February 15, 2018

(++++) BENDING THE CONVENTIONS


Out of the Wild Night. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $17.99.

Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. By Sally J. Pla. Illustrations by Steve Wolfhard. Harper. $16.99.

     Books for preteens and young teenagers typically contain a multitude of formulaic elements: they are coming-of-age stories involving friendship, an adventure/quest, lack of adult understanding, family difficulties, often a mystery as the core or at least part of the plot, and more. And they are almost always multi-protagonist stories, with one central character but one or more almost-as-important ones. Publishers seem to think these tropes are de rigueur in books for this age group, but the best authors know the expected material is not enough for a meaningful story. And it is in their willingness to incorporate the expected items while simultaneously pushing beyond them that the finest authors of works for this age group excel. Indeed, in some cases authors push the boundaries of the preteen/early teen format so far that their books are somewhat iffy for many readers, requiring a higher level of involvement and sensitivity to language and characterization than many younger readers possess. That is precisely the case with Blue Balliett’s latest outstanding work, Out of the Wild Night. Although the cover calls this “a ghost story,” it is far more than that: much of it is a book of poetry masquerading as prose. “November is our thinking month – a time of crisp, bright moons and of liquid mockingbirds in the tallest trees.” “Clouds and ocean and land are rolling, like crumbs on God’s knee.” “When you’re really in the present, I believe you’re most in the past, because it never actually went away. It’s what makes us all people and not horseshoe crabs or stones.” The language is lovely – and the “I” of that last excerpt is dead. Yes, the narrator of Out of the Wild Night is a ghost, so the book is absolutely, 100% a ghost story, a ghost’s story – and its title comes directly from a work by British poet A.S. Byatt about inviting ghosts in. That is what Balliett’s book is about: ghosts being invited into the lives of living children, ages six to 11, in a place where the line between life and death is unusually thin and the dead and living commingle to each other’s benefit and in each other’s support, even if adults are too, well, adult to realize it. The place is Nantucket, the narrator is 100-years-dead Mary W. Chase, and the plot is one of preservation vs. modernization, of the collision between the old and the new and the value of deliberately not subsuming the former into the latter: “As long as the settled landscape of an old house remains, we spirits, those of us whose lives were anchored in its walls and floors, who were born, gave birth, and died inside them, can stay. As can our dreams. BUT. Rip out all of the rooms and you rip the beach from beneath the shells. You tear the poetry from the shore. You destroy what should rightfully linger. You butcher what we protect.” What lovely language – thoughts of the dreams of those who have passed on. Adults who read this book – and adults will enjoy it – may think of Hamlet: “What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” But these dreams are not nightmares, these ghosts not threats: the threats here are from the living, from modernity, from a world that has long moved past the time of the old Nantucket houses and now seeks to preserve only their exteriors, making them literally shells of their former selves. And Mary and the other ghosts can do nothing about this unless they can find a way to interact with the only people receptive to them: children. There is quite a group of kids here, known collectively as the Old North Gang: Gabe Pinkham; Paul, Cyrus, and Maddie Coffin; Phoebe Folger Antoine; and twins Maria and Markos Ramos. Their backgrounds and ethnicities vary, but they are united in their love of and sensitivity to old Nantucket and their willingness to fight for it – by being involved in, if not directly causing, a series of “accidents” that will stop the cold-hearted and uncaring developers (whose one-dimensional sliminess, until an eventual abrupt turnaround, is the only significant flaw here: making the bad guys caricatures makes the tale somewhat too one-sided to be a fully effective moral/ethical lesson). Balliett paces Out of the Wild Night with relentless skill and beautifully rendered language: “Happy is too easy a word, but I think that sadness in a house can change into something else if you allow it to, like rubbing oil into wood to make it shine. It isn’t just oil anymore. It becomes part of the beauty of the wood. Beautiful things don’t always smile.” Nor does beautiful language always make reading easy. But the words not only tell the story but also become part of the story here. Balliett’s love of Nantucket permeates every page and shows at the back of the book in photos of the real-world island. This is a book that asks young readers to rise above themselves and delve into a writing style to which they are unlikely to be accustomed, and issues with which even adults have difficulty coming to terms. It is a wonderful novel for the thoughtful, a thoughtful novel filled with wonders.

     Sally J. Pla’s Stanley Will Probably Be Fine is less skillfully written and more conventionally plotted, but it too stretches the conventions of novels for preteens in ways that set it above the vast majority of books targeting this age group. Protagonist Stanley Fortinbras is a 12-year-old comic-book-trivia fanatic with a 14-year-old brother and a post-divorce family: the boys live with their mom; their grandfather has moved in as well; and the boys’ dad is somewhere in Africa, trying to better the lives of people there while paying very little attention to the lives of his own children. Stanley also has physical and emotional challenges, being prone to panic attacks that even lead to him fainting in front of his whole school. Stanley’s best friend, Joon, has started behaving like a jerk and hanging out with guys who don’t think much of Stanley, so Stanley is receptive when he meets a new neighbor, a girl named Liberty – who has her own fractured family and her own dark health secret (which readers will likely guess well before Stanley finds out what it is). Then Stanley has the opportunity to enter a comic-book-trivia contest whose winners will get VIP passes to the upcoming Comic Fest; and he ends up paired with Liberty after Joon decides to enter the contest with someone else. There is nothing especially original about any of these plot elements, but the way Pla handles them is out of the ordinary. For example, Stanley responds to school disaster drills, of which there are many, by sitting alone in a safe room (given to him because of his emotional condition) and drawing the adventures of a comic-book superhero he invents and names John Lockdown – a hero who ends up figuring in the book’s plot in wholly unexpected ways. (Steve Wolfhard’s illustrations, which show the drawings that “Stanley” makes of John Lockdown and other things, help buoy the story.) For another thing, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine makes some real-life connections, not only through the disaster practices at school – unfortunately all too real nowadays – but also through some social consciousness about comic books. At one point, Liberty says, “I don’t get why they call the male superheroes men, like Superman, Batman, Aquaman. But the female superheroes are all called girls. Batgirl, Supergirl, Aquagirl.” And Stanley, who narrates the book, writes, “I think about the busty, crazy-shaped women they have in a lot of those old issues. ‘A lot of stuff in the history of comics hasn’t been fair to girls.’ ‘A lot of stuff in history hasn’t been fair to girls,’ Liberty says…” Thankfully, Pla does not belabor this point; but thankfully, she does raise it – and in a context that makes sense. Indeed, a great deal of Stanley Will Probably Be Fine makes sense, even when that means it does not get neatly tied up with a happy ending – which it does not. The enforced separation of Stanley and Liberty, not long after they have become firm friends, is uncomfortable but realistic in context; the re-emergence of Joon as a friend is a bit more forced but understandable; the twist involving John Lockdown pulls the latter part of the book in unexpected directions that, again, make sense because of the way Pla handles the plot; and Stanley’s out-and-out-heroism when an accident occurs that ties back to disputes between his mother and his grandfather also fits Stanley’s well-developed personality. Stanley and Liberty are, in fact, so well portrayed that Pla almost gets away with turning Stanley’s family members – his mom, dad, grandfather and brother – into cardboard characters. Ultimately, readers will realize that the book’s title is quite apt: with all that has happened to him by the novel’s end, Stanley will indeed probably be fine – but that “probably” hangs over the book’s finale, as it does over everyone’s life, because despite the optimism in evidence here, Stanley’s ongoing happiness is something less than a foregone conclusion.

