August 27, 2015


Friendshape. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Scholastic. $16.99.

Max. By Jennifer Li Shotz. Based on a screenplay by Boaz Yakin & Sheldon Lettich. Harper. $6.99.

     The complexities of friendship can sometimes be communicated quite simply, with just a few lines – both lines of prose and lines of drawings. That is just what Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld do in Friendshape: get at the basics of friendship by showing and writing about a circle, square, triangle and rectangle. With dots for eyes and generally smiling slashes for mouths, these geometrical figures might not seem to have much potential for expressivity, but Lichtenheld manages to give them character despite his use of only a modicum of artistic license. And Rosenthal’s text fits beautifully with the illustrations, because it too turns out to be more than you would expect from a few simple words. For example, one page just says, “Friends make their own fun,” with an illustration showing the green triangle balancing the red rectangle in see-saw posture, the yellow square and blue circle teeter-tottering away happily, the rectangle saying “You guys are wearing me out!” and the circle, with a big smile, saying, “You’re gonna be a wrecked angle!” That is about as far as the wordplay goes here, but there is lots of other play as well. On one page, the triangle becomes a kite, flown by the circle as the rectangle waits for a turn and the text talks about playing fair and square (using the square character rather than the word “square”). For a two-page spread about friends sometimes thinking the same thing at the same time, each character is in a page corner and all are shown thinking of a very realistic banana (albeit with slightly different expressions). At one point, an octagon drops by for a visit; at another, the four friends quarrel, but soon make up; and it is through these messages of inclusion and interaction that Krouse and Lichtenheld produce a very simple but thoroughly satisfying look at what friendship is all about and why it is really such a simple thing – yet so complex at the same time.

     Books with far more words then Friendshape often strive mightily for a greater level of profundity about friendship, but all too often they manage only to overdo things and come across as trying too hard. That is certainly the case with Max, a (+++) tie-in to the movie of the same name and a book that emphasizes time and again how important its issues of friendship and family are, to such an extent that at least some readers will quickly weary of the manipulativeness and obviousness of both the story and the message it tries to convey. Max has a typical-for-the-movies plot: older brother follows in the footsteps of father and joins the Marines, only to die in combat, not only leaving his human family bereft but also leaving behind his MWD (Military Working Dog), Max, who appears to go crazy after losing his handler and is due to be put down until younger brother bonds with the dog and they develop an interspecies friendship just as important as the young protagonist’s human relationships. Throw in a Marine buddy of the deceased older brother who may not be the upstanding citizen he claims to be, the usual father-son bonding difficulty, a pack of evil gun runners, someone crooked in law enforcement, and a few other miscellaneous types, and you have the makings of an entirely straightforward book and movie that insist on saying again and again that they have important points to make. They don’t, not really, but Max as a book moves at a good pace through the predictable elements of the story, from initial scene-setting to character introductions to the expected heart-tugging dog scenes (including, inevitably, one of Max at the older brother’s funeral). As the plot thickens – it does thicken somewhat, although never very much – Max becomes a more interesting character and the humans, including Justin (the boy with whom Max bonds after Justin’s brother, Kyle, dies in combat), become less so. This all lurches to a climax in which Justin and two human friends make every possible wrong decision after learning about a dangerous and well-armed gun-running ring, avoiding letting anyone in authority know anything and placing not only themselves but also Justin’s father in jeopardy, until eventually – thanks in large part to Max – the bad guys are stopped and presumably brought to justice (that part is not in the book). As an adventure-with-dog book, Max is fine, if not to be taken nearly as seriously as it wants to be. As a look at friendship, whether among humans or between humans and canines, it is much less satisfactory – and far too superficial to be appreciated in the same way as the much more modest but much more forthright Friendshape can be.


Noah Webster: Man of Many Words. By Catherine Reef. Clarion. $18.99.

Will Write for Food, Third Edition: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Memoir, Recipes, and More. By Dianne Jacob. Da Capo. $16.99.

     Like escalators and aspirin, which used to be brand names but are now generic names for specific things, Webster’s Dictionary is now the generic name for a dictionary of American English – an amazing accomplishment, certainly the crowning one in the life of Noah Webster (1758-1843). But Webster himself did not see the dictionary the way later generations came to see it, from those who read Webster’s own magnum opus in later generations to today’s users of multiple online dictionaries. What Catherine Reef does exceptionally well in Noah Webster: Man of Many Words is to show the young readers at whom the book is aimed that Webster was not only a man of many words but also a man of many beliefs and convictions, the most important of which his dictionary was intended to further. Webster was a student at Yale University during the American Revolution, and a lifelong patriot. He was also a great lover of books of all sorts – Reef at one point notes that young Webster “sought comfort from one of his best friends, a book,” and that was to be a form of solace he looked for throughout his life. “He had loved books and words since boyhood and had dreamed of making them his life’s work,” Reef writes elsewhere. And loving books as he did, loving the English language in which his favorite works were written, Webster came to believe that standardization of American English would be the key to keeping the newly formed, fractious nation together. That was his aim in creating his dictionary: nothing less than the uniting of a new land that had been notable for its many different and sometimes contradictory approaches to governance (for example, as Reef mentions, there was no standard currency during the Revolution: each of the 13 states issued its own money, and Connecticut, where Webster worked for a time as a schoolmaster, used pounds, shillings and pence – the same system the British used).

     The dictionary was scarcely Webster’s first attempt to regularize language. He had earlier proposed eliminating silent or extra letters from words and changing spellings to make words much easier to learn – what we would now call phonics. He even had an economic argument for that change: he estimated that it would reduce the number of letters a writer used by one-eighteenth, thus making it one-eighteenth less costly to publish books. Everyone who takes spelling, and words themselves, for granted – and that includes pretty much everyone – barely holds a candle to Webster, who was so driven to write and to try to improve American English that he persisted in creating his own instructional and argumentative books even after promising to give up writing for the more lucrative practice of law (at which he was only moderately successful). Noah Webster: Man of Many Words is a biography not only of Webster but also of the young United States, a nation where Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and others of his central-government-favoring Federalist Party lent Webster the money to start a newspaper that would get their ideas to the American people. It is not until more than halfway through the book that Reef finally writes that Webster “dreamed of bringing together in one book the correct spelling, pronunciation, and definition of every word Americans used.” The latter part of Reef’s book focuses on the dictionary, which was far from an easy project to complete. Aside from the underlying complexity of the whole undertaking, there was the not-so-small matter of finances: “Noah believed too strongly in his dictionary to give it up and find paying work,” Reef explains, but he could not fund the costly enterprise himself, and his appeals to others generally fell on deaf ears. So, among other things, he sold his house and moved his entire family to a less costly area as a way to cut expenses. Then, given his strong patriotism, he could not remain aloof from politics when the War of 1812 broke out – a further distraction from his dictionary. In addition, his whole concept came under attack for deviating from accepted English (that is, British) usage and spelling. And his family suffered a series of heartbreaking deaths: Webster lost children and grandchildren. But he persevered with his dictionary against all odds, and finally published it in 1828, when he was 70 years old. It brought him, at long last, admiration, even adulation, as well as financial security: it was recognized at once as an astonishing and genuinely important document, one that had the intended effect of uniting a new nation through its exploration of the Americanized form of English. All that from a book that today’s young readers, not to mention their parents, take very much for granted – if they think of a dictionary as a book (rather than something to find online) at all. Sensitive readers of Noah Webster: Man of Many Words will find their consciousness as well as their knowledge of history expanded by Reef’s sensitive, well-researched work.

