March 26, 2015
Aqualicious. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $17.99.
Goose. By Laura Wall. Harper. $12.99.
Winnie & Waldorf. By Kati Hites. Harper. $17.99.
It’s Only Stanley. By Jon Agee. Dial. $17.99.
Goodnight Already! By Jory John. Illustrations by Benji Davies. Harper. $17.99.
Paddington in the Garden. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.
More about Paddington. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Harper. $9.99.
One of the more-pleasant notions of books for young readers is that friends are everywhere, and need not even be human. True, adults eventually come to realize this, too, if they are lucky – or perhaps re-realize it when they start sharing their lives with dogs, cats, reptiles or other nonhuman creatures. The concept pervades kids’ books, though, and even applies to species that do not exist – which is what Pinkalicious discovers in a new book called Aqualicious. Despite the title, there is some pinkness here, but only in the sense that Pinkalicious shows various pink things to her new friend, Aqua. Aqua is a merminnie – a miniature mermaid whom Pinkalicious finds inside a shell at the beach. Immediately charmed by her find (who explains that “merminnies are a smaller, rarer species of mermaids”), Pinkalicious puts Aqua into a bucket and rushes to show her to her brother, Peter. Peter is soon involved with Aqua, too, helping build an elaborate sand castle for Aqua to stay in temporarily. He and Pinkalicious next take Aqua to a concession stand, where Aqua orders “one of EVERYTHING,” and then to a miniature-golf course. Next, Aqua gives Pinkalicious a surfing lesson – but then a gull swoops down and grabs the merminnie, and the beach fun turns into a rescue mission. Of course, everything turns out just fine – Victoria Kann always ensures that problems in the Pinkalicious books are quickly and easily solved – but Aqua says she has had enough of humans’ “exhausting lives” and wants to go home. So Pinkalicious and Peter take Aqua out into the ocean – only to discover that that is not what Aqua meant by “home” after all. A final twist to the tale makes for a pleasant ending after the kids’ parents, who have dutifully slept through the entire adventure (as parents must for books like this to work), wake up and reveal a happy secret. Aqualicious cements the notion of friends from all places – after all, Pinkalicious not only treats Aqua as a friend but also acts that way toward her own brother, who might seem even more alien to some young girls than a merminnie would.
Friends actually come in all forms in books for the 4-8 age group, including the form of a goose in Laura Wall’s gently amusing Goose. The story, accompanied by simple, colorful illustrations with blank backgrounds, is all about a girl named Sophie, who enjoys playing with her dolls and dressing up but is not having much fun doing these things on her own. She wishes for a friend to play with, and sure enough, when Sophie’s mother takes her to the park, what should Sophie find but – a goose! There is nothing strange about this in Goose, nor is there anything odd in the way Sophie and Goose immediately gravitate to each other, playing on the seesaw, slide and swings together. But when it is time to go home, Sophie’s mother refuses to let Goose come along, so Sophie has to say goodbye – only to find Goose at the park again the next day. And the two again have a wonderful time together, until Goose spots other geese flying away for the winter, and Sophie realizes it is time for the two of them to part. This scene is unusual for a picture book in that it makes Goose more realistic: the bird, in fact, never talks, as animals often do in children’s books, and even though Goose plays in a human-like way with Sophie, he is clearly not a pet and is not entirely anthropomorphized as a sort of child with feathers. In fact, the day after Sophie says goodbye, expecting Goose to fly away, it is the goose sound “HONK!” that alerts her that Goose has not left – after she has returned to the park yet again and found things not enjoyable in the absence of her friend. This time, when Sophie asks if Goose can come home with her, Sophie’s mom agrees, and Goose seems more than content to head home to become part of the family, with Sophie and Goose walking hand in hand (actually wing in hand) as they walk along.
Like Goose, Waldorf is more of a realistic animal than a child in all but appearance in Kati Hites’ Winnie & Waldorf. But Waldorf, being a dog, is plenty humanlike even in his dogginess. Winnie narrates the story of herself and her best friend, who is always steadfast and cooperative even when Winnie plays in some ways that Waldorf is clearly not too happy about: one of Hites’ amusing pictures shows him wearing a mustache taped to his muzzle and a less-than-thrilled expression, while another shows Winnie trying to pull a determinedly reluctant Waldorf out for a walk in the rain. After the characters are introduced, Hites gets to the plot, which centers on misbehavior by Waldorf that is really Winnie’s fault. The two go into the off-limits room of Winnie’s big sister, Sara, and accidentally knock her violin onto the floor, snapping a string. Sara, who is about to play in a recital, is understandably furious, telling Waldorf he should be replaced by a cat – a prospect that predictably upsets Winnie. “So we decide we must be on our best behavior. We dress up in our most formal attire and are extra polite.” Never mind that the “formal attire” includes an old-fashioned Indian headdress for Winnie and a cap with pompom on top for Waldorf, and that being polite makes both of them look distinctly glum. Everyone tries to stay calm, mom fixes the violin, and all is prepared for Sara to perform that evening – but as she is about to start playing, Sara freezes, unable to play a note until Waldorf again misbehaves, in a way that loosens everyone up and helps Sara stop being so nervous. The recital goes well, Sara takes back her cat suggestion, and the final scene shows the entire family – parents, Sara, Winnie and Waldorf – squashed comfortably together on the sofa. It is a perfect representation of the way in which we humans share our lives with other (admittedly sometimes mischievous) animals.
The amusements in most books for ages 4-8 are fairly mild, but there are always a few authors who ratchet things up a notch – or several. One would be Jon Agee, whose version of a dog is quite different from Hites’ and whose exploration of the dog’s relationship with his human family is, as it turns out, literally out of this world. The dog is Stanley, and Stanley is very busy one night, howling at the moon. Nothing unusual there – nothing unusual at first – but soon afterwards, while Stanley’s family, the Wimbledons, is trying to sleep, increasingly strange things start to happen. For example, “The Wimbledons were sleeping./ It was late as it can get,/ When Wanda heard a buzzing noise/ That made her all upset./ ‘That’s very odd,’ said Walter,/ ‘When it’s almost half past three!’” And then Agee, on the next two pages, shows the chaotic scene of what is going on – Stanley doing something very, very un-dog-like and very, very ridiculous – and then, the page after that, Agee concludes the rhyme, “‘It’s only Stanley,’ Walter said./ ‘He fixed our old TV.’” Stanley’s increasingly strange and increasingly elaborate activities, which Walter, the father in the family, keeps trying to minimize even as the family cat gets drenched, turns green, and otherwise indicates that all is not as it should be, eventually lead to a hilarious conclusion that answers the question of just what Stanley was howling about when he howled at the moon at the start of the book. Well beyond the improbable and well into the impossible, and impossibly funny, It’s Only Stanley will make young readers and their parents wish their family had a dog just like Stanley….well, maybe not, but having Stanley around would certainly be one heck of an adventure and one tremendous helping of hilarity.
Actually, interspecies relationships in kids’ books do not necessarily involve humans and other species Make a book’s characters anthropomorphic enough and a story can focus on the very human-seeming events affecting two non-human species that simply behave in human ways. Take, for example, Goodnight Already! Here the characters are a sleepy and much-put-upon bear, who lives in a typical suburban house and is ready to go to sleep with his stuffed pink bunny – and a duck, who lives next door and is first seen drinking coffee and reading a book called 101 Ways to Stay Awake. Oops – it is obvious where this is going. And that is exactly where it goes: Bear wants only to sleep, but Duck comes over, pounds on the door, and makes many suggestions of things they can do to hang out together – all of which the increasingly exhausted and increasingly grumpy Bear turns down. Bear finally gets Duck to leave, but just as Bear is slipping into dreamland again, Duck shows up at the window, asking to borrow cookie ingredients, or maybe some actual cookies. Bear gets rid of Duck again and actually manages to fall asleep this time, but Duck uses an emergency key to let himself into Bear’s house and keep trying to get Bear to do things, until Bear finally gets Duck to leave, once and for all, by shouting “GOODNIGHT ALREADY” really, really loudly. So loudly, in fact, that the grouchiness of the exclamation makes Duck feel tired. And so Duck goes home, sits down to read, and promptly falls asleep – while Bear…well, let’s just say that the book ends as the tables are about to be turned. Jory John’s amusing writing and Benji Davies’ simple but delightful illustrations come together to tell an especially amusing bedtime story that hopefully will help young readers fall asleep a bit more easily, and quietly, than the characters do in the book.
