May 29, 2014
Books Always Everywhere. By Jane Blatt. Illustrated by Sarah Massini. Random House. $16.99.
Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas. By Lynne Cox. Illustrated by Brian Floca. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The instantaneous transporters so beloved of science fiction already exist. They are called books – able to transport anyone from anyplace to anyplace else, or any other time, with the flip of a page and the reading of a few words. The marvels of books are what Jane Blatt’s Books Always Everywhere are all about. The very simple story for ages 3-7 shows toddlers interacting with all sorts of books: a huge one about an elephant, a tiny one about a mouse, a wide one featuring a smiling crocodile, a tall one out of which a giraffe peeks, and so on. Books do so much! In the hands of these toddlers and in the delightful art of Sarah Massini, they become a house (some titles shown are “The House That Jack Built,” “House Mouse” and “Home Sweet Home”); are stacked until they form a tall chair (titles include “100 Best High Chairs” and “Wuthering Heights” – that one is surely for parents!); are read as the toddlers sit on swings in the park (“Playtime,” “Trees Are the Bee’s Knees”); are funny while being read in the branches of a tree where the kids play with monkeys (“Silly Billy,” “100 Jungle Jokes”); and so on. Blatt’s point is that books are great anytime: a little girl reads one inside a dry and cozy playhouse on a page that says “Book rainy,” then reads outdoors on a beach for “Book sunny.” The whole point of Books Always Everywhere is that books are always everywhere – transporting young children to all sorts of places and accompanying them as they travel, whether for real or in their imaginations. Indeed, that is exactly what books do for and with readers of all ages: move them from place to place, move them emotionally, move them anytime to anywhere they choose to go.
A lovely example, one among many, is Lynne Cox’s Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas, a story for kids ages 4-8 of a place that few North American children will know and a time many decades ago. Set in Christchurch, New Zealand, it is the tale of an eight-foot-long, 1200-pound elephant seal (sometimes called a sea elephant) that chose, for reasons unknown, to live in the Avon River, which flows through Christchurch – rather than on islands in the open ocean where others of the species live. Although embroidered and given a near-fairy-tale gloss by Cox’s writing and Brian Floca’s warm and winning illustrations, this is essentially a true story. The seal, named by Christchurch residents for Queen Elizabeth, swam in the river in the heart of the city, then crawled onto the nearby grass to bask in the sun – and even tossed clumps of mud onto her own back to stay cool when the weather became too hot. The imaginary part of the book involves a young boy named Michael with whom Cox suggests that Elizabeth developed a special bond – really, Michael stands for all the people of Christchurch and other towns along the river who came to love Elizabeth. But after a time, and again for unknown reasons, Elizabeth put herself in harm’s way by starting to bask right on a road near the water. As Cox tells it and Floca shows it, cars swerved to avoid her, people became worried about her, and eventually local officials decided the only way to keep her safe was to relocate her to places where other elephant seals live. So they did – three times. But each time, Elizabeth somehow found her way back to the Avon River, even from hundreds of miles away; and finally, there was nothing to do but let her stay. Cox tells this part of the story dreamily, and Floca illustrates it with a sense of the almost magical return of Elizabeth to the place she had decided to make into her home. The book ends with Elizabeth happy in the river – and parents should expect young children to be so charmed that they ask to visit Elizabeth in reality. But this is a case in which a visit via book is the only one possible. Cox does not provide information on the real story – a significant flaw in what is otherwise a very fine book – but this tale dates to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Elizabeth was hit by a car while basking on a road in 1985, and while she was apparently uninjured (although it took 10 people to lift the car off her!), she died later that year, apparently of a viral infection. So this is one case among many in which transportation by book will have to suffice, bringing today’s young readers to a time and a set of circumstances that no longer exist.
Rules of Summer. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $18.99.
Food Trucks! By Mark Todd. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
One of the most provocatively surrealistic authors of children’s books today, Shaun Tan, triumphs again with yet another book whose highly unusual art and minimalist treatment of words combine to produce a story with considerable depth and more than a touch of the outré. Rules of Summer is, on the surface, simply about an older brother telling his younger brother what to do and not do during summertime. The rules are arbitrary and their rationale is never explained; indeed, the rules often make no sense – or rather they make perfect sense if you accept the way Tan portrays the possible results of breaking them. The very first rule, for example, is “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.” The illustration shows just such a thing – a single red sock on an otherwise empty clothesline – and also shows the two boys cowering behind a fence, the older with his hand over the younger’s mouth to prevent any outcry, while just past the fence, a gigantic ruddy-furred rabbit is crouched, looking at the red sock with its own very red and subtly baleful eye. This is strange and scary, although not too scary – and the book proceeds in much the same way, page after page. “Never eat the last olive at a party” shows the younger boy about to do just that, from an enormous plate, while the older holds him back and all the guests at the party stare – all of them are gigantic birds, dressed in identical near-clerical costume, with hooked beaks and penetrating black eyes staring at that olive. In “never step on a snail,” the younger boy has done just that, and a gigantic tornado, topped by clouds that almost sport demonic features (but not quite), has just destroyed a house and is heading right for both boys. Even the more-humorous illustrations here are positively eerie. “Never ruin a perfect plan” is drawn entirely in shades of grey except for a bright red strawberry, which is being carried away by one of four armored and tailed creatures of some sort, one armed with a fork and another with a serrated knife. But close examination shows that the utensil wielders really are the armored tailed things, while the strawberry carrier is the older brother and the other armored creature is the younger brother, who has just stepped on and broken the tail of the older one’s armor costume (hence ruining the perfect plan to walk off with the strawberry, which is the size of the older brother himself). The weirdness of Tan’s books makes them inappropriate for really young readers: the words are simple, but the images can be the stuff of nightmares even though Tan manages not to make anything overtly horrifying. Still, “always know the way home,” with the younger brother on the handlebars of a bike pedaled by the older through a destroyed landscape that includes a ruined satellite dish, crashed airplane and gigantic animal skull, could easily keep some children up at night – some adults, too, for that matter. The final brilliant color burst as the boys march through a landscape of luscious foods helps balance everything, and the very last page, with them sitting in an ordinary room watching ordinary TV amid pictures – just pictures – of the various creatures of nightmare from the rest of the book, certainly leavens matters. But the overall effect of Rules of Summer is, as with all Tan’s books, disturbing and faintly scary. And sometimes not so faintly.
Strange in its own way, although not nearly as odd as Tan’s book, Mark Todd’s Food Trucks! manages to mix peculiar drawings, in which trucks reflect the edibles sold from them, with forthright factual information about the components of the food – all this wrapped up with bits of free verse and the occasional rhyme. A curious book in its factual emphasis combined with its distinctly anthropomorphic treatment of the trucks, Todd’s work includes a breakfast, hamburger, barbecue, falafel, salad, chowder, grilled cheese, cupcake, sushi, Indian food, taco, pretzel, waffle and ice cream truck, each drawn so amusingly appropriately that in hands other than Todd’s, the whole book could simply be a short and light overview of the food-truck world. The ice cream truck, for instance, is named Ice Queen and sports a radiator shaped like a big smile and headlights that look like eyes with long lashes. The pretzel truck is called Dutch and has huge pretzels on both sides, mirrors with pupils to represent eyes, and a big drooping mustache. The salad truck, known as Mr. Cobb, has a front license plate that reads GD 4 U and a motto on the side, “Lettuce Eat Healthy.” But the trucks’ appearance is only part of what Todd offers here. On the salad-truck pages, for instance, he includes this nibble of reality: “Green Truck in San Diego runs on vegetable oils, and all of their [sic] utensils are made out of potato starch so they are compostable.” The hamburger-truck presentation notes that “September 18 is National Cheeseburger Day.” For Bubba Q, the barbecue truck (with a bull’s horns and nose ring), Todd points out, “In Texas, barbecue means beef, particularly brisket. But for most southerners, barbecue means pork.” The falafel-truck pages define falafel, couscous, pita and chickpeas – and note that the world’s biggest falafel weighed 155 pounds and was created in 2012. The presentation of Charley Chowda, a truck with buck teeth and eyeglasses, explains that “the word clam is derived from the same Scottish word that means ‘vise’ or ‘clamp.’” And although that truck looks far-fetched, Todd mentions a real one in Boston: a truck called Lobsta Love. There are a few unfortunate grammatical errors here, and some spelling mistakes that point to poor editing: “cardamon” instead of “cardamom,” for example, and “tumeric” instead of “turmeric.” The poetry is only so-so, not scanning particularly well and sometimes reaching too far for a rhyme, as when describing a California roll: “Seaweed-wrapped crab, rice, cucumber, and avocado,/ Made by a master chef aficionado.” The cleverness of Todd’s concept, and his attempt to do more than create a standard picture book despite using fairly standard picture-book elements, are strengths; the somewhat sloppy writing and editing are minuses. As a result, Food Trucks! gets a (+++) rating: it is certainly tasty but falls short of being delectable.
