August 28, 2014
BirdWingFeather. By Siri Schillios. Pomegranate Kids. $17.95.
What’s in the Coral Reef? A Nature Discovery Book. By Zoe Burke. Illustrations by Charley Harper. Pomegranate Kids. $14.95.
101 Hidden Animals. By Melvin and Gilda Berger. Scholastic. $8.99.
Taking nature as their cue, some artists make the everyday world realer than real – enhancing it, modifying it, changing it in ways both subtle and obvious, all for the purpose of showing its beauties more clearly and getting observers of their art as involved in natural wonders as the artists themselves are. Siri Schillios does this with particular skill in her entirely wordless BirdWingFeather, a lovely Pomegranate Kids book that is most certainly for adults as well as children. Schillios explains in the book’s introduction that “certain colors are especially excited about getting to sit next to each other in a painting,” adding, “I like to think this happens because of a friendship between colors.” A fanciful notion, yes, but the attractive acrylic-on-wood paintings reproduced in this book make it seem entirely reasonable. The right side of each two-page spread shows a bird – some of them real, some created by Schillios but looking every bit as realistic and wonderful as the genuine ones. The left side shows parts of the bird: an eye, the flair of a tail, a wingtip, feet, beak, and so on. The pages contain no words at all, although there is a “key” of sorts at the start of the book, with specific paintings called “Glow,” “Coat of Many Colors,” “Small Wonder,” “Paradise,” “Sweetness and Light,” and so on. Readers can look first at each left-hand page and then see how the elements are combined on the right – or first at each right-hand page and then “disassemble” each illustration by looking at its components on the left. Either way, the experience is a delight: this is a book to experience rather than one to read, filled with illustrative subtleties of shape, form, color and expression that make these small feathered creatures even more enthralling on the page than they are amid the trees and flowers where they live.
The realm is an underwater one in What’s in the Coral Reef? And Charley Harper’s spare, geometric illustrations serve a purpose completely different from those of Schillios. While Schillios enhances and thus celebrates reality, Harper encapsulates it, reducing it to patterns and colors that, while not particularly realistic in their totality, nevertheless express the real-world existence of creatures with a directness that more-elaborate drawings do not. Zoe Burke’s explanatory text is rather pedestrian, written in rhymes that are at times a bit “off” and in meter that does not quite scan: “LOOK twice! The Foureye Butterflyfish/ Has just two eyes, not four./ And you’ll never hear the Cornetfish/ Play a tune or musical score.” Still, Burke’s words serve the purpose of pulling readers into Harper’s bright illustrative world, where a coral reef teems with the odd-looking, oddly shaped, oddly colored and just plain odd – and with fish of considerable beauty. Some of Harper’s illustrations are exceptionally striking and effective, such as his depiction of a “Grouper black and white” (and pink and red) facing directly out of the page, patterned in triangles and trapezoids and ellipses. Other portrayals do not quite come off, such as one of a Pelican that has just caught a Snapper but that, because it is seen from below (as if one is looking up from the water), is little more than a strangely shaped blob. Still, the illustrations by Harper (1922-2007) are by and large as fascinating here as in two earlier Pomegranate Kids “Nature Discovery Book” offerings featuring his work: What’s in the Woods? and What’s in the Rain Forest? As in both those earlier works, Harper delights through a simplification process that makes the primary characteristics of animals clearer than a more-literal rendering would. For example, neither a Squid nor a Manta Ray really looks anything like the depictions in What’s in the Coral Reef? But Harper’s unusual view of their essentials somehow makes them seem every bit as realistic as they would in a typical photograph.
Photos do have their place in impressing readers with the wonders of nature, though. The photos in 101 Hidden Animals are particularly attractive, because this is a book about camouflage – and the whole point of these animals’ survival strategy is to be invisible to predators and potential predators, including humans. So the pictures in this Scholastic book by Melvin and Gilda Berger actually show things that most readers would never have a chance to see on their own – in fact, you might be looking right at some of the creatures on display here and not know it. Some of the pages – the ones showing more-familiar animals, such as the lion, deer and giraffe – are only moderately interesting: these larger animals do blend with their surroundings, but there is nothing particularly surprising in seeing them in their natural habitat. However, some photos of less-known creatures are tremendously fascinating: the giant swallowtail caterpillar looks exactly like bird droppings; the glasswing butterfly has completely transparent wings, so anyone looking at it – including this book’s readers – sees right through the wings to the flower on which the insect is perched, as if there is no butterfly there at all; the leaf insect looks so much like a leaf that it is almost impossible to see even when you know exactly where it is; the longnose hawkfish’s red and white stripes help it blend almost perfectly with the type of coral amid which it lives; the stonefish is so bumpy and mottled that it looks like a rock when resting on the ocean floor; the thorn bug looks exactly like a rosebush thorn – and its sharp shell is as painful as a thorn if a predator bites it. A few of the entries in 101 Hidden Animals are a bit out of place, since they show animals that actually draw attention to themselves. For example, “Poison dart frogs are boldly colored animals that do not try to hide or blend in like other types of frogs,” but instead sport warning colors, as do black-and-yellow honeybees. But even if the book’s title is slightly misleading, its easy-to-read information on creatures from A (agama lizard) to Z (zebra) is always involving, and its look at defensive strategies based on sight (and on not being seen) is intriguing from start to finish.
World’s Scariest Prisons. By Emma Carlson Berne. Scholastic. $8.99.
Lulu and the Witch Baby. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Bella Sinclair. Harper. $16.99.
I Am a Witch’s Cat. By Harriet Muncaster. Harper. $15.99.
Splat the Cat and the Pumpkin-Picking Plan. By Catherine Hapka. Illustrations by Loryn Brantz. HarperFestival. $4.99.
A book about prisons for young readers is a bit strange, but Emma Carlson Berne’s is well-done for any family that wants to explore the topic. Filled with photographs and facts, World’s Scariest Prisons describes 20 places of incarceration, from the well-known Roman Coliseum and Tower of London to the less-familiar Livingston Sugar House and Squirrel Cage Jail. Packed with photos and with explanations of the way prisons are or have been used – for political opponents and debtors as well as those convicted of crimes in the modern sense – the book shows how prison life has changed over many years. At Fleet Prison in London, for example, which operated from 1197 to 1842, wealthier prisoners could pay for better food and accommodations or even to live outside the walls. At Carandiru Penitentiary in Brazil, which operated from 1956 to 2002 and was once the largest prison in South America, 10 men might be squeezed into a cell meant for one or two, and prisoners were not allowed sunlight or fresh air. World’s Scariest Prisons overdoes some of its narrative through overuse of words written entirely in capital letters, and not necessarily frightening ones: “Burlington County Prison was unique because it had ventilation, FIREPLACES in cells, a GARDEN, and COMMON ROOMS, all of which were installed for the prisoners’ benefit.” But the book is packed with interesting information – including the fact that the word “penitentiary” was used to indicate that prisoners were supposed to be penitent for their crimes, and “reformatory” was used to show that the institution’s purpose was to reform rather than just to punish. The book discusses prison escapes, prisons whose reputations were worse than the reality (the Bastille, Alcatraz), and some of the famous people who were held in various prisons: Nelson Mandela, Voltaire, John Donne, John McCain. World’s Scariest Prisons handles its unusual topic in an interesting and, despite the title, in a not-too-frightening way.
Nor is there anything really scary about the Halloween-themed books that start to proliferate every summer in anticipation of October 31. Some elements of some of the books could be a little frightening, but authors for kids try hard to be sure that everything that happens is fun and, if a little unusual, never really chilling. Jane O’Connor’s 1986 story, Lulu and the Witch Baby, for instance, could be scary for showing a girl with magic powers trying to use them to make her baby sister disappear forever. But Lulu’s spell does not work, and when Lulu even thinks that it might have succeeded, she gets very upset – so even though Witch Baby gets in Lulu’s way all the time and is cutely irritating in the way that only a baby can manage, this becomes a story of family love overcoming temporary troubles. With its new, pleasantly rounded illustrations by Bella Sinclair, Lulu and the Witch Baby is offered in the “I Can Read!” series as a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”), and kids ages 4-8 at its reading level will find it much more pleasant than frightening.
