January 11, 2018
Bobo and the New Baby. By Rebecca Minhsuan Huang. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.
Horses. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
Water. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
101 Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles. By April Jones Prince. Illustrated by Bob Kolar. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
There are plenty of books for kids about sibling rivalry when a new baby arrives, but not nearly so many about “dogling rivalry,” which is essentially what Rebecca Minhsuan Huang charmingly explores in Bobo and the New Baby. Bobo is an absolutely adorable dachshund with a doggone good life that basically includes snoozing, digging, eating, chasing and, um, snoozing again. His humans, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, spoil him and take him everywhere, and that is just fine with Bobo. But somehow Mr. and Mrs. Lee have neglected to warn Bobo in advance that they are about to bring home a new member of the family. Well, Bobo is only a dog, right? But dogs have feelings, too, and when the two humans return with a third, miniature human, suddenly Bobo is very, very excited and happy – his enthusiasm beautifully communicated in one of Huang’s most-delightful illustrations. Unfortunately, Bobo’s happiness gets him scolded: “‘You will scare the baby,’ says Mr. Lee,” and poor Bobo, who never meant any harm, is left downcast and dejected and just plain miserable. He walks away into a room whose darkness reflects his unhappy mood, leaving behind the three people in a room that is full of light. And now, whenever Bobo wants attention – even to go for a walk – Mr. and Mrs. Lee tell him “no,” because the baby is eating, sleeping, needs changing, or something else. Poor Bobo! And then, to make matters worse, Bobo sees a bee that has gotten into the house, and knows he has to protect the baby. So he chases the bee everywhere, making quite a mess, and just as he leaps to catch it, Mr. Lee comes in and tells him to stop because he will “hurt the baby.” Mr. Lee’s shadow completely covers the poor, sad little dog, whose downcast eyes tell the whole story – up to this point. But then Mrs. Lee spots the bee and realizes that Bobo was only trying to help, and Mr. Lee understands, too, and apologizes, and so Bobo is formally introduced to the baby, and the four members of the family are last seen happily relaxing together. For a story aimed at young children, Bobo and the New Baby is a surprisingly realistic look at how dogs may feel when a baby is brought home. It was created by Huang as a counterbalance to a true story of a couple who got rid of their dog once they brought home a baby – a terrible thing to do to a loving, loyal family member who just happens to belong to a different species. Huang’s book, in addition to being a sweet story in and of itself, can be a valuable teaching tool for kids and adults alike, hopefully making it possible for more stories like Bobo’s to have endings as happy as this one.
Children looking more for facts and beautiful photography than for a warmhearted fictional story (even one with a real-life tie-in) will enjoy the new, updated edition of Seymour Simon’s Horses, a book originally dating to 2006. Simon has written hundreds of books – more than 300, a remarkable number – and manages again and again to provide a well-thought-out, clearly presented set of facts that he mixes with attractive photographs to help young readers learn about the natural world. Horses, like dogs, are longtime human companions, and Horses starts by pointing out the animals’ usefulness ever since they were tamed some 5,000 years ago. Pictures of fossils show how prehistoric horses gradually evolved into the animals we know today, and then Simon moves to more-recent times to explain how horses came to America and how wild herds grew from horses that escaped captivity. The photos of horses, with and without people, tell all by themselves a great deal of the story here: one horse is seen attached to a cart that it is supposed to pull (and Simon notes that pulling strength is still called “horsepower”); two are shown nuzzling each other; two are shown competitively rearing up on their hind legs to assert dominance; and so on. Again and again, Simon inserts small and fascinating facts that neatly complement the photos: horses can see in almost a complete circle; they can see yellow and green, but not all colors; they can sense when people are angry or scared, possibly by detecting changes in humans’ smell; a foal can walk less than one hour after birth; and so on. His discussion of the way a horse moves is especially interesting, since the way horses’ legs move together varies depending on the animal’s gait. The strength of horses is also amazing to learn: some teams of two can pull 50 tons, as much as the weight of 10 elephants. There is also an explanation of the difference between horses and ponies. Simon’s books are formulaic in layout and fairly standardized in narrative, but because they are books of facts for young readers, that is all to the good: a book like Horses is involving, educational, easy to read and understand, and very helpful in giving information about an animal that has been enormously important to human civilization for thousands of years.
Even more important to humans – and to horses and all other living things – is water, the subject of a brand-new Simon book whose layout and writing style are every bit as accessible as those in Horses. Here too, Simon includes plenty of interesting facts about something that we usually take for granted: “Water is the only substance on Earth that is found naturally in all three states of matter: as a liquid (water), as a solid (ice), and as a gas (water vapor).” “Water…dissolves more substances than any other liquid. Even rocks are dissolved by water, though it may take many years.” “Almost two-thirds of an adult’s weight is water and nearly 80 percent of a newborn baby’s weight is water.” Coupling this recitation of well-selected facts with fascinating photos – such as one of an insect standing on water, illustrating the principle of surface tension – Simon in Water explains the water cycle, the way ocean levels change during periods of worldwide cooling and warming, the way water in rivers can carve valleys and shape the ground, the areas where ice and snow exist year-round (about 10% of Earth’s surface), the existence of frozen deserts in the Arctic and Antarctic, and more. Simon has a well-honed talent for covering a lot of material in a small amount of space – and making the facts interesting by including relevant photos, such as one of a scuba diver near a school of beautiful tropical fish opposite a page explaining just how heavy water is and just how much pressure there is in the oceans, whose average depth is two-and-a-half miles. Informative and intriguing, fact-packed but presented in a simple-to-understand way with easily followed style, Water is a first-rate introduction to what is, so far as we humans know, the basis of life: “When we look to find life on distant planets or moons, the first thing we look for is water.”
Indeed, although we cannot be 100% sure about the possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe, we do know that water is crucial to life on Earth – all kinds of life, from the smallest to the largest, from life as we know it today to life as it was long, long before humans existed. And way back before the first horse, and even before the first horse’s ancestor, Hyracotherium, which lived 55 million years ago, the world was dominated not by mammals such as horses (much less humans) but by reptiles, most famously by dinosaurs. A book that is at once simple and surprisingly comprehensive in discussing and showing what is known about many extinct reptiles is April Jones Prince’s 101 Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles. This oversized, unusually shaped board book, with pages cut to resemble the spinal scales of the Stegosaurus on the cover, relies heavily on Bob Kolar’s clear and simple illustrations to show young readers how different the many types of ancient reptiles were. And they were very different indeed: Kolar’s pictures use the latest scientific findings to indicate, for example, the distinction in head shape between superficially similar long-necked dinosaurs such as Brachiosaurus and Barosaurus, or between flying reptiles (which were not dinosaurs) such as Dimorphodon and Pterodaustro. Those long, complicated-looking names are given pronunciation guides throughout the book: Prince breaks each into syllables and shows just which of those syllables carries an accent. The repeated refrain of the book goes, “Every dino has a name./ No two dinos were the same!” Sometimes this is varied – for non-dinosaurs – to, “Every reptile has a name./ No two reptiles were the same!” This encourages kids to look closely at Kolar’s pictures to find out just how the various sort-of-similar-looking creatures really did differ in important respects. The book also serves to familiarize interested young readers with dinos that are far less frequently mentioned than “superstars” such as Tyrannosaurus rex: the same group of powerful meat-eaters includes Herrerasaurus, Troödon, Tarbosaurus, and others, all of them shown as clearly as current scientific knowledge allows. This is a short book, but it is packed amazingly full of information – and the end, which spreads pictures of dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles out over two pages and invites kids to examine and count all of them, is a fine summation of the entire book and an intriguing invitation to examine each of the creatures more closely while counting all of them.
