February 28, 2019
Trapped in a Video Game 5: The Final Boss. By Dustin Brady. Illustrated by Jesse Brady. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Birthday Cake! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
There is an entire subgenre of books designed for so-called “reluctant readers,” the idea being that kids who just don’t care for the traditional book experience in our video-saturated age can be lured into old-fashioned reading by books that are written and packaged specifically to appeal to them. That often means the books are graphic novels or are a hybrid form between standard novels and graphic ones – amply illustrated, but not divided into individual comic-book-like panels through which the sequencing of events occurs. There is, however, another approach to “reluctant reader” books, and that is to embrace the likelihood that the reluctance stems from preoccupation with video games and thus to embrace books that are themselves a lot like video games. The value and limitations of this approach are quite clear in Dustin Brady’s Trapped in a Video Game series, whose conclusion, The Final Boss (that’s “boss” as in super-powerful video game villain, not as in someone for whom you work) proceeds with all the silliness and absurdity and mild camaraderie that have characterized the entire series. In fact, there is little sense of “series” to these books, which are essentially self-contained adventures despite the occasional cliffhanger: Brady could easily have ended the series before The Final Boss or just as easily have extended it for multiple additional volumes. What he actually does is have the nominal protagonist, Jesse Rigsby, and his friend, Eric Conrad, go into a video game universe created by the usual evil corporate bigwig who has used his company, Bionosoft, to devise a virtual universe named after himself (“Reubenverse,” because his name is Max Reuben). As The Final Boss starts, it is only 10 minutes before the time when all of reality will be sucked into the Reubenverse and ruled forever by the evil billionaire because YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO SEEK ANSWERS TO THE “WHY” QUESTION! JUST FOLLOW THE PATH AND BEAT THE BAD GUYS! Oh. Right. Anyway, those 10 minutes in the real world equal 10 days in the video game world because DON’T ASK! So the intrepid kids, who are so undifferentiated that a reader can swap their names at random and find the story progressing exactly the same way, have to go through hundreds and hundreds of levels and earn thousands upon thousands of XP (experience points) and periodically dodge the occasional Hindenburg (the improbably named robotic remover of game glitches, which has an annoying habit of identifying Jesse and Eric as glitches that must be excised). The vast, vast majority of the action is described in only a few words, and generally without illustrations (this is not a visually driven series, although Jesse Brady, Dustin’s brother, does periodically offer some art); and the whole story proceeds with all the super-sped-up pacing of, well, a video game – only, actually, faster. Eventually, of course, the good guys win, friendship triumphs, the real world is not destroyed, the Reubenverse does not come into full-fledged existence, and reluctant readers somehow learn that it is important to spend their time with thoroughly unchallenging books about video games instead of with the video games themselves because YOU WERE TOLD NOT TO SEEK ANSWERS TO “WHY” QUESTIONS AND HAVE REPEATEDLY DISOBEYED. DISCUSSION TERMINATED.
While some book series have a definitive end, others sequences go on and on – but feature individual definitive endings. The “Old Lady” books by Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee are designed this way: each builds, through a series of strange ingestions by the Old Lady, to a twist ending that pulls together the mild mystery of why the Old Lady swallows those specific items. The books are based on the nursery-rhyme song, “I know [sometimes “There was”] an old lady who swallowed a fly” – which, in “house that Jack built” fashion, builds and builds as more and more items are swallowed, ending when she swallows a horse and “she’s dead, of course.” Colandro and Lee keep things much lighter than that, though. They also sometimes create sequences that are too obvious to be fully entertaining, which is what happens in There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Birthday Cake! The title gives away the whole plot – and the poem’s meter is wrong, too, while it would have been right (and the book would have had at least a little bit of mystery) if the title had simply been, “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Cake.” Given the fact that kids will know from the cover of this board book exactly what is going on – and that there will be no surprises in the swallowing sequence itself, which involves items including candles, balloons and confetti – this is one of the weaker books in the series. It will be fun primarily for pre-readers and perhaps very early readers, who will enjoy the amusing pictures of the lady’s tremendous mouth and may have additional fun watching the reactions of the little black dog who is a fixture in Lee’s series illustrations even though it has no specific role in the stories. The other use of this book could be as a bright and happy-looking birthday gift: the final page says “Happy Birthday” and shows a party table loaded with presents, decorations and (of course) a cake, and the book’s cover features glitter that makes the whole thing look very festive. The amusement level here is mild, but for some very young children, it will be enough.
Wildlands No. 3: Phoenix Falling. By Laura Bickle. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
To conclude her Wildlands trilogy while incorporating and summing up material from the two prequel novels, Dark Alchemy and Mercury Retrograde, Laura Bickle has to juggle an impressive number of plot points and people. She manages not to drop too many of either in Phoenix Falling, which will certainly satisfy most readers who have stayed with this story of the fictional Temperance, Wyoming, through Nine of Stars and Witch Creek. The books are firmly planted in the “Weird West” subgenre of adult fantasy novels and make no attempt to stretch any boundaries, but they stay true to their venue and take readers on a suitable thrill ride without ever quite making the characters seem fully fleshed-out and empathetic.
Indeed, when it comes to empathy in particular, Phoenix Falling disappoints, since geologist Petra Dee was very human indeed in the earlier books as she struggled with encroaching cancer – a real-world fear for so many people – while also trying to understand and cope with the various supernatural entities and events surrounding her. But Petra gained a replacement body in Witch Creek, and her only fear in Phoenix Falling is that she may no longer be fully human – a decidedly non-real-world worry that seems petty and largely irrelevant by comparison with her earlier ones.
Petra does have plenty of other things to worry about, though, and Bickle has to find a way to conclude all the various stories by knitting the strands of the tale together. Petra’s father, a once-powerful alchemist who now has Alzheimer’s disease but can still journey into the spirit world, is one thread. Petra’s husband-of-convenience, Gabriel Manget, a former immortal tuned fully human when the tree that sustained his life burned – now turned immortal again when it turns out that the tree has regenerated – is another element. The tree itself, the Lunaria, is yet another, because this incarnation is different from the original in ways that are dangerous – sometimes subtly so, sometimes not subtly at all. Then there is the issue of Owen Rutherford, a brutal sheriff (now somewhat tamed through loss of a hand in the previous book) whose family owns (or at least controls, or at least seems to control) the ranchland where the Lunaria grows – and the ghost girl, Anna, who haunts him and who just may be able to go to Heaven if Owen can do the right thing once he figures out what it is. Another issue involves Nine of Stars, around whom the first book of the trilogy revolved: once a wolf, she is now a human who remains deeply connected to her former pack and uncertain of whether she can ever return to it and, if she can, whether she should.
All the ins and outs revolve around Aldus Lascaris, the hyper-potent 19th-century alchemist who made Temperance what it was and still is, who was destroyed (no, not really) in an uprising of townsfolk and who is condemned forever (no, not really) to the spirit world. Phoenix Falling makes a lame attempt to show Aldus’ horrific family life as a way to explain his turn to evil and depravity, but this part of the book feels tacked-on and does not really ring true. And the phoenix of the title is a deeply uninteresting element of the book, being simply a fire-bringer evoked near the apparent end of his earthly life by Lascaris – and now having re-emerged from the spirit world, at an unexplained but inconvenient time, to start fires in and around Yellowstone National Park, near which Temperance is located.
