September 23, 2021


Lotería. By Karla Arenas Valenti. Illustrations by Dana Sanmar. Knopf. $16.99.

     A novel of remarkable sensitivity and considerable beauty, and one that gives far more credit for maturity to its intended preteen readers than do most books aimed at this age group, Lotería is an immersive experience from which adults – who really should be among its readers – will take away just as much as younger readers do.

     Like the Pixar movie Coco, Karla Arenas Valenti’s novel draws on el Día de los Muertos, a celebration that shows a vastly different attitude toward death from the typical one in the United States and most other Western nations. There is camaraderie between the living and the departed inherent in el Día de los Muertos, and the close-knit relationship between life and death is made explicit in Lotería by having two of the primary characters in fact be Life and Death. Valenti personifies them exceptionally cleverly: Life is a very-well-dressed man referred to as Catrín, Spanish for “dandy” and the name of one of the tarot-like cards in the Lotería game that gives the book its title. Death is depicted as a lady named Catrina, based on an etching showing a female skeleton wearing elegant clothing. The verbal closeness of the words Catrín/Catrina emphasizes the interrelationship of Life and Death, who are continually referred to in Lotería as friends – and Death, more often than not, brings touches of beauty to the scenes and people the two encounter.

     The playing of the Lotería game is essentially a framing tale for the story of 11-year-old Clara and the otherworldly adventure she experiences after promising to care for her eight-year-old cousin, Esteban, whose mother dies in a freak accident that may nevertheless have been fated – the whole notion of free will vs. determinism, a longstanding and very profound debate in philosophy, underpins the events of the book and is handled in an age-appropriate way that will nevertheless stretch the bounds of young readers’ thinking (and probably that of adults as well). The idea of Life and Death playing cards, with the fate of random mortals hanging in the balance, is scarcely new. Adult readers may think of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (“the game is done – I’ve won, I’ve won,” says “the nightmare Life-in-Death”); moviegoers may think beyond Coco to Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal, whose protagonist plays chess with Death in the full knowledge that he will lose – but who loses in a positive way. Indeed, Bergman’s vision is comparatively close to Valenti’s, although Bergman is not mentioned by Valenti as a source (she does cite plenty of other sources in an excellent, extended Author’s Note at the back of the book).

     Clara is neither more nor less than the human whose fate will be determined by the outcome of the game played by Life and Death – or rather whose fate is already determined if you accept Death’s argument that the order of the cards to be dealt is already set once the pack is shuffled, so Catrín and Catrina are simply revealing Clara’s fate, not in any way causing it. The focus of Lotería shifts again and again between the card game and Clara’s magical-realism journey to a strange land where she needs to learn and obey (or find ways to disobey) a series of rules in order to catch up to Enrique, who is in the clutches of none other than El Diablo (not a figure of overwhelming evil here, however, although certainly a “bad guy”).

     The rules of the magical place that Clara visits require her to give something in order to get something – information, help, anything. After initially believing she has nothing to give, Clara finds more and more within herself that she is able to trade with the denizens of the strange land, eventually becoming no less than a giver of hope – to the equal astonishment of Life and Death, who are compelled by forces that are even beyond them to play Lotería and accept restrictions and requirements, including the need to find a suitable gift for the mortal enmeshed in the game.

     Lotería is a complex, beautifully interwoven novel written with rare perception and a willingness to treat preteen readers with far more respect than authors of novels for this age group generally accord them. The climax is complex and the ending very definitely sad, but there is hope and a kind of bittersweet uplift as well (in this way too Lotería resembles The Seventh Seal). Most of the book’s flaws are niggling ones. At one point Valenti says “the rules [of the game played by Life and Death] were clear: if they failed to complete their game in the allotted [three-day] time, it would be their final round, and they would never meet again.” Why three days? Who sets the rules? What would happen if Life and Death never met again? These are questions never answered, never even asked. Also, there is an intriguing scene in which “a curious bird” lands on the table where Life and Death are playing cards; they, distracted by watching events nearby, are not aware when the bird flies away, “unseen by the two friends as it carried away the top card of the pile, thus unfurling a different destiny for the girl on the bus [Clara].” In what way is Clara’s destiny “different”? What has the bird changed? Was the change foreordained? How is it that neither Life nor Death notices the card deck now numbers 53, not 54? What exactly is the purpose of this scene? Again, these are questions neither answered nor asked.

