June 30, 2016
One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree. By Daniel Bernstrom. Pictures by Brendan Wenzel. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
I Love Cake! By Tammi Sauer. Pictures by Angie Rozelaar. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
A boy with the instincts of a trickster and no fear whatsoever, and a hungry snake reminiscent of Kaa in The Jungle Book, are the protagonist and antagonist in Daniel Bernstrom’s rhythmic narrative, One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree. There is a kind of “house that Jack built” element to the book, too, and a version of “there was an old lady who swallowed a fly” underlying it all. The snake, very long and yellow and interestingly patterned, always smiling and very, very hungry, one day drops down upon and swallows a little boy who has been simply skipping along in the tree of the book’s title. Oh no! But Brendan Wenzel’s pictures take most of the scare out of the encounter: clearly the boy, although swallowed, is unhurt, and the snake has an almost jovial rather than menacing air. The clever boy reminds the snake “that you’re still very hungry and there’s more you can eat,” so the snake sets off in search of other food, soon encountering a bird about to do its own gobbling, of a worm. And: “Sneaky-slidey zipped the snake from his place in the leaves/ and gobbled up the bird and her ooey-gooey worm/ one day in the eucalyptus, eucalyptus tree.” Even this is not enough, though, as the quick-thinking boy reminds the snake, and sure enough, the snake agrees and seeks more things to consume. Next is a “cat in his dozy-cozy nap,” and then “a sloth cloaked in moss,” and “an ape eating grapes,” and even “a bear with the qually-wally hair” – clearly far too big for the snake to swallow, but somehow the snake manages to do just that. His belly now swollen to enormous size, the snake continues prowling, even consuming a hive full of bees; and still the boy insists the snake has more room inside, even when the overstuffed snake finally says “no.” Well, maybe just a tiny bit more room, thinks the snake, gobbling “a teeny-tiny fly” – and that is the proverbial straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. With a burp and a belch and a long-extended “blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” the snake disgorges everything and everybody, including the smiling boy and the “whirly-twirly toy” he was playing with in the first place. And everybody leaves happily and very amusingly – the picture of the escape from the snake’s stomach is explosively funny – with the snake left behind, complaining of “a crummy tummyache.” So all ends happily, the boy lies down for a nap at the base of the tree with his toy beside him, and – wait! Is that a very toothy crocodile peeking out of the water? Bernstrom and Wenzel leave the book at this point – kids can make up a new story, or more of this one, on their own.
Things are less exotic, by the standards of picture books, in I Love Cake! But they are, in their own way, just as much fun. Tammi Sauer’s book is about three friends called Rabbit (a rabbit), Porcupine (a porcupine), and Moose (a moose, but obviously a joker, since he introduces himself as Frog). Angie Rozelaar’s pictures make the bouncy interactions of the trio clear: all are wide-eyed most of the time, but all have their own personalities. Rabbit loves to be in charge, so on her birthday, she arranges her own party and invites her two friends. Porcupine loves to have fun and just goes along with whatever the plans may be, as long as they let him play games and have a good time. And Moose – well, Moose is a kidder. Getting ready for the party, he exclaims, “I love boiled turnips. Ha! I do not. I love cake.” It turns out – this is where the thin plot thickens a bit – that Moose loves cake a little too much. As the friends play, Moose is constantly distracted by the smell of birthday cake, and after a while he disappears – only to be found by Rabbit, who asks whether there are cake crumbs on Moose’s fur. Moose says no and suggests that “maybe a badger ate the cake.” But soon the truth comes out, and everyone is upset – Rabbit because her party is ruined, Porcupine because he is not having fun, and Moose because he is not bad, only thoughtless, and is “really sorry.” That is not good enough for Rabbit and Porcupine, though, and soon the three friends are at odds with one another. Moose tries to think of a way to make up for eating the cake, but nothing occurs to him except maybe a singing gorilla – until he realizes that he can replace the cake. So he makes one and brings it over to Rabbit’s house, where Rabbit and Porcupine try to ignore him – unsuccessfully, because “Moose was just so Moose.” So the friendship is rekindled, and it turns out that everyone loves cake, which is about as sweet an ending as possible for a book that can be read both for fun and as a lesson in cooperating with friends and telling the truth – and making amends if you do something wrong.
Bone Soup. By Cambria Evans. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Folk Tale Classics: The Teeny-Tiny Woman. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Here are a couple of reprints of stories that would be especially enjoyable to read and look at around Halloween, but are well-done enough to be fun anytime a child wants a slightly (but not very) scary book. Cambria Evans’ Bone Soup, originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback, takes the old tale of “Stone Soup” and changes it from a tale of starving soldiers returning from war and tricking townspeople into making them a hearty meal to a story about a strange (but cute) skeleton creature named Finnigin who wanders about with “his eating stool, his eating spoon, and his gigantic eating mouth.” Finnigin’s appetite is so well known to the denizens of the land that the local witch, beast, zombies and mummy all hide their delectables – in a particularly amusing two-page illustration showing cross-sections of their houses – when they find out that Finnigin is on the way to their town. Again and again he knocks on doors and asks for food, and again and again he is turned away. So Finnigin finds the town’s biggest cauldron (marked “Property of Town Square”), picks up wood from the nearby forest, fills the pot with water, starts a fire, and opens his cloak – removing one of his own bones, one “so old that the edges were dry and splintered.” And he pops it into the pot and sings a little ditty about making bone soup from nothing but a magic bone. Intrigued, the townsfolk – maybe they should be called townsthings – come to the square to see what Finnigin is doing. And so the story progresses. Finnigin comments that as good as the magic-bone soup will be, it would be even better with an extra ingredient or two – such as the jars of eyeballs the witch has, and the beast’s bat wings, and the zombies’ frog legs, and assorted other ghoulish ingredients (very amusingly pictured in a close-up view of the bubbling mixture). “With a final dusting of slime and sludge, the soup was declared ready,” writes Evans, and everyone feasts on it and marvels that all it took to make it was a magic bone. The amusing tweaking of the old story is handled very well, the illustrations are just yucky enough to be seasonal (or anytime) treats, and Bone Soup turns out to be quite delicious.
Not all bones intended for soup make it there, though. The old folk tale of The Teeny-Tiny Woman is about one that doesn’t. As retold and very nicely illustrated by Paul Galdone for the Folk Tale Classics series, this story – originally published in this version in 1984 – has a pleasantly repetitive narrative cadence that makes it fun to read, especially for younger children. Everything here is teeny-tiny: the woman of the title, the gate she walks through, the cemetery behind the gate, and the “teeny-tiny bone on a teeny-tiny grave” that she finds. The woman thinks this bone will be just right to make “some teeny-tiny soup for my teeny-tiny supper,” so she takes it home in her teeny-tiny pocket to her teeny-tiny house. But she is too tired to cook, so she puts the bone in her teeny-tiny cupboard and goes to sleep. The front of the cupboard, kids will immediately see, looks like a face, with the knobs as eyes and the drawer pull as mouth – and indeed, Galdone has inserted faces of all sorts throughout his illustrations, along the side of the home’s staircase and in the clouds outdoors and elsewhere; finding those faces is one of the pleasures kids will get from this book. In the narrative, as the teeny-tiny woman tries to sleep, she hears a voice from the cupboard saying, “Give me my bone.” Being a teeny-tiny bit scared, she burrows under the covers, but the voice returns, a bit louder, then louder still, until the teeny-tiny woman finally says “take it!” and all goes quiet. Who or what wanted the bone is never revealed, and whether the teeny-tiny woman ever got soup or anything else to eat that night is never mentioned – kids can have fun thinking about those and other outside-the-story possibilities. A mild ghost story that Galdone expertly illustrates with a palette focusing on dark grey and green, purple, deep blue and other suitable tones, The Teeny-Tiny Woman is enjoyably enough written to be read and re-read, and the pictures manage to convey an age-appropriate sense of mystery without ever becoming overtly frightening – a fine job all around.
How to Eat an Airplane. By Peter Pearson. Illustrated by Mircea Catusanu. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Winnie & Waldorf: Disobedience School. By Kati Hites. Harper. $17.99.