Far more intriguing than the human and sort-of-human characters are a couple of distinctly non-human presences. One is Sig, a coyote who steals pretty much every scene in which he appears throughout the Wildlands books and who will clearly resonate with the essence of the trickster god Coyote in the mind of anyone familiar with the lore of the Old West. Sig very clearly has coyote instincts and behaviors, yet shares perceptions and abilities that go beyond them and hint at a reservoir of knowledge that proves crucial to the human characters. The other genuinely intriguing character here is Pigin, a really wonderfully conceived supernatural being: a gigantic, festering black toad self-described as representing rot and putrefaction, yet the possessor of subtlety of thought and a sense of irony and rough humor thoroughly lacking in the humans. Pigin is cast as the antithesis of the phoenix and is far more interesting – and, in truth, less destructive, despite a taste for human flesh, since Pigin entices people to bring him nourishment while the phoenix simply burns everything in and around Temperance indiscriminately. It is Pigin who holds the key both to Anna’s fate and to the future of Nine of Stars. In the latter case, Nine of Stars encounters the gigantic toad, reaches a bargain with him, and realizes that “he had given her the truth, and a choice. ‘Thank you. You are both kind and powerful.’” To which Pigin replies, with a snort, “‘I am neither of those things. I am darkness and rot, tricksy and enjoying of suffering.’” Yet Pigin has more personality than most of the other characters in Phoenix Falling combined. The way Bickle eventually deals with all those characters does present a satisfactory conclusion to Wildlands, but it would be wonderful if she were somehow to reread the books with an objective eye and, realizing where her strength really lies, decide in the future to create novels built around characters along the lines of Sig and Pigin rather than ones resembling Petra and Gabe.
Busoni: Sonatina Seconda; Nine Variations on a Chopin Prelude; Elegies. Svetlana Belsky, piano. Ravello. $14.99.
Luigi Perrachio: Nove Poemetti; 25 Preludi. David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music for Solo Piano and Percussion Instruments by John Dante Prevedini, John A. Carollo, Robert E. Thomas, Willem Van Twillert, and Daniel Adams. Karolina Rojahn and Lucie Kaucká, piano; Matt Sharrock, marimba and vibraphone; McCormick Percussion Group conducted by Robert McCormick. Navona. $14.99.
The piano music on several recent recordings will scarcely be to all listeners’ taste – even piano enthusiasts will not necessarily enjoy all of it – but anyone looking to expand his or her ears a bit through encountering less-familiar pianistic material will find plenty here that is enjoyable, challenging to explore, or both. Svetlana Belsky offers a fascinating tour of some of the notoriously difficult, complex, unclassifiable-as-to-style music of Busoni on a new Ravello CD. Sonatina Seconda (1912), although as brief as its name implies (nine minutes), is crammed with technical challenges and auditory ones as well. Dissonance and intensity are contrasted, seemingly arbitrarily, with march tunes and delicate, almost magical passages, the whole ending with a distinctly odd sound. Nine Variations on a Chopin Prelude is both earlier and later, the original version dating to 1884 (when Busoni was only 18) and the final one, heard here, to 1922. Again the technical demands of the music are enormous, and the relationship of what Busoni wrote to Chopin’s famous C Minor Prelude is not always apparent. The most interesting addition to the 1922 version is an introduction that is both fugal and atonal – a bit of structural cleverness equal to that of the variations themselves, which appear in three groups of three, each individual variation in turn subdivided into three parts. Belsky, who thoroughly plumbs the depths of this music, does a particularly fine job of highlighting the distinctions among the sections of the variations while also paying attention to the overall structure of Busoni’s work. This is as insightful a reading in its way as is her performance of Sonatina Seconda in a very different, broader and more deliberately intense way. Belsky also handles the six Elegies of 1908 remarkably well. These are highly variegated works that, collectively, look back at Busoni’s previous late-Romantic style and also at the much more highly personal musical approach that at this time he had not yet fully developed. Belsky handles these works as six interconnected yet independent miniatures. No. 1 is the most straightforward of the group; No. 2 plays major against minor and is based on Busoni’s earlier Piano Concerto; No. 3 has the distinct sound of its foundational chorale prelude and looks ahead to the Fantasia contrappuntistica, into which it will later be incorporated; No. 4 comes from the Turandot Suite and is a set of variations on Greensleeves, which is not at all Chinese even though Busoni thought it was; No. 5, from the same suite, is a very strange sort-of-waltz; and No. 6, a nocturne used in the opera Die Brautwahl, provides a conclusion suggesting that the night is anything but uniformly calming. Belsky seems to have a remarkable intuitive understanding of these Busoni pieces, in addition to having spent considerable time studying their intricacies and performance challenges. Her readings are wholly convincing and do a first-rate job of conveying the many facets of this very difficult composer’s complex and highly personal piano music.
Even less known than the Busoni works played by Belsky are a number of miniatures, from roughly the same time period, by Luigi Perrachio. In fact, the composer himself is almost 100% unknown, and the world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD will serve as most of the world’s introduction not only to the music but also to Perrachio himself. A Turin native – born there in 1883, he died there in 1966 – Perrachio was apparently a shy, withdrawn man whose life was far more involved with teaching piano and performing on the instrument at recitals in his native city than with reaching out beyond Turin’s limits to any wider audience. His most interesting contribution to Turin’s musical life may have been as director of the Double Quintet of Turin, an ensemble including a string quintet plus a wind quintet. Perrachio composed mainly for solo piano, although he did write three interesting sonatas in the late 1920s (for solo harp, violin and piano, and string trio), and a piano concerto and violin concerto in the early 1930s. But he was extremely reluctant to have any of his music published. And very little of it was. David Korevaar’s rediscovery of this material is therefore something of a revelation, shining a light on a composer heretofore almost completely absent from listeners’ consciousness. None of this would matter if Perrachio’s works were unworthy of performance, but the two groupings offered by Korevaar are very definitely worthwhile. Nove Poemetti (1917/1920) includes, as the title indicates, nine sections, and they are more substantial than might be expected. They are essentially the work of an Impressionist composer who met Debussy and Ravel in Paris in the 1910s and was strongly influenced by their music and personalities. Several of the Nove Poemetti are derivative, but by and large, the pieces contain distinctive elements that mark them as works of their time but not of France, where Impressionism flourished: Italianate feelings are recognizable here. Thus, although Notte and Mare, the last two of these pieces, are not especially distinctive in style, there are elements elsewhere in the set – in La notte dei morti and Danzatrici a Lesbo, for example – in which Perrachio shines forth with his own voice. There is somewhat less that is innovative in many of the 25 Preludi of 1927 – it is easy to see how these pieces, many lasting a minute or less, would have served Perrachio’s pedagogical purposes – but here too, individual elements stand out in a recognizable style. For instance, there are back-to-back preludes marked Molto tranquillo e semplicissimo, their approach to the identical tempo marking very nicely contrasted; and there are other preludes whose construction indicates Perrachio’s particular skill with the delicate and expressive: Allegretto, con grande delicatezza, and Tranquillo, delicato. And then there is pleasant, often clever contrast between these and preludes marked Agitato; Presto, fantastico; and Vigoroso, elementare. There is nothing of grand, sweeping scale in this recording, but neither are these pieces dismissible as mere trifles. They are carefully crafted and, at their best, thoroughly engaging – more than enough to captivate piano-music lovers and lead to a hope that Korevaar will uncover and record some larger-scale Perrachio music.
