May 28, 2009


Bettina Valentino and the Picasso Club. By Niki Daly. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $15.95.

Georgia Rises: A Day in the Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. By Kathryn Lasky. Pictures by Ora Eitan. Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.95.

     Each of these books offers young readers splendid information on art – but the two come at it from entirely different perspectives, just as two artists would see the same landscape entirely differently. Bettina Valentino and the Picasso Club is a novel so funny that readers will find themselves laughing out loud at some of the antics of the title character and her family and friends – but beneath that amusement are some very serious lessons about what art is, how it is made, and in what ways it appeals to (or fails to appeal to) different sorts of people. The story seems simple: Bettina gets a new, free-spirited art teacher at Bayside Preparatory School and finds her own artistic impulses growing by leaps and bounds as a result. But the plot is barely the point here. Bettina herself is quite a character: “I like art that jumps off the wall and hits you in the eye like a wound-up ninja.” Her old art teacher used to insist she use more pink in her paintings, leading Bettina to create her mantra: “Pink shtinks!” Bettina’s dad drives a falling-apart 1962 Rolls-Royce convertible; her mother is “a fashion designer and is always practicing her French, in case she ever gets to go to Paris to do a show.” This is one girl who comes by her iconoclasm genetically; her best friend, Carmen-Daisy, “calls me an artyfartyfashionloony,” which seems about right. And then – wham! Into Bettina’s life comes Mr. Popart, who walks barefoot to soak up the energy of the Earth and teaches about everything except using more pink. He talks about Paul Klee’s comment on “taking a line for a walk,” about Damien Hirst’s preserved carcasses, and about Picasso – one artist Bettina adores. And Mr. Popart doesn’t just talk: he has the kids create wall art (graffiti, if you prefer), then turns up one day standing on his head to show what the dada movement was all about, and much more. Niki Daly, an excellent picture-book author who here writes his first chapter book, sprinkles wonderful illustrations throughout the story, and manages to make it a fairly complex one, too, because Bayside is in need of serious repair, and one family may contribute a lot of money, but that family (daughter and parents) strongly opposes Mr. Popart and his freewheeling manner, and the head of the school is caught in the middle, which means so is Mr. Popart, and there happens to be an art contest for the students coming up, and…well, there is a lot here, and Daly juggles it all expertly, bringing the book to an entirely satisfactory conclusion – and likely bringing readers more information on art than they would expect to find in such an apparently lighthearted apparent romp.

     Kathryn Lasky’s Georgia Rises is a more overtly serious book, a sensitive portrait of an artist in her 70s struggling to make her body cooperate so she can greet the day as she wishes and draw from it the inspiration that she has received from the natural world for many years. Using many of Georgia O’Keeffe’s own words and the ideas for a number of her paintings – but compressing the action and thinking into a single day – Lasky helps young readers share the sensibilities of an artist: “A bone gleaming white sits as pretty as angel wings just ahead.” “The sky is finally lavender, so pale it’s almost transparent, like the eyelids of babies.” “Soon the stars will climb into the huge blackness of the night and arrange themselves in figures.” Aided by lovely, unsentimentalized pictures by Ora Eitan, Lasky shows how art transcends and transforms the artist, and how O’Keeffe uses the light and the found objects around her desert home to create striking visual impressions, such as her famous flowers “so big that people will have to look” at them. This is a beautiful book for readers already interested in O’Keeffe’s style or ready to experience it, and the biography and selected bibliography at the end will open additional doors of wonder and experience to budding young artists.


Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature’s Mysteries from Perilous Places. By Donna M. Jackson. Houghton Mifflin. $18.

ER Vets: Life in an Animal Emergency Room. By Donna M. Jackson. Sandpiper. $8.99.

     Donna M. Jackson keeps finding ways in which the real world is every bit as exciting, dangerous and occasionally heartbreaking as anything on TV or in the movies. Both the new Extreme Scientists and the paperback edition of ER Vets (originally published in 2005) show people doing important jobs in difficult, complex and sometimes very scary conditions. Extreme Scientists uses skillful writing and wonderfully selected pictures to profile three people whom Jackson calls “Hurricane Hunter,” “Cave Woman” and “Skywalker.” The first of these, Paul Flaherty, goes outdoors when everyone else is advised to stay in and find a safe place because of a dangerous storm. Flaherty, a meteorologist, is a hurricane tracker – one of those brave people who fly into the eye of huge storms to obtain information that forecasters use to track the storms’ strength and direction, keeping people in their path safe. Flaherty “doesn’t consider himself a thrill-seeker,” but simply someone fascinated by the weather – but he has had his share of close calls, and Jackson also tells of hurricane hunters who have lost their lives. “Cave Woman” is Hazel Barton, who has a tattoo of a partial map of South Dakota’s Wind Cave on one arm and who spends her time studying microbes that live in caves – which includes discovering new ones. As a microbiologist, she is a scientist first and foremost, but she has also been seen in an IMAX movie called Journey into Amazing Caves – she descended both into an ice crevasse in Greenland and into waters beneath Mexico’s rainforests. “Skywalker” is Stephen Sillett, who studies organisms that live in forest canopies – which means he climbs huge redwood trees. Not everything living in the tree canopy is tiny – one photo in this section shows a salamander that Sillett discovered 207 feet above the ground. “The first step’s the most dangerous” in climbing a redwood, Jackson explains, because the tree trunk may have no branches for hundreds of feet. Learning how Sillett, Barton and Flaherty overcome the dangers of their jobs, and how their field work complements their more-mundane laboratory work, makes an utterly fascinating volume – one exciting enough so that many young readers will surely want to check out the publications, DVDs and Web sites that Jackson lists at the end of the book.

     ER Vets tells a more everyday story, and one that readers are more likely to experience, but in its own way it is every bit as breathtaking – and even more heart-tugging – than the tales in Extreme Scientists. An animal emergency room is a world where abbreviations save the doctors time and help them save lives, a world of HBC (hit by car), BDLC (big dog attacked little cat), CHF (congestive heart failure) and FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract disease) – and a world of hedgehogs, rabbits, birds and snakes as well as cats and dogs. Filled with photos taken at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Colorado State University, ER Vets shows the tremendous attention and care given by veterinarians to all the animals brought to them at times of crisis – including ones that can be saved and ones that cannot. Even people who do not care for reptiles will be moved by the story of a pet snake named Lucy that could not be revived after it escaped into the dashboard while being carried in a car – and the temperature that night dropped too low for Lucy’s body to handle it. In fact, Jackson’s chapter called “Death of a Pet,” which follows the Lucy story, will be especially helpful to parents trying to support and comfort children when an animal is dying or has passed away. But most of ER Vets is about happier circumstances, as animals that would die without prompt and efficient care recover thanks to veterinarians’ skill. Amid the stories of injured animals rescued and restored to their families are well-done explanations of things that pet lovers should know in order to decide whether to get an animal to a vet – the four pages called “Is It an Emergency?” are especially helpful. ER Vets is ultimately an uplifting and hopeful book, acknowledging that some injured animals cannot be saved but showing that many can be healed and restored to normal lives through the skill of some very dedicated professionals.


Milo’s Special Words. By Charise Mericle Harper. Robin Corey Books. $10.99.

Oh No! Time to Go! A Book of Goodbyes. By Rebecca Doughty. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Oops-a-Daisy! By David Algrim. Illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw. Golden Books. $5.99.

     Kids from the toddler stage through kindergarten or first grade can have fun while learning some basic lessons in manners and proper behavior from any or all of these three books. Milo’s Special Words is the most enjoyably offbeat, although it does pose a potential problem for parents at the end. This is the story of a little boy who wants some milk and demands it from his mother, who is dealing with laundry and does not respond even when Milo asks repeatedly and then screams “MILK!” very loudly. Milo’s sister, Lucy, suggests that Milo use “the special word…that will make Mommy move,” so Milo tries saying “floopindoodle” and “shazam” and other words – but of course nothing works until he says “please.” What makes Milo’s Special Words so much fun is the way Charise Mericle Harper tells the story through wheels and flaps, not just straight narrative. Turn one wheel to see Mommy placing clothes in the laundry basket. Turn another to see each word Milo tries before choosing the right one. Open a flap to see Milo figure out that “please” will work, then fold another flap out to see Mommy rush off to get the milk that Milo wants. And so it goes, with Milo also learning to say “thank you” – a pleasant little lesson. But parents need to watch out – and have an explanation of the limits of politeness ready – before the end of the book. For Milo, now that he has discovered the power of “please,” starts using it to ask for several items revealed in both words and pictures on another of those turning wheels: birthday cake, a magic wand, a pony and a rocket. Now what will Mommy do?” asks Harper at the end of the book. Have your answer prepared – Harper does not provide one.

