June 29, 2017
Lost and Found, What’s That Sound? By Jonathan Ying. Illustrations by Victoria Ying. Harper. $14.99.
A Band of Babies. By Carole Gerber. Illustrated by Jane Dyer. Harper. $17.99.
Here are books with rhythmic, poetic and sonic pleasures aplenty for kids ages 4-8. Both are full of “sound words,” such as “ding” and “boom” and “toot,” that the youngest readers, and pre-readers, will enjoy saying aloud – if not during a book’s first reading, then during its second or third, since both these stories will likely be requested time and again. The brother-and-sister team of Jonathan and Victoria Ying has come up with a creative way to show sounds matched with objects in Lost and Found, What’s That Sound? There is a lost-and-found department somewhere run by Mr. Hare, who wears huge round glasses as big as his head and apparently held on by magic (no earpieces). At the book’s start, shelves and tables show various objects that animals come in to request one by one – based not on what they look like but on how they sound. A mouse wants something that goes “toot,” and Mr. Hare offers a bicycle horn, a toy train or a trumpet; the mouse says what he lost was the trumpet, and he goes off happily. A beaver is missing something that makes a “ding” sound, and Mr. Hare has three possibilities: wind chimes, a countertop bell or a triangle (the metal kind). It is the triangle that went missing, it turns out, and soon the happy beaver is reunited with it. Then an elephant shows up and turns out to have lost a piano (no mean feat, even when it is a very small piano). And a squirrel comes looking for a “boom” maker that proves to be a bass drum. But then a bat flies in – and he is looking for something that makes all sorts of sounds. What could that be? Mr. Hare realizes that it is in the next room – where all the other animals are practicing as a band, of which the bat is the conductor. The animals’ simple but amusing digital renderings and the enthusiasm with which they bring forth the sounds of their instruments are winning, and kids are sure to enjoy a little toot-ding-plunk-boom of their own as they read this book, or have it read to them.
The band is one of human beings – small ones – in Carole Gerber’s A Band of Babies, and here “band” means “group” as well as “instrumental players.” There are six toddlers in all here, warmly illustrated in colored-pencil renderings by Jane Dyer. Five of the six march along using sticks to beat on small drums, while the leader and only named baby – Benny – plays a small flute as the little ones head out of their day-care center to the small market next door. There, a smiling, traditionally aproned proprietor welcomes the babies and the day-care-center’s operator inside, and then – well, these are babies, after all, curious and a bit prone to messing things up. Benny pushes a cart in which two other babies ride, while three walk alongside. Grabbing cartons and cans, the babies manage to create some chaos: “Bottles bounce./ Boxes tumble./ Toilet paper in a jumble!” The adults seem not to mind, or their attention is elsewhere, because soon the babies are opening packages and snacking on – no, not processed sugary treats or candy, but grapes, bananas, apricots, carrots and yogurt. The eating scenes may not be realistic, but who knows? They might encourage real-world little ones to try some of the foods that these make-believe babies so clearly find delightful. Eventually, leaving a trail of chips and crackers and crumbs behind them, gulping down juice as they walk, the babies file out past a now-worried-looking shopkeeper – but their impromptu march is on its last legs. “Babies wobble./ Babies stoop./ Babies’ eyelids start to droop.” And sure enough, the babies’ instruments are soon strewn all over the floor of the day-care center – and so are the babies, who drop off to sleep in a contented pile. Although not exactly a bedtime book, A Band of Babies could serve as one for a music-loving child, or could be used as daytime reading enjoyment for just about any little one.
Ned’s Circus of Marvels. By Justin Fisher. HarperCollins. $6.99.
The Bones of the Earth: A Bound Gods Novel. By Rachel Dunne. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
Authors can be forgiven for making dark fantasy a little too dark, or a little too light, for their intended audience. After all, different people’s tolerance for evil, for gore, for fright and fear, is quite different – and knowing where to draw the line when a book is for young readers or adults (and knowing where the line is between young readers and adults) is by no means easy. Still, sometimes an author gets it just right, as Justin Fisher does in Ned’s Circus of Marvels. Self-important, self-proclaimed circus haters will dislike this book intensely, since it takes the whole notion of a circus as a place of magic and marvels as its basis – and then extends it into otherworldly realms. The rationale for this is rather thin, but no thinner than in the usual good-vs.-evil structure of a fantasy novel for ages 10 and up: circuses are not what they seem, and certain circuses are very much not what they seem, consisting of people and almost-people and various not-people-at-all creatures using supernatural abilities to hold back the evil and violence just the other side of a protective Veil. But the Veil is weakening, with increasing rapidity, and all sorts of genuinely scary things are bursting through, and the particular circus of which Ned Waddlesworth becomes a member is at the center of the rapid disintegration of barriers that are supposed to prevent overwhelming darkness from entering the everyday world and laying waste to it. This is not an especially original plot, but Fisher handles it with skill and with enough twists and turns so its formulaic nature is less than obvious. Ned’s story, that of a 13-year-old boy coming of age and learning he is far more than he ever thought he was or could be, is also a standard one; but, again, Fisher clearly knows this and takes considerable pains, most of them successful, to prevent readers from feeling they have read it all before. The humdrum life Ned lives with his father at the book’s start is shattered quickly and forever in the first pages, and Ned’s gradual learning about what is going on and why – and what his role in the events can be and must be – is well-paced and believable (to the extent that dark fantasies can ever be believable). Ned himself is a straightforward reluctant-hero-coming-into-unknown-powers character, but some of the others here are genuinely unusual. There is a ringmaster named Benissimo whose whip has a life of its own; his brother and nemesis, the truly chilling Barbarossa, described as a combination of a pirate and butcher and acting much like both; a demonic ifrit called Mr. Sar-adin whose appearances, whether oily or violent, are equally frightening; a wonderful “Farseer” named Kitty, an elderly blind woman who is a trifle dotty (there are Britishisms everywhere here: the book was originally published in England last year) and whose amusing insistence on wearing Hello Kitty clothing and merchandise makes her enormous powers seem all the stronger; a giant, highly literate and erudite ape named George whose strength is well-nigh unbelievable, who acts as Ned’s protector (not always very effectively), and who speaks often and effusively about bananas; and many more. These characters, as silly and unbelievable as they seem when described, come across surprisingly realistically in their interactions, their hopes, their worries and their battles. The bad guys are less well-delineated – they are mostly the usual horde of evildoers – except for several clowns who will likely give nightmares to any young reader who has ever found real circus clowns a bit shuddery. American readers may be thrown by some of the British slang but will still get the gist of it when, for example, Ned refers to someone as “old tash-face.” And the foundational plot here, in which Ned needs to find out not only who he is (he is not Ned Waddlesworth) but also what his father is (not a harmless, dull tinkerer) and what happened to his mother, gives added depth to a story that is colorful, adventure-packed, fast-paced and often thrilling. In those ways, Ned’s Circus of Marvels, the first book of a planned series, is just like an old-fashioned circus – the kind so hated by the politically correct and self-important, who really deserve to spend some time with Barbarossa and his cronies.
