September 21, 2017

(++++) MONSTROUS AMUSEMENTS


Grimelda and the Spooktacular Pet Show. By Diana Murray. Illustrated by Heather Ross. Kathrine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

I Love You More Than the Smell of Swamp Gas. By Kevan Atteberry. Harper. $17.99.

Even Monsters Need to Sleep. By Lisa Wheeler. Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Grimelda, a cute but messy young witch, has a monstrous problem in Grimelda and the Spooktacular Pet Show, and her pet cat, Wizzlewarts, is only part of it. Wizzlewarts isn’t especially spooktacular, so Grimelda goes hunting for a pet to outdo all the others, including the dragon, Blaze, that belongs to Grimelda’s neighbor, Hildegard. Initially, Grimelda decides that Wizzlewarts would be quite spooktacular with a little magical help, but unfortunately, her home is so messy that she cannot find her spell book anywhere – so she has to search elsewhere in Cobweb Town for just the right pet. Diana Murray’s rhyming text and Heather Ross’ just-right illustrations make the quest into quite a spooktacle….err, spectacle. At the local store, the one available pet, a “hairy mountain boar” (a tiny one in purple, with big horns) isn’t spooktacular enough, so Grimelda heads outdoors, where she finds an adorable baby dragon (“too cute”), a huge-eyed something-or-other (“too pink”), a scowling bat (“too plain”), and a bug waving hello (“too small”). But then she finds just the right thing, “a monster eel/ With spiky fins and huge fangs, too.” Except – uh-oh. It is maybe a little too spooktacular, and is not happy about being disturbed. So Grimelda speeds home, slams the door, and is about to give up when Wizzlewarts finds the spell book, open to just the right page. So off Grimelda and the cat go to the pet show – where Grimelda’s learns a lesson about messiness as she smudges the page with the spell she wants to use, cannot read it properly, and ends up transforming Wizzlewarts into an utterly adorable cutie-pie little pink kitten. Disaster! But not quite: that ultra-scary monstrous eel suddenly shows up, Wizzlewarts shows that even cute pinkness does not deter him from protecting Grimelda, and eventually everything is happily sorted out and Grimelda wins a prize that includes “fifty bags of Batnip Snacks” for Wizzlewarts. Messiness lesson learned? Not really – but Grimelda’s charm overcomes her neatness-challenged lifestyle.

     The monsters themselves take center stage in Kevan Atteberry’s I Love You More Than the Smell of Swamp Gas. The stage here is a swamp – a dark and stinky one in which a father monster and child monster are on a skink hunt before bedtime. Just like human children, the little monster wants to know if his parent loves him as much as, or more than, this or that. It is the specific “this and that” examples that provide the amusement here. One little-monster question, for example, is, “Do you love me as much/ as the BUBBLING SLIME/ that covers our feet/ in a THICK GOOEY GRIME?” And papa monster replies in kind: “I treasure you more/ than the SLOW OOZING MUCK/ squished through our toes/ as we pull them unstuck.” You can imagine what sorts of illustrations accompany these words – but you do not have to imagine them, since Atteberry provides them, again and again. The monsters encounter bloodsucking ducks, a gas-spraying purple-horned skunk, mummified bass, toe-biting stones, and other denizens of the deep, dark, dismal, and delightful (to the monsters) swamp. Again and again, the little monster asks if his papa loves him more than whatever thing they happen to encounter, and again and again, the big monster assures and reassures the little one. Atteberry’s funniest illustration shows the two monsters, still chasing the elusive skink, watching a spider parade in a graveyard whose headstones memorialize, among others, “Winnie the Boo,” “Little Skunky Foo Foo,” “Edgar Allen Potato,” “Batticus Finch” and “Pogo.” Yes, just Pogo – that and the Finch reference are ones that kids and even some parents may have to look up. Eventually, back home and skinkless (which does not seem to bother either papa or child), it is time for “a bowl full of bees/ drizzled with SLIME and/ sprinkled with FLEAS,” and then bed in a room decorated with plush versions of many of the creatures previously encountered on the swamp trek. It is all in monstrously good fun.

     After all, monsters really do need their rest, which is the point of Lisa Wheeler’s Even Monsters Need to Sleep, whose cover shows a big blue scowling papa monster chasing a cute little nightshirted child monster, with two-headed doll in hand, toward the bedroom. Here too the bedroom décor is suitably monstrous, although Chris Van Dusen also includes some decidedly non-monstrous elements, such as a yellow duckie nightlight and a book-within-this-book from which papa monster reads about what other monsters do at night. Bigfoot, for example, “hugs his wooby extra tight,” and three-legged aliens in UFOs “wear fuzzy-wuzzy bedtime clothes,” and a yeti makes a snow cone for a bedtime snack, and a cloud-dwelling giant “whines and cries” and brings a rainy downpour to the land below before going to sleep while sucking his thumb. The most-amusing part of Even Monsters Need to Sleep comes after the papa monster reads about all the other monsters and how they get their rest, when Wheeler reverses the usual check-under-the-bed-for-monsters idea: “Monsters have a bedtime, too./ Their dad sings them a song or two,/ then checks beneath the bed for YOU!/ Even monsters need to sleep.” And it is that last line, repeated with variations from the start of the book to the finish, that Even Monsters Need to Sleep is all about. It is a message communicated amusingly enough to keep monster-loving little humans involved throughout the book and, hopefully, get them ready to drop off to rest (after a suitable under-the-bed check) when the story is over.

