January 28, 2010


The Grasshopper Hopped! By Elizabeth Alexander. Illustrated by Joung Un Kim. Golden Books. $8.99.

How Do Lions Say I Love You? By Diane Muldrow. Illustrated by David Walker. Golden Books. $7.99.

Ferocious Wild Beasts! By Chris Wormell. Knopf. $16.99.

     Each of these books fully deserves the special punctuation mark at the end of its title – two exclamation points and a question mark. The Grasshopper Hopped! and How Do Lions Say I Love You? are board books, and between them show just how many approaches this format can accommodate. Elizabeth Alexander’s book features a big-eyed grasshopper – charmingly drawn by Joung Un Kim – trying to figure out where he belongs. Kids help the grasshopper get into and out of various spots – there are tabs to pull or push – as he explores a soup pot simmering on a stove, the inside of a refrigerator, a grandfather clock, the ocean, and other unlikely locations, each time realizing that he doesn’t belong in those places. The illustrations change appropriately – the one of the grasshopper wearing ear muffs because the clock’s striking is too loud for him is especially amusing. Eventually, after a near-fatal encounter with one of the natural enemies of grasshoppers, the smiling insect figures out where he should be, and kids get to help him hop happily up and down. The book, intended for ages 3-6, is enjoyable throughout – and even offers a soft-pedaled lesson about insects and their enemies.

     How Do Lions Say I Love You? is a board book for even younger kids – up to age five, starting at any age at which a parent wants to read to an infant. Diane Muldrow’s simple text contains gently presented information on animals’ real-world courting habits, such as the facts that swans mate for life and peacocks display “feathers and flair” to their peahen mates. But love is the main subject here, as David Walker’s anthropomorphic illustrations show smiling giraffes with their necks wrapped around each other, cuddly lions rubbing fur, elephants with trunks intertwined, and more. Even the wolves – shown engaging in “a howl and a huddle” – are adorable. And the rhymes carry the simple text forward nicely: “Bears like to say it with a kiss on the muzzle. A mama cow says it with a lick and a nuzzle.” At the end, after reading about all the ways animals seem to express affection, a parent has a perfect opportunity to cuddle, nuzzle and hug the child who has been listening to and looking at this lovely little book.

     Ferocious Wild Beasts! is a more sophisticated book that will be great fun for children ages 5-8. The whole book is a put-on of sorts, because kids will quickly figure out what Jack, the little boy in the book, never quite realizes about the dark forest where he has become lost. Jack’s mother has warned him about the ferocious wild beasts in the woods, so Jack warns everyone he meets in the forest about the danger. Among those he cautions are a huge bear, an elephant, a full-grown lion, a gigantic crocodile, a wolf and a python. That’s right: Jack is warning the ferocious wild beasts about the ferocious wild beasts! And he is mighty effective at it, too. For example, he tells the lion that the beasts “have sharp claws and big teeth and can bite your head off in a second” and “like eating lions the best.” The result is that all the animals stay close to Jack, casting worried glances around and behind themselves, until finally they do see something in the dark – and hear a frightening sound. And as all the creatures stampede back to the safety of the forest, Jack, “who was the bravest,” continues onward to discover something “much worse” than a beast – and gets to go home safely, in a highly amusing twist ending. This book may not teach anything about animal behavior, but it certainly shows young readers the pleasures of a good sense of humor.


Rock & Roll Shapes. By Salina Yoon. Scholastic. $7.99.

How Do Dinosaurs Love Their Cats? By Jane Yolen. Illustrations by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $6.99.

How Do Dinosaurs Love Their Dogs? By Jane Yolen. Illustrations by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $6.99.

     The amount of creativity lavished on books for the youngest children – pre-readers as well as beginning readers – is truly amazing. What a great concept Rock & Roll Shapes is! An elongated, very sturdy board book with an easy-to-grab handle at the bottom, it introduces infants to five shapes – square, circle, triangle, star and diamond – through bright colors and very clever illustrations that produce the “rock & roll” title. Each two-page sequence gives the name of the shape on the left and five examples of it on the right. The examples are multicolored, with central cutouts. And each right-hand page contains a shiny silver object that rolls from left to right and back again, passing through the cutouts of all five examples and turning their centers silver. The rolling object is a circle – that’s why it rolls so easily – but kids never actually see its shape, since it is too big to fit through the cutouts. It simply rolls along, back and forth, as children (or parents) tilt the pages, creating an extra visual attraction and a great memory aid to be associated with each shape. Very simple; very ingenious; very well done.

     The How Do Dinosaurs… series is for slightly older kids – it tells stories, after all – but Jane Yolen and Mark Teague keep the board books in the series easy to understand and delightfully offbeat. The idea is always the same: give real-world information to kids, but make believe that family members are dinosaurs, and show (in Teague’s wonderfully expressive drawings) just how dinosaurs do the things they ought to do in everyday (modern) life. But first, show what dinosaurs (and people) should not do, by giving amusing bad examples of the wrong behavior. To show their love for cats, for example, do dinosaurs throw pillows at kitty or toss the cat itself when it complains – or ignore it after school? No! These dinos know to cuddle and pet their cats, give them food and fresh water, change their litter boxes, and play nicely with them. In a similar vein, do dinos with dogs forget to give them food, jump on them and neglect their walks? Of course not! Right-thinking (and right-acting) dinosaurs feed, walk and play with their dogs and stroke them gently and lovingly. The simple lessons here would seem preachy if delivered in a straightforward narrative, but as Yolen and Teague present them, they are much more easily absorbed – which is, of course, the whole idea of these books. Even kids who laugh at the dinosaurs’ initially rough (but not too rough) treatment of their pets will quickly realize what is wrong – and hopefully internalize the lessons about proper, loving treatment of the animals who share the family cave…err, swamp…that is, home.


Shake Rattle & Turn That Noise Down: How Elvis Shook Up Music, Me and Mom. By Mark Alan Stamaty. Knopf. $17.99.

Child of the Civil Rights Movement. By Paula Young Shelton. Illustrated by Raul Colón. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     The grand lessons of the past are not what these books for ages 4-8 are all about. Yes, there are major trends and occurrences invoked here – in music and in human rights – but both books take those big societal matters down to a personal level, in attempts to forge a stronger connection with young readers in the 21st century. Mark Alan Stamaty’s Shake Rattle & Turn That Noise Down is done in comic-strip style, taking readers back to the long-ago days of 1955, the year the author turned eight, when “lots of things we now take for granted did not even exist” and “television was black-and-white.” Stamaty talks about the music education he got in school and the way his birthday present – a radio of his very own – thoroughly upset the care and order of his life: “A howling thunder of sound exploded in my room, engulfing me in a hurricane of excitement.” In lovingly detailed drawings with text that runs all around the panels, in multiple sizes and colors, Stamaty goes on to show the influence that Elvis Presley and his music had on him, his friends and family, his school, his Cub Scout den, and even on his adult life: at the end of the book, he includes photos taken when we did an Elvis impersonation for then-President Clinton in 1993. Stamaty’s explanations of historical details, even though they are incidental to the story, are especially well done – for example, his drawing of a 45-rpm record and his discussion of how those vinyl disks had “the ‘good’ song, the one they played on the radio,” on one side, and “a crummy song just to fill up space” on the other side. There are also some wonderful illustrations of pop singers from and after Elvis’ early years, and of some musicians whose influence on rock ‘n’ roll was significant. And yet, despite the undoubted quality of the art and the sincerity of the narrative, Shake Rattle & Turn That Noise Down is more a period piece than anything else. It does not fully communicate to today’s young people just how revolutionary Elvis and his music were to an earlier generation – and perhaps there is no way to show that effectively, given the state of music today. This is a book that, despite its official target age range, may actually appeal more to adults of Stamaty’s own generation than to their children and (gasp!) grandchildren.

