November 30, 2017
Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $19.99.
You won’t find a better gift book than this for any Harry Potter fan, of any age. It is an absolutely enchanting blend of the real world, where magic does not exist but has a fascinating history, with the realistic underlying elements of J.K. Rowling’s fictional world, where magic not only works but also is central to pretty much everything. Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic is based on a superb British Library exhibit that uses the Harry Potter books to introduce the history of magical thinking and actions in our (that is, the Muggle) world – showcasing both Rowling’s careful research and the reasons the Harry Potter books have resonated so deeply with readers for more than 20 years.
Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic is also a rare opportunity to get some of the stories behind the Harry Potter series – or, if not exactly behind, those leading up to the novels, anyway. For example, the book includes Rowling’s own drawings of various parts of the “Potterverse,” ranging from individual characters at Hogwarts to a portrait of Harry with the detestable Dursleys to Harry and his friends seeing Fluffy the three-headed dog for the first time. It includes handwritten drafts of some of the books’ scenes, showing what Rowling kept in and what she (or her editors) removed before publication. It has an early version of the Sorting Hat’s song, and Rowling’s own conception of the opening to Diagon Alley. And much more. It also has finished art, some by Olivia Lomenech Gill and quite a bit by the wonderful Jim Kay, who is in the process of reimagining the Harry Potter world through handsome, oversized, illustrated editions of all seven novels (three of which have been published so far).
Yet there are things here that are even more intriguing than all this – perhaps not for all dyed-in-the-wool Harry Potter fans, but surely for some of them, and very definitely for anyone who likes (even loves) the novels but whose curiosity about magic extends beyond them. Here you will find a picture of the amazing alchemical manuscript called the Ripley Scroll, a gorgeously illustrated 16th-century guide to the Philosopher’s Stone that is so big – some 20 feet long – that it has rarely been unrolled, because there are few tables big enough to hold it. Here is a look at the real Nicolas Flamel and his tombstone. Here you can see the astonishing Battersea Cauldron, which dates to perhaps 800 years before Christ and still looks remarkably beautiful and carefully put together. Here are pages from a book called Ortus Sanitatis, showing a real-world potions master and his students (some of whom look distinctly inattentive). Here are some of the volvelles (rotating paper models) created by Petrus Apianus (1495-1522) to reproduce the movement of the planets. Here is a deck of unusual 18th-century playing cards used in cartomancy – a form of divination – and inscribed with the names of Merlin, Faust and Nostradamus (the first two being legendary and the third real, showing the interplay of reality and fiction even in our own world). Here is a picture, from an 18th-century book, of a giant, bird-eating spider, a creature long thought to be fictional but eventually proved real – juxtaposed with Jim Kay’s illustration of Harry and Ron encountering the giant spider Aragog.
And there is much more. Short paragraphs of facts detail, for example, what a bestiary is and how real-world wands originated (as bundles of twigs used by priests to call spirits). Also here are plenty of magic, or magic-like, activities to try. For example, there is a step-by-step way to make a “ghost in a bottle” with cold water, food coloring, and a little ingenuity. There are instructions to make color-changing flowers, even ones that take on two different colors at once. And there is a way to make a dragon’s egg – or something that looks like one, anyway. Add to all this looks at some crystal balls and Chinese oracle bones, a paper showing how the word “abracadabra” was supposed to be used to cure malaria, a photo of a real (and extraordinarily humanlike) mandrake root, a bezoar stone (supposed to protect against poisons), and a great deal more. And then add references to Rowling material that goes beyond the original seven novels, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. What this all adds up to is a wonderful and wonder-filled tour of the world of Harry Potter, how and where that world intersects with our own everyday one, how Rowling got the inspiration to bring the two worlds together, and how magic – even if it does not work in our world the way it does in Harry’s – is everywhere around us and has been for thousands of years. Harry Potter: A Journey Through a History of Magic is a trip through time, through alternative realities, and through a series of now-classic books that deservedly retain their fascination for younger and older readers alike, and are now poised to begin enchanting an entirely new generation of soon-to-be Potterphiles.
Anne of Green Gables: A Graphic Novel. Adapted by Mariah Marsden. Illustrated by Brenna Thummler. Andrews McMeel. $10.99.
If You Give a Man a Cookie: A Parody. By Laura Numeroff. Illustrated by Brian Ajhar. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Wonderful works can become even more wonderful, or at least wonderful in a different way, in the hands of skilled reinterpreters and artists. Anne of Green Gables was already a charming period piece when written by L.M. (Lucy Maud) Montgomery in 1908, and it has spawned innumerable sequels, followups, short stories, films, radio shows, stage plays and an extraordinary amount of merchandising. Despite a setting that now seems quaint as well as lost in time – Prince Edward Island, Canada, more than a century ago – and a basic plot foundation that nowadays needs considerable explaining (a mixup in which the wrong child gets sent from an orphanage to a brother and sister to help at their farm), the book retains its popularity because of its warmth, solid humanity, and the skillful building of relationships among its characters. And then of course there is the personality of Anne, who is 11 years old at the start of the story and in her late teens by its conclusion. Anne is talkative, imaginative (indeed, over-imaginative), and tremendously adaptable – this last element of her behavior eventually winning over just about everybody with whom she comes into contact. And now Anne of Green Gables: A Graphic Novel brings Anne firmly into the 21st century in a finely managed adaptation by Mariah Marsden with some excellently conceived illustrations by Brenna Thummler. Although the book is of necessity abridged to fit the graphic-novel form, its main elements are all there, from Anne’s accidental arrival at Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert’s farm, to her gradual acceptance in the close-knit community, to the errors she makes that cause her sensitive nature to be deeply troubled (such as accidentally getting her “bosom friend” Diana drunk by mistakenly giving her the wrong liquid), to her success in school – and the family tragedy that leads her to give up a scholarship and resolve to stay at Green Gables. It is a straightforward book, essentially simple in plot and characters, but there is pervasive humanity to the story that comes through very well indeed in the graphic-novel version, in which Marsden keeps the dialogue that clearly shows the characters’ personalities (such as Anne’s “I learn something from every mistake”) while Thummler provides sly looks, clever asides, and just the right choice of angle and coloration to bring out the setting of Green Gables and the town of Avonlea. Indeed, the many wordless panels are often more communicative than the ones containing dialogue, carrying the story forward adeptly in an adaptation in which virtually no third-person narrative is needed. Graphic novels are so often thought of as sprawling, fast-paced and inventively designed – with many panels in unusual shapes to reflect developments in the stories – that it is refreshing to find one that proceeds much as does Montgomery’s original novel, in a deliberate, methodical, slow-by-today’s-standards way that pulls readers in quite effectively. It will be a wonderful introduction of Anne to new readers as well as a most welcome chance for those who already know (or once knew) her to find her anew in all her personable quirkiness.
It is easy to see how a somewhat snide and snarky modern author could parody the essential simplicity and down-home niceness of Anne of Green Gables, and it is equally easy to see how someone similarly sarcastic could have her way with the If You Give… series in which a mouse gets a cookie, a pig gets a pancake, a moose gets a muffin, and on and on – with each initial gift-giving leading to a naturally following consequence as matters wend their way through delightfully silly and always warm-hearted sequential stories that eventually circle right back where they started. Yes, Laura Numeroff’s If You Give… books are ripe for parody, and now they have indeed attracted some parodistic attention. Fortunately, it comes from – Laura Numeroff. Her If You Give a Man a Cookie is a delightful sendup, suitable for all ages, of her child-focused If You Give… animal books. The story sequence here is aimed mainly at adults, but the absolutely wonderful illustrations by Brian Ajhar manage to channel the amusing childishness of the Felicia Bond pictures in the series for kids while at the same time giving a slight grown-up twist to everything. The mustachioed man who gets the initial cookie soon asks for milk to go with it (“God forbid he should get it himself”) and soon after wants to see if there is milk in his mustache – so he glances in a mirror and then starts worry about his hairline receding. Then he decides to do things to make himself feel young and vibrant, such as trying to do 10 pushups but only managing three before he becomes “so tired, he’ll lie down on the couch on top of the laundry you just folded.” You can see where this matter of mild domestic strife is going, and that is exactly where Numeroff and Ajhar take it, including an eventual going-to-sleep scene in which the man cannot fall asleep and therefore asks his long-suffering wife for some milk – and, inevitably…well, no. He does not get to ask her to get him a cookie to go with it – she makes him go downstairs and get what he wants for himself. That is a twist on the endings of the kids’ If You Give… books, and one that fits perfectly into If You Give a Man a Cookie. And speaking of long-suffering characters, Ajhar inserts a huge-headed dog with its own very distinct personality into Numeroff’s book, and when the dog ends up on the man’s pillow while the man slinks off downstairs, the book comes to a perfectly parodistic conclusion. If You Give a Man a Cookie is fun even if you do not know the If You Give… series for children, but it is immensely more enjoyable if you do. Apparently if you give an author a sweetness-and-light topic, she will probably ask for a touch of spice to go with it – at least if the author is Laura Numeroff.
