September 22, 2016

(++++) FABULOUS INDEED


Bertram and His Fabulous Animals. By Paul T. Gilbert. Pictures by Minnie H. Rousseff and Barbara Maynard. Pomegranate Kids. $24.95.

     Books do not have to be monumentally consequential to be absolutely delightful entertainments for kids. In fact, it helps if at least some of them, instead of dutifully reflecting gigantic real-world issues and disputes, exist in their own unreal, generally pleasant world, as escapes from some of the rigors and tremors of everyday life. This may have been better understood in 1937, when Paul T. Gilbert's Bertram and His Fabulous Animals was first published, than it is today, when books with social or sociopolitical messages are all the rage, the operative word indeed often being “rage.”

     There is a modicum of anger in Bertram’s world, but only a touch here and there. It is usually directed at highly imaginative Bertram himself, or directed by Bertram at the many and varied creatures he encounters in and around his home. Bertram is fortunate to live in a town where all sorts of animals, real and fanciful, turn up at the drop of a hat – all of them able to communicate with him, his friends and his family. He is also fortunate to live near Omaha, since that is the place from which his father inevitably returns from doing business in order to set things right when, equally inevitably, they go wrong.

     Bertram and His Fabulous Animals is a sequel to Bertram and His Funny Animals, which appeared three years earlier and had Bertram interacting with real-world animals that were drawn with some realism by Minnie H. Rousseff and that behaved in some ways like real animals (except for the facts that they talked, turned up on local streets and in local yards, and so forth). These tales are not exactly a prototype of the Calvin and Hobbes situation, since Hobbes was only a stuffed animal to everyone except Calvin, while the animals with which Bertram interacts are quite real not only to him but also to all those around him. And that includes the animals that are distinctly unreal, which are the ones in Bertram and His Fabulous Animals. This is more of a “lessons learned” book than its predecessor, since in several cases here, Bertram wishes he had a fantasy animal because he wants or does not want to do something – but when he gets the animal, he gets his comeuppance. In the 1930s, homes were still heated by coal, which was heavy, messy and difficult to shovel, so of course Bertram resents having to stoke the furnace all the time and wishes he had a fire-breathing dragon. The thing is, when he gets one, it turns out that Bertram has to stoke the dragon with coal so it can breathe enough fire to keep the house warm. And after he wishes that his little brother, Baby Sam, were a mermaid, because then mermaid Sam could bait Bertram’s fishing hook with worms and Bertram would not have to push Sam in the buggy, Bertram actually meets a mermaid – who does help with fishing but also smells tremendously of fish, so the town cats follow her and Bertram constantly, and on top of that, the mermaid insists on being pushed in the buggy even more than Bertram ever had to push Baby Sam in it.

     Bertram’s father is quite good at sorting things out eventually, even when those things involve fabulous animals of which readers will never have heard. Those animals – as described by Gilbert and pictured by Rousseff and Barbara Maynard – are among the big attractions here, creating a kind of surrealistic weirdness in the chapters in which they appear. One is a “Squeazle-Weasel,” which looks a bit like a four-limbed spider walking upright and which has extremely picky eating habits – teaching Bertram that he should stop being so fussy about food. Another is an “Anting-Anting,” a 17-legged caterpillar-like creature the size of a dachshund, whose diet turns out to consist of all the clothing in Bertram’s house except for the corduroys that Bertram had been refusing to wear but for which he is eventually grateful. And a third is a “Miki-Miki,” who is “perfectly round and green, and he looked like a big gooseberry on ducks’ legs” – and who is quite generous with his food, which consists entirely of sweets, until eventually Bertram has had enough of all the candies and such that he had previously demanded constantly. Yes, a lot of Bertram and His Fabulous Animals revolves around food, but not all of it. Bertram also encounters a griffin, unicorn, baby dinosaur, roc and winged horse here, and in every chapter comes out a bit worse for wear but a bit better-behaved and perhaps a touch more self-aware. Still, this is a book of amusing fantasy, not one intended to instruct, much less lecture; and it is therefore an anodyne for all the painfully message-heavy books for young readers that have become de rigueur among contemporary authors. There is nothing really contemporary about Bertram’s adventures and Gilbert’s recounting of them. Bertram and His Fabulous Animals is simply a book of naïveté and unassuming charm, two characteristics that are in distinctly short supply in more-recent books for children.

(++++) NINJAS AND FELINES


Fly Guy’s Ninja Christmas. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

The Ninjabread Man. By C.J. Leigh. Pictures by Chris Gall. Scholastic. $16.99.

Folk Tale Classics: Puss in Boots. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door. By Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

     Hmm. Not sure how much ninjas have to do with winter holidays and folk tales. But they are the attraction of new books by Tedd Arnold and C.J. Leigh. offering a heaping helping of absurdity and silliness lathered onto territory that would otherwise be familiar. In Arnold’s Fly Guy’s Ninja Christmas, the title-character pet who can say his boy’s name watches Buzz read a book about “ninjazzzz” on Christmas Eve and becomes excited when Buzz explains that the next day there will be “prezentzz!” But unfortunately Fly Guy does not have a gift for Buzz, so he cannot sleep. And then he spots a stranger in the house and goes into ninja action, knocking down none other than Santa Claus, or “Zanta,” as Fly Guy puts it. The tree gets knocked down, too, but Buzz wakes up and helps put everything to rights, then goes back to bed – awakening on Christmas morning thinking what a cool dream he had. Then it is gift time, but Buzz cannot find Fly Guy anywhere, until he opens a beautifully wrapped present and finds in it – Fly Guy himself! “You are the best present ever!” says Buzz. And there is more in the box: a ninja suit, courtesy of Santa – and, on the last page (and in one of Arnold’s funniest and most ridiculous drawings), there is a ninja suit for Fly Guy as well, his Christmas gift from Buzz. As Christmas stories go, this one will never overtake anything by Charles Dickens, but as Fly Guy stories go, it will be a pleasant seasonal amusement for fans of the series.

     Leigh’s The Ninjabread Man gives a ninja twist to the folk tale of the gingerbread man who runs away and taunts those chasing him until he gets his comeuppance. That is exactly the story here, but the ninja elements – including the cookie’s very amusing ninja-frosting costume, very well rendered by Chris Gall – keep everything fresh. That includes the freshly baked cookie, made by “a little old sensei” whose ninja students are a bear, a snake (whose ninja costume is the best of the lot), a mouse, and a fox. The scenes of the ninjas training are delightful, but the successful baking of the “dangerously delicious” ninjabread man is what sets the main thread of the story going. As in the original tale, the cookie escapes from the oven and runs away, but that is not enough for this version: the ninjabread man also challenges the students, causing the bear to lose his balance, defeating the snake in a battle of throwing stars, and tripping the mouse during a sword fight. But he meets his match in the wily fox, as in the original story: brains and trickery succeed where brawn, speed and ninja skills alone do not. There is a delicious afterword here, too, in the form of a recipe for ninjabread cookies, which of course are simply molasses-rich gingerbread confections decorated “with frosting, raisins, and candies” to look like any ninja you may want to design.

     And speaking of brains and trickery, for a very finely illustrated and far more straightforward version of a classic tale, there is Paul Galdone’s 1976 version of Puss in Boots, now available in a new Folk Tale Classics edition. Galdone here offers a mixture of highly realistic illustrations, such as the initial one of the elderly miller and his three sons, and fanciful pictures, notably those of Puss the cat in his many shrewd-looking, humanlike poses with his sly, knowing expressions. This is not a sugar-coated version of the story – Puss catches a rabbit, a pair of partridges and some fish and gives them to the king for supper on his master’s behalf, and the king is quite happy to accept the game and order it prepared for eating. The role of the miller’s son in this tale is simply to accept everything Puss tells him to do, and that goes very well for him indeed. Galdone’s Puss does not seem intimidating enough to frighten haymakers and reapers into telling the king that they are vassals of the Marquis of Carabas – the name Puss chooses for his supposedly lordly master – but this is, after all, a folk tale, and best accepted at face value. The way Puss outwits the evil giant/sorcerer is a highlight of the story and the book: this is the place where Puss relies on his basic nature as a cat to gobble up the giant, whom he has tricked into turning himself into a mouse. The happily-ever-after ending fits this tale’s mixture of fun and drama particularly well, and Galdone’s rendering of all the scenes, including the final one of a contented Puss – his red boots now removed – resting on pillows and sporting a self-satisfied smile, is particularly apt.

