April 28, 2011


Three by the Sea. By Mini Grey. Knopf. $17.99.

The Little Red Pen. By Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Harcourt. $16.99.

Bats at the Beach. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $11.99.

B Magical #3: The Runaway Spell. By Lexi Connor. Scholastic. $5.99.

     These books are all about relationships – although the type of relationship and the way the authors work with it are as different as the characters. Mini Grey’s protagonists in Three by the Sea are a black cat, white dog and gray mouse, all of whom live happily together on the seashore, dividing chores among themselves: the dog tends the garden (which is, of course, a bone garden); the cat handles housekeeping; and the mouse is the cook (with a penchant for fondue). Into this oceanside idyll comes a traditional disturber of the peace: a fox, here representing the “Winds of Change Trading Company.” Those winds prove insidious: the fox gives each friend free items and free commentary – delivered in such a way as to call into question the basis of the trio’s friendship. Why only bones in the garden? Why does the cat sleep during daytime instead of doing housework? Why only fondue to eat – just because the cheese-loving mouse is the cook? Soon the three friends are shouting insults at each other as the fox sleeps peacefully in the home’s only bed – having relegated cat, dog and mouse to the floor. There follows a split in the threesome, a getting-back-together, and eventually the departure of the fox and a resumption of the happy life by the sea – but with a few differences. Three by the Sea is an unusually thoughtful book for ages 4-8, because there really are no good guys or bad guys – yes, the fox brings trouble, but he makes valid points and gives things to the three friends (for free) that really do end up making life better for them. More than a story of almost-shattered friendship, Three by the Sea is a tale of what friendship really means – in terms of cooperation, compromise and thinking of each other. That is quite a message for young readers – and it is very effectively communicated.

     Equally effective, equally focused on mutual interdependence, and even more interestingly drawn, The Little Red Pen is about a…well, a little red pen. This pen works hard correcting students’ papers after all the other desk implements come up with reasons that they cannot possibly do any of the work. Stapler, Scissors, Pencil, Eraser, Pushpin and Highlighter all have excuses that amount to fear of ending up in “the pit of no return” (the trash can). Unable to persuade them to help her, despite her warning that the world may come to an end if the papers are not graded, the little red pen (who is a bit of a drama queen) works until she drops – into, yes, the trash can. Then the other implements, all of them drawn as if they recently escaped from John Tenniel’s superb Alice in Wonderland illustrations, argue (in different type styles and different colors) about what to do, finally mounting a hilarious rescue effort that misfires until they get the lazy class hamster involved and also rediscover an old friend who is broken but still useful. The narrative here is quite wonderful, and the drawings are nothing short of amazing, giving every implement real character and making this story of sentient school supplies a joy from start to finish. The dust cover’s back flap shows sisters Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel themselves in the guise of school supplies – an added bit of hilarity in a thoroughly humorous book that nevertheless makes important points about how much people (or objects) can accomplish by working together.

     Bats at the Beach is about playing together, but the same cooperative spirit is much in evidence in this lap-size board book. Brian Lies’ amusing story and excellent bat illustrations – which show the flying mammals’ anatomy accurately, but have the bats using their wings and fingers in very human ways – focus on a nighttime beach outing for these nocturnal creatures, complete with picnic baskets; food to swap with “friends from other places/ with different foods and different faces”; beach chairs; and kite string (at the end of which the bats themselves become kites). The beach snacks are uniquely bat-focused (bug-mallows, anyone?), and the bats’ visit to the snack bar makes perfect bat-sense (they go there to catch bugs). Bat banjos, elderly bats singing old songs, cast-off snack wrappings used for water fun, and many more delicious details make this book a delight from its nighttime start to its finish just as dawn is breaking. And the song at the back of the book – to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” or perhaps “Bat-tle Hymn” – is an added bit of amusement in a book in which cooperation of all sorts, among bats of all kinds and ages, produces a thoroughly enjoyable outing and a completely wonderful bat-fantasy.

     The latest entry in the B Magical series is not quite as special or clever – it gets a (+++) rating – but it too involves cooperation and an understanding of the ways in which things can go awry between friends. The magical ways, in this case. Lexi Connor’s books were originally published under the cleverer umbrella title Spelling B, since young Beatrix (hence “B”) is a witch (hence “spelling”) who creates magic by spelling out the letters of words (hence “spelling bee,” the implied pun). The books are light, enjoyable reading under any series title – with The Runaway Spell involving B’s inadvertent revelation to her best friend, George, of her witchy abilities (a huge no-no where the Magical Rhyming Society, or MRS, is concerned). Having found out just how cool B’s powers are, George of course wants her to use them to help him – specifically in terms of how he will perform in the upcoming championship soccer game. George wants to play as well as his favorite soccer star, whose nickname is Zebra, and B reluctantly agrees to try to arrange it; but her “runaway spell” transforms George into a part real zebra rather than a part soccer-star Zebra. And B, who is still getting the hang of her magical abilities, cannot figure out how to reverse the spell – which seems to tighten its hold on George as time goes on, so he becomes more and more zebra-like. The funniest part of the book is a zoo scene, which features George reacting to lions and zebras (that is, other zebras) just as a real zebra would. Eventually, thanks to cooperation between B and George – and between B and a magical research librarian – everything gets sorted out, and George discovers that playing his best is what really matters. Not much of a moral there, but getting to it, through all the missteps, is fun – as the next series entry, The Cat-Astrophe, is likely to be as well.


All the Way to America: The Story of a Big Italian Family and a Little Shovel. By Dan Yaccarino. Knopf. $16.99.

Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. By Sandra Steingraber. Da Capo. $26.

     “Work hard, enjoy life and love your family.” These words, or variations on them, are the verbal glue that joins the story of four generations of Dan Yaccarino’s family. The visual glue is a little shovel, first used to help plants crops in Sorrento, Italy, then used for measuring flour and sugar in the United States, then to measure out dried fruit and nuts to sell from a pushcart, and so on. Family connections are paramount throughout the warm narrative of All the Way to America – for example, the recipe for tomato sauce that started in Sorrento later re-emerges as a specialty of a family-run Italian restaurant in the New World. Using stylized drawings that nevertheless clearly bear resemblances to his real family members, Yaccarino eventually shows his own use of the old family shovel – and then his children’s use of it to plant seeds, now not in an Italian field but for a rooftop garden in New York City. The palpable sense of enjoyment of family continuity is the main message here, and Yaccarino’s delight in telling the story is quite apparent. The tale omits any notion of significant difficulty or hardship in the immigrant experience, and many of today’s families are unlikely to have the strong sense of the past and of their own roots that Yaccarino’s clearly possesses. So the book is certainly somewhat naïve, and its pleasantly positive take on the multigenerational experience will not necessarily resonate with many readers. Indeed, for some it will seem like a fairy tale, despite Yaccarino’s repeated efforts to show what really happened. But the book’s warm feelings should even come through to readers who cannot relate to the specifics of Yaccarino’s family’s story.

