November 26, 2008


Weather: The Ultimate Book of Meteorological Events. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $40.

The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. By Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade. $24.99.

     Books make wonderful gifts for Christmas or any other special occasion, and some books, by their design and heft, really cry out to be used for gift-giving. Weather, assembled from material by the contributors of the Weather Guide Calendar, is both gorgeous to look at and tremendously informative. It is as up-to-date as worries about climate change and possible desertification, and as aware of the past as the history of the still-inexact science of forecasting. The photos are the first things you will notice, and they are simply magnificent: the Grand Canyon’s South Rim as cloud-to-ground lightning strikes; a huge tornado over Kansas, photographed from a small plane; the illusion of three suns over northern Canada, as a polar bear walks by; clouds of all shapes and sizes; the inside of an ice cave; closeup views of the gorgeous geometry of snowflakes – these and many other photos make Weather a feast for the eyes. And it nourishes the brain, too. A timeline of major events in meteorology runs from 600 B.C. to the present. A discussion of North American storm tracks explains why some areas consistently get hit much harder than others. An article on Robert Fitzroy, captain of HMS Beagle, explains his complex relationship with Charles Darwin as well as his invention of a barometer still used today. Another writeup discusses Andrew Ellicott Douglass, an astronomer by training who invented the science of studying tree rings, now used to diagnose the effects of air and water pollution. There are essays on lightning, Earth’s auroras, winds and storms (including dust storms, hurricanes and waterspouts), plus plenty of information on rain and snow and ice and other forms of water. Weather makes a lovely gift in any season for anyone with an interest in the ways the world around us affects our everyday lives – or for someone who simply wants to marvel at some splendid photographs that capture the fascinating phenomena that surround all of us.

     The fascination of The Lincolns is of a different type. Now that a new President of the United States has been elected, many people are wondering how he will measure up against the nation’s greatest leaders – one of whom was indisputably Lincoln. But The Lincolns is more a family album than a book of political analysis. Indeed, even when it delves into politics, as it must, it generally does so from a personal angle, as when Mary Lincoln responds to someone who compares her husband’s looks unfavorably to those of another politician: “Mr. Lincoln may not be as handsome a figure…but the people are perhaps not aware that his heart is as large as his arms are long.” Mary, born Mary Todd, was not young Abraham’s first love, and there is information here on that woman, Ann Rutledge, who died (probably of typhoid) in 1835; and also on Abraham’s second love, Mary Owens – who appears in one of the many fascinating photographs that Candace Fleming includes in the book. Here you will find a Lincoln pay stub, pictures of his friends and family, official Matthew Brady photographs of the newly elected President and First Lady – and a picture of the latter’s dressmaker, a former slave who had previously made dresses for the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. There is considerable material on the Civil War, including information often omitted from traditional history books – such as the strong objections to the Emancipation Proclamation among Northern soldiers who were fighting from loyalty and patriotism and did not want to die for the freedom of blacks. But even in its pages on the war, The Lincolns focuses on the personal as much as possible, with a photo of one of Lincoln’s stovepipe hats, an anecdote about the President’s lack of appetite, a frightening dream he had near the war’s end, even Mary Lincoln’s accusation that Andrew Johnson “had some hand in” Lincoln’s assassination. The book continues through Mary’s death in 1882, touching on the couple’s children and grandchildren – and making it clear that the triumphs and tragedies of this family affected not only the nation as a whole but also, very deeply, the family members themselves. Large in size and laid out in an old-fashioned design and typeface, The Lincolns beautifully reflects the era of which Fleming writes – and also stands as a book very much worth considering in the 21st century, as today’s families await the inauguration of the nation’s first black president in January.


The Eclectic Abecedarium. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $9.95.

The Sopping Thursday. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

The Hapless Child. By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

     The 100 or so books by Edward Gorey (1925-2000) are not for everybody, and in particular are not for the faint of heart or tender of soul. Gorey was a master of intricate pen work and of the macabre, a combination that led him to create works ranging from the whimsical (such as his animated opening for Masterpiece Theater) to the decidedly downbeat (such as any number of his books; this was his default setting). Anyone who feels overcome by the often-artificial cheer of the current holiday season will find Gorey a welcome antidote, although it does help to take him with a grain of salt or two (sometimes three).

     The Eclectic Abecedarium is somewhat atypical Gorey, being a miniature book (his first, originally published in 1983) and a comparatively benign one. It is, after all, merely the umpteenth march through the alphabet that most readers will have encountered, with tiny illustrations (originally five-eighths of an inch by one inch, here printed slightly larger) and two-line poems written by Gorey himself. This is a fairly mild introduction to Gorey for those unfamiliar with him, and it is quite enjoyable in its own right. “Pick up loose Crumbs/Upon your thumbs,” for example, shows a child standing on a chair doing just that – while the table sports a teapot nearly as big as the child himself. “There is an Eye/Up in the sky” gets closer to typical Gorey oddity, and the Eye is not shown – the picture is of someone gazing upward through the clouds. “In sorting Kelp/Be quick to help” also has an odd and typical Gorey flavor to it, as does “Be sure a Mouse/Lurks in the house.” Then there is “On any road/May sit a Toad,” the amphibian being nearly half the size of the person encountering it; and “Beware the Vine/Which can entwine,” whose illustration makes it seem that the plant is about to reach out and ensnare an unwitting victim. There’s more than a touch of Gorey’s gorier side there.

     The Sopping Thursday takes a step farther into Gorey’s world. First published in 1970, and now available with illustrations in the original size, it is a book about an oddly skewed rainy day, consisting of merely 30 images and 30 lines of text – with all the outdoor pictures being marvelously detailed in-the-rain views. An umbrella is missing; a loyal dog goes to find it; and while the dog searches, various people comment on the rain while carrying umbrellas; a mysterious all-black figure “stole Mrs. Gumbash’s umbrella”; a man tries to purchase an umbrella, eventually giving up in frustration after concluding that “none of these umbrellas will do”; and after some time the dog, Bruno, finds his master’s umbrella with a child in it, about to go down the sewer – and rescues both child and umbrella. A happy ending? Well, yes, for the umbrella; but this is a Gorey book, and at the end the child is sitting unsheltered in the pouring rain, being scolded by an adult whose head is invisible behind an umbrella, because “that was very naughty of you.” The Sopping Thursday is an odd little book, the world it portrays skewed just enough toward the strange and surreal so it is hard to decide how to react to the story.

     For the full Gorey treatment, though, aficionados – and only aficionados – will want The Hapless Child, Gorey’s long-out-of-print 1961 Dickensian story of the terrible misfortunes of a little girl. This is dark, dark material, showing Gorey at his best – or worst, depending on your point of view. The new edition presents the beautifully detailed illustrations in their original size, making it easy for readers to follow Charlotte Sophia’s tragic story, from the disappearance and presumed death of her caring and well-to-do father, to the decline and death of her harried mother, to her placement in a boarding school whose students tear apart her only doll, Hortense…after which things only get worse. Charlotte ends up enslaved to a drunken brute, pitifully making paper flowers while losing her eyesight, until eventually she gets away and meets a pathetic end when hit by a car driven by….her father, who is not dead after all but no longer recognizes the much-changed child. It is all too sad for words, but not too sad for words plus Gorey’s illustrations, which render this pseudo-Victorian tale of pathos and tragedy with grace and a sort of peculiar beauty, as well as with genuine strangeness: is that some sort of small demon climbing the wall at the end, then flying away? This really is vintage Gorey, but it is a vintage that many people will not care to sample. Those who find Gorey’s work salutary, however, will find The Hapless Child very bracing indeed – in the gloomiest possible way, of course.


How to Make a Cherry Pie and See the U.S.A. By Marjorie Priceman. Knopf. $16.99.

Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie. By Norton Juster. Pictures by Chris Raschka. Michael D. Capua/Scholastic. $16.95.

