June 24, 2021

(++++) GROWTH

The Secret Garden—Graphic Novel Adaptation. By Frances Hodgson Burnett. Adapted by Mariah Marsden. Illustrated by Hanna Luechtefeld. Andrews McMeel. $11.99.

     A bit of Bowdlerized Burnett whose fine Hanna Luechtefeld illustrations more than make up for the somewhat creaky Mariah Marsden simplification of the story, the new graphic novel based on The Secret Garden will be a fine introduction to the book for young, visually oriented readers today, even though it lacks the richness of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) was the dogmatic expurgator of Shakespeare, whose name and approach came to define the elimination of the “naughty bits” of classic literature throughout and after the 19th century. Today’s “naughty bits” are less about sexuality – there is none in The Secret Garden – and more about the notion that Europeans ever did anything beneficial, no matter how small, for non-Europeans in the era of colonialism. So Marsden dutifully removes from her adaptation the entire backstory that explains the personality of 10-year-old central character Mary Lennox. In the graphic novel, Mary is simply an orphan (reason unknown) with an unpleasant personality (reason unknown) who must be taken in by her uncle (reason unknown) and learn to live in a secluded house on the Yorkshire moors.

     Burnett explains and enriches Mary’s personality by showing her as the child of British colonists in India, where native servants took care of her needs and led to her becoming dependent, truculent and difficult – and where a cholera epidemic claimed her parents, forcing her uncle, through a sense of noblesse oblige, to take her in. Noblesse oblige, or even noblesse, being an unacceptable concept today, Marsden gives us Mary as a cardboard character whose transformation through her interactions with people and animals and gardens is less emotionally satisfying than in the original novel because she has no reason for being a spoiled brat except the exigencies of the story.

     Luechtefeld, though, makes much of Mary and the characters, both young and adult, with whom she interacts, and that is what makes the graphic novel so appealing. The greyness of the opening pages, the dullness of what non-grey colors appear, the overall sense of oppressiveness both of the manor house and of the surrounding countryside – all these come through very effectively through Luechtefeld’s art. When the earliest elements of Mary’s transformation begin – this happens when house servant Martha first talks about her brother, Dickon – the colors immediately lighten, and by the time there is a two-page, wordless illustration of the outdoors that Mary is barely starting to experience (the first of several very fine two-page wordless pictures), the art has completely taken over the story, and much of the tale can be followed without needing any words at all.

     The Secret Garden is, on many levels, a story about renewal, about a kind of “springtime of the soul” coming not only to Mary but also to her uncle and to her cousin, Colin. The garden itself, locked and inaccessible until a helpful and possibly magical bird shows Mary both the door and the key to unlock it, is both a place and a symbol – but Burnett never lays on the symbolism with too heavy a hand. The action centers in and around the garden, but in fact there is not very much action in The Secret Garden at all: this is mostly a book in which characters talk to each other, confront their own inner concerns and worries, reach out gingerly for help and support, and ultimately find a world that is much bigger and brighter than the cramped, dingy one they thought they inhabited – a final discovery beautifully communicated by a single-page end-of-book picture of the manor and environs, seen literally from a bird’s-eye view, without a single word presented on the page or needed on it.

     Like Burnett’s other major success, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), The Secret Garden is sensitive to children’s concerns without talking down to young readers – making them central characters in helping the adults around them become better than the adults have been on their own. Burnett’s underlying assumption is that young people are transformative figures for adults, and are quite capable of figuring out, on their own, what really matters in the world. Today, purveyors of books for children do not trust young people nearly as much as Burnett did, insisting that only one-dimensional character portrayals are appropriate and that the difficulties and complexities of the past are not acceptable for kids to learn about or learn from. Bowdler would be proud. But Shakespeare long outlasted him, and Burnett – thanks in part to the illustrative skill that Luechtefeld brings to this version of The Secret Garden – will last, too. Hopefully some young readers of this graphic novel will be inspired to track down the original and not only enjoy it but also learn from it.