Max Tilt: Fire the Depths. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.
The Glass Spare. By Lauren DeStefano. Harper. $17.99.
The parade of novels for preteens and young teenagers in which skin color and ethnicity are placed front-and-center despite having nothing to do with plot, character development, speech patterns or anything else continues to grow. This approach makes sense in terms of trying to reach out to wider audiences for these books, but it is unfortunate that little is actually done with the material, which becomes shorthand for characterization rather than an element of it. Even authors as experienced as Peter Lerangis and Lauren DeStefano lean unnecessarily and rather lazily on the “appearance” angle to give information about characters in their latest series. Lerangis’ Max Tilt sequence has one of those intriguing but silly, vaguely historical premises that Lerangis favors: two cousins search for a treasure hidden by their mutual ancestor, Jules Verne. Max, the 13-year-old title character, has a white mother and Dominican father, while Alexandra (Alex), his college-age cousin, has an African-American mother and white father. The thing is, the two cousins think alike, and that rather than their parentage is what matters. In fact, what is most interesting about Max is that he has autism spectrum disorder, which means, first, that he tends to take everything literally (leading to a series of misunderstandings, some of them humorous); and, second, that he has a certain degree of synesthesia, which means that to him, emotions have odors (fear = fish). In real life, most people now bend over backwards to avoid defining other people by their illnesses, disabilities or other physical characteristics, but in Max Tilt, it is Max’s outside-the-norm perception and behavior that make him who he is. Max is left in Alex’s care (she is taking time off from college to write a novel) when Max’s parents have to go to the Mayo Clinic so his mother can have medical tests. Max and Alex soon discover tons of unpaid bills in Max’s home, including an eviction notice. So they decide to help by selling some of the stuff in Max’s parents’ attic – where, wonder of wonders, they discover a chest once owned by Verne. And the chest contains clues that lead to a lost Verne manuscript that suggests that Verne’s supposedly fictional stories were actually based on reality. Furthermore, there are indications that there is a treasure to be found by anyone who can follow Verne’s clues – a potential solution to Max’s family’s money problems and hopefully to his mother’s health issues as well. Absurdity piles on absurdity here, mounting higher when Max and Alex encounter the typical nefarious businessman type who has plenty of money and gadgets and henchmen and such and who is also after the putative Verne treasure – resulting in an uncomfortable relationship of teens with bad guy, which in turn leads to a globe-spanning adventure with the distinct flavor of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. The puzzles in Max Tilt are often clever, and so is Alex, who is defined primarily by creativity (that novel-writing idea) and a certain rebellious streak. Max, whose synesthesia is his most interesting quality, pairs well with his cousin, and the “uneasy alliance” theme keeps the plot moving in often-unbelievable but frequently entertaining ways. Max Tilt: Fire the Depths is at bottom a fairly standard adventure tale for young readers, with Lerangis’ typically skilled pacing moving the story along well and neatly setting up the novel as the first in a multi-book series.
The Glass Spare, intended as the first book of only two, is aimed at slightly older readers (13 and up rather than 8-12). DeStefano creates a rather odd setting here: much of the world is standard-issue fantasy, but there are also steampunk elements such as dirigibles and technological ones such as data goggles, as well as telephones and other forms of technology. The whole thing does not hang together particularly well. The racial element here mixes white, 15-year-old central character Wilhelmina (Wil) Heidle, fourth child and only daughter of the royal family of Arrod and therefore a “spare” in the family line to the throne, with brown-skinned Loom, banished prince of an enemy kingdom. The twist in the story, scarcely an unusual one, involves Wil’s unexpected discovery that she has a limited but potentially significant power. Specifically, it turns out that under the pressure of an adrenaline rush, her touch can kill people by turning them into gemstones. Wil’s power emerges during a moment of self-defense and immediately haunts her. It is destined to haunt her family, too, including her siblings: heir-to-the-throne Owen, sickly but gifted alchemist and inventor Gerdie, and cruel and heartless Baren. Wil’s father is a power-hungry warmonger, and after Wil discovers her deadly ability, she justifiably fears being put to use to further his ambitions – as has already happened to Gerdie. Unfortunately, Wil accidentally kills a family member right in front of her father, and she is immediately banished – soon to be captured by rebels, including Loom. A romance predictably blossoms between Loom and Wil, and indeed there is a great deal that is predictable about The Glass Spare, including the cardboard nature of most characters and the generic reasons they have for their actions. It is difficult to care very much about any of the people – the authorial manipulation of their actions and emotions is overly obvious – and the rather odd world building makes the book less involving than might be expected from a work that contains so many disparate elements. The underlying themes of good and evil, science and magic, are conventional ones as well. Perhaps the planned sequel, which is clearly set up at the end of The Glass Spare, will more effectively tie together some of the scattered elements found here.
The Whole Brain: The Microbiome Solution to Heal Depression, Anxiety, and Mental Fog without Prescription Drugs. By Raphael Kellman, M.D. Da Capo. $27.
Craig & Fred: A Marine, a Stray Dog, and How They Rescued Each Other—Young Readers’ Edition. By Craig Grossi with Kelly Shetron. Harper. $16.99.
