December 28, 2023


Monster Hunting for Beginners. By Ian Mark. Illustrated by Louis Ghibault. Farshore. $9.99.

     It all started with odor. Well, not exactly, but it got to the smelly stuff soon enough. You see, ogres really stink, even when one of them “dropped down dead backwards, which meant that he landed on top of the house.”

     Oh, wait. It started a little before that, when Aunt Prudence showed up. That was after Dad disappeared mysteriously. Dad “wasn’t bad, as dads go,” but “just wasn’t very adventurous.” It turns out that this matters.

     Monster Hunting for Beginners is one of those books whose title is also the title of a book within the book. This matters, too. A lot, in fact. The book’s narrator, Jack, encounters a very small and crotchety man named Stoop who tricks Jack into becoming an apprentice monster hunter and gives Jack a book that, in suitable magical fashion, takes on the title Monster Hunting for Beginners and answers any questions that Jack may have about the topic. The answers are usually useless (when not misleading), but this is not a high-intellect book. In fact, Monster Hunting for Beginners (the one by Ian Mark) is not a high-intellect book either, but it does not have to be: it is strictly for fun, and there is plenty of fun in it.

     The book – that is, the one by Ian Mark, which is the first of a planned series – explains how Jack gradually discovers his monster-hunting prowess, of which he does not have much, but luckily doesn’t actually need much. In line with modern notions of being kind and gentle to all things at all times, even ones that are trying to eat you, it turns out that the days of finding and killing monsters, or even beating them up, are gone: monsters are now a protected species (or multiple species) and have to be gently prevented from causing mayhem and then released back into whatever environment is most conducive to coddling them.

     This makes Jack’s training even harder than it would otherwise have been. Most of the training takes place in a town called King’s Nooze, whose citizens are largely oblivious to the threat of a nearby gathering of ogres-bent-on-mayhem-but-never-actually-committing-any. The town’s mayor is nasty, arrogant, self-important, and constantly mocking of Jack and pretty much everyone else, thereby becoming the most realistic character in the book, or at least the most realistic politician. When Jack and Stoop get to King’s Nooze, they meet not only the mayor but also a girl named Nancy who is a lot more adventurous (and smarter) than Jack and Stoop and the ogres put together, and who soon joins Jack in the ogre fight – sorry, the ogre please-don’t-fight-and-please-don’t-eat-people-either event.

     The book’s pervasive silliness, complete with footnotes on many pages that enhance the ridiculousness of the main narrative – and really delightful illustrations by Louis Ghibault – includes adventures with seven-league boots, expandable clothing (the boots included), references to the Endangered Monsters Act, the use of Berserker Brew, the rediscovery of the largest and most terrifying ogre of all time (who turns out to be a pretty good guy…err, thing), and lots and lots of stinkiness (since ogres pride themselves on smelling really, really bad, and there are a lot of them in and around King’s Nooze).

     Examples of the writing, with footnotes: “The Mayor snorted scornfully. *It’s impossible to snort any other way.” “…driving for hours to a tumbledown house in the Middle of Nowhere… *Or it may have been slightly north of the Middle of Nowhere. He wasn’t sure. Everywhere looks the same in Nowhere.” And, let’s see, there is a whole subplot, or maybe it’s part of the same plot, about dragons not existing until it turns out that one does. And another subplot, or maybe part of the same plot, about a bear named Humbert who is displaced from his cave by the gathering of ogres but eventually helps save the day by joining the townspeople in a cabbage-pelting scene. And there are notes here and there from Monster Hunting for Beginners (the book-within-the-book one) about zomblings and anticores and crusted hairy snot nibblers. And there is much more, all of it equally ridiculous and most of it equally funny, and the only way to wade through all of it is to wade through the entirety of Monster Hunting for Beginners (the book itself, not the one within itself) – a slog that is thoroughly enjoyable even though it does tend to become sort of messy and smelly after a while, at least if you are reading it after having joined Jack and Nancy by temporarily turning into an ogre. But that’s another story – or, well, actually part of this one.