     The art is also a major attraction of Those Darn Squirrels and the Cat Next Door, although Adam Rubin’s supremely silly story is amusing enough on its own. Originally published in 2011 and now available in paperback, this is the tale of Old Man Fookwire in the winter, irritated as usual by the highly intelligent and mischievous squirrels that share his property, and now doubly irritated when Little Old Lady Hu moves in nearby and brings along her cat, Muffins. “He was a real jerk,” Rubin writes, and Daniel Salmieri draws him just that way: Muffins is huge, super-furry, with tiny legs and a perpetually crafty, sly or scowling expression. As the squirrels continue to make trouble for Fookwire – for example, by eating the delicious pie that Little Old Lady Hu, the town baker, makes as a neighborly gift – the cat makes trouble for the squirrels, giving them noogies and wedgies and tying their tails together and generally being a bully and pest in ways that Salmieri clearly relishes depicting. Little Old Lady Hu, who thinks Muffins is adorable and calls him “shnookums,” refuses to see how dastardly the cat is, so the squirrels use their cleverness to devise a plan to humiliate the cat. And none too soon: even the birds, which are among the few pleasures in grumpy Fookwire’s life, have become so upset by Muffins that they “flew up to the treetops and refused to come down.” The birds, though, are an integral part of the squirrels’ revenge plans, and sure enough, when Muffins chases them, the cat is doused with water from a squirrel-built trap sprung by the fleeing birds – and Muffins turns out to be a “pathetic wretch…no bigger than a squirrel,” so embarrassed by his thinness and overall scrawny appearance that he slinks away and becomes a house cat. And all ends happily as Little Old Lady Hu makes friends with birds and squirrels alike, Fookwire resumes painting – one of the few things he enjoys – and Muffins is left to scowl and grump at himself, as different a cat from Puss in Boots as it is possible to be.

(+++) SERIES EVER ONWARD


The 39 Clues Superspecial: Outbreak. By C. Alexander London. Scholastic. $13.99.

Swindle #8: Jingle. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.

     At long last The 39 Clues appears to be winding down. This highly popular, multi-series sequence that helped promote the notion of books as but one part of a multimedia experience requiring readers to do active mystery-solving online as well as within the novels’ pages, has gone through four complete book sequences, the most recent being Doublecross. Now comes what appears to be a single, standalone novel designated Superspecial, titled Outbreak, written by C. Alexander London, who was also the author of the second Doublecross novel, Mission Hindenburg. This Superspecial differs from the series volumes in various ways, partly in price (it costs a dollar more) and partly in its lack of accompanying cards (real or virtual) to be tied into online activities – although it still provides a Web address at which readers can “find exciting missions and connect with fellow Cahills.” In Outbreak, it is assumed that readers are members of the super-powerful Cahill clan that has managed and manipulated human history for many centuries. Readers need to be familiar with the overall Cahill history for Outbreak to make complete sense. Dan is currently the leader of the Cahills, and in this book is 14 years old (not 11 or 13, as in earlier series); that makes Amy 19, which means she is almost an adult – another sign that this long-running sequence may finally have run long enough. The story of Outbreak is a familiar one in the usual twisty style of The 39 Clues, involving locations around the world, a deadly virus, and a former friend named Sinead Sterling who turned traitor but may have turned back to a Cahill supporter and may be trying to prevent release of the virus instead of trying to arrange for it to destroy the world. The good-or-bad uncertainty is part and parcel of The 39 Clues, as are the globe-hopping and the potentially nefarious deed involving a possibly deadly substance of some sort. Having dutifully, if not very stylishly, contributed to the series before, London pulls Outbreak along in all the expected directions, avoiding any stamp of distinctive style (as all the authors in this series must be careful to do) but being careful to produce enough cliffhangers and turns to keep readers interested, if perhaps not really on edge. Unsurprisingly, the book ends with a dramatic, painful and emotionally wrenching sacrifice that is followed by a suitable twist. More surprisingly, the book actually ends, rather than concluding, as earlier volumes have, with distinct hints of where the series will go next. That could mean The 39 Clues has gone about as far as it can go, or it could mean that future entries will be self-contained, as Outbreak is, rather than part of multi-book sequences. Either way, The 39 Clues has more than made its mark, and if Outbreak does not represent a highly dramatic, bang-up ending, it does show the books concluding – if they have concluded – in much the same way that they have progressed from the start.

     Five of the books in The 39 Clues have been written by Gordon Korman, but ever since Flashpoint, the 2014 conclusion of the Unstoppable series, he has turned his attention elsewhere – for instance, to the Swindle series, which has now reached its eighth volume, Jingle. Yes, this is a Christmas-themed novel, but otherwise it has all the characteristics of its seven predecessors, ranging from the machinations of Griffin Bing (“the man with the plan”) to the barely containable enthusiasm of the Doberman, Luthor. To as great an extent as the books in The 39 Clues, those in the Swindle series feature formulaic plotting and formulaic characters – which means that Jingle will be fun for those who already know Griffin and his comrades, and will be a pretty good entry point to the series for anyone who picks the book up, enjoys it simply as a seasonal read, and at the end wants to know about other books along the same lines. In Jingle, the annoying Logan signs Griffin and pals up without their consent to act as elves in Cedarville’s traditional holiday performance, the Santa’s Workshop Holiday Spectacular. As usual, Logan has his own reasons for this – he wants to be an actor and is trying to raise his chances of getting into the North Shore Players group – but all that really matters here is that the signup gets the plot going. That plot involves all sorts of typical seasonal and Griffin-ish elements, such as a faintly unpleasant biker playing Santa and the usual disagreeableness of abusive classmate/nemesis Darren Vader. What turns this into a mystery – all the Swindle books are mysteries – is the theft of the Star of Prague, a multimillion-dollar-artifact, from atop the tree in the Colchester mansion. At the top of the list of suspects are Griffin and his group, in light of their various over-planned adventures (and consequent run-ins with the law) in the past. Of course this requires Griffin to come up with a plan to find the real thief, and of course the plan needs to be over-complicated and lead to even stronger suspicions being directed at Griffin and company, and of course everything has to come to a climax when the precious object is supposedly destroyed. But of course it is not, the culprit is found, the various skeins of this yarn are suitably untangled, and the scene is set for a new year that is as likely as not to contain another overdone-but-simplistic adventure of Griffin and the gang.

(+++) MORE THAN TRUE GRIT


Fire in My Eyes: An American Warrior’s Journey from Being Blinded on the Battlefield to Gold Medal Victory. By Brad Snyder and Tim Sileo. Da Capo. $25.99.

     Multimillionaire sports figures who metaphorically spit on the United States by deliberately disrespecting its flag, national anthem and other symbols, while retaining every bit of the grotesque amounts of money the country has made it possible for them to make in return for doing meaningless things of no value or importance whatsoever in some “professional” “game,” really ought to read a book such as Fire in My Eyes, if they have sufficient attention span for it (doubtful). The wealthy pond scum would surely be unable to “relate to” the pride taken by Brad Snyder in his work, in the military and in his country. But maybe, just maybe, they could relate to his success in athletics – one year after being blinded on the battlefield in defense of a country where ignorant fools have every right to pocket millions while pretending to care about “social justice” or anything else beyond lining their own pockets and singing their own praises.

     Yes, it was one year to the day after he set off an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan in an explosion that threw bomb fragments into his right hand and across his face – costing him both his eyes – that Lieutenant Snyder won the gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle at the Paralympic Games in London in 2012. The one-year anniversary of an event such as Snyder’s blinding is referred to by wounded veterans as “Alive Day,” and that is certainly what it was for Snyder.

     By the way, he lost his sight while rapidly clearing a path to allow fellow service members to rescue two men who had been severely wounded by a previous IED explosion. No word on those men’s skin color or politics.

     Interestingly, in his autobiography, written with the assistance of Tom Sileo, Snyder does not simply produce a memoir about recovering from a devastating injury: the IED explosion and recovery take up only the last third of the book, which as a result is weaker than it would have been if more of the focus had been on being blinded and fighting back to win the gold a year later. Snyder’s overall story is one of persistence, which he discusses not only in the context of competitive swimming but also in terms of the leadership lessons he learned at the U.S. Naval Academy. There is a good deal here on what is required to complete one of the most difficult courses in the military: a mental and physical curriculum combining diving and bomb disposal. There is also much here about resilience, but Snyder, for most of the book, avoids delving too deeply into his own physical comeback, instead discussing the devastating emotions called up by loss of friends and loved ones. Snyder is a man who strode willingly, time and again, without multimillion-dollar rewards or any prospect of them, into real and enormous danger, not into some manufactured “sport” arena with everybody padded and re-padded and watched over by officials who prevent anything more than symbolic and minor violence.

