December 06, 2018

(++++) THEMES AND VARIATIONS


The Prince Problem. By Vivian Vande Velde. Scholastic. $16.99.

Bird & Squirrel #5: All Tangled Up. By James Burks. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Some authors hit their stride and never leave it – or need to leave it. They find something they do well and, by virtue of doing it slightly differently time and time again, create an ongoing (and sometimes nearly unending) series of books that can capture readers at any point and keep them interested and entertained. Vivian Vande Velde manages to do this without actually producing “sequence” books. She simply returns, time and again, to fairy-tale tropes, twisting them just enough to keep them amusing and interesting for young readers while retaining enough of their original structure to imply (rather than state) that the background of all her books is essentially the same. This is all formulaic in a sense, but it does not feel formulaic, because Vande Velde rings just enough changes on the modified-fairy-tale formula each time to keep things both light and interesting. Vande Velde’s latest version of this approach, The Prince Problem, is frothy and fun and silly and overdone and thoroughly enjoyable, which is a pretty good set of adjectives to describe her work in general. The title is very slightly misleading, since there are actually two “prince problems” here, although if read as “the problem involving the ‘prince’ issue in general,” the title makes perfect sense. The primary prince here is named Telmund and is the typical youngest-son-with-great-potential – or wishes he could be. Unfortunately, he is merely the fourth of fifth children of the local king and queen, who inconveniently had a fifth child seven years after Telmund’s birth – leaving Telmund, at age 13, as little more than a glorified babysitter, unceasingly reading fairy tales in the hope of someday finding a way to be heroic. The princess here – of course there is one in a nearby kingdom – is intelligent, studious, determined Amelia, whose naïve fairy-tale-like parents very much want her to select a prince, any prince, to whom she can be betrothed, to protect their kingdom from being allied against their will with the odious Prince Sheridan, who covets their land because every Vande Velde story needs a dyed-in-the-wool bad guy. So Sheridan is one “prince problem” and Telmund, it turns out, is another, because while babysitting youngest brother Wilmar, who is making a major mess of the peasants’ and tradespeople’s goods at an open-air market, Telmund attracts the unwanted attention of a nearby witch. She thinks he is bullying Wilmar and decides to teach him a lesson. Knowing how such things go and unable to dissuade her, Telmund begs not to become a frog, so the witch gets clever (that is, Vande Velde gets clever) and Telmund is bespelled to become a different animal every other time he falls asleep. Thus, he sleeps and becomes a rat; sleeps and becomes himself; sleeps and becomes a rabbit; and so on. This is the sort of clever twist on fairy tales that makes Vande Velde’s books fun despite their underlying familiarity of plot. Will Amelia escape the depredations of Prince Sheridan? Will Telmund find a way to be the hero he wants to be, or at least a hero of some sort, and eventually throw off the transformation spell? Of course, the answer to both questions is “yes,” but the way Vande Velde merges the characters’ stories is what makes for the enjoyment here, along with wondering what sort of animal Telmund will change into next time. The humor can even be sly, as when Telmund awakens with feathers and thinks things are not so bad, since he can fly and explore things and help Amelia, who by this point he has decided to rescue after Prince Sheridan has her kidnapped – only to discover that he is a mere rooster and can barely get off the ground. The inevitable happy ending and friendship of Telmund and Amelia – which may grow into something more, even though she is two years older than he – detracts not a whit from the pleasure of watching that friendship develop despite numerous stumbles and pitfalls.