Doo-Wop Pop. By Roni Schotter. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. Amistad/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Looking for Miza: The True Story of the Mountain Gorilla Family Who Rescued One of Their Own. By Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu. Photographs by Peter Greste. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Kids in the four-to-eight age range will have a great time taking virtual tours of many different places through these well-written and delightfully illustrated books. How to Make a Cherry Pie and See the U.S.A. is Marjorie Priceman’s wholly successful attempt to create a followup to How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World (1994). Like that earlier book, this one takes a young baker (accompanied by her dog) on a quest to obtain all the ingredients – including raw materials – necessary to make a pie. That means getting, among other things, coal, cotton, clay and granite, in a quest that starts with a perfectly lovely recipe for cherry pie and soon leads to a taxi ride from New York to “the corner of Pennsylvania and Ohio,” where coal (needed to make steel, which is used in pie pans) is mined. Then the trip continues to such places as Louisiana (cotton for pot holders), Washington state (wood for a rolling pin), Hawaii (sand to make glass for a measuring cup), and so on. There is granite (for a pastry slab) from New Hampshire (which “can usually be found between Maine and Vermont”), oil (for plastic spoons) from Texas, and so on – leading eventually to a tongue-in-cheek at-home manufacturing process that results in…well, a cherry pie, of course. The book is fun to read, fun to look at and fun to learn from – and families can try the pie recipe together.

     Speaking of families: Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie is all about what happens when one little girl, who has nice and not-so-nice sides to her personality, visits her grandparents. This too is a followup – to the 2006 Caldecott Medal book The Hello, Goodbye Window. Chris Raschka’s delightfully childlike paintings here enliven a Norton Juster story in which Nanna and Poppy are unsure which grandchild is visiting – Sourpuss or Sweetie Pie. “Most of the time I really am Sweetie Pie,” the little girl explains. “But sometimes I can be a real Sourpuss. Like when…I don’t want to do what I’m supposed to do, especially right now.” The back-and-forth of the girl’s personalities is the charm here, with “I’m going to take care of you” to Poppy on one page and “I won’t wear any of the things you put out for me, Nanna” on the next. There’s an especially dramatic two-page temper tantrum midway through the book, but it soon passes: “Sometimes you can go from Sourpuss to Sweetie Pie so quick.” The grandparents eventually put the girl(s) to bed, wondering who will be there in the morning – an open-ended conclusion that will give parents (or grandparents) a great chance to discuss behavior with their very own Sourpusses and Sweetie Pies.

     The personalities highlighted in Doo-Wop Pop are of a different sort. This is the story of a school janitor named Mr. Searle who used to be a lead singer with a doo-wop band called the Icicles. So the kids in school call him Doo-Wop Pop – and it turns out he has some things to teach them. There’s rhythmic rhyming throughout Roni Schotter’s text, written in the voice of shy Elijah Earl: “I don’t speak. I just stare at my jeans. I’m not stupid! I know what he means.” Doo-Wop Pop gets Elijah and some of the other loners, the shy kids, together after school, shows them some dance moves, and tells them to find their own music: “The very next day, we start to meet, and like Mr. Searle told us, we listen for the beat.” The kids collect sounds (pencils scribbling, basketball dribbling, paper folding, teachers scolding) and turn them into doo-wop – and those five shy kids end up performing, first in the stairwell, then on the school stage. This is a story of finding yourself, learning what’s inside, and discovering how to express it – guided by someone who has been there himself. Bryan Collins’ mural-like illustrations nicely express the students’ initial uncertainty and later bursts of joy.

     All these books are fiction, but there are real-world adventures for ages 4-8 as well. Looking for Miza, from the same Hatkoff family that produced the stories of Owen and Mzee (a hippo and tortoise that became fast friends) and Knut (a polar-bear cub), is the tale of a baby gorilla in the Democratic Republic of Congo and her remarkable rescue by her own family of great apes. Miza and her mother, Lessinjina, disappear one day while searching for food, but Miza’s father, Kabirizi – leader of the largest family of mountain gorillas in the area – successfully finds the baby, although not the mother. In simple language and with stunning photos by Peter Greste, Looking for Miza explains what happens when the baby, too young to be separated from her mother, struggles to adapt after her rescue. The story is basically a happy one – Miza survives and thrives – but as in any real-world tale, it has many loose ends, and the authors do not gloss them over. What happened to Miza and her mother remains unknown; Lessinjina has never been found. Still, the book carefully draws legitimate comparisons between the gorilla family and readers’ human ones: “Miza’s story…shows that family care and protection can help one get strong and feel secure. It shows that dedicated people can help endangered animals survive.” And that is an excellent message for young children – and their caring parents – to take with them after the book ends.


Best Food Writing 2008. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $15.95.

He Is…I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond. By David Wild. Da Capo. $25.

     Defiantly for niche audiences, these books will please the senses of taste and hearing, respectively, for those of the right gustatory and auditory inclinations. Best Food Writing 2008, the ninth in an annual series that began in 2000, collects 48 essays from a wide variety of sources into eight categories: “Food Fights,” “Dining Around,” “The Restaurant Biz,” “Someone’s in the Kitchen,” “Technique,” “Stocking the Pantry,” “The Meat of the Matter,” and “Personal Tastes.” Some of the writing comes from places you would expect to be part of this sort of anthology: Food & Wine, The New Yorker, Bon Appetit, The New York Times, Gourmet, etc. But other essays are from less-expected places: Wired, Hogwash, Raleigh-Durham News & Observer. Whether these articles are the “best” of the year is, of course, arguable, but most are certainly entertaining. We have “The Art of the Biscuit” and “The Belly of the Beast”; “Butter: A Love Story” and “I Melt with You”; “Yes, Virginia, They Do Eat Guinea Pigs” and “Losing My Carnivirginity: The Diary of a Lapsed Vegetarian” and “Why Vegetarians Are Eating Meat.” There may not be something here for everyone, but there are plenty of somethings for plenty of people who enjoy both fine food and fine writing. The styles are in fact as variable as the topics. In “The Surprise Slice of My Cook’s Tour,” from The Washington Post, Jane Black writes about culinary tourists, “Even the simplest things must be off the beaten path: If it’s papa al pomodoro, the simple Tuscan bread and tomato soup, the (stale) bread had better be homemade, and, if possible, the soup should be cooked over a fire made by rubbing two sticks together.” In “Fat, Glorious Fat, Moves to the Center of the Plate,” from The New York Times, Frank Bruni writes that “bellies (most often pork, more recently lamb) are the counterculture’s LSD. Its Timothy Leary might well be David Chang, the chef at Momofuku, where steamed buns are filled with strips of pork belly. Or maybe it’s Zak Pelaccio, the chef at the tellingly named restaurant Fatty Crab. One of its best-selling dishes, called the fatty duck, takes strips of a bird not exactly known for its leanness, dusts them with cornstarch and deep-fries them.” Of course – and this is an inevitable flaw in Best Food Writing 2008 – the articles are tied to particular times and places. Restaurants change management, change menus, go out of business; book readers may find specific essays intriguing but have no way to follow up on them (the book contains only 11 recipes). And even a regional approach to a matter of national interest, such as heritage foods and “eating local,” may leave readers…err…hungering for more. Thus, “Lost Foods Reclaimed,” from The Philadelphia Inquirer, refers to Neshaminy Creek, Bridgetown Pike, Morrisville, the Wissahickon and Bucks County as if they are in readers’ back yards – which they are, for Philadelphians. Still, if these essays are not incontrovertibly the best of the year and not definitive in their subject areas for a broad audience, they are certainly creative and interesting in their own right, and their own write, as in Jason Sheehan’s “Mr. Wizard” from Denver’s alternative weekly, WestWord: “‘I’m one chemical away from making my own Twinkies,’ he added, as if this was a good thing, and then he convinced me that it was.”