(++++) EASY READERS AND BEYOND


When Spring Comes. By Kevin Henkes. Illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $7.99.

Biscuit’s Pet & Play Farm Animals. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Illustrations by Rose Mary Berlin. HarperFestival. $7.99.

Biscuit’s Neighborhood. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Pat Schories. Harper. $16.99.

Paddington Collector’s Quintet. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $16.99.

Paddington on Top. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Harper. $9.99.

     Specialized-format books are the rule for the youngest children, both those to whom adults must read and those just beginning to read on their own. Sturdy board books are always a worthwhile choice for first exposing kids to the delights of books and reading: board books are generally intended for anyone up to age four. But that does not mean all these books are super-simplified versions of ones for older children – sometimes they are the ones written for older kids, but reformatted. When Spring Comes, for example, is a charmer from 2016 that is now available in board-book form, and Kevin Henkes’ writing is just as pleasant in this version as in the original. Laura Dronzek’s illustrations fit the text perfectly: Henkes writes that “Spring will make the leftover mounds of snow smaller and smaller and smaller until suddenly – they’re gone,” and Dronzek first shows the remnants of a snowman with a bird perched on top and then has the snow shrink more and more and more, until finally the bird is pecking at the remains that have melted completely into the ground. In another bird sequence, Henkes writes that “Spring comes with sun and it comes with rain. And more rain and more rain.” And Dronzek’s four pictures show a bird building a nest, sitting on eggs in it, sitting still more as buds become flowers, and finally standing above three chicks as the rain comes down on the whole family. There are kids in this springtime tale, too, with rain boots and umbrellas and bubble-blowing and flower-sniffing, and the whole sweet story is about the way children and other youngsters wait for and then celebrate springtime – and can then, when spring is in full flower, start to wait for summer.

     Some board books are less story-focused than experience-focused: they contain elements designed to involve the littlest children directly. An example is Biscuit’s Pet & Play Farm Animals, which is designated “a Touch & Feel Book” because some of the animals seen by the curious puppy of the title can also be felt by the curious fingers of little humans enjoying the story. Really, though, there is no story here: Alyssa Satin Capucilli, creator of Biscuit, simply has him and the girl who owns him spending a day on a farm and seeing the animals there. The illustrations are not by Pat Schories, Capucilli’s regular collaborator on the Biscuit books, but by Rose Mary Berlin “in the style of Pat Schories,” from which they deviate enough to be clear to adults but probably not to kids. Children will simply enjoy feeling the silky mane of a foal, the wool of a lamb, the softness of a calf’s hide, and so on. Biscuit is adorable in interacting with all the animals, and children will enjoy their own chance to experience some of what the puppy finds so engaging.

     Biscuit stories actually make excellent transitions between being read to and reading on one’s own, as is clear in Biscuit’s Neighborhood, a five-book boxed set in which all the books are in the “I Can Read!” series at its initial level, “My First” (“ideal for sharing with emergent readers”). These pleasant little books do have Schories’ illustrations, which complement Capucilli’s words very well indeed. Biscuit introduces the puppy and shows all the little things he wants before bed: a snack, a drink, several hugs, and more. Biscuit Plays Ball shows the happy puppy insisting on participating in a kids’ ballgame. Biscuit Goes Camping is a night-in-the-back-yard adventure with wind, a frog, a firefly and an unexpected thunderstorm to stir things up. Biscuit Feeds the Pets has the puppy trying to be helpful but just being too easily distracted by some new, even smaller puppies – the result being a major mess that, however, proves to be no big deal. And Biscuit Loves the Library is about “Read to a Pet Day,” with bunny, bear and dinosaur books, distracting puppets, and the eventual discovery of “a book that’s just right,” which happens to be the book Biscuit. These are warm and pleasant stories written at just the right level for adults to read while starting to show very young children which words are which, how they are strung together, and what fascinating tales result.

     A slight move ahead among easy books in the “I Can Read!” series takes kids to Level 1 (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) and gives them a chance to meet a furry character even more famous than Biscuit: Paddington Bear. Michael Bond’s delightfully befuddled bear “from Darkest Peru” appears in five amusing adventures that are boxed as a set, collectively labeled Paddington Collector’s Quintet, and illustrated stylishly by R.W. Alley. Paddington Sets Sail has the bear swept out to sea – not too far out to sea, though – on his first beach trip. He soon floats back to shore in a bucket and is swarmed by people who think he must have traveled across the ocean. Paddington and the Magic Trick is set on his “first birthday since moving in with the Browns,” and features some misplaced marmalade and magical mixups. Paddington Plays On takes place at a fair in France, where the family has gone for a visit, and has Paddington temporarily trapped beneath the big drum he has been playing. Paddington’s Day Off has the bear and amiable shopkeeper Mr. Gruber visiting friends and going to a concert in the park, where Paddington gets to guest-conduct. And Paddington’s Prize Picture also features Mr. Gruber, who shows Paddington how one painting can sometimes be seen underneath another, leading Paddington to try his paw at painting, make a major mess of everything, and nevertheless create a picture that wins a prize for Mr. Brown. Paddington’s gentle misadventures always have upbeat endings, and very young readers will have a wonderful time working their way through these books to find out what will go wrong next and why whatever-it-is will turn out just fine in the end.

     All these books then help prepare kids for reading full-fledged “chapter books,” including the original ones about Paddington with their delightful Peggy Fortnum illustrations. The most recently reissued of those is the tenth collection, Paddington on Top, which originally appeared in 1974. The seven stories here are Paddington Goes to School, Paddington Cleans Up, Paddington Goes to Court, A Birthday Treat, Keeping Fit, Paddington in Touch, and Comings and Goings at Number Thirty-two. The tales involve, among other things, a grumpy teacher with a distaste for marmalade sandwiches; confusion relating to a phony vacuum-cleaner salesman and a frequently angry next-door neighbor; misunderstandings about water skiing; the consequences of responding to a misleading advertisement; and the appearance in London of none other than Paddington’s Aunt Lucy from Peru. Everything is written in Bond’s deadpan style, which makes the many manifest absurdities pleasant rather than ridiculous (although a certain amount of ridiculousness does creep in, and the stories are all the better for it). And Fortnum’s illustrations capture the spirit of Bond’s writing beautifully, enhancing the narrative without drawing too much attention to themselves and away from the words. Young children who make their way from board books to read-together ones to first readers and eventually to the original Paddington books will have a very pleasant journey indeed, filled with captivating characters, much mischief and all manner of delightful doings.

(++++) SUCCESS FOR SALE


Colleges That Pay You Back: The 200 Schools That Give You the Best Bang for Your Tuition Buck, 2018 Edition. By Robert Franek, David Soto, Stephen Koch, Pia Aliperti, and the Staff of the Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $22.99.

     The funniest words in the 2018 edition of Colleges That Pay You Back – which is priced a mere dollar higher than the 2017 edition – are on page 29. They are Nota bene. College students and would-be college students whose focus is on the best ROI (return on investment), as determined by the statistics and analyses in this book, will likely have not the slightest idea what the words mean. No, they are not pronounced “not a bean” or “note a bean,” and they have nothing to do with dietary matters or Post-Its. They are Latin, meaning “take careful note” or “note well.” But who needs Latin these days? Certainly not the intensely driven, earnings-focused soon-to-be college students at whom this book is targeted. Those students are most likely to be interested only in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, and they will find plenty of schools to which to gravitate listed here. There are excellent lists of colleges to consider if you are interested in aerospace engineering, architectural engineering, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, nuclear engineering, petroleum engineering, software engineering, systems engineering, or various engineering technologies (electrical engineering technology, environmental engineering, industrial technology, mechanical engineering technology).

