August 30, 2018
Stop, Go, Yes, No! A Story of Opposites. By Mike Twohy. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Pig the Fibber. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.
Charlie Piechart and the Case of the Missing Dog. By Eric Comstock & Marilyn Sadler. Illustrations by Eric Comstock. Harper. $17.99.
Picnic with Oliver. By Mika Song. Harper. $17.99.
What could be more opposite than cats and dogs? Cats and mice, maybe? There are certain animal combinations that just seem to invite authors to produce books about contrasts – or, in books for ages 4-8, to illustrate diametrically opposed viewpoints, actions and words by assigning contrasting sets of ideas or activities to animals that seem to embody opposition. That applies even when the animals are friends, as they tend to be in books for this age group. Thus, the dog and cat are buddies, at least in some ways, in Mike Twohy’s Stop, Go, Yes, No! But they certainly do not get along in all ways, and that is where the fun comes from as Twohy presents simple word pairs and illustrates their contrasts in his unique cartooning style (which many adults will recognize from his work’s frequent appearance in the pages of The New Yorker). The suitably simple plot here has the cat dozing peacefully in a chair (“asleep”) until the dog pokes his head in from outdoors, through an open window, and barks loudly (“awake”). There ensues a series of misunderstandings, chases and general disagreements, as when the dog jumps onto the chair where the cat has been cat-napping and the cat has to hide beneath it – illustrating “over” and “under.” The two friends (“frenemies,” maybe?) are at constant cross-purposes, as when the cat climbs the curtains and goes behind them to try to be left alone, while the dog tries unsuccessfully to climb up as well (“hide” and “seek”). The cat is clearly increasingly put-upon, and the dog eventually realizes this, standing on his hind legs and making a very human “stop” gesture at the cowering feline, then heading into the kitchen (“go”) and returning with a peace offering of his bowl of dog food (“yes?”) – on which the cat turns his back (“no!”). Several pages of inside/outside chasing eventually result in the cat running under the rug, away from the dog (“apart”), but the dog soon discovers the hiding place and crawls there as well (“together”). The book ends on that positive note – positive for the dog, anyway, with the cat still looking more than a touch nonplused by the whole situation. The ongoing amusement here helps the “opposites” lesson go down very easily indeed.
The lesson in Pig the Fibber, as in all of Aaron Blabey’s books about the nasty-and-selfish-but-somehow-endearing pug, has to do with the consequences of selfishness and lying. As usual, Pig, who is piggish both in appearance and in personality, victimizes sweet dachshund-like Trevor again and again: “And when he would fib,/ he was awfully clever./ When Pig got in trouble/ he would always blame Trevor.” Pig has quite a few hilarious ways to get into trouble, such as dancing the hula while standing on his back legs (and looking distinctly cross-eyed while doing so), knocking over and smashing a vase of flowers, and immediately blaming the mess on Trevor; and finding and chewing on a carefully packed wedding dress – then putting a veil on Trevor and saying he did it. The never-seen human co-inhabitants of the household put up with all this because – well, the “because” is not very clear, but the point is that the troubles are left for Pig and “poor little Trevor” to sort out on their own. That does not happen, but Pig does get his comeuppance after he comes up with a sneaky plan to get at a huge bag of dog biscuits that he sees on a high closet shelf. Pig puts the plan into action by emitting gas and blaming the odor on Trevor: “So Trevor was taken outside for some air.” Then Pig climbs on a chair and uses his wiles to pull down the big bag – plus, unfortunately for Pig, something else on the shelf behind the bag. That something is a bowling ball, which Blabey, a master of comedic timing, shows just before it smashes into wide-eyed Pig, who is wearing a distinct “uh-oh” look. The injury breaks Pig of his habit of lying, and ever-forgiving Trevor hugs Pig and smiles at him even as readers are treated, at the book’s very end, to a full-frontal view of Pig’s bandaged and bruised head and face. It serves Pig right, of course, but kids will know that he is not really hurt too badly and is sure to recover in time to resume his amusingly selfish ways in another book.
The “opposites” elements of the books by Twohy and Blabey are missing in Charlie Piechart and the Case of the Missing Dog, and so, as the title makes clear, is a dog – specifically Watson, who is supposed to go to “Dirty Dog Groomers for a shampoo and a haircut.” The question in this third educational mystery by Eric Comstock and Marilyn Sadler (after cases involving a missing pizza slice and missing hat) is where Watson has gone. And the solution requires learning about time, since Watson’s grooming appointment is at a specific time and he must be found quickly enough to get him there. Thus, time-telling permeates the book: the family must leave at 4:00 p.m. for Watson’s 4:15 appointment, and the search begins at 3:30 p.m., so “they had ½ an hour to find Watson. That’s 30 minutes.” Charlie and his friend Lewis trace Watson’s path from earlier in the day, discussing time at every stage. For instance, Charlie’s dad saw Watson chasing a cat at 8:00 a.m., so the boys know where Watson was “7½ hours ago.” They get closer and closer to the afternoon by gathering more clues, finding out along the way that Katie and Alice painted Watson’s nails at 1:15 p.m., when Alice mentioned the groomer – which is why Watson, no fan of being groomed, ran away. A trail of not-yet-dry nail polish helps the boy detectives trace Watson’s movements, but they do not actually find the missing dog until Charlie realizes that he can set a kind of food trap for the pizza-loving canine. One trail of pepperoni later, Watson emerges from his hiding place – in the garage, it turns out – and jumps right into the family van, so everyone gets him to the groomer’s on time. Watson does not look particularly happy about getting “his scrub-a-dub-dub,” but at least he comes out clean – until he promptly finds a way to get himself dirty again. Oh well, at least he will be available for the next informative and mildly amusing Charlie Piechart educational adventure.
The adventures are distinctly modest ones in Mika Song’s books about Oliver the cat and Philbert the mouse – another pair of animal opposites enjoying an unlikely friendship. Picnic with Oliver opens with the two in the bathtub (“they do everything together,” and clearly Oliver is one cat who does not mind water). They decide to have a picnic, and super-organized Oliver thinks of everything they need to pack for their outing – leading Philbert to contribute “a sailboat,” the same folded-paper one he is initially seen using in the tub. All is not smooth sailing on the way to the park, though: the wheeled shopping cart in which everything is packed gets away, rolls down the sidewalk, falls over, and ends up with a flat tire. But Philbert saves the day by going into a bagel bakery and coming out with what Oliver calls “the best spare tire ever” – yes, a bagel. Oliver unpacks all the goodies while Philbert takes his sailboat to the park’s pond, but some sudden rain dampens things considerably, and storm-tossed Philbert calls out to Oliver for help. Opening his umbrella, turning it upside down, and climbing into it, Oliver uses a stick to push his way to the middle of the pond and rescue Philbert, but the park picnic is ruined. No matter, though: friendship solves everything, as cat and mouse return home and set up a brand-new picnic indoors. The warmth and charm of Song’s drawings neatly convey the increasingly close friendship of this cat and mouse, and the simple story – with clever touches, such as the use of the bagel as a wheel – will keep young readers happy and will have them looking forward to the next tale of this not-so-opposite-after-all cat and mouse.
Calendars (page-a-day for 2019): The Little World of Liz Climo; The President Needs to Stop Tweeting—Pearls Before Swine; Non Sequitur. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.
One of the more pleasant traditions of looking ahead to a new year, even months before it begins, is anticipating the enjoyment to be had from one’s favorite comic strips in calendar form. The page-a-day format with a focus on a single cartoonist’s work guarantees a daily dose of familiar amusement: if you already enjoy a comic creator’s work, it is loads of fun to discover new strips or panels that you missed, or revisit ones you may have seen before and especially enjoyed. Liz Climo’s recurring animal characters, for example, have sufficiently offbeat personalities to help counter the blues and negativity that seem to be built into every year, no matter how optimistic we are when a new one starts. On one day, for instance, a rabbit and bear are planning to order pizza and decide on “the usual,” which turns out to be “a large half carrot, half salmon and jellybean.” The same characters later discuss a treasure map that the bear has found, which the rabbit says “is just a drawing of my wallet” – and the bear asks to borrow 20 dollars. There are plenty of other characters here as well. A boy and his unicorn encounter a sign reading “No Unicorns Allowed” and change it with a simple comma to “No, Unicorns Allowed.” A fox tells a millipede to take life one step at a time, and the insect objects because “I have so many feet.” An Easter egg hunt ends quickly when it turns out that a chicken is simply sitting on all of them. A rabbit agrees to pick up candles for a turtle’s mom’s birthday cake, and the turtle asks for 118 of them. A young stork asks his father where babies come from, the father says “the stork,” then realizes what he just said and changes it to, “Go ask your mother.” Two fish in a bowl play “I spy” and can only spy something green – the one plant at the bowl’s bottom. A snake sees one of those road signs showing “S” curves coming up and interprets it as meaning, “Spontaneous dancing ahead.” A sloth reads his entire to-do list, which consists of “hang from a tree branch” and “relax.” Elsewhere, the sloth is on his phone saying he is “just hanging around” – to a penguin, who comments that he is “chillin.’” And then there is the blowfish that sneezes, expands into a big spiny ball, has no idea what he just did, and says, “I’m freaking out.” The animals’ verbal interplay in The Little World of Liz Climo is fun, but it is the drawings that really make this calendar a year-round source of enjoyment: Climo’s simple but telling art uses the characters’ almost-realistic appearance to heighten the amusement of their entirely anthropomorphic concerns and interests.
