March 26, 2009


Fool. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $26.99.

     In his most audacious and ambitious book yet – yes, even more than Lamb, which merely retold the New Testament – Christopher Moore twists and turns Shakespeare’s King Lear into the bout of bloody, bawdy villainy that is Fool. It takes no small amount of guts to render the Bard’s darkest and arguably greatest tragedy into a comedy, even a black comedy, but no guts, no glory, and Moore has the guts and ends up with the glory. This is as hilariously contorted a book as Moore has ever written, and if it may not be quite his finest novel, it is certainly as inventively perverse as anything he has done before.

     Moore’s basic conceit here is that King Lear changes dramatically when written from the point of view of Lear’s Fool. Actually, it changes into something else altogether, as Moore flippantly tosses lines from other Shakespeare plays into his characters’ mundane speeches (along the lines of the film Shakespeare in Love), makes the Three Witches from Macbeth and a thoroughly un-Shakespearean ghost into significant characters in Lear’s tale, gives Lear’s Fool his own apprentice fool (a man-mountain nitwit named Drool), and blithely violates even the pretense of verisimilitude in terms of time and place (the story takes place in a generic Middle Ages that looks back to a time “a thousand years ago, before George II, idiot king of Merica, destroyed the world” – oh, ha ha).

     What makes King Lear so black is precisely what makes Fool so bright. The play is Shakespeare’s only tragedy in which the audience gets no assurance of the world continuing after the final act, with order somehow being reasserted. There is no “strong-in-arms” Fortinbras to right things, as there is in Hamlet; indeed, it is while order is being more or less restored that Lear wailingly bemoans the death of “my poor fool” – his daughter, Cordelia. There is only blackness and bleakness as King Lear ends; but Fool builds to a story about what happens after Lear is gone (hint: things get better).

     The book is laid out in five acts, as is the play, although as Moore’s acts go on, they diverge more and more from what Shakespeare wrote. We learn bits about the history of the Fool, whose name is Pocket, as his thoughts drift back to earlier times, including his life as a child at the abbey at Dog Snogging – that is, “dog making out,” as Moore points out in one of his occasionally helpful, sometimes hilarious, sometimes rather surprisingly dull footnotes. “So tiny was I that the abbess would carry me with her in her apron pocket, and thus I was given the name of Pocket. Little Pocket of Dog Snogging Abbey. …Later, after I learned to walk, they would stand me on the table at mealtime and have me parade up and down waving my winky at them, a unique appendage in those feminine environs. I was seven before I realized you could eat breakfast with your pants on.” Hmm…maybe Pocket was the only male about, although one wonders when reading of the abbess shaving her blue-black whiskers every morning and pulling aside “the skin of her neck, so as not to nick her Adam’s apple.” In any case, Pocket grows up, is attached to Lear’s court for the purpose of keeping Cordelia happy after Lear unceremoniously disposes of Cordelia’s mother (an action that, like much else, will come back to haunt whoever is hauntable), and eventually rubs elbows (and other parts) with Goneril and Regan, Cordelia’s elder sisters. Other characters from Shakespeare’s tragedy are introduced and aptly skewed by Moore, from the Earl of Gloucester and his sons, legitimate Edgar and bastard Edmund, to the kindly Earl of Kent, exiled by Lear after pointing out his old friend’s irrationality. It is in a speech by Pocket to Kent that Moore shows himself capable of understanding the seriousness of the subject matter of which he otherwise spends so much time making fun. Kent asks whom he serves: “Why am I here?” “You are here,” replies Pocket, “because, in the expanding ethical ambiguity of our situation, you are steadfast in your righteousness. It is to you, my banished friend, that we all turn – a light amid the dark dealings of family and politics. You are the moral backbone on which the rest of us hang our bloody bits. Without you we are merely wiggly masses of desire writhing in our own devious bile.” This is indeed the exact role that Kent fills in King Lear, although Fool uses him, shall we say, somewhat differently.

     Moore likes to step into the amusement – and the considerable and often very funny sexual activity – occasionally, to show that his characters are not quite as dim as they may seem, as when a laundress named Emma asks Pocket to wreak her revenge on Edmund, who has violated and humiliated her. Pocket protests that he is but a fool, and Emma replies, “There’s more to you than that, you black-hatted rascal. I’ve seen them wicked daggers at your back, and I can see who’s pulling the strings round this castle, and it ain’t the old duke or the old king.” Smart Emma – and she is duly rewarded at the end. Indeed, everyone is duly rewarded or punished by the time Fool is over – and if the ending is in no way like that of King Lear, well, this is a comedy, innit? As for whether it is Moore’s best comic foray, that will of course be a matter of opinion – but it remains arguable that even Fool, as rich a tapestry as it weaves, does not match Bloodsucking Fiends, a genuinely heartfelt and touching vampire novel that strikes emotional chords notably absent in most of Moore’s writing. Readers may just have to get both books and decide for themselves. In fact, treat yourself to all 11 Moore novels – every one has much to recommend it. No fooling.


Melonhead. By Katy Kelly. Illustrated by Gillian Johnson. Delacorte Press. $12.99.

The Princess and the Unicorn. By Carol Hughes. Random House. $16.99.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth. By Carrie Ryan. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     The gulf between preteens and teenagers is nowhere wider than in book publishing, where many works for ages 8-12 retain a level of frivolity and lighthearted amusement throughout, while those aimed at teens tend to be altogether more serious and even frightening. Melonhead and The Princess and the Unicorn are quite clearly preteen books, the former likely to be of more interest to boys and the latter to girls. Melonhead is the first book of a planned series by Katy Kelly, whose popular character Lucy Rose has appeared in four novels and who in this book is responsible for giving round-headed Adam Melon his nickname. Melonhead is a 10-year-old inventor, snake fancier and occasional homework champ whose mom at one point cooks “cheeseburgers with double pickles and BBQ sauce for dinner…I knew it was a big celebration because she usually likes to cook things that don’t stain.” This book is not big on plot – Melonhead finds things, invents things, the inventions misfire, and there are lots of references to the Washington, D.C., area, where he and author Kelly live. Melonhead and his friend Sam think up such things as vegetarian snake food and a Sweep the Nation invention to clean everything it touches. This is one of those good-hearted, old-fashioned books in which the problems are minor and easily solved, the adults supportive if sometimes clueless, and the kids free to indulge in sweets and taking shortcuts across rooftops – a pleasant exercise in escapism.

     The Princess and the Unicorn escapes to a different place in a different way. Carol Hughes weaves a tale of royal life, unicorns, fairies, and a forest that sickens and will die after Princess Eleanor naïvely leads away its unicorn to live with her at Buckingham Palace. The young fairy Joyce sees the princess and her governess, Miss Merrieweather, take the unicorn, and so she must journey away from her comfort zone and discover the wider world outside the forest – just as Eleanor, in her own way, needs to probe the edges of her insulated and comfortable royal world. The style here is straightforward in modern-fairy-tale manner: “Now all the riders adjusted their cravats and gloves, slipped their booted feet into the stirrups, and, with a clicking of tongues and kicking of heels, began to steer their steeds through the main gate.” The mixture of helicopters with fairies, of real-estate brochures and newspaper gossip with palaces and misty moors, is an amusing one, although the story is thin and the happy outcome obvious from the start: when you know that a princess feels neglected by her royal parents, there are bound to be teary hugs by the book’s end.

