time performance. In everyday life, there is nothing funny for parents when a child is perennially late. But there is a lot that is funny in Dilly Dally Daisy. Perhaps parents reading the book to their own always-late children will realize just how distracting life can be to kids such as Daisy – and perhaps a real-world Daisy or two will understand how frustrating their behavior can be for parents, resulting in their trying really hard to be at least a little more frequently on time.
Killing Pretty: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $25.99.
James Stark, aka Sandman Slim, Richard Kadrey’s wonderfully foul-mouthed, ill-mannered, noir-as-they-come antihero, does indeed say “thinking hurts” in Kadrey’s latest novel, Killing Pretty. He just happens to say it to Lucifer while he and the former ruler of Hell – actually they are both former rulers of Hell, but that is, or was, another story – are taking a stroll on Hollywood Boulevard, near the Museum of Death.
Things are always weird in Sandman Slim’s world, and just when you think they cannot possibly get any weirder, they do. Kadrey is a poet of damnation, a worshipper of all that is unseemly and downright disgusting in human beings and, in particular, in people who live in, under and about Los Angeles. Killing Pretty has some of the most wonderful prose about L.A. that anyone has written since the days of Nathanael West: “Los Angeles is a busted jukebox in a forgotten bar at the ass end of the high desert. The city only exists between the pops, skips, and scratches of the old 45s. Snatches of ancient songs. Lost voices. The jagged artifacts of a few demented geniuses, one-hit wonders, and lip-synching fiends. Charlie Manson thought he was going to be the next Beatles and we know how that turned out. This city is built on a bedrock of high crimes and rotten death. The Black Dahlia. Bugsy Siegel. The Night Stalker. We’ve buried and forgotten more bodies than all the cemeteries of Europe. Someday the water is going to run out and the desert will strip this town down to its Technicolor bones. Even the buzzards won’t want it and the city knows it. Maybe that’s why I like it.”
This is beyond purple prose – it disappears into the ultraviolet. And it is the best thing about Killing Pretty, which, in terms of plot, is not really at the highest level of which Kadrey is capable: it is too earthbound, or too L.A.-bound, which is not quite the same thing. Sandman Slim’s supernatural abilities are absent or severely compromised here, and he is making a diligent attempt to be just the sort of noir-ish private eye on whose adventures Kadrey bases the whole Sandman Slim series – a kind of self-referential, eating-its-own-tail structure that sounds cleverer than it turns out to be. Stark without the powers of the Room of 13 Doors and the Qomrama – key elements of previous books – is perilously close to ordinary. Or would be, if Kadrey didn’t write so well about him and didn’t throw in, time and time again, amazing passages about the environs in which Stark operates: “The 405 freeway is the yellow brick road after the apocalypse. A winding stretch of paved bullshit choked with bumper-to-bumper demon drivers and banshee kids wailing away for the SpongeBob juice box Mommy and Daddy left on the kitchen counter. Road rage was invented along this cursed road. Murders and suicides are planned in the stinking miasma of stalled trucks and overheating Hondas, enough to fill all the graveyards in California and more. The 405 is one breakdown away from turning into the Donner Party. Starvation and cannibalism. Movie producers gnawing on starlets’ severed legs. School-bus Little League teams crunching on the coach’s skull.”
This defiantly deviant descriptiveness, an ongoing tribute to the noir detective thrillers of old, makes Killing Pretty a pleasure despite the comparative weakness of its plot. That is, compared with the plots of other Sandman Slim books. On its own, the plot certainly sounds gripping enough: it has to do with someone having killed Death, so nobody is dying anymore, and that is causing extremely uncomfortable circumstances for everything from organized religion to the various organizations that trade in ghosts and other post-death revenants. Explained that way, the plot sounds pretty darned riveting; but Sandman Slim has been deprived of many of the techniques and capabilities that have made him so intriguing through half a dozen earlier novels, and now is more or less just another Sam Spade type, albeit with more profanity and occasional forays into the occult. The hunt for Death’s killer – that is, for whatever person or entity got the supernatural Death stuck in a human body in a way that prevents Death from escaping and doing his job – meanders here and there, with readers who know Stark surely wishing he would start destroying stuff to get to the goodies inside. But Stark in Killing Pretty operates more or less within the rules, for reasons made clear at the end of the previous book, The Getaway God. He has not exactly been emasculated, but he has become less interesting as he tries to conform to the new rules of engagement – for which he is himself largely responsible.
