May 25, 2017


Shark Dog! By Ged Adamson. Harper. $17.99.

Enzo and the Fourth of July Races. By Garth Stein. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $17.99.

The Great Fuzz Frenzy. By Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     Dogs can be great characters in children’s books, but not all dogs are created equal. Some can be recognizably canine, while others can be very strange indeed. And few are stranger than Ged Adamson’s Shark Dog! He is – well, just what it sounds like. He has a dog’s body with a fin on top and an enormous and very toothy shark’s head in front. He is also absolutely adorable, as the girl who narrates the book quickly finds out when she and her dad – “a famous explorer who travels the world” – discover Shark Dog during one of their adventures. Actually, Shark Dog discovers them, leaping onto their boat during the night and giving the girl a great big “slurp!” He happily goes home with them and appears to adjust to life on land pretty well, although he does have a few peculiarities: for instance, when it comes to fetching a stick in the park, he bites through the trunk of a tree and brings back the whole thing. Some of Adamson’s funniest illustrations show Shark Dog acting like a shark while doing dog things (his fin is seen emerging from tall grass as he stalks a cat) and acting like a dog while doing shark things (he brings the girl’s dad his slippers under water). The picture of Shark Dog curled up on top of the girl’s bed, sleeping happily at her feet, is a gem. But at the beach one day, Shark Dog thinks he sees another of his kind – which turns out to be only a blow-up toy. And now Shark Dog is sad, so sad that the girl and her father decide to take him back to his home – not by boat this time, but by airplane, with Shark Dog in his own window seat and the dad reading “National Sharkographic.” Upon arrival at Shark Dog’s home, the girl and her dad have a wonderful time with Shark Dog and the other shark dogs, which give the two humans a serenade around a campfire. But then, sadly, it is time to go, and the girl says a tearful good-bye, and she and her dad head out to a boat to go home via water – when, suddenly, Shark Dog swims to and leaps onto the boat, as he had done at the start of the story! He has made his decision to stay with the girl, and everything ends happily – and adults get an opportunity to explain how responsible it was of the girl to offer to let Shark Dog go, so he could make up his own mind. This may make it easier to handle things when kids come home, if not with a shark dog, then with something else that they find in the great outdoors. Or something else that finds them.

     The irrepressible Enzo is a much more ordinary dog, but there is something very special about him, too, in the series by Garth Stein featuring wonderfully upbeat R.W. Alley illustrations.  The Enzo books tend to pose more real-world problems than many books for young readers do, and tend to solve them in realistic and appropriate ways –with Enzo an observer of and commenter on whatever Zoë and her dad, Denny, are up to. Enzo and the Fourth of July Races displays this approach perfectly. Independence Day is a race-car day for Denny, and this year, "Zoë is big enough to race on her own in the Kids’ Kart Challenge!” So she signs up – but becomes downhearted when she hears a braggart boy telling his friends that “girls aren’t fast drivers.” Zoë is already worried that she may not be fast enough, and when she hears this, she takes her name off the list altogether, much to the annoyance of Enzo: “I growl softly at the kid, but he doesn’t hear me because he’s the kind of person who can only hear his own words.” Zoë’s decision upsets her dad so much that he is off his game in the pre-race practice session. Kids learn race terminology here when Denny worries about the “setup” and describes his car as “loose” (these and other terms are in an end-of-book glossary). Denny’s crew chief, Johnny Mac, realizes that it is worry about Zoë, not anything mechanical, that is causing problems for Denny, and he tells Zoë the names of some top-notch female racers “who could teach that kid a thing or two about speed!” With more practice and renewed confidence, Zoë again decides to enter the kids’ race. Eventually, with Enzo helping and encouraging both Denny and Zoë by running “back and forth to make sure they’re both driving well” – and exhausting himself in the process – both Zoë and Denny emerge winners, the braggart boy apologizes, and Zoë practices good sportsmanship (sportsgirlship?) by showing him how she was able to beat him by changing her driving technique on a crucial part of the track. The book ends with Enzo watching “the fireworks at the end of race night with Denny and Zoë, who are my favorite people of all” – another heartwarming Enzo story that also packs in quite a bit of information on how auto racing works and on being a good sport in any sort of competition.

     There is a dog in The Great Fuzz Frenzy, too. Her name is Violet, and without her there would be no story at all. But this amusing tale by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel is actually about dogs of a different sort: prairie dogs. Violet gets things going by dropping a tennis ball into a prairie-dog colony, where it goes down, down, down – kids have to turn the book sideways and open a full-page flap to see just how far belowground the ball goes, as prairie dogs scatter every which way with cries of “help!” and “run for your life!” After the ball eventually comes to rest, though, the prairie dogs become curious about it, trying to figure out what it is. The largest of them, Big Bark, loudly tells everyone to stand back while he takes a look, but it is the very small Pip Squeak who gets to the ball first, pokes it, and ends up with a bit of yellow fuzz caught in her claw. And this leads to – well, the title of the book is The Great Fuzz Frenzy, and that is just what ensues, as prairie dogs use bits of fuzz to dress themselves up in all sorts of hilarious ways: with fuzz ears, fuzz belts, fuzz slippers, fuzz ribbons, fuzz masks and lots more. Soon the news of the fuzz spreads, and more and more prairie dogs come to get some – until, inevitably, it runs out; and, also inevitably, the prairie dogs get into disputes about it: “It was a fuzz fight. A fuzz feud. A fuzz fiasco.” Poor Pip Squeak cannot figure out how to stop all the arguing, and eventually everyone is so worn out by running and fighting that the whole colony goes to sleep – only to find, on awakening, that Big Bark has taken all the fuzz and clothed himself completely in it. The end? Not even close: this is a very elaborate story indeed. Big Bark’s bright yellow color and loud voice attract a real-world prairie-dog enemy, an eagle, which grabs Big Bark and flies off to make a meal of him – resulting in a carefully staged prairie-dog rescue operation that requires Big Bark to shed all the fuzz. The eagle ends up wearing it – as a very amusing-looking wig – and swoops back toward the prairie dogs. But the rescued Big Bark, using his size and voice, warns everyone to get to safety underground. So all the prairie dogs escape, and everything is calm again, with no more fuzz around to cause problems. Except that – well, at the very, very end of the book, back comes Violet, this time carrying a red tennis ball, and kids will know exactly where things are going. Again! The Great Fuzz Frenzy, originally published in 2005, is now available in a new paperback edition, and is every bit as much fun as it was in hardcover form. It is, in fact, doggone delightful.


What Is Chasing Duck? By Jan Thomas. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

There’s a Pest in the Garden! By Jan Thomas. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie. By Kimberly and James Dean. Illustrations by James Dean. Harper. $17.99.

     The fact that a book is written in super-simple language does not mean it has to be dull: the days of the old Dick-and-Jane readers are long gone (although that approach still has proponents here and there). Many authors today have become adept at creating short, easy-to-understand books with enough of a plot to get kids involved and illustrations interesting enough to make it worthwhile for them to get through the language and learn to read on their own. Jan Thomas makes this approach work quite effectively in two books featuring Duck, Sheep, Donkey and Dog – all the characters being created digitally and shown against plain backgrounds, so they are highly visible and not in the least subtle. What is subtle, surprisingly so, are the lessons that Thomas manages to pack in along with the amusement in both books. What Is Chasing Duck? shows frightened Duck running along, telling Sheep that something “wild and hairy” is after him, and having Sheep imagine a huge, wild, hairy monster; so both Sheep and Duck start running as fast as they can. They encounter Donkey and tell him the thing has “big teeth,” and Donkey imagines what those must look like, and now all three are running – right to Dog, who tells them to stop and face their fears. Will Dog protect them? Well, umm, hmm, he thinks maybe Donkey would do a better job – and while the animals try to decide what to do, the thing that has been chasing Duck shows up…and proves to be a squirrel that is only trying to return a turnip (Duck’s favorite food) that Duck dropped. Now everyone is all smiles, until Squirrel leaves – and drops his acorn. Well, one good turn deserves another, so the other animals run after him to return it, but now Squirrel imagines a monstrous blobby thing with four sets of eyes and a total of 16 limbs chasing him. Message: we all have our own different fears, and a lot of the time, we are all equally silly about them.

