October 19, 2017

(++++) PICTORIAL PLEASURES


Calendars (wall for 2018): Barnyard Roosters; Downton Abbey; Rube Goldberg. Andrews McMeel, $15.99 (Roosters); Universe/Andrews McMeel, $14.99 each (Downton, Rube).

     Although wall calendars come in all forms and with lots of different focuses, there are some that you want hanging in rooms for the simple joy of looking at them. They are just plain a delight to the eye. Take Barnyard Roosters, for example. The topic might seem an unlikely one for a year’s worth of art, but this collection of Dan DiPaolo’s work in fact holds up quite well for a full 16 months: September through December 2017 appear on a single page with a big rooster picture and the words “POULTRY EGGS.” Obviously this is a calendar for farm fanciers and rooster fans, but even urbanites may be surprised to discover how much they can enjoy the sometimes stately, sometimes casual poses of these birds, a few of which are quite clearly cock-a-doodle-doing. People unfamiliar with farm life may think a rooster is just a rooster, but DiPaolo clearly knows otherwise: there are hundreds of breeds of chickens and, accordingly, hundreds of types of roosters around the world, including 20 or so that originated in the United States. It is not necessary, however, to know which rooster is which in order to enjoy the Barnyard Roosters calendar, which comes packaged in its own extra-large rooster-bedecked envelope and features metal reinforcement of the hole from which it hangs on the wall – a small but highly useful enhancement. As for the pictures, contrast, for example, the similar crowing roosters shown for July and September, the former white-feathered and shown against a star-spangled background and the latter a mixture of gold and black, shown against a vaguely autumnal scene. The birds are quite similar, yet very different. And so it is throughout the year here: some months feature two birds (March and December), one offers a night scene (October, which has a pumpkin-colored rooster), and a couple include flowers (May and November); and all in all, DiPaolo’s art portrays roosters of so many types and colors, in so many settings, that this calendar is worth crowing about throughout the coming year.

     There are sayings that compare the sometimes gaudy plumage of birds (notably peacocks) to the clothing of people, and some of them may come to mind when glancing at the 2018 calendar featuring scenes from the much-loved British costume drama, Downton Abbey. The show’s final episode aired in the United States as long ago as March 2016, but you would never know it from the enthusiasm that the program continues to generate among its fans – an enjoyment now mixed with nostalgia for the show, which in its turn had a kind of pervasive and bittersweet nostalgia for the changing times in the world a century and more ago. Downton Abbey was a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs with overtones of other high-class soap operas such as the American show Dallas. And opportunities for marvelous still photos taken from the show abound – there are plenty to keep those who enjoyed the program going for many years, not just through 2018. The huge crowd around the Christmas tree for December 2018 is both an obvious choice and a beautiful one, but every month here features a pose that will remind viewers of the program and help them re-connect with their memories of it. Indeed, these still shots evoke both the show and the era in which it was set to an exceptional degree. The three white-clad women in the foreground with the stately building behind them; the two sitting in jail, on opposite sides of a plain wooden table, as a guard stands at the table’s end, overseeing their encounter; the three butlers standing side by side, their trays at the ready; the multigenerational library scene featuring oh-so-elegant bookshelves behind the family members – these and all the other pictures here help evoke the moods and emotions of Downton Abbey as surely as the program itself brought forth and honed the emotions of its complicated, interrelated cast of characters and, through that cast, tugged at the heartstrings of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. There just isn’t a better way to continue celebrating the joys and sometimes guilty pleasures of this drama than with a calendar whose pages keep it front-and-center all year long.

     The visuals require a great deal more study and provoke a great deal more laughter in the 2018 Rube Goldberg calendar. The words “Rube Goldberg device” are far better known nowadays than are the devices themselves: the phrase describes getting something simple done by complicated means. The reason the phrase became such a common one is apparent in this delightfully offbeat calendar. Goldberg (1883-1970) specialized in imagining highly complex machines or sequences that were used to do exceedingly simple tasks. What is being done is usually (although not always) visually apparent; therefore, many Goldberg drawings are nowadays reproduced without the narrative that the cartoonist originally included with them. But they gain quite a bit when his words are added to his pictures, as they are in this calendar. The titles alone are enough to provide a chuckle or two, and the imagination that goes with the conceptions is simply delightful: “Try Our New Patent Clothes Brush” requires, among other things, a bottle to be opened with a corkscrew and a man with a very long beard; “Simple Way to Dig Up Bait for Fishing” needs the tears produced by cutting an onion, a scales-of-justice kind of scale, and a bird on a perch; “Idea for a Simple Fly Swatter” requires carbolic acid, a large bunch of garlic, and a pet trout; and so on and so forth. The dozen examples shown in this calendar will merely be enough to whet the appetite of anyone living today’s ultra-complex life, filled as it is with super-complicated gewgaws and gadgets, for the supposed simplicity of the past. “Supposed” is the key here: Goldberg showed, again and again, that there is nothing so simple that it cannot be made ridiculously complicated. Remembering that, day after day and month after month during 2018, can be a great antidote to living in the 21st century, with all the entirely new sorts of life complications that have come into being since Goldberg’s time.

(++++) PUPPY YUMMIES


Stick Dog 6: Stick Dog Slurps Spaghetti. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.

Stick Dog 7: Stick Dog Craves Candy. By Tom Watson. Harper. $12.99.

     It’s all about the goodies. Book after book, Tom Watson’s Stick Dog and his four canine companions find themselves in search of something, pretty much anything, to eat; and book after book, they eventually get fed – but only after misadventures in which Stick Dog, the only clear-thinking one of the pack, has to put up with the hilarious misunderstandings and misinterpretations and ridiculously overwrought plans of his friends and fellow scroungers. The Stick Dog books are intended for ages 8-12 and are written and drawn as if by someone in that same age range – hence the title character’s distinctly primitive rectangular-body-with-sticks-for-legs appearance, which is then echoed in the look of his four companions. Watson neatly walks the fine line between writing like a preteen (he does) and talking down to preteens (he doesn’t). The basic plot changes little from book to book, but the way it is worked out varies just enough to make each series entry fun even for readers who can figure out pretty much everything that is coming.

     Stick Dog’s four companions are Stripes (who is polka-dotted), Poo-Poo (so called for being a poodle), Karen (a diminutive dachshund who is sensitive about her size), and Mutt (who is indeed a mutt, and has a propensity for collecting all sorts of oddments in his coat, some of which turn out to be useful during the pack’s adventures). The stories start and end at the drainage pipe that Stick Dog calls home, beginning with everyone being hungry and ending with everyone fed. That same story arc works again and again because the specific foods (referenced in the titles) are different and the methods of getting them are very different. Stick Dog Slurps Spaghetti has the dogs mistaking some leftover spaghetti in a takeout box for little pieces of rope, then discovering that these particular “ropes” are quite delicious, then figuring out where they came from (thanks to Stick Dog’s ability to read), and then getting to that restaurant by climbing a hill. That is, Stick Dog tricks the other dogs into climbing the hill, which they believe is too steep for them. He does this by moving them upwards bit by bit while listening to their plans for ascent. Stripes suggests Stick Dog climb up the hill, then climb down it to help Mutt, then they both climb it, then they both come down to help Poo-Poo, and so forth. Poo-Poo wants to find a gigantic piece of rope and lasso an airplane as it flies overhead. Mutt plans to capture a hot-air balloon and ride it up the hill. And Karen, the most dimwitted of the bunch and the least aware of it, hatches an elaborate plan to build a huge bonfire, set a gigantic skillet on it, and have the dogs sit in the skillet until they are burned so badly that they spontaneously leap to the top of the hill, where five buckets of water will be waiting for them to cool their behinds. The absurdities mount throughout the book, as in all these volumes, but eventually the dogs do find the spaghetti restaurant atop the hill, Stick Dog figures out how to get inside (while the other dogs are busy playing hide and seek in the form of everyone hiding and no one seeking), and a good time and good deal of spaghetti are eventually had by all. And at the end there are meatballs, which Stick Dog finds after his friends get away from the restaurant and accidentally leave him locked inside. Stick Dog never holds grudges and remains generous to the end: he gives each of his friends three meatballs and keeps two for himself. The Stick Dog books, as silly as they are, again and again reinforce this idea of friendship and of taking friends at face value and nonjudgmentally.

