May 31, 2012


The Norumbegan Quartet, Volume 4: The Chamber in the Sky. By M.T. Anderson. Scholastic. $17.99.

Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus: 20th-Anniversary Full-Color Edition. By Barbara Park. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. Random House. $14.99.

      It has taken almost seven years, but M.T. Anderson has finally brought his Norumbegan Quartet to a conclusion with The Chamber in the Sky – ending a series whose first volume, The Game of Sunken Places, was quite different from the three succeeding ones.  That initial book was a very exciting and rather old-fashioned adventure, a revision of the first book that Anderson ever wrote, and it connected rather imperfectly with the alien-invasion theme of The Suburb Beyond the Stars and the otherworldly The Empire of Gut and Bone.  But Anderson knits much of the tetralogy together well in The Chamber in the Sky, which picks up where The Empire of Gut and Bone left off and absolutely cannot be read on its own.  The new book quickly brings back Brian Thatz and Gregory Stoffle, now on a quest with teenage Norumbegan royal Gwynyfer Gwarnmore for a way to stop the evil Thusser Horde from taking over the Norumbegan domain and, not incidentally, Earth.  The problem is that there is little to choose between when it comes to Norumbegans or Thusser, the former being so self-involved and feckless that they seem a poor alternative to their militaristic and determined opponents, who have violated the Rules of the Game that started this quartet of novels and are now simply invading and conquering – a fact that disturbs the indolent Norumbegans not at all.  So Brian and Gregory, best friends when they are not in conflict about Gwynyfer, who spends her time flirting with Gregory and patronizing Brian, must search for a way to reactivate the Rules of the Game, which turn out to be contained in something called the Umpire Capsule, which is traveling around the innards of the gigantic maybe-alive-or-maybe-dead body first introduced in The Empire of Gut and Bone.  This whole setting makes very little sense, but then, the Thusser methodology is also rather weird – and actually fairly scary: Earth people are absorbed into the structures of their own homes and possessions to turn those things into items that the Thusser can use.  The Thusser power themselves from people’s dreams and spirits, while the Norumbegans – the nobility, anyway – have lost interest in pretty much everything and while away their time in ridiculously overdone language, petty games and occasional plots.  Anderson creates some peculiar scenes of shifting geography, as well as shifting time (time moves differently on Earth from the way it moves in the world where Brian and Gregory are), and does some interesting things with the motivations of the various races – automatons called mannequins, created by the Norumbegans, are far more lively than their putative masters, and the troll, Kalgrash, is in many ways a more interesting character than the human teenagers.  Anderson makes sure that Earth is saved, but he goes out of his way not to solve every mystery he has created – just what happens to the gigantic body in which the Norumbegans have been living, for instance.  Actually, the ending is somewhat unsatisfactory, precisely because Anderson leaves some ends hanging a bit more loosely than is really necessary.  And there are some odd mistakes in the narrative, such as one reference to Gwynyfer as Guinevere and some clearly unintended repetitions: “The machine was a drill, the floating head realized.  They were going to drill a new passage into the Dry Heart.  It wasn’t a blade, the floating head realized. It was a drill. They were going to drill a new passage into the Dry Heart.”  But the books in The Norumbegan Quartet have all had their imperfections, and the sequence itself has always been attached imperfectly. The Chamber in the Sky assembles the series in final form about as well as anything could.  The very first book has a level of excitement, simplicity and directness that the three later volumes do not match, but given the complexity into which Anderson turned The Norumbegan Quartet, the final novel does a commendable job of pulling everything together.

