June 15, 2017

(++++) FRIGHTS OF FANTASY


Nnewts, Book Three: The Battle for Amphibopolis. By Doug TenNapel. Color by Katherine Garner. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.

The Too-Scary Story. By Bethany Deeney Murguia. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

     The conclusion of Doug TenNapel’s Nnewts trilogy is so packed with slam-bang, hyper-colored action and activity that the silly parts will go almost unnoticed by anyone who has enjoyed the first two volumes, Escape from the Lizzarks and The Rise of Herk. The power of the third book is as much due to the excellent color provided by Katherine Garner as it is to TenNapel’s story, which here takes a series of largely unsurprising turns and which readers will quickly realize is going on a familiar arc that involves great heroism, great sacrifice, and great but not unalloyed triumph at the end. It is impossible to understand this third volume without knowing the first two, since it picks up exactly where the second entry left off and makes no attempt to look back. Herk, as small as ever but increasingly potent as a magical being, tries to remain true to the good-guy amphibians even though he is slowly gaining scales that will turn him into a bad-guy Lizzark; it turns out the Lizzarks were created for the express purpose of spoiling the idyllic world of Nnewts, who were created by the constellation Orion – this is one of the silly elements of the story that readers should simply accept. Orion is essentially the same constellation visible in Earth’s night sky, but in TenNapel’s world he is knocked out of the cosmos by the bad guys as they grow in power – and then, at a crucial point, is rescued by Herk and other “fry” (kids, that is) and helped back to power by the White Stag, a star creature he has hunted for a billion years. In gratitude for the help, Orion at the very end of the book is again hunting the White Stag – well, maybe that isn’t gratitude after all, but another of the silly elements. Then there is Anthigar, the very first of all Nnewts: a twist of the story, although not a particularly surprising one, shows that the Lizzarks exist because of the jealousy of the second Nnewt, Denthigar, to whom Orion gave a smaller crown than he gave Anthigar. That seems a pretty trivial slight, but not an especially silly one – the silliness comes in when Anthigar, fighting on behalf of Herk, suddenly starts talking in wholly atypical dialogue, his usual portentous pronouncements transformed into, “You’ll stay as long as I please and I’m all outta please!” The really important thing in The Battle for Amphibopolis, though, is not the silly elements: what matters here is that the heroic quest, complete with a typically heroic decision to make a typically heroic self-sacrifice, is so well illustrated and so dramatically and colorfully presented that the trilogy’s conclusion is tremendously involving and ultimately satisfying despite its narrative hiccups. Herk and his brothers still need their mother’s permission before they can save the Nnewts’ world, and thank goodness she gives it to them. It turns out that the primary weapon against the rampaging Lizzarks and the monsters they have created is neither more nor less than beauty, which in its various forms stuns the Lizzarks (especially their rulers) and eventually gives the Nnewts the upper hand. Any young readers who know something about real-world amphibians and lizards, and who therefore may be wondering why the imaginary Nnewts spend all their time on land in Amphibopolis, will be especially satisfied when, at the end of the story, the Nnewts discover that they really belong in a watery environment after all. And the Lizzarks? They conveniently cease to exist, turning out to be Nnewts whose scales resulted from an evil spell that is broken thanks to the heroics of Herk; his siblings, Sissy and Zerk; and the other Nnewts. There are plenty of intense and scary scenes in The Battle for Amphibopolis, and if the eventual victory of the good guys is never really in doubt, there are enough cliff-hangers scattered through the book so fans of TenNapel’s dramatically paced story will be carried along with it to its satisfying conclusion.

     There is nothing anywhere near as frightening in Bethany Deeney Murguia’s The Too-Scary Story, but that makes sense: TenNapel is writing for preteens and young teenagers, Murguia for significantly younger children. The issue in Murguia’s book is just how scary Papa should make a bedtime story for Grace, who insists that it be scary, and Walter, who insists that it not be scary. Now that’s a dilemma! Papa starts telling about the “two brave explorers and their dog walking home through the forest,” and Murguia immediately shows Grace pulling a resistant Walter into the imaginary woods. “Too scary!” exclaims Walter, so Papa throws in twinkly fireflies to relieve the darkness. That is not scary enough for Grace, who wants bears in the story. So Papa talks about creatures in the bushes, and Murguia shows eyes of all sorts peeking out at the children in the woods – but again Walter says that is too scary. So Papa says the creatures “were just settling into bed for the night.” Now Grace is dissatisfied, so Papa conjures up some footsteps and a shadow – then has the kids in the story run home and discover that the shadow is only Papa himself. The result: enough scariness to satisfy Grace and enough reassurance to make Walter, the younger child, happy as well. In fact, both kids are seen smiling from their beds at the end of the book – Papa has managed to give them both what they wanted. Now, what will he do the next night? Murguia does not get into that, but the whole scenario suggests that Papa is clever and caring enough to manage another scary-but-not-too-scary story if that is what Grace and Walter want. Parents may find this book to be an enjoyable read-aloud, since the mildly scary pages lend themselves to a deeper, darker voice than the ones focused on fireflies and sleepy woodland creatures. And the illustrations – which feature kids, dog, Papa, and a tiny owl that observes the proceedings and ends up cuddled against the dog in the kids’ room – will be fun both for kids who are like Grace and for ones who are more like Walter.

(++++) FACTUAL FASCINATION


Apex Predators: The World’s Deadliest Hunters, Past and Present. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     One of Steve Jenkins’ most intriguing books, Apex Predators is fascinating not only because of the information but also because of the presentation, in which brief discussions of modern-day predators are juxtaposed with ones about predators of the distant past – with every creature discussed being shown in Jenkins’ clear, anatomically accurate drawings, and with a scale comparing it with the size of an adult human. One thing this does is make it clear that when it comes to hunting, size does not always matter: African wild dogs are only about three feet long, but because they hunt in packs and have the endurance to pursue their prey over long distances and for lengthy periods of time, they are successful in 90% of their hunts – an extraordinary statistic. On the other hand, size can matter, as it does for the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, which can grow to a length of 10 feet. For each animal, tab-like boxes at tops of the pages indicate whether a particular predator is modern-day or extinct; in the latter case, the boxes say how long ago it lived. This lets Jenkins show the heads of a Siberian tiger and Tyrannosaurus rex facing each other, the former on a left-hand page facing right and the latter on the opposite, right-hand page facing left, with both heads appearing to be the same size – but the scale at the bottoms of the pages shows just how much bigger the dinosaur was than the tiger. Many predators here will be familiar to young readers, but not all, by any means. For example, the Teratorn, believed to be the largest bird able to fly, had an amazing 23-foot wingspan and went extinct six million years ago, while the 20-foot-long predatory amphibian called Mastodonsaurus dates to 250 million years in the past. As readers go through the book, they are inevitably going to wonder how today’s apex predators stack up against those of much earlier times – so Jenkins concludes with a few imaginary matchups between predators of roughly equal size: Siberian tiger and Utahraptor, and great white shark and Dunkleosteus (an armored fish from 400 million years ago). The “who would win” question is of course speculative, and Jenkins takes it an interesting step further by showing two matchups in which the same modern predators would not stand even the slightest chance: Spinosaurus, the largest land predator known, could probably swallow the tiger in a bite or two, while the marine reptile Tylosaurus, whose jaws were 10 feet long, would make short work of a great white shark. The final note in the book is the most thought-provoking of all: the deadliest apex predator of all time is Homo sapiens, since humans, although individually much weaker than the animals shown in Apex Predator, have created weapons that could kill any of them, and in fact have driven many of these hyper-powerful creatures to extinction.