Heart and Brain 3: Body Language. By Nick Seluk. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Lady Stuff: Secrets to Being a Woman. By Loryn Brantz. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Where better to turn for the secrets of life than comics? At least they can’t do a worse job of exploring and explaining the vicissitudes of everyday existence than all the professional gurus out there. And cartoonists’ distinctively skewed perspectives can sometimes offer insights that just can’t be communicated through any means except silly drawings and pithy writing. Take The Awkward Yeti as an example. Said yeti, a big-eyed, perpetually befuddled, bow-tie-wearing blue-fur-covered biped, is the nominal presenter of Nick Seluk’s Heart and Brain, a comic sequence whose third collection, Body Language, is the best so far. The idea here is that The Awkward Yeti’s organs have a life of their own, intertwined with but somewhat independent of his life, and they pursue their own agendas based on which body parts they are – and find themselves in conflict with each other from time to time, thereby causing all sorts of systemic distress for the person, or creature, in whom they live. This all makes a lot more sense in cartoon form than in descriptive words – which is the whole reason to turn to comics like this one for tips on living life better. Or more amusingly, anyway. The primary “frenemies” in the Heart and Brain collections are, of course, the methodical and results-oriented brain and the emotionally driven instant-gratification-seeking heart (the latter always accompanied by a butterfly that sometimes takes part in or accentuates the action). Brain is a big pink brain wearing square eyeglasses (the same ones The Awkward Yeti wears, naturally); Heart is a not-anatomically-correct heart-shaped red character with big googly eyes and a nearly perpetual smile (yes, smile: Heart has a small, expressive mouth; Brain has none). Some of Seluk’s cartoons are single panels, such as one showing Heart and Brain struggling together to carry a gigantic rock labeled “Self Doubt” up a hill whose top has the word “Goal” on it – as Brain says, “Maybe it would be easier if we put this down.” Other cartoons are multi-panel sequences, such as one in which Brain makes a budget, Heart flicks on a lighter to burn it, and Brain explains that a budget will make Heart happier “in the long term by taking care of needs before wants.” So Heart turns the lighter off – until Brain says “you just won’t be able to buy whatever you want whenever you want it,” and Heart flicks the lighter on again. Then there are peripheral characters who appear from time to time. A great one is Gut, who is all instinct and given to flatulence and to phrases such as, “It’s all a conspiracy, you know,” and “Just trust me, I know.” There is cute and happy Fat, who refuses to go away even when The Awkward Yeti asks him to, and who explains, “I make you CUDDLY!” There is Muscle, who suffers a cramp that Brain tries unsuccessfully to cure with a stretch. There is Tongue, whose main concern is, of course, eating, and who says, “If nobody sees you eat it, it didn’t happen.” There are Eyes, and Teeth, and Stomach, and even Gall Bladder, each with a unique personality. But it is Heart and Brain who hold The Awkward Yeti’s body, and Seluk’s cartoons, together, often in very surprising ways – as when Heart pours a jar of “new experiences” into Brain, picks him up and shakes him hard, then turns a wheel that opens a spigot into which liquid flows from Brain into a container labeled New Ideas. Think about that one a bit. In fact, think about a lot of the Heart and Brain cartoons – that’s what they’re there for.
Loryn Brantz’s Lady Stuff is there for a different purpose: to help readers appreciate the oddities of everyday life, or at least let them know they are not alone when experiencing them. Brantz takes her own day-to-day experiences and interprets or reinterprets them through her cartoon self. This frequently leads to a version of before-and-after panels: “How I look at the beginning of the day” shows a neat, nicely made-up, well-dressed cartoon woman, while “How I look at the end” shows a smelly garbage can with eyes and a frown. Or “Bathroom floor before I brush my hair” shows a clean tile floor, while “bathroom floor after I brush my hair” shows brown, messy hairlike squiggles everywhere and the word “UGHHHHHHHHH.” In other panels, Brantz offers “Life Ambitions” (that being the title of one section in Lady Stuff) – for instance, one panel says “Follow Your Dreams” and shows her cartoon self wrapped tightly in a comfy blanket and saying, “I’m a professional blanket burrito.” Another panel, in “dress for success” mode, shows cartoon Brantz in a full-body hoodie, trying to become a “professional napper.” Another starts with her being advised to “find a job doing something you’re passionate about” and continues with an Internet search for career options in napping, taking baths and eating cheese. And then there is the admonition that starts, “When life gives you lemons,” which Brantz concludes, “make a small bed out of them and take a nap” (and she looks mighty comfortable doing just that). The book also includes “Mating Habits,” one of which is an amazingly funny multi-panel seduction technique built around guacamole, and “Self-Care,” in which one panel is a food pyramid with wine at the base, cheese and chocolate in the section just above it, wine above that section, and “more wine” at the top. There is even a touch of perception here about animals: excitement when a dog jumps onto cartoon Brantz’s lap, but super-wide eyes and the comment, “I have been chosen,” when a cat does so; and a dog walk during which cartoon Brantz is thinking, “This is nice,” while her dog is in utter ecstasy and thinking, “This is the best time of our lives!!!!!!!” Brantz may not have a clue about better ways to live, but she has plenty of clues about how ladies (and, for that matter, gentlemen) do live, and that is plenty funny enough to fill Lady Stuff with wry chuckles, available to readers as needed. Which, life being what it is, will be frequently.
Wed Wabbit. By Lissa Evans. David Fickling Books. $17.99.
Shards #1: Sisters of Glass. By Naomi Cyprus. Harper. $16.99.
Preteen readers, ages 8-12, have many fictional lands they can visit and many fictional journeys and adventures they can have in them – with many different things to learn and many different ways of learning them. This is true even though the stories’ outcomes are, by and large, fairly similar in their level of uplift and in the way they conclude with protagonists learning about their strengths and weaknesses. Just how different the tales can be is shown in comparing a hilarious and inventive new book by Lissa Evans with a much more serious and much more formulaic one by Naomi Cyprus. Evans’ is called Wed Wabbit and revolves around a red rabbit, sounded out with the “w” sound by four-year-old Minnie (short for Minerva), sister of the central almost-11-year-old character, Fidge (short for Iphigenia). Fidge’s dad, whom she resembles physically and in her neat, orderly and organized personality, has died, so the family includes only the two girls and their decidedly ditzy mom, whom Minnie resembles. Minnie is obsessed with book-and-toy characters called Wimbley Woos, garbage-can-shaped things that come in various colors with differing personalities and abilities: “Yellow are timid. Blue are strong./ Gray are wise and rarely wrong.” And so on through green, pink, orange and purple – seven colors in all. The Wimbley Woos speak only in verse, just one irritant for Fidge when she meets them. Yes, meets them. Minnie is injured in a car accident (not terribly seriously), so Fidge has to go live for a time with Uncle Simon and Auntie Ruth, whose son, Graham – Fidge’s cousin – is an extreme hypochondriac, hilariously spoiled, very smart in an in-your-face way, and altogether unpleasant. At Graham’s house, Fidge soon falls down some cellar steps – along with Graham himself – and the two find themselves in the actual land of the Wimbley Woos. Yes, this sounds like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it does have some of that resonance, but it is much funnier in a slapstick way (if less thoughtful and elaborate). The Wimbley Woos, it soon develops, need Fidge to rescue them from something – which turns out to be an exaggerated, evil version of Wed Wabbit. While Fidge struggles to figure out what is going on, Graham – separated from Fidge after the cellar-steps incident – is dealing with his “transitional object,” a rather rigid and dogmatic (but sensible) plastic carrot from a supermarket giveaway that calls itself “Dr. Carrot” because the small platform on which it stands says “DR” (standing for the store, “Douglas Retail”). The Lewis Carroll elements of Wed Wabbit merge surprisingly well with some from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as Graham (who, of course, eventually learns the error of his intelligent-but-misguided spoiled-brat ways) and the sensible, clever Fidge try to understand their predicament and figure a way out of it. The charming stuffed Ella Elephant, rather given to over-dramatization, adds additional humor to the proceedings, and the Wimbley Woos’ riddles prove crucial to the plot: Fidge and Graham need to solve them and deal with Wed Wabbit in order to get home. The oddity of the Wimbley Woos, the well-balanced characterizations of Fidge and Graham, and the consistently funny writing and sure pacing of Evans’ book make Wed Wabbit weally wonderful.