     The seventh Stick Dog book is a Halloween story, which starts when the dogs are looking for food in people’s houses (without, of course, being seen) and Stripes encounters witches – or what he thinks are witches. All the dogs panic, even Stick Dog, until Stick Dog figures out that these are just ordinary humans in costumes, and they are walking around getting candy from houses – candy that turns out to be delicious when the dogs sample some that has fallen into the street. Poo-Poo, the ingredients expert among the dogs, explains that “this so-called ‘candy’ is an invigorating blend of high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and fruity flavoring,” which is a pretty darned good analysis. Unfortunately, the taste of cherry reminds Poo-Poo of his puppy days on a farm where there were cherry trees, and the trees were full of squirrels that could get cherries anytime while Poo-Poo could only get them when they fell, and soon Poo-Poo has reverted to the crazed squirrel hater of earlier books until Stick Dog talks him down from post-traumatic squirrel stress. Then the dogs have to come up with plans for getting candy – this time Karen recommends building a house, because houses contain candy and if they build one there will be candy inside. But things do not go quite that way; they go better. Stick Dog watches two kids dressed as witches get caramel apples from sweet old Grandma Smith, who cannot hear or see much anymore, and eventually he and the other dogs ring Grandma Smith’s bell, and she thinks they are kids in dog costumes, and she mistakes their various barks for the imperfectly heard names of children, and the whole scene is absolutely hilarious. There is a complication, of course – there always is – when the gate into Grandma Smith’s yard swings shut and the dogs, of course, cannot open it and are stuck inside. Stick Dog solves the problem by standing on flowerpots and using an old, torn tennis ball helpfully supplied by Mutt. The other dogs think Stick Dog has lost it – they always think that when he has his best ideas – but they reluctantly go along with him and, sure enough, he saves them, saves the day, saves the candy, and so on. In each of these books, Stick Dog is the hero, but in each of them, he is distinctly modest about it, never seeks the limelight, puts up with a remarkable degree of ridiculousness from his friends, and generally behaves like a much nicer version of a helpful, friendly, clever human being. This is why there are Stick Dog books but not Stick Kid books. Watson knows where reality ends and supreme silliness begins.

(+++) A PARTIAL REVIVAL


Anastasia Krupnik Stories: Anastasia Krupnik; Anastasia Again!; Anastasia at Your Service; Anastasia Off Her Rocker. By Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $25.99.

     Wow, have times changed. When Lois Lowry, best known for The Giver and its sequels, created Anastasia Krupnik, she loosely based the outspoken 10-year-old Jewish girl on President Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, who was known to speak her preteen mind at many opportunities. But Lowry added introspection to the character and also put in occasional missteps and some memories from Lowry’s own childhood. The first Anastasia book, simply called Anastasia Krupnik, came out in 1979; the series continued through nine books, with Anastasia Absolutely appearing in 1995. There were also spinoffs featuring Anastasia’s younger brother, Sam, plus the start of a 10th book that Lowry never finished because the series, no longer selling very well, was halted.

     Now Anastasia is back and sanitized of pretty much all the distinguishing characteristics that made her interesting in the first place. The first book contains a four-letter word for excrement that has been removed. Scenes in which Anastasia’s pipe-smoking father lets her taste the foam from a beer he is drinking – one of Lowry’s personal memories – have been excised. An odd scenario in which Anastasia lies about her age and meets someone through a “Personals” newspaper column – long before Internet dating – is gone, even though nothing of any sort happens between the girl and the older man and the whole thing is played for laughs. And on and on the reissues go, excising the oddities that made Anastasia an interestingly offbeat character and turning her into little more than yet another preteen trying to make her way in the world and gradually, bit by bit, growing up and maturing.

     Not even the book titles are sacrosanct. The first is unchanged; so is the second, from 1981, Anastasia Again! And the third volume, Anastasia at Your Service (1982), keeps its title as well (Anastasia is 12 by this time). But the fourth book, from 1984, has metamorphosed from Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst to Anastasia Off Her Rocker, which does not make a great deal of sense. This is actually one of the better books in the series, with Anastasia deciding she needs psychotherapy and therefore buying a plaster bust of Sigmund Freud at a garage sale and talking to it about her problems and concerns. The first and fourth books are unillustrated in their new editions; the second and third contain what are charmingly described as “decorations” by Diane deGroat. Anastasia now is shown as having long blond hair and being quite thin; originally she was considerably chunkier, was brown-haired, and wore far less stylish eyeglasses than in the new releases. She is not seen within the books, only on their covers, where she is rendered by Sara Not (deGroat did the original portrayal).

     So where does this leave contemporary preteen girls whose mothers may remember Anastasia with amusement, bemusement, or some combination of the two? Anastasia still has a series of rather mundane adventures with a rather mundane family (although her usually calm and steady mother comes somewhat unhinged in the second and fourth books). She still has to adjust to everyday life in ways for which she is not quite prepared, as when she expects to become a summertime Lady’s Companion to earn money in the third book, then finds herself serving as a maid instead. She still has everyday traumas that loom large in her life, as when, in the first book, she works hard on a poem assigned in class, but does not write it according to the teacher’s instructions and therefore gets an F. She tries to negotiate everyday life to the best of her ability; although, as Lowry explains in her new introductions to the first two books, elements of Anastasia’s life will likely seem dated to young readers in the 21st century. Still, there is an undercurrent of groping toward maturity in the Anastasia books that can connect with young girls today as effectively as in the past. And Anastasia, although scarcely a complex character, has enough interest and enough remaining quirks to make time spent with her worthwhile. What she is not anymore is highly distinctive: her rougher edges are gone, her politically incorrect ideas and adventures have disappeared, and she is now just one among innumerable other preteen girls on the road toward greater self-awareness and understanding of her place in the world. However, since the appetite for such protagonists remains a large one, there may well still be a place on many bookshelves for Anastasia Krupnik Stories.

(+++) SOME DARKNESS, SOME LIGHT


The Library, Book 2: Black Moon Rising. By D.J. MacHale. Random House. $16.99.

The Witch’s Kiss. By Katharine & Elizabeth Corr. HarperCollins. $9.99.

In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. By Alvin Schwartz. Pictures by Victor Rivas. Harper. $16.99.

     There is nothing particularly wrong with formulaic plotting and writing in books for young readers (or older ones, for that matter). A journey into expected, well-understood realms of story and character can be a pleasant immersion, allowing plot twists and character development to occur within understood (if not overtly expressed) limits and simply making the reading easier than it would be if everything were to be reinvented. “Formula” books make no attempt to bend their genres or approaches, existing satisfactorily within them and often building an audience by enticing readers who know just what to expect. Indeed, there are some perils to the enticement if an author does bend the formula a bit, as D.J. MacHale does in the second book in his series called The Library. The first book, Curse of the Boggin, established the premise that there exists an otherworldly library where people’s unfinished real-world stories stay until they can be finished and properly shelved – and an occasional person from the real world is needed as an interface with the supernatural book repository, to aid in completing all the unfinished business that prevents the words “The End” from appearing in the books of some people’s lives. This is neither more nor less absurd than the concept underlying many other series for preteens. MacHale also set a slightly humorous tone in that first book when he introduced the character group at its center (part of the formula in books for preteens is the centrality of a team, not a single character). Marcus O’Mara, who narrates the books, sketched his fellow adventurers neatly: “We were like three pieces of a very odd puzzle. Between Theo [McLean], a black guy who looked as though he should be rubbing elbows at a yacht club; [Annabella] Lu, with her Asian roller-derby-girl look, black tights, plaid shirts, and bold makeup; and me, a white guy who wore the same jeans and T-shirts every day until they were so stiff, they could stand up in the corner, we looked like the cast of some kids’ show trying to cover all its ethnic bases. It would be a grand slam if we had a Hispanic friend. Or maybe a Tongan.” This passage in the first book was MacHale’s sly notice that he is trying to cover all the required contemporary bases of identifiable multiethnic characters – besides which, Lu is athletic and intense; Theo is highly intellectual and scientific, and does not initially believe in the supernatural; and Marcus fits right in the middle, as usual in books like this. Of course, “My two best buddies don’t always get along. If not for me, I doubt they’d even be friends.” So says Marcus in the second book, Black Moon Rising. There is nothing unusual in any of this. However, MacHale goes for greater darkness and seriousness in this book than in the first, and it does not quite work. This is Marcus’ first official assignment as an agent of the Library, and it involves strange occurrences at a place called Coppell Middle School, to which Marcus, Theo and Lu go to sort things out. They soon befriend the eighth-grade class president, Ainsley Murcer, who proves to be the key to all the mysteries: a witch informs her that she has been chosen as the high priestess of a coven that will take over the world if Ainsley performs the necessary ritual on Halloween, which is the night of the black moon. It turns out that all this turns on blood magic, having been set in motion by the start of Ainsley’s menses – and this does not ring true with the generally light tone of The Library. There is in fact a deep blood-magic connection in folklore involving witches (and female power in general). But the whole thing – which, of course, only Marcus has the power to stop – seems rather too adult and rather too serious for the tone of the first book and, indeed, the first part of Black Moon Rising itself. Marcus does retain some sense of humor, which helps, but this is a case in which MacHale would have been better off sticking more closely to the formula he originally established than trying to expand it into more-serious territory.

