June 26, 2008


The Rabbit and the Turtle: Aesop’s Fables Retold and Illustrated by Eric Carle. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. By Eugene W. Field. Illustrated by Giselle Potter. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Don’t Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies. By Shel Silverstein. HarperCollins. $17.

Ella Sets Sail. By Carmela and Steven D’Amico. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

      The oldest of fables have life in them yet, and there are plenty of newer ones with manifest charms of their own, as this group of recent releases shows. The Rabbit and the Turtle is a new edition of Eric Carle tales that date back as far as 1976. The 11 stories here are much older, long-familiar ones: the little mouse that saves a powerful lion captured by thieving wolves, leading to the moral, “Friends come in all shapes and sizes”; the mice that decide to bell the cat but cannot figure out who will do so, with the moral, “An idea is not always enough”; and the famous title story, usually called “The Tortoise and the Hare,” with its moral, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Carle’s painted-tissue-paper collages fit the stories wonderfully well and provide both an updating and a high level of amusement. The turtle, for instance, wears a top hat; the rescued lion sports elegant business clothes, while the helpful mouse wears farmer-like overalls; in the story of the grasshopper and the ants, the frivolous grasshopper who fiddled while the ants saved is literally shown with a violin, with the ants in a house decorating a Christmas tree; and so on. Carle’s new approach to these old, old stories keeps them fresh – and a lot of fun.

      Wynken, Blynken, and Nod
isn’t quite as old as Aesop’s tales –Eugene W. Field wrote the poem in 1889 – and it is not a story with a moral. But it remains a wonderful bedtime tale, and Giselle Potter’s anthropomorphic moon and almost-identical-triplet title characters keep the work thoroughly charming. A highlight is the two-page illustration of fish, among which appear the words, “The little stars were the herring fish/That lived in that beautiful sea.” This is intended as a tale about Holland – Field originally called it “Dutch Lullaby” – and Potter’s pictures of flowers and of the wooden shoe a-sail in the night sky maintain its legacy. Potter’s moon specifically resembles the one created by early filmmaker Georges Méliès for his famous 1902 silent film, A Trip to the Moon – which Potter cites as one of her inspirations. Families will find that her illustrations inspire young children to sweet and gentle dreams.

      Shel Silverstein’s pictures in Don’t Bump the Glump! are more of the wake-up type. This was Silverstein’s first poetry collection, initially published in 1964, and it wears very well indeed – and looks great in its handsome, full-color new edition. Here you will meet the Quick-Disguising Ginnit, which looks exactly like a man’s hat except for its tiny head and legs; the Zrbangdraldnk, which Silverstein will write about as soon as he figures out how to pronounce it; and the Terrible Feezus: “There is a terrible twenty-foot Feezus./ Shhh…I don’t think he sees us.” Also here are “the Pointy-Peaked Pavarius,/ A creature most gregarious,” and the “Skaverbacked Gritchen/ Who lives in my kitchen.” Silverstein’s drawings are as clever as his rhymes, and even if some of the animals devour readers (or threaten to), kids will love meeting the likes of the Slithergadee, the Skinny Zippity and the Gumplegutch.

      For a much gentler time with a much sweeter animal, kids can turn to Carmela and Steven D’Amico’s latest story of Ella the Elegant Elephant, Ella Sets Sail. This is a fantasy-adventure occasioned by Ella’s temporary loss of her lucky red hat after she lends it to a friend and a gust of wind carries it away. Ella ends up in a boat, trying to fish her hat out of the water; then using the hat as a sail when the wind picks up; then finding herself carried – without her hat – to an island she has never visited before. Poor Ella, suffering through so much bad luck despite her lucky hat – but of course she does get it back, and everything works out just fine. By the end of the book, Ella has realized how lucky she really is – a most pleasant finish to the latest D’Amico fantasy, drawn in a style reminiscent of the Babar books and those of H.A. Rey.


Cow & Boy. By Mark Leiknes. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Watch Your Head. By Cory Thomas. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

100% Whole Grin Rose Is Rose. By Don Wimmer. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

      Somewhere among the diamonds-in-the-rough comic strips now getting into syndication there may be a polished gem or two. Here are three cartoonists who have at least a chance of moving into widespread popularity – if they continue to focus their strips and hone their skills.

      Cow & Boy
is one of those gently surrealistic strips about a child and a talking animal – admittedly a strange talking animal, even though Mark Leiknes sets the strip on a farm. Billy, the boy, does not have deeply philosophical discussions with Cow, along the lines of Calvin and Hobbes, although Bill Watterson’s great strip was surely a model for Leiknes’. The cow-and-boy talks mostly involve bouncing ideas off each other and making gentle mischief. Cow tries to make a wish in a wishing well and ends up stuck, head down, in it. Cow loves Easter so much that she puts on big bunny ears and a cotton tail – and tries to make a chocolate Easter bunny by dipping a real rabbit in melted chocolate. Billy learns to ride a unicycle, in part because Cow provides “negative reinforcement on falling down” by putting him in a prickly patch. Billy’s friend Martin – who can also talk to Cow – gets pulled into schemes to build a treehouse (including a hot tub) and film a Bigfoot movie (with Martin ending up with hair superglued to his face). Cow wins second place at the county fair and trash-talks the first-place winner. Billy’s parents and older sister, Tracy, are peripheral characters who appear from time to time. The occasional attempts to introduce deeper subjects – nature vs. nurture, inflation –fall rather flat; this strip is better when Billy is writing a screenplay for a surefire hit movie, “Tornado Sharks,” and its sequel, “Tornado Sharks 2.” Billy himself is drawn rather oddly: he looks fine from every angle except the front – from that direction, his nose keeps changing shape. Leiknes seems to be continuously looking for just the right themes and just the right way to express them; this is a strip still in development.

      The same is true of Watch Your Head, one of the increasing number of comic strips targeting niche audiences – in this case, African-Americans. Set at Oliver Otis University, whose one white student is a Canadian admitted on a hockey scholarship even though the school doesn’t really have a team, Cory Thomas’ strip swings between satire of campus life and out-and-out strangeness. The central character – also named Cory – is a bookish freshman unsettled by dorm life, a cast of often-peculiar fellow students, and women. There’s nothing especially unusual there. But Cory also has to deal with a genius monkey who copies his tests and gets better grades, and an outer-space alien named V’rttrah who is sort of dating Cory’s roommate, Jason. Cory is attracted to the main female character, Robin, but she sees him as no more than a friend. Cory ends up on a date with a basketball player named Takoma, drawn so tall that most of her head is outside the comic-strip frame. Then there are such characters as Quincy, a prototypical “player,” and hostile Omar, roommate of Kevin, the hockey player. There are some references to “the full range of the black experience,” which includes such things as being closely watched by Security while shopping and being stopped for “driving while black” (even if you yourself are a policeman). By and large, though, the strip is less about social or racial consciousness than about the college experience – which it handles in ways that are sometimes moderately amusing but that rarely make strong points or provoke strong laughter. Thomas, like Leiknes, still seems to be feeling his way toward themes that will work consistently and well.

      Don Wimmer has his themes already, and has exactly the right characters with which to work them out. But he is missing opportunity after opportunity. Wimmer is now producing Rose Is Rose, a comic strip that has been around since 1984 and was until recently written and drawn by the wonderful Pat Brady. Unfortunately, Wimmer is making a hash of the once-excellent strip, recycling themes and characters remorselessly without bringing any new sense of style or wit to his work. There appears to be a problem with his model sheets: the characters are foreshortened, especially Rose herself – once a leggy, sexy-in-a-wholesome-way celebrator of life, she now looks chunky and squat and almost always appears in bulky pants. Brady’s delightful elements, from Rose’s son Pasquale’s guardian angel to Rose’s own biker alter ego, appear frequently but without specific purpose – Brady used them only in strips whose themes they enhanced, but Wimmer simply brings them in periodically to dress things up. Other Brady elements, such as the rainbows and hearts and other happy shapes used to reflect characters’ emotions, are scattered around 100% Whole Grin Rose Is Rose to even less purpose, appearing on many pages of the book as color overlays on the black-and-white strips. The only characters whose roles Wimmer has expanded on his own are two squirrels that are assuming an increasing role in the humans’ activities. But they are not especially interesting, and it is hard to warm up to them. Also, Wimmer has taken Brady’s occasional use of forced perspective and askew panels – always done to make a specific point – as simply a matter of appearance, tilting panels or drawing them on their sides for no content-related reason. This book gets a (++) rating for the traces of Brady’s gentle humor that remain in it – but Wimmer, a new cartoonist producing a much-loved older strip, needs to find a way to make Rose Is Rose his own soon if he is to pull it out of the mediocrity into which it has descended.


