May 18, 2017

(++++) FEED ME!


Morris Mole. By Dan Yaccarino. Harper. $17.99.

Good Morning, Grizzle Grump! By Aaron Blecha. Harper. $17.99.

     Small characters and big ones need to figure out how to get something to eat – without, in the case of a small one, getting eaten in the process. Morris Mole is the story of a very small character indeed: littler than his brothers, all of whom wear miners’ outfits and dig ever-deeper in search of things to eat, Morris wears a natty suit, eats more delicately than any other mole in the family, carries an umbrella, and reads books. So naturally, when the moles find themselves facing a food shortage, all the big moles know that they have to start digging still deeper. But Morris has a different idea – to which the bigger moles will not even listen. So Morris listens to himself, and he digs up instead of down. And sure enough, he eventually emerges into a beautifully colored above-ground world at which he gazes with wonder from beneath his umbrella. Smelling flowers, listening to birds, and munching on a strawberry that is almost as big as he is, Morris is so enchanted that he almost forgets why he came: to find food for all the moles. So he sets about gathering “crunchy creepy crawlies,” “wonderfully wiggly worms,” “yummy nuts” and other mole delicacies – until he accidentally comes face-to-face (or, more accurately, face-to-mouth) with a hungry fox. Is this the end of Morris? Well, no, because an even bigger predator – a wolf – suddenly appears, frightening the fox so much that the only thing he can think of is to hide. Morris, ever obliging, uses his digging talent to get the fox into a hole, and the wolf departs, leaving Morris a hero not only to the fox but also to the other meadow animals, who help gather food for the moles and dump it into a Morris-dug hole. The motto of Dan Yaccarino’s book is quite an obvious one: “‘I may be small,’ Morris said, ‘but I can do big things.’” It is, however, a wonderful motto for the young children who will find Morris and his adventures delightful – and serves as a suggestion that they, too, can think outside the box. Or beyond the tunnel.

     But Morris and the other moles, all put together, are not nearly as hungry as Grizzle Grump. He is a bear, after all, and has just awakened from a multi-month sleep – with an appetite as huge as his loudly growling belly. As perky, big-eyed animals sport and play in the springtime warmth, Aaron Blecha shows Grizzle Grump looking for food and being constantly frustrated. He dances with joy to find all sorts of berries growing in the woods – but while Grizzle Grump is looking around for the picnic-basket-carrying squirrel who knocked on his door to wake him up, other animals grab all the berries and run off with them. Oh no! With his growling, empty tummy, Grizzle Grump is back on the hunt for food – and comes to a stream filled with delicious fish. He grabs a pile of them – but other bears run off with them before Grizzle Grump can settle down for even a single morsel. Arrggh! So it goes, again and again: Grizzle Grump cannot even make his own pile of yummy and wiggly bugs without other animals making off with them. But Grizzle Grump, still with the squirrel nearby, keeps following his nose, finding delicious smells that eventually lead him to – a surprise party, where all the foods he has gathered are waiting for him! So everything ends happily for all the animals (well, except the fish and bugs): everybody eats everything – even the squirrel enjoys an apple – and all is well, with Grizzle Grump much less grizzly and much less grumpy at the book’s end than he was at its beginning. Oh – and he is ready for another nap after all that food. After which he will no doubt be hungry again.

(++++) SIBLINGS AND OTHER PROBLEMS


Kid Amazing vs. the Blob. By Josh Schneider. Clarion. $16.99.

Shorty & Clem. By Michael Slack. Harper. $17.99.

     Many kids like to imagine themselves as superheroes, doing superheroic deeds with superpowers. Josh Schneider takes the idea into much-more-amusing territory, though, with Kid Amazing vs. the Blob. Here we have the most mundane circumstances possible: a young boy named Jimmy is called on by his mother to find out why his baby sister is crying. What is not mundane is that Jimmy responds in superheroic mode. Schneider gets the whole scenario just right: Jimmy “touches the tennis racket like this and pulls the light string like so” and heads out of his room through a “secret door and into a secret elevator” that takes him to an underground warren of passages equipped with everything from alligators to dinosaur fossils to a space shuttle. A huge string of bright-yellow “AAAAAAA,” representing “an extremely annoying howl,” stretches over the pages as Jimmy becomes Kid Amazing, wearing footie pajamas, dishwashing gloves and a baseball cap – all described at the bottom of the pages in typical superhero-ese: “These rare red dishwashing gloves are there to shield his mighty hands from lava, ice, lasers, acid, toxic goo, and pruny-ness.” Soon Jimmy contacts “the Commissioner” (his mom), who asks him to find out what the howling is all about. Jimmy knows it is “the Blob,” and promises to “take care of her.” So he follows a “stink trail” that leads “right to the Blob’s lair” and appears in Schneider’s illustrations as a green miasma out of which monster heads emerge – air so smelly that even a picture on the wall has to wear a gas mask. Jimmy spritzes the stink with some perfume whose smell he likes but that his mother did not want when Jimmy gave it to her (it smells like French fries). Then he heads along a trail of slime right to the Blob “on her throne” (in her high chair). She continues to yell so loudly that “the howl is melting his brain,” but then Jimmy finds “the Blob’s howl neutralizer” (a pacifier) and pops it into the baby’s mouth. And the “AAAAAAA,” which has been covering the entire background of several pages, suddenly stops – with Kid Amazing going on to explain to the Commissioner that “the Blob needs a new stink-containment unit” and suggesting that a cookie would be a suitable reward. Kid Amazing has indeed saved the day – except that, at the book’s very end, his sister has pulled off her stink-containment unit (diaper) and there is about to be another big mess for Kid Amazing to handle. Kid Amazing vs. the Blob is at once so realistic and so far out that kids who are older siblings, whether they are amazing or not, will immediately recognize the circumstances – and probably start planning a secret underground base of their own.

     Schneider’s watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations fit Kid Amazing vs. the Blob every bit as well as Michael Slack’s Photoshop digital ones fit Shorty & Clem. Slack’s book is about roommates but could just as well be about siblings. The fact that Shorty is a big-eyed, eyeglasses-wearing dinosaur (a “shortysaurus,” a kind of compressed T. rex), and Clem is a small blue bird, does nothing to disguise the fact that these are good friends who have a quandary to handle. Actually, Shorty is the one with the issue: while Clem is away, a package arrives, and Shorty is delighted – until ,he discovers that it is addressed to Clem, not to him. Obviously, Shorty cannot open Clem’s package – but oh, how he wants to! So, instead of opening it, he tries to figure out what must be inside. It could be a race car, Shorty decides, so he will drive the car-containing box; and he does just that, with a “vroom vrooom vroooom” that soon becomes a “CRASH!” Oops. But at least the box bounced back from the crash – maybe that means it has a trampoline inside. “I will not open Clem’s package,” Shorty repeats to himself, but he can jump on it! So the box gets partly crushed and makes a “thump” noise – which leads Shorty to decide that there must be bongos inside, so he plays them by “playing” the box, which he does with considerable enthusiasm and by use of his tail as well as his arms. Wait! No, there are no bongos in the box, thinks Shorty. There are monkeys in it – he just has to see them. But…but…this is Clem’s package. Now what? Well, suffice it to say that Shorty’s self-control goes only so far, and that when Clem comes back, “he is going to be so mad.” And Clem does come back – with a surprise for Shorty that goes beyond the surprise of the box and its contents. The result is that everything works out just fine, Shorty and Clem are closer than ever, and the super-silly illustrations (against plain white backgrounds) manage to convey a wide range of emotions without ever letting things get too serious. Parents may have to reinforce the lesson that it is not really all right to open anything addressed to someone else – but at the same time, they will find that Shorty & Clem neatly and very cutely addresses kids’ insatiable curiosity, and the difficulty of waiting even a tiny bit longer for whatever super surprise is just about to be revealed.

(++++) MARVELS IN, AND OUT OF, THIS WORLD


Seven Wonders of the Solar System. By David A. Aguilar. Viking. $18.99.

