June 24, 2010


Treasury of the Lost Litter Box: A “Get Fuzzy” Treasury. By Darby Conley. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Please Take Me for a Walk. By Susan Gal. Knopf. $15.99.

Animal Rescue Team #1: Gator on the Loose! By Sue Stauffacher. Knopf. $12.99.

Nathan Fludd, Beastologist: Book TwoThe Basilisk’s Lair. By R.L. LaFevers. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. Houghton Mifflin. $15.

Wolf Pie. By Brenda Seabrooke. Illustrated by Liz Callen. Clarion. $16.

     Whether you are an adult (okay, alleged adult) or a child, you will find something appealing in at least one of these animal-themed books – and possibly in all of them. Darby Conley’s latest oversize Get Fuzzy collection, which contains cartoons previously published in Ignorance, Thy Name Is Bucky and Dumbheart, continues to show Conley’s improvement in plotting his comic strip and keeping its focus on the interesting characters: Bucky, the self-important and vocabulary-challenged cat, and Satchel, the long-suffering part-Canadian mixed-breed dog. The human in the strip, Rob Wilco, continues to be its weak point: without any social life, with preoccupations involving video games and rugby, and with an appearance that ranges from ridiculous to genuinely ugly, he is not much of a character. (Typical line: “The correct term would be that my and my shirt’s nerdnesses stack.”) But Rob doesn’t have to be worth much when Bucky and Satchel are center stage, as they usually are. “Dogs are like the Yangtze River – slow and full of sewage,” opines Bucky at one point, and at another he decides to be a model for a hairball remedy: “Before long, this face will be synonymous with feline regurgitation.” Satchel, whether trying to placate Bucky or just standing by with a bemused expression, is a perfect foil for the feline. And the appearance of various other oddballs doesn’t hurt. Mac Manc McManx, a semi-regular Cockney-talking cousin, is a particular delight: “The middle bit was a tad naff. Stonking bumps and that. I thought the bloke next to me was going to chunder, but the prat was just winding me up.” Then there are Foodar, the cat with food radar; Chubby Huggs, the cat who hugs everyone; Stank Lloyd Wrong, an aggressive feline architect; and Shakespug, a dog who quotes Shakespeare (and occasionally Ben Jonson). The mixing up of all these characters makes for a great deal of silliness, day in and day out – and if you do not already have the earlier collections that are re-collected in this “Treasury,” you won’t want to miss this heaping helping of fuzziness. Or Get Fuzzy-ness. Whatever.

     For a slightly more realistic unrealistic look at dogs – and a treat for young readers – there is Please Take Me for a Walk, which does have a dog that talks but at least has him talking about everyday dog things. The book’s title is its theme: this adorable big-eyed pup wants to go outside and see all his friends: florist, baker, bookseller, “and my special friend, the butcher,” who gives him a big bone that brings a smile to the dog’s face. This dog wants – well, what it is easy to imagine all dogs desire: “I want to feel the wind lift my ears and the sun warm my belly.” Highly appealing illustrations complement the simple, easy-to-follow text in a short book that is long on fun for ages 3-6.

     For older readers, roughly ages 8-10, the new Animal Rescue Team series offers something more exotic in its first volume, Gator on the Loose! The title says it all – or most of it. It certainly gives the basic plot, but part of the fun here is not only what happens but also to whom it happens. The Carter family, in and of itself, is an enjoyable group, including 10-year-old Keisha; little brothers Razi and Paulo; parents; and Grandma Alice. This motley crew has to rescue a small alligator from a city pool – which turns out to be the easy part of their adventure, since they then have to figure out where to put the gator. The answer, temporarily, is: in their own bathtub. But when the alligator gets loose, the need for a more permanent home becomes pressing, even if the family members’ ideas about what to do are a little skewed: “‘I think we should mail our little bugger to Alabama’ [said Grandma]. ‘You can’t mail an alligator!’ Razi said. ‘The stamps won’t stick.’” So that’s out. But a solution is indeed found – even though the story takes place in Michigan, which is scarcely prime alligator territory. Pumpkin-Petunia (yes, that is the alligator’s name) is safely placed in an appropriate sanctuary that just happens to be opening up in a convenient spot, to Keisha’s special pleasure: “She didn’t care what anybody said about alligators. She thought they were adorable.” This series about CUR (Carters’ Urban Rescue) has much that is adorable in it, too. And the back-of-book “fact file” is a nice supplement to the story.

     There is a supplement at the back of the second Nathan Fludd, Beastologist book as well – including information on magnetic north, telegrams, and the right sort of bag in which to trap a basilisk. And while there are no alligators here, there are some Nile crocodiles that must be fended off without hurting them. R.L. LaFevers’ series, which has some of the flavor of young (very young) Indiana Jones, is set in the 1920s and features young Nate, his Aunt Phil, and Greasle – a gremlin that Nate found and adopted in the first book, The Flight of the Phoenix. The second series entry is not entirely self-contained – there are references, especially at the end, that will make sense only to readers of both books. But the basic story, about the hunt for an escaped basilisk and the attempt to capture it alive even though its gaze “can strike a man or beast dead at twenty paces,” is clear enough. Kelly Murphy’s illustrations help propel the well-paced narrative of a search through the Sudan (with the assistance of a riverboat captain named Jean-Claude LaFou, whose boat Queenie is nothing like Humphrey Bogart’s African Queen, even if that boat from the famous 1951 film seems to be its derivation). As in the first volume of the series, Nate is a beastologist-in-training – who turns out to have more natural talent for hunting down and handling dangerous mythical creatures than anyone, including Aunt Phil, expects. Nate even inadvertently solves the deadly-gaze problem of the basilisk, making it safer for members of the helpful Dhughani tribe to continue caring for the creature after it is safely back in its cave. Unfortunately, there is a gaping hole in the story, because there is a gaping hole in the cave – though which the basilisk escaped in the first place – and LaFevers never says anything about the hole being repaired. But logic is not the driving force in this light adventure series.

     Nor is there much logic in Wolf Pie, but the book is so much fun that young readers won’t care. Yes, this is the familiar story of the wolf and the three little pigs, except that it is not that story at all. Call it a kissin’ cousin. In Brenda Seabrooke’s tale, the Pygg brothers are named James, Marvin and Lester, and they all live in a strong brick house, and the wolf – named Wilfong – is stuck outside all winter, because he certainly can’t blow the house down. And while out there, he starts to discover that he sort of likes the pigs, and they (reluctantly) sort of like him. The expressions on the characters’ faces are among the pleasures of Liz Callen’s appropriately quirky illustrations, which show the wolf deciding that “pig food tasted much better than pigs” as he eats pizza, popcorn and cake that the pigs leave on the windowsill for him. The wolf freezes solid in the winter, but the pigs feel sorry for him and help defrost him in the spring – by which time he wants to live with them: “I like your games and riddles and stories. I don’t want to eat pigs anymore. Your food is better.” Eventually the wolf and the pigs come up with a tentative way to see whether Wilfong has truly reformed – and the pigs help when Wilfong gets sick, and he helps when they get swept out to sea in a riptide. But even though the pigs become friendly with this wolf, there are other wolves around, and when they show up – well, that is where the idea of “wolf pie” comes in. This is a wonderful turn-the-fairy-tale-on-its-head book whose moral, if it had one, would be something like, “Wolves will be wolves, but some wolves really can turn friendly.” Not a bad message – and a very entertainingly delivered one.


A Dignity of Dragons. By Jacqueline K. Ogburn. Illustrated by Nicolette Ceccoli. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

Goose Chase. By Patrice Kindl. Sandpiper. $5.99.

The Magic Thief, Book Two: Lost. By Sarah Prineas. Harper. $6.99.

The Magic Thief, Book Three: Found. By Sarah Prineas. Harper. $16.99.