I Am a Witch’s Cat is not scary at all – it is, in fact, delightful. Harriet Muncaster here creates an unusual picture book whose illustrations are made of paper, fabric and mixed media, which she combines with watercolors and turns into 3D-appearing scenes. The scenes are Halloween-ish, with the little girl narrator dressed as a black cat and talking about her mother the witch, but there is really nothing witchy at all going on here, and nothing magical beyond the special bond between mother and daughter. Everyday things become delights in this tale: the girl “knows” her mom is a witch because of all the strange potion bottles in the bathroom, and because of the “magical herbs” in their garden, and the “bubbling, hissing potions” that mother and daughter prepare together for meals. Again and again, the girl endearingly misinterprets what her mom does as being some form of witchiness, and again and again, the little “witch’s cat” says and shows how much she enjoys her particular role in the house. Granted, this is a tale intended for Halloween, but the love and joy it reflects make it a delight anytime, in any season.
Splat the Cat is fun just about anytime, too. Rob Scotton’s creation, with his mischievous grin and good friend Seymour the mouse, appears seasonally in a Halloween-themed sticker book written by Catherine Hapka and illustrated by Loryn Brantz. As usual, Splat messes things up amusingly – helping rake leaves, for instance, but then being unable to resist jumping in them and messing everything up again. After that happens, Splat’s mom decides that Splat and Seymour can do more good somewhere else – by picking out a pumpkin at Farmer Patch’s place. Splat and Seymour have Halloween fun at the farm for a while, then start searching for just the right pumpkin – and then, when they find it, discover that it is much too big for them to carry home. So Splat decides to roll it, and thus begins the book’s final misadventure, as the giant pumpkin, with Splat perched precariously on top, rolls down the road, over a bridge and eventually into Splat’s front yard (shattering the gate in the process). Splat’s mom, obviously realizing that where Splat’s adventures are concerned, things could have been a lot worse, compliments Splat and pronounces the pumpkin “perfect.” There is really nothing scary here at all, even when the pumpkin starts rolling away with Splat yelling “help” – because readers will know that everything will work out just fine. The 31 self-adhesive stickers included in the book guarantee that the fun will extend beyond the story itself, and maybe even beyond Halloween.
Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien. By Anne E. Neimark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Thrones and Bones #1: Frostborn. By Lou Anders. Crown. $16.99.
The Maze Runner. By James Dashner. Delacorte Press. $17.99 (hardcover); $10.99 (paperback).
Inside the Maze Runner: The Guide to the Glade. By Veronica Deets. Delacorte Press. $10.99.
The greatest fantasy writer of the 20th century – in a century that also produced C.S. Lewis and L. Frank Baum, scarcely lesser lights – was J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), and he was indeed, as the title of Anne E. Neimark’s book aptly calls him, a Mythmaker. But he was more than that, and the “more” is precisely what made him so great. Baum’s alternative-world stories of Oz presented a fully formed child-oriented universe; Lewis’ stories of Narnia were created explicitly for Christian symbolism and advocacy, for all that they can be read as straightforward adventure tales without losing much of their effect. But Tolkien’s works, notably The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, have resonance beyond other fantasies because of the way in which Tolkien conceived and built the world where they occur, Middle-earth. An expert on ancient languages, Tolkien made the method of communication among people the basis of his stories, developing Elvish and other tongues and, from them, the sorts of characters and creatures who would likely have spoken them. This is an extraordinary and perhaps unique way of building a world, and explains why so many readers of Tolkien – and viewers of the best of the movies based on his books – feel that these works somehow transcend the fantasy/adventure genre, having solidity and meaning that go well beyond escapism. Neimark’s easy-to-read biography, originally published in 1996, is careful not to delve too deeply into philology or creative details that might derail young readers’ interest in Tolkien. But Neimark nevertheless shows quite well how Tolkien worked and lived, and how his approach to fantasy differed in significant ways from that of other authors of his time and, indeed, earlier times. Tolkien’s characters have depth and solidity that the inhabitants of most fantasies lack – the typical fantasy, like the related fairy tale, is plot-driven and action-oriented, not intended to explore personalities, much less linguistic structure. Tolkien’s deep knowledge of the roots of human interaction, coupled with the horrors he saw around him before and during World War II, led him to meditate on the existence and power of evil and the results when good people do nothing about it, or do the wrong thing. Because of his popular literary success and his unashamed devotion to works that, for all their fantastic elements, were designed to transcend fantasy boundaries and appeal to adults as well as children, Tolkien was ostracized in the rarefied academic circles where he lived and worked – and Neimark explains this and other elements of Tolkien’s personal life even as she explains to readers which of his works were written when and under what circumstances. Mythmaker is by no means an in-depth biography of Tolkien – the slim new paperback version runs to only 136 pages – but it is a fine introduction to Tolkien the man and Tolkien the writer, and interesting enough in itself to inspire young readers to move on to lengthier and deeper studies of a highly influential fantasist.
Unfortunately, the Tolkien influence on later, lesser writers, while substantial, has ultimately been almost uniformly uninspiring. Authors “get” the Tolkien settings, the dark woods and well-wrought castles and keeps, the differing types of creatures and characters that interact among themselves and between groups, the choosing of sides between light and darkness, sometimes (albeit less often) even the sense of the importance of language. The bursts of dark humor either disappear or become light, however, and the characters that spring from lengthy histories in Tolkien are simply types in most fantasies since – dragons, giants, and so forth. The Thrones and Bones series, which Lou Anders begins with Frostborn, is a case in point – actually a better novel than many of its type, but firmly a genre book and clearly intended only for a narrow age range (8-12). It is, unsurprisingly and inevitably in a book for preteens, about people and sort-of-people who do not quite fit in, need to find themselves, are more than they appear to be, and so on. Family issues are important – again, inevitably in this genre for this age group – as buddies and partners-in-adventure Karn and Thianna, the usual male-and-female pairing, embark on the usual quest to help their families. The Thrones and Bones title refers to a board game that is obviously reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons but likely without much meaning for today’s preteens, many of whom would probably not know the earlier game. Karn is good at it, and tends to play it to the exclusion of other things, such as the work he is supposed to be doing in preparation for taking over the family farm. Thianna, for her part, is half human and half frost giantess – the frost-giant references are taken from Norse mythology, which is lightly sprinkled throughout the book. Thianna’s not-fitting-in problem is that she is too short for giants to consider her truly one of them, and too tall for humans to be comfortable with her (clearly frost giants and humans can meet and mate, but just how that would work, procedurally, is no matter for a novel for preteens). There is enough humor and lightheartedness in this (+++) debut novel to keep matters moving at a pleasantly fast pace, and there are enough loose ends and complications in the story to sustain the Thrones and Bones series into future volumes. No one, however, is likely to think of Anders’ style as being reminiscent of Tolkien’s.