There is nothing the slightest bit realistic-looking about the animals around whom Stephan Pastis builds Pearls Before Swine, and that is just fine: this sarcastic and often dark strip, with its abundant self-references (including Pasts himself as an untalented and often distinctly unpleasant self-parody), reserves its real-world focus for what Pig, Rat, Goat, Zebra and the other denizens of the strip say and do. The 2019 page-a-day calendar opens with President Rat in the Oval Office, asking an aide, “Is ‘shut your face’ presidential?” The reference to President Trump is obvious, but Pearls Before Swine is not usually this involved in politics: Pastis is an equal-opportunity sarcasm dispenser, and most of his real-world-oriented remarks are on topics other than the overtly political. For instance, Goat comments about getting sick and going to a hospital, where he had an eight-hour wait in the emergency room; Rat says that is a risk of traveling to poor countries; and Goat explains that it happened in the United States. Pig goes to visit his storage unit, where he keeps “all the happy memories from my life,” and it turns out to be a tiny box. Rat borrows money from Pig to contribute to a conservation effort for the phrase “you’re welcome,” since everyone (including Pig) now says “no worries” instead. And then there are the crocs, incompetent as always, as when Larry goes out to get coffee for his wife, comes home, explains in detail how he had it made exactly the way she likes it, then adds, “Me left it on top of car and drove off.” As for cartoon Pastis, he is insulted, among other times, when he says he is going to “party like it’s 1999” and Rat tells him that “when the futuristic references in your favorite songs are 17 years old, you’re old.” As for Zebra, he often has communication-with-others issues, as when he speaks with his father, who is having trouble reading something on a tablet – not a tablet computer, as Zebra thinks, but an aspirin tablet that says something on it that his dad is trying to figure out. There are also plenty of the Pearls Before Swine puns, bad ones, scattered throughout the year of strips. For instance, Little Bo Peep writes down the names of all her sheep on a piece of paper, which she then loses, leading Goat to remark that “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheet” – after which the sheep tell cartoon Pastis, “Ewe offend us.” Pastis’ humor is offensive, or nearly so, a lot of the time, but it is clever and offbeat enough, also a lot of the time, to guarantee that fans of his strip will enjoy seeing a sample of it each day during 2019.
However, not all cartoonists rely on presenting the same characters again and again to draw on (and draw) known sources of humor. Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur deliberately undermines the notion of a strip with continuity: the title translates as “it does not follow,” and that gives Wiley (who uses only his first name professionally) the license to find humor just about anywhere, in just about anything, using just about any sort of characters he feels like creating. Sometimes his single-panel drawings update old stories, as when he has a man approach the little Dutch boy whose finger in a dike is holding back a devastating flood – and tell the boy, “I’m here to negotiate the rights to a reality show.” Sometimes Wiley does get political, as in a panel called “The Government Vetting Process” that has a committee declaring, “Unfortunately, a background check showed you’re actually qualified for the Cabinet post, so we’ll have to pass.” But politics makes only occasional appearances. Wiley is as likely to produce a panel featuring a recently deceased man propped up in his coffin, grimacing at a handheld screen, as his relatives explain that it seemed suitable “to keep him in his natural state of a perpetual Twitter rant.” There is also the “Requiem for a Budget Director” panel, set in Hell, where the devil escorts a man to “eternal dining pleasure” on cat food. And there is a look at two cavemen, one showing a cave-wall drawing of a wheel while the other brings in a non-rolling stone triangle and explains that “the focus group says this looks cuter.” Despite all the one-off panels, Wiley does have some characters who appear repeatedly, although they do so at irregular and unpredictable intervals, in line with the whole concept of Non Sequitur. Chief among these are the smart, pessimistic and highly manipulative little girl named Danae, and Lucy, her pet pygmy Clydesdale horse and best friend. In one sequence of strips, Danae declares a snow day even though there is no snow, presenting the idea as an “alternative fact,” tweeting about it on Twitter, and getting all her friends to retweet, thereby turning it into reality; her less-cynical sister, Kate, then explains, “You made Daddy’s head explode again, so you have to clean it up.” Elsewhere, in a school sequence, Danae declares the English language “fake news” because of all the exceptions to the rule of “i” coming before “e” except after “c.” She then tells her teacher that the Earth is flat and forces the teacher to spend so much time explaining that it isn’t that the lunch bell rings “and my work is done.” Wiley’s work, however, is certainly not done yet, and the heaping helping of it offered in the 2019 Non Sequitur page-a-day calendar shows how many byways of humor Wiley has explored recently – and will suggest how many others are out there awaiting Non Sequitur treatment in coming years.
Hollywood Dead: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $26.99.
The thing about Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels – one thing, anyway – is that they redefine the notion of “collateral damage.” In these books, everything is collateral, and nearly everything is damaged, and that includes James Stark (aka Sandman Slim) himself. The physical damage, and there is a lot of it, is almost beside the point: there is a ceaseless drumbeat of barely repressed violence throughout the books, of which Hollywood Dead is the tenth. And then the repression breaks down, the violence breaks through, and lo and behold, you are a page or so further ahead and the body count has mounted significantly.
The interesting thing is that the nearly unending dull roar – okay, sometimes explosively loud roar – of violence takes place in settings whose descriptions, although wholly incidental to the plot, are a major pleasure of the story. Take the extended drive to which blindfolded first-person narrator Stark is subjected early in Hollywood Dead, which lasts “well over an hour. In most towns that would mean we’re halfway to Argentina, but in L.A. it means we could be circling the block looking for parking.” That is brilliant, throwaway scene-setting, part of the unending valentine to Los Angeles that the Sandman Slim books are – provided you understand that the heart in this valentine is extremely bloody and was ripped from a still-living body, as in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And that is an apt thought, because Stark’s constant movie references are an integral part of the narrative and another way in which Kadrey sets scenes and limns personalities.
Calling the books first-person narratives is actually a bit misleading, because Stark is not quite a person: he is half-angel, and that is not a good thing. It almost got him killed multiple times and did get him killed nearly a year before the start of Hollywood Dead, at the end of the series’ ninth book, The Kill Society. Kadrey is too good a writer to let a character such as Sandman Slim go – Stark is one of the great creations in contemporary supernatural noir literature, although admittedly “literature” needs to be definitionally stretched a bit to encompass the Sandman Slim books. So Kadrey has him brought back by a necromancer and presented with an offer he cannot refuse, thus creating the underlying plot of Hollywood Dead. The offer comes from a group of hyper-rich, hyper-vicious Illuminati collectively known as Wormwood, a group so horrendous that one of Stark’s determinations in the series has been to destroy every last member, which he does quite efficiently at one point – but unfortunately only in Hell, which he gets to visit now and then to refresh his store of ultra-violence and his memories of the days when he was Lucifer. Wormwood is still very much alive and kicking (and stomping, shooting, exploding, etc.) on Earth, where it has emulated its namesake the worm’s ability to reproduce through division: it has split in two, and what Stark has been brought back to do is to prevent Wormwood II from annihilating Wormwood I and, by the way, most of humanity.