     Who, reading these books, could possibly think that there is nothing new under the magical sun? All these authors take new angles on magic, producing works that will delight even readers who thought magic had gone about as far as it could go through the Harry Potter books and the innumerable spinoffs of J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, Tolkien himself never came up with a good collective noun for dragons – perhaps because there weren’t really many of them in his books. But Jacqueline K. Ogburn has thought carefully about what you would call groupings of many magical creatures from all around the world – some of which will likely be totally unknown to readers. Yes, “a dignity of dragons” makes sense: even when considered evil, the beasts have a certain majesty about them. And “a riddle of sphinx,” “a splash of mermaids” and “a resurrection of phoenix” are eminently sensible descriptions (although legend has it that there is only one phoenix, so finding an entire “resurrection” of them would be quite a feat). Clever in a surprisingly adult way – replete with wordplay – are “an amazement of minotaurs” (because the minotaur lived at the center of a maze) and “a pandemonium of fauns” (because they are associated with the god Pan). But how many readers will understand “a judgment of kirin,” “a wisdom of Chi’lin” or “a dazzlement of Quetzalcoatls”? Ogburn briefly explains every magical creature at the end of the book, so a puzzlement of readers (so to speak) should not last long: kirin are scaly Japanese unicorns, Chi’lin are spiritual creatures of Chinese culture, and Quetzalcoatls are Mexican feathered serpents. Furthermore, Nicolette Ceccoli renders the various creatures with a rare combination of beauty and mystery, whether showing hovering manticores, chimeras breathing fire at a fighter flying a winged horse, a were-fox glancing alluringly out of the page, or “a storm of thunderbirds” and “a thundering of rocs” descending from the clouds in heavy rain. Clever text and outstanding illustrations combine to bring their own sort of magic to A Dignity of Dragons.

     There is little that is dignified in Goose Chase, and that is Patrice Kindl’s whole point. This is a hilarious and very well-plotted sendup of innumerable fairy tales, from the obvious one about the Goose Girl through a whole set of Grimm and not-so-grim others. The book starts – starts – with the title heroine stuck in an impenetrable tower, wooed by an awful prince and even more awful king, both of whom want her for her magical wealth-making powers. This is almost but not quite a story of what happens after the presumably happily-ever-after ending of the original Grimm story, in which the Goose Girl – a princess betrayed by an evil maidservant – is restored to her true condition and (in the original tale) marries a prince. Kindl will have none of that, and in fact touches on elements of the original story only when she darn well feels like it. This Goose Girl finds her own way in the world, escaping from the inescapable tower and promptly running into three ogresses, whose servant she becomes after talking back to them so saucily that they decide not to cook and eat her. Fairy-tale motifs are tossed about adroitly here. For example, portents regularly come in threes in the old stories, but Alexandria (the Goose Girl’s name) refuses to let them be. Told that a noise is the wind in the trees, she responds, “But there is no wind.” Told that a second noise is “a blackbird dropping down to its nest,” she responds, “But blackbirds do not fly at night.” Told that a third noise is “the stream roaring and rushing o’er the rocks in its path,” she exclaims, “But the stream is before us, not behind us.” This Goose Girl is no goose – and the goose chase in which she leads the other characters, although not a “wild goose chase” in the original sense of a futile pursuit, is certainly wild enough. Through chapter after chapter – all headed by appropriate proverbs and occasional apt aphorisms (even one from Herodotus) – Alexandria makes her not-always-merry way toward an ending that is perfectly labeled “happily ever after, more or less.” It is quite a journey, combining wit with magic and stirring up the result into a most appetizing concoction.

     Sarah Prineas’ The Magic Thief trilogy is delicious, too, in a different way. The first book, which shares its title with the whole series, introduced Conn (short for Connwaer, but might as well be short for “con man”), a thief who is apprenticed to the wizard Nevery Flinglas after successfully picking the wizard’s pocket without being killed. This was Prineas’ first novel, and a remarkably sure-handed debut. It ends with Conn in trouble, for which he has a penchant: he loses the locus device that lets him communicate with the magic of the city of Wellmet, where the story is set. The second book, Lost – now available in paperback – finds Conn seeking other ways to get in touch with the city’s magic; his experiments, predictably, are a good deal less than successful; and he makes such a mess of things that he is exiled. He then joins a mission to the city of Desh, which may be the source of the evils plaguing Wellmet. Conn proves his value on this mission, using his street knowledge and magical abilities to seek information on the evil Shadowmen and the power behind them. Prineas does a good job of varying the expressed viewpoints of these books: they are Conn’s first-person narratives, but also include letters from Nevery and other characters that show things from different angles and help fill in information that Conn could not possibly know on his own.

     And now comes Found, in which the adventure is brought to a climax and the humor continues (not as strongly as in Goose Chase, but effectively enough). Conn, imprisoned at the end of Lost, escapes, but cannot go home – for the very good reason that he has no home, having blown it up doing magic. Nevery is less than happy with the wayward apprentice. And because Conn is exiled, he must stay away from Wellmet – but he knows the city is in deep danger, and is determined to counter the evil threatening it by finding some countervailing magic of his own. That is the quest here; and as usual in books for readers ages 10 and up, there is an inner quest as well: Conn must find his own courage in order to prove that he is truly a wizard and not merely a thief after all. “A thief really was a lot like a wizard,” Conn eventually concludes – having hinted at the similarity several times already. And it is a combination of Conn’s magical and thievish abilities that allows him finally to emerge triumphant – although, in a particularly interesting twist, this is one young hero who must completely lose himself in order truly to find out who and what he is. Clever throughout and nicely sprinkled with amusing elements, The Magic Thief trilogy is an unusually successful foray into magic-not-quite-as-usual writing. And the books’ presentation, including “A Guide to People and Places” and a variety of supplements and oddments at each volume’s end, adds to their considerable charm.


Such Men as These: The Story of the Navy Pilots Who Flew the Deadly Skies over Korea. By David Sears. Da Capo. $25.

Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty. By Linda Glaser. Paintings by Claire A. Nivola. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

     In war and peace alike, it takes a combination of actions and writing about those actions to help noncombatants and those not directly affected by events understand not only what is going on but also what the circumstances mean. At the time of the Korean War, one of the most effective communicators about the conflict was James Michener, who reported for The Saturday Evening Post and took copious notes that later became his bestselling book, The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Neither Michener nor that book will ring an immediate bell for many readers today, so Such Men as These is clearly designed for a limited and older audience. What historian David Sears does is to use Michener’s writings to track down a number of the actual pilots whose exploits became the basis for Michener’s novella. Sears then tells the pilots’ stories, not to counterbalance Michener’s work of fiction but to indicate that the historical occurrences were every bit as riveting – if scarcely as neatly packaged and wrapped up – as what Michener created. Such Men as These is an oddly multifaceted book, being in part yet another story of wartime heroism; in part a deconstruction of Michener’s 1953 work (which was made into a 1954 William Holden-Grace Kelly film that won an Oscar for its special effects); and in part a book that humanizes the pilots who would otherwise be lumped (ceremoniously, to be sure) into the “war heroes” category by giving some of their personal history from before, during and after their time in Korea. The mixture of elements leads to a mixture of styles and focuses. “Nonluck came as a big bang and a sickening thump in the gathering darkness,” writes Sears at one point. At another, in a passage replete with cliché: “As [pilot Harry] Ettinger stood near the shallow depression he had just created [at the command of his captors], one of the guards ceremoniously cocked a pistol and put the barrel to Ettinger’s head. There was angry shouting and, for Ettinger, an agonizing, breath-stopping pause at eternity’s doorstep before the guard finally pulled the trigger and the hammer clicked sharply on an empty chamber. Ettinger shuddered and opened his eyes, momentarily uncertain if he was alive or dead.” And at yet another point, in exegesis-of-Michener mode: “James Michener, whose job it was to sort through the complexity and frustration of this lost (or at least uncertain) cause for his reading audience back home…went about acquainting himself with the new group – hanging around the wardroom and squadron ready rooms, continuing to interview pilots, scribble notes, and build his understanding of how such men did what they did and why.” It will take a small, devoted cadre of readers to appreciate Such Men as These in the spirit in which Sears has written it: they must be interested not only in the Korean War and the undoubted heroism of many who fought there but also in one of that war’s prime literary chroniclers – and they must be willing to overlook Sears’ rather choppy pacing and inelegances of style.