The “humanness” of Bear is quite different from that of an even more human-seeming and very famous bear by the name of Paddington. Michael Bond’s wonderful creation is an endearing child in every way except for his appearance. Paddington not only has human-style adventures and eats human-style food (his famous marmalade), but also talks to the Browns, with whom he lives, and to many other people as well. The new edition of Paddington in the Garden, originally published in 2001, is one in a series of charming picture books showcasing Paddington’s mild but always engaging adventures, with appropriately elaborate illustrations by R.W. Alley. This particular book has the ever-industrious if frequently misguided Paddington trying to decide what to do with his very own garden plot – generously given to him by Mr. Brown, along with pieces of the Browns’ backyard garden for their human children, Jonathan and Judy. Those two start on their gardens quickly, but Paddington is not quite sure what to do, so he decides to roam the neighborhood seeking inspiration (fortified, inevitably, by marmalade). He buys a book on gardening – Paddington, of course, can go places on his own, shop, and read – and tries to follow its suggestions, with typically Paddingtonian misadventures resulting. Eventually Paddington finds a place from which he can look down on his garden plot, to see it from a new perspective, but that leads to further complications that involve rocks, marmalade and construction workers. Since just about everyone in the Paddington books is unfailingly good-natured, the mistakes that Paddington makes – or causes others to make – lead to no ill will, and in fact result in Paddington figuring out just what he wants to do with his garden, which then wins an award for creativity. The Paddington books are written in such a way that kids always know from the start that they cannot possibly be even a little bit true, but will find themselves wishing that they could be. Paddington is just too delightful a character not to exist.
And young readers who want more Paddington adventures than will fit in picture-book format can turn to new editions of Bond’s original Paddington books, of which More about Paddington (which dates to 1959) is the second. The seven stories here are illustrated by Peggy Fortnum in a more-classic style for British children’s books – the resemblance of her illustrations to those of E.H. Shepherd for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books is quite clear. Fortnum is especially good at showing Paddington in poses in which his face is not seen – because he is walking away, or because his head is stuck in a bucket, or because he is carrying so many packages that they conceal his features; that sort of thing. Fortnum’s pictures give Paddington a timeless “anybear” quality, while those of Appel make him a more distinctive individual. Some readers will prefer one or the other – but any Paddington lover will be happy with the stories themselves, no matter how they are illustrated. More about Paddington contains seven of them, the last two of which lead up to Paddington’s first Christmas with the Browns. The others are typical Paddington misunderstandings and the resulting mishaps, including two tales with distinctly British flavor – in one of which there is a bonfire party (for Guy Fawkes Day) and in one of which Paddington looks into the disappearance of Mr. Brown’s prize marrow (a squash). The other stories involve a family photo, some Paddington-inspired redecorating and a winter prank that goes wrong – all of them small, homespun events that exude charm and bring readers further and further into Paddington’s world. This is a place where special things happen to special characters simply because they are special, and especially deserving of the sort of attention and enjoyment to which friends of any species are, or ought to be, entitled.
43 Old Cemetery Road, Book Six: Greetings from the Graveyard. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by Sarah M. Klise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $15.99.
43 Old Cemetery Road, Book Seven: The Loch Ness Punster. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by Sarah M. Klise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $15.99.
The Island of Dr. Libris. By Chris Grabenstein. Random House. $16.99.
Some series have more staying power than others. 43 Old Cemetery Road has more than most, although it is finally giving signs that the Klise sisters may be getting ready to wrap things up and enshroud them. There are no such signs in the sixth book about the adventures of young Seymour Hope and his adoptive parents, author Ignatius B. Grumply and ghost-with-unfinished-business Olive C. Spence. But in the seventh book – well, we shall see.
What we have in Book Six is another romp-with-variations on the theme of family life in an admittedly unusual family, told through the usual 43 Old Cemetery Road method of letters (yes, “snail mail”!), newspaper articles (yes, newspapers!), occasional transcripts of instant messages and phone calls (yes, phones!), and lots of illustrations. Kate Klise mixes the plot ingredients with her usual skill here, bringing together an unsavory character from Iggy’s past (his money-grubbing onetime fiancée, Nadia S. Richenov); two unsavory characters from the present (escaped convicts Rob Z. Lott and Liza Lott – names that perfectly reflect their characters are a stock-in-trade of this series, as are M. Sarah Klise drawings that neatly capture the characters’ expressions); a character introduced solely for purposes of pushing the plot along (Art Smart, host of a TV show that evaluates antiques); an idea that pushes the story in a new direction (having Seymour, a budding illustrator, create pictures for a line of greeting cards to be sent to people facing awkward situations – a darned good idea, actually); and a family issue to tie everything together (Seymour’s desire to buy something special for Iggy for Father’s Day). The ins and outs will be familiar to readers who already know the series and are easy to pick up for newcomers: Olive, for example, communicates by breaking into letters that other people are writing, with her words appearing in a different typeface. In the case of Greetings from the Graveyard, there are sometimes two ghosts whose typefaces break into letters, the second being T. Leeves, Olive’s onetime butler, called back into service to help Iggy as matters get messy when Nadia figures out how to make money by publishing Iggy’s old love letters to her, now that Iggy is a famous author (of – what else? – 43 Old Cemetery Road). The shenanigans, verbal and otherwise, tie everyone into the usual amusing knots until, eventually, the robbers are recaptured, Nadia is sent packing, and Olive helps buttons things up neatly by being kinder to Nadia than Iggy wants to be (a neat twist that gives T. Leeves something to do at the end as well).
The usual references to how grumpy Iggy always is are of course present in Greetings from the Graveyard, and they become centrally important in Book Seven, The Loch Ness Punster – and point the way toward what may be a coming conclusion of this delightful series. Having scratched the surface of Iggy’s past in Book Six, the Klise sisters make it central to Book Seven – and in this case, the past is farther back and deals with just why Iggy is so grumpy all the time. Unraveling that particular mystery takes most of the seventh book, with a batch of new characters assuming the usual roles that are part and parcel of 43 Old Cemetery Road. They are Iggy’s Uncle Ian, both when alive and as a ghost, who owns a castle right on Loch Ness, Scotland, and wills it to Seymour; Garren Teed, an insurance salesman who is not very good at his job; a valuable tortoise named Mr. Poe; a venal businessman named Macon Deals who is determined to turn Loch Ness into a chintzy version of a theme park; and Deals’ assistants, Eve Strop (whose job is to listen in on what others are doing) and Dewey D. Zine (whose name, “do we design,” explains his role in theme-park creation neatly). The illustrations in Book Seven are among the funniest in the series, including one of a water slide curlicued to resemble Nessie (the Loch Ness monster) and one “showing” Nessie and then being deconstructed to show what “Nessie” really consists of (at least in this book). Again, multiple complications ensue until, eventually, the bad guy (Deals) is stopped and family values are triumphantly reasserted. But there is something different in The Loch Ness Punster, because toward the end, a marriage proposal and a now-happy Iggy combine to create a focus on the whole “unfinished business” idea that is the basis of Olive’s continuing presence in Ghastly, Illinois. There is a strong suggestion that perhaps her business is no longer unfinished, which would mean it is time for her to move on – as Uncle Ian does after his unfinished business with Iggy is concluded. So perhaps 43 Old Cemetery Road is moving toward its inevitable end – all books and all series finish eventually, after all. Book Eight will surely reveal more, and fans of this series will surely continue to enjoy it even after it is brought to a conclusion; for books, like ghosts but unlike people, carry on even after their final chapters.