Stark has little patience for his employers, knowing they will definitely betray him rather than carry out their part of the bargain by restoring his body for real: the necromancer has reanimated him, but only temporarily, and without further intervention, he will soon die for good and forever (yeah, right, as if Kadrey would allow that). Anyway, another of the marvelous descriptive passages with which Kadrey’s books abound provides a small sample of Stark’s feelings about Wormwood aspirants – not actual Wormwood members, whom he hates far, far, far more intensely, but the sorts of people who would like nothing better than to become Wormwood members if they had any idea of the organization’s existence. Stark talks about neighborhoods filled with “walled compounds where good, upstanding American families debate whether their artisanally raised mutts deserve domestic or imported champagne with their prime rib kibble,” then reminds himself that these “mere paupers with millions of dollars” are far less awful than those living elsewhere in the rich precincts of L.A., in “gated Xanadus where the toilets are gold and the trash doesn’t end up in landfills but gets a gentle yacht journey out to the open sea, where it receives a Viking funeral, complete with human sacrifice.” Stark is remarkably poetic for a vicious, amoral, sort-of-immortal mass murderer.
The point, of course, is that Stark is not only a vicious, amoral, sort-of-immortal mass murderer. The real conflict in Hollywood Dead is not between Stark and Wormwood – that is old news and is sure to play out in suitably grisly and convoluted fashion – but between reanimated Stark and his pre-death self. After all, Stark was dead for nearly 12 months, and all his friends – yes, he does have them, and they keep him as grounded as it is possible to stabilize someone like Sandman Slim – have moved on in their lives. And Stark desperately wants to re-connect with them and with his former self, as becomes increasingly clear as Hollywood Dead lurches ahead in what passes for narrative progress. But Stark knows that if he does not fulfill his mission for Wormwood, or if he does fulfill it without figuring out just how Wormwood intends to betray him, his temporary body will be gone and he will be dead again and out of his friends’ lives even more permanently than he was when he died before. So he holds back from re-engaging – until it turns out that he needs help, both from some characters newly introduced in this book and from some returnees from earlier in the series, in order to accomplish his goals.
Stark is, in a sense, always at the mercy of events that force him into uncomfortable situations, where the minor discomforts of being shot, beaten, knifed, torn apart, blown up, etc., pale before the major ones of watching harm come to those he cares about. Always presented superficially as a super-macho, over-the-top violence purveyor, Stark is actually just another protagonist tossed hither and thither by events, doing his best to get through the day while preserving his body (or what is left of it) and his soul (or what is left of that). The fact that Stark is so completely unaware of what could be described as his better nature is one thing that makes his narration of his misbegotten adventures so compulsively readable. The fact that those adventures are so outré and take place in such bizarre locales is another thing. The fact that Kadrey is a brilliant scene-setter, apparently offhandedly and almost despite himself, is yet another. Hollywood Dead and the other Sandman Slim books are easily dismissible as overextended punk cinematic noir only by people who fail to see just how cleverly and intelligently Kadrey has created Stark’s universe and the constellations of evil, violence, lust and faintly twinkling beauty within it. Darn it, Kadrey is good. And so, almost incidentally and inadvertently, is Sandman Slim.
Spirit Hunters #2: The Island of Monsters. By Ellen Oh. Harper. $16.99.
A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting #2: Beasts and Geeks. By Joe Ballarini. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $13.99.
There is a tendency in second series entries simply to repeat what happened in a sequence’s opening volume, on the assumption that readers who enjoyed the first book will want more of the same in the second. This tendency is decidedly on display in the new books by Ellen Oh and Joe Ballarini, which essentially take the same characters and attitudes and abilities originally imagined by the authors and plunk them down all over again in similar, already very recognizable ways. This means that these second books are just as good as entry points to their respective series as the first ones were; it also means that preteen readers – the target audience for both series – will enjoy the sequels only if they want more of what the authors already gave them. Spirit Hunters focuses on a living girl named Harper; her longtime best friend, a ghost girl named Rose; a new and living friend, Dayo; and Harper’s Grandma Lee, a mudang or spirit hunter. The term and concept come from Korean culture, which is a significant if not especially germane element of the series’ background. Thus, in The Island of Monsters, when Harper and her younger brother, Michael, visit their grandmother, “The homey kitchen table was set with three place settings, bowls of rice, and an assortment of the little side dishes that made Korean food so tasty. Harper and Michael were only half Korean, but it was their favorite cuisine. Unfortunately, they didn’t get to eat it often. Only at their grandmother’s house did they get a real home-cooked meal. Both their parents were too busy to cook, and when they did, it would usually be Italian or American, or frozen pizza.” Mundane scenes like this one are, inevitably, juxtaposed with supernatural ones: The Island of Monsters begins in a graveyard from which ghosts have been mysteriously disappearing. The point of the series is that Harper is growing into powers similar to those of her grandmother (hence the plural noun in the series’ title). And for the second straight time, it is a threat to Michael on which Harper needs to focus. This time her parents, as oblivious and feckless as parents usually are in preteen novels (and maybe even a little more so), decide to take the family on a vacation to a spooky tropical location called Raku Island, which is best-known for a murder. Just the place for a sweet family get-together! Of course, Harper has feelings of impending trouble, and of course, no one else does, and of course, peculiar events ensue when the family arrives. And, to continue the “of course” elements, island residents will not discuss various mysterious disappearances, and Harper has trouble connecting with possible assistance from the realm of spirits, and then Michael awakens from a nightmare bearing a curious mark that Harper recognizes from one of her visions. So Harper has to investigate again and save the day again by finding out more about the history of the island and what is really going on there in the present day. The mixture of everyday activities and spirit-world ones is much the same as before, the eventual success of Harper’s investigations (after a few missteps and mild scares) is a foregone conclusion, and even though The Island of Monsters is less spooky and threatening than the first Spirit Hunters book, it is close enough to it in so many ways that fans of the series opener will enjoy it – as long as what they want is more of the same.
As for Ballarini’s A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting, its second book is essentially a direct continuation of the first, in which protagonist Kelly defeats a Boogeyman at Halloween and thus earns the lasting enmity of the other Boogeymen (there are seven in all – six after the first book, perhaps indicating how many novels Ballarini plans to write in this sequence). The notion of babysitters being trained and sworn to defend infants against rampaging monsters is odd and silly enough to give the series some welcome humor, but beyond it there is little that is unusual: the standard balance-the-trials-of-middle-school-against-what-really-matters elements are here, along with the grow-into-your-powers-and-abilities notion. In Beasts & Geeks, Kelly has to hone her skills in both fighting and babysitting, remember her homework, deal with a first-love situation, and cope with the transformation of many minor characters into minions/puppets of Spider Queen Serena, the chief villainess here. (Yes, “villainess” is the correct term, not “villain” or “character that is villainous.” At one point, Kelly says she does not use the word “Boogeymen” anymore, preferring “Boogeypeople.” How ridiculously politically correct can you get?) Kelly is afraid of spiders, which of course matters a lot in this installment; and Serena is not the only evil creature out there – there is a second, subsidiary one named Gonzalo, possibly being set up as the primary foe in the next book. The various twists of the plot – they are mostly minor ones in an essentially formulaic story arc – eventually lead to a big battle at Serena’s mansion, which is the real point of all the novel’s activity and which Ballarini manages effectively. And at the end, Kelly, who has been ill-treated in her babysitting studies (for no apparent reason except that middle-schoolers tend to have issues like this often, even more in books than in real life), gains what she deserves. That is scarcely unexpected. A somewhat less formulaic element of Beasts & Geeks, and a welcome one, is Ballarini’s occasional presentation of pages from a guide to monsters. These entries are frequently more fun than anything happening in the main story, offering information on the six-eyed sleeknatch, tips on how to get rid of a ghost, material on spells and ceremonies involving newborns, and more. The idea of a protagonist building on and extending arcane knowledge of the past is scarcely original, but Ballarini handles it well and integrates it nicely with the story. Anyone who read the first book in this series will encounter no real surprises in this second one, and anyone who picks this book up without knowing the series opener will have no trouble following what is going on: the things that happen, and how they happen, are quite transferable from book to book, and there is little doubt that they will proceed in much the same way when the series’ third entry makes its appearance.
Russian Trumpet Sonatas—Music by Yuri Mikhailovich Chichkov, Nikolai Ivanovich Platonov, Yuri Mikhailovich Aleksandrov, Mark Vladimirovich Milman, Leonid Zinovievich Lyubovsky, Gherman Grigorievich Okunev, Alexander Ivanovich Baryshev, and Aida Petrovna Isakova. Iskander Akhmadullin, trumpet; Natalia Bolshakova, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
New Music for Clarinet and Piano by Emily Rutherford, Conor Abbott Brown, David Mullikin, Andrew Halladay, and Greg Simon. Kellan Toohey, clarinet; Suyeon Kim, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Stephen Yip: Chamber Music. Navona. $14.99.