Cat Shaming. By Pedro Andrade. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
The 39 Clues: Doublecross—Book Four: Mission Atomic. By Sarwat Chadda. Scholastic. $12.99.
Just in case anyone out there considers taking the title of Peter Pearson’s book too seriously as a recommendation-cum-cookbook, please make note of the full title. It is The Bad Idea Book Club Presents: How to Eat an Airplane. And now that that’s settled, readers can go at once to the end of Pearson’s book and learn that it was inspired by the real-life, real story of a man who really did eat an entire airplane. His unusual (“unusual” seems too mild a word) stomach had no problem with bicycle parts, lightbulbs, pieces of television sets, or airplane parts, but he did get a tummy ache from, ahem, hard-boiled eggs and bananas. Well. Pearson, inspired (if that is the right word) by this weird bit of information, creates a picture book that starts by explaining that most airplanes are too big to eat by yourself, so if you really want to eat one, you need to have a party. The book is all about how to make the party happen, starting with sending out invitations (that is, tickets) to each guest – with the help of your dog, who not only talks but also wears an old-fashioned aviator’s hat and goggles and vaguely resembles Snoopy from Peanuts. Getting the dinner ready requires “knives, spoons, and forklifts,” and then when the guests arrive, it is time for a suitable toast and a first course of airplane fuel. There are many courses: the “delicious dials and tasty instruments” from the cockpit, warm bowls of engine oil, a salad consisting of ailerons with French dressing, nicely cooked landing gear, and eventually the engines; and, during a break in the festivities, something light in the form of the plane’s snack carts. Not the snacks in the carts – the carts themselves. As Pearson proceeds methodically through the plane parts, Mircea Catusanu shows everything that is going on in illustrations that are a marvelous mixture of the ordinary (these are just regular kids who happen to be eating an airplane) and the bizarre (they are eating an airplane). The main course proves to be the fuselage, although Pearson recommends eating around the lavatories, which “are not luscious.” Eventually the feast is finished and everyone packs “a suitcase full of leftovers to bring home.” But wait! What about dessert? Yes, Pearson explains that it is always polite to offer some, and sure enough, an ice-cream truck drives up, giving the kids a final treat. Not the ice cream: they eat the truck. And what have we learned from all this? For one thing, do not turn Pearson and Catusanu loose at any airports. But beyond that, the book really does teach about airplanes, indirectly during the main story and directly in four end-of-book pages that explain a lot about airplane parts while providing some fascinating facts – for instance, that the paint on a commercial airliner weighs between 400 and 1,000 pounds. Oh yes, and one more thing readers will learn: not to eat an airplane, OK?
The dog in How to Eat an Airplane is an able assistant and instructor, but Winnie’s dog, Waldorf, is far less helpful. In fact, he is downright uncooperative and trouble-prone. So Winnie decides to teach him better behavior in Kati Hites’ Winnie & Waldorf: Disobedience School. This is not a school for disobedience but a school to un-learn disobedience, but whether Waldorf will be successful at this is anyone’s guess. An enthusiastic bulldog (maybe a bulldog mix), Waldorf looks properly befuddled when Winnie announces that he has been accepted at her “Disobedience School” and must go through a series of courses. Waldorf does well with ABCs when Winnie ensures that C is for cookie, and he offers a fine solo in music class, where he is “a talented baritone.” His reading is only so-so, Winnie explains, but he is great at napping during nap time and at creating some super-messy art in art class. Gym, though, proves to be a problem – and a potentially serious one. Excited at catching a tennis ball hit by Winnie, Waldorf runs away with it – then notices that the neighbor’s little dog has gotten loose and is heading right for a busy street. Quick-thinking Waldorf flips the ball into the air, and the little dog instantly goes into “fetch” mode instead of continuing to run toward danger. Waldorf “is so heroic,” says Winnie. “Especially when he is just being himself.” And that is the ultimate lesson here: Waldorf learns how to be himself, Winnie learns to accept him just as he is, and at the book’s end, Winnie and Waldorf clean up everything from the Disobedience School so Winnie can get ready to go to her school the next day – escorted, of course, by Waldorf, wearing his own graduation cap and toting his very own backpack as he helps Winnie on her way to kindergarten. The story here is gentle and charming, and Hites’ illustrations are delightful in helping tell it and also in some unexpected ways that young readers will delight in discovering, such as the fact that one of Winnie’s socks is always falling down, her backpack has a Waldorf pull, and there is a very befuddled-looking pigeon observing girl and dog head for school at the book’s very end.
What makes dogs so much instructional fun in both fact and fiction is that they genuinely want to please their human companions. Often dogs’ high spirits get in the way of their doing what people want them to do, but by and large, they are willing to be taught because they want to coexist all the more happily in their human-led packs. Not so cats. The reason “herding cats” is a cliché for something impossible to do is that cats are solitary by nature, and they are the self-proclaimed rulers of all that they see (and most that they smell). They tolerate human companionship but, in most cases, are indifferent to it unless it provides them with distinct immediate benefits (such as food or the occasional gentle stroking). This is why “dog shaming” is a longtime hit concept online and in print, while “cat shaming,” based on the same idea, is only moderately successful. Cats simply do not shame well: dogs at least look guilty when they misbehave, but cats generally look just as smug and self-satisfied as ever. Nevertheless, Pedro Andrade makes a valiant attempt to establish a modicum of cat guilt in Cat Shaming, and the (+++) book has a number of amusing feline pages along the lines of its canine model. For example, the owner’s note next to an adorable-looking little grey kitten reads, “I poop in the bathtub.” Another owner’s note reads, “I drank Dad’s beer,” and another says, “I steal pizza off the counter.” A lot of the misbehavior here is food-related, and a lot of it is puke-related and poop-related – in fact, those three somewhat connected categories come up again and again in Cat Shaming. “I steal dog food because they put me on a diet!” “I’ve pooped in the bathtub every day for 11 years.” “I have lost less than one pound on my 10-year-long diet.” “I harass my sisters when they poop.” “I ate my food too fast and puked on the carpet.” The relatively few “creative” misbehaviors here also have a repetitive quality to them: “I’m a butt licker.” “I bite my mom’s butt – often.” “I stick my butt in people’s faces. I think my butt is God’s gift to the world!” A lot of this is fun, and cat owners (not that anyone ever really “owns” a cat) will certainly recognize plenty of the behaviors and the total lack of remorse exhibited by all the felines in the book. But that is what makes Cat Shaming less amusing than the canine variety: no cat in the book ever looks ashamed, guilty, upset, uncertain, sorry, unhappy, or (for that matter) happy. Every cat has the usual inscrutable, self-satisfied look patented by the feline race many thousands of years ago. Whether dogs are or are not ashamed of some of their behavior, they at least look expressive in being apologetic or, for that matter, unapologetic. The generic cat-ness of the expressions of the cats in Andrade’s book undercuts the humor that their human cohabitants see, or try to see, in feline behavior. But hey, cat “owners” will find plenty with which to identify here – and will learn, if they have not learned already, that cats choose to learn absolutely nothing from anything they may do of which humans may disapprove.