Dark fantasy for adults, such as the Bound Gods sequence by Rachel Dunne, can, of course, be even darker, grittier, gorier and scarier than dark fantasy for younger readers. But there is such a thing as taking matters too far – which is what Dunne does. The second Bound Gods book, The Bones of the Earth, suffers not only from endemic and often over-the-top violence, which In the Shadow of the Gods (Dunne’s debut novel) also had in profusion, but also from the complete lack of any even slightly sympathetic or empathetic character. These are books in which central characters are horribly mutilated by supposed allies (as happens in The Bones of the Earth) when they are not killed outright by supposed allies (as happened in In the Shadow of the Gods and happens again, in a different way, as the sequel opens). These are books in which characters pierce their own eyes so they can symbolically share the darkness they wish to impose on the world. Books in which infants are mercilessly slaughtered. Books in which the gods themselves are evil, sneering, villainous, small characters (despite their huge bodies), with enormous powers and apparently infinite hatred for – well, almost everything, including their own followers as well as other gods. Dunne misses no chance to describe ugliness and cruelty, at one point going on at some length about the manner in which an inquisitive flying creature – far more interesting than most of the humans here – has its wings ripped off. Having opened The Bones of the Earth with a mass slaughter, she makes sure to have a second one, at the gods’ direct behest, later on. Oddly, Dunne has assembled a world that is supposed to be totally unlike ours but that somehow seems to use Latin (or at least vaguely Latin-sounding) roots for almost everything of significance. Thus, the elder, “parent” gods are “father” Patharro and “mother” Metherra (pater and mater plus the respective “o” and “a” endings); a once-helpful, now-dead priest of those gods was Parro (as in padre); and the fallen gods, children of the “parent” ones, are Fratarro (frater, brother) and Sororra (soror, sister; and again one “o” ending and one “a”) – and nasty pieces of work they are, too. It is because of the enmity between Fratarro and Sororra and their never-seen-so-far parent gods that all human twins must be killed at birth because otherwise they will somehow lend strength to Fratarro and Sororra, whose desire, incidentally, is simply to return, overthrow Patharro and Metherra, and plunge the world into everlasting darkness. Just how twins will help is revealed in this second book – one mystery solved – but the world and its inhabitants are so ugly, so unpleasant, so unmotivated by anything but selfishness and violence for their own sake, that it is very hard for readers to take sides or wish for anyone to triumph over anyone else. Everyone here is damaged, deformed, drug-addled, demented or some combination of those. The Bones of the Earth gets a low (+++) rating for adhering closely to so many genre norms and being generally well-paced; but Dunne’s writing is here offered in the service of such ugly, venal, misshapen (physically, emotionally and morally) and inwardly rotten characters that readers who do not want their dark fantasy to be super dark will have difficulty caring about what happens here, when, and to whom or to what.
Mean Dads for a Better America: The Generous Rewards of an Old-Fashioned Childhood. By Tom Shillue. Dey St. $26.99.
Guys Read, Volume 7: Heroes and Villains. Edited by Jon Scieszka. Walden Pond Press. $16.99.
There is feminism, but there is no comparable “masculism”: our society has an underlying assumption that boys and men do not need an “ism” since they already have plenty of power and self-worth and all that and, in fact, have long kept girls and women suppressed and repressed. Why, there was even a recent scientific study in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience showing that fathers in the United States (at least in the Atlanta area, where the study was done) treat their toddler boys and girls differently and in so doing reinforce gender stereotyping and all that awful stuff. Um, well, OK, it seems pretty self-evident that parents will treat different children differently, and at least some of that will have to do with a child’s gender, and that is a terrible thing because – why, exactly? While contemplating that, fathers can also think about what kind of parents they want to be, whether they want to be politically correct and hypersensitive to slights to their children’s self-esteem and determined to “helicopter” if necessary by hovering over their growing kids to be sure they are sheltered from a world that they will be forced to enter on their own all too soon – or, on the other hand, if they would prefer to take advice from comedian Tom Shillue and be mean. Or what contemporary American society considers to be mean. Shillue grew up as one of five children in a devout Irish Catholic family in Massachusetts, and he argues – with apparent seriousness most of the time – that fear, discipline and unfairness should be what childhood is all about, because kids are eventually going to have to learn what to fear, how to be disciplined, and that life is not fair, and the sooner they gain the knowledge, the better. There is a certain celebration of the old-fashioned throughout Mean Dads for a Better America, with an emphasis on patriotism and the value of “wait-till-your-father-gets-home” warnings from put-upon moms. But Shillue does not quite seem to realize how some of his anecdotes and recommendations come across. There is, for example, the story of the time when a neighbor boy flipped over Shillue’s plastic swimming pool and started kicking holes in it. Shillue’s response was to join in and do the same thing, until the pool was ruined and Shillue’s mother asked, quite reasonably, why he did that. “I had no answer for her. I liked the pool. But I suppose it was preferable to join in and help destroy your property [rather] than to stand there crying while someone else did.” This is an object lesson in peer pressure and failure of self-assertion, but Shillue thinks of it as essentially a positive experience, recounting it in the context of a similar event that happened when he was older, a Boy Scout at scout camp, and other boys took away his Pillsbury Doughboy mascot – which “was, I thought, a sign of my offbeat coolness” – and started stabbing it with scout knives. Rather than stand up for himself and his property, Shillue joined in the “fun” and helped destroy something that seemed to have genuine meaning for him. “He had to be sacrificed so that I could flourish,” Shillue writes; but that comes across as a rather pathetic justification. Camp “was tough, but if you handled it the right way, it made you more resilient.” Well, perhaps. Or maybe it made you more violence-prone or more likely to disrespect and disdain others’ property and rights. Shillue offers 23 chapters of things he feels readers should “be,” as in “Be Thrifty,” “Be Competitive,” “Be Dedicated,” “Be Reverent,” “Be a Gentleman,” and so on. But there is a near-constant disconnect here between Shillue’s apparently sincere belief in “mean” dads (by which he really means firm fathers with a strong sense of right and wrong and the willingness to instill it in their children) and the anecdotes he offers in support of his prescriptions – which frequently provoke feelings of empathy and sadness rather than a “yes, that’s the way to do it!” reaction. In reality, it is hard to know the “right” way to be a father, or a man – or a mother, or a woman – and there is no single way on which all readers of this book will agree. As a memoir, Mean Dads for a Better America is interesting and often touching, sometimes apparently in spite of itself. But as a prescription for fatherhood, or simply grown-up-man-hood, it is less than useful.
At least boys and men (and girls and women) can agree that it is better to be a hero than a villain, and easy to tell the difference. Right? Well, maybe not. The seventh volume in the Guys Read series – and how’s that concept for gender stereotyping? – includes 10 stories whose main commonality is that many show a thinner line between heroism and villainy than might be expected. The contributors to Heroes and Villains are Laurie Halse Anderson, Cathy Camper and Raúl Gonzalez, Sharon Creech, Jack Gantos, Christopher Healy, Deborah Hopkinson, Ingrid Law, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Lemony Snicket, and Eugene Yelchin, with illustrations by Jeff Stokely. “The Hero of the Story,” the contribution by Snicket (pen name of David Handler), is explicit about the uncertainty of where the hero-villain line is drawn. The story has Snicket telling about an event, supposedly from his own childhood, in which a woman handed him a baby who turned out to be a kidnaped royal child and whom Snicket was accused of stealing, the accusation turning him into a villain; then it turned out that the baby was not royal after all, turning Snicket into a hero, maybe, for rescuing an unwanted infant who grew up to be the person to whom he is telling the story. The convolutions are typical of Snicket and offer a particularly clear view of the whole hero-or-villain theme, although the story provides no definitive way of separating the good guys from the baddies. Christopher Healy’s “The Villain’s Guide to Being a Hero” operates in a somewhat similar manner, using a mashup-of-fairy-tales format and a 13-year-old Bandit King to present a much funnier take than Snicket’s on the perils and pitfalls of trying to be either heroic or villainous. As usual in anthologies, the stories are uneven and are unconnected except more or less through their underlying theme. They have the advantage of mostly being short and all being easy to read (the book is aimed at readers ages 8-12). And the authors do their best to keep things light, even when they are dealing with something serious, as Laurie Halse Anderson does in “General Poophead” – the story of Benedict Arnold, in which the American Revolution’s hero-turned-traitor is judged by a Valkyrie, the gods of war, and the incontinent “Almighty Pelican of Judgment, a creature somewhat larger than a T. rex and a bit smaller than a blue whale.” Arnold sits clearly on the “villain” side of things, at least from an American perspective, and he is not the only one. In another case, there is a comic strip here called “The Wager,” by Cathy Camper and Raúl Gonzalez, that features el Cucuy and the Boogeyman, creature-under-the-bed types who find that scaring little kids today is a lot harder than they thought it would be. The Guys Read books are presumably intended to have themes and pacing that young male readers, in particular, will appreciate. Perhaps Heroes and Villains does, or perhaps it is simply packaged the way it is because, even if there is no such thing as “masculism,” there is certainly such a thing as marketing savvy – and the book is intended to make preteen boys feel that it has been put together just for them.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 1; March in D minor; Three Pieces for Orchestra. Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg conducted by Gustavo Gimeno. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
Bruckner: Symphony No. 6. Oberösterreichisches Jugendsinfonieorchester conducted by Rémy Ballot. Gramola. $27.99.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9, with reconstructed Finale. Philharmonie Festiva conducted by Gerd Schaller. Profil. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Bruckner did not write a large number of works, but he certainly wrote many more than are usually heard. Cycles of the symphonies (nine, 10 or 11 of them, depending on how the conductor sees Bruckner’s symphonic production) are fairly common. But when it comes to concerts and recordings of individual symphonies, the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth and incomplete Ninth are far more likely to be heard than are the others. Bruckner’s three Masses, his string quartet and quintet, even his Te Deum are much less often programmed. So a chance to explore a bit more of Bruckner than usual is most welcome, especially when performances are as fine as readings of Bruckner have become in recent years – which is very fine indeed. Gustavo Gimeno’s PentaTone SACD of the Symphony No. 1 is unusual even before listeners hear the four short pieces that fill out the disc, because Gimeno does not use the version of this symphony usually recorded, which is the one of 1877/1884 (termed the “Linz” version even though it was actually made in Vienna). Gimeno opts instead for the so-called “Vienna” version, an 1890-91 revision of the 1868 version that Bruckner made for the symphony’s première, which itself was a slight revision of the earliest version (1866). The “versioning” of Bruckner is enormously complicated, and conductors’ choices have many motivations and rationales. Listeners, though, have a simpler time of it, since they can hear multiple versions of the same symphony and judge for themselves which they prefer (or can prefer several of them). The version conducted by Gimeno and played with great strength and rhythmic sensitivity by the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg differs in numerous ways from the one more commonly heard, and while it has not generally been favored by conductors and is thus not very familiar to audiences, it has a certain strength and solidity, a kind of late-Bruckner shaping, that makes it quite attractive. The First is a substantial symphony in this guise, not substantially longer than in earlier versions but tighter in structure and more assured in construction. Gimeno makes a very good case for this version of Bruckner’s First, and even listeners who decide they prefer a different version of the symphony will benefit from hearing this one. Along with it, Gimeno offers four short pieces from Bruckner’s earlier compositional days – study pieces all, none of them particularly significant or genuinely comparable to any of the symphonies, but all of them intriguing for the way they show Bruckner mastering orchestration, searching for the sound he was later to discover and polish, and producing pieces in which simplicity of style and a rather Schubertian lightness of approach are dominant. No one will or ought to buy this disc for the March and Three Pieces for Orchestra, but Bruckner lovers should welcome the addition of these rarities to their collections.