The Dead & the Gone. By Susan Beth Pfeffer. Harcourt. $17.

Seekers #1: The Quest Begins. By Erin Hunter. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Warriors: Firestar’s Quest. By Erin Hunter. HarperTrophy. $7.99.

Warriors (Manga Book 3): Warrior’s Return. Created by Erin Hunter. Written by Dan Jolley. Art by James L. Barry. Tokyopop/HarperCollins. $6.99.

The Percheron Saga, Book Three: Goddess. By Fiona McIntosh. Eos. $14.95.

      Although the quest story is as old as The Odyssey and Gilgamesh, it is still a fertile form for authors, especially useful for exposing heroes to ever-changing dangers and having them go on inner find-yourself quests to parallel the outer ones. The Dead & the Gone is more inward that outward, and it is a book with a very unusual background, being Susan Beth Pfeffer’s second novel on the same subject. The first, Life As We Knew It, was based on the idea of a meteor striking Earth’s moon with enough force to knock the moon into a closer orbit – with disastrous consequences for Earth’s weather. The premise doesn’t stand up scientifically; but what Pfeffer really wanted was a way to get into a story of unanticipated disaster and the reaction to it of ordinary people. Life As We Knew It was the diary of 16-year-old (later 17-year-old) Miranda, living through the aftermath of catastrophe in a small town. The Dead & the Gone is another story of the aftermath of the same catastrophe – this time focusing on Alex Morales, who lives in a big city. This book is not so much a sequel to the other as a parallel novel. Life As We Knew It stood entirely on its own, and so does The Dead & the Gone, but readers will certainly get more of Pfeffer’s worldview and exploration of faith, family and courage by reading both books than by reading either one alone. Pfeffer does not take the easy descent-into-barbarism approach of many apocalyptic novels, preferring to create a world in which people remain basically good (with exceptions, of course), simply trying in their bewilderment and fear to survive as best they can. The book starts on May 18, as the earlier novel did, and runs through December 29; and Alex faces many of the same challenges as Miranda, despite the differences in the novels’ settings. A major one is disease, which claims many lives – almost including Alex’s own. Religious faith is a big part of what pulls Alex and some of his friends through, but most of what matters here is simple courage and the ability to face the challenges of each day anew, without any assurance of living until the end of it. In that respect, Pfeffer’s world is perhaps not all that different from our terrorism-bedeviled one today.

      Nor are the worlds of Erin Hunter so different from our human world, even though Hunter uses animals rather than people as epic heroes. Seekers opens a new series for Hunter, who is best known for her books about cat clans and the feline warriors, medicine cats and hunters who populate them. Seekers shifts the focus to bears, but its themes of power, searching and betrayal will be immediately familiar to fans of Hunter’s other books. In the new series, cubs of three different species – black (Lusa), polar (Kallik) and grizzly (Toklo) – are separated from their families and find themselves searching, initially separately, for food and security. Later joining, they travel toward the Northern Lights as escorts of a mysterious shapeshifting cub who may be destined to bring about the spiritual renewal of all bears. The self-discovery, battles and adventures will be appealing to young readers who already enjoy Hunter’s various Warriors series about cats.

      Those series themselves continue to appear in new forms. Warriors: Firestar’s Quest is now available in paperback. Billed as a “Super Edition” and structured as a story in itself rather than as part of a longer sequence, the book follows the legendary leader of ThunderClan after he discovers that his warrior ancestors have lied to him on a crucial matter. He must leave his home in the forest to discover the truth, entering into what proves to be a lengthy and complex quest indeed. The book runs more than 500 pages and will be of greatest interest to readers already thoroughly immersed in the various Warriors sagas. For those not yet so involved in them, their manga versions may be a good entry point – certainly for younger readers (the novels are intended for ages 10 and up, the manga books for ages 8-12). The third manga adaptation picks up where the second ended, with Graystripe and Millie finding Graystripe’s ancestral home destroyed. Injured by a truck, Graystripe is helped back to health by a truckstop cat named Diesel, and realizes – as Millie stands by him – that he has never told her how much he cares for her. By the time he does, they have taken a long journey together – at the end of which they find at least some of what they have been looking for.

     What adults look for in fantasy quests is somewhat different from what young readers seek; but except for the complexity of the plots and the names of the characters, the books for older and younger readers have much in common. Goddess is the concluding book in Fiona McIntosh’s Percheron Saga, which has been a long journey into and out of the desert surrounding the city-state around which the saga revolves. After establishing the main characters in Odalisque and setting up a conflict involving mortals and gods alike in Emissary, McIntosh deftly pulls the threads of the tale together in Goddess. And there are certainly plenty of threads, as one character explains to Zar Boaz: “My Zar, there is nothing comfortable about your life right now. The Galinseans are threatening to raze your city; a madman rebel has stolen your wife and child, and as there’s no ransom, presumably he’s after something far more sinister. You’ve got your mother acting regent in a palace under threat whilst you’re not sure whether the wife you risk your own life for has a lover who happens to be your own head of security, and, even more tangled, he’s your mother’s new consort!” That is a pretty good summary of where the plot stands a bit more than midway through Goddess. Getting from that point to the end requires a daring rescue, resignation to defeat (“this could be our last night of life and I would rather share it with someone than be alone”), the return of a frightening condition called “the drezden sickness,” a series of body changes by immortals, the awakening of stone giants, and more. Wonder follows wonder in a way wholly typical of tales of this type, with McIntosh reserving a variety of twists and turns for her conclusion – or rather multiple conclusions, for just as she ends one part of the tale, she takes up another until it, too, is finished. All this is quite skillfully done, but even in a trilogy as well-crafted as this, there remain many, many echoes of other quest stories told by this and other writers, and pre-echoes of similar quest tales yet to be written.


A Pocketful of History: Four Hundred Years of America—One State Quarter at a Time. By Jim Noles. Da Capo. $25.

The Venus Week: Discover the Powerful Secret of Your Cycle…at Any Age. By Rebecca Booth, M.D. Da Capo. $24.

      Explore the world? Explore yourself? You can do both with these books. A Pocketful of History uses the quarters that almost everyone in the U.S. has in his or her pocket or purse – the state-themed ones that have been issued since 1999 – to tell a story that Jim Noles says is “not so much about who we are or what we are but instead [is] a polyglot reflection on how we think of ourselves.” Whether these quarters can bear the weight of a more-than-300-page discussion is by no means clear; this is a book that you should pick up and look through before deciding whether to buy it. What Noles, an Alabama attorney who says he is not a coin collector, has done is to take each quarter’s design and explain what it means and, in most cases, how and why it was chosen. The result is an extended guide to decision-making processes and design choices that range from the obvious to the rather peculiar. West Virginia, for example, does not celebrate its creation through a split-up of Virginia during the Civil War, but instead shows the impressive New River Gorge Bridge – whose history dates back only to 1977. Hawaii, the last state to be admitted to the United States, shows (on a coin not yet available) the likeness of its famous King Kamehameha, who died 140 years before Hawaii joined the Union. Wisconsin showcases its primary agricultural products – milk, cheese and corn – but Idaho, whose name is nearly synonymous with potatoes, shows a peregrine falcon. Anyone who has been collecting the 50 state quarters (which will be augmented by quarters from the District of Columbia and several territories – none of them discussed by Noles) and who wants a guidebook to go along with the coin set should at least consider A Pocketful of History. But it is unlikely to be the type of book to which readers will return again and again while showing off their collections of coins that are, after all, intentionally quite commonplace.