It is, however, vastly better than the style of James Dashner, whose (++) The Maze Runner – the first book of a trilogy that also includes The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure – has captured some of Hollywood’s limited imagination as a potential boy-oriented version of the girl-oriented The Hunger Games and has therefore been made into a movie. The Maze Runner dates to 2009 and is one of innumerable fantasies that owe a little something to Tolkien, a little something to George Orwell’s 1984, and a little something to all the other dystopian fantasies aimed at preteens and young teenagers and written as cinematically as possible (just in case, you know, Hollywood might come calling with a bunch of money). Dashner’s problem (about which he can surely laugh all the way to the bank) is that the similarities between The Maze Runner and the innumerable similar books for the same age group are so blindingly obvious. There is an extremely uninteresting heroic central character (Thomas) with no personality whatsoever, who shows up in a “Box” in a mysterious place one day with his entire memory wiped except, conveniently, for his name. The place he shows up has only teenage boys in it – until, inevitably, a teenage girl later arrives, for reasons unexplained in the book but absolutely necessary so the author is not accused of leaving girls out. Anyway, the boys are uniformly unfriendly and unhelpful, refusing to tell Thomas anything about their home, which they call the Glade. The Glade is surrounded by high walls, outside of which is the Maze, which has evil (but not really especially scary) creatures called Grievers in it, and they are bad news for anyone who gets trapped in the Maze at night. The Grievers can climb to get their victims, but for some reason never climb the walls into the Glade – oh wait, the reason is that then there wouldn’t be a book. Anyhow, the Grievers can kill, dismember, or merely sting people, but the sting may be the worst option, since it results in the boys needing Grief Serum that then triggers the Change, and you will notice that there are lots of Capital Letters in describing What Happens and Where and How, because that is the Style of Books Like This One, for No Apparent Reason. There is also Silly Slang, also for No Apparent Reason. Anyway, the plot moves ahead quickly at first, through a series of Unbelievable Coincidences in which there is plenty of Violence. Then Thomas, inevitably, ends up in the Maze at night, and then the girl who showed up the day after Thomas did starts telling him things – not before, only during his night in the Maze, through an exceptionally creaky plot device – and bit by bit, secrets that there was no reason to keep secret start being revealed, until eventually the boys learn how the walls of the Maze move and what happens when they do, and Thomas inevitably goes through the Change, and things progress from frantic to silly and back again as the book lurches toward a cliffhanger ending that is supposed to lead readers breathlessly to the next entry in the series. Unfortunately, the breathlessness is as likely to come from laughing so hard at the plot holes and absurdities as from excitement – but Hollywood has certainly done a number on the book, which is now available in both hardcover and softcover movie-focused versions and has a companion volume called Inside the Maze Runner: The Guide to the Glade, for those who see the film and just cannot get enough of whatever it does with Dashner’s concept. It would be unfair to say that The Maze Runner shows how far fantasy has fallen since Tolkien’s death, since some recent fantasy is well-done and The Maze Runner itself is not especially Tolkien-like except, to some extent, in the appearance of the Grievers. Still, Dashner’s book, whatever its success in Hollywood, goes to show that fantasy need not be deep, resonant, meaningful or even particularly well-written in order to capture some audience. This fact alone guarantees that post-Tolkien fantasy will continue to be written ad infinitum, or at least ad nauseam.
The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. By Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D. Dutton. $27.95.
Five hundred dense grey pages of type after you start this book, you will certainly feel the information overload referred to in its title. True, it will be directed information overload, and, moreover, directed by an author with considerable skill in scientific and rational analysis. But if ever the image of a fire hose of information pouring into a teacup of a mind were apt, it surely is here. In seeking to guide readers through the by-now-clichéd notion that we live in the midst of an information explosion with which we are ill equipped to cope, Daniel J. Levitin has given readers – an information explosion with which we are ill equipped to cope.
To be fair, Levitin, the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University, has thought long and hard about the breadth and width of the information river – more like an ocean – in which we now wallow daily; and he has come up with some ways, if not to keep us dry, at least to make us more likely to float than sink. And he has communicated his thoughts in fresher, more readable prose than one might expect from a book that draws heavily on scientific research and mathematical modeling. It is just that there is so much here that the book itself becomes unwieldy. In the 50 or so medically focused pages on “Organizing Information for the Hardest Decisions: When Life is on the Line,” for example, Levitin provides specific questions and models to show that “both gains and losses are nonlinear, meaning that the same amount of gain (or loss) does not cause equal happiness (or sadness) – they’re relative to your current state.” He gives examples of ways of expressing identical data sets about treatment options for cancer, then explains, “These two formulations of the problem, or frames, are clearly identical mathematically – 10 people out of 100 dying is the same as 90 people out of 100 living – but they are not identical psychologically. …The framing effect [on psychological response] was observed not just in patients but in experienced physicians and statistically sophisticated businesspeople.” From this example and many others, Levitin eventually produces the comment that “to get organized in our thinking about life, we are ultimately going to have to let go of our abiding distaste for what sometimes seems like the inhumanity of probability analysis and mathematical calculations,” adding that “you need to understand how to take the information the doctors give you and analyze it in these [previously presented] fourfold tables, applying [previously explained] Bayesian reasoning, because that will take a lot of the guesswork out of medical decision-making, turning it into numbers that we can easily evaluate, since most of us don’t have the refined intuitions of a Dr. Gregory House [the TV character].” All this represents one small part of one page of one chapter of The Organized Mind, and it shows both the strength of the book and its weakness: it is highly sensible and well-thought-out, but it is jam-packed with material that requires considerable thinking and analysis; and it is presented in a form in which page after page after page of type, rarely leavened by tables or subheads or anything else to break up the flow, quickly becomes mind-numbing – just when a fresh and engaged mind is what Levitin requires.
Consider “Organizing Our Social World: How Humans Connect Now,” in which Levitin tackles the issue of why people are indirect in communicating with each other: “A large part of human social interaction requires that we subdue our innate primate hostilities in order to get along. …One way of helping to keep large numbers of humans living in close proximity is through the use of nonconfrontational speech, or indirect speech acts. Indirect speech acts don’t say what we actually want, but they imply it. …The simplest cases of speech acts are those in which the speaker utters a sentence and means exactly and literally what he says. Yet indirect speech acts are a powerful social glue that enables us to get along.” Levitin then gives examples ranging from an indirect one involving office interaction about opening a window to “certain utterances [that] have, by social contract, the authority to change the state of the world. A doctor who pronounces you dead changes your legal status instantly, which has the effect of utterly changing your life, whether you’re in fact dead or not. A judge can pronounce you innocent or guilty and, again, the truth doesn’t matter as much as the force of the pronouncement, in terms of what your future looks like.” Later in the same chapter, Levitin explains that “in-group and out-group effects have a neurological basis. Within an area of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, there is a group of neurons that fire when we think about ourselves and people who are like us.” And so on – and on and on.
This material is frequently fascinating and almost always worth contemplating and studying, but there is so much of it, coming at matters of everyday life from so many angles and so many perspectives, that digesting this book becomes a real chore. Whether it is a chore that readers should undertake for the sake of becoming better able to stem the information flood is a matter of individual choice and individual toleration. Levitin comments at one point that “items that are processed at a deeper level, with more active involvement by us, tend to become more strongly encoded in memory.” And certainly such deep-level processing will help – indeed, will be needed – to follow and absorb the material in The Organized Mind. This is not a book to be undertaken lightly, and certainly not one to be read straight through in a single sitting; it is doubtful that that would even be possible. The Organized Mind requires extended contemplation, substantial time to think about the points Levitin raises, and plenty of active, deep-level processing to allow the insights and recommendations to have even a chance of flowing into a reader’s everyday post-book life. In other words, it requires a very considerable investment of time for absorbing a very considerable, perhaps even overwhelming amount of information – becoming an example of the very situation that it is intended to help remedy.
Classic Archives Collector’s Edition—Conductors: Ernest Ansermet, Herbert von Karajan, Yevgeny Mravinsky, Charles Munch, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Carlo Maria Giulini, Otto Klemperer, Leopold Stokowski, Eugen Jochum, Igor Markevitch, Paul Paray, Igor Stravinsky. Idéale Audience. $59.99 (Blu-ray Disc).
Monteverdi: Vespri Solenni per la Festa di San Marco. Concerto Italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini. Naïve. $16.99 (CD+DVD).
Wolf-Ferrari: Violin Concerto; “Il campiello”—Prelude; “Le donne curiose”—Overture; “L’amore medico”—Overture; “I quatro rusteghi”—Intermezzo. Benjamin Schmid, violin; Oviedo Filarmonía conducted by Friedrich Haider. FARAO Classics. $24.99 (CD+DVD).
Mahler: Symphony No. 9; Symphony No. 10—Adagio. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz. Oehms. $29.99 (2 SACDs).
El Sistema at the Salzburg Festival—National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and White Hands Choir of Venezuela. C Major DVD. $24.99.
American Aggregate. Inscape. Sono Luminus. $24.99 (Blu-ray Disc+CD).