Also well-written but much more conventional in plot – and more strongly directed at preteen girls rather than at both girls and boys – Cyprus’ Sisters of Glass is the first entry in a series called Shard. The sequence’s title makes perfect sense, since it is a shard of glass – in the form of a mirror – that lies at the heart of a traditional prince (here, princess) and pauper, good-vs.-evil plot. Princess Halan is heir to a kingdom where magic is crucial – it is even called the Magi Kingdom, no reference to Disney apparently intended – but she herself lacks magical powers, even though every ruler before her has had them. She dreams of escape from the palace and of living somewhere where she will not constantly feel the pressure of her inadequacies and inabilities. Into her life, quite unexpectedly, comes Nalah Bardak, a Thauma (magic user) who lives in a land where magic is strictly outlawed on pain of penalties ranging up to death. Like other Thauma, Nalah lives quietly: she helps her father make glass knickknacks to sell at a local market. But these are not as well-crafted as the ones made by the family of her friend Marcus Cutter, because his family is rich and has connections that allow them to use some magic to produce beautiful Thauma crafts. Hoping to better her own family’s lot, Nalah secretly accepts a commission from an old family friend named Zachary Tam, who wants an illegal mirror to be re-created. Nalah succeeds – but as soon as he gets the mirror, Tam kidnaps Nalah’s father and escapes to another place through it. So Nalah, aided by Marcus, goes after Tam on a rescue mission. This is how Nalah and Halan meet – their names being a reversal of each other is an overly obvious clue to their intertwined importance and to what is going on in their worlds. The tale is told in alternating chapters, but the voices of Nalah and Halan do not sound sufficiently different for this common device to be particularly effective: the girls’ backgrounds stand in for any genuinely differing personalities that Cyprus might otherwise need to develop. On the other hand, the determination and independence that both girls possess will be attractive for the intended readership, and Cyprus does a good job of creating settings that differ from the usual vaguely medieval European ones so common in fantasies for young readers: here there is a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor to the geography. But the basic story of similar characters from two different worlds, joined by unexpected events and needing to fight the good fight for their respective homes, is nothing new, and Cyprus handles it competently but without any really unusual angles. Sisters of Glass is an effective enough genre entry to deserve a (+++) rating, but it breaks no new ground and is content to remain in the same action/adventure territory where many fantasy novels for preteens, and indeed for adults, reside comfortably but without much distinction or distinctiveness.
Best Food Writing 2017. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $16.99.
The First World indulgence that is food writing is by definition an exercise in wretched excess. With so many people worldwide living at subsistence levels, there is something faintly obscene in the notion of a magazine called Bon Appetit or an article about a restaurant in a neighborhood where median household income is $217,070 per year – a piece titled “In New York City, What’s the Difference Between a $240 Sushi Roll and a $6.95 Sushi Roll?” And concerns such as “Who Owns Southern Food?” and “I Want Crab, Pure Maryland Crab” are so rarefied, even by First World standards, that the audience for writing of this sort is an exceptionally self-limited and self-indulgent one. That does not, however, preclude the possibility of there being good writing on the topic, and it is that sort of writing that appears in Best Food Writing 2017, as it has in earlier editions of this book for more than 15 years.
There is pervasive irony in the way some of the writers represented here try so hard to be inclusive, for-all-people, neatly liberal and diversity-aware. One piece here is actually called “Can S.C. Barbecue Family Rise Above Their Father’s History of Racism?” Even food is all about politics; even food has the good guys and the bad guys…sorry, that’s “the good people” and “the bad people.” Yet there is a recurring sense of noblesse oblige about the articles, such as “What’s True About Pho,” whose author is described as “making a pilgrimage of sorts” by visiting Vietnam to learn about the dish. Very, very few people anywhere in the world, never mind outside the richest nations, can ever make a pilgrimage for the sake of noodles in broth. This author, Rachel Khong, who pointedly explains that it “seems relevant” to mention that she is “not Vietnamese” (all that burden of political correctness!), and who always refers to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon, is determined to find ways in which differences in pho have deep meaning: “The meat in Saigon is more varied; here there is tendon and tripe in addition to the less colorful cuts found in the North [in Hanoi]. …As it turns out, pho is always a product of place and history, and of people. …Just as straitlaced Northern pho says something about the North, and Southern pho says something about the South, and pho says something about Vietnam, American pho says something about us.”
This is a typical approach for the authors in Best Food Writing 2017: find the meaning in food and in eating; never regard what is consumed merely as the necessary fuel to keep the body going. John Kessler, writing after a move north to Chicago, says, “Home. That’s surely what I miss when I miss Southern food. I get it. When I mutter that the grits at some trendy brunch place suck, I’m also saying that it shouldn’t be 42 degrees outside in May, that I miss my backyard garden and my friends, and that I fret I will never experience in Chicago that sense of food and place, of season and cook, that was the soul of every meal at Cakes & Ale in Decatur.” Food has a soul in Best Food Writing 2017; it is scarcely mere nutrition. Food is a highly competitive area, too, as Gustavo Arellano writes: “The luxe lonchera revolution has seen the children of immigrants push their mother cuisine to all sorts of levels, picking and choosing from other cultures to create dishes of dizzying heights.” And it is extremely political, and not only in the United States. Writing a piece called “The Last European Christmas,” Marina O’Loughlin laments the coming British departure from the European Union: “Brexit – ugly word, ugly situation – shines a light onto these family holidays that helps me see them with new eyes. …I don’t know what a Brexit-flavored Christmas would consist of, stripped of its elements from elsewhere. Ashes, I suspect.” Best Food Writing 2017 is all about people who have plenty of time and plenty of money to contemplate the societal implications of food, and plenty of inclination to make eating an integral part of the ever-widening sphere of discourse in which everything, everything, is political – and in which there are always good and bad sides, winners and losers. The first of the five sections of the book is called “The Way We Eat Now,” and there is something rather sad in realizing that the title is accurate – not for everybody, not even for a majority of people, but for the self-proclaimed cognoscenti who hold forth on what is good and right and admirable and forward-looking and inclusive and politically correct. Readers with sufficient leisure to see food in this context will encounter a considerable amount of piquant writing here; those not enamored of the underlying assumptions will find the book rather over-seasoned with self-importance and arrogance.
Mahler: Symphony No. 2. Chen Reiss, soprano; Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano; Netherlands Radio Choir and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam conducted by Daniele Gatti. RCO Live. $21.99 (2 SACDs).
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6. Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $18.99.
Martinů: Symphonies (complete). ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cornelius Meister. Capriccio. $24.99 (3 CDs).