     The writing is less bright and the subject more limited in He Is..I Say, David Wild’s tribute to the often-maligned musicianship of Neil Diamond. Wild, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, is well aware that Diamond is considered far from hip by many fans and critics of rock music. But Wild remains a major admirer – to such an extent that He Is…I Say borders on hagiography. “I would argue that it was Diamond’s grown-up masculinity and transparent brooding intensity that would allow Barry and Greenwich’s sublimely constructed recordings to transform him into a real, iconic star.” “Neil Diamond proved once again that he would do whatever it took to continue to grow as an artist and get his share of control in art, in business, and in life.” “If Diamond had been struggling to truly move past his Bang recordings, he won that struggle with the heavenly help of Brother Love, which brought the world the most soul-satisfying sermon yet in the gospel according to Neil.” “As Diamond’s music grew more and more introspective and searching, his audience now seemed inclined to follow anywhere he would dare to take them.” And so on – and on and on. Calling Diamond “the Jewish Elvis,” Wild positively glows over nearly everything the singer has done, with the result that the book reads more like an extended fanzine than a critical (or reasonably objective) tracing of Diamond’s art and its place in rock history. Wild uses exclusive interviews and well-researched behind-the-scenes information to construct He Is…I Say, but the book so obviously starts from a position of near-worship, and so clearly remains there throughout, that it is difficult to read as biography, as analysis, or as anything more than an outpouring of adoration. For the vast majority of readers and music fans, He Is…I Say gets a (++) rating, because if you do not share Wild’s enthusiasm for Neil Diamond, you will find this book to be very tough going indeed.


Panda Classics: Piano Time; March Time; Dance Time. Naxos. $19.99 (3 CDs).

Panda Classics: Toon Time. Naxos. $14.99 (2 CDs).

     Here’s a really great way to get the youngest children involved in classical music – either in your family or, through gifts, in others. Naxos has put together kid-friendly packages of short tunes and entire brief pieces drawn from the company’s very extensive catalogue, giving young children a chance to hear a lot of familiar music in its original form. These are serious performances, not jazzed-up ones designed specifically for kids; that is to say, the music is not “dumbed down” in any way. In fact, the performances are simply repackagings of CDs in the existing Naxos catalogue, originally recorded between 1987 and this year. The nice thing about this arrangement is that it makes the “Panda Classics” CDs into “classical gateways” for kids: if children especially enjoy some of the short works here (a Brahms Hungarian Dance, for example) and decide they want to hear more, parents will be able to buy full Naxos CDs (say, the complete Brahms Hungarian Dances) for future gift-giving occasions.

     The three-CD set may require parents to have some familiarity with classical music in order to get children involved. Otherwise, for young ears, there will simply be some interesting piano, march and dance music and some of less interest. Parents with knowledge of the works included on the CDs will be better able to choose ones their kids will enjoy. For instance, Mozart’s “Variations on a French Song” for piano is actually variations on the tune known in English as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” while Beethoven’s “Für Elise” is a perennially popular work often taught to young piano students. The CD of marches may be even more accessible, including such super-popular tunes as Sousa’s “The Stars & Stripes Forever” and Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette.” And the CD of dances will be the most…well, danceable: here are Tchaikovsky’s “Russian Dance” from The Nutcracker, a ballet that many children may already have seen, plus Khachaturian’s highly melodious waltz from his Masquerade Suite, and much more. There are two dozen “Piano Time” tracks, 22 for “March Time” and 18 for “Dance Time,” all of them complete and uncut – so parents who are not highly involved in classical music, but who know enough so they can initially introduce their children to a few familiar pieces, will have plenty of opportunities to expand both their kids’ musical interests and their own. And there is more fun for kids here than just the three-plus hours of music: the packaging includes three coloring sheets, six colored pencils with which to draw on them, and three sheets of stickers – all nice bonuses to keep small hands busy while small ears are occupied with the music.

     The “Toon Time” two-CD set is more focused and has the potential to be even more fun for families whose children enjoy classic cartoons, especially the great Warner Brothers “Looney Tunes” and Walt Disney’s wonderful 1940 film, Fantasia. Those are the sources primarily associated with the two-and-a-half hours of music here, with Fantasia taking up the entire second CD. In fact, that CD traces almost the entire film, except that instead of the movie’s abridgments of such works as Beethoven’s “Pastorale” symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, the CD includes complete elements – such as the full second movement of the Beethoven and the entire “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Tchaikovsky. This CD is a wonderful way to re-enjoy the Disney film or to re-experience it at times when it is impractical to watch the movie itself – during short drives, for example. As for the first CD, it offers complete versions of many works popularized by the wonderful Warner Brothers animators – the pieces being in some cases longer than the six-minute cartoons themselves. So now kids can hear the entire Barber of Seville overture, the complete Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Johann Strauss Jr.’s whole Blue Danube Waltz, and much more – as well as complete versions of pieces that really are extremely short, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s minute-and-a-half Flight of the Bumblebee. The only thing parents need to watch out for with this CD is the possibility that kids will enjoy the music so much that they will insist parents go out and buy the cartoons in which the music is used. But of course, that would just produce another opportunity for family bonding. And what could be wrong with get-togethers built around toons featuring all these wonderful tunes?


Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony; The Voyevoda. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $8.99.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on the Bare Mountain; The Sorochinsky Fair: Introduction; Khovanshchina: Prelude; Dance of the Persian Slave Girls. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Carlo Ponti. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     The sweep and passion of 19th-century Russian music continue to make it irresistible to audiences and conductors alike. But its popularity comes at a price: performance expectations for the works of such composers as Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky are very high, and even a perfectly serviceable approach that might be more than acceptable is the music of (for example) Anatol Liadov or César Cui does not quite attain top ranking in the works of more-often-played composers.

     This is true even when the works themselves are not among a composer’s best known. Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, based on a poem by Byron that is a variant of Goethe’s Faust and that also inspired Schumann and others, has never attained the popularity of the composer’s other late symphonies (it was written between Nos. 4 and 5). It is a huge, sprawling work – at around an hour, Tchaikovsky’s longest symphony – requiring a very large orchestra and a conductor who can really pull together its episodic strands without plunging the audience into the deep depression that lurks within practically all its principal themes. This is a tall order, and Vasily Petrenko tackles it with gusto, producing a finely honed reading that nicely contrasts the work’s relatively few lighter sections with its many dark and dismal ones. Unfortunately, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, although it is a fine orchestra, does not really have the sound needed for this symphony. The work requires very lush, burnished strings playing with so much warmth that they constantly risk turning mushy (but never do). The Liverpudlians have a bright, clean sound, which means middle voices and accompaniments to the themes come through clearly, but the symphony as a whole lacks the melancholy darkness that can make it tremendously effective. This orchestral sound is by no means a failing – in other music, it would be a major asset. But in both the symphony and the tone poem The Voyevoda (in which a minor government official discovers his wife is unfaithful, orders a servant to kill her, but ends up being shot himself by mistake), the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic simply seems a little out of place. There just isn’t enough brooding intensity in the playing to give the works their full effect, even though the conductor seems to understand the music well and does his best to shape it tellingly. Petrenko is this orchestra’s principal conductor, so he does have the opportunity – if he wants it – to shape the ensemble’s sound differently; so perhaps he favors what is heard on this CD. Still, it would be nice to hear how Petrenko’s approach would work with an orchestra of richer, warmer strings – such as the Russian National Orchestra.