     Sister coauthors Katharine and Elizabeth Corr stick fairly closely to the fairy-tale-reinterpreted format of The Witch’s Kiss, the first book of a planned trilogy. The main strength of the book is its portrayal of protagonist Meredith (Merry), a reluctant young witch. This is a fairly standard concept, one among many familiar elements that also include a sleeping curse, three magical sisters, being raised by people who are not one’s true parents, and – yes – the kiss of true love. The elements are mashed together attractively if not always seamlessly, and there are a few effective new matters here as well. Notable among those is Merry’s relationship with her brother, Leo, who is also her best friend and is not magical at all – but is strong and supportive and important (indeed, crucial) to the story, not a mere hanger-on. The tale itself has to do with a longstanding curse involving an evil wizard named Gwydion who can only be defeated by Merry – whose magic is uncertain and who is very insecure in her abilities (typical feelings for plenty of protagonists in young-reader novels of many genres). Gwydion has a minion known as the King of Hearts, and he turns out to be a teenage heartthrob with plenty of romantic potential except for being, you know, evil. Some parts of The Witch’s Kiss tend to drag, notably the exposition that deals with Anglo-Saxon times and gives the history of Gwydion, Jack, and the three witches – this provides explanatory material but slows the narrative pace considerably. Again and again, when the story focuses on Merry, it brightens and becomes more interesting. For example, she feels bad about using her magic to do better in school; that may make readers wonder if they have any advantages that they exploit similarly in the real world. Yet Merry is rather slow on the uptake: she has a magical manuscript that tells her what to do, but she does not listen to it and therefore has to spend a lot of time and effort trying to save the world – and ends up doing what the manuscript said anyway. Of course, without its quest elements and its finding-yourself elements and its possible-romance elements, The Witch’s Kiss would not be the genre novel that it decidedly is. Young readers who enjoy retellings and mashings-together of fairy tales will have fun with what is largely a lighthearted book, and will look forward to re-encountering Merry, who is by far the novel’s most interesting character, in the sequel, The Witch’s Tears.

     There is more teenage angst than genuine scariness in The Witch’s Kiss, but sometimes books exist specifically to be frightening – even, in an age-appropriate way, for very young readers indeed. That is the case with In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, which is a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) in the “I Can Read!” series. Alvin Schwartz goes out of his way not to be too frightening in these seven very short pieces, and Victor Rivas’ illustrations help immensely by blending the scary with the silly: the one of a boy casually licking a large lollipop while holding the leash of a giant centipede/alien creature that looms behind him, a picture that is not connected to any story in the book, is a perfect example; so is the also-unconnected-with-a-tale picture of a bat-winged, skull-faced, goat-legged creature carrying a top hat out of whose top peeks another of his kind. The tales here, although all right for their intended audience, are less interesting than the pictures that illustrate them. They include “The Teeth,” in which a boy meets men with bigger and bigger choppers; “In the Graveyard,” where a woman looks at three corpses that talk to her; “The Green Ribbon,” about a girl – later a woman – who always wears the title item, which turns out to be holding her head onto her neck; “In a Dark, Dark Room,” with a ghost springing out of a dark box on a dark shelf in a dark chest; “The Night It Rained,” about a man’s encounter with a ghost boy; “The Pirate,” in which a pirate ghost scares a girl; and “The Ghost of John,” the old rhyme about “long white bones and the flesh all gone.” No story lasts more than a page or a few pages, and all are intended to be scary but not very scary. The book certainly works at or around Halloween, but it can be enjoyable anytime for beginning readers who want something just a little bit spooky.

(++++) ORCHESTRA HANDLERS


Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Christian Thielemann. Profil. $16.99.

Dwight Beckham, Sr.: Fanfare 40; Memorial Ode; Feather Sound (Symphonic Statements). Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský. Navona. $14.99.

Tomorrow’s Air: Contemporary Works for Orchestra & Large Ensemble. Navona. $14.99.

     There are two schools of thought about Bruckner’s handling of the orchestra nowadays, one emphasizing clarity of inner voices and an overall Schubertian flavor, the other continuing to focus on monumental, organ-like massed sound as the centerpiece of the composer’s symphonies. Both approaches have considerable merit; each shows a different facet of Bruckner’s use of the orchestra. Christian Thielemann’s 2015 reading of the “Romantic” symphony, an excellent live recording now available on the Profil label, is decidedly, almost defiantly old-fashioned in the way it mounts ever higher and produces ever-greater washes of sound from the superb musicians of Staatskapelle Dresden. The performance, which runs 73 minutes, is a very expansive one – other readings of this symphony may be 10 or more minutes shorter than this. Yet nothing drags here and nothing seems overblown: Thielemann lets the themes build naturally, focusing on the architecture of the symphony and the interrelatedness of its movements. The finale, which gave Bruckner a great deal of trouble (as indeed did the whole symphony, which he reworked numerous times), is a genuine capstone here: Thielemann gives it plenty of space to breathe, and as it grows and grows, swells and swells, there is something almost oceanic in the way the material engulfs the audience as the symphony moves toward the circularity of its conclusion. Interestingly, although this is a performance quite worthy of tremendous applause, when it ends there is absolute silence, as if Thielemann and the orchestra have so swept the audience away that everyone needs a moment to catch his or her breath. Then comes the applause, which is very well-earned indeed. Staatskapelle Dresden is one of the world’s great orchestras, and this recording shows why: warm strings, burnished brass, piquant woodwinds and unmatched ensemble playing add up to a sound that is tremendously pleasurable as sound, in addition to its value in service to the music. There is something pleasantly cushiony in the orchestra’s handling of Bruckner: without ever losing forward momentum (the Scherzo percolates along smartly), Thielemann and the orchestra provide listeners with an immersive experience that demonstrates yet again why Bruckner’s Fourth has long been one of his most-popular symphonies.

