June 22, 2017

(++++) CANINE MARVELS


Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and Their Noses) Save the World. By Nancy F. Castaldo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

A Dog Like Daisy. By Kristin O’Donnell Tubb. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     The wonders of canine perception are difficult for humans to comprehend, for all that dogs are our closest animal companions and have lived with and helped us for thousands of years. Humans are primarily sight-driven, so it is very hard for us to understand the intricacies of a smell-driven species such as dogs. But that does not stop authors of both fact and fiction from delving into the mysteries of dogs’ perceptions and showing how intimately humans and canines can relate to, work with and help each other. Nancy F. Castaldo’s Sniffer Dogs is a fine introduction to the topic, and fascinating because it shows some of the many ways in which dogs’ super-sensitive noses can and do save human lives – in an almost offhand manner, as if sniffing out danger is the most natural thing in the world (which, to dogs, it apparently is). Castaldo starts by explaining a bit about dogs’ anatomy and the way they use not only their noses but also their Jacobson’s organs to perceive smells. The Jacobson’s organ is often mentioned in connection with snakes, which use their forked tongues to sample their environment and then process what they pick up through this organ. But in fact, many animals have Jacobson’s organs – they even develop in humans, although ours appear to be non-functional. In dogs, though, the organs are highly active and very sensitive, helping dogs form “a sort of image identifying [a] smell.” That is, we think of “image” visually, but to dogs an image is a complex mixture of scents. “This ‘image’ is even better than a [visual] photograph,” Castaldo explains, because it “provides even more sensory clues.” Castaldo shows how dogs use their hyper-precise nasal-imaging capabilities to search for and find missing people, to detect explosives, to locate survivors of disasters, and much more. Dogs seem to want to help humans – as the result of untold generations of being bred for just such purposes – and the techniques used to obtain their help are well-explained here. For instance, dogs capable of finding people are chosen by being given a toy when they bark during early training…then their trainers hide with the toy and give it to the dogs when they locate the human and bark. The game goes on as long as necessary to get the dog to associate receiving a toy with finding a live human and barking. Castaldo does a first-rate job of explaining and showing this type of training and discussing some surprising elements of dogs’ abilities: “You might find it hard to believe that it can actually be easier for dogs to locate buried bones than bones exposed on the surface of the ground. The reason is that surface bones have a greater chance of breaking down and losing their scent over time in the sunlight, wind, and heat.” And that is a perfect example of the difference between sight-driven humans and odor-driven dogs: a killer will bury a body so humans will not see it, but in doing so will make it easier for a dog to locate and uncover it. Dog training for assistive and law-enforcement purposes can be long and intense, but when it is over, Castaldo says, “It’s pretty rare to see these dogs make a mistake after they have finished training. A dog’s nose just knows.” The pictures of dogs scattered throughout Sniffer Dogs all show alert, involved, dedicated canines whose expressions, to human eyes, appear focused and intense. People who owe their lives and their emotional stability to sniffer dogs and therapy dogs and other assistive dogs know that the seemingly almost magical power of dogs’ noses is something to cherish. Young readers will understand that much better after going through Castaldo’s book.

     To feel rather than intellectually accept the value and importance of dogs as helpers of humans, though, requires a novel – a book with a predefined story arc that can present events with a neatness and precision absent in the real world. Kristin O’Donnell Tubb’s A Dog Like Daisy is a fine example of this approach. The book is narrated by Daisy, a rescued pit bull mix determined to succeed as a service dog helping a veteran cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although there is no real way for a human author to know what a dog thinks, or even if a dog thinks in any way translatable to what humans mean by “thinking,” Tubb gives it her best shot and comes up with some very effective scenes as a result. For instance, when Daisy first comes home from the pound, she explores the house and realizes through smells that “these humans are definitely new here.” Then she continues sniffing and realizes that “the other humans who were here before had a dog. A dachshund. Twelve years old. With a bladder infection.” Scientifically accurate or not, that is a wonderful observation that certainly could be what goes through a dog’s mind. It is also a nice touch of humor in a book that is, at heart, deeply serious. Although determined to succeed as an assist dog – her 10-week training is being paid for by the Veterans Administration, and she must go back to the pound if she fails – Daisy repeatedly misinterprets what her new human pack wants or needs, and often lets her outgoing and ebullient nature get the better of her when she needs to be sober, attentive and concerned. So the book is all about adjusting: Daisy adjusting to her new “pack,” and the human family trying to adjust to her presence (Colonel Victor says that his “therapist says this is the best thing for PTSD”). Daisy quickly becomes too aware of what Victor needs, but cannot, of course, explain her perceptions to the humans. For instance, when she is being trained using a noisemaking clicker, she says it sounds like “giant bones snapping all around us. I know the second I hear it that the Colonel doesn’t like it. I feel his shade deepening.” But the trainer thinks Daisy is not doing well – until Victor eventually helps sort things out. Who is actually training whom? Real-world dog owners often wonder this, and in A Dog Like Daisy the question is made explicit: Daisy thinks the humans with whom she interacts are learning or not learning proper behavior, but they, naturally, are focused on what she is learning. There is a real-world power imbalance between humans and dogs – dogs are considered property, and humans literally have the power of life and death over them – and some of that leaks through in Tubb’s novel. But because it is a novel, not a real-world story, Tubb can form it as she wishes. She can have Daisy take advice from a pet lizard, contemplate the best role she can assume in life, and  think through a way to fail a test deliberately when that is best; and Tubbs can introduce a deus ex machina (actually a canis ex machina) to solve the apparently insoluble problems of Daisy and the Colonel and the Colonel’s family. The result is a tear-jerking climax that leads to a wonderfully upbeat ending that could, really could, occur in the real world. Nothing in A Dog Like Daisy may be really real, but everything is plausible, and as a story of how dogs might think and what could happen in a particular kind of dog-human relationship, this book is a tale that is very well told indeed.

(++++) AMUSEMENTS FOR VARIOUS AGES


I Love You, Little Pumpkin. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

Laugh-Out-Loud Ultimate Jokes for Kids. By Rob Elliott. Harper. $10.99.

Laugh-Out-Loud Road Trip Jokes for Kids. By Rob Elliott. Harper. $4.99.

     What kids find funny changes a lot as they grow, and books for various ages change dramatically along the way. Sandra Magsamen’s I Love You, Little Pumpkin, originally published in 2010 and now available as a charming flap book, is adorably amusing for the littlest children. There is a big, smiling, plush pumpkin on the front, along with an illustration of a happy black cat – there is certainly a Halloween theme here, although the book can actually be fun anytime. Each left-hand page asks a question that is answered by looking at the facing right-hand page and pulling down a big, easy-to-grasp flap. “Who’s up there giggling, brightening my day?” asks one page. The opposite one shows seven little pumpkins growing in a field as the sun shines down on them. Pull down on the flap from just above the sun, and a boy dressed for trick-or-treat in a “sunshine” costume shows up, with the words, “It’s my little sunshine, smiling away!” Each page is like this – until the final one, cutest of them all, asks, “And whose smiling face is this, so sweet and true?” Here the facing page shows a big pumpkin in a child’s wagon, and pulling the flap down reveals – a mirror! The words are, “It’s my little pumpkin, and I love you!” The sentiment is suitable at any time of year, of course, and the seasonal presentation is especially enjoyable for fall-and-pumpkin lovers.