      The saga of Junie B. Jones has been going on much longer than Anderson’s: for two decades, during which the plucky and outspoken kindergartner has barely aged at all (although she did recently advance to first grade).  Now Barbara Park’s very first Junie B. book, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, has been reissued in an edition that has several things to recommend it beyond the pleasure of rediscovering how this redoubtable series began.  For one thing, Denise Brunkus’ illustrations are now in color, which gives them more punch than in the original black-and-white and makes certain specific ones, such as the very first picture of Junie B. at the start of the first chapter, even more appealing.  For another thing, this edition incorporates 14 pages of supplementary material, including pictures and a biography of Park, plus an interview in which Junie B. “asks” Park where she comes from (Junie B. is based on a character from The Kid in the Red Jacket) and why she has the middle name Beatrice (because Park loves the name, even though Junie B. doesn’t).  There is also material on Brunkus’ illustrations, including early character sketches and some successful and unsuccessful attempts to create covers.  All these additions are fun, but the original story is more so, introducing the endearingly disheveled Junie B. and her intense dislike of the school bus and determination not to ride it – leading, in this first book as in so many successors, to a whole series of unintended consequences, here including firefighters and police officers showing up at school and Junie B. almost having a very embarrassing bathroom accident.  Junie B. generally gets in trouble by saying exactly what she has on her mind, exactly when it pops up – a pattern established in this book and showing no signs of growing old 20 years later.  She remains a delight to not-quite-perfectly-behaved girls everywhere, including ones who have grown up and now have children of their own.  Revisiting the book that started it all is a real joy, and the new edition of Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus will make a perfect replacement for any copy that happens to have been around so long that it has become frayed and tattered but remains, like Junie B. herself, very lovable indeed.


Dog Is My Copilot: Rescue Tales of Flying Dogs, Second Chances, and the Hero Who Might Live Next Door. By Patrick Regan. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

F My Life World Tour: Life’s Crappiest Moments from Around the Globe. By Maxime Valette, Guillaume Passaglia, and Didier Guedj. Perigee. $15.

      There is nothing quite like the Pilots N Paws (PNP) organization, whose story is told in Dog Is My Copilot.  The group brings animal rescuers together with pilots who donate their time and aircraft – and fuel costs – to fly dogs to parts of the United States where they are more likely to be adopted. These are dogs that would otherwise be killed in shelters, as are more than half of the eight million animals that go into shelters every year.  The statistics on shelter killings are well known, but what really brings them home are stories like the 25 in Patrick Regan’s book – tales that stand for many, many more.  Like the “Shelter Stories” segments of Patrick McDonnell’s comic strip, Mutts, Regan’s book quietly but fervently advocates the adoption of dogs and other animals while celebrating the quiet heroism of people (in this case, pilots and rescuers) who work hard to give canine companions what is literally a new lease (or perhaps leash) on life.  Each chapter in Dog Is My Copilot opens with a map showing the route flown by the dog featured in that chapter, gives the total miles flown, and shows a picture of the dog.  The chapters have uniformly positive outcomes, but the titles hint at some of the hardship endured by the dogs before their rescues: “Saving Christmas,” “Runt Triumphant,” “Hell on Wheels,” “Phoenix Rising.”  Many of the stories are truly amazing.  “Boxer, Undefeated” starts with a photo sent via E-mail – a photo that caused a rescuer to exclaim, “Oh, my God. Is he alive?”  The dog had been starved very, very nearly to death, had a serious bone disease (originally misdiagnosed as cancer), and could recover only with extremely expensive treatments – and, thanks to sponsors and PNP, is still alive.  Then there is “Out of New Orleans,” which involved 54 planes flying more than 10,000 miles to move 171 dogs across the country.  The most unusual chapter here is “All Species Airways,” which points out that PNP pilot Jeff Bennett of Key West, Florida, “has earned a reputation for being up for just about anything,” having flown rescue missions for more than 500 animals – including not only dogs but also rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, iguanas, “a pot-bellied pig named Mo, and several large snakes.”  The pictures in this chapter, which include ones showing a snake on the plane’s instrument console, a tortoise on the runway, and Bennett holding a chicken, are delightful – not only heartwarming in their way but also amusing.  In the other chapters, emotion runs stronger, as in “Learning to Fly,” in which one rescuer says of another, “If it wasn’t for her, this story would have been a heartbreaker.”  The comment stands for all the stories in Dog Is My Copilot: if not for the remarkable pilots and dedicated rescuers who together make PNP a reality – and the sponsors from all over the United States who help offset the costs of the operation and the animals’ continuing care – all these stories would be heartbreakers.  They would also likely be untold – just statistics in the sorry tale of unwanted dogs abandoned at shelters to be killed when no one wants them and there is not enough room to keep them indefinitely.  PNP rescues only a very small percentage of near-death dogs, but it shows just how high the human spirit can sometimes soar when the lives of our canine best friends are at stake.

