February 24, 2011


Dodsworth in Rome. By Tim Egan. Houghton Mifflin. $14.99.

Poison Apple Book: Midnight Howl. By Clare Hutton. Scholastic. $5.99.

Freddy! King of Flurb. By Peter Hannan. Harper. $5.99.

     That pleasantly peripatetic pair, Dodsworth and the duck, is on the road again for the fourth adventure in Tim Egan’s gentle amusing, nicely drawn, mildly educational series. Dodsworth in Rome takes the two to misadventures in the Eternal City, after their forays in New York, Paris and London. Young readers will enjoy seeing the Coliseum and Trevi Fountain as Dodsworth drives past them on his rented scooter – but the duck does not see them, because Rome’s notorious traffic has him keeping his eyes tightly shut. He opens them to see a shop selling gelato, though, and he gets a seven-scoop cone (compared to Dodsworth’s modest three-scoop one). A highlight of their tour of Rome is Vatican City, where the duck almost repaints part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But unlike the arrangement in Egan’s earlier books, in which Dodsworth is always the straight man to the duck’s humorous misbehavior, there is a bit of a role reversal here, as the duck takes part in a pizza-throwing contest – turning out to have considerable skill with pizza dough – while Dodsworth causes consternation among the Romans as he searches for his missing suitcase. As always in Egan’s books, there turns out to have been nothing more serious here than a misunderstanding and a mixup; and all ends happily – leaving young readers no doubt wondering where Dodsworth and the duck will turn up next.

     The latest book in the Poison Apple series involves a trip, too – to Wolf Valley, Montana, where protagonist Marisol and her mom go for a visit with family friends. Those friends’ 12-year-old twins, Jack and Hailey, ought to get along just fine with Marisol, but as always in these books, something seems not quite right. Given the title Midnight Howl, young readers will quickly figure out what is a bit off – more quickly, in fact, than Marisol does. This is, of course, a maybe-there’s-a-werewolf-out-there story, with Marisol suspecting that the rather standoffish Hailey has a secret life that she is being careful not to reveal. This soon leads Marisol to a Web search for ways a person becomes, or allegedly becomes, a werewolf: “If you wanted to be a werewolf, you could drink dew from a wolf’s footprint (ew), eat a wolf’s brain (double ew!), make a magic lotion to rub on yourself (weird), or wear a special flower (lame). You could also become a werewolf by being bitten, or as the result of a family curse. The italics have it – that must be what has happened to Hailey! But in all these books, it turns out that Marisol isn’t quite correct about Hailey after all – although, also as usual, it turns out that there may just be something to the old werewolf legends after all. Midnight Howl gets a (+++) rating: it does not pretend to be more than a quick, surface-level read, and like the other Poison Apple books, it is as much about friendship as anything else, and offers no more than modest scares.

     Freddy! King of Flurb is equally one-dimensional and also gets a (+++) rating, but the one dimension here is humor, and young readers who like this sort of thing will have a lot of fun with Peter Hannan’s short book. This one involves more travel than Dodsworth’s and Marisol’s trips put together: Freddy and his entire family, captured by aliens, go to some unimaginably distant planet called, of course, Flurb. Thanks to Freddy’s Bionic Belch and “his specialty – the Squawking, Flapping, Atomic-Raspberry-Chicken Salute,” which involves making “sounds that seemed unmakeable for a human,” Freddy attracts the attention of an earthbound worm who just happens to be the king of Flurb and just happens to be looking for a successor. Wormola has to make the right choice to head off the machinations of the bad wizard, named Wizbad, who says, immediately upon meting Freddy, “GORREEX-BABBA-BABBA!” That translates as a really nasty anti-Freddy sentiment, and is backed up by “a face so mean that three aliens in the front row burst into flames. Two others melted. One wet his pants.” Anyway, Freddy soon becomes king; his mother becomes his number-one fan, making T-shirts that unfortunately are impractical on Flurb because they do not have enough armholes; his father, who thinks he should be king, is humiliated in a variety of ways, including being shrunk; and his really annoying sister, Babette, who spent her time on Earth making Freddy miserable because of her good grades and good behavior (both a strong contrast to Freddy’s), spends her time on Flurb feeling awful, licking boots, and joining in anti-Freddy plots. So a good time is had by all – principally by young readers – and this first book in a series ends with Wizbad’s latest plot foiled, Freddy happily being adored and catered to, and the promise of a sequel, Deep-Space Food Fighter. Ah, to travel so far for the purpose of accomplishing so little – but so amusingly!


Gator A-Go-Go. By Tim Dorsey. William Morrow. $24.99

Electric Barracuda. By Tim Dorsey. William Morrow. $24.99.

     Tim Dorsey’s novels are formulaic, repetitious, cut from the same cloth, filled with recurring characters, and packed with plot points that change little from book to book. They can also be hysterically funny, as well as the stuff of revenge fantasies fulfilled against all the irritants and petty nastiness of modern life. And they’ve got a pretty good handle on Florida history, for those interested in the soft underbelly of one of the most interesting states in the U.S. They’re an acquired taste that many readers will never acquire – and an addiction for those who do find them, well, addictive.

     The two most recent books, the just-released Electric Barracuda and its predecessor, Gator A-Go-Go, are utterly typical of Dorsey’s work in both positive and negative ways. They are his 12th and 13th novels featuring serial killer Serge Storms (who is the good guy); his stoner pal, Coleman (who is the comic relief); an assortment of generally (and sometimes genially) incompetent law-enforcement and vigilante types (who provide the Keystone Cops elements of chases); a variety of bad guys, from the seriously evil to the merely exceptionally irritating (many of whom Serge dispatches in exceptionally clever ways, the details of which provide much of the macabre amusement in the books); and an assortment of women, hangers-on, old and jaded Floridians, kids, animals and other stuff.

     Dorsey’s style involves throwing most of this mess at the reader and seeing what sticks; generally, a lot of it does, and at his best, he makes sure to tie up all the plot points by novel’s end. Despite a rather delightful if not wholly unanticipatable twist near the end of Electric Barracuda, the newest books do not quite show Dorsey at the top of his game – in truth, the return of characters from earlier books and the failure of either Serge or Coleman to develop in any way are making the series start to seem a little tired – but both novels have enough fun, history, fast pacing and outright oddity to be delightful (if quick) reads.

     Each of the books turns on Serge’s current preoccupation, which involves the travel blog he is writing for those of a bent similar to his (assuming there are any such). In Gator A-Go-Go, this leads Serge to chronicle the Florida tradition of spring break, from its innocent start in 1935 to its far-from-innocent modern incarnation. In Electric Barracuda, Serge is putting together the Fugitive Tour, designed as a counterweight to all the theme-parks-and-beaches attractions of Florida – for instance, those on this tour will pretend they are on the lam and visit cemeteries to uncover identity-theft opportunities.

     The necessary frisson of evil in Gator A-Go-Go comes from a combination of federal agents and vicious drug dealers, all of whom are after a college student who, for typical Dorsey plot-twist reasons, has come under Serge’s protection. The student wants only to party at Panama City Beach, but the baddies have other ideas, such as murder. So Serge dishes out some typical mayhem of his own (deaths by garage door and cement mixer, for example), while Coleman – playing his typical role – becomes a sort of guru to spring breakers, given his perpetually stoned demeanor and full-blown hedonism.

     In Electric Barracuda, the focus shifts to Florida’s Southwest (Serge’s and Coleman’s perpetual road trip lets them move anywhere in the state, anytime), where they encounter a variety of bad guys of all types, from a child molester to a group of financial executives celebrating their government bailout money – and oh yes, Serge makes sure they get what’s coming to them. Dorsey also makes it a point to satirize the mass media, among other things: here, one of the people pursuing Serge is a highly accident-prone TV bounty hunter (in Gator A-Go-Go, Dorsey’s target is the “reality” show, Girls Gone Haywire).

     Dorsey’s novels contain a certain number of in-jokes and tributes to other writers: Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen, from both of whom Dorsey draws some elements of his style, appeared in Dorsey’s first book, Florida Roadkill, and there are cameos by Randy Wayne White (of the Doc Ford novels) and two-time National Book Award winner Peter Matthiessen in Electric Barracuda. The Serge Storms stories also contain an underlying theme that can easily be missed by casual readers and of which it is not always clear that Dorsey himself is fully aware: the meaning of family. One element of it is Serge’s fatherly protectiveness of Andy McKenna in Gator A-Go-Go. Another is Serge’s discovery in Electric Barracuda that he may be a father – in fact, he and Coleman determinedly mismanage care of a five-year-old of whom they are put in charge. Electric Barracuda actually makes a connection of sorts with Serge’s family (which is also “of sorts”), since part of the book involves Serge’s attempt to help out the survivors of the No Name Gang, a group to which Sergio Storms – Serge’s grandfather and the man who raised Serge – once belonged. The old criminals who survive have themselves become crime victims, and they turn to Serge for help, and the result is decidedly not a series of warm family moments, although there is a hint of appropriately distorted sweetness here and there. Certainly the “family” idea would explain why Serge remains so attached to the otherwise totally useless Coleman – that is, why he does so in the novels’ context rather than for the authorial need to contrast the meticulous, obsessive planning of Serge with the laid-back, devil-may-care attitude of his foil.