     Student and parental naïveté about college has no place in these pages. Colleges That Pay You Back is a hard-headed look at the cost of attending 200 colleges (135 private, 65 public) and the likely payback on your investment in those college years – based on starting and mid-career salaries of graduates in a wide variety of fields. The notion of college as a broadening experience is long gone – in fact, undergraduate education has to some extent assumed the former mantle of graduate education, where the purpose is to become increasingly knowledgeable about a narrower and narrower field, eventually earning a super-high degree in which one proves one’s tremendous expertise in a vanishingly small area of knowledge (hence the old joke that says Ph.D. stands for “piled higher and deeper”). Nowadays specialization starts in the undergraduate years and, on the evidence of Colleges That Pay You Back, even before admission: the book’s purpose is to help students use objective data to figure out what schools they would do best to attend if, with all the maturity of high-schoolers, they have already figured out what narrow focus they intend to have for the rest of their lives.

     Well, all right, things are not quite that cynical. Not yet. But they are getting there. The notion of college as just another commodity, of higher education as a job ticket and no more, makes considerable economic sense in the developed world in the 21st century. The question is how far to push the commoditization when one has a great deal of learning still to do about life, not just about, say, supply chain management (median starting salary $53,900; median mid-career salary $92,400). Parents who are on speaking terms with their high-school-student children may want to make this point while going through Colleges That Pay You Back with them: not all learning occurs in classrooms, and there is (or can be) more to college than a strict return on dollars invested. There are also time and social investments, among others, to consider. Of course, if the parents attended school in a less-intense era than the present and majored in, say, theater or music or, heaven forbid, Latin, little they say will likely carry much weight in the face of the onslaught of excellent quantifiable material in this book. It is absolutely true that there is no better book out there for students and families looking to maximize the financial and career impact of choosing a school. The question is whether that is the only impact to consider – and that query is one to be made within families, not in the pages of Colleges That Pay You Back.

     The book’s time-honored format includes statistics of all sorts and lists of all sorts compiled by merging, analyzing and tweaking those statistics. And many of the top schools in the lists are exceptionally good on an all-around basis, so even a student who does not take one of the currently favored majors and go into one of the currently hot professions has a good chance – thanks largely to strong alumni networks – of doing well in life, financially speaking, by attending one of these schools. That, of course, assumes the student can get in and can afford to attend – but given these schools’ outreach to “under-represented” groups and some extensive endowments, that is certainly a possibility for more students now than it would have been a few decades ago. There is actually little that is surprising in most of the lists here. The overall top-50 list starts with Stanford, followed by Princeton; that reverses the order of the first two from last year, but at this lofty level, it matters little. The top-50 list continues with MIT, California Institute of Technology, Cooper Union, Harvey Mudd College, Dartmouth, Williams, Yale, Harvard, Vanderbilt, Amherst, University of Virginia, University of California at Berkeley, and Georgia Institute of Technology. Other schools with a longstanding reputation for overall excellence dot the top-50 list: Columbia (No. 16), Duke (No. 20), Cornell (No. 22), College of William and Mary (No. 32). And students may want to search the top-50 list for excellent pay-you-back schools that are somewhat less-known in this context, such as Wabash College (No. 18), University of Richmond (No. 39), Bates College (No. 42), and University of Florida (No. 50). But this book, and the college experience itself, are or at least can be about more than the dollar value of higher education and the speed with which one recoups what is spent. Students using Colleges That Pay You Back will find excellent material here – but will benefit most from the book if, before using it, they look inward and decide what they, not society or friends or book producers, want from a college education, and to what extent their focus is on return on investment. Nota bene.

(+++) REAL-WORLD “LITE”


Bad Princess: True Tales from Behind the Tiara. By Kris Waldherr. Scholastic. $12.99.

Free as a Bird: The Story of Malala. By Lina Maslo. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Authors of fact-based books for young readers inevitably have to confront the fact that a great deal of real life is unpleasant in the extreme – even deadly. How much of that to reveal in books aimed at children is a difficult question, and saying “it depends on the age targeted by the book” is at best an imperfect answer. However, it certainly does seem more appropriate to delve into greater detail in a book for preteen readers, such as Bad Princess, than in one aimed at ages 4-8, such as Free as a Bird. The difficulty in both cases is translating the general “more or less detail” notion into specific writing that will interest readers and draw them in without horrifying or frightening them – while at the same time not glossing over everything potentially upsetting. Kris Waldherr handles this issue in Bad Princess by framing his factual anecdotes with fairy-tale notions of what it means to be a princess and whether there is any real-world value to the notion of “happily ever after.” And despite the book’s deliberately provocative title, only some of the royals he discusses would be considered “bad” by the standards of their time or ours. For example, Waldherr writes of Princess Margaret Fredkulla of Sweden (c. 1080-1130) that she did all that was expected of her: “Arranged marriage. Check. Moving around from country to country. Check. Creating peace. Check. Ruling a kingdom. Check. Providing the king with heirs to his throne. Double check.” So by what standards might Margaret be considered “bad”? There really are none, and all Waldherr can muster is, “Was Margaret happy? Who knows?” In other cases, there is no doubt the woman portrayed was horrible. The terrifying tale of Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614) is an example. She was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of young girl servants, perhaps more than 600 – for no certain reason, although there are longstanding rumors that she bathed in their blood to try to preserve her own youth. However, she was not a princess – a matter that Waldherr glosses over in the name of retelling her story. Waldherr also tries with little success to lighten matters up in writing about Báthory, noting that after her crimes came to light, “she was walled up for the rest of her life in her castle chamber without Internet – and hopefully without a mirror.” Waldherr never seems quite sure of what points he wants to make with his brief biographies, beyond the obvious one that real life has little in common with fairy tales as they are known today (the original tales, far darker and far scarier, are another matter). Waldherr does not delve only into tales of times long past. He discusses the “dollar princesses” of the 19th century, whose wealth allowed them to marry titled men with blue blood but little money. And he contrasts the comparative happiness of ones such as Lady Jennie Churchill (1854-1921), whose “first years of…marriage [to Lord Randolph Churchill] were blissful,” with the misery of Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964), whose mother pushed her into a horrible royal union and told her, “I do the thinking, you do as you are told.” There are also pages on 20th-century princesses Diana (1961-1997) and Grace (1929-1982). Bad Princess is not all about princesses and not all about bad royals of any title, and the word “bad” is a loaded one in any case, often depending on judging people of one time by the standards of a different one. The book’s once-over-lightly treatment of royal life may counter the standards of sanitized fairy tales, if anyone actually believes them, but it sheds little light on the lives and times of the people Waldherr profiles.