The increasing awareness of the importance of properly balanced gut bacteria for the overall health of the human body has led, predictably, to a proliferation of charlatans, absolutists, marketers of “perfect” digestive products, and genuinely thoughtful holistic or naturopathic physicians with a focus on the health of the microbiome – the body-pervading collection of trillions of microorganisms living within each of us humans. Even when dealing with the most sincere of these microbiome focusers – and there is little doubt that Raphael Kellman is sincere – it can be helpful to remember that other, equally sincere healthcare practitioners, medical and otherwise, have different beliefs about the best route to overall physical and mental health, and that there is not even a consensus about whether there is any single “best” approach. The complexity of the human body would argue that there is not. But the desire of advocates such as Kellman is to argue that, yes, there is one single route to health and well-being, and it can be presented in basic form in a book such as The Whole Brain, then implemented on one’s own or, even better, by becoming one of Kellman’s patients in New York City. Readers would do well to pay attention to Kellman’s arguments while realizing that they are one set of analyses of types of physical and mental difficulty and one set of recommendations on how to feel better. With that understood, there is nothing wrong with trying Kellman’s ideas, or anyone else’s, and settling on what works for you, either as a single approach or as a combinatorial one. Kellman’s angle on health includes some typical warnings about traditional Western medicine: “The current way that thyroid function is measured by conventional doctors is often inadequate. You can easily have thyroid lab results that say ‘No problem!’ and still actually have a thyroid problem.” Comments like this are typically designed to create skepticism in readers so they will be less inclined to question the author’s approach and more inclined to dismiss what their current doctors say. Kellman also offers some unexceptionable comments on items that can cause chronic inflammation and intestinal imbalance, including sugar, artificial sweeteners, processed grains, gluten, dairy, the dairy substitute soy, industrial chemicals in personal-care products and in “conventionally farmed foods,” and of course stress. It becomes easy to see, quite early in The Whole Brain, where Kellman will end up when he finishes his descriptive sections and moves to prescriptive ones: he is going to call for everyone to consume probiotics, healthful fats, and lots of things labeled “organic” (and priced accordingly). And this is exactly where Kellman goes. Products from cow’s milk are unacceptable – eat only ones made from goat’s or sheep’s milk. If you use oils, they should be avocado or coconut or organic ghee, although he does include butter with the comment that “ghee is better.” Brown rice, millet and quinoa are the only acceptable “grains and near-grains.” Lots of vegetables are all right, but not iceberg lettuce. Also, no canola or cottonseed oil, no corn, no dried or canned fruits, no juices, no peanuts or peanut butter, no processed or packaged foods, and no soy “except soy lecithin and organic fermented soy.” Also, no sugars or sweeteners of any kind except a specific brand called Lakanto that many people find bitter or at best mildly sweet. Kellman’s ultimate point, like that of so many self-proclaimed naturopathic or holistic practitioners, is that health requires a massive change in the typical American diet, a change not only in what is eaten but also in what one enjoys eating – you must train yourself to like different things in order to promote your overall health, no matter how much time that takes and how much stress a massive dietary overhaul provokes. Pretty much every diet, of every type, says this same thing, and pretty much every diet, of every type, fails because of the emphasis on making significant mental and psychological adjustments to food types (and portions), as if doing so is no big deal because the proponents of the diets have done so themselves (or say they have). Kellman, like many nutrition-oriented advocates, also strongly favors supplementation involving, individually or in combination, items including berberine, wormwood, caprylic acid, slippery elm, gamma oryzanol, butyrate, various digestive enzymes, and so on. Kellman recommends supplements for many purposes – Saccharomyces boulardii for cognitive decline, for example, to “help to reduce the ammonia levels that contribute to brain dysfunction.” He also includes multiple weeks of dietary suggestions, plus recipes that assume people have loads of time available to spend finding the right ingredients and getting things done in the kitchen. Kellman appears to be quite sincere in his advocacy, and while the absolutist nature of his gut-only focus is overdone, there is no question that gastrointestinal issues lie at the foundation of some pains, problems and health issues, including “depression, anxiety and mental fog” in some people. Readers who believe their clinical picture fits the rather broadly drawn one that Kellman says can be helped by dietary changes may certainly find the suggestions in The Whole Brain to be worth trying. If they seem to help – even if that is because of the placebo effect – these approaches are worth continuing. But do not be lured by the belief that these ideas and no others hold the key to health. That sort of notion, no matter how it is dressed up and no matter how well-meaning it may be, is nonsense.
If you really are looking for a near-panacea for depression and other mental, psychological and social ills, you could do a lot worse than getting a pet. Again and again, in circumstance after circumstance, responsive pets that offer unconditional love and acceptance and impose activity and interactivity regimens of their own through their need for care have been shown to relieve stress, anxiety, depression, even physical pain. Dogs are champions at this, but plenty of other animals work for some people in some circumstances: cats, rabbits, horses, pigs, and various reptiles all have at least some success stories. So, on one level, Craig & Fred, now available in an edition for young readers, is nothing special. On many other levels, though, it is very special indeed. It is the story of a mutt found wandering around Afghanistan when a contingent of Marines was stationed there, of how the mutt – that would be Fred – became part of the Marines’ lives and especially part of the life of Craig Grossi, and of how the two became inseparable both in Afghanistan and (after considerable struggle with paperwork and human relations) in the United States. There is nothing particularly new in the notion that people who adopt dogs say the dogs really saved them, not the other way around. But there is special meaning to that notion, and special pathos to it, in Grossi’s case. Grossi suffers a traumatic brain injury in a Taliban attack, and after being taken to the Battlefield Recovery Center at Camp Leatherneck, he is seized by vomiting and passes out. And then, he writes, “I woke up thinking of one thing: Fred.” And it seems that Fred is thinking of Grossi, too, in some way, because the man caring for Fred while Grossi is in the field says the dog “was not happy while you were away,” would not eat his favorite food, spent his time moping, and even refused to play soccer. Grossi goes to find him, and when he does, “I watched for a minute, tears brimming. The weight of responsibility I felt for Fred came rushing back to me, but it didn’t feel like a burden this time. Instead, it was my mission.” Then Fred sees him and, as Grossi writes, “I was assaulted with love.” Thanks to all sorts of help from all sorts of people, Fred is cleared to go to the United States – this is no small matter – and eventually, after further deployment and violence and heartache, Grossi returns as well. And this is only halfway through the book. The rest of it is likely to be less interesting to young readers, although parents may want to read it for a largely unsentimental and straightforward story of military personnel adapting to a return to civilian life. That is what happens in the second half of the book: Grossi finds out all he does not know and needs to learn about returning to the United States, and finds out all Fred does not know and needs to learn to be a dog living somewhere outside a war zone. It turns out that Fred is young, less than a year old, and smart as well. The combination makes him trainable, which is a good thing, since he has some serious fears: curbside sewer drains terrify him, for example, and Grossi’s father, caring for Fred before Grossi’s return, has to pick the dog up and carry him past them. Fred also has aggressive tendencies, taking them out on Grossi’s girlfriend’s small dog and at one point on Grossi himself – leading to a “dominance” wrestling match that Grossi wins, with the result that Fred “never bit again.” At one point, Grossi writes, “When we came home together, Fred was a source of light.” And that is a good description of the positive, upbeat, anti-depressive capabilities that so many dogs seem to possess so naturally. The later part of Craig & Fred, a road trip that involves meeting various humans who interact with Fred as well as Grossi, is pleasant enough and homey enough to counterbalance the intensity and viciousness of the book’s earlier sections. It is, however, less interesting to read. But its warmth, and the way it shows how dogs really can rescue the people who seem to rescue them, reinforce the feel-good message of the entire book. It is a message that should inspire readers of any age to deep gratitude to Grossi and those who serve as he did – the vast majority of them without the benefit of a Fred in their lives.
Wagner: Siegfried. Simon O’Neill, David Cangelosi, Matthias Goerne, Werner Van Mechelen, Falk Struckmann, Valentina Farcas, Deborah Humble, Heidi Melton; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Naxos. $49.99 (4 CDs).
The third opera in the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen is in many ways the most difficult to pull off, and it is to Jaap van Zweden’s considerable credit that Siegfried proves the best entry so far in his Ring cycle with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. The success is not unalloyed and does not come altogether easily, but it is success, and paves the way, at least potentially, for a genuinely impressive Götterdammerung. Or so one hopes.
Siegfried is an exceptionally talky opera, a strain both on the voices of its principals and on an audience’s patience – unless the singing is very high-quality indeed. The first act, which features the interplay of two decidedly unpleasant characters, is the hardest to get right, and van Zweden and his singers do not quite manage it – but they are close enough so that the second and third acts come across very well indeed. The problem with the first act is that Siegfried is nasty and abusive to Mime for what appears to be no good reason – and Mime himself, a devious and scarcely benevolent character, deserves some sympathy as a result. The act probably worked better in the pervasive anti-Semitism of the world in which Wagner wrote the opera, with Mime coming across as a stereotypical smarmy Jew, greedy and conniving and fully deserving of whatever comes to him. But there is no way to give the act the same effect today that it would have had in Wagner’s time – and no one would want it to have its effect on that basis nowadays. So what audiences are left with is a nasty, scheming dwarf being belittled, shamed and physically attacked (by a bear, no less) through the agency of a powerful, strong and thoroughly unlikable character who is, if anything, even more repugnant than Mime himself. This is not the best setup for an 80-minute first act. To complicate matters further, whoever sings Siegfried needs a true heldentenor voice of great power and projection, able to surmount full orchestral sounds time and again. Simon O’Neill does not have this: he is expressive and communicates hostility well enough, but his voice does not have the sheer brute strength needed for the role (and reflective of the character’s physical strength when the opera is staged rather than given as a concert production like this one). David Cangelosi does much better as Mime, with well-modulated emotion and cunning, a first-rate sense of drama, and the ability to hold his own against Siegfried and even, in the act’s second scene, against Matthias Goerne as the Wanderer (Wotan). It is this opera and not Götterdammerung that shows Wotan’s downfall: he is not even present in the finale of the tetralogy. Goerne is dramatic, involving, noble and darkly convincing in this Siegfried, not only in the first act but also in the later ones. His voice does show some signs of the stresses to which Wagner subjects it, dropping into heaviness rather than authoritative pronouncements from time to time. But on the whole, he gives a convincing portrayal of a now nearly impotent leader of gods who are doomed by their own all-too-human frailties and failings.