     James Burks takes a more-standard approach to creating variations on a theme in his Bird & Squirrel graphic novels: the books form an actual sequence rather than standing on their own. Of course, it is quite possible to read them independently, but anyone who does will miss out on some of the back story that is taken for granted in each new volume. The fifth of the books, Bird & Squirrel All Tangled Up, makes the characters’ personalities clear at the start, with happy-go-lucky Bird flying in loops while cautious and nervous Squirrel is having nightmares about protecting his daughter, Birdie (whose mom, Red, has gone off to help Grandmole; how Squirrel and Red got together is part of the back story that readers can only get if they read the previous book, On Fire). Squirrel is such a stick-in-the-mud that Birdie pleads to go with Red instead of staying home and being bored. But of course when Bird comes to visit, things get more interesting: Bird says it is a good day to go hunting Bigfeet (not “Bigfoot,” because “they have two feet, not one,” as Bird explains). Squirrel points out that Bigfeet do not exist, but is eventually roped into going along on the outing that Bird and Birdie want so much. The adventures here are generally quite mild – this is a graphic novel for readers just old enough to be interested in graphic novels – as Squirrel gradually loosens up and starts to enjoy things. Then, of course, something goes wrong, through an encounter with a gigantic spider – and it is Squirrel, with Birdie’s help, who saves the day after Bird’s adventurous nature leads to more problems than solutions. Birdie, after at one point saying she would rather have Bird as a dad than Squirrel, comes around to realizing that Squirrel is a better father. “I’m much better at being the fun uncle,” Bird says, accurately. And Squirrel tells Birdie, “I wasn’t doing you any favors by trying to protect you from everything.” Lessons learned and fun experienced, the three characters head back to Squirrel’s home for the return of Red and a cameo appearance by, yes, Bigfeet (or Bigfoot). The family-focused themes and the importance of balancing caution and adventure appear in all the Bird & Squirrel books, with Burks varying them enough to keep things interesting even while building each of the graphic novels on the same foundation of personality contrast between Bird and Squirrel. It is a formula, yes, but a winning one, with just enough variety to keep all the books enjoyable.

(+++) TEEN TIME (AGAIN)


A New Theory of Teenagers: Seven Transformational Strategies to Empower You and Your Teen. By Christa M. Santangelo, Ph.D. Seal Press. $14.99.

     Teenagers are essentially two-year-olds a decade or so later, requiring parents to allow them the same sort of exploration they were allowed around age two while the parents practice meditation to calm themselves, keeping a small part of their brain in “aware” mode to be sure teens’ wide-ranging search does not result in significant harm. That is essentially the “new theory” of California clinical psychologist Christa M. Santangelo, which is not really a very new theory at all. Santangelo herself knows this: A New Theory of Teenagers has more footnotes than typical books for general readership, as Santangelo is at pains to show how her ideas incorporate and build upon those of many others.

     Parents, understandably, will be most interested in what those ideas are and how exactly they work in practice. The “what” element is handled by Santangelo by dividing the book into seven “transformative strategy” chapters whose New Age-y titles are not, unfortunately, particularly helpful: “Endure Emotions,” “Enlarge the Lens,” “Don’t Grasp—Let Go,” Discover Profound Purpose,” “Contemplate Infinite Possibility,” “Heal Thyself,” and “Go Within.” Santangelo’s emphasis is on seeing conflict as a growth opportunity: the unending difficulties that are common between parents and teens, she argues, are the method by which teenagers form themselves into adults, and the job of parents is to accept the inevitability of those conflicts while being available when necessary to prevent or mitigate actual harm.

     This sounds good, but as in so many prescriptions and proscriptions, the devil is in the details. Santangelo has what is essentially a one-size-fits-all approach to the frustration, anger, unhappiness and trauma that parents sooften feel from teens’ words and actions: meditate. A very Californian approach to difficulty, meditation is scarcely the panacea that Santangelo thinks it is, but her emphasis on it is quite strong. Again and again, A New Theory of Teenagers comes back to it: “Even if you don’t believe in a higher power, I urge you to give this exercise a chance. …This is the home of your soul. There is no fear here – only peace. I want you to imagine that a Spirit is now in your midst. You feel the profound love of this Spirit. …Let the love of this Spirit touch you. It reaches your fear, your sadness, your sense of separation.”