     The world of The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a far more frightening one. Carrie Ryan’s debut novel is set in a land devastated by a deadly virus that leaves the living dead roaming at will and the rigid and uncompromising Sisterhood ruling unquestioned in a small village that represents one tiny bastion of apparent normality. It is in that village that Mary lives, amid the Guardians who are supposed to protect everyone; Sister Tabitha, strong-willed and inflexible leader of the Sisterhood; Travis, with whom Mary is in love but whom she is told she may not have; and rules, rules, rules. “Theirs is the word of God, not to be questioned,” says Mary of the Sisterhood. “They are the ones who teach us not to second-guess their proclamations, not to second-guess our survival…” It is obvious from the outset that this hidebound ruling class is hiding secrets, obvious that the walls protecting the village from the infected Unconsecrated will not – cannot – hold forever, obvious that Mary will be forced to choose between the safe (if constricted) life she has known and a far more dangerous life filled with unknown opportunities as well as hazards. There is nothing particularly new in the sorts of risks Mary must take, nor in the kinds of revelations through which she learns the truth about her village and those who supposedly take care of its residents. Mary’s deep desire to see the ocean becomes an important theme, and leads to a confrontation with Travis and an important bit of insight for Mary: “I had once hoped that, as it did for my mother, love would keep all other dreams at bay. The realization that it will not washes over me…” And when Mary finally makes it to the ocean, after much sacrifice on her part and even more from others, the arrival is at best bittersweet, as is the ending of the novel. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is a dark book about a dark world, in many ways not a very original story, but a suitably gritty and chilling one for teens ages 14 and up who seek temporary escape to a world even grimmer than their own.


Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire. By Gerard Koeppel. Da Capo. $27.95.

The House Always Wins: Create the Home you Love—without Busting Your Budget. By Marni Jameson. Da Capo. $15.95.

     A meticulously researched and exhaustive history of an infrastructure project about which almost no one cares anymore, journalist and historian Gerard Koeppel’s Bond of Union may end up being the last word on a story whose last word seemed to have been written long ago. It is no secret that the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, opened the inland portion of a young nation to trade from the Eastern Seaboard. It is no secret that the canal captured minds for generations, to the point that a famous folk song was sung for many years: “I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal – 15 miles on the Erie Canal,” and so on. And it is no secret that the coming of railroads not long after the Erie Canal’s completion doomed the several-times-reconfigured waterway to irrelevance, just as other canals – notably George Washington’s Chesapeake and Ohio Canal along the Potomac River – also fell into disrepair and disuse. There is little left of the Erie Canal nowadays, and attempts to turn remaining sections into tourist attractions in upstate New York have proved unsuccessful. But despite all this, Koeppel manages to tell a story that is at times fascinating, at times genuinely gripping, and at times surprisingly modern in the way it interweaves American politics with every bit of the planning and execution of a major construction project. Koeppel expands the usual role in the canal assigned to Jesse Hawley, who proposed the canal during his stint in debtor’s prison in 1807 and whose later fortunes, Koeppel shows, rose as the canal was built. Koeppel discusses the most important element of canal engineering – the discovery of waterproof cement – and gives full credit for a major role in the canal to civil engineer Benjamin Wright, whose own story has a series of twists and turns. But they are nothing compared with the intricacies of early-19th-century politics, which in this case involved the regional rivalry between South (with none other than Thomas Jefferson championing the idea of a westward push from Virginia) and North (the New York contingent, led by Governor De Witt Clinton). Within that grand regional rivalry – and who knows how the nation’s later fortunes would have fared if the South had first opened the way westward? – there was infighting galore in New York itself. Clinton’s power was steadily eroded, to such a point that he ended up remaining on the canal commission only through the sufferance of his enemies – and then eventually lost his post. The western terminus of the canal was a major battle of its own, with two new communities – Black Rock and Buffalo – both founded to serve in the role, although neither offered ideal conditions for boats carrying goods. When the canal was finally finished, there were the predictable political speeches praising the endeavor – James Madison wrote of the project as “a monument of Public Spirit conducted by enlightened Councils” – but there remained plenty of bad blood. Plenty of irony, too: Black Rock had destroyed the rock from which it took its name in building a harbor that never proved adequate; the location now holds the footings of the Peace Bridge between Buffalo and Canada. Students of the byways of American history will find Bond of Union a fascinating tale of a bygone era whose political echoes, if nothing else, still resonate today. But the book is no more likely to be of general interest to modern readers than the Erie Canal is to modern shippers.

     Most people think smaller nowadays, and especially in the current economic environment, when families are far more likely to contemplate creating a comfortable home for themselves than moving to another one, a book such as The House Always Wins offers comfort to the cocooning. Syndicated home-design columnist Marni Jameson provides both large-scale advice and small-scale information. Regarding carpet, for example, Jameson’s big-picture approach provides data on the five types of carpet and the uses to which each can be put, while her penchant for trivia brings forth the information that 90% of foot feel comes from padding, not carpet, and that an installer should use a power stretcher with poles rather than spikes to protect the carpet from damage. Although The House Always Wins starts with a section on buying a home, it will be most appealing to people who already own a house and are hoping to spruce it up, if not to sell it (difficult in the current market), then to enjoy it more for as long as they continue living in it. This is quite a densely packed book, and families that find home improvement overwhelming to contemplate may well find it more so, not less, after seeing all the elements that Jameson includes: wall treatments, flooring, counters, cabinets, furniture, art, collections, houseplants, home theaters, guest rooms, utility rooms, garages – not to mention designing and maintaining a yard, and planning and throwing parties. A house may be a smaller project than a state-spanning waterway, but it doesn’t feel that way to families involved in a home makeover; and a total home remodeling is probably not what most people are after nowadays anyway. The best way to use Jameson’s book is to decide what you really want (or really need) to do to make your home more livable, then focus on Jameson’s ideas and hints in that section alone – putting aside everything else until a later time that may or may not come. If your kids’ rooms are an area of concern, for example, go through Jameson’s seven-page chapter on the subject and get some ideas on choosing your battles, a color palette, the mood, a lead fabric – and, if necessary, choosing to keep the door to a child’s room closed. In small doses, Jameson’s relentlessly upbeat, chatty hints will reassure you that you are not alone and that home decorating and redecorating is by no means an impossible task. In larger chunks, though, Jameson can make the whole project – whatever it may be – start to seem beyond most people’s capabilities. The lesson here is to keep things as simple, small and targeted as possible.


Norton 360 version 3.0. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $79.95.

     In its often-confusing array of computer protection products, Symantec’s Norton 360 is designed to be the one that “circles the wagons,” so to speak, providing complete protection in what is essentially set-it-and-forget-it mode. The new 2009 version of this software, version 3.0, isn’t quite as all-encompassing as it might be, but it comes close to its promise and has several incremental improvements over its prior incarnations.

     Norton 360 is, in essence, one of the three versions of Symantec’s Internet-protection products, which are sold under three different names. The most basic Internet product, Norton AntiVirus, not only protects against viruses but also effectively blocks spyware and other malware, shields users against infected Web sites, secures a home or small-business network, and more. Simple enough – but then there are Norton Internet Security 2009 and Norton 360 version 3.0, which both include Norton AntiVirus but add different things to it. Norton Internet Security 2009 features fast updates and quick scans of your computer to find and eliminate any potential threats, and is good for sophisticated users who want a hands-on product that they can monitor as they wish and with whose functions they can interact. Norton 360 is positioned more as a product that any user can install (and version 3.0 does install more easily and reliably than earlier ones), and that thereafter handles computer protection pretty much on its own. This is not, in truth, an especially useful distinction – Symantec is overdue to produce a single product combining all the features of Norton 360 and Norton Internet Security, but that hasn’t happened this year. What Norton 360 does have that Norton Internet Security lacks is backup and PC tuneup features; if these are important to you, the $10 extra that Norton 360 costs makes it a better buy than Norton Internet Security.