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. By Joël Dicker. Translated by Sam Taylor. Penguin. $18.
A lot of it is Grace Metalious’ fault, or to her credit. Ever since her 1956 novel Peyton Place, the concept of a small town where secrets run deep and soap opera thoroughly covers everyone with suds has been a standard plot line, becoming more and more complicated and convoluted as authors everywhere strive to outdo whatever has gone before. The result, or one result at any rate, is The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair.
And some of it may be laid at the feet of Vladimir Nabokov, whose 1955 novel Lolita was first published in Paris, where it quickly became a succès de scandale for its portrayal of the affair between a man in his mid-30s and a decidedly underage girl of 12.
A lot of it, though, belongs entirely to Joël Dicker (born 1985), whose book, written in French, has some of the frantic pacing of a Molière comedy from which all the amusement has been excised. Its topic: an affair between a man in his mid-30s and a decidedly underage girl of 15, taking place in a small town where secrets run deep.
Dicker, who lives in Geneva rather than Paris, turns and twists the plots of more than half a century ago in a variety of clever ways, some of them a touch too clever but all of them very well-wrought indeed. Flashing back and forth repeatedly between 1975 and 2008, which is the “present day” in the novel’s terms, and with stops in various other years, Dicker tells of the disappearance of 15-year-old Nola Kellergan from the small town of Somerset, New Hampshire, after she is seen running with a man in pursuit. The woman who saw the scene is murdered, and everything is shrouded in mystery (the cliché fits the plot perfectly) until Nola’s body is discovered three decades later on the property of well-known author Harry Quebert, who is promptly charged with murder. To Harry’s rescue comes Marcus Goldman, Harry’s protégé and admirer, who has written a successful book but has a severe case of writer’s block and cannot make any progress on a second one.
So The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is, among other things, a book about books, a writing about writing – a sure-fire recipe for critical acclaim, which the novel has in fact garnered internationally. Much of the celebration is justified: Dicker paces the work expertly, tossing hints at readers tantalizingly and delighting in his knowledge of the wrong paths down which those hints will lead. And Dicker is far better than most mystery/thriller writers at fleshing out his characters, even to the point of humanizing the inevitable slow-on-the-uptake-but-good-at-heart-and-dogged-in-pursuit police investigator, Sergeant Perry Gahalowood.
If only Dicker had not fallen quite so deeply in love with his own plot complexities! The novel is huge, more than 600 pages, so its occasional dips into cliché are certainly understandable: “‘The more we find out, the murkier it gets,’ he [Gahalowood] said. ‘I think there is some central piece of evidence that would connect all these people and these events. That’s the key to this investigation!’” Well, yes, Dr. Watson, thank you very much. Fortunately for the quality of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, there is no Sherlock Holmes here. But there is a great deal more. Curiously, at a time more sexually forthright than that of the mid-1950s, there are no extended sex scenes in the book at all, nor even a sexual statement about Harry and Nola, despite their spending extended time on vacation together and planning to run away to Canada; Nola’s being under age is important to the plot, but her sexual behavior is not – at least not with Harry, with whom Nola is no more innocent than Lolita was with Humbert Humbert. A nude painting of Nola, though, is a significant plot point, as it dramatically expands the list of suspects: “The painting of Nola was found in the studio and removed. Elijah Stern was taken to the state police headquarters to be interviewed, but he was not charged. Nevertheless, this latest development ratcheted up public curiosity about the case even higher. First the famous writer Harry Quebert was arrested, and then the former police chief Gareth Pratt was, and now the richest man in New Hampshire was apparently mixed up in the death of young Nola Kellergan.”
And this is but a small element of the interlinked plots of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, a book whose complexity eventually comes to seem to be its major purpose – almost, though not quite, to the point of derailing the story. For example, the primary tale is told in 31 chapters, numbered in reverse from 31 to 1. The reason is made clear at the book’s very end, but even then seems rather silly and overdone. The book’s title itself is a snake-eating-its-own-tail sort of thing: Goldman’s second book, about the New Hampshire mystery, is called The Harry Quebert Affair, and is written in the course of the events of the novel; it turns out to have significant errors, leading Goldman to produce a third, fully explanatory book called, yes, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, which could thus also be written The Truth about “The Harry Quebert Affair.” And of course that is the very book that readers are here offered – a fact confirmed on the final page, which offers Acknowledgments not from Dicker but from Goldman to characters in the story.
Amid this considerable complexity, there are some notable misfirings. Goldman’s publisher, Roy Barnaski, is so much a cardboard character that he practically folds in half. More significantly, a character named Robert Quinn, whose very insignificance as a typecast, badly henpecked husband makes it clear that he is important, remains entirely one-dimensional even when he does indeed prove to be a linchpin of the plot. Furthermore, there is an endless litany of characters saying such things as, “‘It’s complicated, Sergeant. Everything is so complicated.’” This is said most often by Harry to Goldman, making it clear again and again – rather too frequently – that there is more to the story than whatever has been revealed so far. And then there is the matter of the book that made Quebert famous. It is a deep, passionate and emotionally trenchant love story, we are told repeatedly; and it is called The Origin of Evil, a title that makes no sense whatsoever – we are told that, too – and that holds the key to the solution of a major element of the mystery, but a title that everyone (including Goldman) passes over lightly and never attempts to explore in detail until the big revelation about it in one of the book’s climactic passages. This fact alone strains credulity to the breaking point.
Nor is it the only matter to do so. The Origin of Evil, we learn, was published after Harry simply sent it to five publishers, one of which accepted it immediately. Ridiculous – almost as ridiculous as the fact that Goldman’s publisher decides to pay him $3,000,000 for his yet-unwritten book about Nola Kellergan and Harry Quebert. Good luck with either of those occurrences in the real world of publishing.
Some elements of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair, such as the overuse of coincidence and the piling-up of revelations, are endemic to modern mystery/thrillers, and it must be said that Dicker’s prose – even in translation – renders many scenes so compelling that plot holes barely show through. Other aspects of the book, including a finale in which every single oddity of the lengthy investigation is tied up with a neatness befitting a carefully woven tapestry, are intellectually satisfying but emotionally vapid: there is a point at which revelation piles so high upon revelation upon other revelation that the reader comes down with revelational fatigue.
It is easy to see why the cleverness and book-about-writing-books elements of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair have garnered the novel so much praise; and Dicker’s novel is indeed an exceptionally well-written and deftly plotted (actually over-plotted) work in its genre. It is very much worth reading for anyone with a taste for thrillers seasoned with a touch of literary merit and indebted to scandalous books of the past – which it transcends in some ways and to which it remains enthralled in others.
Seven Wonders No. 3: The Tomb of Shadows. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.
