March 27, 2008


The Outlaw Demon Wails. By Kim Harrison. Eos. $24.95.

      There used to be a sort of guilty pleasure in reading Kim Harrison’s books about the Hollows, that part of Cincinnati (yes, Cincinnati) where werewolves, vampires and witches roam at will, where demons terrorize the night and competing human and supernatural police forces try to keep things calm, and where the pizza is delicious. But Harrison’s novels of the Hollows – The Outlaw Demon Wails is the sixth – have gone thoroughly respectable, climbing the New York Times bestseller list, for goodness’ sake. The guiltiness of the pleasure is gone, as is the feeling of discovering a truly outstanding writer who happens to favor plots with a distinctly sardonic supernatural tinge.

      The pleasure itself remains, though, and as Harrison’s style becomes more fluid and her tale-telling even more skilled, it increases. The Outlaw Demon Wails is right in line with her other books: it continues the adventures of Rachel Morgan, witch and freelance bounty hunter and very clearly Harrison’s alter ego (from her red hair to her body shape to her predilections in clothing to, perhaps, other things evident in Rachel’s behavior but not discussed in Harrison’s official biography). This tightly structured novel is even more adept than its predecessors at weaving together multiple plot strands. “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past,” William Faulkner famously wrote, and that is one pervasive theme of The Outlaw Demon Wails. But another quotation captures the flavor of the book even more clearly: “Nothing that was worthy in the past departs; no truth or goodness realized by man ever dies, or can die” (Thomas Carlyle). The flip side of this – and it matters not a whit whether Harrison has ever read Carlyle or Faulkner – is that nothing unworthy in the past ever dies, either. In The Outlaw Demon Wails, Harrison dredges up old loves and lovers, old hatreds, old feuds and alliances, and moves them – along with many new plot elements – in new, ever more complicated directions. And she does all this while keeping the stylistic trademarks that place her books several cuts above others of whatever genre hers are in (what that is, is by no means clear). Harrison has humor: her books pay backhanded tribute to the Clint Eastwood mystique, as is evident both in her narrative approach and from titles such as The Outlaw Demon Wails, which recalls The Outlaw Josey Wales. Harrison has sexiness: Rachel can do witchcraft, but she is also an intensely emotional and sexual young woman, and her thoughts (and some of her actions) often range from flirtatious to genuinely hot. And Harrison has a knack for providing tiny details that make her characters seem genuine, as when competent but perennially stressed Rachel, feeling blue, goes to her mom’s house to eat Lucky Charms cereal, saving the pink hearts for last.

      Most of all, Harrison has real style – not specifically literary style (these are not “great” books in any traditional sense), but a style that lets her create characters who stretch the norms of supernatural novels almost to the breaking point. These characters make you care about them; they live and breathe (well, except for the undead vampires – but even they show Harrison’s skill, for she creates both “living vamps” and undead ones, and skillfully explores and exploits their differences as plot elements). Minor characters from prior books suddenly flower in this one – notably Rachel’s mother, who here proves to be not at all what readers of earlier books would expect her to be, but whose filling-out is logical and intelligent. Gigantic elements of earlier books, such as a terrifying werewolf curse, return here in muted but still significant form. Even the underlying reality of the world of the Hollows, in which humans coexist with no-longer-secret supernatural beings who actually belong to different species, remains crucial even though it is explained in some throwaway lines about “the Turn – the nightmarish three years following the supernatural species coming out of the closet” after “humanity began dying of a virus carried by a bioengineered tomato that was supposed to feed the growing population of the third-world countries.”

      Evil – real, frightening evil, not the cartoonish kind – reemerges here as well, as it does in all Harrison’s Hollows books, as the unrelenting enmity of the demon Algaliarept forces Rachel into a truly terrifying bargain. At what cost, and to what benefit? That is in large part what The Outlaw Demon Wails is about, as Rachel tries to save her life and soul while tracking down the vicious killer of her living-vampire boyfriend, Kisten (whose death was the shocking climax of Harrison’s previous book, For a Few Demons More). But even Kisten’s death fades somewhat into the background as the book’s canvas widens toward the end and a whole new set of complexities emerges in Rachel’s life. A cast of characters that Harrison fans will feel highly comfortable with – the pixy Jenks and his family, the living vampire Ivy (Rachel’s roommate and occasional blood-but-not-sex partner), elf and rescued demon familiar Ceri, and many others – populates this book. Harrison weaves in their backgrounds so skillfully that first-time readers can actually pick up The Outlaw Demon Wails and understand most of what is going on and most of what caused it to occur. But new readers may well wonder at a world, filled with such weirdness, in which vampires make chili in old slow cookers. And that’s fine. Harrison’s books are not only wonder-filled but also wonder-full.


LaRue for Mayor: Letters from the Campaign Trail. By Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.

Little Fur, Book III: A Mystery of Wolves. By Isobelle Carmody. Random House. $12.99.

      These are the third appearances of Ike LaRue, the letter-writing dog belonging (more or less) to Mrs. LaRue, and of Little Fur, a small, fuzzy, humanoid creature who is half elf and half troll. Mark Teague’s LaRue books are played for laughs, while Isobelle Carmody’s eco-aware Little Fur saga is more serious and intense. But by this time, both central characters will be thoroughly familiar to readers who have met them before, and both behave pretty much in expected ways as their respective stories continue. Readers who already know the characters will welcome these new adventures – and even ones encountering them for the first time will be in for a treat, for these third outings are at least as appealing as the characters’ earlier ones.

      In LaRue for Mayor, Ike has to write Mrs. LaRue notes because she is hospitalized after an unfortunate accident involving Ike, some other dogs, and an unstable hot-dog cart. Ike himself becomes the chief troublemaker in a series of dog incidents ranging from swiping a baseball during a game to taking sausages from the butcher shop – although, as usual, he doesn’t portray himself as a problem in his letters to Mrs. LaRue. The dogs’ rambunctious behavior soon leads former police chief Hugo Bugwort, who is running for mayor on a law-and-order platform, to promise a “canine crackdown” that would include banning dogs in most public places in Snort City. Naturally, Ike takes anti-Bugwort action in the most direct way: by declaring himself as a mayoral candidate. He promises that he and his dog pals will run an upstanding campaign, “though I can’t speak for my opponent, who appears to be vicious and unstable, if not insane.” Things deteriorate rapidly from there, just as in real-world politics (except that Teague’s illustrations are much funnier than the average campaign poster). But then there’s a wonderful twist that involves rocky road ice cream and Ike helping Bugwort out of a bad spot – with the result that the two decide to team up instead of fighting. This could only happen in a place like Snort City, unfortunately, but what a wonderful contrast to real-world politics in this presidential election season! Ike is as adorably mischievous as ever, and as good a writer, too. And if the plot is a little thin and obvious, and the final outcome clear well before Teague takes readers to it, these are small matters in the grander scheme of a political system that has gone to the dogs…but in a good way.