     The RNO, however, does not have Petrenko at the helm for its SACD of well-known Mussorgsky works. Instead, it has its own associate conductor, Carlo Ponti (eldest son of the film producer of the same name and actress Sophia Loren), and Ponti does not let this excellent orchestra soar to its very high capabilities. The RNO’s sound is simply wonderful, combining precise playing with deep-hued intensity. But Ponti’s interpretations are superficial. Pictures at an Exhibition is certainly all right, but there is nothing distinguished about it – so hint of swagger or thoughtfulness in the repeated “Promenade,” no sense of mystical quietude in “Con mortuis in lingua mortua,” no fairy-tale menace in “The Hut on Fowls’ Legs.” The miniatures that almost play themselves come off very well – such as “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” and, in a very different way, “The Great Gate of Kiev” – but it feels as if the RNO could handle them without Ponti being there at all. Far from imposing an interpretation, Ponti seems to avoid one. The same is true of the shorter works here: nothing snarls in “Night on the Bare Mountain”; the excerpt from The Sorochinsky Fair is pleasant and unassuming; and the same may be said of the Khovanshchina Prelude and “Dance of the Persian Slave Girls,” the latter of which lacks any sinuousness. This is a very well-played recording, and the sonic reproduction, as usual in PentaTone SACDs, is of the first quality, but the disc is sadly lacking in interpretative elegance.

November 20, 2008


2009 Calendars: Day-to-Day—Mind-Bending Puzzles; Anguished English; Wall—Antique Maps; Desk—CatCalendar. Pomegranate. $12.99 each (Day-to-Day); $13.99 (Wall); $14.99 (Desk).

Holiday Cards: CatTidings; Winter Trees. Pomegranate. $15 each.

     It’s that time of year: celebrate winter holidays and get ready for a restart of the calendar. And what better way to celebrate than to get calendars that will engage your eyes and mind throughout 2009? That is easily done with the offerings from Pomegranate, which each year produces a truly amazing array of intelligent, amusing, artful, focused, traditional, unusual and always high-quality calendars – with subject matter so varied that the Pomegranate line can be a bit overwhelming. What all the calendars share is very high quality: they are well researched and well made, and are sure to keep you engaged all year with whatever subject you choose.

     A couple of mind-twisting (or mind-amusing) examples from among many are Mind-Bending Puzzles and Anguished English. The first of these 365-day calendars was put together by Nathan Haselbauer, founder and president of the International High IQ Society, But don’t be intimidated by all the “high IQ” stuff: this calendar is packed with puzzles to challenge your mind, not make you feel inferior. There are six different puzzle categories, so even if you don’t like verbal analogies and math (perhaps they remind you of SAT tests), you may enjoy fact questions, visual memory, or sequential or analytical reasoning. One day may show you a set of words and ask which does not belong; another may show you irregularly shaped pieces that combine to form a square, then throw in an additional piece and ask how you can form another square; still another may be an old-fashioned word problem similar to those on (yes) the SAT. Of course, you have a full day to solve each problem (a full weekend for Saturday and Sunday problems: those days share puzzles and pages); and yes, the answers are provided if you just can’t wait or want to check yourself. This calendar’s pages are especially useful for note-taking (or figuring out the problems): each has a generous amount of blank, lined space beneath its puzzle.

     Anguished English tickles the funnybone more than the mind. Richard Lederer’s perennially popular compilation of malapropisms includes errors by journalists, teachers, doctors, and many others who really should know better – how about a headline reading, “Death Causes Change”? These are real-world mistakes, too, which makes them both funnier and somehow more worrisome.

     Of course, our idea of the real world has changed dramatically over time; and if you are looking for a striking wall calendar that shows a number of beautifully rendered maps of how people used to think the world looked, you will love the gorgeous Antique Maps calendar, showcasing cartography from the British Museum. The oldest of these maps are Flemish ones from 1571, including several by Abraham Ortelius and one by Gerardus Mercator, for whom the Mercator flat-world projection is named; there is also a Mercator map from 1595. The most recent map is a Portuguese one of Africa that dates to the early 1840s. Accuracy or inaccuracy aside, these maps are true works of art, a pleasure to examine again and again for their detail, coloring and gorgeous draughtsmanship. Each one of the 12 is worth looking at for a full month based simply on its coloration and shape.

     Colors and shapes are also in the forefront of the amusing drawings of B. (for Bernard) “Hap” Kliban (1935-1990), and you really don’t have to be a cat lover to appreciate Kliban’s pictures of things that sort of look like cats but equally resemble small aliens from a planet not too different from ours. A plump cat flying thanks to itty-bitty wings? A cat walking along at the bottom of page after page, wearing four cowboy boots with spurs? A cat sitting on a park bench, feeding riotously colored birds, from flamingos to peacocks? You can find all of them in the 2009 CatCalendar, which is in spiral-bound, open-flat desktop format. Desk or engagement calendars have lost popularity as electronic organizers have gained it, but no PDA can match the solidity, the colorfulness or the wonderful illustrations of this calendar; and no PDA can let you see so much of your week at a quick glance. CatCalendar does not, however, let you see your whole week at one time, unless you are careful to avoid adorning it with Post-It notes, bills to be paid that week, etc. The reason is that this calendar splits weeks between pages – three days on the left page, four on the right, with Wednesday’s space often shortchanged to allow more room for art. The result is that CatCalendar is delightful to look at, but it may not be an ideal planning tool – at least for business purposes. How about for home, or a home office?

     Kliban’s fine and funny felines also adorn some of the holiday cards you can send to share wishes of the season and welcome people to the upcoming year. One cat in the 20-card set called CatTidings actually behaves like a real-world feline, climbing a Christmas tree to get to the star on top – while the treetop bends under the cat’s weight and the star stays just out of reach. The other cards here are more Klibanic than real-life feline: one cat is adorned with a colorful wreath; one sports huge antlers and is apparently connected to Santa’s sleigh; and one card shows two cats, one outside a big wooden crate and the other, wearing a big bow, inside. Cat lovers, of course, will especially enjoy CatTidings, but the cards are amusing enough for just about anyone.

     If you prefer something more fully from real life, though, consider Pomegranate’s extensive line of Sierra Club cards. A portion of their purchase price goes to the Sierra Club – and the cards themselves make strong arguments for preserving the beauty of the natural world. One example is the box called Winter Trees, which includes 20 cards – five each of evergreens gently coated or completely covered with snow, in settings ranging from a thick forest to a woodland’s outskirts. The pictures by Oregon photographer Dennis Frates fully capture both the beauty and the serenity of snow upon trees, giving a sense of the peace that passeth all understanding that, for many people, represents the true meaning of this winter holiday season.


Walter Wick’s Optical Tricks. By Walter Wick. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $14.99.

The Baby-Sitters Club #4: Claudia and Mean Janine. By Ann M. Martin. Adapted and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Graphix/Scholastic. $8.99.

It’s Happy Bunny Ultimate Sticker Book. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $7.99.

The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror: Dead Man’s Jest. By Matt Groening. Harper. $15.95.

The Lady and the Chocolate. By Edward Monkton. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     It is scarcely a revelation that we live in a highly visual age – and book publishers know it. Now there are books of all types, for readers of all ages, in which the pictures are the focus. Walter Wick’s Optical Tricks, by the photographer of the I Spy book series, is now available in an attractive 10th-anniversary edition in which the impossible objects and phantom images look every bit as good as they did when the book originally appeared in 1998. Wick is an extremely clever photographer and designer of photographic assemblages. In this book, he explains something about what is going on in the pictures: how mirrors reflect and distort objects, how the use of multiple mirrors creates scenes that feature many items that do not exist, even how an impossible triangle and an equally impossible building (the latter based on a famous M.C. Escher drawing) can apparently be created in three dimensions through clever photography. Wick reveals some secrets (how the “triangle” really looks, for instance) and leaves readers to figure others out for themselves – resulting in a treat for both eyes and brain.