     Emma’s Poem is also a book about the words of an earlier author, but it is intended for younger readers and is designed to showcase the immigrant experience of freedom in the New World in a way that is very different from Sears’ treatment of war. Emma Lazarus’ poem. The New Colossus, is well known for its association with the Statue of Liberty, but the poet’s reasons for writing her sonnet are less known. “At that time,” writes Linda Glaser, the statue “had nothing to do with immigrants. But Emma knew that immigrants would see the huge woman when their boats arrived in New York Harbor. Wouldn’t they wonder why she was there? ...And what if the statue were a real live woman? What might she think when she saw immigrants arriving hungry and in rags?” Emma’s Poem is a story of transformation. The New Colossus transformed France’s gift to the United States into a symbol of immigrant striving and hope, turning this statue celebrating the shared freedoms of France and the U.S. into a focus on “your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Emma Lazarus herself was transformed by the plight of poor immigrants – she grew up as a privileged child and was already a well-known writer when she created her famous poem. And her poem had a specific financial purpose: it was written so it could be used to raise the money needed to assemble and mount the statue, which was shipped from France in 214 crates. Although Emma Lazarus died in 1887 (at the age of only 38), before the Statue of Liberty was erected, Emma’s Poem traces what happened to her words after her death, as it became a plaque, a part of school textbooks, even an Irving Berlin song. Glaser tells the poem’s story simply and movingly, and includes a brief biographical note about Emma Lazarus – plus the entire sonnet – at the end of the book. Claire A. Nivola’s elegant paintings look like period pieces and help keep the story firmly grounded in the late 19th century (albeit a cleaned-up 19th century in terms of how the poor and their environs appear). This is a lovely book, if perhaps a touch too intensely earnest to appeal immediately to young readers who do not already know a bit about the Statue of Liberty. As a companion piece to an actual trip to the statue, though, families will find it most welcome.


Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Rafael Kubelik. Audite. $6.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Martina Arroyo, Erna Spoorenberg, Edith Mathis, Julia Hamari, Norma Procter, Donald Grobe, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Franz Crass; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks, Chor des Westdeutschen Rundfunks, Regensburger Domspatzen, Frauenchor des Münchner Motettenchores and Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Rafael Kubelik. Audite. $14.99.

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 5: Mahler—Quartet for Piano and Strings; Franck—Quintet for Piano and Strings. Idil Biret, piano; London String Quartet (Carl Pini and Benedict Cruft, violins; Ruşen Güneş, viola; Roger Smith, cello). IBA. $8.99.

     With Mahler’s music now so popular – with a veritable flood of recordings emerging as the 100th anniversary of his death in 1911 approaches – it is all too easy to forget that his symphonies and song cycles were esoteric just a few decades ago. When Mahler himself famously said, “My time will come when his is over,” he was referring to Johann Strauss Jr. – but the quotation nowadays is usually abbreviated to “my time will come” and used to indicate Mahler’s expectation that it would take many years for his music to be widely accepted. And so it did: despite the early advocacy of conductors who knew Mahler personally (notably Bruno Walter), it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that Mahler’s music was “discovered” by audiences at large and widely accepted as part of the standard orchestral and vocal repertoire.

     Mahler’s music’s progress came in fits and starts, as historic recordings make clear. It was Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) who first performed a complete cycle of Mahler symphonies, in Munich, and Kubelik’s way with Mahler – set firmly in the central European and Germanic tradition – is impressive even today. But for 21st-century listeners, his historic recordings have nearly as many low points as high ones. Audite is selling the live recording of Kubelik’s November 2, 1979 performance of Mahler’s First at a low price because the CD is packaged as an insert with the Audite 2010 recording catalogue: listeners are essentially paying for the catalogue and getting the disc as a bonus (there is not a shred of information presented about the performance except what is printed on the CD). Despite the irritating packaging strategy, there is a great deal to like in this performance. It flows gorgeously, with the smoothness of a fine wine, and Kubelik shows extraordinary sensitivity to Mahler’s mood shifts – naïveté, drama, preciousness, vulgarity and passion all get their full due. But Kubelik, like Walter, came from a tradition in which conductors seeking a work’s emotional center played fast and loose with what the composer actually wrote. This does not go down well in Mahler, who was a famed conductor himself and knew perfectly well what forms of expression and tempos he wanted (his scores are filled with instructions for conductors). Mahler wanted the exposition of the first movement of Symphony No. 1 repeated; Kubelik does not repeat it. Mahler wanted consistent tempos within sections; Kubelik varies them constantly, with rubato so frequent that it becomes an integral part of the performance. The tempo changes are usually slight but always noticeable, as Kubelik extends a phrase here and compresses one there in attempting to get to the heart of the music. It has to be said that this is often effective: the contrast between the storms and beauties of the finale is brought out particularly well. But it also has to be said that this approach becomes annoying when it is so pervasive a part of a presentation. There is vigor in this recording, and beauty; but it does not ultimately sound like Mahler – at least not Mahler as the composer wanted his music to sound.

     There are similar strengths and weaknesses in Kubelik’s Mahler Eighth, another live recording and an earlier one – dating to June 24, 1970. Some parts of the performance are simply extraordinary. The very opening, for example, strides so boldly that the phrase “Veni, creator spiritus” becomes not a plea for an infusion of the Holy Spirit but a command for it to appear and do Mahler’s bidding. In fact, the entire first part of the symphony is quick and intense – the tempo marking Allegro impetuoso certainly gets its due here. Yet some of the beauty of this first section is missing: Kubelik pushes the music just a little too feverishly at times. In Part II of the symphony, the finale scene from Goethe’s Faust, Kubelik presents some of the most wonderful voices ever to perform this work. What vocal talent! Arroyo, Mathis, Grobe, Fischer-Dieskau – the lineup of stars sparkles, surmounting Mahler’s difficult vocal lines with apparent ease. At the same time, this is a very operatic conception of Part II: instead of being a cantata (or part of a work that is a symphony-cantata hybrid), this section is highly dramatic – and frequently quite speedy (the boys’ chorus does keep up, but it is a near thing a few times). The transcendent message tends to disappear behind the vocal brilliance – although it is certainly a joy to hear such first-rate singers in this music. At the end, when everything resounds – surely even the concert hall in Munich – Kubelik produces a truly overwhelming conclusion. But for all its excitement, the performance lacks a touch of the ineffable. (And on a mundane level, the CD lacks translations of the Latin and German texts, although it provides them in full in the original languages.)

     It is Mahler in a far more modest mode who is heard on the latest CD from the Idil Biret Archives collection. This fifth volume of performances that were originally released on the short-lived Finnadar label offers the earliest surviving work by Mahler, a single movement for piano and strings that was written in 1876, when the composer was a student at the Vienna Conservatory – and 16 years old. Intended as the opening of a full-length quartet – 24 bars of a scherzo also exist – this is a highly derivative work (largely of Brahms but also of Dvořák) with a few elements that are interesting primarily in hindsight, such as a touch of Gypsy fiddling in a cadenza that appears rather abruptly before the coda. Recorded in 1980, the performance is strong and thoughtful, with Biret playing as part of the ensemble rather than making any attempt to bring the piano into the forefront of music in which it is intended to play an equal rather than dominant role. This is minor Mahler – about as minor as Mahler can get – but interesting in its own way for listeners seeking insight into the very young composer’s Viennese and Bohemian roots. The Mahler is paired on this IBA release, as on the original Finnadar vinyl record, with César Franck’s 1879 Piano Quintet – a work of the same vintage as the Mahler juvenilia but of considerably greater technical assurance. Rich in sonorities and assured in compositional technique, Franck’s Quintet is interesting when juxtaposed with Mahler’s Quartet because the Franck is more Germanic than most of the composer’s music, and has a seriousness and intensity that, if scarcely Mahlerian, seem to have grown in similar soil. There is a solidity to this Quintet, almost a thickness in the scoring, that adds to its drama and makes it seem (again like Mahler’s Quartet) a not-too-distant relation of Brahms’ music. But the Franck does have a number of the composer’s characteristic markers, such as the use of one theme (in various guises) in all three movements. There is also a fine sense of forward flow throughout the Quintet, and an intense emotional consistency that is well explored by the performers. Even 30 years after its initial recording, this performance stands up well both for the quality of the playing and for the high level of its conception and execution.