     Those who find this guided approach and this style of writing congenial are the natural audience for Santangelo’s book. Others will find it superficial at best – doubly so because Santangelo is remiss in not showing exactly how her recommendations have actually worked in her clinical practice or could be expected to work in readers’ everyday, real-world life. For example, one of her many stories is about a woman she calls Lisa, who “drew the line at tattoos” because she was “the daughter of Holocaust survivors who were tattooed as part of the extermination process.” Lisa’s 17-year-old son “got a large image of his dog, face in a menacing growl, across his shoulder.” Santangelo says the tattoo “stood for his deep bond with his dog” and that “Lisa’s relationship to her family’s past was keeping her from being able to step back and let go appropriately.” Really? Santangelo apparently believes that one of the most horrific occurrences of modern times, which directly affected this family, should be downplayed for the sake of a teen’s “deep bond with his dog.” Or does she believe this? She states directly, “To be clear, I was not counseling Lisa to ‘accept the tattoo.’ Parents set the moral and behavioral directives.” But Santangelo never says what she did counsel Lisa to do, how she did recommend moral and behavioral directives be set, how she did help Lisa and her son reach across the abyss of the son’s tattoo. Again and again, Santangelo’s book frustrates in this manner: it lapses into generalities and platitudes when parents who pick it up are quite likely and quite rightly going to want specifics of what works, and what has worked in Santangelo’s experience. Saying that parents “need to allow your teen the space to become themselves [sic]” is simply not enough.

     What is irritating in A New Theory of Teenagers is this repeated contrast between statements that are well-considered and practical applications that are missing. “I have found that the first step toward learning how to let go while also guiding and staying connected to your teen is to know your fears.” That makes sense, as does the partial list of typical parental fears that Santangelo supplies. But it fits poorly with a statement such as, “Teens use minor, not harmful, moments of deception to create distance and their own space as a developmentally appropriate movement away from parents.” But a great many deceptions are far from “minor” and “not harmful,” and they are the ones with which parents need more help than to be told, “When you learn to accept and embrace painful feelings, then true transformation can occur.”

     The sixth of Santangelo’s chapters, “Heal Thyself,” is in many ways the core of this book. Here she urges “inviting the inner child to take form and speak” as “a handy tool to go back in time and talk about this place that often doesn’t get articulated but rather is repressed, denied, or acted out – often with your teen.” This is a valid psychoanalytic approach, but one that is virtually impossible to do without considerable therapeutic guidance. A glib statement that “this isn’t easy work” and another, a couple of pages later, saying that this “is slow, painstaking, yet ultimately deeply rewarding work” are ultimately valueless to readers of the book except insofar as they suggest that parents of teens – perhaps all parents of teens – need psychological therapy in order to help themselves and their children through the teenage years. Santangelo never says that outright, but that would indeed be a new theory, one going well beyond the facile notion of self-analysis mixed with meditation that is supposed to help parents cope with the extreme (scarcely minor) behaviors and activities of their teenaged children.

(+++) FROM GRIM AND GLOOMY TO GRAND AND GLORIOUS


Bound Gods #3: The Shattered Sun. By Rachel Dunne. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

Star Carrier, Book Eight: Bright Light. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.