     Among the enhancements in Norton 360 version 3.0 are integration of antispam operation into the product (an add-on pack was previously required; but antispam is now turned off by default, which seems a curious decision); improvements in the “Identity Safe” password-protection feature (which, alas, still works only with Internet Explorer); more flexible backup, either to your own media or to Symantec’s site (two gigabytes of storage are included); and a neat feature called “Smart Startup Manager,” which observes the impact of programs that run at startup and advises which ones to disable. Happily, the over-complex diagnostic report produced by version 2.0 is much improved in version 3.0, thanks to one simple change: the software now tells users which sections of the report need attention, thereby uncomplicating the whole process.

     Some changes in version 3.0 will be most appreciated by specific groups of users – for example, the “totally silent” mode, in which there are no interruptions at all, is great for gamers. Other changes benefit everyone: the new version works more quickly and uses less than 10 megabytes of memory at idle. But then there are the little irritations that have not changed at all: parental control, for example, still requires a separate download – and users who want it have to decide between an add-on pack and Norton Online Family, a more-comprehensive product that, however, is still in beta.

     So is Norton 360 version 3.0 the ultimate computer protector? No – it omits some useful technical features of other Symantec security products (such as fast pulse updates), and it is not quite simple enough for less-experienced users to install it and simply let it do its job (although the inclusion of free E-mail, chat and phone support is a nice touch). Also, Norton 360 version 3.0 is scarcely inexpensive in a world where a great deal of good freeware and shareware is available; and some of its features are not quite as valuable as they seem: two gigs of online storage are available free from EMC’s Mozy, for example, and that storage stays with you as long as you like – while Symantec’s is good only for the one year of the product’s life, unless you upgrade or extend the license. (You can get 25 gigs from Symantec by buying the Premier edition for an extra $20, but again, you have to keep the product current to continue to use the storage.) However, there is no question that version 3.0 is the best Norton 360 yet: it installs more easily, uses fewer computer resources, works more quickly, provides a better feature set and gives more comprehensive protection than earlier versions. Even its interface is cleaner and easier to understand than earlier ones. That makes Norton 360 version 3.0 a top-notch choice for family computing – it can be used on up to three PCs per household (or small business) – even if it is not quite a perfect circle of protection.


Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 5: Piano Sonatas Nos. 7, 21 (“Waldstein”) and 25. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 6: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (Liszt Piano Transcriptions). Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

Idil Biret Beethoven Edition, Volume 7: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 and 4. Idil Biret, piano; Bilkent Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. IBA. $8.99.

     The fifth through seventh of the 19 CDs that will make up the Idil Biret Beethoven Archive have the same strengths and weaknesses as the first four – with strengths predominating by far. Biret, who is 67, started playing piano at age three and has gained steadily in maturity, understanding and elegance in her interpretations. She is best known for her Chopin, but the IBA Beethoven series, when complete, will make her the only pianist to have released all Beethoven’s piano sonatas, concertos and symphonies (as transcribed by Liszt) in recorded form.

     Biret’s sonata cycle is the gem of this series. She has very personal ideas about the sonatas, sweeping listeners into her interpretations and arguing convincingly for them through her sheer musicality and the consistency of her playing. In the Idil Biret Edition, Volume 5, recorded in 1994, Sonata No. 7, Op. 10, No. 3, is a large-scale work in every sense: Biret plays it with an expansiveness that many performers reserve for later sonatas. The finger work in the opening Presto is especially impressive, while the lengthy Largo is expansive and compelling, although Biret downplays the second part of Beethoven’s tempo indication, “mesto” (sad). In the “Waldstein” sonata, Op. 53, the music is well balanced between lightness and intensity, with the finale being the high point, its Allegretto moderato main section tripping along at just the right pace and with plenty of delicacy to balance its serious elements. The brief Sonata No. 25, Op. 79, gets a light, Mozartean touch throughout and on this CD functions as an encore and a relief from much of the passion that has come before.

     Biret’s handling of the Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies is more problematic. These are the earliest IBA recordings – Volume 6 dates to 1985 – and some of the performance practices are outdated, notably the arbitrary inclusion or omission of repeats. For example, taking the exposition repeat in the first movement of Symphony No. 5, but omitting it in the finale, really throws off the balance of the work. In addition, Biret’s determination to use slow tempos and considerable pedal to emphasize certain elements of the symphonies makes sections positively ponderous. Symphony No. 4, a light and fleet work and one of Beethoven’s happiest, is beautifully played but never seems fully to get off the ground – there is just enough sense of dragging to hold it down. In No. 5, the famous initial four-note theme is pounded out with almost too much emphasis, and some of Biret’s use of tremolo for emphasis nearly makes this very innovative work sound cartoonish. And the super-bright C major finale never soars. Still, listeners willing to accept Biret’s sound world, or be drawn into it, will find her interpretations consistent, balanced and occasionally revelatory – those slow tempos allow her to bring out melodic lines and some of Beethoven’s unusual harmonies quite clearly.

     The most recent IBA recordings are of the piano concertos: Nos. 3 and 4 date to as recently as January 2008. Here Biret achieves a pleasing blend of drive and lightness, with the first movement of No. 3 quite stately and engrossing and the back-and-forth of the second movement of No. 4 handled with aplomb – it sounds more like a conversation between piano and orchestra than an argument. And the two concertos’ final rondos are light enough, yet serious enough, to round off the works effectively. However, the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra is not a particularly distinguished group: it sounds fine but rather bland. Antoni Wit gets all the cues right and lets Biret hold center stage throughout the concertos, but there is nothing in the accompaniment to make a listener sit up and take notice. These are performances for Biret enthusiasts but not necessarily for listeners for whom Beethoven’s music itself is the primary focus.

     Still, despite some shortcomings on individual discs, the IBA releases as a whole are very impressive, and the chance to hear a single excellent pianist’s view of so much of the greatest music ever written for the instrument is well-nigh irresistible – even though it is clear that Biret’s views have changed somewhat in the more-than-20-year span of these recordings. The well-priced IBA CDs constitute a unique archive, and if the performances are not definitive, they are uniformly commendable, frequently quite convincing – and always very much worth hearing.


Ernest Bloch: Deux Psaumes for soprano and orchestra; Suite hébraïque for viola and orchestra; Baal-Shem: Three Pictures of Chassidic Life for violin and orchestra; Trois poems juifs for orchestra. Christiane Oelze, soprano; Tabea Zimmermann, viola; Antje Weithass, violin; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Steven Sloane. Capriccio. $16.99.

Paul Dessau: In memoriam Bertolt Brecht; Symphony No. 2; Danse et Chanson; Examen et poème de Verlaine; Les Voix; Symphony in One Movement. Ksenija Lukic, soprano; Manuela Bress, mezzo-soprano; Holger Groschopp, piano; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Roger Epple. Capriccio. $16.99.

Per Nørgård: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7. Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Choir and Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: Plateaux for Piano and Orchestra; For Piano. Juho Pohjonen, piano; Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ed Spanjaard. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

     Music changed in so many ways in the 20th century, clinging to and adapting the past on the one hand while creating entirely new structural precepts on the other, that listeners can be forgiven if they have the impression that there were two 20th centuries, often moving in diametrically opposed directions. There is in fact some truth to this notion, but it is really an oversimplification, as the works on these new CDs demonstrate.