Tornadoes. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.

     Imagine a book that actually takes young readers to the far reaches of the solar system to observe some of the marvels in Earth’s immediate cosmic neighborhood. There is no such thing, of course, but Seven Wonders of the Solar System represents an excellent approximation, using scientific information from the Smithsonian Institution and fine writing and illustration by David A. Aguilar to invite readers to participate in space exploration in a way that few, if any, will ever be able to do physically. The “seven wonders” notion is a clever approach, based on the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, which Aguilar explains at the book’s start – also discussing how six of the seven have long since disappeared (only the pyramid of Khufu in Egypt remains). After this introduction, it is on to Mars, site of a volcano so huge that “if you stood on the surface of Olympus Mons, you could not see it as a mountain: both the top and the bottom would be hidden by the curved horizon of Mars.” Aguilar soon goes on to explain the ancient history of Mars, where “lava flowed down the sides of these volcanoes like rust-tinged honey” and greenhouse-gas accumulation temporarily caused Mars to warm up – after which, over millions of years, Mars became the planetwide desert we believe it to be today. After further discussion, Aguilar takes readers farther into space, to the Jovian moon called Europa, which just may have the necessary ingredients to harbor life. This leads to an excellent discussion of what those ingredients are, and of why water – which is crucial to all life as we know it – may still be on Europa despite its vast distance from the sun: “[L]ike two kids pulling on either end of a rope, Jupiter and Europa are in a constant gravitational tug-of-war. …To make things even more difficult, gravitational fields generated by Jupiter’s other moons Ganymede and Io also pull on Europa, causing large tidal fluctuations that produce huge amounts of internal heat. This is why Europa’s oceans remain liquid and do not freeze.” The clarity and fascination of this and Aguilar’s other explanations are intended for readers ages 10 and up – but even adults will learn quite a bit from this excellently researched, clearly presented and beautifully illustrated book. Saturn’s rings are the third “wonder” explored here, followed by “Titan, the largest and most intriguing moon of Saturn, [which] is bigger than the planet Mercury.” The fifth “wonder” is the distant dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon, which look absolutely amazing as portrayed here. The sixth is something really strange and very much in the forefront of current astronomical exploration: Planet Nine, “a world so dark and distant, it would be easy to miss,” and one that may or may not exist – here Aguilar explains the evidence suggesting it is out there “at a distance of six hundred times farther away than the Earth is from the sun” and “fifteen times farther away from Earth than Pluto is.” What could possibly be a seventh “wonder” after that? Aguilar’s answer: our own Earth and Moon, whose special nature Aguilar explains by relating our familiar “neighborhood” to those explored earlier in the book. Seven Wonders of the Solar System is so well-done that readers may wish there were more than seven wonders – and of course there are, as Aguilar explains. He gives a few additional examples near the back of the book, then says that they “would have to be visited on future trips.” Readers enchanted by this book – and it does a remarkable job of making science and space exploration enchanting – will likely hope that Aguilar will return in the future with a guidebook to additional wonders. While they are waiting, one way they can pass the time is by doing something that Aguilar himself did and that he explains how kids can do on their own: make a model of Mars’ Olympus Mons. Talk about hands-on science: here is a project with “materials [that] are simple, inexpensive, and easy to find,” but that will introduce interested readers not only to model-making like Aguilar’s but also to “imagination, of course!” And that will ultimately take young readers – some of them, although not all – outward to observe the wonders of our solar system for themselves.

     Seymour Simon’s Tornadoes, like so many of his many, many other books (more than 300 in all!), is written for younger readers – ages 6-10 rather than 10 and up. But Simon’s science is as well-considered and well-researched as that of Aguilar, and Tornadoes shows that for all the marvels out in space, there are plenty of amazing things right here on Earth as well. Tornadoes originally dates to 1999 and has now been updated and re-released, and it is every bit as timely as when it originally appeared – and contains new material to go with the outstanding (often beautiful, often scary) photographs. Simon does his usual first-rate job of making a phenomenon intelligible and then explaining how it comes to be: a picture superimposing a coil on a thunderstorm illustrates the way in which downdrafts and updrafts in thunderstorms “continue feeding warm humid air into the spreading thunderhead cloud” in a way that can lead to a tornado’s birth. He discusses supercells, which can form from smaller storms, and shows how they can lead to tornadoes – most often between April and June in the central U.S. region known as “tornado alley,” although tornadoes can and do occur elsewhere and at other times of the year. Simon makes the power of these hyper-dangerous storms clear both through pictures and with words: “One monster tornado that touched down in Illinois in 1990 lifted a twenty-ton trailer truck from a highway and bounced it up and down like a ball before depositing it in a field eleven hundred feet away.” Simon talks about single tornadoes and multiple ones produced by the same storm, and discusses the EF scale for rating tornadoes – explaining that fewer than one tornado in 100 is an EF-5, the strongest and most dangerous type, and only two of every 100 are almost-as-deadly EF-4s. And he provides age-appropriate instructions on staying safe in case a tornado is thought to be forming, including some information that parents as well as kids will definitely want to have. For example: “Getting into a bathtub and putting a couch cushion over you helps protect you on all sides. Bathtubs are usually solidly anchored to the ground and sometimes are the only things left in place after a tornado hits.” Tornadoes, like other Simon books about natural disasters, manages to instill tremendous respect for the phenomenon – and a certain amount of well-placed fear – without terrifying young readers to such a point that they will be frightened every time a thunderstorm occurs. Simon, who is now 85 years old, has lost none of his ability to communicate with accuracy and clarity – or, as is the case with Tornadoes, to update earlier works while retaining their fine narrative pace and scientific quality.

(+++) TEENAGE ANGST TAMED? NOT QUITE


Crazy-Stressed: Saving Today’s Overwhelmed Teens with Love, Laughter, and the Science of Resilience. By Michael J. Bradley, Ed.D. AMACOM. $17.95.

     The well has pretty much run dry for books telling Baby Boomers all the things they are doing wrong in raising children and all the things they should do instead – most Boomers are now past childbearing years and becoming grandparents. This opens up a whole new opportunity, however: books telling members of Generation X all the things they are doing wrong in raising children and all the things they should do instead. The few Boomers still (or again) involved in child-rearing can come along for the ride. And so we have books such as Crazy-Stressed, in which family counselor and frequent media pundit Michael J. Bradley explores methods for GenX parents to use to talk to their teenagers in ways that will help them teach their teens the resilience they will need to cope with the inevitable setbacks in their lives. One wonders whether Bradley himself is as eminently reasonable with his two teenage children as he tells parents they need to be. If so, he may be a candidate for sainthood, or the parental equivalent – although, to be fair, Bradley is a psychologist who specializes in issues involving teenagers and their parents, so his behavior at home is presumably a continuation of his daily work rather than a completely different and differently stressful part of his life, as it inevitably will be for virtually all his readers.

     Crazy-Stressed starts from the premise that today’s world is uniquely pressure-inducing for teenagers, with 24/7 connectivity requiring teens to be “on” and involved with others at all times – and with pop culture that glorifies vapid celebrities, violence and sex, plus peer pressure whose behavioral elements involve sex and drugs and those ever-present social media. In truth, except for the technological elements, there is little that is different for teens today from the stressors faced by teens in the past; and even today’s technology is a substitute for other forms of onetime peer connectivity rather than something altogether new. Nevertheless, in the grand tradition of “this time it’s different,” Bradley suggests that the world of today’s teens requires their parents to do and not do a variety of specific things in order to pave the way for teenagers to grow into responsible, self-managing adults. Carefully arranged and nurtured parenting, for which parents presumably have nearly infinite time, is what is called for. What is surprising (or not) is that Bradley’s recommendations to parents are no different from those made to Baby Boomers and, no doubt in different ways, to earlier generations that did not have the dubious benefit of widely promoted self-help books. To name a few: parents need to pick the right time to communicate with teens, avoid telling them too much or speaking to them too loudly or emphatically, ask questions instead of lecturing and giving parental answers, take their cues from teens’ love of short messaging to keep interactions minimal but very frequent, and walk away if attempted communication provokes anger instead of aiding understanding. There is nothing new here whatsoever, except that Bradley dresses up the advice neatly in the latest scientific research on teenage brain development, comprehension and sleep deprivation. Unfortunately, he does not tell parents how to find the time in their lives for, say, a dozen short face-to-face interactions that would collectively take the place of a single longer one.