Contagion: Plagues, Pandemics and Cures from the Black Death to COVID-19 and Beyond. By Richard Gunderman, M.D., Ph.D. Welbeck Publishing. $19.95.

     Simplifying the study of microorganisms that cause disease without making the discussion so simplistic as to be effectively useless, Indiana University professor and medical doctor Richard Gunderman produces in Contagion a brief (160-page), amply illustrated, easy-to-understand overview of topics that took on new urgency with the COVID-19 pandemic but that have in fact concerned humanity for hundreds, even thousands of years.

     Nor are diseases the only longstanding matter here. Consider the Hippocratics of some 2,600 years ago, followers of the teachings of Hippocrates, whose oath (although probably not actually written by him) is still recited by physicians today. “To understand a person’s state of health,” Gunderman writes, “Hippocrates believed, it is necessary to look at the whole person, including not only the whole body but the person’s way of life and how that mode of living fits into the larger context of a person’s environment. …The Hippocratics operated with great faith in the human organism’s ability to heal itself. The physician’s task, once a diagnosis was reached, was to remove impediments to this natural tendency toward health.” This sounds extraordinarily modern and is an attitude that, if anything, is in the ascendant in many cultures, with a focus less on the precise location of a problem and more on the holistic needs of the patient and where that problem fits into them.

     However, some problems, some diseases, so onerously affect the entire body that they require aggressive treatment lest they not only seriously harm or kill the patient but also spread far beyond one individual to infect, harm, even kill many others. Those are the diseases that are contagious – spread through contact – and they are the primary focus of Gunderman’s book. Having a holistic approach himself, he discusses not only the causes and effects of specific diseases on individuals but also the significant ways in which severe illness has affected societies and literally changed the course of history. This means not only writing about the plague that hit Athens in 430 B.C., killed one-quarter of the population, and sowed the seeds of the city-state’s eventual conquest by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War – but also the four-year Black Death in Europe (1347-1351), which killed more than 100 million people and produced societal effects still felt today.

     Gunderman tells of the long-lasting results of disease in order to impress on readers the seriousness that deadly microorganisms have not only for individuals but also for entire societies. The parallels between pandemics of the past and that of COVID-19 are many and will be eerily familiar to readers of Contagion. “The impact on social life was devastating,” writes Gunderman. “Most people scrupulously avoided contact with others, and even relatives and close friends rarely or never visited each other.” These are words about bubonic plague in the 14th century, but they fit COVID-19 in the 21st equally well.

     Gunderman deals – always briefly, but always carefully and accurately – with European diseases destroying New World populations such as the Aztecs; with the depredations of tuberculosis (known to have affected people as long ago as 2,500 B.C.); with malaria, the Spanish flu, and much more. Along the way, he highlights the amazing discoveries and anti-disease fights (often at great, even fatal personal cost) of well-known scientists and thinkers such as Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur, and Florence Nightingale. But even in a book that is by its nature a once-over-lightly look at disease and pandemics, Gunderman finds ways to showcase crucial but little-known approaches to treatment – and to the advance of science. For instance, he devotes one of his short chapters to Max Pettenkofer (1818-1901), who adamantly fought the better-known Robert Koch (1843-1910) regarding the cause of cholera. Pettenkofer’s incorrect beliefs, focusing on keeping soil dry and clean, may have saved millions of lives – testament to the way in which scientific progress, far from occurring in a straight line, tends to lurch hither and thither, although hopefully progressing in positive ways over time. Also, in discussing the Spanish flu, Gunderman brings up the possibility that many deaths may have been caused by aspirin poisoning – since doctors often recommended what is now known to be eight times the safe maximum daily dose, thus giving patients so much medicine that bleeding and other symptoms could have been caused by fighting the flu rather than by the illness itself.

     Health-promoting posters and period photographs sprinkle the pages of Contagion along with ultra-modern electron microscopy and well-made diagrams showing the appearance of bacteria, the life cycles of microbes and their infectious agents, and much more. Gunderman eventually brings the book into today and directs it toward the future with discussions of bioterrorism, coronaviruses, and the near-certainty of pandemics and plagues to come. There is a mixture here of fatalism and optimism: disease-causing microorganisms will never be eradicated, Gunderman correctly explains, but understanding how they function and how they can be fought – through inoculation, medication, and the modern version of holistic Hippocratic practices – can help people survive future instances of contagion while, hopefully, preventing the depredations visited in the past upon Athens, medieval Europe, and the Aztec empire.