Lehár: Der Zarewitsch. Alexandra Reinprecht, Christina Landshamer, Matthias Klink, Andreas Winkler; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Here is a fine performance of a late Lehár operetta that remains popular in Germany but is neglected, perhaps justly, in the rest of the world. One of the composer’s vehicles for tenor Richard Tauber, Der Zarewitsch – first performed in 1927 – is also one of his series of works loosely based on the lives of real people, including the earlier Paganini (1925) and the later Friederike (1928, about the young Goethe). The plot of Der Zarewitsch is contained, to an even greater degree than usual in Lehár, in the spoken dialogue – in fact, there are four principal singing roles and four principal spoken ones. The historical background involves Alexei, son of Peter the Great, who went into self-imposed exile to be with his mistress, but was eventually forced to return to Russia – where he was tortured into a confession, convicted of conspiring against his father, sentenced to death, and died (probably of torture-related injuries) before the sentence could be carried out.

     Lehár’s librettists, Béla Jenbach and Heinz Reichert, changed the story and gave it some surprising homosexual overtones. It features a Zarewitsch (tenor Matthias Klink in this recording) who has no interest in women but who must be sexually initiated and then made to marry for reasons of state – so a lovely, charming and experienced girl named Sonja (soprano Alexandra Reinprecht) is hired to seduce him, which becomes possible only because she first meets him when disguised as a male Circassian dancer. Eventually the two do have a passionate heterosexual affair, which ends in pathos (if not tragedy) after the old Czar dies and the Zarewitsch and Sonja both realize that he must put duty above personal desire and leave his lover to assume the throne. There is also a weaker-than-usual subplot involving the Zarewitsch’s servant, Iwan (tenor Andreas Winkler), and his wife, Mascha (soprano Christina Landshamer).

     The obscurity of the historical background and the necessity of understanding German to follow the plot (the CPO set summarizes the action well enough but contains no libretto) mean that Der Zarewitsch is of interest primarily for its sheer melodiousness – of which, happily, it has quite a bit. The work’s structure means that the music is all about love and loss, focusing almost entirely on the personal relationship of the Zarewitsch and Sonja, from their Act I personality pieces (Einer wird kommen for her, Allein! Wieder allein! for him), through their impassioned duet (Liebe mich, küsse mich), to their eventual forced parting. The singing is generally quite good here (although Klink’s upper register is not quite strong enough to handle Lehár’s demands); and Ulf Schirmer, who has a knowing hand with operetta, directs the performance well (this is a live recording, and the audience clearly enjoys what is happening on stage). But Der Zarewitsch, although it was important to Lehár because of his determination to move operetta beyond the bounds of light flirtatiousness that had long been its stock in trade, is not an especially effective work either as drama or as love story: it comes across as an uneasy mixture of the two, a fact highlighted by the disparity between its spoken and sung elements.

     There are other “uneasy” elements to the work as well – ones that are not apparent on the CDs but that would give Der Zarewitsch extra resonance in Germany and nowhere else. Lehár’s librettists were Jewish, and their names were prominently displayed on the program at a 1943 performance of the operetta that the composer conducted and that was attended by Hitler and Goebbels – both of whom were reported to have thoroughly enjoyed it. More than 60 years after Lehár’s death, questions remain about his relationship with the Nazis, and while they take nothing away from the loveliness of his music, they do cast a shadow over the works that he performed for the regime’s highest echelons. Der Zarewitsch falls quite clearly into that category. The result is that the work has 20th-century historical resonance (and difficulties) for some, on top of the 19th-century background that the composer and librettists put into it in the first place. All this makes the operetta complex and, on some levels, fascinating. But as a work of drama, Der Zarewitsch falls short, even taking into account the beauties of many of its tunes and the skill with which Lehár always presented his later love stories as part of a broader canvas.

June 17, 2010


Mimi’s Dada Catifesto. By Shelley Jackson. Clarion. $17.

Palazzo Inverso. By D.B. Johnson. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

     Sometimes books only seem to be for children. They are really for the child in all of us – the person who, whatever his or her age, is capable of seeing the world differently, of retaining a sense of wonder about everything out there, of perceiving reality in a decidedly off-kilter way. At their best, books like this – books like these, since both Mimi’s Dada Catifesto and Palazzo Inverso fit this description wonderfully well – play with children’s delightfully un-adult perception of how things look and work, while communicating some messages that adults would also do well to heed. These books appeal both to children and to adults’ inner children – at least when adults are willing to open up their consciousness and look within.

     This sounds like a tall order and a recipe for pretentiousness, but what is so amazing about the books by Shelley Jackson and D.B. Johnson is that they are neither difficult nor stuck-up. Complex, yes; even confusing if you do not get into their spirit. But by all means get into it! Mimi’s Dada Catifesto pulls you in immediately: the cover actually bears the word “manifesto,” with the “man” crossed out and “cat” substituted; and there is a picture of a lovely orange cat sporting a truly handsome mustache. And a couple of well-dressed cockroaches gesturing to the author’s name. And all the letters on the cover appear to have been cut out of newspapers. And you haven’t even opened the book yet! Once you do, you find what you think is the story of an alley cat seeking a human with whom to live – but not just any human, for Mimi is even more independent than most cats are, and her human (as she realizes after some talks with Laszlo, a pigeon) must be….a dadaist. And what is a dadaist? Well, the story takes place in Zurich, Switzerland, where dada was invented in 1915, unless it wasn’t. And it features a self-proclaimed artist/performer named Mr. Dada, who wears a fish on his head and likes it when people throw rotten fruit at him as he proclaims that anything can be art. And the story is about how the perceptive alley cat and controversial perceiver of what it means to be artistic eventually find themselves together – with plenty of commentary by those cockroaches, who will have 20 or 30 babies before the book is over, and by various characters in the book’s margins, who detect this influence and that one as Mimi creates sound poems (backyard screeching to the uninitiated) and ready-mades (dead bug, hairball and pigeon poop neatly displayed). Mimi’s Dada Catifesto is hilariously funny – cat and human eventually get together when Mr. Dada realizes he is cursing the cat with the exact same language that other people have been throwing at him – and it is also wonderfully instructive, showing what dada is through the story itself and the design of the jumbled, every-which-way pages. The inside back cover, which displays caricatures of more than a dozen famous dadaists (plus Mimi, plus an outline called “you” with mustache pre-drawn) is the icing on a thoroughly delicious, misshapen, squashed buttercream-and-bologna cake. This book is an absolute gem.

     Palazzo Inverso sparkles, too, but in sepia tones rather than the splashes of color throughout Mimi’s story. This tale is built (yes, built) on the work of an artist whose regularity of form is in stark contrast to the anything-goes approach of the dadaists, but whose perceptions are just as strange and mind-melting: M.C. Escher. The hero of the book is a very angular character named Mauk, and D.B. Johnson designs the whole work to be read from front to back, then turned around (the text turns around, too) and read from back to front – with the illustrations making perfect sense in one direction and a different kind of perfect sense in the other. This is a technique perfected at the turn of the last century by Gustave Verbeek in The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, in which the newspaper artist turned a six-panel comic strip into 12 by having readers turn the page over halfway through; each title character then metamorphosed into the other. Johnson uses this approach marvelously, having Mauk wake up and begin running as soon as the Master calls, following him as he speeds through hallways, up and down staircases, and along corridors that do not seem quite right, rushing past people who react angrily, and eventually ending up with the furious Master, who has not noticed that Mauk has slightly changed the angle of the Master’s architectural plans from time to time…resulting in the Master creating a topsy-turvy design. Mauk, fearing the Master’s anger, runs away, going down where he previously went up, left where he previously went right, passing people who now seem to cheer instead of being angry, and eventually ending up right where he started, lying in bed with his boots on the floor….unless it is the ceiling. Palazzo Inverso is a delightful story, a wonderfully clever use of Escher’s mind-boggling techniques in a narrative context, and a perfect confirmation of Escher’s own words, quoted at the start of the book: “I don’t grow up. In me is the small child of my early days.” Parents who take those words to heart will enjoy both Palazzo Inverso and Mimi’s Dada Catifesto at least as much as their children will.