     But putting all that aside, what Bradley advocates here is helping teenagers develop personality traits that are identical to those advocated, in not-very-different language, for the teens of Baby Boomers. The longstanding notion of creating acronyms or using a series of identical letters to describe desirable characteristics stays true to form in Crazy-Stressed, with all seven crucial traits beginning with the letter C. The C sequence is the heart of Bradley’s book. Competence, he argues, requires parents to encourage unstructured activities – not sports, for example, but rock bands, through which teens can learn compromise, planning and management of frustration (actually, sports would seem to teach the same things, but Bradley says no). Confidence is built by having parents react positively to teens’ positive qualities, such as integrity and compassion – although Bradley has little to say about how parents should handle creating confidence-building qualities in teens who do not have them, that being different from encouraging qualities that are present already. Connection requires parents to make the family home an unfailing source of safety and security – an excellent idea whose implementation is far tougher than Bradley indicates. Character means what it always has: possessing a firm sense of right and wrong, which Bradley assumes parents can help teens develop through talks about values – an optimistic idea that some families will likely find impossible. Control has to do with feeling in charge of one’s life, a particularly tough challenge for teens, who are constantly subjected to pressure from adults and peer groups – the idea that parents can nurture this feeling by repeatedly calling attention to teens’ successes and good works is one genuinely useful element of Bradley’s book, although this is scarcely an original notion. Coping means being able to handle life’s inevitable setbacks, and this means parents must allow those setbacks to occur instead of running interference – a rather unexceptionable bit of thinking, since there is no possible way that parents will ever be able to shield teens from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (that, by the way, is from Hamlet, a play whose wisdom appears nowhere in this book). The seventh C-word here is Contribution, which Bradley takes to mean helping teens learn to improve the world without expecting anything in return – a very, very tall order indeed for a great many teens and, for that matter, a great many parents.

     The subtitle of Bradley’s book contains the word “laughter,” but there is precious little of it in the book itself, and that is a shame. One thing Bradley misses is the importance of parents finding ways to teach teens not to take everything with an infinity of intensity. “Don’t take life so serious, son – it ain’t nohow permanent,” was a wonderful bit of philosophy from the comic strip Pogo, which neither today’s teens nor their parents likely know, but from which all of them could benefit. Indeed, the leavening effect of supportive humor – not the sarcasm of Dilbert or the darkness of Pearls Before Swine – can go a long way toward making the inevitable problems and troubles of the teenage years more bearable. But GenX parents will find mostly sober, well-considered advice here, with little in the way of “lighten up” thinking. Unfortunately, the result is that living with teenagers (the extent to which parents “raise” teens is itself debatable) seems even more difficult, time-consuming and complex at the end of Crazy-Stressed than at the beginning. The book is likely to make time-pressed, financially stressed, perpetually exhausted parents (of any generation) feel they are just not measuring up to Bradley’s high standards. And that is too bad, because perfectionism in dealing with teenagers is, in reality, no more possible to attain than perfectionism in most human endeavors. By providing step-by-step prescriptions that many parents will not have the time, energy or emotional wherewithal to accept and implement, Bradley sets parents up for failure in a way that is bound to boost their stress levels and carry through to become yet another of the many stressors affecting, and afflicting, the teenagers of today – as they have affected and afflicted teens since time immemorial.

(++++) MUSICAL CHANCE-TAKERS


Schubert: Piano Sonatas Nos. 20, D. 959, and 21, D. 960; Brahms: Seven Fantasies, Op. 116; Three Intermezzos, Op. 117; Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118; Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119. Jorge Federico Osorio, piano. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).

François-André Philidor: Sinfonias 1 and 5 from “L’Art de la Modulation”; Michel Blavet: Sonata Seconda, Op. 2; Rameau: Excerpts from “Les Boréades,” “Les Fêtes de l’Hymen” and “Dardanus”; Jean-Pierre Guignon: Les Sauvages; Jacques Duphly: Pièces de Clavecin. Les Délices (Debra Nagy, baroque oboe; Julie Andrijeski and Karina Schmitz, baroque violins; Emily Walhout, viola da gamba; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord). Navona. $14.99.

     The willingness to take chances is a distinguishing feature of artists who want to continue to grow beyond their existing accomplishments. And when chance-taking succeeds, the results can be remarkable, as they are in Jorge Federico Osorio’s new two-CD recording of Schubert and Brahms piano works for Cedille. Osorio has recorded two of the four sets of late Brahms piano miniatures before, and has established a strong reputation as a sensitive, elegant Brahms interpreter. But he has never recorded anything by Schubert, and the formidable last sonatas are a very challenging place to start. Schubert’s three final sonatas, D. 958, D. 959, and D. 960, respectively in C minor, A major and B-flat major, are towering works in their own right, lengthy and complex and structurally challenging; they are also reflective of Schubert’s fascination with Beethoven and apparently of his own emotional state, on the basis of their inclusion of references to some of his earlier works, such as Winterreise. The fluidity of key changes, the complexity of themes and their development, and the sheer scale of these works – D. 959 and D. 960 run some 40 minutes apiece – show Schubert scaling new structural and emotional heights that build on a great deal of his earlier material. And the sonatas are a huge challenge to pianists, not only in their virtuosity, which is really of secondary importance, but also in their size and temperament and the need to maintain a forward flow over long periods while still carefully expressing the intricacies of individual movements and portions of movements. Osorio turns the final two sonatas into the bookends of a two-CD set offered at the price of a single disc, which would make this a bargain even if the performances were less impressive than they are. But they are so good that the major disappointment of this release is that D. 958 is omitted – Osorio clearly has understanding and affinity for these works that would surely be just as clear at the start of the trilogy as they are in its latter two-thirds. Osorio builds to climaxes carefully, choose tempos wisely, and handles the very large first movements of both these sonatas with care and attentiveness throughout. And he paints a highly expressive and convincing canvas for both works, even though neither offers the usual pacing for a slow movement: D. 959 has an Andantino and D. 960 an Andante sostenuto (it is D. 958 that includes an Adagio). Osorio’s accomplishments in the Schubert are wonderfully contrasted with and complemented by his handling of the four sets of complex, emotionally charged “miniatures” by Brahms – works that are short but in no way small. The vast majority of these pieces were labeled Intermezzo by Brahms – 14 of the 20 works in the four sets – and Osorio’s intriguing performances set up the curious, imaginative question of the sort of work within which each “intermezzo” might appear. The other six works – three marked Capriccio and one each called Ballade, Romanze, and Rhapsody – receive the sort of sensitively variegated treatment that makes the distinctive features of each piece stand out while also fitting each work neatly within the particular set into which Brahms placed it. This release bears the overall title “Final Thoughts,” referring to the fact that the pieces on it are the last ones for piano by these two composers. But surely these are not and will not be Osorio’s final thoughts on these works or on others by these composers (including, perhaps in a future recording, Schubert’s D. 958). Osorio is a pianist of sensitivity and nuance, and here shows himself capable of handling self-contained miniatures and large, even sprawling multi-movement sonatas with equal skill and involvement. To the extent that he takes chances in this recording, he succeeds with them admirably.

