October 26, 2017

(++++) WINTRY WARMTH


Snow. By Cynthia Rylant. Illustrated by Lauren Stringer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Jingle Bells. By Susan Jeffers. Harper. $17.99.

Bear’s Merry Book of Hidden Things. By Gergely Dudás. Harper. $14.99.

Mary Engelbreit’s Color ME Christmas. By Mary Engelbreit. Harper. $9.99.

Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur: A Very Dino Christmas. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Charles Grosvenor. HarperFestival. $6.99

Santa’s Moose. By Syd Hoff. Harper. $3.99.

     Snow is poetry in motion – slow, drifting, downward motion – in Cynthia Rylant’s lovely Snow, originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback. It is hard to imagine a prettier, gentler introduction to winter weather than this book, whose acrylic paintings by Lauren Stringer make every page a vista of wonder and delight. The book is also distinguished by its intergenerational structure: yes, children are its focus, but the repeated appearance of a grandmother reinforces the ultimate message here, “that nothing lasts forever except memories.” That could be a rather depressing notion in hands less skilled than those of Rylant and Stringer (whose illustrations reflect her memories of three generations of her family). But what the words actually convey, what the pictures complement so well, is a sense of timelessness, a feeling of peace and beauty: “And some snows fall so heavy/ they bury/ cars up to their noses,/ and make evergreens bow,/ and keep your kitties/ curled up awhile.” Whether snow “comes softly in the night” or appears in “fat, cheerful flakes,” its message is that “home is where you/ need to be,/ and this snow/ will take you there.” Snow is both reality and dream world, a beautiful blend of blank verse and subtle seasonal sharing.

     Snow dominates Susan Jeffers’ illustrations for Jingle Bells, too, but here everything is more lighthearted and less thoughtful as the words of the familiar song become the basis of an open-sleigh outdoor romp featuring a boy, a girl, a snow-white dog and horse, an unexpected encounter with some curious deer, a white rabbit, a fox that joins the pursuit, and various other woodland creatures. The playfulness of the dog with river otters, the appearance of snowy owls flying overhead, the details of icicles hanging from a Christmas-colored house with a heart-shaped window in the front door – these and other details make the book an upbeat and offbeat interpretation of the words of the song. And anyone who wonders just which animals have made their appearances in the story can look at the small pictures of all 10 of them at the end – then go back and find any that might have escaped notice the first time.

     The gift-giving part of the winter holiday season meets Where’s Waldo? in Gergely Dudás’ Bear’s Merry Book of Hidden Things. There is no plot here – just a small bear trying to get things together for a Christmas party for his friends, and needing to find various items in crowded places. The cartoonish, pleasantly rounded characters are part of the charm here, as are the various things those characters are doing. For example, Bear starts by searching for a horn to make music at his party – and he goes to a Christmas market where chicks and penguins and porcupines and foxes and rabbits and other animals mill around stalls selling everything from cookies in multiple shapes to candles in multiple sizes and colors. The following pages involve searching for a gingerbread man in a jam-packed pile of gingerbread cookies, seeking the single not-yet-wrapped present among all the brightly wrapped ones, finding a holiday card on a page filled with shopping bags, picking out the single red Santa hat from all the non-Santa hats being worn by many-colored perched parrots – and on and on. The “find this” puzzles are not easy – looking for, say, a wreath among a batch of Christmas trees is no simple task – but neither are they overly difficult; there is nothing here to spoil the fun of the search. And some of Dudás’ drawings are really quite clever, such as the page filled with poinsettias amid which Bear is looking for a big red bow, the packed page of hedgehogs concealing a pinecone, and the all-red page featuring candy apples among which a red glass ornament is hiding. The party at the end is, of course, a great success; and the final page, showing Bear face-down on his bed and fast asleep, makes perfect sense at the end of so elaborate a quest.

     Some less-elaborate, small-size holiday-themed books are more limited in scale and scope, getting (+++) ratings that indicate they are fun for a time but likely to have less lasting value and a lower chance of bringing kids back to them again and again. In fact, Mary Engelbreit’s Color ME Christmas, if used as intended, is strictly a single-use item, since it is designed for coloring and then tearing apart. It includes 10 postcards, 15 gift tags and 10 ornaments – and for those who no longer send postcards, those pages can also be used as tags or tree decorations. The drawings are typical of Engelbreit in her usual upbeat mood. One postcard shows two children, arms spread wide and smiling broadly, in front of a Christmas tree, the scene emblazoned with the words, “Enjoy the Joy!” Another shows four kids starting a large snowball and says, “Snowmen fall from Heaven unassembled!!!!!” Gift tags feature elves and other jolly characters, or elaborate backgrounds and edgings and words such as “For Christmas, give your heart” and “Be warm inside & out.” Ornaments – printed two-sided, so colors can be different on front and back – have suitable seasonal patterns, or characters such as a fairy carrying a candy cane. A very pleasant coloring project for kids during a snow-day school cancellation, or on a chilly weekend, Mary Engelbreit’s Color ME Christmas is a nice little helping of seasonal cheer.

     So are two books featuring Danny and the Dinosaur, a duo dating all the way back to 1958. One of these books takes a page – several pages, actually – from the approach of the Mary Engelbreit one: A Very Dino Christmas includes 16 small holiday cards, a poster, and stickers, all featuring art that Charles Grosvenor has deliberately created in the style of Syd Hoff (1912-2004). Parents or, more likely, grandparents may well remember Danny and the dinosaur fondly. Hoff created the thoroughly unrealistic, ever-smiling dinosaur – who walks on his back legs but is shaped like the huge, long-necked plant eaters that walked on all fours – as a simple, charming companion for Danny. In A Very Dino Christmas, the dinosaur does not understand Christmas decorating until Danny explains it to him, and then the two set out to decorate the museum where Danny and the dinosaur first met. Bruce Hale keeps the tale suitably simple, including a twist in which the museum director objects to what has been done to the exhibits – until some museum-goers tell him how much they like the decorations and promise to bring lots of other people to visit, which they do. It is interesting to contrast this story and its drawings with Santa’s Moose, which really is by Hoff (dating to 1979) and which is now available as a Level 1 book (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) in the “I Can Read!” series. There is no dinosaur here – no Danny, either – but there is a wide-eyed and rather silly-looking moose named Milton, who really wants to help Santa with his toy deliveries and is given the chance to do just that. Milton messes things up at first, but proves a quick learner, and when the reindeer get tired because the load is extra-heavy this year, Milton more than pulls his weight and makes sure children everywhere get their presents. Hoff had a fine sense of pleasant storytelling mixed with engaging characters, and families whose children are reading at what is considered Level 1 will enjoy meeting Milton the moose – as well as Danny and the dinosaur.

(++++) OUR DANGEROUS WORLD


Al Roker’s Extreme Weather: Tornadoes, Typhoons, and Other Weather Phenomena. By Al Roker. Harper. $16.99.

Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. By James M. Deem. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