Learning may best be done through adversity – that appears to be one message of the books in various sequences of The 39 Clues. The novels themselves are a rather thin gruel of educational elements intermingled with a series of world-spanning and wholly unbelievable adventures in which readers get to participate vicariously through online tie-ins involving “digital game cards” provided with each book. The fourth and last (+++) book in the series called Doublecross is by an author new to The 39 Clues, Sarwat Chadda, but the books are so formulaic (by intention) that there is no evidence here of anything approaching a personal style. Nor should there be – style is no more the point of these books than is characterization. What matters is criss-crossing the world to solve improbable mysteries and arrange nick-of-time rescues of good and/or innocent people from the evil machinations of the bad guys. In Doublecross the protagonists of all the series, Dan (now 13) and Amy (now 16), have to head off the fourth of four famous disasters being engineered, or re-engineered, by a disaffected member of their Cahill family known as the Outcast. This time the Outcast plans to re-create the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and cause great loss of life and all sorts of destruction and the usual things that nefarious evildoers nefariously do. To prevent this, Dan and Amy, who consistently do better when working together, split up. At one point Amy has to play dead so realistically that Dan believes she really is dead, because this is necessary to fool the baddies; and in this Amy is helped by a killer who helpfully points out, “I am an assassin, not a mass murderer.” Thanks largely to his aid, Amy and Dan survive, the Outcast is (as so often happens with fictional villains) destroyed by his own almost-perfect plot, and what Dan and Amy and the rest of the Cahills, all the branches of the family, learn is – democracy. Yes, that wildly improbable twist is what ends this four-book sub-series of The 39 Clues, as the feuding Cahill family branches decide that each group should be in charge of the family as a whole for four years, then hand the reins of power to the next group. With disasters averted, lessons learned, bad guys vanquished, good guys rewarded, and fans of The 39 Clues presumably satisfied, the Doublecross sequence concludes; and now readers can look forward to the upcoming Superspecial, which is a final book called Outbreak that is scheduled to conclude these learning-and-adventuring preteen thrillers after their very successful eight-year run.
Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family. By Kimberly Palmer. AMACOM. $14.95.
This book’s subtitle seems to have been truncated. The word “Family” should be followed by an ellipsis and then, “…As Long As You Are Well-Educated, Have Already Established Yourself on a Solid Career Path, and Have Significant Earnings Potential on Which You Can Turn Your Back Voluntarily Because You Do Not Have to Live Paycheck to Paycheck.” Guess that wouldn’t fit on the cover, much less the spine.
Okay, even upper-middle-class women with substantial earnings potential need advice on managing their money and their changed or interrupted careers when they have children. There is nothing wrong with that. But Kimberly Palmer, an upper-middle-class mom who was senior money editor of US News & World Report for almost a decade, willfully wears blinders that prevent her from seeing how limited her ideas and approaches are and how many women they cannot possibly help. She is writing for women in major urban areas, women familiar and comfortable with politics, polls, surveys, statistics and studies. In fact, it helps if they live in or near Washington, D.C., as Palmer does, since there is a wonkishness about the many examples and citations here that seems to go naturally with the nation’s capital.
From time to time, Palmer seems cognizant of her book’s limitations: “Almost every professional woman I reached out to explained that her schedule allowed for at least some degree of flexibility. …Full-time lawyers and government employees explained similar flex schedules that let them be home in time for day care pickup or let them pick one day a week to work at home. (Women working low-wage jobs tell a very different story, and those challenges deserve their own book.)” But at other times, she seems resolutely tone-deaf to people who are not like her and her friends, as when she mentions two letters she received as a financial columnist. One writer “explained that although she has a college degree in health education, she has not been able to find work in her field.” The other wrote, “I am a thirty-year-old mother of two. I am on a limited income and only make about $15,000 a year. My oldest daughter is nine years old and has special needs and my youngest is five.” Palmer gives the same reply for both the women, saying “there is no magic solution” and that “all they can do is make slow and steady progress out of the troubles they find themselves in” by “finding higher-paying jobs that utilize their educational backgrounds.” She then segues into recommending 529 accounts to which they should make “modest contributions (after emergency savings accounts are funded),” even though the second writer is desperate to save as little as $10 per pay period. This takes noblesse oblige to a whole new level.
This does not mean Palmer’s recommendations are ill-considered. Quite the opposite – for well-educated, well-to-do women who need to reorient their priorities, financial and otherwise, while raising children, Palmer has very solid advice about budgeting, saving, planning for retirement, tracking spending, ensuring one’s ability to handle one’s finances oneself, coping with credit cards and debt in general, and much more. She also offers some good references to helpful Web sites, many of them well-known but some less so (MaxMyInterest.com, Weelicious.com). She has other smart Web-related ideas, too, such as using a free or inexpensive aging app, such as Aging Booth, to see what you will look like in 40 years or so – to encourage investing for retirement and taking a long-term attitude toward financial planning.
Almost none of this will be of the slightest use to women who are barely getting by, but much will be helpful to women as savvy, educated and well-connected as Palmer herself. They are her real audience. She does not always write to them coherently: “Like Christine, though, the work was not like the demanding, highly paid jobs they held before.” And: “Take advantage of all available tax benefits to [sic] working parents.” And: “Step number one is calculating your retirement number, or how much you need to have saved before you retire, so you know what your most important investment account – the one dedicated to your retirement account – is aiming for.” Readers can usually puzzle their way through the writing when it is unclear; but even so, they have to be sure they are in Palmer’s target audience for this book to be genuinely useful to them. In discussing investments, for example, she talks about a survey of “women between age 40 and 80 with investable assets of $250,000 or more,” and elsewhere she tells the cautionary but ultimately uplifting tale of a woman whose gambler husband left her “with over $1 million in tax bills” and who, working as a financial journalist, “eventually took care of her tax bills and rebuilt her own financial security.” Wow – where does a financial journalist get paid enough to make up a million-dollar tax debt and rebuild a (presumably substantial) financial nest egg?
Some of Palmer’s writing is bright and clever: “Credit cards are like high school boyfriends: some are reliable and supportive but most are not worth your time (or your money).” Some of her recommendations, if scarcely revelatory, are definitely worthwhile for those able to implement them: “Choose a job and field you love, so you are eager to get back to work, even when stressed out by motherhood.” Some are narrowly focused even within the already narrow target audience capable of taking her recommendations: “Maintain your personal brand online, so you are known for the skills you want to bring to the marketplace.” And some, however well-intentioned, are simply out of reach of the vast majority of working mothers – or working fathers, for that matter – based on multiple surveys showing how little most Americans are able to save for the proverbial rainy day, much less put aside for a secure retirement: “Smart moms are ready to adapt [in case of major job reversals] by having their backup plans in mind. That might mean having a hefty savings account ready to get you through a few years of much lower household income, a side business of contract or freelance work that you can ramp up, or a business plan for a consulting service based on your professional expertise.” Considering the fact that surveys have repeatedly found that nearly two-thirds of Americans do not have enough money saved to handle a $500 car repair or $1,000 emergency-room visit, this prescription goes beyond unrealistic and all the way to utopian for the vast, vast majority of people.
There is a great deal of useful information in Smart Mom, Rich Mom, but this is a book for a much, much narrower range of mothers than its title suggests. The boundaries of education, class and professional expertise and experience within which Palmer is fortunate enough to live are such that only a very small percentage of mothers will be able to implement her strategies. Someone else will need to write a different personal-finance book for the much greater number of moms – and dads – who, even if they are not impoverished or living paycheck-to-paycheck, have far fewer of the advantages that have accrued to Palmer and those in her professional and social circles.
Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto in A minor; Haydn: Piano Concerto No. 11; Bach: Harpsichord Concerto No. 5, BWV 1056. Joshua Pierce, piano; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Peter Lieuwen: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (2012); Romance for Violin, Cello and Piano (1994/2010); Vivace for String Orchestra (2010); Concerto for Piano, Marimba and Orchestra (2008). Nicholas Jones, cello; Andrzej Grabiec, violin, with Misha Quint, cello, and Carlo Alessandro Lapegna, piano; Leonel Morales, piano, with Jesus Morales, marimba; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and Texas Music Festival Orchestra conducted by Franz Anton Krager. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Nedudim. Fifth House Ensemble and Baladino. Cedille. $12.