     Humans nowadays do not mean to cause extinctions, but human activity endangers many animals and even whole ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest. Then humans try to preserve what they have endangered, which is the point of Sy Montgomery’s Amazon Adventure. In fact, one apex predator mentioned by Jenkins, the electric eel, appears in Montgomery’s book as well, but from an entirely different perspective: Jenkins says the eel “lurks” in rivers and streams and “zaps” its prey, but Montgomery notes that the eels generally “emit a low-level charge, less than ten volts, which doesn’t hurt,” while hunting, and deliver painful shocks only if bothered. And this is scarcely the only unexpected element in Amazon Adventure. The whole book starts with a misconception to which scientist Scott Dowd readily admits: there is an annual harvest of 40 million tiny tropical fish, caught by natives for shipment to public and home aquarium tanks worldwide, and Dowd initially thought removing them from their natural habitat was a terrible thing. Readers will likely think so, too, until Montgomery – aided by many as-wonderful-as-usual photographs by Keith Ellenbogen – shows that this harvest may be crucial to the long-term survival of the Amazon and its environs. “Nearly ninety percent of the small fish here are stranded, doomed in drying puddles” in the dry season every year, Montgomery explains, unless they are caught and shipped out. When that happens, they live two to three times as long in aquariums as they would in the wild, and the commerce in the fish – which, remember, would otherwise almost certainly die – is the major means of support for 40,000 people. Those people are so respectful of the river that gives them the fish that they very carefully release other species caught by accident – and protect the river and nearby areas so the fish harvest remains abundant year after year. This is more than an unusual story, more than a typical tale from the “Scientists in the Field” series, of which this book is a part. It is the flip side of the ugly, thoughtless anti-human campaigns of organizations such as PETA, which want animals left alone and believe that somehow a lack of contact between people and other species on Earth will make people more appreciative and supportive of those other species. Exactly the opposite is the case: remove animals completely from contact with humans and humans will soon lose interest in them, which means that when the animals are threatened, it will be that much harder to enlist human help (financial and otherwise) to preserve them. This already happens: less-known endangered animals, including many deemed ugly by human standards, garner far less monetary and scientific support than “marquee” animals such as koalas and polar bears. The piabeiros, the fishers whose life is discussed and shown in Amazon Adventure, have a far better relationship with the natural world than this: they live and interact with the fish and other denizens of the river constantly, and in so doing gain respect for the place within the rainforest of human and nonhuman beings alike. The perspective that young readers will get from Amazon Adventure is quite different from that in headlines about pressure groups’ “successes” in destroying the connection between human beings and other animals. This is a thoughtful book as well as an interesting one, and its exploration of a lifestyle that readers are unlikely ever to experience firsthand may help them gain meaningful appreciation of the nuances of human-animal interaction and the positive environmental effects that can result when people are thoughtful rather than political and virulently dogmatic about our relationships with other species.

(+++) MIDDLING MISADVENTURES


Gabby Garcia’s Ultimate Playbook #1. By Iva-Marie Palmer. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $12.99.

The World’s Greatest Detective. By Caroline Carlson. Harper. $16.99.

     Fantasy/adventures for preteens almost always turn on likable central characters with a supporting cast of feckless adults and modestly helpful friends, with largely self-inflicted problems and misinterpretations producing most of the drama and a certain amount of laughter (ideally with the characters, not at them). Iva-Marie Palmer and Caroline Carlson show that the formula works as well for a contemporary 12-year-old girl and a Victorian/Edwardian-era 11-year-old boy. Palmer’s Gabby Garcia book, the first of a planned series, focuses on the packed-with-self-esteem star pitcher at Luther Junior High, whose world is turned upside-down when a discovery of asbestos leads to the immediate closure of the school – right in the middle of a baseball game – and the scattering of students to other area schools. Gabby is sent to upscale Piper Bell Academy, where it is obvious she will have trouble fitting in. Of course that is just how the plot goes: Piper Bell already has a star pitcher, Gabby’s attempt to focus on baseball goes badly, her other tries at fitting in do not work, and she needs a playbook – designed to make things happen, unlike a diary that just records events – to try to get her life back on track. Gabby quits baseball altogether and goes in for field hockey instead, which leads to it being decided that since everyone on the hockey team has a special talent, Gabby’s is going to be poetry. Skeptical but trying, still, to fit in, Gabby – who really does seem an unlikely choice as a poet, as the poetry in the book confirms – does her best, but soon finds that even this decision becomes a problem: a poetry event conflicts with hockey. Gabby’s parents are of no use, of course; for example, their comments when she tells them she is quitting baseball are so surface-level that they practically float. They do mean well: even before things go wrong, the parents and Gabby’s inevitable best friend try to warn her about possible issues involved in trying to be a baseball star at the new school; but headstrong Gabby does not listen. Most of Gabby’s pains and worries come from her own misaligned expectations and her use of sports for self-identification – but the book actually seems intended mainly for sports-focused middle-schoolers, so the notion that maybe there are other ways to excel (such as poetry) coexists uneasily with the sports elements. What eventually happens is that Gabby gets over herself and develops a more team-oriented attitude, and then things go much better right up to an ending that clearly sets up the next book in the series. It is the format of the book, more than the plot and writing, that sets it somewhat apart from other preteen formula novels. There are lots and lots of illustrations of characters, plenty of doodles, action sketches, marginal notes, enlarged and boldface type, and other visuals that make this playbook attractive to look at even when it is nothing special to read. All these elements have been used in other books for preteens, but Palmer makes them jaunty enough so the visuals help carry the largely predictable plot.

     Flash back in time to the fictional town of Colebridge and a different sort of adult supervision or non-supervision, and you have The World’s Greatest Detective. Toby Montrose’s parents have disappeared, so he lives with Uncle Gabriel on a street known as Detectives’ Row. The whole city is full of detectives, but Detectives’ Row is really packed with them, and Uncle Gabriel is one such. The problem is that there is not much crime in Colebridge – what with all those detectives, you know – so there is not much money in being an investigator. This means Uncle Gabriel is under financial strain that Toby worries may lead to the need for him to stay with yet another relative (Uncle Gabriel is just the latest in a long series). Then – aha! – Uncle Gabriel is invited to solve a weekend murder mystery in a competition whose winner will get $10,000. Just the thing, thinks Toby: money coming in and a boost for Uncle Gabriel’s reputation and therefore his business. But Uncle Gabriel declines the invitation, leaving Tony to decide to take up the challenge himself – with a little help (sometimes more than a little) from a self-confident friend named Ivy and from Ivy’s dog. Unfortunately, Toby, despite the correspondence course in detecting he has been taking, is not very good at being a detective; and he and Ivy have a series of misadventures that are not quite as amusing as Carlson apparently wants them to be. The underlying mystery here is rather simple, the pacing of the investigation is less than brisk, and the secondary characters are not very well fleshed-out – including Uncle Gabriel (kind-hearted and bad in the kitchen and that’s about it). There is not very much scene-setting or time-setting beyond the Victorian/Edwardian background, and while Toby is certainly likable enough, he does not have a sufficiently strong character to be intriguing – he is simply a boy who has been shunted from relative to relative and wants a way out of that not-very-merry-go-round. Self-assured Ivy makes a good foil for well-meaning but often inept Toby, but the book as a whole never rises above the very basic foundation of a genre where well-meaning but misplaced enthusiasm and largely self-inflicted problems are the plot drivers again and again.

(+++) CRAMMING FOR LIFE AFTER FINALS


Colleges That Create Futures: 50 Schools That Launch Careers by Going Beyond the Classroom. By Robert Franek. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $14.99.

     The ability to slice and dice data makes it possible to take essentially the same information and present it in multiple ways, resulting in – among many other things – the numerous Princeton Review college guides, which focus mostly on the same schools but arrange them in different orders according to each book’s emphasis. Princeton Review (which is not affiliated with Princeton University but, as a producer of guides to higher education, surely benefits from its name) generally produces lengthy oversize paperbacks crammed with small-type information on schools’ requirements, student-body statistics, financial information and the like. With Colleges That Create Futures, though, it goes beyond those data, or more accurately into a subset of them, to create a standard-size volume purporting to show schools that excel at getting students satisfying post-college work because of their non-classroom programs. These include internships, alumni networking opportunities, high-quality career guidance, student-faculty collaborative projects, and the like.

     This specialized volume is not one of Princeton Review’s strongest, although some college-bound students wavering between or among specific schools may find it useful. The problem here is that the underlying premise of Colleges That Create Futures is inherently subjective. Much of a student’s success in college depends on his or her ability to navigate campus and off-campus life, making his or her own opportunities by developing networks of fellow students on campus and going beyond the basic requirements of courses when it comes to interactions with professors. This is true at virtually all colleges except highly regimented institutions, such as the nation’s military academies. So the fact – if it is a fact – that some colleges make this easier than others do is of only modest significance. But do the 50 colleges here make this sort of outside-the-classroom exploration easier than other colleges do? That is a subjective judgment, for all that Princeton Review explains about its methodology for selecting these schools.