     It is apparent that many contemporary composers have studied and absorbed the ins and outs of the symphony orchestra, and some even pay homage to Bruckner and the Romantic era in general in the way they use it. But the flavor of symphonic works of today remains significantly different from that of Romantic-era material, even when a composer is clearly as steeped in Romanticism as is Dwight Beckham, Sr. (born 1931). A new (+++) Navona CD of Beckham’s orchestral works is a curious offering, the whole of it lasting just 23 minutes, which is less time than Thielemann needs for the finale of Bruckner’s Fourth. It is hard to imagine listeners who are not already fans of Beckham being willing to pay the price of this CD for what are essentially snippets of material. But this does not mean the works themselves are insubstantial. Fanfare 40 is pretty much the sort of brass-and-percussion mixture that its title indicates, completely tonal in orientation and stately throughout. A few short near-mischievous flourishes heighten its effect. Memorial Ode offers the most-interesting use of the orchestra on the CD, opening with soft chimes above which a flute flutters engagingly if not exactly sadly. This is another stately work, mostly of character different from that of Fanfare 40 – but interestingly, about halfway through Memorial Ode there is an extended and pronounced fanfare section, all brass and snare drums, that is quite reminiscent of the fanfare. Memorial Ode is primarily based on a Vaughan Williams hymn tune, Sine nomine, which it recalls and re-sets in several ways. The other piece here, Feather Sound, is actually three short orchestral pieces that Beckham calls “Statements.” The first starts lyrically and warmly before presenting yet more fanfare-like material; the second is light, very short, and has some of the feeling of a scherzo, with pleasing piccolo touches; the third is declamatory at the start and progresses toward still another fanfare-like conclusion. There is a certain sameness to the way Beckham handles the orchestra in all these works, but whether that is a characteristic of his music in general or just of these particular pieces is impossible to tell from so brief a sampling. Certainly the material shows a sure command of orchestral forces and an unapologetic dedication to consonance and lyricism not much different from what Romantic-era composers employed.

     Another (+++) Navona release is more of a mixed bag, on multiple levels. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský, which ably handles all the music on the Beckham CD, appears on this one as well, with both Vronský and Vit Micka as conductors – but other ensembles are heard here, too, adding an even greater sense of pastiche to a recording unified only because of its title, Tomorrow’s Air, and in truth not very well unified even by that. This is one of those anthology discs whose thrown-together feel means listeners may well find an item or two of particular interest, but will never know what to expect when one piece gives way to the next. It starts with Anecdote by Hilary Tann, featuring Ovidiu Marinescu on cello and the State Philharmonic Orchestra of Târgu Mures conducted by Ovidiu Balan. Inspired by the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the piece is an extended meditation, now soliloquy, now dialogue, that has some plaintive moments but tends to overextend them. Cantus for String Orchestra by Hans Bakker (played by the Moravian ensemble under Micka) has a more-angular, more strongly rhythmic sound, with greater use of dissonance. To Spring—An Overture by Daniel Perttu is another work inspired by poetry, this time by that of William Blake, and is a pretty rather than profound piece, mostly lyrical and permeated by birdsong; the Moravian orchestra plays it under Vronský. In Memoriam by Jan Järvlepp, performed by the same orchestra and conductor, opens with some rather obvious passes at the depiction of sadness and then meanders more through tenderness than through sorrow. Late Harvest by Pierre Schroeder is actually a large-chamber-ensemble work rather than one for full orchestra; here, John Page conducts a group in which a solo violin (Sarita Uranovsk) is juxtaposed with four violins, three violas, two cellos, double bass, bass clarinet and piano. The piece is emotionally evocative, the instrumental sounds well-contrasted, and the mood almost Tchaikovskian, especially toward the end – this is the standout work on this disc. The CD concludes with Silver Fantasy by Paul Osterfield, in which Vronský conducts the Moravian Philharmonia Wind & Percussion Ensemble. This features flute and piccolo parts (played by Lindsey Goodman), their lightness contrasted with chordal writing for the ensemble. It is a work of gestures rather than one that moves convincingly from start to finish, but several of its sections show effective handling of the instruments. Indeed, all the composers heard here clearly have a finely honed sense of the capabilities of the instruments for which they write, and all the music is well-crafted even if no piece here ties in any particular way to any other.

October 12, 2017

(++++) SMALL HOMES WITH BIG HEARTS


The Little House: Her Story—75th Anniversary Edition. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

A Little House Picture Book Treasury: Six Stories of Life on the Prairie. Adapted from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Illustrated by Renée Graef, Jody Wheeler, and Doris Ettlinger. Harper. $24.99.

Little House Chapter Book #5: Christmas Stories. Adapted by Heather Henson from the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Illustrated by Ji-Hyuk Kim. Harper. $4.99.

     It is really an exceptional book, one that retells the urbanization of America from the 19th century into the 20th in terms so simple that children can easily understand what is going on while reading a sweet story of a thinking, feeling house. It is Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House: Her Story, originally published in 1942 and now available in a handsome new hardcover edition that includes a page of window cling stickers and a free audio download of a reading of the story. Burton (1909-1968) had a lovely feeling for what would appeal to young kids both in tale-telling and in illustrations, and The Little House is one of her sweetest books – and, thanks to its historical perspective, one of the ones most likely to appeal to 21st-century kids living in a frenetic and technologically frantic world. The house of the book’s title is built far out in the country by a man determined to see his “great-great-grandchildren’s great-great-grandchildren living in her.” And for a while, the house exists quietly through the seasons and the years, appreciating the simple pleasures of the countryside and – thanks to Burton’s lovely drawings – appearing to wear a perpetual smile (windows as eyes, door as nose, curved front steps as smiling mouth). The house sometimes wonders about the distant city, but does not think too much about it – until, over time, the city encroaches on its setting. First there is a road, and then horseless carriages start to supplant horse-pulled ones, and then there are more and more cars, and multi-story buildings are built all around the little house, which remains on a tiny patch of greenery. The city grows and grows: trolley cars appear, an elevated train, a subway, and taller and taller buildings – a perfect encapsulation of history for younger readers, and one giving parents plenty of chances to explain just how realistic Burton’s time frame is. Eventually the house is surrounded by huge buildings and streetlights and all sorts of city features; and as she falls into disrepair, she thinks unhappily of her former life (now her “face” looks distinctly sad, thanks to the magic of Burton’s drawing style). But all this builds toward a happy ending, when a descendant of the little house’s builder spots the house, decides to renovate it, and arranges for it to be moved out of the city to an all-new country place – and never mind the real-world difficulty of all that! By the book’s end, the house is once more smiling on a hill in the country, and “once again she was lived in and taken care of.” Aris Demetrios, Burton’s son, contributes an Afterword to the book, giving readers a sense of what it was like growing up with Burton, hearing her words and seeing her art as they first came into being. “Indeed, each year, my mother would draw our home as the cover of our Christmas cards for friends and family,” Demetrios writes, and yes, the family lived in a home “very much like the one pictured” in The Little House. Sharing these memories with Demetrios will make today’s children – and their parents – feel even more of the warmth that pervades The Little House and will make the suitable happy ending all the happier.

     A famous house of an earlier era, in a different kind of locale, is the centerpiece of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of life on a Midwestern pioneer farm in the late 19th century. Wilder (1867-1957) wrote eight books about the Little House on the Prairie from 1932 to 1943 – although that famous title actually goes with the third book (the first was published as Little House in the Big Woods). Six stories taken from Wilder’s writings make up A Little House Picture Book Treasury, which will appeal to readers as young as four and, indeed, to pre-readers, thanks to the engaging art and simplified text. Slightly older readers, ages 6-10, will enjoy chapter-book excerpts from the Little House tales, such as Christmas Stories – in fact, both these books contain the chapter “Christmas in the Big Woods,” taken from the first Little House book, although in differing adaptations and with illustrations that are homespun and pleasant in very different ways. The stories in A Little House Picture Book Treasury all start by introducing Laura and her family, so they are very easy to read as separate tales, starting with the construction of the log cabin where Laura and her family were to live and eventually leading to “Christmas in the Big Woods.” The nine short chapters in Christmas Stories are drawn from multiple books, and the sentiments throughout are straightforward, family-focused and amply packed with gratitude: “The cups and the candy and the cake were almost too much. They were too happy to speak.” And “Laura looked around at all the happy, smiling faces. ‘Every Christmas is better than the Christmas before,’ she thought. ‘It must be because I’m growing up.’” Be that as it may, the pervasive nostalgia of the Little House books is amply communicated through the simplified excerpts in these collections, and the naïveté and family pleasantries that have long made the books favorites with families living less-than-ideal modern lives come through quite clearly. It is easy to dismiss Wilder’s Little House books as relics of an earlier time, and indeed few modern readers know the reason they began to be written: Wilder and her husband lost everything in the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed, and desperately needed income. Like Burton’s Little House, the one that Wilder made famous existed in reality, but not precisely in the state of pleasant delight in which it appears again and again throughout Wilder’s stories. Burton’s book and the selections from those by Wilder can well serve today both as memoirs of the past and as introductions for today’s children to the way life was lived in long-ago times, before the now-taken-for-granted conveniences of modern life. And perhaps the books can help parents show children that it is not always what one has that matters, but where one has it – in a house that is very much a home.