     Most readers will not bother to analyze these books, and there is really no need to probe them too deeply – they are larks, and it does no harm to read them entirely on a surface level. Indeed, it is reasonable to argue that they are all surface, just as it is reasonable to argue that Florida itself contains nothing much except beaches, theme parks, retirement communities and mobile homes. But as Serge’s history lessons, sprinkled throughout all Dorsey’s novels, show, there is considerably more to the state than meets most people’s eyes. And there just may be more to the books themselves than most readers realize.


Unearthly. By Cynthia Hand. HarperTeen. $17.99.

Fallen Angel. By Heather Terrell. HarperTeen. $8.99.

When You Reach Me. By Rebecca Stead. Yearling. $6.99.

     Move over, vampires. Step aside, werewolves. There are new supernatural kids on the block, whose adventures are designed to thrill, titillate and enthrall teen readers: angels. Or part-angels anyway, such as 16-year-old Clara, the protagonist of Cynthia Hand’s Unearthly. This debut novel often reads like one: predictable plotting, strings of coincidences, stilted dialogue. But its underlying premise is an interesting one: Clara has known she is part-angel (one quarter, actually) for two years, but is only now getting visions of her capital-p Purpose, a rite of passage that is going to involve (no surprise) a great-looking guy. It soon turns out that Clara is not the only one of her kind by a long shot – not even in her own neighborhood. There is, for example, a girl named (what else?) Angela: “‘Clara, sit down. Relax.’ Then she adds, ‘I know.’ ‘You know wh—’ Sit down,’ she says. In Angelic. My jaw literally drops. ‘How did you—?’ ‘What, you thought you were the only one?’ she says wryly, looking at her nails. I sink into the chair. I think this classifies as a real, honest-to-goodness revelation. Never in a million years would I have expected to stumble upon another angel-blood at Jackson Hole High School. I’m floored.” But we cannot leave Clara on the floor, where she is presumably searching for the jaw that has “literally” dropped, for she has to learn more about her kind and her Purpose – and eventually face, quite unsurprisingly, a test in which she has to decide which of two great guys she is going to save. But first she has to learn about the evil Black Wings, who appear to her in nightmares: “I feel the amber eyes of the Black Wing. Then he’s holding me down, pressing me into the cold ground beneath, his body blotting out the light. Pine needles stab into my back. I scream and flail. One hand strikes his wing and I pull out a fistful of black feathers. In my fingers they evaporate. I keep pulling at the angel’s wings, each feather a piece of his evil, until he suddenly dissolves into a heavy cloud of smoke, leaving me coughing and panting in the dirt.” The chapter titles here are fun: “Hot Bozo,” “Goth Tinker Bell.” And the basic idea of angel families (Clara’s over-100-year-old mom, who only looks about 40, is a half angel) is interestingly offbeat. But the book is more earthbound than unearthly in its standard teen-relationship complications and its ultimate “finding out who I really am” climax – which, not surprisingly at all, sets the stage for a followup novel.

     Fallen Angel is also a teen paranormal romance and also the start of a series. It too focuses on finding one’s true calling, and it too is basically a love story with complications – here involving Ellspeth (Ellie) Faneuil and Michael Chase. The angels here are a good deal like vampires in their taste for blood, but they also have such angelic characteristics as the ability to fly and the power to know what others are thinking. Here too the modern teens are caught in an ancient struggle for primacy between good and evil – although the twist here is that Ellie and Michael may find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Heather Terrell’s novel, like Hand’s, is told in the first person, and in both books, the Hebrew word Nephilim is used to refer to fallen angels – or, in the case of Terrell’s book, to “a unique race of half man and half angel.” In fact, these books have so many traits in common that readers who like one will gravitate equally to the other. This is not to say, though, that they are identical: many details differ. There is no “percentage angel” issue in Fallen Angel, for example; one is either angelic or not (although an important question about this issue is raised as part of the book’s climax). Ellie’s father explains to her that God sent Noah’s flood to wipe out the half-breed Nephilim and the humans corrupted by angels, and then punished all the immortal angels – some of whom turned to the dark side and some of whom realized the error of their ways and decided to try to make amends. Hence the persistent split among the angelic; and hence, Ellie’s dad explains, the legends of vampires, which began when people saw good angels “trying to bring souls to God at the moment of death” – actions that were misinterpreted when people “attributed to them the deaths they witnessed.” Yet the bad angels added to the legends by trying “to suck away humans’ souls and create a civilization that worshipped them, instead of God.” This is all, of course, nonsensical, and it makes God out to be a bully – and not a very intelligent one, at that – but it is merely “back story” for the tale of Ellie and Michael. Part of what happens here also involves Ellie determining her small-p purpose, and the book sometimes becomes unintentionally funny as she struggles with that: “How could someone like me – whatever I was – hope to move past all this drama and strangeness and go to college?” The climactic scenes at Harvard Square, underground on Boston’s T system, and at Quincy Market, will be fun for those who know Boston, and the book as a whole is well paced and does a good job of setting up its sequel, to be called Eternity. But calling the whole thing angelic would be stretching the truth.

     There are no beings designated “angels” in Rebecca Stead’s Newbery-winning novel, When You Reach Me, but there are occurrences that parallel what angels and other supernatural beings do or could do – although Stead is as careful to play against genre stereotypes as Hand and Terrell are to stay within them. In fact, When You Reach Me straddles two genres – mystery and SF – throughout. Set in New York City in 1979, and intended for ages 9-14, it is the story of sixth-grader Miranda and her best friend, Sal, who suddenly shuts Miranda out for no apparent reason after he is punched, also for no apparent reason, by Marcus, another boy on the street. Then all sorts of strange things start to happen, the strangest being the series of notes that Miranda starts to receive, with odd and cryptic statements followed by equally odd and equally cryptic commands – for instance, to write a letter to the unknown sender of the note. Originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback, When You Reach Me has a few plot elements that do not wear especially well, notably one involving Miranda’s mom’s determination to appear on a TV show called The $20,000 Pyramid. That plot is interwoven with the one about Sal’s mysterious backing away from Miranda and with a third, about a crazy laughing man whom Sal and Miranda have seen on a street corner and from whom they know enough to stay away. The laughing man, who of course is not what he seems to be, proves to be the linchpin of a plot that turns on Stead’s concept of time travel – the SF element underpinning the book. But this foundation becomes clear only at the book’s end. Until then, Miranda (whose constant reading of Madeleine L'Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time provides a hint of what is going on) tries to work through the peculiar notes and also understand her own feelings about Sal and her mom’s for her boyfriend, Richard. Miranda’s mom says, at one point, “I just feel stuck, like I’m afraid to take any steps, in case they’re the wrong ones,” and this could easily be Miranda’s problem as well – but she pushes through, and eventually figures out the relationship among Sal, Marcus and the laughing man. On one level, the book explores forms of friendship: Miranda’s with Sal and her later ones with two people she initially dislikes, Marcus and a girl named Julia. On another, it is all about the relationship between past and future, and their intersection in the present – rather heady territory for a book targeting readers of this age range, and undoubtedly a big reason the book won its Newbery award. The chapter called “The Last Note” – that is, the final one Miranda is told to write – pulls everything in the book together neatly in a list with 47 numbers. There is no talk of angels in the list, but the deed that leads Miranda to write the letter is certainly angelic, not in a modern or twisted sense but in that of a very old-fashioned “guardian angel.” Dressed up in science-fictional trappings and held at bay through the elements of a mystery, the story of When You Reach Me is ultimately about the occasional, very occasional, presence of something angelic in life, even though the way it gets there is one that passeth all understanding.


And the Rest Is History: The Famous (and Infamous) First Meetings of the World’s Most Passionate Couples. By Marlene Wagman-Geller. Perigee. $18.95.

How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old. By Marc Agronin, M.D. Da Capo. $25.

Bloody Times: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Manhunt for Jefferson Davis. By James L. Swanson. Collins. $16.99.