     There have been many books covering the same territory as Al Roker’s Extreme Weather, a new release written by the weather anchor of the Today show. Roker’s is distinguished not so much by the writing style, which is pedestrian, as by the well-thought-out explanations of various forms of extreme weather – and the well-chosen examples of the problems weather can cause. For example, Roker explains that “wind speed” is actually three kinds of speed in meteorological terms, since “wind rarely travels at a steady rate.” He then gives brief definitions of gust speed (“the fastest speed measured”), sustained wind speed (“an average of speeds recorded over a period of two minutes”), and maximum sustained wind (“the highest wind speed that lasts for at least one minute”). Knowing these terms then helps a lot in following Roker’s discussions of weather phenomena in which wind plays a major part, such as tornadoes and hurricanes – and derechos, which most books like this cover lightly but which Roker treats in greater-than-usual detail. As for hurricanes (more accurately, as Roker points out, “tropical cyclones,” since “hurricane” is only one name for this type of weather), the brief but well-done explanation of why cyclones rotate is headlined “Corio-WHAT?” And that enticement to reading about the Coriolis effect is typical of the approach here: Roker does everything possible to draw readers into the text, not relying solely on the sorts of photos that, as dramatic as they are, have appeared in many other books. Actually, a few of the photos here are not ones that readers will likely have seen before, such as the picture of “red sprites,” a type of “transient luminous event” caused when storm electricity is not released as lightning but instead produces an effect rarely observable from the ground (the “red sprite” picture was taken by a NASA satellite). As for lightning, Roker includes four pictures of different types – and, again, these are not always shown in books of this kind. But the explanatory material is what really matters here. Roker spends considerable time discussing why and how climate change affects weather, not looking to score political points but simply showing how certain alterations in our planet’s overall climate can cause changes in weather conditions. Admirably, he also devotes considerable space to weather conditions that do not have the drama of tornadoes or cyclones but that “kill more people in the United States than the worst storms” – meaning cold, heat, drought and fog. Yes, fog, which causes loss of visibility that can lead to injuries and fatalities. Roker explains “advection fog,” “radiation fog” and “evaporation fog” (with pictures of each), and on a lighter note talks about “frozen fogsicles” that form an ice shell on vegetation “if fog forms when the air is below the freezing temperature.” A few things in Al Roker’s Extreme Weather are slightly puzzling, such as a Saffir-Simpson hurricane-rating scale that differs from the one usually seen on TV and online – for example, Roker says a Category 3 storm has winds of 111 to 129 miles per hour, but the usual scale says 111 to 130. However, there is nothing substantive in this book that will likely provoke differences of opinion about how dangerous weather phenomena occur and just how damaging they can be. And Roker’s discussion of weather-related occurrences that “can strike suddenly, long after the initial danger has passed” – events such as floods and landslides – is particularly welcome and especially thought-provoking. Adults as well as young readers will gain much from Roker’s knowledge and the clarity with which he communicates it.

     One of the most devastating phenomena about whose effects modern humans have direct, incontrovertible evidence was the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24-25 in the year 79 C.E. Magnificent on one level and terrifying on another, the ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum and nearby areas provide amazing insight into the everyday lives – and the exact manner of the deaths – of thousands of residents of the Roman Empire at its height. James M. Deem’s Bodies from the Ash, originally published in 2005 and now available in paperback, is sobering and fascinating and an outstanding introduction to one of the world’s great archival sites. From the deadly eruption itself and its expulsion of “a mixture of rock fragments and gas that rolled over the ground at temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit,” eventually covering Pompeii with “more than twelve feet of volcanic debris,” to the rediscovery of the buried city in the mid-18th century, Deem explains what happened and what the results of the rediscovery were – not all of them positive: “Some tourists stole bones from the skeletons and other artifacts as souvenirs. …[O]f all the coins and jewelry found at the Villa of Diomedes, only two items have been preserved to this day: a necklace and a gemstone. The rest have disappeared without a trace.” Mount Vesuvius continues to have its effects: a funicular (a cable railroad in which ascending and descending cars balance each other) opened in 1880 to take tourists to the top of the mountain, but a 1944 eruption wrecked it beyond repair – although the book’s photos of it remain highly intriguing. Indeed, everything discovered in and about Pompeii and Herculaneum is amazing, with the plaster casts of people at the moment of their deaths the most involving, if morbid,  of all. The book is packed with photos of these casts, of the areas where they were found, and of modern archeologists exploring the city with a great deal more care than did the explorers of earlier times. Seeing the remains of the victims of the eruption is truly astonishing. There is the soldier whose sword remains prominently alongside his right leg, and the woman who died on the beach while carrying gold jewelry and wearing two wonderfully preserved rings. The silver hoard found in one house, the wine jugs in another, and the human remains everywhere, tell a story of mundane existence suddenly, dramatically and terrifyingly turned into an excavation for the ages to come. And Mount Vesuvius is not necessarily done with the area yet, as Deem points out: it is dormant, not extinct, and a million people now live in its vicinity and could become its next victims. Bodies from the Ash is a solemn reminder of the power of nature, a tremendously interesting foray into the past, and a warning of how much we still do not know about predicting, much less preventing, some of the greatest disasters that the Earth is capable of visiting upon humans and their settlements.

(+++) THE WHY OF WILDING


Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe. By Jess P. Shatkin, M.D., M.P.H. Tarcher/Perigee. $26.

     Filled with descriptive insight but lacking in realistic prescriptive recommendations, Jess Shatkin’s Born to Be Wild is an attempt to get beyond facile clichés about risk-taking teenagers and figure out why teens really do some of the things that their elders (all formerly teens) find hard to accept or in some cases even believe. Teens, according to child and adolescent psychiatrist Shatkin, are engaged in a nearly continuous (or at least continual) process of inner-directed wilding, a kind of out-of-control behavior that Shatkin says is hard-wired and important for species survival. Rather than considering themselves invulnerable, Shatkin says, teens overestimate their vulnerability substantially – to pregnancy and sexually transmitted illness, for example – and behave in risky ways anyway. Something other than a feeling of being able to make it through anything unscathed must be operating, the author says.

     In addition to its subtitle, Shatkin’s book has a surtitle, “Decoding the Adolescent Brain, Ages 12-26,” and does a better job of fulfilling the promise of that phrase than it does in showing “how we can help keep them safe.” Much of the book uses the language of brain science to explain behavior. “Brain imaging confirms that the adolescent amygdala, or threat detection center, is more active when they are shown possibly dangerous cues like a fearful facial expression.” “The adolescent brain has been fine-tuned by evolution and is no accident. It’s not an incomplete or insufficient adult brain. The adult brain is the gold standard for adults, not for adolescents.” “Remember that dopamine is released into our reward center, the ventral striatum, when we try something new that we like and each time thereafter when we anticipate that behavior. …Because the dopamine system of an adolescent is at its pinnacle and will never be this responsive again, novelty really rocks their world.”

     Shatkin’s point is that adolescent behavior that adults find incomprehensible, or so dangerous that it seems to indicate a belief in one’s own immortality, is in fact a genetic expression of evolution. For one thing, “adolescents tolerate ambiguity better than adults and children; that is, adolescents may be more comfortable taking risks when they lack complete information and are uncertain about the possible outcomes.” This is simply a more-elegant way of saying adolescents do not think they are invulnerable—instead, they do not think at all (or at least to any significant degree) before engaging in behavior correctly perceived by adults as risky.

     Shatkin makes this argument at length and in several different ways, to an extent that first becomes convincing and then borders on the repetitive. By the time that happens, readers will be hungry for “how we can keep them safe” – but thoughtful readers are likely to wonder if keeping adolescents safe runs counter to millions of years of evolutionary adaptation and is therefore, by definition, a losing cause. Shatkin will have none of that. He says that just because something is hard-wired into the adolescent brain does not mean it is impossible to mitigate impulses that had adaptive value in the dim past but are now likely to lead to highly undesirable outcomes. So Shatkin argues, completely unrealistically, that all that is needed is fundamental change in (Western and specifically American) society. Schools, parents and society as a whole must refocus on areas such as social learning (socialization being so crucial in adolescence), art (channeling expressiveness), group problem-solving (positive cooperative behavior), emotional as well as intellectual IQ – and establishing limits and boundaries through emphatic use of the word “no” as and when necessary. Society must change; parenting must change; schools must change. And this is a recipe for hopelessness, since anyone capable of paying attention to Shatkin’s book is equally capable of figuring out that these change-the-world prescriptions are impossible to bring to fruition – not even Shatkin himself can say how these things are supposed to happen, just that they should happen. And it is facile to say that of course change always starts at home, in the family. Shatkin mistakes his cozy life in New York City, with a traditional nuclear family of a wife and two teenage children, for a template that can be used by single parents, teens who themselves have children, underprivileged and financially stressed families, people living in areas far from urban conveniences, and so forth. Shatkin does acknowledge some of these factors, but from an erudite/urban perspective rather than that of someone genuinely familiar with them. Born to Be Wild is, from that same perspective, a well-argued, well-researched and well-written analysis – indeed, so well-argued and well-researched that readers are entitled to come to the inescapable conclusion that there is no practical way to keep teenagers safe, no matter how much parents may wish to do just that. In fact, in a passage that Shatkin clearly does not intend to be fraught with irony, he writes, “Certainly, many adolescent humans have died because they were driven by their emotions to take risks, and we owe a great debt to these risk takers for allowing our species to live on. Without someone willing to kill an elephant for food or find new territory, we would have gone extinct long ago.” We do not wish our adolescents to be among those sacrificing themselves for the good of the human race, but Shatkin’s analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that, in the absence of a complete societal overhaul, there is little that can be done proactively and protectively.