     Lina Maslo’s Free as a Bird profiles a single person, Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, the youngest-ever person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (she shared the 2014 prize with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children's-rights activist). The difficulty Maslo faces in telling Malala’s story, and it is a major one, is that Malala won the prize because she survived a vicious attempted murder by Islamic killers determined to prevent her and other girls from committing the “crime” of becoming educated. The Taliban mass murderers, like the similar Daesh murder cult sometimes known as “Islamic State,” care more about death than anything else, and it was death they sought to bring to Malala – and almost succeeded in giving to her. But the word “Taliban” appears nowhere in the main part of Maslo’s book, the word “Islamic” is not there, and Maslo turns Malala’s story into a kind of unequal-rights-for-no-known-reason tale. This is understandable in a book for very young readers, but it creates puzzlements for its intended audience that parents will have to find ways to handle. For instance, Maslo writes that Malala “realized that women in Pakistan did not have the same rights as men.” Why not? Maslo does not say. She writes about Malala taking part in public-speaking contests at school and says that, at some point, “a new enemy came to Pakistan.” What enemy? What does this have to do with the already-existing differences between women’s and men’s rights? Again, Maslo does not say, clearly trying to avoid the word Islam or bring religion – the foundation of all the violence and viciousness in this tale – into the picture. As for Malala almost being murdered by the Islamic fanatics, all Maslo says is that “the day came when [her father] could not protect her,” and then there is a wordless two-page abstract illustration made with red, black and blue. There is not even the indication of a sound. “What happened?” is sure to be any young child’s question at this point – but Maslo does not say. She has Malala sleeping and dreaming for a week, then awakening in a British hospital and being told “that the enemy had tried to end her life.” Why? Maslo does not say. The remainder of the book, in which Malala travels the world speaking out for girls and for others held voiceless by Islamic murderers and others, is upbeat and effective, and Maslo’s illustrations give Malala an understated heroism that fits the personality of this young women (born in 1997) very well. The Author’s Note at the back of the book provides a timeline and at last uses the word Taliban to explain who the “enemy” unnamed in the main story is. Parents unfamiliar with Malala’s story will want to read this explanatory material before allowing young children to tackle the main tale on their own: Maslo’s writing is age-appropriate, but her determination not to frighten her intended audience too greatly makes Free as a Bird less clear and less understandable than it could be. Sometimes, as here, an author bends over backwards a bit too far in trying to sanitize real-world horrors in the name of bringing a tale of heroism to children who are just becoming able to read books on their own.

(+++) ANTHOLOGIES, VOCAL AND INSTRUMENTAL


Music in the Listening Place: Contemporary Choral Works. Vanderbilt Chorale conducted by Tucker Biddlecombe. Navona. $14.99.

Lionel Sainsbury: Time of the Comet; Clive Muncaster: Reflective Thought Patterns; Patricia Julien: Among the Hidden; J.A. Kawarsky: Fastidious Notes. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský (Sainsbury, Julien); Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Ian Winstin (Muncaster); Jonathan Helton, alto saxophone; Chicago Arts Orchestra conducted by Javier Mendoza (Kawarsky). Navona. $14.99.

     Anthology discs have an inherent weakness for listeners primarily interested in what music is being performed on a CD: even when the recordings are carefully curated and assembled with an eye (or an ear) toward an integrated presentation, the differences among the compositions increase the likelihood that the audience will enjoy some of the material but not all of it. This reality can be turned to advantage when introducing unfamiliar music, by coupling something well-known and likely to be attractive to listeners with something unknown but complementary. In fact, this is a frequent approach for introducing contemporary music into recitals and concert programs. However, when an entire anthology release consists of contemporary works, matters become more problematic. So one way to handle things is to make the focus not on the music but on the performers – and that is what Music in the Listening Place, a new Navona release, does. The CD is really a showcase for the Vanderbilt Chorale, some individual singers within it, and the ensemble’s conductor, Tucker Biddlecombe, rather than a recording designed for listeners primarily interested in composers Daniel Read, Eric Whitacre, Michael Slayton, Maurice Ravel, Alf Houkum, Eliza Gilkyson, Jonathan Dove and David Dickau, or in the traditional African song Indodana. The music of Ravel, far and away the best-known composer here, takes up only six of the disc’s 66 minutes for a nicely harmonized Trois Chansons. Far more extensive is Dove’s The Passing of the Year, and this is an exceptionally interesting work: its seven songs are in three sections rather than the expected four that would correspond to seasons, and the seasonal focus itself is interesting, with the first section looking forward to summer, the second looking back at its departure and the coming of autumn, and the third focusing on winter. Dove’s choice of poets is intriguing as well: he combines William Blake, Emily Dickinson, George Peele, Thomas Nashe and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The music is heartfelt if somewhat less compelling than the words and the overall arrangement of the work – but this is nevertheless a high point of the CD. Whitacre’s Three Songs of Faith, to words by e.e. cummings, is also intriguing, with music that effectively expands upon the poet’s texts. The other pieces on the disc are of less interest: Read’s Windham, Slayton’s Three Settings of Ezra Pound, Gilkyson’s Requiem, and Dickau’s If Music Be the Food of Love. But all the pieces are well-crafted, including the Indodana arrangement by Michael Barrett and Ralf Schmitt (which includes the African goblet drum called the djembe). Nevertheless, the primary attraction here is not so much the music or the poetry, some of it very fine, that underlies it – the main reason listeners will be attracted to this CD is the quality of the performances, and the chance to hear some very fine vocalists, as soloists and in chorus, offering well-constructed, mostly contemporary music.

     Another approach to the limitations integral to anthology discs is, in effect, to ignore them and hope that the selected works will have enough in common – and in contrast – to intrigue a potential audience. This is what happens on a Navona recording of music by Lionel Sainsbury, Clive Muncaster, Patricia Julien, and J. A. Kawarsky. In truth, there is more contrast than commonality among the four works here, and while it would not be surprising if a listener new to these composers found something or several somethings to enjoy, it is unlikely that he or she would find all four pieces on the recording equally worthy. Sainsbury’s Time of the Comet, despite a title that could be portentous, is essentially celebratory, having been composed in 1987 in connection with the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet. Its essentially bright and optimistic sound partakes of some of the feelings of old-fashioned science-fictional predictions of a grand future in space. Muncaster’s Reflective Thought Patterns is, again, not exactly what one might expect from its title: it refers not to inward contemplation and reflection, but to a literal reflection in the music – the opening progresses toward a central section and then reverses so that the conclusion repeats the start. Effective enough as an intellectual exercise, and featuring some nice writing for brass and percussion instruments, the work is nevertheless emotionally rather vapid. Julien’s Among the Hidden is a quieter, darker piece with some of the repetitiveness of minimalist music, relieved in the middle by lighter material that soon subsides back into a kind of crepuscular mood. Kawarsky’s Fastidious Notes, unlike the other music here, is a set of variations – on a folk song called “Goodbye Old Paint.” There is considerable cleverness here in the instrumentation, and the grounding in folk music, although it perhaps inevitably recalls Copland, has a style of its own, especially in the jazzlike alto saxophone riffs with which some of the material is decorated. Each of these four works is, of course, a matter of taste, and the taste required for each of them is quite different. Many listeners who enjoy the sound of contemporary music will find parts of the disc quite pleasurable, but as in so many other anthology releases with little genuine connection among the pieces offered, the whole ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

February 08, 2018

(++++) NOT FOR NAUGHT


The Book about Nothing. By Mike Bender. Illustrated by Hugh Murphy. Crown. $17.99.