A beautifully played juxtaposition of keyboard works from three different time periods, Joshua Pierce’s latest MSR Classics recording makes up through verve and musicianship what it lacks in authenticity. None of the three composers on the CD wrote for a piano that was anything like the one Pierce plays: modern concert grands had not been developed when 13-year-old Felix Mendelssohn produced his remarkably mature Piano Concerto in A minor, much less when Haydn and Bach created the works heard here. Pierce’s performances are pretty much the antithesis of historically accurate: he uses the resources of a fine modern piano very well, and is a sufficiently sensitive performer to avoid, to the extent possible, having the instrument overshadow the accompaniment provided by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. But there is only so much that Pierce can do about this: the warmth and emotional involvement of the second movement of Haydn’s concerto, for example, are thoroughly winning – and thoroughly out of character. But listeners willing to suspend any focus they may usually have on historically informed performance practices will be lured into this recording immediately and swept away by it throughout. The Mendelssohn concerto is the highlight here. Very little known, it was created before the two numbered Mendelssohn piano concertos and is certainly a derivative work, with hints of Haydn and a pronounced similarity to Hummel. In some ways it looks ahead, as in the dramatic solo entrance in the first movement and the tying-together of the slow movement and finale. In other ways it is clearly Mendelssohnian, as in the gracefulness of the main slow-movement theme. And in the finale, the best of the three movements, the concerto is highly virtuosic, rhythmically strong and chromatically interesting, with propulsive forward motion that carries right through to the minor-key conclusion. The concerto is actually longer than the two numbered ones (although not as long as the CD states: the first movement’s length is amusingly and incorrectly given, in two places, as “45:46”). This piece may not have quite enough to say to justify its length, but it offers more than sufficient reason to hear it on occasion; and both Pierce and Trevor give the work considerable respect, refusing to dismiss it as mere juvenilia (it was, after all, written at the same time as some of the very fine string symphonies). The CD is well worth owning for this work alone. But the mixing together of early Romanticism with Haydn’s Classical poise and Bach’s Baroque ornamentation makes the recording even more interesting. Haydn’s concerto was written for harpsichord or early fortepiano, and the work tilts too far in balance toward a soloist using a modern piano, but the brightness and humor of the piece, especially its Hungarian-flavored finale, come through very well here. Bach’s concerto is more problematic. This F minor work is very definitely intended for harpsichord – it consists of movements carefully arranged by Bach from earlier pieces – and neither the comparative heaviness of the first movement nor the warmth of the piano against the pizzicato strings in the second really fits the music. The concluding Presto badly needs the penetrating brightness of plucked harpsichord strings for full effect; even Pierce’s fine pacing cannot make up for this lack. Nevertheless, this disc as a whole is a very enjoyable one, and the Mendelssohn concerto is a real find.
The mixing is not of stylistic periods but of musical styles themselves in another MSR Classics release, this one featuring world première recordings of concertos and other works by Peter Lieuwen (born 1953). Like many other contemporary composers, Lieuwen produces works in classical forms, or at least with classical titles, but packs them with music heavily influenced by jazz and non-Western idioms. The result, at its best, is an intriguing blend; when less successful, it is something of an oil-and-water colloidal suspension in which it can be difficult for the ear to be sure which way the composer is leading it. The first movement of the two-movement Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, for instance, has the cello indulging in free flights of fancy while the accompaniment chugs along in mostly uninspired fashion, while the second movement contrasts a tonal but largely tuneless first section with a brighter second one. Romance for Violin, Cello and Piano is a meandering fantasia in which the instruments go in their own directions rather than engage in more-traditional chamber-music discussion. Here too there is a very repetitive underlying element, in the piano; and there is similar “chugging” repetition in Vivace – these foundational ostinato rhythms do ground the pieces, but the constant drumbeat becomes wearing. Thankfully, there is less of this approach in Concerto for Piano, Marimba and Orchestra, the most successful work here, which combines and contrasts the two percussion soloists in a way that makes it clear that the piano really is a percussion instrument. Although the slow second movement meanders, the concerto’s outer movements, including a finale with a distinct Latin cast, are sonically attractive and involving, and very well played – as is all the music here. The CD as a whole is a (+++) recording: it has more high points than low, but leaves the impression that Lieuwen’s music is best heard a little at a time rather than in larger chunks.
Another (+++) CD takes the notion of mixing things up even further – so much further that it is difficult to figure out what audience the performers are reaching for. This is a Cedille recording called Nedudim; the title is Hebrew for “wanderings.” This is a sort of combinatorial jam session of two groups whose members apparently like each other and each other’s style enough to want to perform together, but whose topics and approaches are so very different that their combination never seems to come together in any meaningful way. One group, Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble, favors traditional Western orchestral instruments that it deploys in contemporary ways to produce modern forms of chamber music. The other ensemble, Israel-based Baladino, uses Asian and North African instruments such as the oud, shofar and duduk in the service of folk music largely from Sephardic and Middle Eastern roots. There is everything here from Indian raga to drone strings, from jazz flute to folk singing, from American bluegrass to Persian and Turkish influences. The 11 tracks are clearly very personal reflections of the musicians’ concerns and interests, as the heartfelt performances confirm. There is an improvisational feel to the whole enterprise – the members of Baladino are in fact improvisation-oriented – but the highly personal sort of enthusiasm underlying the project never quite comes through to listeners uninvolved with creating the CD. A couple of traditional Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) songs, a Dan Visconti piece in which classically trained musicians are supposed to cut loose into jazz and folk territory, a work including American blues guitar within Greek modal writing, a love song from the U.S. Civil War – there are a lot of disparate elements and distinct influences here, with the result that Nedudim lives up to its title without ever quite indicating why an audience that is not part of the collaborative project should want to go along on the groups’ stylistic and geographical travels. Listeners would be well advised to sample bits of several individual tracks here to decide whether the totality of the project is likely to strike enough of a chord with them to become something with which they would like to live – or whether, like many improvisations, the CD captures a particular moment in time but lacks any significant staying power.
June 23, 2016
Box of Bats. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Flip & Fin: Super Sharks to the Rescue! By Timothy Gill. Illustrated by Neil Numberman. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $15.99.
Brian Lies’ books about bats are individually wonderful and, in a three-book boxed set, virtually irresistible. Lies has clearly studied animal anatomy carefully, and just as clearly thought through how animals’ bodies would look if the animals engaged in human pursuits. As a result, his books look like no others in their combination of realism and anthropomorphism: a Lies illustration is immediately recognizable. Box of Bats includes small hardcover versions of Bats at the Ballgame (originally published in 2010), Bats at the Library (2008), and Bats at the Beach (2006). All are thoroughly wonderful to see and sometimes exceptionally funny. The cover of Bats at the Beach, for example, shows a bat in the foreground with a nicely toasted marshmallow from which cricket legs stick out – many bats are insectivores, after all. And the background shows a bat on the sand “flying” another bat like a kite. The concepts are outrageous, but Lies’ illustrations are so good that if activities like these were to be done by bats, this is exactly how the bats would look when doing them. Bats at the Ballgame eschews easy puns on batting and batters for a wonderful imagining of how bats would play baseball if they could play it. The fans, for example, hang upside-down, while “A flying vendor flutters near./ ‘Mothdogs! Get your mothdogs here!’/ Raise a wing and catch a snack:/ ‘Perhaps you’d like some Cricket Jack?’” And a grandfather bat, with eyeglasses neatly perched on his face, remembers baseball back through the years in a marvelous series of pictures that start in color and end in sepia. Bats at the Library features a wonderful view of bats hanging upside-down from a lampshade while reading and an even-more-wonderful one in which illustrations from famous children’s books are reinterpreted by Lies in bat-focused ways: for instance, the well-known traffic-cop picture from Make Way for Ducklings now has the policeman allowing a mother bat and her babies to cross the street. Young readers may not know all the references, but adults can provide them (if they know them!) and can use them as entry points to the original stories. Bats at the Library ends with Lies writing, “For now, we’ll dream of things we’ve read,/ a universe inside each head.” Children lucky enough to have Box of Bats – which even comes with a page of bat stickers as a bonus – will encounter their own universe of wonder, thanks to a remarkably skilled and clever author.