All Bleeding Stops: Life and Death in the Trauma Unit. By Stephen M. Cohn, M.D. Mayo Clinic Press. $26.99.

     All the basics dictated by modern medical care – informed consent, a carefully assembled history, lists of medications and supplements taken, existing and prior medical conditions, extent of insurance coverage and clearance, family involvement, power of attorney for healthcare decisions – go out the window when someone suffers massive, life-threatening trauma. When that happens, it falls to surgeons such as Stephen M. Cohn to deal with the emergency without many of the appurtenances of contemporary medical expectations and requirements. It is, quite literally, a do-or-die situation.

     This has been Cohn’s life for four decades, both in military service and in civilian trauma centers – and it is the life he explains and explores in All Bleeding Stops. It is essentially a surgical life centered on extremes: emergency-room doctors manage emergencies of all sorts, but trauma surgeons take on the cases when injuries are very severe, when operations must be done quickly, when intensive-care patients are desperately ill and need special care, and when surgeries being done by other doctors suddenly result in life-threatening complications such as massive uncontrolled bleeding.

     To say this is exceptionally difficult medicine is an understatement. “We are on call (and responding to general surgical emergencies and trauma cases) and may remain at the hospital, working for twenty-four to thirty-six hours,” writes Cohn. “We often work without sleep but are required to function at the highest level.” Many doctors who practice in hospitals face grueling schedules, but just about every case handled by a trauma surgeon involves a patient on the verge of death – which produces a stress level that doctors such as Cohn must find ways to master, in part by not dwelling on the cases that do not go well, in which the patient does die. Evaluations of failure are constant and rigorous and “can be brutal on both the resident and the staff,” but are necessary to find weaknesses in the trauma-treatment system and to try to save future patients’ lives: “Surgeons must dispassionately learn from judgment errors” and not “be paralyzed by the fear of making another error.”

     All Bleeding Stops includes its share of deaths – inevitably – as well as its share of success stories. It takes readers on a harrowing journey through what is really a team effort – no surgeon operates alone – and through a wide variety of forms of trauma. “Most of the trauma cases seen at some 450 trauma centers in the United States are blunt injuries sustained in falls, vehicle crashes, or workplace mishaps,” Cohn explains, but when it comes to knowing what the specific injuries of a specific patient are, “the answer is, we have no idea.” Again and again, Cohn gives examples of real-world cases that had to be very quickly and coolly diagnosed and managed to keep patients alive.

     Also again and again, Cohn explains the exasperations of trauma work, which in part involves persuading people to do things that prevent them from landing at trauma centers in the first place: “The tidal wave of trauma cases can be frustrating to the trauma care team” because while some forms of injury prevention are now widely accepted and employed – such as the use of seat belts and helmets – “we have failed in reducing other common causes of injury such as drunk driving and gun violence.”

     It is in his vexation with some of those continuing sources of traumatic injury that Cohn can be most forceful and, at the same time, least effective in the prescriptive elements of his book. It is completely understandable that he is angry about drunk driving and gun violence, and he has far more everyday experience with both than most people (thankfully) will ever have. He also has plenty of statistics to back up his concerns: “The worst mechanism of injury in the civilian world is being struck by a vehicle as a pedestrian. …Fifteen percent of pedestrians struck by a car will die, and the death rate is over 30 percent for older people.” And he is aware of the unrealistic notion of solving problems by throwing money at them: “One of the problems with injury prevention programs is they often require financial support from grants, so when the grant is completed and the money’s gone, the program is over. Other programs depend on local taxes.” Despite all this, his understandable level of upset involving matters such as gun violence bubbles over without really adding any new ideas to a matter of very significant societal as well as medical importance.