Animal Soup: A Mixed-Up Animal Flap Book. By Todd H. Doodler. Golden Books. $10.99.

Dancing Feet! By Lindsey Craig. Illustrations by Marc Brown. Knopf. $16.99.

Happy Birthday, Little Pookie. By Sandra Boynton. Robin Corey Books. $5.99.

Pinkalicious and the Pink Drink. By Victoria Kann. HarperFestival. $3.99.

     Silliness rules in these books for ages 3-7, or (in some cases) even younger. Todd Doodler (whose real name is Todd H. Goldman, but Doodler certainly fits) creates side-by-side pictures of googly-eyed creatures in Animal Soup, then uses full-page flaps on each right-hand page to combine the critters into something super-silly. Bird plus turtle equals “birdle,” complete with wings sticking out of the holes in a turtle’s shell; flamingo plus monkey equals “flamonkey,” with pink bird body and brown money head and tail, standing in the water on one monkey leg; and so on. The funniest drawing answers the question, “What would I be if I liked to eat nuts – and swim in the deep blue sea?” The answer, of course, is “squale” (squirrel plus whale), and the creature has gray fur and a huge fluffy tail, plus a whale’s mouth, with two squirrel teeth at the front – and it spouts water with an acorn on top. Young kids will have a lot of fun with the individual pictures (the octopus is especially adorable) as well as the combinations (add the octopus to a crocodile and you get a “croctopus” with scaly skin, eight legs and a bewildered expression). Animal Soup is yummy from start to finish.

     Animals are featured as well throughout Dancing Feet! Here, everything from the small (ladybug) to the huge (elephant) is tripping the light fantastic, bouncing along to Lindsey Craig’s rhythmic poetry: “Slappity! Slappity! Webbed orange feet! Who is dancing that slappity beat? Ducks are dancing on slappity feet. Slappity! Slappity! Happy feet!” There is no plot here, just a series of animals and insects dancing along until, at the end, children join in – dressed in ways that let them imitate the sounds of the critters’ feet (a girl wearing swim fins makes the “slappity” of the ducks, for example). The fun continues right over to the inside back cover, where each child is dancing with the animal whose feet make similar sounds. Marc Brown’s paper-collage illustrations – which include a caterpillar homage to Eric Carle’s very hungry one – match the book’s wonderfully upbeat mood and add to the fun because of the way Brown creates the tracks of the feet (the “clickity” lizard footprints are especially good). This is a get-up-and-dance book that even very young children will surely enjoy.

     Children and parents alike will get a kick, if not a dance, from Sandra Boynton’s Happy Birthday, Little Pookie, which is filled with adorable Boynton pigs doing adorable Boynton piggy things. In this case, everything focuses on Little Pookie’s birthday, which starts when it is still pitch-black outside, because little Pookie is too excited to sleep. But he does finally go back to bed, at the urging of his mom, who promises him “a whole day of birthday surprises.” Well, then, how about a day starting at 5:32 a.m.? That is the time at which “the birthday Pook” leaps atop his parents’ bed and insists they get up – which, bleary-eyed, they do. The rest of this short board book is about little Pookie’s birthday surprises, which include pancakes in pig shape (“with blueberries, lemon, and strawberry cream”), a balloon, a nap (which the parents need more than little Pookie does), and finally a birthday cake and a special present: “a FUZZY FROGGY” that little Pookie quickly names Irving. Filled with gentle humor and typical Boynton expressiveness, Happy Birthday, Little Pookie will delight even the youngest child – as long as he or she knows what a birthday is.

     The silliness is in a different style in the new adventure of Pinkalicious, Pinkalicious and the Pink Drink. Victoria Kann’s pink-loving girl wants to make some money to buy 35 pink gumballs, so she decides to sell pink lemonade – but when her mom helps her assemble and mix the ingredients, the result turns out to be “yummy. But it wasn’t pink.” So when mom is busy somewhere else, Pinkalicious goes to the refrigerator and finds everything she can that’s pink or pinkish: “pink grapefruit, pink watermelon, pink frosting, and a bowlful of purplicious beets.” She stirs everything into the drink, which her brother tastes and pronounces “kind of chewy. I like it.” Others are not so sure – and then the concoction spills, and when Pinkalicious goes to make some more, her mother notices all the stuff that Pinkalicious intends to use and suggests a different way to make the drink pink: strawberries. Problem solved; drink pinked; gumballs bought (only nine, not 35, but that’s okay); and Pinkalicious starts thinking about her next pink project: a bake sale featuring pink cupcakes. Simply and amusingly told, with a central character whose misunderstandings harm no one and actually turn out to be fun, Pinkalicious and the Pink Drink will be a warm-weather favorite for pink promoters everywhere.


The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds, and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures. By Philip Mould. Viking. $26.95.

     You would expect a book about enormously valuable works of art – and some attempts to fake them – to be all about greed. But that is only incidentally the focus of Philip Mould’s The Art Detective. For Mould, a British gallery owner and regular on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, it is the excitement of the chase that matters just as much (or nearly as much) as what is being chased. You find this out only when Mould gets into a confessional mood near the end of his book: “If I am honest, what first got me interested in art (and I had first done it with silver teaspoons and shoe buckles as a child) was the thrill of seizing on things others might have missed or undervalued. As a result I got to love the paintings I later moved on to. I and my colleagues may occupy a world of the ultimate luxury goods, of cosmopolitan refinement and intellectual acumen, but beneath the varnished surface the competitive animal lurks.”

     The scientific mind lurks there, too. “Dendrochronology, which dates wood by its tree rings and so provides the probable felling date of the tree from which a painted panel was cut, is now a very precise science, whereas it used to require a lengthy trip out of town for a verdict that later proved to be inaccurate, in many cases because of flaws in the data on which the calculations were made. …We now have at our fingertips investigative science that can transform arguments and rule out or bolster speculative claims.”

     And let us not forget the analytical mind – an opinionated one: “I become frustrated to the point of irate when [sic] visiting museum exhibitions where no attempt has been made to explain or interpret the core condition of a picture. …The sensory appreciation of art is governed largely by what remains rather than what the artist first intended, and guidance on how a work might have changed or suffered is as illuminating as focusing on a work that is in a transcendentally good state. …There are countless thousands of works of art that, had they not been corrupted, would offer a very different picture of our civilization’s visual history.”

     Mould is clearly a man of style, a man of knowledge and a crusader of sorts. What sort becomes clear only as he reveals something of his techniques, his successes and failures, in six stories about paintings and their provenance – whether they turned out to be unrecognizable masterpieces (a badly disfigured Rembrandt self-portrait) or frauds (a fake Norman Rockwell). He is also admirably self-effacing, as in his story of a painting he bought for less than $200 on eBay after spotting it “amid a gruesome-looking pack of offerings.” The head was of much higher quality than the body, and when Mould received the painting, he decided to “play God” and “live dangerously” by trying on his own to remove some of the overpainting that he was sure was there. Mould gets away with this risky endeavor, and the painting turns out to be an early Gainsborough – but he will not repeat his restoration attempt because, ”treating me like a drunk, for the past two years my staff have hidden the acetone bottles.”