Bach: Cello Suites Nos. 1-3, arranged for viola. Zachary Carrettín, viola. Sono Luminus. $16.50.

Beethoven: Bagatelles, Op. 126; works by Peter Golub, Tamir Hendelman, Richard Danielpour, Ian Krouse, Mark Carlson, David Lefkowitz, Paola Prestini, Timo Andres, and Billy Childs. Inna Faliks, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     There is nothing unusual about playing Bach’s Cello Suites on an instrument other than the cello: among many recent arrangements have been ones for theorbo, lute, flute, even bass clarinet. In fact, Zachary Carrettín has played the suites on electric violin. Performing the suites on viola – an instrument tuned the same way as the cello, but an octave higher – seems so obvious an alternative that the new Sono Luminus release featuring Carrettín would seem to be something of a no-brainer. But it turns out to be the opposite: a performance that is very thoughtful indeed, and that makes a strong case for the first three suites in Carrettín’s version – whetting listeners’ appetite for the remaining three, perhaps also on viola or perhaps on the violoncello da spalla, which Carrettín also plays. What is interesting about this viola version of the first three suites is how carefully Carrettín seeks authenticity despite not playing the music on Bach’s chosen instrument. The gut stringing, 18th-century viola and suitable bow, along with the performer’s thorough familiarity with historically informed performance practices, combine to produce a sound with which Bach would have been familiar – yet one that audiences comfortable with the suites as originally written will likely find surprising and often revelatory. The viola allows the music to sing and dance in ways that are different from (and complementary to) those of the cello: the music is lighter, the agility it requires coming across to the ear (if not necessarily to the performer) as easier and almost carefree in places. Carrettín still offers plenty of solemnity: the three Sarabande movements are quite heartfelt, and the entire second suite (in D minor) has a persistent thoughtfulness, combined with frequent touches of melancholy, that contrasts strikingly with the moods of No. 1 (in G) and No. 3 (in C). Carrettín has an unerring sense of when to be forceful and when to be formal, and the care he takes in pacing individual movements as well as each suite in its totality is noteworthy (so to speak). The CD bears the title “Metamorphosis” and, in Carrettín’s mind, some philosophical freight therewith – beyond the obvious notion of the suites being changed through viola rather than cello performance. What is particularly interesting here, though, is how little the underlying effects and expressiveness of the suites are altered when Carrettín plays them on this smaller, more-supple instrument: the works’ depth and beauty are unmatched when they are heard on cello, but their brighter elements are particularly well highlighted here, resulting in a disc that cannot supplant the many fine cello versions of the music but that supplements and complements them to excellent effect.