     Of the four composers here, Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) most comfortably inhabits the structures and tonal world that the 20th century carried over from the 19th. Bloch, a Swiss-born Jew, turned often to Judaism for his inspiration, and his work frequently has a sense of mysticism as well as considerable beauty – there is nothing of the klezmer here. Suite hébraïque (1951) is an especially moving work, its three movements all in moderate tempos and its emphasis on the viola grounding it in beauty, subtlety and melancholy. In contrast, Baal-Shem, with its solo violin, portrays Chassidic life as both contemplative and joyous; this work was arranged by Bloch for violin and orchestra in 1939, the original 1923 version being for violin and piano.. In Deux Psaumes (1912-4), the soprano movingly sings psalms 137 and 114 after an orchestral prelude, while in the contemporaneous Trois poems juifs (1913), it is left to the orchestra alone to produce the effects of a gentle dance, a calm “rite,” and finally a funeral cortège. In all these works – all of them lovingly performed by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Steven Sloane – there is a constant sense of the past both in the nonmusical thematic material and in the structure and tonality of the music itself.

     But when the same orchestra – this time conducted by Roger Epple – plays works of Paul Dessau, listeners get a different sense of the uses of the past. Dessau (1894-1979), like Bloch, had Jewish roots – Dessau’s grandfather was a cantor – and also like Bloch, he eventually moved to the United States (although Bloch stayed in his adopted country and Dessau returned to Europe after less than a decade). For most of his life, Dessau was firmly attached to Romantic sensibilities and techniques, as is clear in his well-structured Symphony in One Movement (1926), the very brief Danse et Chanson (1937), the two-voice (soprano and mezzo-soprano) Examen et poème de Verlaine (1938), and the more extended Verlaine-based work for soprano, piano and orchestra, Les Voix (1939). In later years, though, Dessau – who was fond of theater and film, and actually wrote scores for some silent films and early Disney productions – began to adopt some avant-garde techniques, including serialism. These are not fully formed in In memoriam Bertolt Brecht (1957) or the Symphony No. 2 (begun in 1934 as a suite, completed in 1962 as a symphony -- and containing one movement marked “Hommage à Bartók”), but they became more prominent in Dessau’s later works; perhaps some of those will be offered on other Capriccio CDs.

     For some 20th-century composers, there was little apparent tension between the lessons of the past and the most modern available approaches. In Denmark, both Per Nørgård and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – both born in 1932 – have been firmly entrenched in 20th-century musical methodologies for decades. But they have taken their techniques in very different directions. Nørgård’s work has intellectual underpinnings rivaling those of Schoenberg. He uses a structure called the infinity series, related to fractals in geometry although not directly derived from them, as a basic building block. He first used the melodic version of this series for Voyage into the Golden Screen (1968) and Symphony No. 2 (1970) – after which he added harmonic and rhythmic infinity series and combined all three for the first time to create his Symphony No. 3 (1972-5). After three decades, this remains an impressive but not immediately accessible work, its two movements reflecting grand unifying forces and its alto solo (Ulla Munch in the new Dacapo recording) floating above but integrating with the choral and orchestral material. By the 21st century, Nørgård had thoroughly absorbed his organizational principles and was able to create, in Symphony No. 7 (2004-6), an even more complex work, which pulls listeners into a very different sound world that includes, among other things, 14 tuned tom-toms and substantial percussion. Thomas Dausgaard leads the first recording of Symphony No. 3 in 25 years, and the first ever of Symphony No. 7, with conviction and a fine feeling for the structure of Nørgård’s music. The music itself, though, will not come close to appealing to everyone: it is more intellectual than emotional, and seems often to display the composer playing with the orchestra simply because he can – for example, at the end of Symphony No. 7, which seems to have four distinct conclusions. This is interesting music, certainly, but it is not necessarily compelling.

     Neither are the works of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – but they are simpler, more direct and easier to follow than those of Nørgård, and are often leavened by a sense of humor that comes through despite the persistent use of 20th-century compositional techniques that can be off-putting when taken to extremes. For Piano (1992) is an expansive solo piano work that juxtaposes tender moments with more frenetic ones, often to humorous effect. The concerto called Plateaux for Piano and Orchestra is a work of the 21st century, dating to 2005, and is on an even grander scale – in nine movements with such designations as “Murmure,” “Composition” and “En majeur.” Although there is a great deal going on in Plateaux, much of it occurs quickly and surprisingly lightly, and the contrasts among the movements are nicely handled by Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen. The Danish National Symphony Orchestra provides its usual finely nuanced backup, although Dutch conductor Ed Spanjaard does not seem quite as comfortable with the many moods of this music as Thomas Dausgaard would likely have been. This SACD of two world premiere recordings is nevertheless a very fine accomplishment, as well as a testament to the different directions in which composers developed in the last century and are continuing to move in this one.

March 19, 2009


Atomic Lobster. By Tim Dorsey. William Morrow. $24.95.

Nuclear Jellyfish. By Tim Dorsey. William Morrow. $24.95.

     There must be something in the Florida air. Or the water. Or the sunshine. Or, more likely, in the combination. Whatever it is, it seems to attract authors with truly bizarre senses of the interrelationship of crime and humor, from Carl Hiaasen to Elmore Leonard (originally from Louisiana) to Tim Dorsey. Dorsey isn’t quite at the level of Hiaasen or Leonard in terms of plot, but he artfully conceals the fact with a scattershot narrative style that mixes up time, place, characters and sequence to a fare-thee-well, leaving readers so breathless (both from laughing and from trying to follow what is going on) that they just have to get their hands on whatever Dorsey comes up with next.

     Atomic Lobster is the “next” of 2008, and Nuclear Jellyfish is the “next” of 2009. They are, respectively if not respectably, the 10th and 11th annual novels that Dorsey has produced since Florida Roadkill (1999) introduced his thoroughly unlovable but strangely likable central character, a super-smart serial killer with a logical but twisted sense of justice and the name of Serge A. Storms (as in “a storm surge,” get it?). Dorsey is a former Tampa Tribune reporter, and seems to take reportorial delight in ferreting out details of events and describing them carefully (notably the inventive ways that Serge finds to kill people who are evil, or whom he considers evil); Dorsey also gets revenge on traditional inverted-pyramid style by never, ever writing in a way that makes it clear what is important and what is subsidiary. This means that it is perfectly possible to enter Dorsey’s series of novels anywhere and be at the same confused place where you would have been at the start – although, if you begin with Atomic Lobster or Nuclear Jellyfish, you will probably wish you had more background on some of the characters (which will encourage you to go get the earlier books; Dorsey is not dumb). The plots of Dorsey’s books are complex to the point of indescribability – and nearly irrelevant, since the fun of the books is in the weird characters and the way Dorsey writes about them. Atomic Jellyfish includes, among others, Serge; timid Jim Davenport; Johnny Vegas, the Accidental Virgin; the E-Team (four man-hungry grandmas); Coleman, Serge’s dim, drug-bingeing buddy; Rachael, a very sexy but down-on-her-luck prostitute; and Tex McGraw, a bad guy imprisoned in part because of Jim Davenport’s testimony who is now out of jail and out for revenge (thus providing the gist of the plot). Throw together some anger-management classes for Serge and Tex’s “bobbing for catfish” game with his unsuccessful defense attorney, and you can pretty well figure out where Atomic Lobster is going – except that you probably won’t, because Dorsey has a way of twisting things just enough so you don’t quite guess what’s eventually going to happen, or how. This book, like all Dorsey’s novels, is a wild and funny ride – funnier, actually, if you have not read too many of his works, since there is a certain sameness to some of the characters and situations after a while.