     Rob Elliott’s popular series of joke books is for somewhat older children, but they cannot be too advanced either in age or sense of humor, or they will regard the unending knock-knock jokes, bad puns and silly riddles as groaners rather than sources of enjoyment. Most of these (+++) books are small, inexpensive, easy-to-carry paperbacks, such as Laugh-Out-Loud Road Trip Jokes for Kids. As in all these books, some jokes relate to the supposed overall theme and some do not. This one has a knock-knock with “who’s there?” being “Russian,” because “I’m Russian to pack so I don’t miss my flight!” But it has another with the answer being “Abbott,” because “It’s Abbott time you answered the door!” The question of how a slug crosses the ocean is sort of travel-related (“in a snailboat”), but the one about what happened to the duck at the doctor is certainly not (“it got a clean bill of health”). Families going on really long road trips with kids who enjoy this sort of thing may want to consider going beyond the ordinary Elliott collections to this series’ first-ever hardcover, Laugh-Out-Loud Ultimate Jokes for Kids, which contains all of the “road trip” collection plus all of the “awesome” book. Whether anything here is awesome is a matter of opinion, and a matter of age. “What do you get when paper towels fall asleep? Napkins!” “Why did Cinderella buy a camera? So she could find her prints charming.” “What was Noah’s job in the Bible? Ark-itect.” Each of these books also includes a few simple puzzles, such as mazes and Tic-Tac-Toe, but obviously the jokes are the main course here. Kids who find humor of this type attractive will likely find Laugh-Out-Loud Ultimate Jokes for Kids more fun than the road-trip volume by itself, since, after all, the hardcover book offers a double helping of the material.

(++++) STRICTLY ADULT MAGIC


The Prey of Gods. By Nicky Drayden. Harper Voyager. $15.99.

Hidden Legacy #2: White Hot. By Ilona Andrews. Avon. $7.99.

     A complete mishmash of forms, genres and topics that almost pulls off the combination and is exciting to read even when it falls short, Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods is an unusual debut novel that is never quite sure whether it is science fiction or fantasy, behaves like a blend of the two, and comes across as not quite either one. The title is the first of many things here that almost work – call it “Gods’ Prey” and you would have a better sense of the pun on “pray” and of a major element of the convoluted plot, which does indeed involve gods (one in particular) preying on humans. There are ways in which The Prey of Gods channels Neil Gaiman and Richard Kadrey, but it lacks Gaiman’s flippancy and inevitable references to other works and Kadrey’s ultra-dark worldview and jackhammer narrative style. Instead it has some of the grotesqueries that both these more-established authors do so well, as in a scene in which a demigoddess named Sydney (Sydney?) consumes a human meal while watching a favorite black-and-white movie (that’s Kadrey) and another, in the very first chapter, in which a drug makes it possible for a crab and dolphin to have gay sex – followed in the second chapter by a robot developing consciousness while watching the sex scene (that’s Gaiman). The Prey of Gods is packed, simply packed, with characters and plot strands and adventures of all sorts. Hallucinogenic drugs (which let humans tap into long-dormant abilities in addition to giving users vivid hallucinations) plus ancient gods trying to return to power plus robots plus – well, there are plenty of standard SF/fantasy tropes here, but Drayden’s skill lies in using the standard elements without making them feel like clichés. Drayden tries a little too hard to be “with it” in terms of social issues (poor vs. middle-class living conditions) and a diverse cast: gays, a transvestite character, someone with multiple sclerosis. And the primary villain, the aforementioned Sydney, is a bit too much of a cackle-and-twist-your-evil-mustache type (or, in her case, preen-your-evil-feathers type) to be fully involving; the hint that she is secretly lonely is scarcely enough to give her much motivation beyond the obvious one of regaining great power by committing atrocities. The rest of the characters, though, are far better developed, which is one of the book’s major strengths. The novel is set in South Africa, and the question of whether robots – subject to discrimination and treatment as inferior beings – reflect the nation’s troubled past, and its attempts to move beyond it, is a persistent undercurrent here. Readers will quickly notice that there is no plot, or rather there are multiple plots: this book is more about scene-setting and character delineation than about anything actually happening, but at the same time it is an adventure, or rather a series of adventures, that will intrigue readers as they get whipsawed from one narrative perspective to the next and the one after that. There is plenty of gore and violence in The Prey of Gods, and plenty of non-physical violence (illegal mind reading, memory wiping) that is just as upsetting as the physical type (torching a whole township and killing tens of thousands of people). It is not necessarily overtly bad characters doing the bad things, and that is one intriguing element of the book: Nomvula, a young Zulu girl, appears to be the only one who can stop Sydney, provided she gets some crucial help; but even her powers are not unalloyed positive ones. Nomvula needs to team up with some other oddball characters, from a newly self-aware AI construct to a cross-dressing politician, to have a chance of preventing an all-new (but really old and re-emerging) time of turmoil. Drayden’s writing creaks at times: she is entirely too dependent on coincidences to move the plot at certain key points, and her final chapter struggles to provide a wholly predictable “twist” ending. By and large, though, her pacing is effective enough to keep things barreling along. Genetic manipulation (science fiction) here meets ancient folklore (fantasy), and the notion of a potential queen of terror plotting her return to power while working in a nail salon is just one of the many outré elements of an intricate, convoluted multi-plot book whose strands almost come seamlessly together. Drayden is certainly onto something here, or several somethings, and The Prey of Gods is a pleasure to read (if at times a somewhat guilty one), even when it sometimes strains the boundaries of the willing suspension of disbelief.

     The second Hidden Legacy novel, White Hot, is much simpler and more-straightforward fare. The wife-and-husband team of Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon, writing as Ilona Andrews, here simply continues the story of Nevada Baylor, magic-possessing human lie detector and protector of the city of Houston through her supernatural powers and her detective agency. This is a straightforward paranormal romance, with the usual odd-couple pairing of a woman who knows what she wants but is not sure with whom she wants it – and a man she wants but doesn’t think she should want. As Nevada puts it to her mom, “He’s bad for me. Why do I have to like a man who’s bad for me? Why couldn’t I have found someone who is solid and normal and not whatever the hell he is?” The answer, of course, is obvious in context. This “he” is Connor “Mad” Rogan, top-rank magic user, billionaire, and unimaginably hot male who, readers will not be surprised to find out in a single intense sex scene, is “corded with muscle. And hung. Oh dear God.” The whole book is written at this level and is, on the face (and other body parts) of it, immensely silly. But it is not really meant to be taken seriously: it is a thrill ride, yes, but one that sits so comfortably in its genre that readers will be able to predict pretty much all the ups and downs, twists and turns of the roller-coaster plot and will not care about any of the predictability, much as riders of a real roller coaster know just what is in store and enjoy it all anyway if they are inclined to board in the first place. There is a certain amount of déjà vu in White Hot that makes the (+++) book a trifle disappointing by its own standards, notably the fact that the bad guys here are the same baddies who almost destroyed Houston before – in the first book of the series, Burn for Me. And the book's cover, again by its own standards and those of the genre, is a trifle disappointing as well, with the usual hot guy holding the usual hot gal from behind, except that the arm with which she is reaching back to caress his neck is bent at an angle that is just barely possible – the arm appears to be broken, or on the verge of breaking. This is not, however, the sort of anatomical detail on which readers (or Nevada) will be interested in focusing. White Hot is most fun when the characters are confronting each other and speaking in over-the-top language that is not supposed to be laughable, as when one nasty woman tells Nevada, regarding Rogan, "He doesn't care about you beyond the fleeting benefit you can provide. And when he is done, he'll discard you in the back of his closet, where you will linger, forgotten and still hoping, while your dreams wither and die one by one." Of course people talk like this all the time – in the Hidden Legacy world, anyway. Accept this book for what it is and no more, and enjoy it strictly on that basis, and you will have a pleasurable time and will look forward to the next novel, Wildfire. But do not think too much about any events or characters here, or your brain cells will wither and die one by one.

(+++) BIG-CITY STORIES


York, Book 1: The Shadow Cipher. By Laura Ruby. Walden Pond Press. $17.99.

Apartment 1986. By Lisa Papademetriou. Harper. $16.99.