     Sincerity practically oozes from another period piece, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, whose author, Paula Young Shelton, is the daughter of civil-rights leader (and former United Nations ambassador) Andrew Young. The story opens in New York, where Shelton was born, and continues in short chapters as she and her family move to Atlanta to help with the civil-rights protests of the 1960s. There is a great deal here about “Uncle Martin” – Martin Luther King, Jr. – and his influence on the Youngs as well as on the civil-rights movement as a whole. Raul Colón provides carefully drawn, elegant illustrations of King, the Youngs, and many other leaders of the time: Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, Dorothy Cotton, et al. And then comes the story of the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the momentous Voting Rights Act of 1965, the latter being handled almost dismissively: “we’d won just one battle and there were many more to come.” The entire book is about passing the torch of civil rights to a new generation – in fact, Shelton writes that “the baton would pass to us and we would march on.” Shelton now teaches first grade in Washington, D.C., and her book is clearly intended to have a specific educational purpose. Everyone she portrays in it is one-dimensional: the civil-rights marchers 100% good, the whites of the South 100% bad. This is perhaps understandable in a story for six-year-olds, but it does an injustice to the civil-rights struggle itself and to those real, three-dimensional human beings who pursued it. There is more to be learned from the successes of fallible and imperfect human beings than from the triumphs of godlike heroes. By making the civil-rights story such a straightforward tale of good vs. evil, Shelton limits its value to the children of today, who – even as first-graders – can surely handle more ambiguity and complexity than this enormously well-intentioned book provides.


Mendelssohn: Concertos for Two Pianos. The Silver Garburg Piano Duo (Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg); Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie conducted by Christopher Hogwood. Oehms. $16.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 1: Ravel—Sérénade grotesque; Gaspard de la nuit; Stravinsky—Les cinq doigts; Valse pour les enfants; Pétrouchka—3 scènes. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

     Lyricism, flow and beauty, the hallmarks of so much of Mendelssohn’s music, are as integral to his two two-piano concertos as they are to his two concertos for solo piano. But the two-piano works are far less frequently performed, perhaps because they require the duo-pianists to subsume individual virtuosity into uniformity of sound and approach. These are not “display pieces,” but they are wonderful music – and when pianists are as comfortable with them (and apparently with each other) as are Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg, the results are exemplary. These two teachers from the Academy of Music in Hanover present readings of the concertos in E (1823) and A-flat (1824) that effectively balance the works’ classical poise with their Romantic emotions. They are beautifully complemented by the chamber-size Bayerische Kammerphilharmonie, which Christopher Hogwood directs with the clarity and balance that have long been trademarks of his musical approach. The brighter (if not really frothier) Concerto in E comes across particularly well, being more strongly immersed in classicism than its slightly later companion. The Concerto in A-flat is more symphonic and has more of a Romantic temperament; it is less straightforward in both style and harmony. A larger ensemble would have worked well here, but the considerable clarity that Hogwood brings to this work makes an effective argument for keeping the accompaniment modest. Silver and Garburg also have a fine understanding of the differing scales of these two works, handling the one in E with positively Mozartean finesse while allowing the one in A-flat to emerge in larger scale and with greater scope. This CD is about as effective an argument as possible for more-frequent performances of these unfairly neglected and thoroughly winning works.

     Idil Biret’s first CD in yet another series from Idil Biret Archives is winning, too. In addition to the Beethoven Edition and Concerto Edition, both of which are still in progress, IBA is now releasing an Archive Edition of Biret’s solo non-Beethoven performances. The first CD, of Ravel and Stravinsky, was recorded in 1975 and originally released in 1976 on the short-lived Finnadar label. In many ways, it shows Biret at her best. Her Beethoven and concerto series are variable in quality and impact, always informed by her obviously strong intellect and fine technique, but sometimes overmastered (from a purely musical point of view) by performances that seem to have been over-thought and that therefore lack a certain spark of apparent spontaneity. Not so here. Biret surely thought about the music on this CD as carefully as she thought about other works she played, but there is a flow here, a sense of excitement and involvement, that is more winning than her illuminating but sometimes slow (even stodgy) performances in the other IBA series. The character of the music may well have something to do with this. Gaspard de la nuit is a display piece and a fascinating bit of grotesquerie, and Biret certainly perceives this, producing an especially eerie Le Gibet. The Sérénade grotesque, Ravel’s very first piano piece (dating to 1893, when the composer was 18), ties interestingly to the later work, especially to Scarbo. The Stravinsky pieces are studies in contrast, with the Pétrouchka excerpts giving Biret plenty of virtuoso opportunities, while Les cinq doigts requires (and receives) considerable subtlety and Valse pour les enfants is a thoroughly charming trifle. If the other releases in the Idil Biret Archive Edition prove as convivial as this first one, the series will be a winner all the way.


Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2; Vocalise. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $8.99.

Harris: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (“Gettysburg”); Acceleration. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.

     Detroit may have been down and nearly out as a manufacturing center in 2009, but you would never know it from the sound of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under its new music director, Leonard Slatkin. For Slatkin – who built his reputation in St. Louis, then became conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., before moving to Detroit – the orchestra sounds warm, committed and well balanced, with especially strong strings. The sound of its September 2009 live recording of Rachmaninoff emphasizes warmth as well: Orchestra Hall in Detroit has long had excellent acoustics, and they are well captured here. But it is hard to be completely enthusiastic about this new CD, partly because of the repertoire and partly because of the way Slatkin approaches it. This is a kind of “Rachmaninoff’s greatest orchestral hits” CD; it is questionable how many of those a listener needs. Even more questionable is Slatkin’s form of conductorial enthusiasm here. Rachmaninoff was the last of the unashamed Romantic composers (Rued Langgaard outlived him by nearly a decade and stayed true to the Romantic style, but often seemed to do so ruefully in his later works). Slatkin gives this music such an unashamedly Romantic interpretation that the works expand almost to the point of popping, like gigantic, beautiful but fragile soap bubbles. Vocalise, orchestrated by the composer after starting out as the final (wordless) song in a set of 14 songs, opens the CD and sets a tone of expressiveness to the point of swooning. Yes, Rachmaninoff’s music invites this, but a conductor’s challenge is to decide how to manage the expansiveness – lest it manage him. The latter is more or less what happens with Slatkin here. Symphony No. 2 certainly sprawls – especially the first movement – and Slatkin wallows in it, letting it grow and glow with such sumptuousness that it crosses the line between the portentous and the pretentious. Again, Rachmaninoff’s music invites this, but a conductor who accepts the invitation as enthusiastically as Slatkin does here ends up with more than a touch of bloat. So thoroughly is Slatkin steeped in Rachmaninoff’s post-Romantic ultra-Romanticism that he makes some speedy sections sound almost perfunctory – the opening of the scherzo, for example – because he is in a hurry to dwell on the contrasting slow and indulgent parts of the music. This is not to say that Slatkin’s tempos are slow – the start of the finale, for example, is quick and ebullient – but there is a feeling here of getting most of the fast-paced material out of the way in order to allow more time for the broad themes and swooning that pervade Rachmaninoff’s music. This is a CD for listeners who admire Rachmaninoff’s many influences on movie scores and pop-music love songs, not one for listeners seeking some of the balance and proportion that are present in Rachmaninoff’s music – although not always obviously.