It is somewhat harder to become deeply engaged in a (+++) Navona recording featuring works that emphasize the piano as a percussion instrument and that offers other forms of keyboard percussion as well. The disc is a hodgepodge by design, containing eight works by five composers; and even when a composer contributes more than one work, the pieces are separated on the CD, for no apparent structural or aural reason. John Dante Prevedini’s three-movement Lyme Sonata – which, the designation notwithstanding, is shorter than Busoni’s Sonatina Seconda – offers a series of contrasts between jagged and lyrical sections; that is about all there is to it. John A. Carollo’s Piano Etudes, Book Three (Histories) are all more extended than any of Perrachio’s Preludes, although they too are intended as technical tours de force; but they seem somehow less substantial, more given to gesture than to genuine exploration. Carollo’s Piano Suite No. 9 (Memories of Liszt) is more interesting, its five movements reflecting various sides of Liszt’s style and in one movement giving way to some rather silly humor that is most welcome amid all the seriousness elsewhere. Willem Van Twillert’s Andante for Antoinette is gentle, lyrical and quiet, while his Adagio for Piano has a warmer, richer sound than most other works on the CD. The Prevedini, Carollo and Van Twillert works are for solo piano. Scattered around them are the rest of the pieces here. Robert E. Thomas’ short Moto Perpetuo for marimba is constantly moving and themeless, while his four-movement Sixteen Lines Circling a Square contrasts the sound of the marimba with that of the vibraphone but is quite directionless and static. Daniel Adams’ Solstice Introspect is sonically interesting in being composed for three vibraphones, but Adams does not do much with the instrumental complement except have the performers play unrelated passages overlaid on each other, as if each instrument is generally unaware of the presence of the others. The usual contemporary extensions of instruments’ natural tones and ranges are also used here, including harmonics and bowing, but while they add some unusual sounds to the piece, they do nothing to give it any particular connection with listeners. Fans of contemporary music will surely deem individual parts of some of the works on this CD interesting, but the overall disjointed feeling of the assemblage of material makes it hard to find, much less care about, any connection among the pieces.
Vivaldi: Il Giustino. Delphine Galou, contralto; Emőke Baráth, Verónica Cangemi, Arianna Vendittelli and Rahel Maas, sopranos; Silke Gäng, mezzo-soprano; Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, tenor; Alessandro Giangrande, countertenor; Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Naïve. $33.99. (3 CDs).
David Carpenter: From the Valley of Baca; Trio; Sonata. Lawrence Indik, baritone; Charles Abramovic, piano; Rebecca Harris, violin; Myanna Harvey, viola; Cassia Harvey, cello; Katelyn Bouska, piano. Navona. $14.99.
The remarkable Vivaldi Edition from Naïve, which began in 2000, has now reached its penultimate opera offering with Il Giustino; only Arsilda remains to be released. Like so many of the earlier once-lost Vivaldi works found at the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin that form the basis of this series, Il Giustino is filled with interesting material even though it will certainly not lead to a reconsideration or rethinking of Vivaldi as a composer, or of his strengths and weaknesses. The opera is typically complex, filled with a huge number of arias – more than three dozen – and typically overstated and contrived. And, as is typical specifically for Vivaldi, it shows that the composer had a far stronger feeling for instrumental music than for vocals: the arias, although often highly attractive, are one and all superficial, and the expressions of happiness, sadness, love, and other emotions are stylized and one-dimensional – as, indeed, are the characters themselves. Indeed, this lack of depth may explain Tartini’s famous observation that Vivaldi’s vocal works were not successful. The characters’ rather uninteresting personalities may help explain why the secco recitatives in this recording are generally just plain dull – and sound rather cartoonish when they are livelier. But the music of Il Giustino shines forth despite the lackluster plotting and characterization; indeed, Vivaldi’s vocal writing has something instrumental about it. Under Ottavio Dantone, the Accademia Bizantina proffers virtuoso commitment throughout, with an overture that pulls listeners in from the start and a series of accompaniments that tend to outshine the vocal passages for which they provide the foundation. Dating to 1724, Il Giustino is set in the time of Byzantine Emperor Justin I (sixth century C.E.), and revolves around the accession of a modest ploughman to the role of co-emperor. It is a kind of semi-historical fairy tale, full of allegories, deities, court intrigue, love and love-related misunderstandings, mistaken identities, even a ghost – none of which elements matters as much as the music that Vivaldi produced in support of his own libretto. The wind writing is especially felicitous, the horn playing in particular is first-rate, and there are some lovely string effects as well, as in Sento in seno, which features two solo violins against a larger complement playing pizzicato. Vivaldi also calls here for a psaltery (a sort of dulcimer, although played differently), and uses it to lovely effect. The three primary soloists are all of very high quality: Silke Gäng as Anastasio, the smoothest singer of all; Emőke Baráth as Arianna; and Delphine Galou as Giustino. It is worth noting that even close attention to historical performance practices does not and cannot deliver the opera as Vivaldi’s audiences heard it: women were not allowed on stage at the time, and nearly the entire cast of Il Giustino in Vivaldi’s era consisted of castrati. The necessary deviation from casting aside, this recording adheres very carefully to correct performance practices of its time, and the excellent accompanying booklet – containing texts and translations as well as a synopsis of the complicated plot – makes the three-CD set a real pleasure to hear and experience. There is, however, one element that may not be to the taste of all lovers of Baroque music: the ornamentation of the A section repeats in arias. This is unusually extensive here, perhaps too much so, and in a few cases so overdone that the singers seem to have trouble handling the material. Some listeners will find the extensive ornamentation thrilling, while others will consider it over-the-top. But anyone intrigued by the rediscovery of interesting Baroque material, and of Vivaldi’s works in particular, will find a great deal to enjoy, even celebrate, in this new recording of Il Giustino.
It can be fascinating to hear the ways in which contemporary composers come to terms with the vocal material of the past – and with ancient texts. An intriguing song cycle written by David Carpenter in 2016, From the Valley of Baca, is a case in point. Carpenter reaches back to the Hebrew Bible, and even to the Hebrew language, in this cycle, having previously created an Old Testament work – also for baritone and piano – based on the book of Job. In From the Valley of Baca he turns to Biblical material both directly and indirectly, in the latter case through the poetry of Emma Lazarus. There are nine songs in the grouping, four taken from Psalm 84 and the balance from Lazarus’ poetry: Not While the Snow-Shroud; Across the Eastern Sky; I Saw a Youth Pass Down That Vale of Tears; What, Can These Dead Bones Live; and I Saw in Dream. On a new Navona CD, baritone Lawrence Indik sings everything with depth and feeling, and pianist Charles Abramovic provides sensitive, nuanced accompaniment. The result is a multilayered tribute to and adaptation of material from the past – not so much in musical style, which is primarily tonal but never slavishly so, as in the consideration of Lazarus not only as the author of The New Colossus (inscribed at the Statue of Liberty) but also as a Jew who was deeply concerned and troubled by European anti-Semitism in her own time (the 19th century) and before. The intricacy of Carpenter’s cycle, so different from the rather affected arrangement of material in Il Giustino, does share with Vivaldi’s opera a certain sense of structural artificiality, indeed of artifice. But Carpenter seeks to plumb real-world emotional depth in ways with which Vivaldi, his attention on a largely made-up version of the past, is never concerned. Carpenter’s approach is creative in a manner very different from Vivaldi’s and is used for different purposes, yet its use of intermingled vocal and instrumental elements is drawn from many of the same impulses. And in the other, purely instrumental works on this (+++) CD, Carpenter harks directly back to music and composers of the recent and not-so-recent past. Trio (2014) shares many sensibilities with the music of Shostakovich, even to the point of incorporating the DSCH motive that the great 20th-century Russian composer frequently used to highlight personal elements of his musical communication during the repressive Soviet era. Although not slavishly imitative of Shostakovich in any way, this string piece feels like an updated presentation of many of the wide-ranging emotions that the earlier composer packed into his music. And Sonata (2015) reaches back further, to the 19th century, being directly inspired by Chopin’s B minor piano sonata: Carpenter consciously uses the opening of the Chopin to start his own solo-piano piece. There is no further Chopin quotation in Carpenter’s music, although the work’s overall emotional arc shares something of the feeling of Romantic-era piano compositions. All the works recorded here receive strong performances, and all offer connections with the musical past that give them resonance beyond what the notes themselves provide.