Nobody’s Duck. By Mary Sullivan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

     You would think that the concept of zero would be a pretty clear and obvious one, but it was not always so: the idea of zero as a digit dates only to about 500 C.E., and the ancient Greeks even argued about nothingness as a philosophical concept. How, they wondered, could nothing be anything? Mike Bender wonders the same thing in The Book about Nothing, but cuts the philosophical Gordian knot by simply asserting that “even nothing is SOMETHING.” The fact that the narrator who makes this statement is a dodo – a bird whose current population is zero – is surely due to Hugh Murphy’s skewed sense of humor, which shows in the illustrations again and again. The interesting thing about The Book of Nothing, the thing that makes it fun, is that it requires young readers to think about what is and is not in an unusual way. For instance, “if you eat all the chocolate chip cookies” in a cookie jar, the jar is not empty but is “chock-full of nothing.” And when you take a bath, what you are wearing is nothing. And in what seems like a second nod to Lewis Carroll – the dodo’s appearance being the first – there is even a suggestion that kids “can get a bunch of balloons and a big cake and celebrate NOTHING,” which seems remarkably like the un-birthday party in Alice in Wonderland except for the fact that all the attendees shown in The Book of Nothing are monkeys. Not everything here is in what adults will consider the best of taste – explaining away a burp by saying it was nothing is one thing, but the toilet humor about what is left behind after flushing (preceded by a panel in which “you forgot to flush!”) is a bit much. Still, there is a nice mixture of the amusing and the thoughtful here – the latter most clearly exemplified by the statement that “with nothing, anything is possible.” Quite so. Think about it.

     And speaking of negatives, Mary Sullivan’s Nobody’s Duck raises the issue of whose duck the title character really is, and what it means to be someone’s duck in the first place. Among anthropomorphic-animal stories, this is an offbeat one: the hat-wearing, travel-bag-carrying duck shows up on the lawn outside the home of a pajama-clad alligator and remains there all night, leading the irritated alligator to come outside the next morning – wearing a tie – to ask, “Whose duck are you?” The duck roots around in his bag, discovers a thinking cap in it (complete with lightbulb), considers the question, and responds that he is nobody’s duck. But “you must be somebody’s duck,” the alligator says, and sets off to find out what is what, pulling the duck in a wagon (the duck’s expression of enjoyment contrasting delightfully with the alligator’s of irritation). At various locations, the duck, instead of speaking, emits excited quacks – leading the alligator to think the duck belongs there. At the library, for example, the alligator asks the librarian (a giraffe), “Is this your duck?” She says no – while the duck gathers books and presents a library card. The duck then sits happily reading while the increasingly frustrated alligator waits. Exactly what bothers the alligator is never clear and is not the book’s point: what matters is all the fun the duck has and the way he pulls the reluctant alligator into it. After the library, as the duck quacks with amusement while reading books in the wagon, the alligator heads for a movie theater, where the alligator asks the pig at the ticket window if this is his duck. The excited duck, meanwhile, is responding enthusiastically to a poster advertising “Dogzilla Strikes Again,” and soon buys two movie tickets for himself and the alligator. They watch the film – both wearing 3D glasses – and then the alligator pulls the duck onward, finding that the duck does not belong with the operator of a Go-Kart track or in a skydiving business. So whose duck is the duck? The answer, of course, is that he is the alligator’s duck – which the alligator realizes, as he thinks back over the day’s adventures, really means he is the alligator’s friend. An amusing final twist, over a couple of stacks of duck-prepared pancakes, neatly wraps up this unusual friendship book in which nobody’s duck is very definitely somebody to enjoy.

(++++) OUTDOORS


Moon: A Peek-Through Picture Book. By Britta Teckentrup. Doubleday. $16.99.

Bob and Joss Take a Hike! By Peter McCleery. Illustrated by Vin Vogel. Harper. $17.99.

The Digger and the Flower. By Joseph Kuefler. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     The quiet and not-so-quiet events of a typical night are portrayed in lovely pictures and pleasantly rhyming text in Britta Teckentrup’s Moon. This is a “peek-through” book for the simple reason that cutouts in the pages let young readers peek through them at the moon – the differing cutout shapes showing the orb in many of its phases. Or, to put it another way, the cutouts let the moon peek through into the different scenes. The cover cutout is crescent-shaped, and as the pages progress, the moon becomes a sliver, then a crescent again, then a waxing gibbous, and eventually a full and bright circle. And then it shrinks back, page after page, as the cutouts get smaller and smaller. While this happens, Teckentrup’s illustrations show animals in various moonlit locations. For example: “A breeze blows softly across the land,/ Rippling through the desert sand./ A scorpion scuttles through the night,/ Glowing with an eerie light.” These two pages show coyotes, rabbits, a snake and, yes, a scorpion, all amid cacti and sand and with the scorpion having bright blue color highlights. On another page, “Far away, in a land harsh and bare,/ Puffins shiver in the cold night air.” And there are birds flying south – guided by the moon – and other birds, parrots, flitting about a tropical jungle. The full moon shines over “hundreds of turtles [that] swim to land/ To lay their eggs in the soft white sand.” In complete contrast, a new moon provides darkness that allows a field mouse to forage. And so the story goes, in scene after moonlit scene, letting young readers imagine what may be happening right outside their own homes as the moon cycles through its real-world courses.

     Matters are equally outdoorsy, but more amusing and a great deal sillier, in Peter McCleery’s Bob and Joss Take a Hike! The title characters are two typically mismatched friends: serious, easily worried, brown-haired Bob and free-spirited Joss, whose eyes are never seen because his blond hair falls down over them. The story starts with the two boys camping, Joss enjoying himself toasting marshmallows (as a curious bird perches on his head) while Bob paces in a circle complaining about being bored. That complaint turns out to be a mistake, because Joss suggests that the two should take a hike, Bob decides that is a good idea as long as they have a map, and they realize after setting out that Joss, of course, has forgotten the map. The result is a series of misadventures in choosing the wrong trail, going up and down hillsides (elevation figures are provided), and doing a variety of things that make no sense (e.g., dancing and walking in a funny way). Bob becomes increasingly scared – and increasingly insect-bitten. Joss takes everything in stride (despite the fact that his shoes are perpetually untied) and the insects avoid him. The two boys’ differing personalities, and the way Vin Vogel shows their different reactions to being lost, provide the humor in Bob and Joss Take a Hike! For instance, Bob complains that they have apparently been walking in circles, and Joss says, “I don’t think so. It feels more like a rectangle. Or maybe a trapezoid.” Eventually the boys end up on a clifftop with a spectacular view, so the hike has scarcely been a total waste; but their trek then continues to such a point that Bob gets hungry enough to eat a bug. Before he can do that, though (the insect looks distinctly alarmed at the prospect), Joss discovers that he had the map in his pocket all along, and they are close to their campsite. So all ends happily, despite Bob now being completely covered in bites and scratches. In fact, while Joss again has a critter perched on his head (a squirrel), so does Bob (the cricket he was about to eat). It turns out that a good time was had by all.

