March 27, 2014
Go! Go! Go! Stop! By Charise Mericle Harper. Knopf. $16.99.
Where’s Mommy? By Beverly Donofrio. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The Dandelion’s Tale. By Kevin Sheehan. Illustrated by Rob Dunlavey. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
Poor Doreen: A Fishy Tale. By Sally Lloyd-Jones. Illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
As soon as they learn to read, and even before, young children can appreciate humor and oddity presented in age-appropriate ways – something that all these books do. Charise Mericle Harper’s simple language and bright, appealing illustrations will immediately attract kids ages 2-5 to Go! Go! Go! Stop! Once they start reading (or start having the book read to them), they will find the story of a small green circle called Little Green who can say only one word, “Go!” And that word proves ideal for getting a whole group of construction vehicles to work on a project of bridge-building. Like Little Green, each vehicle has big eyes and a mouth; one even wears a 10-gallon hat and sticks out its tongue. The “Go!” exclamation gets everything, err, going: “Crane carried carefully. Dump truck dumped dependably. Mixer mixed marvelously.” And so on. But too much “going” eventually leads to chaos, which Little Green cannot handle even by saying the only word he knows softly. The word, after all, is still “Go!” Luckily, just then, another big-eyed circle, Little Red, rolls into town and exclaims, “STOP!” And everyone then has time “to rest and get organized.” The two circles figure out how to work together, which takes a while: too much “Go!” or too much “Stop!” is not the answer, so the two have to learn how to balance – which they do just in time for the bridge to get built on schedule. So everything ends happily in this world of color and anthropomorphic shapes issuing commands – with, at the very end, a visit by newly arrived Little Yellow giving kids a chance to see how the words “Slow Down!” would be highly useful for the vehicles using a busy new bridge.
Very slightly older children, ages 3-7, get some more-complex plotting and a bigger helping of emotion in Where’s Mommy? and The Dandelion’s Tale. In the first of these, Beverly Donofrio tells of a little girl named Maria who has a friend named Mouse Mouse who is, yes, a mouse – living downstairs, beneath the human family (an arrangement beautifully detailed in Barbara McClintock’s pitch-perfect illustrations, whose design is reminiscent of that of old comic strips in which some events occurred in regular-size “upstairs” panels while others happened in smaller panels along the bottom). The friends know they cannot tell anyone about each other, because Maria’s parents would not want mice in the house and would get a cat – while Mouse Mouse’s family members would “flee to a hole in the ground” if they knew that Mouse Mouse had made friends with a human child. One night, though, after both friends get ready for bed – in delightfully parallel drawings – both of them call for and then look for their mothers, and both fail to find them (hence the book’s title). So the two friends, separately at first and then together, start searching all over (getting no help from their fathers, neither of whom is the least bit worried about the situation, or from their siblings, who are too busy doing their own things to care about the case of the missing moms). Eventually the search leads both human and mouse girl outdoors, where they head for the garden shed together – and discover, charmingly, that interspecies friendship spans generations. So much for keeping secrets! Unusually plotted and exceptionally well illustrated, Where’s Mommy? is a delightful foray into fantasy and friendship that will delight kids in its target age range.
The Dandelion’s Tale is a deeper and more thoughtful book, and one whose attitudes and emotions extend well past the age group for which it is intended. Kevin Sheehan imagines a bird, Sparrow, flying about and noticing a solitary dandelion crying in a field – a dandelion well past its prime, no longer a flower but now just a set of fuzzy seedpods, most of them blown away. The dandelion is sad that after the wind blows the 10 remaining pods off, that will be the end, and “no one will know I was ever here.” This is a rather deep concept for young children, and although the very fine Rob Dunlavey illustrations keep the book pleasant and in the realm of make-believe, the narrative has an inescapable foundation of sadness. Sparrow is determined to cheer the dandelion up, so he listens to everything the dandelion wants people to remember about her life, writing down what the old flower says, “scratching the dandelion’s words into the soft, dry dirt” nearby. Then Sparrow reads what he has written back to the dandelion, who is very happy that her life and thoughts will be remembered. But this is scarcely the end, for that night there is a huge rain storm that blows away all of the dandelion except “her light green stem,” and also washes away everything Sparrow has written. “Sparrow closed his eyes and wept,” writes Sheehan; and then the bird decides to sing about the dandelion, which leads other birds in the meadow to join in, so the flower is remembered after all. But this too is not the end, for a few weeks later, Sparrow flies over the meadow and notices 10 dandelions growing there – one for each of the old flower’s last seedpods. And now Sparrow can bring the story of the dandelion to the flower’s children, which he does, “sure that the dandelion would never be forgotten” and would live on through future generations “until the end of time.” This is a highly affecting and very moving conclusion, although younger or less emotionally advanced children may have some difficulty grasping it – while parents who read the book to or with their kids should be prepared to shed a tear or two, not for the dandelion but for the impermanence of mortality and the wish for eternity in the form of future generations.
Poor Doreen is for slightly older children, ages 4-8, and returns to the lighter side of storytelling – but requires kids to be able to grasp the concept of irony, which is why it skews older in the first place. Sally Lloyd-Jones tells a very odd little tale indeed of “an Ample Roundy Fish called Miss Doreen Randolph-Potts” who is swimming upstream to visit a distant relative and encounters one difficulty after another – all of them dangerous to the point of being life-threatening – but who simply does not recognize the trouble she gets into, time and time again. The narrator repeatedly expresses worry and fear for Doreen: “Oh dear.” “(Oh, poor Doreen. Yes.)” “Oh, poor Doreen. No.” “This may be the most awful day of your life. Worse—it may be your—LAST.” And so on, and on and on. Doreen is caught by a fisherman after wrongly thinking that the baited hook is “a lovely snack for my journey.” The fisherman rapidly reels her in, but Doreen thinks only that she must be a remarkable swimmer to be moving so quickly. Pulled out of the water, she thinks she is on an outing. The hook removed, she thinks she can rest, while the narrator gets more and more frantic: “Oh, poor Doreen. No. It’s not a rest. It’s THE END.” But then a Great Blue Heron steals the fisherman’s catch – snapping Doreen up from the bucket in which she has been placed. And “the fish-eating machine” carries Doreen aloft, preparing to eat her – until an innocent question from the parasol-carrying fish so startles the bird that it drops her, and her open parasol helps moderate her descent right back into the water for a resumption of what Doreen insists on calling “a PLEASANT journey” to visit “her second cousin twice removed and her 157 babies.” This is a fish story par excellence, what is also known as a shaggy-dog story, a tall tale, or simply an odd and outlandish little fable filled with Perils of Pauline cliffhangers and told amusingly both in words and in delightfully daffy illustrations by Alexandra Boiger. It is a story worth reading and rereading, one whose delights are obvious the first time but one whose sillinesses seem even odder and more amusing through repeated enjoyment.
Knightley & Son. By Rohan Gavin. Bloomsbury. $16.99.
Middle-School Cool. By Maiya Williams. Illustrated by Karl Edwards. Delacorte Press. $12.99.