And yet the prose in which Kadrey describes Stark’s hunt for Death’s killer is so good that it almost makes up for the fact that the plot of Killing Pretty is (again, at least by comparison with that of the previous Sandman Slim books) on the weak side. Here is Stark explaining to his new head-of-detective-agency boss the difference between “just plain crazy” and “L.A. crazy.” He tells her, “L.A. crazy is when you don’t just kill someone, you turn it into a cheap made-for-TV movie. The Wonderland killings, starring Laurel Canyon money, dope, and porn. B-horror-movie killers like the Hillside Strangler and the Night Stalker. It’s Charlie Manson hanging out with the Beach Boys because he thinks they’re going to make him a rock star. It’s the Black Dahlia, a murder so strange a lot of people didn’t believe it at first. Hell, I’m babysitting Death. That’s what I’m talking about. L.A. crazy.”
There is, of course, method to Kadrey’s madness, as he has Stark pursue various leads and tackle various unsavory characters in various places in and around L.A. But the case does not so much come together as stumble into place – there is little feel here either that Stark has bulled his way to an answer or that he has detected his way there. It all just sort of happens. The eventual discovery of one linchpin of the plot, involving a woman who cheated Death in the past, is rather anticlimactic, because her only reason for so earthshaking an activity turns out to be that she was not ready to go yet. This is all too trivial to make the cosmic implications stick. There is also a sense in which Killing Pretty itself never really goes anywhere: with Stark now confined to the human world, that world seems even pettier and more constricted than in earlier Kadrey books. Kadrey has Stark himself express some of this, rather late in the game: “Part of me feels very far from home. I’m sure as hell a long way from where this case started. From Vincent [Death] finding me at Bamboo House of Dolls, I’ve skated from Laurel Canyon to the world of old-school mobsters right into a necromancer dead end. All the way to Himmler’s book club and séance rooms in twenties Munich, then back further to pelt-wearing Teutonic horsemen, all the way to the Thule group’s Hyperborea. But the thing is, throughout this weird ramble, I never really left Hollywood. Once I make it through all the craziness, where do I track the source of and solution to this whole mess? To a fucking playhouse off Sixth Street where entrepreneurial Nazi shitheads are staging nightly pageants, like Andy Hardy and Betsy Booth doing a musical in a barn.”
Even readers who do not get all the pop-culture and Hollywood-history references – it’s OK, you can look them up – are bound to find this sort of writing gripping, and certainly the summation makes it sound as if there has been a long, strange, and exceptionally bizarre trail followed here. But Killing Pretty is a book whose plot summarizes better than it progresses. Sandman Slim is still a fabulous character, and Kadrey’s ability to write about him remains unmatched. But Stark himself – and the characters surrounding him, including his girlfriend Chihiro (formerly the creature-of-nightmares Jade named Candy, now incognito) and his sort-of-partner Kasabian – are diminished here, less interesting than they have been and involved in lesser activities. So, all right, Kadrey has tried, really tried, to have Stark play somewhat nice. Good for him. But as Lucifer comments to Stark about an ongoing conflict in Heaven, “I think the whole thing could be solved by cutting off a few heads.” That has been Sandman Slim’s approach, too – not elegant, but undeniably effective. Perhaps he will get back to it in the next book. Until he does, the descriptive writing alone puts Killing Pretty severed-head-and-shoulders above most of today’s supernatural urban fiction.
The Crossword Century: 100 Years of Witty Wordplay, Ingenious Puzzles, and Linguistic Mischief. By Alan Connor. Gotham Books. $16.