     But despite a few matters like these that may perplex attentive and curious readers, the book as a whole is so tightly assembled, so elegant in its progression from place to place and event to event, that it becomes a journey of wonder and a very thoughtful exploration of just what it means to make promises, to discover one’s abilities, to protect others, to give of oneself, to do all the things that constitute living life while on a journey to the inevitability of death. The unobtrusive illustrations by Dana Sanmar complement Valenti’s prose well, especially the repeated portrayal of changes in the boards of Life and Death as new cards are revealed and markers are placed upon suitable pictures in bingo-like fashion. Lotería is, in fact, the game of life, or one game of life, and it is one that Clara must lose (as everyone must) but one filled with beauty, care, concern, love and hopefulness – the elements that are preserved through one’s influence on others (as Clara’s are) even when one has passed into the realm of Death. Lotería is an altogether remarkable book, made all the more so by its steadfast refusal to talk down to preteens or try to shield them from difficult choices and life’s inevitable end. More words from Coleridge come to mind regarding the effect of Lotería on sensitive young readers: after the novel is over, they will find themselves, like the poet’s unnamed wedding guest, sadder and wiser.


The College Wellness Guide: A Student’s Guide to Managing Mental, Physical and Social Health on Campus.  By Casey Rowley Barneson and the staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $15.99.

     Accentuated and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental-health challenges inherent in college have become both more extreme and more worrisome than they were in the past. But they have always been present. College is stressful. In addition to academic requirements beyond what students have previously encountered, college is for many their first time living on their own, their first time being away from familiar places for an extended time, their first time making their own significant decisions and facing the consequences of those decisions without parental shields, their first time managing their own schedules and deciding how and when and how much to study, their first time balancing work and play – the list goes on and on. It would be surprising if college did not put a significant strain on students’ mental and physical health.

     There are plenty of books that acknowledge these issues and try to guide students through them. The College Wellness Guide is basically a good one, although scarcely the last word: it is more of a once-over-lightly from which students can get ideas that they can then apply to their specific concerns to the extent possible. Casey Rowley Barneson is a high-school-based college counselor, not an active on-college-campus professional, but she certainly has good ideas about self-evaluation for stress, anxiety and other issues and sensible concepts for what students can do when college life simply becomes overwhelming.

     The usefulness of Barneson’s book depends, however, on how comfortable students are with the multiple quizzes, questions, lists, fill-ins, and self-assessment exercises around which Barneson builds the book. These “you do it” portions of the book, if a student has patience and inclination to deal seriously with them, will be significantly more useful than much of the narration, which tends to be simplistic: “Counseling sessions come in many forms for many needs. Don’t be afraid to try different forms to find your best fit.”

     It is best to view The College Wellness Guide as a workbook, and perhaps even think of it as a guided class in self-help – that may be easier now, since so many students had to adjust to remote learning because of pandemic lockdowns. The book starts with 11 separate self-assessment quizzes, each 15 questions long and each requiring an answer ranging from 4 (strongly agree) to 1 (disagree). The willingness to take all 165 questions seriously and answer them honestly is absolutely crucial in order to find the four “units” that follow helpful. Those sections deal with mental, physical, social, and future health (the last referring to career and post-college financial matters). However, the questions are sometimes confusingly written. For example, under “self-care,” one says “I don’t usually take time for myself” (requiring agreeing or disagreeing with a negative), while another says “sleep is rarely consistent” (how about consistent poor sleep, or sound sleep for a few hours follows by consistent wakefulness?). And some questions try to pack too much into a single sentence, as under “study support,” where one reads, “I struggle with research papers, my grammar, or properly citing sources” (three separate topics, and that “or” does not help).

     Within the “units” that explore the issues brought up in the initial self-assessment, Barneson expects students to continue providing answers in all sorts of formats. Under “Mental Health,” for example, there is a “mark your calendar” box in which a student is supposed to check the school’s calendar for relevant events, choose one to attend, then write down what he/she hopes to get  out of going and why this particular event feels important. Then there is a calendar called “My Month of Mental Health Awareness,” with Barneson saying to pick a theme for the month and then providing a blank calendar with spaces to check off each day and write down goals and actions. In the same chapter is a Venn diagram to be used to compare and contrast “two mental health organizations you want to try out.” And there is an “Evaluate Your Choices” section that includes both a place to write down comments and one to rate various aspects of a group on a scale of 1 to 5.