Mahler made it quite clear that his “Resurrection” symphony, in addition to looking ahead at life beyond death, looked back at his own earlier work: the first movement is a reworking of what he originally planned as a tone poem called Totenfeier (actually originally misspelled “Todtenfeier”), which was supposed to picture the hero of his Symphony No. 1 being laid to rest. To emphasize the break between this movement’s topic and mood and those of the rest of the symphony, Mahler called for a pause of at least five minutes between the first two movements of the “Resurrection.” That is very rarely, if ever, done in concert performances. But some recordings make it comparatively easy, as does the new one featuring Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam on the orchestra’s own label, by putting the first movement by itself on one disc and the remaining ones on another. This turns the necessary two-disc arrangement of the lengthy symphony into a way of fulfilling the composer’s intention for it, provided that listeners actually spend five minutes after the first movement’s conclusion contemplating what they have just heard. Gatti provides plenty to think about: the typically splendid playing of the orchestra in this live recording is here at the service of an emotionally charged, strongly paced and well-organized interpretation that engages both through drama and through lyrical beauty. And then the character of the music really does change tremendously, as Mahler knew it would, to something so bucolic that the second movement seems to inhabit a world altogether different from the first. For Mahler, though, and for attentive listeners in general, these movements are really parts of the same world, one that Mahler contemplates in all its splendor and sorrow before turning to a finale whose thoughts – rewritten by the composer from Friedrich Klopstock’s ode, Die Auferstehung – are of the expectation of a world to come. The symphony actually moves from death to affirmation, despite its “Resurrection” title, because the concluding choral section (which begins very quietly, in a Mahlerian masterstroke) is more a generalized paean to the continuation of something human beyond death than it is a portrayal of any of the beliefs of the Catholicism to which Mahler had recently converted. Ultimately, this symphony is life-affirming, and that is how Gatti handles it: the funereal first movement, the pastoral but ultimately feckless second and third, the deeply sorrowful Nietzschean fourth, all give way – after the final movement begins with every bit as much intensity as the first one possesses – to brightness, positivity and peace. Soloists, chorus and orchestra all deliver beautifully in this reading, and the result is a work that looks ahead not only to humanity’s eventual fate but also, in retrospect, to the direction in which Mahler himself would take his next two symphonies.
Tchaikovsky’s final symphony is not thought of as forward-looking at all – after all, the composer died nine days after the first performance, and indeed the Pathétique has for years been considered a kind of “suicide note,” especially since Tchaikovsky himself said it had a program that he chose not to reveal. But David Bernard insists that the usual view of this symphony is incorrect, and makes the case in a new Recursive Classics recording with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony that Tchaikovsky’s Sixth is the composer’s reconsideration of his earlier work and a look ahead toward new visions that he did not live to fulfill. Trying to put this approach across in performance is no easy task, made even more difficult by working with a nonprofessional orchestra. But this is not just any nonprofessional ensemble: it plays very much on a professional level, much as other top-notch nonprofessional groups do in other great music cities (such as the Kensington Symphony in London). The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony is not as small as its name indicates – it is a midsized orchestra – and while not all its sections are equally smooth, it is mostly capable of giving Bernard what he asks for in this interesting interpretation. The orchestra’s sound is clean and rather cool, the opposite of what might be expected for Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, and the result is a performance in which the structural elements of the music are clearer than usual, unclotted by overweening emotion and expectation of trauma. The first movement is beautiful without sounding cloying, and the second flows with natural grace instead of being almost tripped up by its unusual 5/4 rhythm. The third is somewhat problematical: Bernard sets a very fast pace that the orchestra barely manages to hold, resulting in some less-than-perfect intonation and, at the movement’s very end, a touch of actual sloppiness; the horns have a particularly difficult time of it here. But the propulsiveness of the music makes it clear why Bernard sees this movement as Tchaikovsky’s look back at the pacing and approach of his earlier symphonic finales (especially that of the Fourth). As for the Sixth’s finale, here Bernard bends over backward to avoid having the music sound despairing – indeed, the gong to which other conductors give prominence for its doom-laden sound is distinctly downplayed here, as Bernard emphasizes the rhythmic vitality of the movement rather than the despondency that other conductors embrace. The result is that the final fading away of the music comes across as rather tepid emotionally, the future to which it looks ahead – if there is one – never being particularly clear. The overall interpretation is an unusual one that will likely be of most interest to listeners who have heard many more-mainstream approaches to the symphony and are ready to see it, as Bernard does, in a new light.
Like Tchaikovsky, Bohuslav Martinů wrote six symphonies (Tchaikovsky actually started a seventh but did not complete it); but the time periods in which the composers worked were quite different, and Martinů had his own balance of looking back with looking ahead. As Brahms hesitated to create symphonies because he always looked back at Beethoven, so Martinů likely hesitated because of the work of his Czech countryman Dvořák. Indeed, Martinů (1890-1959) waited even longer to create a symphony than did Bruckner, a notorious late starter. It was not until World War II, when he was in his 50s, that Martinů began writing full-fledged symphonies – but once he started, he churned out five in a row, one per year from 1942 to 1946. They are thus all wartime or early postwar works, and all to some extent reflect the uncertainties and worries of the war years and concerns about what would come after the war’s end. The works are also all American, written during Martinů’s exile in the United States; but unlike Dvořák’s famous Symphony No. 9, Martinů’s are neither from nor of the New World. They are all identifiably and audibly Czech works, but written in a mid-20th-century musical idiom stamped with Martinů’s personality – and also possessed of such similarity of communicative tone that it can be hard to distinguish one from the next. This is true even though, analytically, the works are different from each other in many ways – for example, Nos. 1, 2 and 4 are in four movements while Nos. 3 and 5 are in three. But the movement count seems less significant than the fact that Martinů takes about the same amount of total time to make his points in all the works, each of which is about half an hour long except for No. 2, the most compact at 23 minutes. Martinů himself named Symphony No. 3 as his favorite, and listeners to the fine new Capriccio recording featuring the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Cornelius Meister will likely agree: this symphony is denser, more sinewy and more tightly packed emotionally than the others. Those others also include Symphony No. 6, an outlier that dates to 1954 and is known as “Fantaisies symphoniques.” Despite the title, it mostly resembles the five earlier symphonies, being written in three movements lasting about 30 minutes – although there is a certain lightness and flow here that justify the work’s label. Meister explores each of the works thoroughly and knowledgeably, bringing out a kind of essential cragginess that periodically contrasts with lyricism and lightness. To the extent that Martinů looked back at earlier Czech symphonies and sought to move ahead past them, it can be said that he succeeded: all six of his symphonies are stamped with his own unmistakable style. But if he was looking in these works toward a future in which either the symphony or his own music would undergo further change, his vision faltered: as Meister’s performances show, Martinů’s symphonies explore the concerns of their time to considerable effect, but do not leave the impression of looking substantially beyond it.
Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 17. Guildhall Symphonic Wind Band conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $12.99.
Frank Martin: Music for Winds. Massachusetts Chamber Players conducted by Matthew Westgate. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music for Wind Quintet by Mike Titlebaum, Paquito D’Rivera, Astor Piazzolla, Martin Kutnowski, and Leonard Bernstein. Ventus Machina (Karin Aurell, flutes and piccolo; Christie Goodwin, oboe and English horn; James Kalyn, clarinet; Ulises Aragon, French horn; Patrick Bolduc, bassoon). MSR Classics. $12.95.
French Flute Music. Michelle Batty Stanley, flute; Margaret McDonald, piano. Navona. $14.99.