     It is the combination of arcane knowledge and self-deprecatory humor that ultimately makes The Art Detective such a fascinating book, whether or not you have a strong interest in the intricacies of tracking down damaged museum-quality works or uncovering artistic misrepresentation. A book that could all too easily be a piece of esoterica is instead a frequently delightful journey through the back rooms of galleries and museums. “Apart from anything else, the purpose of this book is to try to communicate why I and others take the risks we do.” It certainly does that: the adrenaline rush associated with unexpected discovery is palpable. At the same time, Mould makes an honest effort to show the lay reader some of what professionals see when evaluating art. For example, several of the book’s color illustrations show the Rockwell painting, Breaking Home Ties, along with the copy (painted by Don Trachte) that had hung in a museum as a genuine Rockwell. Mould carefully points to elements of the original and copy that distinguish them – and an attentive reader can certainly see the differences. What is so interesting here is the story of all the experts who did not see them or who found ways to explain why the fake must be a real Rockwell, even if perhaps a study for the final painting, or maybe damaged, or…well, there were plenty of possibilities, all relating to “the type of art-world blindness that goes to the heart of many great discovery stories.” Yet the Rockwell tale is only one highly intriguing element of The Art Detective. The uncovering of the Rembrandt self-portrait – an amazing story also shown in the book’s well-chosen illustrations – is at least equally unlikely and equally delightful to follow. In fact, the entire book is filled with delights that one need not be an art connoisseur to appreciate. Mould manages to do something quite special here: he takes an arcane world of big money, world travel and minutiae and turns it into the basis of a series of great stories that, with only a little tweaking and a murder or two, would fit quite well into an Agatha Christie novel. Yet there is no need here for the appurtenances of fiction: Mould is a detective – a specialized one – in the real world, and by opening the door to what he does and how he does it, he simultaneously demystifies great art and, by showing the characteristics that make it great, renders it even more fascinating.

     “Next time you go to an exhibition, spend some time looking at the people looking at the art,” Mould suggests. “One of the most telling features of visitors to a gallery is that they will study the labels before they look at the pictures. …[T]he information on the label often dictates how the work of art is perceived, enjoyed and esteemed.” The Art Detective is the story of how those labels come to be – of their value and their occasional inaccuracy. After reading this book, you will not likely take the labels entirely at face value again – and may decide, for a change, to look first at the art works themselves.


Heck Series No. 3: Blimpo—The Third Circle of Heck. By Dale E. Basye. Illustrated by Bob Dob. Random House. $16.99.

Living Hell. By Catherine Jinks. Harcourt. $17.

Ghost Huntress, Book 3: The Reason. By Marley Gibson. Graphia. $8.99.

Frontier Magic, Book One: Thirteenth Child. By Patricia C. Wrede. Scholastic. $9.99.

     Two hardcovers, two paperbacks; one attempt at humor, three at more-serious scariness. In any form, from any angle, there are some hellishly frightening things out there. Or down there, in the case of Dale E. Basye’s Heck series, whose third installment is as initially clever and subsequently overdone as the first two. Basye has a fundamentally wonderful idea: there exists a third realm, neither Heaven nor “h-e-double-hockey-sticks,” where bad but not totally doomed kids go when they die, in which they endure a sort of preteen-to-teenage Purgatory until they get promoted upstairs or demoted downstairs when they reach age 18. But sometimes mistakes are made, and one is certainly made in the case of Milton and Marlo Fauster, victims of an exploding marshmallow mall sculpture. Marlo, a kleptomaniac and Goth girl, may indeed belong in Heck, but Milton, a do-gooder from the word “do,” doesn’t. But he is manipulated there because of something going on in the Galactic Order Department (GOD). Then he escapes. Then he returns (that is, dies again) to try to rescue his sister and his best friend in Heck, Virgil (and the names Fauster, as in Goethe’s Faust; Milton, as in Paradise Lost; and Virgil, as in Dante’s guide in The Inferno, are not coincidences). In Heck, Milton creates chaos of the sort that Heck’s minions do not appreciate wherever he goes – including, in this third book, in Blimpo, where fat boys and girls are condemned to run in hamster-wheel-like DREADmills to produce infernal power to further one nefarious scheme or another. Basye works by throwing out plot point after plot point in almost random order, seeing which ones stick and postponing resolutions of the others until later books (the fourth, already being planned, will be called Fibble and devoted to the circle for liars). A lot of this is awfully amusing, but much of it is amusingly awful – and it is hard to tell which description Basye prefers. In the earlier books, he liked to drag in obscure historical characters as teachers and hangers-on; here, he uses better-known people, including Jack Kerouac, Fats Waller, Elvis Presley and King Tantalus. In the earlier books, a lot of the spice came from Marlo’s attitude, but in Blimpo she seems to have had a personality transplant that is not for the better, losing her ability to talk back and to give better than she gets, and eventually falling for a ruse so transparent that even the naïve Milton would have seen it coming. Also, the plot elements involving Damian, a horrid bully who pursued Milton in life and in Heck before himself being reborn, are really creaky – the most Damian can say for himself, when asked what he really desires, is, “I guess what I want most is for everyone else to be miserable.” BOR-ing. The squabbling angels who appear in one chapter are dull and rather silly, too – these are the good guys? The book’s grand finale is well done – Basye pulls lots of things together while deliberately leaving loose ends for later books – and so are Bob Dob’s chapter-heading illustrations, although their repetitiousness becomes tiresome after a while. The Heck series remains clever, but keeps slipping into the category of “too clever for its own good.”

     Living Hell is scary and entirely serious, but perhaps too serious for its own good. This is a science-fiction tale with a plot as well-worn as they come: passengers aboard a star-faring ship suddenly threatened by unspeakable evil. In this case, the ship (in a common SF theme) is traveling for generations toward some unknown new planet, and supplying all the passengers’ needs. But then something happens to its CAIP – “Core Artificial Intelligence Program” – and the ship’s sensors start to perceive the passengers as invaders to be destroyed. In other words, the ship becomes a sort of living body whose inner defense mechanisms – in the form of various types of machinery – are programmed to get rid of the “infection” of all the people. There is nothing especially new about this idea, but Catherine Jinks handles it stylishly and with a strong sense of pacing, although she does tend toward the melodramatic: “I’ll never forget that moment,” says the narrator, Cheney Sheppard. “It changed everything. …I knew that things would never be all right ever again. I knew that the old world was gone. And I was right.” Most of the book is a struggle for survival against the very ship that has been the means of survival for all the humans. Ship components start to act like “NK cells…Natural Killer cells,” and do all sorts of horrible things to people: “His face was a living nightmare. The skin was mottled with purple blotches; his jaw hung open, exposing a swollen gray tongue; his eyes were swimming, not with tears but with some kind of gluey stuff that dripped like honey. They seemed to be melting away.” Lots of people vomit when they see this sort of thing. Cheney and his friends eventually survive when the ship stops recognizing them altogether – much as a human body does not pay attention to the bacteria in its intestines – but of course the relationship between ship and people is altered forever, and Cheney insists that his cautionary first-person tale is important for future ship dwellers. It is a thrilling genre story, to be sure, but non-fans of SF will find it overheated.

     The third Ghost Huntress book – following The Awakening and The Guidance – is at about the same temperature as the first two. This time, Kendall Moorehead has a dream or vision of her own death, and communicates her feelings in her usual not-very-literate way: “How can I be such a whiny, selfish little me-me-me’er…when nothing’s even happened to me! Get over yourself, Kendall. I mean, Jason and Taylor’s mom is clinging to life. …Like, she could die! Like, Jason and Taylor could be orphans. (Well, not technically, since their dad is alive and well and living in Alaska.) But seriously!” A little of Kendall’s introspection goes a long, long way. But what she mostly does is investigate the paranormal, which in this case involves exploring a mansion in Radisson, Georgia, where she has been warned that a really nasty spook is to be found. Could this be connected with Kendall’s premonition of her own death? Ya think? Kendall is possessed by the angry spirit, and she has a big fight with boyfriend Jason Tillson (“I think my tear ducts are just as horrified as I am”), and she has a near-death experience in which she is told that people “who really matter will stick to you like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth,” and she receives a huge revelation about her family while in her spirit state, and – well, a lot goes on here, none of it the slightest bit believable, but lots of it exciting. And all of it is intended to be uplifting, as when a vengeance-seeking ghost is told, “Life isn’t one big party, ma’am.” And yes, the ghost is supposed to take that statement seriously. “Where do I go from here?” wonders Kendall after events come to a climax. Why, on to the next book, miss….