Chris Grabenstein’s The Island of Dr. Libris is not so much a direct series continuation as it is an attempt to reproduce the underlying concept – a distinctly book-based one – of his Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. That book, a kind of literary riff on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was marvelous and intricate and puzzling and fascinating throughout. And it was probably too much to expect another work of the same general type to be at so high a level. The Island of Dr. Libris isn’t, although it is a solid (+++) book that some fans of the earlier one will enjoy for its mixture of adventure and silliness, even though others will find it a trifle disappointing. Grabenstein again draws on multiple literary sources here – he gives a list at the end of 31 books and stories referenced, often barely in passing, in the novel – but the extreme cleverness of the interweaving of stories that was present in the earlier book is absent here. The primary problem is that the plot and characters in The Island of Dr. Libris simply are not very interesting. Dr. Libris himself has the first name Xiang (pronounced Shihahng), not because of any germane ethnic background but because this lets Grabenstein announce that his bookplate reads “Ex Libris X. Libris.” Clearly a genius, Dr. Libris is also a rather boring version of a mad scientist, writing little notes from time to time and indicating that a truly mind-boggling invention he has created means nothing to him except insofar as it will make him rich. That invention is a system that taps into kids’ imagination so that when young people read books, the characters and situations they read about actually come into being – provided the young readers are on the island of this novel’s title. One boy, though, can make things happen on the island even when he is not there: Billy, the central character of The Island of Dr. Libris. Billy is given the usual sort of family problem to deal with – he is concerned that his parents may be breaking up – but otherwise has no real personality. He makes friends with a boy living next door to the house that Billy’s parents have rented for the summer from Dr. Libris. That boy, Walter, has to use an asthma inhaler frequently and says he is not good at anything, but otherwise he too has no personality. In the house on the other side of Billy’s lives a nasty-for-no-reason bully named Nick Farkas, who hangs out with two equally nasty buddies; at a certain point in the story, Nick suddenly turns helpful and even crucial to solving a problem, while his two buddies disappear without a trace, making it hard to understand what they were doing in the book in the first place. The main thing Grabenstein is after here is scarcely characterization or a solid plot. What he wants is a way to have Billy involved in making characters come alive: Hercules, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, the Three Musketeers, Tom Sawyer, Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and others. Then Grabenstein has Billy bring the characters together in ways that are supposed to be funny but come across as forced: Hercules joins Robin Hood’s band and is uncomfortable in the clothing, the Three Musketeers find themselves working for the Sheriff of Nottingham, and so on. The intrusion of a Space Lizard from a video game is funny in a bizarre way, but the inclusion of ever-optimistic Pollyanna serves no purpose except, perhaps, to have a girl character to go with Walter’s equally irrelevant sister, Alyssa. The author’s manipulative hand is simply too obvious throughout The Island of Dr. Libris, with the result that the plot machinery creaks constantly and any sense of exuberance – which so permeated Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library – is lost. However, given Dr. Libris’ minimal role in Grabenstein’s new book, and his unceremonious exit from it, perhaps Grabenstein is planning a followup – and if so, hopefully that novel will recapture some of the sense of style and fun that is in short supply in and on The Island of Dr. Libris.
Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome. By Brad Montague & Robby Novak. Harper. $21.99.
Go to Hells: An Updated Guide to Dante’s Underworld. By Kali V. Roy. Illustrated by Jesse Riggle. Pulp/Zest Books. $14.99.
It would be overly cynical to note that the concept of Kid President is a packaged, polished and promoted one. After all, the concept of the U.S. presidency is far more packaged, polished and promoted. So a YouTube offering that features 11-year-old Robby Novak playing a character originally created as a promotion for the annual benefit dinner of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee is really pretty mild compared with the character creation and billion-dollar selling of the actual U.S. president. The book based on the YouTube material takes some getting used to, though. In the absence of video and other electronic aids, a lot of Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome comes across as overly cutesy, not to mention illiterate (“treat people awesome”). Still, given the state of the presidency – and, some would surely argue, of the United States itself – we could do worse than being a little awesome. So here is a book that includes cute-looking doodles and various illustrations that are designed to support 100 “awesome” ideas that should make the world better if, you know, everybody did all of them instead of doing whatever else it is they are doing. Love of pop culture is a must for enjoying this book – idea #6, for example, is all about the wonderfulness of Justin Timberlake, “THE Justin Timberlake. Pop superstar, actor, fellow suit-and-tie enthusiast.” Love of simplistic pop psychology helps, too – idea #11 is “Complain less. Celebrate more.” And #15 is “Laugh. Help end global sadness.” A chapter cutely entitled “Talk Gooder” reminds readers to say please and thank you, “I’m sorry,” “Everything is going to be okay,” “Life is tough, but so are you,” and so on. Then there are suggestions such as #58 – “Be like cheese (or bacon) and make everything you touch better.” And #68 – “Be kind. It’s not always easy, but it’s always important.” The sentiments are unexceptionable, and only an out-and-out curmudgeon would suggest not following them. The photos, illustrations, even the typesetting are all designed from a feel-good perspective, and all are intended to make it seem like a revelation when a suggestion such as #75 comes along (“Start with your heart and then just start”). In truth, there is absolutely nothing profound, surprising, unusual or unheard-of here, but there is nothing that is not uplifting, feel-good, well-meaning and well-meant. Look here for plenty of statements such as, “In life you’ll end up in lots of places you never imagined. Don’t let your nerves overtake you so much that you can’t enjoy it.” And this is good advice – in fact, just about everything here is good advice: “It isn’t all cupcakes and kittens and kissing Beyoncé, though. Some days are hard. Real hard. You gotta keep going. Life is tough, but so are you.” The book is aimed squarely at fans of the Kid President YouTube feature, and based on the hits that feature gets, there are plenty of them. Kid President certainly does not work in print the way it does as a video presentation, and the book by definition throws out a lot more at one time than does a periodic video offering. But anyone who thinks the avowedly Pollyanna-ish notions here are a way to attain awesomeness (whatever that is) will certainly enjoy the book; and anyone who does not think that can always find something else to read.
Such as Go to Hells. Speaking of curmudgeons, Kali V. Roy and Jesse Riggle are two of them. It takes considerable curmudgeon-ness to rethink Dante’s nine circles of Hell, decide that nine would not be enough for all the forms of modern misbehavior, and then create a whole set of new torments designed, like Dante’s, to be entirely appropriate for the sins they punish. The thing is, Dante was concerned primarily with mortal sins, while Roy and Riggle focus entirely on venial sins, so their book, shall we say, lacks the gravitas of Inferno. But then, it is not written in 14th-century Italian – instead, its catalogue of sins and sinners is in 21st-century doggerel. “Entitled Roommates: You ate all our soup./ You never bought soap./ You acted as though you were king./ Now, tuck right in—/ you’ll eat the chef’s special:/ A bisque made from fresh Irish Spring.” Riggle’s deliberately ugly drawings, featuring all-black, pointy-eared demons tormenting humans who are significantly less attractive than the hellions, fit Roy’s words as a key fits a lock (in other words, as in “lock these people up and throw away the key”). Try “Impossible Packaging Designers: We tried scissors and knives/ —even our teeth—/ But nothing could do enough damage./ Leaving this circle’s a cinch:/ Take this pill!/ It’s sealed, but I’m sure you can manage.” That one has a “Go to Heaven Pill” wrapped in one of those impossible sort-of-clamshell plastic packages that are known to withstand scissors, knives, teeth and, possibly, hand grenades. Then there is this: “Internet Trolls: Thank you for taking the time to suggest/ That our brains were far smaller than peas./ Now you’ll deliver your comments direct/ To real trolls who are angry as bees.” The rhymes in Go to Hells are often imperfect (“damage” and “manage,” for example), but after all, this is Hell, or rather these are Hells, and perfection of any sort is scarcely the point. “Shoddy washers: You said they were clean!/ Those plates always had/ Fish scales and rice bits that still clung./ Now you’re in charge of this dirty pig-pen./ Your scouring tool? It’s your tongue.” Roy and Riggle clearly have issues that not even Kid President could solve, but after all, the unfailing- cynical/pessimistic and always-happy/optimistic are but two sides of the same coin, said coin being the human experience. If the presidency can be rethought as a sort of happy-go-lucky self-help position for the world, then Hell can equally well be looked at as a place where modern sinners get the same sort of appropriately nasty treatment as Dante’s got 700 years ago. Whether the world has gotten much better in those centuries, or not, is a matter of opinion, and may be a determinant of which of these two books you would prefer to read.
