February 21, 2019

(++++) PICTURES FOR POWER, COLORS FOR CLARITY


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.

(++++) GETTING DEFENSIVE


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.

(+++) TALK TIME


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 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.

(+++) CHAMBER COMBOS


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

(++++) MUSICAL MASTERY AND MORE


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.

(++++) TRANSFORMATION TALES


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.

(++++) DOLLARS AND SENSIBILITY


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.

(+++) THE EXPRESSIVE VOICE


Richard Thompson: The Mask in the Mirror—A Chamber Opera. The Sanaa Opera Project conducted by Stephen Tucker. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Sueños de España: Spanish Art Songs. Shudong Braamse, soprano; Teresa Ancaya, piano; Robert Phillips, guitar. Navona. $14.99.

Laments: Choral Music of Pablo Casals, Patricia Van Ness, Darius Milhaud, Thomas Tallis, and Daniel E. Gawthrop. Renaissance Men (Eric Christopher Perry, tenor and conductor; Alexander Nishibun, Kilian Mooney, and Garry McLinn, tenors; Peter Schilling, Will Prapestis, Brian Church, and Dominick Matsko, baritones; Benjamin Pfeil, bass-baritone; Anthony Burkes Garza, bass). Navona. $14.99.

Palestrina: Missa Tu Es Petrus and other sacred works. The Choir of Saint Luke in the Fields conducted by David Shuler. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Listeners interested in some unusual vocal repertoire, handled expertly by first-rate singers, will find a wide spectrum of voices and considerable variety in their use on three new Navona recordings. The Mask in the Mirror makes impressive use of primary sources, in the form of excerpts from personal writings, to tell the story of early 20th-century black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (whose middle name is here, oddly, misspelled “Lawrence”) and Alice Ruth Moore, the woman he married and never divorced even though the two split up. Dunbar, the son of illiterate freed slaves, is a seminal figure in American poetry written by blacks, and Moore, who was herself a writer, was college-educated but never attained Dunbar’s commercial success. She was also ashamed of being illegitimate and had a longstanding disgust with darker-skinned members of her race – describing herself as a Louisiana Creole to create the self-image she looked for with her coffee-colored skin. Dunbar, ill for many years with tuberculosis and then consumed by alcoholism after liquor was recommended to help him cope with the disease, died in 1906, before his 34th birthday; Moore was longer-lived (1875-1935) but never as prominent as her sometime husband. Composer/librettist Richard Thompson weaves the operatic story of these two would-be literary lions into a three-act chamber opera that includes spoken dialogue as well as sung elements that are closer to Sprechstimme than to arias. Scenes look at the initial contact between Dunbar (Cameo Humes) and Moore (Angel Owens); the literary critic Dean Howells (John Polhamus), whose positive response to Dunbar became the basis of Dunbar’s reputation; and various interactions between Dunbar and Moore and involving them, separately or together, with various family members and acquaintances. This is a content-driven opera rather than a musically propelled one: the music is fine, but there is nothing particularly distinguished about it – no attempt to use tunes of the protagonists’ time, to include African-American melodic references, or otherwise to relate the musical material to the story. Therefore, listeners will inexorably focus on the words spoken and sung by the characters – and Thompson’s music is designed to make that focus possible. Unfortunately for this approach, the words are not especially distinguished – most come from letters exchanged by the protagonists – and while The Mask in the Mirror contains some bits of Dunbar’s poetry (including perhaps his best-known line, “I know why the caged bird sings”), it comes across more as a play with music than as a fully realized opera. The performers are fine, and when the music does pick up, as in a scene in a Harlem bar, it is attractive. But the words are for the most part simply ordinary: “Paul, you’re back from London already. Yes, to celebrate my latest published book.” As for the Dunbar-Moore romance, there does not seem to be very much to it: Dunbar was serially unfaithful and Moore seems to have wanted to attach herself to someone who was a better writer than she, whatever the emotional cost. There is ultimately not all that much interesting about The Mask in the Mirror except for people who know Dunbar’s work and the Dunbar-Moore story already, and are interested in hearing it surrounded by (if not exactly set to) music.