      The tales of Little Fur also continue along the same road on which Carmody set them in the first place. Little Fur’s world is one in which animals and magical creatures are arrayed against humans, who are despoiling the planet and do not even know that such creatures as Little Fur exist. In the first Little Fur book, The Legend Begins, the wise Sett Owl started Little Fur’s quest by having her go to the human world to find out who was destroying the trees on which so many lives depended. In the second book, A Fox Called Sorrow, Little Fur and other characters, including the fox of the title, journeyed to Underth and found out about the plots of the Troll King, who had his own ways of making use of human evil. Now, in A Mystery of Wolves, Little Fur sets out to find her friend, Ginger the cat – which Sett Owl says can only be done by unraveling the mystery of the title. Little Fur must find out to whom or what the phrase refers, but it seems that she can get help in this quest only from a decidedly dicey source: a mad prophet who says that the Mystery of Wolves refers to a mystic order of the animals living high in the mountains. So Little Fur, having no other hints, heads in that direction. There is danger aplenty in this quest – indeed, there is a caged big cat named Danger who promises, if freed, to “kill and kill and kill until my rage is sated.” Feelings and relationships are complex here, notably in a scene between the wolf Graysong and a strange violet-eyed fjord spirit. But Little Fur finds help where she does not expect it, for by now she has built a reputation: “Is there any creature in the land who has not heard the legend of Little Fur? She who fought the tree burners, who traveled to Underth and thwarted the devilish work of the Troll King?” So asks one character, rhetorically – and Little Fur’s legend continues to grow as her path lengthens in this third adventure; for the mystery she eventually uncovers is deeper than she expected, and is sure to lead onward in the upcoming fourth book of her journey, A Riddle of Green.


Charlie Hits It Big. By Deborah Blumenthal. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. HarperCollins. $16.99.

What Do You Know? Snow! By Cheryl Willis Hudson. Illustrated by Sylvia Walker. Scholastic. $3.99.

      The real world can be enjoyable, but the unreal world can be even more fun. That’s what attracts so many people to Hollywood – and, in the case of Charlie Hits It Big, even attracts a starstruck guinea pig. Yes, that’s what Charlie is, and after he spots a newspaper article in his cage that says “Pigs Big in Hollywood,” he decides to leave his Fruity-Nut Buffet behind and head out on an adventure. Not for Charlie the years of bit parts and the nights waiting tables – no, he finds his way to a studio almost immediately, and manages to get cast as the leading man in a major film while having to change himself in only one small way: by dyeing his fur. (This Hollywood prefers brunettes to blondes – how’s that for an alternative universe?) So Charlie gets all the trappings of fame and none of its worries, until he finds some worries of his own: all those elaborate spreads of food without any pumpkin seeds, dried fruit or his beloved Fruity-Nut Buffet, and all those people he doesn’t know crowding around him and stepping on his tiny feet. Charlie gets homesick and throws it all over to return to the family that loves him – where, in a neat twist, Deborah Blumenthal has him deliver the line that got him his big break, but in a family-centered rather than film-centered context. The unending absurdity of the story will bring delight to kids ages 3-8, and the illustrations by Denis Brunkus – best known for her work in the Junie B. Jones books – will have kids laughing out loud (check out roly-poly Charlie in an airplane seat, and wearing a ridiculously overdone Hollywood-star outfit – and as an ice sculpture!). “There’s no place like home” is scarcely a new moral, but Charlie’s antics make that well-worn idea – made memorable by, what else, a Hollywood film – seem fresh as well as very funny.

      What Do You Know? Snow! is set firmly in the real, everyday world, providing a pleasant look at an urban snowscape through the eyes of a young girl named Sydney and her little brother, Brandon. The book is aimed at first-grade readers and is well written for that level. There is not much to the story – just an ordinary Saturday in the city, with two kids having fun – so the book gets a (+++) rating. Still, Cheryl Willis Hudson offers a pleasant foray into urban winter wonders, and Sylvia Walker’s illustrations nicely convey the joy of bundling up, playing in the snow until your fingers and toes feel frozen, then heading inside for a warm-up breakfast. There are some activities at the end that parents can do with their children to think about, talk about and explore the language of the book and the events that happen in it. But even without doing anything supplementary, children and parents alike should get a toasty feeling from this warm story of a frigid weekend morning.


Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head? The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies. By Brett Kahr. Basic Books. $28.

      Despite its sensationalized title, this is a serious, even scholarly book containing some important information – although it is infected by an inevitable bias. British psychotherapist Brett Kahr’s nearly 500-page work is about the many and varied sexual fantasies that men and women have, the ways in which those fantasies reflect their inner lives and reflect on their outer ones, and the extent to which fantasies – even ones that are well outside what most people consider the normal bounds of human sexuality – may help people maintain a satisfying sex life and/or cope with traumatic events buried deeply in their pasts.

      Every in-depth study of human sexuality faces significant barriers to believability, dating back to Freud’s pioneering work with disturbed and distressed people of a particular social class – from whose treatment he extrapolated a system in whose universality he firmly believed, thinking it as solid as such hard sciences as physics and chemistry. Kinsey, Masters and Johnson and other sex researchers have all based their work, of necessity, on a small subset of people willing to talk with them or act in front of them; whether these people are truly representative of a population that would not dream of discussing such matters with strangers, much less behaving sexually in a laboratory setting, is an ever-present question. So too is the question about Kahr’s methodology: this book is based on extensive interviews with people who were willing to discuss themselves and their sexual history and fantasies for many hours, in return only for contributing to this research and receiving a small fee. Therefore, by definition, the book excludes people lacking the time, interest or monetary inclination to speak with a stranger extensively about highly intimate matters. Are Kahr’s subjects nevertheless representative of the population as a whole? If so, of which population? Britain’s? Western Europe’s? The developed world’s? The entire world’s?

Kahr does not, cannot, answer this question, although he is honest enough to face it. What he can do is present, in as straightforward a manner as possible, a large number of fantasies that his subjects discussed with him – so he can search for patterns and readers can perhaps find parallels in their own fantasy lives. Kahr groups the fantasies by subject: “Ordinary Explicitness,” “Threesomes, Foursomes, and Moresomes,” celebrity and same-sex fantasies (the latter as experienced by both heterosexuals and homosexuals), exhibitionist and incestuous fantasies, and more. Much of each chapter in the earlier part of the book is taken up with frequently mundane, usually brief descriptions of a fantasy: “My other half is a fire-fighter and that always gets me going.” “Having sex with another woman/women.” “Watching another man have sex with my woman partner.” “Being caught having sex in a hotel room and the maid joining in.” “Having someone famous begging me.” There are also pointed comments by some people who ended up refusing to discuss certain subjects with Kahr after all: “I couldn’t care less about celebrities.” “Not applicable. You lot are really sad.” “I prefer real people.”

Interspersed with the one-or-a-few-liners are more elaborate fantasies that Kahr quotes at some length, sometimes to analyze them and sometimes just to show how extensively certain people answered his questions (whose quality readers can judge for themselves: Kahr’s written questionnaire is offered as an appendix). Most of Kahr’s analysis is in the latter part of the book, where he discusses the traumatic roots of sexual fantasy and the question of whether, psychologically speaking, fantasies can ever be trauma-free. He also discusses whether fantasies enhance or harm relationships – and if so, how. All this is quite a lot to absorb, and much of it is anything but sexy – although readers who share particular fantasies with participants in Kahr’s project will certainly discover some kindred spirits here. Kahr, to his credit, does not try to create an entire new theory of sexuality or a generalized idea about human sexual behavior on the basis of the fantasies revealed to him. He does, however, show quite clearly that sexual fantasies of many types are extremely widespread; that they frequently explore personality areas that people do not express in their real-world sexual relationships; and that many, if not all, constitute positive, arousing reinterpretations of traumatic events of which people may be only dimly aware. “The data I have collected suggest that we may have less conscious control over our fantasies and sexual predilections than we would wish to believe,” Kahr writes. But he is, of course, a trained analyst, who expects to see conscious expressions of unconscious wishes in all aspects of human behavior. Does this make his analysis unacceptably biased – or does it give him far more insight than is possessed by other researchers into aspects of human sexuality? There is no “right” answer to that question, nor is there any obviously “right” way to interpret the many fantasies in which we as sexual beings indulge. Kahr deserves a great deal of credit for venturing so deeply into this field, even if what he has found out about the fantasizing of his subjects is, in the end, more exhaustive than definitive.