      The Venus Week
is a much more personal book, in which obstetrician-gynecologist Rebecca Booth discusses a phenomenon that many women have noticed in their daily lives: there is about one week per month during which most women look and feel better than at any other time that month. Booth explains that this is the time – the week before ovulation – when both estrogen and testosterone production peaks, so women feel their best and also feel the strongest sexual desire. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense: the most likely time for conception coincides with the time when women feel physically best and are most likely to invite sexual attention. The “Venus Zenith,” according to Booth, occurs during a woman’s 20s and 30s – and again this makes sense, since those are the prime reproductive years. But what Booth does in The Venus Week is more than analysis, and a reader’s reaction to that “more” will determine whether the book is highly useful or just another self-help book based on a somewhat unusual premise. Booth gives several ways to identify The Venus Week – for instance, by keeping a journal of your menstrual cycle, checking basal body temperature and using an ovulation-predictor kit (widely available at drugstores). She advises women to become familiar with the times they have clearer skin, fuller and softer hair, more-flexible muscles, fewer food cravings, and greater energy and focus. To make this feel-good time last as long as possible and produce the greatest improvement in how a woman looks and feels all month, Booth offers a variety of prescriptions, from regular exercise (she specifies at least 22 minutes a day) to eating breakfast daily to eliminating trans fats, taking in more calcium and vitamin D, and adding some cinnamon to foods or beverages. She also offers relaxation techniques. None of her recommendations is at all unusual, and all have value. They may even accomplish their stated purpose of helping women feel less “at the mercy” of their hormones and more in control of their bodies. If Booth’s “Venus Week Plan” encourages some women to eat better and improve their lifestyles, that is just fine. But other women will find essentially the same advice in many other places – books, magazines, newspapers articles and health-oriented Web sites. The Venus Week simply offers a framework to get women to behave in more healthful ways. If this rationale isn’t for you, there are plenty of others that are equally good and that you may find more appealing.


Ives: Orchestral Sets Nos. 1-3. Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus conducted by James Sinclair. Naxos. $8.99.

Copland: The Tender Land (Suite); Piano Concerto; Old American Songs, Volumes 1 and 2. Benjamin Pasternack, piano; St. Charles Singers and Elgin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Hanson. Naxos. $8.99.

Corigliano: The Red Violin Caprices; Sonata for Violin and Piano; Thomson: Three Portraits (1944-7); Five Ladies (1983); Eight Portraits (1928-40). Philippe Quint, violin; William Wolfram, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      These releases from the Naxos “American Classics” line showcase some important works, and some lesser ones, by some very different composers – and, even within a single composer’s works, show some very different approaches. The most significant of the three CDs features all three of Ives’ Orchestral Sets in their first-ever complete recording – which is also the first recording of Version 1 of the first Set and the first recording and performance of the third Set. Strange and important works, these, combining the serious and the popular in Ives’ unique way, and handled quite well by American Ives specialist James Sinclair and the decidedly non-American musicians in Malmö, Sweden – proving that Ives is nowadays playable (and played) around the world, not just in the U.S. Orchestral Set No. 1 is his well-known Three Places in New England, but it is not familiar in the version heard here, which lacks the opening chord heard in the more commonly performed second version and which also simplifies (for players and listeners alike) the textural complexities of the third movement, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” Listeners familiar with the second version may find this one a bit pale, but in fact its sonic world has a validity of its own, and some of its musical lines are distinctly easier for the ear to follow. Orchestral Set No. 2 is interesting for a first-movement tune reminiscent of Stephen Foster (the movement was originally called “An Elegy to Stephen Foster” before Ives gave it its permanent name, “An Elegy to Our Forefathers”). Also, this set is the only one with a choral element – part of an unusual mixture (well, just about everything in Ives is unusual) of the Latin Te Deum (intoned by the chorus) with the hymn The Sweet By and By (heard only instrumentally, without voices). The third set is an assemblage and realization, not a completed work. Its serenely atmospheric third movement is particularly interesting – but that is the movement of which the fewest sketches exist, so it is hard to know how closely the realization (by Nors Josephson) reflects what Ives would have done. The first two movements, edited by David Gray Porter, exist in fuller form (especially the first); and if this final Orchestral Set should not be thought of as fully by Ives, it could clearly not have been laid out, even as sketches, by anyone else.

Ives was far from the only American composer to include more-serious and more-popular elements in his music. In fact, Aaron Copland’s output would fall rather neatly into the “popular” and “serious” categories if Copland had not continually blurred the boundaries. The Tender Land, one of his two operas, was clearly conceived within a “serious” form, but Copland himself thought it came across as something closer to a musical – a more “popular” form. The opera itself, a period piece set during the Depression, was never much of a success, but Copland’s three-movement Suite packs some emotional punch and includes a middle-movement “Party Scene” reminiscent of Rodeo and Billy the Kid. The Piano Concerto is also in an overtly “serious” form, and this two-movement 1926 work does open with a sophisticated slow movement – but its longer second movement is full of Jazz Era bounce and high spirits. And the two sets of Old American Songs – 10 songs in all – are quite clearly in “popular” mode, including folk and minstrel tunes and even children’s songs (“I Bought Me a Cat” and “The Little Horses”). Originally written for voice and piano, the songs were transcribed by Copland for voice and orchestra but are heard on this CD in chorus-and-orchestra arrangements by other composers – and remain quite effective in this form. All the performers on this recording are sensitive to and involved in the music, with Benjamin Pasternack especially good in the Piano Concerto.

      Perhaps the popular/serious divide is a more widespread characteristic of American composers than is generally acknowledged, because some of it also appears in the new CD of music by John Corigliano and Virgil Thomson. Corigliano’s Oscar-winning score for the 1997 film The Red Violin (in the “popular” mode) continues to inspire the composer, who not only made a serious violin concerto out of it but also created a set of caprices – actually a theme and five variations, here recorded for the first time. The variations’ moods range from folklike to strictly Paganinian, and Philippe Quint plays them all with evident relish. Quint, with pianist William Wolfram, also does a fine job with the entirely serious Sonata for Violin and Piano, which is early Corigliano (dating to 1963, when the composer was 25) and which shows strong command of traditional forms and good balance between the instruments.

      Virgil Thomson’s music makes an interesting pairing with Corigliano’s: Thomson’s short “portrait” pieces for solo violin or violin and piano also partake of a combination of seriousness and levity. Three Portraits dates to 1940 as a solo piano work and was arranged for violin and piano by Samuel Dushkin in 1947 – with Dushkin cleverly giving the third piece, “In a Bird Cage: A Portrait of Lies Deharme” to solo violin. The portraiture here and in the other works on this CD is rarely of famous people, although the longest piece in Five Ladies (still lasting only three minutes) is of Alice Toklas, well known for her relationship with Gertrude Stein – while the fourth of the Eight Portraits for solo violin is of Stein herself, but is whimsically called “Miss Gertrude Stein as a young girl. Most of the portraits are witty, pleasant and lighthearted, although the last and longest of the Eight Portraits, “Ruth Smallens,” is a more emotional four-minute work. Whether played by Quint and Wolfram or by Quint alone, all these short pieces show a pleasantly effective blend of music that is serious with the more popularly tinged variety.


Kenneth Leighton: Orchestral Works, Volume I: Symphony for Strings; Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani; Concerto for String Orchestra. John Scott, organ; BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $18.99.

Aulis Sallinen: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5. Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Ari Rasilainen. CPO. $16.99.

Debussy: Complete Works for Piano, Volume 3. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, piano. Chandos. $18.99.