Siegfried improves significantly as music drama when the second act opens with Alberich outside Fafner’s cave. Werner Van Mechelen makes a very fine Alberich, slimy, obsessed and neurotic, although not as deeply bitter as the character can be. The contrast between his voice and Goerne’s is considerable and is used to good effect here. The vocalizing of Falk Struckmann as Fafner works less well. Struckmann was Hunding in van Zweden’s Die Walküre, and was very fine, stolid and determined, in that role. As the giant-transformed-to-dragon, though, he is not particularly menacing, although certainly sonorous enough. On the other hand, it is in this second act, whether singing of his yearning for his mother or having his deadly confrontation with Fafner, that O’Neill’s Siegfried really comes into his own, with vocal strength combined with lyricism in a way that lifts the entire recording to a new height – at which it remains for the balance of the opera.
It is after Fafner’s death and after that of the thoroughly detestable Mime, with the appearance of the Forest Bird, that Siegfried is transformed into a truly wonderful opera. Valentina Farcas is wonderful as the bird, her light voice soaring, dipping and diving in just the way a bird might, her vocal vivacity in strong contrast to the sound of everyone else in the opera. It is she who brings Siegfried to the portentous confrontation with his grandfather, Wotan the Wanderer, who by this time is revealed as little more than a small-minded bully through his treatment of Erda: Deborah Humble deflects Goerne’s attempted bluster effectively, making it clear that Wotan can overpower her through brute strength but cannot really conquer her. By the time Siegfried’s sword, Nothung, shatters the Wanderer’s spear, it is hard to escape the notion that Wotan deserves every bit of doom that is coming to him. But the capstone of the opera, and of this specific performance, lies in Siegfried’s discovery of Brünnhilde. O’Neill’s voice is in full lyrical flower by the time this happens, delivering his soliloquy with mounting passion and enthusiasm. And when Heidi Melton – who was a wonderful Sieglinde in Die Walküre – breaks through strings and harp to hail her awakener, in a part that requires firm vocal control up to a series of high C’s, the entire production blossoms into astonishing beauty. Melton does not have quite the dramatic breadth of the very best Brünnhildes, but her voice is so radiant, and so beautifully matched with O’Neill’s, that their duet of love and discovery (of themselves and each other) becomes, as it should, a tremendous climax of this four-hour music drama, a pinnacle of ecstasy of the sort that smashes all obstacles and cares not that the world may end so long as it fulfills its unerring sense of purpose. That the world does end, for the gods and many of the mortal characters, in Götterdammerung, is the tragedy of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Yet the fourth opera actually concludes with the rinsing clean of the old world by the pure waters of the Rhine, which promise a better world to come – and the conclusion of Siegfried suggests that that better world will be one in which love will be fully embraced, not renounced in the name of worldly power that proves ultimately unattainable despite all the sacrifices made on its behalf.
Van Zweden’s Siegfried, in which the orchestra plays beautifully, with precision and the best balance it has shown so far in this cycle. The Hong Kong players are augmented by a number of musicians from Germany, who may be said to have a substantial intuitive as well as learned grasp of Wagner’s music. And this performance looks strongly ahead both to the tragedy of the final opera and to the ultimate, musically unrealized hope that lies beyond it. This is the first recording in this ambitious Naxos project in which singers, conductor and orchestra show the heights they are capable of attaining. If next year’s Götterdammerung continues at this level, the result will be a Ring cycle from Hong Kong that is fully worthy to stand with the best ones presented in recent times by the top orchestras and singers in Europe.
November 22, 2017
Mouseling’s Words. By Shutta Crum. Pictures by Ryan O’Rourke. Clarion. $16.99.
I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream Because Puns Suck: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
An exceptionally charming book that manages to merge a cat-and-mouse tale with a story about growing up and finding oneself, Shutta Crum’s Mouseling’s Words enchants from the start with Ryan O’Rourke’s unusually warm-looking digital illustration of the silhouette of a small mouse standing in a backlit mouse hole at the side of a pirate-themed restaurant called The Swashbuckler. The softly rounded pictures, unusual in digital illustrations, are a big part of the book’s attraction, and are exceptionally well integrated with an unusually thoughtful storyline. The very first double page of the story itself shows Mouseling, who narrates the book, sleeping with many siblings beneath comforters made of words collected by the young mice’s Aunt Tillie from menus, place mats, signs, food packages and other written material in the restaurant. The wall decorations are bottle caps labeled “Cola,” “Grape Soda” and “Pop!” And the mice are cuddled under “warm,” “noodles,” “yummy,” “zest,” “tidbit,” and so on. The story continues as the little mice set off from this pleasant nest on their own, one by one, until eventually only Mouseling is left – reluctant to leave all those wonderful words. But thanks to some persuasion by Father, Mother and Aunt Tillie, he finally agrees to explore the world outside – aided by a map that Aunt Tillie draws and that includes an ominous picture of a cat, labeled “The Beast.” Mouseling decides that his calling is to discover new words and bring them back to the nest, starting with the word “sing,” which he sounds out to himself and brings back – Father calls it “a right treasure.” The next day, Mouseling runs into a building that turns out to house a library – but he knows nothing about books, only about words, so he starts searching for them and finds “float” on a piece of paper that floats gently down onto…uh-oh…a cat! Mouseling carefully retrieves the word anyway; and over the next days, he says, “I climbed. I rappelled. I tunneled.” And in so doing, he uses words that will expand and enhance the vocabulary of young readers of the book. Crum has Mouseling find words in ways that reflect their meaning – “perfume” smells good, for example, because it comes from a small perfume sample packet. This becomes important when Mouseling re-encounters the cat while “nibbling on a milky word” – the word “milk” taken from a thrown-away milk carton. Because the word still has some actual milk on it, the cat sees it as a gift when Mouseling offers it, and the two potential enemies become friends, eventually bonding over (what else?) a story. This happens after the cat (whose name tag reads “Webster” – one nice touch among many) shows Mouseling that all the books are packed with words. Mouseling’s Words expertly conjures up a world of warmth and wonder from the mundane setting of word-bearing discards and book-lined library shelves. It is a genuine delight of a story that makes its own words, and so many others, simply wonderful.