     A student trying to decide whether this book will be helpful might well be inclined to start with an alphabetical list of the colleges included; but, oddly, there is none. The schools are presented in alphabetical order throughout the book, but there is no listing of them at the front, and the listings at the back are by location, tuition and enrollment – useful categories all, but they do not take the place of a simple master list. As for the reasons colleges are included here, they vary. Oberlin College, for example, is praised as “open-minded, incredibly inclusive, equality-embracing, and socially mindful,” with “feel-good, freethinking, granola-crunching vibes” that are environmentally sensitive and LGBT-friendly. Marist College is said to strike “the perfect balance between a liberal arts campus and a high-tech university system” and have “the same kind of balance between aesthetics and power.” These are clearly subjective comments, but some colleges get more-objective treatment, as in the note about one of the many special offerings at DePauw University: “Blending a traditional liberal arts curriculum with real-world experiences in business and entrepreneurship, the Management Fellows Program also includes a full-time, semester-long, credit-bearing business internship.” Colleges That Create Futures is thus a blend of opinion and fact to a greater degree than many other Princeton Review books. Thumbing through it and stopping to read a bit about the colleges chosen for highlighting here is a must to determine whether the approach will be useful for any given student or family.

     The unusual nature of Colleges That Create Futures is largely shown through the colleges that are not included. Stanford University is here, but not Harvard or Yale (indeed, no college at all in Connecticut); in New Jersey, there are Drew University and Stevens Institute of Technology, but no Princeton. The selection of schools could easily be described as “quirky” if Princeton Review (where author Robert Franek is editor-in-chief) chose to say that the selections were made by, say, team debate and eventual consensus. But no – data are foundational here, and the underlying concept is to give students objective information on schools that excel in non-classroom ways at preparing students for life after college. The book nevertheless does not feel entirely data-driven – and in truth, a touch of the opinionated human is not a bad thing in today’s highly intense college search. Whether the balance of personal and impersonal material in Colleges That Create Futures is genuinely useful will be a matter for individual college-bound students, and their families, to decide – by forming their own opinions of the book’s inclusions and exclusions.

(++++) NATIONALLY MUSICAL


Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—Daphnis et Chloé; Une barque sur l’océan. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.

Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—Antar; Shéhérazade. André Dussolier, narrator; Isabelle Drouet, mezzo-soprano; Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.

Mark Nowakowski: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Blood, Forgotten; Lullaby—O sleep for me, sleep. Voxare String Quartet (Emily Ondracek-Peterson and Galina Zhdanova, violins; Erik Christian Peterson, viola; Adrian Daurov, cello). Naxos. $12.99.

Georgy Sviridov: Russia Cast Adrift. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone; St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra and Style of Five Ensemble conducted by Constantine Orbelian. Delos. $9.99.

     There are certain national characteristics to music – ones that may not always be evident to modern listeners when it comes to Baroque works such as Bach’s English and French suites, but ones that became increasingly pronounced through and after the Romantic era. Thus, while Mozart wrote both German and Italian operas, by the 19th century there were clear distinctions between the instrumental focus of German opera composers, the vocal orientation of Italians, and the middle way of the French. Other forms of music increasingly developed national character as well, often quite deliberately (Russian, Czech). By the 20th century, distinctive musical nationality (if not always nationalism) was so firmly established that the works of, for example, Ravel, are as clearly French as they are clearly impressionistic.  Naxos’ excellent ongoing series of Ravel’s orchestral works, featuring Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin, shows this in every volume, and does so with particular clarity on the two latest discs. The fourth volume in this series includes the full hour-long ballet Daphnis et Chloé, one of the epitomes both of Ravel’s orchestral writing and of Impressionism itself. There is perpetual grace in this music, a kind of languor permeating it even in its more-energetic sections. Ravel’s expert orchestration carries with the ballet a kind of nostalgia, not so much for the legends of ancient Greece as for the gentle flowing of music of an earlier time, perhaps the 18th century. The wordless choruses (sung here by the choral group Spirito) add to the feeling of timelessness that melds with music that is harmonically very much of its time (1909-12) but that retains a feeling of being somehow beyond time itself – much like many of the old myths. The encore here has effective flow of its own: it is Ravel’s own 1906 orchestration of Une barque sur l’océan, the third of his 1904-05 Miroirs for piano, handled with consummate tastefulness and an especially lovely musical portrayal of the sea at its opening.

     The fifth Ravel volume is something very different and is, in fact, dominated by a world première recording. This is of Antar, incidental music to a play on the legend of the sixth-century warrior Antar and his love, Abla. When he was a teenager, Ravel was heavily influenced by Russian music, and although little of characteristically Russian sound carried through into Ravel’s later creative life, certain elements of coloration and orchestration were retained. In the case of Antar, Ravel selected and reorchestrated portions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s highly evocative work based on the legend, using material out of its original order and combining it with an excerpt from the opera Mlada and several short pieces composed by Ravel himself. Remarkably, what could easily have been a pastiche flows naturally and even elegantly in this recording, thanks in large part to the narrative connections forged as recently as 2014 by French-Lebanese writer and opera librettist Amin Maalouf. This connectivity, chosen instead of the use of the original words from the play for which Ravel made this arrangement in 1910, is a rare instance in which modern substitution actually enhances a musical arrangement from the past. Many of the pieces written or orchestrated by Ravel are quite short – five of them run less than a minute apiece – but Maalouf’s words, declaimed sensitively by André Dussolier, help hold the overall sequence of material together to tell a well-paced story. There is some straight narrative here and some old-style melodrama, with the words spoken above the music, and all of it works quite well. The overall presentation has more drama and heft, if less impressionistically muted color, than Daphnis et Chloé, and makes a fascinating counterpart to the ballet. Also on this CD is the three-song cycle from 1903, Shéhérazade, sung with an entirely apt sense of Oriental fascination by Isabelle Druet and neatly complementing the differently evocative music of Antar. The whole disc is redolent both of the Middle East and of the Orient, yet in general the music is recognizably, even strikingly French.

     The works of Mark Nowakowski (born 1978) are intended to be very distinctly Polish, but in this case not so much in their sound as in their topics. Nowakowski does not strive for the subtleties of Chopin or the fierce loyalty of Paderewski – instead, he uses contemporary compositional techniques, including electronic sounds as well as a traditional string quartet stretched sonically beyond the usual compass of the instruments, to reflect on various elements of the Polish experience. Nowakowski, who is Polish-American, intends the music on this Naxos CD to be a tribute to Polish survival through desperately hard times over many centuries, but there is nothing especially Polish in the sound of the music, despite the intent to ring forth the Polish experience. Nowakowski’s first string quartet, “Songs of Forgiveness” (2010), is a two-movement work intended to be at times meditative, at times grief-stricken, and at times angry. The second quartet, “Grandfather Songs (in memoriam Henryk Górecki)” (2011), has elements of a memorial but also some strange, even strident elements, notably the inclusion of a recording of Nowakowski’s family singing a war song. Blood, Forgotten (2005) is for solo violin and electronics, and is intended as yet another of the innumerable memorials for the victims of World War II – with Poland having been victimized both by the Axis (Nazi Germany) and the Allies (the Soviet Union). The electronic elements include the sounds of an instrument found in one of the Nazi concentration camps, but while this may be historically noteworthy, it is not sonically significant. In many ways the most effective piece here in terms of reaching out to an audience beyond that of patriotic Poles is the short final work on the disc, a lullaby based on an old Polish folk song. Written in 2012, it finds a greater sense of peace and of connection with the past than do the more intense, more avowedly expressive and much longer works here. This is a (+++) disc with some very fine playing – the Voxare String Quartet actually gave the première performance of Nowakowski’s first quartet. But the specificity of the topics is handled in such a way that there is little sense of reaching beyond the specifically Polish experience to the kind of shared sorrow and shared reality that would render Nowakowski’s feelings transferable to a wider audience.