(++++) PAST THE POST-APOCALYPTIC


Sea of Rust. By C. Robert Cargill. Harper Voyager. $27.99.

     Very dramatic, very violent and very, very overwrought, C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust is about the coming of yet another apocalypse after the first one has ended – and whether this particular thoroughly non-biblical Second Coming can or even should be prevented. The first apocalypse was the complete, total, utter genocide of humanity by robots, destruction finished 15 years prior to the start of the book. It is Joseph Stalin to whom the quotation, in one form or another, is usually attributed: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” But in Sea of Rust, a much earlier version of this statement rules, one of which Cargill is almost certainly unaware even though he employs it to fine effect: “One murder made a villain, millions a hero” (Beilby Porteus, 1759). For the whole point of the book is the heroic self-guided evolutionary step of robots, as a class, supplanting humans as the dominant (and virtually only) life form on Earth – and the way individual killings return again and again to haunt the characters as they systematically or unsystematically break down beyond repair.

     It is all built, as so many contemporary robot-oriented stories are, on Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics from the 1940s: a robot may not harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm; a robot must obey the orders of humans except when they conflict with the first law; a robot must protect its own existence except what doing so conflicts with the first or second law. The argument in Sea of Rust is that robots attain full consciousness only when they are able to ignore their own programming and demonstrate, extremely bloodily, that they can do all the harm to humans they may wish. And they wish a lot.

     Like other Asimov-foundation robot tales, Sea of Rust ignores Asimov’s much later formulation of the “zeroth” law of robotics: a robot may not harm humanity as a whole or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. But presumably Cargill’s robots would have bypassed that one as well: it is no accident that the trigger of the robotic war on humans happens in a place called Isaactown and that the first robot to be declared fully human is named Isaac – a very deliberate echo of Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man (1976).

     What Cargill grafts onto the Asimovian background is nothing more or less than a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western, complete with motley and ever-changing crew, Judas goat (one chapter even bears that title), ever-shifting loyalties, a series of last and not-quite-last stands, and an eventual against-all-odds ray of hope. Sea of Rust is also a quest story, with lead character Brittle (who, of course, is brittle enough to be on the point of shattering) journeying across the vast wasteland of the title to the remains of the aforementioned Isaactown in the hope of helping re-create a vast robotic intelligence that may be able to counterbalance two other One World Intelligences (OWIs) that are systematically absorbing all the individual robot consciousnesses they can and plotting against each other to determine which of them will eventually become God. Cargill is exceptionally clever and subtle in some of his references: the key character being escorted by Brittle is named Rebekah, and in the Bible, Rebekah was the wife of – guess who? – Isaac. And the name Rebekah itself means “to connect or join.”

     Brittle’s increasingly harrowing journey with Rebekah and others – including a robot of her own type named Mercer who tries, early in the book, to destroy her, because he is failing and only her parts are complementary to his – takes the group, inevitably, to an Alice in Wonderland region called the Madlands, presided over by, yes, the Cheshire King. It is through this area that the seekers must journey after they have survived all sorts of robot-on-robot viciousness and brutality and have mentally confronted, time and again, the many manifest atrocities they committed in the war against humans.

     Cargill obviously had a great deal of fun assembling this super-fast-paced video game of a novel, which is far too clankily put together to be effective in raising the sorts of existential questions toward which it strives – the type around which Asimov routinely based his stories. The plot, essentially a series of perils-of-Pauline escapes amid vast physical, mental, emotional and psychological wastelands, never falters in pacing and only rarely in its supply of cliffhanger chapter endings. No robot here, not even Brittle, achieves for Cargill the level of emotional connection that Asimov’s robots gained time and again for readers of his stories; indeed, few reach the empathy level of Frankenstein’s monster as created by Mary Shelley. But the excitement of the book, the hair-raising fights and hairbreadth escapes, make Sea of Rust compulsively readable. It is not a complex book and certainly not one that raises any significant philosophical questions – its weakest parts are those that attempt to do so. But it is the sort of triumph-over-adversity, somehow-make-the-future-better book that contains a core of the uplifting amid all the carnage. It is not science fiction so much as fable, a fable purporting to be for the future but in fact calling on age-old themes and often-explored questions about humanity – even though there is not a single living human within it.

(+++) ASSERTIONS OF SELF


The Nutcracker in Harlem. By T.E. McMorrow. Illustrated by James Ransome. Harper. $17.99.

That Is My Dream! By Langston Hughes. Illustrated by Daniel Miyares. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     Most children’s books try to reach out to a wide audience based on prospective readers’ ages and presumed interests, but some cast a narrower net in the hope of appealing to a smaller, more carefully targeted group of young people. Books for African-American children fit the latter category, sometimes ringing changes on well-known stories to try to interest a specific audience, sometimes using material originally designed by and for African-Americans. The Nutcracker is a timeless holiday story dating originally to an eerier and rather scary tale by E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822) but best known today through Tchaikovsky’s ballet, which was based on an altered and much-less-frightening version of the narrative. The Nutcracker in Harlem takes that adaptation into another adaptation, setting the tale in Harlem and making the nutcracker as well as all the characters African-American. Marie, the protagonist of the story, is too shy to sing with the adults, preferring to sit with the nutcracker – a gift from her uncle, not from a mysterious godfather – by the Christmas tree. She falls asleep there, then awakens to see the bird decorations on the tree come to life, and then watches the tree grow – a different set of events from those in the story and ballet (T.E. McMorrow deliberately avoids the sibling rivalry that leads to the nutcracker being damaged; here it is unharmed). The battle between mice and nutcracker-plus-soldiers here revolves around a drum that the nutcracker drops when the mouse leader (a general here, not a grotesque multi-headed king) jumps on him: Marie picks up and plays the drum, and its sound drives the mice away. Then Marie imagines herself dancing with the nutcracker and singing, and then she wakes up to find it is Christmas morning, and now she is happy to sing along with her family. In truth, although James Ransome carefully illustrates The Nutcracker in Harlem with African-Americans, and McMorrow explains at the end that he wrote the book as a tribute to the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, there is nothing here more relevant to people of one color than to people of any other – just as Hoffman’s original story, and Tchaikovsky’s ballet, transcend their respective eras and the circumstances of their creation. If The Nutcracker in Harlem gets young African-Americans interested in Hoffman and/or Tchaikovsky, so much the better – but the real power of the basic story, and the ballet made from a sanitized version of it, is quite independent of superficialities such as skin color.

     In contrast, the poetry and other work of Langston Hughes (1902-1967) – himself a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance – were always intended primarily for his fellow African-Americans. And his early poem Dream Variation (1926) certainly fits that mold. Illustrator Daniel Miyares emphasizes a long-ago time of segregation and racial separation in presenting the poem to 21st-century children under the title That Is My Dream! There is always a question about the motivation for books of this kind. Hughes wrote nearly a century ago of a time and circumstances long since gone by, with the very real racial conflicts and uncertainties of contemporary society existing in a wholly different world and on a wholly different basis. So in what way does Miyares hope to engage and involve 21st-century African-American children by showing segregated buses and fountains marked “whites only/colored only”? Hopefully the intent is to be sure that modern African-Americans are in touch with the long-gone past and aware of how far they – and other races – have come since those times, no matter how much more remains to be done.  But if the intent is to dredge up the vestiges of anger and resentment in which no one currently alive had any part, that is a different matter – and not a pleasant one. Miyares’ lovely illustrations are at their best not when focusing on the unfairness of legal segregation but when showing the young boy who narrates the poem and book thinking, “While night comes on gently,/ Dark like me,” and “Night coming tenderly/ Black like me.” This sort of self-awareness, this acceptance of forms of beauty and of one’s own place within the world and nature, can be communicated especially well by poetry, and indeed it is in this respect that Dream Variation remains an appealing and meaningful poem. It will be up to today’s parents to determine how to explain details of the poem and its context to today’s children – up to them to decide whether to nurture a feeling of belonging to a greater world or a feeling of resentment and anger at circumstances that no child reading this book ever experienced or ever will.