     Rachmaninoff’s warmth, expressiveness and death obsession (all those Dies Irae quotations) are temperamentally quite Russian. But there is also a strong – and surprising – Russian connection in American composer Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 5. More properly, it is a Soviet connection: this is a war symphony, written in 1942, and it is dedicated (without a shred of irony, except in retrospect) to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics.” There is nothing sinister in this: the USSR was a crucial member of the Allies in World War II, bore the brunt of some of Hitler’s most brutal campaigns, suffered enormous casualties, and in triumphantly breaking the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) gave the Allies an early foretaste of eventual victory. That the nation’s own brutal dictator, Stalin, killed more people than Hitler did was not fully understood until well after the war. And so Harris produced a dedication that was patriotic in its time for a three-movement symphony that has no apparent musical connection to the circumstances in which it was written. This fifth of Harris’ 16 symphonies is absolute music, its outer movements both growing organically from basic material presented at their openings. If there is a “war” element here, it is in the middle movement, which includes portions of a funeral march. The symphony also includes material from Acceleration, a single movement written a year earlier (1941) that Harris reworked when putting the symphony together.

     A very different and wholly American war is the foundation of Harris’ Symphony No. 6, “Gettysburg.” The work, although entirely instrumental, was inspired by quotations from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Its four movements bear titles relating to that famous speech: Awakening, Conflict, Dedication and Affirmation. But, as in his previous symphony, Harris delivers absolute rather than program music in Symphony No. 6. There is some tone painting of war in the second movement, but this is more a filmmaker’s idea of war than Lincoln’s: the movement starts as a march and builds steadily, featuring fragmentary brass themes and yawps before it ends abruptly. More obvious and less emotive than the other three movements, it seems oddly discordant – not in musical terms but in the way it communicates. The other movements have more of the Harris sound and structure, with the third movement’s quiet ending being especially effective and the coda of the finale wrapping things up colorfully. Marin Alsop, a champion of 20th-century American music (and generally a more effective conductor of it than of the standard repertoire), approaches these Harris pieces with a sure hand, building them effectively and maintaining a clear sense of their structure throughout. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra plays well and idiomatically, showing Harris to be, if not a great composer, one with a strong sense of style and considerable skill in orchestration.

January 21, 2010


Magic Tree House #43: Leprechaun in Late Winter. By Mary Pope Osborne. Random House. $12.99.

Magic Tree House Research Guide: Leprechauns and Irish Folklore. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. Random House. $4.99.

Betraying Season. By Marissa Doyle. Henry Holt. $16.99.

     The Emerald Isle has importance in literature and legend far beyond its small size and long-impoverished people. From Jonathan Swift to William Butler Yeats, it has produced far more than its share of great writers and poets – and from the banshee (originally, in Irish, bean sídhe) to the aes sídhe or aos sí (sometimes wrongly called the sidhe), it has produced more than its share of supernatural beings. One standout among those is the leprechaun (spelled leipreachán in Irish), a solitary fairy rather than one preferring life in a group. Leprechauns spend most of their time mending shoes, and they enjoy practical jokes – and there is some of the latter interest, if not the former, in the latest Magic Tree House book, which has Jack and Annie travel to Ireland in 1862 to meet a literary figure who is more obscure than many of the people they have encountered during earlier adventures. Leprechaun in Late Winter is the third of four books in which the young travelers, at magician Merlin’s behest, are helping inspire creative people. There is less derring-do and a lower adventure component in these books than in many of the earlier Magic Tree House entries, and there is a certain sameness to the stories that may become tedious even for young readers (the books are intended for ages 7-12, but a more likely age range is 6-10). Still, Jack and Annie’s time with a rather dull young girl named Augusta is enlivened by their encounter with a leprechaun and, later, with a whole host of the fairies that Osborne calls Shee (which is how is pronounced). It is thanks to the fairies that Augusta develops an interest in preserving Irish heritage – and that sets her on the path that will eventually lead her, as Lady Augusta Gregory, to co-found the Abbey Theatre with Yeats and to write 40 plays of her own. There is no major “revelation” of Jack and Annie’s importance in this book – nothing comparable to Jack’s comment, “We put the smile on the Mona Lisa’s face, remember?” But there is some pleasant interaction here with Irish mythology.

     The accompanying Magic Tree House Research Guide discusses that mythology in greater depth and, as usual, makes a nice companion to the fictional volume for readers interested in learning a little more. This is the first Research Guide that does not bear a number: it is actually No. 21, but at this point those numbers are rather confusing, since they do not match the numbers of the books (the Research Guide series started long after the fictional one was well under way). Leprechauns and Irish Folklore is especially interesting for exploring some less-known supernatural creatures, such as clurichauns – relatives of leprechauns who like to dress up and, unlike their more famous cousins, hate to work. Pookas, dullahans (the Irish version of headless horsemen), grogochs, ballybogs and other fairies are here, along with suggestions on how to protect yourself against them. And there is some history, too – plus information on the people who helped preserve Irish heritage.

     There is magic in Ireland in Betraying Season as well, and this story too is set in the 19th century, but this teen-oriented tale is a complications-of-love story as well as a complications-of-magic one. The central character is Penelope Leland, witch and twin sister of Persy – who, in Marissa Doyle’s previous book, Bewitching Season, proved to be the more adept of the two at magic. Penelope (Pen) sets out to prove herself in this companion novel, and along the way meets and falls in love with Niall Keating, to whom she feels she must reveal her magical abilities to be sure they will not scare him away: “Well, it’s just that…I’m a witch. …and I decided that I had to tell you now, even though as a rule witches never tell anyone, because last year my sister and her husband – well, before he was her husband – she was afraid he wouldn’t love her if he knew she was a witch, and I didn’t want to ever have the same problem. So I’m telling you now, because I – because I do love you.” But to that breathless confession, Niall reacts not with horror but with considerable equanimity, telling Pen that “Ireland is not like the rest of the world” when it comes to magic. It turns out that he should know: he has been courting Pen on orders from his mother, a sorceress with evil plans of her own. But then Niall really does fall in love with Pen, and now, instead of betraying her, he needs to betray his mother; and all the while, Pen’s less-potent magic is growing in strength. And thus the plot thickens, with never a shred of believability but with plenty of heartthrobs and heartaches: “Why did he still have to be so good-looking even when disheveled? Even worse, why did she still notice?” Of course, Pen and Niall do get together – in matrimony before anything else, this being the Victorian age – and Pen’s mother’s nefarious scheme is thwarted, and so on and so forth. This is all harmless fun that, if it does nothing to elucidate Irish lore, does little to make it any less interesting.


The Ever Breath. By Julianna Baggott. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Giant-Slayer. By Iain Lawrence. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Fairy-tale novels for preteens are a dime a dozen these days – well, actually more expensive, but certainly as plentiful as the cliché indicates. Many of the stories are reasonably well written, but have little to recommend them other than the chance of a brief escape from the everyday world – without having to resort to videogames or Web surfing. These two books, though, try to go beyond standard fairy-tale models and involve young readers in some real-world thinking as well. The Ever Breath does this by combining a fairly straightforward fantasy world with the mystery of a father’s disappearance. The central characters, twin brother and sister Truman and Camille, are sent to stay with their grandmother after their dad just seems to vanish. They soon find her to be as strange and mysterious as the house in which she lives. The old woman tells the twins a story about an amber orb called the Ever Breath that maintains the real world in balance with one of imagination – within which great evil lurks. Not unexpectedly, Truman and Camille soon learn the truth of the apparently fanciful tale, finding themselves in the Breath World amid battles and deceit and all sorts of peculiar goings-on. It turns out that the Ever Breath has been stolen – and the twins are the key to saving both the Breath World and their own, hopefully while finding out what happened to their father and rescuing him into the bargain. As one character tells Camille, “We’ll have to find your brother, hope for some communication from your father, and, of course, hope that your father’s had luck locating the Ever Breath.” For of course the twins’ father’s disappearance is connected – must be connected – with the Breath World and the mysterious orb. “Nothing here was quite what it seemed to be,” writes Julianna Baggott, and of course that’s the whole point – nothing in either world is quite as it appears. And “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” comments one character – and if all this sounds a bit obvious and a big clichéd, that is in fact what it is. Some of the characters in The Ever Breath are lively and interesting – there’s a memorable mouse, for example – but a lot of the plot seems recycled from other fairy stories, despite the attempt to connect the everyday and fantasy worlds. And the ending is a bit of a cheat: it points directly toward an upcoming sequel, to be called The Ever Cure.