     Chinese soprano Shudong Braamse might seem a curious choice for a CD containing 19 tracks of Spanish songs – all but one of them love songs – but Braamse shows herself quite equal to the material, and her pronunciation, if not idiomatic, is more than satisfactory for this mostly lightweight material. The CD’s title actually translates not as “Spanish Art Songs” but as “Spanish Dreams,” and there is a certain dreamlike quality to several of the songs here – as well as a certain sameness both of topic and of music, resulting in a nicely sung recording that is distinctly monochromatic. There is one religious song here, a traditional Ave Maria set by Juan Cantó Francés, but all the other songs are distinctly secular – even when they contain religious references, as in Amor sin Esperanza by Manuel Fernández Caballero, in which the singer addresses “blessed Virgin Mary” for the sole purpose of requesting, “Make him love me or allow me to die.” There is a lot of this sort of traditional and naïve heartsickness and wishing for death if love is not readily available in these songs, and little to choose among them in terms of how well the composers express the longings. Teresa Ancaya provides sensitive accompaniment and occasional touches of attractive piano-only figurations, as in Rosa by Mariano Obiols Tramullas. And some of the songs’ words are unusual, as in A Mi Nazarena by Antonio Reparaz, which begins, “Although you are a nun, I would give anything for just one kiss from your lips.” But Braamse handles all the texts essentially the same way – justifiable because of the general similarity of the emotions expressed, but leading rapidly to a feeling of familiarity with the material that soon turns into over-familiarity. The occasional use of Robert Phillips’ guitar for accompaniment, as in A la Incredulidad by Francisco de Borja Tapia and O Sí o No by Mariano Nicasio Rodríguez de Ledesma, provides some welcome respite from the voice-and-piano sounds that dominate the disc. The sameness of vocal quality and musical approach throughout the CD will please fans of Braamse and listeners who may not know her yet but are interested in hearing yet another of the many fine up-and-coming soprano voices now emerging from all parts of the world. The strictly musical content of Sueños de España is thin, but the presentation is skillful, and the material is presented with sensitivity and as much depth as it can be given.

     Listeners who prefer massed male voices to individual female ones, or who enjoy the contrast between the two types of vocalizing – and who want to hear religious material intended to uplift rather than serving secular concerns – will find much to like in a CD featuring the vocal ensemble called Renaissance Men. The material on the disc is by no means confined to the Renaissance, with only Thomas Tallis’ The Lamentations of Jeremiah (as arranged by group members Eric Christopher Perry and Anthony Burnes Garza) dating to that time period. But this vocal ensemble’s fine blending, purity of tone and heartfelt expressiveness fit all the works on the disc, whatever their provenance. The Tallis is the emotional center of this recording, its five vocal parts split here among 10 men so as to reinforce the words crying out at the destruction of ancient Jerusalem. This is very serious music indeed, and the performers lead up to it with a series of somber works: Pablo Casals’ O Vos Omnes (arranged and darkened by Clifford G. Richter: the original is for mixed chorus); Psalm 3 by Patricia Van Ness; and Darius Milhaud’s Psaume 121, a very interesting setting that makes its emotional point partly through use of bitonality. The Milhaud is short, running less than three-and-a-half minutes, but is quite challenging to sing, and the high quality of the performance here is a high point of the CD (which itself is on the short side, running only about 47 minutes). The Tallis follows the Milhaud and makes for a fascinating juxtaposition. Then, concluding the disc, there is The Promises of Isaiah the Prophet, written by Daniel E. Gawthrop specifically as a response to the Tallis (the work begins in the tonality in which the Tallis ends). Gawthrop makes an interesting, if rather academic, point in this work, proffering a richness of sound to go with the essentially upbeat text and to contrast strongly with the spare, austere Tallis setting of the deeply troubled words of Jeremiah. Listeners with a strong affinity for Biblical material will find the Tallis-Gawthrop comparison and contrast fascinating, although more-casual listeners will likely get less from it. On this CD as on the one featuring Braamse, a great deal of the attraction lies in the quality of the voices and the expressiveness with which the musical material is delivered – whether that material is essentially quotidian (Braamse) or intended to elevate (Renaissance Men).