     The reality that today’s children face is a chillier one – downright chilling, in fact, according to Sandra Steingraber. Steingraber is easily dismissible as an environmental alarmist: everything is toxic, all companies are evil, all products are bad for you, and the only solution is much, much greater government control. But this characterization, although not wholly inaccurate, is a vast oversimplification. Scientists have long known that the extraordinary advances in prolonging human life have been accompanied, in other (and sometimes related) fields, by progress that comes at a high cost in terms of people’s health. Living longer is not always the same as living well. Steingraber is especially concerned in Raising Elijah with the effects of environmental toxins on children – although, again, readers need to be careful not to follow childhood-focused arguments too far, since they have been and are being used for all sorts of governmental overreaching (e.g., limiting adult access to pornography because some children whose parents do not police their behavior carefully enough might end up seeing it or even becoming ensnared in it). Steingraber’s narrative structure for this book is attractive: an ecologist, she looks at the “ecology” of her own family as she discusses both home-centered and public-policy issues. But again and again, she hammers home the same serious message: the modern environment is super-dangerous, especially to children, and government must do something about it. Her arguments make more emotional than scientific sense, although she does attempt to bring in science to back them up. The problem is that her interpretation of the science is often fundamentally flawed. For example, she complains that policymaking and scientific discovery are based, in effect, on the premise that the whole population consists of middle-aged men. That is utter nonsense: clinical trials have traditionally been done on adult males because the testing of unknown substances and circumstances carries greater risk to women (who are childbearers) and children (whose bodies are developing). But rather than applaud the exclusion of women and children from double-blind scientific studies, Steingraber (who would surely never place her own children in such trials) bemoans a structure that is in fact sensitive to the special characteristics of children and women of childbearing age. Steingraber also vastly romanticizes such alternatives to fossil-fuel-using technology as push mowers and clotheslines. Clotheslines in inner cities – or in geographic areas of high humidity? Push mowers for parents who are having children when older and may need their strength for, say, taking care of their kids? All right – those criticisms are mean-spirited simplifications. But that is just what Steingraber’s own commentaries on modern society are. She would love to return to a world of no risk, pure water, clean air, and plenty of time for parents to raise their children in tune with the natural order of things – that is, to a world that never existed. And she wants government – government! – to take us there. No matter how thoughtful and ecologically concerned a parent may be, he or she really should think twice, and then twice again, before imagining that a larger, more intrusive, more heavy-handed government will ever find a way to simplify life – much less to move us closer to a nonexistent utopian ideal.


Delirium. By Lauren Oliver. Harper. $17.99.

Subway Girl. By P.J. Converse. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Bad Apple. By Laura Ruby. HarperTeen. $8.99.

     Love is difficult, messy, complicated, uncertain, and the source of a huge amount of pain as well as a great deal of joy. And that’s just in real life. In teen-oriented novels such as these three, it is even more pointed and more difficult. Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, the first book of a planned trilogy, takes the handling of love as a destructive force to be rigidly controlled – from George Orwell’s 1984 – and reinterprets it for teenage readers. This is a book in which the government has found a “cure” for the “disease” of love, administers the Cure to citizens when they reach the age of 18, and then chooses mates for people according to its own dictates and preferences. The inevitable star-crossed lovers here are Lena Haloway, who lives under government control and is nearing her 18th birthday, and Alex, a boy from the Wilds – the area beyond the government-managed sector. “No matter what the regulators do, they exist for our protection, for our own good,” Lena thinks at first; but of course she finds out that that is far from true. The experience of Lena’s own mother, who resisted the Cure when her time came, sets readers up for the idea that Lena, too, will find her way to resistance. Not that she is the only one: it seems inevitable that teens will rebel against (for example) the Library of Authorized Music and Movies (LAMM, as in “lamb,” as in being led like sheep, or like lambs to the slaughter – Oliver is nothing if not obvious). Lena learns that her best friend, Hana, is already off the straight-and-narrow of their world: “She’s been turning into someone I don’t know – someone with secrets and weird habits and opinions about things we’re not even supposed to think about.” But despite her fear of “vampires and werewolves and Invalids: things that will rip into you, tear you to shreds,” Lena discovers – after she meets Alex – that love is something worth having, worth fighting for. Soon, Alex saves Lena’s life “from the people who are supposed to protect us and keep us safe. From the people who are supposed to keep us safe from the people like Alex.” And so Lena’s world is, predictably, turned upside-down, and she begins a search for her mother, who may be alive after all, and the book simply drips with the evil of chapter-heading quotations from such sources as the “Comprehensive Compilation of Dangerous Words and Ideas.” A terrible sacrifice is as inevitable as is Lena’s end-of-book escape in the super-familiar story arc here.

     Things are less familiar, at least on the surface, in Subway Girl, which boasts an exotic setting (Hong Kong) and an unusual premise: Amy and Simon, two teens with all sorts of problems, meet on a subway and connect instantly, soon becoming deeply emotionally involved. Hmm. Well, maybe P.J. Converse’s first young-adult novel doesn’t have a very unusual premise after all. But the book does have some interesting dialogue, much of it computer-to-computer, as when Amy writes to Simon, “Schools are strange little countries. You know? I mean, we have to go through them and you take the work seriously but everything else is a joke. Last week this girl was sent home because she wore nail polish. I mean, who cares?” In fact, Simon does not take schoolwork seriously – his big secret is that he plans to drop out – and Amy is a great deal more sophisticated than he is. She is also in a great deal more trouble: pregnant by her ex-boyfriend. There is a language barrier, too: Amy does not speak Chinese, and Simon, although he can make his way in English, is failing the subject at school. The two interrelate in a variety of ways, becoming closer but never fully a “couple,” and they eventually work their way through to a bittersweet ending in which they must go separate ways but expect to remain, at some level, mutually interdependent. Not very realistic, that expectation, but Converse gives the protagonists enough grounding in reality so that their story has at least a veneer of plausibility.

     So does Laura Ruby’s plot in Bad Apple, in which a student who doesn’t fit in succeeds in connecting with a single teacher – who is then rumored to be having an affair with her and is therefore suspended. The book is a trip through the mind and, to some extent, the heart of 16-year-old Tola Riley, semiprofessional misfit and all-around “bad girl” at her school. She has an 18-year-old sister, Tiffany, whom she calls Madge because she refuses to call her Tiffany, for no very good reason; indeed, Tola has no very good reason for anything, or at least seems not to. She does have the usual trappings of the “troubled teen,” such as a remarried father whose new wife “is six hundred feet tall and looks like one of those opera singers [who] wear the metal breastplates and the big hats with the horns.” Madge has lots of troubles of her own, of which Tola only belatedly becomes aware: “I’m about to ask what Madge is going through, with her straight As and her gap year and the fact that no one is writing talk-show-inspired blogs about her, but for once I stop myself. I see the red eyes, the dark circles draped underneath. She’s going through something. Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not real.” This is actually something of an epiphany for Tola, the first time she truly seems to see anyone other than herself, anyone else’s needs other than her own. Tola justifies her own acting-out with the traditional, “I just want them to listen to me. I want them to hear me.” But she is a known liar, thief and all-around misbehaver, so getting anyone to pay close attention is something of a struggle, to put it mildly. Her resentments lie deep, all the way to her father naming her Cenerentola, another name for Cinderella. Fairy-tale motifs run through Bad Apple (starting with the book’s title, which recalls the Snow White story). When Tola finally confronts the classmate who is behind all the nastiness, including the false report about her and Mr. Mymer, she says, “I suddenly understand every bit of violence in every fairy tale I’ve ever read. The ovens, the axes, the cauldrons full of snakes and lizards and the urge to shove people into them. People always say there are two sides to every story, but I don’t believe that’s true. Not always. There are villains in this world who do terrible things.” There is a lot in this book, which is about cyber-bullying as much as anything else. In fact, there may be too much for many young readers to absorb: fairy tales, depression, art, psychology, all the usual pressures of school life, family disintegration, the ills of old age, and more. The writing is good enough to help offset some of the dark intensity of the plotting, but Bad Apple is still a lot to swallow without choking – although, at the core, it has a great deal to say.