It doesn’t take too big a twist on the real world to produce books that are genuinely strange. Knightley & Son, the first novel by Rohan Gavin and the start of a planned series, need not go all that far beyond traditional detective procedurals featuring modern-day Sherlock Holmes types in order to have an attractive surrealistic sheen about it. Because the book is aimed at preteen and young teenage readers, a protagonist in that age range is a must, and Darkus (Doc) Knightley fills the role admirably. The reason he is needed, from the story’s point of view rather than that of the target audience, is that his father – a distinctly post-Holmesian character – has just come out of a mysterious four-year coma induced, perhaps, by his arcane studies into an utterly villainous conspiracy that is not run by Professor Moriarty but might as well be. It is the Combination, and it is responsible for just about all the unsolved crimes, big and small, that happen everywhere. Unless, of course, it does not exist and is only the product of the older Knightley’s disarranged mind – that being, not surprisingly, the viewpoint of the stolid and stodgy coppers who can only approach criminal enterprises in a straightforward, straight-line, matter-of-fact way that is wholly inappropriate when the genuinely nefarious game is afoot. This is not to say that father and son Knightley are entirely on their own. Montague Billoch, aka Uncle Bill, is on their side. Well, pretty much, although even he does not believe it when Alan (Knightley père) waxes enthusiastic about his Combination theory. The thing is that Uncle Bill does not work for, in his own words to Doc, “any department ye or many other people will have heard of. …Specialist Operations branch forty-two. Only among the likes of yer father and myself, it’s known as the Department of the Unexplained. …It exists outside the regular world, just like the crimes it investigates. …Highly organized crime, parapsychology, the occult, the dark arts, and well nigh everything in between.” This is a wonderful recipe for a conspiracy-theory-focused story in which Doc’s outstanding mental agility and speaking ability far beyond that of any ordinary 13-year-old will be necessary to unravel a most puzzling set of clues while his father remains in yet “another narcoleptic stupor,” which conveniently removes him from the action so Doc can be the center of the reader’s attention. This is quite helpful when it turns out that what may be at the center of a series of distinctly odd occurrences is nothing but – a book. Not a “nothing but” sort of book, though, as Doc tells Uncle Bill, but one that “bears all the hallmarks of a grimoire. …Followers of the black arts call it a ‘necronomicon.” This makes no sense to Bill, who has quickly become Watson to Doc’s Holmes, but it soon proves a most fruitful line of inquiry, as Doc proves himself “a chip off the old block” (as Bill, who often speaks in cliché, puts it) and moves smartly along on an investigation filled with enough twists and turns to delight readers both young and young at heart. The whole of Knightley & Son is far too absurd for adult lovers of traditional mysteries to enjoy, but its complexities – including the inevitable if un-Holmesian partnering of Doc with a female sleuth of his own age: his stepsister, Tilly – are piled so delightfully upon each other that readers who get into the spirit of the caper will not want it to end. And it doesn’t – because, as noted, this is the start of a series, one that has considerable potential to expand into ever-more-intriguing realms.
The realm of Maiya Williams’ Middle-School Cool is, as the title indicates, middle school, but this is not just any middle school – it is Kaboom Academy, an “alternative” school whose degree of alternative-ness becomes increasingly clear as the book goes on. Indeed, it seems to be a school that exists in an alternative world, one that overlaps the everyday one but is not quite identical to it. The game that’s afoot here involves the nine students in Journalism 1A, the staff of The Daily Dynamite, which despite its title comes out only four times a year. The adults here are every bit as odd as the kids, if not odder. That is a clue! Take Dr. Kaboom himself. “‘I earned my doctorate in learnomology, specializing in thinkonomics and edumechanics,’” he tells parents. The narration continues: “Nobody in the room had ever heard of those disciplines before, but Dr. Kaboom’s voice was so deep and commanding it didn’t occur to them to question him. It was like receiving information from God, or if you didn’t believe in God, Darth Vader.” That is a hint! And readers will immediately know that there is something more than slightly askew about Dr. Kaboom, even before he continues lecturing while saying “leering” instead of “learning,” “meatheads” instead of “methods,” “rabid” instead of “rapid,” “irrelevance” instead of “intelligence,” and so forth. It soon becomes apparent that the Kaboom method of doing things – which is highly secret, of course – has some very unusual repercussions. There are, for example, the repercussions of playing dodgeball with balls that appear to be sentient, since “the height and intensity of the bounces seemed to increase with every impact, defying the laws of physics,” after which “the balls started to coordinate with each other, creating patterns like synchronized swimmers or a marching band” (Karl Edwards’ illustrations, which fit wonderfully into the story, are particularly enjoyable here). Middle-School Cool includes wordplay, as in a discussion of “the five Ws” answered in news stories – a scene that will remind those who know Abbott and Costello of the comedy duo’s famous “who’s on first?” routine. The book includes oddball personalities, such as Mr. Gruber, a “yo-yo magnet” at whose proximity the toys fly off their strings to attack him; former conjoined twins Aliya and Taliya, who find a highly amusing way to achieve a measure of independent thought and appearance; and a teacher named Mr. Mister whose first name turns out to be Mister, meaning he is Mr. Mister Mister – shades of Major Major Major Major in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22! There are more than 22 “catches” here, in fact, and readers will not be surprised when it turns out that Kaboom Academy and its students are an experiment of sorts – but what sort of experiment, and why, is a matter revealed only late in the book, as all good (or not-so-good) revelations should be. Middle-School Cool is not only a lot of fun but also, underneath the hijinks and hilarity, a book with a theme worth thinking about: just what could be done in a school that sets out from the start to approach education in a way entirely, or at least mostly, divorced from everyday reality? The possibilities, if not exactly endless, are endlessly intriguing, and very funny indeed.
It’s One Thing After Another! “For Better or For Worse” 4th Treasury. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $22.99.
Say It Ain’t So. By Josh Berk. Knopf. $16.99.
Don’t Even Think about It. By Sarah Mlynowski. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
Rio 2: The Junior Novel. By Christa Roberts. HarperFestival. $5.99.
Rio 2: Vacation in the Wild; One Big Blue Family. By Catherine Hapka. Harper. $3.99 each.
Rio 2: Off and Flying; Untamed Talent. By Cari Meister. HarperFestival. $3.99 each.
You might think that a sequel is simply a followup, perhaps a continuation of a story already written or a new story featuring characters already introduced. And so a sequel can be – but nowadays it can be many other things. The fourth oversize, hardbound “Treasury” volume reprinting early For Better or For Worse strips by Lynn Johnston, for example, is not only a sequel to the third “Treasury,” Making Ends Meet, but a part of it. Johnston explains at the start of the new book that it is half of what Making Ends Meet was supposed to be – that the cost of producing larger hardcover books has become so prohibitive, their readership so uncertain in an age of the Internet and among a population so focused on video and other decidedly non-bookish forms of communication, that only thinner (but still costly) “Treasury” volumes can now be produced. This is deeply unfortunate, and Johnston bemoans it in terms that will be familiar to anyone who loves newspaper (newspaper?) comic strips and printed (printed?) books. Thank goodness, though, that these treasurable “Treasury” volumes continue to appear, even in thinner form, because each remains a treasure trove of For Better or For Worse panels and, of equal interest to fans of the long-running strip, explanations of ways in which the story does and does not reflect Johnston’s real life. In addition to information on specific comic-strip stories inspired by specific real-world events, Johnston includes newspaper clippings – stories about her and her adventures – and biographical information, such as the fact that she was offered a job working for Jay Ward of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but turned it down for family reasons and later decided it had all been for the best. (Maybe so, but imagining Johnston re-creating Natasha Fatale is great fun!) The ways in which Johnston absorbs everyday events common to so many families – music lessons, dog issues, post-party messes, sibling rivalry – and turns them into the stuff of humor and warmhearted panel-based communication continue to fascinate and amaze. And although For Better or For Worse, which continues to run (or re-run) in many newspapers, was never a particularly “edgy” strip – a fact that puts it at a distinct disadvantage nowadays – it does handle enough difficult themes so that it comes across as something other than a paean to pure sweetness and light. Yet it is sweet at its core, and the chance to absorb that sweetness through a hardcover volume filled with explanatory material is not to be missed, at least in these days before old-fashioned books vanish into the interconnected ether.