     When a book for young readers (ages 10 and up) runs nearly 500 pages, is offered with unusually attractive production (the pages are physically beautiful), and is set in some version of New York City, it practically screams “BIG AND IMPORTANT.” When it is merely the first book of a planned series, well, what is there to say? Hmm. Quite a lot, actually. Laura Ruby’s York is highly sensitive to the diversity fad (or trend) for books of this type and equally sensitive to steampunk designs and intimations of social relevance (here, gentrification). The characters are pure cardboard types, defined by appearance: twins Tess and Theo Biedermann have bushy hair and olive skin, are Jewish, and are emotionally fragile; Jaime Cruz, their neighbor, has brown skin and Cuban-Trinidadian heritage, and is calm and artistically gifted; the real-estate developer who buys their rent-controlled building – rent control is a 100% positive thing here, showing how far from reality the book is – is greedy and has bad hair and is, well, potato-faced. New York City here means Manhattan, as it does for so many people who do not know New York City at all: there is a brief foray into Brooklyn but nothing whatsoever in the city’s other three counties, known in New York as boroughs. The overall structure of York is steampunk, with the usual elaborate machinery, solar power running everything (how?), and enough pop-culture references to (presumably) keep readers engaged (Legos, Godzilla, Spider-Man, etc.). Throw in elements of Hamilton and The Matrix, not all of which the intended audience is likely to comprehend, and you have an author trying very hard to be SIGNIFICANT as well as entertaining. In truth, the entertaining parts of The Shadow Cipher are much better than the pseudo-significant ones. There are elevators that go sideways and subways that actually climb buildings. There is a T-shirt in which Schrödinger’s cat is dead on one side and alive (but possibly a zombie) on the other. And there is a not-Angry-Birds game called Angry Bots. The plot, which takes a while to get going, involves the protagonists’ attempt to solve the Morningstarr (two r’s, unlike the real New York City’s single one) Cipher and thereby discover a treasure and, you know, save their building and family and all that. Ruby says early on that when you try to solve the Cipher, it tries to solve you, and that pseudo-enigmatic comment helps explain the otherwise inexplicable coincidences that drive the plot, such as finding just the right thing at just the right time and getting the solution to part of the overall puzzle just before (rather than, say, the day after) the destruction of the protagonists’ home. Essentially, this is a puzzle book – and in that respect, in being a mystery that is not a murder mystery, it is first-rate for its intended audience. It is also a book for people very much enamored of New York City (or of Manhattan, anyway), either because they know and love it or because they have never been there and imagine it as far more wonderful and wonder-filled than many of those who have lived there would consider it to be. Ruby does a good job of capturing some of the essence of real-world New York, but it does not pay to look too closely at the details she trots out for verisimilitude: for just one example, she has a subway line called the “A” train possess an elevated stop at 116th Street, when that is actually the “1” train at 125th Street. This sort of thing does not matter to the plot in the slightest, and in many respects Ruby has certainly done her homework regarding New York City, but for that very reason the occasional lapse of detail is jarring. There are a lot of good things in The Shadow Cipher, and once it gets going, it propels readers along nicely, especially if they do not stop to examine too much of the detail too closely. Then it stops. Just stops. Rather than make the story self-contained, rather than build to a cliffhanger ending, Ruby just brings the narrative to a specific point and drops it – and drops readers. That will be a significant disappointment to those who have become engaged in the story and in the characters. Ruby has some apologizing, or at least making-up, to do in this book’s sequel.

     The usual racial and social-consciousness stuff makes it into Lisa Papademetriou’s Apartment 1986 as well, albeit at more-manageable length. The protagonist here, Callie, is actually white, which makes it easier for Papademetriou to show her as naïve, self-absorbed and too full of herself – try that with a nonwhite character and you are in for a drubbing as “insensitive,” maybe even racist, for your failure to understand that any such issues in nonwhites are all about circumstance and heritage, not, heaven forbid, anything inherent in one’s character. Apartment 1986 uses Callie’s initial sense of self-satisfaction and self-importance as a pedestal at which to chip away pretty much continuously, until at the book’s end Callie is sadder and wiser and much more understanding of the importance of caring for people who are physically different from her – although she is not too much sadder or wiser, since the book is for a narrower age range than Ruby’s (about 10-14), is far less portentous, and is a standalone rather than a series opener. Callie’s initial happy thoughts and self-image as a philosopher are obviously going to lead her into significant life reversals, which duly occur when her father loses his job and the family has to move out of its apartment on Manhattan’s toney Upper East Side and live far more modestly. Besides – horrors! – Callie, who goes to one of those traditionally snobbish private schools, now does not have concert-ticket money! One day, Callie is so stressed by life – and by her attempted visit to her grandmother, who lives in the apartment that gives the book its title – that she decides to skip school altogether, and this soon becomes a habit. But it is a positive habit, because instead of, you know, hanging around in the streets or something, she goes to museums, which are educational and really as good as being in school, right? It is in a museum that Callie meets Cassius, whose personality consists of being African-American and loving museums and experiencing racism that Callie eventually realizes is, like, a bad thing. Luckily, she does not express herself that way – because she does talk in a kind of teen-cute manner early in the book, complete with exclamation points and lots of capital letters. Anyway, Callie soon encounters the real world not only because of Cassius but also because her little brother is being bullied at school and it turns out that her grandparents are, like, evil, because they rejected her gay uncle. Friendship, family and history, including the ability to learn from the past without being trapped in it – these are the themes of Apartment 1986 just as surely as they are the themes of the York series. Indeed, they are very common themes in books for the age ranges targeted by Ruby and Papademetriou. The two authors dress things up differently, but are ultimately trying to bring their readers to essentially the same place, without lavishing much creativity on thoughts about whether perhaps a different, less-commonly-reached emotional location might be worth exploring.

(++++) PRODIGIOUS PIANISM


Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Sunwook Kim, piano; Hallé conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Hallé. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Liszt: Berlioz Transcriptions. Feng Bian, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

Schumann: Humoreske in B-flat, Op. 20; Blumenstück in D-flat, Op. 19; Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6. Luca Buratto, piano. Hyperion. $19.99.

Gershwin: George Gershwin’s Songbook; Jasbo Brown Blues; Impromptu in Two Keys; Three Preludes; Promenade (Walking the Dog); Novelette in Fourths; Prelude (unnumbered); Prelude (fragment); Melody No. 17; Rhapsody in Blue, solo piano transcription; Rialto Ripples; Swiss Miss; Three-Quarter Blues; Two Waltzes in C. Maurizio Zaccaria, piano. ÆVEA. $18.99.

     The exceptionally high quality of the up-and-coming generation of pianists comes across again and again in highly varied repertoire, showing that virtuosi of whom moist listeners will likely never have heard are the technical equals – and sometimes the interpretative equals, too – of many of the great pianists of the past. The consistency of these pianists’ performances is truly remarkable. Brahms’ two concertos have been recorded so often, by so many superb and highly thoughtful performers, that it is hard to imagine what someone new can bring to them. One answer is in a splendid recording featuring Sunwook Kim and the orchestra that now styles itself simply Hallé, on the ensemble’s own label. Kim and conductor Sir Mark Elder here produce performances of great sweep, dramatic tension, and exceptional lyricism. Kim is actually capable of performing both of these huge concertos at a single concert, as he did shortly after this recording was made: he is that confident, that well-versed in Brahms’ style and expressive requirements, and (not to put too fine a point on it) that durable. These concertos are enormously draining physically, technically, emotionally and psychologically. Separated by two decades by time of composition, they simultaneously display two very different sides of Brahms’ musical personality and show the foundational elements that remained unchanged throughout his life. They are wonderful works with some striking similarities – in elements of the Adagio of the first and Andante of the second, for instance. And they also have substantial and obvious differences, the first concerto being heaven-storming and enormous in scale, its three movements lasting almost as long as the four movements of the second – while the second has calm and Brahms’ famous autumnal warmth as its most salient characteristics, plus some gorgeous cello writing in the Andante (with lovely playing here by Nicholas Trygstad). The fact that Kim can surmount the technical difficulties of these works, while impressive, is not what makes these performances exceptional, simply because there are so many really wonderful pianists out there. What sets these recordings on a very high plane is their poetry, the nuanced handling of works that can easily sprawl, the control and propulsiveness that Kim, encouraged and abetted by Elder, brings even to the longest movement (the opening one of Concerto No. 1). These are readings to cherish, and they are even more remarkable for reflecting the amazingly high quality of thoughtfulness as well as technical skill possessed by Kim, who is all of 29 years old.