Seven Wonders Journals: The Select; The Orphan. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $2.99.
Blind Spot. By Laura Ellen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Mystery and suspense are the foundations of the Seven Wonders series and the standalone novel Blind Spot. But the formulas of these books for preteens and teenagers are handled in very different ways. Seven Wonders follows much of the approach that Peter Lerangis participated in during his contributions to the various series of The 39 Clues: cardboard characters, overdone and absurd plots with a veneer of history and geography providing a factual or semi-factual grounding, self-reliant young people who must make their own way in the world for their own sake and for that of the world at large, shadowy adversaries, possible betrayals, and so forth. Although the Seven Wonders novels are intended to be read in order, anyone who picks up the third book, The Tomb of Shadows, without knowing the earlier ones, gets a super-quick one-paragraph summary of everything that has already happened, right at the start, after one character comments that the protagonists have been through worse than what they currently face. “Worse? Maybe she meant being whisked away from our homes to an island in the middle of nowhere. Or learning we’d inherited a gene that would give us superpowers but kill us by age fourteen. Or being told that the only way to save our lives would be to find seven magic Atlantean orbs hidden in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – six of which don’t exist anymore. Or battling an ancient griffin, or being betrayed by our friend Marco, or watching a parallel world be destroyed.” And there you have the plot summary to date, packed with equal parts of adventure and absurdity. The third ancient wonder that protagonists Jack, Aly and Cass must visit is the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus, where they must continue searching for those ancient magical orbs, called Loculi, while still trying to figure out why the fourth of their group, Marco, has joined the bad guys, the Massa. Jack, the narrator, in this book ends up encountering everyone from his parents to the occasional zombie, and of course Marco reenters and the mystery of what is happening with him deepens – and the climax involves both ancient magic and a New York City subway train. Yes, all of this is exceedingly silly, but the speed of the narration and the repeated cliffhangers will please existing fans of this series, including ones crossing over from The 39 Clues.
Those who really cannot get enough of Seven Wonders will also enjoy a thin paperback containing two novellas related to but separate from the main story arc. Not exactly spinoffs, these are intended by Lerangis as sidelights on events in the main narrative. The Select is about Burt Wenders, the first youth known to have carried the deadly-superpowers gene called G7W: Burt goes to the mysterious island that will eventually house the Karai Institute, which readers will recognize from the main sequence, and tries to rescue his father while also searching for a cure for his own illness – unsuccessfully, as readers will know from the main books. The Select is in fact presented as Burt’s journal, while The Orphan is presented as the first-person narrative of Daria, “translated from Ancient Aramaic.” Again, this is a story of abandonment – Daria is left among the ancient Babylonians – and of attempted rescue (of Daria’s best friend) and attempted escape. It is also a story about the power of song – Daria is an excellent singer – and in passing is about the evils of tyranny; and so on. The point of Seven Wonders Journals is simply to allow fans of the primary books to get a sense that those books’ stories have resonance beyond the books themselves, and that young people of the same age as the main books’ protagonists (Burt is 13, Daria 12) have been involved in elements of Seven Wonders for thousands of years.
A grittier and more up-to-date mystery, Blind Spot is intended for somewhat older readers, ones willing to accept more-overt references to violence and some to sexuality (which is quite absent in Seven Wonders). Laura Ellen’s book draws loosely on some of her own experiences with an eye condition called macular degeneration – primarily a disease of the elderly, but in some cases one that afflicts younger people. It is a condition that blocks central vision, requiring people with it to turn their heads to see things in front of them peripherally, or otherwise to accommodate a seriously compromised visual field. The idea of making this disease a central one in a story replete with high-school shenanigans, cliques and a possible murder is intriguing, but unfortunately Blind Spot is so inconsistent that it gets only a (++) rating. Ellen cannot decide whether to make macular degeneration the central element of the plot or not – she has to have her protagonist, 16-year-old Roswell (Roz) Hart, also lose her memory of a crucial night that ended with the death of a fellow student. Roz herself never emerges believably: she is unutterably stupid about almost everything, not intellectually but in terms of consistently making every possible wrong choice about every single thing she does – a 100%-wrong record that goes beyond straining credibility and breaks it. The other characters are not much better. Roz’s crush, Jonathan, is obviously a not-to-be-trusted bad-boy unfaithful-but-much-admired-athlete type; every single person in the book knows this except for Roz. Equally cardboard is the always-good, intelligent-and-rather-nerdy Greg, with whom Roz will obviously end up at the end but whom she mistreats with such consistent nastiness that it is hard to figure out why he would bother with her. And speaking of nastiness, one major character here is a sadistic liar of a teacher named Mr. Dellian, who violates all sorts of school rules as well as societal ethics and morals, mistreating Roz dramatically, but gets away with all of it – eventually actually obtaining a restraining order against Roz, immediately after which he agrees to give her crucial information and apparently has a personality transplant that renders him helpful and cooperative. Every character here is like this: thoroughly one-dimensional and able to switch to another form of one-dimensionality whenever the plot requires it. Roz’s dad is somewhere chasing rumors of flying saucers (hence his daughter’s name, Roswell), while her mom hooks up with a succession of men and turns both argumentative and shrewish whenever she and Roz are within talking distance of each other. And a key character, Detective King of the local police, not only flips randomly between disbelief and belief where Roz’s activities are concerned, but also helps arrange an entrapment that is illegal and would in the real world result in, at the very least, a severe reprimand by her superiors. Oh – one reason Detective King originally does not trust Roz is that Roz does not look her in the eye when they speak, which Roz cannot do, because of her macular degeneration; remember that? But Roz never mentions her condition to anyone except under duress, even when failing to do so might land her in prison (and indeed, at one point, actually does get her placed in juvenile detention). Blind Spot is so narratively incoherent that it fails to generate any sort of sympathy for any of its characters, even the maybe-murder-victim. Instead of an intriguing look at a teen with a serious eye problem, caught in a web of circumstances not of her own making, the book turns the eye disease into a throwaway brought randomly into the story rather than a matter central to it – and pretty much marginalizes all the rest of the plots strands as well.
Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Platz conducted by Karl-Heinz Steffens. Coviello. $32.99 (2 SACDs).
Annie Fischer: The Centennial Collection—Music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt. Annie Fischer, piano. Hungaroton. $49.99 (3 CDs).
Even when music is well-known – perhaps especially when it is well-known – the personal touch in interpreting it is crucial for it to continue having an effect on listeners who may be quite familiar with it and may even have become jaded through overexposure to mundane performances. There are, for example, innumerable readings of Schumann’s symphonies available, including some very fine ones, and on the face of it, it may be difficult to understand the attraction of a cycle led by Karl-Heinz Steffens (former principal clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic) and featuring an orchestra that is comparatively unfamiliar outside its Rhineland-Palatinate home region. But this exceptionally well-recorded two-disc Coviello set is a real surprise package, with both conductor and orchestra playing Schumann with a freshness and verve that make this recording one of the very best available. In No. 1, the “Spring” symphony, for example, Steffens provides unusually strong tempo contrast between the Scherzo and its Trio components, producing a genuinely speedy reading that then stands in excellent contrast to a finale taken at a slower-than-usual tempo, with an exceptional sense of dancelike lyricism and some really marvelous horn playing. In No. 2, Steffens takes an unusual approach to the problematic first movement, neither speeding it up to get through its thematic awkwardness nor dwelling on it unduly, but accepting the Allegro ma non troppo tempo indication and bringing out instrumental details that make it more interesting than it usually is. The flowing warmth of this symphony’s slow movement fully justifies the Adagio espressivo marking, which is strongly contrasted with a finale that strides forth strongly and at a deliberate pace that provides plenty of opportunity for lyricism. For No. 3, the “Rhenish,” Steffens plunges into the symphony with a tempo that at first seems a trifle too speedy but that soon proves well-chosen for its heightened exuberance. The horns, a major strength of this orchestra, are especially effective throughout this symphony, and the contrast between the solemnity of the fourth movement and the liveliness of the brass-imbued finale is particularly well handled. No. 4 builds well from the start, becoming increasingly involving and emotive as it progresses, without the heaviness that comes through in certain performances as a result of Schumann’s somewhat overdone 1851 reorchestration (the symphony’s decade-earlier version, which is rarely played, is a good deal more transparent). The finale is particularly impressive here, with a jaunty lightness and lovely woodwind touches that lead to a genuinely dramatic and exciting coda. The fact that Steffens takes all exposition repeats throughout the set allows the music to breathe and expand as Schumann intended, and these performances as a whole are very effective in reflecting not only the personal views of the conductor but also the highly individual compositional approach of Schumann himself.
