February 27, 2014
Ever After. By Kim Harrison. Harper Voyager. $27.99.
The Undead Pool. By Kim Harrison. Harper Voyager. $27.99.
Reconciliation and forgiveness, it turns out, together make up the overarching theme of the marvelous series of novels of “The Hollows” by Kim Harrison, the pen name used for this sequence by Dawn Cook. Whether Harrison intended this theme from the beginning or evolved it as the books went on is an open question and, this far into the series, a moot point. What is going on now as the planned 13-book grouping nears its conclusion with its 11th and 12th entries is that the increasingly complicated and elegant structure of the books is beginning to wind tightly toward an eventual form of gathering-together that is sure to have its unhappy, even tragic moments, but that will prove fully satisfying to readers who have followed the adventures of Rachel Morgan since the first Hollows novel, Dead Witch Walking, appeared a decade ago.
Foreshadowings of where this outstanding fantasy series are going now appear everywhere, although they do not indicate precisely where things will end up or, equally important, how they will get to whatever that place is – Harrison is far too skilled a writer for that, and is becoming better with almost every book despite a touch of backsliding here and there. For example, in the 11th novel, Ever After, Ceri, a subsidiary but important character, tells Rachel – who narrates all the books – that Trent Kalamack, a decidedly non-subsidiary character who is becoming ever more central to the narrative, is “more than he ever was, more than just himself.” And readers will immediately connect this statement to Rachel, whom we initially meet as a witch but who, in various books, has assumed an important intermediary role among the weres (werewolves) and vampires as well, who is connected with such disparate species as pixies and gargoyles, and who is now known to be a day-walking demon – a role that makes her existence crucial to the survival of the entire demon species.
If the names of these various species seem unclear or too clear, you are not familiar with Harrison’s series, in which the supernatural beings are not at all what they are elsewhere in popular culture – or are what they are expected to be but are, at the same time, more. This is one thing that gives the Hollows novels their depth and staying power. Another is the sheer intricacy of the plots of each novel and of the series as a whole. New readers should not try to jump into the Hollows with Ever After or the 12th book, The Undead Pool, because they will quickly find themselves in over their heads (speaking of pools!) through the most apparently casual of references, which in fact are quite deep and are crucial to the ever-developing plot – such as Rachel’s throwaway lines in Ever After, “I’ve had four relationships in two years. One was a thief, one died as a political gift, one walked away because I was shunned, and the last is a slave in the ever-after.” This is absolutely true and, in a sense, recapitulates the plots of several lengthy and dense novels in a couple of sentences, while reminding readers of how much has happened in a very short time span. In fact, to fans of this series, the statement will be tremendously resonant as well as predictive, or at least potentially predictive, of where things are going. To anyone trying to get into the series now, however, it will make little if any sense – with the result that any newcomers will get less than they could from it and from the events that follow.
Those events, in both these books, not only expand but also tighten the “reconciliation” theme that underlies so much here. Rachel’s need to reconcile the different elements of her own personality – witch and demon – is only one part of it. The greater part involves reconciliation of the entire world, or rather worlds, of magic and non-magic. The overt plot of Ever After involves the shrinking of “the ever-after,” the world parallel to reality in which the demons live – and the place responsible for the existence of all magic, which will disappear if the ever-after does. Rachel, who is responsible (more or less) for the shrinkage in the first place, has to find a way to arrest and reverse it for the sake of all magic-wielding species. There is much, much more to the plot that that – Harrison’s plots are complex to the point of convolution – but readers who focus on the “save the ever-after” elements of the book will readily see how they fit into the theme of reconciling opposites.
And that theme is inexorably moving toward a reconciliation of the two races whose genocidal war, long in the past, set in motion all the events of the entire Hollows series: demons and elves. Rachel’s inborn demon nature makes an eventual relationship between her and Trent, who is not only an elf but also the elves’ greatest hope of rebounding from the near-extinction that they face because of their long-ago war with the demons, inevitable; and there have been many, many hints of it in previous books, dating back to the childhood that Rachel and Trent shared in fraught and complicated ways. However, this is not a straightforward Romeo-and-Juliet story and is far from a simple “opposites attract” plot – it is a tale not of two enmity-filled families but of two species that have almost succeeded in destroying each other and that can be reconciled only at great mutual peril, through a series of near-disasters with Rachel at the center of pretty much all of them. The fact that the posed cover of The Undead Pool includes, for the first time in the series, a model portraying Trent as well as one portraying Rachel, is scarcely an accident. By the time of this 12th book, there is a deeply felt and entirely believable relationship not only between Rachel and Trent but also between the forms of magic they represent: here, Trent’s elven magic, which is as unreliable as it is potent, is the only way of stopping a kind of “magical misfiring” of the forms of magic with which Rachel is familiar – and “misfiring” is too mild a word, since the events of the book (which, like almost all the Hollows novels, takes place in and around Cincinnati, of all places) involve what could become an all-out war among the supernatural species.
Looking at Rachel as the ultimate reconciler, in this book and throughout the series, is important, but is scarcely necessary to enjoy the novels as pure entertainment, which they manage to be (through elements such as their titles’ references to Clint Eastwood movies) even as they are something more. Using far deeper characterization than is offered in the vast majority of fantasy novels – indeed, far more than most mainstream novels provide – Harrison allows Rachel to be a highly flawed character (whiny, unsure of herself, romantically and sexually confused, impulsive, frequently indecisive until the last possible instant and sometimes just a shade afterwards) while still making her centrality to the individual books’ stories and the sequence as a whole abundantly clear. Trent is himself no angel – far, far from it, having proved at various points in the series to be a drug lord, killer and torturer, and a businessman who is ruthless almost to the point of parody (although Harrison handles his story so well that even the worst of his crimes turn out to be only apparent crimes – a fact that is not always clear, however, within the specific novels in which they occur). But the reality of the Hollows series is that Rachel and Trent, who needed each other (or whose families needed each other) in childhood, need each other as adults, too, for purposes that go far beyond their individual lives. This is becoming clearer and clearer as the books progress, but Harrison is so good at managing the story (and her readers) that it remains tantalizingly uncertain, even at this late stage in the Hollows series, exactly where things are going to end up and exactly how this very complex tapestry will eventually be completed and displayed.
It will be, though. Any reader who doubts it has missed one of the most important reconciliation elements in the books to date: Jenks, Rachel’s pixy partner and one of Harrison’s most wonderful creations, has accepted into his family and become dependent on a now-wingless fairy named Belle – who in turn has become surrogate mother to Jenks’ many children after the heartbreaking death of Jenks’ wife, Matalina, for which Belle’s clan was responsible. Pixies and fairies are sworn mortal enemies, have been from time immemorial, and fight to the death at every opportunity. If this sounds like the situation involving elves and demons, it should, because the parallel is very clear to anyone who wants to see it. Thanks to Rachel, there has been a breakthrough – not a universal or perfect one, but a major one nonetheless – in the relationship between two species that have long sought nothing less than to exterminate each other. Inept and uncertain of herself and her powers Rachel may be, but she has proved, again and again, to be an (imperfect) peacemaker against impossible odds. She proves it again in Ever After and The Undead Pool, as Harrison inexorably moves the Hollows series closer to a conclusion in which the reconciling of opposites is sure to be the major theme – but with enough complications and uncertainties remaining to keep fans of the Hollows novels talking about them long after the sequence comes to an end.
Belly Laughs: The Naked Truth about Pregnancy and Childbirth. By Jenny McCarthy. Da Capo. $13.99.
Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide. By Heather Dakota. Illustrated by Ali Castro. Designed by Bill Henderson, Ali Castro, and Heather Dakota. Scholastic. $10.99.