The tremendous abundance of under-explored chamber music, especially from the 20th and 21st centuries, makes it possible for listeners to hear an ever-more-extended series of world première recordings of material that is quite interesting even if perhaps not so distinctive or memorable as to merit regular inclusion in recitals. Performers, though, may find these works especially interesting as possible additions to their own programs: so many unknown or little-known pieces are challenging to play but written to lie well on the instruments for which they were created that anyone playing those instruments may find all sorts of new and previously unexplored repertoire on recordings that explore some of the byways of more-recent chamber composition. That is certainly the case with the MSR Classics release of no fewer than eight well-made, interesting and often genuinely intriguing 20th-century sonatas for trumpet and piano that were composed during the Soviet era. The composers’ names will be largely interchangeable to most listeners and, in truth, so will much of the music, which – certainly in the pieces written until the mid-1960s – seems consciously created to comply with the notorious Zhdanov Doctrine of 1946 and 1948, which demanded adherence to “Socialist realism” in music and in particular forbade “misuse” of dissonance. Although the doctrine officially ended with Stalin’s death in 1953, its effects continued to burble through Soviet society for some time thereafter. They are apparent in the careful construction and the moderation of dissonant elements in Chichkov’s single-movement Sonatina for Trumpet and Piano (1950), heard here in a transposition to G made by trumpeter Iskander Akhmadullin; in Platonov’s and Milman’s sonatas from 1962, the former in three movements and the latter in one; in Aleksandrov’s three-movement sonata from 1964, here recorded for the first time in its original trumpet-and-piano version; and even, to a lesser extent, in the three-movement sonata by Lyubovsky from 1969. By the late 1960s, however, the binding of “Socialist realism” to music had begun to fray, and the willingness to embrace previously anathematized Western influences began to increase. One work here from 1970 offers clear evidence of the transition: Baryshev’s Sonatina in the Russian Style has three movements that, on the one hand, are strongly focused on native Russian material (the titles are “Folk-tunes,” “Long-drawn Song” and “Buffoon Song”) and therefore directly in line with Zhdanov’s and Stalin’s demands, but on the other hand treat the material far more freely and with far greater “Westernization” than would have been tolerated in the 1950 and into the 1960s. The remaining two pieces seem comfortable with being thoroughly Russian but not slavishly so. They are Okunev’s three-movement sonatina from 1970 and Isakova’s three-movement sonata from 1986. Every piece here shows its composer handling the interplay of trumpet and piano with care and a strong sense of the brass instrument’s capabilities, and Akhmadullin and Natalia Bolshakova play all the music idiomatically, stylishly and, indeed, with considerable élan. The CD is a bit much to take in at a single hearing, since its generous hour-and-a-quarter of music makes the similarities among the works clearer than the differences among them. But heard one or two at a time, these very-little-known pieces offer considerable listening enjoyment.
The world-première clarinet-and-piano works on another new MSR Classics CD are more easily heard straight through, possibly just because of the clarinet’s more-mellow-than-the-trumpet sound and possibly because of the five composers’ differing sensibilities. Emily Rutherford (born 1993) offers Three Poems that are truly poetic and warm, despite considerable rhythmic complexity: although written as recently as 2012, this is a work that harks back in its emotional language to much earlier music, although its melodic structure means it would be a stretch to call it neo-Romantic. Early Winter Spires (2013) by Conor Abbott Brown (born 1988) is a portrayal of a Colorado mountain peak – the entire disc is focused on Colorado and titled “Scenes from Home” – and features a clear climbing motif that reaches a summit and then descends rapidly. Suite Antique (2016) by David Mullikin (born 1950) is a deliberate throwback, a five-movement Baroque-style suite whose highlights are a moving penultimate “Lament” and a bright and bouncy finale. Five Scenes from Our Aspen Grove (2008) by Andrew Halladay (born 1982) is a bit of a throwback, too, not so much in form as in content: it is intended as a through-the-seasons musical journey that at the same time reflects human love and loss – a bit too much weight for the rather slight piece to carry effectively, although the scoring for clarinet is particularly attractive. Finally, Two Orchids (2015) by Greg Simon (born 1985) is another attempt to parallel something in nature with something in human experience – here, the transplantation of an orchid with Simon’s own move away from Colorado. The nostalgia in the middle and calm at the end are clear emotional touchstones, but the intensity of other sections is rather overdone – although, again, the writing for clarinet is effective. Kellan Toohey and Suyeon Kim are an excellent performing pair for all the works, playing them with fine attention to the subtleties of the music and a willingness to explore all the emotional highs and lows of every piece on the disc.
The emotions expressed musically by Stephen Yip on a new Navona release are in several instances put across through instrumental combinations or techniques that are unusual by the standards of Western chamber music. Two of the six works on the disc are for solo instruments and show what is unexpected about the CD quite clearly. Whispering Fragrance (2017) is for solo violin (played by Yu-Fang Chen), while Ran (2014) is for the Chinese zither known as the guzheng (played by Jiuan-Reng Yeh). Both the works strain the capabilities of their respective solo instruments in ways that are characteristic of Yip’s style: the violin is required to play high partial natural harmonics and the guzheng’s wood is struck percussively, for example. There is an ethereality to both works and, indeed, to all the music on the CD, whatever its instrumentation. Thus, Ding (2015), for double bass (Henry Chen) and guzheng (Yu-Chen Wang), has nine short sections representing nine ancient rulers, but its sound world is much the same as that of the other pieces here. The three remaining works use exclusively Western instruments but retain Eastern sensibilities – for instance, Tranquility in Consonance (2016) is for flute (Izumi Miyahara), saxophone (Masahito Sugihara), bassoon (Ben Roidl-Ward), and piano (Andrew Schneider), but the instruments are played using some Chinese techniques that are intended to bring forth the same focus on natural sounds that would be evoked by traditional Chinese instruments. Also here are the mostly tranquil In Seventh Heaven (2014) for saxophone (Daniel Gelok), double bass (Rudy Michael Albach), and piano (Schneider); and the deliberately repetitious and partially aleatoric Peace of Mind (2014) for bass and B-flat clarinet (Rik De Geyter), baritone and alto saxophone (Peter Verdonck), and piano (Ward De Vleeschhouwer). The instrumentation and techniques may differ from piece to piece, but the overall effect of all Yip’s music is pretty much the same: it is generally calm and collected, not quite minimalist but certainly not exuberant, contemplative without ever quite becoming profound. Listeners who like any of the pieces on this disc will likely enjoy all of them.
August 23, 2018
The Rough Patch. By Brian Lies. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
My First Mandarin Words with Gordon & Li Li. By Michele Wong McSween. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
There can scarcely be a sadder topic than the one Brian Lies explores in The Rough Patch, but he handles it with such subtlety and such luminously beautiful art that the book becomes a marvelous teaching tool for children ages 4-8. Death is the topic here – specifically the death of a beloved pet, a circumstance that in its own way can be more overwhelming for children (and adults) than the death of human beings. The Rough Patch is, however, not about dying, which is often a complex, traumatic and drawn-out process where modern medicine (human and veterinary) is concerned, but about grief and eventual renewal. The gorgeous opening double-page illustration immediately sets a beautifully idyllic scene to go with the words, “Evan and his dog did everything together.” Evan is a fox, a very human-looking one who wears human clothing (suitably modified to accommodate his long, bushy tail) and always sports a pair of eyeglasses that rest charmingly close to his nose and therefore far from his eyes. The first part of the book neatly encapsulates the close, loving relationship of Evan and his small black dog – whom Lies never names, an interesting decision that depersonalizes the dog to a degree and may prevent young children from becoming too attached to it. Lies shows Evan and the dog having the most fun of all “in Evan’s magnificent garden.” But one day, suddenly and without any indication of illness or injury (which would make the story even harder to bear), Evan finds that his dog has died peacefully in his dog bed – a touching scene that, however, is deliberately downplayed to some extent because Lies again de-emphasizes the often-difficult reality of situations that eventually lead to death. Lies, a consistently brilliant illustrator whose sense of color and shading is unmatched in children’s books, shows how Evan buries his dog in a now-dark, heavily shaded corner of the garden, and the next page shows darkness closing in on Evan’s world from all sides. Even’s marvelously expressive face shows his grief and the way it turns to anger at the garden that he and his dog used to share – to such an extent that he tears up the beautiful plants and encourages ugly weeds to grow in their stead. “If Evan’s garden couldn’t be a happy place,” Lies writes, “then it was going to be the saddest and most desolate spot he could make it.” But of course Lies does not let things stop there. A rather ugly-looking vine that sneaks in under the fence proves to be a pumpkin vine, and gradually, as the vine grows, Evan encourages it – and starts to recapture some of his joy in growing things as a pumpkin sprouts and gets larger and larger. By autumn, the pumpkin becomes full-grown (and gigantic), and Evan decides to take it to the county fair, where he gradually comes further out of his grief by going on rides and eating “some delicious fair food” (in delightfully amusing illustrations). Then Evan finds himself interacting with friends after so long keeping to himself – and then his pumpkin wins third prize, which the judge says is either $10 “or one of the pups in that box.” Evan takes the money, but just before heading home, he cannot resist peeking into the box – and the very last, wordless page shows him driving his pickup truck away, with a puppy sitting on the seat beside him. The title of The Rough Patch refers both to the garden as Evan remakes it after his dog’s death and to the rough patch of Evan’s life after his dog dies – one of many emotionally trenchant elements that Lies introduces here. The book is a simple one, in some ways too simple in its treatment of death and its deliberate omission of a name for Evan’s dog. As an introduction to the topic of grief, though – a feeling that can arise not only from death but also from many other circumstances – the book is highly sensitive and entirely age-appropriate. Parents will find it to be an invitation to discuss sadness and the stages through which people go when grieving, the last of which is acceptance and the eventual ability to, like Evan, move on in life and find love and joy all over again.