Josh Berk’s Say It Ain’t So is a far more traditional sequel, a “Lenny & the Mikes Mystery” following up on Strike Three, You’re Dead. Intended for ages 8-12, this is a seventh-grade fantasy featuring Lenny, Mike and Other Mike (hence the overall series title). Sports-focused like its predecessor, Say It Ain’t So has Mike managing, through hard work and persistence, to become catcher on his middle-school team, with Lenny becoming the team’s unofficial announcer. The dastardly doings here revolve around the team’s star pitcher, Hunter Ashwell, whose relationship with Mike on the field makes for top-flight play even though Hunter is, as a personality, more than a little unpleasant. What happens is that Hunter, after pitching with tremendous success, starts to have problems, and Lenny suspects that means someone is stealing Mike’s catcher signals. But who? And why? That is the plot, and most of the way it is worked out in this (+++) book is scarcely surprising. Personality descriptions here are at middle-school level: “He was fun, he was nice, and he was a good friend. Right from the beginning. He was Other Mike, but he was always himself. Can’t beat that.” The brief character introductions, or reintroductions, go along with the notion of this book as a sequel – one requiring readers to have read the previous book to get the full effect. For example, Lenny narrates, “Maria Bonzer was, yes, the niece of Mr. Bonzer the librarian. And yes, she is the Maria Bonzer me and the Mikes briefly thought was a murderer. But she ended up helping us solve the case last summer.” To solve this case, Lenny has to become suspicious of all sorts of people, even including Mike, and has to solve the related case of a stolen cell phone, and then has to find himself under suspicion before he discovers the entirely improbable solution to what is really going on, and why. Indeed, the answer is so improbable that it is hard to see the book as more than a sendup of middle-school mysteries, complete with a final championship game whose outcome depends on – who else? – Lenny and Mike (although not Other Mike, who neither likes nor understands baseball). Certainly this series is ripe for other sequels now that this one is out of the way.
As conventional a sequel as Say It Ain’t So is, Sarah Mlynowski’s (+++) Don’t Even Think about It, with its oddly similar title but a targeting of older readers (ages 12 and up), is something very different: a first book that is clearly written with a sequel in mind. Indeed, said sequel is already in the works. Writing a book that begs for a sequel and seems incomplete without one is, to say the least, unusual, but that is just what Mlynowski has done here. Fast-forward from seventh grade to high school and switch from a boy focus to a girl focus, then throw in a case of manifest absurdity in the form of flu shots that give an entire class telepathic powers, and you have the plot of Mlynowski’s book. It is enormously silly and not to be taken even the slightest bit seriously, but it is also a great deal of fun, despite the fact that it moves in entirely unsurprising directions. The girls with ESP learn the usual high-school secrets: who is crushing on whom, who is about to break up with whom, who cheated on whom, and so on. There is a revelation or two about the adults, thrown in for a bit of spice (the school nurse used to be a stripper), and there are all the possibilities inherent in having a sixth sense that nobody knows about – such as initiating breakups just before boyfriends are going to dump you. There are explorations of how the ESP works and how to deal with the volume of thoughts – “volume” as in “large number” and also as in “loudness.” And as the thought-reading continues, there are predictable complications, including the fact that “we were getting increasingly annoyed with each other.” And there is a mystery involving a woman who appears to know about the ESP and the “Espies.” And it turns out that certain authorities knew about the possibility of ESP accompanying the flu shots, and those authorities have a way to reverse the effect, but do the Espies really want it reversed? Would they want it reversed if it might have a really dire side effect – such as killing them prematurely? Oh, the drama! But the whole point of the book is that the Espies decide not to accept the antidote, so they can bond further and move into senior year with their powers intact; and that is why Don’t Even Think about It reads like a setup for its own sequel, which will be called, not surprisingly, Think Twice.
There are sequels and then there are original works based on sequels – yet another way the “sequel machine” keeps churning them out. The animated movie Rio has spawned a sequel called, with stunning lack of originality, Rio 2, and that sequel has in turn spawned a whole group of (+++) books derived from the new film. The first film ended with blue macaws Blu and Jewel as a couple – the last blue Spix’s Macaws in the world – so of course Rio 2 involves the discovery that Blu and Jewel (and their kids) are not the last of their kind, there being more in the Amazon jungle. The wild macaws turn out to be Jewel’s family, which is great for her but not so great for the wild-averse Blu. But eventually everyone is happy with everyone else and all ends happily with happiness. It’s a family film, after all. Rio 2: The Junior Novel, for ages 8-12, tells the whole story of the movie and will be fun for preteens who see and enjoy it and want to relive the experience afterwards – although this is a pretty thin story to live through repeatedly, especially without constant visual reinforcement (the book contains only eight pages of scenes from the film). Vacation in the Wild and One Big Blue Family are Stage 2 books (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) in the series called I Can Read! They are for ages 4-8 and feature movie scenes on every page; both tell the story of the film in bare-bones form, from slightly different angles and showing slightly different visuals. As for Off and Flying and Untamed Talent, also for ages 4-8, the first of these short picture books focuses on Blu’s attempt to fit in with the wild macaws and the way the macaws join sympathetic humans to prevent logging of the jungle; the second focuses on the avian villain Nigel, who has sworn revenge on Blu and Jewel and almost gets it (but of course not quite). These are simple, easy-to-read, easy-to-like souvenir books that give fans of this movie sequel a way to re-enjoy the plot, characters and scenes of the animated film. Like Rio 2 itself, they have no independent existence – the movie sequel would not exist without its predecessor, nor the books without the sequel on which they are based. They are nevertheless enjoyable, in a small and limited way, for young readers who just cannot get enough of Blu, Jewel and their cohorts.
Undecided: Navigating Life and Learning after High School. By Genevieve Morgan. Zest Books. $14.99.
Other People’s Money: Inside the Housing Crisis and the Demise of the Greatest Real Estate Deal Ever Made. By Charles V. Bagli. Plume. $17.
A guidebook for Generation Z (those born in 1995 or later) about determining who and what you are, where and when you want to move beyond the high-school experience, and which direction you want to go in as you move inexorably into adulthood, Undecided reflects in its one-word title the feelings of high-schoolers from time immemorial – and, today, the feelings of many college students and young adults as well. Genevieve Morgan, interestingly, is an adult who remains undecided, her life and career composed of everything from nonfiction book writing (well, duh) to fiction writing to book packaging to corporate work to volunteering to magazine editing and more. You might think that this would give her a unique perspective on what it means to stay undecided well into adulthood, and that this viewpoint would be the basis of Undecided, but in fact the book is a rather dry and straightforward exploration of post-high-school options that in no way suggests that readers emulate the author’s own life and experiences. That does not make this a bad book, but it does make it a rather unexciting, middle-of-the-road one, a sober examination of traditional alternatives rather than a free-spirited look at unusual life possibilities.
So, for example, Morgan discusses various ways in which readers can explore their predilections according to preferences, such as social orientation (individualistic, competitive or more interested in evenness of outcome) and categorizations along the lines of those of the Myers-Briggs test (which is never mentioned by name): “introverted tribal,” “extroverted tribal,” “introverted maestro,” “extroverted maestro.” Morgan says that “the thing to look for is what you prefer more or most of the time,” and this is an ongoing theme of her book: find what matters most to you, what your strongest desire or orientation is, and then use that to help you decide what to do next. Morgan comes up with categories designed to describe her readers (the creative, the helper, the thinker, the planner, and so forth), provides ways to decide which category you fit into, then warns not to pigeonhole yourself – a somewhat contradictory thing to say right after showing how to pigeonhole yourself. But her basic point makes sense: no one is entirely this way or that way, this or that sort of person, so what it is best to do when looking ahead is to decide who you are now, what matters to you now, and try to make decisions that play to your current interests and abilities. Those decisions themselves fall into such broad categories as higher education (although not necessarily the traditional four-year college), military or civil service, work, and travel. She talks about gap years, starting your own business, going to trade schools, and all sorts of other options – all very briefly but all in sensible, easy-to-follow ways. With lists to check, questions to answer, boxes of information ranging from the reality of sexual discrimination in the military to specific Web sites for language-immersion information, Undecided is packed with possibility, as indeed is post-high-school life itself. Although unlikely to help teens who are genuinely floundering as they face graduation, the book may help direct those with some idea of what they want to do and where they want to go, but without a definitive answer for the question of what comes next.