     Oh No! Time to Go! is about a boy who loves saying hello to friends and relatives but hates saying goodbye. Rebecca Doughty reviews many ways of saying it is time to part, from “toodle-oo” and “kiss-kiss” to “take it easy,” “later, gator,” hand expressions without words, and even a dog’s growl at other dogs. An especially sad goodbye comes near the end of this simply written and simply illustrated book, when the boy’s next-door friend and her family move away: “Don’t be a stranger! Promise you’ll write!/ We watched the van roll out of sight.” But then a new family moves in, with the promise of a new friend to be made, and the boy realizes, as will readers, that goodbye can be the gateway to a new hello – a pleasant message, nicely conveyed.

     Oops-a-Daisy! is a board book that parents of toddlers will find wryly amusing even as toddlers themselves enjoy it. David Algrim’s story – abetted by Rosalind Beardshaw’s illustrations, many on flaps that open and close easily – follows what parents will recognize as an all-too-typical day in a toddler’s life. Daddy asks his little girl to hold her cup of milk with two hands; lift the flap and find out that she did not – the dog is lapping up the spilled milk. Mommy asks her little boy if he needs to use the potty – lift the flap and “Oops-a-Daisy! That’s okay. You can go on the potty next time.” There are unlaced shoes, spilled paint and melting ice cream here, plus super-understanding parents who smile throughout the day and never say anything harsher than “Oops-a-Daisy!” That’s not a bad lesson for adults as well as children – and it is charmingly communicated.


Planet of the Dogs. By Robert J. McCarty. Illustrated by Stella Mustanoja McCarty. Barking Planet Productions. $14.95.

Castle in the Mist: Planet of the Dogs, Volume 2. By Robert J. McCarty. Illustrated by Stella Mustanoja McCarty. Barking Planet Productions. $14.95.

Snow Valley Heroes: A Christmas Tale—Planet of the Dogs, Volume 3. By Robert J. McCarty. Illustrated by Stella Mustanoja McCarty. Barking Planet Productions. $14.95.

     The first thing to realize about the Planet of the Dogs series is that it is only incidentally about the planet of the dogs. It is mostly about the planet of the humans – an alternative Earth, locked somewhere in what seems to be the Middle Ages, where there are weapons and conflicts but no guns. The second thing to realize is that the age targeting of the series is a little uncertain: the books are recommended for ages 6-12, but many children at the lower end of that range will have trouble reading them on their own (the books are primarily text, although the few illustrations are lovingly done), while many children at the upper end of the age range will find them a little simplistic and (especially in the first volume) a little preachy as well. Of course, since what the books preach is peace, love and loyalty, it is impossible to fault their message; and their mixture of adventure with fairy tale and a few touches of humor is welcome as well.

     “Dogs have no worries on their planet because there are no dangers there,” writes Robert J. McCarty in setting up the basic premise of this series. The dogs’ planet is on the opposite side of the sun, and dogs learn through their dreams about what is happening on Earth, the planet of people (but, initially, no dogs at all). The dogs’ planet is a kind of benevolent-monarchy-cum-socialist-utopia: the queen, Miss Merrie, “usually spent little time doing the work of a queen, because there really wasn’t much for her to do. When the road to Shaggy Corners needed repairs, the dogs all worked together and made it happen. When new puppies were born and needed extra care, there were always many volunteers eager to help feed them and give them a bath.” And so on. Nice place – and helpful, too. The dogs bring two children, Daisy and Bean, to the dog planet through dreams, and Miss Merrie explains that “we have become worried [about Earth] because too many people have forgotten about love.” So three dogs named Lucy, Robbie and Buddy come to Earth in body, not just dreams – apparently magically. They bring “our great power of smell, our ability to work together, our loyalty, and our greatest power of all, the power of love.”

     This sort of narrative could become a bit treacly if it continued in this vein, but fortunately there are some amusing elements of the story (such as place names on the dogs’ planet: Waggy Valley, Poodletown, Muttville, etc.) and some adventures and conflicts in the dogs’ and children’s futures. In Planet of the Dogs, the adventures initially involve people’s skepticism about the dogs’ existence and powers; then there is a threat to Green Valley from Stone City invaders, and the dogs help head it off. In Castle in the Mist, things turn more to straight fantasy-adventure (this book can actually be read on its own: the background of the dogs is clear from the narrative). Here there is a stereotypical villain: Prince Ukko, who opposes peace and thinks it is “like a disease that could spread,” interfering with his warlike lifestyle and the comfort of his army. The dogs keep a close eye on the prince and his Black Hawk tribe: “The dogs were always watching the castle. With their sense of smell, their keen eyes and ears and their ability to hide in the forest, they could see the Black Hawk soldiers without being seen. …Prince Ukko was now deeply troubled by the very presence of the dogs as well as their howling.” A kidnapping through which Prince Ukko hopes to further his nefarious aims is thwarted with the dogs’ help, and eventually the prince decides he “will not fight the dogs anymore” and leaves the area with a couple of dogs of his own.

     The conflict is of a different but related sort in Snow Valley Heroes, which can also be read as a separate book – the husband-and-wife creators of this series have done a good job of keeping the volumes both interrelated and readable as standalones. Their third volume is primarily a seasonal book of the “saving Christmas” variety, with the bad King of the North, whose “eyes were cold and fierce,” threatening the holiday by stealing two of Santa’s reindeer. When that is not enough, he escalates things: “We will bring Santa here to the Ice Castle. With Santa our prisoner, there will be no Christmas.” Of course, the dogs make sure – in their peaceful and loving way – that the king’s plans go awry and that the king pledges, “I will never again do harm to any of you.” And he too ends up bonding with a dog: “The King named him Prince and took him everywhere.” The naïve charm of this and the other books in the series will be a special joy for dog lovers (of course!), but even cat people (and bird people and reptile people and families without pets) will find something to celebrate in stories in which the good guys repeatedly triumph not by being stronger or inherently better than the bad guys but simply by being more peaceful and loving.


Jean-Féry Rebel: La Terpsicore; Les Caractères de la Danse; Caprice; Les Plaisirs champêtres; La Fantaisie; Les Élémens. Arion conducted by Daniel Cuiller. $16.99.

Ludovico Roncalli: Capricci Armonici—Sonatas Nos. 1-3, 5, 7-8. Richard Savino, baroque guitar. Dorian Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Adio Espaňa: Romances, Villancicos, & Improvisations from Spain circa 1500. The Baltimore Consort (Mary Anne Ballard, viols; Mark Cudek, guitars, viols and wind instruments; Larry Lipkis, viols and wind instruments; Mindy Rosenfeld, flutes and fifes and wind instruments; Ronn McFarlane, lute). Dorian Sono Luminus. $16.99.

Albinoni: Concerto for Recorder and Strings, op. 9, no. 2; Chen Yi: The Ancient Chinese Beauty; Mozart: Andante for Recorder and Strings, K. 315; Nino Rota: Concerto for Strings; Artem Vassiliev: Valere lubere (To say goodbye); Vivaldi: Concerto for Recorder and Strings, RV 443; Peter Heidrich: From “Happy Birthday Variations.” Michala Petri, recorder; Kremerata Baltica. OUR Recordings. $16.99.