The Internet Is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius. By David Thorne. Tarcher/Penguin. $14.95.

     Does the Internet actually spawn idiots, as rotten meat was once thought to produce maggots by spontaneous generation? Or does it merely pull idiots to the forefront of others’ consciousness by making them think they are witty and smart rather than, well, idiots? Let us leave that question to the philosophers, among whom would decidedly not be counted David Thorne, Australian “humorist” and perpetrator of the Web site, www.27bslash6.com, whose vague relationship to George Orwell (perhaps cribbed by Thorne from Terry Gilliam) is the cleverest thing about his musings.

     The other things about said musings are that they stand in microcosm for many things that are wrong with the Internet age and, from time to time, for some things that are right with it (the “from time to time” parts explain why the book gets a ++ rating rather than a +). The works of an author’s youth are often described as “juvenilia.” On that basis, The Internet Is a Playground should be called Thorne’s infantilia. Except – and this is a crucial element of the Internet age – quite a few alleged adults visit Thorne’s site regularly and apparently find him and his writings hysterically funny, apt, pithy, what-have-you. The fact that they are none of the above explains as much about the site’s visitors as it does about Thorne – more, actually, since Thorne has figured out how to profit from this stuff by getting other people to enjoy it so that they, in effect, provide free endorsements and a path to riches (hopefully modest ones, lest Thorne spawn huge numbers of imitators – oh wait, too late).

     Thorne is something of an icon of the Internet age. Not especially talented or especially intelligent (at least on the basis of this book), he occasionally veers accidentally into some hysterically funny lines or observations that hit the proverbial nerve and lead people to think he is much more self-aware and analytical than he in fact is. One of the great lines of poetry by Alexander Pope (whom you can Google), regarding a rival poet, was, “Shadwell never deviates into sense,” a brilliant two-language pun (“deviates” is from Latin; you can Google it). Thorne, however, does deviate into sense from time to time, which surely explains the willingness of the usually reasonably intelligent people at Tarcher/Penguin to produce this handsome hardcover volume (well, it’s a trade paperback, actually, but if you care about the difference, you can Google it).

     Thorne’s work has been endorsed by such high-ranking intellects of our time as David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O’Brien (you can Google them, but you probably don’t have to); so you know he has his finger on some sort of pulse. It is a pulse (beating faintly) in which Thorne makes life as miserable as possible for people to whom he owes money (a chiropractor to whom he twice tries to send spider drawings in payment of an overdue $233.95 bill); people who annoy him for no good reason (a neighbor whose cane furniture Thorne dislikes); businesses whose method of doing business he dislikes (IKEA for its carefully planned stores, Blockbuster for charging late fees, etc.); and elements of life to which he objects (apartment rental contracts). Like Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, who has made something of a name for himself by calling customer-service representatives (whose job requires them to be polite to all callers) and asking them a series of inane, irritating and downright stupid questions, Thorne subjects everyone to whom he has even the slightest objection to a nearly unending torrent of E-mail abuse. But unlike Weingarten, Thorne uses plenty of four-letter words, so he must be funnier (you can Google it).

     What seems to encourage Thorne in his ongoing inanities is that sometimes they get him what he wants (this is the “sandbox” approach to life, which is similar to the “playground” approach but, in Thorne’s case, includes use of the sandbox as a relief station for cats). What Thorne wants is to sleep as late as he wishes, do as little work as possible, smoke plenty of cigarettes, help no one, defy both reasonable and unreasonable authority, make plenty of money, and live without regard to the effects of his actions on anyone or anything. These are the things that help make him such a perfect icon of the Internet age. Among the many E-missives in this book are a number in which Thorne’s visceral inanity actually gets the results he seeks. For example, he repeatedly writes with snide nastiness to his son’s teacher, and eventually – just to shut Thorne up – the school reverses a punishment. He spins weirder and weirder tales about keeping animals in his apartment despite rules against doing so, and eventually the management decides – again, just to shut Thorne up – that it will make a note that he has no animals there. What seems to encourage Thorne wannabes (and there are lots of them commenting on just about every news article ever put online – you can Google it) and pump up his Web site’s visitor count is that so many of his targets really do, at some level, have it coming…and so many people wish they had the guts to give it to them. Some school rules are inane to the point of asininity; some businesses seem to choke off creativity at any opportunity; landlords as a group are not noted for their understanding and beneficence; the idea of police handling complaints about blogs rather than dealing with more serious issues is ridiculous; and so on. So although Thorne is a complete wanker (you can Google it), bravo to him for taking on these irritants of adult life in a manner so transparently juvenile, so thoroughly idiotic, that the bad guys’ defenses can’t figure out what to defend against, never mind how. Thorne deserves credit for pricking some bubbles of self-importance that can certainly use deflation. Unfortunately, at this point his own self-importance bubble is bigger than most of those he goes after. So the burning question raised by The Internet Is a Playground is: who will be the Thorne in Thorne’s side? Maybe you can Google it.


Sibelius: Symphony No. 2; Karelia Suite. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $9.99.

Korngold: Symphony in F sharp; Tänzchen im alten Stil. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Ondine. $16.99.

Mieczyslaw Karłowicz: Symphony in E minor (“Rebirth”); Bianca da Molena (The White Dove)—Prologue and Intermezzo. Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $9.99.

Ries: Concert Overtures—Die Braut von Messina; Don Carlos; Große Festouvertüre und Siegesmarsch; Ouverture bardique; Ouverture dramatique “L’Apparition.” WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99.

     Sometimes a main element that separates a highly popular symphony from one that never quite catches on is just a matter of the time periods in which the two were written. Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 and Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp both speak much the same harmonic language and are both constructed on a similar large scale. But Sibelius’ work, completed and first performed in 1902, fit well into its time and was aided in acceptance by a spurious nationalistic program attached to it by the restive Finns, then bridling under Russian rule. Korngold’s work, on the other hand, was written between 1947 and 1952 – it is dedicated to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and never quite caught on at its first performance in 1954 or in the years thereafter. It is therefore particularly interesting to hear the Sibelius performed by a Finnish conductor leading an orchestra from the other side of the world – and the Korngold played by the Helsinki Philharmonic under a different Finnish leader.

     The ongoing Sibelius cycle by Pietari Inkinen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is an exceptionally fine one, and the Second gets as thoughtful and well-planned a reading as did the earlier releases (Nos. 1 and 3 on one CD, Nos. 4 and 5 on another). No. 2 builds naturally and breathes deeply in a reading that is expansive without being slow, monumental without being overdone, and very well integrated – the movements seem a natural part of the whole, which is by no means always the case in performances of this symphony, which often sounds fragmented because it contains music of so many different characters. Inkinen also offers a lovely recording of the popular Karelia Suite, with a suitably poetic Ballade and a really rousing final Alla Marcia. Inkinen is certainly a Sibelius conductor of the first rank.