One way to decide just how truthful, amusing and involving you find a celebrity-written book to be is by imagining it is not written by a celebrity. Would you find everything just as worthwhile if you had no idea who the author was? If the answer is no – as it likely will be, for most readers, in Jenny McCarthy’s Belly Laughs – then you are reading the book because of the celebrity connection, not for the work’s content. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you are gaining great insight into something or other – pregnancy, in the case of McCarthy’s book – when what you are really getting is a bunch of thoughts from some celebrity whom you happen to like and whose words (or whose ghostwriter’s words) you are therefore interested in seeing. This 10th anniversary edition of McCarthy’s book is the same as the one originally published in 2004, except for a new introduction. The intro asks readers to sympathize with the “tough” life of the co-host of ABC’s “The View” at the time she wrote the book: everybody to whom her agent sent it rejected it, McCarthy writes, until, “just as I was about to spend my last bit of savings, the phone rang.” And the rest, of course, is history. Readers who believe this and find it heartwarming are definitely the target audience here. Oh – and about that ghostwriting thing – “No one helped me write it. I even typed with one finger so I could hold [son] Evan the entire time.” And now that McCarthy has, as she says, written seven more books, “I love writing so much that I would type with just my pinky toe if that’s all I had left to write with.” So McCarthy fans will have a great time with the book. Will others? Well, the target audience is mothers-to-be who want to read about “the gross and vulnerable side of pregnancy,” and the question is whether potential readers who have no idea who McCarthy is will want that information from her. If you do, this is where you will find out, for example, that “everything in that [grocery] store disgusted me” early in pregnancy, and that “the only healthy [sic; she means “healthful”] thing I ever got down in nine months was an apple. …Health food DISGUSTED me.” You will find out about the ultrasound that revealed “the largest baby penis on the screen that I have ever seen (not that I’ve seen all that many, mind you).” You will learn that “hemorrhoids are no laughing matter” and that if you have them, you should ask your doctor for a stool softener. You will be introduced to “a giant rack of the ugliest, biggest, and most comfortable-looking bras I had ever seen. A MATERNITY BRA! …Surrender to the maternity bra and your world will be transformed.” You will find a suggestion to “carry a little air freshener in your purse” and “invest in some scented candles” for your home because of how gassy pregnant women get. “Obviously, this whole book is devoted to all the strange things that happen to you while pregnant,” writes McCarthy, and if you are interested in reading about those things in deliberately coarse language from a B-movie actress and TV personality, Belly Laughs is a good place to do so. Would you find this information, written in these words and with this attitude, interesting or helpful if you had no idea who wrote it? On that question depends the answer to another: will you find this book refreshingly plainspoken or merely gross and trashy?
Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide is supposed to be gross, but in the “ewwwww” sense in which kids use the word rather than the way adults do. It is an odd little book, a spiral-bound, nicely designed volume intended to cash in on the current craze for zombies (which have largely replaced vampires and werewolves as the creatures-of-the-moment). Tabbed sections called “The Zombie Virus,” “Zombie Identification Guide” and “Survival Skills” are supposed to lead young readers through the coming zombie invasion – which is actually presented here as a fait accompli. The peculiarity of this book is that its instances of humor are coupled with material designed to be taken very seriously indeed. On the one hand, “Due to decomposition, a zombie is going to smell really bad. …They do breathe, but it is more out of habit than anything.” On the other hand, the book contains accurate (if very brief) discussions of the Black Death, the plague of Justinian, the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, the first cholera pandemic (early 19th century), smallpox and yellow fever and SARS – all genuine, frightening and truly deadly events that the book places in the same category as the nonexistent “zombie virus” and discusses in very similar language. This may be intended to provide a sense of what-if or potential realism to the whole zombie fascination, but it is rather creepy, and not in the sense that the book’s creators intend: it reduces genuine human turmoil, terror and death to the level of something make-believe. Granted, this is not the main part of the book, but the discussions of genuine occurrences are prominent and prolonged enough to give Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide a bit more of a grossness factor than its creators likely intended. What they really want, of course, is to present sections such as “Zombie Biology 101,” which includes statements including this: “Eventually, a zombie will lose all its teeth because they are not adapted to the force applied by the jaw.” And “how to defend yourself” information that is adapted for various zombie types: fresh, walker, runner, crawler, rambler. And such “helpful” notes as this: “Domestic animals will be your companions or helpers as they alert you to the approach of a zombie horde. However, if food is scarce, they may be looking at you as their next meal.” The book includes warnings to “travel light” and “double knot your shoelaces.” Also: “Avoid heavily populated areas. That’s where the zombies are.” Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide proffers the contents of a survival kit and contains suggestions for finding water (including accurate information on purifying it – another part of the book that mixes the real with the make-believe); information (again, accurate) on cloud patterns and weather prediction; and material on first aid, knot tying and much more. Then there are distractions: “There is nothing better than setting zombies up for a practical joke,” such as throwing a glow-in-the-dark, super-bouncing ball toward zombies and watching them shamble and shuffle as they try to grab it (this is what passes for humor here). There are even back-of-the-book presentations of a zombie identification quiz and a glossary. Of course, none of this is intended to be taken seriously, and all of it (including the lenticular cover, in which a smiling boy turns into a snarling zombie) is supposed to give readers a few chills and, as noted, a big helping of the “ewwwww” factor. Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide does all that, but it also mixes reality and unreality in some rather unsavory ways, not all of which seem to have been intended to produce the effects that they do in fact create.
Road Rash. By Mark Huntley Parsons. Knopf. $16.99.
Love Me: A Starstruck Novel. By Rachel Shukert. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
Just Grace, Star on Stage. By Charise Mericle Harper. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $5.99.
Ah, the lures of fame! They include money, notoriety, sex, money, independence, an entourage, money, and did we mention money? Mark Huntley Parsons, a recording-studio owner who has played drums with various club bands, creates a coming-of-age novel built around a band’s quest for fame in Road Rash. It has every element readers will expect: stagings, group dynamics, relationship issues, travel, finding-out-who-you-are situations, and there’s even some music in there somewhere – although it is scarcely the focus of the book. Zach, the book’s central character, writes songs that help him cope with life’s usual reverses and which imply that his difficulties are somehow special but at the same time universal (typical for popular music). He loves drumming: “There’s something about playing the drums that’s different from any other instrument. Maybe it’s the physical part. I man, you’re generating sounds by hitting things. …It’s just so – primal.” He doesn’t love audiences that fail to respond to his band’s original music and prefer tunes they already know. He also doesn’t love being dumped by his band and needing to find another, although when he does find one and starts on a summer road trip, things are pretty cool. Until, inevitably, they aren’t. But sometimes they are, as when Zach sends a song that a fellow band member has shot down to a radio station for a second opinion, and it gets picked up for a compilation CD. There’s plenty of “in-sounding” rock-music writing here: “So I set up a microphone while he got his Strat and his little Fender practice amp. He dialed up the perfect tone – dark, dirty-sweet, drenched in spring reverb, with a little tremolo added, set to pulse in time with the eighth notes.” And there are the usual girl-back-home vs. girl-on-the-road complications, and the entirely unsurprising “Rock ‘N Roll Fantasy” (a real chapter title) climax, and everything is so all-fired great and wonderful that every garage-band member reading Road Rash will be convinced again, if additional convincing is needed, that he (or she) is destined to be the next rock god. It is all total nonsense, but feel-good nonsense, and feeling good is what the book is all about.
Not so Love Me, sequel to Rachel Shukert’s Starstruck, in which the yearning for stardom and money and love and sex and, yes, money, takes place in Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, where three teenage girls are trying to claw their way to the top. And “claw” is the operative word, since everyone is out to scratch, grab and attach herself to film fame by any means necessary, heartbreak and trouble notwithstanding. Margo is the girl who is closest to living this wholly evanescent dream, being talked about as a possible Oscar contender for her very first film role (the book is a fantasy, remember). Amanda has broken up with a writer named Harry Gordon and is thoroughly miserable, sure that she can get him back and show him that she is the one for him, if he will only listen. And then there is Gabby, who is well on the way to becoming an alcoholic, busily drinking when she is not popping pills. As the book’s title hints, Amanda is not the only protagonist with man issues: Margo and Gabby actually have men in their lives, too. Margo is living with Dane Forest, and everything about that is great except that it is important for her image and his that the public not find out. And Gabby has her sights set on a musician named Eddie Sharp, who is every bit as unreliable as she is, which makes them so not a perfect pair. The writing here is the sort of breathlessly silly type associated with old-fashioned Hollywood romances: “He cares. The words thrummed through Amanda over and over again, like a heartbeat. Harry still cares.” “He held out his hand to her. A little shiver went up Gabby’s spine at his touch.” “Margo drank the rest of her brandy in one gulp and reached forward to pour herself another very small one. She was beginning to feel better. …The lights of Hollywood receded as the limo began the slow climb into the hills.” “Everything in the hushed lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, from the crystal chandeliers to the giant potted ferns to the exquisitely arranged groupings of antique gilt furniture, screamed money.” Trials, traumas and trouble abound here – well, of course – and portentous comments such as, “There was too much sparkling chaos in Hollywood. When you looked up, you couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t.” You can, however, tell what is real in Love Me – exactly nothing, including a conclusion that sets up the next book in this sequence for the starstruck.