     Other highly personal elements of All Bleeding Stops are much more effective, such as Cohn’s own instance of being bitten by a black widow spider: “their bites, from personal experience, hurt like the devil.” And Cohn’s discussions of forms of treatment of which most people are unaware is also exceptional, as when he explains the use of maggots (fly larvae) “to treat complicated chronic wounds…for which operative debridement would be treacherous, like when dead tissue is overlying an important ligament or nerve.” His insights into the way trauma surgeons expand their knowledge base are fascinating as well: “The ME [medical examiner] provides us with not only the cause of death but also the number of trauma deaths that never make it to the hospital, which is about 50 percent of all trauma-related deaths.”

     Taken as a whole, Cohn’s book proffers tremendous insight into trauma surgery – and emergency medicine as a whole – in ways both expected and unexpected. One of his most remarkable comments has to do with celebrities: “While the rich and famous pay for top treatment and spare no expense, they often get worse rather than better hospital care. One of the problems is that other physicians (typically specialists), who may or may not be competent, show up and try to direct care. …Every physician becomes an expert in your condition if you are a VIP. …So those that actually know what they are doing can be largely ignored.” What no reader of All Bleeding Stops will be able to ignore is the depth of knowledge Cohn has amassed over his decades of practice, and the depth of commitment to patients that he has clearly shown again and again when he has dealt with people in extremis and, often against the odds of survival, preserved their lives.


Douglas Boyce: A Book of Songs; Scriptorium; Ars Poetica. Robert Baker, tenor; Molly Orlando, piano; Byrne:Kozar:Duo (Corrine Byrne, soprano; Andy Kozar, trumpet); Marlanda Dekine, speaker; Nurit Pacht, violin; Daniel Lippel, guitar; Caleb van der Swaagh, cello. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Shawn E. Okpebholo: lullaby | ballad | spiritual; Joshua Burel: Voyage; Margi Griebling-Haigh: Usonian Games; Timothy Hagen: Birds of Maycomb; Craig Michael Davis: Clockwork No. 5. Elicio Winds (Virginia Broffitt Kunzer, flute; Kathleen Carter Bell, oboe; Conor Bell, bassoon). Blue Griffin Recordings. $15.99.

Justin Dello Joio: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, “Oceans Apart”; Due Per Due; Blue and Gold Music. Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert; Carter Brey, cello; Christopher O’Riley, piano; American Brass Quintet (Kevin Cobb and Raymond Mase, trumpets; David Wakefield, French horn; Michael Powell, tenor trombone; John Rojak, bass trombone); Colin Fowler, organ. Bridge Records. $16.99.

     Contemporary composers continue, often with some success, to look for interesting ways of combining instruments – especially in chamber-sized ensembles – to produce intriguing sound worlds to illustrate their musical thoughts. Douglas Boyce’s three works on a New Focus Recordings release are mainly concerned with ways in which the human voice interacts with specific instruments to explore and interpret texts by Marlanda Dekine, Melissa Range, Wallace Stevens, Jorie Graham, and BJ Ward. A Book of Songs (2019) uses the most-traditional art-song combination on the CD: tenor (Robert Baker) and piano (Molly Orlando). The cascading piano interestingly opens all three songs, but the pervasive dissonance and singsong vocals are straightforward elements of modern classical music, as are the rather obvious words. Scriptorium (2021) combines soprano (Corrine Byrne) with trumpet (Andy Kozar) in four movements dominated by the clarity of vocal sound (although the actual spoken words are anything but clear) while the trumpet, often muted, sets up aural backgrounds that vary among the songs – and comes across most effectively on the few occasions on which it does come to the forefront. The words are generally treated as syllabifications of notes rather than sources of meaning; indeed, the trumpet tends to sound as if it is reaching for meaning while the voice is largely indifferent to it. Ars Poetica (2021) consists of nine short-to-very-short pieces in which Dekine declaims her own words as violin, guitar and cello provide acoustic support. The dissonances and technique extensions of the instruments are unsurprising in this context, and the nature of the verbiage is straightforwardly (if somewhat self-consciously) modern: “I am swift as the spaceships behind my eyelids,” “there are words crawling around to be picked up,” “these are loops we are living in,” “the writing is best when I don’t know where I’m going.” It is all very up-to-date and earnest, insisting throughout on its meaningfulness and contemporary relevance. Ars Poetica is a structurally well-developed piece, the five vocal portions separated by four instrumental interludes that contrast well with each other and set scenes distinct from those of the movements including words. Although more successful, all in all, than the other two works on the disc, Ars Poetica is nevertheless the sort of piece that will appeal only to listeners already committed to the cause of contemporary vocal-led chamber music – indeed, only to those who believe such music is a cause.