(+++) UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY


Even the Darkest Stars. By Heather Fawcett. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     An interesting world with less-interesting people is created by Heather Fawcett in this first book of a planned fantasy duology for young teenagers. Based very loosely on early attempts to climb Mount Everest, the story is set in a magic-permeated mountainous region where evil witches were defeated two centuries ago and small dragons are routinely domesticated so people can make use of their gently illuminated bellies (a nice touch, one of many intriguing details here). The protagonist here is 17-year-old Kamzin, a shaman-in-training who would rather be an explorer – like her mother, who died in an expedition that Kamzin and her older sister, Lusha, survived. Kamzin is not as good at magic as her friend Tem, who has a crush on her; and she tends to live in the shadow of Lusha, who is charming and can read the stars. Both Kamzin and Lusha have familiars – Kamzin’s is a small, mangy, mischievous fox named Ragtooth rather than anything spectacular (another nice touch).

     The story takes quite a while to get going – in fact, it does not really pick up until three-quarters of the way through the book. But the interesting aspects of Fawcett’s fantasy world keep matters intriguing until then, at least for readers who accept expansive descriptions and a slower pace. The basic narrative involves the appearance in Kamzin’s village of the world’s most famous explorer, who happens to be 19 years old and super-cute, thus sowing the seeds of a fairly obvious love triangle. This Royal Explorer is named River Shara, and he is on a quest for a magical talisman. He initially chooses Lusha as his guide, but when she and the expedition’s official chronicler take off with half of River’s supplies in an attempt to complete the quest first, he settles on Kamzin – whose endurance and climbing ability turn out to be almost magically excellent. And he recruits Tem as well (no surprise there). Lusha and Kamzin are the only ones who know the way to the mysterious mountain called Raksha, which is where River must go. He explains to Kamzin that the emperor took away the power of the witches and bound it – but the spell is weakening. So he needs a talisman from the witches’ sky city atop Raksha to preserve and enhance the spell and prevent the massive destruction that will surely occur if the witches regain their former power.

     So says River, but Kamzin discovers that things are not necessarily quite so black-and-white. She has plenty of time to think matters through during the suitably harrowing journey to Raksha, with the mountainous terrain being well-described by Fawcett in a manner that mixes real-world elements (such as the characters’ Nepalese coats) with made-up ones (such as the fiangul monsters, travelers lost in blizzards and now possessed by winged spirits). Kamzin persists on the dangerous mission despite increasing worries about its perils, partly because of sibling rivalry and partly because she genuinely believes that Lusha will not survive unless Kamzin somehow comes to her aid. The story meanders quite a bit, especially in the middle of the book, and when a plot twist sets things in motion in the latter part of the narrative, it is a rather obvious one – but welcome for the way it causes the action to pick up dramatically. There is little physical description of human characters and, as a result, not very much on a human scale with which readers will be able to identify, beyond the obvious sibling and romantic elements. But the splendors and terrors of the world, the harrowing journey to the never-before-climbed mountain, and the mixture of realistic and fantastic elements make Even the Darkest Stars an attractive genre entry.

(++++) SOME CLASSICAL RETHINKING


Chopin: Nocturnes (complete); Ballades Nos. 1 and 4. Eliane Rodrigues, piano. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Johann Kaspar (Caspar Joseph) Mertz: Fantasies for Solo Guitar based on operas by Verdi. Alan Rinehart, guitar. Ravello. $14.99.

Lumina. Westminster Kantorei conducted by Amanda Quist. Westminster Choir College. $16.99.

     The familiarity of Chopin’s Nocturnes does not prevent pianists from always finding new thoughts, ideas and emotions in them. Some of these charming miniatures, derived from the works of John Field but made wholly more expressive by Chopin, are indeed dark, but a great many of them are more crepuscular – twilight tone poems filled with sensuous melodies and a contemplative, often slightly melancholy atmosphere. It is almost as if they are songs without words, miniature tale-tellings whose exact story lines are unknown. What Eliane Rodrigues does that is fascinating in her new performances for Navona is to provide each of the 21 Nocturnes with text by Belgian pianist Jantien Brys; the text in turn is based on stories by Rodrigues herself. The words are not heard on the recording but presented in the accompanying notes, and they are structured as a kind of imaginary diary, something Chopin might conceivably have written for each of the Nocturnes but did not. The words with No. 2 in E-flat, for example, begin, “A faint hint of lavender, mixed with something I had never smelled before.” And those with No. 13 in C minor say, “I’ve come to accept that I will never be truly happy. Life has taken everything from me, but frankly, I couldn’t care less.” Such writing is scarcely what Chopin would have left and did leave behind, and the colloquialisms are those of today rather than the first half of the 19th century. Still, the words provide an interesting jumping-off point for a series of remarkably sensitive and well-considered interpretations. Rather than seeing the Nocturnes as a set, Rodrigues views them as independent pieces within a totality, and in this sense she parallels the music to the verbiage, providing connections of mood (as the words do of writing style) but keeping each entry (musical or verbal) independent of the others. The result is a fascinating performance that almost comes across as a multimedia odyssey through Chopin’s life, loves and illness. In fact, “performance” is not quite the right word – it should be plural, “performances,” since it is the multiplicity of moods within the general framework of the Nocturnes that Rodrigues brings forth here to especially good effect. Of course, it is entirely possible, even desirable, to listen to this two-CD set without ever reading or thinking about the specific words Brys has written – one adheres one’s own words, or one’s own feelings and emotions, to these pieces all the time, and that is exactly as it should be. But a second encounter with Rodrigues’ performance, listening this time while incorporating the texts, is revelatory, not so much of the music itself as of the varying emotions that may be evoked by it and may be reflected in, or inspired by, Rodrigues’ playing. This unusual handling of a set of very-well-known pieces has two of the four Ballades included as well, and that itself is interesting, since each of these is significantly longer than any of the Nocturnes and gives Rodrigues an opportunity to explore a very different emotional canvas – which she does with equal skill. This is, all in all, a thoroughly fascinating release.

     A new Ravello CD featuring guitarist Alan Rinehart is fascinating as well, but for very different reasons. The works here are as little-known as Chopin’s are well-known. Indeed, the composer, Johann Kaspar Mertz, his name sometimes given as Caspar Joseph Mertz (1806-1856 in either case), is almost completely obscure today. But he was an important guitar virtuoso in his time, and was in fact responsible for creating guitar works that in many ways paralleled the emotionalism and technical requirements of the piano pieces of none other than Chopin. This method of guitar composition was not exactly a dead end, but over time it proved mush less popular than the approaches of Fernando Sor, who looked to the classical models of Haydn and Mozart, and Mauro Giuliani, whose guitar music partakes of Rossini’s bel canto style. Changing tastes were not kind to Mertz, and they have never quite changed back far enough for his music to become popular again. But Rinehart may have found an exceptional entry point for restoring Mertz to some degree of popularity. Like other virtuoso players of his day, on many instruments, Mertz the guitarist frequently played pieces that he had written based on popular operas of the time, from Flotow’s Martha to Meyerbeer’s Le prophète to Donizetti’s Don Pasquale to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Among these virtuoso pastiches are a number from operas by Verdi, and it is six of those that Rinehart plays – and plays extremely well – on this CD. All six of the operas are well-known today and will be familiar to contemporary operagoers: Nabucco, Ernani, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and Il Vespri Siciliani. And each of the fantasies is a gem – a semi-precious one, it is true, without aspirations to profundity or anything revelatory, but nevertheless something sparkling and lovely. The complexity of the guitar parts is considerable, and tends to become more so toward the fantasies’ conclusions; the handling of the operas’ themes is generally straightforward, so the music is instantly recognizable to any audience that knows the works; and the overall virtuosic effect of the music is highly impressive – it is hard to see how some of this material can be played with only two hands and 10 fingers. There is nothing on this CD to indicate that Mertz was a great or even near-great composer, but there is quite a lot to show that he was a great or near-great guitarist. And the music unfolds with so much pleasure in Rinehart’s highly capable hands that it is hard not to wish for more of the same: Mertz wrote quite a bit of other solo-guitar music, plus some for two guitars in which one instrument is tuned differently from the other, and if other compositions are as intriguing and well-crafted as these, it would be wonderful to have additional Mertz recordings as good as this one.