The whole “version” argument over Bruckner’s symphonies is irrelevant only once: the Sixth Symphony exists in just a single version, Bruckner having at this time (1879-81) developed considerable confidence in his own abilities. It is therefore ironic that this is the least frequently played of Bruckner’s mature symphonies, and is a work that has long puzzled analysts, conductors and audiences. A new Gramola release gives it the splendid Rémy Ballot treatment, which means very expansive tempos that never drag, tremendous attention to inner voices and subtleties of orchestration and rhythm, and a firm understanding of structure that seems to flow as much from the conductor’s emotional involvement as from his intellectual analysis. This is the fourth Ballot Bruckner symphony to be released, and the sequence of them is itself distinctly unusual: the other three are the Third (in its huge original version), the Eighth and the incomplete Ninth. Ballot’s Bruckner is inevitably slow in clock time, but that is not how it feels: it comes across as expansive, measured and stately. And this serves the Sixth particularly well. Certainly this is an odd symphony by Bruckner’s standards, from a first movement marked “Majestoso” to a peculiar slow Scherzo that is almost themeless. Ballot’s pacing and the excellent playing of the Oberösterreichisches Jugendsinfonieorchester, a superb “youth orchestra” whose members are among the finest young musicians in Europe, allow the Sixth to unfold at what seems a purely natural pace, as if it could not possibly be handled any more quickly (although it almost invariably is). Ballot dwells on the many modal elements of the symphony, which lend it an unsettling sound even for listeners who do not know how Bruckner achieves the effect. The many unusual elements here, such as the blurring of the end of the first movement’s development section into its recapitulation in such a way as to produce the movement’s climax, are handled sensitively but matter-of-factly by Ballot, as if the structure of the Sixth unfolds as naturally as do the tempos of its individual movements. The sonata-form Adagio, a rarity for Bruckner, is especially fine here, tender and moving in a way that Buckner’s more-massive slow movements often are not. The Sixth does take some getting used to, being so unlike Bruckner’s other later symphonies in so any ways, but the freshness of approach of Ballot and his youth orchestra make the journey more than worthwhile.
Bruckner’s Ninth lies at the opposite end of the frequency-of-performance spectrum from the Sixth: it is enormously popular and by any standards a great and monumental work. It is also not complete in three movements, no matter how vociferously conductors (even including Ballot) argue that it is. Bruckner almost completed the finale and always intended to, and his remark near the end of his life that his Te Deum could be played as the fourth movement of the Ninth must have been born of emotional devotion (the Ninth is dedicated “to my dear God”) rather than musicality, since neither the key nor the content of the Te Deum fits the first three movements of the Ninth at all well. Not surprisingly, there have been a number of attempts to complete Bruckner’s Ninth, as there have also been with, for example, Mahler’s Tenth. But unlike the Mahler work, which exists in several interesting performable versions, Bruckner’s Ninth has resisted any sort of completion on which performers and audiences can agree. The state of the finale is one reason: the part that is missing is the critical section in which Bruckner would have brought everything together to a huge climax. Also, Bruckner’s work grew bolder and grander in many ways in each of his last completed symphonies, from the Sixth through the Eighth, and there is no doubt that he would have wanted in his Ninth – with that amazing dedication – to attain previously unheard-of heights. That fact makes it impossible to be sure what the composer would have done; indeed, the desire to strive ever higher may be one reason he simply could not complete this symphony. But with all that said, it is possible to perform the Ninth as a four-movement work, and the reading by Gerd Schaller and Philharmonie Festiva on the Profil label is an exceptionally fine instance of doing so. Schaller is an excellent Bruckner conductor, and he himself has completed the Ninth for this live recording, using the very extensive material Bruckner left behind while adding to it, in its missing sections, in ways that are absolutely true to Bruckner’s sound universe and to the deeply spiritual garments in which the composer certainly wanted his Ninth to be clothed. Schaller treats the first three movements with solemnity and care, giving them considerable breadth that results in a full hour of performance time – although this length does not compare with Ballot’s astonishingly extended 77 minutes. Schaller basically paces the first three movements as if the Ninth is structurally (if not emotionally) similar to the Eighth, and this pays considerable dividends when the fourth movement begins. It is important to remember that Bruckner did compose the start of this movement and did complete the vast majority of it, the primary fragmentation coming only late in the finale (admittedly, distressingly so). Schaller’s solution to the incomplete nature of this fourth movement is measured and elegant, and there is nothing in it that does not sound like Bruckner: pacing, thematic merging, dynamics and orchestration are all eminently Brucknerian. Of course this is not Bruckner, or not wholly Bruckner, and of course the composer would not have finished the Ninth exactly this way. But Schaller’s completion is exceptionally convincing, enough so that other conductors may wish to take it up – as multiple conductors took up Deryck Cooke’s completion of Mahler’s Tenth and made it the “standard” performance version. Listeners will have to judge this very fine recording on its own merits, which may be difficult for those who are hyper-familiar with three-movement readings of the Ninth and would find any fourth movement jarring. Actually, anyone simply wanting a very fine, very well-played version of the three-movement Ninth will find Schaller’s eminently satisfactory. But the fourth movement makes this recording a rarity and a real treat for anyone who loves Bruckner and wonders what might have been and whether the might-have-been would have sounded a great deal like what Schaller offers here.
Ives: A Symphony—New England Holidays; Orchestral Set No. 1—Three Places in New England; Orchestral Set No. 2. Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.
Copland: Symphony No. 3; Three Latin American Sketches. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.
Randall Thompson: Symphony No. 2; Samuel Barber: Symphony No. 1; Samuel Adams: Drift and Providence. National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by James Ross. Naxos. $12.99.