E.T.A. Hoffmann: Symphony in E-flat; “Undine”—Overture; “Aurora”—Overture and March; Friedrich Witt: Sinfonia in A. Kölner Akademie conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. CPO. $16.99.
Saint-Saëns: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Phaéton—Symphonic Poem. Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. Naxos. $9.99.
Charles-Marie Widor: Organ Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Christian Schmitt, organ. CPO. $33.99 (2 SACDs).
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Mariss Jansons. RCO Live. $21.99 (2 SACDs).
John Knowles Paine: Symphony No. 2, “In the Spring”; Oedipus Tyrannus—Prelude; Poseidon and Amphitrite—An Ocean Fantasy. Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.
E.T.A. Hoffmann, who so admired Mozart that he changed his third Christian name to Amadeus from Wolfgang, might reasonably have been expected to produce a Mozartean work in his only symphony. But Hoffmann actually based the symphony more on Haydn – who was still alive in 1806, when Hoffmann wrote the piece. But Hoffmann rethought Haydn’s symphonic approach in line with his own aesthetic theory, which said that sonata movements – such as the first of his symphony – ought to seem arbitrary while actually being carefully constructed. Thus, although this rarely played work starts with introductory material reminiscent of Haydn’s “London” Symphony (No. 104), it does not sound much like Haydn at all; and it contains elements that move well beyond what Haydn did, such as a third-movement Menuetto in the unusual key of C minor. Only in the finale is there some of Haydn’s sense of propulsive motion, but here too Hoffmann offers something different: a secondary theme derived from the introduction to the first movement, thus linking the whole work melodically. The musicians of Kölner Akademie, conducted by Michael Alexander Willens, play the piece with spirited understanding and style. And they bring the same characteristics to the opera excerpts on this first-rate CPO disc. Hoffmann was primarily a stage composer during his brief life (1776-1822), and his final two operas, Aurora and Undine, are the first romantic operas written in German – paving the way for Weber and through him for Marschner and Wagner. Both the overtures and the second of four marches from Aurora are theatrically effective and emotionally satisfying. The Hoffmann music on this disc is coupled with an early (ca. 1790) sinfonia by Friedrich Witt (1770-1836), a virtually unknown composer today but one who for a time had a symphony of his in C deemed to be an early work by Beethoven (the so-called “Jena” symphony). Witt’s work here is less advanced than Hoffmann’s – it was written when Mozart was still alive – and more conventional in structure. This is gracious and agreeable music if not a work of any great profundity. Perhaps the best word for it is “engaging,” which in this performance it certainly is.
As the 19th century progressed, symphony composers, shadowed always by Beethoven, sought ways to distinguish their music from what had come before. It tended to take them a while to break with the past, if they ever did. Saint-Saëns, for example, wrote five symphonies (two early ones are unnumbered), but it is only the last of them, the “Organ,” that is frequently heard today. This means that the new Naxos disc of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 is especially welcome – all the more so because of the fine playing of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Marc Soustrot. Saint-Saëns’ first symphony is a rather derivative work – the composer himself considered it so – but nevertheless has distinctive elements. The finale is notable for having a considerably larger orchestra than the first three movements: there are two horns in F, two valve horns in E-flat, four timpani, two saxhorns, four harps and more. The first three movements are well-made, but it is the finale, which initially uses its forces rather delicately but then builds to a grandiose Wagnerian march, that will most impress listeners new to the work. This symphony dates to 1853 – Saint-Saëns had not yet turned 18 – so the skill with which the orchestra is handled is remarkable and the grandiosity perhaps not unexpected. The second symphony, written in 1859, uses more-modest forces – no harps or trombones, and fewer timpani – but shows the composer moving farther toward an individual style. The first movement, for example, is based on a fugue, and the second movement (Adagio) features muted strings and some elements that return in altered form in the third movement (Scherzo: Presto). The finale contains a surprise Andantino section just when it seems to have ended – another creative touch. There is creativity as well in the symphonic poem Phaéton, which dates to 1873 and shows Saint-Saëns again using four timpani plus harps (two in this case), this time with more finesse than in his first numbered symphony. The work traces Phaéton’s attempt to drive the chariot of his father, the Sun, across the sky, his loss of control of the horses that pull the chariot, and his death by a thunderbolt that Jupiter hurls to prevent the errant chariot from setting the universe afire. The story’s drama is well-communicated by the music and presented with Saint-Saëns’ customary and by this time well-refined skill in orchestration.
The symphony was undergoing major development even by the time Saint-Saëns wrote his first one – and the word “symphony” was applied in new ways as the 19th century continued. In 1872, the first four of Charles-Marie Widor’s Organ Symphonies appeared, 14 years before Saint-Saëns created the orchestral piece that is known as his “Organ” Symphony. That one includes an organ, but Widor’s are really symphonies for organ, written to take advantage of the famous instruments designed and built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899). Those organs were a deliberate departure from earlier ones, which were designed for the lightness and transparency necessary to create effective performances of contrapuntal works. Cavaillé-Coll built organs for a homophonic age, a time when pianos had already supplanted contrapuntally superior harpsichords and made possible a range of expressiveness undreamed of in Baroque times. The Cavaillé-Coll organs were intended to have much the same level of expressive capability, and Widor, when he created his Organ Symphonies, was well aware that he was producing something new. The first four of these works, collected as his Op. 13, are in Widor’s early style and were significantly revised by the composer (an inveterate self-reviser) in later years. For example, the Salve Regina movement of No. 2 was added many years after the work was first composed. Less fully integrated than the later Organ Symphonies and more closely resembling suites (Widor himself called them “collections”), these early works nevertheless stake out new territory in organ composition and performance. A particular pleasure of the performances by Christian Schmitt on a two-SACD CPO set that is blessed with particularly elegant and vibrant sound is that Schmitt actually plays a Cavaillé-Coll organ: the one in Abteikirche St. Ouen (Rouen). It is only necessary to hear the Toccata that opens the fourth symphony to understand viscerally just how much organs like this differed from those of Bach’s time, and just how much Widor’s approach to organ writing moved beyond that of the Baroque. These are fluid performances of great skill and musicianship, bringing solidity to works whose many suite-like movements can make them seem disjointed: there are seven movements in No. 1, six apiece in Nos. 2 and 4, and five in No. 3. Widor spawned a whole new symphonic concept with these works, one carried forward by such students of his as Marcel Dupré and Louis Vierne and moving, over time, farther and farther from the traditional idea of the classical symphony – while showing that the organ could become just as effectively symphonic an instrument as the grand piano, which Liszt at one point specifically termed an orchestra in miniature.