     There is much that is quintessentially of his homeland in Russia Cast Adrift by Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998), notably the ways in which his vocal music is based on the traditional chant of the Russian Orthodox Church. Sviridov wrote this work in 1957 for baritone and piano, intending to orchestrate it eventually but never doing so. Now Russia Cast Adrift has been arranged for orchestra, and quite effectively, by Evgeny Stetsyuk, and receives its world première recording on a Delos disc featuring Dmitri Hvorostovsky and conductor Constantine Orbelian. This singer and conductor always work well together, and their handling of this cycle of 13 songs (the last of them actually taken from a different work, the vocal poem Petersburg from 1995) is no exception. The words here are by Sergey Yesenin, a poet who committed suicide at age 30 in 1925 and was, with Alexander Blok, a favorite of Sviridov. Russia Cast Adrift, whose title seems to have contemporary relevance even though it was never intended to, is actually about a poet and poetry – and the poetic elements of life in a badly disturbed  but still-beautiful Russia. The poems all date to 1914-20, and all deal with aspects of life in a highly complex era that saw World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, those events intermingled here with thoughts of Russia’s natural beauty, the Christian faith, and more. The harmonies here are traditional, and the influences of earlier composers, notably Tchaikovsky, are clear, yet Sviridov has his own style, notably because of his religious belief and the music used to express it in Russian Orthodox services. There is plenty of emotional intensity and angst both in the words and in the music of Russia Cast Adrift, but there is eventual affirmation and hope for a better future and fulfillment of what Yesenin – and, apparently, Sviridov – believed would be a more-welcome time to come. In many ways these poems and their settings do reach out beyond the world in which they were created, but in others they are so Russia-specific that they will appeal mainly to those of Russian heritage and those especially moved by other, more-universal Russian music, including that of some of the composers who clearly influenced Sviridov. It is also worth noting that this CD, although offered at a special price, runs less than 37 minutes – a fact that all by itself renders it a specialty item and contributes to its (+++) rating. There is emotional involvement and a certain level of originality in Russia Cast Adrift, and the orchestral version has warmth that clearly complements Hvorostovsky’s rich, sure and evocative baritone voice. The work is somewhat self-limiting by design, as a celebration of Russia by Russians looking for uplift and hoping for a more-congenial future Russia. But even within its self-imposed limitations, it has considerable beauty and considerable strength, much like Russia itself.

June 08, 2017

(++++) WHAT PICTURES!


Seven Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break if You Want to Survive the Cafeteria. By John Grandits. Illustrated by Michael Allen Austin. Clarion. $16.99.

Lint Boy. By Aileen Leijten. Clarion. $16.99.

     Sometimes the sheer joy of looking at kids’ books is at least as great as the pleasure of reading them. Michael Allen Austin’s brilliantly offbeat, stretched and hyper-realistic (and thus surrealistic) illustrations for Seven Rules You Absolutely Must Not Break if You Want to Survive the Cafeteria take what is already a great story by John Grandits and turn it into a remarkable one. The book is narrated by a boy named Kyle, who is reading a book called “Bugs!” by “Bea Swacks” and imagines himself and all the people around him as giant insects. But wait, there’s more! Today Kyle is going to buy lunch in the cafeteria for the first time, and his friend Ginny, who “is very dramatic” and looks to Kyle like a huge-headed cricket, warns Kyle that there are rules to be followed that must not be broken in the cafeteria! Kyle writes them all down and then proceeds to break them, unintentionally and hilariously, one at a time. First Kyle follows his classmates, who look like giant ants walking on their hind legs, to the cafeteria – being careful not to look at the sixth-graders right behind him, who appear as angry yellow jackets. Then Kyle holds up the line while reading the menu (breaking the first rule), loads too much onto his tray (breaking the second), and accidentally walks past the cash register and  “the lunch lady, who always circles the cafeteria like a buzzing fly” and looks exactly like one (breaking the third rule). One of Austin’s best ideas is to connect Kyle with reality periodically, so after Kyle realizes his mistake in not paying, and is told that he cannot use cash anyway – but does not know his PIN – we see the distinctly human lunch lady helping Kyle figure out what to do. He even says “the cashier was real nice and looked [the PIN] up for me.” But soon Kyle is breaking more rules, at one point dropping his tray and needing to get more food. Then he has to sit with the sixth-graders instead of his own class! But things start to turn around as he eats lunch while recounting slightly gross facts from the bug book he has been reading (“a tapeworm in your intestines…can grow up to fifty feet long”). In fact, lunch turns out perfectly fine in the end, and as the book finishes, Kyle is telling just that to Ginny, both of them looking entirely human (although still in Austin’s over-realistic, over-precise, over-drawn manner) as Kyle adds an eighth rule, which is never to pay attention to Ginny’s seven. The book’s concept and narrative are great, but it is the illustrations that really take this over-the-top tale over the top.

     Although not as mind-blowingly offbeat, the illustrations in Aileen Leijten’s Lint Boy are also a big reason this book is so special and so effective. In fact, the evil character in the book – a girl named Tortura who grows into a nasty woman named Mrs. PinchnSqueeze – somewhat resembles the characters drawn by Austin, although her appearance is not as exaggerated as theirs. Leijten does, however, do a great job of making her thoroughly unpleasant and “as mean as can be.” In fact, she is so mean “that even moths shriveled up when she looked at them” (as Leijten shows). Mrs. PinchnSqueeze reserves most of her ire and nastiness for dolls of all sorts, because when she was merely Tortura, she became convinced that dolls are alive but could never actually prove it, and therefore takes revenge by capturing them, cutting off their hair or other parts, keeping them suspended in cages, and periodically whacking the cages with a big stick so the dolls are terrified. They are capable of being scared because they are, in fact, alive, even though they would never reveal that to Mrs. PinchnSqueeze. Two dolls in particular are central to this visually told story, which is not a graphic novel (because it is not told in comic-book-like panels) but a story told in pictures – the entire book consists of pictures, with comic-strip-style dialogue and occasional narration placed in boxes. The main characters are Lint Boy and Lint Bear, “brothers” who form spontaneously out of pieces of lint, scraps of fabric and the occasional button spinning around in a dryer. The two live an idyllic life until Lint Bear one day gets tangled in dried laundry that Mrs. PinchnSqueeze is removing – and falls into the hag’s clutches. This sends Lint Boy on a quest to rescue Lint Bear, with a bit of help from a batch of single socks left in the depths of the dryer (socks always get separated during drying, don’t they?). Another major character here is Snort Junior the Seventh, a dog descended from Tortura’s original Snort. This Snort brings Mrs. PinchnSqueeze the stick she uses to bang the cages in what she calls “Rattle & Battle,” but he himself is badly mistreated by “the old witch,” a fact that becomes important as the book moves toward an adventure of escape and an eventual happy ending. Lint Boy is, at bottom, not a very unusual story: small creatures band together, discover inner strength, and escape from the clutches of vile large creature. But Leijten tells the tale well and cleverly, and the exceptional illustrations sweep readers into this imagined world and turn the whole narrative into a thrillingly told near-epic. It is a small-scale epic, to be sure, but one with a big heart.

(++++) FOR CUTENESS’ SAKE


Dog on a Frog? By Kes & Claire Gray. Illustrated by Jim Field. Scholastic. $16.99.

Monster’s New Undies. By Samantha Berger. Illustrated by Tad Carpenter. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Plenty of the characters in kids’ books are cute, but sometimes the cuteness extends beyond the characters to the stories in which they appear. That was the case in Frog on a Log? – or as it was more amusingly called in Britain, Oi Frog! Kes Gray made that children’s book a sendup of the traditions of children’s books, having a cat insist to an unwilling frog that frogs must sit on logs, because that is the rule, and all sorts of other animals must sit on all sorts of other specific rhyming things, because that is just the way things are. Now we have the sequel, Dog on a Frog? This one was called Oi Dog! across the pond – still a more-amusing title than we get in the colonies – but could as easily have been titled The Frog’s Rhyming Revenge. Or something along those lines. This time the frog takes over the narrative from the demanding cat. The book starts with a dog sitting on him – on the frog, that is – and the frog demanding that he get off. “I’m changing the rules,” announces the frog to both the dog and the insistent cat. Now dogs (not frogs) will sit on logs, and cats – let’s see – will sit on gnats. “Ouch!” says the cat – understandably. The frog is on a roll now, making decisions about which animals will sit where – every choice adorably and amusingly illustrated by Jim Field, who returns here after doing the previous book. Bears now sit on stairs, slugs on plugs, flies on pies, crickets on tickets, and so on and on and on and on. Soon we have cheetahs sitting on fajitas, gnus on canoes, and whales on nails (which they clearly do not appreciate having to do). And mice sit on ice, and puppies sit on guppies, and canaries sit on fairies, and baboons sit on balloons, and on and on we go, even with poodles sitting on noodles (and looking none too happy about it). As the book nears its end, the cat and the dog repeat all the weird and wonderful sitting spots that the frog has decided are appropriate for the various animals – ending with the thoroughly reasonable question of what frogs are now going to sit on. The answer: a chaise longue, beneath an umbrella, sipping a cool drink. And so we leave one very happy frog with a bewildered-looking dog on a log and a distinctly irritated cat on gnats…and that’s that.