     The three instruments featured on a Blue Griffin Recordings CD are all winds – flute, oboe and bassoon – and their sound is, inevitably, quite different from that of the three used by Boyce in Ars Poetica. The members of Elicio Winds blend and contrast their instruments in five pieces written specifically for them. Shawn E. Okpebholo’s lullaby | ballad | spiritual (the spelling and layout of the title are affectations) is based on Alabama folk songs and pleasantly blends elements of traditional Americana with opportunities for the instruments to shine both individually and as a group. Joshua Burel’s Voyage is one of several recent works inspired by the journey of the Voyager spacecraft – and one that, like others, considers the loneliness of the deep-space probes as reflective of human loneliness on the planet they left behind. The anthropomorphic nature of the concept does not come through in the three-movement work, but the movements themselves are nicely contrasted, with the second, Hurtling through space, using the instruments especially well. Margi Griebling-Haigh’s Usonian Games has a title referring to certain designs by Frank Lloyd Wright – and again, although the music does not really evoke the concepts and structural ideas of Wright in any direct way, it uses the instruments well and merges them in some interesting ways, especially in the second movement, Perpendicularities. Timothy Hagen’s Birds of Maycomb is supposed to blend characters from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with actual birds found in Alabama: each of its four movements bears the name of a character and a specific bird. Like the Burel and Griebling-Haigh works, Hagen’s requires thorough familiarity with the composer’s inspiration and thinking when constructing the music – otherwise, little of the intended effect of the material comes through, although the movements themselves are nicely contrasted in tempo and overall instrumental sound. These three middle-of-the-CD works do not come across as well to listeners uninitiated in their points of origin as do the opening piece by Okpebholo and the closing one, Clock No. 5 by Craig Michael Davis. This is a one-movement evocation of a beach landscape from sunrise to sunset, and even though the precise meanings of portions of the music are less than clear, the overall feelings of a distinct starting point and end point, and of a journey of some sort between them, come through with sufficient clarity to carry along an audience without requiring listeners to familiarize themselves in advance with the piece’s foundational concept.

     It is a five-piece chamber group – plus an added organ – on which Justin Dello Joio focuses in Blue and Gold Music (2009), heard as one of the three works on a Bridge Records release. Largely gentle and evocative, although not necessarily of the specific colors of its title (or of any colors), the work is effective in its handling of the brass instruments, although the organ comes through as something of an afterthought – despite the way it creates some interesting aural color that goes beyond what the American Brass Quintet players can produce on their own. Dello Joio uses a more-conventional instrumental combination for Due Per Due (2011), a two-movement work for cello and piano. The first movement, Elegia: To an Old Musician, bounces here and there in intriguing ways, with there apparently still being plenty of pep in the “old musician” of its title – but with cello and piano seeming to inhabit somewhat different sonic and emotional worlds, rather than a single one formed by their merger. The second movement, Moto in Perpetuo, offers both the players elements of perpetual motion to explore – but, again, they seem to be playing largely independent musical lines rather than exploring elements of a joint endeavor. The longest work on this very short CD (it lasts only 40 minutes) is not chamber music at all but a piano concerto (2022) conceived on a grand scale and played with flair by the soloist for whom it was composed, Garrick Ohlsson. Whether there is anything particularly oceanic about this work is a matter of opinion: the piece is pervasively atonal and textural, and there is some lyricism in it here and there, but it is not impressionistic (or expressionistic) in any significant way. It is packed to the gills with percussion, so much so that three percussionists are required to handle everything from vibraphone and xylophone to four types of cymbals to tam tam and tom tom and nipple gong and much more. But the concerto is not brashly loud or aurally demanding, although its overall impression is one of drama. The piano is mostly front-and-center despite the very large orchestra, the pacing is quick throughout, and there is some sense of structure through a recurrence of early material near the end – but all in all, the work is more of a sonic experience than an emotional one, despite its sensitive presentation by Ohlsson and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Alan Gilbert. This is certainly not a general-interest CD – its brief duration and inclusion of two-part and six-part chamber music with a full-orchestra work will likely make it of most interest to listeners already knowledgeable about Dello Joio’s music and wanting to hear his recent instrumental thoughts. For those who do know and care for this composer’s music, though, the chance to experience three of his very different pieces on a single disc will be welcome.