     All this is to say that Fire in My Eyes is a story packed with authenticity, and one packed to a great extent – indeed, in many ways too great an extent – with details of military training and deployment. Snyder is not unthinkingly jingoistic, although he is certainly patriotic – and thoughtful about being so. He is also aware, increasingly so in the later part of the book, of the enormous gulf between being an officer in charge of an elite military squad and being a blinded veteran who has trouble putting toothpaste on a toothbrush. Snyder’s unwillingness to dwell on everyday challenges of that sort is admirable, but it makes his book less-compelling reading for anyone who will never serve in a capacity remotely like his. When Snyder does, as the book nears its end, become genuinely thoughtful about his life – when he discusses the metaphor of cane use to bring readers into his now-slow pace of life and warns of the dangers of getting lost in “the Delta,” a dangerous valley between what you used to be and what you have become – the book approaches profundity and from time to time attains it. In its earlier sections, though, and indeed for more than half its length, it is simply too matter-of-fact to draw in readers who lack significant familiarity with (or interest in) modern military training.

     If Fire in My Eyes is flawed, however, the one way in which it excels from start to finish is through Snyder’s humility. Certainly readers are welcome to consider Snyder heroic – and this being a free country, others are entitled to deem him jingoistic and manipulated into harm’s way by the military-industrial complex or something of that ilk. But Snyder himself never dons the “hero” mantle and quite clearly eschews praise and applause – those things for which overpaid “sports” nonentities constantly strive – for himself and his sacrifice. Snyder’s life took him from battlefield heroism to the heroism of everyday existence – something to which readers can relate if they accept that everyone has obstacles to overcome and a life that can change dramatically in an instant. Those who will never encounter an IED owe Snyder thanks and praise, neither of which he seeks. The human garbage that disrespects men like Snyder and the nation they defend – all to allow self-loving trolls to spew their ugly hatred – deserves to be forgotten as surely as Snyder and his sacrifice deserve to be remembered.

(++++) SOMETHING SYMPHONIC


Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6; Waltz Suite. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.

Michael Daugherty: Tales of Hemingway; American Gothic; Once Upon a Castle. Zuill Bailey, cello; Paul Jacobs, organ; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.

Giorgio Gaslini: Murales Promenade; Adagio Is Beautiful; Piano Concerto. Alfonso Alberti, piano; Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento conducted by Yoichi Sugiyama. Stradivarius. $16.99.

Kevin Puts: Symphony No. 2; River’s Rush; Flute Concerto. Adam Walker, flute; Peabody Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $12.99.

     Prokofiev’s most delightful symphony is his first, the “Classical,” but his best and most important are his two from World War II, Nos. 5 and 6. They are something of a pair. The large and imposing three-movement No. 6 has an overall dark cast that contrasts with a certain lightness, if not exactly levity, and a greater sense of triumph over adversity in the four-movement No. 5. That makes No. 5 somewhat more traditional both structurally and emotionally, and means that No. 6 requires a conductor of considerable sensitivity and willingness to take chances for it to have its full effect. Marin Alsop is not that conductor: she tends to be perfunctory and surface-level in most of her interpretations, especially of familiar or relatively familiar works. Yet in her new Naxos recording of Prokofiev’s Sixth with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, part of a Prokofiev cycle that now lacks only his final, seventh symphony, Alsop turns up with an excellent reading almost in spite of herself. Something in the work speaks, if not to her, then to the orchestra, which plays with fervor and intensity fully befitting the music and with considerable sensitivity to the many shades of darkness that Prokofiev here puts on display. Alsop seems more to be carried along with the music than to shape it – her overly fast finale, indeed, almost derails the movement’s effectiveness. But the performance as a whole turns out to be very successful indeed, with the gradations of Prokofiev’s anti-triumphalist writing coming through clearly and the sectional stability of the orchestra allowing the symphony’s many themes and unusual balances to emerge to fine effect. The reality must be that Alsop is responsible for shaping this very fine performance, but it almost feels as if the orchestra is playing without a conductor, with suppleness and sectional sensitivity that bring forth, all in all, a very impressive reading. Alsop seems a stronger presence in the six-movement and altogether lighter Waltz Suite, in which Prokofiev recycled three pieces from Cinderella, two from War and Peace and one from an abandoned film project, Lermontov, into a half-hour suite that explores three-quarter time from a wide variety of angles and with numerous emotional high and low points. The music is neither substantive nor substantial, but it is thoroughly pleasant and showcases ways in which Prokofiev was a worthy, if lesser, successor to Tchaikovsky in the waltz medium. The least-known of the waltzes, Mephisto Waltz from Lermontov, is the biggest surprise of the suite, speeding along with real panache and some particularly interesting turns of phrase. Again the orchestra delivers first-rate playing, and the result is a highly interesting juxtaposition of a 1945-47 symphony that is very serious indeed with a 1946-47 suite that remains determinedly on the frothy side.

     The symphonic nature of three very recent compositions by Michael Daugherty (born 1954) comes through especially clearly on a new Naxos disc that gives all three their world première recordings, all taken from live performances. Daugherty has a fine command of large orchestral forces and a style that, while very clearly modern, does not eschew tonality or emotional communication when those are the tools he needs to make his musical points. The three works here could be collectively called “Portraits.” Tales of Hemingway (2015) is a very symphonic cello concerto that gets a bang-up reading from Zuill Bailey and wonderful accompaniment from the Nashville Symphony under Giancarlo Guerrero. The percussion alone, requiring two players, is remarkable: one performer handles chimes, vibraphone with yarn mallets and bow, marimba, mark tree (a set of bell chimes), suspended cymbal and triangle, while the other is in charge of crotales, glockenspiel, triangle, piccolo snare drum, kick drum, a different suspended cymbal, tambourine, castanets, claves, maracas and another mark tree. The music is not even slightly Mahlerian, but Daugherty uses the percussion complement much as Mahler used his vast orchestral forces: surprisingly delicately, a bit at a time, only rarely bursting forth with the strength and intensity that so large a collection of instruments is capable of delivering. The performers here gave this work its world première concert performance, and that is the live recording heard on the CD. The rather surprising choice of a cello to represent Hemingway ties to the reality that the famously macho author actually played that instrument as a child, in school orchestras. Certainly much of the cello writing is big, almost brassy (an odd adjective for a cello, but there it is); but much of it uses the instrument’s considerable lyrical potential as well. The four movements of the work are named for four Hemingway stories or novels: Big Two-Hearted River, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Sun Also Rises. Daugherty’s subtlety is much in evidence here, in his minimal but clear use of castanets and maracas for the Spanish setting of The Sun Also Rises and his sprinkling of bell sounds throughout For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of having them resound intensely. Tales of Hemingway contrasts interestingly with American Gothic (2013), a three-movement orchestral suite intended to reflect the life and works of Iowa artist Grant Wood and coming across partly as Daugherty’s tribute to his own Iowa childhood. Here too the scope is symphonic. The first movement, On a Roll, is bright and colorful; the second, Winter Dreams, reflects the bleakness of an Iowa winter as well as Wood’s paintings of those cold-weather scenes; and the third, Pitchfork, based on Wood’s most-famous painting, is quirky and witty and amusing and difficult to pin down as to its meaning – much like the painting itself. Also on this attractive CD is Once Upon a Castle (2003/2015), which is an organ concerto and, yet again, a piece of symphonic proportions and scale. The castle here is not a European one but that of William Randolph Hearst in California, famous as a 165-room grand estate, a symbol of “wretched excess,” and part of the inspiration for Orson Welles’ iconic Citizen Kane. Daugherty’s work has as strong a personal stamp here as in American Gothic. He opens with The Winding Road to San Simeon, taking listeners on the five-mile trip through the mountains to Hearst’s monument. Neptune Pool offers strictly contemporary water music, befitting the tremendously over-decorated Olympic-size pool surrounded by statues of Neptune and water nymphs. Rosebud moves into Welles territory and juxtaposes the organ-as-Kane (the Hughes figure in the film) with a solo violin representing his mistress, Susan Alexander (the film’s name for Marion Davies). Paul Jacobs, who gives a wonderful performance throughout, offers especially sonorous material here. The final movement, Xanadu, musically portrays one of the many elegant parties held at Hearst Castle during the 1920s and 1930s. It neatly ties up a suite in which fairy tales about castles, fairy tales Hollywood style, and the real world in which the Hearst castle still exists, are all on display. All of Daugherty’s music on this disc is very American, very contemporary, and at the same time very personal: Daugherty is one composer who has developed, maintained and over time expanded a musical vocabulary all his own.