      Readers preferring something less heart-tugging and more oriented toward the funnybone – and a great deal less meaningful – may enjoy the (+++) F My Life World Tour, a gathering of snippets of unfortunate events from Asia, Europe, Oceania, Africa, and North and South America.  These are “thank goodness it didn’t happen to me” occurrences, page after page after page, like this one from Poland: “Today, I was walking in the mountains. I started to trip, so I grabbed onto a fence to soften my fall. The fence was electric.”  Or this, from the United Kingdom: “Today, my five-year-old sister informed me she had left me a present on my bed. She had tied a ribbon around a dead rat’s neck and propped it up on my pillow. The label says his name was Bert.”  From the United States: “Today, while I was taking a shower, a dime fell on my foot. The only place it could have come from? One of my fat rolls.”  From Kuwait: “Today, I was acting as Prince Charming for a five-year-old’s birthday party. After my scene at the ball, the narrator asked the kids, ‘Was the prince handsome?’ and they all replied with a chorus of ‘Nooooo!’”  From Australia: “Today, I had my first appearance in court as an attorney. I called the prosecution ‘the prostitution.’”  From South Africa: “Today, while I was in the shower, my roommates thought it would be really funny if they threw my cat in with me.  The doctor who gave me the stitches also thought so.”  You get the idea: short descriptions – sent in, of course, to a Web site – of embarrassing events that happened (or allegedly happened) to people on the day of submission.  Some of these are funny, many are scurrilous, and plenty of them strain the bounds of credulity, although of course they could have happened.  Although many readers will presumably turn to the book for its scatological elements, of which there are plenty, the funniest items are usually the wry ones: “Today, an astrology website informed me that, according to my name and birth date, my lucky day will be February 30.  This explains a lot.”  Unfortunately, there is far too little of this sort of thing and far too much intended for easy laughs at other people’s expense.  A little of this goes a long way. The book, however, contains not a little but quite a lot.


Tattoo a Banana and Other Ways to Turn Anything and Everything into Art. By Phil Hansen. Perigee. $15.

Grilling Vegan Style: 125 Fired-Up Recipes to Turn Every Bite into a Backyard BBQ. By John Schlimm. Da Capo. $20.

      Silliness abounds in Tattoo a Banana, but it’s all in the name of art, so that’s just fine.  Isn’t it?  Readers will have to decide for themselves as they observe the all-reality-can-be-art work of commercial artist Phil Hansen (who, inevitably, is popular on YouTube).  The title refers to an image created by cutting out one of three patterns provided in the book, taping it onto the banana, poking holes through the pattern, and waiting 24 hours for the full effect.  And this is scarcely the only food item subjected to Hansen’s art treatment.  One suggestion is to peel apart cookies that have filling, cut shapes into the cream halves, then assemble them into pictures.  Another idea is to pour alphabet soup into a bowl, pick out the letters of your name, put them on a plate, take a photo, and use it as an online signature.  Still another: cut out shapes from graham crackers, using templates in the book, then glue them together into an art object.  One more – a more-challenging one: put two colors of sugar-cookie batter (one ordinary and one darkened with cocoa) on specific places marked L (light) and D (dark) on pages in the book; then bake the result to create a famous face.  For even greater complexity, Hansen repeatedly tells readers to download a “challenge” of one sort or another from – a bit of self-plugging there, but all in good fun.  Except that this book seems intended to be more than fun – it is almost an advocacy book, suggesting that people stop regarding art as something “out there” and start looking at it in mundane places.  How to distinguish what is art from what is in fact mundane is a subject not taken up, but the basic “art is everything” notion, which has been around since the days of dada, seems to get some added life here.  And Hansen does not find art only in food, by any means.  One project involves digital-picture image transfer to one’s body to “check out the cool skin textures.”  Another suggests carving words backwards on the flat part of the sole of a shoe, then walking through a puddle to “leave your mark on the world.”  Still, food is a big part of Hansen’s interest: microwaved marshmallows, designs made of gummy bears, patterns created from chocolate chips, painting using three flavors of pudding (chocolate, caramel and vanilla), and so on.  Tattoo a Banana falls into the category of “suggestions about things to do if you have way too much time on your hands,” sort of like a lot of apps.  Whether the book has any meaning beyond idle indulgence will be for each reader to decide.