     The interconnection of real and fantasy worlds is handled much more adroitly in Iain Lawrence’s The Giant-Slayer. Indeed, it is almost too well done: the book can be genuinely depressing if young readers understand what it is about. That is its biggest flaw: it is set in 1955, and the primary real-world scourge it deals with is polio, a horrid and now-extinguished disease whose existence will be of little or no moment to most modern young readers. This book will have its full effect only for readers who understand not only what polio was but also just how awful its effects were. The fairy-tale title of the book belies its structure. Its protagonist is Laurie Valentine, a young girl whose best friend, Dickie, develops polio and is placed in an iron lung (again, readers must know what that is and feel its constrictions to get the full effect of Lawrence’s writing). Laurie visits Dickie in the hospital and meets two other polio-stricken kids, Carolyn and Chip, who have troubles of their own in addition to the disease. Dickie begs Laurie to tell all three of them a story, so she comes up with the tale of a giant named Collosso and a tiny boy named Jimmy – kept small by his father’s unfortunate wish – who is destined to be a giant-killer. The polio patients add to and comment on the story as Laurie spins it out, and there are parallels between the fairy tale and what goes on in the real world; it could even be argued that polio, the disease, is the real-world giant comparable to Collosso in the world of make-believe. Laurie’s story has many of the expected elements of fairy tale: good and evil, curses, Gypsies, charms, and so on. But they are used carefully, and when the characters diverge from their usual fairy-tale portrayal – as, for example, gnomes do in Laurie’s story – it is easy to believe that this results from the imagination of a young girl in the mid-1950s. The Giant-Slayer is ultimately more a period piece than a fairy tale – and is more effective as historical fiction than as pure make-believe. The polio story tends to overwhelm the fairy-tale elements – it certainly does so when Lawrence produces a frightening twist two-thirds of the way through – so readers looking for lighthearted escapism (perhaps lured by the book’s cover) will be disappointed. Those unfamiliar with the history behind the real-world aspects of the story will not get the book’s full effect, either. Thus, The Giant-Slayer is a book that will have very considerable appeal – but not to a very considerable number of the young people for whom it was written.


Dvořák: Piano Quartets. Helena Suchárová-Weiser, piano; members of the Vlach Quartet Prague (Jana Vlachová, violin; Karel Stadtherr, viola; Mikael Ericsson, cello). Naxos. $8.99.

Gade: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano. Hasse Borup, violin; Heather Conner, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Ligeti: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Andante and Allegretto. Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong and Karen Kim, violins; Jessica Bodner, viola; Kee-Hyun Kim, cello). Naxos. $8.99.

     The works on these three CDs, all of them nominally chamber music, exist in very different sound worlds – but all of them reflect, in their own ways, the compositional progress of the men who wrote them. The first Dvořák piano quartet, op. 23, is one of his earlier works, dating to 1875, and is strongly imbued with Czech melodies and inflections. The second of its three movements, an andantino with variations, is especially interesting, notably when the final variation moves from two-beat meter to three-beat (actually – and unusually – 6/16). Piano and strings are more or less equal partners in this work, with the cello lending particular weight to the music. The second quartet, op. 87, dates to 1889 and is significantly more emphatic and intense, with less overt nationalistic influence – although the finale has a characteristic Bohemian rhythm. There is drama and mystery here, especially in the first of the four movements, although the third movement – a lyrical and lovely waltz – lightens things considerably. The performers, all Czech by training, handle both the grand sweep and the small details of this music with ease and understanding, producing a CD that argues effectively for Dvořák’s importance as a composer of piano quartets, even though he wrote but two of them. And the players do a top-notch job of contrasting the earlier, somewhat more superficial work with the later and deeper one.

     The playing is less effective on the new CD of Gade’s Violin Sonatas, which gets a (+++) rating. These sonatas, like the Dvořák piano quartets, are essentially Romantic in sound; and like them, they span a large part of their composer’s lifetime. But here the progress from lighter work to deeper is by no means clear. Gade’s first sonata, op. 6, dates to 1842 (when the composer was only 25) and is dedicated to Clara Schumann – but, despite the dedicatee’s fame as a virtuoso, there is nothing grand about it. Its challenges lie in complexity rather than boldness, and are shared between the two instruments – making the piece a tad curious to hear, since its character is one of simplicity despite the difficulties involved in performing it. Hasse Borup and Heather Conner both play quite well, but neither is especially subtle here, and Borup in particular seems at times to overwhelm the music. The performers are more comfortable with the second sonata, op. 21, which dates to 1849 and is dedicated to Robert Schumann. This is Gade’s only violin sonata in a minor key (D minor), but the storms of the first movement are swept away in the D major finale, and the middle movement – which alternates slow and fast sections – has a fine sense of balance. As for the third sonata, op. 67, it dates to 1885, just five years before Gade’s death, but there is nothing autumnal about it: it has considerable substance in its four movements, but in many ways looks backward through its almost Mendelssohnian scherzo and the full-fledged Romanticism of its lovely and moving Romanze. Borup and Conner seem at times a trifle impatient with this work’s heart-on-its-sleeve emotionalism, but for the most part they do a fine job of exploring the music.

     By the time György Ligeti wrote his two string quartets, though, chamber-music language had changed considerably. Ligeti’s first quartet, called “Métamorphoses nocturnes,” dates to 1953-4 and shows a heavy sonic debt to Bartók. Although it has some interesting formal elements – it is in a single long movement that, however, can be heard as being in anywhere from four to eight sections – it is not especially distinctive music for its time; nor is it atypical of the rather formulaic musical approach that Ligeti took at this point in his career. By the same token, the Andante and Allegretto, from 1950, has little that is identifiable as Ligeti’s style in it – although, interestingly, it is the piece on this CD that is closest to the sound world of Dvořák and Gade, and is most readily accessible for listeners not already familiar with Ligeti’s work. Those who are familiar with the composer will be most interested in the second quartet (1968), which falls firmly into Ligeti’s “electronic” period even though it is written for traditional instruments. The five movements here bear such titles as “Allegro nervosa” and “Come un meccanismo di precision,” and the piece is, from start to finish, a study in contrasts: abrupt pizzicato vs. gentle, wavelike rhythms; near-complete stillness vs. near-frantic activity; and so on. This is a work that is more interesting than involving – there is something distancing about its insistence on contrasting elements of presentation. Certainly the Parker Quartet plays it, and the other pieces here, with attentiveness and considerable skill; but the performers do not really pull listeners into the sonic environment of these Ligeti works – they simply perform within Ligeti’s boundaries. Those interested in Ligeti’s changing approach to chamber music will find this CD quite valuable, but it gets a (+++) rating for the general listener.


Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 3—Volume V, “Album pour les enfants adolescents.” Alessandro Marangoni, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Roussel: Symphony No. 1, “Le poème de la forêt”; Résurrection—Symphonic Prelude; Le marchand de sable qui passe—Incidental Music. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève. Naxos. $8.99.