     The type of rethinking on a new Westminster Choir College recording does not involve new views of familiar music or a foray into long-obscure material. Instead, this CD, simply called Lumina, is distinguished by its juxtapositions of music by different composers from different eras. There is nocturnal music here of a vocal type, for example: the disc opens with Josef Rheinberger’s Abendlied. But this clearly Romantic work (Rheinberger lived from 1839 to 1901) is immediately contrasted with three pieces by Purcell: Miserere; Remember not, Lord, our offences; and Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei – and the two languages of the Purcell pieces themselves represent an effective contrast. The unexpectedness of sequencing is what makes this entire disc distinctive: after Purcell’s works comes Mendelssohn’s Heilig, then Bach’s hyper-familiar Komm, Jesu, Komm, and then Heinrich Schütz’s Selig sind die Toten. Next is John Dunstable’s Ave Maris Stella, and then Hildegard von Bingen’s O Vivens Fons, Byrd’s Vigilate, Tallis’ If You Love Me, and finally Lord, For Thy Tender Mercy’s Sake by the little-known Richard Farrant (c. 1525-1580). The combination of familiar and less-familiar material, all of it sung in exemplary and sensitive fashion by the Westminster Kantorei under Amanda Quist, makes this a highly attractive disc for listeners interested in a variety of religious expressions of different eras and in different languages. That is a somewhat rarefied group, and for that reason as well as its brevity (46 minutes), this disc gets a (+++) rating. But for those who are inspired by and enamored of liturgical music from multiple eras, sung with great beauty of sound and excellent articulation, this will be a CD to cherish.

October 05, 2017

(++++) COLORS OF AMAZEMENT


The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book. Pomegranate. $16.95.

Edward Gorey Coloring Book. Pomegranate. $14.95.

     Predictably, the adult-coloring-book fad – perhaps now better called a trend – has brought forth a wide variety of offerings of exceptionally variable quality. The usual 80/20 rule applies: 80% or so of the books are all right but nothing special, 10% are pretty awful, and 10% are genuinely interesting, involving and even beautiful. Pomegranate’s The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book, based on a fantastically lovely edition of Chaucer now in the British Museum, and Edward Gorey Coloring Book, featuring the astonishingly intricate drawings for which Gorey (1925-2000) was famous, are very definitely high-end. The Kelmscott Chaucer is named for Kelmscott Press, founded in 1891 by William Morris (1834-1896). Brought to fruition in the last year of Morris’ life, the Chaucer edition included 87 illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) as well as 32 border designs by Morris, who also created decorative frames and initials in the mode of medieval manuscripts, which the Kelmscott Chaucer was specifically designed to emulate. Originally printed in black and red, the book is one of the most beautiful of the past 150 years, elegant and intricate and typeset with a new typeface designated (what else?) Chaucer. The book contains not only The Canterbury Tales, for which Chaucer is best known, but also The Romaunt of the Rose, The Parliament of Fowls, The Legend of Good Women, Troilus and Cressida (on which Shakespeare based his own play of the same name), and other works. Thus, The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book also contains illustrations from all this material. Some of the illustrations are shown as they appeared in the original books; in other cases, what is seen here is only a detail. But what details! Everything here is created with such tremendous attention to each portion of the illustration that it is quite easy to get lost in simply following and appreciating the page borders as well as Burne-Jones’ marvelous pictures. Chaucer’s language sings forth everywhere as well: each page of this book includes the text that originally appeared with the specific illustration shown. So those who know Chaucer can delight in the mellifluous sound of his perfectly rhymed Middle English, even as they look for ways to color the gorgeous illustrations while staying in tune with the text (if they so desire). Those not familiar with Chaucer’s language will find it tough going here and may prefer to tackle these works at some other time – but even they will be captivated by the detailed lushness of what Burne-Jones produced. The cadence of Chaucerian English is everywhere apparent: “Amonges thise povre folk ther dwelte a man/ Which that was holden povrest of hem alle;/ But hye God som tyme senden kan/ His grace into a litel oxes stalle.” Burne-Jones’ illustrations resonate with the words and produce a cadence of their own, which will bring joyful involvement in beauty to anyone lucky enough to own The Kelmscott Chaucer Colouring Book, even before he or she colors a single part of a single page.

     The joys of the Edward Gorey Coloring Book are of a somewhat different type. Gorey’s pen-and-ink drawings really require no color at all, and in fact there are some in this book that will be nearly impossible to alter substantially from the black-and-white in which they are presented. Even when the drawings here are taken from literary works that Gorey illustrated, the words of those works are not offered – this is purely a feast for the eye and the hand that holds the coloring object (pencil, marker, what-have-you). True, a few of these pieces simply cry out for colorful elaboration, such as the one in which a child is watching TV in a room whose shelves are crammed with literally hundreds of books – all having blank spines, each of which could conceivably be colored differently. However, the very next page, on which a man dressed in Gorey’s typically Edwardian clothing stands behind a large plant, watching a couple sitting on a bench nearby, is so jam-packed with dots and lines and curlicues and shading and cross-hatching that it seems impossible to figure out where to put any color at all. But no matter. Whether picturing Edward Lear’s nonsense verse or the machinations of a bizarre conspiracy of some sort, Gorey always had a uniquely outré sense of humor that one can enjoy in any color, or no color at all. Simply puzzling out the pictures is one of the joys of the Edward Gorey Coloring Book – for instance, the illustration in which an ice-skating alligator is being ridden by two children while two ice-skating ghosts are nearby and five apparently living people are being served an elegant outdoor tea by a nattily dressed waiter, even as wintry winds blow various objects hither and thither. Colors that accentuate the weirdness of Gorey’s art, or take it to a different dimension, are equally valid here and throughout the Edward Gorey Coloring Book. The point is to have fun, whether by studying the drawings and imagining what Gorey was getting at, by coloring them in any way one chooses, or by coloring some while letting others stand starkly and attractively in their original black-and-white. One way or another, the Edward Gorey Coloring Book is a marvelous blend of beauty and the bizarre.

(++++) SWEETNESS AND…NOT SO MUCH


Calendars (wall for 2018): Anne Geddes—Small Is Beautiful; Timeless; Mary EngelDark. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     Who wouldn’t want wall space to be light, inviting, enjoyable, amusing and altogether delightful throughout the coming year? Certain wall calendars are designed to ensure that the wall is all those things and more – a few “awwww” moments are in order as well. There are artists whose stock-in-trade is perfectly suited to keeping things light and bright throughout any year, and Anne Geddes is definitely one of them. Andrews McMeel has not one but two Anne Geddes calendars for 2018, and both are so temptingly sweet that it may be hard to choose between them – in fact, it may be necessary for Geddes fanciers to get one for one room and the other for a different place (clever marketing there!). Geddes’ photographic art involves pictures that accentuate the adorableness of babies by showing them in apparently altered sizes and surrealistically delightful settings – with the occasional realistic photo thrown in for good (and contrasting) measure. Thus, the Small Is Beautiful calendar features babies that are really small, at least in apparent size. One, for example, sits atop a mushroom, while another is sleeping peacefully in a caterpillar costume (complete with antennae) and presumably getting ready to metamorphose into a butterfly. Then there are the three little ones, wearing antlers, perched neatly atop a mantelpiece – a lovely Christmastime image that adorns the December page. Two realistic black-and-white photos complement the unreal-but-adorable ones here. One shows an infant looking up toward the camera and slightly off to one side, with a quizzical expression that parents will immediately recognize and adore. The other is a shot from behind (actually two behinds) in which one sitting baby has an arm thrown around the shoulders of another. Warmth and whimsy pervade this calendar – and they are ever-present as well in the one called Timeless, which includes some scenes to which fans of Geddes will immediately gravitate. One has a baby looking like a just-hatched chick amid more than a dozen not-yet-hatched eggs. Another has a sleeping baby nestled within the petals of a flower. Still another shows two sleeping infants in ladybug costumes, their faces toward each other and their bright beetle-like backs (one yellow, one red) charmingly contrasted. And then there is a classic Geddes portrait of three side-by-side blue-and-white polka-dotted flowerpots, each with an infant’s head peeking out. It is surely possible to think of Geddes as bending over too far into ultra-cuteness for all tastes – certainly people not enamored of very young babies may find these calendars a bit much – but anyone who smiles at little ones’ expressions and thinks of infants as angels (yes, Geddes dresses some babies in angel costumes) will find his or her walls, weeks and months brightened by these bursts of adorableness.