(+++) HEADING OUT AND ABOUT


Have Sword, Will Travel. By Garth Nix & Sean Williams. Scholastic. $17.99.

The 12 Dares of Christa. By Marissa Burt. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     There are various ways to try a little too hard. Garth Nix and Sean Williams, for all their authorial experience, try a little too hard to be both funny and dramatic in Have Sword, Will Travel, the first book of a new series. How many people, one wonders, will “get” the title? It traces to an old TV series (1957-1963) called Have Gun, Will Travel, about a West Point graduate called Paladin who becomes a hired gunslinger way out West and carries a calling card with a knight (the chess piece) on it. Episodes may be available on YouTube nowadays, but how many members of the targeted preteen audience for Have Sword, Will Travel will have seen them? How many of their parents will have seen them? Well, never mind – the title is just one way, a small one, in which the authors try a bit too hard. There are others. Thirteen-year-old best friends Odo and Eleanor, a miller’s son and an apothecary’s daughter, are hunting eels one day when they turn up a sword stuck under water – which Odo pulls out and which proves to be a slightly addled talking blade called (in short form) Biter. The blade promptly knights Odo and insists he go on an appropriate knightly quest – much to the annoyance of Eleanor, who is deemed Odo’s squire even though she wants to be a knight (her deceased mother was one) and he does not. The faux-medieval world here is particularly faux in light of the fact that actual 13-year-olds in medieval times would have been married or on the verge of it, certainly not hanging around as best (strictly platonic) friends and catching eels together. Anyway, the humor of the sword-finding and Eleanor’s frustration persists for a while, until Nix and Williams decide to give the story a more-serious turn. Odo and Eleanor live in a village by a river that is quickly drying up, for reasons unknown, and they embark on a quest to find out what is going on and deal with it. Along the way they have a serious encounter with a bad-guy smith who is making weapons for “urthkin,” creatures of the dark underground that are decidedly not dwarves. The wayfarers and the story lurch past that event to the dark and dangerous Old Forest, wherein the young adventurers encounter the traditional blind seer and, given the extreme rarity of talking swords, just happen to happen upon another of them, which turns out to be (in short form) Runnel, Biter’s older sister (made by the same smith 70 years earlier). Eventually it turns out that the river is drying up not because of a dragon, as everyone along the river has assumed, but because of a gigantic dam built by a scurvy turncoat of a knight with whom Odo and Eleanor have already had a run-in. The reason the dam was built is – well, in the biggest of the many plot holes in Have Sword, Will Travel, that is never explained. But the thing still has to be destroyed, which proves remarkably easy after Odo and Eleanor rescue an old, enslaved man who happens to know exactly how to wreck the dam. Then everyone journeys quickly along the now-released river to confront the evil knight, Sir Saskia, before she can do even more damage – but it takes a deus ex machina, or more correctly a dragon ex machina, to set things right and make sure that both Odo and Eleanor are properly knighted and ready for their next quest. If all this sounds chaotic and rather ill-plotted, that is an accurate reflection of what Nix and Williams have done here. The sprinkling of old-style words (be prepared to look up, say, “drassock”) makes little impact on the thoroughly contemporary way in which characters speak to each other; and from start to finish, the book’s humorous elements (many supplied by the over-enthusiastic but memory-challenged Biter) coexist uneasily with its more-intense ones. Not surprising given its provenance, Have Sword, Will Travel is well-paced and easy to read. But it simply tries a bit too energetically to be both epic and amusing, and falls a little short on both scales.

     What Marissa Burt wants in The 12 Dares of Christa is to be heartwarming, and wow, does she push to get there. The title echoes “The 12 Days of Christmas” to a rather obvious degree, and the quest here is a dual one: to find beauty and joy in unexpected geographical locations and to find inner peace, all in the name of reclaiming the holiday spirit that Christa once felt in abundance but that now, at age 13 and with her parents recently divorced, she has lost. Burt ensures that the two parents are both there for Christa, in different ways. Her mom takes her to Europe for a winter-break vacation that Christa does not really want, and her dad makes sure that when Christa arrives in Italy, a package is waiting for her containing the 12 “dares” of the title. “Dare you to find the matching padlock at the Ponte Vecchio,” one reads; they are all along the same lines. Christa’s reactions are all similar, too – in this particular case, she writes, “Yesterday, Europe was all stars and wonder and ancient cathedrals, and today I want to hole up in my hotel room and avoid seeing everyone.” But that is not to be, not this day and not any day, for Christa has to get out into the world and learn that there is life after one’s parents’ divorce. Christa is scarcely a deep thinker. After she hears someone suggest that feelings about food can mirror those about life in general, she wonders “if deep inside I’m on the alert against any and all changes. And if I look deeper inside, I wonder if that’s because so much has changed that I haven’t wanted to. Whoa. Deep. I push it all out of my mind to think about later.” Unfortunately for Christa, “later” keeps coming, as does earlier – the latter being a point early in the book when she sees her mom embracing a man who, of course, is not Christa’s father: “Mom is kissing someone else. I mean, really, really kissing him, like I haven’t seen her kiss Dad in – well, ever.” Anyway, the dares keep coming, too, as Christa tries to deal with life and all like that there. No. 8, for example, is “Dare you to ride the Chunnel train,” which forces Christa to confront her fear of “being trapped in a metal tube hundreds of feet underwater.” Like all the other dares, this one works out just fine and brings some unexpected benefits, and in fact that is the whole point of The 12 Dares of Christa: life has its ups and downs, but more of the former than the latter, and confronting things that upset or worry you is a good thing because all works out for the best. Some of this treacle is excusable because the book makes it clear, starting with its title, that this is a Christmas story. But Burt seizes every possible opportunity to spread things a little too thickly, even making sure that Christa encounters people with real problems by having to serve a meal in a soup kitchen in London. For all its claims of depth-seeking, The 12 Dares of Christa is an extremely superficial novel – and although there is nothing wrong with that, especially considering the book’s seasonal slant, the over-emphatic feel-goodness of the book as it tries to tackle serious family issues makes the whole thing, ironically, come across as less sensitive and aware than Burt wants it to be.

(+++) STORIES IN SONG


Robert Aldridge: Sister Carrie. Adriana Zabala, mezzo-soprano; Keith Pares, baritone; Matt Morgan, tenor; Alisa Suzanne Jordheim, soprano; Florentine Opera Chorus, Florentine Opera Company and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Boggs. Naxos. $12.99 (2 CDs).

Nicholas Vines: Loose, Wet, Perforated—A Morality Play in Four Ordeals. Guerilla Opera. Navona. $14.99.

Imagine Christmas. Sono Luminus. $12.99.

     Fans of American opera may not be legion, but they are certainly enthusiastic, and their enthusiasm is well-founded with the Naxos release of Robert Aldridge’s Sister Carrie, which offers a full two-and-half hours of very-well-made music for a bargain price. That does not mean the opera itself has any sense of “bargain basement” about it: Aldridge (born 1954), who previously wrote Elmer Gantry with the same fine librettist, Herschel Garfein, here again harnesses tonality and archetypal American characters and ambitions to fine effect. Sister Carrie was Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, published to an underwhelming  reception in 1900 and roundly condemned as sordid and immoral – which, by comparison with the upstanding notions of Victorian times, it was. It is a realistic as well as highly melodramatic look at a young Wisconsin girl swept into the pleasures and perils of the big city (Chicago and, later, New York) and finding, after involvement with a succession of men, that even when she eventually attains success, it is empty and does not make her happy. The bleakness of the story is comparable to that of Dreiser’s later works, but Aldridge does not opt for a Wozzeck-style doom-laden atmosphere, preferring to emphasize elements of the story that are upbeat or gentle and to contrast those with the negative ones. This works well: the music becomes part of the narrative (to a greater extent than in Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry, where the text carried the opera); and while the visuals would surely enhance the telling, Aldridge and Garfein limn the characters and their settings so skillfully that this two-CD set works quite well on its own. Adriana Zabala makes a fine Carrie in sympathetic-but-doomed-heroine mode (although she is not “doomed” in the manner of other opera characters of the time). Zabala sings a considerable amount of Baroque music, and it shows in the ease with which she handles the vocal demands of her part. Keith Phares as her lover, George Hurstwood, has a more-dramatic (actually more-melodramatic) role that requires him to journey from success to despair and finally desperation. Phares makes the overdone, overdrawn character believable with a fine, warm voice and a sense of true involvement in the drama. Carrie’s earlier lover, Drouet, is nicely if a bit blandly sung by Matt Morgan; and the showgirl Lola gets a fine coloratura-soprano turn from Alisa Suzanne Jordheim. Other singers also handle their roles aptly, and William Boggs leads the production – including a very-fine-sounding Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra – with a sure hand and strong sense of pacing. Neither opera in general nor American opera in particular can be said to have wide appeal; for that matter, Dreiser’s books, once so controversial, now seem over-plotted and manipulative of characters and readers alike, to such an extent that they have fallen into considerable disfavor. Still, it does not require great literature to make engaging opera, and for those interested in Sister Carrie – perhaps because of familiarity not with Dreiser’s novel but with William Wyler’s 1952 film adaptation, Carrie, starring Laurence Olivier, Jennifer Jones and Eddie Albert – this recording will be very welcome indeed.