Mark-Anthony Turnage: Twice Through the Heart; Hidden Love Song; The Torn Fields. Sarah Connolly, mezzo-soprano; Martin Robertson, soprano saxophone; Gerald Finley, baritone; London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. LPO. $17.99.

Bartók: The Wooden Prince (complete ballet). Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

Dvořák: Symphony No. 9; Symphonic Variations. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

      Marin Alsop is all over the place, both geographically and musically. On these three CDs, with three different orchestras from two continents, she supplies strong evidence of her affinity for modern classical music – the more modern, the better – while also betraying some impatience (or could it be lack of interest?) when conducting works from the more traditional repertoire.

      The Turnage CD is mostly unrelenting and very intense, and those characteristics play to Alsop’s strengths. Turnage is the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s composer in residence, and the LPO plays all the works on this CD with relish and striking familiarity with Turnage’s often-brutal style. Twice Through the Heart produces anguish through the use of everyday words as an unnamed, abused, imprisoned woman explains why she killed her vicious husband but would not testify against him in court, even though doing so could have kept her out of jail. The work is less sung than declaimed by Sarah Connolly, and is a searing experience with intense nonverbal interludes and music that often comments on words that have gone before – such as “locked in,” with its pounding accompaniment, like blows. Hidden Love Song, in contrast, is quiet and gently atonal, its love song very well hidden indeed, although the music pulsates and Martin Robertson’s soprano saxophone floats through it effectively. The Torn Fields, a horrors-of-war work, transcends its genre through excellent selection of poetry (mostly by young men who died in World War I) and a streak of dark and bitter humor. Gerald Finley extracts full meaning from the stanzas, especially when, early in the work, what comes across is a lengthy lament of unending dreariness, with very spare accompaniment. A two-minute orchestral interlude toward the end of this piece is speedy and sardonic – the fastest music on the entire CD – but the earlier mood soon returns in a poem called “The Mouthless Dead,” before a final “Aftermath” that is oddly optimistic. Alsop guides the London players flawlessly through the many mood changes of all Turnage’s pieces – she is more adept at stringing musical miniatures together than at creating a fully thought-through rendition of a lengthy and complex work.

      The limitations of Alsop’s approach are clear in her mostly excellent performance of Bartók’s The Wooden Prince with the Bournemouth Symphony. The ballet is in 14 continuous parts, but Alsop handles it more as 14 separate pieces that happen to follow each other. The result is an episodic performance – not really a problem in a ballet – and one in which the wit and bright instrumental touches are more successful than the languorous passages. The opening, for example, is effectively atmospheric; the “Dance of the Trees” is raucous and bouncy; “The Prince Builds a Wooden Prince” is jaunty; and there is a good sense of the grotesque in “The Princess Spies the Wooden Prince” and “Dance of the Princess with the Wooden Prince” (in which the percussion is excellent). But the central movement, “The Prince Is in Despair – The Fairy Comforts Him,” which is in one sense the emotional heart of the work, is grand and lush enough but also a bit draggy and ultimately anticlimactic. Alsop seems more comfortable with the perky bassoon (and other winds) in “The Princess Prods and Encourages the Wooden Prince to Dance” than she does at the ballet’s end, when the princess and non-wooden prince embrace: the final scene is pretty enough but falls a trifle flat emotionally. Still, the orchestra plays very well, and Alsop’s enjoyment of Bartók’s grotesqueries (if not of his Romantic side) comes through clearly.

      Alsop is now Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and certainly gets lush playing from this very poised ensemble in a new CD of Dvořák’s music, recorded live at Meyerhoff Hall and initially available only through the orchestra itself. Here, unfortunately, Alsop’s impatience with “classic” classical repertoire is on display. The Symphonic Variations are mostly successful in this smooth rendition, although the hall’s dark, echo-y sound muddies things a bit. The orchestra is nicely balanced, with especially good contrasts between brass and winds, although Alsop tends to smooth over the angularity of the work’s Czech rhythms. The “New World” Symphony, though – which is labeled from the New World, not of the New World – is less successful. Alsop often pays tribute to Leonard Bernstein, a formative influence on her style, but Bernstein had some bad conducting habits that Alsop appears to have embraced – notably unnecessary and intrusive rubato that robs music of its forward flow and, far from accentuating its emotional impact, vitiates it. There is some of this in the symphony’s first movement (and it is no accident, since it reappears during the repeat of the exposition); and there is a speedup in the movement’s coda that makes the ending seem rushed. The Largo is pretty enough, although it is a touch fast in spots and a bit episodic. The orchestra’s excellent pianissimo playing is a highlight. The scherzo is quick and matter-of-fact; the trio could have used more bounce. The finale begins well, with ringing brass and well-articulated strings, and is generally energetic until the quieter sections, when it subsides and flags emotionally. And there is a huge slowdown before the coda that is wholly unjustified and contrary to the composer’s intentions. Alsop seems to be trying hard to do something different with this well-known work, but she would have served it better by letting the Baltimore Symphony play it straight, with the lovely sound of which the orchestra is so clearly capable. Alsop is a capable and interesting conductor, and one whose enthusiasm for modern music seems quite genuine. Perhaps, in time, she will develop similar enthusiasm for more-familiar works.

March 20, 2008


Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls #1: Moving Day. By Meg Cabot. Scholastic. $15.99.

Dear Dumb Diary #7: Never Underestimate Your Dumbness. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $4.99.

      Unwilling to be typecast as author of The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot has come up with an entirely new series about a young girl who learns that she can cope with adversity, and who turns out to be more than she thought she would ever be – and if that sounds like the same plot, it is important to note that Allie Finkle never gets to wear a crown. Actually, Allie, who is nine years old, has a pretty typical modern suburban life, with intolerable parents, bratty brothers and pretty pink wall-to-wall carpeting in her house. But then her parents announce that the family is moving half an hour away, and Allie’s entire world collapses. Hence the Moving Day portion of the title of the first book in the Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls series. The rules (which serve as chapter titles) are the most amusing part of the book, whose plot otherwise tends to be trite (new school, missing old friends, no new friends, new neighborhood, adjustments to new house, etc.). Sample rules include “Don’t Stick a Spatula Down Your Best Friend’s Throat,” “Don’t Put Your Cat in a Suitcase,” “First Impressions Are Very Important,” and “When You Finally Figure Out What the Right Thing to Do Is, You Have to Do It, Even if You Don’t Want To.” It should be clear from these rules pretty much how the plot progresses, although Cabot certainly manages to mine plenty of humor from fairly ho-hum circumstances. Oh – and the book has a great cover, which unfolds and then unfolds again and eventually becomes a wall poster that displays some of Allie’s rules, provides places for kids to write their own rules and paste photos of their friends, and summarizes and promotes the book as well. If you could judge a book by its cover, you would judge this one to be more offbeat and creatively plotted than it actually is.