      John Schlimm’s Grilling Vegan Style isn’t anywhere near as far-out, but its underlying premise is unusual, given the longtime association of grills with food that vegans do not eat – which Schlimm acknowledges: “Until now, grilling has been almost exclusively associated with meat.”  He argues, though, that the flavors of the grill are every bit as well-suited to vegan fare as to steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs.  In fact, a number of his recipes are intended to sound as if they fit into grilling tradition: Mexican tortilla burgers, Southwestern burgers with salsa, tempeh steaks and more.  None of these is likely to attract meat-eaters, but the book is not intended for them – it is for people who have already decided on a vegan diet and are looking to add to it some flavors that are typically associated with a style of cooking usually reserved for meat lovers.  For vegans who do want to grill some foods that non-vegans might enjoy, there is an interesting chapter on “Picnic Desserts” that includes such offerings as “fruity kebabs brushed with brown sugar, cinnamon and mint” and “vanilla pound cake with lemon-lime glaze.”  The kebab recipe contains nothing with which non-vegans will be unfamiliar, and the pound cake’s use of tofu is unlikely to create a taste or texture to which non-vegans will object.  Both of these recipes include a touch of alcoholic beverage, as do many of the others, and in fact there is a whole chapter called “Grillside Happy Hour” that provides evidence of Schlimm’s strong interest in alcoholic beverages – he is a member of the Straub brewing family of Pennsylvania and has previously written such books as The Tipsy Vegan and The Ultimate Beer Lover’s Cookbook.  Look for Schlimm’s interest within the recipe sections, too: “This wickedly sophisticated bourbon blend can really perk up virtually anything,” he writes of a simple marinade called “Brown Sugar & Bourbon, Baby!”  Grilling Vegan Style is not a lifestyle-promoting book but an attempt to find ways for vegans to share in certain flavors not normally associated with the foods they choose to eat.  Committed vegans seeking something different will find much to enjoy here – although vegan teetotalers will need to check the ingredients of the recipes carefully.


Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Charlotte Margiono, soprano; Jard van Nes, contralto; Chor der Sรคchsischen Staatsoper Dresden, Sinfoniechor Dresden and Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Bernard Haitink. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Symphony No. 7. Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $19.99 (SACD).

Mahler: Symphony No. 9. Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $24.99 (2 SACDs).

      A Mahler “Resurrection” symphony of surpassing beauty and drama, Bernard Haitink’s 1995 performance in Dresden marked the 50th anniversary of the city’s firebombing by the Allies near the end of World War II – and the first time a work other than a Requiem had been played for this solemn and always heartfelt memorial.  The February 13 Dresden concerts have unique rules and expectations, notably the lack of applause before and afterwards and the post-concert candle lighting by performers, audience and Dresdeners in general at the destroyed Frauenkirche, the cornerstone for whose reconstruction was laid the year before this Mahler concert.  Haitink is justly renowned for his Mahler performances, but this one is special even by his standards, taking the music in some unexpected directions and turning it into an affirmation not only of rebirth but also of life itself.  Haitink’s technique involves the strongest possible contrasts between quiet sections and loud ones, and there are plenty of both in Mahler’s Second.  The Allegro maestoso here starts slowly and builds massively, its opening funeral march contrasted with the ineffable sweetness and quiet of the second theme in a movement that, as a whole, is unusually dramatic.  The very quiet, gentle second movement is exactly the strong contrast that Mahler wanted, and is followed by a third movement that opens with intensity and becomes quite gentle later – the symphony to this point is a roller-coaster emotional ride.  In the fourth movement, which is very quiet and on the slow side, Jard van Nes is highly emotionally expressive in a performance that builds to an ethereal conclusion – and is followed by a tremendously jarring beginning of the finale.  Here the contrasts are truly amazing, with loud sections really loud and instrumental details brought forth with consummate skill.  By the time the elegantly prayerful chorus enters with the affirmative words by Klopstock and Mahler himself, the emotional arc of the symphony feels nearly complete, and the final portion of the movement provides an elegant and highly emotive capstone to one of the most moving performances of this symphony available – a transcendent experience even 17 years later.