     The focus is entirely on the Renaissance and entirely uplifting on a beautifully sung and very well-recorded MSR Classics CD of some of Palestrina’s sacred music, performed by the Choir of Saint Luke in the Fields conducted by David Shuler. The ensemble’s name evokes Europe and a pastoral location, but in fact this is a New York City choir. Shuler has directed the ensemble for 30 years, and every one of the singers responds to him with intensity and flexibility in equal measure – individually and as a group. So seamless is the interweaving of voices that the massed choir sounds almost like a single voice with exceptional range. The highlight of the disc is Missa Tu Es Petrus, a so-called “parody mass” – “parody” in this context meaning simply that the work was put together from previously existing music rather than composed anew. Dating to 1572, Missa Tu Es Petrus is based on a motet of the same name – with which the CD opens, providing listeners with a perfect chance to hear the original material from which the mass was constructed. This is a rather arcane pleasure, to be sure, and indeed, a full CD of Palestrina can be as much of a chore for some listeners as it is a delight to others. This is certainly not material to be taken lightly, even though the vocal scoring is thin by modern standards: Missa Tu Es Petrus calls only for two sopranos, alto, tenor and two basses. The half-hour mass is complemented by an additional half-hour of Palestrina’s sacred music, including not only the motet underlying the mass but also Sicut Cervus | Sitivit Anima Mea, Caro Mea, Canite Tuba | Rorate Caeli, Improperium Expectavit, and Surrexit Pastor Bonus | Et Enim Pascha Nostrum. The choir sounds quite comfortable with the Latin texts, whose specific meaning is not really needed for modern listeners to understand and respond to the high spiritual goals that Palestrina (c. 1525-1594) had in composing these works. The shorter motets are self-contained, but the seven sections of Missa Tu Es PetrusKyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei 1 and 2 – unite into a work that is greater than the sum of its parts. Modern Catholics, and other listeners of a religious bent, will find the exploration of multiple moods easier to comprehend than will those of a more-secular inclination. And it does help to have some comprehension of the text to enjoy the way in which Palestrina interweaves restrained and tender touches with an overall feeling of quiet joy. Shuler and his choir convey the subtleties of the material, in the mass and motets alike, with warmth and precision; the antiphonal nature of Missa Tu Es Petrus comes through to particularly fine effect. Certainly this is not music for a broad audience; indeed, it reaches out even less far now that the Catholic Church has largely abandoned worship in Latin. But for those who still love that language and the music that Palestrina built around it with consummate skill, this recording will be an essay in sacred beauty.

February 07, 2019

(+++) MOSTLY SHINING, SOME TARNISH


A Ray of Light: A Book of Science and Wonder. By Walter Wick. Scholastic. $17.99.

     A gorgeously photographed book that makes science come alive with beauty and elegance – but that is marred by frequent, frustrating writing errors – Walter Wick’s A Ray of Light shows both the author’s remarkable photographic skill and flair for picture-book creation, and his need for much-improved editing or a collaborative writer. The beauties of the book abound, and are so many that very young readers can be captured and captivated by the pictures without necessarily wanting to pay much attention to the text. But the text is the reason for the photos, and it does not bode well for the writing when Wick already makes an error in his Acknowledgments: “I would also like to thank high school physics teachers Peter Moore and Joe Mancino for their experience-based wisdom and enthusiasm for the project from the very beginning; and to [thank] Bill Robertson, Professor of Physics & Astronomy at Middle Tennessee State University…” Yes, Wick forgets to thank while giving thanks.

     Few readers will likely care much about the Acknowledgments, but the very first sentence of the book itself shows that Wick has trouble with text: “Everything from the earth beneath our feet, [to] the water we drink, and the air we breathe is made of atoms.” The punctuation could be better, and the omission of that little “to” starts the verbiage in confusion – a real shame, since the words go with a photo that marvelously juxtaposes three stacked rocks with a beaker filled with water and a dish from which vapor is rising. The picture is striking and beautifully balanced, and leads naturally into Wick’s discussion of the difference between matter and energy, in which he aptly notes, “Although light is neither a solid, liquid, nor gas, all three kinds of matter can have a role in its creation.”

     Wick next moves into a brief discussion of incandescence (“light that comes from heat”), then illustrates light waves with some of his most compelling photos: beneath shots of a ball attached to a rod, vibrating at three different speeds so it produces visible waves in water, he shows the colors red, green and blue, explaining that the invisible waves of light create colors in a parallel manner. Followup pages show what happens when light enters a clear, water-filled box head on – compared with what happens when it enters at an angle and is refracted. This leads to a discussion of the color spectrum – and another of the periodic textual irritations: “It should be noted that a photograph, especially those [it should be “one,” or “photographs, especially those”] reproduced in a book, cannot fully capture the purity and intensity of color…”

     A Ray of Light contains much that is fascinating, even revelatory. One page shows a sort of Venn diagram of red, green and blue, explaining that even though red and green paint make brown, red and green light make bright yellow. This leads to an explanation, with still more excellent photos, of the way the color gray results from mixing equal amounts of red, green and blue or cyan, magenta and yellow – and that adjusting the balance of gray’s component colors produces all the colors in the book.

     Again and again, Wick’s photos wonderfully illustrate scientific concepts involving light, while his text stumbles along with greater or lesser effectiveness. In a page on iridescence, for instance, he writes, “If the double reflection of wave crests of any given wavelength perfectly align [it should be “aligns”], that wavelength’s color brightens.”