     The graphic novels based on Ann M. Martin’s popular series, The Baby-Sitters Club, are visually focused in a different way. These are simplified retellings of Martin’s stories, illustrated in black and white with straightforward art that moves the action along briskly (much as in a comic book). The fourth graphic novel in this series focuses on sisters Claudia (a member of the club of the title) and Janine (a dedicated computer nerd who is studying to be a physicist). There is a very serious element at the heart of the book: the girls’ grandmother suffers a stroke, and requires multiple hospital visits and then at-home and rehabilitative care. The girls work out their differences (and they do work them out) against this background; any actual babysitting becomes something of a side issue. Middle-school girls who are unfamiliar with the Martin novels, or prefer to approach books in a more visual way, will enjoy this latest series entry.

     It’s Happy Bunny is also a series, in a sense: it’s the cynical sayings of an apparent escapee from greeting-card land, whose open and simple appearance is at odds with the nasty observations he makes. In fact, the latest entry in this series says “Now Extra Unpleasant!” on the front cover. That’s an exaggeration – it is no more unpleasant than previous Happy Bunny books – but this time, Jim Benton has created something that is almost purely visual. Left-hand pages show Happy Bunny in various poses; right-hand ones have Happy Bunny sayings (such as “I’m happy – don’t wreck it by talking”) but no illustrations. The book includes Happy Bunny stencils and stickers, plus self-adhesive words and phrases that you can use to create your own little bits of Happy Bunny awfulness. This is clever of Benton – he makes readers do the work, which is a very Happy Bunnyish approach – and the book will be fun for kids (and emotionally stunted adults) who can’t wait to put their own spin on Happy Bunnyisms.

     Speaking of emotionally stunted, there’s The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror: Dead Man’s Jest, which is a comic book made to look like a graphic novel – and which, almost in spite of itself, has some very clever elements. Although the stories mostly adhere closely to traditional Simpsons plot lines (Homer’s obsession with doughnuts, Ned Flanders’ obsession with religion, Krusty’s obsession with being evil), this book (Halloween-themed but suitable for Simpsons fans anytime) also includes clever stories tied into the personalities of singers Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Rob Zombie and Pat Boone (yes, that Pat Boone). Even more interestingly, it is a tribute of sorts to the wonderful E.C. Comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s: Vault of Horror, Crypt of Terror and all the rest, including war comics. Matt Groening draws actual characters from the comics in some stories, and also creates tales that parallel (with a Simpsons twist) those from the old E.C. line: “Squish Thing,” in which Homer becomes a sort of Swamp Thing and tears apart the person responsible for his transformation, and “Two Tickets to Heck,” in which Bart and Lisa find themselves trapped in E.C. sequences after going through doors with dates on them (“1950” lands Bart in a war comic, while “1952” leads to the “comic-book corruption of youth” arguments that eventually emasculated comic books and destroyed the E.C. line). You need some familiarity with comics history to pick up all the references in these stories (“squa tront” and “spa fon,” anybody?), but there is plenty of Simpsons-style fun even if you don’t have that background – and some pages that are all Simpsons-style humor (such as Bart’s “Halloween Candy Classification”).

     The humor is on a different, more adult level, and the graphics are gentler, in The Lady with the Chocolate, the latest little hardcover gift book from Edward Monkton (pen name of poet Giles Andreae). The cover simply shows a lady and a chocolate bar (which is larger than she is), and the pages are a discussion between them. The Lady argues that “the weight that you put onto my THIGHS, my WAIST and my BOTTOM is not worth the satisfaction of the eating,” but the chocolate eventually persuades her that “being EATEN is the only reason for my existence” and so she really should go ahead. Which she does – the moral being that Ladies who eat chocolate “are performing a very great and GENEROUS service indeed.” Monkton’s ultra-simple drawings are just right for this ultra-simple (and silly) story, right down to the final one showing the Lady with an angel’s halo hovering above her because she has helped the chocolate fulfill its destiny.


Time’s Chariot. By Ben Jeapes. David Fickling Books. $15.99.

Danger Zone 1: The Devil’s Breath. By David Gillman. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Preteens and young teenagers looking for rousing adventures with nonstop cinematic action will enjoy both these books, even if neither spends much time on character development or scene-setting (perhaps because neither spends much time on those things). Time’s Chariot is about a “routine” expedition in time, back to 5000 B.C., that turns decidedly non-routine when the body of Commissioner Daiho is discovered. The commissioner has been murdered, even though murder is supposed to be a thing of the past. And he has been murdered in the past – which requires time traveler Ricardo (Rico) Garron and his partner, Su Zo, to open an investigation that spans the ages and quickly turns out to point in some very uncomfortable directions. Ben Jeapes writes for pacing more than philosophy – not for him the famous time-travel paradoxes of SF writers of old, who would have made much of Daiho’s dying before he was born, which means he couldn’t have been born, but he was, and so on. Jeapes uses parallel time streams and other familiar SF concepts only to further his plot: “Looking like a man and woman of the reasonably prosperous merchant classes, they strolled…through the Prater park in the Vienna of 1508, capital of the Khanate of Austria. This was the gamma stream, one of several parallel Earth histories. …The alpha stream was the ‘official’ history…” It turns out that Rico and Su’s Home Time is itself in jeopardy, and that the problems are tied up with the murder. How? One character explains, to the extent that it is an explanation, “The Home Time is a period of set probability flux. There’s a singularity…that makes transference possible because it vibrates at a fixed, unchanging probability frequency. It’s a permanent referent. …But it won’t last forever, it’s decaying, and the day will come when it ends and transference won’t be possible any more.” Best not to take all the pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo at all seriously here – focus on the twists and turns of the story (and it does twist and turn) and you’ll have an enjoyable ride that, if thoroughly unbelievable, is undeniably exciting.

     It’s best not to look too closely at the plot of The Devil’s Breath, either. This first novel by British screenwriter David Gillman is clearly intended to become a movie eventually, with its easy-to-grasp story, one-dimensional characters and heaping helping of action. This is also the first book of a series called The Danger Zone, which tries to stay up to date with a series of environmental twists. The central character here is Max Gordon, a teenager whose father, Tom, studies environmental catastrophes worldwide and champions the causes of Third World countries. He is so good that of course he must have enemies – people who are really bad. But it is Max, not his father, who finds himself the target in The Devil’s Breath, as an assassin comes after Max at the teen’s boarding school. This is a pretty inept assassin: he can’t take out an unsuspecting, unarmed teenager during the boy’s nightly run. But no matter – the assassin himself is conveniently killed, so Max cannot learn anything about what is going on and therefore has to set off on his own to search for his father in the wilderness of Namibia (yes, there are plenty of other things Max could do, but it really does not pay to examine this plot too closely). The environmental issue at the forefront here is safe drinking water – a billion people have no access to it – and Gillman makes sure the water issue is central to the book. He also makes sure that Max gets involved with tribal shamanic practices, attacking crocodiles, evil scientific experiments, an airplane crash, and international criminals with simplistic motivations: “Pressure was what he thrived on. He had always won, by fair means or foul – mostly the latter. Winning was everything.” The bad guys don’t win, of course, and the conclusion – of this book, anyway – is along these lines: “Strange place, Africa. Things happen. Things you can’t explain.” More such things will surely happen in later books.


I Am Potential: Eight Lessons on Living, Loving, and Reaching Your Dreams. By Patrick Henry Hughes, with Patrick John Hughes and Bryant Stamford. Da Capo. $24.

The Brenner Assignment: The Untold Story of the Most Daring Spy Mission of World War II. By Patrick K. O’Donnell. Da Capo. $25.