     Outdoor life gets a different  kind of treatment in Joseph Kuefler’s The Digger and the Flower, because here it initially seems that nature is not to be experienced and enjoyed but to be modified and manipulated. Digger is one of three big trucks – the others are Crane and Dozer – that go out together every morning to build “tall buildings for working.” Focused and industrious, they also create “roads for driving and bridges for crossing,” helping a city grow and prosper all around them. But Digger is a bit different from his colleagues. When they take a break, he rolls over on his treads to “something in the rubble,” which turns out to be a small blue flower that “was tiny, but it was beautiful.” Digger visits the flower day after day, and the scenes of this big piece of machinery watering it and shielding it from wind are charming: Kuefler gives Digger expressive eyes and other sort-of-facial features. Digger even sings the flower bedtime songs – how he does so is unclear and irrelevant – and watches over it until “every space had been filled” in the building of the city, and it is time to fill the space where the flower grows. Digger cannot stop progress, if it is progress, and Dozer plows ahead as Digger sheds a tear for the flower. But then he notices something: seeds! And Digger scoops them up, takes them far, far from the city, and “tuck[s] the seeds into the warm earth.” Then the seeds sprout, and again Digger waters the plants, shields them from wind, and sings to them at night – leading to a final, wordless illustration contrasting the fully developed, stark black-and-white-and-grey city with the small blue flowers dotting the landscape away from the road and the tall buildings. The Digger and the Flower does not suggest that there is anything wrong with cities or with buildings – only that there is, there needs to be, a place for the beauties of the natural world as well. Digger learns that on his own, and his story is a sweet and not overly preachy way of teaching the lesson to children.

(+++) SURPRISES, AS EXPECTED


Bodyguard 7: Target. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.

Bodyguard 8: Traitor. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.

     Breakneck pacing, an inexhaustible parade of perils, and an utter lack of characterization or humanization – these are the ingredients of Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard series, which now appears to have concluded, maybe, with Target and Traitor. That is, the series may have concluded in the United States – but it certainly went beyond these books in England, where Chris Bradford lives and works. There are six books in the British series: Hostage, Ransom, Ambush, Target, Assassin and Fugitive. There are eight U.S. books, but they only go through the first four British ones, because the U.S. editions split each British novel into two parts, presumably for pecuniary reasons. So Target and Traitor, in their U.S. incarnation, add up to Target in the original British version.

     The publication history is a lot more complicated than the plotting of Bodyguard, which is simply another incarnation of the time-honored “perils of Pauline” approach of multiple threats and constant cliffhangers – all solved by heroic young people, since these are books for young readers. The heroic protagonist of the Target/Traitor duo is a teenage female surfing champion named Charley Hunter, whose assignment is to protect an oh-so-cool rock star named, umm, Ash Wild, who is referred to as “the perfect teen heartthrob.” Bradford, a master of fast-paced, superficial plotting, opens with a bang, or rather with a chomp – Charley saves a boy from a shark attack – and soon gets into the usual training sessions that are de rigueur in books like this, including the obligatory “you’re not good enough and have to go through it all again” scenario. This involves dialogue such as “we’re not playing games here” and “there are no second chances” and “if you get it wrong on an assignment, you’ll be coming home in a body bag.” Other members of Charley’s bodyguard-team-in-training, of course, do not think much of her, and there is some genuinely silly sexism: “What was the colonel thinking when he recruited a girl?” The response to this is some silly reverse sexism: “Female intuition and the element of surprise give us the upper hand.”

     Eventually, these premises established, Target/Traitor gets into the meat of its story, which is rather thin gruel but presented entertainingly enough so fans of lightning-speed, comic-book-style violence will enjoy the tale. The Bodyguard books are aimed at readers ages 10 and up, and as such are full of fight, fire and fisticuffs but no major heavy weaponry, no massive amounts of gore, and no significant sex or other inconveniences to the plot pacing. The threats against Ash Wild are the usual childish stuff, with some references to pig’s blood and a no-surprise play-the-song-backward death-is-coming bit of intimidation. The usual suspects have to be looked at – a disaffected songwriter, Ash’s former girlfriends, a paparazzo in debt to the mob – but of course the plotter cannot be anyone obvious or anyone who could be turned up through everyday channels and procedures. As the plot lurches onward, there are various accidents that may not have been accidents (well, duh), and as Target ends – or, really, simply stops, so readers can start Traitor – the fact that these were not accidents is confirmed, to the surprise of absolutely nobody.

     And so the story continues, with Charley learning more and more about celebrity life and becoming familiar not only with Ash but also with movie stars and other entertainment figures – there is plenty of imagined coolness here for readers so inclined. Charley herself also becomes a target of Internet trolling, with rumors that she is involved with Ash leading to problems such as a mysterious threatening message on the mirror in her hotel room. Charley eventually figures out – several hundred pages after readers who pay attention will have figured it out – that “the homicidal maniac was on the tour with them,” and she thinks she knows who it is. That leads to a confrontation scene that, because it happens when there are still plenty of pages to go, readers will know is not the book’s climax or end. In fact, Charley has made a mistake (well, duh, again), but the timely intervention of an expert hacker points her in the right direction at last. Or is it the right direction? There is a battle of bodies that is also a battle of wills, and Charley is again forced to confront the chance that she made an error, until yet another of the deus ex machina events of which Bradford is inordinately fond shows that, yes, this time Charley got it right. Or did she? Bradford does not like to let things go, and has a kind of wheels-within-wheels plot mechanism so that just as readers think matters have been put to rest, something else is pulled out of the authorial hat. And so it is here. There are, in fact, several somethings pulled out of several hats, including one that results in a less-than-happy ending that is by far the most surprising element of Charley’s story. Bradford actually seems to reach for pathos at the conclusion of Target/Traitor, and if he does not quite find it – it is scarcely his strong suit – he does manage, perhaps, to set up future installments of the Bodyguard series. Those already exist in British editions, in fact; whether they too will appear as two-books-instead-of-one versions for U.S. consumption remains to be seen. Or maybe, since Target/Traitor is actually a prequel to the U.S. editions of the earlier Bodyguard books, the bittersweet ending of Charley’s story will have to stand as U.S. readers’ conclusion of the whole sequence. As a song decidedly not by Ash Wild put it back in 1967, “time alone will tell.”

(+++) AGING WITH ENLIGHTENMENT


The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life. By Marc E. Agronin, M.D. Da Capo. $27.

     The Age of Enlightenment, roughly coinciding with the 18th century in Europe, was a time in which reason and rationality came to dominate intellectual and philosophical thinking, overcoming the emotion-and-religion-driven thinking that had largely dominated earlier discourse. Now, argues geriatric psychiatrist Marc E. Agronin, we are in need of enlightenment of a different type and for a different purpose: it is time to realize the many positive elements of growing old and to use the rational understanding of those elements to overcome ageism in society and allow older people to be happier, more productive and more respected right up until life’s end.

     This is a somewhat utopian viewpoint, but it is certainly well-meaning and, in The End of Old Age, often well argued – although the book’s title is a bit of a problem, since many readers will likely (and understandably) think the end of old age is simply death. What Agronin really wants is the end of a certain type of thinking about old age, just as 18th-century philosophers wanted a change in thinking about life and humanity in general. Agronin takes nearly as broad a view in his field as those philosophers did in theirs, stating that the issue of aging is no less than “a question that taps into the meaning and mission of our life.” He includes a wide variety of arguments for a more-meaningful old age, and to his credit does not omit quotations from various scholars, ethicists, doctors and others who primarily see the inevitable losses of old age and the shrinking of the world as one’s abilities and health diminish. Yet Agronin ultimately discards those views of old age as, in Shakespearean words that he does not include, “sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything.”

     Agronin cites evidence that “people with positive self-perceptions about aging…demonstrate median survival rates 7.5 years longer than do those with negative self-perceptions,” but this is scarcely surprising. Yes, there may be causality here: psychosomatically, the mind can and does influence the body, and ongoing mental positivity has a salutary effect on one’s physical being. But the reverse is also true: a generally healthy body leads to an improved mental/psychological outlook. So it is reasonable to assume that people whose physical condition predisposes them to a longer, healthier life are more likely to have positive self-perceptions about aging. In other words, it may be that the perception influences life length, or it may be that those whose lives will be longer develop more-positive self-perception. Incomplete arguments and citations like this one undermine some of Agronin’s generally thoughtful discussion about the aging process.