In truth, miniaturization of any sort was scarcely a 19th-century symphonic priority. One element of change in the symphony was its expansion in length, breadth, and number of musicians and instruments required to produce it. The monumental symphonies of Bruckner were already pushing the limits of what orchestral musicians could handle in the 1860s: by about the time Widor wrote his first Organ Symphonies, Bruckner had already produced his Second Symphony (1872) and was working on his Third (1873). Later in that decade, and then in the one that followed, Bruckner continued expanding the communicative power of his symphonic music, with his Sixth Symphony dating to 1879-81 and his Seventh to 1881-83/1885. The performances of these works by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under its chief conductor, Mariss Jansons, recorded live for the orchestra’s own RSO Live label, not only confirm the tremendous power of the music but also show yet again why the Concertgebouw is one of the absolute best orchestras in the world. The ensemble’s splendid brass, with a rich, warm, elegant sound, is a trademark – and a huge benefit in Bruckner’s music. But every section of the orchestra is a standout here: rich, creamy strings; elegantly poised and balanced winds; and percussion played with precision, drama and dynamism. Jansons is especially impressive in the Sixth, a work that rarely gets its full due: Bruckner did not make multiple versions of this symphony, as he did of almost all his others, expressing satisfaction with it and calling it his “sauciest” symphony. That puzzling remark actually makes some sense in the context of this performance, whose first-rate SACD sound shows inner voices with a piquancy exceeding what is usual for Bruckner. The “sauciest” remark may also fit the rather strange Scherzo, which lacks the strong dance rhythms usually associated with Bruckner’s scherzos. And it may simply reflect the abruptness with which the music changes direction and focus throughout – a state of affairs that can be difficult for lesser orchestras to handle, but that the Concertgebouw negotiates with ease. As for the Seventh, its admixture of power, lyricism, solemnity and serenity comes across splendidly in this recording, in which the Concertgebouw’s superb sectional balance shows itself again and again as the music requires abrupt changes in instrumentation. Saint-Saëns may have created an “Organ” Symphony, but Bruckner’s often sound like transliterations from organ language to orchestral forces – and while this is an oversimplification, it is particularly true in parts of the Seventh, and brought out exceptionally well by Jansons and the Concertgebouw in a performance that scales the heights not only of expressiveness but also of sumptuously beautiful sound.
Symphonic rethinking went on in the 19th century in the United States as well as in Europe, although the creation of truly American symphonic works would have to wait for the 20th century. Still, John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) showed in the second of his two symphonies that he had thoroughly absorbed the lessons of European Romantic models and could produce a substantial work with programmatic overtones from them. Dating to 1879, this “Spring” symphony bears some resemblance to Schumann’s First, notably in its finale; however, although Paine called the first movement “Departure of Winter – Awakening of Nature,” no one would confuse this comparatively modest wake-up call with the emergence of Pan in Mahler’s Third (1893-96). Nevertheless, Paine, the first American-born composer who became famous for large-scale orchestral music, clearly shows throughout this work that he had a strong sense of orchestration and the ability to bring forth elements of a program that runs loosely through the symphony, from the start to “May-Night Fantasy,” “A Romance of Springtime” and a finale called “The Glory of Nature.” Some of the musical expressiveness here is rather pedestrian, but JoAnn Falletta – an ardent advocate of American music – and the Ulster Orchestra bring forth as much originality and clever construction as the music possesses. If Paine’s Symphony No. 2 is not great music, it is very good music indeed, and stands as an example of where American music was soon to go: Paine was the leader of the Boston Six group of composers, another of the six being Horatio Parker, who taught none other than Charles Ives – whose symphonies represent as dramatic a rethinking of the form as any on either side of the Atlantic. This Naxos CD also includes two very effective myth-based overtures by Paine: the prelude to Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus, which Paine wrote in 1880-81, and the fantasy-overture Poseidon and Amphitrite, which dates to around 1888 and was to be Paine’s last orchestral work (and which has never before been recorded). Paine is of more interest and importance for his historical role in the development of a genuinely American style of orchestral music than for the inherent quality of his music itself. His works are sturdy, well-wrought, intelligently crafted and effectively orchestrated, if not really inspired. If they lack the spark of genius of many better-known European Romantic symphonies and other large-scale pieces, they are nevertheless worthy both in themselves and because they demonstrate the growing musical maturity of a United States that, in the late 19th century, was still a very young nation.
Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 7—Volumes I, II, III, X, XI and XIV (piano and vocal excerpts). Alessandro Marangoni, piano and organ; Ars Cantica Choir and Consort conducted by Marco Berrini. Naxos. $9.99.
Hummel: Piano Trios, Volume 2—Nos. 1, 4 and 5. Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin; Alice Neary, cello; Benjamin Frith, piano). Naxos. $9.99.
Fauré: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Schumann: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Bartók: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano. Jade Duo (Shuai Shi, violin; Zhen Chen, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Philip Glass: Glassworlds, Volume 1—Glassworks: Opening (1981); Orphée Suite (2000); Dreaming Awake (2003); How Now (1968). Nicolas Horvath, piano. Grand Piano. $16.99.
Bernstein: Sonata for the Piano (1938); Seven Anniversaries (1943); Thirteen Anniversaries (1988); Music for the Dance No. II (1938); Non Troppo Presto (1937). Alexandre Dossin, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
The excellent continuing Naxos series of Rossini’s complete piano music seems to have come to a crossroads with its seventh volume, expanding beyond the piano works in the 14 volumes of Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”) and starting to include vocal pieces and even one for which Alessandro Marangoni plays the organ rather than the piano. There are delights aplenty in this latest release, as in all the earlier ones, but in truth, matters get confusing here: the 22 tracks are drawn from six different volumes of the Péchés de vieillesse, appear in no particularly clear order, and include mix-ins of a recently discovered half-minute Andantino mosso and the Italian version of Album français from Volume II – both those works receiving their world première recordings. The Péchés de vieillesse are themselves a mishmash, with the 14th volume not even by Rossini (it is a posthumous collection of his late works), so making a mishmash of an existing mishmash is perhaps not such a big deal. After all, there is a great deal of delightful music here, both secular and sacred – and sometimes straddling the border, as in the Canone perpetuo per quattro soprani from Volume XIV, which parodies Sistine Chapel singing style. Rossini was quite prepared to be serious in his late works – this CD concludes with Preghiera from Volume III and Salve, o Vergine Maria from Volume XI, both heartfelt and elegantly scored miniatures. But he was equally comfortable taking himself and music in general lightly, as in Prélude blagueur (“Joking Prélude,” which is not only amusing but also more technically difficult than many other of Rossini’s late piano works). The juxtapositions in this seventh volume of Péchés de vieillesse therefore are in the same spirit as Rossini’s albums themselves. And the performances, both keyboard and vocal, are first-rate and highly enjoyable, even if this volume somewhat blurs the concept of the entire series of which this CD is a part.
Rossini was a better pianist than he gave himself credit for being (he said, although probably with tongue in cheek, that he was “of the fourth class”). He was not, however, at the level of Hummel, a considerable virtuoso in his day as well as a composer whose music is far too good to deserve the neglect into which it fell after his death, and from which it is only now starting to emerge. Hummel wrote a great deal for the piano, but he also moved beyond it into works in which his instrument was only one element – even though it tended to be primus inter pares, first among equals. Hummel’s seven piano trios all generally give the piano greater prominence than the strings, although individual movements frequently balance the three instruments quite adeptly. The Gould Trio’s very fine performances of these trios are concluded in the second of two Naxos discs with the early Op. 12 in E-flat and the later Op. 65 in G and Op. 83 in E. Hummel’s first trio, like Nos. 2 and 3 as heard on the earlier CD, is distinctly Mozartean, requiring a light touch by all three performers and a willingness to let the music flow simply and uncomplicatedly. The Gould Trio’s performance contrasts well with its handling of the two later trios here. No. 4 is something of a transitional work for Hummel. The most original of his first four trios, Op. 65 has a comparatively substantial first movement and more formal and harmonic adventurousness than Nos. 1-3. But it is with his fifth trio that Hummel really moves into grander scope and a more forward-looking approach. Op. 83 is the longest of the seven trios and is sometimes labeled “Grand Trio Concertante.” It does indeed have strong concerto-like elements – it was dedicated to Hummel’s friend, the virtuoso pianist Johann Baptist Cramer, and showcases the piano to an even greater extent than do the other trios. In addition, Op. 83 has intensely lyrical sections and is distinguished for the way it significantly expands sonata form. Hummel’s seven trios are not only fine works in their own right but also examples of the way in which a highly skilled pianist can incorporate virtuoso writing for his instrument into forms that expand the piano’s expressive potential by combining it with instruments of a different caliber and sound.