     A new Navona CD featuring pianist Inna Faliks also offers an interesting approach to some significant music. But while Carrettín’s Bach-on-viola remains focused on the composer, the attention in Faliks’ disc shifts toward the performer – a more-arguable approach. Faliks performs the six Bagatelles, Op. 126 that Beethoven conceived of as essentially a single work (calling this opus Ciclus von Kleinigkeiten, “cycle of little pieces”) as six separate character pieces, interspersing them with new, written-for-Faliks-herself music by contemporary composers. The idea is to take the Beethoven as a jumping-off point for musings of all sorts, resulting in 12 pieces rather than six and in a fragmentation of the underlying unity that Beethoven saw in these small, thoughtful works. The result of all this is a disc that is intellectually stimulating – and certainly played very well – but is less than convincing emotionally, and considerably less so than Beethoven’s Op. 126 on its own. The disc opens not with Beethoven’s first bagatelle but with Bagatelle by Peter Golub (born 1952), which is based on that first Beethoven piece – which listeners have not heard yet. This is typical of the intellectualization of the music throughout the disc: listeners are expected already to know the Beethoven material or to place it at the same level of interest as the music that comments on or is inspired by it. The other pieces related to the Beethoven are Bagatelle by Tamir Hendelman (born 1971), Bagatelle—Childhood Nightmare by Richard Danielpour (born 1956), Etude 2A—‘Ad Fugam’ on a Non-Octave-Replicating Mode by Ian Krouse (born 1956), Sweet Nothings by Mark Carlson (born 1952), and Bagatelle by David Lefkowitz (born 1964). All the works are well-made, although not all bear much relation to the pieces on which they are more-or-less based (Danielpour’s and Krouse’s, in particular, occupy their own worlds). Faliks shows her enthusiasm for all the contemporary works quite clearly – sometimes more clearly than her interest in the Beethoven – and the 12-piece set is certainly an interesting exercise on several levels, even if it is not wholly convincing from an emotive standpoint. All six non-Beethoven pieces here are world première recordings; the same is true of three additional works that are also variations on or responses to a different significant piano work. These are Ondine: Variations on a Spell by Paola Prestini (born 1975), Le Gibet: Old Ground by Timo Andres (born 1985), and Scarbo: Pursuit by Billy Childs (born 1957). These pieces, as their titles indicate, take off from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit – which, however, is not played here by Faliks, meaning these works require of listeners an even greater pre-knowledge of their inspirational material than do the Beethoven-related pieces. Each of the three “Ravelian” works refers at least obliquely to the original to which it responds, and each is effective in its own way, that by Childs especially so. The Ravel material cements this recording as one with (++++) playing and (++++) underlying thoughtfulness, even though the disc is a self-limiting (+++) one – because it is simply too rarefied for a wide audience, engaging more of the brain and less of the heart than Beethoven and Ravel did in the works on which Faliks’ recital is based.

June 17, 2021


Cosmic Pizza Party. By Nick Murphy and Paul Ritchey. Illustrated by Bea Tormo. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 imposters). By Giles Sparrow. Welbeck Publishing. $14.95.

     Space is less a “final frontier” than a kind of goopy setting for assorted oddities and speculations in numerous books whose objective is to get the Earthbound to a better place, at least temporarily and in their imagination. The “goopiness” element is especially pronounced in Cosmic Pizza Party, a graphic novel featuring the usual odd assortment of characters thrown together as a team – in this case, for the sake of delivering the best pizza in the known (or unknown) universe, or at least in the Marinaris (“marinara,” get it?) System. Hint: read the back of the book first, since Bea Tormo’s over-the-top illustrations do not really make it clear that one central character is an “intergalactic sloth,” another a “robotic intern,” a third a “rocklike” being, and a fourth a “mecha-slug” – that is, a soft-bodied space slug snugly supported by a suitable space slug spacesuit. The end pages also show the interplanetary pizza truck used by the good guys for deliveries – and give some information on the inevitable bad guy, a three-eyed character called Papa Roni (“pepperoni,” of course) who stands for all that is evil in pizza delivery, including “I don’t really mean it” asterisks after each and every one of his supposed promises to pizza lovers. The five chapters by Nick Murphy and Paul Ritchey include one involving a search for the ultimate pizza cheese; one in which our heroes are sucked into a video game during a prince’s pizza party; one in which the synthetic inhabitants of a certain planet cannot eat pizza because they are unable to consume organic food, but find out that the trash from pizza deliveries can be the basis of some great meals; one in which planetary storms make deliveries nearly impossible; and one in which the good guys and bad guys confront each other on a game show called “The Slice Is Right.” It would be nice to say this is all inspired silliness, but there is nothing particularly inspired about Cosmic Pizza Party, although there is certainly silliness enough to give preteen graphic-novel fans who love pizza some pie-in-the-sky (ha!) enjoyment.