     And then comes Nuclear Jellyfish, with yet more of some of the same characters clustered around Serge, but this time with a bad guy called the Eel, plus a stripping community-college instructor, a cameo appearance by former Florida Governor Claude Kirk (hey, Dorsey put Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen in Florida Roadkill), and visits to such Florida attractions as Marineland and the old Spanish fort at St. Augustine. Serge is, among other things, a devotee of Florida’s history; this lets ex-reporter Dorsey toss in some legitimate background and then mercilessly skewer its normal, placid presentation. In Nuclear Jellyfish, it is Serge’s interest in Florida that sets the plot in motion: our friendly neighborhood mass murderer starts blogging about the state for a travel Web site, but his unique approach to certain elements of state travel (say, carjackings) doesn’t go down particularly well, so he decides to travel around and file to his own site. As Serge continues finding Rube-Goldberg-like ways to commit mayhem (with a vegetable peeler, model railroad tracks, and plug-in air fresheners, among other items), Dorsey treats readers to bad blood between philatelists and numismatists, shopping at Home Depot, a series of deaths involving trade-show exhibitors, some hotel drink coupons, and a bit of John Travolta. It’s all madcap fun, if by “fun” you mean blood, drugs, sex, confusion and lots and lots of Florida. Where, apparently, all this stuff is fun. At least when you read about it.


Good Egg. By Barney Saltzberg. Workman. $9.95.

You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! By Jonah Winter. Illustrated by André Carrilho. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Monsters vs. Aliens: The Junior Novel; Ginormica’s Big Battle; Meet the Monsters. HarperEntertainment. $5.99 (Novel); $3.99 each (Battle, Meet).

     Sometimes the major attraction of a book – or one of the major attractions, anyway – is simply how it is put together. That is certainly the case with the very clever Good Egg, a board book for ages 2-5 that features…well, an egg. But this is not just any egg: it does tricks – or, to be more precise, kids make it do tricks. That’s the cleverness both of the book’s design and of Barney Saltzberg’s story. The book opens with a picture of the egg and the word “egg.” Then come simple commands – things kids can get the egg to do by pulling, pushing or opening tabs, slots and foldover pages. “Lie down,” says one page, and when you pull the tab at the bottom, the egg moves 90 degrees clockwise and the words “good egg!” appear. “Roll over” is on another page with a tab – pull the tab to the right and the egg actually spins around on the page, again with the words “good egg!” appearing. For the page that says “catch,” there is an object that looks like a beach ball, adhering to a bit of Velcro – you pick the ball up from the left page and put it on the Velcro at the top of the right page, so it seems to sit atop the egg…and of course the words “good egg!” are at the bottom of that page. The egg “training” ends with the command to “speak!” – which of course an egg cannot do. Ah, but there is something inside the egg…and that brings this delightfully designed book to a suitable climax.

     You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! is for older kids, ages 4-9, but it too attracts readers through its appearance. The front cover is a very clever design in which André Carrilho’s drawing of Koufax actually winds up and pitches as you move the cover back and forth. And the good packaging doesn’t end there: “baseball cards” of Koufax adorn the book’s inside front and back covers, and Carrilho’s art throughout the book has an elongated, streamlined look that is both old-fashioned and in tune with Jonah Winter’s story. The narrative is cleverly packaged, too, in a “Brooklynese” accent to reflect the fact that Koufax started to pitch for the Dodgers when they were the Brooklyn Dodgers: “It didn’t take long for the major league scouts to start sniffin’ around Dyker Field, where Sandy was pitchin’ to his pals in sandlot games.” “Says nothin’ to nobody, just leaves. Quitsville.” But all this presentation matters mostly because it is at the service of an excellent story: about Koufax’s initial problems, his later successes, his introversion, his Judaism (which led to his refusing to take the mound for the first game of the 1965 World Series), and his early retirement from baseball. Fact boxes are sprinkled around the pages, too, about baseball’s color barrier, about teams’ name changes, about bad years that happened to good pitchers, and much more. You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! is primarily, of course, a baseball story, but it is better presented than many other tales of its type and therefore may be of more interest to kids who might in fact never have heard of Sandy Koufax (who, as Winter points out, is still alive, living in Florida, where he recently celebrated his 73rd birthday).

     Sometimes, it is only the packaging that is likely to attract readers to a book, and that is the case with three tie-ins to the new Dreamworks animated movie, Monsters vs. Aliens. Kids who like the film, in which the monsters (kept at a secret government base, of course) are the good guys, will enjoy having parts of the plot rehashed in the books, which are aimed at different ages but which all draw from the same source and reflect the movie without trying to add anything to it. The Junior Novel, by Susan Korman, is for ages 8-12; Ginormica’s Big Battle, by Gail Herman, is a Level 2 book in the “I Can Read!” series, which means it is for ages 4-8; and Meet the Monsters, by N.T. Raymond, is a pictorial book in the style of a tabloid newspaper, designed for ages 3-7. Kids probably won’t realize that a lot of Monsters vs. Aliens is a sendup of the old “B” monster films of the 1950s: The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman gives us Susan Murphy, who is struck by a meteor and grows to be the 49-foot-11-inch-tall Ginormica; The Fly gives us “Dr. Cockroach, PhD,” a polite and intelligent man with the head of a cockroach; and so on. Parents may or may not make these connections, but ultimately they won’t care: these books, which get a (+++) rating for fans of the film and no rating at all for anyone else, are designed not for their stories but exclusively for the way they have been packaged as movie souvenirs for different age groups.


Sir Eugene Goossens: Phantasy Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; Symphony No. 1. Howard Shelley, piano; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Bernstein: Mass. Randall Scarlata, baritone; Company of Music, Tölzer Knabenchor, Chorus Sine Nomine, Absolute Ensemble and Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich conducted by Kristjan Järvi. Chandos. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

     The final recording made by the late conductor Richard Hickox was supposed to be the start of one of the Chandos label's many series exploring less-known but highly worthy music – in this case, that of Sir Eugene Goossens, the celebrated composer-conductor whose career was infamously ruined when he fell afoul of the sexual mores of the mid-1950s. Goossens (1893-1962) was the son of a conductor-violinist and grandson of a conductor, all of the same name (although the earlier family members spelled their first name Eugène, with an accent). Sir Eugene was Sir Thomas Beecham’s assistant conductor, conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic, and conductor from 1931 to 1946 of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – to which his Symphony No. 1 (1938-40) is dedicated. Although not as well known for his compositions as for his conducting, Goossens was a skilled craftsman with a fine feeling for orchestral scoring and color and a conductor’s attentiveness to performance details: the four-movement Phantasy Concerto, for example, has no fewer than 51 tempo indications. Goossens was not an especially inspired melodist, but he understood very well how to pull together a large-scale work such as Symphony No. 1 or a medium-scale one such as the concerto. The Phantasy Concerto, recorded here for the first time, is really more of a concertante, with the piano and orchestra in dialogue rather than competition and with few significant passages of virtuoso fireworks. It is an interesting rather than involving piece, played respectfully (if perhaps a bit coolly) by Howard Shelley, with Hickox and the Melbourne Symphony providing fluid backup. Symphony No. 1 is a larger and grander work and one that especially benefits from Chandos’ top-notch SACD sound. In the traditional four movements, the symphony projects a repeated air of menace suitable to the times in which it as written, although it is certainly not a “war symphony” like those of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Its most impressive movements are its scherzo, called Divertimento, which is dark and insistent; and its finale, which is conceived on a large scale and is very impressively orchestrated, and which pulls together multiple elements from the earlier movements. Hickox fully plumbs the depths of this music, and it is a real shame that he had no opportunity to delve further into Goossens’ output.