Timothy Gill’s second book about sand-shark twins Flip and Fin is far more mundane fun – or watery fun, given that it takes place in and near the beach. But Super Sharks to the Rescue! is clever in its own way, with Neil Numberman’s illustrations neatly displaying the characters’ personalities and keeping the action going. And there is plenty of action here, as the title characters decide to become “super sharks” like their cartoon favorites, Sammy Saw Shark and Harry Hammerhead. So, after some hijinks and bad jokes, and after getting together with their friends Swimmy and Molly, Flip and Fin look for super deeds to do. They discover a beach ball floating in the water and realize that it must belong “to the human people,” so they decide to become heroes by returning it. And they head for the beach – where, of course the beachgoers spot them, are terrified, and dash out of the water, yelling for help. Flip and Fin are puzzled: what’s the problem? Then they realize that the people must be scared, not of course of the sharks, but of the ball. So they heroically decide to help out by playing catch with the ball and then popping it and getting rid of it “far out to sea.” Their super-work done, the sand sharks and their friends head into open water as the people on the shore cheer their departure – which the sharks interpret as cheering for their rescue of the people from the scary ball. This sort of misunderstanding seems right in character for Flip and Fin, and so do their exclamations of “Faster than a sailfish!” and “Tougher than a clamshell!” Gill offers a concluding page about real sand sharks, which indeed like to live close to beaches and are not generally considered dangerous to humans. Kids should not, however, expect the real ones to have the ebullient personalities and thoroughgoing silliness of Flip and Fin!
Teddy the Dog: Be Your Own Dog. By Keri Claiborne Boyle. Pictures by Jonathan Sneider. Harper. $17.99.
Frank and Lucky Get Schooled. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Can I Tell You a Secret? By Anna Kang. Illustrated by Christopher Weyant. Harper. $17.99.
In the real world, people can learn a lot from dogs about living in the moment, about greeting each day with enthusiasm, about accepting reversals mostly without complaint, and of course about responsibility – dogs do require walks, cleanups, medical care and more. In the world of children’s books, the lessons are somewhat different, whether given for the sake of amusement or in seriousness. Keri Claiborne Boyle’s Teddy the Dog: Be Your Own Dog keeps the “teaching” light. Teddy is a rather self-involved, self-important pooch, seen always wearing blacked-out celebrity-style sunglasses, since he is, after all, a celebrity – in his own opinion, anyway. Actually, Teddy’s self-described ways of being helpful may well strike readers as something less than ingratiating: he howls what he calls “sweet lullabies” at night, for instance, and gives “a helping paw” to house painters by dipping his paws in multiple colors and touching newly painted homes. Teddy is oblivious to the damage he causes: at the book’s very start, he leaves behind him a trail of spilled trash, mud from the flower box in which he has been exploring, and evidence that he regularly uses fire hydrants and nearby street areas as a bathroom. But Teddy does none of this out of mischief – he just lacks self-awareness. And that puts him in a strange position when, one day, a cat arrives at Teddy’s home in a box, with a note asking him to take care of her. Teddy does not want to keep the cat, Penelope, but he does not have stamps for return postage or thumbs to use to write a letter of complaint (although he apparently does have a computer: its logo is a bone). Realizing that he is “stuck with this unexpected arrival like a burr in [his] fur,” Teddy puts a leash on Penelope and starts trying to dog-ify her. This goes about as well as could be expected, which is to say not well at all: Penelope will not do the dog-paddle in the backyard kiddie pool and has no interest in hanging her head out of the window in a moving car. For his part, Teddy finds that staring at a mouse hole for long periods of time is not on his agenda. After a while, though, Teddy realizes that he and Penelope do have some things in common, such as a fondness for catnaps and an unwillingness to fetch. And the two eventually evolve a mutual friendship based on the idea that “you just gotta be your own dog – even if it means being a cat.” Not a bad lesson at all.
The lessons are a good deal more lesson-y, so to speak, in Lynne Rae Perkins’ Frank and Lucky Get Schooled. The book has a great start, showing Frank having a really bad day as a boy and Lucky having a really unlucky one as a dog – to the point of being left cowering in the back of a cage at an animal shelter. The two find each other, courtesy of Frank’s parents’ agreement to let Frank adopt a dog, and soon they start learning about each other, as when Lucky thinks, “You like food? I like food!” Soon enough, though, matters get more overtly didactic, and while this approach starts off well, it wears thin after a while. Matters start with Lucky being “very interested in Science,” in which you “observe [something] and ask questions about it and try to understand it.” In Lucky’s case, he helps Frank learn about the sciences of Botany and Entomology when Frank must get the burrs and bugs out of Lucky’s coat. So far, so good. But Perkins lays on the learning more and more thickly, losing sight of the interactivity and entertainment values that make it worthwhile for young readers to deal with Chemistry, Astronomy, Taxonomy, Reading, Math, History, Art and more, all suitably capitalized and defined. “Math is puzzles,” writes Perkins. “Math is how much and how many.” True, Perkins uses Lucky-oriented material to explain this, but things start to seem forced: “The symbol ∞ means ‘infinity,’ which means that whatever is the biggest number you can think of, you can always add one and make an even bigger number. That is the number of biscuits Lucky was willing to eat.” And then Perkins pushes things further with a series of questions that seem like math but really aren’t, such as, “Frank has 2 legs. Each is 23” long. Lucky has 4 legs. Each is 11” long. Who has more fun? There is no answer. We do not have instruments precise enough to measure the difference.” As Frank and Lucky Get Schooled continues, matters get further and further afield, with a History section focused on dog domestication and heroism, an Art section dealing with Composition, Perspective, and the Horizon Line (all capitalized), and then Geography, Foreign Languages and more. The result of all this is a (+++) book that tries very, very hard to be both entertaining and educationally meaningful, but that ends up, like many dogs, biting off more than it can comfortably chew.
The lesson is of a different sort, the teacher is of a different species, and the involvement of readers is very different indeed in Anna Kang’s (++++) Can I Tell You a Secret? Although aimed at the same 4-8 age group as Boyle’s and Perkins’ books, Kang’s has fewer words, larger type and a lot more white space in Christopher Weyant’s art than Jonathan Sneider provides in the pictures for Teddy the Dog or Perkins offers in her elaborate illustrations for Frank and Lucky. In Kang’s book, the focus is on a small frog named Monty, who has a big and highly embarrassing secret: he is afraid of water and cannot swim. This is obviously a very big deal for a frog, and Monty needs help – for which he turns directly to the reader in a clever breaching of the fourth wall (the conceptual space between character and reader). Monty answers a “reader” question about how he has kept the secret, then takes “reader” advice to discuss his problem with his parents, then chickens out and apologizes to the reader for being afraid to talk to his mom and dad – and so on. Eventually, with “reader” help, Monty does explain his fears, and it turns out that his parents understand them and will help him overcome them. Monty, still frightened, wants to “bring my new friend who’s been helping me,” giving his parents a chance to break the fourth wall in their turn and welcome readers to join the frog family. And sure enough, Monty, with plenty of encouragement, is able to get into the water – and quickly finds that he enjoys it. So there is a happy ending here, with an underlying educational message about facing your fears with the help of parents and buddies: at the end, Monty is all smiles as he thanks the reader “for being such a great friend.” The unusual concept is carried through very well here, and children with fears of any sort may well be more able to ask for help with them thanks to Monty the frog and Can I Tell You a Secret?
Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life. By Stuart Shanker, Ph.D., with Teresa Barker. Penguin Press. $28.
The Silenced Child: From Labels, Medications, and Quick-Fix Solutions to Listening, Growth, and Lifelong Resilience. By Claudia M. Gold, M.D. Da Capo. $24.99.
Given the uniformly wrong way in which many authors say the medical community and society as a whole deal with children, it is a wonder that any kids grow up to be reasonably responsible and even marginally healthy. The authorial prescription for what is really needed is for today’s parents, no matter how overwhelmed they may be by the vicissitudes of everyday life and their own needs (emotional, psychological, financial, etc.), to spend time they do not have reading scores of books by scores of experts on scores of different (and generally mutually exclusive) ways of helping their children cope with existence and (if you choose the right expert with the right guidance) be more successful in life than kids whose parents spend their time in different ways – such as, say, interacting with their kids and reading decidedly non-adult books to and with them.
That extremely bleak and cynical overview of the fertile “better ways to raise children” field is admittedly an over-simplification – but so are a great many of the books in the field, no matter how well-constructed and sincere they may be. There are some very good ones out there, and Self-Reg and The Silenced Child are among them, but responsible adults must not simply accept the notion that any author has all the answers for any situation involving any child. And they must not waste their minimal free time focusing on books about everything they are doing that is wrong and everything they should be doing instead – devoting extra time to children is far, far more important than reading how you should do this and you need to do that.