     But what would he do with Korngold? Hard to say – but certainly John Storgårds treats the Czech composer, who is nowadays best known for his Hollywood film scores, as a significant symphonist, and the Helsinki Philharmonic plays Korngold’s symphony with verve, spirit and considerable flair. This really does sound like a late-Romantic work rather than one from the middle of the 20th century – and it is a big symphony, longer than the Sibelius Second. But under Storgårds’ direction, it builds and flows naturally and shows that the composer, born in 1897, had considerable mastery of large-scale musical forms by this time of his life. The symphony has nothing to do with its dedicatee, but that scarcely matters: it is a well-wrought, tuneful and often highly expressive work that deserves more-frequent hearings even though its harmonic language was rightfully considered anachronistic for its time. Storgårds also offers, as an encore, a long-lost “Little Dance in the Old Style” that Korngold wrote around 1919 and that may never have been heard in public until Storgårds first conducted it in 2007. It is a slight work containing episodes of warmth and gentility, vaguely reminiscent of parts of Grieg’s Holberg Suite but not particularly consequential in itself. It does, however, make a fine contrast to the heavier and far more emphatic symphony.

     If Korngold is little known as a symphonist, Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karłowicz (1876-1909) is virtually unknown as one – and to many listeners is unknown altogether. This is scarcely surprising: Karłowicz died quite young, in an avalanche while skiing, and only a few of his works survive. His sole symphony is contemporaneous with Sibelius’ Second – it was completed in 1903. But unlike the Sibelius work, to which the composer attached no program even though others did, the Karłowicz symphony is intended to represent a soul’s spiritual journey from tragedy to triumph. The composer himself gave it this program, putting the “Rebirth” symphony more or less in the same class as Mahler’s Second (which, completed almost a decade earlier, in 1894, is a larger work and features solo and choral vocal elements). But the programmatic elements are not needed at all for a listener to enjoy the Karłowicz symphony: the progress from despair to triumph is clear enough in the music, and the work’s tonal progress from E minor to E major may remind listeners of the similar treatment of keys in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Yet the Karłowicz symphony is not imitative: fateful timpani rolls, a lovely slow-movement melody on solo cello, fine scoring in the scherzo that pits winds against strings, and a noble brass chorale in the finale all bear a personal stamp that sets the work apart from others to which it bears some superficial similarities. And the two movements from the incidental music to a long-forgotten play called “The White Dove” that fill out this well-played CD are also distinctive in orchestration and effective in their atmospheric evocations. Karłowicz’ few surviving compositions (others were apparently destroyed at the start of World War II) are proving well worth exploring.

     The works of Ferdinand Ries are highly worthwhile, too. Ries will always be thought of as existing in the shadow of Beethoven, his longtime friend. Indeed, Ries’ symphonies – there are eight of them – show heavy indebtedness to Beethoven, and despite some individual touches are generally not highly distinguished. But Ries’ concert overtures are another matter. Ries and Beethoven were among the earliest composers to produce overtures intended primarily or exclusively for concert-hall use rather than as the introductions to stage works (Louis Spohr was another pioneer of this type of music). If Beethoven’s Coriolan is a towering example of the form, Ries’ two overtures based on tragedies by Friedrich Schiller are nearly at the same level. Both the overture to Don Carlos and that to Die Braut von Messina are intense, highly dramatic, very well scored, and thoroughly effective. Ries’ audience would likely have known the Schiller dramas and have picked out elements of the overtures intended to reflect specific scenes in them, but listeners need not look for strict programs here any more than in Tchaikovsky’s much later Romeo and Juliet. The Ries overtures are above all mood setters and scene setters, clearly reflective of the tragic characters of the two Schiller works, and juxtaposing pervasive gloom with at least some glimmers of hopefulness. They are very impressive self-contained theatrical pieces – and very well played by the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Howard Griffiths. The three other works on this CPO disc have their moments, too, although none is as consistently interesting as the two Schiller-based overtures. Ouverture bardique includes the song “All Through the Night,” believed to be a Welsh folk song at the time the work was composed, and has some very interesting use of harps – two of them – as solo instruments, not mere decorative touches. Ouverture dramatique “L’Apparition” was Ries’ last orchestral work, composed in 1836, and has a few interestingly eerie effects, but as a whole is not especially noteworthy – although the scoring is quite well done. As for the Große Festouvertüre und Siegesmarsch, the first part is suitably festive and the second suitably victorious, but neither sounds like much more than a potboiler. This work was extremely popular in its time, but unlike Ries’ Schiller-based overtures, it does not transcend the circumstances of its composition. Yet taken as a whole, this CD does show just how well Ries could communicate in a way that touches on the symphonic (all the overtures are in sonata form) even when he was not overtly composing symphonies.


Liszt: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6; Valse oubliée No. 1; Sonnetto 104 del Petrarca; Schumann: Romanza, Op. 28, No. 2; Novellette, Op. 21, No. 1; de Falla: Miller’s Dance from “El sombrero de tres picos”; David Guion: The Harmonica Player. Byron Janis, piano; Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin (Concerto No. 1); Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Concerto No. 2). Newton Classics. $12.99.

Sarasate: Music for Violin and Orchestra, Volume 3—Concert Fantasy on Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”; Navarra; Muiňeiras; Nouvelle fantasie sur “Faust” de Gounod; Barcarolle vénitienne (Gondoliéra veneziana); Introduction et Caprice-Jota. Tianwa Yang, violin; Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra conducted by Ernest Martínez Izquierdo. Naxos. $9.99.

Glazunov: Violin Concerto; Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra; Concerto Ballata for Cello and Orchestra; Chant du ménestrel for Cello and Orchestra; Réverie for Horn and Orchestra; Méditation for Violin and Orchestra. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Alexander Romanovsky, piano; Marc Chisson, alto saxophone; Wen-Sinn Yang, cello; Alexey Serov, French horn; Russian National Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Warner. $18.99 (2 CDs).

     Sometimes it is just plain fun to listen to top-notch performers doing what they do best: playing up a storm, even if the music they are playing is heard all too frequently or is something less than inspired. Byron Janis’ excellent 1962 recordings of Liszt’s piano concertos show their age sonically, and the then-Soviet orchestras are not quite as warm and fluid as a modern listener might like, but these readings are a joy nevertheless. Janis simply sweeps into and onto the music, playing with such intensity and skill that he sometimes seems to have 12 fingers. The “Marziale” sections of the two concertos are especially impressive: big, brassy, bold and tremendously exciting. Yes, the readings are lacking in subtlety – but these are not really subtle works, although they are certainly cleverly designed and assembled. It is simply a pleasure to hear Janis have at this music, playing it as if it is the simplest thing in the world to toss off and about rather than as if it is mind-numbingly difficult and a height to be scaled. In fact, the whole CD (parts of which were recorded even earlier than the concertos, in 1961) showcases Janis as a pianist who is thoroughly at home in brash showpieces. But Janis (born 1928) has a subtler side, too, which comes forth especially well in one of the solo pieces here, Liszt’s Sonnetto 104 del Petrarca from Années de pèlerinage. And Janis can be quite playful, too, as in the tiny final encore (lasting just over a minute): The Harmonica Player by Texas composer David Guion (1892-1981). This is one of those CDs that exists simply for pleasure, and provides a great deal of it.