Word play of a very different sort, for a very different audience, lies at the heart of some of Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine comic strips. Pastis has made this playing around an integral part of Pearls Before Swine – by creating atrocious puns set up through elaborate word sequences by characters in the strip and perpetrated by Pastis’ in-strip avatar, the cartoonist drawing the cartoons including the cartoons of the cartoonist himself. It is worth noticing the amount of attention Pastis pays to words even as he tortures them and turns them inside-out for the sake of extended sequences with puns as their payoff. And it does not matter if you find the payoff puny: that is part of the joke, with the characters in the strip objecting vociferously and sometimes violently to the pun sequences – in which they have no choice but to take part (since they are, after all, cartoons being drawn by the cartoon Pastis, who is drawn by the real-world Pastis, in an ongoing exercise in existential angst). The title of the latest Pearls Before Swine collection, whose cover features Pig screaming and covering his ears in the style (sort of) of Edvard Munch’s famous “The Scream,” calls directly on the “pun” elements of the strip. But the book’s contents, as always, include only some of those. Other sequences, just to cite two example, involve Judge Rat, who has a tip jar to influence his rulings and who slides along a tilted judge’s bench “to show that the scales of justice are not balanced in my courtroom”; and the discovery of a money tree, which turns Rat into “a tree-hugging hippie.” As for puns and other word play, one strip sets up the notion of Pig learning how to make wood into paper in a class taught from the pulpit by a priest who uses puppets to clarify what he says – making Pig “a pulpit puppet pulping pupil.” Another strip has Pig suggesting that an unwanted hamster be sent to “the city in Europe that they control,” which is “Hamsterdam” – and when Goat says that is not what the city is for, Pig asks, reasonably (at least from a language point of view), “Then what holds back the Hamster River?” Interestingly, although the elaborate pun setups garner most of the attention of the strip’s characters, it is often the simplest plays with (and on) words that are the most effective, as when Rat and Pig change the standard Halloween request for candy to “Trick or Tweet,” thus getting “more candy than ever” and leading Rat to comment that “social media is the key to extortion.” All right, that should be “are the keys” (since “media” is a plural noun), but that sort of word-related matter is not germane to Pearls Before Swine. This is a strip that starts where the love of words and love of libraries in Mouseling’s Words have metamorphosed into something altogether darker, more adult and nastier – and it makes perfect sense, in that context, to have the lovable little mouse of Crum and O’Rourke’s book be replaced by the surly, snide and sarcastic Rat in Pastis’ cartoons.
The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Go to Bed. By Dave Engledow. Harper. $17.99.
Fox and the Bike Ride. By Corey R. Tabor. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Beecause I Love You. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Cuteness and disobedience go together charmingly in various visual ways in a multitude of books for kids ages 4-8. Dave Engledow’s way is entirely photographic, helped immensely by the fact that his daughter, Alice Bee, is so photogenic. The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Go to Bed has a very old and straightforward plot, so old and straightforward that it is barely a plot at all: a little girl imagines all the great things that must happen while she sleeps at night, so she decides not to go to sleep at all; but after she succeeds in staying up, she is so tired the next day that she misses out on things that really are fun, because she keeps dozing off while playing in the park, attending a party, and so on. Lesson learned? Not quite, because Engledow does not make this a “lesson” book. First he turns it into a counting book by having the little girl count down from 10 to one by doing numbers-related activities – which are so elaborate that it is scarcely surprising they take her all night to complete. Second, he uses his elaborately Photoshopped images – which are more the point of the book than the story is – to show all the things the girl does and all the ones she cannot do the following day: the pictures of her struggling to eat breakfast and eventually falling asleep on the “soft and fluffy” pancakes are a highlight. Third, Engledow reserves a photographic twist ending for the final page: early in the book, the girl has tried to catch her parents having fun late at night but has only found them doing uninteresting adult things, but when the girl falls “into a peaceful sleep” the next night and the parents go back “to doing their boring grown-up stuff,” Mom and Dad are actually bedecked in costumes indicating they are going to be having some sort of outlandish fun after all. So we have a touch of mischief from the parents coupled with the more-expected mischief of a little girl refusing to get the rest she needs, all shown in suitably silly photos of the cuddly/huggy/cute variety, all adding up to a very conventional kind of story told very unconventionally.
The underlying convention of Corey R. Tabor’s Fox and the Bike Ride is that of using cartoon animals as stand-ins for the children who are the book’s target audience. And here too there is one mischief-maker, Fox, amid a group of more-serious friends (Rabbit, Frog, Turtle, Elephant, Bear). The friends are about to take a nice long bike ride, a careful and safe one, and have some snack s at the end, and Fox is not happy about it – except for the snacks; he’s fine with those. Fox wants something altogether more unconventional and adventurous than what his friends plan, and he has a sneaky way to get it. He happens to be in charge of getting the bikes ready for the ride. And that gives him the chance to put all the bikes together into a single massive five-seater with a “secret red button” up front, where Fox himself will be sitting. Sure enough, at just the right point – “the tip-top of the tallest hill” – Fox puts his plan into action, sending the bike careening down what looks like a gigantic mountain (you have to turn the book sideways to see the scene) and then pressing the button. That causes expanding wings to deploy, sending the bike and all the animals into midair loop-the-loops, through the trees, down to the beach past the forest, and into the ocean – where a good and super-exciting time is had by all, assuming comments such as “gurgle glub burble” are positive ones. Eventually everyone ends up happily on the beach, except that Fox, alas, has no snack: it was supposed to be a chicken, but the chicken is floating safely in the water, with sharks between it and the shore. So Fox has learned his lesson – sort of, just as Alice Bee sort of learns hers in Engledow’s book. Fox is left at the end of Tabor’s story using a telescope to see where the chicken is, unable to get to it and presumably plotting how to do so while the other animals sleep peacefully.
Speaking of Bee, Sandra Magsamen’s Beecause I Love You is for even younger kids than the Engledow and Tabor books: it is a board book, for children up to age three or four. The mischief in it is suitably toned down, too, and in fact comes mainly from seeing the way Magsamen’s illustrations use a smiley-faced bee and other animal characters to tell the youngest book-aware kids just how special they are. The bee goes with the words, “You’re so beeutiful in every way!” And then come suitably simple rhymes with pictures showing a smiling ladybug, a happy firefly, a delighted whale (how did that get in here?), an air-dancing butterfly, and a cutely crawling caterpillar. All the creatures, even the whale, sport a pair of plush black antennae, thanks to the book’s very clever design. The antennae emerge from the extra-thick final page and joined-to-it back cover of the book, and Magsamen’s drawings are positioned so each critter depicted seems to wear them on its head (and yes, the whale-with-antennae is the funniest, and this illustration is clearly the book’s most mischievous). Brightly colored, very simply written, charmingly illustrated and including the simplest lesson possible – which it communicates in language that is fairly straightforward and pictures that are anything but – Beecause I Love You is a delightful little board-book foray into a not-quite-serious way of sharing a sentiment of some serious love.
Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. By Scott Adams. Portfolio/Penguin. $27.
This is a book that has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump and absolutely nothing to do with the Dilbert comic strip, even though the front cover shows Dogbert from the strip wearing Trump hair, and even though the whole thing is written and illustrated by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. If all that causes cognitive dissonance, well, that’s good, because this book is all about cognitive dissonance (a specialized form of rationalization in which incompatible beliefs and actions, when they are our own, are forced to merge and mesh) – so it might as well provoke some. Win Bigly is also about confirmation bias (the tendency, once we have a belief, to see later information as supporting the belief even when it doesn’t). If it gives you some of that as well, so much the better.
Win Bigly is a book about Trump that isn’t about Trump at all. It is about some themes that have appeared piecemeal in previous Adams books – he repeatedly refers to How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, but The Dilbert Future also struck similar chords, as did Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! Actually, there are themes developed in Win Bigly that date back nearly to the start of Dilbert, which means they have been percolating in Adams’ brain (monkey-type or not) for over a quarter of a century. Now that’s percolation.
Win Bigly is not about Trump because it uses Trump as an example (and exemplar) of outstanding persuasiveness – ignoring his policies (which don’t matter in this context), his missteps (which also don’t matter), his bluster (doesn’t matter), his pigheadedness (ditto), and his hair (well, actually this last does matter, and Adams explains why). Adams made an early prediction that Trump would win the presidency, thus vaulting himself immediately into the higher reaches of the punditocracy when Trump did win. What he does in Win Bigly is to explain how and why he made the prediction and how and why it had nothing to do with anything specific being espoused by Trump (with whose policies, Adams freely and repeatedly says, he generally does not agree). This is a book about victory, not the victor.