     And then there is There’s a Pest in the Garden! Duck’s fondness for turnips is important here, too. A brown, furry blob of a thing – presumably a mole – is systematically eating through the vegetables in the garden planted by Duck, Sheep, Donkey and Dog. First it eats the beans, then the corn, then the peas. What a pest! And the animals are unhappy, each in turn, as when Sheep says, “But corn is my favorite!” The pest – cute-looking but annoying – just keeps eating, as Duck points to the row of turnips with a worried, “Quack, quack?” Sure enough, the pest heads for that exact row. But this time Duck has a plan: he digs and digs and digs, and then he eats all the turnips himself! And now it is left to Mole to say, “That pest just ate all the turnips!” Message: pestiness is in the eye of the beholder. And a fence to keep pests out is a good idea when planting a garden – as the animals decide before starting over.

     The Pete the Cat books are always easy to read, if not quite as easy as those by Thomas. Kimberly and James Dean have created a series of characters they can use again and again in very simple plots that James Dean illustrates not digitally but using pen, ink and watercolors. The books’ quality does vary, with Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie being a (+++) entry because it poses an even simpler problem than usual, then solves it inconsistently; and the text, a mixture of prose and rhymes, is not very rhythmic even in the rhyming parts: “Dancing is like magic!/ When I hear a groovy beat/ I’m full of happy in my feet!” Pete’s problem here is that, while he is dancing, Grumpy Toad – who is, you know, grumpy – says he is dancing all wrong. He does not say how or make any suggestions, and Pete does not bother to ask. Instead, he just worries, and has trouble sleeping as a result. Then he tries to get various friends to teach him how they dance, but Pete makes mistakes: he steps on Squirrel’s foot, for example, and hits Gus the platypus in the nose. Pete is wearing a “Cool Cat” T-shirt but is feeling distinctly un-cool – until Wise Old Owl tells him, “It doesn’t matter how you move as long as you are being you!” Actually, this is not one of Wise Old Owl’s wiser comments: it does matter whether or not you do dance steps correctly, although not so much in the sort of music that Pete (and the Deans) obviously favor. Kids may get the wrong idea here – that any moves are the right moves for any dance. For purposes of this book, though, Wise Old Owl’s advice solves everything immediately, and Pete shows up in full Saturday Night Fever regalia to dance to the story’s conclusion – which is followed by instructions on the final page and inside back cover for some “cool cat boogie” moves. Of course, the story just said there is no need to follow any specific moves…well, best not to think too much about Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie. Pete’s fans will enjoy it and not bother about little things like logic.


The Overly Honest Baby Book: Uncensored Memories from Baby’s First Year. By Dawn Dais. Seal Press. $15.

When Your Child Has Food Allergies: A Parent’s Guide to Managing It All—From the Everyday to the Extreme. By Mireille Schwartz. AMACOM. $17.95.

     Possibly the funniest baby’s-first-year book you will find anywhere, and almost certainly the snarkiest, Dawn Dais’ The Overly Honest Baby Book turns pretty much all the sweetness and light of first-year-memories books toward the sour and dark side. It all starts with the typical note from parents to child about the “wonders” of the first year, with Dais explaining that the book is “full of laughter, poop, cursing, and crying.” It is full of modern-family realities, too. Conception, for example, may involve mom and dad and possibly a fertility doctor; or mom and mom and a sperm bank; or dad and dad and a surrogate; or mom alone with “possible biological father #1” and “possible biological father #2” and an adoption agency. There are plenty of fill-in-the-blanks spaces for all the options. There is also a line to enter “the form of failed contraception that brought you into the world,” and a “joys of pregnancy” page where parents can fill in “the week Mommy official started to waddle,” “the week Mommy officially could no longer tie her shoes,” and much more. For birth itself, there are places to fill in “how long Mommy was in labor (in days)” and “the number of people Mommy kicked in the face.” Later, there are spaces for “the first person you spit up on” and “the first person you peed on.” There are spots for photos, too, for instance of “some of the visitors you soiled.” And there are checklists, including “Ways We Almost Killed You,” which could include “allowed the dog to lick inside your mouth” and “used 14 baby products that were later recalled.” There is a poop page to note “most poopy diapers in one day,” “most onesies soiled in one day,” and other statistics. There are places to write in “the first food you threw across the room” and to specify “The Most Disgusting Things You Put in Your Mouth” – you can check off and then fill in the specific type of “excrement,” “bodily fluid,” “regurgitated food,” “dirt clod” and more. Holidays are here, too, with places for photos of “you horrified with Santa,” “you crying in your first Halloween costume,” and so on. This all builds, eventually, to baby’s first birthday party, where parents can rate “how horrified you were when everyone started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you” on a scale from 1 (“mildly confused”) to 10 (“for the rest of your life you will have nightmares about a large chanting group of giants coming at you with a plate of fire”). Any parent who does not find this book funny and does not want to give it to a new parent or soon-to-be-parent just doesn’t have the sort of sense of humor needed to bring up a child while keeping at least a few parental brain cells intact. That parent should probably hold onto The Overly Honest Baby Book for himself or herself, to use with the next baby.

     Well, fun is fun, and babies are fun at least some of the time, but there is also plenty of seriousness involved in child-rearing. And as welcome as humorous books on the topic are, serious ones are an absolute must, especially when it comes to health matters. When Your Child Has Food Allergies is a (+++) book of strictly limited focus and for a strictly limited intended audience – although parents who are in that audience will deeply appreciate the been-there-done-that approach of Mireille Schwartz, who herself has a potentially life-threatening allergy (to fish) and has a daughter who also has a food allergy (to nuts). Schwartz starts with the basics of food allergies, how they are diagnosed, and what treatments are available, but that is only “What You Need to Know,” the first part of this book. It is the other three parts that really matter here: “Ways You Can Offer Support,” “How Your Child Can Live Fully and Safely,” and “Ways You Can Protect Your Child.” Schwartz defines “child” very broadly, to include all ages from birth onward – even teenagers, for example, need close supervision. “Teaching friends about epinephrine auto-injectors and showing them how to properly inject epinephrine if there is an allergic reaction is commonplace now,” writes Schwartz, perhaps a bit too optimistically, adding, “Encourage your teen to ask those closest to him or her to practice, practice, practice.” Schwartz recommends staying in smartphone touch with teens who are on dates, lists various apps that can help because they “are cool enough to motivate your teen,” and warns parents to “teach your teen to plan ahead if he or she, ahem, plans on action! …Their dates need to have been vigilant and conscious of their food choices that day, have washed their hands and face, have thoroughly brushed their teeth and flossed.” Schwartz is aware, at least on the surface, that these precision recommendations are at odds with the way teens’ minds work – she briefly mentions research showing the differences between the brains of teenagers and those of adults – but she nevertheless insists that parents must approach matters with this degree of supervisory intensity and unending concern. It is hard to argue with how well-meaning Schwartz is, or how experienced she is with extremely severe food allergies. But she gives short shrift to those allergies that are less than dire – so her book may unnecessarily frighten parents (and children) whose circumstances are not life-threatening. Furthermore, When Your Child Has Food Allergies completely ignores recent recommendations relating, in particular, to peanut allergies, which state that early and careful exposure under medical supervision can mitigate or even prevent severe allergic reactions later in childhood. Instead, she falls back on the zero-tolerance approach under any and all circumstances, for any and all children and families. Schwartz clearly wants children with extremely serious food allergies to be able to live lives that are as safe and happy as possible – an unexceptionable and worthy goal. But her advocacy frequently has the net effect of telling parents to turn their lives and those of their children into a 100% focus on food allergies and their possibly horrific consequences, 100% of the time. For instance, Schwartz has this to say about gift suggestions: “If you have an avid reader in your home, children’s books about food allergies also make great gifts at any time of the year.” That can be a perfect recipe for turning kids off to reading: not even in books, not even in leisure time, should kids be the slightest bit focused on anything other than serious health concerns, according to Schwartz. Parents whose children have anything less than life-threatening food allergies should be very careful not to let Schwartz’s recommendations, based on extreme concern about extreme circumstances, suck all the joy as well as all the potential allergens out of their children’s lives.