(++++) BEAUTIFUL BOARDS


The Colors of Ancient Egypt. By Amy Mullen. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.

Flowers Grow All in a Row. By Lisa Houck. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.

     There is something familiar and ultimately predictable about almost all board books, no matter how well they may be written and designed. The topics are formulaic: simply expressed emotions designed to be of interest and comfort to very young children, a few numbers to count, some colors to learn, maybe some shapes. And the books generally have a similar look as well, not only because they are usually small in size and always printed on thick cardboard but also because they either use bold colors and designs that are easy for young  eyes to see (black and white, bright red) or soft pastels that are intended to be gentle and soothing for bedtime-focused and other “comfort” books. The exception to all this sameness is Pomegranate, a publisher so devoted to art in all its forms that it has rethought and redesigned even its books for the youngest kids. When Pomegranate offers a book of colors or numbers, it is certain to be anything but run-of-the-mill. Hence Amy Mullen’s The Colors of Ancient Egypt, a wonderful blend of history lesson and color instruction. The colors themselves are muted – but are not pastels – and are carefully chosen to reflect those of the ancient Egyptians. And the words associated with the colors are certainly not ones that usually appear in board books. The very first color is gold, in the form of a gold headdress (another concept not normally found in board books); and the word associated with the headdress is Nefertiti – adults reading this to even the youngest children had better learn or relearn some history to be able to explain this. The next color is “red clay,” with a far deeper and earthier tone than the bright reds usually seen in board books, and this is shown in pottery – yet another unexpected word. Then comes a surprising and wonderful concept: “yellow belly,” which goes with “crocodile,” two of which are shown facing in opposite directions, with their toothy mouths wide open. There is also green in the book, but it is the dark, rich green of papyrus; and purple, in the purple belt of a tunic; and black, as in the shell of a scarab beetle. There are 10 colors in all, all of them displayed again on the book’s last page, all of them digitally rendered and shown quite beautifully and quite unusually through the chosen illustrations. This may not be the best first-colors book for the youngest children – it cannot hurt to have them see and learn bright primary colors before anything else – but it is a book into which kids can grow, and one to which they will likely return even after they know and understand colors. The reduced likelihood of quickly outgrowing board books is something else that sets Pomegranate’s apart from most others.

     The artistic sensibilities of Lisa Houck’s Flowers Grow All in a Row are quite different, but this too is a very unusual treatment of a very common topic – in this case, numbers. This is a counting book, yes, but despite its title, the book does not focus only on flowers – and it therefore shows young children that the meaning of numbers is independent of the things being counted. That is a rather advanced concept for a board book, and in fact is one that parents reading to kids will need to explain, since Houck shows it but does not say it in so many words. In fact, her words are simple and well-targeted to the very young children for whom board books are intended. And her woodcut illustrations are quite lovely – and laid out to emphasize the way in which counting is done. The first picture shows the moon in the upper right of a two-page spread, as dawn (a pinkish color) starts to emerge from night (most of the illustration is in lovely, complementary shades of purple). Moon changes to sun as the book goes on, the two celestial orbs remaining in the same page position as the blank space between them and the text (set at the far left of each left-hand page) is slowly filled up. First there is one tulip; then, writes Houck, “2 bright flowers now appear.” Then the two are joined by a third – and each flower looks completely different from the others, turning Flowers Grow All in a Row into a nature book as well as one about counting. One by one, plants are added, marching across the pages from left to right, until, when there are seven, the whole two-page layout is full. Now what? This is where Houck makes a clever switch: the next page shows the same seven plants, plus two blue butterflies that “flutter and play” as the scene darkens toward evening. And finally, “a little BUG visits at the end of the day” and crawls up the stem of one of the flowers. The result is “10 plants and critters,” all of them shown by Houck at the end of the book so kids can count them again and learn that any 10 things can be counted using the same set of numbers. The beauty of Flowers Grow All in a Row, although very different from the beauty of The Colors of Ancient Egypt, is used for much the same purpose: to create a distinctive board book that will engage and involve young children in ways that more-ordinary books of the same shape and size rarely do.

(++++) GENUINE CLASSICS


The Mouse and His Child. By Russell Hoban. Illustrated by David Small. Scholastic. $9.99.

Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

     Some books show their age; some wear it proudly; and some transcend it. There are a few classics for children that even transcend their genre and reach out not only to young readers but also to anyone who ever was young. These are books such as Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Mouse and His Child. Russell Hoban’s novel is half a century old now – the new printing is marked “50th anniversary edition” – and is an amazing book to rediscover or encounter for the first time. One thing that makes this novel so special is the possibility of reading it on multiple levels, as anything from a simple adventure to a fall-from-grace story with spiritual overtones. Another special element is the use of language not usually found in children’s books, including words that fit the story perfectly while expanding young readers’ vocabulary: “chthonic,” “raffishly patrician,” and many more, sometimes laid on so thickly that kids and adults alike will find them as over-the-top as Hoban intended them to be: “Absolutely nothing! Accretions and abstractions of annotated nothing. Bafflements of nothing. Charismas, demiurges, and epiphanies of nothing.” Yet another outstanding part of the book is the way Hoban echoes great literature for adults within it – works that children almost certainly will not know but may encounter later in life, at which point they will think back to where they first heard the words from them. There are, for example, eyes that “blazed up in the gloom, staring in wild surmise” (a reference to Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer), and two separate mentions that “the child is father to the mouse” (from Wordsworth’s “the child is father to the man” in The Rainbow). And there is a hilarious sendup of Waiting for Godot, very funny even for those who do not catch the satire, in a comment about “Furza and Wurza representing as they do the very ISness of TO BE, cloaked in fun and farce.”

     Yet there is nothing essentially complex or overwrought in the basic story of The Mouse and His Child. It is the tale of a windup toy, a larger and smaller mouse joined at the hands so that, when wound with a key, they dance in a circle – and the adventures they have when their existence as a plaything is ended by an accident that damages the toy. The notion of toys with feelings is nothing new for children today, certainly not for anyone familiar with Pixar movies such as Toy Story and its successors – but Pixar was founded only in 1986, nearly two decades after Hoban wrote The Mouse and His Child. The emotionalism of the book, its thoughtfulness and pervasive sadness (“a world of love and pain were printed on her vision, never to be gone again”), were genuinely new at the time and retain their power today. Most of the book’s dated elements are satirical ones: the self-involved academic (here, a muskrat) determined to make a name for himself through great works, only to find when he accomplishes what he wishes that a journalist (here, a bluejay) declares it to be “not news”; and the sendup of avant-garde theater through a group called “The Caws of Art” (led by two crows), whose latest offering, The Last Visible Dog, causes a riot. A few now-old elements sit more uneasily in the 21st century, though. A tramp – that is, a hobo, not “tramp” in the newer, sexualized sense – appears at the start and end and is key, like mysterious and powerful beings of uncertain provenance in other tales, to setting the story in motion and bringing it to a conclusion; but this type of character is virtually unknown in children’s books today. And an important climactic scene includes a detailed description of train tracks and a train passing along them, “clacking through the switches” until at last “the yellow-windowed caboose and its red lantern dwindled into darkness” – but contemporary children may have no point of reference for this at all. Still, The Mouse and His Child is at its heart a quest story, and Hoban (1925-2011) tells it with all the flair of a writer of epics – which, on one level, it is. Unfortunately, Hoban’s excellent illustrations are omitted from the new edition, which instead uses ones by David Small that are quite well done but not always in keeping with the nuances of the story – for instance, the picture of a long-abandoned dollhouse that has been taken over by rats does not at all match the elaborate and very dark description of its appearance in the text. Nevertheless, the return of The Mouse and His Child is an occasion to celebrate: parents or grandparents who give this book to children, and perhaps read it with them, will be doing themselves as well as the young ones the great favor of delivering to them a world full of wonder, trouble, hurt and delight.

     Even older than The Mouse and His Child and even more directly dependent on the once-romantic notion of trains, Virginia Lee Burton’s first published book, Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away (1937), is also a quest adventure, but a much simpler one than Hoban’s and one much more easily resolved. The new edition, thank goodness, retains Burton’s excellent illustrations, although they have been colored, probably inevitably for a modern book (by Lauren Pettapiece). This edition includes an up-to-date bonus in the form of a free audio download in which the book is read by Burton’s son, Aristides, to whom Burton dedicated it (and who is charmingly shown as a child, surrounded by model-train layouts, on the original dedication page). A picture book rather than an extended novel, Choo Choo is a distinctly old-fashioned story of “a beautiful little engine” (a steam engine, no less – today’s kids will certainly need an explanation of what that means) who tires of pulling passenger coaches and decides to take off on her own. Everything about the book speaks of the time at which it was written, from the pipe-smoking engineer carrying a large oil can to the fireman (no, not a firefighter) who stokes the engine with coal to the conductor with his huge (analog) watch that “told the little engine when it was time to start.” Choo Choo is certainly a visit to the past, but it remains a charmer of a book. The basic “I want to get away” and “I could do better on my own” story is, after all, timeless: Choo Choo takes off one day as her three human attendants are having coffee in a restaurant, but instead of eliciting the admiration she expects to receive as she speeds along the tracks, she frightens people and animals, causes a multi-car pileup at a railroad crossing, has to leap a just-opening drawbridge, and eventually runs out of fuel on a disused siding and chugs to an unhappy halt. So much for adventure! The humans, of course, rescue Choo Choo and do not blame her for what has happened, and she, suitably chastised by her experience, returns happily to her pulling-passenger-coaches role. So all ends well for everybody. “I am not going to run away any more. It isn’t much fun,” thinks Choo Choo at the end. The message, about figuring out where you fit in and being happy about it, is not politically correct in 21st-century terms. But it retains its resonance, for children and adults alike, despite being communicated in Choo Choo using elements that are no longer part of the direct knowledge or experience of most modern readers.