The personal elements are even more to the fore in Annie Fischer: The Centennial Collection, which pays tribute to Fischer (1914-1985) through re-releases of her versions of a variety of piano works for whose interpretation she was noted. Fischer had a rather curious relationship with recordings, believing that any performance without an audience present was steeped in artificiality – she was far more comfortable playing for people than for microphones, and made a point during her lifetime of stating that no single performance was ever finished or definitive. This attitude was something of a throwback to the one of many artists in early recording days, but Fischer, holding it sincerely, really made only one significant all-studio recording: that of the complete Beethoven sonatas, which she worked on for 15 years and would not allow to be released during her lifetime (it was made available after her death and has been widely praised). The result of Fischer’s beliefs is that many of her recordings, including those collected by Hungaroton in 1991 and now available again to mark the centennial of Fischer’s birth, are a decidedly mixed bag, inevitably showing her thoughtfulness and technical excellence at the piano but not always matching her ideally with orchestras or conductors and, unfortunately, often being presented in subpar sound. Annie Fischer: The Centennial Collection includes four works with orchestra and four solo-piano pieces, the latter on the whole being somewhat more involving. They are Mozart’s Fantasy and Fugue in C minor, K. 394, Schubert’s Impromptu in F minor, Op. 142, No. 1, D935/1 and Sonata in B-flat, D960, and Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. The grand-scale Schubert and Liszt works, which share the third CD here, really show Fischer’s musicality, interpretative sure-handedness and emotional depth. They are marred only by less-than-stellar sound, which unfortunately is an issue throughout this collection. The contrast between Mozart’s K. 394 and the Schubert Impromptu is also a very pleasant and accomplished one. Those works share a CD with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which gets a stately, intelligent and sure-fingered reading that, however, never quite catches fire. The remaining works here are on an all-Mozart disc: Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 21 and the Rondo in D, K. 382. Fischer was a Mozart interpreter of the first rank, and these readings indicate why: they seem straightforward when first heard, but repeated listenings show that this is because Fischer handles the music with studied artlessness, making no attempt to push or expand it but allowing it to flow with natural, unforced elegance. Although the below-par sound of this release results in a (+++) rating, listeners interested in a musical profile of one of the major pianistic talents of the middle of the 20th century will welcome it for the considerable insights it brings into Fischer’s abilities and that she in turn brings, through her skills, to the music itself.
May 22, 2014
Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two, #5: You Can Bet on That. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.
UNICORNE Files, Book One: A Dark Inheritance. By Chris D’Lacey. Scholastic. $16.99.
Authorial virtuosity comes in many forms, and if that sounds like too much of a portentous proclamation to apply to something like the Mackerel Middle School series by Jim Benton, well, it should, since the series is so fluffy and lighthearted that it practically floats away each time a new Dear Dumb Diary book comes out. On the other hand, the “authorial virtuosity” remark really does fit what Benton accomplishes here, because he has managed to keep this series going through a dozen books of Jamie Kelly’s first year of diaries and, now, five books of the second year – and with rare exceptions, the books have been absolute delights. Yes, they are formulaic, but Benton plays enough games with the formula so that the short paperbacks are full of twists and turns that understandably keep kids reading and clamoring for more. The characters are long since established – the primary ones in You Can Bet on That are Jamie, of course, plus her permanent frenemy, Angeline, plus her Machiavellian sort-of-friend, sort-of-fiend, Isabella. And there is the usual supporting cast of adults and hangers-on. The approach of the books, which are not quite graphic novels but contain lots and lots of drawings “by” Jamie, is also long since established – but the specific drawings are weird and offbeat enough, time after time, so at least some of them are laugh-out-loud funny. Those would include, in the latest book, the one of customized worms, the outfits Jamie imagines for Isabella (such as “slabs of wet meat”), and the visual demonstration that “even though GLOP is gross, GLOP is the basis of all Beauty products.” Then there are the multiple plots and subplots, which Benton always knits neatly together by the end of each book. In this case, the big plot has usually negative Jamie and usually (heck, always) positive Angeline reversing roles in connection with a bet that Isabella is sure to win, to the heinous destruction of whoever loses it. But there is also a Web site where postings get a trifle, um, complicated; and there are also various clothes being made by Jamie’s mom that all look like, err, monkeyvomit (Jamie and her dad both think so, and both go through major contortions trying to spoil the “gifts”); and there are school-meat-loaf substitutes such as “ice creamed corn” and “the super-fun bowl of just flour and salt”; and there is a debate-related surprise from Dicky Flartsnutt, who “was BORN TO NERD.” Yes, all of this fits together, and yes, all of everything in the Dear Dumb Diary books always fits together; but it all fits together differently (and, in general, hilariously) every time, and that right there is the reason this ongoing series is so darn much fun.
Bigger, bolder, brassier and much less amusing, Chris D’Lacey’s enormous Last Dragon Chronicles – seven lengthy novels plus an eighth “companion book” as coauthor – seem to have whetted the author’s appetite for simpler, faster-paced, less epic fantasy. At least that seems to be so on the basis of the new UNICORNE File series, the first book of which, A Dark Inheritance, is a straightforward paranormal adventure whose episodes of silliness appear to be intentional. It includes an ordinary-for-this-sort-of-book family, with protagonist Michael Malone; his younger sister, Josie; their mother; and a father who has mysteriously disappeared while out doing his job “selling computer programs to medical establishments.” But of course that could not have been his real job, or there would have been no story – since Michael, as soon as he starts discovering his own otherworldly powers, wants to use them to find his father, who was working for the same outfit (UNICORNE) that now recruits Michael himself. The improbable group’s overdone name stands for “UNexplained Incidents, Cryptic Occurrences” and, uhhh, “Relative Nontemporal Events.” Of course, “the first rule of UNICORNE was you did not talk about UNICORNE, right?” Anyway, Michael comes to the attention of Amadeus Klimt, the usual shadowy-leader type who is not exactly what he seems to be, after Michael rescues a dog that is about to jump off a cliff – doing so in an impossible way that may involve creating an alternative universe within the multiverse and that incidentally results in Josie turning out to be a very good flute player. Michael soon learns that he has the power to “imagineer,” and D’Lacey seems completely oblivious to the fact that this word has been used by Disney for years to describe what it does in its theme parks and elsewhere. The basic plot description of A Dark Inheritance actually points to more humor in what D’Lacey does here than does the narrative itself; and that calls into question the extent to which the humor is intended vs. the degree to which it just slips in because of the multiple manifest absurdities of the story. Oddities pile up rather quickly in the narrative: an attractive older teen named Chantelle shows up on a motor scooter to snatch Michael from school for his first meeting with Klimt, then becomes Michael’s family’s au pair because that is what Michael says she is; a girl at school, by the name of Freya, is important because she owns the dog that Michael rescued, except that she says she doesn’t, resulting in one small mystery among many; and so on. There are enough serious scenes in A Dark Inheritance so that it seems D’Lacey wants the book to be read as an adventure with humorous moments, not a sendup of the whole preteen-to-teen adventure genre; but it could as easily be read as an elaborate joke, whose serious elements are introduced as a distraction. D’Lacey is a good enough writer to deserve the benefit of the doubt; the difficulty with this book is that it is hard to be sure what that benefit ought to be and where the doubt lies. With any luck, and probably some skill, the nature of the balancing act may become clearer as the series continues.