     There is plenty of pleasure as well in the third volume of Naxos’ survey of Pablo Sarasate’s music for violin and orchestra. Do not seek profundity here – there is none to be found, although Tianwa Yang plays these works with great skill, considerable warmth and real style – and is wonderfully accompanied by Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra, which Sarasate himself founded in 1879. Sarasate’s Magic Flute fantasy is quite as well put together and interesting as his better-known one on Carmen, and the second of his two treatments of Gounod’s Faust (the only opera on which Sarasate wrote two fantasies) is as effective as the first. The other works here are surface-level but no less interesting to hear for all that. Navarra is for two violins, and Yang plays both, thanks to the wonders of modern recording – and, in fact, she performs on two different Stradivarius instruments, which is quite something. Muiňeiras is a slight work with some interesting bagpipe-like effects; the Barcarolle vénitienne is appropriately atmospheric; and the Introduction et Caprice-Jota ends the CD splendidly in a burst of virtuosic fireworks that showcases not only the composer’s tremendous abilities but also those of Yang.

     Credit goes to multiple virtuosi in the highly interesting two-CD recording of all the concertos by Alexander Glazunov – which also includes a few short soloist-and-orchestra pieces. This is a typically thoughtful José Serebrier recording, with exemplary playing by the Russian National Orchestra. And the concertos, if not of the first water, are all interesting in their own ways. Actually, “their own way,” singular, is closer to the truth, because every concerto except Piano Concerto No. 1 follows the same basic model: Liszt’s model. That is, they are single-movement, thematically interconnected works that nevertheless sound as if they contain multiple movements because of their tempo changes and overall structure. Glazunov, however, was no Liszt, and in truth the workmanship of most of his concertos – except the Violin Concerto, the most popular of the five – is a touch shoddy. The pieces sometimes feel and sound like second or third drafts rather than finished products. Nevertheless, all have significant points of interest, such as the two-movement structure of the first piano concerto (the second movement being an extended theme-and-variations in which each variation has a very distinct character). The concerto for alto saxophone – Glazunov’s last work – is especially interesting to hear, just because there is so little repertoire of this type for this instrument. And the short pieces interspersed among the concertos are fine miniatures, warm and well-orchestrated and sometimes more affecting (as is the case of the Réverie for horn and orchestra) than some of the longer works. All the soloists offer high levels of skill and virtuosity, and Serebrier has clearly studied this music and plumbed what modest depths it has. Listeners who enjoy late-Romantic works and would like to experience some well-made but rarely heard ones will find this recording a real pleasure, not only for its virtuosity but also for the music’s rarity and charm.

April 21, 2011


Why Do I Have to Make My Bed? Or, a History of Messy Rooms. By Wade Bradford. Illustrations by Johanna van der Sterre. Tricycle Press/Random House. $16.99.

The Best Birthday Party Ever. By Jennifer LaRue Huget. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.

Grandma Calls Me Gigglepie. By J.D. Lester. Illustrations by Hiroe Nakata. Robin Corey Books. $7.99.

Lunch Lady No. 5: Lunch Lady and the Bake Sale Bandit. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $6.99.

     Silliness is its own reward in books for kids ages 4-8. But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes there is an additional reward as well – as, for instance, in Wade Bradford’s Why Do I Have to Make My Bed? The concept here is exceptionally clever: start with the age-old question/complaint of kids everywhere and actually take it backward through the ages, showing the circumstances under which long-ago children might have asked it. Presto: something that’s fun, and funny, and instructive as well. Today’s mom, asked the inevitable question, says it reminds her of her grandmother when grandma was a little girl and asked the same thing. That leads to a story in which grandma’s mother remembers about grandma’s grandfather, who asked the same question. And that brings up a story from a still-earlier time, and so on. What makes the book so much fun, and so instructive, is the detail of the kids’ complaints. In 1801, for example, a girl says, “I already drew water from the well. I dusted off Pa’s fiddle. I even picked up my lasso, my marbles, and my rag dolly. Land’s sakes, Ma, why do I have to make my bed?” Farther back, in 1630, a girl complains, “I already swabbed the deck. I dusted off the captain’s spy scope. I even picked out the rats that were hiding in the pickle barrel. So why do I have to make my bed?” And so on, all the way back to Viking times, the Roman Empire, and into prehistory, when the mother’s reply – “Because I said so” – resounds through the ages. Highly amusing illustrations by Johanna van der Sterre go perfectly with Bradford’s text, which includes two pages at the back of the book explaining more about what kids have needed to do at home and for their families through the ages. This book is fun to read, fun to look at and fun to learn from – no question about it.

     The lesson is subtler and more downplayed in The Best Birthday Party Ever, which features a not-yet-six-year-old who starts planning her upcoming birthday party when her big day is “5 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, and 8 hours away.” This girl is quite a planner, figuring out everything from the number of friends who will attend (57) to the number of balloons (9,000, all pink, “or maybe they’ll be chartreuse”) to the amount of ice cream (7 scoops per person). As her birthday gets closer, her plans get ever more elaborate: a 17-layer cake with 17 different flavors, “6 zillion candles on top” (so the fire department will have to stand ready), not one but two magicians (in case one of them messes things up), and so on. “Of course we will have pony rides. No, wait – camels. Or elephants.” And so it goes, with the planning getting wilder and wilder and LeUyen Pham’s delightful illustrations perfectly pacing Jennifer LaRue Huget’s text. And then comes the big day itself – and there is no castle, no card from the President, no Ferris wheel, not even “hamsters for favors.” But here is where the soft-pedaled lesson comes in: this little girl knows a good thing when she gets one. The cake may have only two layers, but they are her “very favorite,” and her mom even made extra frosting for her; and the balloons, although there are not 9,000 of them, are indeed all pink; and the singing and partying and gifts are simply wonderful, even if nowhere near as grandiose as she had intended. So, indeed, “I’m having the best birthday party ever. Just like I planned.” A happy ending, to be sure – and a reason to start planning next year’s party immediately!

     For kids younger than age four – infants up to about age three – pure silliness is plenty in a book, and is adorable when as pleasantly rhymed and cutely illustrated as it is in Grandma Calls Me Gigglepie. A successor to Mommy Calls Me Monkeypants and Daddy Calls Me Doodlebug, this board book features equally delightful rhyming couplets by J.D. Lester and equally cute pictures by Hiroe Nakata: “Grandma calls me Valentine, ‘cause no one could be sweeter” gets a smiling large koala with a tiny one peeking over the big one’s head, for example, while the next page, “Grandma calls me Slurpy-Slopp – we wouldn’t want it neater!” goes with a big pig and a small one rolling around in a great deal of mud. An affirmation of love as well as a chance to read silly words and enjoy looking at silly drawings, Grandma Calls Me Gigglepie is an intergenerational treat.