Michele Wong McSween’s My First Mandarin Words has none of the beauty or sensitivity of Lies’ book, neither of which it needs to teach its lesson. But this book is just as important in its way as Lies’ is. The primary language spoken in China, the world’s most populous nation, is Mandarin, and while many Chinese learn English as a second language, few Americans learn Mandarin. It is a difficult language for English speakers to master: Mandarin is essentially a musical language, in which slight changes in tone, emphasis and vowel sounds create major alterations in meaning. Young children tend to be much more flexible in learning languages than are most adults, and as the importance of China in the world economy and geopolitical system continues to grow, it makes good sense – and is a form of basic courtesy – for Americans to know at least a few words of Mandarin to improve their potential connections with people from China. McSween creates two smiling pandas, a black-and-white boy named Gordon from New York and a gray-and-white girl named Li Li from China, and simply has them show various objects and play together while naming things in both English and Mandarin. The English words are simple and straightforward, but the Mandarin ones, as befits the language’s complexity, are more elaborate: each is shown as it is written in Chinese characters; as it is written in Pinyin (the English-alphabet transliteration of Mandarin); and as it is pronounced (since many Mandarin words are not pronounced the same way English speakers will tend to say them after seeing their Pinyin rendition). The word for “ball,” for example, is spelled qiú in Pinyin and is pronounced cho, while the word for “toilet” is cè suŏ in Pinyin and is pronounced tsuh swoah. Many of the words are more straightforward than these: “bowl” is wăn, pronounced wahn, for example, and “cat” is māo, pronounced maow (much like “meow”!). However, when there are differences between spellings and pronunciations, they may take some getting used to, especially when fairly simple English words are more complex in Mandarin: “panda” is xióng māo and is pronounced sheyohng maow (the second word being identical to that for “cat”). The charm of McSween’s drawings will help make My First Mandarin Words easier for young children to enjoy, and the division of the book into sections will help kids focus on different kinds of learning. The chapter on counting, for example, shows that there are some resemblances between English and Mandarin when it comes to counting numbers between 10 (shí, pronounced shur) and 20 (èr shí, pronounced er shur and essentially meaning “two tens”). Thus, the English “14” (four plus 10) becomes the Mandarin shí sì, pronounced shur suh and meaning “10 plus four.” Kids will discover other resemblances between the languages to go with the many differences, and the pleasant panda guides’ smiles and everyday activities will make it enjoyable for English-speaking children to engage in learning some Mandarin and perhaps, as they grow, gain greater appreciation of the society in which Mandarin is the dominant language.
Calendars (wall for 2019): Cartoons from “The New Yorker”; Cat vs. Human; Heart and Brain. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.
It only seems that 2019 is a long distance away. It is in reality approaching quickly, as you will realize if you consider the availability of many 2019 wall calendars that, like these three, actually start in September 2018. Choosing any of them gives you a head start on an entirely new year, an opportunity to enjoy 16 months rather than a mere 12 of the different approaches to life and humor represented by the cartoonists whose work hangs on your wall for a month at a time. True, the first four months (September-December 2018) all appear with a single cartoon, so it had better be one you really like if you are going to start using these calendars during the current year. But, of course, there is nothing preventing you from hanging one of these next to whatever 2018 wall calendar you may already be using – you can watch the current year meander toward its finale while anticipating the eventual emergence of the next one. Fans of The New Yorker magazine and its sophisticated and frequently rather dry sense of humor, usually characterized by cartoons in which two very different concepts are amusingly juxtaposed, will find plenty to enjoy in the 2018/2019 calendar featuring many of the cartoonists whose work makes The New Yorker instantly recognizable. The calendar features not only large cartoons atop each month’s display but also smaller ones at the bottom of the dates. The new year starts, for example, with a large January panel combining the concept of lane set-asides on roads with the ubiquitous cellphone use seen among pedestrians nowadays in New York and other cities. Every character in the cartoon has his or her face angled toward a cellphone and is not looking at anything nearby – and above one part of the broad sidewalk is a sign, resembling a highway sign, that reads, “Slow Texters’ Lane.” That is a perfect example of the form of humor for which The New Yorker is known. So is the small cartoon at the bottom of the January page, which shows a man with his head down on his arms during what is obviously a work day, apparently preparing for a touch of midday sleep, thinking to himself, “It’s not a nap if I’m sitting at my desk.” That is a New Yorker take on the whole concept of power naps, and is the kind of pithy visual humor that this calendar will display on your wall throughout the year to come.
If you prefer something more homespun, consider Yasmine Surovec’s Cat vs. Human, a warm and rather daffy bit of cartooning that neatly encapsulates the pleasures and perils of human-feline shared space. Surovec’s illustrations for this calendar tie neatly to specific months or seasons: January’s has a woman making a new year’s resolution to be more outgoing and social and then shows her ignoring the people around her to spend more time engaging with cats, while December’s features a seasonally decorated cat tree with felines draped all over it, as if they are decorations themselves. That December cartoon is wordless, one of several on the calendar that make their point entirely through Surovec’s pleasantly rounded drawings (in which the cats, in particular, are pleasantly rounded). Another wordless offering is a four-panel presentation of cat interaction, with each of two cats initially being shown with a heart over its head, then each sniffing the other’s rear end, then one flopping on its back to expose its belly while the other purrs. Cat owners will definitely relate to this. They will also enjoy the wordless cat-insect interaction, which starts with the cat’s wide-eyed amazement at discovering a bug and ends, after the cat does typical “cat play” with the insect, with the cat losing interest and walking away, leaving the bewildered bug with a question mark over its head. Clearly Cat vs. Human contains more than cats and humans, but there is plenty of cat-human interactivity here as well: how cats behave on laundry day, for example, and how cat-loving humans respond differently to Halloween opportunities to dress up (one woman becomes “a sexy kitty” while another goes the full-body-fur route and declares herself “a domestic shorthaired tabby”). If you have cats or interact with cats or love cats or try vainly to figure out if cats love you, this calendar will give you no answers whatsoever. But it will be a lot of fun to look at nevertheless.
On the other hand, if you prefer to be bewildered entirely by people, you can hang Nick Seluk’s Heart and Brain calendar for 2018/2019 on the wall and ponder the many imponderables of methods by which we humans get in our own way. Seluk is thoughtful and often witty in his creation of cartoons in which live-for-the-moment Heart is in constant conflict with think-and-plan Brain – a reflection of the way so many of us really do feel so much of the time. Heart, a stylized bright-red heart with huge eyes, usually accompanied by a butterfly to indicate just how flighty he is, is seen in one cartoon telling Brain, “Let’s live HERE!” and pointing to a house labeled “The Moment,” while Brain (a stylized pink brain wearing eyeglasses) is heaving a deep sigh while looking next door at “The Past.” That panel also contains an empty lot on which a sign says, “The Future: Under Development,” and on the sign perches an eyeball – yes, other body parts make appearances in Heart and Brain from time to time. Occasionally the two central characters are in accord, as when Heart hands Brain a thick volume and Brain says, “You brought me a new book? Thanks! I was starving.” But more often, Heart and Brain function at cross-purposes, as often seems to be the case in real life – as when the two characters are sitting outdoors, with Brain saying, “We have things that need to get done,” and Heart replying, “Yeah, too bad for those things.” The calendar has some bonus design elements that make it extra-enjoyable: small character portraits are scattered throughout the pages, complementing the large single-panel cartoons that are the main focus, and there are also multi-panel strips running along page bottoms, showing how Heart and Brain and other amusingly sentient body parts behave in some of Seluk’s longer-form offerings. All Seluk’s characters are endearing, each in a different way, and the just slightly skewed observations on life, and on the conflict between where the heart feels like going and where the brain thinks it is right to go, have enough of a ring of truth to make your wall a thoughtful place – as well as one sporting amusing drawings – if you choose to give the new Heart and Brain calendar a spot there.