     Some of the oldest instrumental music in the Western canon sounds fresh and thoroughly delightful in a handful of top-notch new recordings. The Canadian baroque orchestra Arion plays period instruments as if they are the most natural things in the world to handle, and Daniel Cuiller directs the ensemble with a gentle and knowing hand in six ballet suites by Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747). These range from his first, Caprice (1711), to his last and by far most famous, Les Élêmens (1737). Every dance form of the time is expertly handled by Rebel: gigue, menuet, courante, bourée, rigaudon and more. And the Arion players never lose sight of the fact that this is dance music and was collected into a series of movements to be danced by performers. The rhythms are clear, the pace modest or sprightly as appropriate, and the small complement of instruments (13 strings including theorbo, six winds, and harpsichord) is beautifully blended. Les Élêmens is a special joy in this recording: the famous opening movement, Le Chaos, which Rebel begins with a single chord containing all notes of the octave – that is, a tone cluster – really does sound as if order emerges from chaos, and the tone painting later in the work (slurred bass notes for Earth, flute cascades for Water, sustained piccolo notes that become trills for Air, and bravura violin passages for Fire) emerges with perfect clarity and a wonderful sense of drama.

     The guitar sonatas of Ludovico Roncalli (1654-1713) are slightly earlier than Rebel’s dance music, dating to 1692, and they too are dances – gathered into suites of a type familiar from Bach’s famous ones for solo instruments. Richard Savino plays six of these sonatas with understanding and a fine grasp of period style: No. 1 in G, No. 2 in E minor, No. 3 in B minor, No. 5 in A minor, No. 7 in D minor and No. 8 in C. Although this is Italian music, its textures are as French as those of Rebel, and the sonatas – some of the last works of their time for five-course baroque guitar – sound especially good on the instrument for which they were written (Savino play a copy by José Espejo of a Stradivarius original). These are not really neglected works – classical guitarists often perform them on modern instruments – but they sound altogether different and a great deal more intimate (especially those in minor keys) when played as Savino performs them.

     The music on the CD called Adio Espaňa is even older than that of Rebel and Roncalli, dating to the mid-16th century or even earlier. Once again, the value of using original instruments or replicas for this music becomes abundantly clear, as The Baltimore Consort’s viols, crumhorns, baroque recorders and flutes, and other period instruments bring out the nuances of these short pieces with beauty and style. The knowing contributions of Brazilian singer José Lemos add to the effective communication of the vocal selections, and this unfamiliar music – much of it anonymous, the balance by such composers as Pedro Guerrero, Juan del Encina and Diego Pisador – proves to be a heady combination of light dances, traditional romances, heroic ballads and even some fascinating improvisations.

     A new CD commemorating the 50th birthday of Michala Petri, released by the company founded in 2006 by Petri and her husband, Danish guitarist and lutenist Lars Hannibal, contains only a few older works: concertos by Albinoni and Vivaldi, both played stylishly by Petri with excellent backup from Kremerata Baltica. What is particularly interesting on this CD is to hear how the recorder, which largely fell out of favor as the transverse flute gained prominence after the baroque era, continued to hold its own in a limited way (as evidenced by the lovely Mozart Andante, K. 315) and then regained its niche as 20th-century composers began looking toward its special sound as a way to create new works that would go beyond those of the Romantic era. For Chen Yi (born 1953), this means using the recorder to recall ancient times; for Artem Vassiliev (born 1974), it means intermingling the wind instrument’s sounds with those of strings. Also on this CD are a well-constructed Concerto for Strings by Nino Rota, best known for the music he wrote for Fellini films; and excerpts from Happy Birthday Variations by Peter Heidrich (born 1935) – the only musical indication that this is a “tribute” CD rather than simply a collection of interesting and well-played music. In fact, unlike many other “tribute” recordings, this one truly showcases high-quality music-making, giving Petri a chance to display her considerable skill rather than simply be the celebrity in focus for the day. That makes this one “happy birthday” CD for which listeners will need no excuse to be happy.


Strauss: Das Spitzentuch der Königin. Jessica Glatte and Elke Kottmair, sopranos; Nadja Stefanoff and Gritt Gnauck, mezzo-sopranos; Ralf Simon, Markus Liske and Hardy Brachmann, tenors; Chor and Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Schumann: Liederkreis; Frauenliebe und –leben; Die Löwenbraut; Der Nussbaum; Er ist’s; Loreley; Widmung. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto; Daniel Blumenthal, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Gilles Vigneault and Bruno Fecteau: La Grand Messe. Suzie LeBlanc, soprano; Daniel Taylor, countertenor; Antoine Bélanger, tenor; Olivier Laquerre, bass-baritone; Le Chœur de l’OSQ and L’Orchestre Symphonique de Québec conducted by Richard Lee. CBC Records. $16.99.

     Johann Strauss Jr.’s rarely performed Das Spitzentuch der Königin (“The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief”) neatly encompasses almost everything that is right and almost everything that is wrong in Strauss operettas. The music is simply marvelous, and most of it will be quite familiar even to first-time listeners, since Strauss created one of his most famous waltzes – Roses from the South – entirely from tunes from this operetta. The story, however, is weird, filled with contemporary (and now long-outdated) political references, and mixing real historical characters (notably the writer Miguel de Cervantes, of Don Quixote fame) with made-up ones and some crucial ones who do not even have names (the queen and king are identified only by their titles). The story is set in Portugal, where Cervantes decides to get the weak-willed king out from under the thumb of his prime minister, who has deliberately turned the king into a libertine. The king and his queen are estranged because of their disastrous wedding night, during which he fell asleep before they could enjoy a delicious truffle pastry together. The queen becomes infatuated with Cervantes and writes him a note on her handkerchief; the bit of lace then gets lost and passed from hand to hand at various points. Cervantes is imprisoned, released, declared a mere fool because of the physiognomy of his head, and disguises himself as an English ambassador, an innkeeper and a robber. Cervantes’ betrothed, Donna Irene, does the physiognomy exam while disguised as a doctor; she also dresses up as a lady bullfighter. The queen disguises herself as the innkeeper’s daughter. The prime minister and his main henchman are eventually humiliated by being dressed in a bull’s costume. And…well, it is all ridiculous, perhaps enjoyably so for those fluent in German (CPO again falls far short of best practices by providing a plot summary but no libretto). But the dramatic absurdity only serves to highlight the wonderful music that pervades the operetta. Among the especially delightful pieces are the Trüffel-Couplets sung by the king (here handled as a trouser role by Nadja Stefanoff); a newly rediscovered and quite delightful Trio for the king, queen (Jessica Glatte) and Donna Irene (Elke Kottmair); Cervantes’ (Ralf Simon’s) Romanze; the couplets sung by the prime minister (Hardy Brachmann); and the queen’s wistful song in the third act, Siebzehn Jahre. Lovely singing, excellent choral work and enthusiastic orchestral playing – all under Ernst Theis, a conductor who expertly keeps thing moving smartly along – add up to a wonderful performance of some genuinely lovely music put at the service of an indisputably outdated and creaky plot.

     There is nothing outdated about the emotions of Schumann’s songs, and it is a real pleasure to hear them sung by a contralto with the fluidity and grace of Marie-Nicole Lemieux. The two wonderful 1840 cycles, Liederkreis and Frauenliebe und –leben, sound especially good here, with Lemieux’ rich, full voice thoroughly exploring the emotions underlying the former cycle and the narrative connection of the latter. Lemieux is evocative and thoroughly Romantic in Liederkreis, with Daniel Blumenthal’s sensitive piano work ably backing up the emotionalism of Joseph von Eichendorff’s dozen poems. For Adelbert von Chamisso’s poetry in Frauenliebe und –leben, singer and pianist alike effectively evoke the many emotional stages of a woman’s life. The five individual songs that complete the CD also show Lemieux exploring emotions with intensity and passion; the disc as a whole showcases the singer’s versatility as well as her depth.

     Lemieux is a native of Quebec, and Gilles Vigneault (born 1928) is one of that Canadian province’s major musical figures. But while Lemieux, though Schumann, reaches out to the world, Vigneault seems focused more inwardly, partly in a religious sense (he is Catholic) and partly geographically (La Grand Messe was commissioned by the Quebec Festival of Sacred Music, and the performers are from the province). Vigneault goes beyond the traditional bounds of the Mass to open his work with an Ouverture and Introït before the Kyrie, and close it with Communion and Ite missa est after the Agnus Dei. The additional movements do add some variety to a form that is by its nature highly stylized, but they do not bring any significant additional depth or profundity to the old words. Vigneault worked with Bruno Fecteau, his longtime musical director, on scoring and arranging the texts, and the result is an interesting amalgam of Latin, French and Inuit. La Grand Messe is quite well performed, but somehow seems more clever than profound, as if it seeks through variety to communicate multiculturally even though the words at its heart are longstanding ones of a very specific belief structure. The fine performance and unusual elements of the composition garner this CD a (+++) rating, but this Mass appeals more as a well-thought-out work than as a heartfelt and deeply spiritual one.