     Webster had what we would now call a strong sense of self-esteem, which helped him persist through many personal and professional reversals. Many modern writers are far more fragile. Dianne Jacobs’ Will Write for Food is intended to be in large part about confidence-building, at least for aspiring gastronomical authors. She explains that “sometimes fearlessness is about writing, where you do it even if you’re scared that it might not be good.” Jacobs’ aim, of course, is to help it be good, or at least better. Although Jacobs says this is “not a basic book on writing,” she explores the craft at some length and from multiple angles – not only cookbooks and food blogs, for example, but also the use of food within memoirs and works of fiction. This third edition of Jacobs’ book includes one particularly useful addition: a chapter on making money from food writing (making money through writing has been an issue since Webster’s time – and before). There is considerable instructional material here, and also a good deal of information about food writers who have “made it” in one way or another, notably including details on how they got started. Jacobs offers information on better blogging, finding a good cookbook idea, impressing agents and (through them) publishers, functioning in the freelance world, determining how to write recipes, and more. The detail here is realistic but, for that very reason, intimidating: “All agents say they want new writers and new voices, but most don’t take on writers who will attract low advances. Because they get 15 percent of the advance, it’s not worth their time.” But getting published by any significant firm requires use of an agent, which in turn requires creating a book that will generate a big advance, which thus requires coming up with a topic that has not been done already and in which you are an expert and for which you already have a following (for example, through a highly popular blog you have created and managed yourself, investing in it rather than making money from it).

     This is how matters interconnect here: food may be your passion, but writing about food is a business and, like writing in general, a competitive and even cutthroat one. Jacobs indicates several times that blogs are an increasingly important way to get noticed, so she devotes considerable attention to doing that: improve your content, make your photography better (“of course it isn’t easy, but having terrific photos can propel a food blog to stardom”), put your blog pictures on photo-driven sites along with links to your blog, offer subscriptions, comment on other food blogs, respond to comments on yours, and spend lots and lots and lots of time making connections on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, and whatever the social-medium-of-the-moment happens to be. And if all this does not sound like much fun, if it sounds as if your interest in food must be subsumed within a world where you spend most of your time as a salesperson and promoter and marketer – well, tough. That’s how things are, according to Jacobs. As a how-to manual, Will Write for Food is a downer, not because of Jacobs’ own writing style and not because there is anything wrong with what she says (the book is well-researched and well-organized), but because of the almost complete lack of a sense of fun, of enjoyment of writing and the process of communicating your ideas to others. Unless readers are naturally outgoing social-media enthusiasts with tons of time to spend making connections in the real and virtual worlds, what they will find out here is how little the modern requirements for successful food writing resemble the ones given by those well-known food writers in their “how they got started” snippets. It is certainly true that the landscape of writing (any writing, not just about food) has changed dramatically in recent years, but one thing that has not changed is what drives so many people to write in the first place: not fame or fortune (though those would be nice), but the desire to share ideas, to communicate what one knows or has figured out with others who are like-minded or have the potential to become so. A bit of exuberance is called for in a guidebook for writers (again, writers on any subject, not just food), and that is largely missing in Jacobs’ matter-of-fact work, which oozes practicality but generally lacks, for want of a better word, soul. That makes it a (+++) book, its practical value undoubted but its approach more off-putting than enthusiasm-generating.


What Color Is Your Parachute? 2016: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changers. By Richard N. Bolles. Ten Speed Press. $29.99.

     If you even had a parachute, which you probably don’t, what color would it be? If you were a corner-office executive being ousted, and knew that “golden parachutes” for termination without cause were becoming less common even though they remain extremely rich for leaders of heads of major companies, would you care? How much would you care? The Wall Street Journal reports that nearly 60% of public companies in the Fortune 250 still have generous severance packages for chief executives terminated without cause – “without cause” being a notoriously fungible concept. But for everyone else? Who has “parachutes” anymore? People don’t even have defined-benefit pensions to fall back on in retirement, much less parachutes to lower them gently after job loss. So the redoubtable Richard Bolles franchise known as What Color Is Your Parachute? would seem to be in imminent danger of extinction.

     No chance. The no-longer-accurate (and in some ways now rather distasteful) title aside, Bolles’ annual look at the job market remains far too clear-headed and far too usefully instructive for readers desperate for work to focus on what the book is called. The focus instead is on, for example, “key employer prejudices” and how to overcome them. Bolles’ point here, as in many other places, is that employers are all different, and while some have one type of prejudice or another, others do not – or have different ones. Encountering prejudice because you have been “out of work too long”? Bolles says, “Too bad! Just keep going until you find employers who don’t have that prejudice.” What about age prejudice, which shades over into not wanting to pay a 50-plus person for his or her experience when it is possible to hire two twentysomethings for the same price? Well, says Bolles, approach “a small company” that does not “have to put you late into a pension plan,” and come in “with a positive attitude toward your aging,” and be sure to “convey energy” and “keep going on interviews until you encounter an employer or two who isn’t prejudiced about your age.” There it is again: all employers are different – just find the right one.