February 21, 2019
The Giver—Graphic Novel Adaptation. By Lois Lowry. Adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $22.99.
An unusually compelling dystopian tale aimed at a younger audience than those usually targeted for such stories, Lois Lowry’s 1993 Newbery Medal winner The Giver has, for a quarter of a century, transcended its awkwardnesses, unexplained elements, and somewhat flawed presentation through the sheer quality of Lowry’s storytelling and her adept posing – without ever saying it in so many words – of a basic question of freedom vs. security. That issue is ever-present in real life – it always seems to fit whatever sociopolitical situation is most parlous at any given time – so the novel retains contemporary relevance year after year. And given the increasingly visual orientation of society, certainly of American society, it makes perfect sense to bring visuals to the book; indeed, a movie of it was made in 2014. But it is something of a surprise that a graphic-novel adaptation has not been made until now, doubly so because one crucial element of The Giver seems perfectly suited to a presentation of this sort: the matter of color.
Perhaps The Giver needed to find the right person to handle its adaptation and illustration, and that is what took a while. If so, the wait was very worthwhile indeed: P. Craig Russell, who has superbly handled adaptations of works by Neil Gaiman, is an ideal choice for this project. As in Russell’s other works, he has not tackled The Giver alone: there are additional illustrations by Galen Showman and Scott Hampton, coloring by Lovern Kindzierski, and lettering by Rick Parker. But Russell’s feel for the material shapes the whole book as surely as his own illustrations dominate it.
Like a number of dystopian novels aimed at adults, The Giver starts by presenting a society that seems in many ways admirable, even utopian: there is an old-fashioned calmness about family life, a politeness that permeates relationships among members of each age group and between adults and children, and a neatly ordered and well-manicured community where noise, pollution, disharmony and troubles of all sorts are notable by their absence. Lowry slowly, slowly reveals, bit by bit, what is wrong with all this, although she never explores, in any detail, just how the situation came to be. Russell adapts Lowry’s approach very cleverly indeed, giving the world the look of an idealized suburban community of the 1950s and showing it not in black-and-white but in a kind of bluish silver tone that simultaneously washes color out and implies that it is there. Thus, when protagonist Jonas – the 12-year-old chosen by the community’s elders to be the next Receiver of Memories, who will obtain truth and history from the Giver – first notices color, the effect is nearly as startling for the reader as for Jonas himself. Unlike Jonas, the reader will know what color is – but, lured into the minimal palette of the art, the reader will be momentarily shocked when a colorless apple suddenly becomes a brilliant red. And as Jonas wonders what can possibly be going on, so will the reader – even a reader already familiar with The Giver in its original form.
It is a strength of top-quality graphic novels that they can introduce people to the originals from which they are taken while also appealing to people who already know those originals, helping them revisit the books’ settings, events and ideas in a new way. Reading a novel requires visualizing it, after all: authors evoke scenes through description and flesh out characters both descriptively and through their actions and speech. The specific way Jonas and the other characters look in this adaptation may or may not be close to the way readers who know the original thought they would look, but this is a novel of ideas, not a character study, so the specific appearance of individuals matters little. And Russell is careful to establish people and let readers get to know them, to at least some extent, while staying focused throughout on the ideas that Lowry is setting forth. It is those ideas, after all, that compensate for some of the awkwardness of plot and missing fleshing-out of the world of The Giver. And it is those ideas that climax with extended scenes in which Jonas, fleeing the community with a baby that will otherwise be put to death in conformity with community notions of correctness, finds himself at last in a world that is all color – but is filled with difficulty, danger and potential destruction. Lowry ends The Giver ambiguously – a fact that has earned her and the novel both praise and condemnation – and Russell carries that ambiguity through exactly correctly, in a final scene that brings both hope for Jason and the baby, Gabriel, and uncertainty about their fate. The Giver is a standalone novel, even though Lowry later wrote three others to create a rather loosely related quartet: Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. None of the later books has the sheer power and propulsiveness of The Giver, though, and although any or all of them could be turned into graphic novels, their adaptations would not likely enhance and expand upon the words as effectively as Russell’s do for the original novel. This graphic novel does its source proud, and Russell’s handling of Lowry’s “thought piece” is as successful in the graphic-novel medium as the original book was as a print offering.
Cyber Smart: Five Habits to Protect Your Family, Money, and Identity from Cyber Criminals. By Bart R. McDonough. Wiley. $19.95.
This book could have been one page long but, thankfully, isn’t. The “five habits” referred to in the subtitle fit easily on a fraction of a page: 1) Update your devices; 2) Enable two-factor authentication; 3) Use a password manager; 4) Install antivirus software on everything and keep it updated; 5) Back up all your data. Easy, right? Nope – not even for corporate security departments that do nothing but protect data all the time. For the average adult, adding these five basic habits of digital life to a day already crammed with work, family and dozens upon dozens of other requirements and desires means allotting time to cybersecurity that many people feel they simply do not have.
Make the time, insists Bart R. McDonough, because you really, really have to “practice the essential cybersecurity habits to protect your family from bad actors” even though “it can feel like [sic] there’s nothing you can do.”
A little perspective is in order here. Understand that your personal information online will be hacked and almost certainly has been already. Even governments and corporations, with their billions of dollars to spend on security, get hacked all the time, and if you deal at all with governments and corporations – and you do – then your data are vulnerable. That’s the reality of the digital age. But McDonough’s point is that even if there is no way to protect 100% of your data, 100% of the time, the five basics of being “cyber smart” will help you “safeguard yourself from the vast majority of threats.” No system is perfect, but in a world where most consumers use little or no cyber protection, the ones who use a lot of it are, by definition, better protected.
McDonough, a professional cybersecurity expert whose company focuses on protecting the financial-services, healthcare and payments industries, spends the first hundred-or-so pages of Cyber Smart showing how the bad guys (and bad gals) work: what methods they use, what they are trying to get, how they handle their businesses (and they are businesses, albeit criminal ones), and how average people and legitimate businesses become their victims. These chapters are amply, even mind-numbingly footnoted: surely McDonough does not expect the everyday reader to wade through two pages containing 37 single-spaced footnotes, every one of them a Web reference beginning with https, in just the chapter on “Attack Methods.” But the point is that interested readers can go to the source material if they wish: Cyber Smart is exhaustively researched and has been assembled by someone whose professional life depends on understanding cyber criminals and outsmarting/outthinking them. But even knowledgeable people in positions of authority make mistakes – that is why government and corporate Web sites are continually hacked. So McDonough concludes the first part of Cyber Smart by explaining how to detect a successful phishing attack, malware insertion, ransomware infection or E-mail compromise – and what to do when you are the victim.