Some recordings give you a little something extra. Some give you a lot extra. Some pack so many extras into one package that they are bonuses in and of themselves – for example, the fourth release in the Classic Archives Collector’s Edition, which focuses on 12 of the greatest conductors of the mid-to-late 20th century. There is simply a huge amount of music on this single Blu-ray Disc – more than 14 hours in all, recorded between 1963 and 1983. Here you will find Beethoven’s Seventh from Ernest Ansermet (whose name is unaccountably left off the packaging!); Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique from Herbert von Karajan; Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini from Yevgeny Mravinsky; Brahms’ First and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 from Charles Munch; the Brahms and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos with David Oistrakh and Gennadi Rozhdestvensky; Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from Carlo Maria Giulini; Beethoven’s Ninth with Otto Klemperer; Beethoven’s Fifth, Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony from Leopold Stokowski; Bruckner’s Seventh and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from Eugen Jochum; Shostakovich’s First and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms from Igor Markevitch; Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite from Paul Paray (another conductor not mentioned on the package), and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite conducted by the composer (who is also not mentioned on the packaging). Not all the performances will please everybody, to be sure, nor will all the recordings and visuals; and this release may revive some arguments of decades past, such as whether Stokowski’s frequently overblown readings were or were not effective, whether Stravinsky was the best conductor of his own music, and whether the slow tempos favored by Klemperer in his later years were beneficial or harmful to the understanding and enjoyment of the music. The chance to reopen these debates may be seen as one bonus of this release; the inclusion of performances by Ansermet, Paray and Stravinsky, despite their not being named on the packaging, may be seen as another. And there is also a genuine, intentional bonus here: a documentary film by Dennis Marks called Yevgeny Mravinsky: Soviet Conductor, Russian Aristocrat. Listeners (and viewers) interested in this extremely important conductor, who remains less known worldwide than in Russia, will find the film highly informative and enjoy the way it enhances the Tchaikovsky performance heard here (Tchaikovsky was a major specialty both of Mravinsky and of Soviet orchestras at the time of these recordings). The sheer scale of the material offered, and the chance to hear and see so many great conductors in so many venues (London, Croydon, Paris, Moscow, Leningrad, Tokyo), will make this Blu-ray release a fascinating one even for music lovers who decide that many of these performances have since been surpassed.
There is a bonus as well with the new Naïve release of Monteverdi’s Vespri Solenni per la Festa di San Marco, but Rinaldo Alessandrini’s performance alone is plenty of reason to own this recording. Alessandrini is one of the best modern interpreters of Monteverdi’s music, and his recordings of the Madrigals and Orfeo, among others, are first-rate. Now Alessandrini is offering a Vespers service containing material from the Vespri of 1610 and Selva Morale of 1640, an assemblage and performance sensitive to the liturgies for which the music was composed, steeped in the best historically aware performance practices, and permeated with expressiveness and beauty that make the recording far more than a strictly religious or determinedly “historically accurate” one. There is enormous beauty in Monteverdi’s music, and this is what Alessandrini seems determined to bring out – and he does so enormously effectively, using eight voices and a 14-member chamber ensemble to communicate the warmth, seriousness and devout joy of the music. The brass playing here is particularly noteworthy, lending the music both a celebratory tone and a deep seriousness. And, as noted, there is a bonus with the CD: a DVD of a film by Claudio Rufa called L’umano e Il Suo Divino: Alessandrini Dirige Monteverdi, which explores Alessandrini’s approach to the music and helps show how he assembled the material heard on the CD – the first release in what is planned as a multi-year project.
The CD-plus-DVD arrangement provides the bonus as well for a release that, again, practically seems like a bonus in and of itself: Benjamin Schmid’s performance of the almost completely neglected 1943 Violin Concerto by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948). A late work and one that seems out of character for a composer best known for his operas – to the extent that he is known at all nowadays – the concerto, despite its date, is a thoroughly Romantic (or neo-Romantic) work, subtly designed, carefully structured, and particularly well-orchestrated (Wolf-Ferrari was a more talented orchestrator than he is usually credited with being). It is easy to see why this wartime work never gained much concert-hall traction: far from referring to the time when it was written, it barely seems cognizant of the 20th century at all, using the tonality and grand gestures of the prior century to considerable effect but undoubtedly seeming, from its first performance, to be quite out of step with its era. A reconsideration of tonality and its use in the 20th century is now ongoing, at least to some extent, and a new look at this concerto fits nicely into it. The work stands on its own quite well – and Friedrich Haider and the Oviedo Filarmonía handle their part in it quite strongly, allowing Schmid plenty of opportunities to bring forth the music’s many manifest beauties. Haider also brings sensitivity and understanding to music taken from four of Wolf-Ferrari’s 13 mature operas (two others, both very early works, were never performed). The sparkling Il segreto di Susanna is the only one of the operas mounted with some regularity today, but there is plenty of well-made and emotionally satisfying music in the others, and these excerpts will likely whet listeners’ appetite – especially when heard in conjunction with the concerto. In a sense, the operatic music is a bonus, but not the only one. The unusually lengthy, well-researched and elegant booklet accompanying this recording is so informative as to be worthy of being called a “bonus” in and of itself. And there is also a DVD bonus packaged with the FARAO Classics CD, in the form of a documentary called Liebeserklärung an eine Geigerin (“Declaration of Love to a Violinist”). This sheds some interesting additional light on the music heard here – although, in truth, this music is its own best advocate, and is decidedly worth more-frequent performance.
The bonus is a purely musical one in the final release in Markus Stenz’s Mahler cycle on Oehms, featuring the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. This particular bonus, though, comes with a sort of caveat, since it also represents a disappointment. There is nothing disappointing in Stenz’s handling of Mahler’s Ninth: this conductor has shown throughout the cycle that he fully understands Mahler’s thematic and emotional contrasts, his use of gigantic orchestras to achieve chamber-music clarity of specific sections or instruments as well as to produce overwhelming scenes of thunderous intensity, his technique of mixing complexity and new ideas with a considerable degree of naïveté. The very broad first movement of Stenz’s Ninth aptly sets the scene for the remainder of the symphony, which flickers through its huge canvas to a finale that is taken at a somewhat-faster-than-usual tempo but that never seems at all sped-up or rushed: it simply moves along its stately and emotionally trenchant way, ending at last with an expression not of grief (as some performances have it) but of resignation and acceptance – a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the symphony and the cycle of which it is a part. But the “bonus” is a bit of a mixed bag. It is the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10, a work that has now been completed by a variety of Mahler scholars and musicians and that really deserves to be heard in its entirety, as the capstone of a cycle as good as Stenz’s. Indeed, offering the Adagio without the brief Purgatorio movement that Mahler also completed for his Tenth is a particularly strange decision. It would have been more than understandable to conclude the Stenz cycle with the Ninth and no more; it would have been much better to have heard Stenz’s handling of one of the completions of the Tenth – Deryck Cooke’s is most often heard, but others are quite good as well. The Adagio and Purgatorio were considered quite performable as long ago as 1923, so hearing only the first movement nearly a century later seems a way to leave listeners feeling shortchanged, not given a bonus. The performance itself is very fine, adding to the frustration. It would be nice if Stenz were to consider doing a full Mahler Tenth at some point in the future. Until that happens – if it ever does – it is certainly possible to say that his Ninth is an enviable completion of a very fine Mahler cycle, with the one movement from the Tenth being a modest bonus item.