Younger and more innocent readers can, of course, be starstruck as well, and they are the target audience for Charise Mericle Harper’s Just Grace, Star on Stage. Harper fills the book with cute illustrations that nicely complement writing of this sort: “If someone is behaving perfectly good on the outside, there’s nothing you can do about what they are doing on their insides.” It is a bit hard to tell whether the grammatical and expressive errors in the book are accidental or intended by Harper to reflect third-grader Grace’s first-person narration – sometimes they seem to partake of both reasons. The plot of this ninth book about Grace, which was originally published in 2012 and is now available in paperback, involves a class play in which Grace is determined to be the capital-s Star. Grace, however, does not get the Fairy Queen part that she wants, but she does get an important part – the play’s narrator – and comments, “Why I am an even better actress than everyone knows: I went to the play practice and did an excellent job of pretending that nothing was wrong” (a statement that Harper neatly illustrates with “what I look like on the outside” and “what I feel like on the inside” drawings). The book meanders through play rehearsals, not-too-serious pettiness and jealousy, and eventually a surprise that puts Grace on stage in a way she never expected – leading to a successful performance that everyone enjoys, in spite of (or because of) some unanticipated elements. The Just Grace books are unfailingly pleasant and upbeat and are easy to read, with the many illustrations and frequent all-capitals headings and subheads breaking up the narrative into small, easily digestible bits (“The Play Invitation,” “What Had Never Happened Before,” “What I Was Knowing,” “The Good Idea to Fix It,” “What Is Really Fun to Do,” and many more). The incessant cheerfulness can be a bit much to take, but certainly fans of the first eight books will enjoy this ninth entry as well as those to come: Grace is, within her small universe, a star that shines brightly.
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. By danah boyd. Yale University Press. $25.
An apologia for teen behavior and a book that is a mixture of the obvious and the unexpected, presented at times with genuine insight and at others with overweening self-importance that borders on arrogance, It’s Complicated uses a combination of primary research and a large number of comments by teenagers – all taken at face value – to try to explain just how, why, to what extent and for what purpose today’s teens seem to remain electronically in touch with themselves and the larger world practically all the time.
There are some genuinely fascinating insights here, but readers must decouple them from statements so bland that it is hard to take them seriously: “Childhood has changed.” “Learning is a lifelong process.” And it also helps to pass over lightly such non-revelatory revelations as: “A gap in perspective exists because teens and parents have different ideas of what sociality should look like.” Well, duh.
Stylistic quirks abound here as well. One involves author danah boyd’s insistence on not capitalizing her name – a decision she explains (online, not in the book) with specious, self-indulgent reasoning that is so convoluted as to call into question her ability to make objective judgments in other matters. (The argument essentially comes down to “I get to define myself and call myself whatever I want,” the same sort of statement that has historically been used and abused in discussions over whether to use such words as Negro, colored person, black, Afro-American, African-American, person of color, and so on.)
Another oddity, more germane to the book, is boyd’s insistence on using the plural word “media” as if it is singular, resulting, among many other things, in a chapter called
“Is Social Media Amplifying Meanness and Cruelty?” There are also many sentences along the lines of, “Social media does not radically rework teens’ social networks.”
To the extent that these and other peculiarities become distractions, they interfere with the power of boyd’s arguments and the discoveries she has made. And that is too bad, because It’s Complicated does have revelatory elements. “Taken out of context, what teens appear to do and say on social media seems peculiar if not outright problematic,” writes boyd, and she then works on providing the context. One of her most interesting observations is that networked teens make a distinction between “being public” and “being in public,” which means, from teens’ perspective, that in many cases, adults such as parents and potential employers can see what teens are doing online but shouldn’t. This is a very naïve attitude (although as with other statements made by the teens she talks to, boyd simply accepts it at face value), but it is in line with typical teenagers’ feelings of self-importance and of being able to control their environment, shaping it to their liking. Indeed, one of boyd’s comments is that “teens fabricate information…seeking to control the networked social content”; this, boyd says, explains outright falsities posted online. Teens then claim to be puzzled or even angry (again, boyd takes the reactions at face value) when adults respond with concern or worry about false postings involving, among other things, sex and drugs.
One of boyd’s theses is that “teens’ mediated interactions sometimes complement or supplement their face-to-face encounters,” with social-media communication today being in effect an update on teens’ endless talks on landline phones some decades ago; indeed, boyd remarks on the pre-cellphone days in which teens used portable phones to go into rooms where they could have some privacy while talking – those were, in a sense, prototypes of “chat rooms,” which are predecessors of social media (although boyd does not state the connection). The burden of accepting and understanding the behavior of networked teens lies squarely with adults, boyd argues – perhaps taking a little too seriously her own self-description as “a researcher passionate about the health and well-being of young people.” Teens have no obligation to explain themselves or their online behavior to adults, according to boyd: “Teens’ engagement with social media – and the hanging out it often entails – can take up a great deal of time. To many adults, these activities can look obsessive and worthless. …[A]dults must recognize what teens are trying to achieve and work with them to find balance and to help them think about what they are encountering.”
It is certainly in the interest of adults, especially parents, to understand what always-networked teens are doing and why, although boyd’s overview of the matter is not entirely helpful in noting that “few ask why teens embrace each new social technology with such fervor. …Both entertainment and sociality are key reasons.” What is helpful in It’s Complicated is the way boyd explores some genuinely intriguing elements of teenage interconnectedness, such as the phenomenon of “digital self-harm,” in which some teens behave in ways that adults find troubling and puzzling, for example by posting nasty questions that appear to be thrown at them by others – and then answering them. This is an up-to-date version of the “cry for help” that teens have engaged in, often in self-destructive ways, for many years. Unfortunately, boyd does a better job of exploring the phenomenon than of prescribing a way for adults to deal with it, falling back on the tired “society has to be different” non-solution: “Although not all youth who are struggling cry out for help online, many do. And when they do, someone should be there to recognize those signs and react constructively. …But it requires creating a society in which adults are willing to open their eyes and pay attention to youth other than their own children.”
The Internet, boyd repeatedly indicates, is not in itself a force for societal change (“the mere existence of new technology neither creates nor magically solves cultural problems”); but it certainly is responsible for changes in the ways in which teenagers relate to each other and to the world at large. It’s complicated, true, as the book’s title asserts. But ultimately “it” (whatever “it” is) is no more complicated than the angst-ridden uncertainty and immaturity of teenagers of prior generations. The difference is that “it” is now played out in a far more public and easily scrutinized manner, even if teens’ misguided sense of immortality and empowerment makes them feel that they can control what they do and how society perceives their activities, and that they have an inalienable right to exercise that control.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. OCO. $18.99.
Steven Mackey: Stumble to Grace; Sneaky March; John Adams: Hallelujah Junction; China Gates. Orli Shaham and Jon Kimura Parker, pianists; Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by David Robertson. Canary Classics. $16.99.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra; Symphony of Psalms. Michel Béroff, piano; English Bach Festival Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. ICA Classics DVD. $24.99.
PentaTone Limited: Creating Timeless Classics. PentaTone. $13.99 (SACD).
Scottish Chamber Orchestra Special Anniversary Edition: Wagner—Siegfried Idyll; Sibelius—The Tempest: Suite No. 2; Mozart—Symphony No. 41. Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robin Ticciati (Wagner), Joseph Swensen (Sibelius) and Sir Charles Mackerras (Mozart). Linn Records. $12.99.