     A delightful idea marred by sloppy, imperfect execution, And the Rest Is History attempts to do for love what They Went That-a-Way by Malcolm Forbes and (mainly) Jeff Bloch did for death more than 20 years ago: provide entertaining encapsulations of famous people’s lives by focusing on one major event – in the case of Marlene Wagman-Geller’s book, each person’s first meeting with his or her “destiny” (as the author invariably and very repetitiously puts it). This could be a cute gift-book idea, but it is a rather thin premise for a more-than-240-page work with some pretensions to seriousness. And Wagman-Geller never really delivers on her title’s promise: she mentions most of the first meetings only in passing, instead using each short chapter to tell the tale of the marriages or affairs of a variety of notables from ancient to modern times (with a strong emphasis on the modern). Among the 34 couples here are Napoleon and Josephine, Leonard Woolf and Virginia Stephen, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Elvis and Priscilla Presley, and Prince Charles and Camilla Shand. Some of these unions were long, some short; some were marriages, some affairs; some ended only at death, others in divorce – there is little in common among the tales, and Wagman-Geller makes no attempt to teach readers anything through them or demonstrate any great truths about human love and happiness. She is satisfied with simply recounting warmed-over celebrity gossip – but really, in doing so, she or her editors ought to have at least made sure to get their celebrity names, dates and authorial clichés right. Wagman-Geller calls Hollywood director Howard Hawks “Hawk,” not once but twice; and in discussing George Burns’ life after the death of Gracie Allen, she writes about Burns needing to “shoulder on” (rather than the correct “soldier on”) – again, twice. And then there are the numerous stylistic howlers, such as “a seventeen-room mansion, replete with tennis court,” “the price of prevarication” (rather than the correct word, “procrastination”), and “fire is a two-edged sword.” And there are ridiculous inaccuracies, such as the statement that Céline Dion signed a contract with Caesar’s Palace in 2003 and then “bid a farewell to the spotlight” there in 1999. The fact that Wagman-Geller is a high-school English teacher in California tells readers more than they may want to know about the educational system in the most populous state in the U.S. and makes these pervasive lapses even more distressing, if not exactly poignant. Nor is there much poignancy in most of these once-over-lightly stories; most of the book’s genuinely interesting material comes from tales that are likely to be less familiar than the others to the majority of readers – Charles Parnell and Katherine O’Shea’s story, for example, or that of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. And the Rest Is History does have a certain number of purely enjoyable moments, but much of it is pure dross.

     There is a tendency, in our youth-obsessed culture, to think that all life becomes dross as we age. Aging means inevitable loss, illness, decline of mental and physical faculties, and death. It means life in an assisted-living center or a nursing home, a slow fall into eventual oblivion. Who would want to experience it – were it not that the alternative is an early death? Geriatric psychiatrist Marc Agronin’s How We Age, which gets a (+++) rating, attempts to present a different perspective on growing old – not a “positive spin” on what is essentially negative, but a more balanced view of aging than is usually put forth. All the negative elements are present, but Agronin says he has found that again and again, they have counterweights in the form of wisdom, vitality and forms of creativity that are quite different from those experienced in youth. The book is based on Agronin’s experiences with the Miami Jewish Heath Systems in Florida, in particular with the residents of a nursing home there. “Someone living with the daily infirmities of aging and approaching death [can] still enjoy most of the same human experiences we find so precious in younger years,” observes Agronin – although this is a rather backhanded “positive” element of aging. Agronin slowly builds his case for a more balanced view of old age through descriptions of specific patients’ concerns and worries, through consideration of earlier psychological and psychoanalytic writings on aging (such as those of Erik Erikson, who proposed an eight-stage model of human life – one more than Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man”), and through references to literature (Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, for example). Agronin’s most optimistic assessment of the potentials of old age comes in “A Million Sparks,” the final section of his book, in which he comments on “how sparks of humanity persist until the final moments” even while acknowledging the “profound challenges” of being old. Agronin seems a little too ambivalent about his own optimism to be truly convincing in his arguments. So committed is he to trying to balance the negatives of old age with positives that he does the same thing in reverse – finding negative elements to set against whatever positive ones he discovers. For example, after recounting the survival of a man who lived because of surgery that was done only after Agronin properly diagnosed his condition, the author adds, “Not all older individuals will have such happy endings. Many times there will be little that can be done, and the results will seem tragic.” In the book’s epilogue, recounting the deaths of several patients introduced earlier, Agronin writes of “hope” and “the preciousness of memory,” but one gets the feeling he is trying to convince himself as much as his readers. There is surely some level of balance between the cares and joys of the last years of a long life, but How We Age communicates the positives only fitfully and imperfectly.

     What is communicated in Bloody Times, which also gets a (+++) rating, is in part love, in part the end of life, and in part all the passions that shorten or lengthen life, make it as a whole happy or tragic. This is a Civil War book, an adaptation for younger readers of James L. Swanson’s Bloody Crimes. It includes pages on the love between President Lincoln and Mary Todd – and the terrifying nightmare she had, foretelling his death. It includes his assassination and the planning that, while hasty, nevertheless led to an immensely impressive funeral that took his body from Washington, D.C., home to Illinois. And it includes the determination of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to keep the Southern cause alive through the month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender – a story pervaded with Davis’ love for his family and the South, and with missteps and errors aplenty (including the untrue accusation by President Andrew Johnson, among others, that Davis was involved in planning Lincoln’s assassination). Bloody Crimes gives short shrift to Southern attitudes and emotions, making it hard to understand why, even after Lee’s surrender, some Confederates were quite willing to continue the fight – and told Davis so. But the book will appeal to teenage and even preteen readers through its fast pace, its interwoven stories, and its large number of photos: Lincoln’s Springfield tomb, the funeral arch built in his honor in Chicago, the cartoon falsely claiming that Davis was captured while wearing women’s clothing (an idea that persists even today), Davis’ own funeral procession in New Orleans after his death in 1889, and many more. And readers may be surprised at a highly contemporary element of Swanson’s story: Davis’ library and museum in Mississippi, packed with artifacts and mementoes of the Civil War – and used for decades as a retirement home for aged Confederate veterans – was destroyed as recently as 2005. Hurricane Katrina wiped out the carefully preserved memories of a long-ago time whose events continue to resonate even today, in North and South alike.


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. Hänssler Classic. $39.99 (3 SACDs)

Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 0-9. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Lorin Maazel. BR Klassik. $79.99 (11 CDs).

Schubert: The 10 Symphonies; Symphonic Fragments, D615 and D708a. Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Neville Marriner. Newton Classics. $34.99 (6 CDs).

     The attempt to perform composers’ works in the way they intended them to be heard has gotten complicated. Original-instrument performances of Baroque music, using Baroque techniques, have become so popular as to be reasonably common, and some luthiers and harpsichord manufacturers have taken to specializing in reproductions of old instruments for performers who want to play “in olden style” but cannot obtain originals. However, it is not just Baroque music that needs to be heard differently from the usual way if audiences are to experience it as composers intended. Roger Norrington, a longtime champion of authentic performance style, whose London Classical Players played and recorded numerous works in the way the composers expected them to be heard, has in recent years turned his attention to music of the 19th century – when orchestral size and playing were quite different from what audiences became accustomed to in the mid-20th century and continue to expect today. Now Norrington has brought out an excellent set of Brahms’ symphonies in which the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, despite using modern instruments, labors mightily to make these familiar works sound as Brahms intended them to sound. This is by no means a simple matter. Brahms wrote for orchestras of around 30 strings (half the size of a typical modern complement), and expected the violins to be split left and right. He expected strings to play without vibrato except when specifically instructed – so-called “pure tone” was the German style until as recently as 1940 (continuous vibrato began in France and gradually became the norm worldwide). And Brahms expected brisker tempos for many movements than modern audiences are accustomed to hear. Norrington attempts to deliver performances that duplicate the sounds the composer wanted – which, for example, means either doubling the woodwind while keeping a modern 60-string complement, or halving the modern strings while leaving the winds as indicated in the score. This is something of a slippery slope, as even Mahler discovered when he famously (or notoriously) changed some of Beethoven’s orchestrations in an attempt to bring out what he believed the composer intended audiences to hear. For many listeners, all the changes will seem an academic exercise and, in truth, will not be very noticeable in some movements of the symphonies. But the overall impression of Norrington’s Brahms cycle is a very fine one, and a very different one from those of excellent performances of the past. For example, even George Szell, famous for the chamber-music clarity he brought to Cleveland Orchestra performances, made the Brahms symphonies heavier, muddier and more opaque than Norrington does. Norrington’s are very transparent readings, often far less weighty than a listener will expect, and distinctly brighter in many passages (because Norrington re-seats the double basses, horns and brass so their interaction sounds as it would have in Brahms’ time). This recording of live performances from 2005 is worth having strictly on its own terms – these are musically very worthwhile interpretations, full of nuance and instrumental color. But Norrington’s new Brahms cycle is especially intriguing because of its approach. In truth, it may take some listeners several hearings to appreciate Norrington’s handling of the weighty First and emotionally tight-knit Third – the sunny Second and Bach-imbued Fourth seem made for this approach to a greater extent, or at least a more obvious one. But all these performances repay repeated hearings quite wonderfully. As fine as they are when first heard, they grow in appeal over time as the clarity of strings, the excellent balance among sections, and the subtleties of instrumental interplay entice the ear ever more strongly. This set is an intriguing counterpart to the one Norrington did with the London Classical Players for EMI two decades ago, which used historical instruments or reproductions of them. A re-release of that older set would certainly be worthwhile – and this new one is more than worthwhile: it is fascinating.