May 21, 2009


43 Old Cemetery Road, Book One: Dying to Meet You. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt. $15.

Regarding the Bees: A Lesson, in Letters, on Honey, Dating, and Other Sticky Subjects. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Sandpiper. $5.99.

     Bad puns, convoluted plots, and a storytelling style that brings the epistolary novel firmly into the era of instant messaging – those are the ingredients of books by Kate and M. Sarah Klise. And the sisters have just started a new series that, while not as madcap as their Regarding the… books, promises to have plenty of its own twists, turns and corkscrew motions. 43 Old Cemetery Road is the address of a decrepit house in Ghastly, Illinois, that is rented for the summer by faded and writer’s-blocked author Ignatius B. Grumply (I.B. Grumply, that is) while owners Les and Diane Hope are on a ghost-debunking tour of Europe (“less hope” and “dying hope,” see?). The Hopes have left behind their 11-year-old son, who of course is named Seymour (“see more hope”), a cat named Shadow, and Olive C. Spence, the woman who built 43 Old Cemetery Road and just happens to have died 97 years before the story begins. So much for debunking ghosts. Other characters here are a real-estate agent who needs a sale and is therefore named Anita Sale, and a private detective named Frank N. Beans because – well, just because. The story is told in letters, occasional drawings and some on-screen computer messages, with everything done in different type styles; and there are occasional issues of The Ghastly Times, the local newspaper, included as well (the paper’s editor is Cliff Hanger, the town’s chief librarian is named M. Balm, one ad is placed by Shirley U. Jest, and so on – you get the idea). The basic plot has Grumply attempting to write No. 13 in his Bartholomew Brown “Ghost Tamer” series so he can retire some of the considerable debt he has built up, while trying to cope with the presence of Seymour (who he did not realize was in the house) and Olive (in whom he does not believe, until he does). Grumply grumpily complains to his lawyer, E. Gadds, who is in charge of the dried-up writer’s relationship with his editor, Paige Turner, and the whole scenario becomes a fine mess until eventually Seymour and Olive help Grumply sort everything out – and, not incidentally, free Olive from the circumstances that led her to haunt her old house in the first place. And this is but the first in a series so filled with charm and silliness that it has the potential to go on for many further books.

     And that would put it in the same league as the Regarding the… series, which includes the new paperback edition of Regarding the Bees. Originally published in 2007, this book fits neatly with Regarding the Fountain, Regarding the Sink, Regarding the Trees and Regarding the Bathrooms in its disregard for conventional storytelling in favor of lighthearted absurdity that just happens to include snippets of honest-to-goodness accurate information (about apiculture, in Bees). Drawings, postcards, phone-message pads and lots of old-fashioned “snail mail” letters are the media for this tale of a seventh-grade correspondence course being taught by Florence Waters (Flo Waters, and yes, she originally showed up in Regarding the Fountain) as her students prepare to take the BEES – a standardized test known as the Basic Education Evaluation. There’s a spelling bee here, too; two of them, in fact, one actually being a bee, and the other involving a contest with the Yellow Jackets – whose teacher is Polly Nader (“pollinator”) and whose names are “Moe” Skitto, P. Daddy Longlegs and Horace Fly. Let’s see, what else? There is the HIVE Prize (for a “Highly Innovative and Victorious Educator”); there are marital problems for the acting principal and his pregnant wife; there are romantic entanglements within the seventh grade itself; and there are lots of genuine and fascinating facts about bees – and even a bit about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which of course contains the famous line, “To be or not to be.” The great thing about all the Klise sisters’ books is that descriptions of their contents make them seem completely incoherent, but everything actually fits beautifully together – like a jigsaw puzzle – for readers. So by all means visit Ghastly, Illinois and/or Geyser Creek, Missouri – or, better, both. The sites…err, sights…are definitely worth seeing.


Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible. By David Plotz. Harper. $26.99.

     The Yiddish word “plotz” means “to burst,” usually from strong emotion, and there are times during Good Book when a reader will wonder whether David Plotz will plotz at what he finds in the Old Testament. He doesn’t, and neither will readers, but Plotz’s plodding through everything from Genesis to 2 Chronicles produces plenty that surprises him and much that will likely surprise readers, too.

     Plotz professes himself a committed but essentially secular Jew who had never read the Bible until he undertook a year-long project to do so, originally for Slate, of which he is editor. He started the project, he says, after reading a bit of the Bible that he found appalling: the rape of Dinah in Genesis, in which Jacob’s daughter is raped by a prince who subsequently wants to marry her; and Jacob’s sons say they will accept the union if the prince and all his people are circumcised; and the prince agrees; and while the prince and his subjects are recovering from the pain of the procedure, Jacob’s sons sneak into their city and murder every man, steal their possessions and enslave their women and children. This is tribalism at its ugliest and bloodiest, and Plotz was surprised to find evidence of it, again and again and again, throughout the Bible. He was equally surprised to find a capricious, vicious, inconstant and inconsistent God, a God demanding a hereditary priesthood, a God favoring clever schemers over his own elsewhere-established order, a God who generally could not be trusted, and emphatically not (most of the time) a god of the meek, the mild or even of justice.

     Plotz’s surprise is a touch, well, surprising. He must have been thoroughly insulated from the Bible, and discussions of it, for a great many years, if he truly considered the book internally consistent and a portrait of a firm but loving God. Even lay readers have little trouble finding weirdness and swept-under-the-rug inconsistency in the Bible, including some that Plotz, for all his line-by-line reading, manages to miss. Novelist and Los Angeles Times columnist Jonathan Kirsch, for example, included in his The Harlot By the Side of the Road not only the Dinah story and several other tales that shocked Plotz, but also one extremely peculiar episode that Plotz overlooks: Exodus 4:24-26, in which God tries unsuccessfully to kill either Moses or Moses’ son, and is held off when Moses’ wife, Zipporah, does an impromptu circumcision of her son and throws the foreskin at God’s feet.

     Yet it is Plotz’s sense of nearly childlike wonder, coupled with his apparently unlimited capacity for surprise, that makes Plotz’s Good Book so attractive. Again and again, he is amazed to learn what is actually in the Bible. Leviticus 13: “The author has an obsession with leprosy.” Deuteronomy 26: “This is a very boring chapter.” Joshua 24: “Sometimes, the most fascinating parts of the Bible are the bits that have been left out.” Plotz summarizes every book at the start of his chapter about it, and also gives each one a cute subtitle. Judges: “The Meathead and the Left-Handed Assassin.” 1 Samuel: “The Bible’s Bill Clinton” (that one is a stretch, even for Plotz). Jeremiah: “The Prophet and the Lustful She-Camel.”

     Sometimes the subtitles reveal holes in Plotz’s approach to the Bible. The one about Isaiah (“The Jesus Preview”) shows that he sees the book as a unified totality, when longstanding Biblical scholarship – some of which Plotz says he has read, although apparently he missed this element – subdivides Isaiah into three parts, and it is the material from Deutero-Isaiah (particularly) and Trito-Isaiah that Christians interpret as prophesying the coming of Jesus.

     Plotz likes to put his Biblical ignorance “out there” in amusing ways, but he tends to be unaware of shortcomings in his own thinking about the Bible through which he is marching. Midway through Good Book, Plotz visits Israel to see some of the sites (and sights) mentioned in the Bible, and comments that “wishful thinking is the foundation of Bible tourism.” It does not seem to occur to him that wishful thinking can be seen as the foundation of the Bible itself, and indeed of religion in general: things must have a purpose, our tribe must be better than those others, God must back us and grant us strength, and all the rest of it.