     And pure silliness need not be confined to the youngest kids. Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady series offers it for readers all the way into the 7-10 age range. The fifth of these black-and-white-and-yellow, small-size graphic novels includes the usual tricks of the detective trade (mirror broom, cookie camera), the usual clues (frosting fingerprints), and the usual dialogue (“It’s as dark as the inside of a chocolate doughnut in here”). It also features a mysterious power outage and the evil Buszilla, as well as the usual detecting by the Breakfast Bunch kids (Hector, Torrence and Dee) – this time with some intrusive and unhelpful assistance from “Safety Patrol Officer” Orson. There is not much of a mystery here, even though Krosoczka tosses about some possible bad guys, such as a bake-sale-hating janitor who dislikes cleaning up all the crumbs and a health-class teacher who says “your body is your temple” and “this whole bake sale is evil.” But even though the real culprit who stole the bake-sale goodies is discovered soon enough, winning the battle against the evildoer is not so easy, requiring some quick work using the Lunch-cycle and some exclamations of surprise: “Greasy bacon!” This is all good clean (occasionally messy) fun, and a delicious addition to a series whose inventiveness and silliness alike show no sign of letting up anytime soon.


Go! Go! BoBo: Shapes; Colors. By Simon Basher. Kingfisher. $6.99 each.

ABC Kids. By Simon Basher. Kingfisher. $17.99.

Human Body: A Book with Guts! By Dan Green. Illustrations by Simon Basher. Kingfisher. $8.99.

     Simon Basher, manga-inspired illustrator and animator, has carved out a particularly useful niche for himself by creating characters to represent elements of scientific study, such as physics, chemistry and the periodic table. This humanizes (or at least cartoon-izes) the study of these subjects, and gives them a visual punch that ought to appeal to the highly visual orientation of kids in grades 5-7 (ages 10 and up). Breezy, simplified but not too simplified explanations of the scientific topics make Basher’s books excellent early reference volumes for middle schoolers. And now Basher is reaching out to other ages – starting with the very youngest, up to age four. The Go! Go! BoBo board books are bright delights, filled with pictures of a bouncy baby zipping through the air amid a whole series of shapes or colors. Basher manages to make the simple books extra-attractive in several ways. In Shapes, for example, he shows a basic square and then has BoBo bounce through wrapped square packages in front of which square dice are visible. A circle leads to a bounce through buttons and oranges; a heart, to heart-shaped balloons and strawberries; and so on. In Colors, extra gloss is added to the illustrations, which really “pop,” whether they are of rubber ducks and bananas (for “yellow”) or of piglets and cupcakes with icing (for “pink”). The one slight miscalculation here is the design of BoBo himself: his eyes are shaped like the letter X, which in cartoon language usually means a character is unconscious or injured – and the bandage that BoBo always has on his head reinforces that impression. If Basher intended the design to show that BoBo is somehow dreaming of all the shapes and colors, that intention does not come through – parents should be prepared with some sort of explanation if children (even really young ones) ask whether BoBo “is feeling all right.” And yes, they will ask.

     Slightly older children, ages 3-6, get a bevy of Basher delights in ABC Kids, which is an unusually creative alphabet book. Here, Basher characters eat, bounce, dress up, dance, paint and more, all in the service of sentences in which every word begins with the same letter – and some words are significantly more advanced than the ones alphabet books typically contain. No “A is for apple” here; instead, “Arthur’s angry ant ate apples,” and yes, the ant really does look angry. “Claude’s crafty cuckoo collects coins.” “Edna’s elegant elephant enjoys Easter eggs.” “Franklin frightens fiendish fish.” “Jasper juggles juicy jellyfish.” “Prudence paints pumpkins pink!” And so forth, all the way to “Zack zaps zeppelins!” The pictures are all quite cute, and a few are outstanding, from that dressed-up elephant to the one of Tim’s tortoises (which tickle tadpoles). A delightful undercurrent of absurdity keeps the book both surprising and amusing: “Ursula’s uncle unicycles underwater,” for example. ABC Kids is both a fine way to learn (or relearn) the alphabet and a great chance to expand vocabulary while thoroughly enjoying some wonderful drawings.

     Nor is Basher neglecting science books for older kids. Human Body is the newest in what could be called Basher’s “traditional mode,” but there is nothing traditional about the book itself as a study of what makes human beings tick. For one thing, there is a bound-in poster at the back that provides an exceptionally clever look at the circulatory system, from the smiling and boot-wearing brain in the middle to the bellows-wielding lungs and broom-equipped spleen. The personification of body parts is right in line with Basher’s usual approach, and the implements they are given are cleverly reflective of their real functions, making the poster both informative and fun to look at. The book itself is divided into chapters that are identified by color-coded tabs and given such titles as “Food Crew and Trash Gang” (enzymes, saliva, teeth, etc.), “Super Toughs” (skin, hair, sweat gland), and “Body Building Blocks” (stem cell, protein, mitochondrion – the vocabulary and explanations are accurate, no matter how unconventional the portrayal of body elements may be). Dan Green’s text has the body bits narrating their own stories, which further humanizes them. For example, Intestines says, “I suck all the juicy goodness from the mushy chyme that Stomach passes on,” and Spinal Cord proclaims, “I’m a zippy-zappy dude who keeps you on your toes. I’m a slinky, slippery type who runs up the middle of your S-shaped spine.” It is quite easy to imagine very young children becoming entranced by the Basher approach to learning through board books, moving along to reading basics with ABC Kids, and continuing to lap up knowledge with the science books later in their school years. And that, of course, is surely the point of Basher’s “line extensions” – get ’em while they’re young and keep ’em interested as they get older.


Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature. By George Sullivan. Clarion. $20.

Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: Book Four—The Unicorn’s Tale. By R.L. LaFevers. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. Houghton Mifflin. $14.99.

     Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883) was so good a natural actor that he “became the most prominent stage performer of the day, not only in America but around the world. This was no small achievement in a time before global mass media.” So why have most people today never heard of Stratton? Because what he is remembered for is his size and his stage name: General Tom Thumb. A happy, mischievous child, Stratton stopped growing early, never attaining a height above 25 inches. It was as a curiosity that consummate showman Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum wanted to display Tom Thumb – but Barnum, ever alert to promotional opportunities, thought the tiny man would be more popular if he could “sing, dance, mime, and impersonate famous people.” So Barnum took Stratton under his wing, and the two developed a decades-long relationship that started before the boy’s fifth birthday and became one of mutual respect and admiration – not the crass exploitation to which many other so-called “freaks” were subjected at the time. Stratton’s failure to grow was almost certainly the result of a nonfunctioning pituitary gland, but that gland’s importance was not understood for another 50 years. Stratton had proportionate dwarfism – his body looked completely normal, but was very tiny. This made him more attractive to audiences, and Barnum did a superb job of promoting the small child and, later, small man. George Sullivan’s fascinating biography, although written simply enough for young readers, will fascinate adults, too, being packed with handbills, photos and other visual reminders of 19th-century America and the entertainment world of the time. Within the chapters are sidelight discussions such as “Dwarfs in History” and “About Dwarfism,” but the central Tom Thumb story is the feature here, and it is quite an amazing one. There are pictures of the special handmade clothing that Tom wore on and off stage, excerpts from the scripts he performed, pictures showing “General Tom Thumb In His Different Characters,” a discussion of Tom’s meeting with 24-year-old Queen Victoria and his mock attack on the monarch’s barking poodle, an explanation of Tom’s performances in blackface, and an extended discussion of his marriage to 32-inch-tall Mercy Lavinia Warren. Lavinia’s story is itself quite something – she was friendly with Ulysses S. Grant, for one thing – and the tale of her meeting with and marriage to Tom (which lasted 20 years, until Tom’s death) is a fascinating one. The four pages of photos of their “Fairy Wedding” are among the highlights of the book, and their later self-promotion (having photos taken with a baby, although they never had children) shows how much of Barnum’s promotional genius both had absorbed. A more-than-three-year-long worldwide tour brought Tom, Lavinia and members of their troupe to 587 cities and towns and covered 55,000 miles – a remarkable accomplishment in the 19th century. Indeed, nearly everything about Tom Thumb is remarkable, and Sullivan’s excellent biography is a wonderful opportunity for readers to discover a small person who lived a life writ large.