Little Lola. By Julie Saab. Pictures by David Gothard. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Flip & Fin: We Rule the School! By Timothy Gill. Illustrated by Neil Numberman. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $14.99.
It Is Night. By Phyllis Rowand. Pictures by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Few real-life children, if any, will have the level of enthusiasm for school exhibited in Little Lola and Flip & Fin. But that is just fine: overdoing and overstating as Julie Saab and Timothy Gill do can make the whole down-to-earth school experience that much more enjoyable for kids who read about these characters’ adventures. Lola is a kitten whose love of everything in life leaps, bounds and overflows the pages, with the illustrations by David Gothard (Saab’s husband) neatly capturing the delight and utter abandon with which Lola joins the human children at school and is soon practicing everything from reading (atop a huge stack of books) to adding (by putting crackers in a bowl) to subtracting (by eating the crackers). Lola paints; she sings; she gets a “purrfect” grade for her drawings of a circle, triangle and square; and she ends up with so many gold stars that they overflow the page, even as she herself seems ready to burst out of it. The funniest of Gothard’s many amusing illustrations has Lola urging the teacher to “pick me” by performing in six different ways, from cheerleading to sending semaphore signals to making herself into a one-kitten band. A touch of drama never hurts a story, though, so of course, not everything goes smoothly for Lola: her show-and-tell mouse, a real one, gets away and causes everything to go topsy-turvy around the classroom – but Lola quickly recovers, picks up and replaces and rearranges things, and eventually marches with a self-satisfied expression away from the school, her day’s adventure completed and her for-school-only human-style clothing discarded. For a bonus, there is art on the inside front and back covers showing Lola blowing bubbles and floating away in one until it pops – drawn with the same, err, bubbly enthusiasm that makes Little Lola as a whole so charming.
Flip and Fin are sharks – sand shark twins, to be specific – and jokesters, who say they “rule the school” through their endless joke-telling. Both are tremendously excited about upcoming Joke Day, when Flip will tell – well, what will he tell? He starts getting nervous, and finds that he cannot remember the jokes’ punch lines. How will he ever tell jokes in front of the whole school? He keeps practicing, for example by asking the mirror, “Which side of a fish has the most scales?” – and answering, “The outside.” Flip also practices by telling more and more jokes to classmates, to the point of being unable to decide which he will tell on Joke Day; and sure enough, when the big day arrives, he realizes he will have to “stand in front of everyone in his school and speak into a microphone.” Oops! “He had forgotten to plan for that.” Nervousness almost wins out, but then Fin starts throwing the opening lines of jokes at Flip, and Flip delivers the punchlines – and vice versa – and the sand shark twins emerge triumphant, as all their fiends get into the act and start telling really awful jokes to each other. Timothy Gill’s joke-focused story is only part of the fun here: the highly exaggerated but based-on-real-fish drawings by Neil Numberman are so over-the-top that they prove as amusing as the one-liners, and sometimes more so. There is probably a joke somewhere in the fact that this fish-focused book is written by someone named Gill, and the numerous characters are drawn by someone named Numberman. Maybe Flip and Fin will figure out what to make of that.
After all the hecticness and hilarity of Little Lola and Flip and Fin, it is high time for some rest and relaxation, and the new edition of It Is Night, originally published in 1953, provides it. Pleasant new illustrations by Laura Dronzek nicely set off Phyllis Rowand’s original text, which simply asks nighttime questions such as “Where would a rooster roost?” and “Where should a duck settle down for the night?” and then provides answers. A seal, for instance, would “rest his sleek head…on the quiet beach of a faraway island, or safe in an island cave.” Not all elements of the text have worn equally well, notably the statement that a dog “belongs outdoors in a doghouse” although a cat should sleep happily curled up in an indoor basket. And some of the narration is a little strange, as when a question about where a railroad train goes at night suddenly crops up between one about an elephant and one about dolls. The book’s ending explains everything, but it is a bit overdone – and may show a more-crowded sleeping arrangement for a child than many parents will want to encourage, for all the aptness of Dronzek’s illustration. It Is Night gets a (+++) rating and will not be an ideal bedtime book for all families, but it retains considerable charm – parents who pre-read it and decide it will work for their children will enjoy the sense of quiet and comfort that it brings.
Raising Steam. By Terry Pratchett. Doubleday. $26.95.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are frequently excellent choices as summer reading, even if, as is the case with Raising Steam, they are winter releases (in the UK) or spring ones (in the U.S.). Just how excellent this particular novel – Pratchett’s 40th foray into Discworld – will be at the beach is, however, a matter of opinion. The answer largely depends on each individual reader’s expectation of the author and the world he has created: a flat one that perches on the backs of four elephants that in turn ride atop the endlessly swimming-through-the-void Star Turtle, Great A’Tuin.
Readers who have journeyed through the entire Discworld series will know how it has changed from a rather lighthearted sendup of typical fantasy writing (including parody of specific series) to a more-serious, subtler but still generally hilarious exploration of all sorts of sociopolitical issues. They will know how the world’s overall medievalism has moved in recent novels into a time analogous to the Industrial Revolution. And they will be familiar with the “Lipwig subseries,” in which Moist von Lipwig is the central character in stories relating to banking, postal service and communication in general, and – now – railroads. They will likely have high expectations for Raising Steam – which will be, to some measure, dashed.
Readers less intensely involved with Pratchett and Discworld will have a better time with Raising Steam simply by virtue of the fact that it is a well-paced, entertaining book with a plot (actually two major plots and many smaller ones) that moves smartly along and features reappearances by a number of Discworld characters who may or may not be recognizable, depending on which books these readers know, but will be pleasant acquaintances or reacquaintances to make.
Readers who have not encountered Discworld before had best not choose this particular portal as an entry point, because it does have a lot of reappearances, if not exactly resonances, from earlier books, and may be a) confusing and b) not well-written enough to show newcomers what has caused all the decades-long fuss about Pratchett. It will be, not to put too fine a point about it, rather difficult to make sense of Raising Steam if you have not visited this vicinity before.
Much of the pleasure of reading Pratchett’s Discworld books comes from the unfurling of prose that darts down byways every so often, frequently through word play (including often-atrocious puns) that turns out, on reexamination, to have considerable significance. The Lipwig books (Going Postal and Making Money) have had less of this than other Discworld novels, and Raising Steam has still less. The lack of twistiness will dismay longtime Pratchett fans but make the newest novel easier for sometime readers to follow, at least where its style is concerned. The same is true for a lot of other elements that are more-straightforward and will therefore seem less “Pratchettian” to those deeply committed to Discworld: the language and characterization are forthright and thus seem a bit “off,” the humor seems a trifle forced, and the book does not grab you from the start and hold you thereafter – in fact, the first 100 pages or so can be a bit of a chore to absorb. Even after getting more involved in Raising Steam, readers may wish for deeper characterization of the protagonists, in particular Dick Simmel and Harry King: in earlier books, readers have really felt they know Sam Vimes, Tiffany Aching, Granny Weatherwax, Lord Vetinari, Mustrum Ridcully and others, but Raising Steam is less character-driven, more focused on a sheer multiplicity of personages than on slowing down enough to pay close attention to any of them.