The main point of the book, though, is how not to become a victim. That is the topic of the remainder of Cyber Smart, which spends 150-some pages presenting a dozen chapters (again, all extensively footnoted) that begin with the words “Protecting Your...” The chapters deal with identity, children, money, E-mail, files, social media, website access and passwords, computer, mobile devices, home Wi-Fi, Internet of Things devices, and information when you are traveling. That is a lot of protection – but everything McDonough urges flows from his five basic protective notions, so the topic is not quite as overwhelming as it first seems to be. This second, longer section of the book essentially offers variations on a theme, tweaks to the basic approach. Identity protection, for example, means watching out for phishing E-mails, placing security freezes on your credit accounts, shredding sensitive documents, picking up incoming mail from your mailbox as soon as possible, and sending outgoing mail from your post office rather than letting it wait for pickup in your mailbox. Protecting children means, among other things, being aware of “smart toys” that connect to the Internet, using them only with encrypted and authenticated connections on trusted, secure networks, and monitoring your children’s use of them. File protection involves storing and backing up your files in the cloud, enabling two-factor authentication for cloud storage, using a password manager to create unique passwords for each cloud account – and by this point, the extent to which the specific recommendations flow from the general ones will be obvious to any reader who is paying attention.
Nothing McDonough calls for in Cyber Smart is particularly new: the urgings and remonstrances have been around for a long time, and reappear whenever there is another of those inevitable government or corporate data breaches. And some of McDonough’s clarion calls will inevitably fall on deaf ears because of the simple realities of everyday life: can time-constrained parents really spend considerable time monitoring their kids’ use of Internet-connected toys, especially after they have made daily detours to their nearest post office to drop off outgoing mail there? Indeed, the flaw in this book is that cyber protection comes across in Cyber Smart as almost a full-time job in itself – and it cannot possibly be that for all readers, even though of course it is a full-time concern for McDonough and others in the cybersecurity business. The rest of us, who simply want to get on with our lives without being forced to live under a perpetual cloud of threats to our data, will be unable to implement all McDonough’s ideas, all the time. But we can certainly absorb the basics – those five foundational concepts and recommendations – and use them as much as possible, as often as we can. Our data nevertheless will be compromised at some point, and almost certainly have been already. But by doing whatever is manageable to limit the inevitable damage, we can hopefully avert the worst effects of cyber criminality, such as full-blown identity theft – and find ways to rebuild our online lives, if not, ever, 100% of our trust.
Say Something! By Peter H. Reynolds. Scholastic. $17.99.
The constant push for picture books to be inclusive, politically correct, self-esteem-lifting and generally upbeat is a genuine trend in publishing, and there are many positive elements to it. But there are negatives as well, as when books become overly preachy or so skewed in a particular direction that they turn into advocacy pamphlets for the “right” way to do things. That will be the problem for some families with Peter H. Reynolds’ extremely well-intentioned Say Something!
Take the cover, for example: it is replete with kids of all shapes and sizes, including, inevitably, one in a wheelchair; and it is skewed toward protest, with one child wearing a peace-symbol shirt, one a shirt that says “Be the Change,” and one a shirt with the words, “I Have a Dream.” So far, so good. But parents of children who are not African-American may wonder whether the book is for their families, since there are 12 kids on the cover and at least six are definitely African-American – 50%, when the African-American population of the United States is actually about 13% (so, for genuine balance, there should be no more than two African-American children shown). The cover clearly reaches out to a group usually labeled “under-represented,” and there are in fact multiple skin tones on display in Reynolds’ illustration; but does it really reach out to other races and ethnicities as well as to African-Americans?
Open the book to the inside front cover and the question of intent persists. There are no kids shown here, only word balloons with sayings including, “Let’s right the wrong,” “Justice,” “Peace,” “Let’s stand together,” “Together is better” (those two sounding like echoes of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential campaign), “Let’s make our world a more colorful place,” “Be the change you want to see happen,” and so forth. The sentiments are, by and large, admirable ones, but a number have been co-opted by people or groups with specific sociopolitical agendas (as in the Clinton examples), and that calls the orientation of the book as a whole into question.
The book’s central character, an African-American girl, is urged by the unseen narrator to speak “with words, with action, with creativity,” and Reynolds offers attractive visualizations of various ways to express oneself – using an empty canvas, for example, to create a boldly expressive paint spiral. But some of Reynolds’ ideas are not nearly as simple to implement as he suggests they are. See an empty lot and plant flowers on it, he says – but his illustration shows the “lot” surrounded by green space; an empty lot in a city is scarcely so easily reclaimed. “If you see someone being hurt,” Reynolds says, “say something by being brave” – and what if the bully, possibly someone much larger than you or someone with a weapon, then turns on you? Reynolds ignores consequences at his peril – or rather at the peril of the young readers who may take his words and illustrations to heart and try to do the right thing, or what Reynolds suggests is the right thing.
Interestingly, the best pages of the book are the least-precise ones, the ones least inclined to give readers specific things that Reynolds thinks they can or should say. “Sometimes you’ll say something and no one will be listening,” he writes on one page – a thought worth thinking, especially when Reynolds follows it up with the recommendation nevertheless to “keep saying what is in your heart.” Elsewhere, in an attractive, purple-hued nighttime scene, he writes, “If you are grateful for being alive, quietly say something to the stars, to the Universe.” That is a lovely sentiment, and one that families of all races, creeds, colors and political persuasions can surely appreciate. It is intriguing that when Reynolds appears to try hardest to urge action-focused statements, he is less effective than when he avoids exhorting kids to say specific, action-oriented things. Of course, quiet introspection is not the stated point of Say Something! The whole idea is to urge children to speak out loud. But what Reynolds does not say, and really should, is that it makes sense to consider one’s audience and the consequences of one’s words before making statements, especially ones that seem to flow from a specific worldview or political persuasion. Teaching kids of all shapes, sizes and colors to be grateful for whatever they have and to express that gratitude to those around them and “to the Universe” is ultimately more rewarding than insisting they become mouthpieces for grown-ups by uttering specified pronouncements designed to make stated changes that adults such as Reynolds believe it would be good to make.
Carl Vollrath: Souls in Transitions—The Secrets of the Magdalenian Caves; Tombs of Ancient Times; Buddha of the Future. Summa Trio (Maiani Da Silva, violin; Jennifer Bewerse, cello; Karolina Rojahn, piano). Navona. $14.99.
Phil Salathé: Mandarin Ducks; The Heart That Loves but Once; Imaginary Birds of the Frozen North; The Wood Between the Worlds; Expecting the Spring Breeze. Ling-Fei Kang, oboe; Charles Huang, oboe and English horn; Andrew Knebel, viola; Annabelle Taubl, harp; Yu-Chen Shih, piano and celesta; Katie Kennedy, cello; Mohamed Shams, piano; John Birt, guitar. Ravello. $14.99.
Music for Oboe and Bassoon by Margaret Griebling-Haigh, Marc Vallon, Geoffrey Bush, Daniel Baldwin, and Ernst Mahle. The Iowa Ensemble (Andrew Parker, oboe; Benjamin Coelho, bassoon; Alan Huckleberry, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.