The challenges of life are many and occur at all levels of income and complexity, as anyone wanting to explore that issue can discover through the object lesson of Charles Bagli’s Other People’s Money, originally published last year and now available in paperback. This is a big, sprawling book that seems more like a case study and less like a work with immediacy now than it did when first released – evidence of changes in the U.S. and world economy and of just how short short-term memory can be when economic and other events change so dramatically and so quickly as they have in recent times. The book is nevertheless a very impressive piece of research, in which New York Times reporter Charles V. Bagli uncovers and unravels the story of the failed deal for the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village middle-income housing project in New York City. Bagli, who covers business and its interrelationship with politics, has a left-wing viewpoint on capitalism that informs the book throughout and will likely resonate even more strongly in New York City itself under its current mayor, Bill de Blasio, than it did when the book was originally published under the city’s previous one, Michael Bloomberg. Whether the work will be equally resonant in other quarters is another matter – it will certainly lend credence to those who believe the Times is unabashedly left-wing in its orientation. Beyond the political gyrations, though, is a fascinating story in which Bagli reports the deal by humanizing the residents of the 11,232 apartments in the high-rises and by systematically dehumanizing, if not exactly demonizing, the financiers and dealmakers of Tishman Speyer and BlackRock Realty, who paid $5.4 billion for the property and defaulted three years later. The buildings themselves are ugly – one critic compared them to “the architecture of the police state” – but the stories of the people who lived in them are not, and Bagli tells them to excellent effect.
Rigid rent control and, later, somewhat-less-rigid rent stabilization, protected residents against the vicissitudes of the economy. But MetLife, the longtime owner of Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, was not so protected, having to ask city officials for any rent increase and falling short of the modest 6% profit it was supposed to be allowed to make. This laid the groundwork for the eventual deal with Tishman Speyer and BlackRock Realty, but the rent restrictions meant that the buyers ran into serious trouble when the financial crisis in housing started to take hold in 2007. The owners also had to contend with a lawsuit that said they “had illegally charged market-rate rents for more than three thousand apartments after ‘wrongfully pocketing nearly $25 million in New York City tax benefits.’” The notion of a lawsuit attacking building owners for charging market-rate rents – no one said above market rate – may seem ludicrous, but not in New York City and not to Bagli. And this is only one element of the immensely complicated story that Bagli tells in Other People’s Money. Bagli has clearly studied and analyzed this deal inside-out, right-side-up and upside-down. His reporting is excellent, his writing clear, his exploration of the greed (which could also be called, less onerously, the determination to make profits) of the principals thorough. His reporting on the owners’ mortgage default in January 2009 is well done, although his outrage over the fact that Tishman Speyer and BlackRock Realty lost less than did many of their investors is hard to understand: this is how major deals are put together in American capitalism. Today, “the complexes remain intact,” Bagli points out, and a MetLife executive is quoted as saying that most tenants “still have rent stabilization protecting them.” So could there possibly be a flaw in a political system that guarantees people well-below-market rates for properties whose maintenance, upkeep and improvement must be paid for at market rates, with owners responsible even when macroeconomic factors result in a vacancy rate far higher than any in a complex’s history? That is not an issue that Bagli raises or, apparently, cares to raise. The ones he does raise are fascinating, though, and the detail with which he reports them is highly impressive. But the book leaves behind a feeling, even after 400 pages, that there is more to say about Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village and the housing-driven financial crisis that caused the deal for it to fail; and more to say about how this deal could have been done differently, if it could have been; and whether the whole concept of “rent stabilization” is an anachronism or a necessary counterbalance to the market forces of which this particular deal ran afoul because of circumstances partly within and partly beyond the dealmakers’ control. It is, however, doubtful that more will be said on any of these subjects now that the principals and Bagli have moved on and the economy itself has lurched forward, taking real-estate investment with it. That is, more will not be said until the next major downturn, the next major deal gone wrong, and the next major wringing of hands over what could and perhaps should have been done differently.
Suppé: Boccaccio. Hermann Prey, Anneliese Rothenberger, Adolf Dallapozza, Edda Moser, Willi Brokmeier, Kurt Böhme, Walter Berry; Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper München and Bayerisches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Willi Boskovsky. Warner. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Mark Abel: Song Cycles—The Dark-Eyed Chameleon; Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke; Rainbow Songs. Jamie Chamberlin and Ariel Pisturino, sopranos; Victoria Kirsch, piano. Delos. $16.99.
Ravel: La Valse; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Menuet antique; Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn; Prélude; Scriabin: Valse in A-flat; Piano Sonatas Nos. 4 and 5. Sean Chen, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120. Gabriel Chodos, piano. Fleur de Son. $9.99.
Warner Classics is providing a major service to opera lovers by re-releasing works recorded in the 1960s and 1970s as the “Cologne Collection.” This is wonderful even though the performances and recordings are not necessarily unalloyed successes. The Cologne series is making it possible to hear some real rarities, such as Humperdinck’s Königskinder and Lortzing’s Undine, as well as some unjustly neglected works of considerable interest, such as Boccaccio’s 1879 sort-of-operetta, sort-of-comic-opera, Boccaccio, oder Der Prinz von Palermo. This is an ensemble piece in which only the title character (elegantly sung by Hermann Prey) really has any personality at all; everyone else pales into insignificance, even the prince of the subtitle (Willi Brokmeier). Suppé’s works have wit and sparkle aplenty, but they often do not fit neatly into the operetta mold pioneered by Offenbach and refined by Johann Strauss Jr. and others. For example, Boccaccio is not filled with waltzes or other dance tunes, and ensemble pieces play a greater role in the work than might be expected. Besides, one of the best-known traditions of operetta, the two-couple love story (one high-born pair and one low-born), is entirely absent here. Boccaccio is essentially a personality piece about the notorious 14th-century Florentine author and rake, showing him trying to win the approbation of the prince of Palermo as well as the favor of the ruler’s illegitimate daughter, Fiametta (Anneliese Rothenberger) – and eventually succeeding, to the discomfiture of the townsfolk, who fear his effect on their wives and do not much care for his literary endeavors. The 1975 recording of Boccaccio is superbly conducted by Willi Boskovsky, one of the best advocates of lighter opera and operetta during this time period, and the singing ranges from very fine to excellent, with top-notch performers such as Adolf Dallapozza, Kurt Böhme and Walter Berry making sure that even smaller roles are handled adeptly. The analog sound is quite good, and the remastering has been done well. But the performance shows its age in certain ways – for example, three numbers, including an attractive sextet, are omitted altogether. And the release not only lacks a libretto or any link to one online (a very unfortunate absence, since the plot of Boccaccio is not straightforward, and an understanding of the dialogue is crucial to follow it) but also fails even to provide a summary of the action. The result is a recording that sounds delightful but makes no sense to anyone who is not fluent in German – a real shame, since the libretto by Friedrich Zell (pen name of Camillo Walzel) and Richard Genée is witty and well-crafted. Warner’s Boccaccio is delightful in many ways, but could easily have been delightful in more.
The vocal enjoyment is more personal and intense on a Delos CD called Terrain of the Heart, featuring three song cycles by Mark Abel (born 1948). The deepest and most affecting of these is The Dark-Eyed Chameleon, which traces the end of a love relationship in forthright and emotionally fraught words by Abel himself. The final song title, “Cataclysm,” is a major overstatement objectively but accurately reflects the emotional devastation experienced when love self-destructs. Abel’s vocal writing is essentially tonal and basically in the art-song tradition, but his piano accompaniment is not, partaking of jazz and rock elements and generally requiring the pianist to be far more a participant in the drama and emotion of the songs than is usual in classical lieder. Soprano Jamie Chamberlin and pianist Victoria Kirsch make an excellent pair in The Dark-Eyed Chameleon, their voices (the piano does often sound like a second voice) intermingling at times, contrasting at others, singer and pianist heightening the emotional turmoil effectively as the cycle progresses and eventually bringing matters to a point of acceptance, however unsatisfactory that may be for those who have loved and lost. Chamberlin and Kirsch also do a first-rate job with the four Rainbow Songs, which are more loosely connected and more lyrical than dramatic. Brighter and more optimistic than The Dark-Eyed Chameleon, the Rainbow Songs cycle is also more ordinary in expression, pleasant enough in this world première recording but not especially revelatory or emotionally forthcoming. In the third cycle here, Kirsch is again the pianist, but the soprano is Ariel Pisturino, and that is not the only difference between this cycle and the others: Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke is the only music here for which Abel did not himself write the words. The dreamlike, surrealistic, enigmatic poetry of Rilke (1875-1926) has fascinated many composers, and all have struggled to find musical ways to reflect images that are sometimes religious, sometimes mystical, sometimes entirely inward in focus, and often strange and difficult to interpret. Abel’s settings attempt to balance the delicacy and ambiguity of Rilke’s work, with modest but not unqualified success – this cycle is somewhat more distancing and less involving than the other two on this CD, although it is certainly well sung, and Kirsch’s pianism fits it with a sure understanding and uncompromising technique.