The two primary plots here will interest more-casual Pratchett readers more than they will attract those strongly committed to the whole Discworld ethos. Magic, a prime mover of many Discworld books and a fascinating element throughout because of the highly nontraditional ways in which Pratchett explains and exploits it, has little to do with Raising Steam and little to do in it. The development of steam power is the main focus here, with Lipwig being assigned by Lord Vetinari to manage it and Harry King determined to conquer it from a businessman’s perspective. The advent of steam also exposes significant fractures among the dwarfs, whose political issues – essentially progressivism vs. a Luddite mentality – make up the book’s second major plot strand.
Actually, there is considerably more here. Pratchett has long had a genius for sneaking in major social and societal issues so, well, sneakily that readers scarcely realize what he is doing until he has done it. This time, though, he seems determined to introduce those issues with figurative exclamation points: Feminism! The treatment of minority groups! Political maneuvering! Psychology! Social expectations! The result is a more-intellectual, somewhat more heavy-handed book than many earlier Discworld novels, but a less-charming one; more pedantic and less quirky. Again, occasional readers of Pratchett’s work will enjoy this approach more than ones deeply immersed in Discworld likely will.
Raising Steam is a book in which Pratchett – who has in recent years been creating through dictation rather than by actual writing, a result of his being diagnosed in 2007 with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – seems to be insisting that he has important things to say and important messages to deliver, and genuinely wants them to come across clearly to readers. And he does have much of significance to impart, plus a wonderful way of seeing our world that makes the thoroughly implausible Discworld seem almost, if not quite, possible. In the past, though, Pratchett has seemed content with a “come what may” attitude toward his observations, putting them out there so entertainingly that some would pick up on them and some would not, to the author’s apparent indifference. For whatever reason, he is more concerned now with putting those thoughts across, and Raising Steam is, as a result, a touch more didactic and a touch less freewheeling than most earlier Discworld books. Whether readers think it has greater maturity or displays a slightly flagging sense of creativity will depend very much on how familiar those readers are with a sequence that reaches back to The Colour of Magic in 1983. And that means that the decision on whether to read or reread Raising Steam during steamy weather will depend on whether one sees it as progress down a new, broader if somewhat flatter Discworld byway, or as the start of a summing-up of the wit and wisdom and weirdness of all that has come before – as progress or as legacy.
We Are the Goldens. By Dana Reinhardt. Wendy Lamb Books. $16.99.
The Secrets of Tree Taylor. By Dandi Daley Mackall. Knopf. $16.99.
The power of secrets and the power of trust are frequently major elements in novels intended for teenagers – who are coping with emotional intensity, social bonding and ostracism, misjudgment and misunderstanding, and the various levels of angst associated with moving inexorably toward adulthood. In We Are the Goldens, Dana Reinhardt presents the story of two sisters in high school: Layla, the older, and Nell, who is a freshman and the book’s narrator. Nell practically worships Layla, and the two are so close that the family refers to them as “Nellayla.” But high school, as inevitably happens in books like this, brings pressures, worries and uncertainties that soon drive a wedge between the couldn’t-be-closer sisters. And of course, in a girl-focused book like this one, boys are at the center of the problems. Or in this case, boys and a man. Nell becomes involved with a super-attractive boy who is, of course, entirely wrong for her, while her steadfast friend, Felix, stands by her – and readers will know from the start that he is right for her but that she does not know it yet. The bigger problem here, though, is Layla, and the person with whom she is involved, which is something that troubles Nell deeply when she learns who it is. And the closeness between the sisters, which is what first makes it possible for them to discuss what is going on and why it is a secret, soon makes it extremely difficult for them to discuss anything of real importance, as Layla becomes increasingly withdrawn – and later, as readers will notice, comes to seem younger than Nell rather than older, as her protestations and exclamations become increasingly plaintive. Because this is intended as a thought-provoking teen novel rather than one that buttons everything up neatly, there is no real conclusion, only a concluding decision that narrator Nell says she is sure will allow her to enlist the help of her parents (who heretofore have been no real help at all) to figure out what everyone should do. Reinhardt tries to give the book an air of reality, but she tries so hard that it becomes painfully unreal: “Take one good-looking male in his mid to late twenties with a Salvador Dalí tattoo on his bicep. Add a student body that’s 50 percent female and unusually mature and worldly. Put all that into a progressive environment. And BAM: rumors that the teacher sleeps with his students.” We Are the Goldens is, as it turns out, more a modern, downbeat fairy tale than a slice of reality.
Intended for slightly younger teens (ages 12 and up rather than 14 and up), The Secrets of Tree Taylor has more-modest goals and is more naïve: Tree, who is 13, is looking forward to a summer in which she will experience her first real kiss, not a hoped-for lifelong, enduring passion. She is also looking to confirm her plan to become a writer – a common enough ambition for teens in books for this age group. And, oh yes, all this is happening in 1963, which means there is guaranteed to be a reference to the Kennedy assassination, and something about the Vietnam War, and praise for Martin Luther King, Jr., here. All of which duly appear. There are also a lot of secrets, a number of them involving Mr. and Mrs. Kinney, about whom Tree decides to write an investigative story that she hopes will land her the sole freshman spot on the Hamilton High Blue and Gold. She makes that decision after the book starts with a bang: a gunshot from the Kinneys’ house. Despite that dramatic opening, it is a little bit difficult to figure out which 21st-century teenagers will be enthralled by Tree’s story. Authors who place books in earlier times usually look for universal themes that transcend a particular era, but Dandi Daley Mackall goes out of her way to place the tale firmly in the early 1960s. There are time-bound references aplenty – to newscaster Walter Cronkite, the first stirrings of interest in the Beatles, the Cold War, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, singing duo Jan and Dean, and many more. And there are would-be with-it chapter titles, also tied to the specific time period, such as “Accidents Happen, Man,” “Pedal to the Metal,” “One Cool Cat,” “Nowheresville,” and “Blows My Mind.” The book is a slice of life that long since ceased to exist, and is so earnest (and almost totally lacking in humor or leavening of any sort) that it will be difficult for many of its intended readers to take at face value, although that is clearly how Mackall wants it taken. The boy-girl interactions are straightforward and at times rather sweet, and some of Tree’s writing attempts provide what humor there is in the storytelling. But the plot’s complexities are rather clunky, including a series of anonymous notes, one of which portentously says, “Nothing weighs on us so heavily as a secret.” Perhaps not, but The Secrets of Tree Taylor is somewhat leaden itself, although not as weighty as its author wants it to be; and it is anchored somewhat too firmly in a particular time half a century ago to come across fully effectively to its target audience today.
Chopin: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Ingrid Fliter, piano; Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl. Linn Records. $22.99 (SACD).
Mendelssohn: Sonata in F for Violin and Piano; Prokofiev: Sonata in C for Two Violins; Elgar: Salut d’amour; Grieg: Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano; Kreisler: La Gitana. Netanel Draiblate, violin; Lura Johnson, piano; Luigi Mazzocchi, violin. Azica. $16.99.
Love and Longing. Yoonie Han, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Recording companies are understandably eager to make a splash when they release their first discs by newly signed virtuoso performers. But they are not always sure how to try to bring listeners’ attention to the artists: should the focus be on the music performed or on the artist himself or herself? In the case of Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter’s first recording for Linn Records, there is a happy balance of music- and performer-oriented presentation. Fliter is a Chopin specialist whose recordings of his music for other labels have been widely praised and have garnered numerous awards. She shows why here, handling the two piano concertos with limpidity, transparency and – surprisingly – a stronger sense of ensemble than is usual in these works, which Chopin designed mostly as piano showcases and whose orchestration is workmanlike rather than inspired. In No. 1 in particular, Fliter has no problem allowing the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Jun Märkl something approximating full partnership, to the extent possible. The orchestra’s small size helps immensely here, giving the performance the feeling of an expanded chamber-music presentation rather than one in which the spotlight is constantly on the piano. It is an intriguing approach, one that is equally effective in the stately opening movement, the lovely Romanze and the krakowiak-based finale. The approach also works very well in No. 2 (the earlier of the two concertos, despite its numbering), although here it is somewhat muted because of the music itself, which gives the orchestra fewer chances to partner with the soloist than in No. 1. Fliter is a remarkably sensitive Chopin interpreter, her phrasing filled with nuance and gentle rubato that fits the music beautifully and fully explores its emotional qualities. The very fine SACD sound helps bring out every detail to which Fliter and Märkl draw attention. This is more than an impressive debut album for a particular recording company – it is a really first-rate exploration of the music, one in which the performer uses her considerable talents in service to the works she plays.