The crossword puzzle is an American invention, but Alan Connor gives a very British view of it, in the spirit of mutual theft between two nations separated by their parlance. Originally published in 2014 to mark the crossword’s centennial year of 2013, The Crossword Century is now available in paperback and is quite prepared to put to the test Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
This means that the presumably gentle reader, whatever his or her proclivities where word puzzles are concerned may be, should expect to receive herein no edification whatsoever about the meaning of Macmillan nurses, bumf, or “horses for courses.” What Connor does offer, however, is neatly summed up in his remark, “To tackle a crossword is to enjoy the experience of your brain pulling on many different areas simultaneously, working in a way that everyday life rarely calls for.” This is a fine encapsulation of the appeal of these century-old puzzles, whose history and elements Connor discusses, for the most part, entertainingly. Readers learn of the original “Word-Cross” (as it was initially called) and of some earlier, ancestral word puzzles; they find out when and how crosswords really became a fad on both sides of the Atlantic, and why the moralists of the time took umbrage at puzzling; they receive some insight into the way puzzle constructors think as they design their word games; and they even discover how puzzles have been used in espionage and war.
What readers do not see here are puzzles. There are only four in the whole book, two used to illustrate specific points Connor is making plus two appended at the very end. During the rest of the book, readers must be content to absorb narrative that can and does easily veer far into the abstruse: “Lord Archer is a British politician accused by a newspaper of having had sex with a prostitute. He won substantial damages, but suspicions lingered… He and his wife live in a building called the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, which further upset his critics because it is the former home of Rupert Brooke, whose much-loved poem of the same name is a nostalgic, patriotic favorite. Just when Archer’s rise seemed unstoppable, he was found to have lied in court about the prostitution business, was banished from public life, and went home to lick his wounds. And so when the retired churchman John Graham, better known as the constructor Araucaria, wrote the clue ‘Poetical scene with surprisingly chaste Lord Archer vegetating (3, 3, 8, 12)’ – a lovely long anagram of THEOLDVICARAGEGRANTCHESTER – solvers found their pent-up indignation regarding Archer expressed with wit and economy in an ingenious and memorable eight-word rebuke.”
Well, ahem. It is true that this is an unusually complex example of puzzle construction, but although Connor remarks that “such specific knowledge is rarely necessary” for puzzle solving, many of his examples are cut from much the same cloth. This makes the book less of a romp and more of a chore than by rights it ought to be. Connor’s style has some irritating elements, too, no matter on which side of the pond a reader may live. He ends every chapter with a parenthetical remark that is not really parenthetical at all, but serves to introduce the material of the next chapter – an affectation that very quickly wears thin. He also misses some opportunities for commentary, apparently in his haste to move on to the next topic. For example, in discussing spoonerisms, he explains about ways in which “early French surrealists deliberately switched syllables in their prose to attack the idea that words and sentences have fixed meanings.” He cites a sentence by Marcel Duchamp (who would have denied being a surrealist and is usually considered a dadaist) – without mentioning that Duchamp himself was known to have switched the syllables of his own name to “Marchand du Sel” (salt merchant). This is surely relevant in a context of Connor’s own creation.
Also, Connor either mis-writes some material or suffers from poor editing, most strikingly in a section discussing P.G. Wodehouse writing to fellow novelist Denis Mackail, “‘What is “Exclaim when the twine gives out” in ten letters?’ (This is a clue for the musical instruction STRINGEDO [sic], and one of the most baffling, dismaying efforts at wordplay I have ever encountered.)” Connor might have been less baffled and less dismayed if he had counted the letters properly: the musical word in question is STRINGENDO, which refers to a passage to be played gradually faster and is a perfectly reasonable bit of wordplay on “String end! O!”
Lacks, omissions and misstatements aside, The Crossword Century contains a great deal that is informative and a great deal that is fun – testimony to the enduring popularity of crossword puzzles and the very large amount of amusement and information to be culled from them. Connor reserves a few pages at the end of his narrative to contemplate where crosswords may be going in a post-newspaper age – they are, after all, intimately bound up in their ink-on-dead-trees past – and while he does not get very deeply into that subject, the mere fact of his raising it is good, since it is highly unlikely that crosswords as they are now generally known can survive what appears to be the near-extinction of the medium in which they have appeared for 100 years. It is unlikely that there will be a book called The Crossword Bicentennial, although there may be a study with that title prepared and presented in some medium yet undiscovered. Connor’s work, although scarcely the last word on crosswords’ first century, may turn out to be one of the few historical sources available to the future chronicler of whatever sort of thing the crossword turns into in years to come.