     As Rachel Dunne’s dour, dismal Bound Gods fantasy trilogy moves to its conclusion and Ian Douglas’ SF trilogy-of-trilogies moves to its penultimate adventure, both authors stay true to the worlds and universes they have created and the characters and motivations that have moved the plots of these sequences – for better or worse. Dunne’s action-packed, often gruesome 500-page The Shattered Sun features the same unpleasant characters as In the Shadow of the Gods and The Bones of the Earth, the two prior novels, and forces readers to accept the notion that the less-awful characters are on the better of the two bad sides. Dunne’s interpretation of dark fantasy is very dark indeed, making it unusually suitable that the plot of The Shattered Sun involves the “Long Night,” a time of unending darkness ushered in by the evil Twins, long-imprisoned gods who – at the end of the previous book – returned to a measure of power by taking over the bodies of human twins. Twinning is crucial to the entire Bound Gods trilogy, explaining why infant twins have long been slaughtered without mercy (because they might eventually become vessels for the evil gods) and why two of the less-bad characters have long been in hiding under a cloud of desperation (because they are twins who have managed to grow up). The first two books of the trilogy involved attempts to revive – or prevent the revival of – the fallen gods Fratarro (obviously and rather strangely named from Latin frater, brother) and Sororra (soror, sister, with one twin god’s name having an “o” ending and one having an “a” for gender differentiation: the use of vaguely Latin names in a world that is supposed to be utterly unlike ours is a peculiarity of this trilogy). With the Twins’ re-emergence into what appears to be full power at the end of the second book, the third must involve a grand battle to defeat them, lest the world be plunged into the never-ending darkness that is the Twins’ preferred form of existence. Why? Well, Dunne never really says: the Twins’ sole motivation is to get back at their unseen “parent” gods, “father” Patharro and “mother” Metherra (again from Latin: pater and mater plus the respective “o” and “a” endings). Dunne distracts from the frivolity of the underlying motivation by focusing again and again on the depredations of the Twins and their followers on many characters, themselves included (some especially powerful Twins backers pierce their own eyes so they can share the darkness for which the Twins stand). The problem with The Shattered Sun and the whole Bound Gods trilogy is that the Twins’ opponents are just as brain-damaged and body-ruined as are their supporters. The antiheroic leader of the opposition, a former priest of the Twins named Joros, is a really nasty, vicious and duplicitous piece of work, and the people who follow him – all more or less unwillingly – are not much better, being deeply damaged in brain, body or both. The drug-addicted, mind-addled sorcerer Anddyr is one of the more-coherent and more-sympathetic characters, in contrast to now-grown sewer rat Rora, a supposedly first-rate fighter who, earlier in the trilogy, returns to her former haunts – where her “family” members mutilate her and nearly beat her to death in a very explicit way, resulting in her decision in The Shattered Sun to return to the same people again and yet again be nearly beaten to death in a very explicit way that also results in several of her companions being imprisoned and tortured. Add Scal, a mass murderer who silently stalks and kills pretty much anyone at pretty much any time, at the command of a deeply scarred and even more deeply vicious woman named Vatri, who is the self-proclaimed seer of the “parent” gods, and you have a pretty accurate picture of the “good” characters here. Eventually, since it is better for the sun to exist than to have the world plunged forever into night, the more-or-less-good guys win out over the less-or-more-bad ones, and Dunne produces a very slightly positive conclusion after suitably grand and gory battles, betrayals and general mayhem. Dunne actually writes well, but the Bound Gods trilogy is so downbeat and depressing that readers who have ground their way through it and who prefer anything other than the very darkest of dark fantasy will likely feel mostly relief when the whole thing lurches to its essentially foregone conclusion.