“Ho-hum. Another Beethoven Fifth.” That would be an understandable response to the news of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s performance. But it would be a shame to dismiss this CD so lightly, because the reading here is anything but ho-hum: it is one of the best in years. This first release on the conductorless orchestra’s own label represents some major risk-taking, not only because the repertoire has been recorded innumerable times but also because playing Beethoven symphonies without a conductor’s leadership seems on the face of it to be a fool’s errand – presumption in the highest. That this orchestra not only succeeds but also does so with style, panache and interpretative sensitivity and nuance is testimony to just how finely honed an instrument (singular) this orchestra of virtuoso instrumentalists (plural) really is. This is a Beethoven Fifth that captivates and captures the imagination from start to finish. The small size of the ensemble and near-chamber-like quality of the players’ sensitivity to each other result in a reading that moves along strongly and at just-right tempos from start to finish, highlighting, along the way, subtleties of scoring that Beethoven put into this music but that orchestras do not often put on display. The bassoon line is particularly clear here; the oboe solo midway through the first movement is beautiful, and as surprising when it appears as it no doubt was when the work was first heard; the lilt of the second movement and darkness of the third are beautifully highlighted; and when the trombones and piccolo are used in the finale, their presence there – and nowhere else in the symphony – makes perfect sense. This live performance from October 2012 is capped by a breathtaking fourth-movement coda whose speed it seems impossible for the orchestra to maintain – but it does maintain it, along with the sense of ensemble and excitement, right to the end, which is triumphal for Beethoven and the audience alike. The Fifth is coupled with a December 2010 live performance of Beethoven’s Seventh, which is not quite at the same level but is nevertheless a very fine reading indeed. Here the introduction to the first movement is somewhat more effective than the main section, which flags from time to time. The second and third movements are the best in this rendition: the Allegretto is delicate, beautifully paced, with a just-right hint of sweetness, while the Scherzo is speedy, rhythmically vibrant and offered with truly remarkable ensemble playing. The finale is fine, but does not have quite as great a sense of exuberance as it can. It certainly does not plod, but neither does it soar. The performance as a whole is strong but not quite as outstanding as the reading of the Fifth. That rendition is about as far from ho-hum as it is possible to get.
The piano music on a new (+++) Canary Classics release featuring Orli Shaham is scarcely at Beethoven’s level, but there is much to commend in the clever and well-thought-out pieces here by Steven Mackey (born 1956) and John Adams (born 1947). The featured work is the world première recording of Stumble to Grace, a piano concerto written for Shaham by Mackey and performed by her with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by her husband, David Robertson. This is an amusing piece of program music that seems to trace a child’s musical interests from early consciousness to first piano lessons to, eventually, virtuosity. The conceit is an amusing one, and Mackey illustrates it in some rather obvious but nevertheless effective ways, from the celeste-and-percussion sounds at the start through a series of awkward plunkings at the piano’s first entrance and on to, eventually, a complex triple fugue that certainly does test a pianist’s mettle as a virtuoso. Nevertheless, this is one of those works that brings to mind Leonard Bernstein’s famous statement that music does not mean anything, which is to say that it is rather unfair to require an audience to know exactly what a piece of music is trying to say in order to enjoy it. There are certainly enjoyable moments in Stumble to Grace, but without its overarching “story arc,” the work loses a great deal; and even with it, it comes across as somewhat disconnected and episodic. One of its elements is taken from the solo-piano version of Sneaky March, a short work that Shaham commissioned from Mackey for the Baby Got Bach series and that functions here as a sort of encore – to the concerto, not the whole CD. For the disc also contains two works by Adams, Hallelujah Junction (1996) for two pianos and China Gates (1977) for one. The latter is among Adams’ earliest mature works and is an example of “process music,” one of those curious modernist concepts in which the way in which a piece is made is at least as important as what the piece itself has to say. China Gates is a modal work – using four modes, two in the first movement and two in the third, with all four mixed together in the central one. But it is modal music as used by a modern composer for whom modes are a tool of construction rather than one of communication. Adams fans will enjoy both it and the more-substantial Hallelujah Junction, in which the pianos more or less echo each other for 16 minutes as rhythmic pulses and meters shift again and again. The work is redolent of Adams’ mature style and, like that style, seems designed more for his fellow composers and for the intricacies offered to performers than for any emotional expressiveness intended to involve an audience.
Speaking of Leonard Bernstein, emotional expressiveness – sometimes rather too much of it – was a quality for which he was known as a conductor. He was also famed for his advocacy of the music of composers such as Igor Stravinsky; and as a first-rate pianist himself, he was especially sensitive to works such as Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. This is the least-known and therefore least-expected work on a new (++++) ICA Classics release that is the first DVD release of the memorial concert held in London’s Royal Albert Hall on April 8, 1972, the first anniversary of Stravinsky’s death. These performances have more than historical value, although they certainly have that. Bernstein selected the three works that made up the concert heard here, and the recording – which, happily, is in color – shows him at his best, highly involved in the music and sprawling all over the podium while pulling the pieces together with more intensity and precision than his often-expansive gestures would seem to warrant. Michel Béroff does a very fine job indeed as piano soloist, but in fact the Capriccio, although uncommonly well performed here, is not the highlight of the concert. That distinction falls to The Rite of Spring, whose complexities Bernstein always relished and whose tremendous rhythmic difficulties and propulsiveness brought out the best in his podium manner. Bernstein is particularly intriguing to watch here as he shapes the music both by focusing on details of instrumental balance and by simultaneously providing a big-picture view of the ballet that keeps its disparate sections from becoming disconnected from the underlying narrative – which it is not necessary to know in order to follow and be moved by the flow of the music. The concert concludes, probably inevitably, with Symphony of Psalms, in which the English Bach Festival Chorus delivers a moving and very well-sung performance of a work that nicely balances the angularity and intensity of The Rite of Spring with something altogether warmer but no less redolent of Stravinsky’s personality.
The ICA Classics releases are intended as windows into the musical past – and they are often clearer ones than the self-congratulatory retrospective CDs offered by recording companies on behalf of themselves or of specific ensembles. At some level, the producers of these releases surely understand this, which is why the discs are priced considerably lower than the norm for comparable ones. Two (+++) cases in point are now available from PentaTone and Linn Records. The PentaTone compilation includes 13 works – or rather bits of works – presented by a variety of artists and featuring the outstanding SACD sound for which this label is known. There are symphonic movements here from Tchaikovsky’s Second and Fourth and Shostakovich’s First (all by the Russian National Orchestra), plus one from Saint-Saëns’ Second (Orchestre de la Suisse Romande). There are solo-piano pieces from Schumann’s Waldszenen (Martin Helmchen), Beethoven’s “Waldstein” (Mari Kodama) and Rachmaninoff’s Morceaux de Fantaisie (Nareh Arghamanyan). And there are excerpts from Bach’s Violin-and-Oboe Concerto, BWV 1060; Corelli’s Op. 6, No. 4; Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1; Korngold’s Violin Concerto; Howard Blake’s Clarinet Concerto; and Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A. Why anyone would want this particular compendium of partial pieces is difficult to understand. Certainly the sound is high-quality and the performances uniformly top-notch. But listeners who want the music will want all of it, not a movement or section here and there; and indeed they will likely have the performances already, since this release is drawn from the existing PentaTone catalog. This is a disc in search of an audience – one that it is hard to imagine it finding.
The Linn Records CD commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has more to recommend it, since at least it offers three complete works. But the focus here is clearly on the orchestra and three of its conductors, not on the music in and of itself, since the grouping of these specific works in this way makes no logical sense. Still, listeners intrigued by the notion of a very fine chamber ensemble performing disparate pieces under conductors with differing musical approaches may find this CD attractive. Indeed, all the readings have something to recommend them. Robin Ticciati’s Siegfried Idyll – a brand-new recording – is involving and transparent at the same time, pretty rather than deeply beautiful, heartfelt although a touch on the cool side, its overall emotional effect not quite as intense as it can be but the playing itself thoroughly engaging and very impressive. Joseph Swensen’s Sibelius is highly idiomatic, the nine suite movements emerging as individual, jewel-like miniatures, each of them lovingly shaped and all of them more reflective of Sibelius’ own ethos than of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Sir Charles Mackerras’ “Jupiter” symphony is a standout, stately, beautifully balanced, and handled with just the right mixture of elegance and flair; and here the orchestra seems just as comfortable with Classical-era sound and balance as it does with the very different requirements of the much later Wagner and Sibelius works. This disc is in fact an impressive testament to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, just as it is intended to be. Even though it is unlikely that many listeners will be drawn to it for the particular repertoire mixture that it offers, they may find something unexpected – pleasantly so – in the way this modest-size ensemble effectively tackles works of very different eras and very different sensibilities.
Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Symphony No. 2; At Twilight—Idyll for Orchestra; Selanka—Idyll for Clarinet and Orchestra. Irvin Venyš, clarinet; Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.
Leevi Madetoja: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3; Okon Fuoko Suite. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds. Ondine. $16.99.
Ernest John Moeran: Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2; Rhapsody in F-sharp minor; Overture for a Masque; In the Mountain Country. Benjamin Frith, piano; Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
The importance of folk music in the works of 20th-century composers such as Bartók and Kodály is universally acknowledged and respected. Its significance is also well-known in 19th-century works whose provenance is in the folk-music area even though the actual tunes may not come from the folk-music tradition or may misconstrue or misinterpret it – as in Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. In both those centuries, the dominance of certain composers in specific regions has tended to keep the music of other area composers off listeners’ radar screens, as in the case of Czech composer Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900). Fibich lived at the same time as Smetana and Dvořák and explored much of the same musical territory, although his works hew closely enough to the models of Schumann and Weber so they seem less inventive than those of the better-known composers. Still, Fibich was a genuinely creative force and not merely a craftsman skillfully assembling musical structures, and his Symphony No. 2 shows particular ability in balancing the Germanic elements of his time with folk influences. There is a programmatic feeling to the work, likely because many of its themes derive from Fibich’s own piano works – which, unlike the symphony itself, do have an explicit program, dealing with the composer’s intense romantic relationship with a former student. The symphony has a pleasant lilt, with folkloric sounds rather than actual themes, and shows considerable skill in its balance of polyphony and lyricism. It is very well played by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Marek Štilec, and the ensemble also does a fine job with the two idyllic, languorous works that fill out this Naxos CD. At Twilight takes after Wagner more than Schumann in harmony and orchestration, although not in scale or scope – those are modest, and the piece’s pleasantly meandering pace reflects its origin as an attempted musical depiction of walks taken by Fibich and friends on an island in Prague. Selanka is equally pleasant and just about as indolent, the clarinet solos using the instrument’s lyrical capabilities rather than calling on the performer for any major bursts of virtuosity. Fibich’s music certainly expands the nationalist tendencies of his better-known contemporaries, breaking no new ground formally but offering distinctive style in well-crafted compositions.
The nationalistic and folk elements in the music of Leevi Madetoja (1887-1947) are those of Finland, and in particular of Madetoja’s home region, Ostrobothnia, whose traditional music strongly influenced much that Madetoja wrote. Just as it is inevitable to see Fibich in the light of Smetana and Dvořák, it is inevitable to compare Madetoja to Sibelius, whose work was a far more successful melding of Germanic and uniquely Nordic characteristics – and moved beyond that merger into genuinely new areas. Sibelius had come further when he stopped composing in the 1920s than Madetoja did even by the mid-1940s, but that does not mean that Madetoja’s work is unworthy of performance. His Symphony No. 3 (1922-26), in particular, has considerable value, packing a great deal of drama and intensity, as well as emotion, into its half-hour length; and this work is the highlight of the new Ondine CD featuring the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor John Storgårds. A previous Ondine disc offered Madetoja’s moving Symphony No. 2 (1916-18), a work clearly of World War I. The Symphony No. 3 absorbs the horrors and gloom of the Great War and moves beyond them, not exactly to acceptance but to a level of understanding. It is a well-made, well-thought-out work that is tuneful and dramatic enough to have been excerpted for use in a Finnish movie called The Man without a Past. The other music on this CD also shows considerable compositional strength. Symphony No. 1 (1914-16) is already a mature work in which Madetoja has largely found his own voice, although it is not as strongly knitted as No. 2. And the Okon Fuoko Suite (1925-27), taken from a one-act ballet, is tuneful, danceable and altogether lighter in tone than the symphonies. Madetoja trod some of the same musical and folkloric territory as Sibelius, writing a symphonic poem called Väinämöinen Sows the Wilderness (based on the Kalevala, which so influenced Sibelius) and even creating his own Kullervo tone poem in 1913 – 21 years after Sibelius’ five-movement work. It is perhaps inevitable that a fine but lesser talent such as Madetoja’s should fall into obscurity beside a blazing one like that of Sibelius, but Madetoja’s music is strong enough on its own to be worthy of at least occasional revival.
So are the works of Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950), a dedicated folklorist who incorporated folk-music-like tunes into a great deal of what he wrote – but often created the melodies himself, using his knowledge of real folk music to produce themes that sound like folk music but are in fact original. Although born in England, Moeran is best thought of as an Anglo-Irish composer: his father was Irish and Moeran spent much of his life in Ireland. The folk music that Moeran incorporated into his works was as often English as Irish – he spent considerable time collecting some 150 folk songs in Norfolk and Suffolk. There are plenty of folk elements to be found in the works on a new Naxos CD featuring the Ulster Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta. Rhapsody No. 1 (1922) and Rhapsody No. 2 (1924; revised 1941) are both highly melodious and scored with considerable skill. Rhapsody No. 3 (1943) is effectively a piano concerto, and Benjamin Frith plays this unabashedly popular-sounding work with a sure touch and plenty of spirit. The other pieces on this disc are the impressionistic In the Mountain Country (1921), Moeran’s first orchestral work, and the pleasant and nicely scored Overture for a Masque (1944). Moeran’s works lie in the shadow of those of Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland, contemporaries who integrated folk motifs into their music more thoroughly and somewhat more successfully – although it would be a mistake to think that Moeran was only a folk-influenced composer, since some of his pieces are dark rather than pastoral in orientation. Still, Moeran’s inherent conservatism in matters of structure and harmony shows him to be more a craftsman than an innovator, and although he does have a personal compositional style, it differs from those of his contemporaries mostly in fairly minor ways. Falletta gives the music on this CD its full due, and the works are due more attention than Moeran’s music generally receives; but it is understandable that Moeran is not considered to be at the same level as several other nationalist and folk-influenced composers who lived and wrote at the same time.
February 20, 2014
Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual. By Kate Samworth. Clarion. $17.99.
Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa’s Fastest Cats. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
An exceptional book whose profundity will likely escape the young readers at whom it is ostensibly aimed, Kate Samworth’s Aviary Wonders Inc. is a subdued, mordantly funny plea for preservation of avian habitat today from the vantage point of a not-too-distant future in which many birds have simply disappeared. The book really is structured like a catalog, beginning with a message from “company founder Alfred Wallis” that strikes just the right (and typical) corporate note of advocacy and self-congratulation, through pages that show bird parts “created” by the company and given the sorts of names that companies do indeed give to their wares every day. One feather, for instance, is labeled “Minimalist: Red, white, black, and bold,” while the page offering different bird bodies comments that “a change of scale transforms the everyday into the fantastic.” The catalog offers swimmers, perchers, birds of prey and waders, presenting parts of genuine birds as if they are made by Aviary Wonders Inc. and noting which birds really have become extinct – but doing so in a way that, as one would expect in a catalog, makes those samples seem even more exotic than the others. The “parts descriptions” are just right for an imagined catalog offering – showing the beak of an avocet, for example, the text says, “The upturned beak suggests aristocratic taste and elegance,” and a general note about this part says, “Because out artisans have complete creative control, each beak is crafted with passion and attention to detail.” There are explanatory pages here, too, such as “Legs Dos and Don’ts: Your bird’s proportions must be balanced,” which includes “correct” and “incorrect” choices. In addition to parts, “Flight Patterns” are offered, with the note that “Wing shape affects flying style. Choose wings accordingly.” There are also fancifully named “embellishments,” such as collars called Carnegie, Getty and Rockefeller. And there are eight pages of “Assembly Instructions,” which are simultaneously hilarious and bizarre, plus two “Troubleshooting” pages and an “Order Form” with an entirely appropriate corporate disclaimer about the company’s inability to guarantee quality of flight and voice and other matters. This is Samworth’s first book, and it is a beauty, gorgeous to look at in its full, vibrant colors, deceptively easy to read, and built on a foundation of so much heart and soul that parents will be at least as fascinated by it as their children will be.