     Multiply this single chapter within a single section by all the other chapters and the other sections and The College Wellness Guide, even though it is only 272 pages long, can quickly come to seem overwhelming. That is certainly not Barneson’s intention, but it is the result of her book’s structure and her overall approach to the topic in general and the subtopics of which wellness consists. Furthermore, although there are numerous “How to Cope” paragraphs within chapters, much of what Barneson says in them will be difficult for struggling students to do. If, for example, a student has significant trouble “presenting in front of people,” causing “crippling anxiety,” Barneson suggests asking for an accommodation: “Asking for accommodations, no matter what you’re dealing with, is something that can be very stressful, but is essential to making the learning process less taxing. It’s important to let the necessary people – like counselors, advisors, and professors – know what’s going on so they can help you.” So a student with a serious fear of presenting material needs to present material to potentially judgmental people in power in order to get them to make some sort of accommodation. It is easy to see how this sort of advice, while well-meaning, can come across as too simplistic to be useful in a student’s real college world.

     The usefulness of The College Wellness Guide will ultimately depend on each student’s comfort level with the depth (or lack thereof) of Barneson’s suggestions and urgings, and her methods of getting readers to contribute to their own self-evaluation. In the section on sleep, for example, she offers a “Sleep Tracker” with six categories (“I slept 8-10 hours,” “I woke up feeling energized,” and so on) – and asks readers to “shade in the portions of each pillow for which you accomplish your sleep task.” Readers who think the shade-in-a-pillow-shaped-box approach is helpful, or at least disarming, and are not put off by the notion of adding a “sleep task” to their other work, are the only ones who will find this tracker congenial. In another section, on “Learning Environment,” a page called “Target Practice” actually shows a target and says, “In the bullseye, write the biggest problem you’re currently facing in regards to academics.” Again, some will like this illustrative approach while others will find it off-putting.

     Every self-help book has its own design that the author thinks will work for readers, of course, and The College Wellness Guide is no exception. But students would be well-advised to look through the book in some detail to be sure Barneson’s writing and graphic style are appealing before trying to use the book to find any sort of help with the inevitable worries and stresses of college life.


Music for Solo Violin from London, 1650-1700. Peter Sheppard Skærved, violin. Athene. $18.99.

Marc Mellits: No Strings Attached; Black; Red; Troică; Gravity. Philadelphia Percussion + Piano Project conducted by Phillip O’Banion. BCM+D Records. $9.99.

Music for Voice, Winds and Strings by Taylor Brook, Heather Stebbins, Eve Beglarian, Reiko Füting, Scott Wollschleger, and Paula Matthusen. loadbang (Jeff Gavett, baritone; Andrew Kozar, trumpet; William Lang, trombone; Adrian Sandi, clarinet). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     Sometimes the main reason to listen to a CD is to hear the way the instruments on it are played – not to hear the specific music for which those instruments are employed. A new Athene disc is of this type: the playing by Peter Sheppard Skærved is excellent; the violin used for most of the recording, which dates to 1664 but whose maker is unknown, has a warm and full-bodied sound that is instantly attractive; a second violin, used for a subset of the material, is an absolutely wonderful, even-toned Girolamo Amati instrument from 1629; the composers represented are a kind of “who’s who” of the Baroque era; and the CD’s length of almost an hour and a quarter is generous. However, all these positives are at the service of works that are, truth be told, by and large not terribly interesting. The disc has 44 tracks, with pieces ranging in length from 48 seconds to (in a single case) nearly four minutes; most of these little works are in the one-to-two-minute range. The majority come from a 1705 collection of Preludes & Voluntarys, with 10 (the ones for which the Amati is used) being composed by Thomas Baltzar (c. 1630-1664) – arguably the most-famous violinist of his time. Among the many other composers represented here are Corelli, Torelli, Biber, Albinoni, Pepusch, and Purcell – and there are also works by composers now known only by their last names: Mr. Dean, Mr. Simons, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Hills (they were presumably court musicians). What is noteworthy is the uniformly high quality of the material: every single composer was clearly skilled at writing for solo violin, exploring the instrument’s capabilities within a constricted length, and there is little to distinguish the preludes by the virtually unknown composers from those of the more-famous ones. Skærved, a strong advocate for music of this time period, treats every work here with respect and explores the repertoire with care as well as skill. And it is certainly interesting, from a historical perspective, to learn that there were so many fine composers flourishing at this time and producing works exploring the violin’s capabilities. But the fact remains that nothing here is of any outstanding musical interest in and of itself. Short prelude follows short prelude, with differing keys and tempos but little chance for the composers to establish individuality or produce any work of significance. The Baltzar material is the most interesting, simply because there is enough of it (more than 20 minutes in all) to provide a sense of Baltzar’s compositional and performance skills. But the main focus here, other than history, is the sound of the two violins that Skærved plays – which means that listeners interested in differences among violins, even ones of the same era, will find this material intriguing. On a strictly musical basis, however, the disc is very thin indeed and unlikely to appeal to many people other than violinists or dedicated students of 17th-century string music.