Keith Brion continues his fascinating survey of the music of John Philip Sousa, using wind ensembles worldwide, by conducting a student wind band in the series’ 17th volume. And the Guildhall Symphonic Wind Band, from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, proves as adept with this repertoire as the professional and military bands that Brion has conducted in previous Naxos volumes. Furthermore, this band gets an interesting assignment: there are no famed Sousa marches here, and in fact no marches at all, even though one work – a world première recording – bears the rather awkward title, March of the Pan Americans—Part I. This, it turns out, is the first of two works Sousa wrote in 1915 to present, in alphabetical sequence, the national anthems of various independent countries of the Americas as of that year. The result is that Costa Rica, Cuba and Honduras, for example, are represented, while Canada (then closely allied to Great Britain) is not. This is the longest but least of the five pieces heard on this recording. The other four span a period of 40 years and are much better showcases for Sousa’s wind-scoring skill. The Smugglers—Quintet of 1882 is drawn from one of the composer’s earliest operettas and is nicely arranged for five wind players. The Salute of the Nations to the Columbian Exhibition (1893) was written only a year after Sousa formed his own touring band and was designed to showcase the band’s skill at the Chicago World’s Fair, where the band got equal billing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – a major milestone. Like March of the Pan Americans, this work is packed with tunes associated with specific countries, but The Salute of the Nations to the Columbian Exhibition treats the material more symphonically and more impressively. And there is greater variety and musical interest to the material, thanks to the inclusion of music from France, England, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Russia, Scotland and Spain as well as the United States. Also on this CD is The American Maid—Suite (1913), taken from a later Sousa operetta that was distinguished for including film footage in the stage presentation (a real rarity at the time). And then, most amusingly, this disc includes Humoresque: A Mingling of the Wets and Drys (1922), a gentle sendup of Prohibition (of which Sousa, who enjoyed the occasional alcoholic drink, did not approve). Listeners who recognize all the tunes in this pastiche will find the work very funny indeed, and even those who do not know all of them will surely recognize some: Tea for Two, How Dry I Am, Brown October Ale, The Old Oaken Bucket, and Auld Lang Syne all make appearances, along with the Soldiers’ Chorus from Faust. The upbeat nature of the music and the good humor with which Sousa puts the tunes together are amply reflected on this disc in performances that show just how skillful Sousa was in wind compositions that go beyond the marches for which he is famous.
Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) wrote only one wind-focused work that has retained a fair degree of popularity: Concerto pour sept instruments à vent, timbales, batterie et orchestre à cordes (1949), which, as its title indicates, includes percussion and strings as well. But it turns out that Martin had more skill in wind composition than is generally realized, as Matthew Westgate and the Massachusetts Chamber Players show on a new MSR Classics release. None of the three works heard here is likely to be particularly familiar to listeners – indeed, none of Martin’s music is exceptionally popular – but all three show solid grounding in composition for wind instruments and an ability to meld and contrast their varying sounds with skill and effectiveness. The earliest piece here is Concerto Pour les Instruments à Vent et le Piano (1924), whose two movements are very much of their time in the way they combine piccolo, flute, E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet, alto saxophone, two bassoons, two trumpets, two horns, two trombones, percussion and piano, and in Martin’s use of dissonance and rhythmic variation. Zwischen Rhone und Rhein (1939), the official march of the Swiss National Exhibition, is strong and forthright and makes an interesting contrast with Sousa’s music for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The longest and most substantial piece here is Concert Suite from Ein Totentanz zu Basel im Jahre 1943, a rather peculiar assemblage of 10 short movements in which, unsurprisingly for a wartime work, references to death are pervasive. Indeed, eight of the movements have “death” in their titles: Death with the Old Man, Dance of Death with the Mother and her Child, Dance of Death with the Athlete, Death with the Rich Man, Dance of Death Alone, Dance of Death with the Young Girl, Dance of Death with the Self-Murderer, and Dance of Death with the Beautiful Lady. Only the opening Introduction: March of the Drums and an Intermezzo halfway through the suite omit the word, but death is never musically distant from any of the material here. Yet the work is not entirely lugubrious, although neither is it as clever as somewhat similar works by Sibelius (Valse triste) or Saint-Saëns (Danse macabre). Martin’s scoring is for four clarinets, five saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones, contrabass, percussion and piano, and it is the skillful use of the saxophones and the clarinets’ lower register that stands out. There is a burnished quality to the wind writing here, and Martin’s adept way with the different instruments’ sounds makes this a very interesting piece that transcends its time. Indeed, although it was written at the height of World War II, the dance-and-mime show from which this suite is taken was based on 15th-century murals that showed Death more as a benign force than as a terrifying character – and that underlying benignity comes through in Martin’s music.
Wind-focused anthology discs, like most anthology offerings, tend to be more of a mixed bag than CDs exploring a single composer’s work in greater depth. These discs are often more about the instruments and performers than the music, and frequently include commissioned pieces designed to show off those instruments and those performers. Such is the case with a (+++) MSR Classics CD featuring the Canadian ensemble that calls itself Ventus Machina. The recording includes two under-10-minute pieces commissioned by the ensemble, Short Set (2016) by Mike Titlebaum (born 1968) and Tonadas y Mateadas (2015) by Martin Kutnowski (also born 1968). Both the pieces are pleasant, largely inconsequential offerings that nicely show off the ensemble members’ abilities and provide the players with opportunities to showcase their performance skill both individually and together. The seven-movement suite, Aires Tropical (1994), by Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, is a considerably more interesting work, its brief dance movements nicely contrasted as to rhythm and instrumental combinations. Also here are two nicely done arrangements of comparatively familiar music: William Scribner’s of Milonga sin Palabras (1981) by Ástor Piazzolla and Richard Price’s, from 1989, of three excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 Broadway hit, West Side Story. Ventus Machina handles everything with panache and suitable enthusiasm, but the disc has the feeling of a pastiche rather than a well-ordered exploration of relevant repertoire. Still, it will be enjoyable for listeners looking for a collection of rather light material handled by a skillful wind ensemble.
A (+++) Navona CD with a wind focus is specifically for listeners interested in the flute at its most graceful and lyrical. There are 12 pieces here by seven French composers of the 19th and 20th centuries who are scarcely household names – but a few of whose works are reasonably well-known. The composers are René de Boisdeffre, Philippe Gaubert, Émile Bernard, Émile Pessard, Alphonse Catherine, Victor-Alphonse Duvernoy, and Joseph-Henri Altès. The music is presented in no particular order – Gaubert’s three works, for example, are second, sixth and last on the disc – which adds to the “potpourri” feeling of the production. This is the sort of release for which it is best just to sit back and let the music flow, which it does very nicely indeed. Michelle Batty Stanley has fine breath control and offers subtlety in playing and a strong sense of the long, lyrical lines that make a number of these works appealing. Margaret McDonald provides apt, careful backup, although the music here is so flute-focused that the piano has less a partnership than a strictly supporting role. But, again, this will be of little consequence to listeners whose interest is simply in hearing a succession of well-crafted, pleasant flute works from a particular country and time period. The most-substantive work here is Gaubert’s Sonata No. 1, which explores multiple moods in its three movements. But other pieces that simply dip into a single feeling are every bit as pleasant to hear, if not exactly emotionally trenchant. The Arabesque and Barcarolle by Catherine and the Romance by Bernard, for example, fall into the unpretentious-salon-music category. Taken all together, these works come across as enjoyable, rather shallow background music, or as pieces that are easy to absorb and enjoy without requiring listeners to do more than let the well-crafted, well-played wind tunes wash a cascade of note sequences over them.