Samworth’s book is set in a near-future time when bioengineering has advanced and bird extinctions presumably have, too: the book’s subtitle says the company has been “Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031.” Other books, more factual but no less devoted, are dedicated to scientists who are trying to prevent further extinctions so books like Aviary Wonders Inc. will not become a reality. A new entry in the always excellent “Scientists in the Field” series, Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa’s Fastest Cats, is a case in point. Cheetahs are the most-endangered cats in Africa as well as the fastest predatory animals on Earth, and their sleekness and beauty make them natural “spokescats” for attempts to prevent the sorts of occurrences that threaten them and many less-photogenic animals with destruction. “The point of our work is not to have tame cheetahs. It’s to have wild cheetahs,” explains Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). But getting to the wild ones often requires a degree of taming at first, since cheetahs are a significant threat to farm animals and are therefore often killed by farmers – leaving cubs behind to be raised by humans until they can be released back into the wild. Sy Montgomery explains that CCF has rescued some 900 cheetahs and returned most to the wild, but the inexorable pressures of coexistence with humans continue, and even with educational efforts to try to help farmers understand the importance of cheetahs to a healthy ecosystem, preservation of the big cats is difficult. This is a familiar story in many of the “Scientists in the Field” books – unremitting conflicts caused by the differing needs of humans and animals remorselessly push animals to smaller and smaller habitats and potentially lead to their extinction. As in other books in this series, there are no “bad guys” here: farmers often live at subsistence levels and cannot afford to lose some of their animals to wild carnivores. The balancing act of human and animal needs is what organizations such as CCF are all about. The scientists in Chasing Cheetahs have some interesting methods of preserving the cheetah population. For example, they arrange to sell protective dogs to farmers so the dogs can scare predators such as cheetahs away – and the sales are made at prices low enough for the farmers to avoid, and come with a contract under which CCF can take the dog back if it is not cared for properly. The specifics of the scientists’ work are, as always, fascinating, but the photos by Nic Bishop – also as always – are even more gripping than the text. A cheetah high in a tree, using its keen eyes to scan for prey; a scientist holding a tiny and utterly adorable cheetah cub; animals amid which wild cheetahs live, such as warthogs, antelopes and deadly puff adders; and many photos of the everyday life and work of the CCF scientists in Namibia, where the book is set – these are just some of the scenes. The book is packed with factual tidbits that make cheetahs even more interesting – for example, they are sight hunters whose sense of smell is so poor that they may not notice a piece of meat on the ground nearby unless they can see it. Beautiful pictures, a clear and interesting story, and a real-world conundrum that has no easy solutions – these are the ingredients of Chasing Cheetahs, as of many “Scientists in the Field” books. Taken together, they are a recipe for engaging reading and thoughtful contemplation.
Magic Tree House #51: High Time for Heroes. By Mary Pope Osborne. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $12.99.
Magic Tree House Fact Tracker (#28): Heroes for All Times. By Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Bryce. Illustrated by Sal Murdocca. Random House. $5.99.
Peter Panda Melts Down! By Artie Bennett. Illustrations by John Nez. Blue Apple. $16.99.
77 Things You Absolutely Have to Do Before You Finish College. By Halley Bondy. Zest Books. $14.99.
The underlying material may be serious, but many authors have a way of leavening it for young readers and parents by structuring their books both to be easy to read and to provide some excitement along with the instruction. Mary Pope Osborne has been doing this for more than 20 years – since 1992, when Jack and Annie first discovered the tree house that has taken them to so many places and on so many adventures. The Magic Tree House books have long since become formulaic, but they are still enjoyable as easy-to-read chapter books with enough historical facts underlying their fairy-tale premise to give them some educational as well as entertainment value. And since the accompanying “Fact Tracker” books started in 2000 (originally bearing the more-academic title of “Research Guides”), the factual basis of the long-running series has become easier to trace and expand. High Time for Heroes and Heroes for All Times follow the well-established pattern. In the fictional book, Jack and Annie – on yet another mission for the magician Merlin – visit Egypt in the 1800s in search of Florence Nightingale. They find, to their surprise but likely not to that of readers, that the famous nurse is unhappy and needs the children’s help to find herself and move toward the greatness for which she is destined (thanks for which are due in part to a baby baboon). The “Fact Tracker” provides additional information on Florence Nightingale, plus brief biographical material on Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and explorer/conservationist John Muir – a typical multi-ethnic, multicultural “something for everyone to admire” list of heroes old and new. Sal Murdocca’s illustrations, which are as much fixtures of the U.S. versions of these books as are the texts, appear in both the fictional book and the factual one, connecting the two and pulling interested young readers into the adventures and their background. There is nothing profound in the Magic Tree House books and nothing revelatory in their factual companions, but they are fast-paced and easy to get through, and may spur at least some young readers to get more-detailed information elsewhere.
One thing that is decidedly not easy to get through – for parents or young children – is a temper tantrum, and tantrums are what Artie Bennett’s Peter Panda Melts Down! is all about. Endearingly drawn by John Nez, Peter goes into meltdown mode again and again and again throughout the day: when he drops a toy, does not get the chocolate bar he craves, is reprimanded at the library, and so on. Peter is three years old, but tantrums often start at a younger age and continue for quite some time – especially when not corrected lovingly but firmly. But they are not corrected in Bennett’s book, and that is a weakness: each scene ends with Peter throwing the tantrum, after which the next scene begins as if nothing has happened. Peter’s mother shows minimal signs of annoyance each time, but says nothing stern to her little boy and makes no attempt to do anything about his behavior. Eventually she has had enough, and she herself has a temper tantrum of her own, for which she quickly apologizes. But the closest she comes to disciplining her child occurs when – in the library, where somehow neither patrons nor librarians have anything to say about Peter’s loud and disruptive behavior – Mama says, “Stop whining, Peter. Now don’t shout or pout./ Here’s a nice book that you can check out./ If you calm down, I will make you a deal./ For supper, I’ll cook up your favorite meal.” Any parent who thinks this will work with a child in mid-tantrum is welcome to try it – once. Then, after learning his or her lesson, the parent can apologize to all the others in the library, soothe his or her own headache, and take the misbehaving child home – not to one pleasant activity after another, where tantrums occur with depressing regularity. And bribing a tantrum-throwing child with favorite food? All that does is teach the child that misbehavior brings wonderful rewards! Of course, Peter Panda Melts Down! is not intended as a teaching aid or parental instruction manual, but like all books about children’s behavior, it does contain a serious message beneath its lighthearted story. In this case, despite the charms of the illustrations and the amusement value of the narrative, the message goes awry.
The message of Halley Bondy’s 77 Things You Absolutely Have to Do Before You Finish College is of course aimed at much older readers, but here too an author uses the time-honored method of presenting serious material beneath a lighter veneer. “College wouldn’t be college if it didn’t include a wide range of experiences,” Bondy writes, suggesting that even students who do not get around to doing all 77 things in the book – or do not want to do all of them – can have an “unforgettable” college experience by following at least some of these suggestions. They come in seven sections, labeled “Around the Pad,” “Getting Out and About on Your Own,” “Taking Advantage of School,” “Being Social,” “Body and Health,” “Spoil Yourself,” and “For the Future.” The last section is the one of which parents of college students will immediately approve –it includes short discussions on building a résumé, obtaining an interview outfit, getting a part-time job, learning to network, and becoming “financially empowered,” which boils down to two things: “Assess your current situation honestly and frankly” and “Consider what you could do differently.” The how-to-do-it sections within each of the 77 items are the most valuable part of the book – and yes, there are how-to-do-it explanations even for matters that parents would not necessarily encourage, such as “eat something weird,” “prank your friends” (which includes “the holy trinity of pranks,” those being the gross, the inconvenient and the hoax), “pimp your ride,” and “indulge in an all-day TV marathon.” Despite these recommendations, most of the ideas here involve more or less plain-vanilla activities, or at least unexceptionable ones: take care of a plant, learn to prepare at least one meal perfectly, learn some survival skills, join a political campaign, volunteer at a shelter, take a class that has nothing to do with your major, and so forth. There is nothing really wild and crazy here – presumably students will come up with those things on their own – and plenty that can enrich both a college experience and life afterwards. Taken as a whole, though, the book is rather bland. Its suggestions are certainly well-meaning, but a sense of fun and unguided exploration of life and one’s place in it is largely absent. “Hold a karaoke night” and “have a shameless junk food night” have possibilities, though.