Mahler: Symphony No. 5; Kindertotenlieder. Brigitte Fassbaender, mezzo-soprano; NDR Sinfonieorchester conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Sidney Corbett: Yaël for Violin and Orchestra; Christopher Adler: Violin Concerto. Sarah Plum, violin; Chamber Music Midwest Festival Orchestra conducted by Akira Mori (Corbett); San Diego New Music conducted by Nicholas Deyoe (Adler). Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.
Soundings: Improvisations and Composition for Horn and Electronica by James Naigus, John Manning, Jason Palamara, and Israel Neuman. Jeffrey Agrell, horn. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Most music is, by definition, personal, being written in response to a particular set of circumstances at a particular time in a composer’s life. Even occasional music, written for a specific purpose, has ties to the composer’s individuality, albeit sometimes tenuous ones. But some music requires listeners to understand just why the composer created it, and that can be a barrier to a work’s acceptance: insisting that listeners comprehend what a work is “about” is tantamount to saying that the music does not speak for itself – it speaks for, or regarding, something extramusical, and those not familiar with and concerned by the non-musical topic are doomed to find the music of indifferent quality at best. Great music transcends the personal circumstances in which it was written; lesser works – including, unfortunately, a great many contemporary compositions – are intimately bound up with those circumstances and therefore, by definition, limited in their appeal. Thus, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Kindertotenlieder have very strong associations with Mahler’s personal situation at the time they were written in the first years of the 20th century. Indeed, the famous Adagietto of the Fifth is generally acknowledged as a love song to Mahler’s wife, Alma, and Alma is known to have been angered by Kindertotenlieder and to have deemed it a foreshadowing of the death of the couple’s older daughter in 1907. But these personal circumstances are wholly irrelevant to listeners’ involvement in the music: someone who does not know Mahler at all might guess, for example, that there was a personal spur to the composer in writing Kindertotenlieder, whose approach to the death of children is fatalistic and rather oddly accepting, at least to a modern listener in countries where the death of young children is comparatively rare. Factually, this is incorrect: Mahler did not write these songs in response to personal circumstances. But the texts from Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) certainly resonated deeply with him, or he would not have set them. They resonate with listeners, too, especially when sung with the clarity and barely restrained emotion that Brigitte Fassbaender brings to them in a new Profil release of a performance from 1980. Fassbaender’s mezzo-soprano is a strong and well-controlled one, and her performance makes it sound as if there are deep upwelling emotions in her that are barely kept in check by the necessity to stay in control long enough to hit the right notes. The underlying tension of the singing, which is very ably backed up by and intertwined with the playing of the NDR Sinfonieorchester under Klaus Tennstedt, makes for a highly involving version of these deeply affecting songs. Tennstedt’s reading of the Fifth Symphony, which also dates to 1980, is very attractive as well. Tennstedt was never afraid to take Mahler at slow tempos, and that is particularly apparent in the first movement here, which is decidedly funereal but retains its underlying forward pulse; and in the third movement, which Mahler worried would be played too quickly and would therefore lose its structural centrality. In this performance, the symphony does indeed revolve around the Scherzo, which was the first movement Mahler completed. The work as a whole hangs together unusually well in Tennstedt’s reading, which is very well played and is particularly strong in bringing forth the emotional depths through which the work climbs to its final positive assertiveness. What listeners will pick up clearly here is that, whatever the specific reasons Mahler had for writing the symphony, the work reaches out well beyond them and communicates directly and effectively even with people who have no knowledge of the specific circumstances under which it was created.