     The cuteness is in the service of a very different sort of story in Samantha Berger’s Monster’s New Undies. This monster is absolutely adorable: squat, green, appealingly horned and huge-eyed in Tad Carpenter’s illustrations. And he has a monstrous problem: old, torn, too-small underwear that he has used for so long that one day they actually fall apart. No problem – he will just do without. But…umm…no, that is not comfortable. So along goes the little monster with his monster mom to “Undie World,” about which he explains: “Leave it to MY mom,/ ’cause only she’d find/ a whole store devoted/ to JUST the behind!” There certainly are lots of choices here – all of them awful, in the little monster’s eyes. “Those are too long!/ Those are too short!/ Those look like a diaper!/ Those look like a skort!” Bad colors, bad designs, bad fit, bad appearance: “I guess there is nothing/ just right for this rump,” he bemoans. But then, way in the back of the store, there is a red-and-white pair that looks just like the little monster’s old undies (all the others he has seen have been blue-and-white). Both his mom and the salesthing are delighted, but neither is as happy as the little monster, shown by Carpenter across two full pages, wearing his new undies while hearts showing his adoration float everywhere. The little monster is so happy that he insists on buying 18 pairs of the new undies, and his mom is happy to indulge him as he dances and prances around looking utterly delighted, completely delightful, and entirely ridiculous. And very, very cute. Which is, of course, the, um, underlying point.

(++++) WHAT’S A LITTLE MAYHEM AMONG FRIENDS?


The Kill Society: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $25.99.

     See, at bottom it’s all pretty simple. “Just because I’m an asshole doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” The words are those of Sandman Slim, and the self-evaluation is right on target. And “target” is exactly the right word, since Sandman Slim has “target” written all over him in Richard Kadrey’s ninth book about him, The Kill Society. But no problem, because pretty much everyone else has “target” written on him, or her, or it, as the case may be. So much to see. So much to do. So much to destroy.

     So maybe it’s not so simple after all. “If the Church had afterlife travel agents, they could make a fortune. Pay now, then later see the most colorful views of damnation from a double-decker, air-conditioned tour bus. Stop for lunch at the damned soul deli, where you can try Phil, your racist neighbor, on whole wheat. Or roast hot dogs over the lava pits where crooked politicians and show-business accountants do synchronized-shrieking shows every…well…forever. Don’t forget to tip your driver on the way out or you’ll end up with the other stingy bastards, growing gold teeth and pulling them out with pliers for eternity while other stingy dumb-asses pound them into coins with their faces.” Kadrey’s prose goes way beyond purple into the ultraviolet. Or, more accurately, ultraviolent. But The Kill Society is no prissy Anthony Burgess Clockwork Orange wannabe book: this is straight-out murderous fun, with equal emphasis on the death stuff and the enjoyment.

     Not that James Stark (aka Sandman Slim) has much fun in this episode, since he is dead. Genuinely dead this time. This is scarcely his first visit to Hell and its environs, but this time he has been sent there by a weapon that has actually succeeded in destroying his Earth form. That happened at the end of the previous book, The Perdition Score, and gets a brief recap here before Kadrey gets to the meat of the matter. And there is a great deal of meat, most of it off the bone and flying every which way. The basic plot, at least for most of the book, involves a quest through the nothingness of a place called the Tenebrae, led by a man, or more accurately a being, called the Magistrate. Just what is being sought, and why, is never explained to the Magistrate’s followers; indeed, at one point the Magistrate says, “The crusade itself is important. Not the crusaders.” And that leaves Stark, who has been there and done that more often than all the rest of them put together, to note, “And there it is. The voice of a true believer. Nothing matters but him and his obsession. …I met freaks like this everywhere. Everyone has. Not just in Hell and not just in wars. They’re people you pass on the street. A preacher, a grocery-store manager, a parent. Anyone with a vision and enough of a vicious streak to make it come true no matter what they have to destroy or who they have to chew up and spit out along the way.” This is vintage Kadrey: take a completely bizarre, outré situation and relate it through an ultra-noir lens to everyday life, forcing readers not only to suspend disbelief but also to see the mundane from a different, thoroughly skewed angle.

     The quest for whatever-it-is takes up most of the book, but when the whatever-it-is is in fact found, it turns out not to be what the Magistrate thought it would be, and additional mayhem inevitably ensues, and the whole shebang leads to – where else? – Heaven. Yes, Sandman Slim gets to Heaven in The Kill Society, and no, the experience does not do much for him: “I’m really trying to not start out in Heaven by killing an angel.” There is a war going on in Heaven, and there are good angels and bad ones,  and ones that change sides, and just figuring out who’s who and what’s what takes most of Sandman Slim’s brainpower, which is a trifle on the, um, slim side. Which brings us back to, “Just because I’m an asshole doesn’t mean I’m wrong.” Stark makes the comment after challenging an overwhelmingly powerful archangel to a duel that Stark is sure to lose, despite the bravado of his next comment: “This kind of thing is pretty much all I’ve done for the last twelve years.” That is scarcely enough, but one thing to remember is that however many times Sandman Slim is killed, and however long he stays dead, there is always someone or something that needs his unique talents badly enough to find a way to revive him. And that brings us, and him, to the uber-potent and hyper-frightening organization called Wormwood, a simply marvelous amalgam of all that is wrong with unfettered capitalism. Wormwood, a shadowy presence throughout The Kill Society, provides a perfect setup for Kadrey’s next foray into the world, or rather worlds, of Sandman Slim. “You’ve been dead a long time,” a character says very near this book’s conclusion. Yes, but not long enough for the bad guys. As they will definitely discover next time. Stay tuned.

(+++) LIFE STAGES, PERSONALIZED


Your Pregnancy, Your Way: Everything You Need to Know about Natural Pregnancy and Childbirth. By Allison Hill, M.D., with Sheila Curry Oakes. Da Capo. $16.99.

Equally Wed: The Ultimate Guide to Planning Your LGBTQ+ Wedding. By Kirsten Palladino. Seal Press. $17.99.

     The personalization and politicization of life’s milestones continue apace, and sometimes it is hard to tell when one shades into the other. Your Pregnancy, Your Way is, on the face of it, an overview of pregnancy and birth options, written by a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist with both professional experience and personal insights from being a mother herself. That means, for example, dealing with insurance issues as they relate to the difference in licensing and practice of CNMs (certified nurse midwives) and CPMs (certified professional midwives): CNMs may have contracts with insurance companies and be covered as in-network providers, but insurance and Medicaid coverage for CPMs varies by state. However, the strictly professional and analytical material is accompanied by discussions of matters that have distinct sociopolitical overtones, as in the discussion of freebirthing: “Freebirthers believe that birth is inherently safe and relatively painless as long as the medical community doesn’t interfere. …Of 4 million births per year in the United States, approximately seven thousand are unassisted. A study in 1984 on a religious community in Indiana where women freebirthed showed an infant death rate 2.7 times higher and maternal death rate 97 times higher than the state average.” Social, political and personal beliefs repeatedly meet scientific and research-based ones here. And attitudes in other nations are part of the discussion: in the Netherlands, where 30% of babies are born at home with a midwife’s supervision, “midwife training is rigorous, competitive, and uniform.” The discussion of beliefs and attitudes is especially prominent when it comes to hot-button matters such as home-vs.-hospital birth issues (“no topic in the field of obstetrics is more polarizing”), but it is present elsewhere in Your Pregnancy, Your Way as well. The basic approach of the book is simple and straightforward: Hill discusses the different things women mean by “natural” childbirth, gives stories of women from her own experience, and includes some interesting “doctor’s diary” elements: “Inevitably, you will share your [birthing] story someday – with friends, colleagues, and your own daughter. Consider how your description will influence her perspective about childbirth in the future.” Hill covers a great deal of material in the book: eating and exercise, tests during pregnancy, risks and complications, delivery-room interventions, and much more. And the layout is somewhat scattered and not entirely focused on “natural” pregnancy (however defined). The book is, however, filled with useful information, much of it in those “doctor’s diary” entries: “A pet peeve of mine: the websites and pregnancy books that list endless foods you can’t eat while nursing…with no medical evidence whatsoever! No matter what, your baby will have days of fussiness and days of calm. …[It] is actually just the normal fluctuations of your baby’s maturing digestive system.” And while Hill returns repeatedly to the idea of keeping pregnancy and childbirth as natural as possible (again, however defined), she is commendably open about the usefulness of various interventions and substances that many readers will not consider “natural” – for instance, the prescription medicine domperidone to double milk production, the hormone oxytocin to boost milk volume, and the medication Reglan for a similar purpose. She carefully explains both the risks and the benefits of the options she discusses. And she repeatedly notes the limits of doing one’s own research: “Seventy percent of new mothers admit that they receive breastfeeding advice from the media or on the Internet, but studies show at least 25 percent of this advice is wrong.” The decision to define what a more-natural approach to pregnancy and childbirth means and then pursue it is a highly personal one, although one often driven by societal factors. Your Pregnancy, Your Way can be valuable both in helping women search for their own version of a “natural” approach and in showing the limits of that approach and the areas in which modern medicine, for all its frequent depersonalization, may be important for the health and safety of mother and baby alike.