     Tom Thumb’s story is true and Nate Fludd’s is entirely made up, but little things play a big part in Nate’s tale as well. The fourth book in the Nathan Fludd, Beastologist series features a major role for Greasle, the tiny gremlin who has been traveling with Nate since the first book but has always been regarded with stern suspicion by Nate’s Aunt Phil, a knowledgeable beastologist (that is, person responsible for the health and well-being of allegedly mythical creatures) and perhaps Nate’s only living close relative. The “perhaps” is as important here as Greasle is, because there is a black-sheep side of Nate’s family that certainly has a living member – the nefarious Obediah, who seems to get the better of Aunt Phil with exceptional ease and who may have information that might indicate that Nate’s parents are alive. The quest to find them is Nate’s driving force, and here it comes into conflict with the work Nate and Aunt Phil need to do to protect and assist a unicorn named Luminessa, who turns out to have a highly unusual (and small) problem of her own. The Unicorn’s Tale turns out to be more easily told because of Greasle’s help, and it is interesting to follow along as Nate learns about the many types of unicorns (in a section in which R.L. LaFevers cleverly blends real-world animals with imaginary ones, thus neatly lending the whole “unicorn” legend a veneer of reality). As in the earlier books, Kelly Murphy’s illustrations fit the narration well and increase the story’s appeal. And in this volume, Nate and (especially) Aunt Phil do not seem quite so naïve and easily duped by Obediah as in the previous series entry – although the bad guy still gets the better of them (or thinks he has), and still is treated by them as if he is honest and believable even though he is obviously lying to and misleading them at every turn. By the end of The Unicorn’s Tale, Aunt Phil has agreed to join Nate in a search for his parents, since she too now suspects they may be alive, although she is by no means as certain of that as Nate is. This reorientation should help make the next series entry (or entries) more exciting by having Nate and Aunt Phil working together rather than being often at cross-purposes. And having Greasle along on the quest will surely help – in this series, as often in real life, little things really can mean a lot.


Emma Andrews Series No. 2: Immortal with a Kiss. By Jacqueline Lepore. Morrow. $13.99.

Emily the Strange No. 3: Dark Times. By Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner. Illustrated by Rob Reger. Harper. $16.99.

The Thirteenth Princess. By Diane Zahler. Harper. $6.99.

A True Princess. By Diane Zahler. Harper. $15.99.

     There is something soothing about returning to familiar literary territory, even if the territory itself is dark or unsettling. This is one reason people continue to read fairy tales, even the scariest of them: familiarity helps a great deal in balancing any fright. And so authors offer fans the same settings, book after book, providing a frame of the understood and accepted within which all-new adventures can occur. Some authors, in fact, offer doubly familiar settings. Readers who enjoyed Jacqueline Lepore’s first Emma Andrews adventure, Descent into Dust, will find the same dark, brooding, more-or-less Victorian world in the second, Immortal with a Kiss. But this setting is itself simply a re-emergence and to some extent a reinterpretation of the world of actual 19th-century Gothic novels – complete with moors, secrets, coincidences, nobility and ignobility of heritage and behavior, and brooding characters of all sorts. What distinguishes these well-written novels from the many other vampire stories out there are several things. For one, they are well written – stylish, even – despite occasional trips into cliché and awkwardness. For another, Lepore has done enough research on her chosen time period to weave real-life figures such as John Polidori and Bram Stoker into her narrative seamlessly and intelligently. And most important of all, Lepore has conjured up Emma Andrews, a believable and genuinely interesting protagonist – and surrounded her with characters who, although more types than fully individualized creations, are never less than interesting: the powerful priest fallen from faith, the homosexual dandy whose mannerisms conceal a good heart and good motives, and the brooding Brontë-style love interest. The specifics of Lepore’s narrative sometimes lean too heavily on the 19th century: Emma experiences and gives in to genuine passion in Immortal with a Kiss, but has immediate and ongoing regrets; and when she leaves behind some just-discovered letters until a more propitious time, every reader will know she will never see them again (and she doesn’t). Still, this story of frightening vampiric attacks (one involving rats is truly scary), of schoolgirls whose natural sexuality is exploited by forces of evil, of the dark and barely glimpsed machinations of a master vampire and the only slightly more visible workings of others of the undead, is a worthy successor to the first Emma Andrews novel and is sure to make Lepore’s fans eager to return yet again to this frightening but familiar world.

     The third Emily the Strange novel, Dark Times, not only revisits the mental and emotional world of the 13-year-old title character (as previously seen in The Lost Days and Stranger and Stranger) but also gives Emily herself a chance to revisit the past to try to unravel a longstanding family mystery. Emily is not the only strange thing about this series, which is told in semi-graphic-novel form – with lots of different type styles, numerous illustrations, “a super strong, well-calibrated golem,” a tailless cat and a catless tail, and the TOM (Time Out Machine) that Emily uses to visit (or revisit) the past. In Dark Times, Emily is partly home-school by her mother, Patti (a first-order ditz), and partly by Great-Aunt Millie, who is long dead and whose discussion of family history gets Emily interested in Great-Aunt Lily, who is also long dead but the circumstances of whose passing are mysterious, which is why Emily has to use the TOM to find out what really happened and how the events of the past relate to Attikol, her present-day nemesis. If all this sounds confusing, that is because it is, and Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner make sure it stays that way throughout – while also ensuring that Emily’s unique narrative voice remains intact as she tells the story (and provides the illustrations, lists, point counts, “notes to self” and other ancillary elements of the tale). For a while, Emily gets stuck in the past in this book: “I am stranded in a time 100 years before the lightbulb. 150 years before the skateboard. 200 years before the Chia Pet. Am feeling insanely claustrophobic and FREAKED OUT!!!!! Must calm down. Must THINK. Must…AaaaaIIIIEeeeE! Am not calm AT ALL!!!!!” Stranded in the 1790s, Emily worries about all the changes her presence in the past is causing: “Right now I’m starting to feel like every move I make, every hair that falls from my head, every molecule of air that’s altered because I breathed it in is creating new worlds of infinite divergent contingencies, and I will be bouncing from one to another for all eternity, never finding the one I know.” The juxtaposition of single-syllable, incoherent panic with complex thinking is typical of Emily and a big part of her charm. So are such illustrations as “Death of Lily – a Venn Diagram” and two pages purporting to show Emily and Lily in the 1970s after they get away from the 1790s. This is all very complicated, very twisted, very funny and very enjoyable for Emily’s fans – although, to state the obvious, the whole series, like its protagonist, is very much an acquired taste.