     Yet the book’s charm and informational quality transcend its verbal blunders. When Wick moves into a discussion and visual presentation of permanent colors – from pigments and dyes – his illustrations make the science come fully alive. He next discuses lenses, unfortunately again with some verbal confusion when writing about sunlight: “Streaming in a window, you’ll feel its warmth” – which would mean you, the reader, are streaming in the window; he intends to say, “When sunlight streams in a window.” Yet again, photos rescue the text, showing how lenses work and explaining that the human eye refracts light the same way simple lenses, such as magnifying glasses, do. Pictures also carry the day in discussing atmospheric light (with a neat explanation of why the sky is blue), showing the relative sizes of Earth and our moon and Earth and the sun, and explaining how sunlight is used to solve the mystery of what the sun is made of. A Ray of Light concludes with two dense, small-type pages giving greater detail on the science behind the book, and they will be welcome further reading for adults who go through the book with children – and for children who become fascinated by science thanks to Wick’s outstanding visualizations. Although it is a shame that Wick’s text does not measure up to the quality of his photographs, it is still wonderful to have A Ray of Light to capture young readers’ imagination in much the same way that, back in 1997, Wick’s A Drop of Water exposed young people to the wonders of a substance that only seems commonplace until you start examining it closely. Light is not a “substance” in the same sense as water, but it too is something we take for granted – until Wick shows, again and again, what a marvel it really is.

(+++) WITH A HA-HA HERE AND A HA-HA THERE


The World’s Best Jokes for Kids, Volumes 1 and 2. By Lisa Swerling and Ralph Lazar. Andrews McMeel. $6.99 each.

     “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Ill. Ill who? Illustrated jokes are funnier!” And there you have the premise of The World’s Best Jokes for Kids, in which both volumes bear the subtitle, “Every Single One Illustrated.” That means these G-rated groaners, puns and corny retellings of mildly funny amusements are accompanied, one and all, by small cartoon illustrations that are supposed to make the books more fun to read than they would be if they contained only words.

     And you know what? It works! Oh, not all the time: the picture of a worried-looking man holding a long, sharp object does not add much to, “What do you call a nervous javelin thrower? Shakespeare.” On the other hand, that particular joke is one of the funnier ones here even without a picture. Other cartoons are better. One shows a puzzled-looking person staring at two round-headed birds flying above water: “Why do seagulls fly over the sea and not the bay? Because otherwise they’d be bagels.” That’s pretty good! And one shows an impossibly happy-looking character bouncing high above a bed: “What happens if you eat yeast and shoe polish? You’ll rise and shine every morning!”

     Most of the jokes are in traditional question-and-answer format in these books – but not all. One, complete with ellipsis, goes, “On the other hand…you have different fingers.” Another reads, “I really must get rid of my vacuum cleaner. It’s just gathering dust.” And a third, with a particularly cute illustration of the characters mentioned, goes, “Bacon and eggs walk into a café and order some sodas. The waiter says, ‘Sorry, we don’t serve breakfast.’”

     It is unlikely that kids (or, for that matter, adults) will enjoy everything in these books, but pretty much everyone should be able to find some amusing items. How about this one? “Where do you find a cow with no legs? Right where you left it.” Or: “What do you call a cat with 8 legs that likes to swim? An octopuss.” (And yes, the drawing is cute.) Or how about this variation on a joke that is very old indeed? “Why did the chicken cross the Mobius strip? To get to the same side.” That one will likely require some explanation, at least for younger children. Adults can perhaps use another of these jokes to explain it: “Why are riddles like pencils? They’re useless unless they’ve got a point.”

     There is no particular theme to these books, and no particular arrangement of the material – everything is just thrown together helter-skelter. That means the books need not be read sequentially and can be fun to look at a page or two at a time, going forward or backward, or just skipping around. On one page you will find: “Why is it so hard to fool a snake? Because you can’t pull its leg.” On another there is this: “What type of cheese is made backward? Edam.” (That may be another item requiring some adult explanation.) And then there is this: “What has four eyes but can’t see? Mississippi.” (The joke isn’t much, but the illustration of a four-eyed something-or-other is neat.) And speaking of eyes and letters: “What do you call a fish with no eye? Fsh.” Or, to switch to one of the puns that periodically make their appearance in these books: “I entered a joke-writing competition ten times and hoped I’d win. Sadly, no pun in ten did.” That one actually needs a bit of thought before the inevitable groan – and the illustration, simply showing a person standing with eyes closed, helps not at all. But whether the pictures add to, subtract from, or complement the words, kids will likely find The World’s Best Jokes for Kids enjoyable to read, at least in small doses, and to look at, at least now and then and here and there.