With those caveats firmly in mind, parents will find considerable value here. Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg starts from the wholly unsurprising premises that there are no “bad kids” and that the ubiquitous stresses of everyday life are responsible for children’s dysfunctional behavior. That is, the issue is not the child but the child’s environment. Refining this formulation further, Shanker focuses on what he calls “hidden stressors,” meaning ones in addition to those that parents can readily identify as affecting their children and themselves (such as time pressure, school requirements, social issues, financial matters, relationship difficulties, etc., etc., etc.). Shanker suggests that kids’ behavior is an acting-out provoked by stressors of which the child and parent may be totally unaware. For example, certain specific sounds at certain specific levels may be a stressor, or particular smells at certain intensities, or needing to wait in a line or sit in a waiting room. Self-Reg correctly points out that stressors are as varied as people, and that just as people change over time (the book covers early childhood through to adolescence), stressors change as well. Thus, what creates a kind of subliminal stress one day may not create it a day later – and, as a corollary, what helps a person cope with stress one day may not be helpful the next. Therefore, constant parental awareness of a child’s feelings and moods is crucial, and a child’s ability to recognize and talk about his or her emotions is key to finding ways to manage them better.
Shanker uses the metaphor of a light’s dimmer switch to indicate the importance of “dialing down” stress after correctly identifying it. Awareness is central – not awareness of stress itself and its overt symptoms, but awareness of the causes of stress, both the ones readily identifiable and the ones typically ignored. Only upon recognition and understanding of those stressors, Shanker argues, is it possible to develop techniques for managing them. The logic is impeccable, and Shanker’s repeated reminder that there is no perfect stress-management solution for everybody is welcome in a world (and publishing industry) where one-size-fits-all solutions are regularly trotted out as the Holy Grail. Shanker backs up his analyses with information on human physiology, explained clearly and without talking down to readers. His recommendation is that parents harness their and their children’s own bodily self-regulatory processes to dial down the levels of hidden stressors sufficiently to end the counterproductive behavior that results from high stress levels. This is unexceptionable – it is akin to recommending that patients facing medical stress from disease find ways to engage their placebo response, which is tied to the body’s ability to self-heal and which results in approximately 30% of patients in clinical trials getting better even when given a placebo rather than an active medication. But how to dial down stress reaction is a slippery issue, just as slippery as how to engage the placebo response. Shanker’s recommendation of self-aware meditative mindfulness, modified as needed for each individual, is a good one, and one that does not require pharmaceutical intervention. But this is scarcely a perfect solution: Shanker correctly notes that the requirements of learned and (at least initially) supervised mindfulness can themselves be stressors for some people – the requirement of focused breathing is not for everyone. And of course not everyone can come to Shanker’s Mehrit Centre in Canada to experience his approach directly. However, readers of Self-Reg can at least learn to redefine certain behavior of their children as being maladaptive and stress-related rather than caused by lack of self-control or any sort of “bad” impulse. This alone can be a big step when a child is restless, aggressive, impulsive, frequently frustrated, withdrawn, hostile – the list goes on and on. Parents who can manage their own stressors well enough to step back from their children’s behavior and reevaluate it, and can then use mindfulness techniques themselves and also help their children utilize them, will have gotten the full benefit of Shanker’s book. However, and it is an important “however,” there are very, very few hyper-stressed parents who will have the time to read this book carefully and absorb its lessons thoroughly – and indeed, the requirement to do so and the importance of following Shanker’s analytical and perceptual model will themselves be significant stressors for exactly the people who stand to benefit the most from his analysis. That is a Gordian knot that even a Herculean effort may be insufficient to cut.
It would be fascinating to be the proverbial fly on the wall during a conversation between Shanker and Claudia M. Gold, whose The Silenced Child devotes just two pages to stress-related “behavioral dysregulation” and two more to an innovative school program that reframes disruptive behavior as maladaptive communication and that requires trauma training for all those who interact with children – teachers, parents, bus drivers, even cafeteria workers. Yet behavioral reframing is an approach as crucial for Gold as it is for Shanker; Gold just sees it in a slightly different context. Her book is about the importance of listening – not just observing difficult behavior and analyzing it, but listening to what a child is trying to say through the behavior (and verbally as well, when there are verbal components of a child’s actions). In other words, Shanker sees maladaptive behavior as primarily reactive, to stress, while Gold sees it as primarily proactive, as a flawed attempt to communicate. The two views are not mutually exclusive but complementary – as are the two books. Gold, a pediatrician, is especially incensed at the current psychiatric standard of care, in which children’s difficulties are quickly labeled with an acceptable diagnosis and then treated with medication. This is in fact the current model for all psychiatric care, driven partly by insurance-reimbursement rates and partly by government insistence 50 years ago that the mentally ill should be “mainstreamed” rather than hospitalized long-term. Gold argues – from a research base supporting her analysis, just as Shanker argues from one supporting his – that every behavioral problem arises from a story of some sort that gives rise to the difficulty, and that evidence about brain growth, from neuroscience and genetics, shows the folly and potential harm of simply giving children behavioral-modification medicines without taking the time to listen to what they are trying to say, both verbally and otherwise.
Gold repeatedly and usefully cites the work of D.W. Winnicott – a pediatrician turned psychoanalyst – in support of her notions of resilience and stress response. Stress management in Gold’s book is an important developmental milestone and, indeed, one that continues well beyond the childhood years. Relationship difficulties are inevitable between parent and child, Gold argues, so what matters is whether those disruptions are or are not repaired. If they are, the child develops resilience – the ability to handle all sorts of disruptors (Shanker would say stressors) throughout life. If they are not, the child’s resilience is compromised and his or her ability to self-repair breaks down or does not develop – and this is the root of much mental illness. Catching the poor development of resilience through careful, extended listening early in a child’s life would go a long way toward stabilizing people in later years, Gold suggests – but this will not happen as long as insurance regulations and coding requirements force clinicians to see more patients in less time and devalue those professionals who do set aside more time for listening. Gold does not deny that medications can reduce or eliminate problematical behavior, but she says that doing this without understanding the meaning of the behavior results in a lack of comprehension of what the behavior is communicating – thus silencing a child who desperately wants to express something important.
Gold’s statement that we need an entirely new paradigm of mental health care – one that is relational and developmental – is utopian and, unfortunately, unrealistic. Among other things, it flies in the face of recent scientific research on the biological basis of psychological symptoms. Gold does not deny the research, but says that it lacks proper context because it involves scanning the patient’s brain but does not include listening to the patient, as better-designed studies would. Be that as it may, the most useful part of The Silenced Child is its fourth and last section, “Ways of Listening,” which contains chapters on listening to the body and finding creative, individually tailored responses to emotional maladaptations that have physical manifestations; listening for loss, which means considering not only a major loss, such as a death, but also the loss felt through relationship disruption; and “Listening with Courage,” by which Gold means accepting uncertainty so as to allow a child to find his or her own method of adaptation and growth without the encumbrance of a diagnosis of a medical condition and without the use of drugs that suppress outward symptoms but do nothing for inward turmoil. Like Shanker’s book, Gold’s contains a great deal of useful information and enough prescriptive specificity so that parents who have the time will benefit from exploring its suggestions. The issue with both these books – and they are just two among hundreds of works, if not thousands, that try to help parents better manage the difficulties of child rearing – is that the people most likely to benefit from them are those least likely to have the time to read them and absorb what they have to say. Neither Shanker nor Gold addresses that problem – which, indeed, has no solution. Hence the attraction for many people of lesser books than these, ones that suggest just a few simple, easy-to-learn things that parents can do to “cure” their children and their own child-related difficulties. The very complexity of raising children, and indeed of human development in general, renders those “easy solution” books valueless; but the time and effort needed to negotiate better and more-thoughtful works such as Gold’s and Shanker’s make them much more difficult to absorb and use. How Gold and Shanker themselves might address that issue would be interesting. Maybe they should have a conversation.