Battle Creek Transit Authority Live in Concert. Brass Band of Battle Creek conducted by Michael J. Garasi. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Just as there are styles of classical music that are noticeably German, Italian, English or French, there is one that is noticeably American – and there are certain conductors, including Ludovic Morlot and Leonard Slatkin, whose comfort with the American style runs particularly deep. It is not a matter of how well various non-American orchestras play the music – the Melbourne Symphony under Sir Andrew Davis, for one, has shown itself capable of producing extremely idiomatic and well-thought-out Ives recordings. But there is a deep affinity for the underlying “American-ness” of American music at the Seattle Symphony and Detroit Symphony Orchestra that turns the essentially optimistic, broadly conceived and innovative material of composers such as Ives and Copland into music that speaks of America even as it speaks to the entire world. Morlot’s latest Ives recording on the Seattle Symphony’s own label is as good as his previous ones. The large-scale New England Holidays compendium of four movements – which Ives said could be played separately or together as a symphony – comes off especially well here, with Morlot paying close attention to the structure as well as the sound of “Washington’s Birthday,” “Decoration Day,” “The Fourth of July” and “Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day.” The contrast between those last two movements – one being a boy’s view of a patriotic celebration in the midst of which the boy seems, through the music, to become aware of the sacrifices underlying Independence Day joy, the other being a distinctly adult and solemnly spiritual tribute to America’s Puritan heritage – comes off especially well. Three Places in New England is also filled with contrasts, among the three movements and within each of them, and Morlot brings those out to fine effect. Ives’ music, for all its rhythmic, tonal and harmonic complexity, often follows a rather simple structure of fast-slow-fast or slow-fast-slow, sometimes using that structure within a movement and then using it on a larger scale for an entire work. Morlot clearly understands this, and by focusing on the pacing of the sections and individual movements, he produces a recording of strong contrasts but with underlying solidity – an appropriate metaphor, as it happens, for Ives’ own view of a complex but foundationally solid turn-of-the-20th-century America. Orchestral Set No. 2 also is contrast-filled, its opening movement, “An Elegy to Our Forefathers,” going to much the same place as the finale of New England Holidays without sounding anything like Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day. The most affecting movement of Orchestral Set No. 2 is its finale, in which Ives quite amazingly recaptures a spontaneous outpouring of patriotism and grief that he witnessed and heard after the Lusitania was sunk in 1915. Ives was a brilliant scene-painter for whom reality transferred to music with unusual clarity – hence the chaos, sometimes real but more often only apparent, of so much of his music. Morlot and the Seattle players get the sound and worldview of Ives just right, and the results are exhilarating.
Slatkin takes a more-considered, rather cool approach to Copland’s Symphony No. 3 on a new Naxos CD, showing this as a work both distinctively American and well aware of European symphonic traditions. Written in 1946, by which time Ives had essentially retired from composing for 20 years, Copland’s symphony sounds more conventional than Ives’ music but shares with it the sense of triumph attained only through sacrifice and difficulty. The symphony is famous for the way its finale begins with Fanfare for the Common Man, but there is a great deal more to the work than that. The expressiveness here tends to be straightforward and even surface-level – in fact, part of the tempo indication for the first movement is “with simple expression” – but the feelings beneath the music are anything but shallow. Copland said this symphony reflected the nation’s euphoria at the end of World War II, but it is a euphoria tempered by the knowledge of years of pain and hardship, just as surely in its way as Ives’ view of seriousness beneath the celebration of “The Fourth of July” is in its different circumstances. Slatkin conducts the symphony with a sure sense of pacing and strong feeling for the work’s rhythms and orchestral balance. He brings a fine sense of rhythm to Three Latin American Sketches, too. Written much later than the symphony, in 1971 (although parts were composed earlier than that), these three short pieces really are surface-level tributes to a part of the world to which Copland felt a strong attraction. They are essentially encores, the three of them collected into a colorful 10-minute suite whose bounce and verve provide considerable contrast to the seriousness and strength of Copland’s Third Symphony.
A certain level of simplicity does seem to underlie much American music, even when someone like Ives takes that simplicity and, by layering it onto other simplicity, produces works that are extremely complex. Symphony No. 2 by Randall Thompson (1899-1984) is a good example of a work whose forthright, direct expression carries none of the overtones of seriousness of Copland’s Third or much of the music of Ives. Bright orchestral colors and a certain charming naïveté – another frequent characteristic of American music – pervade this work, whose first movement mixes strength with playfulness and whose second is sentimental and sounds as if it would go well with a rather syrupy film of its time (1931). Thompson is best known for his choral music, but his second symphony (he wrote three of them) shows him quite capable in purely orchestral guise, even if the work is a trifle too, well, trifling to make a lasting impression. The National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic under James Ross plays the symphony quite well, never seeking profundity that is just not there. The orchestra also does a fine job with Symphony No. 1 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), a work of roughly the same time (1936). Barber consciously modeled this youthful work on Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 (1924), making it a single-movement symphony that nevertheless has distinct sections roughly corresponding to separate movements. This is a well-made work in which Barber clearly shows his understanding of and capability in traditional symphonic form, but it is a work lacking any really distinctive character. There is something formulaic about the three-theme opening section, which becomes the basis for the whole work, just as there is about the short passacaglia toward the symphony’s end and the way in which the final portion becomes, in effect, a recapitulation of the entire piece. One characteristic often attributed to Americans is superficiality, and this symphony seems to partake of surface-level music-making even though it is quite well-crafted and nicely orchestrated. Americans are also sometimes accused of being gimmick-prone, and that accusation could be leveled at the final work on this (+++) CD, Drift and Providence (2012) by Samuel Adams (born 1985). Adams here seeks thoroughly contemporary oceanic sound-painting along the lines of what Debussy did in La Mer back in 1905. But because it is intended to be up-to-date, Adams’ work relies heavily on electronics, provided by Adams himself for this recording. The piece is basically a 21st-century five-movement sonic suite, incorporating electronic elements but not being fully electronic. There is some reasonably effective tone-painting here, but there is also quite a lot that is obvious – another characteristic sometimes attributed to American music, and to Americans. The piece is not unlikable, but neither is it memorable – there is simply not very much to it.
Nor is there very much to the music heard on a new MSR Classics release called Battle Creek Transit Authority Live in Concert. The 13 pieces on this disc never aspire to profundity. They are simply enjoyable forays into sound by the Brass Band of Battle Creek, which here brings considerable technical prowess to play in the service of music that, it must be said, is not especially noteworthy. Michael J. Garasi leads everything with enthusiasm, whether offering swing, show tunes, pop or dance music, marches or even a touch of the Dixieland sound. The pieces heard here range in length from a minute and a half to nine minutes, so they give the band ample chances to showcase its ability to toss out a bit of flashiness or, alternatively, to present a somewhat mellower, more-meditative mood. There is plenty of energy in evidence, and the band’s overall sound is a fine and well-balanced one, very much in the tradition of that most American of all bands, John Philip Sousa’s. But the music itself is just not very interesting: “Jamaica Farewell,” “Children of Sanchez,” “Make Me Smile,” “If You Leave Me Now,” and so forth. The Brass Band of Battle Creek is certainly capable of playing some more-complex material, including, for example, some of Sousa’s own compositions. A stronger mixture of tunes would have given this (+++) disc greater staying power. As it is, the recording is a fine example of the skill of these Michigan players and will be a treat for band fanciers who may be unfamiliar with this particular ensemble. But the specific works here are not involving enough to repay multiple hearings – except for listeners whose primary interest is the very fine sound of this band rather than the specific works through which that sound is demonstrated.