December 21, 2023


Why Did the Monster Cross the Road? By R.L. Stine. Illustrated by Marc Brown. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $18.99.

     What happens when two of the really big names in children’s books, R.L. Stine of Goosebumps notoriety and Marc Brown of Arthur fame, create a picture book together? The answer is that their sense of humor devolves so far toward early childhood that they produce the assemblage of utter ridiculousness that is Why Did the Monster Cross the Road?

     The inside front cover and facing page, and the inside back cover and facing page, are all filled with word balloons packed with comic-book-style laughs, from “tee hee hee” to “giggle giggle” to “ahahahaha” to “snicker!” And the book itself is at that same level of humor. The story, such as it is, is about two silly-looking monsters named Hunny and Funny. Hunny is small and feeling sad and grumpy, so Funny – who is big and not grumpy at all – tells Hunny a series of jokes to cheer him/her/it up. They are all at the level of the book’s title, to which the answer turns out to be, “To BITE someone on the other side.” But for some reason, none of these forays into funniness makes Hunny feel better.

     “What is the monster’s favorite school lunch? The teacher.” “Why did the monster peel a banana? Because he couldn’t peel a bowling ball.” “What is furry and likes to read books? YOU (if you were furry).” OK, that last one is pretty good, but neither it nor any of the other attempted jokes does anything to make Hunny happier.

     Even the youngest readers, and perhaps even pre-readers, will quickly see where this is going: Funny will eventually give up, and at that exact moment, something will happen that Funny does not intend to use to amuse Hunny, but it will amuse Hunny, and everything will end happily.

     Lo and behold, this is exactly what happens, likely not to the surprise of any reader, furry or not. Stine certainly deserves credit for being willing to assemble such a set of thoroughly unfunny but well-meaning monster-focused jokes, but it is Brown’s illustrations that really carry the book along, showing ridiculous monstrousness in all its amusing ingloriousness: the soaking wet monster with six arms, the 20-chicken-eating one that has enormous eyes and giant teeth (and is surrounded by bewildered-looking chickens), the one called Cutey Face that has “yellow drippy eyes, a long gooey nose covered in lumpy warts, and a mouthful of green decayed teeth” – these and others are so much funnier than the jokes that Funny should just have shown Brown’s pictures to Hunny to snap him/her/it out of those gloomy feelings.

     Well, what ultimately matters is that Hunny does feel better by the end of the book, and Funny is responsible for that, albeit not in the intended way, and Stine and Brown manage to show that whatever talent they had for developing the Goosebumps series and the various Arthur offerings is quite unnecessary for them to produce a book for very young children that is, on its own terms, one heck of a lot of fun. Why did Stine and Brown cross over from their usual neighborhoods into this one? Apparently the reason they did – and the real reason the monster crossed the road – was simply to prove that he/she/it/they was/were capable of doing so.