     There are distinctive elements as well to the musical style of Giorgio Gaslini (1929-2014). His come mainly from jazz, the musical field in which he is best-known. But a new CD on the Stradivarius label shows that he could work effectively in more traditionally classical modes as well. Like Daugherty, Gaslini does not shy from tonality, but while Daugherty’s works tend to be carefully planned and tightly controlled, Gaslini’s often have an improvisational feeling to them even when they are fully written out. As a performer, Gaslini was known as an effective improvisational jazz pianist; the two piano-and-orchestra works on this disc show how he adapted that element of his career to music with a more classical, even symphonic structure. Murales Promenade is a kind of Pictures at an Exhibition, Gaslini style. This four-movement piano concerto dates to 2008 but derives its thematic material from a 30-year-earlier jazz work. In this form, the work was inspired by walking through a Latin American town and seeing a series of large, impressive murals whose subjects varied from the celebratory to the sinister. The colors and forms were often violent and always emotionally expressive, and those are the qualities of Gaslini’s music, which seesaws repeatedly among expressions – from the solemn to the agitated, from the bright and outgoing to the dark and portentous. Murales Promenade is followed on this CD by the strongly contrasting Adagio Is Beautiful, a 1998 piece for 16 strings that shows Gaslini at his most Romantic: it starts in darkness and uncertainty and gradually is transformed into a kind of radiant affirmation. This relatively short work (nine minutes) makes an effective dividing line between the two large concertos heard here. The second of those, simply called Concerto, dates to 2013 and is one of Gaslini’s last works. Interestingly, although Murales Promenade has traditional tempo markings for its four movements and Concerto has descriptive ones (starting with Ursa Major for the first and Terra! for the second), Concerto really does have a more traditionally classical structure and approach. All four movements are traceable to the same seven-note series, and the work as a whole follows an arc not too different from that of Adagio Is Beautiful. After the first two movements, in which Concerto focuses on the dark and the vast emptiness of space, the third movement bears an Italian title that translates as “Echoes of the songs of John Donne in the 21st century,” and the fourth has a title, also in Italian, that can be translated, “Crossed paths – head-on into the wind.” These movements represent a turn to the human and philosophical from the first two movements’ outward focus on nature and the natural universe. The initial darkness of Concerto becomes increasingly exultant – and, interestingly, increasingly tonal – until the work finally ends triumphantly and includes an actual spiritual, indicating in what way Gaslini sees human reaching-out as leading eventually to emotional affirmation. Pianist Alfonso Alberti handles both concertos on the CD skillfully, and the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento under Yoichi Sugiyama provides effective, if rather dutiful, backup, albeit with strings that really shine in Adagio Is Beautiful. Gaslini is not among the best-known contemporary composers, but on the strength of this disc, he is worthy of more attention: unlike many modern composers who insist on adding together classical and jazz elements in ways that often seem awkward or overdone, Gaslini offers more of a jazz sensibility within formal classical models, giving his works – at least the ones heard here – a consistent voice, with more genuineness than is to be found in most music that proclaims itself to be “crossover.” Gaslini’s pieces are more a true blend than a colloidal suspension of jazz and classical elements – that is, they are an altogether smoother and more-complete mixture.

     The music of Kevin Puts (born 1972), available on another new Naxos CD conducted by Marin Alsop, has some interesting elements but is less compelling than that of Daugherty and Gaslini. The three world première recordings here showcase Alsop in her most-effective role, as an advocate of new and less-known music rather than a presenter of well-known works by composers whose reputations are already  solid. Puts’ Symphony No.2 (2002) is one of an innumerable number of well-meaning works responding to the terrorist murders in New York City and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Its introspective sincerity is undoubted, but it is not especially distinctive or evocative in its progression from rather standard evocation of tragedy to a meditative conclusion whose ending in uncertainty reflects the notion of not knowing what lies ahead. It is an occasional work rather than one for the ages. River’s Rush (2004) is also straightforward in presenting the sense of rapidly moving river currents. The work is cast as an orchestral perpetuum mobile featuring a series of short motives. Like any number of other portrayals of flowing water, it inevitably recalls Smetana’s Vltava, which continues to stand far above its imitators and successors. Like the symphony, this tone poem is well-crafted but not really distinguished in any significant way from similar works by other composers. The best piece here is the Flute Concerto (2013/2014), with Adam Walker’s excellent playing complementing the equally fine sound of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra under Alsop – all at the service of a work that, ironically, has a much-more-personal style than the others here even though it also includes more-overt echoes of earlier composers. The lyrical opening of a first movement marked “With great sincerity and affection; flexible, with motion” very definitely recalls Copland in manner and directness of appeal; the second movement, simply labeled Andante, rather oddly (but surprisingly effectively) mixes Mozartian beauty with parody of (or, perhaps, commentary upon) the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 21; and the finale, a toccata marked “Very fast, with tremendous energy,” puts both Walker and the orchestra through some highly exuberant paces whose unflagging high energy makes for a thoroughly rousing conclusion. There is no “big message” in this concerto, and perhaps for that reason it comes across much more directly and successfully than the meaning-heavy Symphony No. 2. The CD as a whole gets a (+++) rating – it is worth having for the concerto alone, and River’s Edge is pleasant enough, but although well-intentioned and well-made, Puts’ Symphony No. 2 has little staying power and ultimately not much to recommend it for repeated hearings.

(+++) SEVERAL ENDINGS IN ONE


Lehár: Giuditta. Christiane Libor, Laura Scherwitzl, Nikolai Schukoff, Ralf Simon, Mauro Peter, Christian Eberl, Rupert Bergmann; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Giuditta was Franz Lehár’s final and favorite stage work. He would live another 14 years after its première in 1934, but aside from a few additions he made in 1937 to Der Graf von Luxemburg, he would create no further operas, or opera/operetta blends, which is what his later works had become. Giuditta was a success when first staged – ratcheting up more performances, at inflated ticket prices, than Richard Strauss’ Arabella in the same season and the same venue. That was the Vienna State Opera, where Lehár had vainly wished since the start of his career to stage one of his works. So for the composer, this was a significant triumph. He even had the full score published – a rarity, and a measure of how good he considered Giuditta to be. Yet the work marked the end of more than Lehár’s own composing career: in a very real sense, as the Nazis consolidated power in Germany and reached into Lehár’s Austria, it marked the end of the sort of world in which Lehár’s music could be created. Soon enough, many Jewish or Jewish-ancestry musical figures associated with the non-Jewish composer would be scattered: tenor Richard Tauber and co-librettist Paul Knepler into exile, co-librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda to eventual death at Auschwitz, and non-Jewish conscientious objector Jarmila Novotná – who created the title role – into exile as well.

     Sumptuously orchestrated, written at considerable length (with more than two hours of music), having a grander instrumental sound than any other work by Lehár, and with several “Tauber arias” intended to display the tenor’s much-admired voice, Giuditta has turned out to be remembered mostly for a soprano aria, the title character’s erotic waltz evocation, Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß. And it is by any account a strange work. This is not for the reasons usually cited, that it is a pale imitation of Carmen, with a titular femme fatale who woos a soldier away from duty, and that it is neither fully operatic (whether through-composed or with recitatives) nor fully an operetta. For one thing, Giuditta is not, at first, a seductress with a series of lovers: she is unhappily married, and she runs off with Octavio seeking true love, which makes her about as unlike Carmen as possible. Giuditta eventually becomes a demimondaine only after Octavio leaves her to fulfill his military duty – the opposite of what Don José does in Carmen. And while the feckless and cowardly Octavio does eventually desert the military and seek out Giuditta, his supposed passion does not even rise to the level of confronting her, much less stabbing her. It is also worth pointing out that Carmen, exactly like Giuditta, was written as a work with spoken dialogue and music – a fact listeners forget because Bizet’s opera is nowadays invariably staged with the recitatives written by Ernest Guiraud.