A few of the things Adams explores here will not (or should not) surprise anyone who has been in the upper reaches of business. Trump’s early and loud “build a wall” proclamation, for example, is recognizable as the initial gambit in a negotiation process, an attempt to set the stage for walking back the bid later but still getting fairly close to what one really wants. Adams points out that Trump surely knew a straightforward wall along the southern U.S. border could not be built – in some areas, fencing or careful monitoring or some other approach would be needed – but by insisting repeatedly on the wall, he created an image in people’s mind and took control of the situation and the debate about it, making it easier for him to walk back the extreme position later (which is exactly what he did). But if this is familiar territory, some of what Adams puts forth is less so. There is, for example, the concept of the “talent stack,” which Adams has discussed before (in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big). This is, in effect, an example of the whole being much greater than the sum of its parts: using himself as an example, Adams says he is not a great artist, has never taken a traditional writing class, and is not the funniest person in his own social circle. But the combination of being good enough in all these fields is what has brought him success, wealth, fame, and so forth. By the same token, he says that Trump is a Master Persuader (yes, with capital letters) who has abilities in the fields of publicity, reputation, strategy, negotiating, persuasion, public speaking, sense of humor, being quick on his feet, being thick skinned, having high energy, having a certain size and appearance (the hair is part of this and is a positive thing, because it is so distinctive), and being smart. Trump is not tops in any of these fields, Adams argues, but he is good enough in all of them so he can masterfully persuade people to go in the direction he wants them to go even when he makes a large number of seemingly serious policy gaffes and other specific errors.
Some of this analysis, for both Trump and Adams himself, is arguable, or at least overstated: would Dilbert have been successful or Trump have been elected in, say, the mid-1950s? There is a matter of timing, of society being “ready” for certain people and concepts, that Adams neglects. On the other hand, he correctly observes that the Trump “talent stack” matters far more than any policy Trump may put forth, any method he may choose to use to advance his cause (Twitter vs. conventional media being an obvious example), and any countervailing facts put forward by his opponents. Adams says that Trump and other Master Persuaders exist in a world beyond facts, able (in effect) to “push the buttons” of large numbers of people in order to get what they want. Think you don’t have buttons that can so easily be pushed? That belief is one such button – making you easier to manipulate because you believe yourself immune to manipulation. Adams gets into this topic from two complementary angles, his “moist robot” concept (which says that people, like the robots they make, are programmable, provided you know which inputs will produce the desired outputs) and what he learned through a professional study of hypnosis (which does not at all mean what most readers of Win Bigly will likely think it means). Adams’ point, which he makes repeatedly and sometimes subtly (sometimes less so, to push different buttons), is that even people who are not Master Persuaders can learn a number of Master Persuader techniques and use them for personal advantage in business, personal life and even, if they wish, politics. Some people will search this book (vainly) for proof that Adams is a big Trump supporter and maybe even helped engineer his victory, perhaps with assistance from Russians or aliens or something. Other people will search (also vainly) for assurance that Adams agrees with them that Trump is the greatest president since John Hanson (first president of the Continental Congress, which takes us back way before that latecomer George Washington). A few people, though, may actually get past the Trump window-dressing of Win Bigly and find the substantive thoughts inside. Watch for them – and watch out for them – in your next business meeting, or a couple of election cycles hence.
Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old? Plan Now to Safeguard Your Health and Happiness in Old Age. By Joy Loverde. Da Capo. $17.99.
This is scary stuff. Start by thinking: when exactly do you become old? You can imagine it as always being 15 years older than you are – both Bernard Baruch and Francis Bacon are credited with saying that. You can call it the time when you start paying less attention to what people say and more to what they do – Andrew Carnegie made that observation. You can join George Bernard Shaw in lamenting that “youth is wasted on the young.” Or you can take to heart the comment by 19th-century American evangelist Dwight L. Moody, “A life which is empty of purpose until 65 will not suddenly become filled on retirement.” But homilies and witticisms aside, the only alternative to old age is one most people would not opt for: early death. Therefore, prescriptive books on how to handle getting old abound, and Joy Loverde, an eldercare consultant (there’s a job title that didn’t exist until very recently indeed), tries to lay out a simple-to-follow prescription for aging well in Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?
“Prescription” brings to mind health, and that is indeed one part of what Loverde discusses. But it represents only half the book’s subtitle, and it is a fair bet that anyone reading this work will be more interested in the other half, about preserving happiness – always assuming, of course, that health is there as a foundation. Loverde’s own relationship to aging is a somewhat curious one: she is described as “a leading consultant in the senior/active adult industry for thirty years,” and she writes about “the old people in my life,” but she is noticeably circumspect and thoroughly noncommunicative about her own age. In this context, that is a shortcoming: it is fine to write, as Loverde does, “Sixty is not the new thirty. Sixty is sixty.” But failing to be up-front about one’s own place on the age spectrum casts a more-negative light on the experience of reaching 60-plus than is warranted in a book whose author tells readers, “You must promise that from this moment on you will be completely honest with yourself about the fact that you are getting older.” Readers have the right to expect such honesty from the author as well.
The book is divided into five sections called “Personal Readiness,” “Where You Live Matters,” “Ties That Bind and Unbind,” “Safety Nets,” and “No Tomorrow.” Each section in turn is subdivided into chapters, and there are many dozens of concluding pages of worksheets, Web sites, books, movies, TV shows and other information sources at the end. This is not a book to be taken in hand lightly. Loverde uses one of the standard approaches of self-help workshops by starting chapters with “objectives” that she says can be achieved within the pages that follow. She also includes worksheets, numbered and unnumbered lists, and material for “Insights and Inspiration” at the end of each chapter. The result is that tackling this book seems like a big, big project. Whether that is Loverde’s point is not clear: tackling the needs of old age is a major undertaking, as she says repeatedly, but it is not certain that that requires making such a slog out of Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?
Readers willing to go along with Loverde’s well-organized approach will find some genuinely helpful guidance, as in the reminder that when making a difficult age-related decision, you should look back at difficult choices you have made earlier in life, such as deciding on a career, choosing whether or not to marry and whether or not to have children, or stopping a bad habit. However, Loverde’s useful thoughts all too often appear adjacent to much-less-helpful ones – such as observing elderly people of all sorts in order to see that some choices turn out well and some badly. The frustration of this book lies in the way its plethora of good thinking and good advice is so often juxtaposed with less-useful material or intrusive suggestions to go elsewhere for further information. Planning for old age is difficult, time-consuming and complex enough without being urged again and again to read more, watch more, see more, arrange more. For example, it can be daunting enough to contemplate creating an income stream after retirement – a list suggesting ways to do it that includes impossible-for-most-people positions such as keynote speaker, comedian and caricature artist does little to encourage readers to pursue this worthy goal.
Still, Loverde’s basic outline of the needs of aging is correct and helpful, and some parts of her book, such as her discussion about what to do if you want to age at home in your own community and how to compare that possibility with moving to an age-friendly location, are usefully thought-provoking. Her “No Tomorrow” section, an extended discussion of planning for one’s inevitable death, is very well thought through from an objective standpoint although thoroughly lacking in empathy – a difficult read on a very difficult subject. It will take a super-strong and super-patient individual to get through the chapter called “‘Just Shoot Me’ Is Not a Plan” and all the places it suggests consulting (13 interactive sites for discussing dying, 12 online “additional resources” on the topic, seven spiritual/religious Web locations to visit and explore, and many more). In one of her few self-revelatory comments, Loverde writes, “All my life I have lived with goalposts – relentless real-life demands pull me in every direction imaginable.” She then discusses the importance of slowing down, saying she herself has managed to do this. Perhaps – but she sets goalpost after goalpost after goalpost for the readers of Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old? They are well-positioned goals that generally make a great deal of sense. But there are a lot of them, and there is no “slow it down” way of attaining them all for people who have things going on in their lives other than reading this book and following its suggestions. Loverde tries to gather everything into a single “Cross It Off Your List” chapter, encouraging readers to choose a time by which to do things and then write down the time they actually did them – a recipe for stress if there ever was one. And many will find these six single-spaced pages completely overwhelming, especially given everything that is involved in even one single item, such as “engage advisers,” “manage grief responsibly” or “research medical tourism.” If you did not feel bombarded and swamped by all the planning needed for a comfortable old age before picking up this book, you will very likely feel that way by the end – assuming you make it all the way through Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?
Saint-Saëns: Complete Works for Cello and Orchestra. Gabriel Schwabe, cello; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. Naxos. $12.99.