     Here are two books that show, in very different ways, the resiliency of the human spirit. I Am Potential is one of those sure-fire tearjerkers about someone with extremely severe handicaps who not only overcomes them but also finds a way to thrive and to get great enjoyment out of life. However, it is possible to celebrate Patrick Henry Hughes’ remarkable achievements without necessarily finding his book a must-read. Hughes has a rare birth defect that makes it impossible for him to walk or extend his arms fully – and he was born without eyes. Yet he has become an award-winning pianist, trumpeter and singer and has performed at venues as different as the Grand Ole Opry and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He plays in his college’s marching band (University of Louisville) as his father, Patrick John Hughes, pushes his wheelchair. And his musical talent showed up astonishingly early: he started playing piano at the age of nine months. Clearly, Patrick Henry Hughes is a remarkable individual, his story serving as proof that being disabled in some ways does not mean being disabled in all ways. But I Am Potential is written in less than captivating prose, even with the help of Patrick Henry’s father (whose voice is heard in some sections, while his son’s is heard in others) and Hanover College professor Bryant Stamford. “My parents were my earliest and best teachers.” “I’d hear [people] say things in front of me as if I wasn’t there or wasn’t smart enough to understand I was being talked about.” “When Granddaddy passed away [from Alzheimer’s disease], I knew it was a blessing that he was back with God.” “What I’m going to do for the rest of my life is an important decision, but I don’t spend a lot of time dealing with it, because I don’t want it to take away from what’s going on in my life right now.” These are all heartfelt sentiments – and very common ones, stated in very plain language. The entire book is written this way, with the result that Patrick Henry’s story is more inspirational than the way he tells it. It is impossible not to be moved by who this young man is and what he has overcome to accomplish so much. But the tale is better than the telling.

     The story of The Brenner Assignment is much more distant in time: this is yet another of the World War II books that continue appearing, in a trickle if not a flood, six decades after the end of the war. The book’s story is told with novelistic, even cinematic impact, and is sure to thrill fans – if “fans” is the right word – of the derring-do of that war. Military historian Patrick K. O’Donnell writes nonfiction as if he is creating a thriller. Nevertheless, The Brenner Assignment will have limited appeal because it is military history, not fiction, and cannot be neatly packaged and perfectly paced to maximum effect. The book is the story of a behind-enemy-lines assignment in the waning days of the war. The Brenner Pass has been a crucial military (and trade) route through the Alps since the days of the Roman Empire, and the Nazis used it to get to and from Italy and continue fighting there. The American special operatives’ mission was to parachute into the area, link up with local partisans, and sabotage the pass so supplies could no longer be brought through it. Some of the characters seem like Hollywood central-casting types, although O’Donnell says they were real, such as the seductive double-agent Italian countess and the fanatical SS officer leading his forces against the would-be saboteurs. O’Donnell takes readers through the planning and preparation for the assignment: “The training for an OG [German Operational Group] operative was informal and rank was dropped. The mission always came first.” He effectively presents not only the American operatives but also their enemies: August Schiffer, Gestapo chief in Northern Italy, “had complete and utter loyalty to the Nazi cause” and “considered himself a patriot” whose use of torture was fully justified in combating those he considered terrorists. O’Donnell often creates cinematic transitions to move the story along: “Unbeknownst to [Stephen] Hall, his journey was about to take a dramatic change of course.” And he traces the Brenner Pass assignment carefully, including what went right and what went wrong – bringing to life the small triumphs and failures that, collectively, can win or lose a war. Indeed, the level of detail will be a lot for casual readers to follow, and the many names of people and places sometimes tumble over each other in a cascade of proper nouns. O’Donnell’s use of primary sources is impressive, as is his ability to knit the various parts of this story together. It is a well-told, true tale, but its very detail and attentiveness to minutiae mean it will be of considerably more interest to World War II aficionados than to the general reader.


Ives: Songs, Volume 5. Jana Baty, Lielle Berman, Patrick Carfizzi, Jennifer Casey Cabot, Michael Cavalieri, Robert Gardner, Ian Howell, Sumi Kittelberger, Ryan MacPherson, Tamara Mumford, Mary Phillips, David Pittsinger, Kenneth Tarver and Leah Wool, vocalists; Jooyeon Kong, violin; Kelli Kathman, piccolo; Ryan Johnston and Cary Parker, trombones; Frederick Teardo, organ; Douglas Dickson, Laura Garritson, J.J. Penna and Eric Trudel, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Bottesini: Fantasia “Lucia di Lammermoor”; Romanza drammatica; Introduzione e bolero; Romanza: Une bouche aimée; Capriccio di bravura; Elégie in D; Fantasia “Beatrice di Tenda”; Grande Allegro di Concerto. Thomas Martin, double bass; Anthony Halstead, piano; Jacquelyn Fugelle, soprano. Naxos. $8.99.

Leopold Mozart: Sinfonias in G, D and A; Kindersinfonie (Toy Symphony); Sinfonia in G, “Neue Lambacher Sinfonie.” Toronto Chamber Orchestra conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $8.99.

     The odd decision to produce an alphabetically arranged six-volume set of the songs of Charles Ives pays handsome dividends in the fifth volume, which – by sheer abecedarian coincidence – is the meatiest and most interesting one yet (as well as the longest: at a full 80 minutes, it strains the capacity of a CD). This volume runs from “Paracelsus” (1921) through “Swimmers” (1915), starting and ending with fascinating items; and it includes Ives’ very first song (“Slow March” from 1887, when Ives was 13) as well as his last wholly original one (“Sunrise” from 1926, a work that was left unfinished and nearly illegible and was rendered performable by John Kirkpatrick). There are wonders on almost every track here: “Premonitions” (1921) is fatalistic and defiant at once; “Peaks” (1923) is tonally and texturally ambivalent and altogether fascinating; “The Rainbow” (1921) has an improvisatory feeling and makes the well-known words of William Wordsmith (“My heart leaps up”) sound quite fresh; “A Sea Dirge” sets Ariel’s words from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in an exceptionally dark way; and such less-than-a-minute gems as “The Side Show” (1921) and the wonderfully titled “Slugging a Vampire” (1902) are marvels of pithy expressiveness. Also here is an exceptionally amusing take on the college tune “A Son of a Gambolier,” which is early Ives (1895) but which looks forward to later Ives humor through its de-emphasis of words and inclusion of parts for violin, piccolo, piano, trombones – and four kazoos. Also of special interest among the earlier songs on this CD is “Rough Wind” (1902), to words by Percy Bysshe Shelley, featuring music that Ives used as well in the opening movement of his first symphony. This volume is a winner on all levels.

     The latest Naxos re-release of 1980s recordings of music by famed 19th-century double-bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini may not be as instantly appealing as the earlier ones, since it uses piano rather than orchestral accompaniment. But it shows Bottesini’s skill in chamber music, and thanks both to Thomas Martin and Anthony Halstead, it in some ways has as much sweep as does Bottesini’s music for double bass and orchestra. As Franz Liszt so famously did with the piano, Bottesini used his double bass to create encapsulations and expansions of themes from various popular operas of his day, including Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda. These fantasias are fascinating, showing the string family’s largest member to be as adept and soulfully expressive – in sufficiently skilled hands, such as Martin’s – as its smaller cousins. The remaining works on this uniformly well-played CD are of somewhat less appeal, although the song Une bouche aimée is an interesting curiosity and a souvenir of the tours that Bottesini did with leading sopranos of his time. One other especially interesting work here is Grande Allegro di Concerto, a somewhat Mendelssohnian tour de force in which the degree to which the double bass is pushed to its limits (notably, the top of its range) is truly hard to believe. Like Paganini, to whom he was in his lifetime compared, Bottesini wrote mainly for himself and not for the ages, but his music retains considerable charm – and its exploration of the extremes of which the double bass is capable is amazing.