     Despite the shortcomings of Plotz’s deliberately naïve approach, or perhaps because of them, Good Book is an amusing, entertaining read that actually does a good job of explaining “the messy Bible” (as Plotz calls it), including many of its self-contradictions, tribalisms, acts of viciousness, and of course implausibilities. It is fun to read Plotz’s dismissal of Zephaniah, a minor prophet (“that term doesn’t do justice to the dinkiness, the negligibility, the puniness of Zephaniah”) – and then, on the next page, to read about the first appearance of Satan in the Bible (in Zechariah) and find out that the word simply means “accuser” or “adversary” and that Satan “appears to be more like God’s lawyer” than anything else. Plotz’s final chapter (“Should You Read the Bible?”) comes across as a touch argumentative and even holier-than-thou, but he makes up for it with an appendix of Bible lists that includes the 12 best pickup lines, 11 best miracles, 13 “spectacular murders,” eight “trippiest and most important dreams,” and more.

     Good Book both parallels and stands at the opposite extreme from the intense, erudite (but still breezy), analysis-packed studies by Bart D. Ehrman (Lost Christianities, Misquoting Jesus, Lost Scriptures and other books). Ehrman focuses on the New Testament and can read it (and the Old Testament as well) in the original languages. Plotz, in contrast, is an English-language-only Everyman, picking his way through multiple translations of the Bible and trying not only to reconcile the book’s contents but also the different ways translators present them. The result is that Good Book is more interesting than instructive, more of a “how about that?” book than a deeply thoughtful one. But it is a fascinating and often very funny excursion through one of the world’s most influential texts. It may upset readers who think they “know” the Bible because of what they have been taught about it, but that is part of its point: what you think you know about this particular book is likely to be a sanitized version of what is really there. So by all means read Good Book, and then the Good Book itself if you think Plotz has gotten a good deal of it good and wrong.


Paula Bunyan. By Phyllis Root. Pictures by Kevin O’Malley. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.95.

Diogenes. By M.D. Usher. Pictures by Michael Chesworth. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.95.

Gemma Doyle Trilogy #3: The Sweet Far Thing. By Libba Bray. Delacorte Press. $10.99.

     Retelling old stories for new audiences is an essential part of the continuity of myths and fairy tales. When this sort of recasting of a tale is done cleverly enough, the result is plenty of fun in and of itself – and a chance for ideas that date to much earlier times to survive and thrive in a very different age. Both Phyllis Root’s playful handling of the Paul Bunyan legend and M.D. Usher’s canine remake of the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes do a wonderful job of giving some old ideas an updated twist, while still preserving much of their original flavor.

     Paula Bunyan is, we are told, Paul’s “little” sister, who could beat Paul half the time in wrestling and “always outran him.” Like Paul, she sets off for the North Woods and has a series of adventures there. No Babe (the big blue ox) for Paula, though: instead, she teaches some wolves how to sing in three-part harmony (Paula is an enthusiastic and very loud singer), and she scares the daylights out of a seven-foot-tall black bear that becomes her companion and foot warmer after she shares with it “a little northern pike, about a hundred-pounder,” that she has just caught. The funniest part of this tall tale – not only in the narrative but also in Kevin O’Malley’s delightful illustrations – involves Paula and the bear encountering some mighty big and nasty mosquitoes that carry the bear off (until Paula saves him). Then comes the modern twist – an ecological one – as Paula becomes “sadder than a forest full of weeping willows” when she discovers that men have been cutting down a bunch of North Woods trees. Paula solves that problem by luring some of those pesky stinging insects to the men – “medium-sized mosquitoes, not much bigger than chickens” – and then she replants trees where the lumberjacks cut them down. It’s a nice story, nicely told and illustrated.

     Diogenes is a more serious narrative, but with funnier pictures. This is how the story of Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 B.C.) might have gone if Diogenes had been a dog. It is a very clever retelling by an author who really knows his subject – Usher is a classics professor at the University of Vermont, and discusses the historical Diogenes in an excellent afterword. The book itself is more of a romp, as Michael Chesworth makes Diogenes the dog a scruffy mutt with a strong sense of self and a determination to be his own master – so he grabs a walking stick and his dog dish and heads (walking upright on his two back legs) for Athens. The Athenian street scenes are highly amusing, as are the directional signs (one points downward to Hades) and the portrayal of Alexander the Great (who has the huge muscles and cleft chin of a traditional cartoon hero). The funny pictures help the seriousness of the underlying message go down more easily, as Diogenes learns to need as little as possible and make do with even less; begs for food when hungry and sleeps outdoors when tired; rolls in hot sand to get used to the heat of summer; deliberately makes requests of statues to become accustomed to being refused; and teaches the Athenians that his simple life really lets him “live like a king.” The famous episode of Diogenes walking about with a lantern looking for an honest man (or a good man, as Usher has it here) is included; and the historical Diogenes’ capture by pirates and sale as a slave is here transformed to the dog being caught by the dogcatcher and stuck in the pound until he attaches himself to a new master. This is a wonderful retelling of a story with which modern children are highly unlikely to be familiar – and one which still has plenty of resonance today.

     For older readers, ages 12 and up, authors tend to find it better to create new stories and new myths than to recycle old ones. And the new tales tend to be long, complex to the point of convolution, and just exotic enough so that teens can identify with the characters while realizing how different they are from real people. Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy handles all these elements well, if rather formulaically. Its conclusion, The Sweet Far Thing, originally published in 2007, is now available in paperback in all its 819-page glory (not counting the Reader’s Guide at the end). This book gets a (+++) rating for the way Bray interweaves, through 75 chapters, all the tales she has told in A Great and Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels into this finale. The first book began in 1895, with 16-year-old Gemma shipped away from her life in India to Spence Academy in England, where secrets seemed to lie within every room. Gemma was distressed by recurring visions that kept coming true and by finding herself followed by a mysterious young Indian man. In the second book, readers learned more about Kartik, and Gemma became fast friends with Ann and Felicity, as the beauties and dangers of the magical place known as “the realms” became clearer. In the trilogy’s often meandering conclusion, everything points toward the girls’ debut season, and change is coming to the realms as well. Gemma has bound powerful magic to herself, and become enmeshed in the struggle between the Order (the group to which her mother once belonged) and the Rakshana. While Gemma’s friends focus on more mundane matters – Felicity must behave herself or lose her inheritance, while Ann may have to give up her dream of a life on the stage – Gemma must deal with darker matters. Many involve Pippa, the three girls’ friend, whom they meet again in the realms but who may face great danger – or be a great danger. Other mysteries involve Gemma herself, who (in true coming-of-age style) must figure out where she stands, who she is, and what sort of person (mundane and magical) she will become. The Sweet Far Thing wraps up the trilogy satisfactorily, both in magic and in the everyday world, and fans of the first two novels will surely be just as enraptured by the third. But although the story itself is new rather than a recasting of an older one, tales of this type have been so frequently told and retold that some readers will suspect, rightly, that they have seen their share of books like this one before.


Security Blankets: How “Peanuts” Touched Our Lives. By Don Fraser and Derrick Bang. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

The Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel. By Nicholas Ruddick. Wesleyan University Press. $35.

     These are “meta” books, one popular and one more academic, seeking to look beyond the works they discuss to find out those works’ effects and meanings. The authors’ concepts, though, turn out to be better than their executions. Charles Schulz’s Peanuts is a natural touchstone for all sorts of personal searches and has inspired many books about its influence – one of the best, Robert Short’s The Gospel According to Peanuts, dates all the way back to 1965. What Don Fraser and Derrick Bang bring to this field, which is almost a mini-genre of its own, is a series of brief essays contributed by a variety of people – “relatively short stories that could be enjoyed and digested as provocative and enduring appetizers, rather than enormous meals too quickly forgotten,” as the authors put it. That is rather odd wording, though, and the book itself is a touch on the odd side as well. There is no information whatsoever about any of the contributors – nothing on their ages, where they live, how long they have read Peanuts, where (or if) they work outside the home, except to the extent that the contributors themselves divulge snippets of data here and there. Fraser and Bang (and who are they, anyway? – the book doesn’t say) are proud of Security Blankets: “Like many of the world’s best ideas, the concept for this book began with a question.” But readers, including ones deeply affected by Peanuts, may be less charmed. It is not that the anecdotes here are uninteresting – some are amusing, some touching, some heartfelt. But there is no apparent organizing principle anywhere – nothing alphabetical or by age or geography, for example, and the contributions are not even numbered. So enjoyment of the book is strictly hit or miss. Readers may like Merrill Baker’s comment, “I also attribute a lot of my independence to Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang.” Or Miranda Wong’s: “After joining the Peanuts Collector Club, I made friends with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.” Or Rob Kirby’s: “There was something so devastatingly simple about Charles Schulz’s minimal use of lines to convey what actually was a highly detailed encapsulation of childhood.” You may be charmed by Denny May’s remembrance of his father, who actually flew a Sopwith Camel, the plane Snoopy uses as a World War I Flying Ace, or by textbook writer Karl J. Smith’s memory of the time Schulz used one of his algebra problems in a strip. But you will come upon more- and less-interesting reminiscences strictly by accident, and without a great deal of help from the authors, who are really just assemblers of these brief personal essays.