The new C Major DVD focusing on aspects of Venezuela’s famous “El Sistema” approach to teaching and performing music – an approach intended to bring in ever-younger musicians and to reach down into the nation’s slums and the lower rungs of society with music’s capacity to elevate – is an interesting recording that also has a Mahler focus. The main part of this DVD, recorded live at the 2013 Salzburg Festival, features Sir Simon Rattle leading the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. It helps to close one’s eyes, despite the obvious visual intent of a DVD, while listening to this performance, in order to judge it fairly: yes, it is remarkable that such young children can handle music as complex and intense as this, but if you are not a family member, what you will want will be a Mahler performance as good as any other, if not better. This one is not, although it is quite fine in many ways. The young players seem most at home in the pleasantly flowing nature scenes of the first movement and the modest grotesqueries of the third, least so in the grander aspirations and greater complexities of the Sturm und Drang finale. Certainly the music is played more than adequately, and certainly the performance can (and undoubtedly will) be used to further the political aims underlying “El Sistema.” But for musical enjoyment, the other, shorter works here are more successful: Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, Ginastera’s Estancia, Bernstein’s Mambo and Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetzky-March. These are delivered with punch, ebullience and even joy, and they are a pleasure to hear and see – but they are not works of much subtlety, and it is precisely in the subtle areas that the Mahler falls somewhat short. The bonus on this (+++) recording is a film focusing on the first tour abroad of the White Hands Choir of Venezuela – a choral group specifically intended for hard-of-hearing and deaf young people. Like the early introduction of poor children to orchestral performance, the creation of this group for young people with diminished hearing is intended as a significant political statement. For the apolitical, the question here, as well as with the orchestra, is how high the quality of music-making is. The choir sings relatively unchallenging music quite well, focusing mostly on works by composers who are scarcely household names: Adelis Freites, Edgar Mejías, Richard Egües and others are more prominent than Mozart and Piazzolla, although both of them are here as well. “El Sistema” has clearly managed some remarkable accomplishments, and deserves considerable credit for doing so no matter what one thinks of the political system in which it was created and in which it continues to flourish. That does not, however, mean that this DVD is likely to be anyone’s first choice for any of this music – unless listeners and viewers want the disc for the express purpose of arguing for expansion of “El Sistema” beyond its current boundaries.
Identifying the bonus material on the new recording by Inscape, American Aggregate, is a rather complex undertaking. This Sono Luminus release includes a CD, but that is scarcely its primary offering. Its main focus is a Blu-ray Disc that offers high-resolution stereo, 5.1 and 7.1 mixes, and digital copies – so perhaps it is the CD that is the bonus here, or perhaps it is the digital copies, or one or another of the mixes. And if the “bonus” issue is tangled, so is much of the music, although the intent of the recording is straightforward. This release highlights 21st-century composition in the United States as clearly as the “El Sistema” one showcases a particular approach to classical music in Venezuela. Inscape here offers six recent compositions – plus a seventh on the Blu-ray Disc only. Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis’ Oblivion is a chamber symphony in three movements, each of which is modeled on a specific sonic shape that listeners may or may not be able to hear. Armando Bayolo’s Wide Open Spaces is intended to address the impact of climate change – although, again, this may not be audible to listeners. Dan Visconti’s Black Bend moves from a slow collage of sound to a slow bluesy episode to a jazz-inspired burst of speed and intensity that quickly evaporates. Julia Adolphe’s Wordless Creatures scurries hither and thither through differing sonic environments. Joseph Hallman’s The Extraordinary Gryssandra Wycke is a tone poem intended to show a young witch coming into her powers and casting spells with increasing assurance. Stephen Gorbos’ What I Decided to Keep is a rather uneasy mixture of rock and Bartók that sounds more like the former than the latter. The Blu-Ray bonus track is Gregory Spears’ The Bear and the Dove, written to accompany, of all things, a Prokofiev ballet. All the music on this (+++) recording is for specialized tastes – it does not really reflect contemporary American composition, but only some contemporary American composition. Those who know the composers or are drawn to their styles will welcome it. Others are unlikely to find the release attractive, despite the skill of the performance, because, as in other anthologies, listeners new to the material will likely find some elements to enjoy but others that are off-putting, making the recording as a whole at best a partial success.
Music for Alfred Hitchcock—works by Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Arthur Benjamin and Danny Elfman. Klaudia Kidon, soprano; Danish National Concert Choir and Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri. Toccata Classics. $18.99.
Tchaikovsky: String Quartet No. 3; Haydn: String Quartet No. 61 (“Quinten”); Grieg: Holberg Suite—Air; Brahms: String Quartet No. 3—Agitato; Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3—Allegro non troppo. The American String Project. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Maya Beiser: Uncovered. Maya Beiser, cello. Innova. $14.99.
Music need not be great to be intriguing and enjoyable. There are times when the sheer cleverness of music composed for popular consumption makes it very much worth hearing – and the cleverness of arrangements and performances add to the fun. John Mauceri has edited and arranged a variety of works written for Alfred Hitchcock films by some of the best film composers of the 20th century, and the result is a Toccata Classics CD that is scarcely important in any grandiose way but is too enjoyable to ignore. Included here are Bernard Herrmann items for The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho – the last of these an extended “Narrative for String Orchestra” that will remind filmgoers of some the most-chilling scenes of that 1960 classic. From Franz Waxman comes music from Rebecca and Rear Window; from Dimitri Tiomkin, pieces from Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder; and from Danny Elfman, end-credits music from the 2012 film Hitchcock – the only work here not commissioned by Hitchcock, who died in 1980. There is even a vocal piece, called “The Storm Clouds – Cantata,” written by Arthur Benjamin for The Man Who Knew Too Much and arranged by Herrmann, the film’s primary composer. This gives soprano Klaudia Kidon and the Danish National Concert Choir a chance to hold forth in Hitchcockian terms along with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, which plays throughout the CD with considerable enthusiasm. The disc makes no attempt to be comprehensive – after all, Hitchcock directed more than 50 films in his 60-year career – and fans may regret the omission of some items, such as Herrmann’s music for The Birds or even the theme from the TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (which was Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette). But the reality is that this is a very generous Hitchcock music sampler indeed – the disc runs 81 minutes, which is all a single CD can hold – and four of the pieces here receive their first-ever recordings in these versions. This is a live recording, and a very good one – and who knows? It might lead Mauceri or another conductor back to the Hitchcock film-music library at some point in the future.
The works played by the conductorless chamber group called The American String Project are more-traditional classical fare, but these too are arrangements – and are as interesting in their unusual way as the Hitchcock film works are in theirs. The chamber music here was arranged by ensemble founder Barry Lieberman, who has led concerts of his arrangements of quartets and quintets since 2002. On this MSR Classics disc, he and the ensemble undertake a particularly difficult task in playing Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3 – a dark, dense and difficult work whose funerary sound is entirely intentional: the third movement is intriguingly marked Andante funebre e doloroso, ma con moto. The 1876 quartet is a memorial to Czech violinist Ferdinand Laub, who had died the previous year, and Tchaikovsky makes considerable demands of the violins in terms of both technique and expressiveness. Lieberman’s arrangement has a rich sonorousness that expands the sound Tchaikovsky was looking for without overwhelming the themes beneath too many instruments. The ensemble’s tempos are convincing, if slightly on the fast side here and there, and the playing is uniformly excellent. This arrangement will surely never supplant the original, which is one of Tchaikovsky’s most moving works, but it is very much worth hearing for its own sake. And it contrasts quite effectively with Haydn’s “Quinten” (“Fifths”) Quartet, Op. 76, No. 2, the first work ever rehearsed and performed by Lieberman’s group and therefore something of a classic within this rarefied atmosphere. Named for the falling fifths that open and dominate the first movement, the work is as well-made as are all the Op. 76 quartets – and features a particularly intriguing Menuetto that is sometimes known as the Hexenminuett (“Witches’ Minuet”). The verve and spirit of the ensemble in this work are as effective as its depth and intensity in the Tchaikovsky. The CD concludes with three “encore movements” that further display the group’s emotive abilities: warmth and emotional evocation in the Grieg, strength and depth in the Brahms, and fine balance and rhythmic skill in the Shostakovich. While all the quartet music here is better heard in its original form, these ensemble versions bring their own considerable pleasures. They will be especially enjoyable to the listeners who are most familiar with the works as they were written and are interested in hearing them in a new light.
The Innova CD featuring cellist Maya Beiser is a lesser “arrangements” disc, not because of a lower skill level but because the music itself is simply less interesting. Beiser here “covers” (in pop-music terms) a variety of works by Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd and others, but the CD is called Uncovered in an apparent attempt to suggest that these vocal works of classic rock somehow have a great deal to say as cello-focused instrumentals. This is, however, nonsense, no matter how well Beiser plays – and she plays very well indeed, which is why the disc gets a (+++) rating and will be of interest to cellists as well as to fans of the original music heard here. Beiser and Innova might have considered watching the music video 4 Chords by The Axis of Awesome before choosing these works and this disc’s title: the video hilariously shows just how many pop and rock songs are built on the same dull, repetitive chordal structure. That does not mean that all similarly created songs sound the same with vocals – certainly Muddy Waters’ Louisiana Blues sounds nothing like Jimi Hendrix’ Little Wing – but it does mean that there is an underlying sameness to a great deal of pop and rock music, a sameness that Beiser’s arrangements and fine playing cannot ultimately dispel. This is a disc that intrigues in some ways but simply misfires in others, as Beiser puts her considerable ability at the service of music that does not repay it particularly well.