      Not every composer deserves to have his (or her) complete works performed, much less recorded; and it is a safe bet that the vast majority of listeners will be interested in hearing only a percentage of the works by even the greatest composers: there is little demand for Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus or L'oca del Cairo. Yet more and more composers are getting the “complete” treatment nowadays – with the result that some good, interesting, little-known music is now available, but can be very hard to find among all the lesser compositions being performed and recorded. Surely there are people interested in the works of postwar British composer Kenneth Leighton and modern Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen. But how many will be interested enough to buy all Leighton’s orchestral works or CPO’s entire “Sallinen Edition,” in which the sixth CD has now been released?

      Leighton (1929-1988) was in fact a substantial composer, with a fine sense of counterpoint and the ability to create interesting effects from sometimes-unusual combinations of instruments, as in his
Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani (1970). Leighton’s music tends to be introspective and rather severe (although it became more lyrical in his last years, which are not represented on this CD). Leighton was also a fine pianist, and his understanding of the keyboard clearly extended to the organ as well. The other works on this Chandos CD are earlier and somewhat more brittle: Symphony for Strings dates to 1948-9 (it is Leighton’s Op. 3) and Concerto for String Orchestra to 1960-1. One of the attractions of these works, and indeed of Leighton’s music in general, is the avoidance of dogmatic approaches and gestures for their own sake – even when the music is dour, it is organically so. Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are clearly comfortable and familiar with this music, which is especially popular in Britain, and these performances are top-notch.

      Ari Rasilainen seems equally comfortable conducting Sallinen’s music, although Sallinen (born 1935) may be more of an acquired taste than Leighton. Sallinen has written eight symphonies, the first dating to 1971 and the most recent to 2001, and he is adept at writing for large and diverse forces (he has also composed six operas). The Symphony No. 3 (1975), Sallinen’s first in multiple movements, showcases his technique of motivic repetition that leads eventually to transformation of themes. This approach takes some getting used to – it is not at all the way most listeners are accustomed to hearing symphonies structured – but it is certainly effective. The Symphony No. 5 (1985-7) is called “Washington Mosaics” – it was commissioned by the Washington National Symphony Orchestra and its then-music director, Mstislav Rostropovich – and its technique is a more extreme version of that in the earlier symphony. No. 5 repeats a large number of thematic snippets again and again, much in the way that individual mosaic tiles are applied; over time, the themes build to a work of surprising richness – although one that is perhaps more clever than heartfelt.

      It seems easier to justify “completeness” in the case of an acknowledged compositional master such as Debussy than in the case of fine but less-well-known composers. But the third Chandos volume of Debussy’s piano works, although it is quite well played by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, is not an unalloyed pleasure. It bears repeating that even the greatest composers created some (often many) less-than-great works, and there are several on this CD. The longest and best-known pieces here are Children’s Corner and Suite Bergamasque, and Bavouzet’s sure and idiomatic performances are certainly worth having. But most of the pieces on the rest of the disc are trifles, from the under-a-minute-long Morceau de Concours to the only slightly longer The Little Nigar and Page d’Album. Some of these short works are certainly interesting, such as the atmospheric Nocturne and Hommage à Haydn (not a composer to whom one would necessarily expect Debussy to pay homage). But the overall feeling of the CD is of a couple of significant piano pieces with a great deal of filler material – certainly of interest to those who love Debussy’s music and who therefore hunger for completeness, but not by any means a “must have” addition to most collections.

June 19, 2008


The Day the World Exploded: The Earthshaking Catastrophe at Krakatoa. By Simon Winchester. Adapted by Dwight Jon Zimmerman. HarperCollins. $22.99.

As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom.
By Richard Michelson. Illustrated by Raul Colón. Knopf. $16.99.

      Dwight Jon Zimmerman’s adaptation for ages 10-14 of Simon Winchester’s nonfiction book Krakatoa shows why Winchester’s work for adults became a bestseller. The monumental explosion of the volcanic island of Krakatoa in 1883 is an event about which much has been written, but the focus is usually on the explosion itself, which generated the loudest sound ever made in human history and spawned tsunamis that killed more than 30,000 people. Winchester’s work goes much further, as does Zimmerman’s profusely illustrated adaptation of it. The Day the World Exploded puts the eruption of Krakatoa in fascinating human, historical, religious and technological context. This means explaining the Dutch East Indies Company, through which Holland controlled the Indies, in which Krakatoa lay. It means discussing the area’s most valuable export, which was pepper. It means looking at the continental shelves that meet along what is known as Wallace’s Line – and explaining who Wallace was. It means looking at the way Dutch settlers lived in the Indies, the tourism that occurred there, and the Islamic leaders who used the eruption of Krakatoa – evidence, they said, of Allah’s anger – as the impetus for a rebellion against the Dutch that eventually led to the creation of the Republic of Indonesia. It means looking not only at the physical effects of the eruption, which were frightening enough, but also at its psychological effects: the recently invented telegraph spread news of the disaster faster than it had ever been possible to disseminate information before, leading to near-real-time awareness of the interconnectedness of people and events all over Earth. The Day the World Exploded weaves these threads together with considerable skill, and the well-chosen illustrations – notably including 19th-century prints and photographs – give a strong sense of reality to an event that might otherwise appear only as a dry, remote piece of history.

      In more recent history, there has been plenty of attention focused on the life and works of Martin Luther King Jr., but As Good as Anybody tells young readers – ages 6-10 – a much less well-known part of King’s story. This is a tale not only of King himself but also of the man who, at King’s funeral in 1968, told the crowd, “His mission was sacred.” That man, Abraham Joshua Heschel, is introduced halfway through Richard Michelson’s book, after background material on King and his determination to stage a protest march in Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel was a Polish Jew and a poet who became a rabbi, like his father, in the years just before Hitler rose to power in Germany. He escaped the Nazis by coming to America, but his family stayed behind in Poland and was killed. Heschel made marches of his own in his adopted country, incurring the ire of many of the same groups that opposed King. On March 21, 1965, the two prayed together and then led the Selma-to-Montgomery march side by side. Michelson’s straightforward language and Raul Colón’s sensitive illustrations bring the time and the people alive for today’s young readers, and Michelson’s page of text after the main story sums up what happened later. Like The Day the World Exploded, Michelson’s As Good as Anybody brings an earlier day into sharper focus in a way that shows the continued importance in the 21st century of these historical events.


Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew. By Ursula Vernon. Harcourt. $15.

The Dragon’s Child.
By Jenny Nimmo. Illustrated by Alan Marks. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Mo’s Mischief: Best Mom Ever; Four Troublemakers; Pesky Monkeys; Teacher’s Pet.
By Hongying Yang. HarperTrophy. $3.99 each.

Roscoe Riley Rules: #1, Never Glue Your Friends to Chairs; #2, Never Swipe a Bully’s Bear; #3, Don’t Swap Your Sweater for a Dog.
By Katherine Applegate. Illustrated by Brian Biggs. HarperTrophy. $3.99 each.

Iron Man: Teen Novelization; The Junior Novel; A New Hero; I Am Ironman!
By Dan Jolley (Teen); Stephen Sullivan (Junior); Marco Valdo (Hero); Lisa Rao (I Am). HarperEntertainment: $6.99 (Teen); $4.99 (Junior); $3.99 (Hero). HarperTrophy: $3.99 (I Am).

Kung Fu Panda: The Junior Novel; Master of Disaster; Meet the Masters. By Susan Korman (Junior); Scout Driggs (Disaster); Catherine Hapka (Masters). HarperEntertainment: $4.99 (Junior); $3.99 (Disaster). HarperTrophy: $3.99 (Masters).

Transformers Animated: How to Draw; Attack of the Dinobots!; Robot Roll Call. By Sadie Chesterfield (Draw); Aaron Rosenberg (Attack); Jennifer Frantz (Roll). HarperEntertainment: $5.99 (Draw); $3.99 (Attack). HarperTrophy: $3.99 (Roll).