     There is also a certain amount of lurching going on in the Star Carrier thrice-trilogy as the eighth of the nine books arrives. Ian Douglas (one of the pen names of William H. Keith, Jr.) has been stringing plots and readers along for many, many pages with this interstellar/military/consciousness/religion/multiple-alien-encounters tale, in which humanity triumphs again and again when confronted with a growing series of supposedly superior races and technologies (the latter including its own AI and super-AI creations). Underlying the particular form of humanity that Douglas creates here is a series of religious wars that led to a decree called the White Covenant, under which public displays of religion were banned, as was proselytizing. Religious or pseudo-religious elements continue to peek and poke their way into Star Carrier, though, being intertwined with the whole notion of a higher consciousness, evolution, species that have developed along lines entirely different from that of humanity, and other typical (and typically overdone) SF tropes. At the center of the multiple plot lines is Trevor “Sandy” Gray, a longtime military leader and apparently a closet Christian (in the seventh book, Dark Mind, he mentally objects, at some length, to the celebration of the winter solstice rather than Christmas). Gray both depends on machine intelligence (as do pretty much all the characters here) and is skeptical of it and worried that it could endanger humanity; this is nothing unusual in SF or, for that matter, in real-world news stories. In Dark Mind, Gray took on a mission from a super-AI called Konstantin to investigate a star system that might have a super-advanced alien race that might help humanity fight a race of sentient bacteria that controls a wide variety of alien species. To investigate this system, Gray had to disobey orders from his superiors, a major no-no in military circles, but Gray did so because he is heroic and upstanding and an all-around good guy. The result was that Gray’s command of his starship – the America, no less – was taken away, and he has been left without the organizational, hierarchical moorings of his longtime military service. This, it turns out, is exactly what Konstantin (at least the Konstantin clone aboard the America) wanted, because without a starship to command, Gray can be sent in Bright Light on a mission to the remote star Deneb, where Konstantin will arrange for him to encounter yet another mysterious and immensely powerful alien civilization that may be able to prevent humanity from being wiped out again. Umm, no, that may again prevent humanity from being wiped out. Something like that. Anyway, the title Bright Light refers to an all-new artificial intelligence, although how far superior it can be to the virtually all-knowing (or at least all-manipulating) Konstantin is hard to determine. It is scarcely surprising that a series as extended as this one is packed with characters and plot lines, but Star Carrier at this point seems overextended and a trifle tired. Planet-sized brains not enough of an enemy for humans? How about minuscule bacteria? That sort of thing: Douglas seems to be reaching for greater and greater complexity and complication at the service of what is, foundationally, a rather simple premise under which superior alien races nearly destroy humanity repeatedly but are beaten back because humans, gosh darn it, just have so much pluck and such willingness to risk everything by doing stuff they don’t fully understand but that, by golly, actually works. It is a kind of country-bumpkin view of humanity, and it leaves Gray and the other Star Carrier characters seeming something less than vibrant, never mind intelligent. Still, readers who have stuck with the series so far will find Bright Light a solid advancement of the whole Star Carrier sequence and will surely be looking ahead to the coming final book. For that matter, readers who dipped into the series early – its first few books were its best – will also look forward to the coming last entry, if only because Douglas, who is nothing if not an adept writer, is likely to use it to provide a suitably uplifting finale.

(++++) WITH STRINGS ATTACHED


Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Rückert-Lieder; Kindertotenlieder. Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano; Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello). Foghorn Classics. $16.99.

Brahms: Hungarian Dances. Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker, violin; Fabio Bidini, piano. Delos. $16.99.

     The idea of re-scoring Mahler for chamber forces is neither new nor entirely out of character for the composer’s music. In the 1920s, Mahler’s works were among those performed under the auspices of Arnold Schoenberg and other members of the Second Viennese School at their Society for Private Musical Performances, whose concept was to present large-scale modern works by both well-known and little-known composers, played by first-rate musicians – but only 12 to 20 of them, using arrangements made by Schoenberg himself or by members of his circle. The reason this works rather surprisingly well for Mahler is that, for all his demands for gigantic orchestral forces, Mahler very often used the instruments in chamber-music fashion: he needed a great number of them to allow the production of a wide variety of sonic combinations, not (or at least not always) to produce a sheer mass of weighty sound. Thus, the Foghorn Classics  release of string-quartet arrangements of three Mahler song cycles by Zakarias Grafilo, first violinist of the Alexander String Quartet, deserves to be seen (and heard) as a way to elucidate some of the music’s emotional and structural impact – employing forces different from those Mahler chose and therefore able to communicate in their own distinct way. There are, however, some pitfalls in arranging these particular cycles for string quartet, because of Mahler’s acknowledged brilliance in orchestration. In particular, one of the five Rückert-Lieder is scored by Mahler for no strings at all: Um Mitternacht calls only for woodwinds, brass, timpani, harp and piano. So transforming it into a work that is only for strings is, at the very least, a bold undertaking. Furthermore, one of the Kindertotenlieder – the midpoint of the five-song cycle, Wenn dein Mütterlein – uses no violins, making half of a string quartet potentially intrusive into the mood. This song too emphasizes woodwinds, although it does include some string parts. Grafilo’s sensitivity to Mahler actually comes through particularly well in this very piece, where he gives the extended English-horn solo to the viola, whose tone fits the material to fine effect. The reality is that all these quartet adaptations can and perhaps should be regarded as experiments in sonority and emotional communication, and if they are not entirely Mahlerian in the former of those ways, they are highly effective in the latter. Much credit for their expressive impact goes to mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, who is equally adept with the lilt of parts of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (usually sung by a male voice, in accordance with the texts, but aptly fitting a middle-range female voice); the quiet anguish of most of Kindertotenlieder; and the explosive beginning and middle of the latter cycle’s final song, In diesem Wetter. Scharich feels as well as sings the music, and varies her delivery of the texts to mostly excellent effect.  Only the Rückert-Lieder fall a bit short: Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen are both rather too matter-of-fact – particularly surprisingly in the case of the latter song, given Scharich’s sensitivity to that song’s emotions as expressed elsewhere. Most of the singing and emotion here, though, are first-rate, and the Alexander String Quartet is excellent throughout, supporting Scharich when called for, interacting with her when the music so requires, and providing contrast to her vocalizing when that is appropriate. Grafilo’s arrangements almost always lie well on the instruments (no small feat), and while listeners familiar with these song cycles will surely miss some of the many elegant and piquant touches that Mahler brought to them, anyone who loves and appreciates the music should easily hear the respect reflected both in the instrumentation here and in the singing. Certainly this is not the version of these song cycles to own, but certainly it is a version that is very much worth having.