August 21, 2014
Lives of the Explorers: Discoveries, Disasters (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $20.99.
Bats at the Library. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Five Little Monkeys Wash the Car. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Five Little Monkeys with Nothing to Do. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Five Little Monkeys Bake a Birthday Cake. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
The long-running and always fascinating Lives of… series of brief, anecdote-laced biographies by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt is even better than usual in Lives of the Explorers, and that is saying a lot in light of the ongoing excellence of the sequence. On the surface, the book follows the same format as the many previous ones, with 17 brief chapters covering the peregrinations of 20 explorers from many times and many places. As usual, there are highly familiar names (Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan) mixed with ones that young readers are unlikely to know (Ibn Battuta, Zheng He, Auguste and Jacques Piccard). Also as usual, Krull is at pains to include members of both genders and multiple ethnicities. What is even better than usual here, though, is the wealth of detail in the chapters – there is almost no “filler” – and the care Krull takes to present the coincidences and sometimes sordid realities of exploration. For example, “only eighteen of the original [Marco Polo] crew of six hundred survived” to return to Venice, and “of the original crew [of Magellan’s ships], only about eighteen [of more than 250] survived.” Many doubted Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels, but not Christopher Columbus, “who had a much-thumbed, notated copy of Travels with him on his boat in 1492.” Henry Hudson’s crew ambushed him and threw him off his ship – Magellan’s crew also mutinied. On land, Daniel Boone “was short [and] hated coonskin caps (he always wore a hat made of beaver felt).” The Indians’ reaction to the Lewis and Clark expedition: “The white men, who rarely bathed, struck them as smelly.” Richard Francis Burton had such a racy reputation that, after his death, his widow “burned almost all forty years’ worth of his journals.” Mary Kingsley beat back a crocodile with a paddle when it tried to get into her boat. Auguste Piccard inspired the character of Professor Cuthbert Calculus in the Tintin comics; his son, Jacques, was the first man to descend to the lowest known point on Earth; his grandson, Bertrand, made the first round-the-world balloon flight. Add to all these well-researched tidbits of information the fact that Hewitt’s trademark illustrations, showing the explorers with disproportionately large heads and in scenes indicative of who they were and what they did, are drawn here with greater skill and in greater detail than those in earlier books, and Lives of the Explorers emerges as a real winner in a series filled with them.
The Bats books by Brian Lies are consistent delights, too, and the new paperback edition of Bats at the Library – originally published in hardcover in 2008 – shows why. Drawn with great care and attention to anatomical detail, Lies’ bats pose in humanlike ways and do humanlike things, the highlight in this book being a wonderful depiction of the way that books in general pull readers into their worlds: “Everyone – old bat or pup –/ has been completely swallowed up/ and lives inside a book instead/ of simply hearing something read.” Lies goes on to show bats in illustrations delightfully reimagined from all sorts of stories, some of which kids (and parents) may recognize and some of which are more obscure – bats show up everywhere from the road to Oz to the famous Make Way for Ducklings scene in which a policeman stops traffic, and Lies even shows an older bat reading Goodnight Sun (not, of course, “moon”) to two young ones. Mr. Bat’s Wild Ride, Pooh Bat, Little Red Riding Bat and many more are here, all beautifully conceived and wonderfully drawn, all constituting a marvelous library visit for the anthropomorphic-but-realistic bats and all adding up to a book that is a joy to discover – or rediscover.
The Five Little Monkeys series by Eileen Christelow continues to be plenty of fun, too. The new board-book version of Five Little Monkeys Wash the Car, a series entry originally released in 2000, gives parents and young children a chance to enjoy or re-enjoy what happens when the little monkeys decide to spruce up Mama’s old car to help her sell it – and end up having it roll down into the swampy lake where the crocodiles live. But these crocs, although boastful and theoretically dangerous, are really pretty good guys, and they not only help the little monkeys get the car unstuck but also help them solve the problem of selling and replacing it. Much of the fun here comes from watching the little monkeys do what they think is needed to make the car more attractive to buyers: “Then four little monkeys/ find paint in the shed./ Blue, yellow, and green,/ purple, pink, and bright red./ They paint the old car/ with designs all around,/ while one little monkey/ sprays perfume he found.” The rest of the enjoyment comes from the interactions with the crocodiles – and Mama’s expression when she wakes up from a nap and discovers everything that went on while she slept. Throughout the book, one or another of the monkeys says “I know!” to help solve a problem. What parents will know is that kids will have a great time reading this book, or having it read to them.
And for parents concerned about books that dwell so much on the constant unsupervised activity, even hyperactivity, of the little monkeys, there is now a board-book version of Five Little Monkeys with Nothing to Do, which originally dates to 1996. Here, for a change, it is Mama insisting that the little monkeys get up and get going when they repeatedly say they are bored and have nothing to do. Anticipating a visit from Grandma Bessie, Mama tells the little monkeys all the things they can do to get ready: clean their room, scrub the bathroom, beat the dirt out of the rugs, and pick berries. The fun here is seeing the enthusiasm with which the formerly bored little monkeys throw themselves into all the household chores – until Mama tells them to come home from the berry patch, wash their faces and put on clean clothes before Grandma Bessie arrives. So the little monkeys enthusiastically do just what Mama says, getting themselves as clean, neat and tidy as can be. And everything is just fine – well, almost. What the little monkeys never considered was how messy they were when they hurried home (as Mama told them to) from their berry picking so they could wash themselves and change their clothes. Sure enough, they have managed to track dirt and mud all over the house in their rush to clean up. And so, when Grandma Bessie arrives and the house is a complete disaster, the little monkeys are left wondering who could possibly have messed things up – and Mama is left to remark that “whoever did this has plenty to do!” The little monkeys’ misadventures remain as amusing in board-book form as they were when originally published. Kids who want to learn to read these board books themselves will have plenty to do, and plenty to enjoy.
And speaking of messes and little monkeys, there is also a new board-book version of Five Little Monkeys Bake a Birthday Cake, originally published in 1992. Here the little monkeys wake up early, determined to celebrate Mama’s birthday in their own inimitable style – which readers will quickly realize means there is trouble ahead. And so there is: trying to be quiet while baking a cake for their still-sleeping mother, the little monkeys completely mis-measure pretty much everything, add far too much of this and that, spill things and fall and finally put the cake in the oven while they go back upstairs to make a gift for Mama. Needless to say, their gift-making is very noisy indeed, but each time the little monkeys check, Mama – who sensibly wears earmuffs to bed – remains sound asleep. Soon the cake overflows all over the oven and makes such a big mess that two firemen show up – but end up helping to frost the cake and to get Mama up to enjoy it. And Mama is indeed delighted – except that it turns out the monkeys got the date wrong and tomorrow is Mama’s birthday. Well, they can always make another cake – but the book ends before Mama goes downstairs to discover the state of the kitchen, so who knows what will actually happen? The determined adorableness of the little monkeys, and the unending toleration of Mama, combine to make this a highly enjoyable entry in Eileen Christelow’s series – as much fun now as it was more than two decades ago.
The Magician’s Land. By Lev Grossman. Viking. $27.95.