      Jonathan Nott’s just-released Mahler Seventh is not quite at this superlative level, but then, the Seventh is a more standoffish and difficult symphony than the intensely evocative Second.  No. 7 is the problem child in Mahler’s symphonic output, a journey through the night, with two movements called Nachtmusik enclosing a central scherzo marked Schattenhaft (“shadowy”) – but with a puzzling opening movement and a finale whose brightness is always on the verge of being overdone and sometimes steps over the edge (as Mahler, who gave it the basic tempo indication Allegro ordinario, was surely aware).  The difficulty with the Seventh lies in bringing it coherence while highlighting the differences among its movements, and Nott does this well.  The first movement features a very dour, deliberate opening followed by alternating passages of strength and delicacy – the totality emerges sounding like a tone poem with an indeterminate ending.  Then the second movement combines eeriness, especially in the winds, with very sweet string sounds, and the third is eerier still, with particularly attractive instrumental balance.  The fourth movement meanders gently, with Nott being highly attentive to detail – and then the timpani provide a really explosive start to the finale, being pounded with enthusiasm that borders on vulgarity.  The instrumental detail in this movement is very well handled, although the pace tends to flag at times in the slower sections.  The faster portions are better, and the ending is suitably raucous, balancing the ambiguous conclusion of the first movement with what passes for affirmative simplicity and a real sense of exhilaration.

      Nott is now most of the way through his Mahler cycle for Tudor: only the Sixth and Eighth remain to be released, plus the Tenth if that is in the works.  This is shaping up to be one of the best Mahler symphony sets available, with every performance being thoughtful, carefully considered and uniformly well played by the Bamberger Symphoniker – Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie.  Nott’s Mahler Fifth is distinguished for its avoidance of the indulgent excesses to which this work seems to invite many conductors.  Already a work of exaggeration, if not to the same as the extent as the Seventh (which is related to it in many ways), the Fifth is most effective when a conductor realizes that there are extremes aplenty right in the score, with no need to add more.  Nott clearly understands this, allowing the intensity and expressivity of the Fifth to emerge simply by playing the work straight – and with generally deliberate tempos, so the opening funeral march really sounds like one and the third movement (which Mahler himself feared conductors would take too quickly) attains a grandeur that explains why Mahler designated this single movement as Part II of the symphony.  All Mahler’s symphonies exhibit bipolarity – the Seventh perhaps most of all, but the Fifth as well, to a very high degree – and this contrast of highs and lows comes through particularly well in Nott’s reading.  Nothing drags here, but everything is broad enough so the full flavor of the emotion and orchestration comes through highly effectively – and the wonderful Adagietto provides both respite from the clamor of the first three movements and a lovely preface to the concluding Rondo-Finale.

      Nott’s Mahler Ninth is also highly successful, but this is a more divisive performance because of the conductor’s approach.  This is an emotionally wrenching symphony whose extremes – that bipolarity again – are exceptionally pronounced, and listeners familiar with it tend to expect conductors to overemphasize both the frenetic elements and the emotional angst of the capstone finale.  Nott takes a different, more-moderate approach: some will find it highly effective, while others may consider it a trifle pale.  Certainly the first movement, rich in overall instrumental texture while also highlighting individual instruments beautifully, is absolutely top-notch, and the tempo is just right; but some may deem the early part of the movement rather ordinary.  The rough geniality of the second movement is quite well done, but the Rondo-Burleske, again, may be too restrained for some tastes – although the orchestra really lets loose at the end of the movement, which means that any holding back earlier in it is clearly the result of Nott’s careful analysis of the work’s structural and emotional components.  It is the grand concluding Adagio that is most likely to provoke debate among Mahler lovers.  Certainly there is a longstanding tradition of making the opening of this movement wrenchingly tragic, taking it at a very slow tempo to maximize the pathos.  Nott eschews this approach, opting for a slightly faster (and, really, more apt) tempo and exchanging deep angst for lyricism, restraint and a touch of nostalgia – a look backward at life that in no way diminishes the past but does not make it seem a deep well of sorrow.  Some may find this a rather mild reading, lacking in the heart-on-the-sleeve anguish of other performances; others will discover that the restraint makes the emotional content of the movement even more intense, especially when the entire work ends in a spirit of understated but powerful resignation.  By any measure, this is an excellent Ninth, even if it is somewhat outside the mainstream of current readings – or maybe because it is unlike many others.  Nott is certainly an excellent Mahler conductor, and the remaining performances in his cycle of the symphonies are likely to prove well worth waiting for.