     Nicholas Ruddick’s book leans strongly in the other direction – Ruddick, a professor of English at the University of Regina, analyzes everything and is careful to point readers directly at whatever points he wants to make. But the subject matter he discusses is of limited interest, and his assumption that readers will be familiar with most, if not all, of the literature he discusses will limit his book’s appeal to people with a strong attachment to what Ruddick calls “prehistoric fiction.” That is likely to be a very small group indeed. Ruddick’s terminology can sometimes be confusing, too. He starts with a straightforward enough definition, if a highly academic one: “Prehistoric fiction, hereafter abbreviated ‘pf,’ is a speculative literary genre dependent on extrapolations from scientific or quasi-scientific discourse.” But just a few pages later, he confuses matters when he makes a distinction among “sf, pf [and] prehistoric sf,” thus requiring readers to wade through an explanation of the differences between science fiction and prehistoric fiction, and the ways in which science fiction set in prehistory differs (in Ruddick’s view) from what he designates pf. Ruddick proceeds to discuss pf in two overall ways, “General Evolution” and “Thematic Evolution,” dealing with works’ believability based on the science of the time in which they were written (and whether that is important) and also discussing what he calls the works’ “poetics.” Along the way, he shows some illustrations from the works he cites, and some of these can be quite interesting – when they are visible. Unfortunately, they often are not: a “cave bear” blends into the illustration’s dark background, for example, and a scene of dinosaurs threatening an ape-woman is so dark that the woman is barely distinguishable from the tree on which she stands. For every well-known author whom Ruddick discusses – Brian Aldiss, Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, et al. – there are many others with whom readers are unlikely to be familiar: F. Britten Austin, Elie Berthet, Austin Bierbower, Nictzin Dyalhis, G. Hagemans, Edmond Haraucourt, Alan Sullivan, and so on (and on). Ruddick tends to mention most authors’ works only in passing, which means readers unfamiliar with them have little to go on in determining whether the author’s analyses are accurate. One example among many: “[C.J. Cutcliffe] Hyne’s The New Eden [1892] is a case in point. On the island where the Archduke is conducting his experimental attempt to recapitulate human social evolution, monotheism evolves from the same psychosexual roots that gave rise to patriarchy.” Readers with a strong interest in pf will surely enjoy Ruddick’s exploration of its byways, and ones familiar with certain specific works in the field will at least be able to get a handle on what Ruddick is getting at by reading how he approaches the works they know. Despite the heavy-handed style, The Fire in the Stone gets a (+++) rating for these groups. But for readers looking for an introduction to prehistoric fiction or a sense of its significance as a genre – without already having a significant level of interest in it – Ruddick’s book gets a (++) rating.


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 15; Hamlet—Selections from the Incidental Music. Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Arensky: Piano Concerto in F minor; Fantasia on Russian Folksongs; To the Memory of Suvorov; Symphonic Scherzo. Konstantin Scherbakov, piano; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky. Naxos. $8.99.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Introduction to “Khovanshchina”; Borodin: Symphony No. 2; Polovtsian Dances from “Prince Igor”; Shostakovich: The Golden Age—Dance. Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

     There is so much that is thrilling and expansive in Russian music – and some new recordings find additional depths even in familiar works. Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra can always be counted on for a big sound, precise playing and wonderful attention to detail, and all these characteristics are on display in the new PentaTone SACD of Shostakovich’s final and very peculiar symphony. This is a work in which echoes of other composers’ music – and of Shostakovich’s own earlier creations – alternate with passages of eeriness that borders on grotesquerie (and sometimes step over the border). Pletnev’s precision and fine attention to detail serve this music particularly well, rendering it understandable as an end-of-life summation whose structure makes logical sense even if some of its elements remain quixotic. The Mahlerian way in which individual orchestral voices emerge is especially well done here, with Alexander Gotgelf’s solo cello particularly good. Paired with the symphony are, in effect, a series of encores: 10 short excerpts from the incidental music to Hamlet that Shostakovich wrote in 1932, plus a Gigue from 1954 tossed in between the Lullaby and Requiem – apparently simply because Pletnev thinks it sounds good there, which it does. These brief pieces are minor Shostakovich, and make a good counterpart to the serious whimsicality of his last symphony.

     The music of Anton Arensky (1861-1906) on a new Naxos CD is all rather minor, and the CD itself is so brief (49 minutes) that it seems a once-over-lightly for a composer whose life was cut short by tuberculosis before his 45th birthday. Arensky wrote only two works for piano and orchestra, of which the later one -- Fantasia on Russian Folksongs – is the more interesting. This 1899 rhapsody contrasts a warmly expressive song with a more martial one in a tightly knit work that is more nationalistic than most of Arensky’s output. Konstantin Scherbakov plays the piece with enthusiasm that he also lavishes on the earlier Piano Concerto – which, however, does not repay his attentions as well. The concerto is rather disjointed, never quite finding its emotional center – certainly not in the superficialities of the slow movement. The finale, in 5/4 time (a meter that Arensky particularly liked), is the most interesting movement. The other works on this CD are a fairly late march (from 1900) commemorating the centenary of a Russian general and an unpublished and meandering scherzo that is likely a student work. The march is adequately martial and celebratory, but there is nothing particularly memorable about it, and the scherzo is simply disjointed. Dmitry Yablonsky leads the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra with skill in all these works, but the CD gets a (+++) rating rather than a higher one simply because the music itself is not especially distinguished.

     Whether Sir Simon Rattle’s December 31, 2007 performances of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Shostakovich deserve a (++++) or (+++) rating will depend on one’s interest in the addition of visuals to a recording. Certainly there is plenty of enthusiasm at this New Year’s Eve concert, with Rattle in fine form and active podium manner and the audience highly receptive to what is a sort of “Russia’s greatest hits” program; and certainly the Berlin Philharmonic plays with its usual strength and with fine balance among sections. But the interpretations themselves are more celebratory than insightful, with each work offered as a display piece rather than one with much to say. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Borodin’s Symphony No. 2, which has more depth and less surface glitter than anything else on the DVD. Rattle goes through the motions of bringing out its big tunes and sweeping vistas, but the overall feeling is of a symphony performed rather than one interpreted. And of course the DVD is, like all visualizations of classical concerts, dependent on the specific shots and camera angles chosen by the TV director (Elisabeth Malzer). These can sometimes add to the listening experience (closeups of musicians focusing intently on the music, for example) and sometimes detract from it (as in shots of Rattle or the whole orchestra at times when a listener might prefer to see individual performers or sections). Lovers of Russian music will have heard all the works here innumerable times, but those who enjoy seeing as well as hearing a performance may well find this one especially festive, if not overly profound.


Haydn: The Complete Concertos. Soloists and Cologne Chamber Orchestra conducted by Helmut Müller-Bruhl. Naxos. $35.99 (6 CDs).

Handel: Tamerlano. Plácido Domingo, Monica Bacelli, Ingela Bohlin, Sara Mingardo, Jennifer Holloway, Luigi de Donato; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Real conducted by Paul McCreesh. Opus Arte. $49.99 (3 DVDs).

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen. Elena Tsallagova, Jukka Rasilainen, Michèle Lagrange, Hannah Esther Minutillo, David Kuebler, Roland Bracht, Paul Gay; Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

Messiaen: Saint François d’Assise. Camilla Tilling, Rod Gilfry, Hubert Delamboye, Henk Neven, Tom Randle, Donald Kaasch, Armand Arapian; Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera and Hague Philharmonic conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. Opus Arte. $49.99 (3 DVDs).