Nightbooks. By J.A. White. Harper. $16.99.
Scream and Scream Again! Edited by R.L. Stine. Harper. $17.99.
Shadow House #4: The Missing. By Dan Poblocki. Scholastic. $12.99.
Pretty much every author wants to believe that stories matter, that they are more than words on paper or on a screen – that they have genuine power to change minds, direct people, make things happen. So what could be more natural than writing a novel about the importance of stories in solving monumental life problems? That is just what J.A. White has done in Nightbooks: he has created a bit of authorial wish fulfillment by combining elements of Scheherazade’s Arabian Nights tales with a modernized version of the Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel – placing the central character’s storytelling ability at the heart of the whole thing. The result is a nice little exercise in fairy-tale updating and a moderately engaging story along the usual lines of “resourceful kids outwit evil adults” books. But as so often happens in novels for preteens, Nightbooks ends up with characters who have little genuine character, and the most interesting creation proves to be not one of the heroic kids but a cat. In the story, a boy named Alex heads to the basement boiler of his New York City apartment building to burn up the books of the title – notebooks in which he writes down scary stories that have landed him in a humiliating position at school (details of which are revealed only at the novel’s end and form part of its climax). But the elevator lets Alex off at the wrong floor, and the sounds of a scary movie that he especially likes – coming from behind the door of an apartment on that floor – lure him to and into the unit, which turns out to be the domain of a witch named Natacha. A girl named Yasmin is already imprisoned by Natacha, used to help grow the plants that Natacha turns into essential oils (potions, it turns out, are so old-fashioned) and then sells. This witchy business proposition is actually the most interesting part of the book’s plot, but it is never explored. Instead, there are the usual can-we-escape-somehow concerns, should-we-be-friends pages, what-about-other-trapped-kids questions, and so forth. Complicating matters is a cat named Lenore that spies for Natacha and has the disconcerting habit of becoming invisible whenever it wishes. Natacha decides to keep Alex around because of his stories, which she has him read aloud to quiet the apartment, which has a disconcerting habit of rumbling and shaking when not fed enough scary words. The examples of Alex’s stories are not especially frightening or original, but they serve the plot well enough and eventually help Alex and Yasmin figure out how to get away – only to encounter a bigger problem than Natacha before everything works out just fine. The interlocked-fairy-tale premise is creaky, and the eventual use of Alex’s stories to save the kids pushes the bounds of believability even within the preteen-fantasy context. But there are a few effective moments in Nightbooks, and even a bit of creativity in White’s creation of a herd of nightmarish-rather-than-dreamy unicorns. Still, Lenore is the only character in the book with any real depth.
Alex and Yasmin, though, have greater solidity than any of the 11-or-12-year-old protagonists of the 20 stories in Scream and Scream Again! This is a collection of short works for preteens by members of the Mystery Writers of America. On the basis of the contributions here, the biggest mystery is what MWA sees in some of these authors. Editor R.L. Stine contributes “The Best Revenge,” a completely ordinary zombie tale that makes no sense whatsoever: Freddy and his sister Teddy are constantly harassed and bullied by the nasty Darrow brothers, but after that happens again and again and again, the Darrow boys unhesitatingly come to Freddy’s and Teddy’s home as soon as they are invited to do so. Then there is “The I Scream Truck” by Beth Fantaskey, in which the evil cannibalism practiced by people in an isolated town is proclaimed to the entire world via a large billboard that the almost-victim protagonists repeatedly see – except that the word “cannibal” is conveniently obscured by bushes until the story’s final sentence. There is also Lisa Morton’s “Summer of Sharks,” in which it turns out that some people can change into coyotes and others into, yes, sharks, but no one is particularly surprised or even very curious about how or why the transformations take place. And there is “Rule Seven” by Ray Daniel, which is clever in enumerating the “rules for making things scary” in Hollywood films but which founders when “the Zombie Lord” turns up and proves not to be the lord of anything – and not even able to shamble after the protagonist. The various stories are united by the use of screams either when they start or when they end – hence the title of the collection – and there are sometimes screams within the tales, too. But most of them are unconvincing, even though some of the authors are well-known and have produced good material elsewhere: Bruce Hale, Emmy Laybourne, Steve Hockensmith, Chris Grabenstein, Wendy Corsi Staub, Heather Graham, Phil Mathews, Carter Wilson, Doug Levin, Jeff Soloway, Joseph S. Walker, Alison McMahan, Daniel Palmer, Tonya Hurley, Stephen Ross and Peter Lerangis are all contributors. The writers who deliberately go over-the-top fare reasonably well here, as in Palmer’s “The Nightmare Express,” about a train with cars that contain different frightening things that must never mix with each other, and Lerangis’ “The Platform,” a terrifying-aliens story whose twist ending is so obviously telegraphed in advance that it ends up being more funny than horrifying. But the best stories are ones that start out as if they will be terror-filled, and do contain some scary elements, but end up being life-affirming and upbeat: Wilson’s “Area Code 666,” in which a frightening vision of a buried doll proves to offer an element of emotional healing, and McMahan’s “Kamikaze Iguanas,” in which lizards cut a middle-school bully down to size, almost but not quite literally. On the whole, there is less that is scareworthy than readers would expect from reviewing the list of contributors to Scream and Scream Again!
There is not much to shriek about in The Missing, either. This is the fourth book of Dan Poblocki’s trilogy, Shadow House. Yes, the fourth book of a three-book series. The first three were The Gathering, You Can’t Hide and No Way Out, and they ended with the kids who had been trapped in Larkspur House, the evil place of the title, getting out, so that was that, yes? Umm, no. The Missing features a dollhouse that was modeled on Larkspur House, a girl named Connie who brings a boy named Jason there to help Jason’s sister, Louise (Lou), who is trapped, and – well, there is no more coherence in The Missing than there was in the three previous books. There are the usual dire and dismal warnings, such as Connie’s to Jason, “If you want to communicate with your sister, you need to play by different rules” from those in the everyday world, the first of them being, “Do not make the creature aware of you.” That of course means Jason will make “the creature” aware of him, which he promptly does. The Missing uses the same stylistic approach as the three prior Shadow House books: Poblocki has the trapped kids do exactly the wrong thing again and again, even while proclaiming that they know it is the wrong thing to do. For instance, one kid stuck in the dollhouse notices movement in an indoor pool, and so: “‘In a horror movie,’ Cal whispered, staring at the spreading ripples in the water, ‘this would be the part where we run.’ He nudged the girls forward, and they took off, racing across the slick tile floor toward the dark archway.” Poblocki’s notion in these books is that the various kids – whose personalities are interchangeable – have a pretty good idea that they are trapped by something evil in some sort of nightmare, and they know that doing certain things will have no effect, so they do them anyway because they can’t think of anything else. Kids are “shocked into silence.” One is “certain that the thing inside the wall was about to burst into the room and devour everyone.” Another cogently observes that “the house changes shape.” One is “frozen with terror.” And one notes that “we’re inside a scary story,” which of course leads another to say, “This is not a story. …This is our lives.” And so on – and on and on, cliché following cliché, as if Poblocki thinks that by having his characters know they are using fluent cliché-speak, that somehow makes The Missing not a mass of clichés after all. As in the first three books, the interior illustrations – here they are by Charice Silverman and Cheung Tai – tend to convey more scariness than the prose parts they portray. The eventual destruction of the dollhouse is inevitable, and of course that ends the curse that temporarily trapped the various kids, and that means everything is wrapped up as neatly as it was at the end of the original Shadow House trilogy – which, it turned out, was not neatly wrapped up at all, so who knows what Poblocki has in mind for the future?