     Speaking of titles, that of the new Navona release featuring the ensemble called Les Délices is “Age of Indulgence,” and it is in being indulgent of their interest in late-Baroque French composers that these performers take their chances in this recording. Only two of the composers here are at all well-known: Rameau and, to a lesser extent, Philidor. Offering their music along with works by three very infrequently heard composers is part of the chance-taking. Also, like Osorio’s CD, this one uses musical bookends, here in the performance of two four-movement, fugue-focused sinfonias from Philidor’s L’Art de la Modulation to open and close the disc. These prove to be very intriguing works, filled with chromaticism, unexpected harmonies and unusual modulations. This is very late Baroque music, dating to 1755 – just a year before Mozart’s birth. So some of its harmonic daring is not entirely surprising. But as heard here on excellently played original instruments, it is revelatory of the ways in which late-Baroque thinking shaded into that of the Classical era. Blavet’s Sonata Seconda features virtuoso playing reminiscent of that required for Vivaldi’s music, but there is fluidity to the complex oboe part that is certainly more French than Italian in spirit. The five excerpts from operas by Rameau include two from an opera that was really post-Baroque: Les Boréades dates to 1763, and although it sensibilities are similar to those of other Rameau works, some of its musical techniques are more forward-looking than those of the excerpt from Les Fêtes de l’Hymen (1747) and the two from Dardanus (1744). A particular gem on this release is Guignon’s Les Sauvages, which is for two violins: it interweaves the instruments very skillfully while providing considerable drama and truly impressive use of the violins’ virtuoso capabilities. Duphly’s two pieces for solo harpsichord make an excellent contrast to Guignon’s music: they are perhaps the most traditionally Baroque works here in terms of harmony and their overall sound, skillfully made and with some attractive flourishes but without the sense of boundaries breaking, or about to break, that comes to the fore in several of the other pieces on the disc. The musicians of Les Délices, a group founded as recently as 2009, are not only skilled performers – individually and together – but also strong advocates for the special pleasures of this set of works. Few if any of these pieces will be familiar to most listeners, but all of them, in addition to being delightful to hear, shed clear light on an important transitional time in classical music.

May 11, 2017

(++++) WELCOME A BOARD (OR TWO)


Bob and Flo and the Missing Bucket. By Rebecca Ashdown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Bob and Flo Play Hide-and-Seek. By Rebecca Ashdown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     It is not unusual for books for young children to be transformed into books for the youngest children – that is, into board books. But some transitions seem easier and more natural than others, and the “Penguin Friends at Preschool” books by Rebecca Ashdown are particularly well-suited for board-book transformation. Really, the original hardcover versions of Bob and Flo and Bob and Flo Play Hide-and-Seek will appeal (and do appeal) to pre-readers and very young readers already. The penguin preschool and the readily understandable, mundane adventures that Bob, Flo and the other penguins have there are fun not only for preschoolers but also for children too young to be going to preschool – call them pre-preschoolers.

     However, in their new board-book format, these little penguin adventures are even easier to hold, and follow, and enjoy, for children too young to read the stories on their own, or perhaps just learning to recognize a few words here and there. Bob and Flo and the Missing Bucket introduces the title characters, as Flo starts preschool by bringing her lunch of raw fish in a red bucket. Flo meets several other penguins, including Bob, who admires her bucket – which soon turns up missing. For the rest of the book, Bob has the bucket (wearing it on his head, using it to climb on, filling it with sand to make sand castles, and so forth); and Flo, diligently searching for the bucket, does not notice that Bob took it and is playing with it. Or perhaps she does know what is going on: she eventually finds it at the bottom of the slide, with Bob stuck at the slide’s top. “Flo knew what to do,” Ashdown explains, and so Flo fills the bucket with water and uses it to “whoosh” Bob off the top of the slide’s ladder and down the slide itself, after which Flo and Bob play for the rest of the preschool day – until, on the way home, Flo reminds Bob not to forget “our” bucket the next day. The adorable penguin drawings and the gentle formation of friendship – in a situation that could have caused anger and hurt feelings – make Bob and Flo and the Missing Bucket a charmer of a story, and one with a lesson that is quite suitable for pre-preschoolers.

     Bob and Flo Play Hide-and-Seek has the two titular penguins more used to preschool and each other. The hide-and-seek game starts because it is a rainy day, and the other penguins at first do not recognize Bob when he walks in underneath an umbrella. There is some lovely age-appropriate writing here as the hide-and-seek game – involving Bob hiding and Flo and a penguin named Sam searching for him – begins: “Counting to twenty is hard. So Flo and Sam counted to ten. Twice!” The small problem in this book is that Bob does not quite understand what it means to hide. He stands in plain sight and covers his eyes, as if that will prevent others from seeing him; then, told to hide behind something, he holds up a pot from the play stove in front of his face – but again leaves his body fully visible. Bob is puzzled at being found so easily, but promises to try once more. And this time he concocts an elaborate plan to build a sort-of-penguin-shaped-and-colored stack of blocks and hide behind it. Now Flo and Sam cannot find Bob at all, until he choose to burst out and reveal himself – again, a small and simple lesson learned enjoyably and at just the right level for kids who will be attracted to these prettily illustrated, nicely paced and well-plotted books. The board-book changeover here is complete and completely successful.

(++++) SOME OF EVERYTHING


Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos. By Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw. Da Capo. $35.

     If you are wondering not only how the universe works but also why it works the way it does and not some other way, Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos is your kind of book. It is also physics professors’ kind of book: Brian Cox is a professor of particle physics and Jeff Forshaw is a professor of theoretical physics, both at the University of Manchester in England. Clearly, Cox and Forshaw spend their academic time with their heads way up in the clouds – more accurately, way up above the clouds. But they obviously come down to Earth periodically, if only to provide mere non-mathematically-inclined mortals with lucid and fascinating explanations of how things are and why they are that way. The “why that way?” notion is central to the book, with Cox and Forshaw explaining that an important element of cosmic science involves determining the same measurement by different means. Thus, an estimate of the sun’s age on the basis of how nuclear fusion works and how much heat reaches Earth gives about the same result for the age of the solar system (4.6 billion years) as an estimate of Earth’s age based on radioactive decay in planetary rocks. Casting doubt on any single measurement is relatively easy, Cox and Forshaw explain, but “it is usually extremely difficult to argue for a radical change in one area without making large parts of the whole interlinked edifice inconsistent.”

     The “edifice” here is science itself, and scientific inquiry. Universal is as much about the scientific method and the way scientists explore the cosmos as it is about intriguing specifics such as the Big Bang, supernovas, and dark matter. One thing Cox and Forshaw do exceptionally well here is to start by applying the scientific method to matters close to home and then gradually (and without too much higher mathematics) extend inquiry farther and farther out, into more and more complex and outré regions. Thus, the how-old-is-Earth question appears early in the book and leads Cox and Forshaw into well-paced, understandable discussions of plate tectonics and radioisotope dating, with everything they present involving observation, collection of evidence, and the application of logic to reach conclusions that can then be further tested using, ideally, different  methodologies. The authors’ quotation of Richard Feynman at one point is a wonderful kernel of explanation. Feynman said that the search for a new law of nature starts with a guess, then a computation of the consequences of the guess to see what would happen if the guess is correct – and then a comparison of the computation with nature “to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.”

     This is a marvelous encapsulation that Cox and Forshaw have clearly taken to heart. Readers will be amazed at how easy it can be for anyone to test some important scientific hypotheses – for instance, an experiment to show the largest size an atom can be requires only cooking oil, a paper clip, a ruler and a bowl of water. Furthermore, entirely mundane matters are shown in Universal to be the foundation of extremely complex forms of observation and calculation. Take parallax, which is crucial to determining astronomical distances. Cox and Forshaw start by showing how it can be used to calculate the length of your own arm by holding a finger in front of you: the left and right eye see things differently, so by closing one and then the other, you can figure out the arm’s length based on how the apparent position of the finger changes. One of the many simple but elegant illustrations here shows how exactly the same procedure can be used to find the distance from Earth to Neptune, with your eyes being replaced for diagram purposes by the Earth in two different orbital positions and with Neptune representing the finger. It is this sort of clarity-through-extension that makes Universal so eminently readable and so marvelously informative. Colorful photos help enliven the book and enhance the explanations as well.