     In addition, it is useful to note that being a demimondaine was not, in Lehár’s world, a barrier to romantic love: back in 1911, he had written Eva, in which the title character becomes worthy of her lover and of lasting happiness only after spending time in the demimonde. And her lover’s name? Octave! So the later, failed Octavio may seem like the opposite of the successful earlier Octave – except that the composer himself, trying to come to terms with the fast-changing world of the 1930s, said that the most happiness anyone can hope for is to be as resigned to life as Octavio is at the end of Giuditta, regarding all that has been good in his past as merely a fairy tale.

     Worse was to come in the world after Giuditta, but this is a sufficiently depressing attitude to explain much of the neglect of Lehár’s final, generally rather dour work. Giuditta is also a very difficult piece to stage, having been designed for an opera house where sumptuous productions were the norm. And it is difficult to sing, too: the principals’ roles require more vocal heft and quality over a greater range than do most parts elsewhere in Lehár. All this explains the paucity of complete recordings of Giuditta – and the very high hopes interested listeners will have for the new one on CPO, conducted by Ulf Schirmer and using the same orchestra (with, of course, many different players) featured in the 1980 recording starring Edda Moser and Nicolai Gedda and conducted by Willi Boskovsky. With Schirmer at the helm, and Christiane Libor as Giuditta and Nikolai Schukoff singing Octavio, vocal expectations here are particularly lofty: both principals handle Wagner roles, after all, Libor as Brünnhilde and Isolde and Schukoff as Parsifal and Siegmund. Indeed, in their high-powered moments in Giuditta, both are excellent. But in between, their interest seems to flag; or perhaps Schirmer’s does, and he fails to motivate them to handle their dialogue with the same involvement and intensity they offer for their “big” set pieces. The result is a pair of distinctly uneven performances – very, very good when they are good, and very bland otherwise.

     The “second couple” here – Lehár did preserve that traditional element of operetta – has less happy casting. Both Laura Scherwitzl as Anita and Ralf Simon as Pierrino are simply ordinary: their singing has no individuation, and neither does their speaking – they make no real attempt at characterization, much less charm. This is a particular problem in Giuditta because the story itself is so problematical. Giuditta’s motivation for leaving her husband is understandable, although her reasons for marrying him in the first place are never given, and he loves her enough both to defend her honor when it is impugned and then to become searingly angry when the rumors about her prove true (Rupert Bergmann does know how to emote). But Octavio is so feckless, capriciously asking Giuditta to flee with him (to Africa, no less), setting up happy housekeeping in the mode of La Traviata, then getting his marching orders, refusing to tell Giuditta, being discovered, deciding to desert for love, but being afraid of being branded a traitor and therefore not deserting, eventually deserting anyway, then being afraid to confront Giuditta, and so on, that it would take a far better actor than Schukoff to give the audience any sympathy for him. Indeed, the final scene, “some years later,” when Giuditta is a committed but unhappy demimondaine and Octavio is, of all things, a lounge pianist, comes across here as simply pathetic. Actually, one basic problem with Giuditta is that at best it offers pathos, certainly not tragedy and not even effective melodrama: not much actually happens in this work.

     As for CPO’s packaging of the recording, it is simply a disgrace. There is no libretto and no offer of access to one online. There is no way for non-German speakers to follow the dialogue. The synopsis is ridiculously sketchy and outright inaccurate in several places. The whole release is so shoddy that it comes across as a throwaway, and whatever else Giuditta may be, it is not that. The best things here are the Libor and Schukoff performances of the “big” numbers; the very fine recorded sound of this live performance from 2012; and the excellent orchestral playing throughout – if only the singers had consistently delivered at this level! For all those reasons, this Giuditta is very much worth having for fans of Lehár – many of whom may be unfamiliar with it, so thoroughly has it sunk into obscurity. But Giuditta does not here receive what it has never gotten and still deserves: a recording offering a really first-rate, truly operatic performance delivered with the intensity of, say, a particularly compelling Carmen.

September 15, 2016

(++++) POP GO THE BUILDING BLOCKS


LEGO POP-UP: A Journey through the LEGO Universe. By Matthew Reinhart. Scholastic. $29.99.

     More a work of art than a book in any traditional sense, Matthew Reinhart’s marvelous pop-up treatment of LEGO blocks is a delight to examine, a wonder to unfold, and a puzzlement in terms of the audience at which it is aimed and the right thing to do with it after buying it. Because of its complexity and delicacy, this seems definitely not to be something for children – but children will want to marvel at it and to push and pull and construct and gawk at everything Reinhart has created, so maybe it is for children after all. Careful children. LEGO POP-UP is filled with tabs to pull; wheels to turn; small books, within the larger structure, that clip neatly into their designated places; and some utterly marvelous 3-D pop-up constructions that have to be seen to be believed. Even then, it is hard to believe all of them – one stands fully two feet high!

     The marvels are many here. A two-page spread devoted to minifigures explains how they came to be and how carefully they are structured: each consists of nine separate pieces and stands exactly four bricks tall, which is four centimeters or 1.5 inches. A little “Moments in Minifigure History” minibook, whose pages turn by pulling a tab beneath it, shows pre-minifigure LEGO figures, the first (1975) minifigure, the first modern-looking one (a police officer from 1978), and the advent in 1989 of multiple facial expressions. That is a lot to pack into a tiny book that is a small part of a large page. And in fact, everything here is packed full of information – and things to do. The same minifigure page, for instance, includes three turning wheels that reveal different heads, torsos and legs of minifigures, so kids (again, careful ones) can create many mixed minis.

     It is not the details and small elements of Reinhart’s book that will captivate kids and parents alike, though. It is the amazing fold-out structures that he has created. Opening the very first page, for instance, reveals a flashy race car. But at the back of the car, which is the top of the folded-open page, are the number 1 and the instruction, “Lift.” Do that and, lo and behold, the car becomes an amazing-looking, propeller-driven seaplane. And that is not all: restore the structure from plane to car and pull at the front, where there are the number 2 and the instruction, “Pull,” and up leaps a roaring T. rex! The transformation is so remarkable that even someone who studies the construction carefully will have trouble figuring out just how Reinhart did it – and how he thought of doing it, which is perhaps more to the point.

     There are five magnificent foldouts in LEGO POP-UP, and each reveals and explores a different element of the LEGO world. A new LEGO series called NINJAGO, introduced in 2011, may seem at first glance to be out of keeping with earlier LEGO designs; but Reinhart brings it into wonderful focus by showing the masked ninja warriors in a suitably dramatic pose in the large foldout – while producing, beneath them, riding-vehicle and battle-vehicle options that can be changed by pulling on tabs and thus learning the difference among the Ultra Dragon, the Destiny’s Bounty, and the break-apart Ultra Sonic Raider. Capping the entire book is the final 3D creation, the two-foot-tall one, which is in the shape of a skyscraper made up of smaller buildings and trucks and ships and a Ferris wheel and trains and people and even a penguin. No matter how often kids and adults have played with LEGO blocks – which date back to the 1950s, so several generations have been enjoying them – they will never have seen anything like this tower construction. Just examining it closely for its different elements will give families lots of ideas of new things to do with LEGO sets. And that, of course, is part of the point here: Reinhart’s book is a fabulous promotion for LEGO, likely to encourage purchasers to become even more involved in the LEGO world. But that is not all it is. It is a genuine work of art, a souvenir more than worthy of the fascinating, deceptively simple building-block toy it celebrates and commemorates. Yet that brings back the question: for whom is it intended? Tearing or damaging it would be a real shame; but so would failing to open it and gaze at it and pull and push and turn all its various interactive elements. It will be up to each family to decide just who gets access to LEGO POP-UP, for how long, and under what circumstances. It is certainly a keepsake – one that families will want to keep around for as long as anyone enjoys LEGO play.