(++++) HOLIDAY HAPPINESS


Pig the Elf. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.

The Christmas Quiet Book. By Deborah Underwood. Illustrated by Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Pete the Cat: Trick or Pete. By James Dean. HarperFestival. $6.99.

Duck, Duck, Dinosaur: Perfect Pumpkin. By Kallie George. Illustrated by Oriol Vidal. Harper. $16.99.

Flat Stanley and the Missing Pumpkins. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $3.99.

     It’s a jolly holiday with all sorts of characters, animal and human (or kind-of-human), in kids’ books with a distinct seasonal slant. The super-selfish Pig the Pug gets his comeuppance, sort of, in Pig the Elf, in which the huge-eyed, cross-eyed pug creates a hilariously overdone list of things he wants from Santa at Christmas – the full list, not revealed until the inside back cover of Aaron Blabey’s book, includes such entries as “an inflatable banana,” “false teeth,” “a pet (giraffe would be good),” “beard,” “40 gallons of molasses,” and “the power of invisibility.” But even without seeing the list, kids will have a hilariously delightful time as Pig, bursting out of his red full-body elf suit, decides to stay awake until Santa arrives – to the consternation of Pig’s sweet canine companion, Trevor, whose entire list asks if he can please have something nice. Pig does manage to stay awake until Santa arrives, but of course is dissatisfied because “I asked for MORE!” So he chases Santa to the chimney, nips Santa in the rear, and hangs on tightly as Santa gets to the sleigh and the reindeer take off. Soon Pig cannot hold on any longer and falls. But this is a Christmas story, after all, so Pig not only survives “the big drop” but also ends up as an outdoor tree-topper – a hilarious one. Pig is so silly and his adventures are so ridiculous that his underlying characteristic, extreme selfishness, becomes funny rather than exceptionally irritating, as it would be in real life.

     Animals of all sorts enjoy Christmas in Deborah Underwood’s The Christmas Quiet Book, originally published in 2012 and now available in paperback. Renata Liwska’s sweet, digitally colored pencil illustrations give the scenes warmth and beauty as Underwood gives examples of all sorts of quiet: “searching for presents quiet” as bunnies look for gifts, for example, is followed by “getting caught quiet” when they are found looking and given a time-out. “Cocoa quiet” has three friends  gently sipping from mugs, while “lights on quiet” is a scene of wonderment at a fully lit tree – and the next page’s “blown fuse quiet” makes a lighting mishap adorable. A scene in a Christmas play brings both the embarrassed “forgotten line quiet” and the assistive “helpful whisper quiet” from other cast members, while “reading by the fire quiet” has two sleepy bunnies trying to get through the books they have opened and not quite managing to do so. The charms of The Christmas Quiet Book are many and are apparent on every page, with the deceptively simple language being used to showcase a wide range of lovely seasonal events and memories.

     Quiet is not the watchword for all holidays, though. Halloween tends to be on the noisy and celebratory side, and there is usually plenty of bounce in Halloween-themed stories. James Dean’s Pete the Cat: Trick or Pete is a lift-the-flap book in which the pages show all the things Pete and his friends could be afraid of but don’t have to be. On one page, a shadow moves in a tree as the wind  rustles the leaves; lifting the flap reveals an owl and Pete’s words, “That wasn’t too spooky.” Outside a house, there is a shape that looks strange in the dark, but is revealed in flashlight beams to be “just a scarecrow,” and again, Pete says, “That’s not too spooky.” And on things go, with eyes peering from a bush turning out to belong to “our friend Emma,” the dog, described by Pete as “not spooky but groovy.” It is only near the end that Pete is really spooked, by a ghost – but it turns out to be Grandma, who says, “Don’t be silly, Pete. It’s just me.” The very simple story, brightly colored illustrations (with lots of Halloween-y orange), and concluding “Happy Halloween” message add up to fine seasonal fun for kids who enjoy Pete the Cat’s comings and goings.