     Gioachino Rossini’s name sounds as Italian as can be, and the composer was indeed Italian. But France and the French language played a huge role in his opera career – think only of Guillaume Tell, which brought that career to an end, and its immediate predecessor, Le comte Ory. Indeed, all of the last six Rossini operas were first performed in Paris. And after he summarily retired from opera composition in 1829, Rossini’s fate became ever more French, to the point that the variegated piano works of his final decade, collected as Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”), are all French, composed in Paris and Rossini’s villa at Passy. This is not to say that there is anything particularly French about the music itself, apart from the works’ titles. This music transcends national boundaries and shows Rossini in some of his most creative moods – and some of his most lighthearted. Alessandro Marangoni is a fine pianist who is recording all Rossini’s piano music for Naxos, but unfortunately, his one shortcoming is in the area of lightness and humor; and that is becoming an increasing source of disappointment as the Rossini series continues (the new release is the third). The fifth volume of Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse, whose title translates as “Album for Adolescent Children,” is a companion to the sixth, “Album for Smart Children,” most of which has already been released in an earlier Marangoni recording. Here, the pianist does a lovely job with legato and warmth, as in “Thème naïf et variations, idem…” And he brings out the contrasts in “L’innocence italienne: La candeur française” effectively. But he makes “Valse lugubre” a little too serious and “Prélude convulsif” too intense. And the two food-related pieces in this album – “Ouf! Les petit pois” and “Un sauté” – must be said to lack…well…spice. Marangoni is proving to be a better player of these “sins” than an interpreter of them: his virtuosity is impressive, but his involvement in the music’s nuances is somewhat less than complete.

     Stéphane Denève, on the other hand, is thoroughly enmeshed in nuance in the work of Albert Roussel, to the point that he surprisingly obtains a rather French sound from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Indeed, nuance is much of what Denève must rely on in his latest Roussel CD, because a great deal of the music here is rather bland – sounding a bit, in some ways, like some of Delius. Unlike Rossini, Roussel wrote music with a strong French flavor, specifically the flavor of French Impressionism; and there is a certain Romantic naïveté to these works as well. Roussel’s Symphony No. 1 is a four-movement, four-season work that opens in winter and moves predictably through spring, summer and autumn, at the end of which it returns to its initial mood. There is much effective tone-painting here, and some of the brass touches are particularly nice, but the music as a whole sounds a great deal like much other Impressionist-era music (the symphony dates to 1904-6). Résurrection is even earlier (1903) and is supposed to be related to Tolstoy’s 1899 novel of the same name, which was controversial and much censored for its unceasing attack on society as no more than a means for the rich to oppress the poor. There is little of this theme in Roussel’s music, however; in fact, the work is rather pale. The 1908 music for the play Le marchand de sable qui passe (“The Sandman”), on the other hand, is not so much without color as it is monochromatic. It is not quite soporific, but it is languorous throughout, perhaps reflecting the theme of George Jean-Aubry’s play, but not being especially interesting to listen to from a strictly musical standpoint. Denève conducts all these works lovingly and with fine attention to detail, but this CD as a whole has a somewhat static feel to it, as if these early orchestral pieces by Roussel are firmly stuck in a time long past.

January 14, 2010


A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts. By Ying Chang Compestine. Illustrations by Coleman Polhemus. Henry Holt. $16.99.

Demon Chick. By Marilyn Kaye. Henry Holt. $16.99.

     Had enough of the same old ghost-and-demon stories? Try these – they’re different. A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts is a most unusual compendium of ghost stories (some of which are far scarier than is the norm in books for preteens), Chinese history lessons – and recipes. Ying Chang Compestine, author of Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party, explains the longstanding importance of food in Chinese culture as well as the belief that people who die in certain ways or with unfinished business, and return as angry ghosts, can be appeased with offerings of food. She also tells a bit about Chinese numerology – the number eight is particularly lucky – and then offers eight stories in which food plays a greater or lesser part. Two involve appetizers, four include main courses, and two are about desserts. After each tale, Compestine provides a very good recipe for the dish that is central to (or at least mentioned in) the story. About the only thing wrong with that is that some of the stories are gruesome enough so that readers might not want to eat the food associated with them. These are not garden-variety frights: there is cannibalism, burial alive (of a young girl), gruesome murders of various kinds, innocent people executed, and more. A story that turns on the penchant of some Chinese for eating still-living animal flesh – in this case, monkey brains – is especially stomach-churning (and no, the recipe has nothing to do with that theme: it is for tofu with chili-garlic sauce, which plays a lesser role in the tale). The recipes are quite good – the jasmine almond cookies are a particular treat. And Compestine’s short post-story explanations of the historical and cultural background of the tales are fascinating, dealing with such subjects as school factories during the Cultural Revolution, organ harvesting, the board game mahjong, controversial treatments for mental illness, and more. A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts is a highly intriguing book – equally readable for chills, for some fascinating cultural and historical insights, and for recipes for delicious food. And the black-and-white illustrations by Coleman Polhemus are a fine touch, capturing the mood of each chapter and heightening the intensity of some of the tales’ more outré moments.

     Demon Chick is unusual, too – often hilariously so. It’s the simple story of the daughter of an aspiring presidential candidate – an ordinary enough teenage girl whose soul just happens to have been sold to the devil to further her mother’s ambitions. Hmm…not so simple. And Jessica Hunsucker is not about to take the arrangement lying down, especially when she finds out that the part of Hell to which she is consigned consists of dull suburban neighborhoods – and includes living with a demon named Brad (although he does seem like a nice enough guy). This setup leads to some often-hilarious dialogue, as when Jessica discovers that she and Brad both really like the movie Grease, which Brad is watching on the TV in their house: “I looked away and focused on the screen. ‘How did you get this? They don’t have video stores in Hell, do they?’ ‘I was surfing and just came across someone watching it on TV. And I fiddled with the controls and got their TV screen to fill our screen. So we don’t have to watch the other people watching our movie.’” And almost before you can figure out what all that means, something new happens – like finding out that “sexual orientation doesn’t count for anything down here,” and the suburban-style kitchen equipment works but is just messed-up enough to keep things uncomfortable, and Jessica’s mother has some grand evil plans that go well beyond what she has already done to her daughter. And that becomes a problem of its own: “‘Damn,’ I muttered in frustration. ‘Doesn’t anyone care? A maniac bitch is trying to take over the world, and they’re worried about global warming.’” Even when supposedly serious stuff is going on, Marilyn Kaye keeps the bright and offbeat writing flowing: “I was only human, sort of.” And the way she ties everything together by the end of the book is really neat. Teens who have had enough of traditional young-adult romances will find a lot to like in Demon Chick. It’s devilishly entertaining.


Calendar Mysteries: #1—January Joker; #2—February Friend. By Ron Roy. Random House. $4.99 each.

Scurvy Goonda. By Chris McCoy. Knopf. $16.99.

The Promises of Dr. Sigmundus, Book Three: The Resurrection Fields. By Brian Keaney. Knopf. $16.99.

     Series begin and series end, but there are always more series coming along to replace the old ones. Calendar Mysteries is a new series – presumably intended to last 12 books – featuring the younger siblings of the kids featured in the A to Z Mysteries series. Twins Bradley and Brian Pinto and their friends Lucy and Nate solve non-threatening mysteries in these Stepping Stone Books for ages 6-9. There is certainly nothing scary (or, for that matter, especially mysterious) about the goings-on, but Ron Roy makes them interesting enough to pull in kids in the target age range – and offers a few twists and turns along the way of the simple narratives. January Joker features three-toed tracks in the snow, the possibility of aliens in the town of Green Lawn, and the mysterious (well, sort of mysterious) disappearance of several relatives of the young sleuths. February Friend focuses on Valentine’s Day – and a mysterious (again, sort of mysterious) gift to the kids’ class of a rabbit in a cage. The first book’s solution turns on a kind of trickster-tricked ploy, while the second’s, a little more substantially, involves a petting zoo that may have to close. There is nothing profound in either book, but both are pleasant enough, and young readers who identify with the characters will enjoy following their adventures.