     The positive-thinking, positive-acting approach that Bolles advocates is frankly a little tired-sounding at this point, although no one has come up with a substantially better one (simply sending out applications electronically certainly isn’t it, as Bolles shows). Bolles is from the power-of-positive-thinking school, and that translates to the power of positive acting, no matter how you may feel about your personal, career and economic circumstances. It is difficult to argue with the notion that being upbeat and enthusiastic during a job hunt is extremely important, but it is a shame that Bolles pays so little attention to the downsides of job hunting and the very real levels of frustration and depression (usually subclinical, but sometimes at the clinical level) that the circumstances create. An example of the disparity between Bolles’ positivity and the real world comes in his discussion of shyness, which is an issue for many job-hunters and an especially huge one for people who are naturally introverted. Job hunting is essentially a sales task, with the job hunter as both seller and product. But introverts make very poor salespeople, and find cold calling – which is essentially how job hunts begin – to be genuinely unpleasant both emotionally and physically. Bolles will have none of this, pointing inward-focused job hunters to “a practical three-stage plan of action, to cure job-hunters of shyness,” a plan that Bolles says (without backing up the assertion) has given those who have tried it “a success rate of 86% in overcoming their shyness and fears, and finding a job.” Even accepting that dubious and unsupported percentage, what is striking about the plan is that its basic requirement is that people who are shy do more interviewing, of various types, so as to increase their comfort level with the interview process. That is, people who are naturally extroverted get Bolles’ guidance in ways to do interviews, but those who are introverted – for whom interviews can be excruciating experiences – are told to do more of what they can barely handle in the first place, because increasing their discomfort will eventually make them more comfortable: “If you’re not having fun, you need to keep at it, until you are.”

     This increased-interviews-for-introverts notion, whether born of naïveté or of a genuine belief that it will work, is just one example of Bolles’ tendency to oversimplify the job-seeking process and play down its negatives. Nevertheless, some elements of Bolles’ approach, which have remained largely unchanged over time, are worthwhile for anyone hoping to find a new, better job – or any job at all. “As I repeated throughout this book, Who precedes What,” Bolles writes at one point, and he does indeed repeat this admonition again and again. The basic notion of What Color Is Your Parachute? is that you have to analyze yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, who and what you are, what makes you unique as a human being, before you can find the right match for your talents and interests in the workplace. Thus, like previous editions of this book, the 2016 one builds from the start to “The Flower,” an illustration that looks somewhat floral and somewhat like interlocking Venn diagrams – and that includes information ranging from “what I can do and love to do” to “my favorite knowledges [sic] or fields of interest” and “my goal, purpose, or mission in life (or my philosophy about life).” Bolles’ point is to know yourself so you will know where you will fit in the working world – a laudable goal, albeit a difficult one to use at a time of vast under-employment (despite statistics that say the unemployment rate is in good shape).

     Really, what Bolles wants job seekers to do is not particularly revolutionary or even unusual. It is dressed up in some fancy diagrams and presented in a book filled with pithy comments, cartoons, charts, tips, suggestions, success stories, and so forth, but the approach comes down to some elements that many others involved in helping job seekers also recommend. For example, “you  need to learn as much as you can about a place before formally approaching them [sic]” is scarcely unusual advice; “you must send thank-you notes” is a standard recommendation, for all that Bolles dresses it up  by following the remark with “please, please, pleeze”; and “research has revealed that in general the more of a social life you have, the more people you know, the more time you spend with people outside of work, the more likely you are to find a job” is a “well, duh” comment – although scarcely a helpful one to those introverts who are ill-served elsewhere in the book. What Bolles primarily supplies is reassurance, a system that he tells readers will work for them as it has for many others, and a series of specific steps to follow to get from unemployment to employment, or from unhappiness in one’s job to a better, more-fulfilling position.

     The key element here is Bolles’ professed certainty about his approach, an indication that if you try it and it does not work, you are doing it wrong – there is nothing the matter with the recommendations themselves. This proposition is at best arguable and at worst a case of blaming the victim in an extremely difficult job market. So it is best to look at Bolles as a helpful but scarcely unique guide and to focus one’s job search not on a probably unattainable “parachute” but on something more realistic. Indeed, in the current economy, it would be useful to have a book called What Strength Is Your Safety Net?


Wagner: Siegfried Idyll; Liszt: Funérailles; Nuages Gris; Am Grabe Richard Wagners; Brahms: Capriccios in B minor, Op. 76, No. 2, and C-sharp minor, Op. 76, No. 5; Intermezzos in E-flat, Op. 117, No. 1; A minor, Op. 118, No. 1; A, Op. 118, No. 2; E-flat minor, Op. 118, No. 6; and C, Op. 119, No. 3. David Deveau, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Aires Indios: Piano Music of Bolivia. Walter Aparicio, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Origins: Music of Kevin Volans, Hajime Koumatsu, Igor Stravinsky, and Dan Visconti. Kontras Quartet (Dmitri Pogorelov and François Henkins, violins; Ai Ishida, viola; Jean Hatmaker, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Pilgrimage: New Music for Guitar and Double Bass. Dez Cordas (Craig Butterfield, double bass; Matthew Slotkin, guitar). Summit Records. $12.99.

     It often seems that all virtuosos have to offer is flash, with pianists in particular competing among themselves to see who can produce the most grandiose version of one spectacularly difficult work or another. Figuring out the staying power of a first-class virtuoso therefore tends to depend on seeing which hyper-difficult piece he or she chooses to represent himself or herself in early performances or recordings. Will it be, say, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Ravel’s Scarbo, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, or perhaps something by Alkan, and what will the choice say about the pianist’s training, interests and likely future? What tends to get lost in all this is pianism of sensitivity and genuine emotional understanding: the fireworks may overawe, but they do not connect at a deeper level. This makes the debut recording by David Deveau all the more treasurable, for this is not a performance that seeks to pound music or listeners into submission, but one that is genuinely thoughtful and looking for emotive and connective elements of works that would not be many pianists’ choices for first recordings. Foremost among those is the Josef Rubinstein arrangement for solo piano of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a version of this work (which was originally written for 13 instruments) that is very rarely heard. Deveau gives it an involving, poetic performance that gives this very personal music – written by Wagner to celebrate his son’s birth – a sense of reaching out beyond its original occasion to connect warmly with listeners today. There is connection of a different sort in Liszt’s Funérailles, a kind of musical monument to the dead of the 1848 European revolutions – and a piece in which Liszt’s own prodigious pianism was put squarely in the service of political statement. The power of this piece, and its essential underlying sense of mourning those who died fighting for what might have been, comes through with clarity in Deveau’s impressive reading. The rest of this Steinway & Sons CD is not quite as successful, reaching a bit too far for connections that may be apparent to the pianist but will be less so to listeners. The seven late Brahms works are individually and collectively expressive, and Deveau plays them with skill and understanding, but they do not fit particularly well together (they are taken from four different sets of piano pieces) and do not seem to comment upon or enlarge the world of Siegfried Idyll and Funérailles. Nevertheless, they are fascinating in themselves, as all Brahms’ late music is, and Deveau performs them with a lyrical touch and considerable sensitivity – making them almost into anti-display pieces, ones that delve into thought and emotion. Two short, late Liszt works, Nuages Gris and Am Grabe Richard Wagners, date to roughly the same time as the Brahms pieces but reach beyond them harmonically. They make a somewhat curious capstone for the CD, obviously tying into Siegfried Idyll and the Wagner-Liszt relationship but not connecting in any particular thematic or musical way with the Brahms works. Simply heard as encores, though, they are effective and unusual choices. Indeed, the whole CD is something beyond the usual for a pianist’s debut recording, and as a result, it stands out in ways that yet another over-the-top virtuoso recital would not.