      Preteens will find plenty of excitement, of many kinds, in these short books. Nurk is the best of them: this first novel by Ursula Vernon starts with a quiet young shrew finding a book whose inside cover has a drawing of a severed head – the book turns out to be his grandmother’s journal – and progresses through the adventure that has literally fallen into Nurk’s lap (he holds the journal in his lap while reading it). Nurk builds a snail-shell boat (depicted in one of the book’s numerous charming illustrations); helps out the waterlogged Princess of Dragonflies, who is not at all frightened of the only thing with which Nurk can threaten her when he fears she may be dangerous (his clean socks); and continues through a series of adventures into which Nurk does not quite fit: “There was probably a line between being kind and babbling, and Nurk was afraid he’d crossed it a few ums back.” Nurk, of course, finds courage he had not known he possessed, and also learns – quite charmingly and with only a modicum of peril – the truth of his grandmother’s comment, “The world is a very odd place, and not always in a good way.” And: “A true adventurer needs a keen wit, a stout heart, and a strong bladder.” Kids ages 8-12, especially younger ones in that age range, will be delighted.

      Jenny Nimmo’s The Dragon’s Child will be almost as much fun for ages 7-10 – it is presented cutely in a new paperback cut in sort-of-dragon shape, but is the same story originally published in 1977. Here it is a young dragon, Dando, who must find himself – by learning to fly so he can join his family, which is leaving for a land that will be safer for dragons. Captured by humans when he cannot fly away, Dando is befriended by a slave girl and helped to escape and follow his destiny by the girl, an orphaned bird, and the son of those who took Dando captive. It is a slight tale but a well-told one, worth a (+++) rating.

      The four Mo’s Mischief books are slight, too, and they too are for ages 7-10 and deserving of (+++) ratings. Hongying Yang’s books are bestsellers in China, where 19 have been published, but there is not much exotic about the basic plots – they are simple stories in chapter-book form about a boy named Mo Shen Ma who gets into trouble wherever he goes. The plots are pretty thin. Best Mom Ever is about Mo’s mother, Honeybunch, and some of her odd (to Mo and his dad) habits, such as her love of “a fruit called a durian. Now, a durian is one hundred times stinkier than stinky tofu. It is a strangely shaped tropical fruit about the size of a basketball with a very hard shell.” Four Troublemakers focuses on the misadventures of Mo and his best friends, Hippo, Penguin and Monkey. Pesky Monkeys is about the animals, not Mo’s friend, and features a summer vacation in which Mo teaches his grandparents’ pig to skateboard and learns that monkeys can be even more mischievous than he is. And Teacher’s Pet is about Mo’s attempts to get the goody-goody girl in class into trouble with their teacher. Mo’s plans are simple, and they backfire amusingly, so kids who like one book about him will likely enjoy the others as well.

      Mo is in many ways an imported version of Roscoe Riley: both basically good but somewhat mischievous kids who get into more trouble than they ever really anticipated. The Roscoe Riley Rules books, also for ages 7-10, get the same (+++) rating as the Mo’s Mischief books, and in fact many young readers will like both series in much the same way. Just as Mo can’t help getting into mischief, Roscoe can’t help breaking his own rules – in the first book, by making really sure his classmates sit really still for a big performance; in the second, by getting back at the class bully – who, Roscoe is sure, has stolen Roscoe’s stuffed pig; in the third, by trying desperately to get a pet in time to win a trophy in a pet-trick contest. Brian Biggs’ entertainingly old-fashioned illustrations nicely complement Katherine Applegate’s amusing, easy-to-read stories.

      The various new Iron Man books get (+++) ratings for kids who enjoyed the recent film, which was based on a comic book. None of these four books is in comic or graphic-novel form, though. The Teen Novelization is simply the story of the movie – not the original comic, which was set in an earlier time – in which billionaire inventor and arms merchant Tony Stark is captured, invents high-tech armor so he can escape, then decides to become a good guy. The Junior Novel is the same story, told more simply and for younger readers, and including some movie stills as illustrations. A New Hero is for preschoolers, ages 3-7, and is mostly about the climactic battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger. I Am Iron Man! is in the “I Can Read!” series at Level 2, which means it is for developing readers (ages 4-8). The focus here is on the creation of the Iron Man suit and its use for good. There are plenty of angles on the Iron Man tale in these books – something for young movie fans of many ages.

      Similarly, new books have been designed as tie-ins to the animated Kung Fu Panda movie, about a panda named Po who is chosen as Dragon Warrior and must prove himself even though the Furious Five masters dismiss him as lazy and obsessed with food; and the cartoon TV show Transformers Animated, based loosely on the movie that was based loosely on the toys that change into a variety of different shapes through twisting, turning, pushing, pulling and otherwise rearranging their parts. Among the Kung Fu Panda offerings, The Junior Novel tells the story of the film, includes a few stills from it, and is intended for ages 8-12; Master of Disaster, for ages 3-7, focuses on the way Master Shifu uses food rather than traditional methods to train Po in martial arts; and Meet the Masters, an “I Can Read!” book at Level 2 (ages 4-8), introduces the Furious Five and shows how Po was selected as Dragon Warrior. For Transformers Animated, the How to Draw book, aimed at ages 9-12 but quite appropriate for younger artists as well, shows the relative sizes of the TV show’s cast of characters and gives straightforward lessons in how to draw them and some of the vehicles into which they can change themselves. Attack of the Dinobots! is for ages 4-7 and is based on one series episode featuring huge more-or-less-dinosaur-shaped bad-guy robots. And Robot Roll Call, another Level 2 “I Can Read!” book for ages 4-8, introduces the heroic Autobots, their main opponents, and the humans – a robot scientist and his daughter – with whom they interact. None of the books based on Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda or Transformers Animated is particularly distinguished or distinctive, but that is not the purpose of any of them – they are simply attachments to video entertainment, allowing kids who enjoy a film or TV show to carry around a little bit of it and have an adventure in reading. Given their modest ambitions, all these little books get (+++) ratings for families interested in what they have to offer: there is not much there, but what is there is just fine.


Thank You for Being You. By Bradley Trevor Greive. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Unknown Worlds!
By Revilo (Oliver Christianson). Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Nuts for Racing: A StockcarToons Book.
By Mike Smith. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Flanders’ Book of Faith.
By Matt Groening. Harper. $9.95.

      Small gift-size books, whether hardcover or paperback, can be fun in a variety of ways, as these new examples show. Thank You for Being You is the latest entry from the cuteness factory of Bradley Trevor Greive (he doesn’t call it that, but that’s what it is). The book successfully follows the BTG formula of combining remarkable animal photography with clever verbiage that speaks directly to humans. In this case, the theme is friendship, and the idea is that this book would be a fine gift for a very close friend whom you have never gotten around to thanking enough for his or her value to you – a sort of extended greeting card. It’s a nice one, too, thanks to Greive’s usual skill at matching photos and words. “Now, I don’t want to appear needy” accompanies a wonderful picture of a baby monkey clutching a duckling. “Thank you for all the little things you have done to make me smile” goes with a close-up of a fish that does seem to be smiling. “Thank you for getting me revved up and excited about all the possibilities life has to offer” appears under a photo of a dog apparently driving a toy car, with a cat hanging onto the car’s side. Yes, the charms of the book are of a treacly sort, but if you want to get sentimental about a good friend, this is a fine way to do it.

      Nothing sentimental about Unknown Worlds! – which is subtitled “A Collection of Paranormal Cartoons.” Cartoonist Revilo (“Oliver” spelled backwards) goes where no man or woman has gone before, or would probably want to. His best single-panel cartoons are really funny: “The Urban Wolfman,” skulking along in embarrassment while carrying a pooper scooper; a vampire asking a pharmacist for SPF 40,000 sunscreen; a witch bemoaning the fact that her brew “never tastes the same when you cook with frozen newt.” But other cartoons fall rather flat: a severed head on a pole saying “Frankly, I’d rather be in Cleveland”; a “car pool” into which automobiles have driven themselves; “Little Known Facts About the Yeti,” such as that they “actually smell quite good.” There’s fun here, but it’s not all fun.