     There are no strings at all in the performances of music by Marc Mellits on a new CD on the BCM+D Records label. In fact, the disc has the overall title “No Strings Attached,” which is also the title of one of the works presented. Like many contemporary composers, Mellits has a strong interest in the sound of the instruments for which he writes – and the percussionists who perform the works on this disc (from the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University) are enthusiastic about combining their instruments as well as having individual ones stand out from time to time. All this, however, begs the question of what is worth hearing in the music itself, rather than the sounds as sounds. The work with the title No Strings Attached, for example, is an arrangement for two vibraphones and two marimbas of a piece written for a modern fortepiano that was created for the express purpose of sounding like a mixture of the 18th-century instrument with a 1970s synthesizer. Thus, instrumental sound was always front-and-center in this work, and is certainly so in the arrangement heard here. As is so common in self-consciously avant-garde music, the work has movements with overly clever titles whose reference to the music is obscure at best: “Splifficated Mustard” and “Curried Kafka,” among others. The initially interesting merger of instruments becomes tiresome rather quickly, and the piece wears out its welcome well before its 14 minutes are up. The central movement, “This Side of Twilight,” is the most engaging in its delicacy, although even here, there is simply too much repetitiveness for the work to be fully effective. There is also repetition aplenty – although with somewhat greater variety – in Black, a piece heard here on four marimbas and also existing in other focus-on-the-instruments arrangements, including its original one for two bass clarinets. Black offers some rhythmically different sections that make the comparative monotony of some of its portions more tolerable. Red, a longer, six-movement work, uses only two marimbas, and the interplay of the performers is well-done – but here too, the listening experience is primarily focused on sound for its own sake, most noticeably in the minimalist fourth movement (“Slow, with motion”) and the intense finale (“Fast, Obsessive, Bombastic, Red”). A somewhat different sound combination appears in Troică, which is performed on vibraphone, marimba and bass marimba: inspired by the sound of bells on horses pulling a sled, the piece interweaves the instruments effectively, although it does not really have enough inherent variety to justify its seven-minute length. Gravity uses the same instruments as Troică but ups the sonic ante by using two vibraphones, two marimbas, and a bass marimba. Gravity goes on even longer than Troică – 10 minutes – and has elements of accelerando to provide forward momentum as the instruments mingle. It is easy to see how performers on these instruments would find Gravity and the other works on this CD congenial: Mellits provides plenty of opportunities for them to showcase their skills and bring out the unique and contrasting sounds of their superficially similar instruments. For non-performers, the disc will be mainly interesting simply for offering the chance to hear the ways these various percussion instruments sound when expressing themselves in different combinations. This is certainly involving for a while, but there is a monotony to the overall sound of the material – exacerbated by Mellits’ fondness for extended sections at the same tempo and volume – that makes the CD less than engaging from a musical (as opposed to sonic) standpoint.