     Quirky in a very different way, and intended for adults rather than younger readers – although written in such a manner that teenagers and even preteens will find much of it accessible – the latest popular-science book by Giles Sparrow lands plunk in the middle of a large and ever-increasing pile of writings intended to present science simply enough for non-scientists to understand it, but accurately enough to prevent non-scientists from misunderstanding it. Every chapter of the book has references, which can be found at the back – this is de rigueur in a work professing to any level of academic solidity – and there are also plenty of footnotes. These, however, mirabile dictu, are often just as entertaining as the main text. Sparrow even includes his own references to comic strips, although not to Cosmic Pizza Party. At one point, for instance, a footnote relating to the shape of Earth goes, “Like Asterix’s best friend Obelix, Earth’s not fat, but its chest has slipped a bit – due to our planet’s fast spin, the Equator is literally trying to fly away into space.” True, René Giscinny’s Asterix comics are much better known in Europe than in the U.S., but since Sparrow is British, his reference is understandable – and could interest readers enough to send them to the Asterix saga as well as the astronomical one on which Sparrow focuses. Sparrow enjoys combining levity, and a touch of irreverence, with his serious comments on life, the universe, and all that. Another footnote, about the magnitudes assigned to stars, begins, “We’ve inherited this system from Ptolemy, so blame him…” Sparrow also uses chapter subtitles to bring science down to Earth (so to speak), as in a chapter called “Mizar (and Friends)” that is subtitled “A quick waltz among multiple stars.” This opens with a sentence that perhaps makes more sense in England than across the pond: “Stars, like policemen, often come in pairs.” And Sparrow continues, “the only thing your average star likes more than pairing up is hanging around in small groups, like surly teenagers kicking their heels on a celestial street corner.” And no sooner do readers get that image into their minds than Sparrow presents this expository footnote: “Having said that, the old assumption that singleton stars like the Sun are actually in the minority no longer seems to hold true… Curiously (and for reasons we don’t entirely understand) it’s bigger and brighter stars that tend to be multiples.”

     All of these quotations provide a fair sample of Sparrow’s A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 imposters), which mixes the chatty with the serious, the what-we-know with the what-we-don’t-know-yet, and throws in the occasional Britishism simply because that is Sparrow’s style and not because he is trying to confuse the poor benighted Americans (so when, at the end of the Mizar chapter, he writes that “it’s ticked off a series of remarkable firsts,” Americans should not think anything out there has been repeatedly angry at anything else). The 21 stars and three additional non-star objects (Omega Centauri, the Andromeda Nebula, and quasar 3C 273) that Sparrow discusses in this brief tour of the stuff out there do not fit any particular pattern except Sparrow’s own: he chose celestial objects that interested readers could locate in the sky for themselves with relatively little trouble and that demonstrate various properties that scientists study in much more excruciating detail. Variable stars, supergiant stars, black holes, nebulae, stars of different colors, even “the star on our doorstep” (the Sun) – all are here, all discussed in chapters packed with facts and mercifully minimalized math (that being the area where astronomers spend most of their lives when they are not spending them scanning the universe). Many famous and not-quite-as-famous scientists make brief appearances here, but Sparrow relentlessly focuses on their star-related discoveries rather than their personalities: the celebrities here are celestial, not Earthbound. Yet the intermingling of people and stars is often fascinating, as in his discussion of Annie Jump Cannon, a profoundly deaf scientist who, in the late 19th century, created a star-classification system that remains part of “astronomy basic training” for its neat encapsulation of star spectra, colors and temperatures, all neatly packed within the mnemonic, “Oh, Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me!” (The footnote here, after “Girl,” reads, “Or Guy, we’re not fussy.”) The highly personal nature of Sparrow’s book – even the maps of the night sky are hand-drawn – makes it as much a work of art as one of science, a view into Sparrow’s way of thinking as well as a view of the cosmos. It turns out that that is all well and good, because Sparrow has so wide a range of interests within the field of star study that readers will get carried into areas they surely never expected to visit on their own, from “Anatomy of a Black Hole” to “The CNO Cycle” (carbon/nitrogen/oxygen). Under the circumstances, the fact that the book lacks an index seems less an omission than an assertion that one need not go into full academic mode in order to communicate simplified (but not too over-simplified) versions of some extremely complex scientific concepts and findings. In his own way, Sparrow himself is a star.