The first solo recording by Israeli violinist Netanel Draiblate also offers a strong focus on the music, but here there is somewhat greater centrality of the performer. Draiblate and his duo partner, pianist Lura Johnson, explore both well-known and less-known works on a pleasing if not especially well-integrated Azica CD. The three sonatas here all have much to recommend them. Mendelssohn’s is not often heard, but deserves more-frequent performance: it is well-constructed, filled with the beautiful themes so remarkably pervasive in Mendelssohn’s music, and provides both violinist and pianist with plenty of chances to showcase their technical abilities. The Prokofiev sonata, in which Draiblate is joined by Luigi Mazzocchi as well as Johnson, provides strong contrast: it is clearly tonal, but its sound world and the angularity of its themes set it well apart from the lyricism and easy flow of Mendelssohn’s sonata. Yet the Prokofiev has a certain amount of poised elegance of its own, and the interplay between the two violins is both effective and impressive. On the CD, the Mendelssohn and Prokofiev are back-to-back and are followed by Elgar’s brief Salut d’amour as a sort of palate cleanser: the Elgar is scarcely substantial, its warmth that of a nicely constructed bit of salon music. Grieg’s sonata, which appears next, is a return to larger-scale thinking, although Grieg himself was in fact most effective as a miniaturist. This sonata is not at the level of the Mendelssohn and Prokofiev works: it is certainly well-constructed and tuneful, but it has less to say, and Draiblate and Johnson give it a more-methodical and less-involving performance than they provide for the other sonatas. The CD concludes, unsurprisingly, with a bit of pure virtuosity, Kreisler’s La Gitana, which Draiblate handles with aplomb, tossing the phrases about readily and managing the difficult fingerings with apparent ease. This is a fine recording debut that keeps Draiblate firmly in the limelight while still giving listeners a chance to hear some music that is quite worthy in its own right.
The Steinway & Sons debut of South Korean pianist Yoonie Han takes a different approach. Although there is some lovely music here, the entire CD is strongly focused on the performer rather than what she performs. The 13 pieces are intended to showcase the particular strengths of Han’s playing, which include a fine feel for poetic lyricism and the emotional core of the music. Han is less adept with the works’ underlying structural elements, favoring expressiveness over musical design, but that is apparent in only a few cases here, since the music has been carefully chosen to let Han focus on her strengths while downplaying areas where she has yet to develop fully. This produces a strong inclination toward Schubert/Liszt pieces, six of which Han presents: Der Müller und der Bach, Lob der Tränen, Du bist die Ruh, Aufenthalt, Gute Nacht and Wohin? These are lovely works that wear their heart very much on their sleeve, the Liszt arrangements giving Han a chance for a touch of virtuoso display to complement Schubert’s emotion. There is beauty aplenty here, but little profundity when the music is taken so far out of context. Also here, and in much the same vein, are two short works by Venezuelan/French composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947): La fausse indifference and La danse de l’amour et de l’ennui. There are also Melodie from “Orfeo ed Euridice” by Gluck, Romeo and Juliet before Parting by Prokofiev, and an interesting flamenco-flavored piece, El Jaleo, written for Han by Theodore Wiprud (born 1958). These works too are strongly Romantic in orientation, if not always harmonically, and Han plays them to extract all the emotion she can from them – but it is all rather superficial. The two longest works here, and the ones offering a pianist the most chances for exploring some depths of both feeling and creativity, are Granados’ El amor y la muerte and the Wagner/Liszt version of Isoldes Liebestod. The Granados, the fifth piece in Goyescas, has a strongly improvisational feel, but at the same time possesses carefully controlled foundational elements to which Han gives short shrift: she plays the music very well, but makes it sound more free-form than it in fact is. And although there is tremendous beauty in Isoldes Liebestod in any skilled performance, there is little distinguished about Han’s reading: this is transformational music, not simply love music, and it is the mystical culmination of an opera, not just a beautiful work that stands on its own. The beauty is apparent in Han’s performance, but the exaltation is less so. This (+++) CD’s title, Love and Longing, is actually an apt description of what Han brings forth from the works she performs. She extracts the love and yearning very well indeed, but that is all: in the pieces here that have even more to offer, Han falls just a bit short.
May 15, 2014
It’s an Orange Aardvark! By Michael Hall. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Hooray for Hat! By Brian Won. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Count on the Subway. By Paul Dubois Jacobs & Jennifer Swender. Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. Knopf. $14.99.
My Bus. By Byron Barton. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Strange, off-kilter and funny, these books are celebrations of creativity as well as just plain fun to read. Michael Hall’s It’s an Orange Aardvark! has a design as delightful as its story: holes punched in the pages reveal colors on following pages, illustrating a tale in which carpenter ants (the supposed makers of the holes) try to figure out what is happening outside their stump – with one particularly pessimistic ant coming up with a whole series of doomsday scenarios, each building on the last. The first color discovered is orange, and the ants, already scared by the doomsday ant’s worry about a lurking, ant-eating aardvark, are now informed that “aardvarks turn orange when they’re hungry for ants,” frightening everyone even more. The ants, wearing little hard hats, continue drilling holes, as the imagined terrors outside get stranger and stranger: the color blue must mean the orange aardvark is wearing blue pajamas and getting ready to snack on ants before bedtime; red must mean the orange aardvark in blue pajamas is carrying a bottle of ketchup to put on ants; and so on. The notions get more and more extreme, the illustrations more and more elaborate and funnier and funnier, until eventually a non-doomsday-predictor figures out what the colors could indicate other than the enormously elaborate and strange aardvark scenario. And sure enough, everything turns out just fine – or does it? Hall’s final page buttons everything up beautifully while leaving the eventual outcome of the whole story undecided – a wonderfully amusing conclusion.
Things are silly and funny in a different way in the grumpiness-banishing Hooray for Hat! Brian Won here offers a simple story in which lots of grumpy animals – Elephant, Zebra, Turtle and others – have their bad moods miraculously banished after Elephant receives an unexpected present: a box containing a very elaborate hat that can be broken up into a lot of less-elaborate hats, all of them smile-inducing. The animals march along, spreading joy and cheer and hats wherever they go, until eventually they come upon Lion, whose grumpiness is not so easily cured because it involves worry about Giraffe, who is not feeling well. Obviously more hat magic is called for, and that is just what all the animals provide, as “hooray for hats” turns into “hooray for friends” at the book’s end. This simple, joyous and rather raucous celebration of friendship and hatship is fun from start to finish.
Counting can be fun, too – and, yes, unusual, as it is in Count on the Subway. This is a New York City story, which will be enjoyed most by residents of the city or ones familiar with its subway system, where the action takes place and where the illustrations are grounded (or undergrounded). A little girl and her mother, with one MetroCard for subway fare, go down two flights of steps to catch the “3” train, which they approach through “4” turnstiles while listening to “5” subway singers, and so on. The whole subway ride is an adventure in music, which people play in stations and trains alike, and in numbers, which describe seats, stops, riders, signs, train numbers and more. Eventually the girl and her mother arrive at their destination, which turns out to be Grand Central Station, and are last seen walking hand-in-hand on the street. Simply written by Paul Dubois Jacobs and Jennifer Swender and winningly illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, Count on the Subway is a highly enjoyable trip up and down the first 10 numbers for anyone who knows the Big Apple’s underground system either as a resident or as a visitor.