     Feng Bian is the same age, possesses many of the same technical skills, has considerable sensitivity of his own, but comes across very differently on a new CD featuring Liszt’s transcriptions of works by Berlioz. This is the 46th volume in an ongoing Naxos series offering Liszt’s complete piano music, featuring various performers, and it is one of the most interesting discs released so far. The distinguishing feature of Liszt’s work here, and of Bian’s interpretations, is delicacy rather than virtuosity. It is easy to forget, given Liszt’s famed technical prowess and the enormous difficulties he wrote into his music (in a very different way from those that Brahms wrote into his), that there was a highly sensitive side to Liszt as well. And it is this side that Bian explores most thoroughly and engagingly. The Dance of the Sylphs from The Damnation of Faust, the Bénédiction et serment from Benvenuto Cellini, and the March of the Pilgrims from Harold in Italy are all given careful and very lovely treatment by Liszt, and Bian brings out the pieces’ manifest beauties in very involving and altogether winning readings. There are also pieces here drawn from Symphonie fantastique, including Marche au supplice – which has an introductory section called L’idée fixe before the march itself, and which requires more of the pounding virtuosity for which Liszt is known. More interesting, though, is a work called L’idée fixe: Andante amoroso d’après une mélodie de Hector Berlioz, which uses the symphony’s famous recurring theme as the basis for a lovely, fantasia-like work of warmth and gentleness, which Bian handles with sensitivity and skill. The most-substantial pieces here are Liszt’s transcriptions of two overtures, to King Lear and Les Francs-Juges, but these are actually less interesting than the shorter works on the CD. Berlioz was a brilliant orchestrator, more adept and creative in that respect than Liszt himself, and the piano transcriptions of these extended works simply pale beside the originals. That is scarcely the fault of either Liszt or Bian, the former bringing accuracy and understanding to the piano versions and the latter offering strong interpretations with fine balance and flow. But it is the more-delicate, more-sensitive portions of this disc that are more memorable.

     There are quite a few other twentysomething pianists of considerable skill; indeed, the field of piano virtuosity is currently quite a crowded one, which bodes well for the next several decades of music-making. A new Hyperion disc featuring Luca Buratto clearly shows this pianist’s affinity for Schumann, especially in the Davidsbündlertänze, whose many variations of style and mood Buratto clearly finds congenial: his playing is now forceful, now subdued; now intense, now reserved. Indeed, if there is a criticism of this performance, it is that it never quite settles down: there is no sense of where the Davidsbündlertänze, taken as a whole, are going. But that has as much to do with Schumann’s Florestan/Eusebius duality as with anything in Buratto’s playing, which is skilled and sensitive throughout. Buratto’s handling of Humoreske and Blumenstück is impressive, too: this is one pianist who really throws himself into Schumann’s differing musical styles, so that the quiet and tender portions of these works contrast especially strongly with the stormy and passionate ones. Buratto shows a kind of easy virtuosity here, accepting the difficulties of the piano writing without making it sound as if he has any difficulty surmounting them. The result is a disc that focuses on the impetuosity and pronounced contrasts of these Schumann pieces rather than on the pianist himself – an unusually mature approach, and one that suggests a core sensitivity that should serve Buratto well as his career progresses.

     Some of that same sensitivity is evident in Mauricio Zaccaria’s playing on a new ÆVEA disc whose repertoire is more unusual than that offered by Buratto. Zaccaria here plays essentially all the published piano music of Gershwin, a composer noted in particular for one piano-and-orchestra work, Rhapsody in Blue, but not otherwise thought of as a typical focus for pianists. There is something of a crossover feeling to this CD, which is scarcely surprising: Gershwin was a crossover composer, straddling the worlds of classical, jazz and popular music and refusing to be pigeonholed in any of them. The extended Songbook of 1932, broken up into three parts in this recording, includes 18 tunes that are often instantly recognizable as vocals but rarely heard as pure piano pieces, including such standards as I Got Rhythm, Strike Up the Band and Oh, Lady Be Good. There are also individual arrangements here, including Jasbo Brown Blues from Porgy and Bess, the Promenade from Shall We Dance, and Merry Andrew from Rosalie. But the pop-music side of Gershwin is only part of what Zaccaria explores. He makes no attempt to turn the songs into anything profound, but he contrasts them strongly with, among other pieces, the Three Preludes from 1926. These show, individually and collectively, that Gershwin could and did write strictly classical music – and very well-made classical music, too – when he so chose. There are some other treasures here as well, notably Impromptu in Two Keys, which has the right hand in C and the left in D-flat. As for Rhapsody in Blue, it is interesting to hear it in Gershwin’s solo-piano transcription, but this version does no more justice to the piece than Liszt’s versions of Berlioz’ opera overtures do to those works. Someone who has never heard Rhapsody in Blue would find the solo-piano work intriguing for its combination of solid understanding of classical form with freewheeling thematic development and well-chosen harmonies. But anyone who has heard this piece in its version for piano and orchestra will find it diminished here, curiously flat and altogether less convincing than in its better-known version. Zaccaria plays it well – he plays all this music with plenty of skill – but there is simply less of interest here than in other works on the disc. Still, Zaccaria, like Kim, Bian and Buratto, is already a considerable pianist and one whose future development is sure to be worth watching and hearing.

June 15, 2017

(++++) FRIGHTS OF FANTASY


Nnewts, Book Three: The Battle for Amphibopolis. By Doug TenNapel. Color by Katherine Garner. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.

The Too-Scary Story. By Bethany Deeney Murguia. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

     The conclusion of Doug TenNapel’s Nnewts trilogy is so packed with slam-bang, hyper-colored action and activity that the silly parts will go almost unnoticed by anyone who has enjoyed the first two volumes, Escape from the Lizzarks and The Rise of Herk. The power of the third book is as much due to the excellent color provided by Katherine Garner as it is to TenNapel’s story, which here takes a series of largely unsurprising turns and which readers will quickly realize is going on a familiar arc that involves great heroism, great sacrifice, and great but not unalloyed triumph at the end. It is impossible to understand this third volume without knowing the first two, since it picks up exactly where the second entry left off and makes no attempt to look back. Herk, as small as ever but increasingly potent as a magical being, tries to remain true to the good-guy amphibians even though he is slowly gaining scales that will turn him into a bad-guy Lizzark; it turns out the Lizzarks were created for the express purpose of spoiling the idyllic world of Nnewts, who were created by the constellation Orion – this is one of the silly elements of the story that readers should simply accept. Orion is essentially the same constellation visible in Earth’s night sky, but in TenNapel’s world he is knocked out of the cosmos by the bad guys as they grow in power – and then, at a crucial point, is rescued by Herk and other “fry” (kids, that is) and helped back to power by the White Stag, a star creature he has hunted for a billion years. In gratitude for the help, Orion at the very end of the book is again hunting the White Stag – well, maybe that isn’t gratitude after all, but another of the silly elements. Then there is Anthigar, the very first of all Nnewts: a twist of the story, although not a particularly surprising one, shows that the Lizzarks exist because of the jealousy of the second Nnewt, Denthigar, to whom Orion gave a smaller crown than he gave Anthigar. That seems a pretty trivial slight, but not an especially silly one – the silliness comes in when Anthigar, fighting on behalf of Herk, suddenly starts talking in wholly atypical dialogue, his usual portentous pronouncements transformed into, “You’ll stay as long as I please and I’m all outta please!” The really important thing in The Battle for Amphibopolis, though, is not the silly elements: what matters here is that the heroic quest, complete with a typically heroic decision to make a typically heroic self-sacrifice, is so well illustrated and so dramatically and colorfully presented that the trilogy’s conclusion is tremendously involving and ultimately satisfying despite its narrative hiccups. Herk and his brothers still need their mother’s permission before they can save the Nnewts’ world, and thank goodness she gives it to them. It turns out that the primary weapon against the rampaging Lizzarks and the monsters they have created is neither more nor less than beauty, which in its various forms stuns the Lizzarks (especially their rulers) and eventually gives the Nnewts the upper hand. Any young readers who know something about real-world amphibians and lizards, and who therefore may be wondering why the imaginary Nnewts spend all their time on land in Amphibopolis, will be especially satisfied when, at the end of the story, the Nnewts discover that they really belong in a watery environment after all. And the Lizzarks? They conveniently cease to exist, turning out to be Nnewts whose scales resulted from an evil spell that is broken thanks to the heroics of Herk; his siblings, Sissy and Zerk; and the other Nnewts. There are plenty of intense and scary scenes in The Battle for Amphibopolis, and if the eventual victory of the good guys is never really in doubt, there are enough cliff-hangers scattered through the book so fans of TenNapel’s dramatically paced story will be carried along with it to its satisfying conclusion.