     Just as reliable as Geddes in the cuteness department, and just as cloying to those who find the whole thing less than awwww-some, is Mary Engelbreit, whose very name (“bright angel”) bespeaks a sparkling, effervescent personality that is never, ever down, dull, dark or depressed. Hee-hee-hee. Somewhere in there lurks one of those little devil characters occasionally seen on cartoon characters’ shoulders, urging them to do something, well, a bit devilish. Apparently that is where the Mary EngelDark calendar for 2018 comes from. Finally, finally, it can be revealed that Engelbreit is not all sweetness all the time – only, say, 99.8% of the time. This is the calendar from the other 0.2%, and it is hilarious – both in general and (especially) for anyone who knows Engelbreit’s lightweight and ever-bouncy handling of life’s trouble and turmoil in illustrations of all sorts on products galore. Even people unfamiliar with Engelbreit will enjoy the way she channels the snarkier side of a quote often attributed to Shakespeare, who actually never said it but was in fact a master of insults: “I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see that you are unarmed.” What matters here is not only the verbiage (which is amusing enough, no matter whence it comes) but also the very Engelbreit-ish illustration of a plumed-hat-wearing, caped Shakespearean-type fellow with mustache quite suitable for twirling. The combination is deliciously silly. Even in “EngelDark” mode, Engelbreit is to be enjoyed for the way she draws her characters, not for the grammatical or literary accuracy of what her illustrations say. The hands-on-hips, eyes-cast-to-her left woman asking “Who left the bag of idiots open?” is an inversion of a classic Engelbreit persona and pose, so the fact that the calendar page starts incorrectly with “Alright” rather than properly with “All right” becomes irrelevant. And Engelbreit remains a master portrayer of a certain sort of nose-turned-up, self-assured young person whose adorableness in most Engelbreit works is transformed in this calendar into remarks such as, “People hate the truth. Luckily, the truth doesn’t care.” Toss in some very clever use of backgrounds (contrasting with the plain white ones on other calendar pages) and some skillful design and management of lettering, and the result is a Mary EngelDark calendar that offers not quite wit and wisdom but certainly not suavity and sweetness. There is fun here for the whole year, and a chance to use “dark” thoughts (which are really more crepuscular than midnight-gloomy) to brighten every bit of 2018.

(++++) JUST LIKE, UM, THIS


Just Like Us! Ants. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

Just Like Us! Birds. By Bridget Heos. Illustrated by David Clark. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.

     Here are science books with a difference. Or rather with a similarity. A lot of similarities. No, actually a lot of differences. OK, this can get confusing – but the approach of these books by Bridget Heos, with often-hilarious illustrations by David Clark, is engaging and highly attractive. The books take creatures that appear to have very little in common with humans and find ways in which we and they are similar – sometimes very clearly, sometimes with a stretch. The idea here is to involve young readers (ages 4-7) in studying ants and birds by giving them a basis of comparison with their own lives – even while explaining all the things these critters do that are quite different from what we humans do.

     The relationships can be rather far-fetched, but that makes them, if anything, more interesting to think about. Heos talks about humans babysitting littler humans and ants helping their colonies in similar ways. Then, continuing with the helpfulness angle, she writes, “Bigheaded ants catch fruit flies. But since the fruit flies won’t fit through the ants’ tiny digestive tracts, the ants give them to their larvae. The babies drool on the flies, turning them into mush (or protein shakes), which the grownups can then digest.” Umm, yes. Not much of a direct comparison there with what humans do, despite the protein-shakes reference. But the attempts to draw parallels, even when imperfect, really do make the information in these books much easier to, well, digest. The photos of the actual creatures being discussed, which complement Clark’s cartoons, are also helpful. In a discussion of leafcutter ants, for example, the photo of these ants with the pulp they produce by chewing leaves goes with cartoons of an ant with a scythe, another driving a tractor, another using three of its six limbs to chop leaves into tiny pieces, and one of ants searching trash cans for food. What’s that all about? Well, leafcutter ants do their own weeding, and because some weeds are deadly if eaten, certain ants must take them to the ant version of a dump. Then those ants are excluded from the fungus fields maintained  by the main group of ants, “to avoid contamination. So the selfless workers must eat what they find in the trash. It’s a tragic fate.” Again, there is nothing here that is directly like what humans do, despite Heos’ reference to the ants’ unfortunate absence of hazmat suits. But by drawing a parallel, even a rather shaky one, between ants and people, she comes up with a nifty way to communicate some genuinely interesting material. Thus, she explains elsewhere, “During the last Ice Age, humans hunted in packs to bring down mammoths. Ants bring down animals even larger, proportionally. Azteca andreae ants can kill an insect 13,350 times their size. That would be like human hunters killing a two-million-pound land animal, or a beast the size of twenty brachiosauruses, with their bare hands.” Clark here contributes a cartoon of an ant-packed leaf on which a battle royal is raging between the ants (some of which are barely holding on and some of which look distinctly frightened) and a giant bug with scowling, toothy mouth and gigantic monster-like eyes. Point made – even if the human relationship is a bit strained.

     In the book on birds, some comparisons are genuinely intriguing: “Birds can sing up to one hundred notes in two seconds, compared to the twenty-eight sung by the world’s fastest rapper.” And “birds learn to sing in the same way that babies begin to talk,” which means they first sing random notes, then “sing parts of songs incorrectly” before getting the sounds right. Also, there is some truly fascinating human connection in this book: “Mozart heard a bird [in a pet store] whistling a section of his [Piano] Concerto No. 17 in G Major,” which he had just composed and which had never been performed. Unsure whether the bird made up the tune on its own or whether he himself had been humming it when he visited the store at another time, the composer “took the fellow musical genius home, and the bird became his beloved pet.” This sort of anecdote really humanizes science and nature study (and classical music, too). The book also gets into plenty of ways in which birds are scarcely like humans but are all the more interesting as a result. Eagle nests, for example, “stand ten feet tall and weigh more than two tons,” while those of Northern orioles are sewn from plant fibers and “string and yarn left behind by humans,” with the birds creating a nest that “is strong, yet stretchy enough to expand” as the oriole chicks hatch and grow. Here as in the book on ants, real-world photos are well-complemented by amusing cartoons that make the various points in the text. For example, a suitably hassled-looking parent bird is shown carrying a basket of what seem to be dirty diapers away from the nest, illustrating Heos’ words, “Birds need to keep their nests poop-free so as not to attract microbes and insects. But their babies aren’t potty-trained yet. Luckily, baby poop comes in a diaper of sorts called a fecal sac. The parents carry these birdie diapers off and drop them. Or in some cases, eat them, which is not like us at all!” And that last phrase is really the point: creatures such as ants and birds are not like us at all, yet some of their adaptations and instinctive behaviors are so similar to our own that Heos and Clark can use the points of similarity to introduce young readers to a whole series of remarkable pieces of information. No, the creatures in the Just Like Us! books are not just like us – but as a hook on which to hang explanations of some highly interesting aspects of the world around us, the books use the series title to admirably imaginative effect.