      The amount of fun in Nuts for Racing is directly proportional to the NASCAR involvement of the reader. Mike Smith’s book is strictly for the speedway crowd. For every panel that will make sense to the casual reader – an arrow pointing to “lug nuts” on a car’s wheel and another pointing to “mixed nuts,” the unruly fans tossing cans onto the racetrack – there are half a dozen or more that will be meaningless if you don’t know the players. One labels the Talladega Superspeedway “the second largest oval in NASCAR” after the huge open mouth of a caricature labeled “Stewart” (driver Tony Stewart, a frequent Smith target). Several are about there being “something that’s just not right” about Toyota in NASCAR. There’s one about the movie Crash with the comment that it must have to do with Kyle Busch’s aggressive driving, and one about a fan’s disappointment that the film Sideways did not turn out to be “about racing at Bristol.” There are plenty of in-jokes here and not many for-anyone jokes.

      The same is true for Flanders’ Book of Faith, which is only for fans of The Simpsons who enjoy watching Matt Groening poke fun at Homer’s faith-is-everything neighbor, Ned Flanders. This book, the eighth release in The Simpsons Library of Wisdom, contains the Flanders Family Tree, a series of Ned’s answers (or refusals to answer) kids’ questions about religion, a page on “Maude Flanders, late mate and mother of Ned’s little kididdles,” plenty on those “kididdles” themselves (Rod and Todd), and so on. A few pages are really funny, such as “A Comic Book of Virtues,” in which Ned’s kids hold him as strictly to Scripture as he tries to hold everyone else; and “Neddy No-No’s: Words Forbidden in the Flanders Home,” such as woodpecker, organ, peephole, erect, cockapoo and Lake Titicaca. There’s also a very amusing “Homer Simpson’s Dream Church,” which includes a Holy Water Slide, Baptism Wave Pool and “Costumed Church Mascot: Howie, the Holy Mackerel.” A mild level of enjoyment of The Simpsons is all you need to have fun with the best of these pages; for many of the others, though, near-fanaticism is a near-necessity.


Travel Pictures. By Heinrich Heine. Translated by Peter Wortsman. Archipelago Books. $17.

Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling.
By Andrew Darby. Da Capo. $25.

George Washington on Leadership.
By Richard Brookhiser. Basic Books. $26.

      The interplay of subjectivity and objectivity – a longtime concern of philosophers, and as great an issue for the 21st century as for earlier ones – pervades all of these very different works by authors with journalistic backgrounds. Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), best known as a poet whose works inspired musical settings by Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann and others, was also a journalist and essayist. It was his “The Harz Journey” (1826) that first made him famous, and it wears well even 180-plus years later and in translation. Its vignettes are interesting, its observations acute, its gently satirical observations of life put forward amusingly and without bitterness: “Immortality! You lovely notion! Who first thought you up? Was it some Nuremberg hick who sat on his doorstep on a warm summer night, with a white nightcap on his noggin and a white clay pipe in his mouth, musing right cozily: Wouldn’t it be nice if he could vegetate on like this into sweet eternity without his dear little pipe and his dear little breath ever going out?” Keen observation of his surroundings, coupled with Heine’s awareness that by observing them he is putting them through his own subjective awareness, make for a still-fascinating essay that is never quite matched by the remaining three parts of Travel Pictures, “The North Sea,” “The Baths of Lucca” and “The City of Lucca.” For example, the last of these, which dates to 1831, shares with “The Harz Journey” a wealth of pithy observations and personal remarks; but having read similar comments in the earlier work, the reader may find the newer ones a bit pale here. Still, Heine’s prose, which is not well known outside Germany, has a pleasantly modern feeling to it (at least in Peter Wortsman’s translation), and his observations about people, more than those about places, remain quite insightful.

      If a reader has to think about Heine’s relevance to the modern world, he or she need not do so about whaling, Andrew Darby’s subject in Harpoon. The Australian journalist has clearly studied whaling’s history in some depth, and his discussion of the evolving methods of killing the giant marine mammals is well-informed. He never manages the intensity and objectivity of Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, but that is exactly Darby’s point: he is not interested in objectivity, does not even truly believe it possible any more than Heine does. Darby is first and foremost an environmentalist, and his species-by-species discussion of whales is ultimately designed to raise readers’ consciousness about the animals and enlist them in the fight to end commercial whaling altogether. Whether or not this is a laudable goal – most people in most Western countries appear to agree that it is – it does call into question Darby’s selection and presentation of facts about the whaling industry. He even quotes long-ago hunters who found themselves troubled by the brutality of human attacks on whales; and while there is no reason to disbelieve the quoted remarks, there is reason to wonder whether they were typical of attitudes in those times or represented only a small percentage of opinion. Darby’s passion is clear – his title must have been carefully conceived, since he would in fact like to send a “harpoon into the heart of whaling” -- and although even Moby-Dick itself finds its way into his chapter-heading quotations, most of them reflect his point of view: “…We are dealing with special creatures with remarkably developed brains. They could have taught us much if we had only listened.” “Man has been both blind and ignorant in the pursuit of the whale.” Instead of learning from the past where whaling is concerned, Darby seems to suggest, we have failed to learn from it, with the result that even now there are countries – Iceland, Japan, Norway and others – that launch their whaling ships and continue to pursue the seagoing mammals.

      If Darby’s concerns with the past focus on global issues of the present, those of Richard Brookhiser – also a journalist and historian – focus more narrowly on the United States. His George Washington on Leadership is the latest in a years-long series of books by numerous authors, purporting to find secrets of success for today in the thinking of well-known leaders of yesterday. This always involves some twisting both of words and of history: Washington’s famed military successes are only marginally related to modern business issues, or even to military matters in our time. So Brookhiser’s chapter titles can be a bit fanciful: “Start-ups,” “Small Stuff,” “Sex…and Drugs,” “Bringing Out the Best,” and so on. Still, Brookhiser – who has also written about Alexander Hamilton, the Adamses and other Founders – does a good job of mining Washington’s life for nuggets of wisdom and experience that can translate into modern-day value. Washington did cope with unexpected setbacks in resourceful ways, whether by creating the first mass inoculation against smallpox or by fighting back politically after being condemned for his role in the French and Indian War. And it is certainly possible, as Brookhiser suggests, that some elements of Washington’s personality perceived as flaws (even by his contemporaries) in fact indicated subtlety of mind. Thus, Brookhiser comments on Washington’s reserve at public functions: “Thomas Jefferson thought Washington was just a bad talker. …But Washington had good reason to keep his own counsel [when] he was surrounded by quarrels and contending ambitions. …On many of the issues of the day, Washington had to have a policy. If he had not yet formed one, he needed to keep his options open. If he had formed one, he had to avoid picking needless fights (there were enough unavoidable fights already).” Perhaps it is inevitable during a presidential election year, but even though Brookhiser writes about the applicability of Washington’s talents to the business world, it seems again and again as if the first president of the United States had abilities that would most readily translate into virtues for those who wish to succeed him – if they would only listen more and talk less.


Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; La mer; Jeux: Poème dansé; Children’s Corner. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $8.99.

Stanford: Symphony No. 3, “Irish”; Symphony No. 6, “In honour of the life-work of a great artist: George Frederick Watts.”
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd-Jones. Naxos. $8.99.

Dvořàk: Symphony No. 6; Vodnik (The Water Goblin).
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam conducted by Yakov Kreizberg. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     In the best classical performances, both the composer and the conductor use the orchestra to maximum effect, working together (even when years or centuries apart) in creating a sonic experience that expresses the composer’s intentions. This is just what happens in the new Debussy CD by Jun Märkl and the Orchestre National de Lyon. Most of the music on this disc is quite familiar – perhaps especially so to a French orchestra like this – but no one in this orchestra plays these works as if doing a run-through of something performed far too many times before. In fact, Märkl handles each work as if he has studied it thoroughly and knows just where to place the orchestral emphasis for maximum effectiveness. Thus, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune excels not only in the opening flute solo but also in the sensitivity throughout to the subtleties of orchestration and rhythmic changes. La mer is also subtle and is carefully measured, with plenty of enthusiasm where needed but without any attempt to turn it into a traditional symphonic poem. Jeux: Poème dansé, the least-known work on this CD, gets a sensitive performance that emphasizes the careful rhythmic structure of what is, after all, a ballet score. And Children’s Corner, written for piano by Debussy and heard here in André Caplet’s orchestration, is effectively conveyed as a series of miniatures, mostly in moderate tempo and low volume – delicacy, so important to so much of Debussy’s work, is the dominant feature here. The best thing about this Naxos CD may be that it is labeled “Orchestral Works 1,” which implies that there will be more Debussy to come from this ensemble and conductor. That is a most welcome prospect.