(++++) WHAT YOU SEE, WHAT YOU GET


I See a Kookaburra! Discovering Animal Habitats around the World. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Illustrations by Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Wild & Wacky Edition 2017. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Originally published in 2005 and now available in paperback, Steve Jenkins’ and Robin Page’s I See a Kookaburra! is a kind of real-life Where’s Waldo? – but with a distinct educational purpose and some fascinating information packed inside. The setup is quite simple: the book shows six different parts of the world, each including eight animals plus one ant (since ants live just about everywhere). It is the execution of the design that makes the book special: only parts of the animals are visible, which means that just as it is difficult to see animals in their natural habitat, so it is difficult to pick all of them out and identify them here. Finding the ants is by no means easy, either. Each two-page spread of a habitat is followed by two pages showing the animals against a plain white background, in the same positions and poses used when showing them in their habitat – so kids can go back and find any they missed, and also get an even better sense of where each animal lives in the wild. Three different tails stick out of the surroundings in a desert in the American Southwest, for example. It turns out that one belongs to a kangaroo rat, one to a Gila monster and one to a rattlesnake. And what looks like a fourth tail is actually a cactus flower. Elsewhere, an African savanna contains a rhinoceros that is fairly easy to see, a dung beetle that is not, and a giraffe antelope that is hard to recognize even when it is spotted. In an Australian forest are a cassowary (only one eye visible), a barely noticeable koala asleep in a tree, and an almost perfectly camouflaged dingo. And so on for more habitats and more animals throughout the book. The final five pages show small pictures of each of the animals and give considerably more information about them in compressed (one-paragraph) form. Jenkins and Page do an excellent job of making that information interesting: they explain why the frilled lizard is also called the bicycle lizard, discuss the unique social environment of the naked mole rat (the only mammal that lives in ant-like colonies), explain why dung beetles are so important, and talk about a six-inch-long insect (the rhinoceros beetle). There is a lot more than a kookaburra to see in I See a Kookaburra! And everything in the book is very much worth seeing.

     The pleasures of seeing the people and things in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Wild & Wacky Edition 2017 are decidedly more mixed. The successors to Robert Ripley can no longer roam the world looking for naturally occurring human and animal oddities or “freaks,” as Ripley himself did – that would be politically incorrect. So more and more of the Ripley legacy depends on showing readers things that people who want to draw attention to themselves have done for the explicit purpose of getting noticed. The result is a sort of still-photo reality television with, unfortunately, just as great a propensity for catering to celebrity worship (the new book shows a sculpture of Angelina Jolie made from crayons and one of Niki Minaj made from toast, for instance). This 2017 compendium of attention-getters includes a nine-year-old girl who invented a healthful lollipop; a watermelon-flavored bagel sold in Japan; a man who ran across the United States to raise money for charity; a race in which competitors ride ostriches; a playground made from snow and ice in Sweden; a sinkhole in Guatemala; a man in Japan who takes his 150-pound tortoise on walks into town; a giraffe with a crooked neck that was broken in a fight; a vending machine that dispenses live crabs in a part of China where they are considered a delicacy; and more. A few human beings who would previously have been put on display still appear in the book, but only in the context of being heroic and worthy of admiration: a wheelchair-bound man who can do cliff diving; a professional bass fisherman born without legs or a left arm and only part of a right arm; a woman who in 2008 became the first armless person to become a licensed pilot; and so on. Certainly Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Wild & Wacky Edition 2017 is more humane and uplifting than long-ago entries featuring exhibits from the old-style Ripley’s “odditorium” (that was the name of the museum Ripley opened in 1933). But the new Ripley’s is simply not as interesting or involving as the old Ripley’s used to be, partly because so many odd things are so visible so often on the Internet – and partly because Robert Ripley’s successors bend over so far backwards to avoid potentially upsetting or offending anyone with their displays. There is enough of interest in this book to give it a (+++) rating, but it is neither as wild nor as wacky as its title would have readers believe it to be.

(+++) FROM HOT AND HEAVY TO COOL AND LIGHT


S.E.X.—The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties, Second Edition. By Heather Corinna. Da Capo. $17.99.

     There are 462 oversize pages in “this very (very) big book,” as Heather Corinna describes what she has written. She is not a medical doctor, not a psychologist, not a professional educator in any traditional sense, but the founder of a Web site called Scarleteen whose promise is “Sex Education for the Real World.” Actually, Corinna is as interested in what she would like the real world to be as in what the real world is. “I picture a world without shame or fear when it comes to bodies, sexualities, or sexual or gender identities, where difference is embraced and celebrated, and where every voice is acknowledged and treated with care and respect.” And changing the world into this one “really isn’t that hard to do. It’s mostly just about changing your mind, which you probably already do at least several times a day, if not more often.” And so on. And on and on and on and ON. This helps explain the 462 pages.

     Luckily, S.E.X. (which “spells out” every sexual matter Corinna can think of – clever title, huh?) is not so mired in utopian twaddle as to be useless. In fact, quite the opposite. The vast majority of the book is excellent: clear, scientifically accurate, plainspoken (if rather cutesy in style, especially considering that the author is in her mid-40s), and extremely effective as introduction to (or intermediate-level discussion of) sex and sexuality. A fair sample of Corinna’s approach is this, from a subsection called “Braaaaaaaaiiiinnns” (not necessarily the best place for a zombie reference, but this is her style): “…I have something very, very important to tell you: when it comes to sexual response and pleasure (not just reproduction), sex is mostly between your ears, not your legs. …Once you understand how the brain is our largest and most significant sex organ, you can begin to see how thinking differently isn’t necessarily a negative when it comes to sexual pleasure.” Ah…differently from what? Well, that is a big part of Corinna’s book. All sexual activities are fine when mutually agreed to; all forms of sexuality are equally good; there are in fact no negatives at all where agreed-upon sexual communication is concerned. Typical remark: “The prostate, like the G-spot, clitoral glans, or the glans of the penis, is sensitive to touch, so plenty of people enjoy prostate stimulation during sexual activity. Some people call it the ‘P-spot.’ Because of its location, it is stimulated by receptive anal sex or stimulation or deep massage of the anus or perineum.” See? Total inclusivity for anything and everything sexual.

     Notice that “plenty of people,” though. In Corinna’s world, “plenty of people” do just about anything and just about everything. Bending over backwards (so to speak) to be inclusive, she determinedly asserts (without any real scientific backing) that lots and lots of people do everything, assert their sexuality in every way, and behave in every possible manner (and never “misbehave,” an absent concept here, even jokingly: this is a virtually humorless book). The underlying “lots and lots” assertion is demonstrably false: a May 2015 Gallup poll found that even though Americans believe – thanks in part to skewed media coverage – that about 23% of U.S. adults are gay or lesbian, the percentage actually self-identifying as homosexual, transgender, or bisexual is 3.8%. But Corinna joins many, many other media people in drawing very substantial attention to this tiny subgroup, as when she creates a box in her chapter on gender identity called “Straight and About to Skip This Part?” and writes, “Please don’t. I am literally begging you. Not only may you find that, over time, your own orientation or sexual identity shifts but also queer people, like transgender people, like all young people of any stripe, need allies.” Corinna is never more than a paragraph or two away from advocating something designed to create that better world that she believes she can help bring about.

     If your thinking resonates with Corinna’s, S.E.X. will be a wonderful (if lengthy) read; but even if you find her rather hectoring presentation of the way things should be (and the utterly normal way everything already is) to be over-the-top, you will find a tremendous amount of straightforward, extremely useful information here on sex and sexuality. Her presentation of sexual anatomy (never mind that “brain” stuff), for example, is excellent, filled with carefully drawn diagrams that may be revelatory even to the sexually experienced. There is even a full page of drawings called “Genitals Come in All Shapes and Sixes!” that looks like something the underground cartoonists would have created a few decades back – but that is used here strictly for informational purposes. Also extremely useful are boxes labeled “Myth Busting” that tackle things “everybody knows” and show why they are false – for instance, that eating disorders affect only women, that it is common to meet one’s “soulmate” early in life, that the hymen seals the vagina before first intercourse, that the greatest risk of abuse or assault is from strangers, and so forth. Useful in a different way are detailed discussions of “body fluid or blood play” (which, like everything else, is perfectly fine as long as those involved agree to it), finger cots (which are “easy-peasy” to use “for anal play or clitoral stimulation”), vaginal discharge that is “chunky or very heavy, with small curds like cottage cheese,” and much more.

     “Much more” is the watchword here, whether discussing oral herpes or “the sexual readiness checklist,” which is lengthier and more exhaustive than a list used for planning extended international travel (well, it should be, Corinna would surely say), and which is broken down into “material stuff,” “body and health,” “relationship requirements” and “emotional items” – in which, for example, one of the nine required (and very lawyerly) assertions is, “If my partner or I have any strong religious, cultural, ethical, political, or family beliefs or convictions that pose serious conflicts to any kind of sexual activity, we have evaluated, discussed, and resolved them,” and another states, “I understand that sex and love aren’t the same thing, and I do not seek to have sex to use it to manipulate or harm myself, my partner, or anyone else. I feel my partner’s sexual motives are sound, safe, and realistic as well.” Exhaustively informative this book certainly is: it is about as comprehensive a tome on sexuality (and, really, not just for people in their teens and 20s) as you are likely to find anywhere. It is fair to say, however, that it is exhaustingly informative as well, so filled with so much presented at such length and in such detail – and within a context of such strong, even strident advocacy – that for at least some readers, it will seem like a very, very, very big book indeed.