Beat Bugs: I Am the Walrus. Adapted by Anne Lamb from a story by Josh Wakely. HarperFestival. $9.99.

Meet the Beat Bugs. Adapted by Anne Lamb. Harper. $3.99.

Beat Bugs: Ticket to Ride. Adapted by Cari Meister from a story by Erica Harrison. Harper. $3.99.

Beat Bugs: Help! Adapted by Anne Lamb from a story by Josh Wakely. HarperFestival. $3.99.

     Tie-ins are getting tie-ier and tie-ier, and if that is not yet a word, it will be soon. Or should be. Books tied to movies are now just the first tier of multimedia presentations. Since movies also become TV shows, and vice versa, there can also be books tied to movies based on TV programs, and books tied to TV programs based on movies, and many other possibilities. One of which turns out to be books tied to TV programs tied to songs. Yes, Beat Bugs, a Netflix series, has a title that sounds suspiciously like “Beatles,” and indeed, the whole show is about computer-generated bugs (insects, spiders, worms and more) having backyard adventures inspired loosely (very loosely) by old Beatles songs. Fans of the show are quite obviously the only potential audience for books based on the show that is based on the songs – although the books do make attempts to introduce the characters to kids who are not familiar with them, in the obvious hope that the books will become gateways to the TV series, which will become a gateway to more books, which will….and round and round we go.

     Just like a great many movie-tie-in books, the TV-tie-in ones based on Beat Bugs are intended for kids ages 4-8 and are available in several formats. Beat Bugs: I Am the Walrus is a hardcover picture book featuring Walter Walrus, a slug who is one of the five primary Beat Bugs characters. It is the story of Walter needing to leave his garden home because of trucks doing construction there, and moving to the garden next door – where he does his best to settle in, calm down, and reach out to make friends with bugs in the new garden. Predictably, things do not go well: Walter is a bit shy and nervous, and just as he goes out to meet the other bugs, trash falls on him (dropped by unseen humans) and he ends up with an eggshell on his head (never mind that slugs do not exactly have heads; certainly nothing like Walter’s). Anyway, the initial introductions go poorly, but soon Walter tries again and everything goes much better, and everybody becomes friends with everyone else (or at least the five central characters do), and the result is a group of anime-inspired, extremely wide-eyed and big-headed, mostly small-bodied bugs having a friendly hug amid the usual hyper-realistic (and thus obviously fake) computer-generated versions of common household and backyard objects. The very end of the book gives the lyrics to the Beatles’ song, “I Am the Walrus,” just to make the connection with the book and the Beat Bugs series abundantly clear.

     Meet the Beat Bugs and Beat Bugs: Ticket to Ride are both Level 1 paperbacks in the I Can Read! series, which means they are written with “simple sentences for eager new readers.” Meet the Beat Bugs is the ultimate introduction to the TV series: it contains very brief introductions to no fewer than 21 series characters, including the only very-slightly-bad one (Geoff, a cockroach who “cannot always be trusted”) and the only non-living one – which, for purposes of the TV show, is alive (a sprinkler named Octopus). Being merely an introduction of the characters, Meet the Beat Bugs is not tied to a Beatles song and thus does not contain lyrics at the end. But the lyrics to “Ticket to Ride” do appear at the conclusion of Beat Bugs: Ticket to Ride, which of course has nothing to do with the song (the Beatles’ music is really just a “hook” on which to hang the TV series and the books derived from it). There actually is a ride here, made by Crick the cricket (the local inventor) from an old bike tire and pedal, and powered by the stink emitted by Alex the Stinkbug – who, however, needs to eat a specific type of leaf in order to produce the ride-moving power. The plot has to do with getting Alex the leaves he needs – without the other Beat Bugs eating them before delivering them. The writing in both these Level 1 books, like their plots, is super-easy to follow and will likely be enjoyed by the TV show’s youngest fans; indeed, although the tie-in books are said to be for ages 4-8, it is hard to imagine the show appealing to kids who are much beyond the early part of that age range.

     Beat Bugs: Help! is also a paperback, but the story here is slightly more elaborate and the writing slightly more advanced. Another invention by Crick is central here: a “Crick-tapult” that Jay, the impulsive beetle among the five primary characters, insists on riding – refusing even to wear a helmet. Of course something goes wrong: the Crick-tapult works too well, sending Jay a long-by-bug-standards distance, where he lands in a jar and cannot escape. And to make matters worse (or as bad as they ever get in Beat Bugs), the jar is slowly filling with water. “Help! I need somebody,” says Jay, in an actual nod to the Beatles song whose lyrics are presented at the book’s end. Later, Kumi the ladybug criticizes Jay by saying, “I thought you never needed anybody’s help in any way,” again referencing the song – while being as negative as any character ever gets here. The bugs eventually get together to tip over the jar so the water flows out and takes Jay out with it, so everything is just fine, exactly as fans of Beat Bugs will know and expect. Indeed, everything in all the Beat Bugs tie-in books will meet the expectations of the fans at whom the books are directed, and nothing in any book will surprise anyone or develop any character’s minimal personality. That is not the aim of these books – or, for that matter, of tie-ins in general. The idea is to go exactly where fans expect things to go, so no one is surprised or the slightest bit challenged. Beat Bugs fans will not be disappointed in these books, because they simply deliver exactly the same things that the TV show does, with all the same visuals – merely in a different medium.


Jan Jirásek: Missa Propria; Si, Vis Amari, Ama; Mondi Paralleli; King Lávra. Jitro Czech Girls Choir conducted by Jiří Skopal. Navona. $14.99.

Eternal Life: Sacred Songs and Arias. Amy Pfrimmer, soprano; Dreux Montegut, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Sergio Cervetti: Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani (1973); Piano Quintet—Toward the Abyss (2015); The Hay Wain for Virtual Orchestra (1987). Navona. $14.99.

Susan Kander: Hermestänze for violin and piano (2013); Solo Sonata for violin-viola-violin (2002); A Garden’s Time Piece for soprano and violin (2011). Jacob Ashworth, violin and viola; Lee Dionne, piano; Jessica Petrus, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Contemporary composers with an interest in musical concerns and forms of the past sometimes turn to vocal works to express a modern view of what has come before, and sometimes prefer to use instruments without voices. On a new Navona CD, Jan Jirásek serves as a good example of how a composer can use musical roots from earlier times to produce material that sounds distinctly modern. Jirásek combines traditional Latin texts and vocal forms from medieval days and the Renaissance in the three movements of Missa Propria, the four of Si, Vis Amari, Ama, and the seven of Mondi Paralleli, whose title means “Parallel Worlds” but whose elements include two Miserere movements, a Benedictus, a Sanctus, an Agnus Dei, a Te Deum laudamus, and a final Dona nobis pacem – that is, the elements of a traditional Catholic mass, although not in traditional order and not handled musically as they would have been in Bach’s time and earlier. Jirásek has clearly studied monophony and polyphony, and the choral music heard here contrasts the two approaches to good effect. He has also studied the works of much earlier composers, and structural echoes of them appear from time to time – notably references to Gesualdo in Missa Propria. Elements of Gregorian chant are frequent and clear in this music as well. But the voices that sing the music are ones that lend it an interestingly modern slant, because they are those of young girls (ages 5-19) from the Jitro Czech Girls Choir, conducted by Jiří Skopal. Hearing these light female voices declaiming and proclaiming the old Latin words usually sung by adults or, when offered by young singers, invariably by boys, lends the material an even more modern sound than do Jirásek’s settings themselves. And there is one work here, the one least directly (or most subtly) connected to older music, that shows its modernity especially clearly. This is King Lávra, in which Jirásek offers an update of the now-little-known form of medieval liturgical drama. It is the instruments added to the chorus that lend this piece its unusual coloration: piano (Michal Chrobák), percussion (Pavel Plašil), and ordinary household scissors (handled by Jirásek himself) as an added percussive element. To be sure, unusual sounds are not present only in this work: Jirásek actually has the chorus itself produce percussive effects from time to time throughout these compositions. But the way in which vocal and instrumental elements are integrated and contrasted in King Lávra makes this the most unusual-sounding piece on the CD, and the genuinely percussive nature of the repeated closing of the scissors manages to be both thoroughly modern and hauntingly effective in emphasizing elements of the text. Although King Lávra and the other works here will be attractive only to a limited audience – one interested in modern choral music as it revisits and reinterprets much-older material – the musicl will be quite intriguing to those to whom it does reach out successfully.