      David Lloyd-Jones and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra offer equally fine performances in the third volume of their cycle of symphonies by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, but the music itself is of lesser quality, so the CD earns a (+++) rating. With this disc, Naxos has presented all Stanford’s symphonies except (oddly) the first, and it is clear that this composer had an excellent structural sense and fine command of orchestration, but not really very much to say within symphonic form. Certainly he had little new to say: his symphonies speak the melodic and harmonic language of works from Mendelssohn’s time to Brahms’, but never go farther. Stanford’s Symphony No. 3, in F Minor, is the more successful of the two here, because the frequent occurrence of Irish folk tunes helps lighten the rather heavy-handed orchestration of the work. This symphony dates to 1887 and was popular in its time and for some years thereafter, and it is worth an occasional rehearing even now: it very well put together, with impressive solidity. The Symphony No. 6, In E-flat Major, dates to 1905 but speaks the same harmonic language as No. 3, and it is a more difficult work to enjoy. Its elaborate subtitle labels it an occasional piece – the occasion being the death of George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), a highly regarded artist and sculptor in his time but one whose reputation today does not seem to support a monumental work such as Stanford’s. The prominence of the work’s subtitle leads an audience to expect some direct connection with Watts – the work is not merely dedicated to him but is actually named for him. But the symphony does not appear to be programmatic, and whatever contemporary meaning it may have had has been lost in the last century (although, in truth, it was not especially popular even when first performed). The work’s slow movement, its longest, never quite emerges as an elegy or tribute, as one would expect of an extended “Adagio molto espressivo.” Perhaps the symphony’s most effective moment is the tying-together of the rather brief scherzo with the opening of the finale. Both Stanford symphonies are very well played on this CD, but neither of them is sit-up-and-take-notice music.

      Yakov Kreizberg’s new SACD of Dvořàk’s Symphony No. 6 is a sit-up-and-take-notice release, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. His disc gets a (++) rating, and only because it contains a very fine rendition of The Water Goblin, an excellent and underperformed late Dvořàk fairy-tale tone poem. The symphony, though, is almost a complete disaster, with a first movement so execrable that, on its own, it would not even earn a (+) rating. Kreizberg conducts this movement as if he wishes Dvořàk were Bruckner; also, he conducts as if Dvořàk did not really know what he wanted his music to sound like, so Kreizberg must decide for him. The awfulness of this performance is truly epic. Kreizberg refuses to keep the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra Amsterdam at the same tempo for more than a couple of minutes. By three minutes into the movement, the whole work has run out of steam – slowing to an agonizing crawl – and there have already been several slowdowns and speedups. They continue nearly constantly throughout a movement that lasts some three minutes longer than usual (because so much of it is so excruciatingly slow). Dvořàk’s triumphal tutti sections sound like lumbering elephant stampedes; Kreizberg anticipates every climax by slowing down before it occurs; he slows down before the recapitulation as if to signal, “here it comes”; and he ends with very dull and very slow final chords. There is no flow to this usually sunny movement and practically no joy: the few remnants of its many beauties are only those that Kreizberg has been unable, for all his trying, to extinguish.

      The rest of the symphony is better only by comparison. The Adagio is taken quickly and is rather light – pleasant enough, but never charming. Instrumental detail is good, but there are more of those unnecessary slowdowns, and the one more-intense section seems an afterthought rather than a mood change. The third movement, nearly always a surefire success, comes across best, with lovely instrumental touches in its slower central section. But even in this movement, Kreizberg must insert some unnecessary slowdowns to spoil the momentum. The finale lurches: a big slowdown as the main theme begins, then a speedup, then another slowdown – as if this movement (as well as the first one) were built with Brucknerian architecture and tempo changes. Kreizberg telegraphs the coda with another slowdown, then makes the coda itself speedy until a really big slowdown near the end, with a confusion of speed and slowness at the very conclusion. This 2006 performance is just lamentably bad – in strong contrast to the 2005 performance of The Water Goblin, in which perhaps Kreizberg thought he had less to prove. Starting quickly and lightly, this piece progresses through episodic sections and fast mood changes, as Kreizberg brings out the composer’s intentions instead of trying to second-guess him at every turn. There is real eeriness in the evocation of the watery depths, menace in many of the iterations of the eight-note “goblin” theme, and fine attention to instrumental coloration. You can practically hear the goblin growling and pacing as he awaits the return of his human bride, who fails to come back in time and whose half-goblin child pays the price. By the time the piece dies out very quietly, it has packed a great deal of emotional turbulence into 20 minutes. The Kreizberg who led this work is a conductor of stature and sensitivity. The one who conducted the symphony, though, is an amateurish tinkerer with music that he appears not to understand or appreciate in the slightest.


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 5. François-Frédéric Guy, piano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Philippe Jordan. Naïve. $16.99.

Messiaen: La transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ; Visions de l’Amen; Sept Haïkï; Couleurs de la cite céleste; Un vitrail et des oiseaux; Oiseaux exotiques; Des canyons aux étoiles... Various artists. Naïve. $41.99 (6 CDs).

      The French recording firm Naïve is distinctive in several ways. One is in design: its single-CD packages are the most consistently elegant on the market, featuring cardboard rather than plastic cases, artistically designed packages in which the predominant case color matches the color of the CD itself, and extensive booklets (which tuck neatly into a slot in the front of each case) that not only discuss the music but also give the performers themselves a chance to say something about it. Another is its sense of purpose: this is a label dedicated to French performers of all sorts of music – and to French music by all sorts of performers. Although not every release on Naïve is absolutely first-class, all are well done and appealingly presented.

      Two new Naïve recordings neatly focus on the label’s two musical concerns, and both are outstanding. There are many, many recordings of Beethoven’s piano concertos available, but François-Frédéric Guy and Philippe Jordan manage to produce one that is quite different from most others. This is surely the most Mozartean version of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto recorded in recent years. The very quiet opening of the first movement – beautifully played by Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France – sets the stage for a performance that is distinctly non-overwhelming, and is all the more intriguing for that. In fact, the quiet sections, such as the start and finish of the second movement, are most impressive throughout; and so is Guy’s playing, which is exuberant when it should be and restrained when that is more appropriate. Too many pianists handle this concerto as if it looks ahead to later Beethoven, with crashing chords and full use of a modern concert grand’s resources. Not Guy. He treats the work with delicacy – reflective of the pianos in use when it was written, although he does play on a modern one – and pays close attention to thematic lines, rhythmic changes and a dynamic range that is appropriate without being as wide as it would become in the Romantic era. The result is a balance between piano and orchestra that allows inner voices and individual-instrument highlights to come through very clearly – an accomplished reading all around. It is almost endearing that Guy’s brief booklet essay incorrectly says that this CD contains “le premier et le dernier des concertos.” In fact, No. 1 was the second composed among the five that bear numbers (there are also an early E-flat concerto and a piano arrangement of the Violin Concerto).