June 22, 2017
Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and Their Noses) Save the World. By Nancy F. Castaldo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
A Dog Like Daisy. By Kristin O’Donnell Tubb. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The wonders of canine perception are difficult for humans to comprehend, for all that dogs are our closest animal companions and have lived with and helped us for thousands of years. Humans are primarily sight-driven, so it is very hard for us to understand the intricacies of a smell-driven species such as dogs. But that does not stop authors of both fact and fiction from delving into the mysteries of dogs’ perceptions and showing how intimately humans and canines can relate to, work with and help each other. Nancy F. Castaldo’s Sniffer Dogs is a fine introduction to the topic, and fascinating because it shows some of the many ways in which dogs’ super-sensitive noses can and do save human lives – in an almost offhand manner, as if sniffing out danger is the most natural thing in the world (which, to dogs, it apparently is). Castaldo starts by explaining a bit about dogs’ anatomy and the way they use not only their noses but also their Jacobson’s organs to perceive smells. The Jacobson’s organ is often mentioned in connection with snakes, which use their forked tongues to sample their environment and then process what they pick up through this organ. But in fact, many animals have Jacobson’s organs – they even develop in humans, although ours appear to be non-functional. In dogs, though, the organs are highly active and very sensitive, helping dogs form “a sort of image identifying [a] smell.” That is, we think of “image” visually, but to dogs an image is a complex mixture of scents. “This ‘image’ is even better than a [visual] photograph,” Castaldo explains, because it “provides even more sensory clues.” Castaldo shows how dogs use their hyper-precise nasal-imaging capabilities to search for and find missing people, to detect explosives, to locate survivors of disasters, and much more. Dogs seem to want to help humans – as the result of untold generations of being bred for just such purposes – and the techniques used to obtain their help are well-explained here. For instance, dogs capable of finding people are chosen by being given a toy when they bark during early training…then their trainers hide with the toy and give it to the dogs when they locate the human and bark. The game goes on as long as necessary to get the dog to associate receiving a toy with finding a live human and barking. Castaldo does a first-rate job of explaining and showing this type of training and discussing some surprising elements of dogs’ abilities: “You might find it hard to believe that it can actually be easier for dogs to locate buried bones than bones exposed on the surface of the ground. The reason is that surface bones have a greater chance of breaking down and losing their scent over time in the sunlight, wind, and heat.” And that is a perfect example of the difference between sight-driven humans and odor-driven dogs: a killer will bury a body so humans will not see it, but in doing so will make it easier for a dog to locate and uncover it. Dog training for assistive and law-enforcement purposes can be long and intense, but when it is over, Castaldo says, “It’s pretty rare to see these dogs make a mistake after they have finished training. A dog’s nose just knows.” The pictures of dogs scattered throughout Sniffer Dogs all show alert, involved, dedicated canines whose expressions, to human eyes, appear focused and intense. People who owe their lives and their emotional stability to sniffer dogs and therapy dogs and other assistive dogs know that the seemingly almost magical power of dogs’ noses is something to cherish. Young readers will understand that much better after going through Castaldo’s book.
To feel rather than intellectually accept the value and importance of dogs as helpers of humans, though, requires a novel – a book with a predefined story arc that can present events with a neatness and precision absent in the real world. Kristin O’Donnell Tubb’s A Dog Like Daisy is a fine example of this approach. The book is narrated by Daisy, a rescued pit bull mix determined to succeed as a service dog helping a veteran cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although there is no real way for a human author to know what a dog thinks, or even if a dog thinks in any way translatable to what humans mean by “thinking,” Tubb gives it her best shot and comes up with some very effective scenes as a result. For instance, when Daisy first comes home from the pound, she explores the house and realizes through smells that “these humans are definitely new here.” Then she continues sniffing and realizes that “the other humans who were here before had a dog. A dachshund. Twelve years old. With a bladder infection.” Scientifically accurate or not, that is a wonderful observation that certainly could be what goes through a dog’s mind. It is also a nice touch of humor in a book that is, at heart, deeply serious. Although determined to succeed as an assist dog – her 10-week training is being paid for by the Veterans Administration, and she must go back to the pound if she fails – Daisy repeatedly misinterprets what her new human pack wants or needs, and often lets her outgoing and ebullient nature get the better of her when she needs to be sober, attentive and concerned. So the book is all about adjusting: Daisy adjusting to her new “pack,” and the human family trying to adjust to her presence (Colonel Victor says that his “therapist says this is the best thing for PTSD”). Daisy quickly becomes too aware of what Victor needs, but cannot, of course, explain her perceptions to the humans. For instance, when she is being trained using a noisemaking clicker, she says it sounds like “giant bones snapping all around us. I know the second I hear it that the Colonel doesn’t like it. I feel his shade deepening.” But the trainer thinks Daisy is not doing well – until Victor eventually helps sort things out. Who is actually training whom? Real-world dog owners often wonder this, and in A Dog Like Daisy the question is made explicit: Daisy thinks the humans with whom she interacts are learning or not learning proper behavior, but they, naturally, are focused on what she is learning. There is a real-world power imbalance between humans and dogs – dogs are considered property, and humans literally have the power of life and death over them – and some of that leaks through in Tubb’s novel. But because it is a novel, not a real-world story, Tubb can form it as she wishes. She can have Daisy take advice from a pet lizard, contemplate the best role she can assume in life, and think through a way to fail a test deliberately when that is best; and Tubbs can introduce a deus ex machina (actually a canis ex machina) to solve the apparently insoluble problems of Daisy and the Colonel and the Colonel’s family. The result is a tear-jerking climax that leads to a wonderfully upbeat ending that could, really could, occur in the real world. Nothing in A Dog Like Daisy may be really real, but everything is plausible, and as a story of how dogs might think and what could happen in a particular kind of dog-human relationship, this book is a tale that is very well told indeed.
I Love You, Little Pumpkin. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Laugh-Out-Loud Ultimate Jokes for Kids. By Rob Elliott. Harper. $10.99.
Laugh-Out-Loud Road Trip Jokes for Kids. By Rob Elliott. Harper. $4.99.
What kids find funny changes a lot as they grow, and books for various ages change dramatically along the way. Sandra Magsamen’s I Love You, Little Pumpkin, originally published in 2010 and now available as a charming flap book, is adorably amusing for the littlest children. There is a big, smiling, plush pumpkin on the front, along with an illustration of a happy black cat – there is certainly a Halloween theme here, although the book can actually be fun anytime. Each left-hand page asks a question that is answered by looking at the facing right-hand page and pulling down a big, easy-to-grasp flap. “Who’s up there giggling, brightening my day?” asks one page. The opposite one shows seven little pumpkins growing in a field as the sun shines down on them. Pull down on the flap from just above the sun, and a boy dressed for trick-or-treat in a “sunshine” costume shows up, with the words, “It’s my little sunshine, smiling away!” Each page is like this – until the final one, cutest of them all, asks, “And whose smiling face is this, so sweet and true?” Here the facing page shows a big pumpkin in a child’s wagon, and pulling the flap down reveals – a mirror! The words are, “It’s my little pumpkin, and I love you!” The sentiment is suitable at any time of year, of course, and the seasonal presentation is especially enjoyable for fall-and-pumpkin lovers.
Rob Elliott’s popular series of joke books is for somewhat older children, but they cannot be too advanced either in age or sense of humor, or they will regard the unending knock-knock jokes, bad puns and silly riddles as groaners rather than sources of enjoyment. Most of these (+++) books are small, inexpensive, easy-to-carry paperbacks, such as Laugh-Out-Loud Road Trip Jokes for Kids. As in all these books, some jokes relate to the supposed overall theme and some do not. This one has a knock-knock with “who’s there?” being “Russian,” because “I’m Russian to pack so I don’t miss my flight!” But it has another with the answer being “Abbott,” because “It’s Abbott time you answered the door!” The question of how a slug crosses the ocean is sort of travel-related (“in a snailboat”), but the one about what happened to the duck at the doctor is certainly not (“it got a clean bill of health”). Families going on really long road trips with kids who enjoy this sort of thing may want to consider going beyond the ordinary Elliott collections to this series’ first-ever hardcover, Laugh-Out-Loud Ultimate Jokes for Kids, which contains all of the “road trip” collection plus all of the “awesome” book. Whether anything here is awesome is a matter of opinion, and a matter of age. “What do you get when paper towels fall asleep? Napkins!” “Why did Cinderella buy a camera? So she could find her prints charming.” “What was Noah’s job in the Bible? Ark-itect.” Each of these books also includes a few simple puzzles, such as mazes and Tic-Tac-Toe, but obviously the jokes are the main course here. Kids who find humor of this type attractive will likely find Laugh-Out-Loud Ultimate Jokes for Kids more fun than the road-trip volume by itself, since, after all, the hardcover book offers a double helping of the material.
The Prey of Gods. By Nicky Drayden. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
Hidden Legacy #2: White Hot. By Ilona Andrews. Avon. $7.99.