     Better treated by society than Goossens, Leonard Bernstein – whose bisexuality was never the major issue that Goossens’ involvement in what was once deemed pornographic became – was another composer-conductor, and in many ways more successful at both endeavors. Bernstein’s showmanship and his willingness to cross musical lines had a lot to do with building and maintaining his reputation – and shielding his personal life from condemnation. His use of multiple musical and theatrical forms to create something new and distinctive is nowhere more apparent than in his 1971 work, Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. Commissioned by Jackie Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., Bernstein’s Mass uses the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass – sung in traditional Latin – as the basis for an emotional exploration of faith, and the challenges to it, in the modern world. In 32 sections that stretch through nearly two hours, Bernstein’s Mass starts in harmony, passes into doubt and uncertainty, climaxes in abnegation and sacrilege, then slowly rebuilds itself into an affirmation of faith that allows the work to conclude with the traditional, “The Mass is ended; go in peace.” It is a remarkable emotional journey that gets its full due from the very strong forces directed by Kristjan Järvi in the new Chandos recording. Especially impressive is the vocal contrast between Randall Scarlata as the initially accepting, then doubting Celebrant, and the Company of Music as the Street Chorus that first starts the questioning of the tenets of the Mass. The momentum of this lengthy work is well sustained from start to finish, and the newly created pre-records – playbacks used during the performance, previously available only in a version made by Bernstein himself – are highly effective. Certainly Bernstein’s own recording of the Mass has unequaled authenticity and tremendous historical value, but its 1971 sound is not up to that of Chandos’ SACDs, and Järvi nicely highlights and balances some elements of the choral and orchestral forces in ways that even Bernstein himself did not. Clearly, despite Richard Hickox’s death, Chandos’ commitment to the recording of distinguished modern music is continuing and will continue, and will do so at the highest level of quality.


Allegro Danzante: One Century of Italian Music. Rocco Parisi, clarinet; Gabrielle Rota, piano. Concerto. $16.99.

Jewish Baroque Music. Ensemble Salomone Rossi. Concerto. $16.99.

Carlo Broschi detto Farinelli: Il Quaderno dell’Imperatrice. Angelo Manzotti, sopranista; Ensemble Isabella Leonarda conducted by Maurizio Schiavo. Concerto. $16.99.

Bach: Works for Lute, Volume 1. Jason Vieaux, guitar. Azica. $16.99.

Bohemian Maestro: Django Reinhardt and the Impressionists. The Hot Club of San Francisco with Jeffrey Kahane, piano, and the Aeros Quintet. Azica. $16.99.

     Although the recording industry today is dominated by a handful of huge companies, there remain ambitious entrepreneurs in the field who are convinced that there is an audience for niche productions of unusual, frequently little-known music in high-quality performances. Concerto, an Italian label launched in 2000, is a particularly good example of this type of company, being devoted mostly to Italian music performed by members of Italy’s famously deep classical-music talent pool. You might think this means lots of Baroque music, but Concerto spans the ages – in fact, Allegro Danzante: One Century of Italian Music is devoted to the 20th and 21st centuries, including works from as early as 1920 and as recently as last year. Rocco Parisi and Gabriele Rota give poised, elegant performances of Ferruccio Busoni’s Elegie, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sonata, op. 128, and a sonata and Allegro Danzante by Nino Rota – plus brief works by four living composers: Vittorio Fellagara’s Wiegenlied (1981), Michele Dall’Ongaro’s Errata corrige (1998), Ennio Morricone’s Ipotesi (2000), and Raffaele Cacciola’s Storie (2008). The Busoni, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Rota works anchor the CD in what is largely a post-Romantic tradition, while the more recent compositions show Italian composers, in harmony with others worldwide, seeking new forms of musical language that will continue to connect with audiences.

     Two other Concerto CDs focus on the Baroque and Classical eras, peeking into corners of the repertoire with which listeners are likely to be unfamiliar. Jewish Baroque Music features works by some Jewish composers and on some Jewish themes by non-Jews – in the latter category, for example, two excerpts from Handel’s Esther. Several short pieces by Salomone Rossi, the namesake of the group performing on this disc, are especially interesting, being based on Hebrew texts such as En Kelohenu and Shir hammaalot. Other composers heard on this CD are Avraham Caceres, Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti and Carlo Grossi – minor masters all, whose works do not depart in any significant way from standard Baroque practices, but whose music is of interest because of a focus that was decidedly non-mainstream in Italy in the 16th through 18th centuries. What was mainstream at the time was the singing of castrati, and one of the most famous of them was Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli. He sang contralto and soprano roles – and was also a fine composer, on the evidence of Il Quaderno dell’Imperatrice, a set of five soprano arias dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Written late in Farinelli’s life (he lived from 1705 to 1782), the arias show a fine sense of balance and scale and fit neatly into the time of Mozart (who knew Farinelli and visited him). Angelo Manzotti’s specialized countertenor voice, the sopranista, fits these arias as well as any male voice is likely to today, revealing great beauty in the music and considerable flexibility in Manzotti as a vocal performer.

     Another small company offering top-notch performances of a carefully focused repertoire is Azica, founded in 1992 as a classical-and-jazz label (the “az” comes from “jazz” and the “ica” from “classical”). The Azica idea is to bring some jazz-like spontaneity to classical recordings and some classical-like acoustical precision to jazz CDs. This aim does not appear especially evident in practice in two recent Azica CDs, but both are interesting and well played on their own terms. Guitarist Jason Vieaux offers transcriptions of four Bach lute works in what is intended as the first volume of a series, adeptly and sensitively playing the Suite in G Minor, BWV 995 (transcribed into A Minor); the Suite in E Minor, BWV 996; the Suite in C Minor, BWV 997 (transcribed into A Minor); and the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat Major, BWV 998 (transcribed into D Major). The key transcriptions do no harm to the music – Bach can be played in almost any key, on almost any instrument – but the guitar arrangements, although well done, will not be to purists’ tastes. The intricacy of Bach’s lute music is well known; Bach took full advantage of the lute’s structure and tuning (for instance, the fact that in lower courses, one of the two strings is generally tuned an octave higher than the other), as is particularly clear when the composer himself arranged a work originally written for a different instrument (BWV 995 is a transcription of the fifth Cello Suite, BWV 1011). The warmer, more blended tones of the guitar produce a different sonic experience from that afforded by the lute itself – neither better nor worse, but sufficiently different to make Bach’s music an aural experience rather far from what the composer intended. Still, Vieaux plays the works with skill and considerable virtuosity, and this CD provides an interesting way to look at some aspects of Bach’s music.

     The virtuosity is of a different kind in Azica’s tribute to master jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953). Reinhardt was one of the first top European jazz musicians and was cofounder (with violinist Stéphane Grappelli) of the Quintette du Hot Club de France – after which the Hot Club of San Francisco is named. The California group, with 10 CDs to its credit in the past 20 years, performs a mixture of classical works (in jazz arrangements) and original compositions on Bohemian Maestro. This creates an interesting sonic world in which Debussy, Poulenc and Villa-Lobos rub shoulders (so to speak) with Jelly Roll Morton and works by Hot Club’s own guitarist, Paul Mehling, and violinist, Evan Price. Also included is a nearly lost work by Reinhardt himself, part of a Catholic Mass whose score is long gone – Price transcribed the music from an organ recording. Bohemian Maestro is an exhilarating mixture of music that does not, on the face of it, blend particularly well – but whose sound and emotional impact fit together surprisingly effectively on this very well-played, well-recorded CD.