      The Dear Dumb Diary series is more offbeat and creative in its illustrations – which Jim Benton continues to handle hilariously – than in its writing, which tends to follow the familiar pattern of “mess up, fix up, make up.” The pictures in these “Tales of Mackerel Middle School” really are the thing. In the seventh book of the series, Never Underestimate Your Dumbness, diarist Jamie Kelly gets into a tizzy over “glitter on dog turds” (caused when her pet, Stinker, eats glitter and, Jamie fears, creates “sparkly Stinker doodies”); frets about her best friend Isabella’s habit of naming her (Jamie’s) pimples; and explores the relationship between her Aunt Carol and Uncle Assistant Principal Devon, which involves “that sort of angry-whispery-private-talking that is a signal to others to drop everything and listen more closely.” The writing really is enjoyable, but the pictures are even better: Jamie buried in old toys, imagining herself as “Faultgirl, Saving the Day Through Carelessness,” chiseling “I Hate You Pimple” out of stone, imagining rats reading her diary and using her hairbrush, and creating a Divorce Ceremony (“at the end of the ceremony, instead of kissing, they bite each other’s faces”). Jamie isn’t dumb, although she does some dumb things – but she does them with so much enthusiasm, and describes them so entertainingly, that she’s always fun to have around.


Warriors (Manga Book 2): Warrior’s Refuge. Created by Erin Hunter. Written by Dan Jolley. Art by James L. Barry. Tokyopop/HarperCollins. $6.99.

Grandfather’s Dance. By Patricia MacLachlan. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $5.99.

      Brief and easy to read, these two paperbacks can serve as enjoyments in their own right or as introductions to the larger works of which they are a part. Erin Hunter’s ubiquitous Warriors series (actually a series of series!) works well in graphic-novel form, where the simple plots and action orientation come through clearly. There is actually more depth to the Warriors tales as they go on, but the surface simplicity is what readers will find in Warrior’s Refuge, which is fine as long as no one expects it to be more than it is. And what is that? It’s the continuing adventure of Graystripe, who is seeking the ancestral homeland of his Clan, and Millie, the “kittypet” whose feelings for Graystripe became apparent in the first manga book, The Lost Warrior. There is inherent contempt for “kittypets” in the Warriors sagas, which after all are about the heroic deeds of cats living on their own in feline societies of their own making. But these manga books, for ages 8-12, are moving in a slightly different direction: Millie proves more useful in Warrior’s Refuge than Graystripe would ever have imagined possible, and her usefulness is tied directly to what she has learned while living as a kittypet. The lessons are not that difficult – a primary one is that not all “twolegs” are evil – but they fly in the face of what Graystripe has always believed. And when his long-held beliefs are confronted with evidence that they may be wrong, he finds himself with some decisions – and choices – to make. Eventually, Graystripe and Millie successfully make their way to ThunderClan’s ancestral home – but the unhappy surprise they find there reinforces the Clans’ deep mistrust of humans and sets the scene for the next book in the manga series.

      Grandfather’s Dance sets a different sort of scene. An easy-to-read novella – at 84 pages, more of an extended short story – it represents the conclusion of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall series. The dance of the title is one that only Grandfather does – at the prairie wedding of Justin to Anna, the sister of Cassie Witting, who is the central character throughout the series. Weddings – simple, homespun ones like this, anyway – are celebrations of family, and of course that is the whole point of Sarah, Plain and Tall. So this wedding story, which brings together far-flung relatives in a world that smells of roses, is a fitting (and highly sentimentalized) conclusion to Cassie’s tales. There are some tears at the end of the book, since this is a tale of endings as well as beginnings, but the final “life goes on” message resounds strongly and will appeal to young readers looking for a little amusement, a good cry, and a hopeful tomorrow.


My Father’s Heart: A Son’s Journey. By Steve McKee. Da Capo. $25.

A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants: A Memoir. By Jaed Coffin. Da Capo. $16.

      These highly personal, sensitively told memoirs offer, on the one hand, a cautionary tale for the Western world and, on the other, a glimpse inside the Far East. Steve’s McKee’s My Father’s Heart is the story of his father’s death from a heart attack at age 50, and the inward and external journeys on which McKee went as a result. Part of what McKee does is ask doctors exactly what killed his father – and he gets, not surprisingly, a variety of analyses from people who, after all, never met the man and have no patient-pertinent information on which to base a firm diagnosis. But really, there is no mystery in what happened, even if a precise diagnosis (right or left coronary artery?) is elusive. There is a genetic predisposition to heart attack, and McKee’s father’s father had himself died of one – at age 53. McKee’s father smoked, ate poorly and avoided exercise – and even when he had a first heart attack, six years before the fatal one, he did not change his habits. Medical precision aside, what happened it clear enough. So what carries My Father’s Heart is not a mystery at its, well, heart, but the oral histories of heart-attack survivors, the emotional and physical responses of McKee himself in the wake of his father’s death, and the coolly presented (if scarcely new) research on heart disease. Of special if limited interest is the portrait of a city through multiple generations – specifically Buffalo, New York, but it could be any old industrial city in the frigid Rust Belt. The book does drift, as is not surprising given the numerous approaches of McKee and the variety of angles he takes on heart disease and the people who died from (or survived) it. But the style carries the story, often in asides that neatly encapsulate one element of life or another: “High school musicals are a boiling cauldron of out-of-control teen angst, teen hormones, teen frenzy. …Marry this vulnerability to a burgeoning confidence, put this sudden sense of a vibrating self in a back-stage area that’s too dark and filled with too many hidden corners for the adults to keep track of, and you have, quite simply, entered make-out heaven.” My Father’s Heart is often touching and even more often meandering – it will most attract readers interested in a well-presented tale of everyday events and ordinary history.

      A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants promises something more exotic and more or less delivers it. It is about Jaed Muncharoen Coffin’s decision to be ordained as a Buddhist monk in his mother’s native village of Panomsarakram, Thailand. Coffin, at age 21, finds himself fulfilling a family obligation by making his first trip to Thailand since boyhood. And he does, in a sense, find himself, partly by noticing that he does not fit in – literally does not fit in. Being half-American, he is so tall that he cannot sit as Thais do or kneel properly to pray. He is given the outward appearance of a Buddhist monk – shaved head and saffron robe – but not the inner calling. This quickly becomes clear when this sworn-to-chastity monk falls in love with a smart and stubborn village girl named Lek – although the two never have what Americans would consider an affair. But Lek becomes for Coffin the embodiment of the sort of life he can have if he ceases to be a monk, and there is never really any doubt that this young man, a Middlebury College student until he made his journey to Thailand, will depart. The family obligation requires only that Coffin spend some unspecified amount of time in the temple; some people, he says, stay for merely one day. He remains longer than that, but there is no question about his eventual departure – only about when it will occur, and under what circumstances. A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants has some interesting passages describing Thai village life and the routines of the temple. And Coffin’s realization that he will always feel caught between two cultures is, if scarcely revelatory, a worthwhile coming of age for him. But readers may well find Lek a more interesting character than the author – who now lives in Brunswick, Maine.


How They Met and Other Stories. By David Levithan. Knopf. $16.99.

Prey. By Lurlene McDaniel. Delacorte Press. $10.99.

      There is in almost all Hollywood romantic comedies a moment called the “meet cute.” It is the scene in which two soon-to-be-lovers adorably fall in love on first seeing each other – or instantly decide they will hate each other forever, which turns out (on screen) to be much the same thing. But if the “meet cute” is common in films, it is rare in real life. David Levithan’s How They Met tries to strike a balance between the “meet cute” and the “meet in reality.” It also tries to show that homosexual lovers, male and female, meet and are attracted in much the same way as heterosexuals. It’s a little difficult to figure out what audience Levithan is going after – his earlier books about homosexual relationships clearly gave young gay people a chance to read about people with whom they could identify, but in these stories there is more variety in people’s sexuality and forms of attraction. Perhaps that is Levithan’s point: stories about love (these are not really “love stories”) cross all boundaries. Levithan, who turns 36 this year, includes one story he wrote when he was 17 as well as other fairly early ones, plus a number written more recently. There has been little significant development in Levithan’s writing style, but his ability to encapsulate a person in a few words has improved. Different readers will find different highlights here: perhaps the guy-meets-guy “Starbucks Boy,” with its line, “Only in New York (and maybe San Francisco) could a six-year-old have gaydar”; possibly the girl-meets-girl “Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat,” in which Lucy the narrator says about the I Love Lucy TV series, “I kept waiting for the episode where Lucy and Ethel finally ran off together and made out”; maybe the very clever boy-meets-girl “The Number of People Who Meet on Airplanes,” which includes a Cupid for the jet age; or another of these 18 tales. There is a line from one story here that, for better or worse, can stand as a motto for them all: “As it is with accidents, so it is with love.”