     An even smaller audience is clearly the target of Nicholas Vines’ Loose, Wet, Perforated, in which the composer/librettist paints a surreal landscape mixing TV game and reality shows with a shadowy secret organization that appears to have the power to elevate people to fame or relegate them to obscurity. The oddly named performance group Guerilla Opera (the correct spelling is “guerrilla”) certainly engages itself in this hour-plus celebration of cacophony and absurdity, and the unusual instrumentation – clarinet, saxophone, trombone and percussion – makes for some suitably weird acoustical elements. But unlike Sister Carrie, Vines’ work seems very pale indeed without some sort of visual setting. The singing – actually mostly declamation and standard-issue Sprechstimme – is almost a parody of what many listeners would expect in contemporary vocal writing, with the occasional spoken word or phrase suddenly breaking into melodic lines (although “melodic” is an overstatement for what is heard here). The singers are intended to represent the three words of the title: Alana de la Guardia is “Loose,” Brian Church is “Wet,” and Doug Dodson is “Perforated.” A fourth participant, Thea Lobo, handles various subsidiary elements. Or maybe they are not subsidiary – the point of Loose, Wet, Perforated appears to be that nothing matters much more than anything else, in modern life or in the opera itself. Of course the whole production is supposed to be symbolic as all get-out, and tremendously meaningful to the cognoscenti who can ferret out what it is trying to say. The problem is that it does not seem to be saying very much – certainly not very much that has not been said before, and with greater clarity and impact elsewhere. The game-show-as-reality-as-reality-show concept has theatrical possibilities, to be sure, and it is easy to imagine a kind of pervasive dark humor in the staging of Loose, Wet, Perforated. But it is impossible to know if there actually was any such during this performance; and the material as heard here, as a strictly auditory experience, comes closer to sounding ludicrous than to seeming profound.

     For a CD as apparently lacking in portentousness and pretension as Loose, Wet, Perforated is packed with them, the Sono Luminus seasonal offering with the simple title of Imagine Christmas would appear to fill the bill. But titles can be deceiving – not the titles of the dozen pieces heard here, but the implications of seeing them listed. What is unusual about this disc is that although the music is familiar, listeners must indeed “imagine” the well-known words to most of these selections, because this is only in part a vocal disc. In fact, it is only in part a Christmas disc, at least as the term is usually understood. The musical arrangements are frequently downright strange. The American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s version of Silent Night, for example, is far from silent and not particularly nocturnal. White Christmas has an interesting sound as played on violin (Irina Muresanu) and piano (Matei Varga), but the basic pace is a dragging rather than warmly sentimental one, and the sudden appearance of a short violin cadenza is unsettling. Even when there are vocals in a work, as in the Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, the effect tends to be unexpected: the feeling of this arrangement is more doom-and-gloom than seasonal merriment. That does not mean Imagine Christmas is a CD for the Scrooge lurking in so many of us as we tolerate the incessantly bright, upbeat Christmas tunes that pervade the atmosphere from Halloween to Christmas Day and sometimes beyond. The release does not appear to be intended as a counterweight to frothy and overly light holiday fare – just, perhaps, a different view of Frosty the Snowman, December: Christmas, Holly Jolly Christmas, Walking in the Air, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, Christmas Time Is Here, Joy to the World, and Good King Wenceslas. It is certainly an interesting approach to all these standards of the season – even though, at times, it is a less-than-congenial one. But listeners who find themselves longing for entirely straightforward handling of Christmastime favorites have plenty, plenty, of other places to turn.

October 19, 2017

(++++) PICTORIAL PLEASURES


Calendars (wall for 2018): Barnyard Roosters; Downton Abbey; Rube Goldberg. Andrews McMeel, $15.99 (Roosters); Universe/Andrews McMeel, $14.99 each (Downton, Rube).

     Although wall calendars come in all forms and with lots of different focuses, there are some that you want hanging in rooms for the simple joy of looking at them. They are just plain a delight to the eye. Take Barnyard Roosters, for example. The topic might seem an unlikely one for a year’s worth of art, but this collection of Dan DiPaolo’s work in fact holds up quite well for a full 16 months: September through December 2017 appear on a single page with a big rooster picture and the words “POULTRY EGGS.” Obviously this is a calendar for farm fanciers and rooster fans, but even urbanites may be surprised to discover how much they can enjoy the sometimes stately, sometimes casual poses of these birds, a few of which are quite clearly cock-a-doodle-doing. People unfamiliar with farm life may think a rooster is just a rooster, but DiPaolo clearly knows otherwise: there are hundreds of breeds of chickens and, accordingly, hundreds of types of roosters around the world, including 20 or so that originated in the United States. It is not necessary, however, to know which rooster is which in order to enjoy the Barnyard Roosters calendar, which comes packaged in its own extra-large rooster-bedecked envelope and features metal reinforcement of the hole from which it hangs on the wall – a small but highly useful enhancement. As for the pictures, contrast, for example, the similar crowing roosters shown for July and September, the former white-feathered and shown against a star-spangled background and the latter a mixture of gold and black, shown against a vaguely autumnal scene. The birds are quite similar, yet very different. And so it is throughout the year here: some months feature two birds (March and December), one offers a night scene (October, which has a pumpkin-colored rooster), and a couple include flowers (May and November); and all in all, DiPaolo’s art portrays roosters of so many types and colors, in so many settings, that this calendar is worth crowing about throughout the coming year.

     There are sayings that compare the sometimes gaudy plumage of birds (notably peacocks) to the clothing of people, and some of them may come to mind when glancing at the 2018 calendar featuring scenes from the much-loved British costume drama, Downton Abbey. The show’s final episode aired in the United States as long ago as March 2016, but you would never know it from the enthusiasm that the program continues to generate among its fans – an enjoyment now mixed with nostalgia for the show, which in its turn had a kind of pervasive and bittersweet nostalgia for the changing times in the world a century and more ago. Downton Abbey was a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs with overtones of other high-class soap operas such as the American show Dallas. And opportunities for marvelous still photos taken from the show abound – there are plenty to keep those who enjoyed the program going for many years, not just through 2018. The huge crowd around the Christmas tree for December 2018 is both an obvious choice and a beautiful one, but every month here features a pose that will remind viewers of the program and help them re-connect with their memories of it. Indeed, these still shots evoke both the show and the era in which it was set to an exceptional degree. The three white-clad women in the foreground with the stately building behind them; the two sitting in jail, on opposite sides of a plain wooden table, as a guard stands at the table’s end, overseeing their encounter; the three butlers standing side by side, their trays at the ready; the multigenerational library scene featuring oh-so-elegant bookshelves behind the family members – these and all the other pictures here help evoke the moods and emotions of Downton Abbey as surely as the program itself brought forth and honed the emotions of its complicated, interrelated cast of characters and, through that cast, tugged at the heartstrings of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. There just isn’t a better way to continue celebrating the joys and sometimes guilty pleasures of this drama than with a calendar whose pages keep it front-and-center all year long.