Coming-of-age books have a bad reputation, largely deserved and largely of their own making. Modern fantasy books, ditto. But every once in a while, a coming-of-age fantasy transcends both genres – while remaining firmly within them – and shows that these approaches to fiction, when handled with a paucity of cliché and a large helping of creativity, still have a lot to offer to readers. So it is with The Magician’s Land, which completes the trilogy that Lev Grossman started with The Magicians and continued with The Magician King. Far from a Harry-Potter-esque story despite some obvious resemblances, Grossman’s trilogy is a coming-of-age tale for adults who have already been buffeted by life and experienced love and loss, wounds and healings. It is built around a kind of matter-of-fact magic that does not so much transform the world as coexist with it – while providing the very basis of another world, Fillory, that is initially reached in tried-and-true C.S. Lewis fashion through the back of a grandfather clock but that turns out to be far richer, stranger and more psychologically (and less religiously) focused than Narnia (despite, again, some obvious resemblances).
Grossman creates a world where some characters can do magic and some are magic, and the distinction is as crucial as it is difficult to explain. In this concluding book of the series, events move apace both in Fillory and on Earth – the latter not being “the real world,” since the two worlds are equally real – as well as in the Neitherlands, which, as their name indicates, are in neither the Fillory universe nor that of Earth. The universe of these books is one where Grossman, who is ever adept at turning a phrase, tosses off a line about “one of the small unfairnesses of magic” and, sure enough, shows repeatedly, in large ways as well as small ones, just how unfair magic (and, by extension, life) can be. Grossman’s universe is one in which the characters themselves are quite aware of, and often exposed to, the rudiments of magic and fairy tales as used elsewhere, but one in which those traditional clichés of the fantasy/coming-of-age genre are inadequate, if not irrelevant: “Here was a perpetual motion machine, and a pair of seven-thousand-league boots. He showed them one drop of universal solvent, which no vessel could contain and thus had to be kept magically suspended in midair. He showed them magic beans, and a pen that would write only the truth, and a mouse that aged backward, and a goose that laid eggs in gold, silver, platinum, and iridium. He spun straw into gold and turned the gold into lead. It was the end of every fairy tale, all the prizes for which knights and princes had fought and died and clever princesses had guessed riddles and kissed frogs.” But it is not enough; none of it is enough. Not for the man showing it – a banished, isolated genius of a magician derailed and exiled because of love, lust or their combination – and not for the man to whom he shows everything: Quentin Coldwater.
Quentin, whose story does indeed throw cold water on many fantasy and coming-of-age tropes, is the central character both on Earth and in Fillory, even though he has been banished from the latter – where the friends he has left behind speak and think of him often, making him a continued presence even in his absence. It is Quentin the immature, Quentin the uncertain, Quentin the occasional hero, Quentin the damaged and misunderstood, Quentin the reluctantly self-aware, Quentin who is at times anomie-laced and at others desperately unhappy, around whom Grossman’s story revolves – but Quentin too refuses to descend into cliché, for all the opportunities he has to do so. Quentin is always on the verge of realizing that he is a character in a story, and perhaps not a very compelling one: “When he graduated [from Brakebills, the not-much-like-Hogwarts school where magic is taught] he’d thought life was going to be like a novel, starring him on his own personal hero’s journey, and that the world would provide him with an endless series of evils to triumph over and life lessons to learn. It took him a while to figure out that wasn’t how it worked.”
And yet, remarkably, that is how The Magician’s Land and the trilogy it concludes work. Other characters here also wonder what story they are in, and where it is going, and the recurring theme of being in a story while telling a story while living a story is one thing that makes Grossman’s work so intriguing. All the major characters here are part of this story, part of their own stories, part of lives that are imperfect and uncertain and, even when magical, filled with something less than wave-a-wand-and-solve-everything events. Almost as important in The Magician’s Land as Quentin is his onetime student Plum, whose family history ties her deeply to Fillory in ways as crucial as those that tie Quentin to it, and who is just as almost-aware in her way as Quentin is in his that they are characters in search, not of an author, but of the reason and meaning and coherence that are so rare in life and so common in books. Plum’s reading of a book-within-the-book is a central event here (almost literally, by page count, and surely deliberately so). But her reasons for reading it are as mundane – yet wonderful – as can be: “She wanted a book to do to her what books did: take away the world, slide it aside for a little bit, and let her please, please just be somewhere and somebody else.”
But what Plum discovers, what Quentin discovers, what other characters discover as well, is that you can only be who you are, only grow in your own way within your own world or worlds, whether or not it or they are made of magic or merely contain it. So much of what magic there is comes from within, so much transcends boundaries and binds people and holds worlds together – and so much comes from books themselves. This is what Grossman ultimately shows in The Magician’s Land, with an effect that lasts well beyond the novel itself, well beyond the trilogy that it concludes. As Plum realizes, “That was one thing about books: once you read them they couldn’t be unread.” Just so. The Magician’s Land is scarcely perfect – in parts it is rambling, discursive, even unfocused, and it occasionally trips over itself in a spasm of self-importance – yet this is a book that readers will surely not wish to un-read.
Fly Guy #14: Fly Guy’s Amazing Tricks. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
The Zombie Chasers #5: Nothing Left to Ooze. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by David DeGrand. Harper. $16.99.
Galaxy’s Most Wanted #1. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Nick Edwards. Harper. $12.99.
Some series are so reliable that parents can buy them for children without even pre-reading the new entries. Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy books are an example. These easy-to-read adventures always start by explaining about Fly Guy’s ability to say the name of the boy who keeps him as a pet, Buzz – and then moving into a short and amusing story of boy and fly doing things together. In Fly Guy’s Amazing Tricks, Buzz shows friends how Fly Guy can do the backstroke in any liquid, fly around swiftly and confusingly in the “Dizzy Doozie,” and perch beneath Buzz’s nose as “the Big Booger.” All is fine with the other kids, but when Fly Guy shows the same tricks to Buzz’s parents during a family meal, Buzz realizes some control is needed. So he tells Fly Guy only to do tricks after hearing the word NOW. Then, wouldn’t you know it, Buzz and Fly Guy encounter a neighborhood bully, who insults Buzz (mildly); Buzz tries to ignore him; but the kid gets angry and orders Buzz to answer him NOW. And so Fly Guy goes into action, confusing the bully so much with the tricks that he bumps into a garbage can and is chased away by “a zillion angry flies.” A typically silly and true-to-its-characters series entry, Fly Guy’s Amazing Tricks will be fun for anyone who already enjoys these offbeat little books.
Fans of Lucille Colandro’s many variations on the old rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly (and lots of other things) will also have plenty of fun with that series’ newest entry – which is really where things should have started, since this one uses the original rhyming story. But it does not use it in quite as fatal a way as the original, which constantly repeats the line, “Perhaps she’ll die,” and ends with the old lady swallowing a horse, after which “she’s dead, of course.” None of that here – these variations are strictly for humor, and although not all the books in this sequence are rhymed or plotted successfully, this one is. Here the refrain is “She won’t say why,” and nobody dies – not even the fly, spider, bird, cat, dog, goat or cow swallowed by the always-smiling old lady and landing in her capacious stomach. At the end, the old lady simply coughs everyone up, and everybody becomes friends with everybody else – a thoroughly silly conclusion that is right in line with Colandro’s usual handling of these books and that, thanks to Jared Lee’s typically enjoyable illustrations, makes the whole thoroughly implausible tale as amusing as it can be.