     When it comes to Bruckner, those seeking authentic performances have a different sort of problem from that relating to Brahms. The ever-present Bruckner issue involves which Bruckner to play – which symphonies to count as among his “complete” set, and which specific edition of each symphony to use. There are many, many answers to these questions, all of them sure to spur lively debate among conductors and other musicians: the Bruckner oeuvre is nothing if not complicated. For his 1999 Bruckner cycle with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Lorin Maazel chose to include 10 symphonies, all in editions by musicologist Leopold Nowak (1904-1991). Nowak was the symphonies’ best editor, but Maazel’s choice is not inarguably the right one. For one thing, there are 11 Bruckner symphonies, including an early “school symphony” sometimes given the number “00.” Maazel omits that, but includes the one given the number “0,” identifying it, however, as the “annulled second,” which is chronologically correct (it was written in 1869, a year after No. 1 was completed) but numerologically confusing. The specific versions of symphonies chosen by Maazel are pretty much standard nowadays, and most listeners who know Bruckner will have heard them before. But that makes this set of live recordings less intriguing than, for example, the wonderful Georg Tintner cycle, released a decade ago by Naxos, not long after the conductor died in 1999. That set, which also had 11 CDs, managed to include on them all 11 symphonies plus a series of alternative movements, such as the often-discussed but very rarely played Volksfest finale to No. 4. Although the playing in the Tintner set, which used three different orchestras, was nowhere near as polished and idiomatic as that in Maazel’s, the set itself provided endless fascination through Tintner’s willingness to present nonstandard versions of several symphonies – notably the first (1887) version of No. 8. Maazel’s cycle is, by comparison, quite conventional. On the other hand, that is not a bad thing when the music glows as it does here. Maazel has a fine sense of structure and style, and understands better than many conductors how to differentiate each Bruckner symphony from the others, even though all occupy a similar sonic environment because of the composer’s unique handling of orchestration and thematic groups. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks has particularly strong brass, and Maazel pushes the brass players to the limit again and again, with burnished and thrilling results. The musicians clearly have a level of comfort with Bruckner’s music that few other orchestras can match, and Maazel relies on that as he shapes rhythmic subtleties (focusing on one section of the orchestra) while relying on the rest of the musicians to carry on in the same spirit (as they do – this is especially evident in Nos. 4 and 5). Maazel demands, and gets, a very wide dynamic range from these players – soft sections of No. 7 are just gorgeous – and he maintains a firm grasp of Buckner’s architecture while allowing the music to breathe and expand in grand and glorious aural waves. This is a set to cherish for the wonderful sound of the orchestra and the excellent control shown by Maazel in the service of what is clearly a well-thought-out vision of these 10 symphonies. Unlike Tintner’s, Maazel’s is not an innovative or revelatory cycle, but it is a firm-handed, fine-sounding and gorgeously played one – worthy to be the cornerstone of many listeners’ Bruckner collections.

     In the case of what Schubert intended to be heard in his symphonies, things can get very complicated indeed, as becomes clear in Newton Classics’ re-release of the full set of 10 Schubert symphonies led by Neville (not yet Sir Neville) Marriner, recorded from 1981 to 1984. Of course, “everyone knows” that Schubert wrote nine symphonies, not 10…well, really eight, since there is no performable No. 7. But Marriner and his collaborator, composer/conductor Brian Newbould, turned conventional wisdom on its head with this Schubert set. There are indeed 10 Schubert symphonies: No. 7 was finished but never fully orchestrated (although the orchestration was begun, providing plenty of information for the completed realization by Newbould heard here); No. 10 exists only in part, but that part shows Schubert at the very end of his life reaching even beyond the famous “Great” C Major symphony, No. 9. Furthermore, Newbould provides a completion for the “Unfinished” symphony, using Schubert’s sketch of the scherzo and pulling in a finale from elsewhere in the composer’s oeuvre (it comes from the incidental music to Rosamunde). This set also offers two Newbould completions/orchestrations of symphonic fragments, one lasting 7½ minutes and the other, more substantial one lasting 17½ . It is certainly possible to fault a number of these performances: tempos tend to be quick, the grander movements sometimes lack stature, and there is often a superficiality to the interpretations that makes them pleasant enough but scarcely of any great importance. Furthermore, unlike the 1980s releases of this set, the one from Newton Classics contains only the sketchiest of booklet notes, with no substantive information on how the “Unfinished” was completed, why No. 7 is never played, and where the fragments and No. 10 come from. This is a real shame, since no other Schubert cycle has ever been as ambitious as this one in gathering all the composer’s symphonic attempts, completed and incomplete alike, into one place. Nevertheless, this set is a wonderful one to have, precisely because Marriner and Newbould offer music that is not available anyplace else, providing the most complete portrait of Schubert the symphonist to be found anywhere – and in performances that, while not interpretatively ideal, are very well and cleanly played and are presented with a great deal of spirit. Is this what Schubert intended to leave the world in his symphonic output? Doubtful – but until someone else comes up with an even more complete set of Schubert’s symphonic works, this one will stand on its own as the sole recording that has tried to give listeners absolutely everything symphonic that Schubert produced.


Wagner: The Ring without Words—A Symphonic Synthesis. Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Lorin Maazel. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6. Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Christian Thielemann. Unitel Classica. $39.99 (3 DVDs or Blu-ray Disc).

Sophia: Biography of a Violin Concerto—A Jan Schmidt-Garre Film. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

     Videos of classical-music performances always pose something of a dilemma to creators and prospective purchasers alike. Creators have to figure out just what video elements it makes sense to add: ones to try to duplicate a concertgoing experience, ones to enhance at-home viewing, ones that “jazz up” the visuals, ones that are consonant with the tone of the music, ones that make a concert look like a TV show, or what? Purchasers have to decide whether it makes sense to have music on DVD (or, more recently, Blu-ray Disc), at a higher price, rather than have the same material on CD: will they actually watch the video version, and if so, will they watch it often enough to make the extra cost worthwhile? The pluses and minuses of video productions are clear each time new ones are released. Wagner: The Ring without Words is a video version of Lorin Maazel’s 83-minute distillation of Wagner’s nearly 20-hour-long operatic tetralogy, an attempt to bring the Ring cycle’s gorgeous music to a wider audience than would typically have time, money or inclination to see it in the opera house – assuming interested people could even find an opera company that was doing all four operas in reasonably close proximity. Maazel’s work is a noble attempt that does not quite work, through no fault of his: the Ring is deliberately conceived on a huge scale, its leitmotif structure so complex that the interwoven themes of one opera pervade not only that work but also the other three. The Ring without Words lessens the cycle musically to the exact same extent that it opens it up to concert-hall audiences. Yet the music itself is so glorious, so dramatic, that Maazel’s construct is very definitely worth hearing, and will be of interest even to listeners familiar with the operas. But hearing it while seeing it on DVD? Well, despite the excellent playing of the Berlin Philharmonic, it is hard to argue that the video element adds much, if anything, to the experience. This is a performance from October 2000, and it certainly shows Maazel’s intense involvement in the music, giving viewers many looks at a top-notch conductor as he performs a work in which he is heavily invested emotionally. But operagoers will miss the tremendous visual structure that Wagner created for the Ring cycle (even if those visuals have been interpreted decidedly oddly in many recent productions), and listeners unfamiliar with the operas will be seeing just another concert here – nothing wrong with it, but nothing particularly special, either.