      That Guy’s restraint in Concerto No. 1 is deliberate is quite clear from the opening of Concerto No. 5. The “Emperor” was written at a time when piano capabilities had expanded significantly, and it is a far more forceful work than No. 1 – it would have been called “more masculine” in less politically correct times. Here, from the piano flourishes at the opening of the first movement, Guy offers a much more outgoing performance, although he and Jordan remain attuned throughout to the more lyrical sections of the piece. This is an expansive reading, and some listeners may find that the first movement drags a bit in places. The second, though, is quite lovely, not the afterthought of an intermezzo into which some recordings turn it. And the finale is martial and potent without being bombastic, striding along strongly without falling into empty theatricality. This is middle-period Beethoven – there are no late-Beethoven piano concertos – and Guy and Jordan clearly have a good sense of the work’s proportion and style, as well as a level of mutual respect that leads to exemplary give-and-take between soloist and orchestra. It will be most interesting to see how they handle the rest of the Beethoven concertos – Naïve recordings of those will be forthcoming.

      If the Beethoven CD shows Naïve’s commitment to French performers’ handling of the non-French repertoire, the six-CD set entitled Olivier Messiaen, 1908-1992 shows the firm’s other side. The works here are connected, rather loosely, by having mostly religious themes, although that is a bit of a stretch when it comes to the bird-themed ones (Messiaen was an ornithologist as well as a composer and organist). In truth, this set is a grab-bag of Messiaen, not including any of his best-known pieces but focusing on a number of very worthy ones that show his fascinating handling of rhythm and harmony and his unusual instrumental colorations. The earliest work here is Visions de l’Amen, for two pianos (1942-3). Oiseaux exotiques dates to 1955-6; Sept haïkaï to 1962; Couleurs de la cité céleste to 1963; and Un vitrail et des oiseaux (“Stained-glass Window and Birds”) to 1986. These four works, collected here on one CD, are for solo piano and orchestra or instrumental ensemble. La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, written from 1965 to 1969, is the largest-scale piece in this collection, written for large 10-part chorus, piano solo, cello solo, flute solo, clarinet solo, xylorimba solo, vibraphone solo and large orchestra. Des canyons aux étoiles… (the ellipsis is part of the title) is a 12-movement work from 1971-4 and quite complex in its own way, although it uses more modest forces: solo piano, solo horn, solo glockenspiel, solo xylorimba, and small orchestra with 13 string players. Messiaen’s fondness for the xylorimba (which, despite its name, is a xylophone with an extended range, not a combination of the xylophone and marimba) is just one piece of evidence of his concern for extended tonal coloration and unusual instrumental combinations. All the performers on these CDs are impressive, with Pierre Boulez especially good conducting the piano-and-orchestra pieces and Reinbert de Leeuw outstanding as conductor of both large-ensemble works and one of the pianists in Visions de l’Amen (the other being Maarten Bon). Even listeners familiar with Messiaen may not know all the pieces performed here; those who have heard little or none of his music will be surprised by its depth, complexity and occasional outright strangeness. As a tribute to a major 20th-century French composer whose artistic vision was uniquely his, this set is an unqualified success – and a clear reflection of one element of what may be called the Naïve ethos.

June 12, 2008


This Is the Part Where You Pretend to Add Value: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Home Sweat Home: A “For Better or For Worse” Collection. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

X-Treme Parenting: A “Baby Blues” Treasury. By Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Take Our Cat, Please! A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.

Get past the acknowledged masterpieces of the comic-strip medium – Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Walt Kelly’s Pogo and a few others – and it can be hard to pin down just what “classic” means and which strips fit the definition. Certainly Peanuts qualifies, and Charles Schulz’s strip continues to run years after its creator’s death, often labeled Classic Peanuts. But what about such strips as Blondie and Prince Valiant, whose creators have long since passed on and whose current versions – drawn by different artists – have only a marginal relationship to the characteristics that made the original strips so famous? And what about strips whose authors are very much alive and still producing high-quality work – at what point does it make sense to designate those strips “classics”?

While trying to figure all this out, you can have a lot of fun reading recent collections of three strips that really are the classics of today, and one that has the potential to become one. Dilbert is as classic as they come, with its three-panel (rather than four-panel) weekday format, its focus on dialogue rather than action, its unending relevance to the real world (from which Scott Adams takes a number of his stories), and its wonderful use of utter absurdity in ways that make altogether too much sense. The latest Dilbert collection, which is in full color, includes a series in which Dogbert straps on tall pants and an old-fashioned hairpiece so he can run for president – promising to take money from people who don’t vote for him and give it to ones who do; a “coffee-swilling beaver” hired by the Pointy-Haired Boss to show people how to work faster; Ratbert’s demonstration of how to empty the brain by repeating the names of vapid celebrities; sensors to “alert management any time the pleasure areas of your brain have more blood flow,” so managers can stop people from being happy and refocus them on work; and much, much more – all of it thoroughly absurd and at the same time absolutely true. If that’s not classic, what is?

Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse ties even more strongly into the real world, and in fact rarely seems like a comic strip at all – it is more of an illustrated ongoing family story with equal numbers of amusing and heart-tugging episodes. The latest Johnston collection contains a number of life-changing events: a fire that ousts Michael, Deanna and their kids from their home and forces them to move back into the Patterson house – leading to predictable crowding and bad tempers, but also to new opportunities (as in real life); Grandpa Jim’s slow, incomplete recovery from a stroke; teenage April’s mild experiments with sex; and Elizabeth’s rediscovery of her old love, Anthony, now divorced and with a child, after she herself has been dumped by her boyfriend. A straightforward description of For Better or For Worse makes it sound like more of a soap opera than it is: what makes this strip classic is Johnston’s enviable balancing of tears and laughter, not any wallowing in the former.

To wallow in the latter – in laughter, that is – you can turn to another, very different family strip, Baby Blues, whose two most recent small-format collections have now been reissued in oversize “Treasury” format with color Sunday pages. Rick Kirkman’s art and Jerry Scott’s writing create an inimitable, always-endearing portrait of parents with young kids. It’s the well-differentiated personalities that make this strip so much fun. Hammie, middle child and only boy, loves spinning around until he gets dizzy, while bossy older sister Zoe remarks, “Not everyone looks at nausea as recreation.” Baby Wren has started crawling and getting into things, and in one hilarious Sunday strip is the only one who can lock dad Darryl’s new cell phone, leading Darryl to complain about being “at the bottom of the technology food chain.” In fact, a lot of the Sunday strips are especially wonderful, from the one in which the family members curl up, one at a time, and fall asleep next to each other on the floor; to the one recounting Darryl’s “odyssey” of grocery shopping with the kids with a mock-Homeric illustration (and Homer Simpson dressed as Homer the bard, to boot); to the great single-panel one in which mom Wanda teaches “really effective birth control” to three young women simply by trying to juggle the needs of all three of her kids at the same time while saying, “Being a parent is actually a lot harder than it looks.” A special treat here is the full-color presentation of a Baby Blues sequence that is a classic in every sense: a Christmas story in which Zoe and Hammie wish for – and get – every gift in the world, and find out that that doesn’t make them happy.

There is nothing at this level in Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy, but Conley’s strip continues to improve and become more pointed and funnier, so even if it has not attained “modern classic” status, it at least has a shot at getting there. The newest Get Fuzzy collection is the best yet – Conley is definitely getting better over time – with dumb-but-lovable pooch Satchel getting more of the strip’s focus…an excellent decision, since he provides such a wonderful contrast to Bucky Katt’s constant bluster, foul mouth and delusions of grandeur. Bucky still victimizes Satchel, but now Conley makes sure there are limits beyond which Satchel will not be pushed, as when the pooch brings the cat a phone book that Bucky wants, Bucky complains that he wanted the two-volume book, and Satchel rips the single-volume one in half. The weakness of the strip continues to be Rob Wilco, the human with whom cat and dog live, because he is a loser but not a lovable one: stick-thin arms and legs, very hairy body, no social life, preoccupation with rugby and the Red Sox, and very few redeeming characteristics. When he tries to convince a depressed Satchel that “the world is not a totally evil place,” his reassurances fall mostly flat; and when he injures his back and needs help from his animals and his brother, Roger, it is hard to care much. But readers will care about the dog-and-cat show, more in this book than before, and it is the Bucky-Satchel byplay that gives Get Fuzzy the potential to become the kind of top-notch strip that Conley so clearly would like it to be.