(+++) LATE ROMANTIC, LARGELY LOST


Alberto Nepomuceno: “O Garatuja”—Prelude; Série Brasileira (Brazilian Suite); Symphony in G Minor. Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabio Mechetti. Naxos. $12.99.

     The rediscovery of generally forgotten Romantic-era composers continues apace, but even within that rediscovery, some composers are less likely to be “found again” than others. This is not necessarily because their music is inferior to other music being written at the same time, but it can be because they have – by design – more of a regional focus than an international one. Thus, Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920), although unfamiliar to most classical-music listeners, is not entirely unknown in his native Brazil, where he was important not only culturally but also politically: he was heavily involved in the unrest that eventually led to the creation in 1889 of the First Brazilian Republic.

     Furthermore, Nepomuceno was scarcely unrecognized in his own time: he lived for a while with Grieg, whose friendship encouraged Nepomuceno to go further on the road he was already traveling toward nationalism in music. He was well-thought-of by Mahler, who at one point invited Nepomuceno – a conductor as well as a composer – to conduct at the Vienna Opera, although illness prevented Nepomuceno from doing so. Nepomuceno was good friends with Debussy as well as Grieg, and one of Nepomuceno’s students was Heitor Villa-Lobos.

     Yet because of his staunch devotion to Romantic forms and approaches at a time when musical tastes were changing rapidly, plus his focus on the “Brazilian-ization” of music wherever possible, Nepomuceno never became an internationally prominent composer, and his works are very rarely heard today. And this makes a new Naxos CD featuring the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabio Mechetti all the more welcome, providing as it does the chance to hear more than an hour of some of Nepomuceno’s large-scale compositions: to the extent that he is known at all nowadays, it is primarily for chamber music, notably his String Quartet No. 3 (1890). The works conducted by Mechetti are from around the same time as that quartet: Série Brasileira dates to 1891, Nepomuceno’s sole symphony to 1893, and the prelude to his unfinished opera O Garatuja to 1904.

     There is little stylistic progress during the decade-plus in which these pieces were written; indeed, all of them are distinctly Brahmsian in sound, scoring, thematic approaches and harmony. Nepomuceno, though, occasionally shows a considerable melodic gift: notably, the second movement of Série Brasileira, called Intermédio (Intermezzo), opens and closes with a theme so catchy that it is difficult not to continue humming it as the four-movement suite continues. The suite’s concluding movement, the ebullient Batuque, is also impressive, but the other two movements are more ordinary: the first and longest, Alvorada na serra (“Dawn at the Mountains”), features distinctly Grieg-like tone painting but goes on much too long, while the third, Sesta na rede (“Napping in a Hammock”), is pleasant enough but not particularly distinguished.

     Nepomuceno’s symphony also has high points and middling ones. In the traditional Brahmsian four movements, it opens boldly and effectively, then has a moderately engaging but not particularly emotionally gripping sort-of-slow second movement, marked Andante quasi adagio. The third movement is the best and most innovative, opening and closing in fine late-19th-century Scherzo style and containing in the middle an extended episode marked Intermezzo that goes beyond the traditional Trio and expands the movement’s emotional palette. Unfortunately, the finale, after all this, is disappointing and almost trivial in sound, marked Con fuoco but possessing little forcefulness thematically or expressively. Still, the symphony, like Série Brasileira, shows that Nepomuceno had considerable skill in orchestration, with occasional highlighting of woodwinds (flute, bassoon and others) being a hallmark of his approach to the orchestra.

     The O Garatuja prelude, designed for what was to be a lyric comedy, comes across as something along the lines of a compressed version of the symphony and suite: Nepomuceno creates themes of various types and in various tempos (presumably taken or intended to be taken from the finished opera), weaves them together skillfully, and creates a well-balanced, generally upbeat and altogether pleasant listening experience. The prelude is not substantial, but presumably the opera was not intended to be, either, and certainly Mechetti’s conducting and the orchestra’s playing – here and throughout the disc – show idiomatic appreciation of Nepomuceno’s compositional style. Indeed, the performers do a fine job of propelling this music along effectively and giving listeners plenty of opportunities to enjoy being introduced to a composer who, if scarcely innovative in any way except for the inclusion of some Brazilian material in his works, was a fine craftsman who does not deserve the near-total obscurity to which he has been relegated for a full century.