     The personal landscape is substantially more political and more fraught with complexities for many people in what is now usually called the “LGBTQ+” community. The “+” is intended to indicate inclusion of everybody of any sexual predilection, although not all members of this group accept “straight” people – whom they call “cisgender.” In any case, there is certainly a market for books aimed at LGBTQ+ people who are interested in pursuing social matters that have long been staples of the “straight” world, such as weddings. That is where a book such as Equally Wed comes in. The “us against them” approach is strong here: “Wedding vendors and venues, as a general rule, believe in love and bring a sense of purpose to their work of bringing your vision to life and helping you make this everlasting commitment in your relationship. Only a limited number of wedding professionals are interested in working with LGBTQ+ weddings, however, so it’s important to know what they’re doing to find you.” Kirsten Palladino offers awareness of LGBTQ+ issues throughout the book, for instance by suggesting the use of terms such as “gride,” “marrier” and “nearlywed” instead of bride and groom. She also notes that “many LGBTQ+ couples propose to one another, often on different days,” and says when the second proposal occurs, “be prepared for a calmer celebration this time around, especially from the cisgender heterosexual crowd, who may not understand this LGBTQ+ tradition.” Interestingly, though, for all the assertions of uniqueness in the LGBTQ+ community where weddings are concerned, these are, after all, weddings, which are about as traditional as social ceremonies can be. Therefore, when Palladino gets beyond the assertiveness of difference between the LGBTQ+ community and everyone else, she gives advice not much different from what traditional heterosexual couples receive all the time. Tell close friends personally before you post a status update online, she says; set a realistic budget as soon as possible; send out save-the-date announcements at least six months in advance; “personalize your ceremony with culture and meaning,” as one subhead has it; and on and on. Each chapter usefully ends with “Tasks to Tackle,” which in the main are wholly traditional. “Music and Dancing,” for instance, concludes with “interview and hire musicians,” “finalize and sign contracts,” “two to four weeks before the wedding, check in with your musician to confirm every detail,” and so on. And “Making It Legal” closes with notes to “research marriage license requirements in the location where you’re getting married,” “bring your marriage license to the wedding,” “notify everyone of your new name if you’re changing it,” etc. (This chapter also has a useful and entirely traditional list of places to notify after marriage: credit-card companies, doctors’ offices, utility companies, schools, voter registration office, and so on.) Equally Wed is clearly intended to be “our” wedding guide for members of the LGBTQ+ community, but in fact its straightforward advice and commentary could have come almost entirely from any of the innumerable wedding guides that have long been published on the assumption that marriage is between a man and a woman. Using such guides, though, would apparently not be politically correct, or at least not politically satisfying, for people who identify as LGBTQ+.

(++++) INCONSEQUENTIAL PLEASANTRIES


Carl Friedrich Abel: Symphonies, Op. 7. La Stagione Frankfurt conducted by Michael Schneider. CPO. $16.99.

Paganini: Complete Works for Violin/Viola with Cello and Guitar. Nils-Erik Sparf, violin and viola; Andreas Brantelid, cello; David Härenstam, guitar. Proprius. $18.99.

Walton: Façade. Carole Boyd and Zeb Soanes, reciters; ensemble directed by John Wilson. Orchid Classics. $13.99.

     There is nothing wrong with superficial music. Whether in the 18th century, the 19th or the 20th, the vast majority of music, even when created by important composers, is less than significant – well-made if the composers are good, worth hearing if well-constructed, but scarcely notable enough to become part of what is sometimes called the classical canon. The vast number of excellent, trailblazing classical works should not cause listeners to turn a deaf ear to music that exists on a less-lofty plane and functions perfectly well on it – including some that was quite popular in its time. In the 18th century, the symphonies of Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) were highly regarded, and indeed one of them has a Köchel number (KV 18) because it was long thought to be by Mozart. Abel created his symphonies, Op. 7, all of them short (eight to 13 minutes) and all in major keys, at a time when Haydn was still solidifying what was soon to become standard classical symphonic form. Today Abel’s works seem largely like throwbacks to the days of sinfonias or overtures (as they were in fact called), and are in the main lighter and much less emotive than the far-more-familiar masterpieces of both Haydn and Mozart. But Abel was a fine musical craftsman with some genuinely original ideas. In particular, he tended to create slow movements that, while not deeply emotional, were quite distinctive in their use of dynamics: they were often marked sempre piano and, as such, stood in strong contrast to the comparatively lightweight outer movements of these three-movement works. The young Mozart was indeed strongly influenced by Abel’s Symphony in E-flat, Op. 7, No. 6, the one that ended up in the Köchel catalogue: Mozart apparently copied it as a model for his own works in 1764, when he was all of eight years old. This is in fact the most interesting of the six pieces on a new CPO recording featuring excellent performances by the chamber group known as La Stagione Frankfurt, conducted by Michael Schneider. For one thing, the central Andante of Op. 7, No. 6 is in C minor and hints at the level of emotion that other composers, Mozart included, would later pack into minor-key movements and (in Mozart’s case) into ones in C minor in particular. The song-like central movements of Abel’s Op. 7, Nos. 2 and 4 also had their influence. Today these works sound straightforward, and no one would argue that they are symphonies of great importance, but they remain very pleasant to hear, and it is easy to see why audiences in Abel’s time found them so attractive.

     In the 19th century, a time of greater individual display by instruments and performers, Paganini long stood out as the violinist above all violinists, and his concertos remain outstanding virtuoso vehicles as well as finely constructed and elegantly presented – and very Rossinian – orchestral works. But Paganini was a virtuoso not only on the violin but also on the viola and guitar, and his chamber compositions featuring these and other instruments have never become particularly well-known. Many are fairly close to the salon-music genre, and they do not have the spectacular fireworks of virtuosity called for in the concertos. Yet they are highly attractive pieces, in which Paganini’s ability to make the violin and viola nearly equal to other instruments shows him to be a composer of more sensitivity than he is usually credited with possessing. A very-well-played new Proprius CD includes what is rather grandly termed Paganini’s complete works for violin or viola with cello and guitar – a statement that is a bit much because the complete set includes exactly three pieces. The viola is featured in Serenata in C and Terzetto Concertante, the violin in Terzetto in D. The Serenata dates to 1808, the two works marked Terzetto to 1833, but there is little stylistic difference among the three pieces. The violin/viola parts are virtuosic, although not extremely so, and the music seems balanced between Classical elegance and Romantic expressiveness. The guitar writing is particularly attractive – the instrument sounds much like a harp in the Terzetto Concertante – and the interplay of the instruments is handled with skill and a sure sense of each instrument’s capabilities in a chamber-music context. The Serenata is followed on this recording by a Polacca written by Paganini’s granddaughter, Nicola, which actually shows up in manuscript as the fourth of the work’s five movements – here the performers remove it, play the four movements of the Serenata as the composer intended, then offer the Polacca as a kind of appendix. And a pleasantly tuneful one it is, being very much in keeping with everything else on the disc.

     By the 20th century, musical trifles had changed considerably in character. Not all listeners would consider Walton’s Façade to be a minor work, despite its thoroughgoing playfulness and the extremely short duration of most of its 22 movements (only six last as long as two minutes). There was indeed some serious avant-garde thinking about poetry perpetrated here, within the words of Edith Sitwell and in their relationship with the instruments chosen by Walton to illustrate the poems if not necessarily to flesh them out: flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, cellos and percussion. But even in the service of a specific set of ideals, the poetry comes across as trifling with listeners. It is filled with amusing wordplay and silliness, with pervasive rhymes that exist as verbal petit fours – delicacies that sweetly tickle the auditory palate without ultimately possessing much of nutritional value. Carole Boyd and Zeb Soanes are first-rate reciters and very much in the spirit of Façade in a new recording from Orchid Classics, and the instrumental ensemble led by John Wilson is as jazzily bright and bouncy as anyone could wish. Americans, however, will wish for the texts of the poems, which are not provided and not readily accessible online: the complexity of Sitwell’s language and the accents of the reciters combine to make parts of this Façade harder to follow than they ought to be. On the plus side, there is a fascinating bonus on the CD: a 27-minute interview with Sitwell that originally was heard on the BBC in 1955 and that deals explicitly with Façade as well as with other issues of poetry and Sitwell’s fascinating family (including brothers Sacheverell and Osbert). Hearing Sitwell – by this time designated Dame Edith – hold forth on everything from her early work, to writing for film, to the meaning and importance of poetry, results in a fascinating juxtaposition of seriousness with the often-sarcastic amusement that is Façade. Indeed, listeners who pay close attention to what Sitwell had to say 60-plus years ago may well decide that the apparently flippant nature of Façade is there to conceal something a great deal more portentous and thoughtful – and thus that, in fact, the work itself is a kind of façade. Sitwell (1887-1964) would no doubt have enjoyed just such a meta-analysis and meta-reaction to her pleasantly piquant little poems.