     Walter Aparicio’s new MSR Classics disc stands out in a different way. Aparicio here tries to encapsulate the spirit of his native country, Bolivia, through performances of works by three of that nation’s composers. From Eduardo Caba (1890-1953) comes Aires Indios de Bolivia; from Simeón Roncal (1870-1953) there are selections from 20 Cuecas para Piano; and from Marvin Sandi (1938-1968) Aparicio offers Siciliana, Ritmos Panteisticos and In Memoriam—Homenaje a Caba, the last of which connects two composers in much the same way as Liszt’s Am Grabe Richard Wagners. In addition, Aparicio emphasizes his own interest in his native land’s folkways by playing Ocho Motivos Folkloricos de los Valles de Bolivia, and this in turn highlights the use of folk and folklike elements within the works by Caba, Roncal and Sandi. These composers are scarcely household names outside Bolivia, but this disc shows all of them to be adept at piano writing and skilled at incorporating the sounds and rhythms of their country’s indigenous people into organized forms that blur the boundaries between classical and folk music and partake of some of the strengths and interest level of both. None of the pieces here especially stands out on its own – there is no grand discovery of a heretofore unacknowledged musical genius – but all the works show fine craftsmanship and genuine sensitivity to the folk traditions on which most of them draw. Aparicio is a strong advocate for this music, playing it with warmth, involvement and conviction, never trying to give it profundity that it does not possess but never trivializing it either. This disc serves well as both an introduction to Bolivian music and a tribute to it.

     Another MSR Classics release with a similar “return to one’s roots” theme includes pieces that strive for greater meaning, but the CD itself does not hang together as well thematically and therefore gets a (+++) rating in spite of some very fine playing. This disc features the Kontras Quartet, whose name means “contrasts” in Afrikaans, playing four works that the group’s members consider reflective of their different personal and musical backgrounds. This is a pleasant enough intellectual notion, but it leads to the juxtaposition of works that do not go particularly well together and do not, good intentions aside, really illuminate each other (or the performers) in any meaningful way. The world première recording of String Quartet No. 2, “Hunting: Gathering” by Kevin Volans (born 1949) is very well played, as indeed are all the pieces here, but the music itself is less than gripping, the three movements seeming more to meander than to hunt or gather in any meaningful way. The quartet arrangement of Japanese Folk Song Suite No. 2 by Hajime Koumatsu (born 1938) is of somewhat greater interest because of its rhythms and harmonies, many of which are unfamiliar to Western ears; and the music itself has an appealing straightforwardness. Three Pieces for String Quartet by Igor Stravinsky (1883-1971) are familiar, piquant, stylistically quite recognizable as coming from their composer, and (in the context of this recording) far too short (six-and-a-half minutes, half the length of Koumatsu’s work). Ramshackle Songs for String Quartet by Dan Visconti (born 1982) matches Volans’ quartet in length (24 minutes) and, like it, has less to say than its duration would imply. Visconti’s piece is actually 11 short works, their harmonic language up-to-date if scarcely exceptional, their rhythms and technical requirements varied, and their overall impression episodic – a kind of dance suite of modern miniatures for string quartet, most of them zipping by before a listener has quite enough time to grasp them. The work as a whole, and indeed the disc as a whole, comes across as more interesting than compelling.

     The same may be said of a new Summit Records CD featuring contemporary music for double bass and guitar. Indeed, two of the seven works here are in the same “suite” form as Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs, although the effects of Annette Kruisbrink’s Five Dances and Alec Wilder’s Suite for String Bass and Guitar are quite different because of the very different strings used and the different ways the composers employ them. Like the other composers here, Kruisbrink and Wilder refuse to allow one instrument or the other to take the lead role all the time, preferring to bring one to the fore at certain times and the other to the front elsewhere. Given the sonic disparity between double bass and guitar, this is a wise approach, and it has the added advantage of keeping the listener involved and, to some extent, guessing what is coming next. The Kruisbrink and Wilder pieces are effectively primarily because they do not try to be more than collections of short works, ones in which the two instruments are allowed to meld (to the extent possible) and contrast (to a greater extent) in a variety of guises. Waxwing by John Orfe, a piece whose two movements are also short and highly contrasted, works well in much the same way. The remaining four offerings here come across rather less well, in large part because of their lengths and the demands that those durations put on listeners (not necessarily the performers). Dick Goodwin’s Song and Dance Man, Andrews Walters’ Of Gossamer Webs, and Greg Caffrey’s La Belle et la Bête are all in the six-minute range, and all come close to wearing out their welcome before they conclude. The tone painting by Walters and storytelling by Caffrey give the audience a bit more to hang onto (aurally speaking) than the more-generic material by Goodwin. Unfortunately, the work that gives this (+++) CD its title, Pilgrimage by James Crowley, is the longest on the disc, and it simply does not hold listeners’ attention for its 13-and-a-half-minute duration. Craig Butterfield plays with great skill and excellent tone in this piece and on the disc as a whole, and Matthew Slotkin holds his own throughout – even though the guitar’s inherently lighter sound frequently relegates him to a somewhat secondary role. But the performers often seem to be trying to overcome the built-in awkwardness of their combined instruments. True, they do so with considerable success much of the time, but it is hard, especially in listening to Crowley’s work, to escape the notion that some of this music is well-played despite the inherent limitations of this instrumental combination. That is, instead of taking full advantage of what the double bass and guitar can do individually, several of the pieces sound as if they are trying to capture listeners despite the foundational improbability of doing so with this particular joining of instruments.