(++) GRATEFULLY YOURS


The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life. By Janice Kaplan. Dutton. $16.

     The new paperback edition of Janice Kaplan’s The Gratitude Diaries (originally published in hardcover last year) contains a reading-group guide, and that is a good thing, because this is the sort of book for which reading groups can be, well, grateful. On the positive side, groups can be grateful that the book is very easy to read; is written as breezily as would be expected from the former editor of that once-over-lightly, celebrity-soaked “newspaper magazine,” Parade; and deals (simply, accessibly and mostly on the surface) with a feeling that most people in reading groups (and out of them) would probably agree they could use more of. That would be gratitude.

     On the negative side, though, is the fact that Kaplan’s gratitude comes in some very specific forms to which people in reading groups (and out of them) will likely find it difficult to relate. Kaplan simply decides one December to spend the next year feeling and exploring gratitude. All right; got it. But she then divides the year into seasons according to what sorts of things she will look into in gratitudinous terms (and no, “gratitudinous” is not a word, but it should be, since it describes Kaplan’s book rather precisely). So wintertime is for marriage, love, and family; spring is for money, career, “and the stuff we own”; summer is for health; and autumn is called “coping, caring, and connecting.”

     Well, let’s see what Kaplan has to be grateful for. She is very rich. Her husband is a doctor. She has a great career. She lives in both a New York City upper-crust apartment and a Connecticut country home. She has cashmere dresses and leather boots to keep her warm. She takes trips to the Caribbean and the Alps. Her sons are tall, handsome, smart and accomplished. She can easily make a spontaneous decision to hop on a plane for a quick flight to England to talk with someone about gratitude. She can get celebrities on the phone with ease (and does, constantly: she loves to name-drop, as if celebrities’ views on gratitude or much of anything else have the slightest validity or importance). She can hang out in Amsterdam pretty much whenever she wants (which renders her complaint about the restaurant service there less than convincing). Oh – and she has the wherewithal to write a book that is filled!!  With!! Exclamation!! Points!! (And) (has) (lots) (of) (parentheses) (all) (over) (the) (place!!)

     The extreme wealth and privilege of Kaplan certainly do not disqualify her from being miserly with gratitude for what she has and deciding to do something about it. Her fawning love of celebrities does not disqualify her from asking them questions about gratitude – and getting answers that pretty much anyone could give, and that would be far more believable if they did not come from the super-rich, super-entitled, super-“important.” The in-your-face preachiness of Kaplan’s tone does not disqualify her from presenting information that some readers will latch onto and conceivably even find useful. The fact that scientists and doctors give Kaplan-the-celebrity immediate, easy access to their time and to information that a better but less-well-connected writer would have difficulty obtaining does not disqualify her from using that access to obtain material of potential use to readers.

     The problem, though, is that ultimately Kaplan does so little with her very considerable wealth, power, access, and freedom to go just about anywhere and do just about anything on a moment’s notice (freedom that is the result of her very considerable wealth, power and access – circumstances for which she should be grateful but which she manages not to explore on that basis, so thoroughly does she take them for granted). The specific recommendations here range from the useful but obvious (regularly write down things for which you are grateful) to the useless and silly (stare at every meal for 60 seconds before eating so you will be sufficiently grateful for it). And there is something flat-out unbelievable about Kaplan’s assertion, time and again, that she can turn every reversal into something positive – not only for herself but also for her equally wealthy, equally well-connected friends.

     The Gratitude Diaries reads, all in all, like an overhyped and over-extended magazine article – and yes, its style would fit right into Parade or a similarly trite (but popular) publication. Profundity is not necessary in self-help books (and not required to demonstrate one’s seriousness). For that matter, good writing is not required, either: anything that gets the point across (clearly enough for reading groups) is really just fine. What is missing in Kaplan’s book (and apparently in Kaplan’s life) is any meaningful contact with people who are not wealthy, well-connected and well-married, with loads of leisure time (and all sorts of great connections with People Who Matter – capitals intended). It is unfair to shoot the messenger, especially one bringing as important a message as that of being grateful (for what life brings). The Gratitude Diaries, though, offers a (truly) spectacular mismatch between messenger and message. It is less a book of self-help than a book of self-love, a book of blithely experiencing wealth, privilege and celebrity (at every turn) and wondering why one is not more grateful for all of it (and whether gratitude would make all this amazing stuff Even! More! Amazing!). Yes! It does! Kaplan finds that out! (But the whole thing is still gratitudinous.) (Yes, gratitudinous!)

(+++) EMOTIONAL EVOCATIONS


Chopin: Ballades Nos. 1 and 3; Barcarolle, Op. 60; Berceuse, Op. 57; Mazurkas, Op. 50, Nos. 1-3; Nocturnes, Op. 15, No. 2; Op. 27, No. 2; Op. 48, No. 1; Op. 55 No. 2; Scherzo No. 4. David Korevaar, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Tango Nuevo—Music for Two Pianos by Pablo Ziegler and Ástor Piazzolla. Pablo Ziegler and Christopher O’Riley, pianos. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

American Visions—Music of Copland, Gershwin, Kris Becker, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Ian Gindes, piano. Centaur. $18.99.

Robert Casadesus: Sonata No. 3; Toccata, Op. 40; Henri Dutilleux: Blackbird; Au Gré des Ondes: 6 Petites Pièces pour Piano; Sonate pour Piano. Cicilia Yudha, piano. Navona. $14.99.

Henri Dutilleux: Sur le mème accord; Les citations; Mystère de l’instant; Timbres, espace, mouvement (ou “La nuit etoilée”). Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse—A Film by David Bickerstaff. Seventh Art DVD. $21.99.

     Pianist David Korevaar pushes Chopin in the direction of Impressionism in a fascinating and very well-played, but perhaps overly intellectualized, recital for MSR Classics. The CD really does come across as a recital, the sort of musical mixture selected by an individual artist to reflect his view of a particular composer, style of music, musical period, or some other unifying force. Korevaar’s unifying approach here is not thematic or entirely chronological, either of which would be reasonably simple for listeners to follow, but is based on Chopin’s use of flat and sharp keys – a matter of considerable interest to musicians but not one that will clearly pull this specific sequence of these disparate works together for most listeners. Of the 12 tracks, Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 11 are Nocturnes; Nos. 2 and 4 are Ballades; Nos. 6-8 are the three Mazurkas of Op. 50; No. 9 is a Barcarolle, No. 10 a Berceuse and No. 12 the Scherzo No. 4. Listeners will have no trouble identifying the Mazurkas as the central elements here, the linchpins of the disc; but that is not exactly how Korevaar sees them – to him, they are a demarcation between flat and sharp keys (a bit of a stretch, actually, requiring considerable attention to key changes within the three works for full comprehension). Korevaar has a marvelous understanding of this music, and is a very fine pianist and, for that matter, an excellent interpreter of Chopin. There is nothing to fault here in the expressive nature of his performances or the finely honed pianism that he uses to bring forth the varying emotional elements of these dozen works. In fact, for listeners familiar with all the music here – particularly for ones who know it as well as Korevaar himself does – the CD’s intellectual framework has some genuinely revelatory elements. But for listeners less intimately familiar with the music, it is considerably harder to tell from the musical sequence itself (that is, without following Korevaar’s discussion of what he is doing and why he is doing it) just why these particular pieces appear in this particular sequence. There is a great deal to enjoy in this very well-played recital, and also a great deal to think about – but the latter requirement somewhat gets in the way of the full availability of the pleasures of the music.