January 04, 2018
Dog Man #4: Dog Man and Cat Kid. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Three Little Monkeys. By Quentin Blake. Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark. Harper. $18.99.
Pancakes for Breakfast. By Tomie dePaola. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Sometimes books try too hard, pack too much in, overextend themselves, and nevertheless can delight many of their intended young readers – at least those who are not aware that the authors have bitten off somewhat more than they can comfortably chew. The fourth Dog Man novel by Dav Pilkey continues an ambitious approach started in the third, A Tale of Two Kitties. Pilkey has George Beard and Harold Hutchins, the two supposed creators of the book, reading well-known literature in fifth grade, and being inspired by it to produce Dog Man adventures that pick up from and reflect the classic novels the kids encounter in school. This works reasonably well in A Tale of Two Kitties, based loosely (very loosely) on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. But it is much more of a stretch in Dog Man and Cat Kid, which is based loosely (very, very loosely) on John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It is highly doubtful that fifth-grade students would read Steinbeck’s final novel, a complex interweaving of the stories of two families that is fraught with Biblical references and filled with moral failings, sexual malfeasance and philosophical musings based on varying interpretations of the tale of Cain and Abel. Certainly this book adapts poorly, if at all, to a child-oriented graphic-novel format and to the Dog Man series in particular – with the result that when Pilkey most directly brings in elements from Steinbeck, such as the Hebrew word timshel (“thou mayest,” a crucial concept in East of Eden) and the chapter title “An Aching Kind of Growing” (a direct quotation from Steinbeck’s book), Dog Man and Cat Kid comes perilously close to skidding off the rails along which Pilkey is guiding this sequence. But it never quite does skid off, and that is one reason young readers will find the book perhaps puzzling at times but not really off-putting. Furthermore, the story here, shorn of its existential angst and its sometimes forced parallels to Steinbeck, is entirely age-appropriate and often absolutely hilarious. The basic tale has to do with evil cat Petey’s clone, created in the previous book but emerging as a kitten who, it turns out, respects and loves Dog Man and does not want to be evil. In Dog Man and Cat Kid, Petey shows up dressed as Mary Poppins to “take care” of “Li’l Petey,” as the kitten is known, so Dog Man can go to work. Petey soon reveals himself to the kitten and insists that biology is destiny (not quite in those words), so Li’l Petey must learn to be evil because he is, after all, Petey’s duplicate. The flip side of this nature-vs.-nurture debate comes from Dog Man, and of course the good wins out over the bad eventually, but what makes Dog Man and Cat Kid so delightful is the hilarious way it gets to its obvious “good is better” conclusion. Much of the book involves an attempt by movie company Gassy Behemoth Studios to make a Dog Man film starring actors who are nothing like Dog Man or other “real” characters: hyper-muscled “international action hero Ding-Dong Magoo” as Dog Man, Italian beauty Yolay Caprese as Australian reporter Sarah Hatoff, “comic superstar Scooter McRibs” as Petey, and Samuel J. Johnson (think Samuel L. Jackson) as Chief – a character constantly spouting parodies of famous (and very profane) remarks drawn from the movie Snakes on a Plane, such as “I have HAD IT with these DOG-GONE ACTORS in this DOG-GONE LIMO!!!” Throw in parodies of Batman (“The Bark Knight Rises”) and a hilarious recurring gag in which a studio guard is repeatedly and very inventively dumped into a deep hole dug by Dog Man to try to get into the building, and you have a book of parodies within parodies within parodies, filled with action and brimming with so much silliness that East of Eden mostly fades far, far into the background. And that is where it belongs in a series like this. The fact that it shows up at all tends to be confusing, but Pilkey’s sure-handed comedic gifts make up for his overreaching for a Steinbeck connection.
The connection that readers will most readily make with Quentin Blake’s Three Little Monkeys is likely to be with the mischievous simians of Esphyr Slobodkina’s classic Caps for Sale. And there is in fact a kind of classic style to Emma Chichester Clark’s attractive and often elegant illustrations here: the backgrounds and settings are especially well delineated. But unlike Slobodkina’s mischievous but basically well-meaning monkeys, the three kept as pets by Hilda Snibbs in Blake’s book are genuinely monkey-like in their behavior – which means they make enormous messes whenever Hilda leaves the house, which she does repeatedly and without making the slightest attempt to confine the monkeys to a room or area where they are less likely to do damage. That is the weakness in this (+++) book: Snibbs is so dim, such an uninteresting and unaware character, that even young readers may tire of her repeated departures, before each of which she admonishes the monkeys to be good, which of course they are not – leaving Snibbs to return home to mess after mess, always apparently surprised that the monkeys have behaved like, well, monkeys. Why does Snibbs even have the monkeys? Blake does not say. And is there any lesson learned in the book, any change of pace or change of habit for Snibbs or the monkeys? None at all – Three Little Monkeys simply concludes that problems galore are “the sort of thing you have to expect if you have three little monkeys.” Blake is a fine illustrator – and was Clark’s teacher – but as an author, he is less adept, providing in Three Little Monkeys a story that is not very involving and does not really go anywhere. On the other hand, the creative ways the monkeys find to mess up Snibbs’ apartment are amusing and suitably monkey-like, and Clarke does a fine job depicting them. The book comes across as an attempt at an artistic collaboration between two illustrators, a sort of teacher/student merger in which the skills of both are brought neatly together. Blake has written other books, but only for his own illustrations – this is the first time he has created a story for someone else to picture. The joint venture is not wholly successful. But that is really an adult analysis – the young readers for whom the book is intended will enjoy the monkey mischief portrayed repeatedly in Three Little Monkeys, and may find it funny that Snibbs never does anything to limit the monkeys’ access to things they can mess up. But never underestimate children’s wisdom: Snibbs is so unaware of the inevitability of what will happen when she leaves the monkeys alone yet again that even kids may find their enjoyment of the monkeys tempered by a feeling of being fed up at the dullness of the human being.
No such concerns affect the handling of mischievous pets in Tomie dePaola’s (++++) Pancakes for Breakfast, originally published way back in 1978 and just as much fun as always in a new paperback edition. This is a wonderful, nearly wordless story – almost the only words are in the included recipe for pancakes – in which a woman, living out in the country, wakes up dreaming of pancakes and sets about gathering the ingredients needed to make some. She carefully measures the flour, then discovers she has no eggs, so she walks to her chicken coop to get some, followed by her dog; then she needs milk and has to go milk her cow, this time with her cat watching. The scenes of rural life are beautifully handled by dePaola, done in cartoonish style but nevertheless exhibiting plenty of understanding of the real world in showing the egg basket and nests of the chickens, the timbers of the cow’s barn, and the snow-covered yard through which the woman walks back and forth with her animal companions. Eventually she puts the pancake ingredients into an old-fashioned butter churn – adults may have to explain what it is to young readers today – and she sets about mixing everything, spending nearly half an hour at the work (as a clock on the wall shows) and ending up thoroughly tired out. But the batter is ready and the woman is happy – until she finds she is out of maple syrup and needs to go get some from a neighbor. And so she does, with visions of warmth dancing in her head as she contemplates cooking the pancakes and serving herself a big, delicious stack of them. Unfortunately, when she gets home, she finds that the dog and cat have, quite understandably, gotten into the pancake batter, the remaining milk and eggs, and even the flour – there is nothing left for her, and dePaola shows a vision of the distraught woman imagining winged pancakes flying away. But before the story can have an unhappy ending, the woman smells something and walks through the snow one more time, finding that her next-door neighbors have just finished making, of all things, pancakes! And so, thanks to country hospitality, she gets her big stack of deliciousness at last. And on the book’s final page, the plump-bellied and satisfied trio – woman, dog and cat – can be seen resting peacefully beneath a wall hanging with the only non-pancake-related words in the book: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Modest in scale and charming from start to finish, Pancakes for Breakfast remains a joy four decades after its initial publication because of its modest scope and dePaola’s skill in conveying emotions and human-animal interactions without the need for any words at all.