Fauré, Schumann and Bartók understood how to move beyond the piano – which they all played – just as Hummel did; but the three did so in very different ways, as a new MSR Classics disc featuring the Jade Duo makes clear. The first of Schumann’s two violin-and-piano sonatas was actually identified when published as being for piano and violin, indicating the extent to which the piano is the dominant instrument. An intense work in which the piano’s prominence is especially strong in the finale, this sonata gets a strong, vibrant performance from Shuai Shi and Zhen Chen. The first of Fauré’s violin sonatas was written 25 years later (1876 vs. 1851), and has an even broader and freer form in its four movements than Schumann’s does in its three. Schumann was a more innovative composer than Fauré, but Fauré was more important as a synthesizer of the disparate elements that developed as the Romantic era progressed. And in his first violin sonata, as in other of his chamber works, he effectively mingled lyrical songfulness with vivacity and effective contrapuntal passages, producing a work of many moods that nevertheless comes across in this performance as unified and carefully structured. As for Bartók’s second violin sonata, it dates to a time of musical transition and turmoil (1922), and it integrates multiple elements in a manner very different from Fauré’s. The elements themselves differ significantly, too, including atonality, impressionist harmony and folk music. Nevertheless, just as Fauré’s first sonata has an overall feeling of unity, so does the second by Bartók. The development of the ideas is clear and consistent, and despite some intense eruptions reminiscent of other works of the 1920s, this sonata sounds more inspired by Hungarian dances than by deeply felt emotions. The Jade Duo’s ability to present three such disparate works convincingly bespeaks the performers’ considerable sensitivity to the composers’ varying musical styles and approaches.
Of course, individual composers can themselves produce works that are very different from each other, and sometimes composers expand the idea of piano music even when their works are performed as piano solos. Philip Glass, a quintessential minimalist who now considers himself to have gone beyond minimalism and to be more focused on his classical roots from his studies with Nadia Boulanger, is represented by some very different piano works – spanning 35 years – on a new Grand Piano release. Nicolas Horvath brings as much care and sensitivity to the piano version of How Now, a work inspired by Indian ragas and gamelan music that was written in 1968 for the Philip Glass Ensemble, as to the much more dramatic Dreaming Awake from 2003. How Now goes on and on – it lasts more than half an hour – and is either hypnotic or simply dull, depending on each individual listener’s perceptions. Dreaming Awake is half its length and more tightly constructed, its dynamic contrasts showing that Glass has more recently been willing to move beyond the somnolent (and sometimes soporific) into more-variegated music. Actually, as long ago as 1981, Glass realized that his music did not necessarily reach an audience beyond a core group of the like-minded, and so he created Glassworks in an attempt to approach more listeners. The opening movement is an early instance of Glass trying to move beyond the static and repetitive, at least to some extent. Its measured chordal elements are indeed repeated again and again, but above them Glass weaves a mixture of triplet eighth notes over duple eighth notes over whole notes, so the music has some motion beyond its stasis. Also on this CD is Paul Barnes’ 2000 piano version of Orphée Suite, which contains music extracted in 1991 from the first work in the Cocteau Trilogy. There is inherent motion in the original version of this piece, which Glass wrote for voices and chamber orchestra, but the minimalist sensibility still informs it through the pervasive repetition that, in one form or another, characterizes virtually all the works that Glass has written. Horvath is clearly at home with this music, but the inherently static nature of much of the material makes this a (+++) disc, suitable primarily for those already strongly attracted to Glass’ sensibilities.
Like Glass, Leonard Bernstein worked in areas well beyond the piano, but Bernstein was himself a pianist of considerable talent, and one whose performances were sometimes genuinely revelatory – as in his recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. However, many of Bernstein’s own classical compositions, as opposed to his theater music, tended to be either overwrought or of rather minimal importance, and his output for solo piano was not extensive. The works on a new (+++) Naxos CD are not major ones by any means, and Bernstein does not seem to have intended them to be. The two sets of Anniversaries are nothing but extended miniatures written for the benefit of, or in celebration of, Bernstein’s friends, colleagues, acquaintances and hangers-on – he had many in each category. They are pleasant and were no doubt meaningful to the individuals for whom they were intended, but they are, for the most part, rather thin vignettes. Sonata for the Piano is more substantial, but this two-movement work, written when Bernstein was in his late teens, is more an exercise and an occasional promise of things to come than a fully satisfactory piece in itself. Its use of syncopation and polytonality is more interesting than the music to which those techniques are applied. Music for the Dance No. II and Non Troppo Presto are of the same vintage as the sonata and, although rhythmic enough, tend to be harsher and less lyrical than later Bernstein music for the stage. These two works are world première recordings, and for that reason will be of interest to Bernstein aficionados – and in fact those fans would seem to be the primary audience for this entire CD, which is nicely played but offers nothing musically revelatory and not very much material with significant staying power.
March 19, 2015
Flowers Are Calling. By Rita Gray. Pictures by Kenard Pak. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Just a Dream. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Fact and fiction often merge, sometimes seamlessly and sometimes less so, in nature-focused picture books. Despite some awkwardness in Rita Gray’s writing, Flowers Are Calling is a fine example of mixing the real and unreal – thanks in large part to the lovely watercolor-and-digital-media illustrations by Kenard Pak. Gray’s basic rhyming text works well, and takes an unusual approach toward involving children in a fact-focused book by deliberately saying something incorrect and then providing the correction. “Flowers are calling a little black bear./ No, not a bear! He doesn’t care./ They’re calling a butterfly to dip from the air.” So far, so good, and in succeeding pages, flowers call a frog – no, a bumblebee; a porcupine – no, a hummingbird; and so on. True, the rhythm of the poetry is frequently off by a syllable or so, but young readers will probably not mind and may not even notice. However, a number of the rhymes are off as well: “porcupine” and “time,” “raccoon,” “bloom” and “perfume.” Readers likely will notice this; but again, it may not significantly interrupt the book’s flow for its target audience of children ages 4-8. But what is sure to interrupt things is the way Gray, after each batch of three rhymes, presents two pages identifying specific flowers and explaining, in prose, what they are and how they attract and interact with pollinators. Then she returns to the rhyming sequence, then the non-rhyming factual pages, and so on. The result is considerable choppiness in presentation. However, the excellent illustrations, as noted, do a lot to preserve continuity as well as visual interest – and the material that Gray discusses is highly interesting and offered in age-appropriate fashion, which means that the book’s message about the importance of insects, birds and other creatures involved in pollination comes through clearly despite the book’s somewhat unwieldy structure. The last pages introduce children to flowers in ways they may not have considered, relating to the importance for pollination of color, pattern, shape, smell and time of opening. And then Gray presents a strictly didactic page, at the very end of the book, with more facts about flowers and their pollinators and even some things that children can do to help nature take its course. The educational elements of Flowers Are Calling are so well done that they and Pak’s pictures raise the book to a very high level, more than overcoming some structural elements that make Gray’s work less natural in flow and less pleasant to follow than it could have been. This is nevertheless, despite its ungainly elements, a book of considerable value, and a lovely one at which to look and from which to learn.