      So how is it with lust? And how are love and lust related? On the basis of Prey, Lurlene McDaniel appears to have no idea. The book is something of a departure for McDaniel, who in most of her frequently death-focused books has never met a problem that religious belief couldn’t solve, or at least mitigate. Prey is nothing like “pray,” though. Here, McDaniel turns her attention to what she seems to consider a huge societal problem: teachers sleeping with their teenage students. Certainly this is partly McDaniel’s attempt to cash in on some highly sensational teacher-seduction news stories; but readers hoping for any insight into what these real-world occurrences might mean about society (or even about the individuals involved) will find little of value in McDaniel’s fictional account. Prey features a young, attractive history teacher who wears clingy clothes and high stiletto heels – a costume apparently approved by the school officials who hired her (this is one of a number of unrealistic plot points). This teacher, Lori Settles, settles in just fine at a high school where she sets her sights on Ryan Piccoli, who is almost 16 (one plot point that turns out to matter). Ryan is as stereotypical as Lori: his mother is dead, his father travels constantly for work, and so he has lots of time (including nights) completely alone and unsupervised. Lori seduces Ryan (who tells her he is a virgin, which we later find out is untrue); the physical relationship gets emotional on both sides; Ryan’s friends notice he has changed; and the “good” person who blows the whistle and calls in the cops is a clingy, unattractive girl who wishes Ryan would do with her what he is doing with Lori. McDaniel does all she can to paint Lori as evil and depraved, but it never quite works, probably because McDaniel appears to have no understanding of the remote possibility that some 16-year-olds may show some evidence of emotional maturity – enough to make them attractive even to a 30-year-old. McDaniel will have none of this: Lori is depraved, severely emotionally damaged, has done this sort of thing before, and is so unstable that she apparently tries to commit suicide at the drop of a hat. If this caricature represented the actual teachers who have had affairs with their students, it would have been remarkably easy for parents and police to stop everything in its tracks. But real people are a lot more complicated, emotionally and sexually, than McDaniel seems to realize (although there is a very slight hint of possible understanding at the end of the book, when the question is raised as to whether Lori or Ryan is the “prey” of the title). Give Prey (++) for McDaniel’s willingness to try handling a subject outside her usual comfort zone. But don’t expect more reality from the book than from, say, a non-comedic Hollywood version of a teacher-seduces-student story.


Shostakovich: Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings; Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1. Lise de la Salle, piano; Gulbenkian Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster. Naïve. $16.99.

Bizet/Serebrier: Carmen Symphony; Silvestre Revueltas/Serebrier: Mexican Dance; Alberto Ginastera: Estancia Suite; Serebrier: Night Cry; Villa-Lobos: Concerto Grosso for Wind Quartet and Wind Orchestra; Sousa: The Stars and Stripes Forever. “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

      Both these CDs are, in a sense, “personality” releases, designed to attract buyers because of who performs on them at least as much as by what is performed. But both have considerable musical value on top of their personality orientations – making them worthwhile to consider for purchase strictly on the basis of their content.

      The Lise de la Salle CD is the better of the two. De la Salle, who turns 20 this year, is something of a phenomenon, with marvelous technique, an unusually light touch (despite her ability to extract plenty of sound when she wants to), and a striking appearance that is fully exploited in the photo of her that adorns both the cover of her new CD and the cover of its booklet. But forget how she looks and listen to how she plays. This CD uses the number one in four ways: it contains the first piano concerti of three composers, and it is de la Salle’s first recording of any concerti at all (her two prior recordings were piano solos). De la Salle is at her best in the lighter, brighter, more puckish parts of the two Russian works, and is quite wonderful almost everywhere in the Liszt. In the Shostakovich, she opens with a sparkling sound that creates a visceral rather than cerebral performance, and is ably abetted by fine trumpet playing by Gábor Boldoczki and excellent accompaniment by the Gulbenkian Orchestra under Lawrence Foster. Taken quite quickly, the first movement whizzes by. The Lento second movement is somewhat less effective – it drags a bit here and there – but the finale is speedy and sarcastic, with a very fast coda that is exactly as sardonic as it should be.

      In the Liszt, de la Salle combines power and grace, giving unusual attention to details of the softer sections. The balance of triangle, piano and pizzicato strings is especially good here, and the many passages of cascading notes are handled wonderfully well. The start of the march is perhaps a little limp, but the concerto’s conclusion is bright and brilliant. In the first movement of the Prokofiev, the orchestra is especially impressive, and de la Salle does particularly well in the lower register, although without as commanding a sound as she has in the Liszt. The second movement is elegant, with fine meshing between piano and orchestra, and the finale is filled with irrepressible high spirits, as de la Salle manages to dominate without ever pounding the keyboard. The breakneck pace of the coda is a fitting capstone to a delightful performance.

      The delights of the new José Serebrier CD are more those of a potpourri, offered by an outstandingly talented musician – but without any real thought to the overall effect of the program. This CD is a recording of a live concert, and is rather irritatingly presented with substantial applause after every work – more than five minutes of clapping in all. The playing is superb – the United States Marine Band is as good an ensemble of its type as can be found anywhere in the world – but the works offered are decidedly a mixed bag, and they are not mixed together in any very thoughtful way. Nevertheless, the CD earns a (+++) rating for the skill of the performances and the interest of some of the pieces.

      Serebrier’s Carmen Symphony, the major work here, is a little bit disappointing. It is really a suite, but Serebrier called it a symphony to distinguish it from the two well-known Carmen suites – which do not assemble their music in the order in which it appears in the opera. Serebrier set out to do just that, but soon realized that the opera’s final scene would not work without voices, so his finale drops back to Act II. Since the sequential approach did not succeed, Serebrier’s decision to use it everywhere except at the end seems rather silly and is not especially convincing. His arrangement of Silvestre Revueltas’ Mexican Dance, which here gets its world première recording, works better. The dance is Serebrier’s expansion of a piece from the score that Revueltas wrote for a film called Redes (“Nets”). It is effective and colorful.

      Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia Suite, drawn from a ballet, is colorful, too, but it is also repetitious and a bit too tub-thumping to work in this arrangement for wind band. Serebrier’s own Night Cry, another world première recording, is more successful. It represents Serebrier’s emotional response to Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream, and uses an interesting antiphonal technique in which there are only a few musicians on stage, with others playing offstage and still others in the balcony, behind the audience. Unfortunately, this element, which is important to the piece, is not terribly effective on the CD – although it would be in a recording made in true surround sound. Still, the mostly quiet and atmospheric piece is at least intermittently involving. Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Concerto Grosso for Wind Quartet and Wind Orchestra, one of the composer’s last works, is more involving still, placing a small group (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon) against the larger wind complement in a wide variety of ways – and the playing here, both of the quartet and of the full ensemble, is really wonderful. It is excellent too, not surprisingly, in the encore: Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever, which this band can probably play in its sleep. The brilliant march makes a light and upbeat ending to an uneven but frequently interesting CD.