Dilbert Gets Re-accommodated. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
Things and people continue to mess up in entirely expected but still humorous ways in certain comic strips – certainly in Scott Adams’ Dilbert. The title of the latest Dilbert collection relates to one of the few strips not set in the stultifying, soul-draining office environment where Dilbert and colleagues usually dwell – it is set in the stultifying, soul-draining environment of air travel instead. The reference to being “re-accommodated” stems from one specific news story in which a passenger was dragged, injured and bleeding, from his paid-for seat on a flight that the airline had overbooked. But it is not necessary to remember that specific incident (the tone-deaf, unapologetic airline really did say the victim had been “re-accommodated”) to empathize with Dilbert when his re-accommodating consists of being thrown onto the tarmac because he has a low-priced ticket and little upper-body strength, being therefore of little value to the airline and having little chance of resisting physical relocation. Of course, most of the time, Dilbert features soul-draining and ennui (made funny) rather than anything as dramatic as being thrown out of an airplane. The strip also features pointed and (to anyone who works or has ever worked in a corporate environment) immediately understandable blame-shifting. Thus, at one point, the Pointy-Haired Boss explains that the Sales Department is blaming Marketing for low demand, so Marketing is blaming Engineering “for making a product no one wants,” so the boss, being head of Engineering, shifts blame to “customers for misleading us about their needs.” Anyone who does not believe this sequence is taken from real life has not been living real life, or at least not real corporate life. Another noteworthy sequence in this book is based on Samsung’s unfortunate experience with Note7 phones that had a tendency to, well, blow up, because of a battery problem. Adams did not make that up, and he does not make any specific reference to the story here – but the implicit reference is very clear and gets the usual Dilbert twist. Discovering that the batteries in their phones explode, Dilbert’s firm first decides to load the phones into a truck and park it by a competitor’s building. Then Dogbert, in his occasional role as an overpaid and cynical consultant, suggests a “Van Gogh strategy” to “convince people that having one ear is cool.” But it is the bullet-headed CEO who comes up with just the right idea to stop the bad press the incident has produced: after Dilbert suggests sending media members the new, improved phone to show how well the company is now doing, the CEO sends them the exploding model, claiming it is the new one, because, he tells Dilbert, “your way left too much to chance.” Dilbert is full of approaches like this. Another has the company launching a spaceship to Mars filled with “our worst employees…just in case it explodes,” which means “we have two ways to win and no way to lose.” Dilbert and his coworkers, on the other hand, have zero ways to win and an apparently infinite number of ways to lose. But that is what makes Dilbert consistently funny – as long as you don’t think it is about your company or your corporate culture. Which, however, it probably is.
Speaking of culture, there isn’t much of it in Sherman’s Lagoon, but at least the underwater denizens keep trying. Perpetual schemer Hawthorne the hermit crab, for instance, sets up various lagoon dwellers as radio hosts, but then changes the station’s format and fires them all after deciding “all bagpipes all the time” would bring in a bigger audience. Jim Toomey introduces one of his periodic real-science elements in typical Sherman’s Lagoon fashion by having Sherman swim to Angola to see “a weird jellyfish called the ‘spaghetti monster,’” who explains that each of his tentacles has a different function, including one “for obscene gestures.” Megan, Sherman’s better half, decides to run a community fair to raise money for playground equipment for lagoon dwellers’ youngsters, makes it clear that “volunteering is mandatory.” But during the fair, she rejects crafts projects that do not seem lucrative enough, because it isn’t the thought that counts, “it’s the cash.” The lagoon’s local hacker and knowledge base, eyeglasses-wearing Ernest (how do those things stay on?), studies microscopic “tardigrades,” which are (really) “commonly known as ‘water bears,’” and suddenly there are some giant-size ones in the lagoon to tell the regular cast of characters, “you’re all ugly, and you smell weird.” And then there is the family-oriented Sunday strip in which Sherman shows his son, Herman, how to tickle hairless beach apes (that is, humans) with a seagull feather to hear them chuckle, since “they all laugh a little differently,” and it is all good clean lightheartedness until, reverting to great white shark mode, Sherman says “we’ve had enough fun – let’s eat one.” There is nothing in Sherman’s Lagoon comparable to the corporate mindlessness in Dilbert, although readers may have a sneaking suspicion that Hawthorne would do just fine in Dilbert’s world if he could only be a little less honest. After all, at one point he says, “Full disclosure: every business I’ve tried has failed.” The business of undersea humor, with occasional land-linked connections, seems, however, to be doing just fine in Sherman’s Lagoon.
How Oscar Indigo Broke the Universe (and Put It Back Together Again). By David Teague. Harper. $16.99.
Daniel Coldstar #1: The Relic War. By Stel Pavlou. Harper. $16.99.
Excitement is not enough for some authors of novels for preteens – to keep things interesting, they like to add a heaping helping of funny stuff, or at least a touch of it here and there. That this will be the combination in David Teague’s latest book is obvious from its lengthy and partly parenthetical title. The story itself is less unusual, being focused, as so many preteen novels are, on the usual tropes of self-discovery, teamwork, honesty, friendship – all that good stuff that really is good stuff but that comes up so often in books like this that it tends to wear thinner than it does in real life (where it comes up much less frequently). In any case, the plot here turns on one specific fantasy element: Oscar Indigo comes into possession of a watch that can stop time. This is not science fiction but fantasy: how and why the watch works, and all that stuff, is quite irrelevant. What matters is that Oscar is a team-oriented baseball player who in fact does not play at all: he is a perpetual bench-warmer who has never had a hit. But that is all right with him, because he is brimming with team spirit and as such has great value to everybody – as the star player, Lourdes, tells him directly. The problem is that Oscar wants so much to help the team that, when Lourdes is injured and Oscar has to fill in for her, Oscar uses his watch to stop time long enough to arrange a game-winning home run. That does indeed help the team and, not coincidentally, turn Oscar into a hero. But of course Oscar knows he cheated, sort of, by rearranging the universe, so he feels bad – but nowhere near as bad as he is going to feel when he finds out the consequences of his time stopping. Those include flying reptiles out of the dinosaur age, a tsunami, and, ummmm, a second sun. Something is wrong, very wrong, and Oscar knows just what it is and just why. What he does not know, what he must figure out, is what to do to set things right. That sets him on a typical fantasy quest, in the course of which he encounters some bit players who are actually more intriguing in many ways than rather dull Oscar himself. One is Dr. Smiley, who is neither more nor less than the keeper of the universe – a keeper who likes things tidy, which they are not when the time is out of joint (so to speak). Another is the octogenarian woman who once struck out Babe Ruth, Eleanor Ethel Ellington, and if you have not heard of her, you must be living in some other universe. Which is kind of the point of How Oscar Indigo Broke the Universe (and Put It Back Together Again). It is not the main point, though: the primary thing here is the usual affirmation of goodness and team spirit and friendship and all the rest. And all that is well and good, except for the nagging sensation readers may have of having heard all that good stuff before. If they do have that feeling, it is not a case of remaking the universe – it is simply one of remaking story arcs in ways that leave the fundamentals unchanged.