Mozart: L’Oca del Cairo; Lo Sposo Deluso; Aria in C, “Chi sà, qual sia”; Quartet in E-flat, “Dite almeno.” Ensemble and Orchestra of the Kameropera Antwerpen TRANSPARANT conducted by Hans Rotman. CPO. $16.99.
Andreas Romberg: Symphony No. 4, “Alla turca”; Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5, “Turkish”; Haydn: Overture to “L’Incontro improvviso.” Julia Schröder, violin; Collegium Musicum Basel conducted by Kevin Griffiths. CPO. $16.99.
Khachaturian: Piano Concerto; Concerto-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. Stepan Simonian, piano; Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie conducted by Daniel Raiskin. CPO. $16.99.
Joseph Sheehan: Songs of Lake Volta—Ghanaian Traditional Music Reimagined. Kinetic (Anqwenique Wingfield, voice; Anthony Ambroso, guitar; Joseph Sheehan, piano; Jason Rafalak, bass; Ryan Socrates, drums) and Kassia Ensemble (Dawn Posey, Ashley Freeburn and Maureen Conlon, violins; Si Yu, viola; Katya Janpoladyan, cello). Ansonica. $14.99.
Mozart aficionados and scholars are well aware that the composer left a number of works incomplete and contributed his music to material written primarily by others, as was the custom in his time. This is why the Mozart symphonic canon skips from No. 36 to No. 38: Symphony No. 37, K. 444, is actually by Mozart’s friend Michael Haydn, with just a bit of Mozart’s own music in it. On the operatic front, Mozart’s contributions to works by others are even more common, and can be very enjoyable to hear both as rarities and as worthy pieces in their own right. Furthermore, Mozart’s own incomplete musical projects can be delightful even if, in the case of stage works, they are too fragmentary to be visually performable on their own. That is the case with two Italian opera fragments from 1783-84, L’Oca del Cairo and Lo Sposo Deluso. There is an hour of Mozart between them – an hour of Mozartiana that many listeners have never heard – and some of the material is quite delightful. Add a couple of items created by Mozart for inclusion in stage works by other composers and you have, in the totality of a CPO release of material recorded back in 1991, exotic pleasures that nevertheless have a familiar ring to them. Essentially the complete libretto of L’Oca del Cairo (“The Cairo Goose”) has survived, and it shows why Mozart abandoned the project: the material is by Giovanni Battista Varesco, librettist of Idomeneo, whose work Mozart did not like – justifiably, in this case, since the comedy has a silly ending that parodies the Trojan Horse by having a man winning his bride by being smuggled to her inside a mechanical goose. About 40 minutes of Mozart’s music for the project survives. It is performed stylishly under Hans Rotman’s direction, and there are actually a couple of items worth more-frequent hearing, notably an aria-plus-terzetto, Siano pronte alle gran nozze. For Lo sposo deluso (“The Deluded Bridegroom”), even less music has survived: about 20 minutes, all from Act I. Here the libretto is just possibly by Lorenzo da Ponte, but is more likely by the undistinguished Giuseppe Petrosellini, who is also thought to have written the libretto for La finta giardiniera. The words were apparently originally written for Domenico Cimarosa. In this case, Mozart wrote for seven very specific singers, tailoring his music to their strengths. The reason Mozart abandoned this project is uncertain; the extant music includes a well-balanced overture with peppy elements contrasting with pensive ones, plus a particularly nice quartet, Ah, ah che ridere! The remaining Mozart material on this CD is a pair of inserts for other composers’ operas. Chi sà, qual sia is an aria for Il bubero di buon cuore by Vicente Martin y Soler (1754-1806), and Dite al meno is a quartet for La villanella rapita by Francesco Bianchi (1752-1810). They are slight pieces written for specific singers and are intended to supplement the other composers’ material, not to distract from their work – but it is notable that the text for the Martin y Soler insert is certainly by da Ponte, the greatest of Mozart’s librettists. CPO provides plot summaries for the two fragmentary Mozart operas and explanatory contextual information for the two inserts – and, wonder of wonders, gives all the texts, a huge help for material as little-known as this even though nothing is translated from the original Italian. Anyone fascinated by Mozart’s operatic productions or simply interested in hearing some of his very-little-known music will find this disc a distinct pleasure, if a rather rarefied one.
Mozart’s own sense of the exotic, and that of other composers of his time, tended toward the Turkish. Beethoven was so enamored of Turkish-style sounds that he produced a Turkish march for The Ruins of Athens that remains very often heard, and also famously (and rather incongruously) included a Turkish march in the middle of the finale of his Symphony No. 9. Gluck and Haydn were fond of the exoticism of Turkish-style rhythms and instruments, too – and an example of Haydn’s use of them, in the overture to L’Incontro improvviso, appears on a new CPO release conducted by Kevin Griffiths. The work’s plot revolves around a Persian princess and an Ottoman prince, so the sounds Haydn includes flow naturally from the narrative. But the Turkish influence is more apparent in Mozart’s music than in that of Haydn or Beethoven. From the famous concluding Rondo alla turca of his Piano Sonata No. 11, K. 331, to the entirety of The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart employed elements that were considered traditionally Turkish (as they sounded to Viennese ears), and did so to exceptionally fine effect. His final violin concerto, No. 5 in A, K. 219, shows another of his uses of Turkish rhythms: here they interrupt an otherwise delicate finale just as surprisingly as, 50 years later, Beethoven’s Turkish material interrupts (or, rather, changes) the flow of the conclusion of his last symphony. Julia Schröder does a fine job of placing the Mozart concerto’s Turkish elements in context: the concerto is actually filled with clever and surprising twists of various types. But the most interesting use of Turkish-style material on this disc comes in the fourth and last symphony published during the lifetime of the very-little-known Andreas Romberg (1767-1821), who wrote 10 symphonies in all. The Sinfonia alla turca – that is its formal title – was written in 1798. It is highly unusual for its time in incorporating Turkish elements (through use of piccolo as well as cymbal, triangle and bass drum) throughout, not just to produce a touch of color in a specific movement or section. Romberg, in his time a distinguished violinist, treats the strings particularly well in the not-very-slow slow movement, Andante quasi Allegretto, but elsewhere the “Turkish-ness” of the instrumentation is juxtaposed with Classical-era thematic material again and again. The finale, in particular, is simply overflowing with percussion, and it features the same contrasts of loud and soft sections – and the same brief rather than extended themes – as Mozart presents in The Abduction from the Seraglio, in a movement whose structure and sound are distinctly Haydnesque. The symphony is a treat for the ears, and this disc as a whole is fascinating for showing, to a greater extent than usual, just how popular the “Turkish sound” was as an attention-getting device in the Classical era.
Another new CPO recording offers exoticism of a different sort in two piano-and-orchestra works by Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). Although Khachaturian moved to Moscow at the age of 19, he retained his Armenian roots and expressed them effectively throughout his musical life. Thus, for example, the second movement of his Piano Concerto is based on a well-known-in-the-region folk song that Khachaturian said he once heard in Tiflis. But Khachaturian so manipulates and varies the simple tune that he produces an elaborate 10-minute movement that feels only vaguely folklike. At other times, Khachaturian creates tunes that sound as if they are folk melodies, when in fact they are not: he is simply channeling his perceptions of the Trans-Caucasus area in a way that produces material that sounds as if it could have come from there, even though it did not. The concerto dates to 1937, years before the ballets Gayane and Spartacus, for which Khachaturian is nowadays best known. The Concerto-Rhapsody is much later, composed in 1967, and tends to be tarred in the West with its avowed purpose of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, however, this work – the last of a trio of rhapsodies for solo instruments and orchestra, the first two being for violin and for cello – is easier to hear on its own merits, which turn out to be considerable. The writing also proves to be surprisingly avant-garde for a piece avowedly expressing the triumph of Leninism and the “socialist realism” that Soviet rulers and their musical enforcers expected and demanded. A four-note motif of the Concerto-Rhapsody duplicates one in the Piano Concerto, and both pieces end in essentially the same way. But otherwise the later work is exotic in an entirely different manner – for example, through its level of dissonance and the way in which Khachaturian drops markedly and unexpectedly from a highly percussion-laden section marked ffff (!) to one where delicacy prevails and the vibraphone dominates. The confluence and contrast of the extremely martial with the delicately lyrical give this work, whatever its political intentions and designs may have been, a sound and style that transcend the time and circumstances under which Khachaturian created it. Stepan Simonian’s intense devotion to the piano parts of both works is evident throughout, and the performances by the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie under Daniel Raiskin sound assured, idiomatic and as intense and colorful as the music demands – which is to say, very much so.