Swing Sideways. By Nanci Turner Steveson. Harper. $16.99.
This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker. By Terra Elan McVoy. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Preteen readers who do not have enough emotional upheaval and sadness in their own lives seem to be the intended audience for Nanci Turner Steveson’s Swing Sideways. It is a summertime story about Anabel (Annie), a city girl, and California, a country girl, their unlikely friendship – and the secrets that both deepen and ultimately end it in one of those life-changing ways that authors do not suggest that young readers avoid but actually invite them to experience. This is all supposed to be cathartic, but it comes across as rather manipulative – skillfully manipulative, since Steveson writes very well and knows how to build melodrama effectively. The book is melodrama rather than drama, with the relationships forced in ways that are designed to heighten tension rather than resulting from characterization. Annie suffers from panic attacks. Her parents are typecast Type A schedulers, her mother in particular filling Annie’s life with demands and spreadsheets. For her part, California is determined to heal the estrangement between her mother and her grandfather – who, she says, is going through a cancer drug trial. The healing will occur when California rediscovers some ponies that her mother rode as a child; California believes they are still alive, somewhere on the rundown farm where she is spending the summer. The two girls are, unsurprisingly, opposites, with Annie timid, anxious, sheltered and having an eating disorder, and California brave, wild and a free spirit. Equally unsurprisingly, both learn from each other in the usual coming-of-age manner, with Annie especially forging new relationship patterns within her family as she develops confidence and assertiveness. Annie’s parents are cardboard characters through and through, and California’s relatives are not much better. The whole secrets-within-secrets plotting has a contrived feeling, and the eventual wrenching sadness of the novel’s conclusion so clearly seeks to tug at every reader’s heart again and again that, after a while, the tugging itself becomes formulaic. That does not undermine its effectiveness: young readers who stay with the book will almost certainly cry at what happens, and so will many adults, even when it becomes obvious how things are going to go. Emotional manipulativeness is an authorial skill that Steveson has in abundance, and she certainly knows how to create a protagonist who finds out through unexpected adventures and revelations that she is stronger – and braver – than she ever knew. But that is part of the issue with Swinging Sideways: the directions in which it will go are the ones in which tearjerkers for this age range (and often ones for adults) typically go, and this becomes increasingly apparent as more and more secrets are revealed. This is a book that is easy to love if you are looking for an emotional wringing-out and do not examine too closely the techniques the author uses to provide one.
It is instructive for those so inclined to compare the structure of Swinging Sideways with that of This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker, another book set in summertime that is also about best friends, their relationship, their families and their multitude of problems and issues. The problems here are mostly those of Fiona Coppleton, whose onetime BFF, Cassie Parker, circulated Fiona’s diary and thereby exposed Fiona to all sorts of pain, humiliation, etc. It is rather hard to believe that Fiona would have brought her diary to school, which is where other kids were able to read it, but except for that element, this novel has the believability of events that seem as if they really could happen to girls in this age group (unlike Swinging Sideways, whose occurrences are over-the-top and extremely unlikely to parallel those of most readers). After Cassie and Fiona have their falling-out, school ends for the year and Cassie takes off on a summer adventure that Terra Elan McVoy previously wrote about in Drive Me Crazy, to which This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker is a companion (not a sequel: the books take place at essentially the same time). With Cassie gone, Fiona has to face her own family problems, which tie to her parents’ divorce. Fiona’s younger sister, Leelu, is fine with their dad and his girlfriend, but Fiona is not, and she ratchets up the drama in her own mind to such an extent that she opts for a summer writing workshop rather than a family trip to Disneyland. This turns out to be a good decision: she makes new friends among the other would-be writers and comes to terms with what happened between herself and Cassie. Reader reactions to Fiona herself will be central to their feelings about the book as a whole. Fiona can sometimes be rather annoying and unsympathetic, and her interest in a writing seminar, a linchpin of the plot, seems rather forced (although not to the very overdone extent of events in Swinging Sideways), even though it is tied to her keeping of that fateful diary. Once Fiona is in the seminar, though, her decision to get back at the girls in the humiliating-diary incident by writing them into her stories makes sense. And Fiona does seem to grow in believable real-world ways without McVoy needing to resort to the sort of extreme events favored by Steveson. Neither of these books is really new – very similar plots have been done many times before, by many authors. But both have their appeal: Steveson’s to those seeking emotional release through weepy melodrama and McVoy’s to those searching for possible role models to help them through their own difficulties in trying to negotiate middle-school angst.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra. Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $20.99.
Samuel Adler: Symphony No. 6; Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Drifting on Winds and Currents. Maximilian Hornung, cello; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Linn Records. $20.
Keys to the City: The Great New York Pianists Perform the Great New York Songs. Roven. $19.99.
Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 10. Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violins; Brek Renzelman, viola; Karl Lavine, cello). New World Records. $15.99.
Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 6, 7 and 8; Quietness. Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violins; Brek Renzelman, viola; Karl Lavine, cello). New World Records. $15.99.
The definition of “contemporary” changes over time – by definition. But the notion of “modern” is a bit different. In Western music, it has to do with the sound of a piece – not the specifics of its structure or its compositional method so much as the way the composer approaches the music and the way listeners perceive it. “Contemporary” is an objective adjective, “modern” a much more subjective one. This is why Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring still seems so modern, a century after it was composed. There is something in the strangeness of the orchestration, the irregularity of the rhythms, the pounding ostinato of some sections and the instrumental screeching of others, the willingness to entice the ear for a moment and then attack it with noise the next, the frequent alterations of dynamics, the unpredictability of tempo changes, that makes this work feel unfailingly “modern” no matter how often it is played. A tour de force for conductors and orchestras, The Rite of Spring is also a work that inexorably pulls audiences along even though very few people have seen it as a ballet. The best performances are cognizant of the remarkable modernity of the score and go out of their way to accentuate it – and the Recursive Classics release featuring the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under David Bernard is an exceptional one. Using a newly edited and revised version of The Right of Spring to which Bernard himself contributed, this performance brings extraordinary clarity, instrumental balance and an unending series of elegant touches to what is still a very complex score. Percussion emphases are pointed and intense, timpani penetrate the ensemble with clarity, woodwinds vary in sound from lyrical to screechy, strings run the gamut from fleet to oppressively heavy – every section of the orchestra is highly soloistic as well as incorporated into an overall sound world that is every bit as evocative as Stravinsky intended it to be. The revisions in this new edition are technical ones that will largely be inaudible to casual listeners, but anyone hearing this outstanding performance will be captivated by the enormous skill of the musicians and by Bernard’s near-perfect handling of pacing, sectional contrast and overall sound. The pairing of The Rite of Spring with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is a particularly happy one in this case, since Bernard treats Stravinsky’s work itself as a concerto for orchestra – which, listeners to this recording will realize, it is. Bernard brings the same clarity of purpose and intensity of execution to the Bartók as to the Stravinsky. The seriousness of the opening movement emerges from the first quietly emerging notes and remains throughout, making the contrast with the second, Giuoco delle coppie (“Game of Couples” – for some reason, the CD gives the translation but not the original title), all the more apparent. The multiple duets are given with a lightness and bounce that make the following Elegia all the more effective, and Bernard does a first-rate job of showing the connections between this movement’s themes and those of the first movement. Then there is genuine hilarity, as well as a clear Lehár parody, in the Intermezzo interrotto (called “Interrupted intermezzo” on the CD); and the concluding perpetuum mobile, a litmus test of any orchestra’s ability to play together and stay together for 10 nonstop minutes, comes across brilliantly – a genuine capstone to a remarkably fine and highly recommended performance.