     The visuals require a great deal more study and provoke a great deal more laughter in the 2018 Rube Goldberg calendar. The words “Rube Goldberg device” are far better known nowadays than are the devices themselves: the phrase describes getting something simple done by complicated means. The reason the phrase became such a common one is apparent in this delightfully offbeat calendar. Goldberg (1883-1970) specialized in imagining highly complex machines or sequences that were used to do exceedingly simple tasks. What is being done is usually (although not always) visually apparent; therefore, many Goldberg drawings are nowadays reproduced without the narrative that the cartoonist originally included with them. But they gain quite a bit when his words are added to his pictures, as they are in this calendar. The titles alone are enough to provide a chuckle or two, and the imagination that goes with the conceptions is simply delightful: “Try Our New Patent Clothes Brush” requires, among other things, a bottle to be opened with a corkscrew and a man with a very long beard; “Simple Way to Dig Up Bait for Fishing” needs the tears produced by cutting an onion, a scales-of-justice kind of scale, and a bird on a perch; “Idea for a Simple Fly Swatter” requires carbolic acid, a large bunch of garlic, and a pet trout; and so on and so forth. The dozen examples shown in this calendar will merely be enough to whet the appetite of anyone living today’s ultra-complex life, filled as it is with super-complicated gewgaws and gadgets, for the supposed simplicity of the past. “Supposed” is the key here: Goldberg showed, again and again, that there is nothing so simple that it cannot be made ridiculously complicated. Remembering that, day after day and month after month during 2018, can be a great antidote to living in the 21st century, with all the entirely new sorts of life complications that have come into being since Goldberg’s time.

(++++) PUPPY YUMMIES


Stick Dog 6: Stick Dog Slurps Spaghetti. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.

Stick Dog 7: Stick Dog Craves Candy. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.

     It’s all about the goodies. Book after book, Tom Watson’s Stick Dog and his four canine companions find themselves in search of something, pretty much anything, to eat; and book after book, they eventually get fed – but only after misadventures in which Stick Dog, the only clear-thinking one of the pack, has to put up with the hilarious misunderstandings and misinterpretations and ridiculously overwrought plans of his friends and fellow scroungers. The Stick Dog books are intended for ages 8-12 and are written and drawn as if by someone in that same age range – hence the title character’s distinctly primitive rectangular-body-with-sticks-for-legs appearance, which is then echoed in the look of his four companions. Watson neatly walks the fine line between writing like a preteen (he does) and talking down to preteens (he doesn’t). The basic plot changes little from book to book, but the way it is worked out varies just enough to make each series entry fun even for readers who can figure out pretty much everything that is coming.

     Stick Dog’s four companions are Stripes (who is polka-dotted), Poo-Poo (so called for being a poodle), Karen (a diminutive dachshund who is sensitive about her size), and Mutt (who is indeed a mutt, and has a propensity for collecting all sorts of oddments in his coat, some of which turn out to be useful during the pack’s adventures). The stories start and end at the drainage pipe that Stick Dog calls home, beginning with everyone being hungry and ending with everyone fed. That same story arc works again and again because the specific foods (referenced in the titles) are different and the methods of getting them are very different. Stick Dog Slurps Spaghetti has the dogs mistaking some leftover spaghetti in a takeout box for little pieces of rope, then discovering that these particular “ropes” are quite delicious, then figuring out where they came from (thanks to Stick Dog’s ability to read), and then getting to that restaurant by climbing a hill. That is, Stick Dog tricks the other dogs into climbing the hill, which they believe is too steep for them. He does this by moving them upwards bit by bit while listening to their plans for ascent. Stripes suggests Stick Dog climb up the hill, then climb down it to help Mutt, then they both climb it, then they both come down to help Poo-Poo, and so forth. Poo-Poo wants to find a gigantic piece of rope and lasso an airplane as it flies overhead. Mutt plans to capture a hot-air balloon and ride it up the hill. And Karen, the most dimwitted of the bunch and the least aware of it, hatches an elaborate plan to build a huge bonfire, set a gigantic skillet on it, and have the dogs sit in the skillet until they are burned so badly that they spontaneously leap to the top of the hill, where five buckets of water will be waiting for them to cool their behinds. The absurdities mount throughout the book, as in all these volumes, but eventually the dogs do find the spaghetti restaurant atop the hill, Stick Dog figures out how to get inside (while the other dogs are busy playing hide and seek in the form of everyone hiding and no one seeking), and a good time and good deal of spaghetti are eventually had by all. And at the end there are meatballs, which Stick Dog finds after his friends get away from the restaurant and accidentally leave him locked inside. Stick Dog never holds grudges and remains generous to the end: he gives each of his friends three meatballs and keeps two for himself. The Stick Dog books, as silly as they are, again and again reinforce this idea of friendship and of taking friends at face value and nonjudgmentally.

     The seventh Stick Dog book is a Halloween story, which starts when the dogs are looking for food in people’s houses (without, of course, being seen) and Stripes encounters witches – or what he thinks are witches. All the dogs panic, even Stick Dog, until Stick Dog figures out that these are just ordinary humans in costumes, and they are walking around getting candy from houses – candy that turns out to be delicious when the dogs sample some that has fallen into the street. Poo-Poo, the ingredients expert among the dogs, explains that “this so-called ‘candy’ is an invigorating blend of high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and fruity flavoring,” which is a pretty darned good analysis. Unfortunately, the taste of cherry reminds Poo-Poo of his puppy days on a farm where there were cherry trees, and the trees were full of squirrels that could get cherries anytime while Poo-Poo could only get them when they fell, and soon Poo-Poo has reverted to the crazed squirrel hater of earlier books until Stick Dog talks him down from post-traumatic squirrel stress. Then the dogs have to come up with plans for getting candy – this time Karen recommends building a house, because houses contain candy and if they build one there will be candy inside. But things do not go quite that way; they go better. Stick Dog watches two kids dressed as witches get caramel apples from sweet old Grandma Smith, who cannot hear or see much anymore, and eventually he and the other dogs ring Grandma Smith’s bell, and she thinks they are kids in dog costumes, and she mistakes their various barks for the imperfectly heard names of children, and the whole scene is absolutely hilarious. There is a complication, of course – there always is – when the gate into Grandma Smith’s yard swings shut and the dogs, of course, cannot open it and are stuck inside. Stick Dog solves the problem by standing on flowerpots and using an old, torn tennis ball helpfully supplied by Mutt. The other dogs think Stick Dog has lost it – they always think that when he has his best ideas – but they reluctantly go along with him and, sure enough, he saves them, saves the day, saves the candy, and so on. In each of these books, Stick Dog is the hero, but in each of them, he is distinctly modest about it, never seeks the limelight, puts up with a remarkable degree of ridiculousness from his friends, and generally behaves like a much nicer version of a helpful, friendly, clever human being. This is why there are Stick Dog books but not Stick Kid books. Watson knows where reality ends and supreme silliness begins.

(+++) A PARTIAL REVIVAL


Anastasia Krupnik Stories: Anastasia Krupnik; Anastasia Again!; Anastasia at Your Service; Anastasia Off Her Rocker. By Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $25.99.

     Wow, have times changed. When Lois Lowry, best known for The Giver and its sequels, created Anastasia Krupnik, she loosely based the outspoken 10-year-old Jewish girl on President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, who was known to speak her preteen mind at many opportunities. But Lowry added introspection to the character and also put in occasional missteps and some memories from Lowry’s own childhood. The first Anastasia book, simply called Anastasia Krupnik, came out in 1979; the series continued through nine books, with Anastasia Absolutely appearing in 1995. There were also spinoffs featuring Anastasia’s younger brother, Sam, plus the start of a 10th book that Lowry never finished because the series, no longer selling very well, was halted.

     Now Anastasia is back and sanitized of pretty much all the distinguishing characteristics that made her interesting in the first place. The first book contains a four-letter word for excrement that has been removed. Scenes in which Anastasia’s pipe-smoking father lets her taste the foam from a beer he is drinking – one of Lowry’s personal memories – have been excised. An odd scenario in which Anastasia lies about her age and meets someone through a “Personals” newspaper column – long before Internet dating – is gone, even though nothing of any sort happens between the girl and the older man and the whole thing is played for laughs. And on and on the reissues go, excising the oddities that made Anastasia an interestingly offbeat character and turning her into little more than yet another preteen trying to make her way in the world and gradually, bit by bit, growing up and maturing.