     The world of Diane Zahler’s “Princess” books will be quite a familiar one to all readers, for it is the world of old fairy tales. The Thirteenth Princess is an expansion and retelling of the Grimm story, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and A True Princess contains elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” plus some taken from Goethe’s Der Erlkönig. Both books feature 12-year-old girls, raised as servants, who turn out really to be princesses and who – after they discover their true identities – become the rescuers of others. The books’ patterns are very similar, but just as fairy tales may have nearly identical plots but still be fascinating to read, so these two novels are quite interesting even though the journey of their protagonists is much the same. Zahler expands the Grimm tale in The Thirteenth Princess by giving all 12 of the Grimm princesses names beginning with the letter A – and having the 13th named Zita. The story becomes one of the frustration of a king whose wife bore only girls, not the son he always wanted, and who then died at Zita’s birth, causing the king to resent the girl and treat her as a servant. There is also witchcraft here – witchcraft within witchcraft, as it turns out – and the mystery of the dancing princesses, which is the core of the Grimm story, becomes merely the event around which bigger mysteries are wrapped. In A True Princess, the orphan and servant girl Lilia (who is really a princess) gets on the wrong side of the Elf King when fleeing through his domain with her friends, Kai (a name from Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”) and Karina. After Kai falls under a spell cast by the Elf King’s daughter, Lilia determines to rescue him – which she can only do by tracking down a particular jewel that is connected to Odin, chief of the Norse gods (whose eventual appearance in the story is a bit of a deus ex machina event but does tie things up rather neatly). Zahler’s books are intended for ages 8-12 and will be most appealing to preteen girls, who will enjoy the “princess” fantasies within the recognizable world of fairy tales – even if they have not read the specific stories on which Zahler bases the novels. Some settings are so culturally familiar that even if a reader has not been to them before, he or she feels they are well-known and comfortable places to visit, if only in fiction.


Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Júlia Várady, Jane Eaglen and Susan Bullock, sopranos; Trudeliese Schmidt and Jadwiga Rappé, altos; Kenneth Riegel, tenor; Eike Wilm Schulte, baritone; Hans Sotin, bass; Eton College Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Chorus, and London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 8. Ricarda Merbeth, Elza van den Heever and Elisabeta Marin, sopranos; Stella Grigorian and Jane Henschel, altos; Johan Botha, tenor; Boaz Daniel, baritone; Kwangchul Youn, bass; Wiener Singakademie, Slovak Philharmonic Choir, Wiener Sängerknaben and ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra Vienna conducted by Bertrand de Billy. Oehms. $16.99.

     One of the great joys of this centennial of Mahler’s death is the proliferation of fine, and very different, recordings of his symphonies – especially the “Symphony of a Thousand,” which in some ways is the thorniest of them all. This massive symphony-cum-cantata does not really require a thousand performers (although it had them at its première; hence its title), but it is a vocal work throughout, and its need for three choruses and eight skilled soloists – singing some very, very difficult music to some very abstruse words – has long made it difficult to perform and, for some listeners, harder to accept than Mahler’s other symphonies. Newly released live recordings led by Klaus Tennstedt (from 1991) and Bertrand de Billy (from 2010) show just how different this symphony can sound under different conductors and different circumstances.

     Tennstedt’s performance is one of grandeur and majesty – and runs so long (more than 87 minutes) that it does not fit on a single CD. De Billy’s is more quickly paced (78 minutes), but a number of its sections are actually slower than those in Tennstedt’s version – the Poco adagio opening of Part II, for example. So it is not speed alone, or even speed primarily, that distinguishes these two readings, each of which has its own set of excellences.

     What sets Tennstedt and de Billy apart is nothing less than their overall concept of the work, as is made apparent in Part I, in which Mahler uses the words of the 9th-century hymn, Veni, creator spiritus. What exactly did Mahler want that phrase – “Come, creator spirit” – to mean? To Tennstedt, the words are a heartfelt plea, a request made in terms of adoration, for the intercession of a spirit that is both divine and, oddly, beyond the divine. Tennstedt’s singers ask, with great beauty as well as fervor, that the creator spirit imbue them with its power. De Billy’s, on the other hand, issue a command: there is no implied “please” before “come.” For de Billy, Part I is an insistent demand, and in fact, half the timing difference between these performances is contained in Part I, which makes up less than one-third of the symphony. De Billy’s version is more propulsive and more operatic than Tennstedt’s, which is more devotional and offers a stronger contrast between faster and slower sections.

     The interpretative differences of Part I permeate Part II, Mahler’s setting of the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, as well. The cosmology of Faust is scarcely Christian in any traditional sense, glorifying “the eternal feminine” and proclaiming the Virgin Mary as, among other things, a goddess – a forbidden designation in organized Christianity (although not in some forms of Gnosticism, to which Goethe’s Faust is closer in sensibility). Tennstedt focuses on the architectural elements of Part II, very clearly delineating the themes that are repeated and expanded from Part I, building the symphony into a cathedral-like architecture with some similarities (structurally although not thematically) to the late symphonies of Bruckner. Kenneth Riegel as the symbolic Doctor Marianus, who proclaims the sound of transfiguration and worship of the Mater Gloriosa near the symphony’s end, is especially fine, and Susan Bullock’s ethereal Mater Gloriosa – a short solo that is here the true capstone of the symphony – is simply gorgeous. Tennstedt constructs Part II with great care, reassembling the themes of Part I so carefully that the essential unity of the symphony is made abundantly clear and the final Chorus mysticus is not only thrilling but also transcendent.

     De Billy paces Part II more evenly throughout, and his very fine soloists blend beautifully with the orchestra and choruses without standing out as distinctly as Tennstedt’s do. Less concerned with thematic relationships between Part II and Part I, and more involved in making the extended Part II an integral work in itself, de Billy offers an interpretation in which this second part is fully convincing as the final scene, almost, of an opera, but has less connection with the old hymn – and less religious significance – than in Tennstedt’s performance. Under de Billy, the final Chorus mysticus does not start as quietly as it does under Tennstedt and does not resound quite as intensely at the end, but it seamlessly fits the notion of a finale within an extended scene – while Tennstedt’s conclusion is more of a triumphal hymn.

     Mahler’s Eighth can and does resound brilliantly in both of these interpretations, and in many others – it is a vast, complex, beautiful and enigmatic work, as difficult to pin down in many ways as is Goethe’s Faust itself. Certain details of these two performances are less than ideal: the sound accorded Tennstedt is a touch hollow, and that given to de Billy (whose recording was made for radio broadcast and not originally intended as a CD release) occasionally lacks fullness; also, while the booklet with the Tennstedt release provides texts and translations, de Billy’s offers only the texts in their original languages. But both these readings are excellent in their own ways, and both confirm the reality that there is no such things as a definitive “Symphony of a Thousand.” Thank goodness. Or thank Mahler.