     What permeates this book is not only knowledge but also enthusiasm, and that is a source of much of the strength of Universal. Cox and Forshaw manage to deal with questions as huge as how much the universe weighs and what happened before the Big Bang (if that question even has any meaning) – without resorting to extreme complexities of calculation (the stuff that they surely use in their own everyday professorial lives) and without distorting the science they are explaining. They end up being near-perfect advocates both for the scientific method and for training top scientific minds to communicate with mere nonscientific mortals with tremendous insight and clarity – and without ever making non-scientists feel they are being talked down to, or that the tremendous difficulties of cutting-edge experimentation and analysis are being “dumbed down” to such a point that they no longer reflect how scientists think and how they test their thoughts for real-world (and real-universe) accuracy.

(++++) PLENTY OF TIME


Time Shifters. By Chris Grine. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

Fart Squad #6: Blast from the Past. By Seamus Pilger. Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. Harper. $15.99.

     A long space ago in a universe far, far away, yet close, close at hand, Luke Timewalker encountered a bumbling scientist, cooperative dinosaur, snarky ghost and robotic Abraham Lincoln, and things started to get strange. Or perhaps they got strange a bit earlier in time in Earth 02725CT, Luke’s universe, when the vampire Napoleon, prone-to-unwrapping mummy, and “a skeleton held together with a pressurized space suit” showed up and offered dialogue such as, “‘If he gets away we’re as good as dead!’ ‘We’re ALREADY dead! ‘ ‘MORE dead!’” Good thing Chris Grine is there to record and report all of this, or it might have gotten confusing. Well, OK, it is confusing anyway, especially when Luke – whose name is not really Timewalker, or even Timeshifter, despite the book’s title – has an extended adventure on Earth 03017RT, where the human-shaped beings are in fact human-sized spiders and insects, even when they are cowboys. The scientist tries to explain all this to Luke: “We are a group of time-traveling, dimension-hopping fugitives on the run from some very unsavory characters,” and that is basically all you need to know to enjoy this ridiculously entertaining romp of a graphic novel. Well, that plus a few other things: Luke is deeply depressed because his older brother died recently when trying to rescue Luke after an attack by a gang of bullies, and the evil henchman trio (Napoleon, mummy, skeleton) has mistaken Luke’s flashlight for a super-powerful device they are trying to bring to their evil boss – a device that wraps itself around Luke’s arm and will not come off after he inadvertently punches in a code at random and then cannot remember it, making it impossible to remove the thing unless, well, unless Luke’s arm goes with it. Luckily, that does not happen – although really, it is not luck but the enormous ineptness of the henchmen that prevents anything too serious from happening to Luke or anyone else (including the henchmen themselves). Unless you count the scene in which Luke, a preteen, almost has to marry a giant bug. Among other elements of Grine’s multiverse: the dinosaur, whose name is Zinc, is beaked, dinosaurs having developed differently where he originated from the way they did on our (and Luke’s) Earth; Zinc also has a large red button on his head, and spends some of the book looking like a really creepy baker-and-clown hybrid (holographically transformed by the scientist); the ghost, a girl named Artemis, was joined to the group by accident and isn’t happy about it; and when the henchmen do not wish to take a cell-phone call from their irascible evil leader, the skeleton lets it go to voice mail, where his message says, “Hey, you reached astronaut skeleton. I’m not available right now because I’m doing amazing things! Leave a message and I’ll call back. Peace!” None of this makes a lick of sense, or even half a lick, and all of it features Grine’s tongue so firmly in his cheek that it’s a wonder he (or any of his characters) can talk at all. Indeed, the single word “buffoonery,” uttered by the scientist in front of “Stinkin’ Stan’s” in the town of Spiderpinch Gulch, while two hombres fight over who has a bigger hat and Luke’s would-be bug bride goes “kissy-slurp” all over his head, nicely encapsulates Time Shifters, which is quite obviously the first of a series that can go on as long as Grine can keep up the ridiculousness. There is a modicum (a small one) of seriousness here, used to set up future adventures: the time-and-universe travelers bring Luke back to his home world and time, where he is able to alter the events of the immediate past so his brother does not die – but that causes an irreversible split in the universe, leaving Luke-with-brother-alive separate from the Luke-with-brother-dead who has had a book-length adventure. So Luke-with-brother-dead has little choice but to become another of the band of intrepid good guys zipping about with no very clear purpose beyond giving readers an exceptionally good roller-coaster of a time. Oh – there is quite a roller-coaster scene in Time Shifters, too. After all, why not?

     And why not send the Fart Squad back to the past? That seems to be what Seamus Pilger was wondering when he created the sixth and possibly (hopefully) final installment of a series of (++) and (+++) books in which Pilger and illustrator Stephen Gilpin started with the premise, “Lots of books for ages 6-10 make bodily-noises and odor jokes, so let’s build a whole series of books around bodily noises and odors!” This means the characters live in Buttzville, the bad-guy kid is named Harry Buttz II (or “Number Two”), the good guys have names such as Stonkadopolis and Heiney, and the Fart Squad’s powers involve emitting gas in various unpleasant ways after ingesting tacos – or, in the case of Blast from the Past, a Turbo Taco that leads to emissions to powerful that they create a time-spanning whirlwind. This brings the odoriferous squad directly to Tusheeburgh, Scotland, where they must overcome the dreaded Knights of Tushée (“pronounced Tu-shay,” the heroes are told) and destroy a Royal Butt Scratcher that is responsible for an epidemic of itching afflicting modern-day Buttzville. If you think the plot, umm, stinks, and you think that is a bad thing, you are outside the target audience for this book, whose best lines are given to Walter Turnip, the overweight, well-spoken team member whose emissions allow him to fly: “I do not believe that any amount of superpowered flatulence can actually disrupt the space-time continuum.” A lot he knows: back in time the four smelly squad members go, accompanied – as it turns out – by Number Two and his two hulking and smelly-in-a-different-way henchpeople (who disdain bathing). Lines such as “I believe I have just run out of gas” appear in abundance here, and narration such as, “Darren had to bear down and push like he was giving birth to fart-uplets just to get a laser-thin butt torch going.” Gilpin’s illustrations fit the story as well here as in the previous five books, and Pilger’s narration is also perfectly apt for a story in which the four protagonists are distinguished entirely by the nature of their bodily emissions. Missing here is the Fart Squad’s trainer, Janitor Stan, the squad’s “scent-sei,” who may finally have had enough of the whole stinky enterprise – perhaps he decided to sit this one out on the nearest available commode. Kids who found the earlier Fart Squad books hilarious will enjoy this one, too: there are plenty more smell-and-sound jokes here to go with those from earlier in the series. And perhaps now Pilger and Gilpin will admit that the entire sequence has finally run out of gas.

(+++) BAD GIRLS


Electric Empire #3: The Dastardly Miss Lizzie. By Viola Carr. Harper Voyager. $15.99.

The Summer of Bad Ideas. By Kiera Stewart. Harper. $16.99.