     The same is true of the Beethoven performances, on DVD or Blu-ray, with Christian Thielemann and the always outstanding Vienna Philharmonic – but these releases have more visual punch to them, not because of the symphonies themselves but because of their accompaniments. Thielemann’s readings are well paced, full of understanding of Beethoven’s structural innovations and emotional underpinnings, and played with the Vienna Philharmonic’s ever-present silky strings and gorgeous complementary wind, brass and percussion sections. The readings are not especially innovative or revelatory, but they are exceptionally well done in a fairly straightforward way, and the orchestral playing alone is a huge attraction. However, in terms of buying the videos rather than the same or similar performances on CD, the Thielemann offering provides something worthwhile: three hour-long “Discovering Beethoven” films, one per symphony, featuring Thielemann in conversation with the very well-known German music critic, Joachim Kaiser. The films go beyond talk, too, including excerpts from performances by other conductors (Bernstein, Böhm, Karajan, et al.), so viewers-cum-listeners have a chance to compare specific points of interpretation while also learning about Beethoven in his historical as well as musical context. Each of these supplementary documentaries lasts longer than the symphony that it discusses, and some of the points are on the abstruse side – or at least beyond what is necessary for enjoyment of the music. Listeners already familiar with this music may learn some fascinating tidbits about the works and their composer, but whether they will learn enough to make the purchase of these video versions worthwhile is difficult to say – especially since, while most people will want to hear the symphonies again and again, few are likely to want to replay the documentaries time after time. There is very definitely added value to this DVD set or Blu-ray Disc offering, but that fact does not make the Thielemann Beethoven any sort of must-have in video form.

     Sophia: Biography of a Violin Concerto is a different sort of video. It is nothing but a film, and a very well-made one, about Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s Violin Concerto No. 2 being performed for the first time, in 2007, by Anne-Sophie Mutter, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. This is a film about music – about one specific piece of music, that is – and also about the contrasting but complementary personalities of the composer and violinist, and about the way their different creative talents came together for the debut of an important work (Gubaidulina’s previous violin concerto was first performed 27 years earlier, in 1980). Clearly, this video is only for people interested in Gubaidulina’s music, a fact that limits its scope; equally clearly, it is aimed at people within that group who are especially curious about the 15-year gestation period of this concerto, which was commissioned in 1992 by conductor and arts patron Paul Sacher. The concerto, subtitled “In tempus praesens” (the first is called “Offertorium”), is a substantial work that showcases both Gubaidulina’s complex style and Mutter’s very considerable artistry. Jan Schmidt-Garre skillfully provides background on composer and soloist alike, interweaving their stories and showing in what way the première of the concerto was a milestone for each. But it is fair to ask why even Gubaidulina’s greatest admirers would want this video instead of Mutter’s performance of the concerto on CD. The 56-minute film does provide context, biographical information and often-fascinating behind-the-scenes looks at the whole process of collaborative creativity in music. It is worth seeing as a film. But those interested primarily in what Gubaidulina has to say musically will be just as happy with Mutter’s CD of the concerto on Deutsche Grammophon as with this video – which, however, Gubaidulina’s biggest fans may want as a supplement to the CD rather than a substitute for it.

February 17, 2011


The LOUD Book! By Deborah Underwood. Illustrated by Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin. $12.99.

I’m Not. By Pam Smallcomb. Illustrated by Robert Weinstock. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Big Bunny. By Betseygail Rand and Colleen Rand. Illustrated by C.S.W. Rand. Tricycle Press/Random House. $14.99.

Last One In Is a Rotten Egg! By Diane deGroat. Harper. $6.99.

     Children’s-book animals are at least as adorable as real-life ones – and do not require nearly as much care or cleanup. They teach lessons, too. The lesson of The LOUD Book! is that there are many kinds of loudness, just as Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska showed in their previous collaboration, The Quiet Book, that there are many forms of quiet. The fun here comes from the very realistically drawn teddy bears – living teddy bears, that is, which look exactly like stuffed animals come to life – indulging in various noisy pursuits with their equally adorable rabbit, iguana and other friends, with every page captioned in all-capital letters so as to emphasize the noisiness of it all. “LAST SLURP LOUD,” for instance, shows a bunny drinking the last bit of something from a bowl; “BURP DURING QUIET TIME LOUD” shows the bunny and a bear in school, with three question marks floating above them; “UNEXPECTED ENTRANCE LOUD” features costumed characters running amok in a school play; and “CANDY WRAPPER LOUD” is a scene in a movie theater, with two bears in the audience staring back irritatedly at the reader (but presumably looking back at the candy unwrapper). There is an amusing contrast between “GOOD CRASH LOUD” (bowling alley) and “BAD CRASH LOUD’ (something just outside the picture has been dropped: two bunnies are staring off to the right). The way Underwood and Liwska show that objectively quiet things can seem loud under certain circumstances is especially interesting: “SNORING SISTER LOUD” at bedtime and “CRICKETS LOUD” for a bunny trying to sleep outdoors. Like The Quiet Book, this companion work is well conceived, pleasantly presented and gently amusing throughout.

     I’m Not is even funnier – and even more directly instructive. Pam Smallcomb tells the story of two very different friends, the narrator and Evelyn – hilariously depicted by Robert Weinstock as small dragons, or dinosaurs, or something like that. For most of the book, the narrator (drawn in plain brown) laments the many ways in which bright-green Evelyn is “not one single bit ordinary.” Evelyn, for example, is “up on all the latest fashion trends,” such as “Band-Aids with pearls,” while “I’m not.” Evelyn is “a wonderful decorator” (painting her friend’s ceiling orange and her friend’s scales pink), but “I’m not.” Sometimes Evelyn acts like a circus performer or Antarctic explorer – but whatever she is, “I’m not.” So why do these two very opposite friends enjoy being with each other so much? The reasons, and the underlying celebration of being good at different things, start to emerge midway through the book, when Evelyn admits she is “stinky at spelling,” and the narrator says, “I’m not.” It turns out that Evelyn is scared of the dark, and “the absolute worst at making cookies,” but “I’m not.” The lesson here is quickly made explicit: “Evelyn says that what she needs most is a best friend.” And the two conclude the book with a rousing repetition of “I am!” Highly amusing in its own right, I’m Not is also highly instructive in exactly the right soft-pedaled way.

     The lessons of Big Bunny are all about size, differentness and cooperation, with the story by the Rands (Colleen, who also calls herself C.S.W., is Betseygail’s mother) focusing on all the little Easter bunnies born one spring – one of whom grows and grows and GROWS. Big Bunny likes being big, and the smaller bunnies get along just fine with Big Bunny – until it comes time to start coloring Easter eggs and making Easter baskets. Then Big Bunny breaks eggs and crushes baskets – without meaning to – and becomes so upset that she leaves and “goes far, far away.” The other bunnies put their heads together – their ears, actually – and decide to find Big Bunny and bring her back. They do locate her eventually – she is sitting sadly in a distant forest – and all the bunnies together figure out what to do. The result is a cooperative endeavor in which Big Bunny is key to the prompt delivery of Easter eggs, and all the bunnies work together to make the distribution process go more smoothly than ever. A sweet story with stylized illustrations, Big Bunny will make very young children smile, and perhaps show them the virtues of being inclusive.

     Last One In Is a Rotten Egg! is an Easter story, too, but like Diane deGroat’s other tales of Gilbert the opossum, it teaches in a more explicit way. The book’s title is the phrase repeated again and again by Gilbert’s and Lola’s cousin, Wally, who is always determined to be first – first into the house, first to finish eating, first in line, and so on. Wally’s determination becomes more than merely irritating during an Easter egg hunt, which includes a prize for the finder of a special golden egg. Lola is the one who spots it, but neither she nor Gilbert can reach it – so they call on Wally, who promptly puts it in his own basket. So it is up to Gilbert to think of a way to teach Wally a lesson, which he promptly does – leading to Lola’s recovery of the golden egg, prizes for both Lola and Gilbert, and a lesson in sharing that Wally needs to learn…and, this being a deGroat book, promptly does. The story is a little too creakily structured, a little too manufactured toward teaching that ultimate lesson, so the book gets a (+++) rating because of its obviousness. But it will certainly be appealing to Gilbert’s and deGroat’s many fans.


The Science of Single: One Woman’s Grand Experiment in Modern Dating, Creating Chemistry, and Finding Love. By Rachel Machacek. Riverhead. $15.

When Sex Hurts: A Woman’s Guide to Banishing Sexual Pain. By Andrew Goldstein, M.D., Caroline Pukall, Ph.D., and Irwin Goldstein, M.D. Da Capo. $16.