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 2; Viktor Ullmann: String Quartet No. 3; Szymon Laks: String Quartet No. 3. Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello). Cedille. $16.
The richness and versatility of strings make them ideally suited to convey the widest possible variety of moods, and Saint-Saëns used them to finely variegated effect throughout his career – especially notably with regard to the cello. A new Naxos CD featuring Gabriel Schwabe contains all the cello-and-orchestra music Saint-Saëns wrote, even including a Paul Vidal arrangement for cello and orchestra of The Swan, the sole part of Carnival of the Animals that the composer allowed to be published in his lifetime (he thought the rest of the piece too trivial and dismissible). Schwabe is one of those young cellists with technique to spare but expressive maturity still to come, as is instantly clear in his performance of Cello Concerto No. 1, the composer’s best-known cello-and-orchestra work. This is a speedy, fluid, beautifully played rendition of the concerto that hits all the right notes except the emotional ones. Schwabe, abetted by the rather bland accompaniment of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Marc Soustrot, never characterizes the music as much of anything except a display piece. It is more than that, and deserves to be given some emotional heft and depth; Schwabe may come to that in time. For now, what he offers is genuinely impressive technique at the service of – well, not very much. Schwabe does somewhat better with Cello Concerto No. 2, perhaps because this work is less-known and there is less competition against which a cellist tends to measure himself or herself. Written in 1902, three decades later than the first concerto, the second is technically more difficult and emotionally less trenchant – a combination that seems to fit Schwabe just fine as he scales the work’s many difficulties with clarity and skill (despite some thinness of tone). This is a highly worthy performance of music that is more interesting than it is usually credited with being – although it is not as satisfying as the earlier concerto. The third extended work on this CD is the Suite in D minor, which is very late Saint-Saëns (1919) and shows clearly the musically conservative streak that became more pronounced as the composer aged. This piece has many of the hallmarks of Baroque suites, being a five-movement work consisting mainly of dances. But it is not rhythmically or harmonically imitative of the Baroque except in very general terms. It requires sensitivity of balance between cello and orchestra and a firm rhythmic hand from the soloist. Schwabe is somewhat less convincing here than in the second concerto – he seems less emotionally in tune with this music – but his first-rate technique results in a convincing performance. Also here, in addition to The Swan, are two short works that are interspersed with the longer ones and provide useful musical punctuation points in the recording: the Romance in F (1874) and Allegro appassionato in B minor (1873-76). Neither is of much consequence, but both are pleasant and are nice to have for, among other things, the sake of completeness.
String use is quite different for the three composers whose works are played by the Dover Quartet on a new Cedille disc. The quartets here all date from World War II, and they have some other elements in common as well, such as the folk-dance character of the opening of the Shostakovich and the pervasive folk elements in the quartet by Szymon Laks (1901-1983). The musical argument of the CD tries to connect the quartets in a different way: the disc’s title is “Voices of Defiance.” But this is a bit of a stretch. The Shostakovich, from 1944, is the composer’s first ambitious and large-scale quartet (lasting 36 minutes), and it has notable dramatic elements, such as passionate violin declamations in the second movement, which is labeled “Recitative and Romance.” But there seems more uncertainty, and perhaps bitterness, in the music than defiance of anything specific or general. The quartet progresses in a distinctly odd way, opening in its official key of A but ending up in the finale in A minor – about the only way in which anything by Shostakovich closely parallels anything by Mendelssohn, whose Symphony No. 4 progresses the same way. The Dover Quartet catches the emotional elements of the quartet well, although the players seem a touch unsure of what to do with the speedy waltz of the third movement, which admittedly (and deliberately) fits the rest of the work uneasily. The performers are more comfortable with the Laks quartet (1945), whose pervasive Polish folksiness takes on an added dimension for listeners who know that Laks was condemned to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which he survived by working as music director of the camp’s orchestra. On its own, without the historical background being known, this is a well-made quartet that needs some fine ensemble playing to pull it effectively together – and it gets exactly that from the Dover Quartet. The performers also do a fine job with the quartet by Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), whose deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau had a far more tragic ending than that of Laks: Ullmann was killed in the gas chambers there. Ullmann’s Quartet No. 3 (1943) was written at Theresienstadt, the camp to which the composer was first sent, and is unusual in structure: an extended first movement is followed by a very short second that ends Poco largamente. Ullmann had a strong personal style that incorporated the thinking of the Second Viennese School without being firmly bound to it. His Quartet No. 3, if it qualifies as “defiant,” does so through contrast, offering a kind of impressionistic beauty rather than any overt expression relating to the circumstances of its composition. The Dover Quartet is at its best here and in the Laks quartet, finding the works’ centers and bringing out their emotions to very fine, if not necessarily defiant, effect.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Three Movements from Petrushka. Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers, piano four hands. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Mara Gibson: Conundrums—Preludes 1-6; Blackbird; Spark; Folium Cubed; Sky-Born; One Voice. Navona. $14.99.
Christopher Biggs: Works for Instruments and Electronics. Ravello. $14.99.
Fine playing in conditions that are either intimate or crowded, depending on your point of view, characterizes a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianists Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers. The two offer rhythmically strong readings of Stravinsky’s two-piano “rehearsal” versions of The Rite of Spring and the same three movements from Petrushka that the composer turned into a short solo-piano suite. “Short” is an operative word here, and a disappointment: the entire CD lasts only 48 minutes, and it would have been quite possible – and preferable – to include the entirety of Petrushka rather than just three movements. Beyond that, the question of whether these two-piano versions are best played on a single piano, as Lomazov and Rackers do, or dual pianos, as is far more often the case, is a matter of opinion. True, the issue may be of primary interest to pianists, but listeners familiar with the music, especially in its piano versions, may have their own views based on the way the material sounds on a single instrument compared with how it comes across from two spatially separated ones. Either way, Stravinsky did not intend the piano versions of these ballets as concert pieces – they existed to give stage performers something with which to practice. Yet the works have a solid place in duo-piano recitals, and Lomazov and Rackers make it easy to see (and hear) why: Stravinsky’s early ballets are filled with rhythmic vitality and frequent metrical changes to which dancers would have had great difficulty adapting if their training was primarily in earlier ballets, such as those of Tchaikovsky. The rhythmic verve of the scores comes through very clearly in these performances, at the expense of some of the more interesting and then-experimental techniques, such as bitonality; that kind of sound is far more apparent and impressive in these works’ orchestral versions. The felicities of Stravinsky’s orchestration are also, of course, missing here, and the piano versions have a kind of skeletonized quality to them that works somewhat less well with The Rite of Spring than with Petrushka – another reason it would have been better to have the whole Petrushka here rather than brief excerpts. Still, piano fanciers and Stravinsky lovers alike will enjoy what Lomazov and Rackers have to offer, even while wishing that they might have chosen to offer a bit more.
Mara Gibson’s writing for piano is quite different in the music on a new Navona CD. Indeed, whether written for piano or other instruments, Gibson’s works are more firmly rooted in contemporary approaches to music than Stravinsky’s trailblazing ones were to common practices in their time. Stravinsky was inspired in his early ballets by Russian folklore; Gibson’s inspiration lies in paintings and poetry. Conundrums, six piano preludes written in 2016, scattered through the disc and played by Holly Roadfeldt, are musical responses to paintings by Jim Condron, who is scarcely a household name – making the works’ ability to stand on their own all the more important. They do so reasonably well but not especially evocatively: there is little impressionism here and much standard-for-contemporary-music pounding and dissonance. The six titles are considerably more interesting than most of the music: For Saturday, The few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, I have saved all my ribbons for thee, The bones becoming light, I have tried in my way to be free, and Home is a failed idea. Playing any of this music with any of the titles would make little expressive difference. Other works here partake of similar sensibilities despite differing instrumentation. Blackbird (2015), taking off not very gracefully from Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, is for string quartet (here, the Cascade Quartet) – and it goes on and on for 15 minutes, alternating standard-issue dissonant, glissando and ostinato elements with occasional near-lyrical ones. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Music is the other work by a well-known poet that inspired a Gibson work heard here: Sky-Born (2015) features the UMKC Conservatory Singers conducted by Robert Bode, with violinists Samuel Huang and Elaine Ng and cellist Esther Seitz. With voices as with instruments, Gibson favors sonic contrast over emotional connection or, in the case of the words here, intelligibility. The remaining pieces on the CD are more of the same, stylistically, in different instrumental guise: Spark (2014) is for trombone (JoDee Davis) and piano (Trevor Thornton and Emily Trapp); Folium cubed (2015) is for soprano saxophone (Zachary Shemon); and One Voice (2016) is for mezzo-soprano (Megan Ihnen) and viola (Michael Hall). Gibson clearly knows what sorts of effects she wants to extract from performers, both vocal and instrumental, and she knows how to get them. The issue for listeners is likely to be that there is little unique in Gibson’s approach, little sense that what is heard here has not been heard many times before.