Rameau: Les Indes Galantes. Amel Brahim-Djelloul, Benoît Arnould, Eugénie Warnier, Olivera Topalovic, Judith van Wanroij, Vittorio Prato, Anders Dahlin, Nathan Berg, Thomas Dolié; Choeur de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux and Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset. Alpha DVD. $39.99.

Bizet: Carmen. Ekaterina Semenchuk, Irina Lungu, Carlo Ventre, Carlos Álvarez, Francesca Micarelli, Cristina Melis; Children’s Chorus A.Li.Ve and Arena di Verona Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Henrik Nánási. BelAir Classiques DVD. $24.99.

Rossini: Il Signor Bruschino. Carlo Lepore, Maia Aleida, Roberto de Candia, Francisco Brito, David Alegret, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, Chiara Amarù; Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini conducted by Daniele Rustioni. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.

Ludwig Meinardus: Luther in Worms. Matthias Vieweg, Catalina Bertucci, Clemens Löschmann, Corby Welch, Markus Flaig, Annette Gutjahr, Clemens Heidrich, Ansgar Eimann; Rheinische Kantorei and Concerto Köln conducted by Hermann Max. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Verdi: Arias from “Nabucco,” “Attila,” “Macbeth,” “Il Trovatore” and “Aïda.” Amarilli Nizza, soprano; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianluca Martinenghi. Dynamic. $14.99.

     Unusually conceived and thoroughly neglected in the modern age, Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) turns out to be, by virtue of the ways in which it differs from other operatic works of its own time, unusually interesting in ours. Rameau’s 1735 work is actually an opéra-ballet, consisting of a prologue and four standalone acts with separate storylines, all revolving around love in the exotic locations of Turkey, Arabia and the Americas. In the prologue, Hébé, the goddess of youth, attempts to gather young men and women as her followers, but they are instead drawn to Bellone, the goddess of war – so Hébé decides she must find acolytes away from Europe. Hence the four small love stories that follow, complete – in Rameau’s original conception – with gods descending from the heavens in specially made stage machinery, sets transforming in front of the audience’s eyes, and numerous ballet interludes. As interpreted on a new Alpha DVD by Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques and the Bordeaux opera troupe, with some interesting stage design and choreography by Laura Scozzi, Les Indes Galantes turns its episodic nature into an advantage, offering refreshingly uncomplicated stories, highly varied musical numbers, and some catchy and very well-staged dances. Les Indes Galantes (the title translates as “The Amorous Indies”) is officially given not in acts but in entrées entitled Le turc généreux (“The Gracious Turk”), Les incas du Pérou (“The Incas of Peru”), Les fleurs (“The Flowers”) and Les sauvages (“The Savages”). The singing is quite good throughout this performance, especially that of sopranos Amel Brahim-Djelloul (whose second-act aria with flute obbligato is a highlight of the whole production) and Judith van Wanroij (who moves seemingly effortlessly from the role of a despairing slave girl to that of a bold but failed seductress). Also especially commendable are Anders Dahlin, whose bright high register sounds unforced in all four of his roles – no small achievement. He is especially enjoyable in Les sauvages as a Frenchman bickering with Benoît Arnould  as a Spaniard – both are in love with the daughter of a native chief, who, however, prefers one of her own people. Arnould’s voice, which is a touch weak in its lowest register, is less impressive in this act than in Les incas, in which he portrays the High Priest of the Sun and is buried in lava after a volcano erupts (which must have been quite a special effect in Rameau’s time). The musicians of Les Talens Lyriques play energetically from start to finish – sometimes a bit too much so, with a few of the many dance interludes on the fast side. Rousset keeps everyone and everything together – the whole conception works delightfully. And this is a case in which having a work on DVD is absolutely necessary for anyone wanting to absorb its many pleasures, which make it into not only four entrées (appetizers) but also a full-course meal and, in the rondeau at the end of Les sauvages – a piece called Forêts paisibles – a delicious dessert.

     One’s expectations and standards are inevitably quite different when it comes to an opera as familiar as Bizet’s Carmen. The Arena di Verona production on BelAir Classiques, in a staging by Franco Zeffirelli, has many fine moments, but neither the stage direction nor the singing is involving enough to gain this DVD more than a (+++) rating. The original, 1995 Zeffirelli version of Carmen was memorable, but the new 2014 one is much less so: the stage is barer, the overall look rather shabby, and the mountain panels used as backdrops tend to flutter disconcertingly. There are financial reasons for this trimmed-down staging, to be sure, but from a musical and dramatic standpoint, it undermines the effectiveness of the work, despite the ways in which Zeffirelli uses crowd scenes to excellent advantage and even includes mounted riders to lend authenticity to the action in the town square. Anna Anni’s costumes are another big  plus here, neatly contrasting the upper-class townsfolk with the vividly dressed gypsies and the comparatively drab workers, soldiers and ragamuffins. On the other hand, the choreography – credited to “El Camborio after Lucia Real” – is rather foursquare and traditionally balletic, without the sort of apparent spontaneity and fire that would bring the story vividly to life. As for the singing, the best of it comes from the choruses, with that of the adults expressive and energetic and that of the children scene-stealing in its mimicry of the changing of the guard. Most individual singers, though, are less vital than this. Ekaterina Semenchuk is better in the last two acts than the first two, delving into Carmen’s sense of doom much more effectively than into her earlier seductiveness and joie de vivre. Carlo Ventre is a steady, rather stolid Don José, his singing strong and his projection very good, but his sense of the character's pathos is muted. Carlos Álvarez gives Escamillo a commanding presence, but he has an irritating vocal habit of dwelling too long on the last notes of musical phrases. Irene Lungu sings Micaëla with suitably angelic tone, but there is nothing special in her interpretation – she comes across as the generic “good girl.” The conducting is on the generic side, too: Henrik Nánási is brisk, efficient and competent, but rather soulless and quite uninterested in drawing out any of the expressiveness that permeates Bizet’s score. The orchestra itself sounds rather wooden and uninvolved, whether at the conductor’s behest or out of its own lack of inspiration in this production. Everything here is adequate, and a few elements of the staging and choral sections are very effective, but as a whole, this Carmen is neither a first-rate listening experience nor a top-notch viewing one.