     Hilarious but sad at heart, Rachel Machacek’s The Science of Single is the first-person story of a thirtysomething resident of Washington, D.C., who uses every available modern technique to try to find “The One” – or, as she more correctly notes, “A One.” And failing. The ultimate failure of Machacek’s year-long dating quest, during which she regarded dating as her job and went at it with the same intensity and single-mindedness that people usually bring to work, is the sad part of the book, although Machacek herself does not describe it that way. No, her journey is all about uplift, self-discovery, learning about herself and about dating techniques, discovering the pluses and minuses of various forms of connecting (both online and offline), and almost incidentally having plenty of what she herself calls “loveless premarital sex.” Machacek, a writer and editor, not only explores the men in Washington but also takes some time to look into the dating scenes in New York City, Chicago, San Diego, the Los Angeles area and Charlotte, North Carolina. Perhaps it should not be surprising that she does not find “A One” anywhere – after all, she explains, she is still dealing in therapy with “the baggage problem. I’m worried that I’ll never have a fulfilling relationship because I’m still working through old issues of not feeling like I deserve the attention and affection that I need, and so I recycle a pattern of being attracted to men who can’t give this to me.” But everyone has baggage, and if Machacek does not exactly carry hers lightly, she at least tries to get beyond it – and that is one attraction of The Science of Single. Another, more obvious one is Machacek’s ability to write so entertainingly about the many awful (and some not-so-awful) men she dates that a reader can easily get swept up in the apparent hilarity and forget that there is some real heartache underlying it. Machacek gives the men wonderfully apt nicknames: Perfect Redhead, Dr. Dreamy, the Bolivian, Music Man, El Rico. She intersperses highly amusing accounts of her attempts to make dates work with little snippets of introspection: “It’s becoming quite clear that I am not attracted to men who have any sort of potential for a relationship.” She tries blind dating. She tries speed dating: “Contrary to what I thought might happen, I did not curl up and die a painful, torturous death. In addition to not dying, I appreciated being able to test chemistry right off the bat, unlike online dating where predicting chemistry is next to impossible.” And yes, she does try online dating – in lots of different ways. She even offers some trenchant site comparisons: “If we’re talking numbers, eHarmony wins, hands down, with a whopping 357 matches sent to my inbox in one month. Over two and a half months, IJL [It’s Just Lunch] threw me into the ring with four guys. …I know a deal when I see it, and 357 matches for $50 is way better than 4 for $1,300.” Machacek is clearly intelligent, reasonably self-aware, ebullient, skilled at self-expression, a good writer, and open to all sorts of new experiences. She is also, at the end of the book, still alone. A shame? A flaw in her “science” methodology? The result of her “baggage”? A commentary on the near-impossibility, even with all the new methods of dating, of finding someone truly compatible? The Science of Single comes to no conclusion on what Machacek’s intense dating means, if indeed it means anything beyond the obvious exclamation: “Hey, this could be a book!” This is not a road map – it is a meander through some uncharted waters and many charted ones, ending up, at least for the time being, still at sea.

     At least Machacek seems to have enjoyed the sex she had with men during her search, loveless though it was. Other women, even ones in committed relationships or marriages, are not so lucky. Female sexual pain is one of those rarely discussed conditions that can be debilitating in their effect on the joy of everyday life, but that are not brought up to doctors because of fear or embarrassment. When Sex Hurts is therefore, from the start, a great service to women who suffer from sexual pain, because they can read the book on their own and then take it to a gynecologist or other doctor and use it as a distancing mechanism to put their concerns in perspective – and they can also find out, thanks to the book’s clear and nonjudgmental tone, that they can be helped if they will only begin to discuss what is going on. The three authors have considerable expertise in this field, both individually and together. Andrew Goldstein is president of the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health; Caroline Pukall, an associate professor at Queen’s University in Canada, is a leading researcher of female sexual pain; and Irwin Goldstein has researched sexual dysfunction for more than three decades. The three previously collaborated on the textbook, Female Sexual Pain Disorders, but When Sex Hurts is far from textbook-like. Yes, it uses medical words frequently, but the authors generally do a good job of explaining what the verbiage means: “The term dyspareunia refers to sexual pain – no matter what the cause. Terms like vulvodynia, vestibulodynia, and vaginitis refer to specific conditions that cause dyspareunia.” The book lists many possible reasons for sexual pain: pelvic floor muscle problems, hormonal changes causing dryness and irritation, skin disorders, bladder inflammation and more. The authors explain how to do a self-examination to determine the location of pain, how to talk about it to your doctor, and what to expect during a thorough physical exam. They repeatedly give voice to women’s possible fears about the pain itself and about discussing it, and they suggest very reasonable coping strategies: “Tell your doctor you want to watch the examination with a hand mirror, and ask him or her to name each part being touched.” They talk about treatment of physical causes of sexual pain – and what to do if the pain may be psychological in origin, perhaps related to sexual abuse (in a section that includes a list of “sexual abuse and violence resources”). They discuss the importance of physical therapy, which they “recommend…for nearly every condition that contributes to sexual pain. Because it works!” And they discuss psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, medication and other possible approaches to the pain. The result is a thoughtful, well-written book that, at its core, provides hope – perhaps the most valuable of all elements of treatment. For that one element alone, When Sex Hurts is a must-have for any woman for whom sex brings pain rather than pleasure.


A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, & a Raven. By Slavenka Drakulić. Penguin. $14.

A Dazzling Display of Dogs. By Betsy Franco. Illustrations by Michael Wertz. Tricycle Press/Random House. $16.99.

Dear Tabby. By Carolyn Crimi. Illustrated by David Roberts. Harper. $16.99.

     George Orwell wrote the book on animals as meaningful political and societal commentators: Animal Farm. Although far from the first work to use animals as stand-ins for people – Aesop’s fables predate it by some two thousand years – it was Orwell’s book, first published in 1946, that cemented the notion of animal commentators for modern readers, as well as giving the world the inimitable epigram, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." This was Orwell’s encapsulation of Communism, the system that Animal Farm was meant to satirize, and the characterization has stood up so well because it was so apt (and so applicable to other human-designed systems, too, not necessarily excluding the pseudo-equality of democracy). Now, decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the scattering of its satellite states into post-Communist worlds of their own, Croatian author Slavenka Drakulić has returned to the notion of animal stand-ins to present her decidedly skewed, highly pointed and often surprisingly moving eight-part study, A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism. A mouse in Prague, a parrot from the shattered country that used to be Yugoslavia, a Bulgarian bear, a cat from Warsaw, an East German mole (an especially apt choice), a Hungarian pig, a dog from Bucharest and an Albanian raven explore life under Communism and wonder whether the post-Communist world in which they now live is really better or merely different. Exploring notions of social justice and the gulf between high-minded ideals and gritty reality, the animal philosophers present thoughtful, if skewed, analyses of their nations and the world. The book is largely about memory and how to integrate the past into the present, as in Tosho the Dancing Bear’s comment: “Ah, it is perhaps useless to try to tell new kids what it was like to live before, to dance while somebody else yanks your chain.” Or that of Koki, the talking and cursing parrot, speaking to a tourist: “Koki used to be part of the Marshal’s zoo here on one of the fourteen islands in the Brioni archipelago that he used as his summer residence during his reign. At that time, of course, Koki did not need to entertain people like you. Oh no! You bloody tourists could not get anywhere near this place.” Or the remarks to the state prosecutor by Gorby the cat, regarding the planned trial of an ex-leader: “The main question is, What is the purpose of this trial? Is it to achieve symbolic justice, or is it a case of belated retribution? Is he being tried as a person or as a symbol?” The entire book is full of symbols – the animals themselves, of course, prominent among them – and filled also with a kind of wistfulness for the Communist era that never quite slips into nostalgia. The animals do not pretend that things were wonderful under the old dictatorships; quite the contrary. But then, at least, they (and by extension the humans among whom they lived) knew where they stood, what their limits were. The fall of Communism brought with it the liberties but also the confusions of democracy (or at least of post-Communist society); and these can be distinctly difficult to navigate, if not perhaps as imminently deadly as the ins and outs of the Communist worlds they displaced. Drakulić is well aware that she is treading in Orwell’s footsteps with this book: she opens it with a quotation from him. And some of her animals’ observations approach the Orwellian, like one from “Karl, called Charlie,” the oldest dog in Bucharest: “What do you do when there’s not even an idea of a common interest, a common good? In a society like ours it needs to be created. The lack of it means that one day we’ll wake up to a decision of someone high up that dogs finally have to go. In the name of the EU we’ll be swept away for good. Then there will be a short outrage; the party in charge will perhaps lose a few votes. So what?, one may think. But, permit me to say these harsh words: The question is, Who will be next? Gypsies, perhaps? Jews? And why not people with glasses?” Drakulić’s book will not be easy reading for many Americans: it does require some familiarity for Eastern Europe in particular as well as Communism in general; and it lacks the surface lightness of tone that Orwell brought to Animal Farm, although its wry humor is in its own way quite effective. But A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism is an unusually thoughtful look at where an important part of the world stands today – more proof that out of the mouths of babes, and animals, there can come much wisdom.