     Some holiday-themed books do double duty as learn-to-read helpers, including those in the “I Can Read!” series. The series’ simplest level is called “My First” and is described as “ideal for sharing with emergent readers.” A pleasant Halloween example is Duck, Duck, Dinosaur: Perfect Pumpkin, in which the characters created by Kallie George and Oriol Vidal – two ducklings who hatched from eggs along with a dinosaur who is now an equal member of the family – search for a Halloween pumpkin. Ducklings Feather and Flap quickly get the hang of pumpkin searching when they go to a pumpkin patch with Mama Duck. But huge-footed dinosaur Spike (a kind of miniature T. rex who is all feet and head and has almost no body) keeps making mistakes: he thinks one pumpkin is perfect for jumping on and another is perfect for use as a bowling ball, and of course the result is smashed pumpkins and the need to continue the search. Eventually Spike catches on, a perfect pumpkin for decorating is located, and Mama Duck uses the Spike-smashed pumpkins to make pumpkin pie (although parents should tell kids that in real life, the pumpkins used for pie are not the huge, familiar orange ones, but a different type). Pumpkin pie – also made from the wrong pumpkins – figures as well in Flat Stanley and the Missing Pumpkins, a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”). Unfortunately, this book itself is less interesting and less successful than many others included in “I Can Read!” It gets a (+++) rating because Lori Haskins Houran’s interpretation of Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley character is only so-so. The thin plot here involves Stanley and his brother, Arthur, visiting their aunt, uncle and cousin at a farm, and finding out that someone has been taking the uncle’s pumpkins from his patch at night. Stanley poises as a scarecrow and discovers that the thieves are Arthur and Cousin Billy, who simply want to show the pumpkins at the county fair. Apparently they never just asked Uncle Bob if they could, and no one noticed that the pumpkins started disappearing only after Stanley and Arthur arrived. Macky Pamintuan’s illustrations are all right, with two of Stanley as a ramp being the most amusing and most in line with the character as created by Brown (1926-2003). But the story is not likely to bring many new fans to the Flat Stanley series – the whole narrative falls a little bit, well, flat.

(++++) HEARD WITH A DIFFERENCE


Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5; Adagio for Violin and Orchestra, K. 261; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 269. Zsolt Kalló, violin; Capella Savaria conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Hungaroton. $40.99 (2 CDs).

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Alexandra von Roepke, mezzo-soprano; Peter Furlong, tenor; Christian Kälberer, piano. Thorofon. $16.99.

Eduard Strauss: Waltzes and Polkas. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.

     Even well-known classical music takes on new shades of meaning when handled in a nontraditional or unfamiliar way. There are, for example, innumerable recordings of Mozart’s five violin concertos, and a number of them also include the three additional violin-and-orchestra pieces, K. 261, K. 269, and K. 373. But there is a paucity of recordings that bring historically informed performance practices to this material, and that is one thing that makes the new Hungaroton release featuring violinist Zsolt Kalló special. In addition to the usual elements of historically informed performances, including original or replica instruments, gut strings, cellos without endpins, and so forth, Kalló provides all his own cadenzas, as soloists would have in Mozart’s time – even though many violinists today use existing cadenzas by performers such as Joseph Joachim. More importantly, Kalló creates cadenzas that are true to the time in which these works were written: they are display pieces, yes, but they are neither so long nor so elaborate as to overweight the music and turn the concertos into the sort of virtuoso offerings that became common only in the decades after Mozart’s death. These are particularly well-balanced performances, readings to which the original-instrument ensemble Capella Savaria, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, contributes greatly. In Mozart’s violin concertos (and the supplementary movements), the soloist is not quite primus inter pares in Baroque mode, but neither is he in constant competition with the ensemble. Kalló and McGegan turn these works into chamber-music-like conversations between soloist and orchestra, giving them plenty of heft when appropriate but allowing them to soar songfully and with great delicacy when that is the more-apt approach. The title of the two-CD set is a bit of a misnomer, though: it is called “The Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra,” but since it omits the Concertone, K. 190, and Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, it really encompasses only the works for solo single violin and orchestra. However, it encompasses those with beauty and great style: far from being stodgy, as period-instrument performances sometimes are, these readings are full of verve and liveliness, bringing forth the many manifest beauties of the music with a combination of beautiful tone, excellent balance, and a firmly grounded historical understanding of the time period within which Mozart produced the music.