     The violin-and-piano arrangements of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances have a much earlier provenance than Grafilo’s quartet arrangement of Mahler songs: the Brahms works were arranged during Brahms’ own lifetime, and very much with his approval, by violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim – in 1871 and 1880. Joachim was the great violinistic influence on Brahms, responsible for inspiring both Brahms’ Violin Concerto and his Double Concerto, and Joachim’s handling of the Hungarian Dances is a particularly happy melding of form with virtuosic function. This version of the 21 dances is very much a violinist’s dream (and, to some technical extent, nightmare): the piano is relegated to an almost wholly subsidiary role by Joachim (something Brahms, himself a fine pianist, would not likely have done). Yet without the piano providing the harmonic and rhythmic foundation of the dances, the violin would be unable to soar to the heights that Joachim wants – and what heights they are! Listening to Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker’s performance on a new Delos CD is a tremendously involving and exhilarating experience, likely to make anyone familiar with this music wonder why Joachim’s transcription is not heard more often. Part of the reason surely involves the diminution of the piano part – although Fabio Bidini scarcely seems to see himself in a lesser role, throwing himself into the music in full-partnership mode. It may be that this version of the Hungarian Dances simply requires so much abandonment, such intensity of expression in old-fashioned Romany (Gypsy) mode, that only a violinist capable of merging over-the-top musical emoting with impeccable technique can bring the work off with genuine élan. Höpcker is an ideal exponent of the material: she is never dismissive of its folk-music and popular elements (most of the dances were probably Brahms’ arrangements of tunes he had heard rather than ones he himself composed), but neither does she try to make the dances overly serious or, heaven forfend, somber. The Hungarian Dances are almost, in their way, proto-film music, overdone both in their emotional evocation (which is melodramatic rather than dramatic) and in their celebratory vivacity. The best-known dances, such as Nos. 1 and 5, sound fresh and new in the hands of Höpcker and Bidini, while the less-known ones come into their own both as individual pieces and in the overall context of the set of 21. Surely every classical-music lover needs to have these dances in both their orchestral and piano-four-hands versions, and surely they are already a staple of many people’s collections. But this wonderful recording of a version that is just as valid as Brahms’ own comes close to being a must-have for anyone who loves this music: relatively few people will have heard the Hungarian Dances this way before, which means few will realize just how much they have been missing by not knowing what Joachim put into the material and what Höpcker has now extracted from it.