Not so when it comes to the contemporary violin concertos by Sidney Corbett and Christopher Adler, performed by Sarah Plum on a new disc from Blue Griffin Recordings. Here it is absolutely necessary to know the genesis and intentions of the works in order to understand what is going on and have a framework within which to react to them – a self-limiting if scarcely unusual circumstance that results in a (+++) rating for this very well-played CD. Sidney Corbett’s Yaël is based on the writings of Edmond Jabès (1912-1991), an Egyptian-born Jewish writer who lived in France from the 1950s until his death and is considered an important poet with mystical leanings and a profound sense of melancholy deepened by the Holocaust. The work’s title comes from Jabès’ The Book of Questions and is the name of a woman who personifies one of Jabès’ major themes, words, while her unborn anagrammatic child, Elya, personifies silence. The philosophy is heavy in the literary material, and its translation to music, although it can be by no means literal, is strongly reflective of the inward-looking world of Jabès’ work – notably in the very extended violin solos in the first movement, breath, and the fourth and last, archipelago. The middle movements, the dark and shira yaël, offer greater interplay between soloist and orchestra, but the fact remains that without understanding the basis of this 2005 work by Corbett (born 1960), it is hard to make sense of the music as music rather than as a sequence of sounds that, in and of themselves, go nowhere in particular. The 2013 Violin Concerto by Christopher Adler (born 1972), commissioned by Plum, offers more-interesting interplay between solo instrument and ensemble; but here, too, the work serves very distinct and specific purposes without whose knowledge a listener is left floundering. Designed as a homage to Russian futurism and the avant-garde of the early 20th century – in other words, Mahler’s time – Adler’s work starts with Shift (The Knife Grinder), inspired by a painting by Kazimir Malevich; continues with Vèrelloe, an invented word from a poem by Konstantin Bolshakov; and concludes with Tektonika, whose title refers to one of the three disciplines that Alexei Gan said represented a unification of aesthetics and Marxist politics. As in Corbett’s work, this is heady material with strong philosophical leanings, and without an understanding of its generative impulses, it dissolves into reasonably well-made but ultimately unconvincing sound. Many composers from the 20th century on have, of course, argued that sound is as valid a concert element as what is traditionally called music, and indeed that sound in fact is music – Varèse, Cage and many others rattled what they perceived as the prison bars of the traditional separation between music and non-music. Again, there is considerable philosophy at work, or at play, here. But the ultimate question is whether these works by Corbett and Adler mean what the composers want them to mean. The answer is no: music does not mean anything (as Leonard Bernstein famously said). These works reflect philosophical concerns and an attitude toward underlying reality that is important to these particular composers and will be congenial to at least some people who hear the pieces after being properly versed in their reasons for being. But these are not works that one goes into a concert hall or to one’s own sound system to hear without prior study and edification. It is fine for composers to insist on the importance of their personal rationales for creating particular works in particular ways – and it is equally fine for listeners to say “no, thank you” when invited to study, understand and absorb the material that led composers to create particular pieces as a prerequisite to being able to find those pieces meaningful.