     The finale of The Electric Empire trilogy wraps things up pretty neatly even though it never quite fulfills the promise of the first book, The Diabolical Miss Hyde. That book set forth the series’ intriguing premise, in which Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll had a daughter with the same deeply split personality – and she lived in an alternative universe within the steampunk genre. Feminism plus steampunk made for a heady start to the series that was not fully carried through in the second book, The Devious Dr. Jekyll. Nor is the rather lumbering (at first) third novel at quite as high a level as the series starter. The Dastardly Miss Lizzie is a 450-page book with about 200 really exciting pages at the end – the problem is wading through the earlier material to get there. Most of the book is told from the viewpoint of Eliza Jekyll, who has become a less-interesting character as the series has gone on. Hypocritical and repressive of the increasingly powerful, capricious and ever-more-interesting Lizzie Hyde, Eliza here operates in a world filled with whiffs of H.G. Wells. Eliza is a crime-scene physician, and in this book she is trying to figure out links among several inventors who have been gruesomely murdered. So far, so good. But Viola Carr goes considerably farther. There is a Soho Slasher here, an obvious echo of Jack the Ripper, who is killing prostitutes and who may, just may, turn out to be Eliza’s father, Edward Hyde. There is also royal intrigue and a threat of French terrorists, elements that lead to extended and exceptionally dull dialogue about politics between Eliza and her fiancé, lycanthrope and Royal Society agent Remy Lafayette – the names and events in these scenes have little to no bearing on the primary plot line. The Dastardly Miss Lizzie is the most complicated book of this trilogy and the most unwieldy, offering multiple twists as it casts its net widely before eventually tying things up very neatly (although very bloodily) in those final fast-paced and well-written pages. Carr again does a nice job with the atmospheric scene-setting, and the increasing tension between Eliza and Lizzie is handled well. But there is just too much packed into The Dastardly Miss Lizzie for the book to hold together well. For example, there are some important revelations about Remy – but they occur while he is away. Indeed, Remy remains something of a cardboard character, which is scarcely surprising in a novel of this type but is disappointing because Carr has shown in this trilogy that she can give characters depth when she so chooses. Ultimately, The Dastardly Miss Lizzie provides a satisfying series conclusion for readers who enjoyed the first two books and can push themselves through the sluggish pace of the early part of this one. The eventual wrapup does not disappoint, but the journey to it is less involving than it could be.

     In a sense, The Electric Empire trilogy is a version for adults of the “who am I really?” stories that pervade books for preteens and young teenagers. Building on Stevenson and Wells gives Carr’s work a less formulaic feeling than books for younger readers that come across as if they were constructed primarily on other books for the same age group. A typical example is Kiera Stewart’s The Summer of Bad Ideas. It is an unexceptional story of friendship and of finding oneself during an adventurous summer. The protagonist, Edith (who prefers to be called Edie), has heard herself described as boring at a recent social event. She has an overprotective mother and a father who thinks he is so cool – in other words, the usual feckless and unaware parents. And she has precocious twin younger siblings who are geniuses – in other words, the usual “better-than-me” characters to whom the protagonist gets to compare herself. On top of that, Edie has a cousin named Rae who is genuinely cool, whom she meets at their recently deceased grandmother’s home in Florida, which the families need to clean up and clean out. The grandmother, Petunia, turns out to have been eccentric and a bit of a local legend – in other words, another character cooler than Edie. Obviously Edie has to do something to assert herself, and she finds a route to that through a list of “good ideas for summertime” that Petunia wrote when she was Edie’s and Rae’s age. Really, these are bad ideas by Edie’s standards, since all are adventurous, and some are stunts that may even be dangerous or at least scary (“catch a snake bare-handed”). So the question is: will Edie use these “bad ideas” to find out more about who she really is and to create a place for herself in the family and away from the description of “boring”? The answer, completely unsurprisingly, is yes. But if there is nothing the slightest bit unusual in this come-of-age-and-out-of-your-shell story (which even includes a touch of age-appropriate romance), it at least has engaging elements: both Edie and Rae are likable, in different ways, and there is a slight touch of reality in having the Florida trip result from the death of a grandparent – for some reason, books for preteens tend unrealistically to feature dead parents and siblings rather than deceased grandparents. Stewart writes nicely for her intended audience, if not especially stylishly, and the book is well-paced and will likely appeal to girls in the 8-12 age group (it is clearly aimed at girls, not boys). Although ultimately forgettable, The Summer of Bad Ideas has enough interesting elements as it runs its course to make it a pleasant read – one that may be especially appropriate as a summertime “escape” book.

(+++) STRIVING TO BE NEW


Alfred Janson: Variations over Variations over a Norwegian Folk Tune; Jan Erik Mikalsen: Songr for Orchestra; Knut Vaage: Mylder; Maja S.K. Ratkje: Paragraf 12. Tine Thing Helseth, trumpet; Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Aurora. $18.99.

Andrew Schultz: Falling Man/Dancing Man; John A. Carollo: Let Freedom Ring; The Transformation of Giovanni Baudino; R. Barry Ulrich: Russian Winter; J.A. Kawarsky: Episodes. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $14.99.

Splitting Adams. Alarm Will Sound conducted by Alan Pierson. Cantaloupe Music. $15.

     A characteristic of a great deal of contemporary sort-of-classical music is that it is determined not to be classical music. Composers want the gravitas associated with longstanding classical forms and methods, but do not want to be seen as old-fashioned through slavish adherence to anything that has stood the test of time but now seems stilted and out-of-date to – well, to whom, exactly? Much contemporary sort-of-classical music seems to be in a search of an audience – not sticking to the clichés of dull pop music made from the same set of repetitive chords, but not seeking or wanting comparison with the larger-scale and grander works for which classical music has been known for centuries. This creates a neither-here-nor-there idiom in which composers’ borrowings from earlier composers and from types of music acknowledged as non-classical (jazz, folk, “world,” electronic) become as much the point as anything within any individual piece. “The medium is the massage” may seem as hopelessly naïve now as it seemed revolutionary when Marshall McLuhan was alive, but in many pieces we are closer to the common misquotation of McLuhan’s formulation: “The medium is the message.”

     This approach, and the music that results from it, can be polarizing, but they do not have to be. It is entirely possible to understand what is going on in music assembled this way without getting into a love-it-or-hate-it dichotomy. The music may simply be interesting – as is all the music on these determined-to-be-“with-it” releases – without necessarily moving a listener to any sort of emotional extreme, or even any significant degree of emotional involvement. Thus, Variations over Variations by Alfred Janson, written for trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth and performed by him on a new Aurora CD, is easy to admire: it takes Grieg’s Ballade in G minor, already a set of variations, and creates variations upon it (hence Janson’s work’s title) – using jazz techniques and others from outside the essentially classical idiom that Grieg employed even when utilizing folk music as a basic element of his work. Grieg’s ballade is on the melancholic side, and is worked with considerable subtlety; Janson’s variations on it are more forthright, warmer and more readily comprehensible – and thus perhaps more suitable for a musical age not particularly renowned for subtlety of expression. Helseth and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya handle the music quite well, allowing listeners drawn into it to experience Helseth’s considerable technical virtuosity in the context that Janson chooses to give it within a kind of “meta-Grieg” work. The other new Norwegian works on this release are for orchestra only. Songr by Jan Erik Mikalsen is a substantial piece – even longer than Janson’s concerto – that draws on folk music directly, not through the filter of an earlier composer. Its methods are fairly straightforward in contrasting big, full-orchestra sounds with delicate sonic pictures painted by individual instruments or small groups. It feels overextended but is often aurally interesting. Mylder by Knut Vaage also uses unsurprising techniques – here, speedy and slower sections – and some quicksilver quotations of other works to spin a multicolored piece that is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. And Paragraf 112 by Maja S.K. Ratkje refers in its title to a part of Norway’s constitution giving citizens rights to a carefully managed environment – a prescient item from 1814 or a hopelessly naïve one, depending on one’s viewpoint. In standard contemporary fashion, the music tries to make the orchestra sound different from the way it usually does in classical music, the apparent aim being to show the danger of ignoring environmental attentiveness. There is nothing especially compelling in any of these works, but listeners who would like to hear how Norwegian music has built on and moved beyond that of Grieg will find much of interest here.