March 13, 2008


What Pet to Get? By Emma Dodd. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

The Girl in the Castle inside the Museum. By Kate Bernheimer. Illustrated by Nicoletta Ceccoli. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

      Kids ages 4-8 will enjoy these two books in very different ways, for where one is whimsical, the other is sensitive and thoughtful. And where one focuses on things that are very big, the other is all about things that are quite small.

      The amusing What Pet to Get? revolves around the promise that Jack’s mom absent-mindedly makes to him one day – that he can have a pet. But she neglects to say what kind of pet, and Jack is a boy whose tastes run to the huge. So his mother is left to cope with his requests for an elephant (“But how would we take it on vacation?” she asks); a lion (“It would frighten the mail carrier”); a polar bear (“I don’t think it would like the central heating”); and a variety of other animals that are very large indeed. Eventually, Jack has a great idea – “let’s get a dog!” But of course that’s not quite the end of the story, since Jack truly does like animals that are really, really big…. Emma Dodd’s endearing pictures of Jack’s gigantic imaginary playmates are as much a part of the charm of this book as is her story. And everything is told from Jack’s viewpoint – we never see his mother’s face or whole body – so kids will greatly enjoy imagining themselves in Jack’s position, eagerly trying to figure out how to get a really huge pet with which to play. Parents should probably watch out for the techniques their children will pick up here!

      The Girl in the Castle inside the Museum is carried along largely by its illustrations, too, but Nicoletta Ceccoli’s lovely renderings of the intricacies of the castle-centered world inside a glass globe at a museum complement Kate Bernheimer’s storytelling so well that it is their intertwining that makes the book more charming than either the words or pictures alone. Ceccoli is Italian, and her illustrations have a definite European cast to them, although the castle and its environs are clearly the stuff that dreams (and fairy tales) are made of. The museum in which the glass-encased castle is located has a European look about it, too, as wide-eyed children stare into the globe while ignoring some almost equally fascinating objects on nearby pedestals. Bernheimer explains that the children have been told that, if they look closely enough, they will see the girl who lives inside the castle in the museum: “It’s been said she’s lived there forever.” Indeed, the girl in the castle lives in a wondrous world, with Escher-like flooring in a room where she plays with strangely surrealistic flying toys, and with “moats and turrets and bright shining lamps” all around. There is, in truth, not much of a story here, but what Bernheimer provides is the stuff of wonder, for she explains that the girl in the castle is sometimes lonely when all the children go home – so it would be nice if the reader provided the girl with a picture for her wall, in a frame carefully drawn by Ceccoli. And so the book changes subtly from a story about a girl in a castle in a museum into the tale of a child reading a book about a girl in a castle in a museum, with the girl able to look out from the pages. This is a lovely conceit, beautifully communicated by a particularly well-matched writer-and-illustrator team.


The Chronicles of Narnia. By C.S. Lewis. HarperEntertainment. $21.99.

Sword Quest. By Nancy Yi Fan. HarperCollins. $15.99.

Swordbird. By Nancy Yi Fan. HarperCollins. $6.99.

      The release of the movie The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe rekindled some people’s interest in the fantasy world of C.S. Lewis, whose seven Narnia books date from 1950 to 1956. A second film, based on Prince Caspian, is now in the works; hence the HarperEntertainment tie-in release of all seven Narnia novels in one really big paperback (766 oversize pages). Along with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which dates to the same time, Lewis’ Narnia novels defined heroic fantasy for several generations of readers; but their aim was very different. Tolkien sought an adult audience and created a world, Middle-Earth, that had some resemblances to our own but was caught up in its very own, very carefully developed history. Lewis’ books are more congenial for younger readers – ages 8-12 and up – than Tolkien’s, and have an avowedly Christian message underlying them (although it rarely takes precedence over the adventuring). Furthermore, Lewis insisted, rather awkwardly, on relating the time scheme of Narnia to that of Earth, having the worlds move at different and unpredictable paces relative to each other while remaining always connected. This let him move Earth characters into Narnia and out of it, but it made the books a bit of a cheat, since Lewis could control the relative pace of time in the worlds in any way he liked, and quite arbitrarily.

      The Narnia books are nevertheless an impressive sequence. They were not written in the order in which their events occur – Lewis wrote what he wished, then later filled in the backstory or pursued another line of fantasy in the same setting. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the earliest book, from 1950, but stands second in the event sequence, after The Magician’s Nephew – written next-to-last, in 1955. The remaining books, in event order, are The Horse and His Boy (1954), Prince Caspian (1951), The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (1952), The Silver Chair (1953), and The Last Battle (1956). Lewis’ style remains essentially unchanged throughout, with even his descriptive passages (unlike Tolkien’s) being to the point and rarely discursive, as in The Horse and His Boy: “A whole detachment of very dangerous-looking Talking Beasts whom Shasta had not noticed before and who were mostly of the cat kind (leopards, panthers, and the like) went padding and growling to take up their positions on the left. The giants were ordered to the right, and before going there they all took off something they had been carrying on their backs and sat down for a moment. Then Shasta saw that what they had been carrying and were now putting on were pairs of boots: horrid, heavy, spiked boots which came up to their knees.” This is scarcely elegant style; but on the other hand, it is easy to follow and understand, and does not interfere with the action. This complete edition of the Narnia novels – which includes an insert showing the parallel timelines of Narnia and Earth – is a good one-stop shop for those just getting to know Lewis, whether because of the new films or not. It serves to showcase the grand scale on which Lewis thought and the reasons his work has remained influential for many later authors – certainly including, among many others, J.K. Rowling.

      One young author clearly influenced by Lewis, Tolkien and their successors is Nancy Yi Fan, who will be 15 this year and has already written two novels. For better or worse, these typify one major direction in which heroic fantasy has gone since the 1950s: toward simplicity. Like another very young fantasy author – Christopher Paolini, whose Eragon and Eldest proved popular with preteens and whose Brisingr will likely attract the same audience – Nancy Yi Fan knows that simple notions of good and evil, and a straightforward story of the ways in which they battle, are the elements of a good modern story. And none of that Talking Beasts stuff – in Swordbird, now available in paperback, and the new Sword Quest, a prequel to the earlier book, the animals behave like humans except when it is convenient for the author to emphasize their nonhuman characteristics (such as flight, obviously, in the case of the birds around whom the two Nancy Yi Fan books are structured). There is a certain amount of appealing visceral excitement in a book such as Swordbird, and Sword Quest is equally deserving of a (+++) rating for its exploration of a world in which peace-loving birds must find a magical sword in order to beat back the threat of warlike archaeopteryxes. The birds in these books are really stand-ins for humans – they not only talk, and battle with weapons, but also play musical instruments, engage in politics, and so on and so forth. This sort of fantasy is in many ways closer to Aesop than to Lewis or Tolkien; it is a far cry from the world-spanning and world-shaping endeavors of the best 1950s fantasists. The newer, simpler and more direct form of fantasy writing has undeniable immediate appeal for its target age group. What will be interesting to find out is whether the readers who outgrow Christopher Paolini and Nancy Yi Fan move into the greater and darker complexities of Lewis and Tolkien over time – or whether they simply abandon heroic fantasy altogether.


Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality. By Martha C. Nussbaum. Basic Books. $28.95.