     If the sound of Mellits’ works tends to the monochromatic, that of the works played by loadbang (no capital letter – a typical affectation in the avant-garde) is intended to go to the opposite extreme. The quartet includes baritone, trumpet, trombone and clarinet – certainly a very unusual sound combination. And on a recent New Focus Recordings release, these four sounds are joined by those of strings (a chamber ensemble including six violins, three violas, two cellos and double bass) to extend the aural palette. The six works here, by six different composers, are very different in many ways – but the underlying similarity among them is that their preoccupation with using the specific sound combinations made available by loadbang results in music that draws more attention to how it sounds than to what it says. Taylor Brook’s Tarantism actually does this effectively, offering narration consisting of English versions of 16th- and 17th-century Italian texts about tarantula bites and their treatment. The dissonance of the sound picture mixes with rhythmic dancing – tarantula reactions are the source of the tarantella – as the story moves toward eventual exhaustion. Heather Stebbins’ Riven adds electronics to the mixture of loadbang and strings to create a sound world that is dense, often to the point of impenetrability, but not particularly revelatory of anything. Eve Beglarian’s You See Where This Is Going should beware of its title, because anyone who has sampled contemporary music will indeed see where this mixture of vocal gymnastics and largely arbitrary instrumental interjections is going: toward a kind of portentousness that does not lead up to anything particularly significant or moving. The most-peculiar title of a work here – another avant-garde affectation – is that of Reiko Füting’s mo(nu)ment for C/Palimpsest (ah, yes, no capital letter at the start of the complexly punctuated title). Whispered verbal fragments and standard outbursts from both voice and instruments (individual and grouped) create a soundscape of no particular direction or import – and the work continues in this vein for 13 minutes. It is, however, not as long as Scott Wollschleger’s 17-minute CVS, which uses intonation of the drugstore chain’s name and other, very different phrases to create an extended soundscape in which everything said, everything played, seems at the same level as everything else – which appears to be the point. The point of Paula Matthusen’s Such Is Now the Necessity seems to be to contrast long sonic lines with short ones and staccato material with legato, overlaying everything on everything else to create sound that accumulates rather than actually building into anything structural. Only Brook’s Tarantism, driven as it is by audible narrative, goes beyond the purely aural effects to which loadbang is clearly devoted to produce a work that seems to have something to say beyond “listen!” Of course, the point of music is to listen, but the reason for listening matters: if the only purpose of doing so is to hear sonic combinations, then music, however carefully constructed, offers nothing worth hearing again – after the novelty of the sound exploration has worn off.

September 16, 2021


City of Secrets. By Victoria Ying. Color assistant: Undram Ankhbayar. Viking. $14.99.

City of Illusion. By Victoria Ying. Colorist: Lynette Wong. Viking. $14.99.

     The inherent absurdity of steampunk is a huge part of its charm and attraction. By using Victorian-style technology (gears, wheels and, of course, steam) and, in most cases, Victorian-style clothing and architecture, then incorporating traditional science-fictional tropes such as airships and robots, authors of books in steampunk mode get to pick and choose among an exceptionally wide variety of nonsensical combinations that, in context, make perfect sense. Steampunk is essentially an extension of the imaginings of H.G. Wells, who envisioned time travel using Victorian equipment – but while Wells tried to project his concepts into a future that he could scarcely imagine, steampunk creators are in that future already, and they project backwards into the appurtenances of times past while being fully cognizant of modern technology and potential future developments. Wells’ works were most definitely science fiction; steampunk is much closer to fantasy in its assumption that technology and societal arrangements somehow stalled in the 19th century or early 20th, while the ability to communicate, travel and (above all) have adventures moved onward in Victorian/Edwardian garments (both figuratively and literally).

     Victoria Ying’s paired graphic novels, City of Secrets and City of Illusion, are particularly adept at exploring the steampunk genre while keeping readers firmly focused on preteen adventure and the slow unraveling of mysteries within the context of (mostly mild) danger. The protagonists are an upper-crust girl named Hannah and an orphaned “street rat” named Ever – who, over the course of the first book, find out that they have a great deal more in common than their mutual taste for adventure. Actually, Hannah’s adventurousness is stronger: she is a proto-feminist, reacting to her mother’s horrified comment that “no proper girl would ever wear trousers” by saying, “Maybe I’m not a proper girl! Maybe I don’t want to be one!” Of course it turns out that her mother is not exactly a proper upper-class woman after all, but that revelation occurs only at the end of City of Secrets. Most of the book revolves around the growing friendship between Hannah and Ever, and Ever’s attempts to deflect deadly attention from himself while keeping a secret given to him by his father before his dad was killed by a dastardly ring of Dickensian villains, one of whom looks much like Uriah Heep and laments to a fellow baddie that “I woulda ’ad one less strike against me” by eliminating Ever.