     There is nothing anywhere near as frightening in Bethany Deeney Murguia’s The Too-Scary Story, but that makes sense: TenNapel is writing for preteens and young teenagers, Murguia for significantly younger children. The issue in Murguia’s book is just how scary Papa should make a bedtime story for Grace, who insists that it be scary, and Walter, who insists that it not be scary. Now that’s a dilemma! Papa starts telling about the “two brave explorers and their dog walking home through the forest,” and Murguia immediately shows Grace pulling a resistant Walter into the imaginary woods. “Too scary!” exclaims Walter, so Papa throws in twinkly fireflies to relieve the darkness. That is not scary enough for Grace, who wants bears in the story. So Papa talks about creatures in the bushes, and Murguia shows eyes of all sorts peeking out at the children in the woods – but again Walter says that is too scary. So Papa says the creatures “were just settling into bed for the night.” Now Grace is dissatisfied, so Papa conjures up some footsteps and a shadow – then has the kids in the story run home and discover that the shadow is only Papa himself. The result: enough scariness to satisfy Grace and enough reassurance to make Walter, the younger child, happy as well. In fact, both kids are seen smiling from their beds at the end of the book – Papa has managed to give them both what they wanted. Now, what will he do the next night? Murguia does not get into that, but the whole scenario suggests that Papa is clever and caring enough to manage another scary-but-not-too-scary story if that is what Grace and Walter want. Parents may find this book to be an enjoyable read-aloud, since the mildly scary pages lend themselves to a deeper, darker voice than the ones focused on fireflies and sleepy woodland creatures. And the illustrations – which feature kids, dog, Papa, and a tiny owl that observes the proceedings and ends up cuddled against the dog in the kids’ room – will be fun both for kids who are like Grace and for ones who are more like Walter.

(++++) FACTUAL FASCINATION


Apex Predators: The World’s Deadliest Hunters, Past and Present. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     One of Steve Jenkins’ most intriguing books, Apex Predators is fascinating not only because of the information but also because of the presentation, in which brief discussions of modern-day predators are juxtaposed with ones about predators of the distant past – with every creature discussed being shown in Jenkins’ clear, anatomically accurate drawings, and with a scale comparing it with the size of an adult human. One thing this does is make it clear that when it comes to hunting, size does not always matter: African wild dogs are only about three feet long, but because they hunt in packs and have the endurance to pursue their prey over long distances and for lengthy periods of time, they are successful in 90% of their hunts – an extraordinary statistic. On the other hand, size can matter, as it does for the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, which can grow to a length of 10 feet. For each animal, tab-like boxes at tops of the pages indicate whether a particular predator is modern-day or extinct; in the latter case, the boxes say how long ago it lived. This lets Jenkins show the heads of a Siberian tiger and Tyrannosaurus rex facing each other, the former on a left-hand page facing right and the latter on the opposite, right-hand page facing left, with both heads appearing to be the same size – but the scale at the bottoms of the pages shows just how much bigger the dinosaur was than the tiger. Many predators here will be familiar to young readers, but not all, by any means. For example, the Teratorn, believed to be the largest bird able to fly, had an amazing 23-foot wingspan and went extinct six million years ago, while the 20-foot-long predatory amphibian called Mastodonsaurus dates to 250 million years in the past. As readers go through the book, they are inevitably going to wonder how today’s apex predators stack up against those of much earlier times – so Jenkins concludes with a few imaginary matchups between predators of roughly equal size: Siberian tiger and Utahraptor, and great white shark and Dunkleosteus (an armored fish from 400 million years ago). The “who would win” question is of course speculative, and Jenkins takes it an interesting step further by showing two matchups in which the same modern predators would not stand even the slightest chance: Spinosaurus, the largest land predator known, could probably swallow the tiger in a bite or two, while the marine reptile Tylosaurus, whose jaws were 10 feet long, would make short work of a great white shark. The final note in the book is the most thought-provoking of all: the deadliest apex predator of all time is Homo sapiens, since humans, although individually much weaker than the animals shown in Apex Predator, have created weapons that could kill any of them, and in fact have driven many of these hyper-powerful creatures to extinction.

     Humans nowadays do not mean to cause extinctions, but human activity endangers many animals and even whole ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest. Then humans try to preserve what they have endangered, which is the point of Sy Montgomery’s Amazon Adventure. In fact, one apex predator mentioned by Jenkins, the electric eel, appears in Montgomery’s book as well, but from an entirely different perspective: Jenkins says the eel “lurks” in rivers and streams and “zaps” its prey, but Montgomery notes that the eels generally “emit a low-level charge, less than ten volts, which doesn’t hurt,” while hunting, and deliver painful shocks only if bothered. And this is scarcely the only unexpected element in Amazon Adventure. The whole book starts with a misconception to which scientist Scott Dowd readily admits: there is an annual harvest of 40 million tiny tropical fish, caught by natives for shipment to public and home aquarium tanks worldwide, and Dowd initially thought removing them from their natural habitat was a terrible thing. Readers will likely think so, too, until Montgomery – aided by many as-wonderful-as-usual photographs by Keith Ellenbogen – shows that this harvest may be crucial to the long-term survival of the Amazon and its environs. “Nearly ninety percent of the small fish here are stranded, doomed in drying puddles” in the dry season every year, Montgomery explains, unless they are caught and shipped out. When that happens, they live two to three times as long in aquariums as they would in the wild, and the commerce in the fish – which, remember, would otherwise almost certainly die – is the major means of support for 40,000 people. Those people are so respectful of the river that gives them the fish that they very carefully release other species caught by accident – and protect the river and nearby areas so the fish harvest remains abundant year after year. This is more than an unusual story, more than a typical tale from the “Scientists in the Field” series, of which this book is a part. It is the flip side of the ugly, thoughtless anti-human campaigns of organizations such as PETA, which want animals left alone and believe that somehow a lack of contact between people and other species on Earth will make people more appreciative and supportive of those other species. Exactly the opposite is the case: remove animals completely from contact with humans and humans will soon lose interest in them, which means that when the animals are threatened, it will be that much harder to enlist human help (financial and otherwise) to preserve them. This already happens: less-known endangered animals, including many deemed ugly by human standards, garner far less monetary and scientific support than “marquee” animals such as koalas and polar bears. The piabeiros, the fishers whose life is discussed and shown in Amazon Adventure, have a far better relationship with the natural world than this: they live and interact with the fish and other denizens of the river constantly, and in so doing gain respect for the place within the rainforest of human and nonhuman beings alike. The perspective that young readers will get from Amazon Adventure is quite different from that in headlines about pressure groups’ “successes” in destroying the connection between human beings and other animals. This is a thoughtful book as well as an interesting one, and its exploration of a lifestyle that readers are unlikely ever to experience firsthand may help them gain meaningful appreciation of the nuances of human-animal interaction and the positive environmental effects that can result when people are thoughtful rather than political and virulently dogmatic about our relationships with other species.

(+++) MIDDLING MISADVENTURES


Gabby Garcia’s Ultimate Playbook #1. By Iva-Marie Palmer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $12.99.

The World’s Greatest Detective. By Caroline Carlson. Harper. $16.99.