     A Dazzling Display of Dogs is unusual, too, although far more lighthearted – no surprise in a book intended not for adults but for children ages 8-12. Betsy Franco here produces nearly three dozen concrete poems featuring dogs of all kinds. “Pug Appeal,” for example, runs, in its entirety, “It’s almost impossible/ Not to hug/ And say something silly/ To Frank the Pug.” But the words are only part of the poem. The illustrations by Michael Wertz, which are pencil drawings colored and then modified using Adobe Photoshop, fit the poetry very well indeed (there is no attempt to keep their colors realistic); and the poems run into, around and through the pictures – the word “pug” becomes Frank’s eye (p) and nose (u), plus something in his mouth (g). Then there is the acrostic called “Misleading Sign,” in which the horizontal part of a fence says “Beware of Dog,” but different words run down the white pickets from specific letters to form the sentence, “But Willy Rarely Ever Growls.” And there is “Emmett’s Ode to His Tennis Ball,” in which the ball-shaped poem is contained within the dog’s mouth – and begins with the words, “Slobbery, sloppy, slimy sphere.” There are also two “Circling Poems,” one about play and one about finding just the right spot to sleep. And there is “Pierre Peeks Out,” in which a small dog rides in a bicyclist’s backpack – which is made of the poem’s words. A Dazzling Display of Dogs is a visual delight as well as a verbal one, and a celebration of pretty much all things canine.

     Over on the feline side of things is Dear Tabby, which is intended for even younger readers (ages 4-8) and is, in its own very different way, just as much fun. It is obvious from Carolyn Crimi’s title that this will be an “advice” book (or will be obvious to adults, anyway) – and indeed it is, but with a decidedly catlike approach. Tabby D. Cat, who exchanges advice for table scraps from her office at the “Dumpster with the Dented Top” in Critterville, Illinois, puts the feline spin on all animals’ problems, responding to a parrot, a groundhog and others. Even a dog (Manfred, a mournful-looking basset hound who wants to know what the key to happiness is). Tabby’s replies to animals from Stanky the skunk to Fizzy the hamster are delightful (to the latter, whose inquiry comes in the shape of an exercise wheel, Tabby writes, “Think outside the circle!”). Tabby even finds time to do a good deed for Betty the bike-riding bear, who has run away from a circus but really wants to go back. David Roberts’ illustrations are a hoot – his sunglasses-wearing groundhog is hysterical – and Crimi manages the surprising accomplishment, in a short picture book, of weaving an actual story line through the amusement, resulting in a happy ending for Tabby as well as some good advice dispensed all around. Dear Tabby is one of those books that just make you want to sit back and purr after you finish reading.


Anthem: The Graphic Novel. By Ayn Rand. Adapted by Charles Santino. Art by Joe Staton. New American Library. $15.

The Faerie Path, Book Five: The Enchanted Quest. By Frewin Jones. HarperTeen. $16.99.

The Faerie Path, Book Six: The Charmed Return. By Frewin Jones. HarperTeen. $16.99.

     It was a bold stroke indeed to transform Ayn Rand’s 1938 novella, Anthem, into a graphic novel, thus making it possible to bring Rand’s vision of a dystopia where collectivism rules thought and even language to a new, wider and presumably younger (teenage) audience. And the adaptation is mostly successful, thanks in particular to Charles Santino’s firm grasp of the work’s basic themes (which Rand had previously worked through two years earlier, in her semi-autobiographical We the Living, and to which she would return frequently in later, longer and denser novels). The notion of a stultifying collectivism, whether fascistic or communistic, was a particularly vital one during the 1930s, a decade in which many Americans became enamored of the supposed successes of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union and came to regard the collectivist model as an attainable ideal. Predating George Orwell’s 1984 by a decade, Rand’s Anthem strongly proclaimed the weaknesses of think-alike, act-alike societies, and in fact drew on her own experiences under Soviet rule. But while Orwell’s later novel is unremittingly bleak, Rand’s offers hope that if anyone, even a single person, is able to resist collectivism, then the suppression of individuality must ultimately fail. The novel’s hero is called “Equality 7-2521” – in this world, there are no names – and is assigned to be a street sweeper, for the good of the community, because he has committed the “transgression of preference” rather than realizing that all people, all duties, all interests are exactly equal in value. The hero is also the narrator, and it takes some time – even in the graphic novel – to get used to his use of the pronoun “we” for references to himself, and analogous plural pronouns when speaking of others. For the pronoun “I” has been rendered obsolete, and in fact has been condemned and wiped out, in a society in which there are no individuals, merely units of brotherhood serving their brothers. There are sisters here, too, with reproduction controlled and conducted in the Palace of Mating – and Equality 7-2521 eventually meets one of them, Liberty 5-3000, and conducts illegal communication with her through sign language and, eventually, a few words. Rand’s work shows the narrator stumbling upon a place left over from olden times, in which he rediscovers electricity and offers it for the greater good – only to be condemned for working outside his assigned area and having individualistic thoughts. Eventually imprisoned and later self-banished, Equality 7-2521 gradually rediscovers what it means to be a separate, single person; and after Liberty 5-3000 joins him, the two together (in the work’s most arresting scenes) try to express their feelings using “we” and “they” but eventually work their way toward the ability to say “I” and the singular of “you.” The arc of the story is a fairly standard heroic one, with some interesting futuristic and linguistic twists – and the illustrations by Joe Staton pick up the basics well enough. They are not, however, particularly compelling or even very interesting in themselves. They are line drawings rather than fully developed panels, and they come across as fairly thin for the seriousness of the subject matter. They are also less dramatically appealing than the illustrations in many other graphic novels – a fact that may limit this book’s attraction for its intended audience. Nevertheless, they help the story move smartly along, and help concretize concepts that can be difficult to grasp, such as the core of the entire book: “Only three [words] are holy – ‘I will it.’” As an introduction to Rand’s work and an effective bit of dystopic writing in its own right, Anthem works well – and as a graphic novel, it proves surprisingly effective.

     The Faerie Path is also about someone caught between two worlds and trying to figure out where to fit in, but Frewin Jones’ series follows a more conventional teen-adventure path. Its focus is 16-year-old Anita Palmer (human name)/Tania Aurealis (faerie name) – seventh daughter of King Oberon and Queen Titania – who has the ability to move freely between the mortal and faery worlds, but who, according to prophecy, must choose one or the other. In works of this type, quests and heroic adventures are the norm, and great issues ultimately depend on the central character’s individual decisions; and so it is in Jones’ books. The Enchanted Quest involves the possible loss of the faeries’ immortality, and Tania’s wide-ranging journey to prevent that disaster from occurring. She is aided by a mortal boy named Connor Estabrook, among others, and later gains the help of her faerie beloved, Edric; but it turns out that his aid may not be what it seems, for he may be under the sway of the Dark Arts – and perhaps is using them himself. “It all clicked into place. The dizziness, the euphoria, the sense of peace: they had all been a trick, a mind game that Edric had played on her. …‘The worst thing you could have done… Absolutely the very worst thing you could ever do to me is to try and control my mind like that.’” Eventually locating the Dream Weaver and freeing Edric from the grasp of the Green Lady, Tania repeatedly is taken to the edge of her abilities: “In the torture of her mind a clear point of reason and purpose managed to survive,” writes Jones at one point, but the words apply equally well to many of the events here. And they apply as well in The Charmed Return, the conclusion of the series, in which Tania – who has lost all memory of her faerie identity – must rediscover who she is, find her way back to the faerie realm, and be reunited once and for all with Edric, whom she has also forgotten (because of the bargain she had to strike to preserve the faeries’ immortality). In this book, Tania must come face to face not only with external circumstances but also with her own internal uncertainties, learning that she cannot trust even her own memories, but must discover, or rediscover, who she truly is and where she belongs. There are further threats to the faeries here, and Tania’s return to them is needed to save everyone, so there is never really any doubt that she will find her way back, determine her true identity as a princess of the realm, and be united with her beloved Edric (and even Connor will come out all right). But if there is never much of a question about the series’ eventual outcome, there are enough twists, turns and byways along the way to keep Jones’ readers engaged, if not necessarily entranced. Unlike Rand’s Anthem, Jones’ The Faerie Path is intended as pure escapism, without any real-world connection except the clichéd one of needing to decide who you really are and where you really fit in. Within its limited scope, Jones’ series works well; and if it often slips into formulaic plotting and characterization, that will scarcely dismay teen readers attracted to the way Jones handles the whole between-two-worlds concept.