     The MSR Classics anthology disc called Eternal Life features much-less-elaborate scoring, with all the works here being for soprano and piano. The music is a sometimes-uneasy mixture of classical works, some of them quite well-known, with traditional spirituals and modern piece that listeners will likely hear here for the first time. There are 14 items in all, including Franck’s Panis Angelicus, Mozart’s Laudate Dominum, the Ave Maria settings by both Gounod and Schubert, Fauré’s En Prière, Gounod’s O Divine Redeemer, and Mendelssohn’s Hear Ye, Israel! from Elijah. There are also Olive Dungan’s Eternal Life: A Prayer for Peace, a setting of words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi; Albert Hay Malotte’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer; baritone Michael Maybrick’s song The Holy City, written under the pseudonym Stephen Adams to poetry by Frederick Weatherly; arrangements by Moses Hogan of the traditional He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands and Give Me Jesus; and arrangements by Hall Johnson of the traditional His Name So Sweet and Ride On, King Jesus! This is thus a polyglot CD as well as a poly-musical one, presenting expressions of faith in a wide variety of ways and words, expressing many different spiritual elements in tones (vocal and musical) ranging from the traditionally reverent to the unabashedly upbeat and celebratory. Amy Pfrimmer and Dreux Montegut perform all the material with involvement and, as appropriate, enthusiasm, and the disc should be one that churchgoers, church choirs and anyone moved by old-time religion – as defined in multiple ways – will find suitably uplifting.

     There is a strongly religious inspiration for Sergio Cervetti’s Concerto for Trumpet, Strings and Timpani as well, but Cervetti chooses to interpret the biblical passage that inspired the work strictly instrumentally. His inspiration is the sentence, “And the seventh angel sounded the trumpet,” from the Book of Revelation. The trumpet is, unsurprisingly, dominant in the three sections of this single-movement work, which begins with a strongly articulated trumpet solo and then becomes a kind of battle-of-the-noisemakers piece in which brass and timpani aim to show the fear and wonder of the Last Judgment. Eventually, Cervetti uses violas and cellos to represent the reassurance of heavenly voices overseeing (as well as determining) the outcome of the apocalypse, with trumpet and timpani returning at the very end to reassert the circumstances under which the last days will take place. The work is somewhat overdone in its declamatory approach to the biblical predictions, but in strictly musical terms, it is an effective showpiece both for trumpet (Ondřej Jurčeka) and for orchestra (the Moravian Philharmonic conducted by Petr Vronský). The other two pieces here, also purely instrumental, have non-biblical inspirations that nevertheless are redolent of religion. Piano Quintet—Toward the Abyss was inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s poem Le Voyage. It is intended to think through, musically, three elements of mortality and the afterlife, doing so through three movements called “Toward the abyss,” “Hell or Heaven, what does it matter?” and “To discover something new in the depths of the unknown.” The movements’ titles make the philosophical orientation of the work more obvious than does the music itself. The performers are Karolina Rojahn (piano), Omar Chen Guey and Rohan Gregory (violins), Peter Sulski (viola), and Jacques Lee Wood (cello), and all play with commitment and understanding. But the music is an agglomeration of so many techniques (twelvetone, minimalism, traditional harmony, and in the final movement a quotation from Bach’s Before Thy Throne I Now Appear) that the whole work comes across more as an intellectual exercise than as a heartfelt spiritual experience. The final piece on the CD, The Hay Wain, is even more of an acquired taste, with four movements inspired by the triptych of the same title by Hieronymus Bosch. The work is strictly electroacoustic, written for a “virtual orchestra” created, engineered and “played” by Cervetti himself. Its objective is to reflect Bosch’s famously inventive paintings of the horrors of the world and of the demons waiting for or devouring those who fail to adhere to the precepts of holiness. The titles of the four movements clearly reflect what Cervetti attempts here: “Fall of the Rebel Angels,” “The Lovers,” “Demons Construct the Tower,” and “The Procession.” But the music itself offers nothing special – just the usual yips and yawps, clangs and bangs of electronic music that could as well be representational of a factory scene as of a grand portrayal of Heaven, Earth and Hell. Listeners interested in the various methods that Cervetti has used to put across his musical and philosophical ideas over a period of more than 40 years will find this release intriguing, but those who are not already committed fans of Cervetti will likely find that the descriptive titles of the works and their component parts are ultimately more persuasive than the music to which the words refer.

     Susan Kander’s music on a new MSR Classics disc is more effectively reflective of what the chamber pieces heard here are trying to do. The primary performer here is Jacob Ashworth, a fine violinist and violist who is also Kander’s son – and who commissioned Hermestänze, a fascinating work that exemplifies a highly positive way of melding past and present. It is a sequence of 14 short movements, modeled directly on Schumann’s 19th-century piano cycles but giving the violin a chance to explore a variety of moods and techniques in the service of a specific story – just as Schumann gave that opportunity to the piano. Kander and Ashworth jointly made the happy decision to focus this work on the character of the Greek god Hermes, who is indeed one of the most multifaceted of all the Olympians. The cycle is carefully constructed: Hermes, no matter what else he might be doing, had the job of escorting the souls of the dead to the river Styx, and therefore Kander creates three separate “Styx” movements that occur within the cycle. The rest of it shows Hermes’ other roles, the best-known being that of messenger, which both begins and ends the cycle. Hermes’ relationships with other immortals are neatly portrayed as well, and if the music never quite encapsulates all the elements of the god’s personality, it does so often enough and to a great enough extent so that the cycle comes across both as interesting to hear and as evocative of a wide variety of circumstances. Both violin and piano (Lee Dionne) have their share of virtuosic requirements here, and both Ashworth and Dionne handle their roles with skill and apparent enjoyment of the material. Ashworth also does a first-rate job with Solo Sonata, which is another of the many works tied to the Islam-inspired mass murders of September 11, 2001, but which stands on its own musically without requiring listeners to focus unremittingly on the viciousness of the killers and the killings. Using a five-note motif in all three movements, Kander starts the work with a fairly straightforward Capricciosa rondo for violin, then moves to a heartfelt and very lyrical Lament for viola, and concludes with the interestingly titled “(Malevolent) Dances,” again for violin – a movement that, however, does not quite live up to its title and is neither as barbaric nor as intense in sound as one might expect it to be. The third work on the CD, A Garden’s Time Piece, offers a set of seven poems by Leslie Laskey, set for soprano and violin. The first poem, “Today’s the day,” both opens and closes the eight-movement cycle, just as the Hermes miniature focusing on his role as messenger starts and concludes Hermestänze. The use of violin rather than piano to accompany soprano Jessica Petrus makes A Garden’s Time Piece unusual among song cycles, but the poems themselves are nothing particularly strange or profound: they are about the frequent poetic topics of life, love and time. What Kander does interestingly here is to give the violin a kind of “commentator” role, the stringed instrument often exploring the musical material in greater depth than do the rather straightforward vocal settings. Kander is a composer of taste and refinement, and her subtle ways of communicating the emotional elements underlying these three works are, on the whole, more nuanced and ultimately more meaningful than the more-emphatic attempts of other contemporary composers to produce specific feelings and paint specific scenes.

May 18, 2017

(++++) FEED ME!

Morris Mole. By Dan Yaccarino. Harper. $17.99.