     Scurvy Goonda is for older readers – ages 10 and up – and is also the start of a series, although this one is only intended to last two books. The premise here is refreshingly offbeat: abstract companions or ab-coms (that is, imaginary friends) really exist in a land of their own, called Middlemost. The title character is the ab-com of Ted Merritt, who has somehow grown to teenagerhood without ever abandoning his made-up childhood playmate. Scurvy is the sort of ab-com many young boys would enjoy – an old-time pirate who is fearless and mischievous, always getting into trouble – and he has a quirk that is supposed to make him especially endearing: a great fondness for bacon. But now that Ted is in high school, Scurvy is holding him back socially, so the pirate has to go – which turns out not to be so simple. For Ted’s decision ends up bringing him to Middlemost, which is ruled by a parrot skeleton who is determined to make war on the human race. Chris McCoy’s book is every bit as silly as it sounds, and McCoy seems to take particular delight in coming up with odd ab-coms that sport strange names: Scozzbottle, Dr. Narwhal, Fyrena and Wockgrass all show up on a single page. The plot is somewhat creakier than the style, though. It is really no surprise when a character called Joelle-Michelle whispers to Ted, “You are more important than you ever imagined.” Nor is it surprising that Scurvy speaks like this: “Can’t wait tah talk and talk and talk until tha end of time.” Still, a book that includes a character named Bugslush and an “experiment on a rugby player afflicted with the Greenies” has a lot to recommend it – such amusing touches do a great deal to make up for writing that includes the line, “If President Skeleton’s army made it through, Earth didn’t have a chance.”

     And speaking of chances, few seem to be left for Dante Cazabon and Beatrice Argenti, protagonists of the series called The Promises of Dr. Sigmundus, as the third and final book, The Resurrection Fields, begins. In this novel, for ages 12 and up, Dante and Bea are fighting rule by mind control, and Dante in particular is losing his body – which is being taken over by a kind of creature of the id called Orobas. Indeed, Dante – his body, that is – becomes Sigmundus the Second, successor to the deceased Dr. Sigmundus, through Orobas’ manipulation. But Dante’s true self has survived Orobas’ onslaught and found a receptive host in a small bird that just happens to have a great deal of knowledge – including information on how to defeat Orobas. The Resurrection Fields – the title refers to a place from which the dead rise to go to other realms – would be a poor entry point to this series, which really needs to be read from the start in order to understand its mixture of SF, fantasy and horror themes. But Brian Keaney does pull his threads together with some skill in this concluding novel. There are plenty of portentous comments here, such as: “Everyone has a tormentor. …You just haven’t met him yet.” But some of them descend into cliché: “Alvar was no ordinary man. …I knew him well, and I promise you, he could see things that had not yet happened.” And: “Yes, my friends, there are traitors among us.” In truth, the combination of elements of different genres does not always gel particularly well, and the book’s conclusion is a touch too glib and not wholly unexpected. Still, The Resurrection Fields is a satisfying conclusion to the Dr. Sigmundus novels, and most fans of the first two books will not be disappointed in it.


A Little Bit Married: How to Know When it’s Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door. By Hannah Seligson. Da Capo. $15.95.

     Living in sin. Shacking up. Cohabiting. Sharing space. Being in a long-term relationship. Trial marriage. The words for being more than “friends with benefits” but less than “a married couple” have changed – evolved, even – but the state of uncertainty associated with being neither single nor legally bound has not changed much at all. It’s just that now it gets chronicled in Facebook postings, Twitter tweets, and books such as A Little Bit Married. Hannah Seligson, author of New Girl on the Job, seems to feel she is also a new girl on the sociological scene, having stumbled (in part through her own ALBM experience) on a major social trend. Or does she think that? She says being “a little bit married” is “a relationship rite of passage that the vast majority of young people today will go through,” and talks about “contextualiz[ing] this new romantic rite of passage” – but she also says her research “focuses on a small slice of the social pie [consisting of] mostly upwardly mobile, college-educated twenty- and thirty-somethings living in urban areas.” Indeed, she admits that her findings likely do not apply to non-urban areas in the United States, to Europe, or elsewhere in the world.

     In other words, Seligson has written a book by, for and about herself and people a lot like her.

     There is nothing inherently wrong with this – Seligson and her compatriots are probably more likely to buy books in the first place (or read them on the latest trendy electronic device) than, say, residents of lower-income rural areas. The question is whether Seligson has anything worthwhile to say, whether to her peer group or to those trying to understand it. And the answer is – sometimes. Some of her advice is straightforward and unexceptionable: “Dial down your expectations of a potential husband or wife so that they mirror reality, not an avatar you create on Second Life or some fantasy Facebook profile.” And some of her post-feminist logic is compelling: “It’s time to have a ring reckoning. …Let’s think radically for a moment about this tradition that has its roots in a time when women were light years behind where they are today socially, economically, and politically. Women are no longer property that needs to be marked or bought. The ring, very literally, becomes a symbol of the power imbalance.”

     But other elements of A Little Bit Married are less effectively presented. Seligson simply asserts as fact that “despite all of the advances women have made, the marital-readiness factor is less tied to their earnings potential. …Conversely, men see marriage as signing into an institution that not only says ‘Till death do us part,’ but is also a declaration of ‘I must provide.’” Says who, other than Seligson herself? And the glibness of some of her advice (such as “the ‘DTR’ – Define The Relationship talk”) is grating, all the more so when she tries to intellectualize by citing (in the case of the DTR) “Maslow’s hierarchy – that famous pyramid that ranks human needs.”

     The most useful element of Seligson’s book is her discussion of how to decide whether the person you are living with is “the One.” (To be accurate, she should call him or her “the One for now,” but A Little Bit Married is not about being a large bit divorced.) In this section, Seligson combines criteria that by their nature are personal and not measurable (“What is your intuition telling you?”) with ones that make a great deal of sense in evaluating any relationship, ALBM or not (“Can you laugh together?” “On the whole, is your relationship getting better over time?"). Seligson’s chapter on how to break up – which contains a variety of comments from academia and the blogosphere – is also useful, although some of the ideas are far easier to consider in theory than to put into practice (“Do divide the stuff, but don’t be petty”). In all, A Little Bit Married is a once-over-lightly look at a phenomenon affecting a small subgroup of people of a certain age, education level and temperament. It is far from revelatory, and far from exhaustive even within its limited sphere; but for people who are in the group about which Seligson writes, it provides solidarity and more than a little bit of good advice.


Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto in C; The Wasps—Aristophanic Suite; English Folk Song Suite; The Running Set. Ashley Wass, piano; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by James Judd. Naxos. $8.99.

Schumann: Piano Concerto; Dvořák: Piano Concerto. Martin Helmchen, piano; Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg conducted by Marc Albrecht. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     It is often worth hearing less-known piano concertos – even if hearing them helps make it clear why they are less-known. Vaughan Williams’ concerto is an impressive work, and Ashley Wass plays it with great skill, but it somehow does not quite satisfy. It may be that the music is too blended, and too little “pure” Vaughan Williams, to be fully effective. It does have some of the folksong elements that this composer frequently uses in his music, and its treatment of the orchestra is very skillful and often produces a sense of majesty. But the work seems overly influenced by Bach (not a bad thing) as transcribed by Busoni (more of a mixed blessing), so that its coloristic elements are rather uncertain. The middle movement, Romanza, is lovely, but there is something a touch forced about the opening Toccata and later Fuga cromatica. Everything is well constructed, but the concerto does not hang together particularly well. Interestingly, this 1930 work seems less unified than Vaughan Williams’ 1909 music for The Wasps, which has a single-minded mood of lighthearted levity – but with bite (or sting). In addition to the Overture, often played on its own, the suite includes four other movements, which run the gamut from nobility (or pseudo-nobility) to puckishness. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra plays the suite with verve and a sure sense of style, and James Judd leads it skillfully. The more-familiar Vaughan Williams is represented here by Gordon Jacobs’ well-known orchestration of the English Folk Song Suite, a perennial crowd-pleaser that was written in 1923 and is as full of bounce and charm as ever. The Running Set dates to 1933 and is cut from much the same cloth, being a single-movement dance based on several folk tunes and packed with high spirits.