June 01, 2017

(++++) MISBEHAVING


Toad on the Road. By Stephen Shaskan. Harper. $17.99.

The Fish Who Cried Wolf. By Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.

     Here are two cautionary tales – Toad on the Road is actually labeled as one – with very different outcomes, both of which are happy. A happy ending would not seem to be in the offing for the big-eyed, smiling little toad who sits in the middle of a road playing with (rather than trying to eat) a fly. Stephan Shaskan finds a series of exclamatory and almost-rhyming ways to warn the toad about oncoming danger: “Oh yikes! Oh yikes! It’s a Bear on a bike!” And “My stars! My Stars! It’s a Croc in a car!” And so on. After each warning, Shaskan proclaims, “Everyone shout: Look out! Look out!” But the little toad is never hurt – it is the vehicles and their drivers that inevitably go “SKID! SCREECH! BAM!” in enormous comic-book-style letters indicative of plenty of unseen mayhem. The drivers – Bear, Croc and then a mustachioed “Vole in a van” – warn the little toad to get out of the road and ask, “What do you think your mama would say?” Toad and readers eventually find out, when along comes mama driving, of all things, a tow truck – which, on the book’s last page, is hooked up to all the damaged vehicles and getting ready to tow them, as mama cuddles her careless but business-producing little toad and the fly produces a heart-shaped flight pattern above them. Was the little toad deliberately playing in the road to drum up business? Was he merely careless, and lucky that the drivers swerved in time? Are the drivers lucky that the little toad’s mama drives a tow truck, or are they being taken in by a scam of some kind? The book does not answer any of these questions, which are perhaps too cynical for a charmingly written and neatly illustrated work for ages 4-8. On the other hand, young readers often pick up subtleties in ways that surprise parents and other adults. Toad on the Road is dedicated to Shaskan’s mother, who, the author says, used to “affectionately tell him and his sister to ‘get out of the house and play in traffic.’” Perhaps there is nothing more to the story than that. Or perhaps there is a business proposition here – at least if you are a toad living in a place where bears, crocs and voles come driving along the road.

     The proposition in The Fish Who Cried Wolf is as timely and offbeat today as it was when the book first appeared in 2008. Crying wolf, as even very young children soon learn, is a bad thing to do: you attract attention by claiming that something bad is true when it is not, and as a result, when something bad does happen, no one believes you. That is exactly what happens to a little fish named Tiddler in Julia Donaldson’s story: “Tiddler was a fish with a big imagination./ He blew small bubbles but he told tall tales.” Tiddler is habitually late for school, always showing up with a story that the teacher and most other students find quite unbelievable: he was riding a seahorse, diving with a dolphin, stuck in a treasure chest until a mermaid released him, and so on. But there is one student, Little Johnny Dory, who enjoys Tiddler’s stories even if he does not quite believe them. And because enjoyable stories are fun to share, he tells his granny about Tiddler’s supposed adventures. And she enjoys the tales, too, passing them along to other ocean denizens, who then pass them along to still others. Soon there is a chain of storytelling – one that serves Tiddler well when something bad really does happen to him. One day, Tiddler gets caught by fishermen – but after they haul in their net, they realize he is too small to keep, so they toss him back into the water. Tiddler then finds himself in a place he has never been, lost and understandably frightened by the strange creatures he is encountering – for real, this time. Now what? After several frights and mishaps, Tiddler hears stories being told by some anchovies – and they are Tiddler’s stories! He asks where the tiny fish heard them, and they say they got the tales from a shrimp – who says he heard of Tiddler from a whale. The whale heard from a herring, who heard from an eel, and so on – bit by bit, Tiddler works his way through the storytelling chain until finally, finally, he makes it to school just as the day is ending. And now he has the best story of all: that “a STORY led me home again.” Of course, everyone disbelieves Tiddler, as usual – except, as usual, Little Johnny Dory, who tells this latest story “to a writer friend/ who wrote it down for YOU!” And that, it seems, is exactly how The Fish Who Cried Wolf came to be. It is a delightfully self-referential conclusion to a light and amusing book, whose Axel Scheffler illustrations accurately portray many ocean dwellers while making the fish and other creatures just anthropomorphic enough to carry the story along effectively. And that’s not too tall a tale.

(+++) WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?


Target Omega: A Thriller. By Peter Kirsanow. Dutton. $26.

     Herewith, an all-purpose paragraph suitable for speaking by the hero of any book that labels itself a thriller and has the word “target” in the title: “Mayhem is about to ensue. When I find out who did this, when this is over, I am going to kill them all. Every one of them. Every man. Every woman. Children, if they did this. Babies, if they were involved. I will kill their dogs and their cats. I will kill their hamsters. I will kill their goldfish. I will kill their shrubbery. I will kill their lawns. I will kill every blade of grass, every dandelion, every piece of crabgrass. I will kill their trees. I will kill their bushes. I will make sure they can never, never, do anything like this again. Until the next book.”

     Now, that specific paragraph appears nowhere in Target Omega, although portions of it actually do. And they are so formulaic, so typical of the “thriller” genre, that they are almost funny, except that of course you are not supposed to laugh – you are supposed to be mesmerized by the exploits of the steely-eyed, ultra-powerful hero who is forced by horrific circumstances to take on legions of nameless and faceless multinational enemies and captivate everyone he encounters with his steel-trap mind as well as his ultimate proficiency with weapons of all sorts, including various lethally employed parts of his own body.

     If all this sounds much like what James Bond and innumerable Bond wannabes have done since the days of Ian Fleming (who died as long ago as 1964), that is indeed the vein of heroism and international intrigue into which Peter Kirsanow taps, although he does not quite bleed it dry (that would prevent sequels). Kirsanow crosses the Bond formula with a kind of James Grady Six Days of the Condor “sleeper agent” narrative – except that Kirsanow’s pacing is more like that of Three Days of the Condor, the movie that was made from Grady’s novel and used a supposedly even-more-thrilling title, “six days” having been deemed insufficiently frenetic. You know the type of narration: every chapter starts with a date and time (the latter in the appropriate time zone to agree with the thrilling setting where the latest thrilling events take place). As for the plot, it is the type usually described as “ripped from the headlines,” because it involves explosive Middle East tensions, Russian and Iranian cooperative duplicity (or duplicitous cooperation), North Korean evil and sneakiness, threats to the very existence of Israel and perhaps the United States, and the hyper-heroic but vastly overmatched good guys facing off against the standard cast of feckless and/or duplicitous bureaucrats. The bad guys are invariably ugly, usually described as reptilian or, in the case of one of them, as resembling “a bloated frog” and “a well-dressed toad.” And there is even a “Bond girl” here, complete with “a smokin’ body,” although, this being the 21st century rather than Fleming’s 20th, she is a) extremely brainy and efficient, and b) black.

     As for characterization, there is none. Charisma, yes – hero Mike Garin has that in spades and every other suit in a deck of cards. There is one unintentionally hilarious reminiscence in which he single-handedly rescues top American operatives from certain death at the hands of unending mounds of charging Taliban fanatics, through a maneuver that strains even the minimal credulity required for reading books like this.  And the unintentional hilarity does not stop there, or with Garin’s exploits. In one crucial and surpassingly far-fetched scene, a single ultra-powerful bad guy armed with a major and very conspicuous military weapon appears in downtown Washington, D.C., during rush hour – a time so well-known for what it does to traffic that the perpetual slowdowns are mentioned repeatedly in the book – and manages to find a hole in the incessant traffic exactly large enough to allow him to blow up several vehicles, kill a bunch of the people in them, and kidnap someone, all without harming any bystanders or, for that matter, attracting any attention from them. The absurdity here mounts to such a crescendo that Kirsanow even has his rather dim characters express surprise at how the bad guy pulled it off. Hint: authorial assistance.