     The music is marvelous but the presentation not for purists in the new Opus Arte DVD of Rossini’s delightful piece of fluff, Il Signor Bruschino. This is the fourth and last of the one-act Italian-style farces that Rossini wrote early in his career: his first opera, La cambiale di matrimonio (1810), was followed in this form by La scala di seta (May 1812), L’occasione fa il ladro (November 1812), and then Il Signor Bruschino (1813). Each of these is a romp with a small number of characters, each featuring mistaken identity and young lovers artificially kept apart, only to be united at the end against all odds (with the audience knowing from the start that that is what will happen). The libretti are formulaic but clever. That for Il Signor Bruschino, by one Giuseppe Maria Foppa (based on an earlier French farce), has Sofia, whose guardian is Gaudenzio, in love with Florville, whose father is Gaudenzio’s enemy, so Gaudenzio opposes the match. Sofia is also engaged to someone she has never met: the son of Gaudenzio’s old friend, Signor Bruschino. Complications abound and are obvious, with Florville eventually taking the place of Signor Bruschino’s actual son (who has gotten in trouble over an unpaid bar bill) in order to wed his beloved; hence the opera’s subtitle, Il figlio per azzardo (“The Accidental Son”). Rossini’s sparkling music propels the work along wonderfully from start to finish, and the overture is justly famous for a bit of forward-looking orchestration that drives string players crazy: Rossini calls for the second violins to play col legno, with the wood of their bows striking their music stands, and that is definitely not what players using extremely expensive bows wish to do. The singers in this new recording are all fine, but it is important to realize that acting is as significant as singing in these early Rossini works. That is where this performance will divide listeners and viewers into those who deem it a (++++) recording and those for whom the staging will reduce it to (+++) despite the fine vocalizing and the ebullient playing of the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini under Daniele Rustioni. This Rossini Opera Festival presentation makes no claim to on-stage authenticity, instead offering a kind of Rossini-themed theme park where balloons and over-the-top costumes set a scene of bright merriment, within which the events of Il Signor Bruschino unfold. The stage design and broad acting of the performers combine to turn this very light opera into a very light situation comedy that just happens to be accompanied by delightfully skittish music. The comparative downplaying of the musical material – in favor of broad, even slapstick comedy – will not please traditional opera aficionados, although it might well have pleased Rossini himself, since he so frequently rewrote and reused his own music and even at times seemed indifferent to it except on a business basis, which is to say insofar as it pleased or failed to please an audience. Il Signor Bruschino is an opera that has so little to say that a production like this one, by Teatro Sotteraneo, can certainly get away with saying it in this form. The result is more musical comedy than opera, but in a sense that is exactly what Rossini himself was looking for with this particular material.    

     Another little-known work in operatic style – as serious in its way as Rossini’s farce is amusing in its – has just become available on CD. That means no visuals, but the visual element is not really needed for Luther in Worms, an oratorio by the almost forgotten Romantic composer Ludwig Meinardus (1827-1896). Dating to 1874, this is the fourth and last of Meinardus’ oratorios, written after Simon Peter (1857), Gideon (1862) and King Solomon (1863). Although not a composer of considerable reputation even in his own time – Schumann and Mendelssohn knew him but did not think much of his work – Meinardus was capable of some sophistication in his choral and orchestral writing, and Luther in Worms is a considerable work even though its pietistic elements may be a bit much to take and its length (an hour and three-quarters) is rather too extended. It is the operatic elements of Luther in Worms that are most interesting: Meinardus called this piece an “ideational drama,” and incorporated into it such effects as fanfares, sounds of knights approaching and other spatial phenomena not usually found in oratorio. The work is essentially a two-part celebration of the Protestant Reformation, which will have its 500th anniversary in 2017: the first part is “The Journey to Worms,” the second “Before the Emperor and Empire.” Suitably reverent but allowing for considerable room for drama, the work requires eight soloists (four basses, two tenors, a soprano and an alto), a mixed chorus and boys’ choir, and a large orchestra. The choral sections on CPO’s new recording are especially well-handled under the direction of Hermann Max, who also expands Concerto Köln significantly to fill it out to the orchestral size Meinardus requires. Max is a fine advocate for this music, choosing tempos judiciously and resolutely refusing to allow the material to flag even when Meinardus’ musical creativity is subpar and his religious expression thoroughly conventional. Nevertheless, it is hard to muster a great deal of enthusiasm for this (+++) recording except insofar as it gives listeners a chance to hear a composer and work to which little attention has been paid for more than a century. The music clearly lies in the tradition of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, but Mendelssohn communicated the sweep and drama of his material so much more effectively than Meinardus did, and with so much greater skill in orchestration, that Luther in Worms pales beside works such as St. Paul and, in particular, Elijah. For that matter, Meinardus’ grandiose conception is less attractive to hear than Mendelssohn’s modest one in his “Reformation” Symphony (No. 5). However, comparing the workmanlike Meinardus with the genius Mendelssohn is inherently unfair – Meinardus’ work is actually more typical of religious musical writing in the 19th century, and those interested in oratorios of the Victorian era will find Luther in Worms very much worth hearing, if scarcely the uplifting experience that the composer intended it to be.

     Much-better-known operatic music is the primary focus of a Dynamic CD featuring soprano Amarilli Nizza with the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianluca Martinenghi. Nizza deserves credit for including two of Odabella’s arias from Attila here: Santo di patria and Oh nel fuggente nuvolo. These are dramatic, effective pieces not frequently heard in sopranos’ recitals. Also somewhat off the beaten track, and sung quite well, is Abigaille’s Ben io t’invenni from Nabucco. The rest of the material here, though, is altogether conventional and unsurprising, including three Lady Macbeth arias from Macbeth, two arias from Leonora in Il Trovatore, and – inevitably – Aïda’s Ritorna vincitor and O cieli azzurri. Nizza has a strong voice that is capable of considerable shades of meaning, and she does a generally good job of characterizing the various protagonists whose emotions she expresses here. The problem, though, is that the disc, called This Is My Verdi, is just about any soprano’s Verdi, with the few exceptions noted. The five Verdi heroines here are (except perhaps for Odabella) among the best-known protagonists on the opera stage, and their exclamations and dramatizations have been heard innumerable times within the operas and in recitals such as Nizza’s. Spinto sopranos are, if not quite a dime a dozen, very common and very popular, and the sort of music Nizza offers here – she could also have sung arias from, for example, Maria in Simon Boccanegra or Elisabetta in Don Carlos – is so familiar that it takes a truly exceptional voice to make listeners sit up and take notice. Nizza’s is a fine voice but not an exceptional one; there is little in this (+++) recording to indicate that she belongs high in the pantheon of great Verdi sopranos. Now 44, Nizza has a sure command of her vocal instrument and a fine sense of the drama (and melodrama) that Verdi provides – indeed, her dramatic delivery is the greatest strength of this disc. But the CD, which is sufficient to mark Nizza as a very fine Verdi soprano, is not enough to make listeners regard her as one of the very best to be heard on recordings.