     Unlike Mozart’s violin concertos, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is always performed in one of its two authorized versions for voices and orchestra, those being for tenor and contralto (Mahler’s preference) or for tenor and baritone. But almost no listeners know that there is a third version of this amazing work, one not only sanctioned by Mahler but also prepared by him and specifically intended as an alternative form of performance. This is a version for voices with piano, not orchestra, and it is a version so little-known that it did not receive its first performance until 1989, almost 80 years after Mahler’s death. Mahler did not make this version as a piano reduction of the orchestral one – he actually rethought the music and created a piece that is noticeably different in numerous ways, for example by omitting the final word Tod in the third appearance in the first song of the phrase, Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der [Tod]. The piano part is very difficult and has some notable differences from the orchestral one – Mahler is not here merely trying to “reduce” the orchestral sound to the piano, but is striving to give Das Lied von der Erde a different kind of emotional impact from the one it has in its much-better-known orchestral guise. The new Thorofon recording of the piano version is thus an exceptionally welcome entry in the Mahler catalogue, even though the singers are not quite at the absolute highest level for this music: Alexandra von Roepke, as a mezzo-soprano, lacks the deep duskiness that Mahler wanted in the contralto part, and tenor Peter Furlong sometimes strains his voice in trying to emote, even though he is not up against a full orchestral complement. On the other hand, pianist Christian Kälberer is excellent throughout, his solidity grounding the singers and giving this entire performance a strength hewn as if from marble. It is inevitable to compare the piano version of Das Lied von der Erde with the orchestral one, and by and large this is not to the piano version’s advantage: the non-vocal middle section of Der Abschied, for example, is far less effective in bridging the two disparate poems when heard on piano. Yet this version is more than a curiosity: even though it lacks the powerful punch of the orchestral form in which Das Lied von der Erde is usually heard, it brings greater clarity to some of the intertwinings of the vocal and instrumental lines, and it casts the overall work’s emotions somewhat differently, giving them a more-human if less-overwhelming scale. No one who thinks he or she knows Das Lied von der Erde can really know it completely without listening to it in this form.

     Speaking of knowing things, everybody who knows and loves the music of the Strauss family has heard, time and time again, the famed, unendingly tuneful and brilliantly structured waltzes, polkas and other dance music that the Strauss orchestra played for decades.  And yet anyone who thinks of the family as consisting only of Johann Sr., Johann Jr. and Josef will be astonished by a wonderful Marco Polo release featuring waltzes, polkas and a galop by Eduard Strauss. The youngest of the three Strauss brothers and the longest-lived (1835-1916), Eduard gained fame as a conductor rather than a composer, and garnered unending notoriety when he insisted on having the entire Strauss archive incinerated in 1907 – whether because of a pact with his older brothers or from longstanding personal animosity toward them, no one is really sure. Eduard was often trivialized as “handsome Edi” – he was exceptionally good-looking – and had not really wanted to be part of the family “music business,” being fluent in several languages and preferring a diplomatic career. For many reasons, history has been unkind to Eduard, but the new CD of 13 of his works – of which, remarkably, 10 are world première recordings – may help to redress the balance. Although those of Eduard’s pieces heard here lack the ever-present good humor of those by Johann Sr., the dramatic flair of those of Johann Jr., and the intricacy of those by Josef, Eduard’s works are exceptionally charming, even if on a surface level, and are as well-constructed and tuneful as anything by the Strauss family’s better-known members. And the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice plays all the pieces with panache under John Georgiadis. Included here are Eduard’s best-known polka, Mit Extrapost, and his two most-familiar waltzes, Doctrinen and Fesche Geister. But nothing else on the disc will likely have been heard by Strauss fanciers before: the waltzes Grüsse an die Aula, Ball-Promessen, Hypothesen and Aus dem Rechtsleben; the gallop Pest-Ofener-Eissport; and the several types of polka (schnell, française, mazur) at which Eduard was especially adept – Bruder Studio!, Die Hochquelle, Über Feld und Wiese, Aus Lieb’ zu ihr! and Schneewittchen. Given the fact that Eduard wrote more than 300 works, it is by no means certain that the high-quality ones on this CD are typical of his music; certainly contemporaries belittled him as a composer, but whether that was justified criticism or more a matter of choosing sides (for example, in the ongoing rivalry between the Strauss family and longtime rival Karl Michael Ziehrer) is unclear on the basis of this single release. What listeners have here is Strauss music with a distinct difference: rarely heard works by a very definitely under-appreciated member of the famed family, a member whose contributions to the Strauss legacy will only be better understood if additional volumes of his pieces are released in the future. Hopefully that is just what will happen – mit extrapost (special delivery).

September 14, 2017

(++++) MAJOR MESSES


Accident! By Andrea Tsurumi. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys. By Esphyr Slobodkina and Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer. Harper. $17.99.