Parents may want to pre-read John Kloepfer’s series for slightly older readers, ages 8-12, to be sure they are comfortable with the grossness level – which, however, they can be pretty sure will not bother many kids in the target age group at all. The original trilogy of The Zombie Chasers has now expanded into a series of “re-zombification” books, so there is now a fifth book in the overall series, with David DeGrand’s illustrations ably taking over for the earlier ones of Steve Wolfhard. The plot of the extended sequence is pretty much what you would expect: Zack and his zombie-chasing team (Madison, Ozzie, Rice and Zoe) are hunting for a lasting antidote to the zombie virus, their previous discovery having turned out to keep the bad bug at bay only temporarily. In Nothing Left to Ooze (bad puns are part and parcel of this series) they are searching for Madison’s cousin, Olivia, which entails (among other things) traveling to the nation’s best amusement park and dealing with such things as zombified vacationers. In a typical scene, a Canadian Air Force pilot named Chet is zombie-bitten: “‘Hey, man,’ Ozzie spoke to the delirious pilot as the zombie virus coursed through his bloodstream. ‘You’re about to turn into a zombie. You have to take these.’ Ozzie gave him a small handful of ginkgo pills. ‘Will this keep me from turning into a zombie?’ Chet asked. ‘Well, not really,’ said Ozzie. ‘But it’ll keep you from turning us into zombies.’” And there are, of course, the usual narrow escapes: “‘Hey, man, hurry up!’ Zack called to Ozzie as he limped quickly toward the pull-down gate at the exit. ‘We gotta get outta here!’” A few super zombies, popcorn/brain-flavored gumballs, Floridian freakazoids and “a dense pack of undead brain-gobblers” later, the Zombie Chasers realize they have to get off the mainland to figure things out, thereby setting the scene for the next book in the series, which will be called – no kidding – Zombies of the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, back at the origin of series like this, Kloepfer is starting Galaxy’s Most Wanted in a similar vein – this time with illustrations by Nick Edwards. The preteen group here includes Kevin and his science-camp friends, Tara, TJ and Warner. Together they make contact with actual alien life and get to meet an actual alien named Mim, who is cute and purple and fuzzy and four-eyed (literally four-eyed; this has nothing to do with wearing eyeglasses). But Mim tells the kids he is in trouble because of some galactic baddies who are after him, so the Earth kids have to hide him (they have him put on a hoodie) and help him. Soon enough, a pursuer shows up, yelling “‘Gluck-gluck-Mim-yim-yarkle’” and being as scary as only a giant extraterrestrial insect can be. Mim explains that the “space poachers” are after his entire species, “hunting us down and killing us for our fur so they can make coats out of us. It can get really cold in outer space.” So now the kids really need to help Mim, and they do a pretty darned good job of it, too, until they begin suspecting that maybe Mim is not telling them the whole truth, as in maybe not even 1% of it – and soon there are issues involving positron force fields, a “half-cyborg ET tracker,” a holographic rap sheet, a giant spider named Poobah, and all sorts of other nonsensical goodies that will undoubtedly delight preteen readers who are tired of earthbound zombies and looking for alternative amusements. These Kloepfer series are easy to follow, easy to read, plot-and-action driven (the characters are virtually identical), and packed with just enough consistent fun so that both Nothing Left to Ooze and Galaxy’s Most Wanted #1 get (+++) ratings. Some kids, however, will rate them higher – ones who are thrilled by dialogue such as, “‘Umm, hey, nimrods… There’s kind of more important stuff going on here than the Invention Convention. Like saving the world.’”
Parenting on the Go: Birth to Six, A to Z. By David Elkind, Ph.D. Da Capo. $14.99.
The Power of Positive Confrontation: The Skills You Need to Handle Conflicts at Work, at Home, Online, and in Life. By Barbara Pachter with Susan Magee. Da Capo. $16.99.
It is said that free advice is worth exactly what you paid for it. But the advice in books can easily be worth significantly more than their cost if you happen to be in the target group being addressed and can extract enough specificity from the suggestions to apply them to yourself and your everyday life. This is no small task: there is so much information out there – and obviously not only in books – that finding the relevant and useful information can be extraordinarily difficult. A big plus of child psychologist David Elkind’s Parenting on the Go is that it makes it comparatively simple to find what you are looking for – which then makes it easy to decide whether Elkind’s views and recommendations will work for you. The book is arranged from A to Z, so a quick glance at the Table of Contents makes it simple to locate the material you want to find. This is not 100% effective, because some of Elkind’s characterizations may be counterintuitive: “Divorce” and “Emergencies” are under D and E, respectively, but “Preschool” is under E (as “Education, Preschool”), and some categories may be ones you do not know whether you want to check out (“Bad Theories, Bad Effects”). Still, the contents listing is easy to skim, and so is much of the book itself, so if you are not sure what a particular section is about, you can simply turn to it and do a quick read. It will have to be quick: Elkind’s basic point here, an entirely valid one, is that life is so complex and fast-paced nowadays that parents do not have enough time to read through parenting books at a leisurely pace – they need to find information speedily so they can use it as soon as possible. The information itself is given here in easy-to-digest form, although it sometimes is a trifle over-simplified, such as this in regard to “Fantasy, The Uses Of”: “Young children think differently than we do. It is not a wrong way of thinking, just different and age-appropriate.” Yet Elkind does not hesitate to tackle difficult and complex issues, such as “Gender Identity”: “A child does not wish to be born with a cross-sex preference. Indeed [the child] may, initially at least, consider it a curse. And it is certainly not the fault of parents. …For parents, the real challenge is to mourn for the child they had hoped to have and to accept, love, and support the child that they were given.” This last comment shows a strength of the book in Elkind’s plain-spokenness on difficult subjects – and a weakness in that his style can make him seem blasé about difficult, even wrenching parental matters. Parenting on the Go also offers little of the how information that parents may be seeking – as in how to learn to accept a child with a cross-sex preference. Of course, giving that sort of information on all the subjects here would be impossible; but Elkind does not even provide a list of further resources, which could have been a helpful starting point. Still, within the confines of a book designed to be fast and easy to consult, and not to be read through cover-to-cover at all, he offers a great deal of helpful thinking on subjects from Acid Reflux to Zoos, with such stops along the way as Chores for Tots, Food Strikes, Military Children, Security Blankets and a great deal more.
The Power of Positive Confrontation takes a different stylistic approach to a more-adult subject. Instead of alphabetizing, Barbara Pachter and Susan Magee “cuticize,” trying to pull readers in with chapter titles such as “The Confrontational Road Less Traveled Is Paved by Bullies and Wimps,” “The Jerk Test,” and “When You Get WAC’ed.” As you might expect, WAC is an acronym – they are inordinately popular in self-help books. It stands for “three key steps in gathering your words for a difficult conversation,” those being What is really bothering you, Asking the other person to do or change something, and Checking In to find out what the other person thinks about what you want. This is a more-tortured, less-clear acronym than most, but because it sounds out as “whack,” it allows Pachter and Magee to “cuticize” around it in many ways. Not that the cuteness is the point here: The Power of Positive Confrontation contains a number of useful ideas, if you do not mind getting to them through the sometimes-annoying style. The authors point out, for example, that “the W is not accusatory” – a very useful thing to know. “You have a right to comment on another person’s behavior if it affects you. You don’t have a right to verbally attack the other person.” Similarly, “you must be specific about your A,” and “if you don’t know what to ask for, don’t confront yet.” As for C, the point is that “just as it takes at least two people to have a confrontation, it takes at least two to resolve a confrontation” – which means you must connect (which would have been a better C than “check in”) with the other person to be sure he or she has heard you and will do what you ask. Pachter, a communications speaker and coach, and Magee, an assistant professor of communications, provide a list of what they call “the twelve most annoying behaviors,” and show how their WAC acronym can apply to them. Readers may have their own list, which will probably not be as alliterative as the one here – it includes “Space Spongers,” “Interjecting Interrupters,” “Work Welchers,” “Annoying Askers” and so forth. Again, the “cuticizing” tends to undermine the seriousness and effectiveness of the authors’ recommendations, but if you can get through the presentation, the ideas can be genuinely helpful. The core of what Pachter and Magee show is in the book’s second section, “Making Positive Confrontation Work for You,” which – although, again, infected by “cuticizing” – shows how to take techniques that the authors repeatedly describe as “Polite and Powerful” and use them in many different situations, both personal and professional. Read past the list-making tendencies here and elsewhere in the book (“Eleven Simple Things You Can Do to Have a Positive Confrontation,” “Twelve Simple Ways to Establish Rapport”), bypass the overly cutesy chapter and section titles (“WAC’ing in Writing,” “WAC’ing by Phone,” “Don’t WAC Behind Someone’s Back”), and you will find some genuinely thoughtful approaches to managing confrontation effectively. A lot of the ideas here are scarcely new: choose conflicts wisely, practice before confronting, pick the right time and place, keep things short and simple, etc. But conceptually easy is not the same as easy to implement, and the real value of The Power of Positive Confrontation lies less in telling you what to do than in telling you how to do it. That value helps overcome a writing style that tends to be too flippant for its own, and readers’, good.