     Where that discussion works best is in the author’s attempt to connect it with the life-cycle theory of Erik Erikson. Originally an eight-stage construct, this was changed to a nine-stage one in an attempt “to capture this final stage of life.” And it is this ninth stage that Agronin explores and suggests his readers explore with him. He argues, for example, that far from inevitably diminishing with age, creativity can increase because “with life experience, we accumulate facts about multiple situations and familiarity with how to deal with problems.” This makes sense – although applying one’s creativity requires an understanding of context, and while, for example, many corporations might agree that older people are a source of great knowledge and theoretical problem-solving ability, they might also say the elderly lack the high-tech training and super-fast response times needed to implement their knowledge in a contemporary context.

     Likewise, Agronin talks about people in the ninth stage of life becoming “seers,” with “extraordinary vision and insight, although not for what will be but for what could be.” And he approvingly cites the example of the spiritual leader of “a close-knit group of Hasidic Jews,” a man with significant infirmities but “so revered by his followers that his very presence was transformative,” a man who “could still place his hands on a supplicant’s head and emote a blessing, leaving the person nearly ecstatic.” Some readers, however, may think this scene smacks of cultic adoration rather than a positive attitude toward old age – and certainly the response of the supplicants can be scientifically explained by the placebo effect, which often (although not necessarily always) comes into play with the laying-on of hands.

     Again and again, Agronin makes points about the positive elements associated with Erikson’s ninth stage, and again and again he brings his philosophical arguments down to earth by citing examples – both positive and negative – of people whose aging has gone very well and others whose older years have brought unhappiness and even clinical depression. Some of the latter are Agronin’s patients, and part of what he tries to do in The End of Old Age is to show how he managed to help them turn around their attitudes toward their older selves and thus turn around the negative elements of their lives. These are positive and often uplifting stories, although their usefulness will depend on the extent to which individual readers see themselves and their lives paralleling those of Agronin’s patients.

     Agronin eventually arrives at a prescriptive chapter called “Redefining and Re-Aging,” in which he recommends a five-step process of what he labels Reserve (“fully appreciate the scope of your wisdom”), Resilience, Reinvention, Legacy and Celebration – the last of these being done after “you’ve reexamined your own aging in a positive light.” This formulation can be a useful starting point for a better attitude toward aging, and the grids and charts that Agronin provides for each element make it easy to follow. What is not so easy is figuring out how to follow them if one is significantly compromised by the common (if scarcely inevitable) circumstances of old age – that is, by infirmities that may be physical, mental, emotional, psychological or some combination thereof. Readers who are essentially healthy and in command of their bodies and minds will draw a great deal of benefit from the positive thinking that underlies The End of Old Age. But neither this book nor any other can be reasonably expected to offer people with significant physical and/or mental compromises a reason to celebrate the exigencies of their daily lives.

(+++) PERSONAL EXPRESSIONS


Felipe Perez Santiago: Chamber Music. Navona. $14.99.

Rosewood Café: Music of Celso Machado, Paulinho da Vida, Pixinguinha, Ástor Piazzolla, and Jacob do Bandolim. Margaret Herlehy, oboe; David Newsam, guitar; Henrique Eisenmann, piano; Fernando Brandao, flute; Negah Santos, pandeiro. Big Round Records. $14.99.

Mark Volker: Three Quotations; Dust to Dust; Echoes of Yesterday; Young Prometheus. Navona. $14.99.

     Although contemporary music almost inevitably springs from personal experiences, there are times when the intensity of a personal connection is above and beyond what listeners are likely to anticipate when hearing a work. That is the case with Hospital Suite (2012) by Felipe Perez Santiago, played by the Onix Ensemble on a new Navona CD. Perez Santiago wrote the music while waiting for a considerable period at a hospital where both his mother and his former girlfriend happened to be convalescing at the same time. Although both recovered fully, this chamber suite is not at all the sickness-and-fighting-through-to-health sequence that listeners might expect from the title. Instead, it is something of a nonmedical person’s response to the words tossed about casually by medical personnel in a setting where they are comfortable and the listener is definitely not. The four movements are called “Suprarenal,” “Vesiculobiliar,” “Neuroma de Morton,” and “Neurocardiogénico,” surely among the most unusual movement titles in recent music. And the work itself speaks of both the confusion that terms like these engender in those unfamiliar with them, and of the emotional roller coaster that friends and relatives find themselves on when loved ones are hospitalized and there is nothing to do but wait for news of their condition – which, when it comes, is often delivered in nearly incomprehensible language. The suite manages to communicate all this within a more-or-less-classical form (opening movement, slow movement, scherzo-like movement, finale); but the music itself is very heavily jazz-influenced and, indeed, is closer to jazz than to classical models. The jazz feeling pervades this CD, despite the differences among the works. El Ansia (1997/2016), originally for string quartet, is first heard here in an arrangement for saxophone quartet and piano, then in its original version. The Anacrusax Saxophone Quartet performs it with the lilt and somewhat mysterious sound befitting a piece inspired by a vampire movie; the Apeiron String Quartet does a good job with the original and somewhat paler version. La Candesauria (2009), performed by Camerata Metropolitana, is a somewhat meandering piece, full of gestures in all directions. Pengamat Busan (2013), whose title is Indonesian for “Man Contemplating the Moon,” is based on a specific painting and is well-played by the Tamiya Ensemble, which commissioned it; it has attractive elements but is overly given to repetitiveness. Exoesqueleto (2014), another work played by the Anacrusax Saxophone Quartet, is particularly redolent of jazz; it does, however, somewhat overstay its welcome. Maniquí (1996), for clarinet (Ismael Sánchez) and piano (Abdel Hadi Sabag), takes the woodwind to the extremes of its range around a more-central piano part. And Mal Timing (2010), performed by Camerata Metropolitana, is a very short, encore-like piece with an interesting juxtaposition of percussion with the ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano. All the music here is nicely constructed and well thought out, and Perez Santiago handles the instruments skillfully – with Hospital Suite the standout composition on the disc.

     The standout work on a Big Round Records release titled Rosewood Café is Café 1930 by Ástor Piazzolla, and jazz is very much the order of the day throughout the recording. Of particular interest here is the instrumentation, which features Margaret Herlehy on oboe throughout the disc – the oboe scarcely being an instrument typically associated with music of this type. Much more common is the guitar, and indeed, eight of the nine works here feature it, with David Newsam offering strongly accented and idiomatic performances that complement those of Herlehy very well indeed. The one work here without guitar, Choro Negro by Paulinho da Viola and Fernando Costa, features Herlehy with pianist Henrique Eisenmann, who also shows strength in performance and a sure understanding of the music. Most other works on the CD are duets for oboe and guitar, but two are for small chamber ensemble: Nachele Tempo by Benedito Lacerda, Pixinguinha and Fabio Oliveira (for oboe, piano, guitar, flute and pandeiro – a hand-frame Brazilian drum), and Diabinho Maluco by Jacob do Bandolim (for oboe, guitar, flute and pandeiro). This last work makes a first-rate contrast to Piazzolla’s, which is inward-looking and has genuine depth of feeling: Diabinho Maluco is a bright, bouncy, almost swaggering Latin dance piece. The personal expressions in evidence on this recording are as much those of Herlehy and Newsam as they are those of the composers: most of the music other than Café 1930 and Diabinho Maluco is pleasant but rather conventional, offering touches of warmth and brightness in expected places but not striving for any particularly strong emotional connection. It is the way Herlehy and Newsam handle the material that makes the recording an intriguing and ultimately convincing one.