Fates. By Lanie Bross. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
The Glass Casket. By McCormick Templeman. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
Pieces of Me. By Amber Kizer. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
There are many predictable elements in novels intended for teenagers, including lots of soul-searching, difficult choices that must be made, romance and more. Many such novels nowadays also throw in something of the paranormal or supernatural. Then it is just a matter of arranging the elements within a reasonably coherent plot structure and moving matters along at a speedy enough pace to keep readers interested. These three new Delacorte Press books all follow the formula carefully; how teen readers respond to them will depend on just how they like their story elements mixed. Fates, the first novel by Lanie Bross, is the first part of a planned two-book series about a capital-F Fate named Corinthe who has been exiled from her home in Pyralis Terra to Humana, the human world, where she is required, as penance for the curiosity-driven misdeed that got her banished, to ensure that people’s small-f fates develop as they are supposed to. (For some reason, Executors are necessary to guarantee that this happens in cases of “the clouded marbles, the damaged ones”; Corinthe is an Executor.) Corinthe has been motivated for years by a desire to finish her penance and return home. She is given a final assignment and told that she can return home if she completes it – but alas, it involves killing a human boy named Luc, for whom Corinthe develops decidedly un-Fate-ful (but obviously “fated”) feelings. All this occurs against a background of political machinations among the beings of Pyralis Terra, and not surprisingly, Corinthe is far more important to the maneuverings than she realizes – even though she herself is not directly involved in them. On the other hand, her decisions may be “fated” to be more consequential than she knows. Unsurprisingly, Luc finds out what Corinthe is, or at least that she is not human despite her appearance; and it turns out that the two need each other for purposes of different but related quests. The book tosses out questions that are intended to seem profound but come across as rather sophomoric: “Could there be choice in a universe so large? But if everyone had choice, who would maintain the balance?” And it becomes clear that Luc and Corinthe have some major universe-saving to do in a location called Kinesthesia: “This place was the pulse of the universe, keeping everything outside it regulated and connected, and it was falling apart. All the worlds were intertwined, feeding off each other to keep balance in all. Corinthe shuddered to think of the consequences that would ripple outward because of this.” All this is, considered logically, quite ridiculous, but it is not supposed to come off as silly; and the inevitable sacrifice that occurs at the book’s climax is intended both to make the whole plot seem fraught and serious and to set the scene for the followup book. It certainly counts as an effective cliffhanger.
The Glass Casket, the second teen-oriented book by McCormick Templeman (after The Little Woods), also sounds as if it should have mythic resonance: the title produces images of Snow White being put on display until she can be appropriately revived. Indeed, The Glass Casket straddles some of the lines between life and death and does share some sensibilities with the Grimms’ often-grim stories. Its protagonist is Rowan Rose (a name filled with fairy-tale significance), who lives in a once-calm village called Nag’s End, near which five of the kings’ soldiers have died mysteriously and brutally, shortly after riding through town. Something dark hovers over or broods within the town, and somehow Rowan is at the center of whatever is going on – for one thing, it is she to whom the local witch, Mama Lune, wants to talk, even though Rowan’s father is no friend to witches. There are many elements of fairy tale here, such a tree whose inside “was too large, and it seemed to recede impossibly far,” and apples that “tasted otherworldly,” all within haunted and deadly woods where strange things happen, not the least of which is the appearance of a girl named Fiona Eira who quite clearly has been killed – her heart ripped out – but equally clearly still lives, at least in some sense and some of the time. The Glass Casket is full of things glimpsed and partly understood, of odd comings and goings, of uncertainties that hover on the edge of understandability without ever quite crossing into sureness. Eventually Rowan sees something “so vile, the sight of it made her feel foul, dirty,” with “legs made of splintered bone,” with “teeth like great needles and eyes like the blackest of pits,” and realizes that this thing, this death-thing, is responsible for all the evil that permeates Nag’s End. Or is the true evil something that controls this monster? And what is to be done about all this? The responsibility falls on Rowan, of course, and her confrontation with Fiona unsurprisingly takes an unexpected turn; and this eventually leads Rowan to an important talk with a witch – not Mama Lune but Mama Tetri, who turns out to have a connection with Rowan dating back to Rowan’s birth. This in turn produces a lengthy explanation of everything that is going on, including what Fiona is (readers will have figured this out already) and what the terrifying creature is: “an old thing – from long ago, when the world was a wicked place.” Logically, if “logically” is an applicable word here, Mama Lune and Mama Tetri should join forces with Rowan to combat the evil – which they are aware is strongly witch-related. But instead, the witches bow out, saying that “this is not our battle” and that they “cannot make you understand the ways of the witches.” So much for that. The final battle, when it does come, is an intense one in which family ties bind and come undone, sacrifices of several sorts are made, and eventually Rowan emerges in a sort of ambiguous triumph that fits modern storytelling better than it would have fit the old fairy tales that are foundational to the plot and tale-telling of The Glass Casket.
Pieces of Me is a fairy tale, too, but one given a thoroughly up-to-date setting and taking off from modern science, which it twists into a sort of “angry dead” motif not unlike the one in The Glass Casket. But while Templeman’s book seeks resonance from the past, Amber Kizer’s goes for the more-modern approach of following disparate people – brought together by something they unwittingly have in common – and following ways in which their fates entwine. A high-school girl named Jessica Chai is the moving force behind everything: she dies in a car accident, and her parents decide to donate her organs to teens who are desperately in need of them. This is inherently unrealistic: organ donations go to people of all ages, and the odds that a teen’s would go to four other teens are astronomical; but without this arrangement, there could be no teen focus here. In addition to Jessica’s story, Kizer tells those of Vivian, who has cystic fibrosis; Misty, whose liver is failing; Leif, severely injured playing football; and Samuel, who needs four hours of dialysis a day. These characters are types – there is no real attempt to make them fully realized people, any more than there is such an attempt for Jessica herself; she is simply a loner, the child of divorced parents to whom she lies often and easily, and proud of her super-long hair that is cut off in the book’s opening chapter in a cruel incident that, it is suggested, somehow precipitates everything that comes afterwards. Disbelief needs to be suspended again and again as the book progresses and its protagonists live their separate-but-connected lives, with Jessica hovering over all of them like the ghost she is, initially drenched in self-pity and, not having had much of a life, not having much of a death, either. However, Jessica moves quickly from resenting the removal of her organs to involving herself in the recipients’ lives, and she gains empathy rather speedily, too, as when Misty – who connects by computer with Sam, not knowing that they share a deeper connection – flees to a bathroom to lament her appearance: “I tried to stop her. Hug her. Soothe her. I wanted to rub lotion on her skin and salve on her broken heart. The self-loathing radiated out until the bathroom filled and I felt like we drowned in it, like treading water in the middle of the ocean without reprieve. It was killing us.” There is a lot of this soul-searching and lamentation in Pieces of Me, and there is no neat pairing-off of the characters despite hints that this might happen – but everything does get tied up neatly, rather too neatly, at the end, in a life-goes-on message that specifically includes room for miracles (both everyday and exceptional). Like Fates and The Glass Casket, Pieces of Me has strong and weak points, straightforward ones and twists, entirely formulaic elements and ones that try to bend (if not break) various formulas. Each of these novels is aimed at teen readers, but there is enough variation among them so that it seems unlikely that the same readers ages 12 and above will be interested in all three of them, or even in any two.
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann. Unitel Classica. $64.99 (3 DVDs).
Beethoven: Missa Solemnis. Lucy Crowe, soprano; Jennifer Johnson, mezzo-soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Matthew Rose, bass; Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.
Bach: Cello Suites (selections). Amy Porter, flute. Equilibrium. $24.99 (2 CDs).
American Art: Music for Flute and Piano by Eldin Burton, Robert Beaser, Michael Daugherty, and Christopher Caliendo. Amy Porter, flute; Christopher Harding, piano. Equilibrium. $16.99.