Technique is also a major attraction in Sean Chen’s Steinway & Sons recording of works by Ravel and Scriabin – essentially a disc focusing on piano music from the turn of the 20th century to the start of World War I. The 26-year-old Chen certainly has more than enough technical ability to handle all this music, even Scriabin’s notoriously difficult Sonata No. 5, but whether he has sufficient understanding to distinguish among the works – between that Scriabin sonata and No. 4, for example – is another matter. These two sonatas were written before and after Le Poème de l'Extase, and there is a significant break between them in other ways, with No. 4 being in two movements and No. 5 being the first of Scriabin’s one-movement sonatas (the single-movement form is used in all the rest of them, through the final No. 10). The works’ emotional content is quite different, but Chen’s readings seem more focused on getting the complexities of the works right – which he does – than on exploring the sonatas’ differing emotional landscapes. The other Scriabin piece here, the Op. 38 Valse, was written between these two sonatas and is an altogether lighter work, and Chen handles it effectively. The intermingling of Scriabin and Ravel, though, is managed rather strangely. The CD starts with Scriabin’s Valse, continues with Ravel’s Menuet antique, then offers Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4, then three Ravel works, then Scriabin’s No. 5, and finally Ravel’s La valse in Chen’s own arrangement. Although of course it is possible to listen to tracks in any order, some thought presumably went into arranging them this way, but the underlying notion is difficult to fathom. There is no particular flow to the disc; indeed, it is distinctly odd to follow Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4 with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, which Chen plays very well but which is rather jarring in this context. The next two Ravel works are very short – Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn and the Prélude of 1913 – and then comes the extreme complexity of Scriabin’s No. 5, which, again, is rather jarring as a result. Perhaps this intensity of contrast is the intention, but if so, it is rather overdone. It has to be said that the concluding La valse is really excellent, Chen’s arrangement being very well done and his comfort with the work’s virtuosic requirements evident. Even here, though, there is a certain underlying sadness that is missing, a mourning for the vanished world seen mistily through Ravel’s lens. Chen has complete command of his instrument already; hopefully, over time, he will develop a stronger mastery of the nuances and emotional resonance of the music written for it.
Gabriel Chodos has such mastery already, as is shown in his splendid Fleur de Son recording of Beethoven’s monumental and ever-puzzling Diabelli Variations. These 33 astonishing alterations and expansions of a rather trivial waltz tune by publisher Anton Diabelli never cease to amaze performers and audiences alike. But Chodos seeks more than astonishment here, and finds it in this (++++) recording. A faculty member of the New England Conservatory for more than a quarter of a century and chairman of its piano department for 25 years, Chodos takes an approach to these variations that is anything but academic. He sees this hour-long sampling of late Beethoven as a world-spanning piece, akin in its own way to the inclusiveness of a Mahler symphony, the extremely short variations (often lasting a minute or less) every bit as consequential in the overall architecture as the profundity of the lengthy Grave e maestoso Variation XIV and Largo, molto espressivo Variation XXXI. There is a quicksilver lightness to the playing of the Presto Variations X and XIX – coupled with an understanding of the differences between these two speedy little pieces – as well as close attention to the lyricism and sweetness of the Fughetta: Andante Variation XXIV. And that little fugal passage stands in the strongest possible contrast to the stately and intense Fuga: Allegro Variation XXXII, which almost but not quite caps the entire work. It is in fact only the penultimate variation, and it is up to the transformational final one, the Tempo di Minuetto Variation XXXIII, to bring Diabelli’s little tune transcendently into an age of poise and elegance through a minuet structure past which, ironically, Beethoven himself had already moved: true, he had used the Tempo di Menuetto designation as late as his Symphony No. 8, but that had been in 1812, a full 11 years before he composed the Diabelli Variations. What Chodos does in this performance is to see the Diabelli Variations as a totality greater than the sum of its elements – a clichéd expression, perhaps, but one that is quite apt here, as the pianist traces the theme carefully throughout the entire hour of his playing while still showcasing the highly distinctive elements of each individual component of the music. The Diabelli Variations are among Beethoven’s most variegated compositions, all-encompassing in their emotional and technical reach and something of a wonder in the way they take a fairly simple structural form and very simple tune and use them to reach for vastness and profundity. Chodos understands exactly what this remarkable work tries to do, and his mature and highly sensitive performance helps it attain the heights for which Beethoven strove.
March 20, 2014
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Deluxe Edition. By Dr. Seuss. Random House. $25.99.
Clark the Shark Dares to Share. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $17.99.
Brer Rabbit had his laughing place, which proved mighty unfunny to Brer Fox, but then it was not his laughing place, was it? And just as classic as that place and the other places in the tales retold by Joel Chandler Harris are the equally classic but much more recent locations in Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! This is a very late Seuss work, first published in 1990, the year before Theodor Seuss Geisel died at the age of 87. But it is every bit as inventive, funny and strange as the good doctor’s earlier books, and just as full of the oddball juxtapositions for which Dr. Seuss’ prose was known: “You have brains in your head./ You have feet in your shoes.” Now Random House has brought out a fine and fancy slipcased Deluxe Edition of the book, throwing in – as a bonus – the famous (or notorious) Dr. Seuss commencement speech given at Lake Forest College in 1977. That is the one that lasted about two minutes and ended with the lines (which were part of a decidedly Seussian rhyme), “Do a lot of spitting out the hot air./ And be careful what you swallow.” This loses something outside the context of the whole poem, but fear not: it is all there in Random House’s book, and it goes very neatly with the theme of the book itself. For here Dr. Seuss, nearing the end of his own life, passes the torch to the next generation in as rousing a way as he can. “With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,/ you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.” Ultimately as affirmative as always, Dr. Seuss, his trademark outlandish drawings as outré as ever, joyfully asserts that “Out there things can happen/ and frequently do/ to people as brainy/ and footsy as you.” Elephants carry a canopy, long-green-necked creatures occupy manholes, balloons fly high – but sometimes things do not go well, and one of the most wonderful things about this wonderful book is how Dr. Seuss handles that particular reality of life. “I’m sorry to say so/ but, sadly, it’s true/ that Bang-ups/ and Hang-ups/ can happen to you.” And so begins the negative part of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! “You will come to a place where the streets are not marked./ Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.” (A perfect Seussian word invention, that.) And so we find ourselves at the Waiting Place, perhaps the most adult-focused location ever invented by Dr. Seuss, where recognizably Seussian characters wait for this, that and the other thing, and wait and wait and wait and wait: “Everyone is just waiting.” But: “NO!/ That’s not for you!” And so the book’s unnamed adventurer escapes “somehow” and all is well – except when, again, it isn’t, and loneliness creeps in, “And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance/ you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.” But persist, urges the good doctor, “and face up to your problems/ whatever they are.” The upbeat ending of the book is all the more effective for the work’s dark side, which is part of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! to a most surprising extent in a Dr. Seuss offering. But that is what this remarkable work is all about. Dr. Seuss told the Lake Forest graduates, “my wisdom is in very short supply,” but fortunately he meant that only in the sense that it could be compressed into very short books or even shorter (14-line) poems. Discovering or rediscovering Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a very real pleasure, and the handsome new Random House edition is a marvelous way to “get on your way,” be you youth, graduate, midlifer or someone who, like Dr. Seuss when he wrote the book, may be advanced in chronological years but remains decidedly young in mind and spirit.