The music of Samuel Adler (born 1928) partakes of both modernity and contemporaneity: the works on a new Linn Records CD are no more than 30 years old. Interestingly, although these pieces are in no way beholden to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, they include, to some degree, some of the same tension between traditional form and distinctly modern harmony and orchestration. Adler’s Symphony No. 6 here gets its first performance as well as its first recording, and it proves to be a substantial, energy-packed three-movement work with a fine sense of instrumental balance. José Serebrier and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra make sure the first movement has plenty of headlong motion and excitement, with the result that the mysterious and rather dark second movement provides very strong contrast, its interjections of lyricism bringing a brief sense of naïveté to what is otherwise a sophisticated-sounding piece. The final movement’s mood resembles that of the first, but here a primary impression – as in The Rite of Spring – is of constant rhythmic changes that sweep the listener along. The symphony as a whole is energetic and intense, if not particularly deep from an emotional standpoint; perhaps this makes it especially reflective of much of contemporary life. It is coupled here with Adler’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, played with fine tone and musical understanding by Maximilian Hornung. This four-movement work effectively highlights the tonal beauty and virtuosic capabilities of the solo instrument, the first movement offering considerable lyricism while the second has a pleasantly jazzy and perky feel to it, notably in the use of pizzicato double basses and a drum set. The meditative, fantasia-like third movement is followed by a final rondo that well reflects its marking, Fast and playful. This fascinating CD concludes with a piece poetically titled Drifting on Winds and Currents, commissioned as an in memoriam work and offering a mixture of soothing textures with some underlying feelings of uncertainty and even anxiety. It is a short, effective tone poem whose dramatic central section only briefly disturbs the comparative calm of the opening and closing. All the works are played with skill and understanding: Serebrier seems quite comfortable with Adler’s music, and the orchestra plays very well throughout.
The modernity of a new Roven release called Keys to the City is as much in concept as in music. This is a disc for lovers of fine piano performances and of classical musicians “letting their hair down” by playing popular standards and show tunes rather than the “long-hair” pieces that classical works are sometimes described as being. The disc includes 14 piano players: Robbie Kondor, Axel Tosca, Dick Hyman, Bette Sussman (co-producer of the recording), George Whitty, Billy Stritch, Mike Renzi, Frank Owens, Paul Shaffer, Glen Roven (the CD’s other co-producer), Lee Musiker, John Kander and Fred Ebb (as duo pianists), and Leon Fleisher. The music is uniformly pleasant and generally quite well known, all of it focused portrayals of or reactions to elements of New York City. There is nothing particularly challenging here for the pianists or for listeners’ ears, and in truth, there is little distinctive about some of the performers’ stylistic handling of these short pieces. But there are several high points: Tosca’s Latin-tinged approach to Take the “A” Train; Whitty’s funky and interestingly updated New York, New York; Stritch’s unusual instrumental and vocal handling of Gershwin’s There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York; and Fleisher’s evocative way with The Man I Love, offered as a bonus track since it is not overtly New Yorkish. This is easy-listening music, to be sure, a contemporary (and in some cases distinctly modern-sounding) version of the salon recitals of the 19th century, and its overall milieu is that of jazz and nightclubs rather than recital venues or concert halls. It is, simply, fun, and a chance to hear numerous skilled pianists tackling some well-known works and, at least in some cases, putting their personal stamp on the material.
“Fun” is not the word for the string quartets of Ben Johnston, which are very serious indeed as well as very contemporary and very modern – except insofar as they reach all the way back to Bach in a significant way. Johnston (born 1926) is a fascinating composer who uses the microtonality of Harry Partch in further-developed and intriguing ways. His quartets are created through an extremely complex methodology that – unlike the methods used by many other composers of recent times – is not necessary for listeners to know about or understand for them to find the music involving and highly effective. This in itself would make Johnston’s quartets more-frequent concert items were it not for the fact that they are fiendishly difficult to play, thanks to his technical innovations and notational system. Johnston’s quartets are essentially an argument for just intonation in the same way that Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier was a demonstration of how best to produce music in well temperament rather than meantone temperament. Although modern listeners often think “well” refers in Bach’s work to “properly” or “correctly,” it does not: Bach’s music constituted an auditory exploration, explanation and advocacy of a particular type of tuning system (which, by the way, is not the same as the equal temperament generally in use today, which became dominant after Bach’s time).
Academic discussion of tuning methods aside, Johnston clearly shows a firm grasp of musical history in his quartets: he writes fugues and variations as well as serial movements, and even dips into folksong from time to time. The accretive catholicity of his style is presented in a system using an exceptionally large number of pitches – potentially hundreds per octave. Again, though, the enormous complexity of the system belies the surprising communicative power of the music, which comes through especially clearly in the Kepler Quartet’s recordings of six of the quartets. These date from as early as 1959 and as late as 1995, and show definite progress, or at least variation, in Johnston’s use of compositional techniques: from a start in fairly straightforward serialism, his music moves into more and more refined and difficult-to-pin-down methods that produce often very surprising sonic beauty despite the difficulty of bringing that beauty forth. Thus, his quartets by and large are the opposite of other ones by recent composers that may seem to have been written more for performers and fellow composers and less for audiences. The difficulties inherent in the performance of Johnston’s quartets bring to mind Joseph Joachim’s initial epigrammatic reaction to Brahms’ Violin Concerto, to the effect that Brahms had written a concerto “not for the violin, but against it.” It requires tremendous skill and dedication, as well as virtuosity, to cut through the performance complexities of Johnston’s quartets to the consonance and beauty that lie at their heart and that microtonality and just intonation make possible in ways that standard equal temperament does not.
The New World Records releases of these quartets are recorded warmly – in a way that fits the music quite well – and with plenty of clarity, so details of the performances shine through. The performances themselves, which Johnston supervised, appear to deserve to be called definitive for that reason alone. They are also, to put it plainly, exceptionally well done. Different listeners will find different elements of the quartets appealing. No. 1, called “Nine Variations,” is the closest to traditional in tuning and also the most derivative in use of a pre-existing style, in this case serialism. It is clear in the Webern manner and also rather hard-edged. The single-movement No. 5 is an extended transformation of an Appalachian gospel song called “Lonesome Valley,” and here Johnston’s approach may put listeners in mind of some of the works of Charles Ives. No. 10 delves into folksong territory as well, in a finale in which the tune of “Danny Boy” repeatedly appears. On the other Kepler Quartet disc, No. 6, whose creation Johnston says gave him considerable trouble, is a piece that tries to do multiple things, including merging just intonation with twelve-tone composition and exploring ways of producing melody without being either dramatic or programmatic. In this quartet, the techniques do tend to subsume the music – Johnston used the Fibonacci series as a primary tool – and so the work feels rather distanced and distancing in its elaborate permutations. Nos. 7 and 8 have not been recorded before, and their prodigious difficulties of performance, especially in No. 7, are certainly part of the reason. Yet the fluidity with which the Kepler Quartet handles these works at least makes them approachable for listeners, if scarcely forthright or easy to absorb and understand. Actually, the most readily accessible piece here is a brief Rumi setting called Quietness that stands as an epilogue or afterword to the quartets: Johnston is himself the vocalist in this work, whose communicative simplicity belies the extremely complex and innovative mind that produced this piece as well as the quartet sequence. The most surprising thing about Johnston’s quartets is not their complexity, not their adherence to a variety of modern compositional tenets, not the centrality to them of a tuning system different from the one to which most performers and listeners are accustomed; rather, it is the way that Johnston overcomes the challenges he has set for himself in expanding Partch’s microtonality and applying twelve-tone and other techniques while at the same time not eschewing melody or even, from time to time, lyricism. The Johnston quartets may be easier to listen to than they are to perform, but that does not mean they are easy to listen to – by and large, they are not. But unlike many modern and/or contemporary compositions, these quartets repay the attention and attentiveness they require of listeners by producing a set of sounds, and through those sounds a set of feelings, different from anything to which most listeners will be accustomed. They are not really an argument for just intonation instead of equal temperament, any more than Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was an argument for well temperament instead of meantone temperament. Rather, they are an assertion that by using just intonation, it is possible to communicate thoughts and feelings and emotions effectively, in ways that will be new to listeners in general but recognizable at an almost subliminal level. Just intonation may never take its place beside equal temperament in terms of its frequency of use, but Johnston shows how it could be the foundation of a different set of music-making and music absorption that is just as valid as the much-more-common tuning almost always now used in Western musical works. Johnston’s is music filled with possibilities, and the Kepler Quartet deserves enormous credit for bringing so many of those possibilities to the fore.