The three Carl Vollrath piano trios collected under the title Souls in Transitions are intended to express the lives and beliefs in afterlife of people from multiple ages – although the composer says he did not think of the unifying theme until after he had finished writing the pieces. That is just as well, since the spiritual gloss does not really appear to fit the pieces particularly well, individually or together. The first trio, in two movements, was inspired by ancient Peruvian cave paintings, but the music draws on nothing particularly Peruvian: it is for the most part quiet, rather elegant music, generally fairly downbeat, with a series of second-movement flourishes that sound somewhat standardized in a contemporary composition in the way their abruptness contrasts with more-lyrical material. The second trio, in three movements, opens pizzicato in a way that is reminiscent of the “flourish” elements of the first – indeed, there are musical connections among all three trios that unite them more effectively than does their stated philosophical import. Vollrath says that the second trio is mainly about ancient Egypt – a culture that was actually later than that during which the Peruvian cave paintings were made. Again, though, there is nothing particularly Egyptian about any of this music, which ebbs and flows not like the Nile but like many other contemporary chamber works: single instruments are contrasted repeatedly with duets or full-trio elements, the material is largely atonal and often athematic, and the string writing is designed to hold down the tendency of the piano to overpower other instruments in a chamber-music setting. The overall tempo of this trio is, like that of the first one, moderate; there is, in fact, not a great deal of differentiation between the two trios in pacing or use of the instruments. For that matter, the third trio is noticeably similar to the first two as well. Vollrath says the theme of this one is how Buddha, and by extension religion in general, changes over time, as humans evolve and take their spiritual beliefs and quests with them. A quieter, even minimalist palette would seem to be in order here, but Vollrath defies any such expectation by again presenting a three-movement piece that uses the instruments in now-familiar ways and, indeed, varies little from movement to movement. The Summa Trio plays well together and does a good job of contrasting the many solo passages with those featuring two instruments or all three. However, the overall effect of this new Navona CD is of a single eight-movement work in which neither individual movements nor elements of those movements may be said to stand out: sections and whole movements could be swapped with others arbitrarily to much the same effect. The music is knowledgeably put together but ultimately does not seem to have much to say.
The longest work on a new Ravello CD featuring music by Paul Salathé also has a spiritual gloss of sorts. The Wood Between the Worlds, for oboe, English horn, cello, and piano, is a 10-movement suite whose concept recalls the strong Christian symbolism of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories: the work’s title comes from The Magician’s Nephew. The woodland is an entry point to multiple worlds, and the first, sixth and last movements of the suite portray the wood itself. The remaining ones neatly and briefly paint musical pictures of individual worlds: one frozen, one dead beneath a dying sun, one “shrouded in forest,” one where machines rule, one oceanic, one “of fools, enamored of the glory of war,” and one that is “the same world many years later, now transfigured by wisdom.” Each of these little portrayals expertly mixes the four instruments in a different way. The focus is primarily on oboe and English horn throughout, but the cello and piano are used as highlighters to considerable effect, as in the pounding piano’s portrayal of the machine world. Salathé varies themes and tempos constantly to produce his effects, and if some of them are rather obvious (such as those for the world of ocean), others are very engaging indeed (such as the contrast between the warlike world and its later transformation). Salathé’s evocative woodwind writing is as interesting to hear for its own sake as it is to consider in the context of the scenes he is trying to convey. Another suite on the CD, the six-movement Mandarin Ducks, for oboe and English horn, offers even cleverer instrumentation, using the two forms of oboe to wind around each other, intertwine, part and come together, play happily and get angry at each other, and generally do a highly satisfactory and often very amusing imitation of two paired ducks that go through all the same ups and downs that human couples experience. The less-than-a-minute section in which the ducks lead their ducklings along is as much a charmer as the raucous one in which the two ducks are heard “Squabbling over a Slug.” Salathé sticks with an avian theme in Imaginary Birds of the Frozen North, whose three movements – for solo English horn – portray the “Lesser Snow Ostrich,” “Great Northern Wandering Dodo,” and “Sub-Arctic Screech Owl.” This is all done with a notable mixture of grandeur and silliness, the exact elements’ percentage varying from movement to movement. Each movement lasts less than two minutes but manages to encapsulate a nonexistent avian to fine effect. The veneer of amusement present in most of these works disappears, however, in one of them: The Heart That Loves but Once, whose title comes from a letter written by Clara Wieck to her not-yet-husband, Robert Schumann, and whose distinctly unusual instrumentation – oboe, viola, harp, piano and celesta – gives the piece an odd and eerie sound that, far from commenting on or portraying one of the great love affairs of musical history, seems to suggest that the love can never be and will remain at best a distant, unfulfillable desire. The various performers, led by Ling-Fei Kang and Charles Huang, handle all these works by Salathé with exceptional understanding and skill. The music is somewhat on the odd side, especially if listened to straight through: this is one of those discs best heard as individual pieces rather than a sustained concert or recital. The final work on the CD, though, is clearly intended as an encore: it is Expecting the Spring Breeze by Taiwanese composer Teng Yu-Hsien (1906-1944), arranged by Salathé for oboe and guitar and concluding the disc with rather more sweetness and naïveté than is heard anywhere else on the CD. The well-known melody actually sounds a bit like a folk song from the American West in cowboy days, and the guitar part only adds to that impression. This piece makes for an unusual-sounding completion of a recording featuring a variety of unusual sounds throughout.
The sounds are more straightforward and generally quite pleasant on a new MSR Classics CD featuring the three members of the Iowa Ensemble playing, among other things, folk songs. Those are in Five French Folk Songs (2010) by Marc Vallon (born 1955), and are set in a mostly straightforward manner in which the differing timbres of oboe and bassoon blend well, with the piano providing a solid underpinning. Here and in the other four works on the CD, the composers take advantage of the inherently different qualities of oboe and bassoon sound – in contrast to Salathé’s approach, which emphasizes the similarities between oboe and English horn as often as their differences. Andrew Parker, Benjamin Coelho and Alan Huckleberry perform in a manner that always sounds relaxed and informal, as if they are simply gathering in someone’s parlor for a bit of instrumental give-and-take. The approach fits the easygoing Vallon music well, and it is equally effective in the more-intense Awatovi (2012) by Daniel Baldwin (born 1978). This is a work whose direct and rather driven first movement gives way to a declamatory second movement and then a finale that takes full advantage of the bassoon’s ability to bubble and the oboe’s to sing. The performers catch and explore the music’s varying moods very well. They also nicely handle the two-movement Trio (1952) by Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998), although the music here – each movement has a slow section followed by a quick one – seems to give the performers less with which to work: both movements seem to go on and on, even though neither is particularly long. The three movements of Trocadillos (2013) by Margaret Griebling-Haigh (born 1960) also somewhat overstay their welcome, but there is some interesting rhythmic treatment here along with some well-done contrasts between the wind instruments, notably in the concluding Burlesco. The most classically poised work on the CD, and the one giving the musicians the most opportunities for seamless interrelationship, is the Trio by German-born Brazilian composer Ernst Mahle (born 1929). Mahle wrote this piece in 2007, at the age of 78, and it conveys a mature understanding of instrumental capabilities and balance. A compact work that runs 13 minutes, Mahle’s Trio features three movements of nearly equal length that place nearly equal importance on each of the three instruments. Solid and without unnecessary flourishes, the trio is attractive to hear and also gives the performers plenty of opportunities for the collegiality that is the Iowa Ensemble’s most-prominent characteristic. This CD is something of a specialty item – not many people will likely know these composers well, much less these specific pieces, and the oboe/bassoon/piano combination is scarcely an everyday listening experience. However, anyone interested in exploring some well-made chamber works for a wind combination that is infrequently heard will find much to enjoy here.