Unlike the broad philosophical lessons of Dr. Seuss, those of Bruce Hale in the Clark the Shark books for ages 4-8 are much more specific and decidedly more modest. But Hale communicates them very well on their smaller scale, and Guy Francis’ illustrations keep things light and amusing even at their most instructive. The second book about Clark, Clark the Shark Dares to Share, again takes readers to an imaginary undersea world and features the very large, very toothy and very mixed-up title character misinterpreting something at first and then learning moderation and correct behavior by the end of the book. In the first book, simply called Clark the Shark, Clark had to find out how to curb his over-enthusiastic response to just about everything: bounciness is fine, he learned, but not when you are as big, strong and intrusive as Clark. Now, in Clark the Shark Dares to Share, Clark has to cope with the difficult-for-him concept of sharing. He understands that sharing means some sort of participating that involves everyone, but when he does an enthusiastic dance as a fellow student plays music, the teacher tells him to sit down and wait his turn. When another student receives an ice-cream prize for reading the most books (it’s sea slug ice cream!), Clark wants some, because that would be sharing; however, the teacher tells him the decision is not up to him but to the other student. When Clark plays reef hockey, at which he is the best player, he helps his team win the game – but they object that even if the whole team shared the victory, Clark did not let anyone else score. “Sharing is complicated,” Clark decides, and it gets even more complicated when he accidentally breaks a friend’s “Sea Wars” toy (it’s the one that Hale cleverly names “Dark Wader,” enemy of “Fluke Seawalker”). Later, at home, Clark objects when his little brother bites and ruins one of Clark’s caps – that can’t be sharing, Clark thinks. Clark gets into a sulk (in a particularly amusing drawing by Francis), then decides he just has to get this sharing thing right, and spends the rest of the book making amends for his earlier unintentional misdeeds: baking a cake for the friend whose toy he broke, for example, which leads the fellow student with the ice cream to scoop some onto the plates with the cake, and so on. Clark ends up with “a warm, wiggly feeling way down deep inside” (in another of Francis’ funniest drawings – although some children may think this one looks as if Clark needs to go to the bathroom!). All ends well for everyone, of course, and if Clark the Shark Dares to Share is scarcely profound and scarcely written or drawn on a Dr. Seuss level, it is a pleasant, amusing romp with interestingly offbeat characters and a nicely downplayed approach to teaching a basic lesson in manners in a decidedly non-Emily-Post way.
Never Ending. By Martyn Bedford. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.
The Mirk and Midnight Hour. By Jane Nickerson. Knopf. $16.99.
Kissing in Italian. By Lauren Henderson. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The setting sometimes matters more than the characters in novels for teenagers, sometimes reflecting protagonists’ moods, sometimes running counter to them, sometimes becoming a participant of sorts in the progress of the book. Martyn Bedford’s Never Ending is set primarily in an institution called the Korsakoff Clinic, where nontraditional psychological therapy is used to try to help teens, including protagonist Shiv, confront and move past severe traumas. In Shiv’s case, the trauma involves the death of her brother and best friend, Declan, during the family’s vacation in Greece – the other important place where the book takes place. Cast as a narrative that at once moves forward through Shiv’s attempt to come to terms with Declan’s death (which involves, among other things, her interactions with fellow clinic residents Mikey and Caron), and backward through flashbacks to what happened in Greece (including a romance between Shiv and a boy named Nikos), Bedford’s book often makes the settings livelier than the characters. Shiv (her real name is Siobhan, but she notes that it is Irish even though she is not) goes through such “key therapeutic activities” as “Walk,” “Make,” “Talk,” “Write” and “Buddy Time.” Asked why she is at the Korsakoff Clinic, Shiv dutifully replies, “To stop doing the stuff I do,” but Dr. Pollard, director of the clinic, insists that no matter what “your mother and father, your social worker, the police, the juvenile court, your counselor, [and] the people whose property you’ve vandalized” want, the issue is what Shiv herself wants during the 60 days of treatment. Shiv herself has to discover, gradually, just what that is. “Each day is tougher than the last” as she confronts her feelings and desires – her reasons for the behavior that put her at Korsakoff Clinic in the first place. She finds herself “trapped inside – enveloped by, taken back to – the place where her brother lived his last days,” courtesy of virtual reality. She burrows down into herself, seeking ways to assuage the guilt she feels at Declan’s death and what she sees as her responsibility for it. Readers eventually find out just what did happen to Declan, after a lot of pseudo-psychological comments such as the doctor’s assertion that Shiv has “a misfiring in the brain that causes you to confuse imagined perceptions with actual ones, whether it’s a remembered event or something happening – or seeming to happen – right now, in front of you.” The specially designed Personalized Therapy Unit (PTU) becomes a presence in the book, as does the rest of Korsakoff Clinic, as does Kyritos, Greece, where the family vacationed and Declan died; but the main presence here is intended to be in Shiv’s head, within which she eventually finds out how to cope with what occurred and her role in it. Whether the coming-to-terms outcome of the book will satisfy readers will depend on the extent to which they accept being a part of Shiv and of the settings in which the story plays out.
The story of The Mirk and Midnight Hour plays out in the United States’ past, during the Civil War, and the depth of involvement of readers in the setting here is absolutely crucial to enjoyment of Jane Nickerson’s story. Violet Dancey has already lost her twin brother to the war, and is now at home in Mississippi with her stepsister and laudanum-addicted mother. Her father is fighting. Violet endures the privations of war and the depredations of those affected by it – an extended scene in which “bummers,” bushwhackers who are out to steal what they can and ruin what they cannot carry, eventually are talked out of murder by Violet’s offering them a home-cooked meal, is particularly effective, and more believable than a brief description of the events makes it sound. There is also a sprinkling of period language here – rare in historical fiction for young readers, and quite welcome – such as an old woman’s comment that when a doctor came to check on her, “He come with that young buck slinking in behind – the one so skinny there’d have to be two of him to cast a shadow,” and a young girl’s comment about her pet raccoon, “I been seeking a good place to leave Coon Baby. I tended him ’cause some critter ate his ma, but Memaw says ’tis time he be going to stay with his own kin.” As important as the scene-setting is, it is largely introductory to the main story, which takes some time getting going and involves Violet’s discovery of a severely injured Union soldier to whom Violet is attracted. This is no straightforward Romeo-and-Juliet story, though, because it turns out that the soldier, Thomas, is being cared for by someone who seems to have dark reasons rather than compassion as a motivation. Violet must juggle the exigencies of war and her concern for family and for Thomas against peculiar revelations, many centering on a cult called the Children of Raphtah. Mysticism and otherworldly events end up merging with the careful descriptions of 19th-century reality to produce a climax that readers will find emotionally compelling if not particularly believable. The highly sentimental ending is a bit much to take, but readers who have become involved in Violet’s world will find it satisfyingly affirmative in a “life goes on” manner.
Despite featuring a protagonist with the same name, Violet, Lauren Hendrson’s Kissing in Italian is a book in which matters are a great deal lighter. This is a companion to Flirting in Italian, which it really helps to have read before tackling this book, although doing so is not 100% necessary. Essentially a light romance that uses exotic locales to dress itself up more attractively, Kissing in Italian continues the story of the earlier book, which focused on Violet Routledge’s romance with Luca di Vesperi during her summer study program in Italy. Actually, Henderson’s intent here is to make the book somewhat deeper than its predecessor: Violet and Luca find things out about their families that force the two of them apart, and may mean they can never be a real couple – and Violet discovers that, in these difficult circumstances, she not only needs Luca more than ever but also needs to bond with the new girlfriends she has made in Italy. The premise here is far-fetched and the “strains on the relationship” theme is rather, well, strained; but then, Henderson never tries to raise this book above the “young love” genre, filling it with sentences such as, “I can feel my body melting just at the thought of Luca, and it’s much more dangerous to give in to these feelings in the warm, dark, romantic Italian night.” And when things, inevitably, go bad for some of Violet’s friends, Henderson offers this sort of cliché: “Poor Kendra’s making awful, stifled, whimpering sounds, like a puppy that’s been kicked.” It is extremely hard to take any of this seriously, especially the “potentially earthshaking revelations” elements. Amusingly, the characters spend one page creating the entire story of an imaginary romance novel, tossing out plot points sentence by sentence, from opening meeting to massive complications to eventual happy ending, and the book sounds just like something Henderson might actually write. The awful, breakup-causing revelation here turns out, after some twists and turns, not to be what it first seemed to be, after all; so everything ends happily (and rather sappily). There is even the hint of yet another book to come about Violet and Luca – which, if it happens, will likely be as frothy and location-dependent as are Flirting in Italian and Kissing in Italian.