     Fantasy/adventures for preteens almost always turn on likable central characters with a supporting cast of feckless adults and modestly helpful friends, with largely self-inflicted problems and misinterpretations producing most of the drama and a certain amount of laughter (ideally with the characters, not at them). Iva-Marie Palmer and Caroline Carlson show that the formula works as well for a contemporary 12-year-old girl and a Victorian/Edwardian-era 11-year-old boy. Palmer’s Gabby Garcia book, the first of a planned series, focuses on the packed-with-self-esteem star pitcher at Luther Junior High, whose world is turned upside-down when a discovery of asbestos leads to the immediate closure of the school – right in the middle of a baseball game – and the scattering of students to other area schools. Gabby is sent to upscale Piper Bell Academy, where it is obvious she will have trouble fitting in. Of course that is just how the plot goes: Piper Bell already has a star pitcher, Gabby’s attempt to focus on baseball goes badly, her other tries at fitting in do not work, and she needs a playbook – designed to make things happen, unlike a diary that just records events – to try to get her life back on track. Gabby quits baseball altogether and goes in for field hockey instead, which leads to it being decided that since everyone on the hockey team has a special talent, Gabby’s is going to be poetry. Skeptical but trying, still, to fit in, Gabby – who really does seem an unlikely choice as a poet, as the poetry in the book confirms – does her best, but soon finds that even this decision becomes a problem: a poetry event conflicts with hockey. Gabby’s parents are of no use, of course; for example, their comments when she tells them she is quitting baseball are so surface-level that they practically float. They do mean well: even before things go wrong, the parents and Gabby’s inevitable best friend try to warn her about possible issues involved in trying to be a baseball star at the new school; but headstrong Gabby does not listen. Most of Gabby’s pains and worries come from her own misaligned expectations and her use of sports for self-identification – but the book actually seems intended mainly for sports-focused middle-schoolers, so the notion that maybe there are other ways to excel (such as poetry) coexists uneasily with the sports elements. What eventually happens is that Gabby gets over herself and develops a more team-oriented attitude, and then things go much better right up to an ending that clearly sets up the next book in the series. It is the format of the book, more than the plot and writing, that sets it somewhat apart from other preteen formula novels. There are lots and lots of illustrations of characters, plenty of doodles, action sketches, marginal notes, enlarged and boldface type, and other visuals that make this playbook attractive to look at even when it is nothing special to read. All these elements have been used in other books for preteens, but Palmer makes them jaunty enough so the visuals help carry the largely predictable plot.

     Flash back in time to the fictional town of Colebridge and a different sort of adult supervision or non-supervision, and you have The World’s Greatest Detective. Toby Montrose’s parents have disappeared, so he lives with Uncle Gabriel on a street known as Detectives’ Row. The whole city is full of detectives, but Detectives’ Row is really packed with them, and Uncle Gabriel is one such. The problem is that there is not much crime in Colebridge – what with all those detectives, you know – so there is not much money in being an investigator. This means Uncle Gabriel is under financial strain that Toby worries may lead to the need for him to stay with yet another relative (Uncle Gabriel is just the latest in a long series). Then – aha! – Uncle Gabriel is invited to solve a weekend murder mystery in a competition whose winner will get $10,000. Just the thing, thinks Toby: money coming in and a boost for Uncle Gabriel’s reputation and therefore his business. But Uncle Gabriel declines the invitation, leaving Tony to decide to take up the challenge himself – with a little help (sometimes more than a little) from a self-confident friend named Ivy and from Ivy’s dog. Unfortunately, Toby, despite the correspondence course in detecting he has been taking, is not very good at being a detective; and he and Ivy have a series of misadventures that are not quite as amusing as Carlson apparently wants them to be. The underlying mystery here is rather simple, the pacing of the investigation is less than brisk, and the secondary characters are not very well fleshed-out – including Uncle Gabriel (kind-hearted and bad in the kitchen and that’s about it). There is not very much scene-setting or time-setting beyond the Victorian/Edwardian background, and while Toby is certainly likable enough, he does not have a sufficiently strong character to be intriguing – he is simply a boy who has been shunted from relative to relative and wants a way out of that not-very-merry-go-round. Self-assured Ivy makes a good foil for well-meaning but often inept Toby, but the book as a whole never rises above the very basic foundation of a genre where well-meaning but misplaced enthusiasm and largely self-inflicted problems are the plot drivers again and again.

(+++) CRAMMING FOR LIFE AFTER FINALS


Colleges That Create Futures: 50 Schools That Launch Careers by Going Beyond the Classroom. By Robert Franek. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $14.99.

     The ability to slice and dice data makes it possible to take essentially the same information and present it in multiple ways, resulting in – among many other things – the numerous Princeton Review college guides, which focus mostly on the same schools but arrange them in different orders according to each book’s emphasis. Princeton Review (which is not affiliated with Princeton University but, as a producer of guides to higher education, surely benefits from its name) generally produces lengthy oversize paperbacks crammed with small-type information on schools’ requirements, student-body statistics, financial information and the like. With Colleges That Create Futures, though, it goes beyond those data, or more accurately into a subset of them, to create a standard-size volume purporting to show schools that excel at getting students satisfying post-college work because of their non-classroom programs. These include internships, alumni networking opportunities, high-quality career guidance, student-faculty collaborative projects, and the like.

     This specialized volume is not one of Princeton Review’s strongest, although some college-bound students wavering between or among specific schools may find it useful. The problem here is that the underlying premise of Colleges That Create Futures is inherently subjective. Much of a student’s success in college depends on his or her ability to navigate campus and off-campus life, making his or her own opportunities by developing networks of fellow students on campus and going beyond the basic requirements of courses when it comes to interactions with professors. This is true at virtually all colleges except highly regimented institutions, such as the nation’s military academies. So the fact – if it is a fact – that some colleges make this easier than others do is of only modest significance. But do the 50 colleges here make this sort of outside-the-classroom exploration easier than other colleges do? That is a subjective judgment, for all that Princeton Review explains about its methodology for selecting these schools.

     A student trying to decide whether this book will be helpful might well be inclined to start with an alphabetical list of the colleges included; but, oddly, there is none. The schools are presented in alphabetical order throughout the book, but there is no listing of them at the front, and the listings at the back are by location, tuition and enrollment – useful categories all, but they do not take the place of a simple master list. As for the reasons colleges are included here, they vary. Oberlin College, for example, is praised as “open-minded, incredibly inclusive, equality-embracing, and socially mindful,” with “feel-good, freethinking, granola-crunching vibes” that are environmentally sensitive and LGBT-friendly. Marist College is said to strike “the perfect balance between a liberal arts campus and a high-tech university system” and have “the same kind of balance between aesthetics and power.” These are clearly subjective comments, but some colleges get more-objective treatment, as in the note about one of the many special offerings at DePauw University: “Blending a traditional liberal arts curriculum with real-world experiences in business and entrepreneurship, the Management Fellows Program also includes a full-time, semester-long, credit-bearing business internship.” Colleges That Create Futures is thus a blend of opinion and fact to a greater degree than many other Princeton Review books. Thumbing through it and stopping to read a bit about the colleges chosen for highlighting here is a must to determine whether the approach will be useful for any given student or family.

     The unusual nature of Colleges That Create Futures is largely shown through the colleges that are not included. Stanford University is here, but not Harvard or Yale (indeed, no college at all in Connecticut); in New Jersey, there are Drew University and Stevens Institute of Technology, but no Princeton. The selection of schools could easily be described as “quirky” if Princeton Review (where author Robert Franek is editor-in-chief) chose to say that the selections were made by, say, team debate and eventual consensus. But no – data are foundational here, and the underlying concept is to give students objective information on schools that excel in non-classroom ways at preparing students for life after college. The book nevertheless does not feel entirely data-driven – and in truth, a touch of the opinionated human is not a bad thing in today’s highly intense college search. Whether the balance of personal and impersonal material in Colleges That Create Futures is genuinely useful will be a matter for individual college-bound students, and their families, to decide – by forming their own opinions of the book’s inclusions and exclusions.

(++++) NATIONALLY MUSICAL


Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—Daphnis et Chloé; Une barque sur l’océan. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.

Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—Antar; Shéhérazade. André Dussolier, narrator; Isabelle Drouet, mezzo-soprano; Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.