A complete mishmash of forms, genres and topics that almost pulls off the combination and is exciting to read even when it falls short, Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods is an unusual debut novel that is never quite sure whether it is science fiction or fantasy, behaves like a blend of the two, and comes across as not quite either one. The title is the first of many things here that almost work – call it “Gods’ Prey” and you would have a better sense of the pun on “pray” and of a major element of the convoluted plot, which does indeed involve gods (one in particular) preying on humans. There are ways in which The Prey of Gods channels Neil Gaiman and Richard Kadrey, but it lacks Gaiman’s flippancy and inevitable references to other works and Kadrey’s ultra-dark worldview and jackhammer narrative style. Instead it has some of the grotesqueries that both these more-established authors do so well, as in a scene in which a demigoddess named Sydney (Sydney?) consumes a human meal while watching a favorite black-and-white movie (that’s Kadrey) and another, in the very first chapter, in which a drug makes it possible for a crab and dolphin to have gay sex – followed in the second chapter by a robot developing consciousness while watching the sex scene (that’s Gaiman). The Prey of Gods is packed, simply packed, with characters and plot strands and adventures of all sorts. Hallucinogenic drugs (which let humans tap into long-dormant abilities in addition to giving users vivid hallucinations) plus ancient gods trying to return to power plus robots plus – well, there are plenty of standard SF/fantasy tropes here, but Drayden’s skill lies in using the standard elements without making them feel like clichés. Drayden tries a little too hard to be “with it” in terms of social issues (poor vs. middle-class living conditions) and a diverse cast: gays, a transvestite character, someone with multiple sclerosis. And the primary villain, the aforementioned Sydney, is a bit too much of a cackle-and-twist-your-evil-mustache type (or, in her case, preen-your-evil-feathers type) to be fully involving; the hint that she is secretly lonely is scarcely enough to give her much motivation beyond the obvious one of regaining great power by committing atrocities. The rest of the characters, though, are far better developed, which is one of the book’s major strengths. The novel is set in South Africa, and the question of whether robots – subject to discrimination and treatment as inferior beings – reflect the nation’s troubled past, and its attempts to move beyond it, is a persistent undercurrent here. Readers will quickly notice that there is no plot, or rather there are multiple plots: this book is more about scene-setting and character delineation than about anything actually happening, but at the same time it is an adventure, or rather a series of adventures, that will intrigue readers as they get whipsawed from one narrative perspective to the next and the one after that. There is plenty of gore and violence in The Prey of Gods, and plenty of non-physical violence (illegal mind reading, memory wiping) that is just as upsetting as the physical type (torching a whole township and killing tens of thousands of people). It is not necessarily overtly bad characters doing the bad things, and that is one intriguing element of the book: Nomvula, a young Zulu girl, appears to be the only one who can stop Sydney, provided she gets some crucial help; but even her powers are not unalloyed positive ones. Nomvula needs to team up with some other oddball characters, from a newly self-aware AI construct to a cross-dressing politician, to have a chance of preventing an all-new (but really old and re-emerging) time of turmoil. Drayden’s writing creaks at times: she is entirely too dependent on coincidences to move the plot at certain key points, and her final chapter struggles to provide a wholly predictable “twist” ending. By and large, though, her pacing is effective enough to keep things barreling along. Genetic manipulation (science fiction) here meets ancient folklore (fantasy), and the notion of a potential queen of terror plotting her return to power while working in a nail salon is just one of the many outré elements of an intricate, convoluted multi-plot book whose strands almost come seamlessly together. Drayden is certainly onto something here, or several somethings, and The Prey of Gods is a pleasure to read (if at times a somewhat guilty one), even when it sometimes strains the boundaries of the willing suspension of disbelief.
The second Hidden Legacy novel, White Hot, is much simpler and more-straightforward fare. The wife-and-husband team of Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon, writing as Ilona Andrews, here simply continues the story of Nevada Baylor, magic-possessing human lie detector and protector of the city of Houston through her supernatural powers and her detective agency. This is a straightforward paranormal romance, with the usual odd-couple pairing of a woman who knows what she wants but is not sure with whom she wants it – and a man she wants but doesn’t think she should want. As Nevada puts it to her mom, “He’s bad for me. Why do I have to like a man who’s bad for me? Why couldn’t I have found someone who is solid and normal and not whatever the hell he is?” The answer, of course, is obvious in context. This “he” is Connor “Mad” Rogan, top-rank magic user, billionaire, and unimaginably hot male who, readers will not be surprised to find out in a single intense sex scene, is “corded with muscle. And hung. Oh dear God.” The whole book is written at this level and is, on the face (and other body parts) of it, immensely silly. But it is not really meant to be taken seriously: it is a thrill ride, yes, but one that sits so comfortably in its genre that readers will be able to predict pretty much all the ups and downs, twists and turns of the roller-coaster plot and will not care about any of the predictability, much as riders of a real roller coaster know just what is in store and enjoy it all anyway if they are inclined to board in the first place. There is a certain amount of déjà vu in White Hot that makes the (+++) book a trifle disappointing by its own standards, notably the fact that the bad guys here are the same baddies who almost destroyed Houston before – in the first book of the series, Burn for Me. And the book's cover, again by its own standards and those of the genre, is a trifle disappointing as well, with the usual hot guy holding the usual hot gal from behind, except that the arm with which she is reaching back to caress his neck is bent at an angle that is just barely possible – the arm appears to be broken, or on the verge of breaking. This is not, however, the sort of anatomical detail on which readers (or Nevada) will be interested in focusing. White Hot is most fun when the characters are confronting each other and speaking in over-the-top language that is not supposed to be laughable, as when one nasty woman tells Nevada, regarding Rogan, "He doesn't care about you beyond the fleeting benefit you can provide. And when he is done, he'll discard you in the back of his closet, where you will linger, forgotten and still hoping, while your dreams wither and die one by one." Of course people talk like this all the time – in the Hidden Legacy world, anyway. Accept this book for what it is and no more, and enjoy it strictly on that basis, and you will have a pleasurable time and will look forward to the next novel, Wildfire. But do not think too much about any events or characters here, or your brain cells will wither and die one by one.
York, Book 1: The Shadow Cipher. By Laura Ruby. Walden Pond Press. $17.99.
Apartment 1986. By Lisa Papademetriou. Harper. $16.99.
When a book for young readers (ages 10 and up) runs nearly 500 pages, is offered with unusually attractive production (the pages are physically beautiful), and is set in some version of New York City, it practically screams “BIG AND IMPORTANT.” When it is merely the first book of a planned series, well, what is there to say? Hmm. Quite a lot, actually. Laura Ruby’s York is highly sensitive to the diversity fad (or trend) for books of this type and equally sensitive to steampunk designs and intimations of social relevance (here, gentrification). The characters are pure cardboard types, defined by appearance: twins Tess and Theo Biedermann have bushy hair and olive skin, are Jewish, and are emotionally fragile; Jaime Cruz, their neighbor, has brown skin and Cuban-Trinidadian heritage, and is calm and artistically gifted; the real-estate developer who buys their rent-controlled building – rent control is a 100% positive thing here, showing how far from reality the book is – is greedy and has bad hair and is, well, potato-faced. New York City here means Manhattan, as it does for so many people who do not know New York City at all: there is a brief foray into Brooklyn but nothing whatsoever in the city’s other three counties, known in New York as boroughs. The overall structure of York is steampunk, with the usual elaborate machinery, solar power running everything (how?), and enough pop-culture references to (presumably) keep readers engaged (Legos, Godzilla, Spider-Man, etc.). Throw in elements of Hamilton and The Matrix, not all of which the intended audience is likely to comprehend, and you have an author trying very hard to be SIGNIFICANT as well as entertaining. In truth, the entertaining parts of The Shadow Cipher are much better than the pseudo-significant ones. There are elevators that go sideways and subways that actually climb buildings. There is a T-shirt in which Schrödinger’s cat is dead on one side and alive (but possibly a zombie) on the other. And there is a not-Angry-Birds game called Angry Bots. The plot, which takes a while to get going, involves the protagonists’ attempt to solve the Morningstarr (two r’s, unlike the real New York City’s single one) Cipher and thereby discover a treasure and, you know, save their building and family and all that. Ruby says early on that when you try to solve the Cipher, it tries to solve you, and that pseudo-enigmatic comment helps explain the otherwise inexplicable coincidences that drive the plot, such as finding just the right thing at just the right time and getting the solution to part of the overall puzzle just before (rather than, say, the day after) the destruction of the protagonists’ home. Essentially, this is a puzzle book – and in that respect, in being a mystery that is not a murder mystery, it is first-rate for its intended audience. It is also a book for people very much enamored of New York City (or of Manhattan, anyway), either because they know and love it or because they have never been there and imagine it as far more wonderful and wonder-filled than many of those who have lived there would consider it to be. Ruby does a good job of capturing some of the essence of real-world New York, but it does not pay to look too closely at the details she trots out for verisimilitude: for just one example, she has a subway line called the “A” train possess an elevated stop at 116th Street, when that is actually the “1” train at 125th Street. This sort of thing does not matter to the plot in the slightest, and in many respects Ruby has certainly done her homework regarding New York City, but for that very reason the occasional lapse of detail is jarring. There are a lot of good things in The Shadow Cipher, and once it gets going, it propels readers along nicely, especially if they do not stop to examine too much of the detail too closely. Then it stops. Just stops. Rather than make the story self-contained, rather than build to a cliffhanger ending, Ruby just brings the narrative to a specific point and drops it – and drops readers. That will be a significant disappointment to those who have become engaged in the story and in the characters. Ruby has some apologizing, or at least making-up, to do in this book’s sequel.