There is much less of an attempt to communicate deep meaning in the compositions for horn and various other instruments and media on a new (+++) MSR Classics release. The main purpose of the works by James Naigus (born 1987), John Manning, (born 1965), Jason Palamara (born 1977), and Israel Neuman (born 1966) seems to be simply to explore ways in which the full, rich and warm sound of the horn can be matched with other sounds in ways that sometimes complement the horn’s inherent characteristics but more often go against them by trying to make the horn into something it is not. Jeffrey Agrell is clearly game for all of this: he plays everything with care, enthusiasm and whatever level of intensity each construction seems to call for. But it is something of a shame to hear such a fine horn player reduced – clearly by intent – to an accompanist of mixed media (Naigus’ Soundings and Improv Sonata, Manning’s Dark, Neuman’s Turnarounds) or a participant with so-called “interactive electronics” in Palamara’s Ragnorok, Baby. The oddity of the non-instrumental sounds in all these works – non-instrumental unless listeners have already accepted the notion that all sound is a form of music – repeatedly obscures the sound of the horn, which becomes a kind of audio also-ran even when it takes the lead. Naigus, Manning and Neuman are credited on the CD as mixed-media performers, and Palamara as being in charge of interactive electronics, so the composers clearly know what effects they want and where they want the horn to be placed within them. Its place seems primarily to be as just one sound generator among many – a valid approach intellectually but a disappointing one sonically, with the horn’s tremendous emotional capabilities and extraordinary beauty of sound relegated to comparative unimportance in order to give the electronics their front-and-center position. The improvisational works here that involve a greater degree of non-electronic collaboration with the horn are of somewhat higher interest. Two by Manning rather uneasily mix the horn, which is an inherently legato instrument, with percussive ones: Kyma Divertimento for horn, percussion and kyma, with Rich O’Donnell on percussion and kyma, which is an elaborate workstation that “designs” sound; and Conversation II for horn and mandala drums (played by Aaron Wells). This Manning work actually contrasts interestingly with Conversations I for the same combination of horn and mandala drums by Naigus: mandala drums are electric instruments with special pads and expanded sound capability, retaining the “struck” notion underlying all drums but expanding it in a variety of ways. What is probably the least “electronic” work here is in many ways the most successful: Naigus’ Night Suite, improvisations for horn and percussion in which Jim Dreier and Nathan Yoder handle the percussion elements skillfully. In a sense, saying that these are works for “horn and electronica” gets things backwards: the pieces are primarily for electronic sounds, generated in a variety of ways, with the horn usually something of a hanger-on. These works not only avoid the sometimes-misguided attempts of contemporary compositions to convey deep meaning through sound, but also seem largely unconcerned with meaning of any sort: they are comparatively pure sonic explorations, as interesting – or uninteresting – as self-generated electronic music created by computer programmers.
Fugue State: Music of Bach, Buxtehude, A. Scarlatti, D. Scarlatti, Handel, and Froberger. Alan Feinberg, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Heart & Soul: Devotional Music from the German Baroque. Ryland Angel, countertenor; Matthew Dirst, organ and harpsichord; Ars Lyrica Houston. Centaur. $16.99.
Gottschalk: Piano Music. Steven Mayer, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
There is something inherently quixotic in Alan Feinberg’s new Steinway & Sons release, Fugue State. It features 14 wonderful fugues, fascinating in their variety and their exploration of contrapuntal and expressive principles, by some of the greatest practitioners of the form in musical history, all played with great skill – on an instrument for which none of them was written, and indeed one that is poorly equipped to bring forth the counterpoint that lies at the heart of the fugue. Even more than early fortepianos, even more than 19th-century instruments up to the Erard, the modern Steinway is ill-equipped for the music Feinberg plays – forcing the pianist to play against the depth, grandeur and harmonic blending that are the modern piano’s salient characteristics, rather than using that combination of elements to produce the full, rich, blended sound for which today’s pianos were designed. It is therefore difficult to figure out to whom Feinberg’s CD will appeal. Certainly the performances themselves are first-rate, and certainly there is always some interest in hearing Baroque music played on a modern piano – up to a point. But Fugue State goes well beyond that point. The most interesting thing about the disc, musically, is the chance it offers to hear the contrasting fugal creations of two generations of Baroque composers. The older generation includes Johann Jacob Froberger (Canzona No. 2 in G minor), Dietrich Buxtehude (Fugue in C, BuxWV 174, “Gigue”; Fugue in G, BuxWV 175), and Alessandro Scarlatti (Fugue in F minor). The younger generation, whose works are much better known, includes Domenico Scarlatti (Sonatas in D minor, K 417; in G minor, K 30, “The Cat’s Fugue”; in C minor, K 58); Handel (Fugue in B-flat, HWV 607, No. 3; Fugue in A minor, HWV 609, No. 5); and, of course, Bach (“Ricercar a 3” and “Ricercar a 6” from “The Musical Offering”; Fugue on a Theme by Albinoni, BWV 951; Fugue in C, BWV 953; Fugue in A, BWV 949). The CD’s arrangement, though, makes ready comparison of the older and younger composers’ music difficult: Bach opens and closes the disc, but there is little apparent rationale for the juxtaposition of the remaining works. The result is a recording featuring some very fine playing and an unusually extended look at varieties of fugue and differing emotional as well as technical elements of the form – but a disc that practically cries out for the fugues to be heard on the instruments for which these composers created them.