     There is no unifying theme of nationality on a new Navona release featuring music by Andrew Schultz, John A. Carollo, R. Barry Ulrich and J.A. Kawarsky. Indeed, there is no unifying musical theme at all. To the extent to which this anthology has anything that unites it, it is a kind of philosophical underpinning in which composers try to represent, in music, elements of the difficulties of the human experience and methods of coping with such troubles. Thus, Falling Man/Dancing Man, for solo organ (Karel Martinek) and orchestra, is a work of musical contrasts reflecting the visual ones that inspired it: a photo of a man leaping from the burning World Trade Center in 2001 and one of a joyous celebration in Sydney, Australia, at the end of World War II. Let Freedom Ring by John A. Carollo is a celebration of American patriotism – one sounding quite different from Ratkje’s homage to Norway’s environmental concerns – but is written in a minor key, setting up an unsettling question as to just what is being celebrated and why. Carollo’s other work here, The Transformation of Giovanni Baudino, offers a series of quick mood changes reflecting the ups and downs, successes and failures inherent in everyday life. Russian Winter, an excerpt from R. Barry Ulrich’s G minor suite for strings, is directly evocative of Russia’s tundra and sounds a bit like a work of homage to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”), which is in the same key. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský handles all the works sensitively, and the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande does a fine job with the last offering on the CD, Episodes by J.A. Kawarsky. Here a central role is given to the piano (Peter Laul) in a work that, like The Transformation of Giovanni Baudino, draws on the overall theme of change and life’s unpredictability – in this case with a series of calls-and-responses between soloist and orchestra that collectively are intended to showcase life’s inevitable ups and downs, and the ways of coping with them. There is nothing really new in any of these works, but all use contemporary understanding of musical communicativeness to try to pull listeners experientially into a world of constant change and the necessity of ongoing adaptability.

     Lest there be any question about what John Adams was trying to do in his Chamber Symphony (1992) and Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), Cantaloupe Music offers extended commentary on the works as part of a new release called Splitting Adams and featuring the instrumental group Alarm Will Sound. Nadia Sirota, who hosts a podcast called Meet the Composer, supplies commentary on the works, as do Alarm Will Sound’s artistic director, Alan Pierson, and Adams himself. This recording is an especially clear example of the way sort-of-classical material is packaged and presented by many organizations today. The release has elements of a podcast, elements of a traditional concert (the chamber symphonies themselves), elements of a tribute to the composer, elements of sound display for its own sake – it is less about the music than about the way the particular creator of this music feels and thinks and thus (the argument goes) inevitably produced these specific works. Although no one involved in the production says so, this release thus becomes a new example of a very old form, in which interpreters try to integrate a creative person’s biographical reality with his or her artistic productions – the extent to which Shakespeare “appears” in his plays, for instance, or Edgar Allan Poe in his stories. There are longstanding and ultimately futile arguments, both literary and psychoanalytic, as to whether it “makes sense” to interpret artistic works with constant reference to biography. Certainly there are things in an individual’s life and intellectual/psychological/emotional makeup that lead the person to create certain things in a certain way – but whether the creations can in essence be mapped to the creator is by no means certain and by no means particularly useful. Those who find the premise intriguing will enjoy the discussion/podcast elements of this release. Those who simply want to hear well-performed versions of the two Adams works can skip the talk and just listen to the music. The aim of the whole production, however, is not strictly musical – that would smack of old-style approaches to classical works. The idea here is to use a well-known, influential modern composer (who himself has numerous supporters and detractors) as the centerpiece of an offering that tries, through both music and words, to explore the artistic experience itself. Those looking for such an exploration are those to whom this recording will be most attractive.

May 04, 2017

(++++) SMALL CHARACTERS, BIG PERSONALITIES


Teddy the Dog: (Almost) Best in Show. By Keri Claiborne Boyle. Pictures by Jonathan Sneider. Harper. $17.99.

Raisin, the Littlest Cow. By Miriam Busch. Illustrated by Larry Day. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     The kids who will read and love these books know all too well what it is like to have a personality that is bigger than one’s physical size. Super-self-confident Teddy the dog has an outsize view of himself and his abilities, and that is just great when he zips through the park on roller blades (wearing a helmet along with his trademark celebrity-style sunglasses), or takes a bubble bath with two rubber ducks and four soothing candles. When it comes to a formal dog show, though – well, Teddy is going to learn a little something about himself. But only a little! Keri Claiborne Boyle keeps this particular voyage of sort-of-self-discovery light throughout, as Teddy is forced to get to the show in an all-cats bus called the “ChauFUR Express” and then immediately starts showing the other contestants all the wrong things to do. Teddy himself – as the pictures by Jonathan Sneider make abundantly clear – is blissfully unaware that there is anything wrong with raiding the judges’ refrigerator and chewing up a fellow contestant’s books. Teddy doesn’t really “get” the dog show, being unwilling to jump “when there’s no food to steal off a counter,” and asking “who would want to sit and stay when you can jump and run?” Good questions, those – but the wrong ones to ask during a competition. “I have standards!” Teddy insists. But so do dog shows, and Teddy eventually realizes that he “just wasn’t cut out for the show life after all.” A trip home, again on the “ChauFUR Express,” gives Teddy time to realize that “we’re all best in our own show,” and that is an apt message for perhaps over-enthusiastic young humans as well.

     Of course, not all young people – or the book characters representing them – have personalities bigger than their bodies. Some are just fine being small, such as Raisin, the Littlest Cow. Raisin is “perfectly content” to be tiny, to be doted on by the larger cows, and to make lists of things she likes (movies, the color brown, sprinklers) and ones she does not like (cauliflower, tomato juice, thunder). One thing Raisin does not like is change: “But change came, as change does,” writes Miriam Busch, and Larry Day shows the big brown cows (remember that Raisin likes that color) rushing away from Raisin (who is black and white) to see Raisin’s mother’s new baby, “who was even smaller than Raisin.” Uh-oh. This happens on a Thursday, and Raisin stomps off and adds Thursdays to the list of things she does not like. And she makes a new list, this one of “places to run away to.” Raisin looks adorable even when she scowls, which is a good thing, since her new baby brother makes her scowl all the time. Invited to name the baby, Raisin – who has already said he looks like a cauliflower – suggests “Thursday,” and then comments, “Thursday smells funny.” Clearly a first-class snit is in progress, driven by sibling rivalry. And as Raisin gets ready to run off (to Jupiter, no less), things get worse: she tries to climb onto buckets to be able to see over a fence and watch a movie at a nearby drive-in theater, but it starts to rain, and then there is thunder, and soon Raisin is running to her mother, all muddy and upset, only to find that the new baby is crying loudly at all the noise – and has eyes that are Raisin’s favorite color, brown. Sure enough, Raisin and the baby bond over their mutual dislike of the noise of the storm, and soon the baby is cooing at Raisin, and Raisin comes up with the perfect baby name: Raindrop. And all ends happily and amusingly, the lesson in this case being that even if it’s great to be small, it’s also great to be a big sibling. And to plan to visit Jupiter with the baby instead of running away there on one’s own.

(++++) SECOND HELPINGS


Stick Cat #2: Cats in the City. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.

Flashback Four #2: The Titanic Mission. By Dan Gutman. Harper. $16.99.

     Tom Watson’s Stick Cat saga, followup and companion to his Stick Dog books, moves into its second volume with what is essentially a repeat of the first. In A Tail of Two Kitties, Watson introduced Stick Cat and gave him a sometime companion named Edith – a rather unpleasant character, thoroughly unaware of pretty much everything about herself, unobservant and selfish to such a degree that she actually put Stick Dog’s life in danger during their first adventure, which involved rescuing a piano tuner working in a building across the street after his arms became trapped in a grand piano whose top fell onto them. Now, in Cats in the City, Stick Cat again has the very dubious help of Edith in a rescue – this time of a woman who runs a bagel shop across the street and who falls into a huge vat of sticky bagel dough and cannot get out. Edith initially refuses to help in this rescue, saying she did this before and other cats should have a turn – and some readers may feel the same way. But others will enjoy the way the two cats play off each other, with Stick Cat clear-thinking and intelligent and Edith a complete birdbrain who is easily offended by almost everything and so egotistical that she only helps Stick Cat when he pretends that all the good ideas are hers and he is duly appreciative of them. Like the rescue of Mr. Music in the first book, the rescue of Hazel the bagel maker in this one involves a dangerous across-the-street trip from the 23rd floor of the building where Stick Cat and Edith live in adjacent apartments – and an even more dangerous return to that building after Hazel is safe. There is plenty about food here, too, although not quite as much as in Watson’s Stick Dog books: here, Edith is preoccupied with lox, which Tiffany, the human with whom Edith lives, brings home and shares with Edith once a week, but which Stick Cat has never tasted. (“Lox” is a plural word here, as in “locks.” This provides a very small touch of humor.) The stick drawings of the two cats, and the super-silly ones of Hazel as Edith imagines all the things she might be doing in that bagel-dough vat (swimming, scuba diving), are light and funny enough to rescue what is essentially the same book that Watson wrote to start this series last year. Barely rescue it. Obviously, if Stick Cat develops a fan base that enjoys Edith’s dangerous arrogance and her mistreatment of Stick Cat, and welcomes the way Stick Cat constantly conceals his own cleverness so Edith can take credit for Stick Cat’s ideas, then Watson will continue the series in this same vein. Of course, as with Stick Dog, Watson is creating these books as if he is a middle-schooler – specifically making the Stick Cat ones for a girl he sorta kinda likes. So the books come by their juvenilia and repetitiveness naturally. And Cats in the City does have its funny moments, even if they are mostly the same funny moments that A Tale of Two Kitties had. The question, then, is whether all the Stick Cat books are simply going to be minor variations on the same rescue-the-human-against-all-odds theme. That worked for Watson once and works again, although certainly not as well, in this second book. What will the third bring?