     Every single plot element in Target Omega has been used before, again and again: Garin has to have some connection with humanity, so at one point he has to rescue his sister, who knows a deep, dark secret about her brother and is in her way just as tough as he is in his. Betrayals and double-crosses are a must, and they are plentiful here. Enemies in high places, indeed the highest ones, are needed and are dutifully supplied. Terrible things are inevitably telegraphed through prose that practically screams, “Formula!” One single example among many: “Life was good. And joyous. And fun. And it was about to get even better.” Guess what happens within five paragraphs?

     For all its veneer of seriousness and geopolitical awareness, Target Omega contains absolutely nothing that can be taken the slightest bit seriously by anyone who wants to enjoy the book. And it is enjoyable in its fast-paced, highly cinematic, rat-a-tat-tat progress, whipsawing readers around the world and piling up improbability upon improbability so Garin will be completely, totally, 100% isolated from everything that is good and righteous and important and meaningful and left to, quite literally, save the world on his own. Except for a couple of helpers – for instance, the brilliant analyst recently dragged into government service who is a genuine seer, able to figure things out so well that he is nicknamed the Oracle, and who, like any good seer in a book like this, is blind. Kirsanow, a debut author who actually works for the federal government (uh-oh), has picked the bones of his chosen genre clean in practically every way in creating this thrilling but exceedingly vapid compilation of stereotypical plot lines and characters (including a never-seen behind-the-scenes puppet master who, in James Bond’s world, would have been patiently stroking a white cat). It is a fair bet that any clichés missed in this book will be picked up and trotted out in the sequel. The only real question is what Kirsanow can call the next Garin novel, since “omega” is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. Maybe something from Latin. How about Target: E Pluribus Unum? You heard it here first.

(+++) ACTION! ADVENTURE! NO SURPRISES!


Bodyguard 1: Recruit. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.

Bodyguard 2: Hostage. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.

Bodyguard 3: Hijack. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.

Bodyguard 4: Ransom. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.

     The most complex thing involving Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard series is figuring out which books are which. The first two are really a single book called Hostage, published in England – where Bradford lives – in 2013, now split in half in such a way that Recruit ends pretty much in the middle of a paragraph (as well as at a high point of the action) and readers must, absolutely must, have Hostage (U.S. edition) to figure out where things are going. Likewise, the second two Bodyguard books in the U.S. are actually a single book called Ransom, published across the pond in 2014 and now unceremoniously (but presumably profitably) split in the same way as the first U.S. pair.

     Once you get past the rather odd packaging, what you get in the Bodyguard series is a very skillful transfer of standard-issue martial-arts adventure/fantasy books in which a highly skilled central character is charged with protecting various important (and never very well-fleshed-out) characters from various evil (and never very well-fleshed-out) bad guys. The target audience here is not, however, adults: the 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 idea here is that a 14-year-old kickboxing champion named Connor Reeves is recruited into the usual top-secret organization that needs someone just like him. This is a private-duty rather than government group, and it is charged with protecting teenagers such as celebrities and the kids of politicians and business bigwigs. That means the organization needs top-tier kids to protect the other kids, and that leads to Connor’s recruitment, which will seem inevitable to readers when they find out, as they quickly do, that Connor’s father was himself a super-skilled bodyguard who laid down his life on the job and whom Connor very much wants to emulate (except for the part about dying).

     Nothing in the books proceeds in any unexpected way, and this is both a strength (readers will enjoy the novels because they will know exactly what to expect, even without knowing from just which direction just what type of danger will come) and a weakness (the books never make the slightest attempt to break outside the formulas and expectations of their genre). The first two books in their U.S. versions start with Connor’s recruitment and the expected rigors of his training in unarmed combat, hostage survival, surveillance, and blending in so seamlessly that the bad guys will not realize Connor’s abilities until it is too late for them (a recurring theme). Once the basics are out of the way, Connor must protect the teenage daughter of the U.S. president from a terrorist cell. Here are some cell members: “His coal-black eyes bored into Hazim’s as he searched for the slightest evidence of doubt, any flicker of cowardice. Hazim held Malik’s stare. ‘I’m well aware of the dangers, Uncle. And I’m resolved to my calling.’ Malik grinned in satisfaction, licking the stew from his yellow-stained teeth. ‘Excellent.’” That’s about it for characterization – which is scarcely the point here, since Connor himself is a type rather than a believable human being. There are occasional nods here to 21st-century reality and/or political correctness: the president’s daughter is named Alicia Rosa Mendez, and the president is Antonio Mendez. But by and large, names and ethnic origins and backgrounds are there only to fill a small amount of space between the action scenes, which are nicely spaced out and written to keep readers moving right along. It is also important for Connor to encounter people with doubts about him, so he can overcome those doubts. Thus, in his initial outing, he gets a lecture from Dirk Moran, the director of the Secret Service, to the effect that “no young upstart – whose only qualifications are a few weeks’ training and a bodyguard for a father – will jeopardize our mission!” Like many adults in these books, both good guys and bad, Moran talks in pronouncements rather than speech. But, again, character development here takes a seat so far back that it is not even in the same vehicle as the fast-paced, superficial plotting.

     So Connor goes about his job of befriending and unobtrusively protecting Alicia as well as possible, even though she is somewhat flighty and inclined to do things that put her in danger (there would be no book, or rather no two-book grouping, if she didn’t). Things get increasingly complicated, of course, with a series of bombings, Alicia’s and Connor’s kidnaping, and the usual inability of supposedly expert adults to take care of things that only Connor can handle. “He was as scared as she was, but he couldn’t allow his own fears to spiral out of control. He had to remain strong – for both their sakes.” Matters eventually get so bad that the President and First Lady can do nothing but pray – yes, Bradford actually says they “sank to their knees and began praying for a miracle.” Connor eventually produces the miracle, and he and Alicia are saved, and he gets some suitable “war wounds” to carry into the future, and a mysterious character who has financed the whole evil operation shows up to prevent the surviving terrorist leader from telling anything to anyone (look for that evil mastermind, or his boss or boss’ boss, to return in a later book!). And eventually Connor gets a nice kiss from Alicia and is headed for his next assignment.

     This one involves protecting the twin daughters of someone who is definitely not named Murdoch but just happens to be an Australian media baron (actual name in this adventure: Maddox Sterling). Having faced off against evil on land, Connor in Hijack and Ransom (the third and fourth U.S. books) gets to do so at sea, aboard a yacht, where the bad guys – Somali pirates – are motivated not by ideology but simply by money. Instead of a Secret Service leader condemning Connor’s inexperience and objecting to his presence, this time there is Captain Locke: “‘As captain I have ultimate authority over all matters of safety and security. If you see something suspicious or there is a security breach of any sort, you’re to report it immediately. …I do not want you operating on your own. Do you understand?’” Yes, of course – message sent, message received. Also, message irrelevant, as readers will instantly realize that it will soon prove to be. Connor initially works this case with another guardian, Ling, while the shadowy evil called Equilibrium continues to insert itself – and its poison-delivering pen nib – into minor characters. Then Ling is sent away by one of the media mogul’s twin daughters, for behaving too much like a guardian: Connor “recognized that Ling’s manner might have been abrasive and heavy-handed, but there were genuine threats to the girls’ lives.” But of course the girls will have none of this – especially Chloe, who (like Alicia in the first adventure) feels put-upon and deprived: “My father allows me no freedom at home, and puts me under so much pressure to succeed at school that I need to let off some steam. Otherwise I’ll go stir-crazy.” Chloe thinks the big problem is Emily, who was kidnaped in the past, alerting their father to all the dire possibilities of life even though, gosh, Chloe herself never got kidnaped or anything like that. Then the pirates strike, all the adults are captured and put out of action, and once again it is left to Connor, whom the pirates make the mistake of underestimating, to save the day. This involves betrayals and shootings, with Connor making split-second decisions about good and bad guys, getting shot (but of course not killed!), and at one point being saved from certain death by a mysterious man who “struck [Connor] as a shark who could slip any net” and of course has done exactly that, since there are more books to come. In fact, Bradford is producing the books at the rate of one a year: Ambush came out in 2015 and Target in 2016 in U.K. editions, and both are to be split in two for U.S. consumption. Assassin is due out in the U.K. later this year and Fugitive next year, by which time readers will presumably have learned all about Equilibrium and gotten all sorts of additional insight into the adventures, if not the nearly nonexistent character, of the heroic Connor Reeves.