     Emotional connection is the avowed purpose of the major Mark Volker work on a new Navona CD: Young Prometheus, an eight-movement suite drawn from a ballet that in turn is a reinterpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But the grand themes of the novel that led it to be subtitled “The Modern Prometheus” are nowhere present here: this is simply a story of bullying and of the difficulty of fitting into the modern world if one is young and deformed – the central character of the ballet is a disfigured middle-school student. The ballet characters are types, quite deliberately: only the protagonist has a name (inevitably, “Frank”), while the others are the Bully, the Cheerleader, the Jock, and so on. In the music, a chamber ensemble is used to characterize each individual. The ensemble consists of Carolyn Treybig, flute; Matthew Davich, clarinet; Alison Gooding Hoffman, violin; Stephen Drake, cello; and Kristian Klefstad, piano. The performance is fine, but the music, like the feel-good balletic work from which it is drawn, is somewhat obvious and superficial, as individual characters are limned by specific instruments and then combined in a section called “The Misfits” and, at the end, for an upbeat finale. The musical material is thin, but pleasant enough to hear. The three other works on the disc are quite different from Young Prometheus. The most-extended of them is Three Quotations, an attempt to illustrate and expand upon words by Robert Aitken, Sylvia Plath and – most interestingly – futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, authors of Future Shock. The first movement, “Morning Chorus,” offers typical contemporary scene-painting of birdsong; the second, “I Am,” is an unsurprising set of struggles and eventual resilience. The most interesting movement is the third, which is indeed called “Future Shock,” and which neatly depicts constant motion and change over an ostinato that propels the music strongly along a track that eventually leads to a driving, dramatic but ultimately unresolved conclusion. The performers here are John McMurtery, flute; Nobuko Igarashi, clarinet and bass clarinet; Daniel Gilbert, violin; Craig Hultgren, cello; and Adam Bowles, piano. The remaining two works on the CD are shorter and intended to be expressive in very different ways. Dust to Dust, for string quartet (Katelyn Westergard and Alicia Enstrom, violins; Jim Grosjean, viola; Emily Nelson, cello) is a bit of expressionism involving a specific painting and the notion of mortality – it is thus appropriately, well, dusty, with smeared and swooning textures from which bits of portentous sound emerge. Echoes of Yesterday is for solo clarinet (Davich) with interactive electronics: the clarinet’s sound is passed to computer software programmed to respond to specific portions of the score in specific ways. Like many pieces of this type, the work seems designed more as a how-clever-I-am piece than as one intended to evoke an emotional reaction from human listeners – who are, after all, considerably less predictable in their responsiveness than computer programs.

February 01, 2018

(++++) OUT AND ABOUT


Unplugged. By Steve Antony. Scholastic. $16.99.

Ava and the Rainbow (Who Stayed). By Ged Adamson. Harper. $17.99.

     Here are a couple of parables for our time, intended for ages 4-8: overt “message” books, but ones whose stories are told entertainingly enough so they do not become overly preachy. Unplugged is the story of – well, of Blip, who is apparently a girl (Steve Antony always uses the pronoun “she”), but who looks like an old-fashioned robot, with chunky grey body topped by a rectangular head on which big eyes and a smiling mouth appear in black and white. Blip is not quite a computer, since the story starts by showing how much she likes being plugged into a computer. But Blip is certainly enthralled by computers – although the activities she finds are of the old 8-bit variety (from the days of Pong, Space Invaders and the like), not the full-color, immersive games and scenes that confront computer users today. However, Blip has a great time being plugged in all day long: learning, playing games, dancing, and visiting “faraway places.” Blip’s computer-focused joy is shown in a dozen small drawings in which she expresses various forms of delight and interaction with the screen to which a cable connects her (no WiFi here). But one day, during a blackout, Blip trips over her connecting wire and tumbles down the stairs and out the door of what we now realize is a house – and suddenly she is in a world of color rather than black-and-white (Antony has been keeping all the computer interactions in the 8-bit age to maintain the black-and-white appearance of Blip’s life, despite its pleasures). Blip rolls quite a distance outdoors, down a hill and through a forest and into a river, eventually emerging in a pretty area, watched by a curious fawn, bunny and duckling. And now Blip interacts with them, doing exactly the same things she previously did with the computer’s images – learning, playing games, dancing and visiting faraway places. Here too the activities continue all day long, in 12 small scenes, but now everything is in color and involves Blip and her new animal friends. At day’s end, Blip and the animals head back toward Blip’s house, where Blip says good-bye at the front door (shedding a couple of on-screen tears); she walks upstairs and plugs into the computer again – this time with a flower in a small vase nearby. Now, however, Blip thinks during plug-in time about the fun she had outdoors, and Antony offers one more contrast between black-and-white and color illustrations before having Blip, at the end, unplug herself on purpose and head back to her friends. Unplugged is probably best for kids at the lower end of the intended 4-8 age range, because those at the upper end will immediately critique the "boring" black-and-white scenes and games that Blip enjoys and will know that today’s computers (including smartphones) offer stuff that is lots more interesting. Still, the notion that there is something rather dull about interacting only with a machine, on your own, instead of doing things with friends, comes through clearly in Unplugged – and offers parents some teachable moments to supplement those included by Antony in the book.

     The message is somewhat more subtle and a bit harder to communicate in Ged Adamson’s Ava and the Rainbow (Who Stayed), with the result that Adamson eventually states it straightforwardly. But first he weaves an intriguing tale of a little girl who adores rainbows, sees an especially beautiful one, and wishes it “could stay forever.” This wish comes true, but things do not go quite as Ava expects. At first the unexpected sight of a smiling rainbow (it has a little face beneath its innermost, violet arch) thrills and enchants Ava, and soon “people were arriving from far and wide” in Ava’s town to see the beautiful sight. But then things take a commercial turn, from ads promising “rainbow-tastic prices” to lots of “rainbow-themed souvenirs.” Undaunted, Ava spends a lot of time with the rainbow, talking to him and introducing her friends to him and singing to him and showing him her books and toys. Then the seasons change, and although the rainbow stays all through winter, by spring “people had gotten so used to the rainbow, sometimes they even forgot he was there.” Ava, of course, does not forget, but she sees rainbow-focused signage being removed, rainbow posters defaced, and eventually the rainbow itself becoming a place for postings and ads and cell-phone towers and all the detritus of modern life. Ava cannot understand how people could do this to something so special, until several people show up – not to see the rainbow but to look at a seldom-spotted bird – and one of them refers to the bird as “a rare and precious sight.” The rainbow hears this, and the next morning, it is gone. And Ava realizes that when a rainbow is “a rare and precious sight indeed,” it is loved and enjoyed for as long as it lasts; and it is better to see a rainbow now and then, for a short time, knowing that there will one day be another, than to have this bit of magic become commonplace and end up ignored. Here too is a teachable moment for parents and children: as Ava finds out, sometimes what makes a thing special is precisely the fact that it is not always there. The lesson is worth learning, and can easily be extended to many things in everyday life – which may make it a little easier to comfort kids who wish that something delightful, such as (perhaps) a beach vacation, could go on forever.