The story arc of the first book in the planned Daniel Coldstar series is a familiar one as well: much of The Relic War strongly echoes Star Wars. Stel Pavlou uses an old trick of exposition by having the protagonist start out with few memories and gradually regain them, thus bringing readers into the story as the central character himself figures out what is going on. The whole thing starts when Daniel awakens in one of the underground “relic mines,” where kids known as “grubs” search endlessly for mysterious artifacts left behind by some unknown past race and now desired by the usual brutal and evil overlords, or rather Overseers, as they are called here. Daniel does not recognize anyone when he awakens, but the other grubs seem to know him and are surprised to find him among them “again.” So we know Daniel has a past, probably one of some importance, to ferret out. One of the grubs, Blink, helps Daniel understand what is going on in the mines and what he is supposed to do. But as Daniel remembers bits of the past, he starts thinking of escape and the future. Helpfully, Daniel finds a relic powerful enough to defeat the Overseers – Pavlou introduces more-obvious authorial manipulation of the story than is really necessary. Eventually Daniel escapes from the mine, stows away on a cargo spaceship, and finds a mentor in the form of a robotic rat, who eventually connects Daniel with good guys known as Truth Seekers and their organization, the Guild of Truth. If this sounds both confusing and overly complex, that is because it is – and it is obvious, too, with the Guild of Truth quite clearly a white-hat organization while the evil Sinjas (whose name includes “sin” and sounds like “ninjas”) are equally clearly black-hat constructions. Pavlou strives to keep the book moving smartly along with occasional forays into humor and lots of short chapters with cliffhanger conclusions. But The Relic War is mostly a collection of clichés, with dialogue that readers interested in the fantasy/SF genre will find irritatingly familiar (especially when villains are speaking) and with entirely arbitrary “weird characters” (such as ones with fingernails instead of hair) tossed in to diversify the cast a bit. Some of the terms in The Relic War are confusing enough so the back-of-book glossary is helpful, if not absolutely necessary. And it is possible that this series opener is so sprawling and confusing because Pavlou wants to gets all the basics of his imagined universe out there for greater exploration later. Hopefully, if that is the case, future Daniel Coldstar volumes will have greater originality in both plot and characterization than does The Relic War.
Our Year of War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided. By Daniel P. Bolger. Da Capo. $28.
The Unspeakable Loss: How Do You Live after a Child Dies? By Nisha Zenoff, Ph.D. Da Capo. $16.99.
It is somewhat difficult to figure out the intended audience for Daniel P. Bolger’s Our Year of War. Bolger has a unique perspective on modern warfare – he retired as an Army lieutenant general after 35 years of service – and he writes well about battlefield strategy and about tactics that work and that, in his view, do not. And he has an intriguing story to tell in focusing on two Nebraska brothers who fought in Vietnam at the same time but came away with very different views of the war and very different postwar careers. One is Chuck Hagel, a strong war supporter who was a Nebraska senator from 1997 to 2009 and served as President Obama’s Secretary of Defense from 2013 to 2015. The other is Tom Hagel, who turned strongly against the conflict and, after serving, taught at Dayton University School of Law from 1982 to 2015. The brothers’ war experiences range from protecting each other’s life when under fire to getting into a postwar fistfight that led to their determination never to discuss the war again. But Our Year of War is in fact a 336-page discussion, albeit one mediated by an expert on the topic. And it really is primarily a focus on the war – there is some discussion of the brothers’ prewar and postwar lives, but more of that would have produced a more-nuanced story. Vietnam was a conflict that bitterly divided the United States, or (depending on one’s viewpoint) reflected bitter divisions that were already present and growing. Bolger’s book recalls the time of the war but never fully explores that deep bitterness or the frequent violence caused by or reflective of it. His focus is the military campaigns in Vietnam, which he uses the Hagels’ experiences to illuminate – and the failures of the military to understand the nature of the war and respond to it accordingly. Thus, Bolger spends some time picking apart General William Westmoreland’s failings, notably including the way he missed seeing the Tet Offensive of 1968 as a turning point. This is, to some extent, general-vs.-general writing; but at the same time, Our Year of War explores, albeit rather superficially, the way the Vietnam conflict tore families apart and brought even close relatives such as the Hagel brothers literally to blows. Yet the question remains: why rake over these particular coals yet again? So much has been written about Vietnam, about the horrible assassinations that occurred during it (notably those of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy), and about the terrible things done by Americans to the people they were supposedly protecting (including iconic photos of a man shooting another in the head, of napalmed children running desperately down a road, and many more). Why more? Why now? Bolger has valuable insight into how the military operates – and, not coincidentally, a good understanding of the gap between the people who fight on the front lines and the ones back home who order them to the killing fields. But the overall impression left by Our Year of War is that of bringing back an extremely divisive, painful time in United States history for no particularly valuable reason beyond having a good story to tell and the ability to tell it.
The national pain of Vietnam was reflected time and again in the pain of individual families whose members died or were permanently damaged physically and/or psychologically by the war. But pain of this depth and extent does not require wartime to devastate those who experience it. Nisha Zenoff, whose son died after falling 700 feet during a hike in Yosemite, tries in The Unspeakable Loss to offer what the book’s second subtitle describes as “Support, Guidance, and Wisdom from Others Who Have Been There.” To do that, she has to probe deeply into some of the most horrific trauma imaginable – and while she does so with sensitivity, her book is very, very difficult to read, perhaps impossibly so for those who have experienced what Zenoff herself did. There is not just a single reliving of one’s own profoundly horrendous experience in these pages – there are multiple ones, presented by a wide variety of parents who have outlived their children and are trying, some of them desperately, to find a method of going on and reasons to do so. It was not always so: families used to have far more children than most in the developed world have today, precisely because so few young people would ever grow up – disease and accidents carried off so many of them. But in a safer world and one with far better medical care (notably including antibiotics), parents expect each child to survive and thrive, and when a child’s life is cut short, the intensity of the reaction is enormous – as Zenoff shows through the stories and quotations in this book. Each of the book’s four parts begins with Zenoff recounting something from her own experience, making this a highly personal book as well as an instructive one written by a psychotherapist and grief counselor. The titles of the four parts, though, show just how hard the book will be to read: “Can I Survive?” “Will My Family Survive?” “One Year and Beyond: Where Am I Now?” “As the Years Go By, What Can I Expect?” And while the progress of the book’s parts shows that there is a future after a child’s death, the many sections within each part, each introduced by a question, will force readers to confront trauma and the deepest possible grief over and over and over again: “Will life ever feel worth living again?” “How can anyone know what I feel?” “How can I maintain my faith in God when I feel so angry?” “How can I be there for my other children when I’m so preoccupied and in such pain?” “How can we feel sexual now?” “How can we get through the holidays?” “What if I find myself working, eating, or drinking too much?” This small sampling of questions shows that nothing is off limits to Zenoff, who after all has experienced this horrible grief herself and is also a professional at helping others get through it. But the book is very difficult reading, particularly so for women, at whom it is primarily aimed: Zenoff says that although “grief is deep and long-lasting for men as well as women,” men often “quickly retreat into work and hobbies” in “a more ‘male’ model of coping.” Whether or not all readers will accept this is not the point: it is how Zenoff sees things and how she and her patients have experienced them, and she is trying in The Unspeakable Loss to give other bereaved women the benefit of the experience through which she herself has gone and through which she has helped many others. The goal is admirable and the handling of the material is sensitive and shows great care, but there is no way to sugar-coat any of what Zenoff brings forward in this book. It is an effective, methodically explanatory prescription for survival after a child’s death, but it is also bitter, bitter medicine that will not, in any way, shape or form, go down easily.