Mark Nowakowski: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Blood, Forgotten; Lullaby—O sleep for me, sleep. Voxare String Quartet (Emily Ondracek-Peterson and Galina Zhdanova, violins; Erik Christian Peterson, viola; Adrian Daurov, cello). Naxos. $12.99.

Georgy Sviridov: Russia Cast Adrift. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and Style of Five Ensemble conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $9.99.

     There are certain national characteristics to music – ones that may not always be evident to modern listeners when it comes to Baroque works such as Bach’s English and French suites, but ones that became increasingly pronounced through and after the Romantic era. Thus, while Mozart wrote both German and Italian operas, by the 19th century there were clear distinctions between the instrumental focus of German opera composers, the vocal orientation of Italians, and the middle way of the French. Other forms of music increasingly developed national character as well, often quite deliberately (Russian, Czech). By the 20th century, distinctive musical nationality (if not always nationalism) was so firmly established that the works of, for example, Ravel, are as clearly French as they are clearly impressionistic.  Naxos’ excellent ongoing series of Ravel’s orchestral works, featuring Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin, shows this in every volume, and does so with particular clarity on the two latest discs. The fourth volume in this series includes the full hour-long ballet Daphnis et Chloé, one of the epitomes both of Ravel’s orchestral writing and of Impressionism itself. There is perpetual grace in this music, a kind of languor permeating it even in its more-energetic sections. Ravel’s expert orchestration carries with the ballet a kind of nostalgia, not so much for the legends of ancient Greece as for the gentle flowing of music of an earlier time, perhaps the 18th century. The wordless choruses (sung here by the choral group Spirito) add to the feeling of timelessness that melds with music that is harmonically very much of its time (1909-12) but that retains a feeling of being somehow beyond time itself – much like many of the old myths. The encore here has effective flow of its own: it is Ravel’s own 1906 orchestration of Une barque sur l’océan, the third of his 1904-05 Miroirs for piano, handled with consummate tastefulness and an especially lovely musical portrayal of the sea at its opening.

     The fifth Ravel volume is something very different and is, in fact, dominated by a world première recording. This is of Antar, incidental music to a play on the legend of the sixth-century warrior Antar and his love, Abla. When he was a teenager, Ravel was heavily influenced by Russian music, and although little of characteristically Russian sound carried through into Ravel’s later creative life, certain elements of coloration and orchestration were retained. In the case of Antar, Ravel selected and reorchestrated portions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s highly evocative work based on the legend, using material out of its original order and combining it with an excerpt from the opera Mlada and several short pieces composed by Ravel himself. Remarkably, what could easily have been a pastiche flows naturally and even elegantly in this recording, thanks in large part to the narrative connections forged as recently as 2014 by French-Lebanese writer and opera librettist Amin Maalouf. This connectivity, chosen instead of the use of the original words from the play for which Ravel made this arrangement in 1910, is a rare instance in which modern substitution actually enhances a musical arrangement from the past. Many of the pieces written or orchestrated by Ravel are quite short – five of them run less than a minute apiece – but Maalouf’s words, declaimed sensitively by André Dussolier, help hold the overall sequence of material together to tell a well-paced story. There is some straight narrative here and some old-style melodrama, with the words spoken above the music, and all of it works quite well. The overall presentation has more drama and heft, if less impressionistically muted color, than Daphnis et Chloé, and makes a fascinating counterpart to the ballet. Also on this CD is the three-song cycle from 1903, Shéhérazade, sung with an entirely apt sense of Oriental fascination by Isabelle Druet and neatly complementing the differently evocative music of Antar. The whole disc is redolent both of the Middle East and of the Orient, yet in general the music is recognizably, even strikingly French.

     The works of Mark Nowakowski (born 1978) are intended to be very distinctly Polish, but in this case not so much in their sound as in their topics. Nowakowski does not strive for the subtleties of Chopin or the fierce loyalty of Paderewski – instead, he uses contemporary compositional techniques, including electronic sounds as well as a traditional string quartet stretched sonically beyond the usual compass of the instruments, to reflect on various elements of the Polish experience. Nowakowski, who is Polish-American, intends the music on this Naxos CD to be a tribute to Polish survival through desperately hard times over many centuries, but there is nothing especially Polish in the sound of the music, despite the intent to ring forth the Polish experience. Nowakowski’s first string quartet, “Songs of Forgiveness” (2010), is a two-movement work intended to be at times meditative, at times grief-stricken, and at times angry. The second quartet, “Grandfather Songs (in memoriam Henryk Górecki)” (2011), has elements of a memorial but also some strange, even strident elements, notably the inclusion of a recording of Nowakowski’s family singing a war song. Blood, Forgotten (2005) is for solo violin and electronics, and is intended as yet another of the innumerable memorials for the victims of World War II – with Poland having been victimized both by the Axis (Nazi Germany) and the Allies (the Soviet Union). The electronic elements include the sounds of an instrument found in one of the Nazi concentration camps, but while this may be historically noteworthy, it is not sonically significant. In many ways the most effective piece here in terms of reaching out to an audience beyond that of patriotic Poles is the short final work on the disc, a lullaby based on an old Polish folk song. Written in 2012, it finds a greater sense of peace and of connection with the past than do the more intense, more avowedly expressive and much longer works here. This is a (+++) disc with some very fine playing – the Voxare String Quartet actually gave the première performance of Nowakowski’s first quartet. But the specificity of the topics is handled in such a way that there is little sense of reaching beyond the specifically Polish experience to the kind of shared sorrow and shared reality that would render Nowakowski’s feelings transferable to a wider audience.

     There is much that is quintessentially of his homeland in Russia Cast Adrift by Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998), notably the ways in which his vocal music is based on the traditional chant of the Russian Orthodox Church. Sviridov wrote this work in 1957 for baritone and piano, intending to orchestrate it eventually but never doing so. Now Russia Cast Adrift has been arranged for orchestra, and quite effectively, by Evgeny Stetsyuk, and receives its world première recording on a Delos disc featuring Dmitri Hvorostovsky and conductor Constantine Orbelian. This singer and conductor always work well together, and their handling of this cycle of 13 songs (the last of them actually taken from a different work, the vocal poem Petersburg from 1995) is no exception. The words here are by Sergey Yesenin, a poet who committed suicide at age 30 in 1925 and was, with Alexander Blok, a favorite of Sviridov. Russia Cast Adrift, whose title seems to have contemporary relevance even though it was never intended to, is actually about a poet and poetry – and the poetic elements of life in a badly disturbed  but still-beautiful Russia. The poems all date to 1914-20, and all deal with aspects of life in a highly complex era that saw World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, those events intermingled here with thoughts of Russia’s natural beauty, the Christian faith, and more. The harmonies here are traditional, and the influences of earlier composers, notably Tchaikovsky, are clear, yet Sviridov has his own style, notably because of his religious belief and the music used to express it in Russian Orthodox services. There is plenty of emotional intensity and angst both in the words and in the music of Russia Cast Adrift, but there is eventual affirmation and hope for a better future and fulfillment of what Yesenin – and, apparently, Sviridov – believed would be a more-welcome time to come. In many ways these poems and their settings do reach out beyond the world in which they were created, but in others they are so Russia-specific that they will appeal mainly to those of Russian heritage and those especially moved by other, more-universal Russian music, including that of some of the composers who clearly influenced Sviridov. It is also worth noting that this CD, although offered at a special price, runs less than 37 minutes – a fact that all by itself renders it a specialty item and contributes to its (+++) rating. There is emotional involvement and a certain level of originality in Russia Cast Adrift, and the orchestral version has warmth that clearly complements Hvorostovsky’s rich, sure and evocative baritone voice. The work is somewhat self-limiting by design, as a celebration of Russia by Russians looking for uplift and hoping for a more-congenial future Russia. But even within its self-imposed limitations, it has considerable beauty and considerable strength, much like Russia itself.

June 08, 2017

(++++) WHAT PICTURES!


Seven Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break if You Want to Survive the Cafeteria. By John Grandits. Illustrated by Michael Allen Austin. Clarion. $16.99.