Cold Calls. By Charles Benoit. Clarion. $17.99.
The Cold Cereal Saga, Book Two: Unlucky Charms. By Adam Rex. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $7.99.
It’s an old, old plot: mystery caller mysteriously contacts several people telling them, in a mysterious way, that he (or she) knows something secret and damaging about them, so they must do his (or her) bidding, or the awful something that the mysterious one mysteriously knows will be revealed to the world. This is exactly the plot of Cold Calls, which tries for a bit of a twist on the formula by weaving into it a story about bullying – which is what each of the mysteriously called people (Eric, Fatima and Shelly) is forced to do. The protagonists are typical teenage types: the jock who makes a serious mistake, the dutiful daughter who is too curious about her religion for her own good, and the goth girl hiding from her past. It is impossible to relate to them as anything other than one-dimensional, but Charles Benoit is not looking for a character-based book here – this is a mystery, if a rather formulaic one. It is filled with things that pass for self-analysis and could be said or thought by any of the protagonists, such as this, which happens to be thought by Shelly, the former goth girl: “She knew there had to be some punishment. You don’t commit a crime that big and expect to walk away. Maybe God was just picking up the slack for the judge. But it wasn’t the voice of God that had her doing things she never thought she would do, things she hated doing but didn’t have a choice about. Not a real choice, anyway.” Eventually, the three unwilling bullies, who are from different schools, meet when all are required to go to an anti-bullying program – each has been forced by the mysterious voice into bullying specific classmates. The three start to compare notes and soon realize they are all being victimized the same way, and presumably by the same person – against whom they must team up. “We can so do this,” says one. “We can cross-reference names, compare notes, look at things we have in common. Like I said, we can do this.” But it’s not so simple (or there would be no book). The three protagonists have to forge an unlikely alliance-cum-friendship, and have to learn about each other, and have to speak in clichés such as this one: “I’m glad you know my secret. …It felt like this weight I was carrying everywhere.” They have to figure out what is going on, come up with a way to take care of their mutual problem after tracking down the mysterious caller, arrange to confront the person who has been calling them, manage to get rid of the items about which they have been blackmailed, and then – well, mysteries like this have an obligatory twist ending, and this one is no exception. There is nothing profound or important in Cold Calls, but it is a quick read, a “beach read” sort of book that teens will enjoy as long as they do not spend too much time noticing the formulaic plotting and cardboard characters.
The plotting is not so much formulaic as exceedingly improbable in The Cold Cereal Saga, whose second book, originally released last year, is now available in paperback. In this series for ages 8-12, a manufacturer of breakfast cereal is plotting to take over the world (oh, that again). This is a distinctly modern fairy tale, complete with TV, computers and airplanes as well as magical creatures – which are being lured into the world through a rift in the time-space continuum. Scott (that is, 11-year-old hero Scottish Play Doe) is searching for that rift to try to save the Queen of England, who has been kidnapped and replaced by two goblins in a queen suit – a kidnapping that makes somewhat more sense than does that of Princess Poppy, since in this case the objective is to, you know, rule the world, right? Anyway, if Scott does manage to locate the rift, he wants to rescue the Queen and persuade the fairies to stop doing what they’re doing, which involves using an ingredient called Intellijuice in Goodco Cereal Company products to turn kids into a zombie army. You see, Goodco is run by a fairy named Nimue, that being one of the names given to the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend; and if you think that connection far-fetched, it helps to remember that The Cold Cereal Saga also features an accountant/scientist/time traveler named, ahem, Merle Lynn. Among the other characters here is a two-foot-tall leprechaun name Mick: Adam Rex feels no need to be consistent by following only a single set of stories, myths or fairy tales. Rex’s many illustrations, including a TV news broadcast and a commercial break, add to the hectic pace of this already hectic book, which unfortunately will be well-nigh unintelligible to anyone who has not read the first book in the series. Rex keeps the plot moving – maybe “lurching” is a better word – from event to event, chase to chase, scene to scene, complication to complication; and it is not always easy to figure out just what is going on, although readers who enjoyed the first book will be able to make sense out of Unlucky Charms. Many of the problems here are typical in second books of trilogies: such books have to advance the story, but not too much; they have to set up the finale, but not too clearly; they have to bring back old characters and introduce new ones, but not to the point of confusion. Unlucky Charms does not quite succeed on those terms – there is a frantic-ness about it that at best is fun and at worst is simply, well, frantic. It is at least clear that some sort of happy ending is in store for everyone, even the kidnapped Queen, at the conclusion of the saga, although Unlucky Charms is careful to leave things in such a state that it is by no means clear just how that happy ending, or indeed the ending of the story itself, will come about.
Wagner: Rienzi. Peter Bronder, Christiane Libor, Falk Struckmann, Claudia Mahnke, Daniel Schmutzhard, Alfred Reiter, Beau Gibson, Peter Falk Bauer; Chor der Oper Frankfurt and Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester conducted by Sebastian Weigle. Oehms. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Finally, finally, there is a worthy modern recording of Wagner’s huge, magnificent, formulaic, flawed and tremendously impressive third opera, Rienzi. At last there is a version of this opera worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the excellent Staatsoper Dresden performance conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser, recorded in 1974 and 1976. The new Frankfurt Opera release on Oehms, a live recording from 2013, is still not quite at the level of the Dresden performance, but it is more than good enough to deserve listeners’ cheers, and will be a particular pleasure for those who prefer modern all-digital sound to the analog sound quality of Hollreiser’s rendition.
Rienzi is huge, very difficult to stage – requiring a multiplicity of solo voices of uniformly high quality, plus complex sets – and manages to be both forward-looking and thoroughly stuck in its own time. It is quite understandable that opera companies are reluctant to deal with it – even Cosima Wagner could not quite figure out how to make it appealing to audiences that had heard Wagner’s later works, although she tried. It is even understandable, although less so, that the opera is so neglected in recorded form. Producers simply think it does not repay the difficulties inherent in making it available.
Yet Rienzi is enormously effective when well sung and conducted, as it is in the new Oehms release. Listeners will hear in it early use of leitmotifs, although they are certainly not as integrated into the score as they would later be, or as closely identified with underlying psychological themes. Some of the beauty of Senta’s love sacrifice in Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner’s next opera, is already present in Rienzi, and there are inklings of the trumpet sounds and the conflicts caused by sworn oaths that would become the basis of Der Ring des Nibelungen. At the same time, there is a good deal of excellent music that places Rienzi firmly within the time of its première, 1842, and holds it there. It is strictly a by-the-numbers opera (16 numbers in all); its overarching theme partakes of the historical and the monumental, setting an individual story of love, loss and vengeance within the broad context of a significant time in history; and it is filled with choral prayer, battle music and even pantomime – all elements expected by audiences seeking the thrilling entertainment of grand opera.
In these elements, Rienzi is very much of its time; Hans von Bülow famously called it “Meyerbeer’s best opera,” and it does have considerable superficial similarities to Meyerbeer’s works, although perhaps even more to Auber’s La Muette de Portici, the sprawling 1828 work that inaugurated the era of grand opera and that shares with Rienzi themes of revolution and of the rise and fall of a single charismatic leader. The music of Rienzi also has Italianate elements, as did that of Wagner’s prior opera, Das Liebesverbot, in which the composer came as close to channeling Rossini as he was ever to come. And in his insistence in Rienzi on multiple solo roles, Wagner was looking back to his first opera, Die Feen, which in turn reflected many of the designs and concerns of Heinrich Marschner. So Rienzi is a derivative work, but it is also a clearly transitional one for Wagner, and it is easy, with hindsight, to see how elements of Rienzi brought Wagner to Der fliegende Holländer (still an opera by the numbers) and thence to the later through-composed music dramas.