     After all this seriousness and intensity, Patricia C. Wrede’s Thirteenth Child is a pleasure simply because it is somewhat lighter. Not really light, mind you, but occasionally humorous enough so it makes a pleasant change from all the deep and dark stuff that seems to cluster around tales of ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, on Earth or beneath it. For example, this first book in a series called Frontier Magic contains a scene in which a half-grown mammoth has to be controlled by warding spells. After that is done, “Professor Jeffries called one of the students over, a big man in a long brown muffler, and started giving him what for. Seems he’d been the one to set the mammoth off, flapping his scarf at it to find out what it would do. Professor Jeffries told him that would have been a foolish thing to do to an elderly, well-broken cart horse, and it was downright idiotic to do it to a wild mammoth three times as big.” This is a minor event in the book, but Wrede’s description of it neatly encapsulates the down-home folksiness that she mixes here with magical matters. The focus of the book is Eff, born a thirteenth child and – unfortunately for her – having a twin, Lan, who is the seventh son of a seventh son. That makes Lan favored by fortune and Eff distinctly ill-favored, but of course this will not prove to be the case; Thirteenth Child is quite predictable in that respect. What is most interesting about the book is Wrede’s decision to set it on a “frontier,” more or less similar to the frontier of the American West (hence the style of the writing). But this is a frontier with settlers on one side of a magical dividing line – and wilderness beasts on the other. Eff and Lan grow up and learn magic the same way Western settlers’ kids got their schoolin’ – it’s just what is done in this setting. But a cloud of doom always hangs over Eff, of course, until she eventually proves herself, as readers will figure out quickly that she will do. Wrede interestingly transposes Western lore into the magical sort: “We’re still inventing ourselves. But we’re not starting from just one kind of magic, no matter what the folks back East may think. Columbian magic is a mixture and always has been – Avrupan and Aphrikan and Hijero-Cathayan and some traditions that haven’t ever grown large enough to make a theory of a style of magic, plus a few bits folks have just made up for themselves at need, all thrown together.” The folkloric and magical elements sometimes coexist uneasily here, and the fact that Eff’s eventual success is a foregone conclusion robs Thirteenth Child of some inner drama. But the book is well written and nicely paced, and Eff is an interesting enough character so that readers who find they like the world that Wrede creates here will be interested in Eff’s further adventures.


Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Anne Schwanewilms, soprano; Lioba Braun, contralto; Chor der Bamberger Symphoniker and Bamberger Symphoniker-Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. Naxos. $8.99.

     The gigantism of symphonies of the late 19th century is scarcely news: Bruckner’s overwhelming architectural sound edifices tower over an era in which the symphonic form seemed to expand and expand again – think of Anton Rubinstein’s seven-movement Symphony No. 2, “Ocean,” as just one less-known example among many. But for many listeners, hugeness of symphonic construction is practically synonymous with Gustav Mahler, who was quite capable of creating a symphony lasting nearly as long as an opera (the six-movement Third). Mahler’s five-movement Second, the “Resurrection,” is not much shorter, but its length has not prevented it from becoming a staple of the orchestral repertoire, more so than ever now that the centenary of Mahler’s death will occur next year. There are many very fine performances of Mahler’s Second, the best of them striking a careful balance between the huge and overwhelming sound in some sections and the tremendous delicacy – very carefully scored – in others. Jonathan Nott’s new, sonically outstanding Second, a live recording, is an especially strong entry in the Mahler field. Nott does not hesitate to pull out all the stops in the funeral march of the first movement, which swells, bursts and crashes repeatedly to the point of leaving a listener nearly exhausted. Mahler actually expected this effect – he said there should be a pause of at least five minutes between this movement and the next, much gentler one. Some versions of the Second pay at least minimal homage to Mahler’s wishes by isolating the first movement on the first disc and putting all the others on the second, but not this one: the first and second movements are on the first SACD, the remaining three on the other. This juxtaposes the first and second movements more closely than Mahler wanted, but it also gives a listener quicker relaxation from the opening movement’s extreme drama. Nott makes the second movement slow and gentle – a strong contrast to his speedy, intense conclusion of the first – and thereby changes the mood almost instantaneously. The pastoral atmosphere of this movement yields to a more-intense scherzo than usual, with Nott emphasizing its angularity and grotesquerie more than its gentle flow. Because of this approach, the vocal entry at the start of the fourth movement is – as in the transition from first movement to second – a greater contrast than is typically heard. And Lioba Braun really is a contralto, comfortable in a range that can be a strain for the mezzo-sopranos who are often called on to sing this movement. After Braun’s dark-hued voice, the crashing opening of the finale is highly dramatic – here again, Nott brings out the strongest possible contrasts between and within movements. The purely orchestral part of the finale is especially impassioned in this performance: Nott turns up the emotional temperature well before the chorus enters. When it does, at the very edge of audibility (and with sound captured carefully by the SACD engineers), there is warmth and beauty aplenty, which builds through the words of Mahler and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock to an overwhelming sense of hope and expectation of eternal life. The broad affirmation of the symphony’s end is very much in keeping with Nott’s emphasis throughout on its grand scale and intensity. This is not an especially warm Mahler Second, but it is a dramatic and highly effective interpretation.

     Nearly 50 years separate Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 from Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 – his second big wartime symphony, following by a year and a half No. 7, the “Leningrad.” The Eighth is more complex structurally than the Seventh – among other things, its fourth movement is the composer’s first orchestral passacaglia – but is every bit as subject to bombast and overstatement if a conductor does not control it carefully. Vasily Petrenko, the young Russian who is Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, maintains a firm command of the Eighth throughout, and the result is an outstandingly successful performance. From the start, when the orchestra’s lower strings growl with all the burnished darkness of those of a Russian orchestra, it is clear that Petrenko, who is only 34, has already taken the measure of this music and found a way to communicate its depths to the players. There is tremendous drama and vitality here – the symphony’s moods shift frequently, and there is conflict aplenty, but in the end there is positive affirmation instead of the rather wan hope offered in an almost obligatory way in its predecessor (which, to be sure, was written in darker days of World War II). As the Eighth progresses, Petrenko handles each movement on its individual terms while maintaining a solid overview of the entire work. The second-movement Allegretto is filled with rudeness and crudity – but there are also flashes of elegance, notably in the high winds. The third movement is astonishing, perhaps the best ever recorded. It is raucous to the point of vulgarity: a nonstop clatter of screeching winds, pounding timpani and cutting trumpets atop snare-drum exclamations. It is so intense that the contrast with the fourth-movement Largo is even starker than usual. This movement is sweet, restrained and very moving – and leads directly into a finale that opens features a whimsical bassoon early on, but soon becomes so intense (and loud) that it is nearly overwhelming. But Petrenko shapes this concluding Allegretto carefully, allowing it to blare but making sure there is something ineffable about its quiet coda. This is the third CD of Shostakovich symphonies that Petrenko has recorded for Naxos – after No. 11 and a disc pairing Nos. 5 and 9 – and it is at least as good as the first two, which were also excellent. A full Shostakovich cycle from Petrenko is shaping up as something to celebrate.


Bottesini: Fantasia on Themes of Rossini; Passioni amorose; Gran Duetto No. 2; Concerto for Two Double Basses and Piano. Thomas Martin and Timothy Cobb, double basses; Christopher Oldfather, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Vieuxtemps: Fantasia appassionata, Op. 35; Ballade et Polonaise, Op. 38; Fantaisie Caprice, Op. 11; Greeting to America, Op. 56. Misha Keylin, violin; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Mogrelia. Naxos. $8.99.

Mendelssohn: String Quartets in E-flat, Op.“0,” and No. 3 in D, Op. 44, No. 1; Tema con variazoni, Op. 81, No. 1; Scherzo, Op. 81, No. 2. New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello). Naxos. $8.99.