March 12, 2009


Birthday Books: Edward Gorey—Verse Advice; Kliban’s Cats. Pomegranate. $12.95 each.

Anne Geddes Birthday Calendar. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     In these trying economic times, it can be a real pleasure to find a small thing you can do that will save money in the long run and be enjoyable as well. Here’s a pleasant example: track family members’ and friends’ birthdays and other special occasions with a perpetual birthday book or calendar. You buy it once and keep it for years – in fact, as long as you like (or until you get tired of its design or it becomes frayed from use).

     Pomegranate makes a number of sturdy, attractive perpetual-recording books, decorated with art for just about any taste and containing, as bonuses, lists of birthstones and flowers, zodiac signs and dates, and a compendium of wedding-anniversary gifts (both traditional and contemporary). These little books – just under five inches square – easily fit in a drawer or on a frequently used shelf, so you can grab them anytime. If, for example, you keep a standard calendar in the kitchen, you can keep one of these books nearby so you always know whose birthday, anniversary or other special event is coming up. Then you can transfer the information to your regular calendar once a week or once a month, so you will always know when and for whom to buy a card or gift, or whom to telephone or E-mail to acknowledge a special day. The little books are very simply laid out: each day of the year gets its own space, a little more than an inch high and about four inches wide (except that February 28 and 29 share a space). This is plenty of room in which to write several people’s birthdays, anniversaries or whatever else you want to remember. And the book’s decorations make them fun to look at. Edward Gorey’s Verse Advice, originally published in The New Yorker in 1993, shows up in one book as a series of couplets at the starts of months. For March, for example, there are two ice skaters facing each other with rather quizzical looks on their faces, with a dog in the background, and the words, “The person who today is here/ May by tomorrow disappear.” Make of this what you will – the verse and pictures are classic Gorey (and some individual dates have little bits of Gorey illustrations adorning them). Kliban’s Cats features B. “Hap” Kliban’s plump and amusing felines in big pictures at the start of each month and small ones on various dates. Either book, or any of the others in Pomegranate’s birthday-book line, will be useful perpetually (or at least for a long while) as a timely reminder of special occasions.

     Alternatively, you can actually hang up a perpetual calendar in addition to whatever dated one you use – for example, the Anne Geddes Birthday Calendar from Andrews McMeel. This looks just like a standard wall calendar of its size (it opens to 20 inches high by seven inches wide), giving a small amount of space to every day of every month – but there is no year, so you can use the calendar for as long as you like. Fans of Geddes’ photos of miniature babies (well, apparently miniature babies) will love this calendar, which includes some of her most charming pictures: a baby with butterfly wings asleep on a red-and-white mushroom cap for February, four babies peeking out of the openings in a planter for June, three babies with daffodil caps in individual flower pots for October, and so on. This calendar offers less room in which to write events than you get in a birthday book; but unlike the books, the calendar can be hung so you always see it and can simply glance at it regularly to find out which special occasions are coming up. These perpetual date books and calendars jog the memory, look good, last for a long time and are a great way to economize while being sure not to forget important people’s significant dates – a lot of value in some small, attractive packages.


Alligator Bayou. By Donna Jo Napoli. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.

Carolina Harmony. By Marilyn Taylor McDowell. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     It has become increasingly fashionable, in books for preteens and young teenagers, to dig down to traumas of the past in order to offer historical fiction that authors think will resonate emotionally with young people today. The reasons for this are obscure, but perhaps the ability simultaneously to escape from modern-day difficulties while learning that the past has lessons that still apply in the 21st century is an element of authors’ and publishers’ thinking. Books in this historical-fiction category tend to follow familiar patterns, establishing the time frame and explaining how people lived then while focusing on the emotional lives of the families profiled – and subjecting them to all sorts of difficulties from which the young protagonists eventually emerge stronger and more capable of handling life.

     That is the pattern of both Alligator Bayou, for ages 12 and up, and Carolina Harmony, for ages 9-12. Donna Jo Napoli’s book is set in 1899 in the small town of Tallulah, Louisiana, and its focus is a family of Sicilian immigrants who do not quite look like the white people of the town – but certainly not like the black ones, either. So 14-year-old Calogero (“Calo”) Scalise and his uncles and cousin have even more trouble than immigrants usually do as they try to adapt to a strange country with strange customs (including Jim Crow laws) and strange ways. The bayou atmosphere of the book is established through midnight alligator hunts and other touches of local color; the unremitting prejudice is established both through the white townspeople’s belief in the inferiority of the Sicilians (even if they are not quite black) and through the introduction of a black girl named Patricia who is far too intelligent and sweet to be believable, but who is a common type in modern books of this sort, where the downtrodden are always nobler and better than those who repress them. There are noble and suppressed Indians in Alligator Bayou, too, and one member of the Tunica tribe tells Calo about his people’s legend of finding the seasons (thanks to two alligators, one red and one blue), while Calo – the book’s narrator – remarks that as a Catholic he knows “the world is full of miracles and mysteries,” but he doesn’t believe the Tunica ones. What he does believe, and what he should believe, become issues for Calo as he and his relatives “fraternize” with blacks and get beaten up by the inevitable ignorant and nasty white youths. Calo discovers that even the “educated men” – white men, that is – are ignorant and nasty – and never more than one step from violence. And it is violence that ultimately forces Calo to make choices that will carry him into adulthood – and away from the childhood he has known. The nuanced portraits of Calo, Joseph (the Tunica) and Patricia are in stark contrast to the one-dimensional portrayals of the many bad white people in Alligator Bayou, but that is part of the pattern of historical fiction of this type.

     The pattern is a bit different in Carolina Harmony, the debut novel by Marilyn Taylor McDowell. This is set closer to the present time than Napoli’s book, in 1964, but for 21st-century preteens, that seems as long ago as Elizabethan times. The setting is the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where an 11-year-old girl – also named Carolina – has lived through too many tragedies in her young life: the death in an accident of her parents and baby brother, Caleb; a year spent with her Auntie Shen (who then “took sick”); then a series of foster homes. She lands with the Harmonys, Mr. Ray and Miss Latah, but bad things happen with them too, including a farming accident and the arrival at Harmony Farm of a boy named Russell, whom Carolina mistakenly considers a friend. This era is developed as a time of moonshine, of continuing prejudice against those who are “different” (such as Miss Latah, a Cherokee; and there are “white” and “colored” water fountains), of harsh treatment of runaways such as Carolina, of reform schools and hopping trains to get away to…somewhere else. But Carolina brings all her fears, worries and troubles with her wherever she goes, and even though she is sure wishes don’t come true – hers certainly haven’t – she eventually discovers faith, sees a vision of an angel that makes her feel re-connected to her family, and realizes that she must return to Harmony Farm to face her past. Auntie Shen’s comment, “Sometimes the heart does the praying for us,” is the ultimate affirmation here; and if the sentiment seems overly simplistic and the problems faced by Carolina seem rather too contrived, that is in keeping with the overall tone of this historical novel that reads as if it is set not so much in the mid-20th century as “once upon a time.”


Norton Utilities 14.0. Windows Vista or XP. Symantec. $49.95.

     The best iteration yet of the venerable Norton Utilities computer tuneup suite, with the best-looking interface that Symantec has created for its 2009 product line, Norton Utilities 14.0 is not a product for everyone – but everyone who understands what it can do will be tremendously pleased with how efficiently it performs its functions.