August 20, 2015


What Pet Should I Get? By Dr. Seuss. Random House. $17.99.

Prince Fly Guy. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

How Rude! 10 Real Bugs Who Won’t Mind Their Manners. By Heather L. Montgomery. Illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Scholastic. $4.99.

Frog on a Log? By Kes Gray. Illustrations by Jim Field. Scholastic. $16.99.

     The discovery of anything new – that is, previously unknown – by Dr. Seuss is cause for great joy, even if what is discovered is (how to say this?) in somewhat less than perfect shape. What Pet Should I Get? has the makings of a wonderful Dr. Seuss book but is clearly an unfinished draft – one that conceivably led to the creation of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, since it features the same brother-and-sister pair and appears to date to the same time period (late 1950s/early 1960s). Random House has done a wonderful job of presenting the book, including a colorizing approach that both puts it in historical context and updates it – not that kids will be interested in that. What they will enjoy is seeing the brother and sister meet a wide variety of potential pets in a pet shop (a standard place to get pets at the time the book was created, but no longer a recommended one – as end notes from the publisher point out). What they are less likely to enjoy is the comparative absence of Seussian cadences in the writing – a sure sign that this is an unfinished manuscript. In other words, although much of the poetry scans perfectly, much does not. One example among quite a few: “I might find a new one./ A fast kind of thing/ who would fly round my head/ in a ring on a string!/ Yes, that would be fun, BUT/ our house is so small./ This thing on a string/ would bump, bump into the wall!” The second “bump” there clearly does not belong and would never have appeared in a finished Seuss book; or “bump, bump” could have stayed while “into” might have been changed to “on.” Or: “So, maybe some other/ good kind of pet./ Another kind maybe/ is what we should get.” Here there is a missing “a” in the second line, which should read “good kind of a pet” to have the right number of syllables – assuming Dr. Seuss would not have rewritten the passage altogether. Also, the book contains two identical “Make Up Your Mind” pages – exactly the same art both times – and that is scarcely a typical Seuss approach. Does all this matter? Well, yes and no. Seussian purists have the right to quibble about issues like these, but the incomplete nature of What Pet Should I Get? scarcely diminishes its enjoyable elements for the young children for whom it was and is intended. For them, this is a delicious adventure amid many sorts of real-world pets and a typically Seussian smorgasbord of nonexistent creatures. The art is a joy to behold, the “make up your mind” theme takes the book beyond a simple pet-buying expedition, and the final page – when the kids say they have chosen a pet and are taking it home, but it is left up to readers to figure out what they have picked – is thought-provoking in just the way for which Dr. Seuss was justly renowned. What Pet Should I Get? is scarcely one of the best Dr. Seuss books, but it is delightful nevertheless, a reminder – nearly a quarter of a century after the good doctor’s departure – that even before he put his material into final form, Dr. Seuss was one of a kind.

     One pet not suggested in What Pet Should I Get? is a fly – a “yent,” yes, and a “tall pet who fits in a space that is small,” but not a fly. A fly is, however, the pet of Buzz in the always-amusing Fly Guy series by Tedd Arnold, which rambles into fairy-tale territory in Prince Fly Guy. Buzz has a homework assignment of writing a fairy tale, so he tosses ideas at Fly Guy, who imagines himself in the roles Buzz conjures up. Seeing Arnold’s portrayal of Fly Guy as an ugly troll, smelly pig herder, or hairy dwarf is good for some laughs, and the fairy tale that Buzz eventually creates – with Fly Guy’s enthusiastic approval (“Yezz!”) – is good for some more. In it, Fly Guy is a handsome prince who rescues a beautiful fly princess but is chased by a mean giant (a human adult carrying a fly swatter). The two flies drive him away and, of course, live happily ever after – a conclusion that pleases Buzz so much that he decides to write another fairy tale, which begins as inauspiciously for Fly Guy as the first but will presumably (after the book’s conclusion) turn out just as well. Arnold’s series, in which it often seems that Buzz is Fly Guy’s pet rather than the other way around, is always amusing and sometimes genuinely clever. And two of the 15 entries have become Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Books – an enjoyable connection tying Arnold to Dr. Seuss.

     There is, however, nothing Seussian in the treatment that insects get in Heather L. Montgomery’s How Rude! This is essentially a science book – it starts with Montgomery explaining the difference between complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult) and incomplete metamorphosis (egg, nymph, adult). But even on that page, the focus is on Howard McWilliam’s illustrations, which have bugs looking and talking like people and dealing with issues that are designed to engage kids through sheer grossness: “Some bugs litter. Some pass gas. Others throw poop.” The statements are quite true, and the scientific reasons for them are explained in each discussion of an insect; but the presentation is intended to use anthropomorphized art and dramatic “ugh” elements to get kids to pay attention to the science. Each bug gets a “Gross-o-Meter Manners Meter” whose six sections are marked “nauseating, repulsive, atrocious, shocking, rude, nasty.” Each gets a suitably exclamatory introductory line: “The tortoise beetle larva wears poop!” And each gets an illustration intended to show human children just how yucchy each bug’s behavior is – by human standards, of course. At the same time, each presentation includes a photo showing what the real insect looks like, gives its common and scientific names, and in a box called “the real deal” explains why it behaves as it does. The large-size cartoon illustrations and sensationalized headlines and text are far more intriguing than the real-world stuff here, which may make some kids step back from the science altogether and look at the book as simply an “ewwww!” experience. But hopefully they will return to it again (and again), even if just to see the bizarre pictures (such as one showing a family of American burying beetles at the drive-through window of “Barfey’s”), and eventually check out the facts offered here. If they do that, they will actually learn something.