     From the lowest string instruments to the highest, virtuosity is the order of the day on these new CDs. The fifth Naxos release of music by famed 19th-century double-bass player Giovanni Bottesini goes the earlier discs one better by presenting works for two double basses. Far from being lumbering or cumbersome pieces, these are, if not exactly light-footed, rather light-hearted, and in fact there are dance movements that show the instruments’ capabilities in some surprising ways. The opening Tarantella of the Fantasia on Themes of Rossini, for example, is a genuine surprise in its bounciness – although no more so than the Serenata that follows, in which the players extract considerable emotion from their very low instruments. The concerto-like Passioni amorose also requires the bass players to perform with a mixture of sensitivity and style, and in fact the virtuosity demanded in this piece and the others on this CD is considerable: these are all early Bottesini works that he used to show just how far the capabilities of his instrument could be extended. The Grand Duetto No. 2, second of three Bottesini works in this form, was written for two three-stringed instruments and is performed that way here; this makes the double stopping in its central Andante particularly interesting. The Concerto for Two Double Basses and Piano, which Bottesini later transformed into his better-known Gran Duo Concertante for Double Bass and Violin, is actually more impressive in its original version, being filled with complementary and competing flourishes for the instruments and a finale that increases in tempo right to the very end. Thomas Martin and Timothy Cobb play all these works with great flair, which is exactly what they need, and Christopher Oldfather backs the bassists up well while remaining appropriately in the background.

     The more-familiar string virtuosity of the violin is front and center in the music of Henry Vieuxtemps, who is best known for his seven concertos but also produced quite a few shorter works. The four played by Misha Keylin are filled with complex bowing techniques, double- and triple-stops, harmonics and speedy passages, but also require a light touch and singing tone – with many of these elements juxtaposed within a short time. Thus, in the Fantasia appassionata, a lovely and initially simple tune becomes more strongly ornamented and complex until it eventually requires high-level virtuosity. The Ballade et Polonaise begins with quiet wistfulness and then becomes increasingly lively, with a brilliant conclusion. The Fantaisie Caprice has more than its share of sweet, singing moments, although it too eventually builds to fast and challenging double stops at the end. And the posthumously published Greeting to America, one of several works written by Vieuxtemps during American tours, is pure fun, building from pizzicato orchestral strings to a combination of “Yankee Doodle,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and plenty of violinistic fireworks. Andrew Mogrelia and the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra ably back up Keylin’s delightful handling of these superficial but thoroughly enjoyable works.

     There is greater seriousness for strings in the third and last volume of the New Zealand String Quartet’s Mendelssohn cycle. This CD includes Mendelssohn’s earliest completed quartet, written when he was 14 – which, it should be noted, was not “young” for the boy genius, who had already created numerous string symphonies and other finely crafted works. Although the Quartet Op. “0” is not as technically demanding or emotionally expressive as Mendelssohn’s later ones, it is well structured and includes, as its finale, a particularly impressive fugue. Also here is the D Major work from Op. 44, the first of three in that set although the last of them to be written. The New Zealand players clearly appreciate both the drama and the songfulness of this work, performing it with strength and beauty in equal measure and providing some real thrills in the Presto con brio finale. The CD also includes two movements that Mendelssohn wrote in the last year of his life, presumably intending them to become part of another quartet, which he was never to finish. The Tema con variazoni is elegant and well wrought; the Scherzo, which is somewhat reminiscent of the early music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, shows a lightness of spirit that has come to be thought of as Mendelssohnian. All these works are performed here with fine ensemble and an excellent sense of give-and-take among the performers – their complete set of the Mendelssohn Quartets is simply top-notch.

June 10, 2010


Sheep in a Jeep. By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Sheep on a Ship. By Nancy Shaw. Illustrated by Margot Apple. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $11.99.

Kisses. By Barney Saltzberg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $13.99.

Country Road ABC. By Arthur Geisert. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

     You know we live in a multimedia universe when even the board books have extras inside. The wonderfully idiosyncratic “Sheep” books by Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple are fun in every way, shape and form, and they make delightful small board books because of their simple and silly stories and wonderful rhymes and alliteration: “Sheep shove. Sheep grunt. Sheep don’t think to look up front.” Even young children already familiar with the car-wrecking and ship-destroying antics of the sheep will enjoy hearing these books again and again, and learning to read them, too. But now there is more: each book contains a construction project in the inside back cover. Sheep in a Jeep explains how to “make your very own soft and fluffy sheep” from construction paper, cotton balls, and a few other everyday items. Sheep on a Ship, which features the sheep dressed as pirates (inept ones), shows “How to Make a Pirate Hat” from a large sheet of paper, then decorate it with markers, stickers, glitter or what-have-you. In truth, the books themselves are so enjoyable that no additional amusement is necessary; but there is certainly no harm in reading and rereading these modern classics (Jeep dates to 1986, Ship to 1989), then having some additional fun with activities tied into the books.

     There are no additional activities in the lap-size board-book version of Virginia Lee Burton’s wonderful Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, but just having this 1939 classic available in a form suitable for the youngest readers (and pre-readers) is treat enough. To be sure, some parts of the book now seem quaint and will require some explaining for 21st-century children, such as the reference to “the girl who answers the telephone [who] called up the next towns and told them what was happening.” And the whole issue of steam shovels being supplanted by “the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels,” which made sense in the 1930s, has little meaning today. But the basic story – about overcoming adversity and refusing to be “put out to pasture” – still resonates; and the charm with which Burton tells and illustrates it (right up to the final page, with a happy Mary Anne – the steam shovel – in a new role, and with Mike still beside her) is as endearing as ever. In fact, parents may want to think of the importance of giving the book a bit of historical context and explanation as a little something extra that they can add to this heartwarming story.

     The extras in Kisses are built right into the book itself. This is one of the busiest board books you are likely to find. Its subtitle describes it perfectly: “A Pull, Touch, Lift, Squeak, and SMOOCH Book!” Barney Saltzberg’s creativity is in overdrive here, from the big red fluffy heart that peeks through the cover, to the foldouts showing cutely drawn animals getting kisses in unexpected ways, to the pull tabs that sometimes produce surprising results (one little dog gets a kiss on the head – pull the tab and his ears go from floppy to standing straight up). The interactive elements are of all sorts: one page has a standard-size pull tab, for example, but another has a huge one that changes the appearance of half the page. There are also things to feel (a frog’s skin, a kangaroo’s tail), plus some really clever design elements (a star-filled night sky becomes, when a tab is pulled, a sky filled with hearts). The book ends with the alphabet spread across two pages, the letters printed on tabs that, when opened, show animals kissing underneath – with one letter on top of a squeaker that kids can press. This is an exceptionally clever oversize board book that has no theme except that kisses are nice and you can never have too many; but its conclusion with the alphabet can turn it into an early-learning experience as well as a taste of sheer enjoyment.

     When kids go beyond board books altogether and start to learn the alphabet in earnest, they will find many, many books to help them along. An especially interesting one is Arthur Geisert’s Country Road ABC, because this self-proclaimed “illustrated journey through America’s farmland” is filled with words rarely if ever seen in alphabet books – but absolutely correctly used and clearly applicable to farming. Thus, “A” here is not for “apple” but for “ammonia fertilizer,” and “D” is not for “dog” but for “disking” (with a very well-done illustration showing how a plow turns and loosens the soil). “F” is for “fencing,” and we see a fence being built; “I” is for “inoculate,” as the farmer and two boys give protective injections to piglets; “M” is for “milking,” with an excellent illustration of modern milking equipment in operation. Geisert’s choices of words are highly creative: “U,” for example, is for “uphill,” and “W” for “winter afternoon” (an indoor scene with warmly dressed people relaxing). The “Farm Glossary” at the end of the book explains every word and term in a book that has educational value – and visual interest – far beyond those of most alphabet books. City and suburban dwellers will probably not want this to be a child’s very first alphabet book: some of the concepts are on the difficult side for urban residents unfamiliar with rural life. But as kids learn their letters and become bored when the same words appear again and again in book after book, Country Road ABC can offer a fascinating expansion of knowledge as well as sound reinforcement of the basics of the alphabet.