The organ and harpsichord heard on a new Centaur release called Heart & Soul fit the music of the Baroque much better, and Ryland Angel’s countertenor is far more apt for the music of this age than a lower-range voice would be in this repertoire. The selection of composers to include is an interesting one: the one name in common with those on Feinberg’s CD is that of Buxtehude, heard in Nun lob mein Seel den Herren, BuxWV 213 and Auf meinem lieben Gott, BuxWV 179. The only other comparatively familiar composer here is Johann Christian Bach, whose Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte opens the disc. For the rest, the CD is a chance to hear devotional music written by composers whose works, although heartfelt and well-made, have not retained listeners’ interest as has the music of better-known Baroque figures. There are nine pieces here in addition to those by Buxtehude and J.C. Bach. They are Sonata Decima à 5 by Johann Rosemüller (1619-1684); Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele by Christoph Bernhard (1628-1692); Der Liebe Macht herrscht Tag und Nicht and Der hat gesiegt, den Gott vergnügt by Adam Krieger (1634-1666); Suite à 5 and Paduana à 5 from Musikalische Frülingsfrüchte by Dietrich Becker (1623-1679); O Jesu, du mein Leben by Johann Philipp Krieger (1649-1725); Warum betrübst du dich, meine Seele by Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654); and Trocknet euch ihr heißen Zähren by Philipp Heinrich Erlebach (1657-1714). Angel, Dirst and Ars Lyrica Houston approach all this music, greater and lesser, with equal levels of involvement, emotion and understanding. Indeed, “greater” and “lesser” are not entirely relevant terms here, since these particular works are all redolent of the time in which they were written and all express their devotional messages with equal skill and, in the vocal music, fervor. This CD offers a foray into less-known but still very fine music composed for specific purposes in a time remote from ours – three or more centuries ago – but still capable of communicating with listeners disposed to hear the works either for their religious messages or simply for the beauty with which those messages are put across by both the better-known composers and the less-known.
The pleasures are purely secular in Steven Mayer’s performance on a new Naxos disc of some of the piano music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Here as in the Heart & Soul CD, the keyboard is very well-matched to the music, although in fact Gottschalk (1829-1869) wrote for pianos of less span and less resonant depth than the famous Steinway CD 299 used in this recording and previously heard in performances by a number of famous 20th-century virtuosi. Actually, there was considerable pianistic development between the earliest piece heard here, Reflets du passé—Rêverie (1847), and the latest, Pasquinade—Caprice and Grande Fantaisie triomphale sur l’hymne national brésilien (both 1869). In Gottschalk’s music itself, however, there was less development over the decades: American by birth, he lived and worked outside the United States for almost his entire career, and the influence of Chopin is clear throughout his oeuvre. Nevertheless, Gottschalk had his own distinctive pianistic style, anticipating today’s composers in his willingness, even eagerness, to include material from outside the traditional classical-music realm in his works: folk and slave music, Latin American dances, even jazzy elements that prefigure ragtime. Flickers of this material are heard throughout the works that Mayer plays, which are mostly miniatures that communicate small elegances of feeling and tend to come across as well-made salon music rather than anything significant or profound. Le Banjo—Fantaisie grotesque (1854) is particularly effective, as is Mayer’s own 2013 arrangement of the Andante from La Nuit des tropiques—Symphonie romantique (1858-59). Also here are the forthright The Last Hope—Méditation religieuse (1854) and Berceuse (1860); the reflective Fantôme de bonheur (Illusions perdues) (1859-60); and a brief but effective Caprice élégant from 1849 that is tied to Ambroise Thomas’ opera Le Songe d’une nuit d’été (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which despite its title does not follow the plot of Shakespeare’s play). None of this music is particularly substantial or substantive, but all of it is charming, melodic and pleasant to hear, and Mayer plays all of it attentively and with just the right mixture of emotional involvement and flamboyance. The fare is light, but Mayer makes it tasty.