     What is particularly clever in City of Secrets is the centrality to the story of the Switchboard Operating Facility, where women use old-fashioned plugs and cords to interconnect people who wish to speak with each other – that is, this is the headquarters of the telephone company in the days long before automatic switching, when you would call an operator who would then connect you manually to your desired phone number. This fits the steampunk ethos beautifully, and when Ying shows a cutaway view of the six-level facility (three floors and three basements), the appearance of a setting of gears, wheels, staircases, and levers galore makes it clear that this building is more than it appears.

     And of course it is, just as Hannah and Ever are more than they appear – in the grand tradition of pretty much every fantasy adventure in pretty much every tradition. The mystery elements in City of Secrets involve competing cabals, the usual good-vs.-evil standoff, and incipient warfare between the protagonists’ city, called Oskars, and the nearby city of Edmonda (these are more like city-states). The secrets are a touch too pervasive – for instance, before he is killed, Ever’s father reveals just enough of a super-crucial piece of information to whet Ever’s appetite, but not enough for Ever to protect himself when events spiral out of control. Eventually, Ever accepts help from Hannah (he has little choice, having been wounded and rendered unconscious); the two of them discover they have a great deal in common; and together they uncover the biggest secret of all – just in time to save Oskars from incoming missiles fired by the chief villain, who is the ruler of Edmonda. The giant gears-and-brass-plates robot that Hannah and Ever fly (it only works if they control it together, of course) fits the steampunk universe perfectly, although, in one of the few remarks here that do not fit Ying’s otherwise careful construction very well, Hannah makes a reference to a weapon that comes out of nowhere: “Laser zappers?!”

     The one element of City of Secrets that does not quite work is the color, provided by Undram Ankhbayar. Most of the book is simply drab – lots of browns and greys – and while this certainly works for nighttime scenes and others requiring atmospheric presentation, it becomes a little too much through the course of the book, to such an extent that occasional touches of brightness (such as the red dress that Hannah wears for a while) seem discordant. The color work by Lynette Wong in City of Illusion is much better, giving characters more individuality and even enlivening the presentation of multiple mechanical constructs. City of Illusion is not a standalone book – there is no recap of its predecessor, and the many passing references to earlier events will make no sense at all to anybody who has not read City of Secrets. What City of Illusion does is to expand and extend the first book’s story: now that the big secret involving robotic protection of Oskars has been revealed, and the chief bad guy (whose name is Vash) has been defeated, it turns out that there is a third city (or city-state), called Alexios, and that is where Hannah and Ever go on the inevitable-in-steampunk airship. Here they meet more preteens with secrets, worries and better-than-adult perception; and here Vash appears as puppet master, manipulating adults and kids alike in a typical-for-fantasy quest for power for its own sake (his position as the leader of a single city-state clearly not being enough for him). Various adult characters from the first book reappear here in expanded roles, but the main story arc involves the kids from different places gradually setting aside mutual mistrust and discovering that they can do remarkable things when they work together. In fact, they have to work together to overcome Vash, who in this book has harnessed out-and-out magic.

     The use of magic melds a bit uneasily with the steampunk model: City of Illusion does have sleight-of-hand and apparently magical comings and goings throughout, but when real magic suddenly appears, then proves central to the plot, the effect is rather jarring. This is Ying’s world, of course, and she can do whatever she wishes with it and in it. And it is possible that she will create a third book about Hannah and Ever that will explore the “magic” angle more fully – although City of Illusion ends wholly satisfactorily, with all three cities saved and Vash captured and imprisoned, so a followup is scarcely necessary. In fact, City of Illusion concludes with the words “The End,” which City of Secrets did not, so perhaps Ying has had enough of this particular steampunk (or steampunk-plus-magic) setting and is ready to move on. Given the skill with which she handles these two graphic novels, it will be worth following her to whatever world she may choose to go next.