     If ever there was an author’s name that fit almost perfectly with the theme of her book, it is Andrea Tsurumi’s name and Accident! Her name sounds like the word “tsunami,” and her hilarious exploration of mess-making is tsunamic indeed. It all starts when little Lola, an armadillo with distinctly human expressiveness, knocks a whole pitcher of juice onto a chair and makes a huge stain. “I’ve ruined everything!” Lola exclaims, determining immediately that she needs to run away and “hide in the library,” where “they have books and bathrooms,” and stay there “till I’m a grownup.” Dashing out of the house, Lola runs “away from her mess and right into everyone else’s.” And wow, are there messes to be found. Tsurumi is amazingly inventive as she piles trouble upon trouble upon trouble, starting with a bear whose weight breaks the chains of a playground swing and a lamb who cuts through a garden hose, then continuing with mistakes and wreckage everywhere – as the characters proclaim themselves “the WORST” and think about running away “till the END OF THE WORLD!” It is all so awful, so exaggeratedly and obviously overdone – and so hilarious. An anteater into whose shopping cart Lola runs uses her tongue to form the word “yikes.” A blowfish baker into whose cake the lamb falls blows up into a super-spiky ball and joins the race to the library – which takes the hyper-upset characters past a giraffe whose just-baked cookies fall out a window, a bull carrying destroyed dishes out of a shop, a mother duck noticing that the third of her four ducklings is actually a snake, a human turning on a blender that has no top and getting drenched in whatever is inside, and much more. Everyone gets hysterical when things go wrong: Tsurumi does an amazing lettering job to show all the ways characters say “WHOOPS!” and “RUINED!” and “WRECKED!” and more; a narwhal whose horn breaks a child’s balloon and a turtle who ends up on his back in the middle of a pie are two of the many other unfortunate animals. On and on travel Lola, the bear, the lamb and the blowfish, and everywhere they go (they go to a lot of places) they find “Big Big Trouble!” Finally, as a sign reading “CALAMITY!” is seen blowing over the street, they make it to the refuge of the library – where, one stumble and a domino effect on bookshelves later, there is “a huge CATASTROPHE.” And then – well, then a little bird who has been observing all the mayhem looks Lola right in the eye and says, “Accident.” Talk about a teachable moment! “And now we make it better,” says the bird, and that is just what the characters do – lots of them – in the book’s final pages. The cleanup of the entire downtown area is hilariously elaborate and elaborately hilarious – kids will love picking out all the specific repairs going on. And Lola rushes home to apologize, just in time to see her mom make a major mess with doughnuts, coffee, plates, a trash can, papers, and the stained chair. What an object lesson – what a lot of object lessons – in what to do when things go wrong! The highly personal way the story is told (the text type is in Tsurumi’s handwriting and the display type is hand-lettered by her) adds to the considerable impact of a book that is hilarious, touching and useful all at once. And that is no accident.

     Nor is there anything accidental about the happenings in, and the creation of, Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys. This is the second time Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer has created a sequel to Caps for Sale, which has been popular ever since the book by Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002) was first published in 1940. In 2015, Sayer brought out More Caps for Sale, using her knowledge of Slobodkina’s work, of which she is essentially the curator, and ideas that she said came from Slobodkina itself. Now there is a sequel to the sequel, and Slobodkina herself is a character in it, more or less: Sayer has created a friend for the peddler, named her Essie, and based her appearance on that of Slobodkina. As for the story, it is a kind of hybrid of the original Caps for Sale and the story of the shoemaker and the elves: now the mischievous monkeys are still following the peddler and still irritating him, but the new character, Essie, tells the peddler that "sometimes what we don’t want is exactly what we need,” and urges him to clear his mind of negative expectations and see what happens with the monkeys. And sure enough, when the peddler has to leave town to visit a sick friend, the monkeys – who have spent a lot of time watching the peddler make caps to sell – take it upon themselves to make a whole new batch of caps. So when the peddler returns home, expecting to find everything a mess because of the monkeys and worried because he has spent all his money on the trip and has nothing to sell to get the money back, he discovers the monkey-made caps and realizes what has happened. The result is a level of gratefulness for the monkeys that is quite outside the scope of the original Caps for Sale but that certainly fits with this extension, as Sayer creates it. Sayer does a fine job of carrying through Slobodkina’s original art, and she does not attempt to be politically correct by changing anything (for instance, the peddler’s stereotypical appearance remains just as it has always been). Sayer clearly has big  plans for Slobodkina’s legacy: at the end of Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys, the peddler meets four children who originally appeared in other, non-monkey books by Slobodkina, and Sayer says in an afterword that “they will all have adventures with the peddler and the sixteen monkeys in future stories.” Clearly Caps for Sale is in the process of becoming a franchise and an extended series. If Sayer remains true to the spirit of Slobodkina’s original work – which, so far, she has – the peddler and the monkeys should have a bright future ahead of them.

(++++) DOGGY DOINGS


The Adventures of Honey & Leon. By Alan Cumming. Illustrated by Grant Shaffer. Random House. $17.99.

The Great Puppy Invasion. By Alastair Heim. Illustrated by Kim Smith. Clarion. $16.99.