     Not even the book titles are sacrosanct. The first is unchanged; so is the second, from 1981, Anastasia Again! And the third volume, Anastasia at Your Service (1982), keeps its title as well (Anastasia is 12 by this time). But the fourth book, from 1984, has metamorphosed from Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst to Anastasia Off Her Rocker, which does not make a great deal of sense. This is actually one of the better books in the series, with Anastasia deciding she needs psychotherapy and therefore buying a plaster bust of Sigmund Freud at a garage sale and talking to it about her problems and concerns. The first and fourth books are unillustrated in their new editions; the second and third contain what are charmingly described as “decorations” by Diane deGroat. Anastasia now is shown as having long blond hair and being quite thin; originally she was considerably chunkier, was brown-haired, and wore far less stylish eyeglasses than in the new releases. She is not seen within the books, only on their covers, where she is rendered by Sara Not (deGroat did the original portrayal).

     So where does this leave contemporary preteen girls whose mothers may remember Anastasia with amusement, bemusement, or some combination of the two? Anastasia still has a series of rather mundane adventures with a rather mundane family (although her usually calm and steady mother comes somewhat unhinged in the second and fourth books). She still has to adjust to everyday life in ways for which she is not quite prepared, as when she expects to become a summertime Lady’s Companion to earn money in the third book, then finds herself serving as a maid instead. She still has everyday traumas that loom large in her life, as when, in the first book, she works hard on a poem assigned in class, but does not write it according to the teacher’s instructions and therefore gets an F. She tries to negotiate everyday life to the best of her ability; although, as Lowry explains in her new introductions to the first two books, elements of Anastasia’s life will likely seem dated to young readers in the 21st century. Still, there is an undercurrent of groping toward maturity in the Anastasia books that can connect with young girls today as effectively as in the past. And Anastasia, although scarcely a complex character, has enough interest and enough remaining quirks to make time spent with her worthwhile. What she is not anymore is highly distinctive: her rougher edges are gone, her politically incorrect ideas and adventures have disappeared, and she is now just one among innumerable other preteen girls on the road toward greater self-awareness and understanding of her place in the world. However, since the appetite for such protagonists remains a large one, there may well still be a place on many bookshelves for Anastasia Krupnik Stories.

(+++) SOME DARKNESS, SOME LIGHT


The Library, Book 2: Black Moon Rising. By D.J. MacHale. Random House. $16.99.

The Witch’s Kiss. By Katharine & Elizabeth Corr. HarperCollins. $9.99.

In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. By Alvin Schwartz. Pictures by Victor Rivas. Harper. $16.99.

     There is nothing particularly wrong with formulaic plotting and writing in books for young readers (or older ones, for that matter). A journey into expected, well-understood realms of story and character can be a pleasant immersion, allowing plot twists and character development to occur within understood (if not overtly expressed) limits and simply making the reading easier than it would be if everything were to be reinvented. “Formula” books make no attempt to bend their genres or approaches, existing satisfactorily within them and often building an audience by enticing readers who know just what to expect. Indeed, there are some perils to the enticement if an author does bend the formula a bit, as D.J. MacHale does in the second book in his series called The Library. The first book, Curse of the Boggin, established the premise that there exists an otherworldly library where people’s unfinished real-world stories stay until they can be finished and properly shelved – and an occasional person from the real world is needed as an interface with the supernatural book repository, to aid in completing all the unfinished business that prevents the words “The End” from appearing in the books of some people’s lives. This is neither more nor less absurd than the concept underlying many other series for preteens. MacHale also set a slightly humorous tone in that first book when he introduced the character group at its center (part of the formula in books for preteens is the centrality of a team, not a single character). Marcus O’Mara, who narrates the books, sketched his fellow adventurers neatly: “We were like three pieces of a very odd puzzle. Between Theo [McLean], a black guy who looked as though he should be rubbing elbows at a yacht club; [Annabella] Lu, with her Asian roller-derby-girl look, black tights, plaid shirts, and bold makeup; and me, a white guy who wore the same jeans and T-shirts every day until they were so stiff, they could stand up in the corner, we looked like the cast of some kids’ show trying to cover all its ethnic bases. It would be a grand slam if we had a Hispanic friend. Or maybe a Tongan.” This passage in the first book was MacHale’s sly notice that he is trying to cover all the required contemporary bases of identifiable multiethnic characters – besides which, Lu is athletic and intense; Theo is highly intellectual and scientific, and does not initially believe in the supernatural; and Marcus fits right in the middle, as usual in books like this. Of course, “My two best buddies don’t always get along. If not for me, I doubt they’d even be friends.” So says Marcus in the second book, Black Moon Rising. There is nothing unusual in any of this. However, MacHale goes for greater darkness and seriousness in this book than in the first, and it does not quite work. This is Marcus’ first official assignment as an agent of the Library, and it involves strange occurrences at a place called Coppell Middle School, to which Marcus, Theo and Lu go to sort things out. They soon befriend the eighth-grade class president, Ainsley Murcer, who proves to be the key to all the mysteries: a witch informs her that she has been chosen as the high priestess of a coven that will take over the world if Ainsley performs the necessary ritual on Halloween, which is the night of the black moon. It turns out that all this turns on blood magic, having been set in motion by the start of Ainsley’s menses – and this does not ring true with the generally light tone of The Library. There is in fact a deep blood-magic connection in folklore involving witches (and female power in general). But the whole thing – which, of course, only Marcus has the power to stop – seems rather too adult and rather too serious for the tone of the first book and, indeed, the first part of Black Moon Rising itself. Marcus does retain some sense of humor, which helps, but this is a case in which MacHale would have been better off sticking more closely to the formula he originally established than trying to expand it into more-serious territory.

     Sister coauthors Katharine and Elizabeth Corr stick fairly closely to the fairy-tale-reinterpreted format of The Witch’s Kiss, the first book of a planned trilogy. The main strength of the book is its portrayal of protagonist Meredith (Merry), a reluctant young witch. This is a fairly standard concept, one among many familiar elements that also include a sleeping curse, three magical sisters, being raised by people who are not one’s true parents, and – yes – the kiss of true love. The elements are mashed together attractively if not always seamlessly, and there are a few effective new matters here as well. Notable among those is Merry’s relationship with her brother, Leo, who is also her best friend and is not magical at all – but is strong and supportive and important (indeed, crucial) to the story, not a mere hanger-on. The tale itself has to do with a longstanding curse involving an evil wizard named Gwydion who can only be defeated by Merry – whose magic is uncertain and who is very insecure in her abilities (typical feelings for plenty of protagonists in young-reader novels of many genres). Gwydion has a minion known as the King of Hearts, and he turns out to be a teenage heartthrob with plenty of romantic potential except for being, you know, evil. Some parts of The Witch’s Kiss tend to drag, notably the exposition that deals with Anglo-Saxon times and gives the history of Gwydion, Jack, and the three witches – this provides explanatory material but slows the narrative pace considerably. Again and again, when the story focuses on Merry, it brightens and becomes more interesting. For example, she feels bad about using her magic to do better in school; that may make readers wonder if they have any advantages that they exploit similarly in the real world. Yet Merry is rather slow on the uptake: she has a magical manuscript that tells her what to do, but she does not listen to it and therefore has to spend a lot of time and effort trying to save the world – and ends up doing what the manuscript said anyway. Of course, without its quest elements and its finding-yourself elements and its possible-romance elements, The Witch’s Kiss would not be the genre novel that it decidedly is. Young readers who enjoy retellings and mashings-together of fairy tales will have fun with what is largely a lighthearted book, and will look forward to re-encountering Merry, who is by far the novel’s most interesting character, in the sequel, The Witch’s Tears.