Good Morning, Grizzle Grump! By Aaron Blecha. Harper. $17.99.

     Small characters and big ones need to figure out how to get something to eat – without, in the case of a small one, getting eaten in the process. Morris Mole is the story of a very small character indeed: littler than his brothers, all of whom wear miners’ outfits and dig ever-deeper in search of things to eat, Morris wears a natty suit, eats more delicately than any other mole in the family, carries an umbrella, and reads books. So naturally, when the moles find themselves facing a food shortage, all the big moles know that they have to start digging still deeper. But Morris has a different idea – to which the bigger moles will not even listen. So Morris listens to himself, and he digs up instead of down. And sure enough, he eventually emerges into a beautifully colored above-ground world at which he gazes with wonder from beneath his umbrella. Smelling flowers, listening to birds, and munching on a strawberry that is almost as big as he is, Morris is so enchanted that he almost forgets why he came: to find food for all the moles. So he sets about gathering “crunchy creepy crawlies,” “wonderfully wiggly worms,” “yummy nuts” and other mole delicacies – until he accidentally comes face-to-face (or, more accurately, face-to-mouth) with a hungry fox. Is this the end of Morris? Well, no, because an even bigger predator – a wolf – suddenly appears, frightening the fox so much that the only thing he can think of is to hide. Morris, ever obliging, uses his digging talent to get the fox into a hole, and the wolf departs, leaving Morris a hero not only to the fox but also to the other meadow animals, who help gather food for the moles and dump it into a Morris-dug hole. The motto of Dan Yaccarino’s book is quite an obvious one: “‘I may be small,’ Morris said, ‘but I can do big things.’” It is, however, a wonderful motto for the young children who will find Morris and his adventures delightful – and serves as a suggestion that they, too, can think outside the box. Or beyond the tunnel.

     But Morris and the other moles, all put together, are not nearly as hungry as Grizzle Grump. He is a bear, after all, and has just awakened from a multi-month sleep – with an appetite as huge as his loudly growling belly. As perky, big-eyed animals sport and play in the springtime warmth, Aaron Blecha shows Grizzle Grump looking for food and being constantly frustrated. He dances with joy to find all sorts of berries growing in the woods – but while Grizzle Grump is looking around for the picnic-basket-carrying squirrel who knocked on his door to wake him up, other animals grab all the berries and run off with them. Oh no! With his growling, empty tummy, Grizzle Grump is back on the hunt for food – and comes to a stream filled with delicious fish. He grabs a pile of them – but other bears run off with them before Grizzle Grump can settle down for even a single morsel. Arrggh! So it goes, again and again: Grizzle Grump cannot even make his own pile of yummy and wiggly bugs without other animals making off with them. But Grizzle Grump, still with the squirrel nearby, keeps following his nose, finding delicious smells that eventually lead him to – a surprise party, where all the foods he has gathered are waiting for him! So everything ends happily for all the animals (well, except the fish and bugs): everybody eats everything – even the squirrel enjoys an apple – and all is well, with Grizzle Grump much less grizzly and much less grumpy at the book’s end than he was at its beginning. Oh – and he is ready for another nap after all that food. After which he will no doubt be hungry again.


Kid Amazing vs. the Blob. By Josh Schneider. Clarion. $16.99.

Shorty & Clem. By Michael Slack. Harper. $17.99.

     Many kids like to imagine themselves as superheroes, doing superheroic deeds with superpowers. Josh Schneider takes the idea into much-more-amusing territory, though, with Kid Amazing vs. the Blob. Here we have the most mundane circumstances possible: a young boy named Jimmy is called on by his mother to find out why his baby sister is crying. What is not mundane is that Jimmy responds in superheroic mode. Schneider gets the whole scenario just right: Jimmy “touches the tennis racket like this and pulls the light string like so” and heads out of his room through a “secret door and into a secret elevator” that takes him to an underground warren of passages equipped with everything from alligators to dinosaur fossils to a space shuttle. A huge string of bright-yellow “AAAAAAA,” representing “an extremely annoying howl,” stretches over the pages as Jimmy becomes Kid Amazing, wearing footie pajamas, dishwashing gloves and a baseball cap – all described at the bottom of the pages in typical superhero-ese: “These rare red dishwashing gloves are there to shield his mighty hands from lava, ice, lasers, acid, toxic goo, and pruny-ness.” Soon Jimmy contacts “the Commissioner” (his mom), who asks him to find out what the howling is all about. Jimmy knows it is “the Blob,” and promises to “take care of her.” So he follows a “stink trail” that leads “right to the Blob’s lair” and appears in Schneider’s illustrations as a green miasma out of which monster heads emerge – air so smelly that even a picture on the wall has to wear a gas mask. Jimmy spritzes the stink with some perfume whose smell he likes but that his mother did not want when Jimmy gave it to her (it smells like French fries). Then he heads along a trail of slime right to the Blob “on her throne” (in her high chair). She continues to yell so loudly that “the howl is melting his brain,” but then Jimmy finds “the Blob’s howl neutralizer” (a pacifier) and pops it into the baby’s mouth. And the “AAAAAAA,” which has been covering the entire background of several pages, suddenly stops – with Kid Amazing going on to explain to the Commissioner that “the Blob needs a new stink-containment unit” and suggesting that a cookie would be a suitable reward. Kid Amazing has indeed saved the day – except that, at the book’s very end, his sister has pulled off her stink-containment unit (diaper) and there is about to be another big mess for Kid Amazing to handle. Kid Amazing vs. the Blob is at once so realistic and so far out that kids who are older siblings, whether they are amazing or not, will immediately recognize the circumstances – and probably start planning a secret underground base of their own.

     Schneider’s watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations fit Kid Amazing vs. the Blob every bit as well as Michael Slack’s Photoshop digital ones fit Shorty & Clem. Slack’s book is about roommates but could just as well be about siblings. The fact that Shorty is a big-eyed, eyeglasses-wearing dinosaur (a “shortysaurus,” a kind of compressed T. rex), and Clem is a small blue bird, does nothing to disguise the fact that these are good friends who have a quandary to handle. Actually, Shorty is the one with the issue: while Clem is away, a package arrives, and Shorty is delighted – until ,he discovers that it is addressed to Clem, not to him. Obviously, Shorty cannot open Clem’s package – but oh, how he wants to! So, instead of opening it, he tries to figure out what must be inside. It could be a race car, Shorty decides, so he will drive the car-containing box; and he does just that, with a “vroom vrooom vroooom” that soon becomes a “CRASH!” Oops. But at least the box bounced back from the crash – maybe that means it has a trampoline inside. “I will not open Clem’s package,” Shorty repeats to himself, but he can jump on it! So the box gets partly crushed and makes a “thump” noise – which leads Shorty to decide that there must be bongos inside, so he plays them by “playing” the box, which he does with considerable enthusiasm and by use of his tail as well as his arms. Wait! No, there are no bongos in the box, thinks Shorty. There are monkeys in it – he just has to see them. But…but…this is Clem’s package. Now what? Well, suffice it to say that Shorty’s self-control goes only so far, and that when Clem comes back, “he is going to be so mad.” And Clem does come back – with a surprise for Shorty that goes beyond the surprise of the box and its contents. The result is that everything works out just fine, Shorty and Clem are closer than ever, and the super-silly illustrations (against plain white backgrounds) manage to convey a wide range of emotions without ever letting things get too serious. Parents may have to reinforce the lesson that it is not really all right to open anything addressed to someone else – but at the same time, they will find that Shorty & Clem neatly and very cutely addresses kids’ insatiable curiosity, and the difficulty of waiting even a tiny bit longer for whatever super surprise is just about to be revealed.


Seven Wonders of the Solar System. By David A. Aguilar. Viking. $18.99.

Tornadoes. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.