     This is not to say that Watson is alone in recycling plots and characters from book to book. It is Dan Gutman’s stock-in-trade to do the very same thing, sometimes with greater success and sometimes with less. The (+++) series, Flashback Four, falls into the “less” column. The idea here is that four modern kids, of the now-required gender and racial mixture, become time travelers under the auspices of a mysterious billionaire named Miss Z who has spent more than a billion dollars to invent a device called the TTT, for Text Through Time. TTT lets people in one time period text people in other time periods, and yes, that is even more ridiculous than the underlying premises of other fantasy-adventures for preteens. In fact, it is even more ridiculous than plot points in other supposed-to-be-funny fantasy-adventures for preteens. Flashback Four does try to be amusing, but it mostly comes up lame and seems to be trying too hard. In the first book, The Lincoln Project, Miss Z sent the four preteens back to get a photograph of President Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address – Miss Z has a thing about getting photos of events of which, in the real world, no photos exist, and Gutman uses this tenuous real-world connection to throw in a touch of history that is probably supposed to make the books socially responsible or educationally useful or generally uplifting or something. Well, since there is no photo of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, something had to go wrong, which it did when Miss Z accidentally sent the foursome back one day too early, causing all sorts of complications. In the second book, The Titanic Mission, she blames the kids for messing up the first mission, but ends up sending them back to 1912 anyway, to travel aboard the Titanic and take a photo as it is sinking – another thing that events will, of course, conspire to prevent them from doing. But before events do exactly that (as they must, since no such pictures exist), the kids have the usual complications inherent in a pile of total unbelievability like this one, and the full horror of the Titanic disaster is largely downplayed, just as the full horror of the Civil War was in the first book. This book ends differently from the first one, though, because at its conclusion, the kids – rescued from the sinking ship, of course – are left stranded in the year 1912 and trying to figure out if they can make money to keep themselves going by inventing the zipper five years earlier than it was actually created. That little fact is but one of many scattered about here, and Gutman takes pains after the story ends to explain all the facts about the Titanic that he packed into the book. That is admirable, but the four kids here are so dull and interchangeable despite their differing genders and skin color that it is hard to care much about them – they have less personality than Stick Cat and Edith. Add that to the fact that the story itself is thin and repetitive, and The Titanic Mission becomes a book that will really only interest young readers who were so captivated by the mixture of fantasy and fact in the series’ first novel that they cannot wait to read the same thing all over again.

(+++) CREATIVE CRUNCH


What’s Your Creative Type? Harness the Power of Your Artistic Personality. By Meta Wagner. Seal Press. $15.99.

     There are, it turns out, only five possible ways to be a creative person. At least, so says Meta Wagner, who never tells readers which of the five she considers herself to be. Figuring it out may be a small pleasure of What’s Your Creative Type? A few small pleasures would be welcome, because this is just another who-are-you-really self-help book designed to pigeonhole readers, or have them pigeonhole themselves, for the purpose of – well, what, exactly? Wagner is a bit circumspect about this. Her chapters on the five (and only five) creative types tell each reader how to “nurture your tendencies” in some ways but also “tame your tendencies” in others, and how to name and conquer fears, boost creativity, and so on. In other words, she suggests that there are formulas to follow to be more creative – just pick whatever creative type you are and follow the right formula, and there you go!

     It may be argued that creative people are precisely those most likely to resist being typecast, but the point of Wagner’s book is that such niceties do not matter: there are specific ways of being creative, she argues, and knowing yours will allow you to maximize creativity in a way that will remain true to your particular approach to personal expression. This is a rather unusual notion for a self-help book; readers may find it interesting even if they deem it wrongheaded.

     Wagner takes pains not to suggest that any type of creative person is better or worse than any other, and uses real-world examples of people of each type to explain her approach. Nevertheless, some opinions may be gleaned by readers from the descriptions of the “types” and the individuals chosen to represent them. “The A-lister” is an ego-driven, vain, look-at-me kind of person, someone who creates to be admired and celebrated and rich and famous. Wagner chooses Pablo Picasso as an example (Salvador Dali, who did not even create a lot of what he “created,” might have been an even clearer choice among artists); but she also mentions George Orwell as an A-lister because he names “sheer egoism” as the first of four reasons he writes. Could there possibly be irony there? Could the other three reasons perhaps be more important, singly or collectively, than “sheer egoism”? Not in this book – subtlety of thought and argument is as absent here as it appears to be in the minds of many A-listers.

     Then there is “the Artisan,” who creates because creativity is its own reward. This is probably closest to what most readers will regard as a “creative type,” immersed in creating things for the sake of creativity itself. But does Wagner think of, say, Mozart as an I-must-create Artisan, or Saint-Saëns, who once said he produced music as an apple tree produces apples? No – what constitutes musical artisanship for Wagner is U2’s The Edge. And those to whom she gives profile focuses are photographer Vivian Maier and painter Chuck Close.

     The remaining three “creative types” are treated with the same level of insight (or not), explanation (or not), and empathy (well, yes, since all are created creatively equal). “The Game Changer” wants to use the creative process to develop something avant-garde, seeing boundary-breaking as a primary reason for creativity; “the Sensitive Soul” uses creativity as an emotional and spiritual outlet, but not for its own sake (that would be the Artisan) – the purpose here is to help others; and “the Activist” wants to use creativity to change the world – not in the highly personal, connected way of the Sensitive Soul, but with grand purposes and grand gestures. The problem is that even the exemplars of Wagner’s creative types are much harder to encapsulate than Wagner suggests: they are blends, not clear examples. Sometimes Wagner herself is aware of this. In her chapter on the Activist, for instance, she mentions three Activist authors – V.S. Naipaul, Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen – and points out that all three explicitly stated that authorial activism had become passé, before all three went on to write more novels. Creative types are both more complex and more self-aware (except perhaps for A-listers) than Wagner gives them credit for being.

     Wagner carefully says “you just might be” each of these types if you behave certain ways and want certain things; and she then suggests ways to maximize your tendencies in a particular direction while minimizing your risks of failing to fulfill your creative potential (“fulfill” of course meaning something different to each creative type). Eventually, near the end of the book, Wagner acknowledges that “creativity is a mystery, one not meant to be fully solved,” and this is a welcome touch of humility late in a book that has sliced and diced creativity and provided recipes for enhancing it according to which aspect of it each reader may follow.

     There is really nothing wrong with reading this book to see whether any of it seems insightful or helpful to you on the basis of your personal experiences and creative impulses. A good place to start is “The Takeaway,” an end-of-chapter set of bullet points relating to each creative “type” and making suggestions. If these lists seem apt and helpful to you, the rest of the book may also be useful. If the lists seem obvious, trivial, or even demeaning (a suggestion for the self-directed Artisan is to “promote yourself – your work deserves to be seen by multitudes”), then the remainder of the book will divulge nothing of significant creative value.