     If the Vaughan Williams Piano Concerto is a bit of a disappointment, the one by Dvořák is not; and although still relatively underplayed, it is now making its way into pianists’ standard repertoire on the strength of its grand scale and gorgeous melodies. Martin Helmchen gives it a stirring performance, with the extended first movement being especially fine in its long lines and lovely flow. Marc Albrecht and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg provide exceptionally sensitive backing, showcasing the work’s grand Romantic gestures and partnering with the piano while still giving Helmchen plenty of chances to stand out. PentaTone’s usual outstanding SACD sound is a big plus here. In all, this performance makes a strong argument for more-frequent inclusion of the Dvořák concerto in concert programs – the work does sprawl and often wears its heart on its sleeve, but its essential loveliness sweeps away its occasional tendency to sound a bit bloated. Unfortunately, Helmchen is less convincing in Schumann’s much more frequently played concerto: there is nothing specifically wrong with his interpretation, but there is nothing unusually strong about it, either. This work is so well known that it takes a bold pianist to find new ways to handle it – for example, it would be nice to hear some soloist and orchestra play the first movement at tempo, as written, instead of starting it Allegro agitato and then slowing down after the opening flourish, only to speed up again later. Helmchen and Albrecht do not do this, opting for a conventional approach that will be familiar to listeners even though it is not quite what Schumann wanted. But it is the very conventionality of this performance that works against it: there is plenty of very fine playing, but there is nothing revelatory or even especially noteworthy in the reading. It is quite well done but not inspired – in contrast to the Dvořák, which is certainly the main reason to consider buying this disc.


Johann Strauss Jr.: Eine Nacht in Venedig. Daniel Buckard, Pierre Gylbert, Johan Christensson, Erika Andersson, Anna Larsdotter Persson, Merete L. Meyer, Anna-Maria Krawe, Kristina Hansson and Henrik Holmberg, soloists; Coro Notturno and Stockholm Strauss Orchestra conducted by Mika Eichenholz. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Tchaikovsky: Two Films by Christopher Nupen—Tchaikovsky’s Women; Fate. Christopher Nupen Video. $29.99.

     There is plenty to enjoy in these two new releases – if you happen to be interested in the subject matter already. Both seem intended to satisfy a subset of music lovers, and both do just that; but it would be hard to recommend either to people who do not already know and care about this material. That is a particular shame in the case of the 1883 Strauss operetta, Eine Nacht in Venedig, here thankfully performed in its original version rather than the more fully orchestrated and less authentic revision made by Erich Korngold in 1923, when musical tastes were different from those in Strauss’ time. This work has some of Strauss’ best tunes – there is scarcely a single number that is not hummable – and is full of the verve and high spirits that you would expect from a plot that revolves around multiple practical jokes whose ultimate aim is to prevent a lecherous nobleman from seducing a woman whom he knows to be the most beautiful female in Venice even though he has never seen her face (logic was rarely a component of Strauss operettas). Everything sounds delightful here, but in spite of rather than because of the performance. This is a 2002 live recording featuring performers from the University College of Opera in Stockholm, and while it may have worked well on stage, it makes for uncomfortable home listening – and not just because it is frequently interrupted for applause. The casting is nothing less than bizarre: two singers share the role of Caramello, the Duke’s barber; two share the trouser role of Senator Delaqua, on whose wife the Duke has set his sights; the same two share the role of another senator’s wife; and no fewer than three singers take the part of Caramello’s girlfriend, Annina. All the singers have adequate but scarcely outstanding vocal abilities – there are a few missed notes during runs and an occasional off-pitch leap – and they certainly bring enthusiasm to the production; but the overall effect is of a student performance, which of course is what this is. Even the orchestra is a touch ragged, although Mika Eichenholz keeps everything bubbling along pleasantly. Furthermore, the CD presentation is very unhelpful: there is a brief summary of the action, but no information on which aria or ensemble goes with what on-stage activity; and there is no libretto included or made available online. This is a real disservice to listeners – although those who are fans of Strauss will be so grateful for a recording of the original version of this operetta that they may well forgive the presentation its many inadequacies. Those problems are much less apparent in six orchestral pieces drawn from the operetta, recorded separately (in 2008) and included on the second CD. These are bright, bouncy and – because they are self-contained and do not require plot familiarity – thoroughly winning; and the applause they garner is well-earned.

     The limited appeal of Christopher Nupen’s films about Tchaikovsky is of a different sort. These are very well-made movies by a top-notch creator of films about musicians, including Schubert and Sibelius. What limits their audience is not their quality but the simple fact that even classical-music lovers do not necessary want to sit still for more than two-and-a-half hours of interpretative narrative about a composer (not even when Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra are part of the filmmaker’s mix). Nupen’s films are both focused on the women in Tchaikovsky’s life, although only the first is called Tchaikovsky’s Women. Although homosexual, Tchaikovsky seems to have been unusually sensitive to women, at least through a Romantic-era identification with the plight of frail and put-upon ones. From his 1864 (posthumously published) tone poem The Storm, inspired by the same source that Leoš Janáček later used as the basis for Káťa Kabanová, through Juliet, Francesca da Rimini and Odette in Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky drew inspiration and emotional connection from doomed heroines – all of whom Nupen brings into the film, to the point of suggesting that the composer’s identification with these female characters was a reason that Tchaikovsky at one point attempted suicide. But the most important woman in Tchaikovsky’s life was the rich widow Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who supported Tchaikovsky financially for 13 years – allowing him to devote himself full-time to composition and create many of his most enduring works. Von Meck is so thoroughly identified with Tchaikovsky that her general support of the arts – which also included helping pianist/composer Nikolai Rubinstein, violinist Josef Kotek, and Claude Debussy – is largely forgotten. What interests Nupen, though, is how the Tchaikovsky-von Meck relationship was intertwined with Tchaikovsky’s preoccupation with Fate. Indeed, the second of Nupen’s Tchaikovsky films is called Fate (and the composer’s Symphony No. 4, with its recurrent “Fate” motif, is dedicated to von Meck). Nupen suggests that Tchaikovsky’s focus shifted over time from identification with doomed young women to Fate as the controlling element in life; the film traces this preoccupation right through to the Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique.” Tchaikovsky died nine days after that work’s first (unsuccessful) performance, bringing the theme of Fate home – at least in Nupen’s view. In truth, there is no compelling reason to separate the “identification with young women” and “Fate” themes: as early as The Storm, after all, Tchaikovsky was writing of a young woman driven to death by Fate and circumstance. But Nupen’s fine filmmaking certainly makes a good case for his interpretative views – and, for those who would like to immerse themselves in Tchaikovsky’s world (as reconstructed by a skilled moviemaker), Nupen’s films will certainly be fascinating viewing.

January 07, 2010


Nate the Great and the Hungry Book Club. By Margaret Weinman Sharmat and Mitchell Sharmat. Illustrated by Jody Wheeler. Delacorte Press. $12.99.