     Imagine a book that actually takes young readers to the far reaches of the solar system to observe some of the marvels in Earth’s immediate cosmic neighborhood. There is no such thing, of course, but Seven Wonders of the Solar System represents an excellent approximation, using scientific information from the Smithsonian Institution and fine writing and illustration by David A. Aguilar to invite readers to participate in space exploration in a way that few, if any, will ever be able to do physically. The “seven wonders” notion is a clever approach, based on the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, which Aguilar explains at the book’s start – also discussing how six of the seven have long since disappeared (only the pyramid of Khufu in Egypt remains). After this introduction, it is on to Mars, site of a volcano so huge that “if you stood on the surface of Olympus Mons, you could not see it as a mountain: both the top and the bottom would be hidden by the curved horizon of Mars.” Aguilar soon goes on to explain the ancient history of Mars, where “lava flowed down the sides of these volcanoes like rust-tinged honey” and greenhouse-gas accumulation temporarily caused Mars to warm up – after which, over millions of years, Mars became the planetwide desert we believe it to be today. After further discussion, Aguilar takes readers farther into space, to the Jovian moon called Europa, which just may have the necessary ingredients to harbor life. This leads to an excellent discussion of what those ingredients are, and of why water – which is crucial to all life as we know it – may still be on Europa despite its vast distance from the sun: “[L]ike two kids pulling on either end of a rope, Jupiter and Europa are in a constant gravitational tug-of-war. …To make things even more difficult, gravitational fields generated by Jupiter’s other moons Ganymede and Io also pull on Europa, causing large tidal fluctuations that produce huge amounts of internal heat. This is why Europa’s oceans remain liquid and do not freeze.” The clarity and fascination of this and Aguilar’s other explanations are intended for readers ages 10 and up – but even adults will learn quite a bit from this excellently researched, clearly presented and beautifully illustrated book. Saturn’s rings are the third “wonder” explored here, followed by “Titan, the largest and most intriguing moon of Saturn, [which] is bigger than the planet Mercury.” The fifth “wonder” is the distant dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon, which look absolutely amazing as portrayed here. The sixth is something really strange and very much in the forefront of current astronomical exploration: Planet Nine, “a world so dark and distant, it would be easy to miss,” and one that may or may not exist – here Aguilar explains the evidence suggesting it is out there “at a distance of six hundred times farther away than the Earth is from the sun” and “fifteen times farther away from Earth than Pluto is.” What could possibly be a seventh “wonder” after that? Aguilar’s answer: our own Earth and Moon, whose special nature Aguilar explains by relating our familiar “neighborhood” to those explored earlier in the book. Seven Wonders of the Solar System is so well-done that readers may wish there were more than seven wonders – and of course there are, as Aguilar explains. He gives a few additional examples near the back of the book, then says that they “would have to be visited on future trips.” Readers enchanted by this book – and it does a remarkable job of making science and space exploration enchanting – will likely hope that Aguilar will return in the future with a guidebook to additional wonders. While they are waiting, one way they can pass the time is by doing something that Aguilar himself did and that he explains how kids can do on their own: make a model of Mars’ Olympus Mons. Talk about hands-on science: here is a project with “materials [that] are simple, inexpensive, and easy to find,” but that will introduce interested readers not only to model-making like Aguilar’s but also to “imagination, of course!” And that will ultimately take young readers – some of them, although not all – outward to observe the wonders of our solar system for themselves.

     Seymour Simon’s Tornadoes, like so many of his many, many other books (more than 300 in all!), is written for younger readers – ages 6-10 rather than 10 and up. But Simon’s science is as well-considered and well-researched as that of Aguilar, and Tornadoes shows that for all the marvels out in space, there are plenty of amazing things right here on Earth as well. Tornadoes originally dates to 1999 and has now been updated and re-released, and it is every bit as timely as when it originally appeared – and contains new material to go with the outstanding (often beautiful, often scary) photographs. Simon does his usual first-rate job of making a phenomenon intelligible and then explaining how it comes to be: a picture superimposing a coil on a thunderstorm illustrates the way in which downdrafts and updrafts in thunderstorms “continue feeding warm humid air into the spreading thunderhead cloud” in a way that can lead to a tornado’s birth. He discusses supercells, which can form from smaller storms, and shows how they can lead to tornadoes – most often between April and June in the central U.S. region known as “tornado alley,” although tornadoes can and do occur elsewhere and at other times of the year. Simon makes the power of these hyper-dangerous storms clear both through pictures and with words: “One monster tornado that touched down in Illinois in 1990 lifted a twenty-ton trailer truck from a highway and bounced it up and down like a ball before depositing it in a field eleven hundred feet away.” Simon talks about single tornadoes and multiple ones produced by the same storm, and discusses the EF scale for rating tornadoes – explaining that fewer than one tornado in 100 is an EF-5, the strongest and most dangerous type, and only two of every 100 are almost-as-deadly EF-4s. And he provides age-appropriate instructions on staying safe in case a tornado is thought to be forming, including some information that parents as well as kids will definitely want to have. For example: “Getting into a bathtub and putting a couch cushion over you helps protect you on all sides. Bathtubs are usually solidly anchored to the ground and sometimes are the only things left in place after a tornado hits.” Tornadoes, like other Simon books about natural disasters, manages to instill tremendous respect for the phenomenon – and a certain amount of well-placed fear – without terrifying young readers to such a point that they will be frightened every time a thunderstorm occurs. Simon, who is now 85 years old, has lost none of his ability to communicate with accuracy and clarity – or, as is the case with Tornadoes, to update earlier works while retaining their fine narrative pace and scientific quality.


Crazy-Stressed: Saving Today’s Overwhelmed Teens with Love, Laughter, and the Science of Resilience. By Michael J. Bradley, Ed.D. AMACOM. $17.95.

     The well has pretty much run dry for books telling Baby Boomers all the things they are doing wrong in raising children and all the things they should do instead – most Boomers are now past childbearing years and becoming grandparents. This opens up a whole new opportunity, however: books telling members of Generation X all the things they are doing wrong in raising children and all the things they should do instead. The few Boomers still (or again) involved in child-rearing can come along for the ride. And so we have books such as Crazy-Stressed, in which family counselor and frequent media pundit Michael J. Bradley explores methods for GenX parents to use to talk to their teenagers in ways that will help them teach their teens the resilience they will need to cope with the inevitable setbacks in their lives. One wonders whether Bradley himself is as eminently reasonable with his two teenage children as he tells parents they need to be. If so, he may be a candidate for sainthood, or the parental equivalent – although, to be fair, Bradley is a psychologist who specializes in issues involving teenagers and their parents, so his behavior at home is presumably a continuation of his daily work rather than a completely different and differently stressful part of his life, as it inevitably will be for virtually all his readers.

     Crazy-Stressed starts from the premise that today’s world is uniquely pressure-inducing for teenagers, with 24/7 connectivity requiring teens to be “on” and involved with others at all times – and with pop culture that glorifies vapid celebrities, violence and sex, plus peer pressure whose behavioral elements involve sex and drugs and those ever-present social media. In truth, except for the technological elements, there is little that is different for teens today from the stressors faced by teens in the past; and even today’s technology is a substitute for other forms of onetime peer connectivity rather than something altogether new. Nevertheless, in the grand tradition of “this time it’s different,” Bradley suggests that the world of today’s teens requires their parents to do and not do a variety of specific things in order to pave the way for teenagers to grow into responsible, self-managing adults. Carefully arranged and nurtured parenting, for which parents presumably have nearly infinite time, is what is called for. What is surprising (or not) is that Bradley’s recommendations to parents are no different from those made to Baby Boomers and, no doubt in different ways, to earlier generations that did not have the dubious benefit of widely promoted self-help books. To name a few: parents need to pick the right time to communicate with teens, avoid telling them too much or speaking to them too loudly or emphatically, ask questions instead of lecturing and giving parental answers, take their cues from teens’ love of short messaging to keep interactions minimal but very frequent, and walk away if attempted communication provokes anger instead of aiding understanding. There is nothing new here whatsoever, except that Bradley dresses up the advice neatly in the latest scientific research on teenage brain development, comprehension and sleep deprivation. Unfortunately, he does not tell parents how to find the time in their lives for, say, a dozen short face-to-face interactions that would collectively take the place of a single longer one.