February 14, 2019
The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle. By David Litchfield. Clarion. $17.99.
A lovely, heartwarming and endearing sequel to The Bear and the Piano, David Litchfield’s The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle brings back the animal-and-music combination of the earlier book while expanding the theme and introducing some new ones. The tale this time centers not on the bear – who is now a musical superstar putting together an all-animal band – but on a little dog named Hugo, companion to a human street-corner violinist named Hector. Realizing that time has passed his street-music life by and that he will never get to perform in an imposing concert hall, Hector decides to give up the violin altogether. Litchfield’s always-sensitive illustrations are particularly sad on two pages that show Hector, with music no longer part of his life, spending “most of his time watching TV, listening to audiobooks, sleeping, sleeping, and sleeping some more” – the very picture of an elderly, retired man whose talent is no longer wanted or appreciated and who has no one to turn to and nowhere to go.
But those sad pictures contain a grain of happiness in the background, where Hugo is seen holding the violin and playing it: he misses the music he and Hector used to share, and if Hector will not continue making some, then Hugo will. And he gets good, really good, turning out to have so much talent that people hum and tap and sing along with Hugo’s playing, because it is “toe-tappingly, finger-clickingly, whistle-blowingly AWESOME!” Hector is amazed not only at how good Hugo is but also at “how much his friend loved to play,” and he resolves to teach Hugo whatever he can. And he does. And a crowd gathers as Hector helps Hugo as Hugo plays his heart out, and soon, “news of the incredible fiddle-playing dog spread.”
Enter the bear. Watching and hearing Hugo, he is suitably impressed, inviting the dog to join his all-animal band – but this seems a mixed blessing to Hector, who, after all, had quit playing because he knew he would never get the sort of opportunity that Hugo is now getting. Hector becomes jealous, tries to dissuade Hugo from leaving, and even tells him he will fail because he is not very good. Of course, Hector quickly realizes that is unfair and unkind – but before he can apologize, Hugo has left. Now Hector feels guilty, and sadder than ever before.
Of course, as in his previous book, Litchfield does not let the downbeat part of the story remain for long. Hugo is a big success with Bear’s Big Band, “the star of the show,” with Litchfield’s pictures of the other musical animals – Bear, of course, and also a drum-playing giraffe and a wolf playing bass – lightening the tone of the book considerably. Hector watches the band’s performances on TV, finds that he misses playing music, and misses Hugo even more – so when the ensemble comes to Hector’s city, Hector buys a ticket even though he thinks Hugo may not want to see him. But, of course, Hugo does want to see Hector. Hugo is now playing a violin of his own – but, it turns out, has carefully kept Hector’s instrument all this time, and offers it to Hector so the old fiddler can play, as a special guest, with Bear and the band. At last, Hector gets his much-wanted chance to appear on stage! So Hugo and Hector realize that “they would always still be friends,” and Litchfield knowingly concludes The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle by noting that “good friendship, just like good music, lasts a lifetime.”
This is a lovely little story even though it is not quite at the level of the original The Bear and the Piano, which preserved a fine veneer of fairy tale and focused on the sheer improbability of a bear not only learning to play the piano but also becoming a virtuoso. In The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle, animals playing instruments are not particularly unusual, and the “friendship” theme, while nicely handled, is on the ordinary side. But the tale is very well told – Litchfield paces the book expertly – and the illustrations are all charming, skillfully evoking the emotions (positive and negative) expressed in the text. Kids who enjoyed The Bear and the Piano will certainly welcome this sequel, and the book will even be fun for young readers who do not know the earlier one. The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle is a bit more superficial than its predecessor, though. So the solution for parents seems obvious: get both the books and let kids read the first one first.
The VERY Impatient Caterpillar. By Ross Burach. Scholastic. $17.99.
Dragons Eat Noodles on Tuesdays. By Jon Stahl. Illustrated by Tadgh Bentley. Scholastic. $17.99.
Inspired loosely – make that very loosely – by Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ross Burach’s The VERY Impatient Caterpillar is not about a critter eating all sorts of things but about a critter complaining about all sorts of things. Well, really only one thing: how long it takes for a caterpillar to turn into a butterfly. The caterpillar claims to know all about metamorphosizing (which he cannot, however, pronounce) and about a chrysalis (which he cannot quite figure out how to create) – but he gets his chrysalis done, with a little help from other caterpillars, and soon finds himself waiting. And waiting. And, um, waiting. “Just be patient and let nature take its course,” another caterpillar urges, but this caterpillar simply can’t, even though he says, “Patience. Right. Right. I got this.” Um…no, he doesn’t. Talking through his chrysalis to other chrysalises, he repeatedly asks if he is a butterfly yet, and is repeatedly – and increasingly loudly – told he is not, and simply has to be patient. Um…nope. He tries; he really does. But the change takes two weeks. “TWO WEEKS?!” What is he going to do for two weeks? Burach, who has a finely tuned sense of the absurd, shows the caterpillar inside the chrysalis, playing a ball-and-paddle game, trying to order a pizza, and worrying about what to do if he needs to use the bathroom. And all that is just during the first day. Argh! Unable to stand it any longer, the caterpillar bursts out of the chrysalis, cross-eyed and goo-covered, and tries to flap his nonexistent wings and fly – with the easy-to-anticipate result: “SPLAT!” Now what? Time to spin a new chrysalis and try some positive self-talk to his reflection in a hand mirror: “YOU are the little caterpillar that could.” Unfortunately, his answer is, “I am the little caterpillar that couldn’t.” But after much arguing back and forth with himself – Burach’s picture of a bemused squirrel overhearing the sounds from the chrysalis is a gem – the caterpillar manages to get control of his impatience through focus, slow breathing, and quiet meditation. And sure enough, after two weeks, he emerges as the most improbably colored butterfly imaginable: purple and blue and striped and polka-dotted and green and white and yellow and pink – well, he certainly does put plenty of flashy, clashing colors on display. And now he can join the other just-transformed butterflies on their migration, for which he promises to be “WAY MORE PATIENT.” But…umm…migrating takes a long time, and…well, Burach finds just the right time and just the right amusing way to end a book about patience that is fun precisely because it is so un-preachy.