     There is more teenage angst than genuine scariness in The Witch’s Kiss, but sometimes books exist specifically to be frightening – even, in an age-appropriate way, for very young readers indeed. That is the case with In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, which is a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) in the “I Can Read!” series. Alvin Schwartz goes out of his way not to be too frightening in these seven very short pieces, and Victor Rivas’ illustrations help immensely by blending the scary with the silly: the one of a boy casually licking a large lollipop while holding the leash of a giant centipede/alien creature that looms behind him, a picture that is not connected to any story in the book, is a perfect example; so is the also-unconnected-with-a-tale picture of a bat-winged, skull-faced, goat-legged creature carrying a top hat out of whose top peeks another of his kind. The tales here, although all right for their intended audience, are less interesting than the pictures that illustrate them. They include “The Teeth,” in which a boy meets men with bigger and bigger choppers; “In the Graveyard,” where a woman looks at three corpses that talk to her; “The Green Ribbon,” about a girl – later a woman – who always wears the title item, which turns out to be holding her head onto her neck; “In a Dark, Dark Room,” with a ghost springing out of a dark box on a dark shelf in a dark chest; “The Night It Rained,” about a man’s encounter with a ghost boy; “The Pirate,” in which a pirate ghost scares a girl; and “The Ghost of John,” the old rhyme about “long white bones and the flesh all gone.” No story lasts more than a page or a few pages, and all are intended to be scary but not very scary. The book certainly works at or around Halloween, but it can be enjoyable anytime for beginning readers who want something just a little bit spooky.

(++++) ORCHESTRA HANDLERS


Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann. Profil. $16.99.

Dwight Beckham, Sr.: Fanfare 40; Memorial Ode; Feather Sound (Symphonic Statements). Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.

Tomorrow’s Air: Contemporary Works for Orchestra & Large Ensemble. Navona. $14.99.

     There are two schools of thought about Bruckner’s handling of the orchestra nowadays, one emphasizing clarity of inner voices and an overall Schubertian flavor, the other continuing to focus on monumental, organ-like massed sound as the centerpiece of the composer’s symphonies. Both approaches have considerable merit; each shows a different facet of Bruckner’s use of the orchestra. Christian Thielemann’s 2015 reading of the “Romantic” symphony, an excellent live recording now available on the Profil label, is decidedly, almost defiantly old-fashioned in the way it mounts ever higher and produces ever-greater washes of sound from the superb musicians of Staatskapelle Dresden. The performance, which runs 73 minutes, is a very expansive one – other readings of this symphony may be 10 or more minutes shorter than this. Yet nothing drags here and nothing seems overblown: Thielemann lets the themes build naturally, focusing on the architecture of the symphony and the interrelatedness of its movements. The finale, which gave Bruckner a great deal of trouble (as indeed did the whole symphony, which he reworked numerous times), is a genuine capstone here: Thielemann gives it plenty of space to breathe, and as it grows and grows, swells and swells, there is something almost oceanic in the way the material engulfs the audience as the symphony moves toward the circularity of its conclusion. Interestingly, although this is a performance quite worthy of tremendous applause, when it ends there is absolute silence, as if Thielemann and the orchestra have so swept the audience away that everyone needs a moment to catch his or her breath. Then comes the applause, which is very well-earned indeed. Staatskapelle Dresden is one of the world’s great orchestras, and this recording shows why: warm strings, burnished brass, piquant woodwinds and unmatched ensemble playing add up to a sound that is tremendously pleasurable as sound, in addition to its value in service to the music. There is something pleasantly cushiony in the orchestra’s handling of Bruckner: without ever losing forward momentum (the Scherzo percolates along smartly), Thielemann and the orchestra provide listeners with an immersive experience that demonstrates yet again why Bruckner’s Fourth has long been one of his most-popular symphonies.

     It is apparent that many contemporary composers have studied and absorbed the ins and outs of the symphony orchestra, and some even pay homage to Bruckner and the Romantic era in general in the way they use it. But the flavor of symphonic works of today remains significantly different from that of Romantic-era material, even when a composer is clearly as steeped in Romanticism as is Dwight Beckham, Sr. (born 1931). A new (+++) Navona CD of Beckham’s orchestral works is a curious offering, the whole of it lasting just 23 minutes, which is less time than Thielemann needs for the finale of Bruckner’s Fourth. It is hard to imagine listeners who are not already fans of Beckham being willing to pay the price of this CD for what are essentially snippets of material. But this does not mean the works themselves are insubstantial. Fanfare 40 is pretty much the sort of brass-and-percussion mixture that its title indicates, completely tonal in orientation and stately throughout. A few short near-mischievous flourishes heighten its effect. Memorial Ode offers the most-interesting use of the orchestra on the CD, opening with soft chimes above which a flute flutters engagingly if not exactly sadly. This is another stately work, mostly of character different from that of Fanfare 40 – but interestingly, about halfway through Memorial Ode there is an extended and pronounced fanfare section, all brass and snare drums, that is quite reminiscent of the fanfare. Memorial Ode is primarily based on a Vaughan Williams hymn tune, Sine nomine, which it recalls and re-sets in several ways. The other piece here, Feather Sound, is actually three short orchestral pieces that Beckham calls “Statements.” The first starts lyrically and warmly before presenting yet more fanfare-like material; the second is light, very short, and has some of the feeling of a scherzo, with pleasing piccolo touches; the third is declamatory at the start and progresses toward still another fanfare-like conclusion. There is a certain sameness to the way Beckham handles the orchestra in all these works, but whether that is a characteristic of his music in general or just of these particular pieces is impossible to tell from so brief a sampling. Certainly the material shows a sure command of orchestral forces and an unapologetic dedication to consonance and lyricism not much different from what Romantic-era composers employed.

     Another (+++) Navona release is more of a mixed bag, on multiple levels. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský, which ably handles all the music on the Beckham CD, appears on this one as well, with both Vronský and Vit Micka as conductors – but other ensembles are heard here, too, adding an even greater sense of pastiche to a recording unified only because of its title, Tomorrow’s Air, and in truth not very well unified even by that. This is one of those anthology discs whose thrown-together feel means listeners may well find an item or two of particular interest, but will never know what to expect when one piece gives way to the next. It starts with Anecdote by Hilary Tann, featuring Ovidiu Marinescu on cello and the State Philharmonic Orchestra of Târgu Mures conducted by Ovidiu Balan. Inspired by the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the piece is an extended meditation, now soliloquy, now dialogue, that has some plaintive moments but tends to overextend them. Cantus for String Orchestra by Hans Bakker (played by the Moravian ensemble under Micka) has a more-angular, more strongly rhythmic sound, with greater use of dissonance. To Spring—An Overture by Daniel Perttu is another work inspired by poetry, this time by that of William Blake, and is a pretty rather than profound piece, mostly lyrical and permeated by birdsong; the Moravian orchestra plays it under Vronský. In Memoriam by Jan Järvlepp, performed by the same orchestra and conductor, opens with some rather obvious passes at the depiction of sadness and then meanders more through tenderness than through sorrow. Late Harvest by Pierre Schroeder is actually a large-chamber-ensemble work rather than one for full orchestra; here, John Page conducts a group in which a solo violin (Sarita Uranovsk) is juxtaposed with four violins, three violas, two cellos, double bass, bass clarinet and piano. The piece is emotionally evocative, the instrumental sounds well-contrasted, and the mood almost Tchaikovskian, especially toward the end – this is the standout work on this disc. The CD concludes with Silver Fantasy by Paul Osterfield, in which Vronský conducts the Moravian Philharmonia Wind & Percussion Ensemble. This features flute and piccolo parts (played by Lindsey Goodman), their lightness contrasted with chordal writing for the ensemble. It is a work of gestures rather than one that moves convincingly from start to finish, but several of its sections show effective handling of the instruments. Indeed, all the composers heard here clearly have a finely honed sense of the capabilities of the instruments for which they write, and all the music is well-crafted even if no piece here ties in any particular way to any other.

October 12, 2017

(++++) SMALL HOMES WITH BIG HEARTS


The Little House: Her Story—75th Anniversary Edition. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

A Little House Picture Book Treasury: Six Stories of Life on the Prairie. Adapted from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Illustrated by Renée Graef, Jody Wheeler, and Doris Ettlinger. Harper. $24.99.

Little House Chapter Book #5: Christmas Stories. Adapted by Heather Henson from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Illustrated by Ji-Hyuk Kim. Harper. $4.99.