      This is an important book on an important subject. It is carefully structured and closely argued, and alive with intellectual ferment. Yet even in a presidential election year, it is unlikely to find an audience much beyond academic circles, because it inevitably draws its cogency from the study of minutiae that are far beyond the purview of most people’s everyday lives and concerns. Martha C. Nussbaum deserves a wider audience than she is likely to get.

      Nussbaum is a political philosopher who teaches at the University of Chicago – not only in the Philosophy Department, but also in the Law School and Divinity School. All her areas of expertise dovetail neatly in Liberty of Conscience, which studies religious tolerance in America since long before the days of the Constitution – and looks at the First Amendment’s stand on religion not only by examining the language we have but also by discussing the many alternative formulations that were rejected. The result is a highly insightful look at what the Founders meant and what they did not mean – and how the accepted First Amendment language can best be looked at from the distant vantage point we occupy today.

      The intricacies of Nussbaum’s arguments may put her book beyond most people’s endurance, but they are fascinating to anyone interested in the American constitutional legacy and its implications for a modern United States. For example, the First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law regarding certain elements of religion; it does not talk about individual states – and this is historically significant. Then there are issues such as this: “‘No law respecting’ is broader than ‘no law establishing.’” And there is reasoning such as this: “I have said that the idea of equality is central to the religion clauses. But the word ‘equal’ does not occur in them. …[W]e need to think of the phrases that were actually in use at the time. The word ‘equal’ went naturally with ‘rights,’ ‘natural rights,’ and ‘liberty.’ It did not turn up with ‘exercise’ – thus, when ‘free exercise’ replaced ‘rights of conscience,’ the word ‘equality’ dropped out.”

      This close analysis becomes the basis for Nussbaum’s explanation of the deliberate vagueness of much of what the Founders wrote about religion – a vagueness that has become increasing unsettling in modern times, especially now that the United States is the most avowedly religious of Western nations and the most internally riven by religious arguments and counter-arguments in its politics. Nussbaum does not rest after explicating the Founders’ debates about religion – she finds them, for all their fascination, merely prologue to the hundreds of years of court history that have followed. She discusses not only well-known Supreme Court cases involving religion, but also some less known (at least to the general public) that are genuinely fascinating. For example, there is Abington v. Schempp (1963), which threw out a Pennsylvania law requiring daily Bible reading in public schools – and was brought by a 16-year-old student who tested the law by bringing in the Koran, even though he was not a Muslim.

      Nussbaum deals with very heavy subjects throughout, but her prose is entertaining enough (when she is not parsing legal opinions in detail) to keep Liberty of Conscience moving smartly along most of the time. And she does not hesitate to take on the current Supreme Court, although never with the venom so often seen in the modern political sphere – even when she clearly disagrees with certain justices’ opinions, notably those of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

      Nussbaum’s own views on the legal standing of religion in the U.S. become clear to the reader only over time. Somewhat surprisingly, she does not advocate strict separation of church and state, but rather a form of consensus that requires citizens to respect each other’s matters of conscience even while strongly disagreeing on matters of ultimate meaning. It is only in this prescription that Nussbaum shows a streak of naïveté: it is hard to imagine the United States today becoming a nation whose citizens have this much residual respect for those with whom they disagree most intensely. Yet Liberty of Conscience is ultimately not a prescriptive book but a descriptive and analytical one – and is highly effective on those bases, at least for those willing to breathe the rarefied air that Nussbaum clearly finds so bracing.


Schubert: Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major, D. 950; Stabat Mater in G Minor, D. 175. Immortal Bach Ensemble and Leipziger Kammerorchester conducted by Morten Schuldt-Jensen. Naxos. $8.99.

Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 11. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

      The Schubert of songs, symphonies and chamber music is not quite the Schubert of sacred works. Especially in the last Mass he composed – written in 1828, the year of his death – Schubert took pains to conform in most important respects to traditional liturgical structure, and to proclaim the words of the Mass as the Catholic Church wanted them (although he did not set the specific words about believing in a single holy and apostolic Catholic Church). It is perhaps because of the comparative conventionality of the Mass No. 6 that it is not especially well known – but it is well worth knowing by those who are familiar only with the secular Schubert. The prominent use of trombones is but one notable feature – they were often used in Schubert’s time to lend gravitas to this type of music, but the scoring here is particularly effective. And bits of Schubert’s ever-songlike style seep into even the most sober corners of this sacred work. The section Et incarnatus est flows with tremendous lyrical beauty, for example, and the Sanctus Dominus provides high drama. The fugues – a form with which Schubert is not frequently associated – are effectively handled in the Gloria and Credo, and the sometimes-surprising chromaticism throughout lends Mass No. 6 a sense of shifting disquietude that is somewhat at odds with the certainty expressed through its well-worn words. This Mass represents significant progress from the brief Stabat Mater of 1815, which does contain solemn trombones but is altogether less experimental and expressive. The performances here are excellent: the Immortal Bach Ensemble (formerly the Gewandhaus Chamber Choir) is flexible, nuanced and highly expressive under its director, Morten Schuldt-Jensen, and the Leipziger Kammerorchester’s support is smoothly integrated throughout the performance.

      Although Vienna did not become enthusiastic about Schubert’s music until after his death, it was already in the 1820s in the throes of a dance craze for the music of Joseph Lanner – and within a few years would embrace the works of one of Lanner’s orchestra members, Johann Strauss Sr., with even greater fervor. The Strauss works in the 11th volume of Marco Polo’s wonderful series of Strauss Sr.’s music all date from the decade after Schubert’s death, mostly from 1837-8, and show quite clearly where the Viennese musical heart and soul were located at the time. This is the first release in the series that contains only waltzes – nine of them – and that is both a plus and a minus. On the one hand, the CD showcases Strauss Sr.’s talent in this area more clearly than have any of the 10 prior volumes. On the other hand, it shows his weaknesses with equal clarity, for these waltzes – unlike those to be written later by his sons, Johann Jr. and Joseph – are mere collections of pretty tunes, without the tight symphonic structure that turned the works of the younger Strausses into miniature tone poems. Within Strauss Sr.’s abilities, though, these are wonderful works, played with great verve by the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under Christian Pollack. The most interesting waltz here is Huldigung der Königen Victoria von Großbritannien, written for Victoria’s coronation in 1837. After opening with a fanfare to fit the words, “Cheer to the Queen – Victoria!” it moves into Rule Britannia and eventually concludes with God Save the Queen in three-quarter time in the coda. Almost as interesting is Paris, Walzer, which manages to incorporate a waltz-time version of La Marseillaise – a controversial tune in its time, and one that was in fact banned in Austria when Strauss wrote the work.

      Among the other highlights here are Eisenbahn-Lust-Walzer, about the pleasures of rail travel, which opens with dramatic fanfares and features some sections imitative of railway sounds, and Ball-Racketen, Walzer, featuring bass drum and whistles to imitate fireworks. Some of the more straightforward waltzes flow nicely: Brüssler Spitzen (“Brussels Lace”), with a delicate opening and jaunty swing; Pilger am Rhein (“Pilgrims on the Rhine”), with a slow introduction and nice lilt, although its waltz tunes are undistinguished; and Bankett-Tänze (“Banquet Dances”), which starts hesitantly, then moves into bright and bouncy sections that build again and again, only to hesitate repeatedly (a likely challenge to the dancers). Then there are Exotische Pflanzen (“Exotic Plants”), nearly a quintessential Strauss Sr. waltz, with trills, percussion and an easy flow through which you can almost see the couples spinning; and Freuden-Grüsse (“Cheerful Greetings”), which is gentle and moves nicely, although its tunes are not memorable. In fact, many of Strauss Sr.’s waltz tunes do not stay with a listener for long – certainly not in the way that those by his sons do. Even his successful “railway” waltz pales before son Eduard’s marvelous Bahn Frei! polka. But it is scarcely fair to judge the father by what his sons would later do – and if in hindsight they surpassed him, it is nevertheless worth exploring the firm foundation of quality that Strauss Sr. created and on which his children would later build even more successfully.