Lehár: Overtures and Waltzes; Suites, Dances and Intermezzi; Symphonic Works; Piano Sonatas. Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Michail Jurowski (Overtures; Suites); Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR conducted by Klauspeter Seibel (Symphonic); Wolf Harden, piano (Sonatas). CPO. $35.99 (4 CDs)

Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 88 and 89; Overtures to “Acide e Galatea,” “Lo speziale” and “L’incontro improviso.” Chamber Orchestra of Bohemia conducted by Douglas Bostock. Scandinavian Classics. $7.99.

Liszt: Two-Piano Transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Duo Reine Elisabeth (Rolf Plagge and Wolfgang Manz), pianos. Telos. $16.99.

     It is truly amazing how much wonderful music exists just outside the mainstream compositions of even the best-known composers. A listener’s willingness to consider a composer to be more than what he is commonly thought to be opens the door to hearing everything from chamber music by Verdi to religious works by Tchaikovsky – and non-stage works by Franz Lehár. CPO has brought out a series of excellent CDs of Lehár’s non-operetta music in the past decade and has now collected four previously released ones in a box labeled, a trifle misleadingly, “Best of Symphonic Lehár.” The label is slightly incorrect for two reasons: first, some of the music is tied directly to Lehár as operetta composer; and second, one entire CD consists of music for solo piano. But let the title pass, because the music is fascinating to hear, very well made, often quite exceptionally interesting, and definitely worthy (some of it, at least) of being rescued from the near-total obscurity in which most of it has long languished. Not all of it, though, as will be seen from the contents of the CD labeled “Overtures and Waltzes.” This disc includes overtures to The Merry Widow, Der Göttergatte and Clo-Clo, plus Altwiener Liebeswalzer, Wilde Rosen (Valse Boston), Grützner-Walzer and Adria Walzer. The first of these, of course, contains hyper-familiar music -- except for the fact that the composer’s most famous work does not have an overture at all (Lehár arranged this pastiche after The Merry Widow attained worldwide success and demand for something for the concert hall became overwhelming). The remaining works are virtually unknown, but all contain music of charm, elegance and grace, with the peculiar piquancy that Lehár always brought to waltzes and other dances (through, among other things, his characteristic use of a solo violin). Michail Jurowski is something of a specialist in this music, leading it with great charm and warmth, both on this CD and on the one of suites, dances and intermezzi entirled “Fata Morgana” – so named because one piece on the disc is a gavotte with that title. Also here are Zigeunerfest (a ballet scene that incorporates music from the operetta Zigeunerleben), a march and dance from Wo die Lerche singt, the Preludium religioso from Rodrigo, a “Scène phantastique” called Ein Märchen aus 1001 Nacht, ballet music from Peter und Paul im Schlaraffenland, a polka-mazurka called Korallenlippen, an excerpt called “Resignation” from Fürstenkind, a Suite de Danse, and a Chinesische Ballett-Suite (which the composer later inserted into Das Land des Lächelns). It is fair to assume that few listeners will ever have heard of the stage works from which most of these excerpts are drawn – much less of the non-stage-related pieces. And that is a shame, since everything on the CD, if not quite at the highest levels of Lehár’s creativity, is tuneful, warm, expressive and altogether lovely, especially when played as well as the works are here.

     The CD called “Symphonic Works” contains only six pieces, five of them having a fairly large scale. From Tatjana comes a set of Preludes and Russian Dances; there is a very moving but rather odd “Tone Poem for Tenor and Orchestra” called Fieber (quite sensitively sung by Robert Gambill); and also here are a symphonic poem for piano and orchestra, Il Guado (well played by Volker Banfield, with the poem that inspired the work included in the CD’s booklet); a Concertino for Violin and Orchestra (in which Latica Honda-Rosenberg is a fine soloist); and a curious work called Eine Vision: Meine Jugendzeit, whose delving into his youth is about as close to self-revelation as Lehár ever came in his music. These are among the least-heard of all Lehár’s works, and it is fascinating to have them available in such lovely performances. And the final, shortest work on the CD is a must-hear: it is Lehár’s late waltz, Donaulegenden (“An der grauen Donau”), whose melancholy grey Danube stands in the starkest possible contrast to Johann Strauss Jr.’s ebullient paean to what he describes, rather less accurately, as the river’s beautiful blue waters. Interestingly, some of Lehár’s piano music is related to these less-known orchestral works: the second theme of the first movement of the composer’s second piano sonata (in D minor) was reused by Lehár in Il Guado. The sonata, which is very well played by Wolf Harden, nearly overflows with thematic material in its first movement and is an altogether substantial work, running nearly 40 minutes. It has many original passages and considerable theatricality, although it is not especially convincing formally. The earlier piano sonata, in F, written when Lehár was barely 17, has echoes of such composers as Chopin, Schubert and Schumann, and is quite atmospheric, if not entirely balanced structurally – Lehár was, after all, a violinist, not a pianist. The lack of required formal design makes the last work played by Harden, the Fantasie in A flat, somewhat more comfortable-sounding than the sonatas, and there are a number of elements in it that look ahead to the theater composer than Lehár was later to become. All three piano works are quite early – finished before the composer was 19 – so it is unfair to read too much into them, or expect too much of them. Nevertheless, it is hard not to look back from Lehár’s later music to these early pieces and seek signs of what was to come. And they are there – not in profusion, perhaps, but clear enough to make this CD, and the other three with which it is packaged, a thoroughly fascinating listening experience.

     A step or two outside the usual Haydn repertoire will also produce considerable rewards. Douglas Bostock, who brings a light touch and prominent harpsichord continuo to a new Scandinavian Classics CD of Haydn, neatly pairs two closely related symphonies – one extremely popular, the other very infrequently played. No. 88 is one of Haydn’s most-performed works, and it is easy to hear why: clever, witty, beautifully balanced, with some genuinely novel instrumental effects, it is a nearly perfect example of the poise and balance of Classical-era style at its very best. But its successor, No. 89, is another matter: it is something of a throwback to earlier Haydn and, indeed, to the works of more straitlaced composers. Here the elegance is decidedly cool, the rhythms stiffer than in No. 88 and other symphonies of this time, the themes perfectly proportioned but a trifle dry. No. 89 has some rhythmic and thematic elements in common with some of Haydn’s quartet music, including the halting nature of the finale; and the work as a whole is effective in a rather distancing way. The Chamber Orchestra of Bohemia plays it quite well, and Bostock brings plenty of verve and spirit to it – making a good case for a piece than even Haydn aficionados are unlikely to have heard often. Nor will most Haydn lovers have heard the opera overtures that round out the CD – not all three of them, anyway. All are in the older sinfonia style, with fast-slow-fast sections, the third part always abbreviated. The Acide e Galatea overture is very early Haydn, dating to 1762: this was only the composer’s second opera. But the overture is just as stylish as later ones – including that to a work called L’isola disabitata, now played as the overture to Lo speziale, whose own overture has been lost (or perhaps Haydn did not write one). Interestingly, this is the most often heard of the three overtures here. The most interesting one, though, is to L’incontro improviso, an opera whose plot resembles that of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. The overture is similar to Mozart’s, too, in its extensive use of percussion and the effects then known as “Turkish.” This is a bright, forthright and thoroughly delightful work that, like other less-known pieces by Haydn, deserves to be heard more frequently.

     One of the most frequently heard classical works of all is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but Liszt’s arrangement of it for piano is much less often performed. One reason has to be its prodigious difficulty—or rather their prodigious difficulty, for Liszt made arrangements of the Ninth for both solo and dual pianos. The two-piano one, even less often heard than the solo version, is considerably more effective at bringing out both the grand scale of the symphony and its many contrapuntal touches, most notably in the finale but also in the first three movements. Pianists Rolf Plagge and Wolfgang Manz, who call themselves the Duo Reine Elisabeth, have taken the full measure of this work and give a really splendid reading of it on a new Telos CD. Tempos are carefully chosen, harmonic lines are beautifully brought out, the scale and drama of the work get their full due, and there is even something noticeably demonic about parts of the first movement. The playing has just the right Romantic touch for a work that, in some ways, ushered in the Romantic era in orchestral music. And while it is scarcely a surprise to find that the absence of a chorus in the finale robs the symphony of some of its cumulative power, it is worth noting that Liszt’s two-piano version has plenty of potency on its own terms – and was created at a time when the symphony was little known and audiences had few chances to hear it. Yet this Lisztian version of Beethoven – in which the considerable virtuosic demands are all at the service of the music, never designed purely for display – is no mere historical curiosity. It is genuinely interesting music on its own terms, and the relative paucity of performances and recordings in no way makes the piece less interesting, or less worthy of a listener’s attentive enjoyment.