The usual racial and social-consciousness stuff makes it into Lisa Papademetriou’s Apartment 1986 as well, albeit at more-manageable length. The protagonist here, Callie, is actually white, which makes it easier for Papademetriou to show her as naïve, self-absorbed and too full of herself – try that with a nonwhite character and you are in for a drubbing as “insensitive,” maybe even racist, for your failure to understand that any such issues in nonwhites are all about circumstance and heritage, not, heaven forbid, anything inherent in one’s character. Apartment 1986 uses Callie’s initial sense of self-satisfaction and self-importance as a pedestal at which to chip away pretty much continuously, until at the book’s end Callie is sadder and wiser and much more understanding of the importance of caring for people who are physically different from her – although she is not too much sadder or wiser, since the book is for a narrower age range than Ruby’s (about 10-14), is far less portentous, and is a standalone rather than a series opener. Callie’s initial happy thoughts and self-image as a philosopher are obviously going to lead her into significant life reversals, which duly occur when her father loses his job and the family has to move out of its apartment on Manhattan’s toney Upper East Side and live far more modestly. Besides – horrors! – Callie, who goes to one of those traditionally snobbish private schools, now does not have concert-ticket money! One day, Callie is so stressed by life – and by her attempted visit to her grandmother, who lives in the apartment that gives the book its title – that she decides to skip school altogether, and this soon becomes a habit. But it is a positive habit, because instead of, you know, hanging around in the streets or something, she goes to museums, which are educational and really as good as being in school, right? It is in a museum that Callie meets Cassius, whose personality consists of being African-American and loving museums and experiencing racism that Callie eventually realizes is, like, a bad thing. Luckily, she does not express herself that way – because she does talk in a kind of teen-cute manner early in the book, complete with exclamation points and lots of capital letters. Anyway, Callie soon encounters the real world not only because of Cassius but also because her little brother is being bullied at school and it turns out that her grandparents are, like, evil, because they rejected her gay uncle. Friendship, family and history, including the ability to learn from the past without being trapped in it – these are the themes of Apartment 1986 just as surely as they are the themes of the York series. Indeed, they are very common themes in books for the age ranges targeted by Ruby and Papademetriou. The two authors dress things up differently, but are ultimately trying to bring their readers to essentially the same place, without lavishing much creativity on thoughts about whether perhaps a different, less-commonly-reached emotional location might be worth exploring.
Brahms: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Sunwook Kim, piano; Hallé conducted by Sir Mark Elder. Hallé. $29.99 (2 CDs).
Liszt: Berlioz Transcriptions. Feng Bian, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Schumann: Humoreske in B-flat, Op. 20; Blumenstück in D-flat, Op. 19; Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6. Luca Buratto, piano. Hyperion. $19.99.
Gershwin: George Gershwin’s Songbook; Jasbo Brown Blues; Impromptu in Two Keys; Three Preludes; Promenade (Walking the Dog); Novelette in Fourths; Prelude (unnumbered); Prelude (fragment); Melody No. 17; Rhapsody in Blue, solo piano transcription; Rialto Ripples; Swiss Miss; Three-Quarter Blues; Two Waltzes in C. Maurizio Zaccaria, piano. ÆVEA. $18.99.
The exceptionally high quality of the up-and-coming generation of pianists comes across again and again in highly varied repertoire, showing that virtuosi of whom moist listeners will likely never have heard are the technical equals – and sometimes the interpretative equals, too – of many of the great pianists of the past. The consistency of these pianists’ performances is truly remarkable. Brahms’ two concertos have been recorded so often, by so many superb and highly thoughtful performers, that it is hard to imagine what someone new can bring to them. One answer is in a splendid recording featuring Sunwook Kim and the orchestra that now styles itself simply Hallé, on the ensemble’s own label. Kim and conductor Sir Mark Elder here produce performances of great sweep, dramatic tension, and exceptional lyricism. Kim is actually capable of performing both of these huge concertos at a single concert, as he did shortly after this recording was made: he is that confident, that well-versed in Brahms’ style and expressive requirements, and (not to put too fine a point on it) that durable. These concertos are enormously draining physically, technically, emotionally and psychologically. Separated by two decades by time of composition, they simultaneously display two very different sides of Brahms’ musical personality and show the foundational elements that remained unchanged throughout his life. They are wonderful works with some striking similarities – in elements of the Adagio of the first and Andante of the second, for instance. And they also have substantial and obvious differences, the first concerto being heaven-storming and enormous in scale, its three movements lasting almost as long as the four movements of the second – while the second has calm and Brahms’ famous autumnal warmth as its most salient characteristics, plus some gorgeous cello writing in the Andante (with lovely playing here by Nicholas Trygstad). The fact that Kim can surmount the technical difficulties of these works, while impressive, is not what makes these performances exceptional, simply because there are so many really wonderful pianists out there. What sets these recordings on a very high plane is their poetry, the nuanced handling of works that can easily sprawl, the control and propulsiveness that Kim, encouraged and abetted by Elder, brings even to the longest movement (the opening one of Concerto No. 1). These are readings to cherish, and they are even more remarkable for reflecting the amazingly high quality of thoughtfulness as well as technical skill possessed by Kim, who is all of 29 years old.
Feng Bian is the same age, possesses many of the same technical skills, has considerable sensitivity of his own, but comes across very differently on a new CD featuring Liszt’s transcriptions of works by Berlioz. This is the 46th volume in an ongoing Naxos series offering Liszt’s complete piano music, featuring various performers, and it is one of the most interesting discs released so far. The distinguishing feature of Liszt’s work here, and of Bian’s interpretations, is delicacy rather than virtuosity. It is easy to forget, given Liszt’s famed technical prowess and the enormous difficulties he wrote into his music (in a very different way from those that Brahms wrote into his), that there was a highly sensitive side to Liszt as well. And it is this side that Bian explores most thoroughly and engagingly. The Dance of the Sylphs from The Damnation of Faust, the Bénédiction et serment from Benvenuto Cellini, and the March of the Pilgrims from Harold in Italy are all given careful and very lovely treatment by Liszt, and Bian brings out the pieces’ manifest beauties in very involving and altogether winning readings. There are also pieces here drawn from Symphonie fantastique, including Marche au supplice – which has an introductory section called L’idée fixe before the march itself, and which requires more of the pounding virtuosity for which Liszt is known. More interesting, though, is a work called L’idée fixe: Andante amoroso d’après une mélodie de Hector Berlioz, which uses the symphony’s famous recurring theme as the basis for a lovely, fantasia-like work of warmth and gentleness, which Bian handles with sensitivity and skill. The most-substantial pieces here are Liszt’s transcriptions of two overtures, to King Lear and Les Francs-Juges, but these are actually less interesting than the shorter works on the CD. Berlioz was a brilliant orchestrator, more adept and creative in that respect than Liszt himself, and the piano transcriptions of these extended works simply pale beside the originals. That is scarcely the fault of either Liszt or Bian, the former bringing accuracy and understanding to the piano versions and the latter offering strong interpretations with fine balance and flow. But it is the more-delicate, more-sensitive portions of this disc that are more memorable.