     The pleasures are more readily accessible on a new Steinway & Sons CD featuring music for two pianos by Pablo Ziegler and his mentor, Ástor Piazzolla. There is an impressionistic element to this music, but it is a highly specific one, with all the tunes intended to evoke elements of life in Argentina – from the bustle of the city of Buenos Aires to the nation’s traditions and cultural touchstones. Thanks to the approach of Piazzolla and Ziegler, the music also stretches beyond the geographical boundaries of its nation of origin to encompass the melodies and harmonies of jazz, and occasional forays into classical influences dating back to Bach. Of the 13 works here, eight are by Ziegler: El Empedrado, Milongueta, Asfalto, Maria Ciudad, Elegante Canyenguito, Places, Milonga del Adios, and Sandunga. The other five are by Piazzolla: Michelangelo ’70, Elegia sobre Adios Nonino, Fuga y Misterio, Buenos Aires Hora Cero, and the very well-known Libertango. The Piazzolla pieces have more sureness of expression and, even when not very well known, a greater familiarity of style than those of Ziegler, but this is more a matter of degree than of inherent quality: Ziegler’s works are also nicely crafted and in some cases virtually indistinguishable from ones by Piazzolla. Indeed, the problem with this very well-played disc is simply that all the music on it sounds as if it comes from the same source and shares similarity of inspiration. That is, indeed, the simple truth of this material – and listeners for whom this Argentinian evocation is much to be desired will revel in the CD. Others may find an hour and a quarter of music of similar provenance to be a bit much – although even they may enjoy listening to a piece or two here and there, if not to the entire CD from start to finish.

     It might seem, on the face of it, that the Centaur CD called American Visions also consists of works of similar inspiration, but in fact what Ian Gindes does here is show just how variegated the adjective “American” can be when it comes to music. True, all the works skew to the popular side of American music rather than its more purely “concert-hall” side; but unlike the basically popular focus of Tango Nuevo, the music on American Visions shows a variety of ways in which composers use more-popular works to express themselves in different milieus. Thus, from Copland, the CD includes the third of his Four Piano Blues, a short work labeled Muted and Serious; four mostly upbeat excerpts from the ballet Rodeo; and three pieces from Our Town, which present a more contemplative mood. There are two Earl Wild arrangements from Gershwin’s Seven Virtuoso Etudes: No. 7, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” followed by No. 4, “Embraceable You.” From contemporary composer Kris Becker come two works with a certain amount of intellectual and musical heft: Passacaglia from The Four Curiosities and a rather extended Elegy. And from Rodgers and Hammerstein, in arrangements by Stephen Hough, Gindes offers “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music and “Carousel Waltz” from Carousel. As an encore, there is a live recording of  Mack Wilberg's arrangement of Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever, in which Gindes is joined by Tatiana Shustova, Jiafang Yan, and Jing Hao. There is a certain thoughtfulness in the assembly of this CD that gives it heft beyond what its mostly straightforward music would suggest. It could be called a celebration of specifically American impressionism – from Copland’s American West to Becker’s look in the musical rearview mirror to the insistently saccharine Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes. Gindes plays all the music well, and if none of it is unfamiliar or particularly profound, it is all eminently listenable.

     There is also some balancing of the impressionistic and intellectual in the works of Robert Casadesus on a new Navona CD. Sonata No. 3 is classically structured, its pointed first movement giving way to a gently reflective Lento e tristamente that speaks of generalized rather than specific melancholy, before a bright and bouncy finale sweeps away any lingering tristesse. Cicilia Yudha evokes the sonata’s changing moods with unfailing skill, and also does a bang-up job, pretty much literally, with Toccata, which somewhat uneasily treads the line between pounding intensity and jocular celebration. Impressionism is more explicit and vivid in the three piano works of Henri Dutilleux that follow the Casadesus pieces. Blackbird, an early work, comes across as modest salon music with slight hints of birdsong. The six little piano pieces collectively called Au Gré des Ondes (“Along the Waves”) are more explicit in their scene-painting, harking back to some of the mood evocations of Debussy and Ravel – and being as accessible as would be expected in works originally written as radio interludes. Far more substantial is the Sonate pour piano, toward which all the other works on this CD seem to build. Large in scale in its nearly half-hour length, mixing traditional three-movement form with forays into distinctly 20th-century-French treatment of rhythm and harmony, progressing – sometimes leaping – from delicacy to intensity, the work is far more varied than its straightforward movement designations of Allegro con moto, Lied and Choral et variations would indicate. Dutilleux disowned many of the works he wrote before this 1948 sonata, clearly considering it the start of his significant compositions. It seems constantly to hint at specificity in the scenes it evokes briefly before turning elsewhere, even though there is nothing definite portrayed. The rather sleepy second movement never quite coalesces, but the resounding opening of the finale leads into a set of variations that challenge both the listener’s ear and the performer’s fingers. Yudha is a first-rate advocate of this not-quite-first-rate material – she explores its coloristic aspects wonderfully but can do nothing about a certain formal flabbiness that leads to music that drifts more often than it moves in any particular direction.

     Dutilleux (1916-2013) is far better known for his orchestral music than his piano pieces, and Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony make another strong case for his orchestral works on a new CD on the orchestra’s own label – their third recorded foray into this repertoire. Much of the music of Dutilleux stands explicitly in the Impressionist tradition, with refinement in construction and orchestration and considerable attention paid to carefully devised harmonies and coloristic instrumental approaches. Dutilleux is, however, difficult to label as belonging in any particular musical pigeonhole. One work on this disc, Les Citations, has strongly neoclassical roots and unusual instrumentation: it is for oboe (Mary Lynch), harpsichord (Mahan Esfahani), bass (Jordan Anderson), and percussion (Michael A. Werner). Texturally clear, as the music of Dutilleux generally is, the work is also steeped in specifically French musical history: the second movement, From Janequin to Jehan Alain, deliberately recalls the French Renaissance composer and also quotes a work by the innovative organist/composer Alain, who died at age 29 in 1940. The nocturne-like Sur le mème accord, for violin and orchestra, is highly expressive, but it also benefits from the level of precision brought to it here by soloist Augustin Hadelich. Mystère de l'instant offers a good example of the composer’s interest in comparatively unusual sonorities, employing a solo cimbalom (played by Chester Englander) to particularly good effect. The concluding work on the CD, Timbres, espace, mouvement (ou “La nuit etoilée”), marked the 1978 return to orchestral composition by Dutilleux after a period of focus on chamber works. Inspired by Van Gogh’s famous painting, The Starry Night, this work takes Impressionism to a new and very contemporary level, omitting violins and violas from the orchestration, insisting that the 12 cellos be placed in a semicircle around the conductor, and  using those cellos for an interlude that Dutilleux added in 1990 to the work’s two original movements. Dutilleux is a composer whose work it is easy to admire and whose care in orchestration, timbres and harmonies is always noticeable. Certainly Morlot and the Seattle Symphony have a strong attachment to these works and play them with great warmth and a high degree of involvement. The music nevertheless will not be to all tastes, its catholicity (now recalling Les Six, then sounding a bit like Messiaen) and distinctly French modernism making it something of an acquired taste. Listeners seeking to acquire it will find this recording an elegant entry point to the Dutilleux sound world.

     Those interested in getting a sense of the way in which Van Gogh and other painters created the works that so inspired Impressionist composers will be fascinated by David Bickerstaff’s film, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, available as a Seventh Art DVD. Based on a show at London’s Royal Academy, the film is designed to let viewers really study the paintings, providing an even closer look at brushstrokes and details of form and color than attendees can get in person at an exhibition. There are plenty of closeups of paintings here, juxtaposed with scenes of the gardens that inspired those specific works and views of other gardens with an equal profusion of blooms, colors and shapes. The film is not entirely about the works of art – unsurprisingly, it also takes viewers to the studios and houses of the artists, displaying the environment in which they worked and in which their creativity took shape. The real visual interest here, though, is in the gardens themselves, in the way they were planted and the way they grew, and in the way specific artists visited and revisited them as their own style changed and evolved, so that growth of art and growth of plants become parallel continuing events. All this comes across as a touch effete, to be sure, and the details about figurative-vs.-abstract portrayals of specific gardens will be a bit much for those not deeply immersed in Impressionist art history. And of course the DVD is aimed entirely at people seeking immersion in the world of Monet, Matisse and the other famed oil painters inspired by gardens and using them to display their view of growth and color. The very slow shots of flowers, foliage, ponds and elegantly sculptured trees give Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse a sense of timelessness that balances the growth inherent in all gardens – and the artifice and artificiality of the film complement the interpretative niceties of the Impressionists for whom gardens were so overwhelmingly important. Intended for a limited and artistically committed audience, Bickerstaff’s hour-and-a-half of visuals serves that audience carefully and well.