     Leopold Mozart’s posthumous obscurity as a composer is quite different from Bottesini’s: the considerable reputation of the elder Mozart was completely overwhelmed by the brilliance of his son and the love-hate relationship between the two. Little of Leopold’s music is performed nowadays, except for his “Toy Symphony,” which exists in several versions – and may not be by him at all, or may be by him in only one version (including four movements that for some reason are omitted in Kevin Mallon’s performance). What is especially interesting about the Toronto Chamber Orchestra’s fine playing of Leopold Mozart’s music is the seriousness, even intensity, that orchestra and conductor bring to it. Even the “Toy Symphony” is treated as a seriously constructed work, not a mere throwaway. The CD is oddly arranged for those who might like to listen to it straight through in order to hear Leopold’s growing mastery of the orchestra: the first work played was the third composed; the third played was composed first; and so on. The reason this matters is that Leopold did develop significantly in his style, to the point at which some of his symphonies (including the “Neue Lambacher Sinfonie” and the G major on this CD) were for a time believed to have been written by Wolfgang. On their own merits, these are tuneful, well-constructed works that break no more ground than had the Mannheim School but that flow well and are even – in the case of the “Neue Lambacher” – substantial four-movement constructions. No one will think Leopold Mozart a great musical rediscovery after hearing this CD, but the elder Mozart may well gain new respect among listeners who have previously thought of him only in the context of his thorny relationship with his young genius of a son.


Orff: Carmina Burana. Laura Claycomb, soprano; Barry Banks, tenor; Christopher Maltman, baritone; Tiffin Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Pergolesi: Messa di S. Emidio (Missa Romana); A. Scarlatti: Messa per il Santissimo Natale. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $16.99.

Corigliano: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy. Sir Thomas Allen, baritone; Ty Jackson, boy soprano; John Tessier, tenor; Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw for Narrator, Men’s Chorus and Orchestra; Prelude to Genesis for Mixed Chorus and Orchestra; Dreimal Tausend Jahre for Mixed Chorus a cappella; Psalm 130, De Profundis, for Mixed Chorus a cappella; Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte for String Quartet, Piano and Reciter; Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Rolf Schulte, violin; David Wilson-Johnson, Narrator and Reciter; Jeremy Denk, piano; The Fred Sherry Quartet; Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

     There is such a wide variety of choral music available on CD nowadays that it is easy to become lost in the sheer sonic splendor of it all. The really good performances, though, go beyond excellent singing to illuminate the music in fresh ways. Thus, although Orff’s often-recorded Carmina Burana is primarily a choral work, the new Chandos SACD featuring a live 2007 performance led by Richard Hickox turns out to belong as much to the excellent soloists as to the chorus. The sound here is more SACD-focused than in many similar recordings – that is, one needs a multichannel system to get its full benefit; the chorus sounds a touch muffled (or perhaps oddly miked) when the recording is played on a standard two-channel CD player. This is a performance that improves as it goes along: the opening chorus and first section, “Primo vere,” are a little mannered, but “In Taberna” (which features first-class vocal acting by baritone Christopher Maltman and an especially fine “roasted swan” solo by Barry Banks) is top-notch, and “Cours d’amours” is as bright, bouncy and occasionally operatic as a listener could wish (Laura Claycomb’s “Dulcissime” is just splendid). Carmina Burana is often described as crude music, and its tonal clarity seems a touch out of place for a cantata written in 1936. Hickox’s approach nicely highlights a number of instrumental details, then makes the more striking parts of the score as forthright as possible (the bass drum has never sounded better). The result is a performance that shows Orff’s work to have more subtlety than it is usually credited with having.

     There is subtlety aplenty in both the music and the performances in the new Naïve CD featuring Concerto Italiano and Rinaldo Alessandrini. Giovanni Pergolesi’s Missa Romana is far less known than his often-recorded Stabat Mater. The mass is one of only two that are certain to be by Pergolesi, who died at age 26 (in all, nine masses have been attributed to him). Missa Romana was first performed in Rome in 1734, but traces its origin to an earthquake that hit Naples in 1731, leading city leaders to choose St. Emygdius, Bishop of Ascoli, as a patron who could intercede with God to prevent further catastrophes. What is interesting in the 21st century is the extent to which Pergolesi’s work transcends not only its time but also its strictly religious text and reason for being. It is a moving, near-operatic work that Alessandrini – a fine conductor of 18th-century opera – does not hesitate to perform with emotional intensity, while remaining true to performance practices of the era. And the Alessandro Scarlatti Messa per il Santissimo Natale is just as well done: Alessandrini makes it elegant, assured, well-balanced and emotionally involving in a way that Italian Baroque religious music would not necessarily be expected to be. The sensitivity of both the singing and the playing on this CD makes it an outstanding achievement.

     John Corigliano’s A Dylan Thomas Trilogy is a work of our time, written in 1960 and revised in 1999, and might be expected to speak more directly and clearly to a modern audience than the music of Pergolesi and Scarlatti. But this is not quite so: it speaks differently but with no greater clarity. Corigliano’s setting of “Fern Hill,” “Poem in October” and “Poem on His Birthday” also includes two separate parts of “Author’s Prologue,” one to open the hour-long work and one after “Fern Hill.” The darkness lying just beneath the surface of much of Thomas’ poetry is what seems to interest Corigliano most. In “Fern Hill,” he emphasizes the way in which Time comes to hold the poet “green and dying”; “Poem in October” has the poet using his birthday to reflect on the past and meditate, rather melancholically, on the future; and “Poem on His Birthday” contains images of the River Styx and of herons walking “in their shroud.” But not all is darkness here, with “Author’s Prologue” bringing an intense sense of life and liveliness to the work – abetted by well-constructed music that captures its moods as effectively as it does the darker moods of the other sections. This world première recording features fine singing by the Nashville Symphony Chorus and sensitive playing by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, plus solo parts that highlight the many moods of Corigliano’s work, showing Thomas’ poetry to be dark but scarcely without hope.

     Arnold Schoenberg’s late choral works are dark, too, but they use the voices quite differently from the way Corigliano did several decades later. Schoenberg carefully established contrasts in his vocal writing among singing, a declamatory spoken style and Sprechstimme. His use of a narrator in A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) provides a contrast with the male chorus that enters at the end and helps make this seven-minute work a full-fledged music drama. The reciter in Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte (1942) functions differently in this non-choral work, intensely and often sarcastically presenting a text drawn from Lord Byron’s scornful poem, written after Napoleon’s abdication in 1814. The wordless chorus in Prelude to Genesis (1945) is just one part of the overall texture, but it is the choral focus that brings power to Dreimal Tausend Jahre (1949) and Psalm 130, De Profundis (1950 – Schoenberg’s last completed work). The last of these, in particular, contrasts pure speech with pure singing in a way characteristic of Schoenberg and used by him to heighten the different emotional elements within a piece. All these works, performed under the direction of Robert Craft, are highly effective, but no more so than the purely instrumental work on this CD – the Violin Concerto, which lasts almost as long as all the other works put together. Rolf Schulte gives a knowing and intense performance of this work, whose three-movement structure seems completely in line with classical practice and whose movements even bear traditional tempo indications. But this is quite clearly Schoenberg, not Brahms, although some of the compositional techniques hark back to those of the earlier composer. The metrical variations and tempo and rhythm changes all clearly reflect Schoenberg’s view of the concerto form, and the magisterial ending caps the work with his unmistakable imprint. This concerto was begun in 1934 and finished in 1936 – the same year as Carmina Burana. Listening to the two in close proximity highlights Schoenberg’s modernism, Orff’s primitivism, and the huge gap between compositional styles of the 20th century – a gap that only listeners can close, by finding ways to open their ears to a very broad spectrum of music.

November 13, 2008


Pierced: A “Zits” Close-Up. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

The Future’s So Bright, I Can’t Bear to Look. By Tom Tomorrow. Nation Books. $16.95.