     But putting all that aside, what Bradley advocates here is helping teenagers develop personality traits that are identical to those advocated, in not-very-different language, for the teens of Baby Boomers. The longstanding notion of creating acronyms or using a series of identical letters to describe desirable characteristics stays true to form in Crazy-Stressed, with all seven crucial traits beginning with the letter C. The C sequence is the heart of Bradley’s book. Competence, he argues, requires parents to encourage unstructured activities – not sports, for example, but rock bands, through which teens can learn compromise, planning and management of frustration (actually, sports would seem to teach the same things, but Bradley says no). Confidence is built by having parents react positively to teens’ positive qualities, such as integrity and compassion – although Bradley has little to say about how parents should handle creating confidence-building qualities in teens who do not have them, that being different from encouraging qualities that are present already. Connection requires parents to make the family home an unfailing source of safety and security – an excellent idea whose implementation is far tougher than Bradley indicates. Character means what it always has: possessing a firm sense of right and wrong, which Bradley assumes parents can help teens develop through talks about values – an optimistic idea that some families will likely find impossible. Control has to do with feeling in charge of one’s life, a particularly tough challenge for teens, who are constantly subjected to pressure from adults and peer groups – the idea that parents can nurture this feeling by repeatedly calling attention to teens’ successes and good works is one genuinely useful element of Bradley’s book, although this is scarcely an original notion. Coping means being able to handle life’s inevitable setbacks, and this means parents must allow those setbacks to occur instead of running interference – a rather unexceptionable bit of thinking, since there is no possible way that parents will ever be able to shield teens from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (that, by the way, is from Hamlet, a play whose wisdom appears nowhere in this book). The seventh C-word here is Contribution, which Bradley takes to mean helping teens learn to improve the world without expecting anything in return – a very, very tall order indeed for a great many teens and, for that matter, a great many parents.

     The subtitle of Bradley’s book contains the word “laughter,” but there is precious little of it in the book itself, and that is a shame. One thing Bradley misses is the importance of parents finding ways to teach teens not to take everything with an infinity of intensity. “Don’t take life so serious, son – it ain’t nohow permanent,” was a wonderful bit of philosophy from the comic strip Pogo, which neither today’s teens nor their parents likely know, but from which all of them could benefit. Indeed, the leavening effect of supportive humor – not the sarcasm of Dilbert or the darkness of Pearls Before Swine – can go a long way toward making the inevitable problems and troubles of the teenage years more bearable. But GenX parents will find mostly sober, well-considered advice here, with little in the way of “lighten up” thinking. Unfortunately, the result is that living with teenagers (the extent to which parents “raise” teens is itself debatable) seems even more difficult, time-consuming and complex at the end of Crazy-Stressed than at the beginning. The book is likely to make time-pressed, financially stressed, perpetually exhausted parents (of any generation) feel they are just not measuring up to Bradley’s high standards. And that is too bad, because perfectionism in dealing with teenagers is, in reality, no more possible to attain than perfectionism in most human endeavors. By providing step-by-step prescriptions that many parents will not have the time, energy or emotional wherewithal to accept and implement, Bradley sets parents up for failure in a way that is bound to boost their stress levels and carry through to become yet another of the many stressors affecting, and afflicting, the teenagers of today – as they have affected and afflicted teens since time immemorial.


Schubert: Piano Sonatas Nos. 20, D. 959, and 21, D. 960; Brahms: Seven Fantasies, Op. 116; Three Intermezzos, Op. 117; Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118; Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119. Jorge Federico Osorio, piano. Cedille. $16 (2 CDs).

François-André Philidor: Sinfonias 1 and 5 from “L’Art de la Modulation”; Michel Blavet: Sonata Seconda, Op. 2; Rameau: Excerpts from “Les Boréades,” “Les Fêtes de l’Hymen” and “Dardanus”; Jean-Pierre Guignon: Les Sauvages; Jacques Duphly: Pièces de Clavecin. Les Délices (Debra Nagy, baroque oboe; Julie Andrijeski and Karina Schmitz, baroque violins; Emily Walhout, viola da gamba; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord). Navona. $14.99.

     The willingness to take chances is a distinguishing feature of artists who want to continue to grow beyond their existing accomplishments. And when chance-taking succeeds, the results can be remarkable, as they are in Jorge Federico Osorio’s new two-CD recording of Schubert and Brahms piano works for Cedille. Osorio has recorded two of the four sets of late Brahms piano miniatures before, and has established a strong reputation as a sensitive, elegant Brahms interpreter. But he has never recorded anything by Schubert, and the formidable last sonatas are a very challenging place to start. Schubert’s three final sonatas, D. 958, D. 959, and D. 960, respectively in C minor, A major and B-flat major, are towering works in their own right, lengthy and complex and structurally challenging; they are also reflective of Schubert’s fascination with Beethoven and apparently of his own emotional state, on the basis of their inclusion of references to some of his earlier works, such as Winterreise. The fluidity of key changes, the complexity of themes and their development, and the sheer scale of these works – D. 959 and D. 960 run some 40 minutes apiece – show Schubert scaling new structural and emotional heights that build on a great deal of his earlier material. And the sonatas are a huge challenge to pianists, not only in their virtuosity, which is really of secondary importance, but also in their size and temperament and the need to maintain a forward flow over long periods while still carefully expressing the intricacies of individual movements and portions of movements. Osorio turns the final two sonatas into the bookends of a two-CD set offered at the price of a single disc, which would make this a bargain even if the performances were less impressive than they are. But they are so good that the major disappointment of this release is that D. 958 is omitted – Osorio clearly has understanding and affinity for these works that would surely be just as clear at the start of the trilogy as they are in its latter two-thirds. Osorio builds to climaxes carefully, choose tempos wisely, and handles the very large first movements of both these sonatas with care and attentiveness throughout. And he paints a highly expressive and convincing canvas for both works, even though neither offers the usual pacing for a slow movement: D. 959 has an Andantino and D. 960 an Andante sostenuto (it is D. 958 that includes an Adagio). Osorio’s accomplishments in the Schubert are wonderfully contrasted with and complemented by his handling of the four sets of complex, emotionally charged “miniatures” by Brahms – works that are short but in no way small. The vast majority of these pieces were labeled Intermezzo by Brahms – 14 of the 20 works in the four sets – and Osorio’s intriguing performances set up the curious, imaginative question of the sort of work within which each “intermezzo” might appear. The other six works – three marked Capriccio and one each called Ballade, Romanze, and Rhapsody – receive the sort of sensitively variegated treatment that makes the distinctive features of each piece stand out while also fitting each work neatly within the particular set into which Brahms placed it. This release bears the overall title “Final Thoughts,” referring to the fact that the pieces on it are the last ones for piano by these two composers. But surely these are not and will not be Osorio’s final thoughts on these works or on others by these composers (including, perhaps in a future recording, Schubert’s D. 958). Osorio is a pianist of sensitivity and nuance, and here shows himself capable of handling self-contained miniatures and large, even sprawling multi-movement sonatas with equal skill and involvement. To the extent that he takes chances in this recording, he succeeds with them admirably.