     Music can evoke pictures or patterns even without a visual component, and sometimes it is just as effective when heard as when seen. Certainly the fine Naxos set of Haydn’s concertos requires nothing visual to be a delight to hear – even though Haydn was far less distinguished as a concerto composer than as a symphonist and composer of string quartets. In fact, a number of works on these six CDs may not be by Haydn at all, while a number known to be by him have been lost. As a result, we have what is inevitably a rather disorganized set here, although the use of a single fine conductor and top-notch chamber orchestra does give the set some continuity. On these CDs are three violin concertos (with Augustin Hadelich as soloist), three for cello (with Maria Klegel, who is particularly good), one for horn (with Dmitri Babanov), one for trumpet (with Jürgen Schuster), and one for violin and keyboard (Ariadne Dasalakis on the violin and Harald Hoeren playing fortepiano). Then there are 10 keyboard concertos, assigned rather confusingly to different instruments: three are played on the harpsichord (one by Hoeren and two by Ketil Haugsand), three on the organ (Hoeren again), and four – unfortunately – on a modern piano (by Sebastian Knauer). Finally, there are Haydn’s five surviving concertos for two lire organizzate, presumably from a set of six of which one has been lost. It is fascinating to hear these on the original instrument, which was a kind of hurdy-gurdy with wheel, strings, keyboard and organ pipes – performances of a few movements are available on YouTube – but Haydn himself created versions for other instruments, so it is justifiable (if not ideal) to hear two of these concertos played on two recorders (by Daniel Rothert and Philipp Spätling), one on two flutes (by Benoît Fromanger and Ingo Nelken), and two on flute and oboe (by Fromanger and Christian Hommel). The multipurpose booklet enclosed with this boxed set – it is the same one Naxos is using for Haydn’s complete symphonies, string quartets and piano sonatas – does a good job of explaining which concertos are known to be authentic and which are questionable. And the performances, despite the orchestra’s use of modern instruments, are knowledgeable in terms of period style and are nicely played and balanced throughout. This is not a set for everyone or even for all Haydn lovers – individual performances of Haydn’s best and best-known concertos are widely available – but the music is as full of charm as the performances are of enthusiasm.

     There is little charm of plot but much interesting music in Handel’s Tamerlano, one of the composer’s long (four-hour) and often dry (lots of recitative) entries into historical tragedy. A main attraction of the new recording featuring Plácido Domingo is Domingo himself. Now 68, Domingo only recently began singing the role of Bajazet in this opera, and although he has little sense of Baroque style, his verismo passion and impressive death scene make his performance noteworthy. Paul McCreesh leads the orchestra – the Madrid Symphony under a different name – with attentiveness, and Domingo is ably backed by several other very fine soloists, including Monica Bacelli as Tamerlano (a role originally for castrato and now often sung by a countertenor, but effectively communicated here); Ingela Bohlin as Asteria, Bajazet’s daughter and a source of much of his anguish; and Jennifer Holloway as Irene, the spoiled Arab princess determined to wed Tamerlano. The production by Graham Vick is visually arresting, modernistic and not at all in keeping with Handel’s intentions, but it is effective in its own way. Interestingly, Domingo – whose handling of his part is also out of synch with what Handel would have expected and wanted – fits well into Vick’s scenery, his vocal emoting emphasizing the underlying personal drama of the story in a way that might have been unseemly in Handel’s time but that fits quite well into our own. Neither this opera nor this staging nor Domingo’s style will be to all tastes, but all are certainly worth both hearing and seeing.

     The Cunning Little Vixen gets a more traditional staging, by André Engel, on a new Medici Arts DVD. English and German speakers coming to this opera for the first time are often surprised to find that the vixen of the title is not really very cunning at all – the fault of Max Brod’s free translation into German of Janáček’s original title, which is more accurately rendered “The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears.” Elena Tsallagova has a pretty voice rather than a highly dramatic one, and it fits well with what is essentially a fable about the cycle of life and death. Jukka Rasilainen is effective as the Forester, and the bass voices of Roland Bracht as the Parson and Paul Gay as Harašta are particularly fine. Dennis Russell Davies is at the top of his form, too, nicely balancing the fairy-tale elements of the story with the genuine pathos and sense of uplift at its end. The balancing of serious and comedic elements is sometimes a bit off – Janáček’s source was a comic strip that he deliberately made more serious, but the opera still contains amusing elements that are worth playing up when they occur. But on the whole, the production, singing and playing all stand up well.

     The new recording of Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise stands up well, too, if you like this sort of thing, but it has to be said that many listeners – including confirmed opera fans – will not. This is a very long (four-and-a-half-hour) and very episodic opera written late in the composer’s life, between 1975 and 1982 (Messiaen was born in 1908 and died in 1992). Like Janáček in The Cunning Little Vixen, Messiaen here wrote his own libretto, whose three acts include eight self-contained scenes, with mini-scenes within each one. Large forces are needed to perform the opera – Messiaen called for a 150-voice chorus and 120-member orchestra – and the composer’s fondness for exotic sounds is everywhere apparent (the score includes amplified birdsongs, tuned percussion and three ondes Martenot). Like The Cunning Little Vixen, Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise is ultimately about the meaning and purpose of life, but while Janáček emphasizes nature and the cycles affecting humans and animals alike, Messiaen focuses entirely on the faith of the most nature-oriented of saints; in fact, he omits St. Francis’ conflict-strewn early years entirely, confining himself to issues of grace and appreciation of God. The result is a static opera that has the potential to be both monumental and monumentally dull – although Pierre Audi’s elegant staging and Rod Gilfry’s fine singing in the title role keep the proceedings interesting. Equal credit, if not more, goes to the Hague Philharmonic under Ingo Metzmacher, which presents Messiaen’s sumptuous music with tenderness and understanding. This opera is a lot to take in one sitting – viewers of the DVD set will probably want to give themselves intermissions between the acts – but it has many wonderfully heartfelt moments and some of Messiaen’s loveliest and most elegantly scored music.

May 14, 2009


Clarence Cochran, a Human Boy. By William Loizeaux. Pictures by Anne Wilsdorf. Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.

A Rat’s Tale. By Tor Seidler. Pictures by Fred Marcellino. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $9.95.

     Franz Kafka was never like this. William Loizeaux has turned Kafka’s famed story, Metamorphosis, on its head, changing the very adult and surrealistic tale into a weirdly amusing story for children. For Clarence Cochran, a Human Boy, begins – in language that closely parallels Kafka’s – with an unexpected and never-explained transformation between cockroach and human. But this time, it is the insect that becomes a tiny person, not (as in Kafka) the person becoming a giant bug. Clarence and his very, very extended family live in the Gilmartins’ home, and after Clarence wakes up shaped like a boy (wearing modesty-protecting boxer shorts), the cockroach physician, Dr. Blatt, notes, “Patient presents with pallid exoskeleton, possibly molting; emaciated thorax; amputated cerci, tarsi, and antennae; pronotum and spiracles nonexistent.” Even if Clarence understood all that – not all the words make sense to him – the transformation itself remains inexplicable. Clarence finds himself encountering prejudice and visceral hatred from some fellow cockroaches (assuming they are still his “fellows”), and he finds his senses and his behavior tremendously changed: “He didn’t feel like sliding into a dark, dank, narrow space.…He saw colors in a way he never had before, great patches of them, and details, too!” And he sees the Gilmartins – mother Kathryn, father Larry and daughter Mimi – and they see the roaches scattering rapidly out of the light in their kitchen in the middle of the night. And of course the Gilmartins decide to do the only sensible thing: hire an exterminator. And now Clarence finds himself in the unlikely role of potential hero, because maybe, just maybe, he can find a way to prevent his relatives and friends from being wiped out. But that requires crossing the very substantial gulf between human beings and cockroaches… Well, Clarence goes through many adventures, eventually makes a friend of Mimi, and then finds a way – entirely on his own – to save the cockroaches, by devising a truce between the insects and the Gilmartins. Oh boy, what a fantasy that is, as anyone who has ever experienced a cockroach infestation will immediately know! But the wonderful thing about Loizeaux’ book – and the humorously appealing pictures with which Anne Wilsdorf illustrates it – is that it sort of humanizes cockroaches while in no way denying their real-world habits (such as a fondness for darkness and rotting food). Clarence eventually comes to terms with his transformation – as for Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, it proves irreversible and remains unexplained, although Clarence does get a happy ending that is denied to Kafka’s protagonist. And the Gilmartins come to terms, literally, with the cockroaches (through a written agreement, no less). Real world? No! Delightful world? Yes!