No knowledge of any particular place is needed for another transit-related counting book, Byron Barton’s My Bus. More straightforward than the subway story, this one involves dogs and cats boarding a bus driven by a man named Joe – and then getting off for further travel on a boat, aboard a train and on an airplane. That is, all get off except one dog, which comes home with Joe: “My dog!” The count-up and count-down story here is very simple, and the illustrations are so childlike that kids will imagine they could draw them on their own. The result is a particularly pleasant little counting book for young children, one quite easy for them to read on their own, allowing them both to follow the words and to learn the numbers in an imaginative, amusing and entirely age-appropriate way.
How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane and Other Lessons in Parenting from a Highly Questionable Source. By Johanna Stein. Da Capo. $19.99.
The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting. By Alfie Kohn. Da Capo. $25.99.
Raising kids is, like so much else in life, a binary proposition. You can take it very, very, very seriously, or you can spend as much time as possible laughing hysterically at what you have gotten yourself into, hoping that you will eventually stop laughing sometime before you choke. What is difficult about parenting is the need to be simultaneously binary, because if you don’t take things tremendously seriously while laughing at them, something terrible is going to happen – such as writing a book that comes down firmly on one side or the other. This is not to say that either Johanna Stein’s book or Alfie Kohn’s is one-sided – well, actually, yes, it is to say just that. The books are so one-sided that parents may want to prop them up next to each other, reading pages from them alternately, resulting in a hopeless brain jumble in which the worst things are funny and vice versa.
How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane is a series of 25 essays whose titles alone, although not their funniest elements, stand as doorways to parenthood, the only reality show actually worth watching: “Sexual Disintercourse,” “Fight the Pink,” “The Binky War Diaries,” “Lies I Have Told My Daughter,” and many more. Excerpting Stein’s book is both easy and impossible: every page encapsulates its overall style and tone, but no single excerpt or series of excerpts fully captures the overall, shall we say, ethos. Discussing Christmas, Stein explains that her unreconstructed hippie parents “rejected its rampant, crass commercialization, its Judeo-Christian-fascist hypocrisy (their indecipherable phrasing, not mine),” and therefore created a holiday in which “Mom and Dad would spoon out the chop suey and smoke a joint or two or seven, and that was that.” In “Ways in Which My Preschooler Has Insulted Me,” a short chapter entirely in capital letters, Stein offers, “MOMMY, YOUR TUMMY LOOKS LIKE A BAGEL,” “SOMETIMES WHEN YOU KISS ME YOUR TEETH SMELL LIKE SOCKS,” and “MOMMY, YOUR BUTT IS JIGGLY LIKE JELLY. AND ALSO LIKE JELLO.” Stein explains her premarital life repeatedly, including her “unintentionally ludicrous series of choices in men, some of whom included the military cadet, whose idea of romance was to hack the top off a champagne bottle with a sword; the manic-depressive actor who had a bad habit of staring at his own hands; and the one-night stand who left gum in my pubic hair.” She discusses her views of marriage while admitting that “the science behind the concept can be difficult to understand by anyone not living inside my skull,” names herself “a card-carrying member of the Jumping to Conclusions Society,” and talks about her husband’s health-related but unjustified panic that led her and the friend she was with “to laugh…in silent stereo until our faces were soaked and our diaphragm muscles were destroyed.” These three matters are all in the same chapter, which is only 11 pages long. Stein may or may not be an ideal parent – a lot depends on your definition of "ideal,” including whether you think ideal parenting is even possible – but she is a wonderful guide through the well-charted as well as uncharted parental waters. For example, when describing a woman at whose yard sale she ends up buying a used American Girl doll, she marks off the stages of the negotiation by referring to the seller as the Velour Demoness, Old Juicy Dust-Buns, the Orange-Haloed Battle-Ax, and finally the Hideous Victor Who Has Stolen My Mantle of Yard Sale Supremacy. But hey, the purchase makes her daughter happy – for the moment, anyway – and that is what raising kids is all about. Isn’t it? It was Oscar Wilde who said, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” The measure of How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane, then, lies in how serious it steadfastly refuses to be.
But then there is Alfie Kohn’s The Myth of the Spoiled Child, and oh my, it is serious enough for its own purposes, and Stein’s, and those of half a dozen other books. Everything, everything that we think we know about parents spoiling children, “helicoptering” above and micro-managing them, coddling them and boosting their self-esteem in ways detrimental to their eventual success in the world is wrong, wrong, wrong, writes Kohn. In fact, he and he alone knows what makes modern childrearing work, and he has been giving readers the benefit of his wisdom for a long time: The Myth of the Spoiled Child repeatedly refers, quite immodestly, to earlier Kohn works, in comments such as, “The widely held belief that humans are motivated by the prospect of receiving rewards is based, it turns out, on an antiquated version of psychology constructed largely on experiments with lab animals. To describe all the research over the last few decades that has revealed its multiple flaws would require a book in itself. But that book has already been written, so I’ll just summarize the arguments here.” A footnote refers readers to Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, one of 15 earlier Kohn works admiringly referenced and praised by Kohn (who at one point attacks another writer for backing up an argument by referring to one of that writer’s earlier works!). Kohn makes a lot of very strong points in The Myth of the Spoiled Child, about the reality that older generations have bemoaned the failings of youth for thousands of years and about there being no single form of motivation, to cite two examples. But he is so ruthlessly self-assured, self-involved and self-important that he ends up as a self-caricature. To argue that deferred gratification is not necessarily a good thing, for example, he deliberately takes out of context the famous John Maynard Keynes quotation about economics, “In the long run, we are all dead.” He argues again and again, strongly, that systemic factors matter a great deal more than individual responsibility and upbringing, then disingenuously tries to cover himself by writing, “Nothing I’ve said here should be taken to mean that personal responsibility doesn’t matter.” Indeed, it is shortly after this comment that Kohn gets to the heart of his argument: “There’s no reason to challenge, let alone change, the way things have been set up if we assume people just need to buckle down and try harder.” In other words – Karl Marx’s are the best-known – the proper role of parents and of society as a whole is “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” If, for example, a 16-year-old drunk driver kills four people, it is entirely correct to absolve him of personal responsibility on the grounds that he suffers from “affluenza,” in which his environment (very decidedly including his parents) has failed to mold him correctly – a story that Kohn somehow neglects to include in The Myth of the Spoiled Child but may perhaps wish to place in a later work on non-spoiled children. Kohn’s roadmap for raising children is quite clear: “Encourage young people to focus on the needs and rights of others, to examine the practices and institutions that get in the way of making everyone’s lives better, to summon the courage to question what one is told and be willing to break the rules sometimes.” Having delivered this panacea for the ills of the world, or at least the United States, Kohn re-engages his “cover myself” backpedaling, an annoying and persistent characteristic of his style: “I’m not talking about a knee-jerk opposition to everything…I’m not talking about rudeness. …Nor am I talking about arrogance. …Finally, I’m not talking about cynicism.” What Kohn is talking about, although he never says so explicitly, is the diminution if not outright removal of what Freud called the superego, the internalization of cultural rules – taught primarily by parents applying their guidance and influence. Since there appears to be little in the way of cultural adhesion that Kohn accepts, much less admires, elimination of the superego would (in Freudian terms) allow unfettered access to the id and ego, and what a wonderfully anarchistic world that would produce, filled with “persistent questioners and reflective rebels.” Kohn concludes that “powerful adults and their institutions…get away with too much,” and it is time “to raise a generation of kids who will push back.” None of whom will be spoiled. None of whom is spoiled. All of whom can turn to Kohn as their leader and savior, and to his ridiculously overwrought (++) The Myth of the Spoiled Child as their Bible.