Music that is very frequently performed can lose its luster over time – even the greatest music. All too often, readings of often-heard works can become stodgy, ordinary, uninspired, perfunctory – in stark contrast to the inspiration with which they were created and the intensity and emotional force that turned them into standards of the repertoire in the first place. It is therefore a particularly happy circumstance when a conductor takes a genuinely fresh look at well-known music, as Christian Thielemann does in a new video release that presents the four Brahms symphonies on two Unitel Classica DVDs, plus Thielemann’s 52-minute “Discovering Brahms” discussion on a third. That third title is a touch misleading, since for most listeners – not to mention most conductors – these performances will be a matter of rediscovering Brahms rather than discovering him. But in some ways this is a distinction without a difference, for Thielemann insists on delivering Brahms with clarity, brightness and intense energy, a far cry from the often-plodding readings these symphonies sometimes receive and from the frequently muddy, massed sound with which some orchestras deliver them. Staatskapelle Dresden handles this music marvelously, with lyricism and vibrancy, and Thielemann directs with propulsiveness that moves the music along smartly even though, by the clock, his tempos are not particularly fast. Thielemann here makes an effective case for some of the symphonic movements that tend to get short shrift elsewhere – the middle movements of Symphony No. 4, for example, gain significantly in stature in this interpretation without any diminution in the effectiveness of the outer ones. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of whether classical music benefits from or is harmed by video presentations as opposed to ones of pure sound, but this particular set of DVDs is a highly impressive one. Thielemann’s podium manner is very involving, featuring broad gestures and quite a lot of motion – the plus being that this makes the DVD fascinating to watch, the minus being that watching it can be distracting to one’s involvement in and absorption of the music. Thielemann’s discussion of his interpretation of these symphonies is intelligent and cogent, and it is easy for listeners/viewers to return to the performances, if they so desire, and find out for themselves just how Thielemann translates his thoughts into podium behavior. These are live recordings – the First and Third at NHK Hall in Tokyo, the Second and Fourth at the Semperoper in Dresden – and they offer much of the excitement of live performances without any excessive playing-to-a-live-audience elements that can sometimes intrude. Thielemann’s Brahms Symphonies are among the best available, his thoughtful approach and highly knowledgeable handling of the scores making it possible to see once again just why these works are so central to the standard classical-music repertoire.
Beethoven is just as much a core of classical music as Brahms, but his Missa Solemnis, although an undoubted masterpiece, is not heard nearly as often as his symphonies – and it presents some significant performance challenges, even more so in a largely secular age in which the overtly Catholic text does not have the direct and immediate audience connection that it did in the composer’s time. It takes a performance as good as the new one under John Eliot Gardiner to turn this into a piece that connects musically with the audience, whether or not its texts have personal meaning for any particular listener. Gardiner has recorded the Missa Solemnis before, in fact using the same Monteverdi Choir that appears on his new release – well, not the same group, its members having changed in the 20-plus years since the earlier recording, but a group of the same name and with the same history of excellence and continuity of sound. Gardiner’s earlier recording was an excellent one, but the new release on SDG – which stands for “Soli Deo Gloria,” a singularly appropriate label for this music – is even better. The primary reason is sound: like Thielemann’s Brahms Symphonies, Gardiner’s Missa Solemnis is a live recording (made at London’s Barbican Hall in October 2012), and in this case as in Thielemann’s, the presence of an audience helps bring out the best in the performers. That “best” is very good indeed. The chorus is slightly larger in this recording than in Gardiner’s earlier one, but its sound is at least equally clear, and so is the sound of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, whose instrumental lines beautifully support and complement the vocal ones. This is a faster-than-usual Missa Solemnis, lasting just 70 minutes – while other performances can last 80 or more. But nothing here feels rushed. If anything, the tempos – which are only slightly faster than those of other conductors in any given section – lend the work a propulsive forward motion that sweeps listeners along effectively without compromising the solemnity of either words or music. The four soloists are all more than adequate, even if none of them stands out as transcendent in the way that the horns and woodwinds do. From the gorgeous solo violin in the Benedictus to the intense climax of the Dona Nobis Pacem, this is a Missa Solemnis that is musically heartfelt, stylishly performed and thoroughly convincing – a reaffirmation of the greatness of the work.
The greatness of Bach’s Cello Suites is beyond doubt as well, these being both seminal and towering works for their instrument, for all the particular difficulty of performing No. 6, which was written for a five-string instrument, not a modern, four-string cello. These are emphatically cello suites, despite the oft-repeated claim that Bach’s music is so pure, so inherently “musical” (however one chooses to define that word in this context), that it can be played on any instrument. The fact is that these particular suites are very clearly designed to test the mettle of cellists (and cellos!) and are written with the specific sonorities and capabilities of the cello in mind. They have nevertheless often been transcribed, most notably for viola, and it is probably inevitable that Bach’s music in general will continue to be played on instruments other than the ones designated in the composer’s scores – especially since Bach himself often redid movements or entire pieces originally written for one instrument so they could be played on a different one. Still, Amy Porter’s flute transcriptions of 25 movements from the six cello suites verge on the quixotic, most notably in the two she arranges from Suite No. 6, the Prelude and Courante. The problem is not Porter’s playing, which is absolutely first-rate, and not her transcription ability, which is substantial (although this release is rather oddly titled “In Translation”). The problem is simply that this music does not lie at all well on the flute, whose constricted, high range is about as far from the very substantial, low range of the cello as it is possible to be. Porter is quite obviously aware of this, and it explains why she chooses only some movements of the suites to transcribe, not all of them: many are simply beyond the compass of the flute and would require rewriting rather than transcription – an endeavor that would scarcely repay the effort even if it were not to seem almost sacrilegious. In any case, what Porter gives us here is a fascinating tour of portions of these six-movement suites: five movements apiece from Nos. 1, 3 and 4, four movements apiece from Nos. 2 and 5, and the two movements from No. 6. Porter uses these arrangements as teaching exercises in her master classes, but these suites were never intended as études, and the flute transcriptions do not come across that way: they are musically solid even though their sound, two octaves above that of the cello, can be somewhat wearing if listened to for too long – it is usually single suite movements, not sequences of them, that are played on various instruments not intended by Bach, as the Bourrée of the third suite occasionally is on bassoon, trombone or even tuba. Listeners intrigued by an unusual handling of some Baroque masterpieces will enjoy this two-CD Equilibrium set, which – notwithstanding the excellence of the performance – gets a (+++) rating in light of its niche nature and its ultimately limited appeal.
Porter shows her skill and virtuosity as well in another (+++) CD on the same Equilibrium label – this one, called American Art, containing no masterpieces but providing interested listeners with a chance to hear some virtually unknown flute music by some contemporary American composers. The most interesting work here is by Michael Daugherty (born 1954): Crystal, a 2006 arrangement taken from the second movement of the composer’s 2004 Concerto for Orchestra and set by Daugherty for flute (here played by Yi-Chun Chen), alto flute (Porter), metal windchimes and piano. Both acoustically and musically, this piece shows Daugherty’s considerable skill in structuring his music and in making it aurally unusual and appealing. Unfortunately, Crystal is the shortest work on this CD, and the others are not at this level. Eldin Burton (1913-1981) contributes a Sonatina for Flute and Piano (1948) that is pleasant enough, classically proportioned, but not especially distinguished. The Variations for Flute and Piano (1982) by Robert Beaser (born 1954) are considerably more substantial, superimposing a three-movement form on a set of 15 variations, but at more than 27 minutes, they go on rather too long and do not have any particular thematic distinction. More interesting is Flute Sonata No. 3, “The N.C. Wyeth Sonata” (2006), by Christopher Caliendo (born 1960). It was written for Porter, who gave its première, and it certainly requires considerable virtuosity and breath control. But it is one of those self-consciously programmatic modern works whose movement titles try to give the audience information that the music itself does not effectively convey: “Youth, Trains, and Tin Pan Alley,” “A Dead Son, Reflection, Memory,” and “Bronco Buster.” Porter plays the work sensitively and with clear emotional involvement, and pianist Christopher Harding ably supports her here and throughout the CD. It goes without saying that works like those on American Art pale by comparison with the music of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, but listeners will not come to this disc with the same expectations they will bring to the other recordings. Those interested in hearing fine flute playing of some moderately interesting, well-constructed but scarcely groundbreaking contemporary music would seem to be the target audience for this disc – and the people who will find it most satisfying.