     And speaking of things unappealing to humans, how about sewer rats? And wharf rats? And wild rats in general? Actually, rats have become more socially acceptable, at least in fiction, since the release of the Pixar film Ratatouille in 2007. But Tor Seidler’s A Rat’s Tale long predates that – it was originally published in 1986, when rats were deemed anything but cuddly. Yet even then, Seidler managed to make these creatures into the wonderful inhabitants of an adventure-filled fairy-tale world that intersects with the human one only peripherally (and usually not to the rats’ benefit). Fred Marcellino’s wonderful pencil drawings help brings the rats and their world vividly to life, and Seidler’s story seems even more appealing in its new paperback edition than it did in the past – the Ratatouille influence, no doubt. Seidler imagines a stratified rat society in which the hero, a sewer rat named Montague Mad-Rat the Younger, is looked down upon by the rats living in spacious accommodations (empty crates and such) along the wharves. Then Montague rescues one of the wharf residents, Isabel Moberly-Rat, and a sort of wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance ensues (an entirely chaste one, of course). Much else happens in A Rat’s Tale as well. There is a constant threat of humans trying to spread rat poison – when one rat, Randal, is exposed to it, “the doctor, a general ratitioner, applied a poultice to the poisoned tail. After giving the young rat a piece of a pill pilfered from a pharmacy, the doctor ushered the rest of them out of the sickroom. ‘It may keep the infection from spreading, it may not,’ whispered the doctor, who was never quite sure which pills were for what.” Then there are adventures with pack rats, and Montague’s artistic ability – he paints seashells that his aunt brings him – proves important in a campaign to save the rats of the wharves from being destroyed by humans. Humans are not all bad – some actually do business with the rats – and there is sometimes cooperation with mice, pigeons and other creatures. And Montague becomes a hero – “Montague the Magnificent,” a rat politician calls him (yes, the rats have politicos). There is sorrow in Montague’s tale, too, as in any good fairy tale, but all ends peacefully and with promise for the future – and human readers, who will surely not recognize real-world wild rats in any of A Rat’s Tale, will just as surely be delighted by what happens to Seidler’s unreal creations.


The Saturday Evening Pearls: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.

My Space: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 24. By Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Ignorance, Thy Name Is Bucky: A “Get Fuzzy” Collection. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     The latest Pearls Before Swine collection is a bargain, costing $2 less than the other two books here and offering just as many pages (128). Being an ex-lawyer, Stephan Pastis may have something to do with the price differentiation – maybe he wants to undercut the competition. It’s certainly not that PBF is worth less than other top-notch strips: why, there is no better place to go for death-obsessed, bottom-of-the-barrel humor in which characters regularly get killed and the book’s cover resembles an old Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell moment, except that half a picture of Pastis is visible on the wall as the crocodiles serve a dinner whose main course is Zebra with an apple in his mouth, and the table sports an entire plate of very worried-looking Fruit Buddies that are about to be eaten, and everyone is drinking beer endorsed by Danny Donkey, who hates everybody, and… Hmm. For some people, $10.99 is going to be about 11 bucks too much for this. But those with sufficiently twisted funnybones will have a great time with the lawsuit filed by the crocs against Zebra, who they say “‘willfully failed’ to be their food.” The crocs are represented by Rat and Zebra by Guard Duck, so negotiations go like this: “Hello…counselor? Settle or I firebomb your office.” “Settle or I beat you silly.” Then there is “National Enquirat,” Rat’s tabloid newspaper, in which Goat’s possession of aspirin leads to the headline, “Drug-Addled Goat Busted in Massive Narcotics Sting,” and a brief guest appearance by Beetle Bailey and Zero, who give each other a good-bye hug, produces this screaming headline: “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell?” Let’s see…the hyenas move into the neighborhood and ask Zebra if he has any leftovers – “Dead guys. We’re not picky…. Maybe an uncle or something.” Danny Donkey learns an important lesson after cutting into lines at the market, store and amusement park: line cutting makes him happy. There are sendups of “Peanuts,” soap-opera strips and “Family Circus,” plus one strip whose reference to the Groucho Marx TV show You Bet Your Life will either be hilarious or fall absolutely flat, depending on a reader’s age and knowledge of television. In fact, there is a little of everything in The Saturday Evening Pearls, unless of course you want amusing family-focused humor.

     If that’s what you’re after, go for Baby Blues, which is as delightful as ever, if not more so, in My Space (no direct relationship to the popular social-networking Web site: the cover shows mom Wanda crushed into a tiny portion of the page, indicating just how much space parents get for themselves when they have kids). The three-child MacPherson family is humming (or stumbling) along just wonderfully here. Wanda: “Whoever is doing whatever is going to get you-know-what, if you don’t cut it out!” Zoe and Hammie, after dad Darryl incorrectly says that turtles are amphibians: “Let’s see what else he doesn’t know.” Darryl, while cooking an outdoor meal of hot dogs, Polish sausage, linguisa, andouille, kielbasa and bratwurst: “My barbecue repertoire is pretty much limited to meat in a tube.” Thelma, Zoe’s overnight guest: “My! My! My! If this place was any nicer, it’d be a chocolate Sunday school!” Zoe offering to read a book to baby Wren, who does not speak yet but is clearly making her presence felt: “We have Where the Wild Things and the Dumb Brothers are…Dumb Brother, Dumb Brother, What Do You See?...The Very Hungry Dumb Brother…Why don’t we start with a classic, Harold and the Purple Dumb Brother.” All this verbiage springs from the mind of Jerry Scott (who also writes Zits, thereby proving himself attuned to children and proto-adults of all ages), and is perfectly matched to Rick Kirkman’s ever-more-refined drawings – in which the changing expressions (accomplished with oh-so-minor but oh-so-skilled alterations of the characters) perfectly reflect the ever-changing moods. And Kirkman has developed a fine sense of the absurd, too: just check out the Sunday strip in which Zoe and Hammie pile objects on top of their dad’s super-prominent nose.

     The most prominent thing in the latest collection of Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy is the series of non sequiturs and outright misinterpretations from Bucky Katt. Bucky is equally snide to Satchel Pooch and the hapless human, Rob, whose cluelessness reaches new heights (or depths) nearly every time he opens his mouth. Rob, for example, wants to know why the sport of snowboard cross isn’t called “snoto-cross? Or bordo-cross? I mean, am I the only person who thinks about these things?” And Bucky, in a rare moment of lucidity and insight, comments, “The real mystery is how you don’t have a girlfriend yet, chief.” Most of the time, though, Rob (aka “Pink” or “Dorktator”) is only a distraction from the far more amusing interaction of Bucky with the world around him. Bucky decides to be a filmmaker like “Quentin Tabbytino,” a scruffy cat he brings to the apartment, and when Rob says he doesn’t believe the cat really makes movies, Bucky says, “Your toaster on the way out, Rob, ’cause you just opened an account at the First National Bank of Amerismack!” Buck also creates a “tummy exerciser” called “Ab Solutions” because the Pope “used to sell a product called Absolutions a while back, but the trademark must have run out.” And Bucky, denied access to whiskey, creates “whiskery,” which is “a homemade blend of rubber bands in toilet water.” He also creates the Bucky Museum (the whole apartment) and makes the perpetually put-upon Satchel handle admissions. Then there is Bucky’s determination to model for a hairball remedy: “This face will be synonymous with feline regurgitation.” But not everything in this book is Bucky-centric (although most of it is). There is one very funny week of strips in which Rob (now taking the role not of an advertising executive but of Conley himself) “rips off” and redoes a series of strips from none other than Pearls Before Swine…with “guest” appearances by none other than Stephan Pastis, who previously did the same thing with some Get Fuzzy strips – thereby proving, if nothing else, that oddball humor interfaces well with other oddball humor.