     What the frog learns in Frog on a Log? is something he would just as soon not know: he is required, by the terms of children’s-book rhymes, to sit on a log, even though, as he says, “logs are all hard and uncomfortable” and “can give you splinters.” Too bad: frogs, in addition to eating bugs (including flies, one of which appears on the cover, and many of the ones in How Rude!), have no choice but to sit somewhere that rhymes. A knowledgeable cat tells this to the frog, starting out by shouting “Hey, Frog!” at him (Kes Gray’s book was originally published in England and was called Oi Frog! – which may not “translate” well to American English but somehow fits the expression of Jim Field’s cat perfectly). “You’re a frog, so you must sit on a log,” says the cat, who goes on to explain that “only cats sit on mats,” “hares sit on chairs,” “mules sit on stools,” and so on. The rhyming examples get increasingly absurd as the book goes on: “lions sit on irons” (and look exceedingly uncomfortable doing so), for example, and “parrots sit on carrots.” The whole book is a bit of a send-up of the absurdities inherent in rhyme-seeking by authors of kids’ books, and adults may get a kick out of that even as children simply enjoy the rhymes and the absurd and very funny illustrations. Why is all this sitting-on-specific-things necessary? wonders the frog, and the cat tells him, “It’s not about being comfortable. …It’s about doing the right thing.” So fleas sit on peas, goats sit on coats, storks sit on forks, gorillas sit on (ahem) pillars, rats sit on hats, and on and on it goes, and where it will stop, nobody knows. Well, actually Gray and Field know: it stops after puffins sit on muffins, gibbons sit on ribbons, and dogs – sorry about that, says the cat, but dogs sit on frogs. And thus Frog on a Log? ends with the title character enlightened but enduring a heavy burden upon his froggy body. A pure romp, Frog on a Log? is the sort of rhyme-based fun in which Dr. Seuss (among other authors) delighted, and in which kids can still find joy aplenty.

(++++) LET’S SEE

The Napping House. By Audrey Wood. Illustrated by Don Wood. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

The Full Moon at the Napping House. By Audrey Wood. Illustrated by Don Wood. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Hey, Seymour! A Search & Find Fold-Out Adventure. By Walter Wick. Scholastic. $18.99.

     It has been more than 30 years since The Napping House first appeared – anyone who here breathes a sigh of nostalgia is dating himself or herself. But Audrey and Don Wood’s 1984 book, which is now available in board-book format, is as wonderful a blend of words and pictures as ever. Using the old “house that Jack built” format to pile one event on another, The Napping House really does pile one thing upon the next upon the next: it starts at night with a bed, on which a snoring granny is sleeping, onto whom a dreaming child climbs, upon whom a dog flops down for a snooze, followed by a cat and then a mouse. Then everything unravels as a flea bites the mouse, causing a chain reaction that wakes up the cat, dog, child and granny, by which time it is morning and everybody bounces out of bed to greet the new day. What makes The Napping House a classic is the way the rhythmic simplicity of the story is illustrated with so many action poses: the boy’s pillow on the granny’s head, with the boy dreamily perched on top; the dog lying upside-down on the boy, who has turned around and is now snuggled into the granny’s legs; the tranquility of granny, boy, dog, cat and mouse, all curled up together in the most peaceful scene of the book – after which appear pictures such as the hilarious one of the scared cat with fur bristling, eyes wide open and all four paws thrust out to the side with claws fully extended. Then the cat lands on the dog, which executes a hilarious leap into the air – a captivating scene in which child and granny are still asleep, but readers can foresee their rude awakening coming a second later. And so it goes from start to finish: what you see in the book beautifully complements what you read (or, for the youngest children, hear as the book is read aloud), with the result being a delight from start to finish.

     The Full Moon at the Napping House is brand-new and a sequel – what took Audrey and Don Wood so long? It is the inevitable flip side of the original book: it starts with the same house, still at night, but now “everyone is restless” as the light of the full moon floods the bedroom. Now granny is sleepless, the child is fidgety, the dog is playful, the cat is prowling, and the mouse – well, the mouse is worried, with nobody getting any rest. The scenes of nighttime activity here are as much fun as were the original ones of nighttime inactivity that would later become very active indeed. The solution to the sleeplessness problem is a clever one, brought about by introducing yet another character, even smaller than the mouse: a cricket, whose chirping “full-moon song” gradually calms the restless occupants of the house so they can, one by one, get some sleep. The mouse calms the cat, which “gentles the dog,” which “snuggles the boy, who hugs the granny,” as everyone settles down in or near the bed for some much-needed and clearly well-deserved slumber. This is the “bedtime book” opposite of the “wake-up book” that was The Napping House, and it is every bit as beautifully structured and illustrated in every bit as effective a way. In fact, the pictures are so similar that a child seeing the two books at the same time will naturally assume they were created as a pair rather than a generation apart. They are paired now, in any case, and deserve to be – and will no doubt continue to be.

     Walter Wick has created many visually striking books that stand alone but at the same time relate clearly to each other. His beautifully photographed displays of small objects lie at the heart of the I Spy and Can You See What I See? series. His trademark is extreme clarity of vision that actually makes it harder to spot specific items within his photos – and spotting those items is the whole point, as Wick provides clues that somehow make it both easier and harder to spot the objects to which he refers. Hey, Seymour! A Search & Find Fold-Out Adventure goes even beyond Wick’s other books by introducing a new element: fold-out pages. These make the book a truly huge one – it is already a large-size volume, enlarged further by the fold-outs. The 10 scenes here are constructed in Wick’s usual way, using real objects that are photographed, in some cases, against digitally painted backgrounds. The key is that there are a lot of real objects, and Wick’s puzzle clues are designed to get kids (and parents!) searching for specific ones. This is never easy – certainly not here. Seymour is a small articulated toy who has a dog, Buttons, with whom he has adventures, the nature of which Wick explains at the back of the book (which also offers several bonus puzzles for readers whose eyes and minds have not yet been sufficiently stretched). The tremendous crowding of colorful objects on every page – a Wick specialty – makes his simple-sounding clues very difficult indeed: “I see a clock,/ a cowboy hat,/ whiskers on/ a yellow cat:/ purple grapes,/ and A, B, C,/ a smile on/ a bumblebee.” The thing is, there is so much visible that picking individual items out of the carefully arranged apparent clutter takes a lot of time and effort – pleasant effort, to be sure, but effort nonetheless. The very large size of the foldouts here makes individual items larger but also means there is room for more of them: readers/viewers will have to search very carefully indeed among pages that expand in varying ways (one folds completely out to the right, the next folds up, several fold to the right but expand by only half a page, and so forth). The pictures themselves, considered as photographs, are attractive and sometimes even on the verge of remarkable.  One showing Seymour holding up a spring while contemplating a page showing a “junk robot plan,” all in a space where pieces of junk that appear to be robot parts clutter every inch, is particularly special – even before it folds out to reveal a fully assembled robot striding and stamping about. Both parents and kids will have a great time unraveling these mysteries – which, however, are no easier to solve for adults than for children, a fact that is one of Wick’s books’ many charms.