     Anyone wondering what the difference is between a good comic strip and a great one can get the answer – or one answer, anyway – from Pierced, the latest collection of Zits strips. Unlike earlier Zits Sketchbook collections, this 13th compendium (not counting seven oversized “Treasury” volumes) homes in on a single character instead of simply reprinting an entire sequence of strips in the order in which they originally appeared. The character, Pierce, is a close friend of central character Jeremy Duncan and is – on the surface – as unlike Jeremy as can be imagined. Where Jeremy is essentially a nice, middle-class guy who dreams of becoming a “rock god” but whose appearance and actions scream “future dentist, like his father,” Pierce has so many metal parts that he is practically a cyborg – and he is always ready for another piercing, tattoo, or dangerous stunt. He is thus, on the surface, a “foil” (in the Shakespearean sense) for Jeremy; but that, it turns out, is not all he is. For underneath the rebellious, devil-may-care exterior, it turns out that Pierce is – gasp! – a nice, decent guy. And that is what makes this character, and the strip he inhabits, great rather than merely good: there is depth to Pierce, and to Zits. But before it starts sounding as if this strip is an intellectually challenging one, it’s worth pointing out that Pierce’s character, including its touching elements, is presented in ways that are out-and-out hilarious. For example, Pierce is an animal lover – especially of vermin – and doubly especially of his pet rat, for which he arranges a colonoscopy, a heart-lung transplant and subsequent life support. Pierce decorates for Christmas – by hanging ornaments from his many facial piercings. He wishes Jeremy and Hector “Merry Christmas” in the middle of an extended “AAAAAAAAAAAAA” as he runs past, with birds pecking at his seasonal suet-and-sunflower-seed earrings. He has his driver’s license, and agrees to drive a group home from the beach when the parent who drove them there loses her glasses – but he insists no one mention that he is a cautious and polite driver. Pierce is fun, and funny, and real (to the extent that any unreal comic-strip character can be “real”); and he is a perfect example of anti-stereotyping in Zits, since it’s certainly possible that he’ll one day have a dental practice just down the hall from Jeremy’s – even though he looks like someone who has only a small chance of making it in so-called polite society.

     And speaking of politeness: there is little of it in Tom Tomorrow’s latest collection, and that’s just fine with the cartoonist and the sorts of publications that run his strips (principally The Village Voice and various so-called “alternative newspapers”). Tomorrow’s weekly “This Modern World” comics are a deliberate blend of 1950s-style drawing with up-to-the-minute left-wing political commentary. Many of them do not wear very well – only readers who have stayed intimately in touch with every bit of political minutiae since 2005 will understand all the references in The Future’s So Bright, I Can’t Bear to Look. But that is a flaw of editorial cartoons in general. Tomorrow’s strips are a lot to take in book form, even if you agree with their underlying premises (most of which involve the Bush administration as the root of all evil). Individually, the strips are often pointed and somewhat less often funny. Collectively, they are repetitious and, after a while, dull. But there are high points throughout the book. The occasional appearance of Sparky, an angry, masked penguin who seems to be Tomorrow’s alter ego, is frequently entertaining in its own way, although Sparky does get to launch many of the longest-winded attacks on Bush administration policies. Tomorrow’s art is best when it tweaks the conventions on which it…err…draws. One strip on the housing market, for example, features a character who could come straight out of the 1950s – except that his head is a hand. The periodic appearance of newscasters from Planet Glox (with the strip’s title shown in “alien” lettering) is a highlight – the newscasts parody Fox News, one of Tomorrow’s frequent targets. Interestingly, some of the funniest Tomorrow strips are the ones that unexpectedly go against type by attacking Democrats. For instance, a strip based on the famous Charles Atlas ads showing a beach bully taking advantage of a boy who needs some muscles is recast as a contest between bully George W. Bush and weakling Harry Reid, with Bush coming out ahead even after Reid “bulks up” by leading the Democrats to take over both houses of Congress. The Future’s So Bright, I Can’t Bear to Look is worth a (+++) rating for cleverness, persistence and a unique approach to art. Fans of its politics will surely rate it higher, while opponents will rank it lower. Both of those responses would no doubt suit Tomorrow very well.


The B List: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-Bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love. Edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson. Da Capo. $15.95.

Into the Volcano. By Don Wood. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $18.99.

     Bad movies – good bad movies, that is – have charms all their own. Movies known to be of less-than-top quality, because of plot or acting or directing or all of the above, used to form the second features on movie theaters’ double bills. The double feature is nearly extinct nowadays (although it survives at a few theaters and some drive-ins), but the B movie not only survives but also thrives. Why? Some answers are to be found in The B List, but in order to find them, editors David Sterritt and John Anderson need to redefine the term “B movie” itself. For the films discussed in the 58 reviews and essays in this book range from ones whose titles makes their “B-ness” obvious (The Rage: Carrie 2, The Girl Can’t Help It) to ones that are out-and-out cult classics (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Night of the Living Dead) and others that are serious films whose inclusion in The B List seems, on the face of it, a touch odd (Reservoir Dogs, Platoon). The editors say they have defined B movies as ones “that fall outside the mainstream by dint of their budgets, their visions, their grit, and frequently – sometimes essentially – their lack of what the culture cops call ‘good taste.’” That’s a pretty broad definition, though, and would fit far more films than those discussed here. No matter; the book is a good starting point. But what is it the start of? Some writers describe the plots of the films in detail – a good thing, since many of these films were never in wide release or have long since been forgotten. Others assume readers know the movies already, as co-editor Anderson himself does in his article on The Last Seduction (1994), writing that actress Linda “Fiorentino has created a criminal genius/hottie-libertine who’s a moral bankrupt and can’t quite stay in her heels, and we arrive at the question of what the viewer, male or female, makes of her, knowing nothing about her except her voracious appetites for money and sex, and her use of the latter to attain the former.” And if that seems like a mouthful, consider co-editor Sterritt’s take on David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977): “Its idiosyncrasies bespeak the courage and tenacity of a screen artist exquisitely attuned to inner voices the rest of us may never hear, and eager to share their darkling echoes despite the likelihood that the conundrums, paradoxes, and enigmas they raise will be sounded by almost nobody and fathomed by fewer still.” Whew. These are B movies taken very seriously indeed. But if that is justified for Eraserhead (and it probably is), is it equally justified for I Walked with a Zombie, To Live and Die in L.A., or Red Planet Mars? Not all the writers feel they need the language of academia to discuss these films: Stephanie Zacharek writes of Grindhouse (2007) that some movies try to answer deep questions, “But what about our littler questions? Questions like, Can nuclear splooge really turn us into flesh-eating zombies?” The B List could do with more of that sort of humor – but it does have some to leaven its more serious essays, and the book as a whole offers its own kind of fun for fans of films that, in most cases, never quite made the A list because they wouldn’t be caught dead there.

     Into the Volcano would make a pretty good B movie itself. Don Wood’s handsomely rendered graphic novel, in which a not-very-attentive father hands over his two boys to people who may be family members, crooks or kidnappers, resulting in the boys’ traveling to an island nation (based clearly on Hawaii) and having an adventure inside an erupting volcano, has many of the classic B-movie elements: danger, lots of drama, serious but non-fatal injuries, a hint of sex (but only a hint), strained humor – and, unfortunately, a rather creaky plot. The boys, Duffy (the brave, athletic one) and Sumo (the scared one who turns heroic when heroism is most needed), get mixed up with some very unsavory-looking characters sporting such names as Come-and-Go and Mango Jo, and mystery follows mystery as the expedition on which the boys are made to go finds a way inside the volcano in search of – what? Well, that is one mystery. Another is why the boys’ father subjects them to all this. A third is who the good guys really are – even at the end, when everything seems happy enough, it is not quite clear whether there were ever any bad guys and, if so, who they were. The most interesting parts of Into the Volcano are not the action sequences – although those have the most immediate appeal – but the discussions of how volcanoes function, what their eruptions mean, how new volcanic islands are formed, and so on. The primary mystery turns out to revolve around a fictional material that supposedly has important scientific applications, such as making it possible to create “a room-temperature superconductor.” The mixture of fact and fancy is attractive here, the book is fast-paced, and the art is very well done, with a kind of noir cast to many scenes. It is best, though, not to examine the plot or the characters’ motivations too closely – which puts Into the Volcano, whether or not a film of it is ever made, squarely into the B-movie world.