Charles Wuorinen: The Dante Trilogy (chamber version)—The Mission of Virgil; The Great Procession; The River of Light. The Group for Contemporary Music conducted by Oliver Knussen. Naxos. $8.99.

Kenneth Fuchs: United Artists; Quiet in the Land; Fire, Ice, and Summer Bronze; Autumn Rhythm; Canticle to the Sun. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.

      Charles Wuorinen has become one of the grand old men of American classical composition, with composers such as Kenneth Fuchs a generation (or most of a generation) behind. Wuorinen will be 70 this year; Fuchs will be 52. Both have been active as composers since around the time they turned 17. And both continue to produce vibrant works with distinctive personal stamps, although their methods and the sound of their compositions could not be more different.

      Wuorinen, long an unreconstructed serialist, has allowed tonality to seep into some of his more recent works, but is scarcely a tonal composer in any significant sense. Nor does he write program music, despite the title The Dante Trilogy. This three-part ballet, composed as three separate works in 1993, 1995 and 1996, gets its world première complete recording from members of The Group for Contemporary Music, which Wuorinen co-founded and which seems particularly adept at handling his pieces. The Dante Trilogy exists in both chamber and orchestral versions. The chamber one, heard here, requires varying instruments in the three parts: two pianos only in The Mission of Virgil; celesta, oboe, viola, double bass and harp only in The River of Light; and so on. Each section of this hour-and-a-quarter work corresponds – but in outline only – to one of the three part’s of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Each of the first two portions is in seven parts. In the case of The Mission of Virgil, the parts correspond to stages of the journey that Dante and Virgil take through Hell, but there is no narrative here and not even much of horror. This is at least as much a sarcastic Inferno, filled with ridicule, as a place of everlasting torment. Wuorinen’s meeting of Dante and Virgil with Paolo and Francesca, for example, will never supplant Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Francesca da Rimini in scale and scope, but it is effectively wry in its own way. In The Great Procession, the seven movements are a bit like stanzas of a poem, interrupted four times by a short refrain. The title refers to the grand cortège at the end of the poem; but again, Wuorinen is not engaged here in musical painting but in expressing, in his own sonic language, his response to elements of Dante’s Purgatorio. As for The River of Light, it is the most impressionistic work of the three, without the seven-movement underlying structure of the earlier ballets and with rather less apparent reference to what happens in Dante’s Paradiso than the other works have toward their respective poems. There is real beauty in The River of Light, and indeed throughout Wuorinen’s Dante Trilogy, but it is beauty communicated through his own language – one that makes no attempt directly to reflect Dante’s use of words and images.

      Kenneth Fuchs’ music is in some ways more accessible than Wuorinen’s. It tends to be quiet, is more comfortable at slow tempos than fast ones, and has no problem with tonality, although the tonal structure tends to drift. Fuchs is fond of calling works “idylls” – Quiet in the Land is an “Idyll for mixed quintet”; Fire, Ice, and Summer Bronze is an “Idyll for brass quintet after two works by Helen Frankenthaler,” an artist whose works also inspired Fuchs’ Out of the Dark; and Autumn Rhythm is an “Idyll for woodwind quintet after a painting by Jackson Pollock.” Fuchs is inspired not only by painters but also by poets (e.g., Richard Wilbur, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost). But his work connects no more directly to the sources of its inspiration than does Wuorinen’s to Dante. Fuchs’ music is by and large gentle, even when it moves at a faster pace. There is virtuosity in his compositions – for example, Canticle to the Sun is a horn concerto, and is very well played by Timothy Jones, for whom it was composed. Fuchs is quite capable of writing for full orchestra and giving all the players a workout, as in United Artists, which was written specifically for the London Symphony. The orchestra plays this work very well indeed, and various of its members handle the chamber pieces with sensitivity and fine attention to detail. JoAnn Falletta is a fine conductor if not an especially stimulating one: she keeps things together and makes sure the music moves well, and if there is anything missing, it is a sense that she is in intimate rapport with the composer’s intentions. But Falletta certainly cares enough about the music to be a fine advocate of it – and listeners will find themselves engaged in and caring about Fuchs’ works as well.

March 06, 2008


The Cow That Laid an Egg. By Andy Cutbill. Illustrated by Russell Ayto. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Fish Who Cried Wolf. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $15.99.

      Barnyard or ocean, there’s plenty of adventure to be had, and the amusing ways in which the animals have it make for a couple of delightfully nonsensicial books for ages 4-8. The Cow That Laid an Egg has the greater helping of nonsense, being all about an unhappy cow named Marjorie who just doesn’t feel special. Why, all the other cows ride bikes and do handstands, and she can’t do any of those things! So the helpful and clever chickens come up with a plot to make Marjorie feel special – by putting an egg underneath her while she sleeps. And when she wakes up – well, let’s just say that Russell Ayto’s illustration lets kids see way down Marjorie’s throat as she shrieks with hugely open-mouthed surprise. Andy Cutbill’s story just keeps getting weirder, as the farmer (his body square-shaped and his mouth open all the way down his throat) discovers the egg, and his wife (with her mouth open ever so wide) calls the local newspaper, and everybody makes a big huge fuss over Marjorie, who’s happy at last. Except – well, those other cows don’t like being upstaged, and they demand that Marjorie hatch the egg and prove she laid it. Uh-oh. But Marjorie, who after all believes she did lay the egg, gamely sits on it day after day after day – until at last, out comes…well, the climax is too funny to give away. But the book is reminiscent of the Dr. Seuss classic, Horton Hatches the Egg, so it’s worth remembering what the good doctor had to say at that book’s climax: “And it should be, it should be, it should be like that!”

      The Fish Who Cried Wolf isn’t as out-and-out hilarious, but there is an interestingly serious side to its lightheartedness. It’s the story of Tiddler, an ordinary-looking little fish who is always late to class and always has tall tales to tell to explain why. It’s hard, early in Julia Donaldson’s story, to decide whether to like Tiddler, who (on the one hand) keeps telling lies and (on the other) is a simply marvelous storyteller, whose tales get passed from one fish to another. Axel Scheffler’s excellent illustrations, in which the fish look realistic and cartoonish at the same time, make Tiddler appear quite endearing, and his stories are so absurd (he claims to have been locked in a treasure chest and rescued by a mermaid, for example) that it’s hard to take them, or him, seriously. But then, just as in the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and then couldn’t get anyone to believe him when a wolf really did appear, Tiddler has a real adventure, being caught in a fishing net. He’s so small that the fishermen toss him back – but where is he, and how will he get home? Things get scary for a while (one of the fish he encounters looks like a finny version of a Wild Thing from Maurice Sendak’s famous book), but eventually everything works out just fine for Tiddler. Why? Because, it turns out, so many fish know his stories. There’s a mixed lesson here, not just the “don’t tell lies” of the original crying-wolf tale. The idea seems to be that there’s a difference between ordinary lies and lies in the form of really good stories, such as this book itself. The self-referential part of the tale’s end makes the whole thing especially enjoyable – and the notion that Tiddler is a hero of sorts because he is so good at making things up is one that every budding writer will love. But parents should be careful not to encourage too much not-quite-true storytelling by kids who will love Tiddler’s tales!