It is possible, though, to lay things on too thickly, albeit with the best of intentions, in trying to teach nature-related things to young children. And this is the flaw of Just a Dream, now available in a 25th-anniversary edition that includes a downloadable audio version read by the author. Chris Van Allsburg’s book is partly a victim of its age: when it first came out, in 1990, young people’s (and adults’) awareness of ecological matters was far less than it is now. For example, it is noteworthy that the film Wall-E, which had a significant impact on many young viewers, dates only to 2008. However, there was certainly some ecological awareness in 1990 and for many years before: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax was published back in 1971. There is something instructive in comparing elements of that book with those of Just a Dream. Dr. Seuss tremendously simplified matters of ecology and knowingly created a title character whose grumpiness and hectoring actually troubled some in the environmental movement, who thought The Lorax unnecessarily heavy-handed and humorless (at least by Seussian standards). Van Allsburg, though, uses a far bigger sledge hammer than Seuss did: his story is about a boy named Walter who throws trash onto the street and refuses to sort recyclables from garbage, but is converted to the cause of ecological right-thinking by an experience right out of A Christmas Carol. That is, he falls asleep and dreams himself in various highly unpleasant future scenarios: in a huge dump where his street and home used to be; in a giant tree that is about to be cut down to make toothpicks; atop a smokestack belching fumes for a company that makes medicine to counteract the “burning throats and itchy eyes” caused by its smokestacks themselves; and so on. The future here is not only unremittingly bleak but also so absurdly unrealistic that Just a Dream seems a lot more like an advocacy pamphlet than a concerned educational work intended to show children the possible consequences of inattention to the environment. Van Allsburg’s illustrations of the awful future scenes are very well done, but his writing is so thin and obvious that it vitiates rather than reinforces what ought to be a highly important message. And the conclusion, in which Walter is converted to the correct way of thinking as surely as Scrooge was, is entirely predictable, laying on the message even more thickly than the rest of the book does. Just a Dream is a (+++) book thanks to the underlying seriousness of its message and the very fine illustrations with which Van Allsburg tries to put that message across. But unlike The Lorax, Van Allsburg’s book has not worn very well, because from start to finish it is more a jeremiad than an involving story.
Debunk It! How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation. By John Grant. Zest Books. $12.99.
Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries from Joan of Arc to Malcolm X. By Jeff Fleischer. Zest Books. $13.99.
One of the most immediately useful volumes in the Zest Books line, John Grant’s Debunk It! is an attempt to explain the many lies and elements of misinformation that pervade our modern world (in which sense it is descriptive) and show readers what they can do about them (meaning it is also prescriptive). Books like this are surprisingly rare and always welcome, since they serve as a counterbalance to the punditocracy as well as political rhetoric and the idiotocracy that seems to rule the Internet. “Reality isn’t political,” writes Grant, but that is a problem for people who insist that everything is political and can and should be spun in a particular direction for purposes of political power, money-making or similar reasons. That means history, science and other factual realms are fair game for constant manipulation, whether that means retelling history from a particular ethnic or racial viewpoint (Holocaust denial, Afrocentrism), creating “medicines” by diluting active ingredients until they are no longer active (homeopathy), or using non-expert bloviators – within or abetted by the media – to “counter” near-unanimous agreement among scientists with expertise in a particular field (climate change). Grant shows how nonsense driven by personal agendas can cause great human tragedies (refusal to use AIDS drugs because of belief that the virus was created by the CIA to use against black people); can lead to the persecution and imprisonment of innocent people (“repressed memory” of childhood sexual abuse, extracted by social workers who “knew” how to get young children to recover what they forgot, so the information could be used against alleged predators); and can make nonsense seem real just because a lot of people believe it: “Plenty of people reckon they’ve seen ghosts, fairies, the Loch Ness monster, and other elusive figures. …Of course, it’s always possible that the anecdotes really do stack up to something that is worth further investigation. But we have to do the actual investigation of the anecdotal evidence, not just assume the collection of anecdotes is the investigation.” Again and again, Grant emphasizes that investigation – using, whenever possible, the scientific method, whose precepts he explains clearly – is required when checking on whether a particular statement or assertion is true. He discusses the many ways people try, for various reasons, to mislead others, including ways in which people inadvertently mislead themselves. He talks about cherry picking (using only the data that support what you want supported), ad hominem attacks (go after the person you disagree with, not after that person’s arguments), false balance (a common media failing, which involves giving 50% of time to two opposing viewpoints even when one is responsible and the other is ridiculous), confirmation bias (our tendency to notice more things that go along with what we believe than ones that undermine our beliefs), and much more. And he explains ways to try to determine whether people – including the author himself – are presenting truth or bull. Among his 15 recommendations is to “think about whether the authorities that someone’s quoting really are authorities” – that is, authorities in the field being discussed, since you would not want even the most expert plumber to perform the work of, say, a brain surgeon. He also warns about checking to be sure quotes are in the correct context, looking for raw data rather than someone’s interpretation of it, and trying to be sure that people are not deliberately misusing words to attempt to sway an argument (a common tactic of creationists who say evolution is “just a theory” – the word “theory” in scientific context meaning “as close as you can get to 100% scientific certainty,” and in the case of evolution something that was known and accepted long before Darwin). There are a couple of missteps in the book, such as a passing reference to “Fred Phelps” without explaining who he was (a virulently anti-gay pastor of a church he created) and a reference to peer reviews being explained on page 37 (actual page: 72). But by and large, Grant lays out a clear, compelling and, most important, actionable case for identifying and responding to the widespread errors and outright lies that we encounter daily in what could easily be called the Misinformation Age.
This is not to say that misinformation is in any way new. It has been used for centuries, if not millennia, to skew reports of history in the direction favored by historians working at particular times and in particular circumstances. Hence the widely quoted aphorism, “History is written by the victors” – which is how Winston Churchill put it, although there are plenty of earlier versions of the comment (Napoleon’s: “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”). Yet this notion has not stopped stories, and exaggerations, from being produced about various revolutionaries, both successful and defeated, in the years after their attempts to overthrow a government or society have come to an end. Jeff Fleischer collects information on 50 such revolutionaries (more if you count some of his stories-within-the-stories about people with whom the primary ones he discusses interacted). The book’s title and subtitle show both its strength (history written to be brief, pointed and interesting) and weakness (a style that cannot decide whether or not to be serious). Actually, the book’s subtitle is significantly in error in a way that quickly calls into question what Fleischer is writing and why: he arranges the profiles according to the date of birth of each subject, on which basis the book goes from Hannibal, the scourge of Rome (with Joan of Arc being the 12th entry) to Martin Luther King, Jr. (with Malcolm X being the 46th person profiled). The most interesting element of the book is its inclusion of people whose names will likely be unfamiliar to readers, at least in North America: Vercingetorix, who fought Julius Caesar in Gaul; Arminius, an early leader of the Germanic tribes that eventually took over the remnants of the Roman Empire; Metacom, leader of attacks against Pilgrim colonies not long after the first Thanksgiving; Hone Heke, a tribal chieftain who fought the British settlers of New Zealand; Mary Harris Jones, who battled unfair labor practices and for whom the magazine Mother Jones is named; Michael Collins, who launched numerous Irish Republican Army attacks against British forces; and others. Presented along with these are stories of such well-known revolutionaries as Spartacus, Julius Caesar (not usually thought of as a revolutionary), Cleopatra (also not usually seen as a revolutionary), Oliver Cromwell, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. Fleischer’s (+++) book follows a straightforward approach: each short chapter starts by noting a person’s dates, location and opponent, which can be a nation or group of people (Rome, Great Britain, Spain, English settlers) or a perceived societal ill (slavery, taxes, unfair labor practices). The write-ups are scarcely revelatory and often are little more than a sequence of dates and events – not the most enthralling way to present history. Along the way, though, Fleischer does bring up some little-known elements of the past, such as the facts that the English did not capture Joan of Arc (a French faction, the Burgundians, did, turning her over to the English for punishment) and that more than a dozen feature films have been made in France about Asterix, a comic-book character whose adventures are set in the era of Vercingetorix (who sometimes appears as a character). For the most part, though, Rockin’ the Boat is pretty plain stuff. Fleischer’s attempts at a brighter style tend to fall flat: he captions a bust “Cleopatra, marbleized,” for example, and calls a full-length portrait of the first U.S. president “George Washington: tight in tights.” As a surface-level, easy-to-read look at some familiar history and some of its byways, the book is fine, but there is scarcely anything revolutionary about its selection of its subjects or its presentation of their lives.