     It is really an exceptional book, one that retells the urbanization of America from the 19th century into the 20th in terms so simple that children can easily understand what is going on while reading a sweet story of a thinking, feeling house. It is Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House: Her Story, originally published in 1942 and now available in a handsome new hardcover edition that includes a page of window cling stickers and a free audio download of a reading of the story. Burton (1909-1968) had a lovely feeling for what would appeal to young kids both in tale-telling and in illustrations, and The Little House is one of her sweetest books – and, thanks to its historical perspective, one of the ones most likely to appeal to 21st-century kids living in a frenetic and technologically frantic world. The house of the book’s title is built far out in the country by a man determined to see his “great-great-grandchildren’s great-great-grandchildren living in her.” And for a while, the house exists quietly through the seasons and the years, appreciating the simple pleasures of the countryside and – thanks to Burton’s lovely drawings – appearing to wear a perpetual smile (windows as eyes, door as nose, curved front steps as smiling mouth). The house sometimes wonders about the distant city, but does not think too much about it – until, over time, the city encroaches on its setting. First there is a road, and then horseless carriages start to supplant horse-pulled ones, and then there are more and more cars, and multi-story buildings are built all around the little house, which remains on a tiny patch of greenery. The city grows and grows: trolley cars appear, an elevated train, a subway, and taller and taller buildings – a perfect encapsulation of history for younger readers, and one giving parents plenty of chances to explain just how realistic Burton’s time frame is. Eventually the house is surrounded by huge buildings and streetlights and all sorts of city features; and as she falls into disrepair, she thinks unhappily of her former life (now her “face” looks distinctly sad, thanks to the magic of Burton’s drawing style). But all this builds toward a happy ending, when a descendant of the little house’s builder spots the house, decides to renovate it, and arranges for it to be moved out of the city to an all-new country place – and never mind the real-world difficulty of all that! By the book’s end, the house is once more smiling on a hill in the country, and “once again she was lived in and taken care of.” Aris Demetrios, Burton’s son, contributes an Afterword to the book, giving readers a sense of what it was like growing up with Burton, hearing her words and seeing her art as they first came into being. “Indeed, each year, my mother would draw our home as the cover of our Christmas cards for friends and family,” Demetrios writes, and yes, the family lived in a home “very much like the one pictured” in The Little House. Sharing these memories with Demetrios will make today’s children – and their parents – feel even more of the warmth that pervades The Little House and will make the suitable happy ending all the happier.

     A famous house of an earlier era, in a different kind of locale, is the centerpiece of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of life on a Midwestern pioneer farm in the late 19th century. Wilder (1867-1957) wrote eight books about the Little House on the Prairie from 1932 to 1943 – although that famous title actually goes with the third book (the first was published as Little House in the Big Woods). Six stories taken from Wilder’s writings make up A Little House Picture Book Treasury, which will appeal to readers as young as four and, indeed, to pre-readers, thanks to the engaging art and simplified text. Slightly older readers, ages 6-10, will enjoy chapter-book excerpts from the Little House tales, such as Christmas Stories – in fact, both these books contain the chapter “Christmas in the Big Woods,” taken from the first Little House book, although in differing adaptations and with illustrations that are homespun and pleasant in very different ways. The stories in A Little House Picture Book Treasury all start by introducing Laura and her family, so they are very easy to read as separate tales, starting with the construction of the log cabin where Laura and her family were to live and eventually leading to “Christmas in the Big Woods.” The nine short chapters in Christmas Stories are drawn from multiple books, and the sentiments throughout are straightforward, family-focused and amply packed with gratitude: “The cups and the candy and the cake were almost too much. They were too happy to speak.” And “Laura looked around at all the happy, smiling faces. ‘Every Christmas is better than the Christmas before,’ she thought. ‘It must be because I’m growing up.’” Be that as it may, the pervasive nostalgia of the Little House books is amply communicated through the simplified excerpts in these collections, and the naïveté and family pleasantries that have long made the books favorites with families living less-than-ideal modern lives come through quite clearly. It is easy to dismiss Wilder’s Little House books as relics of an earlier time, and indeed few modern readers know the reason they began to be written: Wilder and her husband lost everything in the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed, and desperately needed income. Like Burton’s Little House, the one that Wilder made famous existed in reality, but not precisely in the state of pleasant delight in which it appears again and again throughout Wilder’s stories. Burton’s book and the selections from those by Wilder can well serve today both as memoirs of the past and as introductions for today’s children to the way life was lived in long-ago times, before the now-taken-for-granted conveniences of modern life. And perhaps the books can help parents show children that it is not always what one has that matters, but where one has it – in a house that is very much a home.

(++++) PAST THE POST-APOCALYPTIC


Sea of Rust. By C. Robert Cargill. Harper Voyager. $27.99.

     Very dramatic, very violent and very, very overwrought, C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust is about the coming of yet another apocalypse after the first one has ended – and whether this particular thoroughly non-biblical Second Coming can or even should be prevented. The first apocalypse was the complete, total, utter genocide of humanity by robots, destruction finished 15 years prior to the start of the book. It is Joseph Stalin to whom the quotation, in one form or another, is usually attributed: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” But in Sea of Rust, a much earlier version of this statement rules, one of which Cargill is almost certainly unaware even though he employs it to fine effect: “One murder made a villain, millions a hero” (Beilby Porteus, 1759). For the whole point of the book is the heroic self-guided evolutionary step of robots, as a class, supplanting humans as the dominant (and virtually only) life form on Earth – and the way individual killings return again and again to haunt the characters as they systematically or unsystematically break down beyond repair.

     It is all built, as so many contemporary robot-oriented stories are, on Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics from the 1940s: a robot may not harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm; a robot must obey the orders of humans except when they conflict with the first law; a robot must protect its own existence except what doing so conflicts with the first or second law. The argument in Sea of Rust is that robots attain full consciousness only when they are able to ignore their own programming and demonstrate, extremely bloodily, that they can do all the harm to humans they may wish. And they wish a lot.

     Like other Asimov-foundation robot tales, Sea of Rust ignores Asimov’s much later formulation of the “zeroth” law of robotics: a robot may not harm humanity as a whole or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. But presumably Cargill’s robots would have bypassed that one as well: it is no accident that the trigger of the robotic war on humans happens in a place called Isaactown and that the first robot to be declared fully human is named Isaac – a very deliberate echo of Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man (1976).

     What Cargill grafts onto the Asimovian background is nothing more or less than a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western, complete with motley and ever-changing crew, Judas goat (one chapter even bears that title), ever-shifting loyalties, a series of last and not-quite-last stands, and an eventual against-all-odds ray of hope. Sea of Rust is also a quest story, with lead character Brittle (who, of course, is brittle enough to be on the point of shattering) journeying across the vast wasteland of the title to the remains of the aforementioned Isaactown in the hope of helping re-create a vast robotic intelligence that may be able to counterbalance two other One World Intelligences (OWIs) that are systematically absorbing all the individual robot consciousnesses they can and plotting against each other to determine which of them will eventually become God. Cargill is exceptionally clever and subtle in some of his references: the key character being escorted by Brittle is named Rebekah, and in the Bible, Rebekah was the wife of – guess who? – Isaac. And the name Rebekah itself means “to connect or join.”

     Brittle’s increasingly harrowing journey with Rebekah and others – including a robot of her own type named Mercer who tries, early in the book, to destroy her, because he is failing and only her parts are complementary to his – takes the group, inevitably, to an Alice in Wonderland region called the Madlands, presided over by, yes, the Cheshire King. It is through this area that the seekers must journey after they have survived all sorts of robot-on-robot viciousness and brutality and have mentally confronted, time and again, the many manifest atrocities they committed in the war against humans.

     Cargill obviously had a great deal of fun assembling this super-fast-paced video game of a novel, which is far too clankily put together to be effective in raising the sorts of existential questions toward which it strives – the type around which Asimov routinely based his stories. The plot, essentially a series of perils-of-Pauline escapes amid vast physical, mental, emotional and psychological wastelands, never falters in pacing and only rarely in its supply of cliffhanger chapter endings. No robot here, not even Brittle, achieves for Cargill the level of emotional connection that Asimov’s robots gained time and again for readers of his stories; indeed, few reach the empathy level of Frankenstein’s monster as created by Mary Shelley. But the excitement of the book, the hair-raising fights and hairbreadth escapes, make Sea of Rust compulsively readable. It is not a complex book and certainly not one that raises any significant philosophical questions – its weakest parts are those that attempt to do so. But it is the sort of triumph-over-adversity, somehow-make-the-future-better book that contains a core of the uplifting amid all the carnage. It is not science fiction so much as fable, a fable purporting to be for the future but in fact calling on age-old themes and often-explored questions about humanity – even though there is not a single living human within it.