     Speaking of titles, that of the new Navona release featuring the ensemble called Les Délices is “Age of Indulgence,” and it is in being indulgent of their interest in late-Baroque French composers that these performers take their chances in this recording. Only two of the composers here are at all well-known: Rameau and, to a lesser extent, Philidor. Offering their music along with works by three very infrequently heard composers is part of the chance-taking. Also, like Osorio’s CD, this one uses musical bookends, here in the performance of two four-movement, fugue-focused sinfonias from Philidor’s L’Art de la Modulation to open and close the disc. These prove to be very intriguing works, filled with chromaticism, unexpected harmonies and unusual modulations. This is very late Baroque music, dating to 1755 – just a year before Mozart’s birth. So some of its harmonic daring is not entirely surprising. But as heard here on excellently played original instruments, it is revelatory of the ways in which late-Baroque thinking shaded into that of the Classical era. Blavet’s Sonata Seconda features virtuoso playing reminiscent of that required for Vivaldi’s music, but there is fluidity to the complex oboe part that is certainly more French than Italian in spirit. The five excerpts from operas by Rameau include two from an opera that was really post-Baroque: Les Boréades dates to 1763, and although it sensibilities are similar to those of other Rameau works, some of its musical techniques are more forward-looking than those of the excerpt from Les Fêtes de l’Hymen (1747) and the two from Dardanus (1744). A particular gem on this release is Guignon’s Les Sauvages, which is for two violins: it interweaves the instruments very skillfully while providing considerable drama and truly impressive use of the violins’ virtuoso capabilities. Duphly’s two pieces for solo harpsichord make an excellent contrast to Guignon’s music: they are perhaps the most traditionally Baroque works here in terms of harmony and their overall sound, skillfully made and with some attractive flourishes but without the sense of boundaries breaking, or about to break, that comes to the fore in several of the other pieces on the disc. The musicians of Les Délices, a group founded as recently as 2009, are not only skilled performers – individually and together – but also strong advocates for the special pleasures of this set of works. Few if any of these pieces will be familiar to most listeners, but all of them, in addition to being delightful to hear, shed clear light on an important transitional time in classical music.

May 11, 2017


Bob and Flo and the Missing Bucket. By Rebecca Ashdown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Bob and Flo Play Hide-and-Seek. By Rebecca Ashdown. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

     It is not unusual for books for young children to be transformed into books for the youngest children – that is, into board books. But some transitions seem easier and more natural than others, and the “Penguin Friends at Preschool” books by Rebecca Ashdown are particularly well-suited for board-book transformation. Really, the original hardcover versions of Bob and Flo and Bob and Flo Play Hide-and-Seek will appeal (and do appeal) to pre-readers and very young readers already. The penguin preschool and the readily understandable, mundane adventures that Bob, Flo and the other penguins have there are fun not only for preschoolers but also for children too young to be going to preschool – call them pre-preschoolers.

     However, in their new board-book format, these little penguin adventures are even easier to hold, and follow, and enjoy, for children too young to read the stories on their own, or perhaps just learning to recognize a few words here and there. Bob and Flo and the Missing Bucket introduces the title characters, as Flo starts preschool by bringing her lunch of raw fish in a red bucket. Flo meets several other penguins, including Bob, who admires her bucket – which soon turns up missing. For the rest of the book, Bob has the bucket (wearing it on his head, using it to climb on, filling it with sand to make sand castles, and so forth); and Flo, diligently searching for the bucket, does not notice that Bob took it and is playing with it. Or perhaps she does know what is going on: she eventually finds it at the bottom of the slide, with Bob stuck at the slide’s top. “Flo knew what to do,” Ashdown explains, and so Flo fills the bucket with water and uses it to “whoosh” Bob off the top of the slide’s ladder and down the slide itself, after which Flo and Bob play for the rest of the preschool day – until, on the way home, Flo reminds Bob not to forget “our” bucket the next day. The adorable penguin drawings and the gentle formation of friendship – in a situation that could have caused anger and hurt feelings – make Bob and Flo and the Missing Bucket a charmer of a story, and one with a lesson that is quite suitable for pre-preschoolers.

     Bob and Flo Play Hide-and-Seek has the two titular penguins more used to preschool and each other. The hide-and-seek game starts because it is a rainy day, and the other penguins at first do not recognize Bob when he walks in underneath an umbrella. There is some lovely age-appropriate writing here as the hide-and-seek game – involving Bob hiding and Flo and a penguin named Sam searching for him – begins: “Counting to twenty is hard. So Flo and Sam counted to ten. Twice!” The small problem in this book is that Bob does not quite understand what it means to hide. He stands in plain sight and covers his eyes, as if that will prevent others from seeing him; then, told to hide behind something, he holds up a pot from the play stove in front of his face – but again leaves his body fully visible. Bob is puzzled at being found so easily, but promises to try once more. And this time he concocts an elaborate plan to build a sort-of-penguin-shaped-and-colored stack of blocks and hide behind it. Now Flo and Sam cannot find Bob at all, until he choose to burst out and reveal himself – again, a small and simple lesson learned enjoyably and at just the right level for kids who will be attracted to these prettily illustrated, nicely paced and well-plotted books. The board-book changeover here is complete and completely successful.


Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos. By Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw. Da Capo. $35.

     If you are wondering not only how the universe works but also why it works the way it does and not some other way, Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos is your kind of book. It is also physics professors’ kind of book: Brian Cox is a professor of particle physics and Jeff Forshaw is a professor of theoretical physics, both at the University of Manchester in England. Clearly, Cox and Forshaw spend their academic time with their heads way up in the clouds – more accurately, way up above the clouds. But they obviously come down to Earth periodically, if only to provide mere non-mathematically-inclined mortals with lucid and fascinating explanations of how things are and why they are that way. The “why that way?” notion is central to the book, with Cox and Forshaw explaining that an important element of cosmic science involves determining the same measurement by different means. Thus, an estimate of the sun’s age on the basis of how nuclear fusion works and how much heat reaches Earth gives about the same result for the age of the solar system (4.6 billion years) as an estimate of Earth’s age based on radioactive decay in planetary rocks. Casting doubt on any single measurement is relatively easy, Cox and Forshaw explain, but “it is usually extremely difficult to argue for a radical change in one area without making large parts of the whole interlinked edifice inconsistent.”

     The “edifice” here is science itself, and scientific inquiry. Universal is as much about the scientific method and the way scientists explore the cosmos as it is about intriguing specifics such as the Big Bang, supernovas, and dark matter. One thing Cox and Forshaw do exceptionally well here is to start by applying the scientific method to matters close to home and then gradually (and without too much higher mathematics) extend inquiry farther and farther out, into more and more complex and outré regions. Thus, the how-old-is-Earth question appears early in the book and leads Cox and Forshaw into well-paced, understandable discussions of plate tectonics and radioisotope dating, with everything they present involving observation, collection of evidence, and the application of logic to reach conclusions that can then be further tested using, ideally, different  methodologies. The authors’ quotation of Richard Feynman at one point is a wonderful kernel of explanation. Feynman said that the search for a new law of nature starts with a guess, then a computation of the consequences of the guess to see what would happen if the guess is correct – and then a comparison of the computation with nature “to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.”

     This is a marvelous encapsulation that Cox and Forshaw have clearly taken to heart. Readers will be amazed at how easy it can be for anyone to test some important scientific hypotheses – for instance, an experiment to show the largest size an atom can be requires only cooking oil, a paper clip, a ruler and a bowl of water. Furthermore, entirely mundane matters are shown in Universal to be the foundation of extremely complex forms of observation and calculation. Take parallax, which is crucial to determining astronomical distances. Cox and Forshaw start by showing how it can be used to calculate the length of your own arm by holding a finger in front of you: the left and right eye see things differently, so by closing one and then the other, you can figure out the arm’s length based on how the apparent position of the finger changes. One of the many simple but elegant illustrations here shows how exactly the same procedure can be used to find the distance from Earth to Neptune, with your eyes being replaced for diagram purposes by the Earth in two different orbital positions and with Neptune representing the finger. It is this sort of clarity-through-extension that makes Universal so eminently readable and so marvelously informative. Colorful photos help enliven the book and enhance the explanations as well.

     What permeates this book is not only knowledge but also enthusiasm, and that is a source of much of the strength of Universal. Cox and Forshaw manage to deal with questions as huge as how much the universe weighs and what happened before the Big Bang (if that question even has any meaning) – without resorting to extreme complexities of calculation (the stuff that they surely use in their own everyday professorial lives) and without distorting the science they are explaining. They end up being near-perfect advocates both for the scientific method and for training top scientific minds to communicate with mere nonscientific mortals with tremendous insight and clarity – and without ever making non-scientists feel they are being talked down to, or that the tremendous difficulties of cutting-edge experimentation and analysis are being “dumbed down” to such a point that they no longer reflect how scientists think and how they test their thoughts for real-world (and real-universe) accuracy.