There is no preaching in Jon Stahl’s Dragons Eat Noodles on Tuesdays, either, but there is a transformation of a different sort. The book starts with a wide-eyed, very plump little blue monster with a penchant for telling stories that are short, to the point, and not very interesting – as in: “So, there’s this kid. And he gets eaten by a dragon. The E!” Realizing that the book’s readers are not enjoying stories like this, the blue monster accepts some help from a smaller, longer-eared, yellow monster, who tries to make the blue monster’s stories both longer and nicer, despite being told, “Nice? Nice is boring.” A story really, really needs a dragon, insists the blue monster. “Be careful what you wish for,” says the yellow monster, obligingly starting a story in which a gigantic dragon named Dennis, who has skipped breakfast, is about to chow down on a boy knight. But here comes the transformation: captured and frightened, the knight, instead of rescuing a damsel in distress, is himself rescued by “a brave damsel” who “was also very smart” and who unrolls a scroll showing that “dragons ONLY eat noodles on Tuesdays!” Embarrassed, Dennis tosses the knight out of the way and heads off to find some noodles, as the knight-rescuer exclaims, “Damsels rule!” But – well, this is a story-within-a-story, and who should suddenly appear, looming high above the two storytelling monsters, but Dennis himself? Stahl’s twist here is delightfully handled – abetted, as is the entire book, by some wonderfully outlandish Tadgh Bentley illustrations. Dennis is so huge that only part of him fits on the page, and besides, he is hungry – but this being Tuesday, there is nothing to fear. Except – hmm. What day is today? Turns out it is Wednesday. And what did the scroll of the damsel in the story say that dragons eat on Wednesdays? Better look back at that page! The answer is – oh no! “Monsters.” And so the two storytellers are quickly snapped up, finding themselves inside the dragon in a place that “smells like day-old noodles,” as Dennis proclaims, “The End!” But…not quite…because the two monsters, on the very last page, start a story about “two guys who escape from the belly of a dragon” – leaving the continuation of the tale to any young readers who are not too busy rolling around with laughter to think of what could happen next.
The Best Value Colleges, 2019 Edition: 200 Schools with Exceptional ROI for Your Tuition Investment. By Robert Franek with Danielle Correa, David Soto, Stephen Koch, and the Staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $22.99.
Value is a slippery concept, more so when considered in the context of ROI (return on investment). After all, whenever someone buys a stock, anticipating that it will go up because the shares will in the future be worth more, someone else is selling that stock, anticipating that there is little, if any, upside potential. Each individual evaluates return on investment differently: the buyer expects ROI in the future sufficient to justify the risks inherent in any investment, while the seller believes the ROI already obtained is sufficient and a sale therefore makes sense.
Increasingly, attendance at college is seen as primarily an economic decision: a college degree today, like a high-school degree in the not-so-distant past, is a requirement for the sorts of jobs to which a great many people aspire. Therefore, the notions of value and ROI have now taken on even more importance than they used to have, and the annual Princeton Review discussion of The Best Value Colleges now has a more-distinct financial foundation.
One thing these annual guides show consistently is that when it comes to higher education, it is best to be very rich or at least moderately poor. That is not the intended lesson of this well-researched, plainly written book, which explores factors including academics, cost and financial aid, and which creates seven “value” lists sorting the 137 private and 63 public colleges it profiles. But reading only a little bit between the lines of these nearly 500 pages makes it clear that colleges get to be among the best in part because of the generosity of their financial-aid packages – “need-blind admissions,” designed to bring in the best students without regard to their wealth (although often with regard to other factors, ranging from alumni connections to skin color).
It is true that the ability of children from families of modest means, or even out-and-out poverty, to get a top-quality college education is a major accomplishment for many of these schools and a major strength of the higher-education system in the United States. And on the other side of the wealth spectrum, families with considerable money can simply pay what it costs for their children to attend the schools – a $60,000-a-year “retail” cost may seem modest to them, especially in light of all the doors that a top-of-the-line college education can open. But left out of this rosy scenario is what happens to families that scrimp and save diligently for 18 years after a child is born, managing to scrape together enough money to pay for the child’s college education at a modestly priced school, but not enough to afford one of the absolute top-tier ones. These families are the forgotten middle, because they cannot pay retail prices for top schools but do not qualify – because of income, assets or both – for the extremely generous subsidies that the highest-ranking schools offer to people who have done a poor job, or none at all, of saving for college. As in some of the nation’s most-expensive cities, the very rich can afford the cost of living, and the poor are well subsidized so they too can live there, but the vast and struggling middle group gets no help and little attention, much less sympathy.
Nor will that group find much to celebrate in the 2019 edition of The Best Value Colleges. What all readers, at any income level, will find, however, is a well-thought-out data scrubbing and analysis that produces a list called “Top 50 Best Value Colleges” – on an overall basis, that is – plus six other lists, each containing 25 schools, that focus on specific perceived strengths. Four of those additional lists are straightforward, looking at colleges with the best alumni network, best entry to internships, best career placement, and best financial aid. The other two are more interesting. One gives the best 25 colleges “for students with no demonstrated need,” which means for ones who do not qualify for financial aid. This list interacts intriguingly with the 50-college master list: No. 1, Georgia Institute of Technology, is No. 18 on the main list; No. 2, Harvey Mudd College, is No. 6 on the main list; No. 4, Stanford University, is No. 2 on the main list; and so on. What this means is that schools’ rankings that include financial-aid elements may be higher or lower than their rankings when those elements are removed. Families trying to navigate the college-decision morass – a tough job in any year – may find this look at the data particularly interesting.
The sixth “sub-list” of colleges is an oddity, because it is very highly subjective – even more so than is implied by the word “value.” This is a list of the 25 “best schools for making an impact,” and if “value” is an imprecise word, “impact” is even more so. Indeed, unlike the data-centric determinism of most of the material in The Best Value Colleges, this list is extremely personal, the schools having been “selected based on student ratings and responses to our survey questions covering community service opportunities at their school, student government, sustainability efforts, and on-campus student engagement.” Focusing intensely on the schools on this list may produce some distinctly odd thinking unless a high-school student already knows that he/she intends to go into nonprofit work, community activism, antipoverty programs, nongovernmental organizations seeking to aid the underprivileged worldwide, or similar areas. Students who actually grow and mature during college may be in for distinct disappointment if they choose an “impact” school and find, once arriving there, that the typically straitened political correctness of many of the listed colleges is intellectually (and perhaps morally) stifling. For example, the list is headed by Wesleyan University, once a top academic college (as part of the “Little Three,” with Amherst and Williams), but now referred to by some alumni – and not always with pride – as “social justice university.” Families would do well to use the “impact” list with considerable care.
Of course, care is called for in all considerations and decisions involving college, and even the best-intentioned book on the topic – The Best Value Colleges is nothing if not well-intentioned – can provide only so much help. There is a tremendous amount of information on colleges available now, both in print and in voluminous online postings, including the ones created by the schools themselves. The lists in The Best Value Colleges, and the individual profiles of the schools on those lists, are valuable, but they are scarcely the last word in terms of decision-making. The first five schools on the master list of “best value colleges,” for example, are California Institute of Technology, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, and Williams. All are excellent. But so are No. 10 (University of Virginia), No. 14 (Columbia), No. 26 (Duke), No. 32 (Haverford), No. 47 (University of Florida), and No. 50 (Johns Hopkins) – and so are many schools not on this list. So much of what families will get out of The Best Value Colleges depends on what they bring to it: Wesleyan University heads the odd “impact” list, for instance, but does not appear on the master list at all, while Williams is in the top five in that list and Amherst is No. 17. The only sensible thing for families to do with The Best Value Colleges, 2019 Edition, is carefully to consider the methodology of The Princeton Review (which is not, by the way, affiliated with Princeton University), decide to what extent the book’s approach is in line with the family’s concerns and values, and then use the various lists and individual descriptions of colleges to focus on a small number of schools that will hopefully meet the soon-to-be-college-student’s goals and needs (financial and otherwise). The book is a start, and only a start. And families would do well to remember that there are many hundreds of colleges that are not profiled here at all – but that may nevertheless be the best value for them. It all comes down to just how “value” is defined, and that is something each family will need to determine on its own.