Lint Boy. By Aileen Leijten. Clarion. $16.99.

     Sometimes the sheer joy of looking at kids’ books is at least as great as the pleasure of reading them. Michael Allen Austin’s brilliantly offbeat, stretched and hyper-realistic (and thus surrealistic) illustrations for Seven Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break if You Want to Survive the Cafeteria take what is already a great story by John Grandits and turn it into a remarkable one. The book is narrated by a boy named Kyle, who is reading a book called “Bugs!” by “Bea Swacks” and imagines himself and all the people around him as giant insects. But wait, there’s more! Today Kyle is going to buy lunch in the cafeteria for the first time, and his friend Ginny, who “is very dramatic” and looks to Kyle like a huge-headed cricket, warns Kyle that there are rules to be followed that must not be broken in the cafeteria! Kyle writes them all down and then proceeds to break them, unintentionally and hilariously, one at a time. First Kyle follows his classmates, who look like giant ants walking on their hind legs, to the cafeteria – being careful not to look at the sixth-graders right behind him, who appear as angry yellow jackets. Then Kyle holds up the line while reading the menu (breaking the first rule), loads too much onto his tray (breaking the second), and accidentally walks past the cash register and  “the lunch lady, who always circles the cafeteria like a buzzing fly” and looks exactly like one (breaking the third rule). One of Austin’s best ideas is to connect Kyle with reality periodically, so after Kyle realizes his mistake in not paying, and is told that he cannot use cash anyway – but does not know his PIN – we see the distinctly human lunch lady helping Kyle figure out what to do. He even says “the cashier was real nice and looked [the PIN] up for me.” But soon Kyle is breaking more rules, at one point dropping his tray and needing to get more food. Then he has to sit with the sixth-graders instead of his own class! But things start to turn around as he eats lunch while recounting slightly gross facts from the bug book he has been reading (“a tapeworm in your intestines…can grow up to fifty feet long”). In fact, lunch turns out perfectly fine in the end, and as the book finishes, Kyle is telling just that to Ginny, both of them looking entirely human (although still in Austin’s over-realistic, over-precise, over-drawn manner) as Kyle adds an eighth rule, which is never to pay attention to Ginny’s seven. The book’s concept and narrative are great, but it is the illustrations that really take this over-the-top tale over the top.

     Although not as mind-blowingly offbeat, the illustrations in Aileen Leijten’s Lint Boy are also a big reason this book is so special and so effective. In fact, the evil character in the book – a girl named Tortura who grows into a nasty woman named Mrs. PinchnSqueeze – somewhat resembles the characters drawn by Austin, although her appearance is not as exaggerated as theirs. Leijten does, however, do a great job of making her thoroughly unpleasant and “as mean as can be.” In fact, she is so mean “that even moths shriveled up when she looked at them” (as Leijten shows). Mrs. PinchnSqueeze reserves most of her ire and nastiness for dolls of all sorts, because when she was merely Tortura, she became convinced that dolls are alive but could never actually prove it, and therefore takes revenge by capturing them, cutting off their hair or other parts, keeping them suspended in cages, and periodically whacking the cages with a big stick so the dolls are terrified. They are capable of being scared because they are, in fact, alive, even though they would never reveal that to Mrs. PinchnSqueeze. Two dolls in particular are central to this visually told story, which is not a graphic novel (because it is not told in comic-book-like panels) but a story told in pictures – the entire book consists of pictures, with comic-strip-style dialogue and occasional narration placed in boxes. The main characters are Lint Boy and Lint Bear, “brothers” who form spontaneously out of pieces of lint, scraps of fabric and the occasional button spinning around in a dryer. The two live an idyllic life until Lint Bear one day gets tangled in dried laundry that Mrs. PinchnSqueeze is removing – and falls into the hag’s clutches. This sends Lint Boy on a quest to rescue Lint Bear, with a bit of help from a batch of single socks left in the depths of the dryer (socks always get separated during drying, don’t they?). Another major character here is Snort Junior the Seventh, a dog descended from Tortura’s original Snort. This Snort brings Mrs. PinchnSqueeze the stick she uses to bang the cages in what she calls “Rattle & Battle,” but he himself is badly mistreated by “the old witch,” a fact that becomes important as the book moves toward an adventure of escape and an eventual happy ending. Lint Boy is, at bottom, not a very unusual story: small creatures band together, discover inner strength, and escape from the clutches of vile large creature. But Leijten tells the tale well and cleverly, and the exceptional illustrations sweep readers into this imagined world and turn the whole narrative into a thrillingly told near-epic. It is a small-scale epic, to be sure, but one with a big heart.

(++++) FOR CUTENESS’ SAKE


Dog on a Frog? By Kes & Claire Gray. Illustrated by Jim Field. Scholastic. $16.99.

Monster’s New Undies. By Samantha Berger. Illustrated by Tad Carpenter. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Plenty of the characters in kids’ books are cute, but sometimes the cuteness extends beyond the characters to the stories in which they appear. That was the case in Frog on a Log? – or as it was more amusingly called in Britain, Oi Frog! Kes Gray made that children’s book a sendup of the traditions of children’s books, having a cat insist to an unwilling frog that frogs must sit on logs, because that is the rule, and all sorts of other animals must sit on all sorts of other specific rhyming things, because that is just the way things are. Now we have the sequel, Dog on a Frog? This one was called Oi Dog! across the pond – still a more-amusing title than we get in the colonies – but could as easily have been titled The Frog’s Rhyming Revenge. Or something along those lines. This time the frog takes over the narrative from the demanding cat. The book starts with a dog sitting on him – on the frog, that is – and the frog demanding that he get off. “I’m changing the rules,” announces the frog to both the dog and the insistent cat. Now dogs (not frogs) will sit on logs, and cats – let’s see – will sit on gnats. “Ouch!” says the cat – understandably. The frog is on a roll now, making decisions about which animals will sit where – every choice adorably and amusingly illustrated by Jim Field, who returns here after doing the previous book. Bears now sit on stairs, slugs on plugs, flies on pies, crickets on tickets, and so on and on and on and on. Soon we have cheetahs sitting on fajitas, gnus on canoes, and whales on nails (which they clearly do not appreciate having to do). And mice sit on ice, and puppies sit on guppies, and canaries sit on fairies, and baboons sit on balloons, and on and on we go, even with poodles sitting on noodles (and looking none too happy about it). As the book nears its end, the cat and the dog repeat all the weird and wonderful sitting spots that the frog has decided are appropriate for the various animals – ending with the thoroughly reasonable question of what frogs are now going to sit on. The answer: a chaise longue, beneath an umbrella, sipping a cool drink. And so we leave one very happy frog with a bewildered-looking dog on a log and a distinctly irritated cat on gnats…and that’s that.

     The cuteness is in the service of a very different sort of story in Samantha Berger’s Monster’s New Undies. This monster is absolutely adorable: squat, green, appealingly horned and huge-eyed in Tad Carpenter’s illustrations. And he has a monstrous problem: old, torn, too-small underwear that he has used for so long that one day they actually fall apart. No problem – he will just do without. But…umm…no, that is not comfortable. So along goes the little monster with his monster mom to “Undie World,” about which he explains: “Leave it to MY mom,/ ’cause only she’d find/ a whole store devoted/ to JUST the behind!” There certainly are lots of choices here – all of them awful, in the little monster’s eyes. “Those are too long!/ Those are too short!/ Those look like a diaper!/ Those look like a skort!” Bad colors, bad designs, bad fit, bad appearance: “I guess there is nothing/ just right for this rump,” he bemoans. But then, way in the back of the store, there is a red-and-white pair that looks just like the little monster’s old undies (all the others he has seen have been blue-and-white). Both his mom and the salesthing are delighted, but neither is as happy as the little monster, shown by Carpenter across two full pages, wearing his new undies while hearts showing his adoration float everywhere. The little monster is so happy that he insists on buying 18 pairs of the new undies, and his mom is happy to indulge him as he dances and prances around looking utterly delighted, completely delightful, and entirely ridiculous. And very, very cute. Which is, of course, the, um, underlying point.