The Oehms recording features very fine singing in all the solo roles, with especially strong performances by Peter Bronder as Rienzi and Christiane Libor as his sister, Irene. Claudia Mahnke handles the trouser role of Adriano, Irene’s lover, effectively, and the heads of the noble families of Colonna (Falk Struckmann) and Orsini (Daniel Schmutzhard) come through with the right mixture of stentorian proclamations and Machiavellian self-interest. The chorus is particularly fine, reflecting the populace’s role both in Rienzi’s overnight success and in his equally precipitous fall from grace. And Weigle leads the orchestra and vocal forces with a sure hand, pacing the action somewhat slowly so that it builds effectively without dragging.
This is not to say that the release is without flaws. For English speakers, a significant one is that Oehms – as is its usual practice – offers the complete libretto, but only in German. A more serious one, though, and a primary reason not to discard the Hollreiser recording, is that the Oehms set includes almost nothing but the musical numbers, eliminating virtually all the connecting recitatives and scenes, and thus gives a false impression of the opera’s pacing and Wagner’s storytelling (he wrote the libretto himself, based on a German translation of a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton). This is no small matter: the three Oehms CDs last a total of two-and-a-half hours, while the three that EMI produced of the Hollreiser production last more than three-and-a-half. Rienzi is truly a grand opera, and Hollreiser makes that abundantly clear in a way that Weigle does not. Nevertheless, the lack of a strong modern recording of Rienzi has long been a major one, and Oehms has now filled the gap with a more-than-respectable, well-sung and well-played reading that hopefully will serve to introduce Rienzi to Wagner aficionados who do not yet know any of its music beyond its very well-wrought overture. It is an opera whose acquaintance is well worth making.
Douglas Detrick: The Bright and Rushing World. AnyWhen Ensemble. Navona. $14.99.
Polarities: Music by Mathew Fuerst, Katherine Saxon, Chi-hin Leung and Alex Freeman. Navona. $16.99.
Michael G. Cunningham: Violin Concerto; Dialogue for Orchestra and Wind Trio; Diaphony for Orchestra and Wind Trio; Wakefield Autumn; Kaleidoscope; Venus & Adonis. Ondrey Lebr, violin (Concerto); Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor (Concerto, Diaphony, Kaleidoscope, Venus); Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vít Micka (Dialogue, Wakefield). Navona. $14.99.
It is commonplace for contemporary composers to reach well beyond traditional classical-music models to create works that incorporate music from other forms (jazz, pop, rock) and other cultures. It is less common for a modern composer to include multiple influences in a single, very extended, 10-movement work, and less common still to title each of the work’s movements with a line of a poem that, taken as a whole, expresses to the audience what the music is about. The whole arrangement smacks of rather too much cleverness and manipulativeness, but in fact Douglas Detrick says that he did not think of the title of The Bright and Rushing World until after he had finished the hour-long suite. Whether the work’s many moods and movements sustain successfully for 64 minutes will be a matter for each listener to decide, likely depending on how successfully the listener thinks Detrick has produced a piece for his chamber-jazz group, AnyWhen Ensemble, while drawing on an unusually wide variety of influences. There are five members of the group: Detrick on trumpet, Hashem Assadullahi on saxophone, Shirley Hunt on cello, Steve Vacci on bassoon, and Ryan Biesack on percussion. The unusual instrumental combination is just one of the many unexpected blendings in The Bright and Rushing World. The music itself incorporates influences from classical composers as different as Britten and Stravinsky, and jazz musicians ranging from Duke Ellington to arranger Gil Evans (whose work with Miles Davis on Porgy and Bess and other music was trailblazing and distinctive). The poem connecting the 10 movements seems to speak to the musical work itself as well as to an imagined human going out on his own “into the bright and rushing world” (the line of the poem that gives the fourth movement and work as a whole its title). Like all written words intended to help an audience focus on and follow the music, though, the poem is extraneous to the musical experience, which is interesting and often scored inventively, although not really strong enough to sustain throughout its length; indeed, the ninth and longest movement of the suite, “A question so weightless it floats away,” itself carries more than it can comfortably bear. Certainly not classical but also not a pure jazz piece, The Bright and Rushing World contains blended elements that are well-considered and well-assembled, played with verve and spirit, but ultimately not sustainable as a pure listening experience for such a lengthy presentation.
The blending on a Navona CD called Polarities is of two types. For one thing, the disc blends five pieces by four different composers, each of whom creates a different type of modern music that is essentially classical (loosely defining what that means). For another thing, the composers themselves showcase a blending of influences and approaches within their individual works. Thus, the programmatic three-movement Symphony by Mathew Fuerst, performed by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský, is at its heart a storytelling piece about unrequited love, its opening Variations proceeding to a movement marked Scherzo Agitato and then to a final Nocturne, the movement titles themselves indicative of the emotions underlying the music. Vox Dilecti Mei by Katherine Saxon is about love and emotion as well, attempting to portray in chamber music the feelings elicited by the arrival of a lover. It is performed by soprano Amanda Kohl with Jessica Lizak on flute, Michael Norsworthy on clarinet and Jing Li on cello. A different chamber-music group – Lizak on flute, Peter Sulski on viola and Karolina Rojahn on piano – presents Saxon’s East of the Sun/West of the Moon, a musical interpretation of the Norwegian folk tale that attempts, in 11 short movements (one lasting just four seconds), to reproduce some of the complexities of a love story that is also a fantasy quest. Saxon’s skilled handling of the moods of the tale through well-managed use of the instruments’ capabilities makes this work more attractive than the comparatively straightforward Vox Dilecti Mei. Instrumentation is also key to the effectiveness of Chi-hin Leung’s Afterimage: The Dreamy Butterfly, based on a folk tale of a different sort – from ancient China – and performed by the Hong Kong Cantabile Winds under Sit Hok-chuen, with Sezto Kin on gaohu, a Chinese bowed string instrument with a quiet and delicate sound. The fifth work on this CD blends astrology – make that astronomy – with chamber music: Blueshift by Alex Freeman is performed by Lisa Hennessy on flute, Jan Halloran on clarinet, Sulski on violin, Leo Eguchim on cello, and Rojahn on piano. Here too the mixture of instruments is a primary attraction of the work, although its celestial connection is not particularly clear from the music itself. Like other anthology CDs, Polarities has elements that some listeners will find attractive, but works that are somewhat too disparate to blend into a satisfying whole.
The new disc of Michael Cunningham’s music is more fully integrated, if only because all the pieces on it were written by the same person – and Cunningham does have his own musical style. This CD is a reissue of one from 2008, and it shows Cunningham producing works in a variety of forms. Venus & Adonis is the longest piece here and is an intermittently effective tone poem that nicely contrasts lyricism with intensity. The paired and contrasted Dialogue and Diaphony are more interestingly creative, thanks to use of a wind trio placed in balance and opposition to full orchestra and providing its own coloristic sonic blend to go with that of the ensemble as a whole. Opposition is central to the Violin Concerto as well: Cunningham sets the solo instrument against the orchestra rather than blending it in. The work is primarily lyrical, but the final Cirroscuro is certainly peppy enough. Wakefield Autumn offers some evocative tone painting with some pleasantly coloristic percussion touches. And Kaleidoscope tosses a variety of concepts and musical motifs around, scattering them in a way at least vaguely reminiscent of its title, then eventually pulling them together – that is, blending them – into a more-cohesive whole than might be expected. Cunningham is a good craftsman and is clearly comfortable working in large orchestral forms. His musical ideas are on the thin side, but they are developed and worked through well, and it is a plus that he does not eschew lyrical content in favor of the sort of abstract angularity to which so many contemporary composers gravitate.