There are quite a few other twentysomething pianists of considerable skill; indeed, the field of piano virtuosity is currently quite a crowded one, which bodes well for the next several decades of music-making. A new Hyperion disc featuring Luca Buratto clearly shows this pianist’s affinity for Schumann, especially in the Davidsbündlertänze, whose many variations of style and mood Buratto clearly finds congenial: his playing is now forceful, now subdued; now intense, now reserved. Indeed, if there is a criticism of this performance, it is that it never quite settles down: there is no sense of where the Davidsbündlertänze, taken as a whole, are going. But that has as much to do with Schumann’s Florestan/Eusebius duality as with anything in Buratto’s playing, which is skilled and sensitive throughout. Buratto’s handling of Humoreske and Blumenstück is impressive, too: this is one pianist who really throws himself into Schumann’s differing musical styles, so that the quiet and tender portions of these works contrast especially strongly with the stormy and passionate ones. Buratto shows a kind of easy virtuosity here, accepting the difficulties of the piano writing without making it sound as if he has any difficulty surmounting them. The result is a disc that focuses on the impetuosity and pronounced contrasts of these Schumann pieces rather than on the pianist himself – an unusually mature approach, and one that suggests a core sensitivity that should serve Buratto well as his career progresses.
Some of that same sensitivity is evident in Mauricio Zaccaria’s playing on a new ÆVEA disc whose repertoire is more unusual than that offered by Buratto. Zaccaria here plays essentially all the published piano music of Gershwin, a composer noted in particular for one piano-and-orchestra work, Rhapsody in Blue, but not otherwise thought of as a typical focus for pianists. There is something of a crossover feeling to this CD, which is scarcely surprising: Gershwin was a crossover composer, straddling the worlds of classical, jazz and popular music and refusing to be pigeonholed in any of them. The extended Songbook of 1932, broken up into three parts in this recording, includes 18 tunes that are often instantly recognizable as vocals but rarely heard as pure piano pieces, including such standards as I Got Rhythm, Strike Up the Band and Oh, Lady Be Good. There are also individual arrangements here, including Jasbo Brown Blues from Porgy and Bess, the Promenade from Shall We Dance, and Merry Andrew from Rosalie. But the pop-music side of Gershwin is only part of what Zaccaria explores. He makes no attempt to turn the songs into anything profound, but he contrasts them strongly with, among other pieces, the Three Preludes from 1926. These show, individually and collectively, that Gershwin could and did write strictly classical music – and very well-made classical music, too – when he so chose. There are some other treasures here as well, notably Impromptu in Two Keys, which has the right hand in C and the left in D-flat. As for Rhapsody in Blue, it is interesting to hear it in Gershwin’s solo-piano transcription, but this version does no more justice to the piece than Liszt’s versions of Berlioz’ opera overtures do to those works. Someone who has never heard Rhapsody in Blue would find the solo-piano work intriguing for its combination of solid understanding of classical form with freewheeling thematic development and well-chosen harmonies. But anyone who has heard this piece in its version for piano and orchestra will find it diminished here, curiously flat and altogether less convincing than in its better-known version. Zaccaria plays it well – he plays all this music with plenty of skill – but there is simply less of interest here than in other works on the disc. Still, Zaccaria, like Kim, Bian and Buratto, is already a considerable pianist and one whose future development is sure to be worth watching and hearing.
June 15, 2017
Nnewts, Book Three: The Battle for Amphibopolis. By Doug TenNapel. Color by Katherine Garner. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.
The Too-Scary Story. By Bethany Deeney Murguia. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.
The conclusion of Doug TenNapel’s Nnewts trilogy is so packed with slam-bang, hyper-colored action and activity that the silly parts will go almost unnoticed by anyone who has enjoyed the first two volumes, Escape from the Lizzarks and The Rise of Herk. The power of the third book is as much due to the excellent color provided by Katherine Garner as it is to TenNapel’s story, which here takes a series of largely unsurprising turns and which readers will quickly realize is going on a familiar arc that involves great heroism, great sacrifice, and great but not unalloyed triumph at the end. It is impossible to understand this third volume without knowing the first two, since it picks up exactly where the second entry left off and makes no attempt to look back. Herk, as small as ever but increasingly potent as a magical being, tries to remain true to the good-guy amphibians even though he is slowly gaining scales that will turn him into a bad-guy Lizzark; it turns out the Lizzarks were created for the express purpose of spoiling the idyllic world of Nnewts, who were created by the constellation Orion – this is one of the silly elements of the story that readers should simply accept. Orion is essentially the same constellation visible in Earth’s night sky, but in TenNapel’s world he is knocked out of the cosmos by the bad guys as they grow in power – and then, at a crucial point, is rescued by Herk and other “fry” (kids, that is) and helped back to power by the White Stag, a star creature he has hunted for a billion years. In gratitude for the help, Orion at the very end of the book is again hunting the White Stag – well, maybe that isn’t gratitude after all, but another of the silly elements. Then there is Anthigar, the very first of all Nnewts: a twist of the story, although not a particularly surprising one, shows that the Lizzarks exist because of the jealousy of the second Nnewt, Denthigar, to whom Orion gave a smaller crown than he gave Anthigar. That seems a pretty trivial slight, but not an especially silly one – the silliness comes in when Anthigar, fighting on behalf of Herk, suddenly starts talking in wholly atypical dialogue, his usual portentous pronouncements transformed into, “You’ll stay as long as I please and I’m all outta please!” The really important thing in The Battle for Amphibopolis, though, is not the silly elements: what matters here is that the heroic quest, complete with a typically heroic decision to make a typically heroic self-sacrifice, is so well illustrated and so dramatically and colorfully presented that the trilogy’s conclusion is tremendously involving and ultimately satisfying despite its narrative hiccups. Herk and his brothers still need their mother’s permission before they can save the Nnewts’ world, and thank goodness she gives it to them. It turns out that the primary weapon against the rampaging Lizzarks and the monsters they have created is neither more nor less than beauty, which in its various forms stuns the Lizzarks (especially their rulers) and eventually gives the Nnewts the upper hand. Any young readers who know something about real-world amphibians and lizards, and who therefore may be wondering why the imaginary Nnewts spend all their time on land in Amphibopolis, will be especially satisfied when, at the end of the story, the Nnewts discover that they really belong in a watery environment after all. And the Lizzarks? They conveniently cease to exist, turning out to be Nnewts whose scales resulted from an evil spell that is broken thanks to the heroics of Herk; his siblings, Sissy and Zerk; and the other Nnewts. There are plenty of intense and scary scenes in The Battle for Amphibopolis, and if the eventual victory of the good guys is never really in doubt, there are enough cliff-hangers scattered through the book so fans of TenNapel’s dramatically paced story will be carried along with it to its satisfying conclusion.
There is nothing anywhere near as frightening in Bethany Deeney Murguia’s The Too-Scary Story, but that makes sense: TenNapel is writing for preteens and young teenagers, Murguia for significantly younger children. The issue in Murguia’s book is just how scary Papa should make a bedtime story for Grace, who insists that it be scary, and Walter, who insists that it not be scary. Now that’s a dilemma! Papa starts telling about the “two brave explorers and their dog walking home through the forest,” and Murguia immediately shows Grace pulling a resistant Walter into the imaginary woods. “Too scary!” exclaims Walter, so Papa throws in twinkly fireflies to relieve the darkness. That is not scary enough for Grace, who wants bears in the story. So Papa talks about creatures in the bushes, and Murguia shows eyes of all sorts peeking out at the children in the woods – but again Walter says that is too scary. So Papa says the creatures “were just settling into bed for the night.” Now Grace is dissatisfied, so Papa conjures up some footsteps and a shadow – then has the kids in the story run home and discover that the shadow is only Papa himself. The result: enough scariness to satisfy Grace and enough reassurance to make Walter, the younger child, happy as well. In fact, both kids are seen smiling from their beds at the end of the book – Papa has managed to give them both what they wanted. Now, what will he do the next night? Murguia does not get into that, but the whole scenario suggests that Papa is clever and caring enough to manage another scary-but-not-too-scary story if that is what Grace and Walter want. Parents may find this book to be an enjoyable read-aloud, since the mildly scary pages lend themselves to a deeper, darker voice than the ones focused on fireflies and sleepy woodland creatures. And the illustrations – which feature kids, dog, Papa, and a tiny owl that observes the proceedings and ends up cuddled against the dog in the kids’ room – will be fun both for kids who are like Grace and for ones who are more like Walter.