     This is software that really gets into the innards of your PC, ferreting out problems that are difficult – sometimes nearly impossible – for users to handle on their own, and automating the repair of those issues with genuinely impressive speed. And style, too: this program looks good while doing what it does.      The main Norton Utilities screen offers six functions under a category called “optimize”: clean registry, clean discs, manage services, manage startup, defragment registry, defragment hard drives. Each function gets its own slick, modern icon with a brief explanation of what clicking on that icon will do. Pick one and click, and Norton Utilities goes to work with exceptional speed and excellent accuracy. “Clean registry,” for example, automates the chore of searching the enormous and complex database that is the guts of Windows operating systems – and that tends to accumulate unneeded “keys” and “values” as programs are installed, updated, reinstalled or uninstalled. Eventually, this accumulation slows down a computer and can (worst case) cause operating instability. In short order, Norton Utilities finds what doesn’t belong in the registry – in a dozen categories, from “registry integrity” to “file extensions” – and displays the problems, which a user can fix with a single click on “repair.” This works amazingly well – and includes the automatic creation of a restore point, so you can bring your computer back to its prior state if it turns out that Norton Utilities has misidentified and removed an entry that you really needed after all.

     The registry can also be defragmented for smoother, quicker operation; and Norton Utilities can analyze your hard drives and tell you whether they too have files so scattered that some housekeeping is in order. But the “optimize” category is only one part of this program. The “monitor” category lets you test, benchmark and improve system performance, keeps an eye on your registry for changes and alerts you when they occur, and lets you view and manage Windows processes.

     If your eyes are glazing over by now, you may think you are not a good candidate for Norton Utilities 14.0, because the program does require some basic understanding of how Windows computers work. Indeed, its “Windows tools” category gets more deeply into that, providing a one-stop shortcut to functions you can get to elsewhere on the computer, but not as straightforwardly: System Information, Control Panel, Windows Update, Device Manager, Windows Security Settings and more. Interestingly, for this functionality alone, the new Norton Utilities can be a worthwhile purchase for less-knowledgeable users, who are sure to need access to some of these areas from time to time and may find the often-confusing Windows interface more difficult to use than the simple, clean Norton Utilities one.

     For more-knowledgeable users, Norton Utilities 14.0 provides an “administer” category for dealing with white lists, restorations and other functions that a novice will likely not want to touch – but that experienced PC users will welcome. Like everything else in this program, these functions work quickly, easily, and highly efficiently.

     There are, though, a couple of areas for improvement even in as well-designed a piece of software as this. The main issue is program updates. Norton Utilities 14.0 includes a “Smart Update” feature that works well – but it does not integrate with other Norton applications’ Live Update, so you have to run Live Update and Smart Update separately. Given the fact that Live Update itself is annoying – it repeatedly tells you that updates are available to induce you to run it, then usually tells you that you are already up to date – adding Smart Update as a separate requirement is irritating. Furthermore, much of what Smart Update discovers may be useless for many people – multilingual process viewers, for instance. Those are small updates, only a few hundred kilobytes each, and you can deselect them if you do not want them – but if you do so, they show up again and again, every time you run Smart Update; there is no “ignore” button. It is probably best just to accept the inevitable and download all updates, including ones you will never use.

     These matters aside, Norton Utilities 14.0 is an exceptionally useful product that does its work quickly and well, is easy to use, performs some highly valuable functions, and – on top of everything else – looks good (the look of Norton AntiVirus, Norton SystemWorks and other Symantec programs would be improved by following the Norton Utilities graphic model). Norton Utilities 14.0 is not inexpensive, but it will be worth the price to anyone who hopes to keep a Windows computer operating as quickly and efficiently as it can for as long as possible.


Balakirev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Grande Fantasie on Russian Folksongs. Anastasia Seifetdinova, piano; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.

Janáček: Orchestral Suites from the Operas, Volume 1—Jenůfa; The Excursions of Mr. Brouček. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Breiner. Naxos. $8.99.

     The works on these CDs are unlikely to be familiar to most listeners – and that is a good thing, since they provide both enjoyment and insight into some composers whose music is less often played than it deserves to be. Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), leader of the Mighty Five (or Mighty Handful) of Russian nationalistic composers in the 19th century, wrote a relatively small number of works and often did not complete them until decades after he started them. His ideas about nationalism, and his specific musical themes, often found their way into the works of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and others, but he did not end up getting much credit for them – because it often took him so long to bring them to fruition. Balakirev was a fine pianist, and his two piano concertos provide interesting insight into his thinking both in terms of folk themes and in the matter of pianism. The first concerto, written in 1855-6 and published as his Op. 1, is in a single movement in the style of Liszt, but its themes and their working-out are more reminiscent of Chopin, who clearly influenced Balakirev’s style. And this was not Balakirev’s first work for piano and orchestra: the Grande Fantasie on Russian Folksongs dates to 1852, although it was published as Op. 4. This is an interestingly designed work, not intended as a bravura piece so much as an exploration of the folk tunes at its heart – it does not end in a great climax or provide any spectacular virtuoso passages, although there is a good deal of arpeggio. As for Piano Concerto No. 2, it is a classic case of Balakirev’s delayed-completion syndrome: the first movement dates to 1861-2, but he did not add the second until 1906, and it was left to fellow composer Sergey Lyapunov to complete and orchestrate the finale along lines specified by Balakirev – the work was not finished until 1910 and was published posthumously. Yet despite this exceptionally long gestation period, the concerto hangs together rather well, with the second movement’s coda and the conclusion of the third movement both referring back to material from the work’s opening. The heart of this concerto is its lovely Adagio, in which a chant from the Russian Orthodox Requiem is extensively developed. Anastasia Seifetdinova plays all these Balakirev pieces attractively, and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky provides excellent support in a CD that may well make listeners go looking for additional music by this less-known Russian master.

     The nine operas of Leoš Janáček cannot be said to be unknown nowadays, although not all of them are performed very often. However, it is safe to say that listeners will not have heard the orchestral suites from Jenůfa and The Excursions of Mr. Brouček before listening to Naxos’ new CD, since they were created by Peter Breiner and are recorded here for the first time. Listeners familiar with the operas will be able to trace the plots through these suites, which follow the operas’ dramatic sequences in the order in which they occur. But the music, especially that of Jenůfa, is highly effective even if one does not know the opera. The darkness and family tragedy of Jenůfa come through effectively as the music opens and closes with a representation of the sound of the mill that is central to the action (Jenůfa’s stepmother drowns the young woman’s illegitimate child in the millstream). Janáček’s skillful use of Moravian folk music helps anchor the story geographically, and a series of ominous foreshadowings makes it clear that all is not well even in the more upbeat passages. The Excursions of Mr. Brouček is not as well known an opera, and its music is less interesting. This is a comedy about a rather unappealing central character who journeys first to the moon and later back in time to the 15th century. The most interesting parts of the Breiner-arranged suite are the central movement (“Waltzes and Other Dances”), which includes a particularly well-formed waltz, and the fifth and last movement (“Those Who Are the Warriors of God”), one of whose primary themes is the same Hussite chorale used so effectively by Smetana in Má vlast and by Dvořák in his Hussite Overture. The New Zealand Symphony handles Janáček’s tunes and rhythms with considerable skill, although its sound is thinner than that of Central European orchestras. Like the Balakirev CD, this one of Janáček’s music presents an unusual opportunity to hear less-familiar but very worthy works in performances that, if not always elegant, are highly satisfying throughout.