The composers of the 21st century often find their exotic touches not in places from which they came but in ones where they are foreigners, as Joseph Sheehan shows on a new (+++) release from Ansonica. Sheehan, like many other composers today, mixes jazz and classical elements in much of his music, and also draws heavily on non-Western musical traditions. Songs of Lake Volta specifically reaches out to, and from, the music of Ghana, a nation where Sheehan says he had a life-changing experience in 2008 and a place that he has since visited several times. Sheehan’s own performing ensemble, Kinetic, is joined on the CD by the Kassia Ensemble, and both groups pay tribute in their performances to many of the “cause” elements of which contemporary composers are fond. Vocalist Anqwenique Wingfield sings in indigenous languages of Ghana and in multiple styles, the idea being to emphasize Ghana’s ethnic variety and diversity and hold the nation and its music up as worthy of emulation as well as admiration. There are tracks here of mainly quiet dissonance, such as Akoo Kofi and Oye; ones with a distinctly chant-like, declamatory basis, such as Damba Suite; and ones where jazziness comes to the fore, such as Subo and Dusime. Each of the nine tracks – the others are called Nyento, Confornoche, Kekele and Dama Dama – creates its own little sound world and explores it with the resources of the performing ensembles. Texts for the songs are provided, along with translations, giving listeners a chance to follow the unfamiliar verbalizing and sense the extent to which the music enhances, parallels or comments on the words. The sense of the exotic is palpable here, as is the determination to treat the material in a highly respectful manner and pay tribute to the culture that produced the underlying music – while interpreting the foundational melodies through a primarily Western and heavily jazz-influenced sound palette. A clear example of genre mixing, Songs of Lake Volta will appeal to listeners with a strong interest in the merging of cultures for the sake of enhancing artistic expression and, hopefully, increased mutual understanding and respect.
Lehár: Das Land des Lächelns. Piotr Beczala, Julia Kleiter, Rebeca Olvera, Spencer Long, Cheyne Davidson, Martin Zysset; Chor der Oper Zürich and Philharmonia Zürich conducted by Fabio Luisi. Accentus Music DVD. $33.99.
The source of one of the greatest love songs in all operetta, Dein ist mein ganzes Herz, Franz Lehár’s 1929 tragicomedy Das Land des Lächelns (“The Land of Smiles”) is more difficult to stage nowadays than Die lustige Witwe and some of his other works. The reason is that it is not only about thwarted love but also about a clash of cultures – those being European and stylized century-ago Chinese. This is also one of the most “Puccini-an” of Lehár’s works: he and Puccini were friends, and their music was often compared (usually to Lehár’s disadvantage). In Das Land des Lächelns we have a near-operatic score permeated with the pathos, soaring themes and tremendously heightened emotions for which Puccini is renowned. Indeed, the underlying theme of Das Land des Lächelns is not all that different from the basis of Madame Butterfly, although Lehár’s sad ending is one of pathos rather than tragedy and more closely resembles the conclusion of Eugene Onegin.
The impossibility of East and West ever understanding each other fully is foundational to Das Land des Lächelns, and the story of Prince Sou-Chong (Piotr Beczala) and the very Viennese Lisa (Julia Kleiter) plays out as an example of the inevitable clash of cultures. There are also repeated references to the impossibility of a Märchen (fairy tale) in real life – the same theme that Lehár used in other late works, notably his final one, Giuditta. In Das Land des Lächelns, the ironic title refers to what was seen as the Chinese people’s habit of always smiling enigmatically despite their inner feelings. This better reflects the actions and emotions of the work than did its original title, Die gelbe Jacke, referring to the robe of office whose assumption by Sou-Chong brings on the destruction of his and Lisa’s love (Lehár’s original version of the work, which dates to 1923, actually had a happy ending, which did not appeal to audiences so soon after World War I; hence the revision).
Unlike the specificity of Japan in The Mikado, the “Chinese-ness” in Das Land des Lächelns is important mainly as a way to show an unbridgeable gap across which love may attempt to reach, even if it ultimately fails. Therefore, the “China” elements of staging can be downplayed, allowing Lehár’s very effective use of pentatonic writing to carry listeners to the Orient with more subtlety. This helps resolve the issue of the typecasting of China potentially making modern audiences uncomfortable; and this is the approach taken by Opernhaus Zürich in the production, led by Fabio Luisi, that is now available on an Accentus Music DVD. There is a single set for all three acts, with a prepossessing pillar midstage and long sets of steps to each side – actually a continuous staircase, as becomes clear when stage director Andreas Homoki has some characters go up one side and then come down the other. The curtain itself, grasped and pulled by the performers, becomes part of the stage setting; there are also a few pieces of easily movable furniture; and that is all that set designer Wolfgang Gussmann uses. The same spare approach applies to the costumes, designed by Gussmann with Susana Mendoza, and the lighting, handled by Franck Evin: everything in the production is understated, not just its Chinese elements. This places the music and the emoting of the singers in the forefront and encourages them to act, or act out, all the work’s themes and intricacies.
This, unfortunately, is where the production falls short. The Opernhaus Zürich team, which also includes chorus master Ernst Raffelsberger, choreographer Arturo Gama, and Kathrin Brunner in charge of dramaturgy, has decided to have the music be paramount to the point of excluding virtually all the dialogue – there is perhaps five minutes of spoken material in the entire production. This puts too heavy a burden on the musical numbers and turns the work (which really is almost as much opera as operetta) into a revue, and one without much coherence. The truncated opening barely establishes Lisa as a strong, self-assured European woman, and her immediately following scene with Sou-Chong, including their subtle flirtation while drinking tea, is bland and unconvincing as a result; the fact that Beczala and Kleiter sing well but have virtually no onstage chemistry compounds the difficulty. The peculiar removal of the narrative also undermines the role of “second couple” Gustl (Spencer Long, who looks distinctly uncomfortable throughout the evening) and Mi (Rebeca Olvera). Lehár had the fascinating habit of giving the “second-string” lovers in his works some of the best music and most-telling observations – think, for instance, of Camille’s Wie eine Rosenknospe, a highlight of Die lustige Witwe. In Das Land des Lächelns, it is Gustl and Mi who proclaim the sameness, despite cultural differences, of Meine Liebe, deine Liebe, but here that duet comes across as an emotionless trifle; the touch of Act III levity, Zig, zig, zig, makes no sense whatsoever; and Gustl’s farewell to Mi, intended to mirror the severing of the Lisa-Sou-Chong bond, is just plain silly, featuring multiple tuxedo-wearing men acting like old vaudevillians (or vaude-villains).
So what Opernhaus Zürich presents here is basically a series of heartfelt arias intended, in and of themselves, to tell the cultural-conflict story of Das Land des Lächelns. They do not. But the music itself is gorgeous, and that is what saves the production. There are so few worthwhile visuals that a DVD is scarcely necessary, although it must be said that a bit of stage business featuring the Chief Eunuch (Martin Zysset) is worth seeing, and there is a single instance of delightful costuming and levity in the Act II Im Salon zur blau’n Pagode. Listeners who close their eyes for the rest of this production will not miss much and may even gain a sense of the music’s emotional intensity – especially in the singing by Beczala, one of today’s very best operetta tenors. Luisi is not an ideal conductor for this music – even in the sparkling overture, he over-stretches some sections while underplaying the contrast between the serious music and the lighter tunes – but his sense of pacing of individual numbers is good, and he balances the orchestra well: the Philharmonia Zürich at times seems more involved in the material than do the singers. Das Land des Lächelns is not staged nearly often enough for a work of its quality, and its outdated portrayal of a China that never really existed except in the Occidental mind is surely the reason. But it is not necessary to force the work into uncomfortable contortions by, for example, insisting that Chinese people perform all the Chinese roles (Beczala does not look the slightest bit Oriental), or by (as here) removing the narrative because parts of it are awkward and/or outdated. Das Land des Lächelns is not only a fount of beautiful music but also a work with a thoughtful story that is still worth hearing. An intelligent staging that points to the universality of the material would be a far more involving and engaging experience than this Opernhaus Zürich production. But there is enough beauty and emotion here, especially in Beczala’s delivery (with Dein ist mein ganzes Herz an inevitable and well-deserved show-stopper) and to a lesser extent in Kleiter’s, to show that Lehár has the power to transcend even an indifferently staged visit to the land of inscrutable, emotion-concealing smiles.