The situation is somewhat analogous on a new Ravello disc of music by Christopher Biggs. The pieces here combine traditional instruments – piano and others – with electronic sounds, always in now-familiar ways. Biggs, like Gibson, is sometimes inspired by literary works: A Letter to the Moon for trumpet (Samuel Wells), percussion (Adam Vidiksis), and piano (Keith Kirchoff) is based on a story by Italo Calvino, and Promethea for alto saxophone (Alex Sellers) takes off from a graphic novel. But most of what moves Biggs to create these pieces is material external to any sort of art. He is one of those socially conscious composers who try to use their work to further environmental, social and political agendas. This is scarcely new territory – think only of The Threepenny Opera and its much older, socially challenging source, The Beggar’s Opera – but Biggs does not have the focus or sheer musical adeptness of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, or John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch. The music here does not make significant aural or emotional connections with its topics; pretty much any title could be placed with pretty much any of these works to elicit the same response. The CD is mainly interesting for the way Biggs deploys specific instruments and interweaves them with electronic effects. Decade Zero is for brass quintet (Western Brass Quintet: Robert White and Scott Thornburg, trumpets; Lin Foulk, horn; Daniel Mattson, trombone; Jacob Cameron, tuba); Externalities is for solo cello (Zachary Boyt); Recombinant Serenade features solo horn (Foulk again); Decoherence is for solo trumpet (Samuel Wells); and Amass is for solo clarinet (Mauricio Salguero). So listeners who want to hear an amplified cello mixed with electronics will gravitate to Externalities, while those wanting to hear a clarinet mingled with electronics will prefer Amass. But whether the cello work will ever connect with listeners as a commentary on consumerism, or the clarinet one as being inspired by a hunger for change such as the Arab Spring, is another matter altogether: even people who find the sounds of these pieces congenial will likely have a hard time connecting them with the externalities that led Biggs to create the music.
November 16, 2017
Life on Surtsey, Iceland’s Upstart Island. By Loree Griffin Burns. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Impact! Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World. By Elizabeth Rauch. Photos by Karin Anderson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
One of the most amazing things about the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series is the way it shows some scientists focusing on tiny things and others on the very big picture – and in all cases doing so with meticulous attention to detail and absolute commitment to their projects, small or large. Life on Surtsey looks at the very small but very important things happening on a volcanic island that was formed in 1963 by an eruption 15 miles off the coast of Iceland. For 50-plus years, scientists have studied the very small elements that turn barren rock into a place teeming with life, both plant and animal. Loree Griffin Burns focuses on Erling Ólafsson, who has spent nearly half a century studying some very small things on Surtsey: insects. They are among the first colonizers of the island, but not the very first. As Life on Surtsey explains, it was only two weeks after Surtsey formed that something alive was there: a seagull, one of the many that live and breed on other rocky outcrops in the area. And birds do not simply visit on their own: they bring nesting materials that may contain plants or seeds, their feathers harbor mites and other insects, and as the seagulls catch and eat fish and other foods, leftovers from the meals rot and provide potential nutrients for various plants. Nor did the colonizing of Surtsey happen only because of birds: the sea itself washed plant matter onto the island, and some of it took root. Bit by bit, life took hold. The photos showing Surtsey at different stages are fascinating: the close-up views of plants, eggs, insects and birds show how quickly life attaches to and thrives on the new land, and the discussion of the care the scientists take to avoid impinging on the island’s natural development is especially intriguing and indicative of just what it means to be a scientist in the field. For example, there is the matter of bathrooms. To avoid having human waste become a factor in Surtsey’s development, urinals for men and women consist of small holes in the sand in specific places. Any toilet paper used must be disposed of in the trash can inside the simple hut where the scientists stay – none may be left outdoors. As for “anything more than pee,” Burns explains that the scientists must walk to a specific, rocky part of the island, lift a rock, make use of the hole beneath it, and replace the rock – choosing a location “close enough to the ocean that the waves can come up and carry away your deposit at high tide, but not so close that the waves come while you’re squatting there and carry you away.” Juxtaposing these conditions with the remarkable photos and carefully explained experiments of the scientists makes Life on Surtsey a truly amazing experience, one that will give young readers a firm understanding of the fascination, if not exactly glamor, of the lives of the scientists who study this still-developing island.
Life on Surtsey is all about the very small, but the scientific focus is on enormous matters in Impact! The book opens with a scene that could come from a fictional end-of-the-world thriller: explosions, shattered glass spraying everywhere, buildings shaking, earthquake-like jolts, the immediate fear that a nuclear bomb has detonated nearby. It turns out that all the effects were the result of an asteroid strike by a comparatively small space rock, one the size of a six-story building that had exploded in the sky and rained pieces of itself to the ground over many miles. Yes, a six-story asteroid, including the one that came down near Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, and was heavier than the Eiffel Tower, is rather small – there are much, much bigger ones out there. The question of what to do if one of those appears on a collision course with Earth lies at the heart of Impact! Science fiction aside, we do not yet have a way to prevent a potential planetwide catastrophe. The scientists profiled in Elizabeth Rauch’s book are working toward that goal. The research may be complicated, but the way the scientists go about it comes across in Rauch’s writing as easy to understand, as in a search for meteorites near Creston, California: “It’s a game of ‘One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.’ What looks different from all the other rocks around? What doesn’t fit in? What might have come from outer space?” An excellent page of Karin Anderson’s photos shows “Meteor-Wrongs” on top and meteorites on the bottom, visually explaining to readers what scientists must sort through when trying to find space rocks and use them to study the potential effects of future collisions with Earth. Anderson’s photos are an excellent complement to Rauch’s clear text: the pictures show everything from a large meteor crater to a thinly sliced section of a meteorite about to be examined under a microscope. Inevitably, the book discusses the origin of the solar system and the extinction of the dinosaurs – caused, in large part, by an asteroid six miles wide colliding with Earth and forming what is today called the Chicxulub crater, half in Mexico and half under the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this material may be familiar to readers, but other information will not be, such as the fact that 183 asteroid impact craters have been discovered on Earth – the map showing all their locations is fascinating. How often do major asteroid strikes occur? About once every 300 years, Rauch writes in the caption beneath a photo showing some of the destruction that one impact caused in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, when 80 million trees were destroyed. And what about risks in the future? The book’s second half focuses on the search for PHAs (potentially hazardous asteroids) and the importance of getting some warning, even a small amount, before any of them hits – hopefully enough time to evacuate the impact area and protect what structures can be protected. The scientists’ enthusiasm as they search for PHAs is tempered by the reality that they may one day discover something that could be a major threat to our planet. Possible ways of dealing with an imminent threat – none of them currently practical – make up the last part of Impact! An asteroid-breaking bomb, a crash-landing by a spacecraft, solar sails to collect energy that would redirect the asteroid, and other ideas (including one based on paintball) are discussed and shown in intriguing diagrams. None of them is practical yet; most will never be developed; but some are well along in research stages and will hopefully be ready for deployment before a scientist, perhaps one of those profiled in this book, discovers an Earth-bound asteroid whose path is likely to intersect our planet’s, with potentially catastrophic consequences.