Seven Wonders No. 4: The Curse of the King. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.
Seven Wonders Journals: The Key. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $2.99.
Finding the Worm. By Mark Goldblatt. Random House. $16.99.
Mining the past, distant or more recent, is a common way for authors of novels for preteens (ages 8-12) to try to give their books some depth, or at least resonance. The Seven Wonders series takes place entirely in modern times, but its whole premise involves the long-ago days of the Seven Wonders of the World – of which the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus have been the focus of the first three entries. The Curse of the King focuses on the statue of Zeus at Olympia, but although the setting is new, the basic plot here is identical to that of the earlier novels. Friends Jack, Cass and Aly are searching for “seven magic Atlantean orbs hidden in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – six of which don’t exist anymore.” They are also trying to figure out why the fourth member of their group, Marco, has switched sides, working now with the evil Massa organization that seeks the same orbs (called Loculi) for its own nefarious purposes. Oh – and the searchers are going to die soon. At least that is the underlying concept here: they all have mutant genes that give them superpowers but will kill them by age 14, and their only hope for a cure is to gather the Loculi and discover the objects’ secrets, saving the world into the bargain. But, just to make matters more hopeless, one of the Loculi was destroyed in the third book, so even if the friends find all the rest, they are going to die anyway. No! Just kidding! The whole point of Peter Lerangis’ fast-paced writing is to create a series of impossibilities and then have everything work out just fine anyway. Readers of this series will certainly know that Jack (the most central of the central characters) and his friends will find a way around the destruction of one of the Loculi, somehow, and their innate goodness will keep them searching for the remaining magical objects even though one is, it seems, gone forever. The Curse of the King is even sillier than the first three books, in large part because Lerangis decides to have the statue of Zeus come alive and go on a rampage early in the narrative – while talking entirely in phrases drawn from TV shows and ads. Thus, we have the most powerful of the old Greek gods, the conqueror of the Titans, the wielder of thunderbolts, saying, in capital letters: “TO THE MOOOON, ALIIICE!” “COWABUNGAAAA!” “I THINK THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP.” “I’LL GET YOU, YOU SKWEWY WABBIT!” This is so over-the-top as to be embarrassing, but perhaps not to the intended audience of Seven Wonders, which may know little, if anything, about The Honeymooners, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the film Casablanca, or the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Still, it seems that the newly animated (or reanimated) statue of Zeus would collapse from humiliation under the weight of this sort of dialogue. Anyway, the friends get the Loculus of Strength from the statue, but soon find themselves in the hands of the Massa, whose dialogue is about at the level of that given to Zeus: “Massa strong. …No more froufrou Harvard-bricky college-la-la-la heads in clouds.” The chapter titles maintain the uneasy balance, or imbalance, between seriousness and humor: “Good Enough for the Cockroaches,” “His Jackness,” “The Meathead Starts Over,” and so forth. The most important part of The Curse of the King is the unsurprising return of Marco to the group of Loculi seekers. But a simple reassembly of the group would be too simple, and this is only the fourth book of the series, so one of the other members is sundered from the searchers here – setting the stage for the next journey to a past so ancient that it might never have existed. Oh, wait – it never did.
As an accompaniment to the main Seven Wonders sequence, Lerangis is producing occasional novellas that expand on the primary adventure. The Key is one of these. It is the story of Aliyah and Osman, twin brothers, treasure hunters and thieves, who eventually find a key that may lead them to the greatest treasure of all – or to doom. The story has echoes of Aladdin’s and is told in the form of journal entries. It also has enormous absurdity, which puts it right in line with the main sequence. The negotiation between the boys and a soul-stealing supernatural being is ridiculous in the extreme, with the result that the death that results not long afterwards has none of the power or portentousness that readers might expect and that it needs to have for the vow at the end of the book to have any importance at all. The Key is weaker and less focused than the main sequence of Seven Wonders, within which it fits, at best, unevenly. Still, it is a modest, self-contained adventure that readers who enjoy the notion of contemporary young people enmeshed in ancient mysteries will find easy and quick to read and at least mildly entertaining.
The history underlying Finding the Worm, Mark Goldblatt’s sequel/companion to Twerp, is far more recent: the books are based on Goldblatt’s own years growing up in the New York City borough of Queens in the 1960s. Finding the Worm can be read on its own, but readers familiar with the relationships and events in the earlier novel will get a lot more from this one. The central character is again Julian Twerski, who is clearly Goldblatt’s alter ego. The book gives him the usual combination of school-related and personal problems on which so many novels for ages 8-12 are based. At school, he is accused of vandalizing a painting and told he has to stay with the guidance counselor until he writes a confession – which would be the easy thing to do, except that Julian didn’t do it and, of course, is too morally and ethically upright to create a false confession just to make his life easier. (However, as is made clear when the principal calls him in to discuss the vandalism, he is not all good, because he “egged” a handicapped boy named Danley Dimmel – in the previous book.) So the first issue here is: who did commit the vandalism and why, and how and why did Julian get blamed? On the personal level, Julian faces two dilemmas of different levels of importance. One involves Beverly Segal, a girl he likes, who is a very fast runner and has challenged him to a race. The other has to do with his friend Quentin, who has cancer and is hospitalized – at the very start of the book, it is clear that this is a major theme, since on page 2, Julian is already worrying, “I thought Quentin was dead.” The Quentin story – which, among other things, involves Julian trying to use the New York Yankees to help his friend recover – runs through the entire book and plays into Julian’s concerns about “becoming a man” through his bar mitzvah, an event that he fears Quentin will be unable to attend. Julian’s Jewish background is important to Finding the Worm, and dovetails neatly with the usual themes of novels for this age group, one of which (generally the most important one) is “finding out who you really are.” Again and again, Goldblatt shows that Julian is basically a good kid, albeit one with all the uncertainties and worries to be expected in a preteen. Quentin’s illness, Julian explains, “makes you feel guilty, almost, on account of he’s sick and you’re not. It’s like – I don’t even know how to explain it. It just hits you. Like you’re running down the block, running to get home for dinner, and the wind is whistling in your ears, and you’re taking deep breaths, and the air just comes and goes like it’s nothing, and then, out of nowhere, you remember Quentin is stuck in that hospital bed, with those tubes going in and out of him, and it just doesn’t seem fair.” One of Julian’s friends tells him at one point, “You think too much. …You need to turn it off.” But of course Julian cannot turn off either his thinking or his feelings, and by the time he learns who really did deface the school painting, it is no longer important – many other things are far more significant. The constant filtering of Julian’s thoughts and interactions through his Jewish heritage may make the novel’s audience somewhat limited, although certainly his struggles with good and evil, life and death, transcend any religion and, indeed, religion in general. This is not a feel-good book but a seek-to-understand one: young readers looking for something less facile and less neatly buttoned-up than preteen novels usually are will find it here.