Grk Smells a Rat. By Joshua Doder. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

     Nate the Great’s dog, Sludge, may not get credit in the title of the latest Nate book, but he is an important part of the case and its solution. The redoubtable boy detective – Marjory Weinman Sharmat has chronicled his adventures since 1972, sometimes (as in the newest book) with the aid of her husband – faces a double mystery in Nate the Great and the Hungry Book Club. The source of both mysteries is Rosamond, who has started a book club that includes eight people, four cats and a dog. Rosamond wants to make treats for the club, but she discovers a page missing from her cookbook – and the game is afoot. It gets more complex when another page turns up missing – this one from the Harvard Hedgehog book that the human members of the club are reading. A page monster is loose! Young readers, ages 6-9, will enjoy the many twists and turns here, particularly Nate’s discovery that there may be two different reasons for the two missing pages – a clever follow-through on the boy detective’s comment, “You are trying to reuse a clue.” And where does Sludge fit in? Aside from chewing on a bone while Nate eats pancakes and thinks about the case, Sludge gives Nate a clue about eating habits that helps him figure out what is going on – at least where the first ripped page is concerned. And another dog, Fang, plays a big part in the second missing-page incident. The book’s straightforward (if rather repetitive) narrative will be easy for beginning readers to follow, and the illustrations by Jody Wheeler (who previously did the pictures for Nate the Great Talks Turkey) help carry the story smoothly along.

     The adventures of the dog Grk – and his owner, Tim Malt – are for slightly older readers, ages 9-12. These adventures take place all over the world – British author Joshua Doder (pen name of Josh Lacey) is a world traveler himself – with Grk Smells a Rat occurring in India. Exotic locale aside, this is a fairly straightforward adventure story for preteens. Tim and his parents, along with friends Natascha and Max Raffifi, are in India for Max to compete in a tennis tournament, and all they want to do is see some sights before the tourney. But Tim and Natascha – accompanied, of course, by Grk – meet a boy named Krishnan, who puts them on the trail of the nefarious Blue Rat Gang, which enslaves children and forces them to sew garments and make and sell illegal copies of CDs and DVDs. The dialogue is often pretty bad, as when Krishnan says, “As soon as I saw you, Mister Tim, I knew that you are a kind man. Yes, you are a good man. A man who knows right things from wrong things.” But the action scenes are better. It turns out that there are real rats as well as the human kind: “Grk strained on his lead and growled softly. He wanted to chase the rats and clear them out of the room. Rats are usually scared of dogs, but these ones weren’t. …For some reason, they seemed completely confident that the small dog wouldn’t or couldn’t attack them.” Eventually, after a suitable number of chases through alleys and other derring-do, the young adventurers come face to face with the head of the Blue Rat Gang – and an honest-to-goodness blue rat. And that is the point at which Grk shows his mettle. Eventually, with the photos Tim has taken of the Blue Rat Gang’s victims and the help of a rich man who conveniently happens to be sponsoring the tennis tournament in which Max is competing, action is taken against the gang – which simply sets the scene for a climactic confrontation in which Grk once again takes a starring role. By the older end of the target age range, readers will likely find Grk Smells a Rat too obvious to be much fun, but younger preteens with a penchant for adventures in interesting settings should enjoy getting their teeth into it.


A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa. By Dominique Lapierre. Da Capo. $26.

A Faraway Island. By Annika Thor. Translated by Linda Schenck. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Here are two books, one intended as factual and the other written as fact-based fiction – one aimed at adults, the other at preteens and young teenagers – and both about outsiders and their eventual triumph over tremendous adversity. In a sense, the adversity is the same in both books: Nazism in A Faraway Island and repression that the author links directly to Nazism in A Rainbow in the Night. But the books are set a continent apart, Dominique Lapierre’s in Africa and Annika Thor’s in Europe. And they make their points in very different ways: Lapierre’s by hammering, Thor’s by the quiet accumulation of small details.

     Lapierre, founder of a humanitarian organization that supports medical care, education and development in India, Africa and South America, intends his book as an affirmation of the human spirit among the apartheid-oppressed black majority in South Africa. Although he does discuss the nation’s modern origins, which date to farmers who were settled there in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company to produce food for sailors, he reserves his greatest attention and most vehement denunciations for South Africa after 1948, when the Purified National Party came to power and formalized apartheid as law. There is little new in the horrors that Lapierre documents, although his access to primary sources is impressive. And there is little new in the outrage he expresses and the uplifting messages he regularly delivers: “The clampdown was savage. But no threat seemed capable of stifling the resistance of the young people in Soweto. On the pediments of their schools they placed a new slogan: ‘Enter here to learn, leave to serve.’” Lapierre makes it a point to talk about “police practiced in the Nazi methods so admired by the founders of apartheid.” He talks of “Hendrik Verwoerd and his antlike team of associates” promulgating “no fewer than 1,750 different pieces of legislation designed to give whites sole rule in South Africa forever.” He writes of divorcing prisoners of a sense of time as “part of a program of disintegration scientifically designed by the oppressors in Pretoria.” In short, the whites are evil, venal, corrupt, vicious; the blacks are noble, determined, upstanding and unflappable in the cause of right and justice. And if that makes A Rainbow in the Night sound like a propaganda piece, so be it: this is a classic example of the (eventual) victors and their supporters getting to write the history books. It is very difficult to criticize Lapierre’s endeavor, given his undoubted charitable credentials and the fact that apartheid was a vicious and brutal system that was largely run (or at least enforced) by vicious thugs. But Lapierre lays everything on so thickly – without really contributing very much that is new, aside from some quotations from individuals – that his book comes across as little more than a polemic. Thus, he writes of a white speech therapist who sought to help black children, “Much as Mother Teresa had answered the need for love and justice by bringing dignity to the poor lepers of the slums of Calcutta, Helen Lieberman could perhaps salvage a little of the honor lost by white South Africans.” A Rainbow in the Night has all the ingredients for the best-seller list – which means more royalties for Lapierre’s charities – but even though it tells a legitimately horrifying tale, it is often painful to read for all the wrong reasons.

     There is a great deal more warmth in A Faraway Island, whose Swedish author wrote a popular quartet of novels about the Steiner sisters that was a big success in a TV adaptation. Her new novel is the tale of two Jewish sisters from Vienna who, in 1939, are sent to Sweden to escape the Nazis, awaiting their parents’ own escape so the family of four can go to the United States. Nellie, who is eight years old, adapts quickly to her host family on an island off the Swedish coast; she even starts to favor Swedish over her native German. But 12-year-old Stephie has a harder time of things: she lives with a different family, including a cold and unfeeling foster mother, and the island’s isolation makes Stephie feel she is abandoned at the edge of the world. What was supposed to be a six-month separation drags on as the war intensifies, and Stephie has nowhere to turn as she endures the traumas of growing up that seem to occur in every generation, in peace as well as war. Taunted by some villagers, under attack by the most popular girl in school, baptized into the Pentecostal Church (along with Nellie) after she finds herself moved to tears by some beautiful church music, Stephie struggles to figure out who she is and what her future can possibly hold in so isolated a place. The “who am I”? theme is nothing new; neither is the longing for the past, as when Stephie “remembers all the things they had to leave behind when the Nazis took their apartment and her father’s medical practice away from them.” Small events loom large in the displaced girls’ lives – a misunderstanding over a coral necklace, an adventure on the ice – and then the war comes closer, as a fishing boat is blown up by a mine; and Stephie finds herself confronting anti-Jewish feelings even on the island that seemed so far from the rest of the world. There is no happy ending here, except in the sense of acceptance and maturity – and a lingering sense of childhoods forever lost. A Faraway Island is not, perhaps, very different from other wartime fiction, except for its rather unusual setting; but it tells its story with sensitivity to the ways in which ordinary people are inevitably the victims of extraordinary historical events.