     Dog owners know there is something deeply unsatisfying in being told that their dogs simply sleep all day while the humans are out and about. Surely those wonderful canine companions have something more to do! The technological solution to this burning issue involves buying a “nanny-cam” and actually observing the pups’ behavior. But Alan Cumming and Grant Shaffer have a better idea: imagine what the dogs could be doing. Well, actually, no, they couldn’t really do what Cumming and Shaffer show in The Adventures of Honey & Leon, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if dogs shared a fantasy life with humans to such a degree that they could have these particular adventures? Cumming’s story imagines that Honey, a good-sized rescue mutt, and Leon, a diminutive Chihuahua, take their canine duty to protect owners very seriously indeed, and so are very distressed when their human companions have to go on a business trip – which, Cumming writes, happens “an awful lot.” The dogs decide not to stand for this any longer when they discover that yet another trip is being planned: as soon as the humans leave, Cumming writes that Honey and Leon “quickly packed their bags” – with such necessities as a book on acting by “Marilyn Monruff” and packages of “doggie treats,” “emergency treats,” and “even more emergency treats.” Shaffer’s illustration of the pups enthusiastically getting themselves set for travel is a gem – actually, there are gems aplenty in the amusing and delightful pictures here. The dogs and their humans live in New York City, so the pups hail a taxi to take them to the airport – New York apparently being a place where cab drivers have seen it all, so picking up two dogs and their luggage to take to an airport is no big deal. Somehow Honey and Leon figure out which plane their humans have boarded, and they slip aboard themselves (What? No security?) and take seats way at the back – with Shaffer’s sly drawing indicating that perhaps the humans are not quite as unaware of the dogs as the dogs think. What follows is a European adventure in which Honey and Leon, wearing a variety of improbable disguises, repeatedly protect and help out their humans. Then, at a Parisian fashion show, photographers ask a model to turn their way by calling out requests such as, “Over here, honey!” And Honey the dog decides the calls are for her, and she takes her turn on the fashion-show runway (to the bewilderment of Leon), and she immediately becomes “the talk of the town.” And that means that the next day, Honey and Leon have to spend their time “keeping Honey’s star status hidden” from their humans (which requires, among other things, jamming the men’s cell-phone signals). Exhausted, but satisfied that they have done their guard duty while remaining undetected, Honey and Leon head home – and readers find out that, yes, their humans knew about the dogs’ adventurous diligence all along. The Adventures of Honey & Leon is a lovely little fantasy that strains credibility well beyond the breaking point – a state of affairs that matters not a whit. One thing that may matter to some families, though, is that this is also a book about gay men – the dogs’ humans – who repeatedly show their physical closeness by holding hands and putting arms around each other. This is irrelevant to the story but is clearly a desired element of it from the perspective of Cumming and Shaffer. Parents in traditional families need to be prepared to discuss this aspect of the book if their children ask about it.

     The only thing parents may have to explain about Alastair Heim’s The Great Puppy Invasion is how anybody could possibly resist the adorable, enormous-eyed puppies drawn with such overwhelming cuteness by Kim Smith. But the town of Strictville does resist them – well, at first. This is a town whose motto is, “All work and no play makes for a great day!” Everybody is dutiful here, and suitably sour-faced, and no one has seen puppies before. But the people start to see them as the book begins – and soon see lots of them, despite the town’s “long history of ridiculous rules,” which include “fun was forbidden,” “play was prohibited,” and “cuteness was downright criminal.” But not even a police officer ticketing three adorable pups for daring to be cute can stop this invasion! And to make matters worse, one child, little Teddy, keeps reaching out to the puppies, despite his sensible mother’s repeated warnings not to touch them. “This is too much cuteness for just one town!” a resident exclaims at a hastily called emergency meeting. The residents think they know what they have to do to get rid of the puppies: they throw sticks at them (but the puppies delightedly fetch the sticks and bring them back), and they run toward the puppies to chase them away (but the puppies think it is a game and grow “even more delightful”). Soon the townsfolk are on the run, the puppies chasing them and yipping with happiness – until the townspeople run into their houses and slam the doors shut. But Teddy, still outside after his parents have run in, sees “the tiniest puppy of all” and wonders “how something so sweet and so playful and so adorably sad could possibly be scary” – and Smith pulls out all the stops here to show the little puppy taking up a full page, with brightly shining eyes as big as half its head and a head as big as its entire body. Awwwwww! Then the utterly adorable puppy lifts its paw to Teddy, and Teddy takes it, and soon all the other townspeople – who have been watching from inside their homes – “cautiously stepped forward” to shake paws with the other puppies. And a lickety-split (and a few licks) later, Strictville has become Not So Strictville and the people “would never be afraid of cuteness again.” The story and its illustrations are so over-the-top that kids and adults alike will likely find themselves laughing out loud at The Great Puppy Invasion – especially at the very end of the book, when another invasion is about to begin: a tiny, ultra-adorable, huge-eyed kitten winks at readers from the far right-hand side of the very last page. Awwwwww!

(+++) WHO AM I, ANYWAY?


The Princess Imposter. By Vivian Vande Velde. Scholastic. $16.99.

Confidentially Yours #6: Vanessa’s Design Dilemma. By Jo Whittemore. Harper. $6.99.

     Vivian Vande Velde’s offbeat ways of handling fairy tales are always fun to read, even when she is not at her best – as she is not in The Princess Imposter. The basic concept of the book is right out of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, with two characters changing places to learn what each other’s life is like and eventually ending up wiser and with a better understanding of themselves and the world. Vande Velde neatly pulls the idea into fairy tales by using the old trope of a changeling: fairies are known to exchange one of their own for a human infant, so why not have them make a similar exchange (although only for three days) for a preteen princess? Well, all right. So we get: “Princess Gabriella used to dream of the wonders of the fairy kingdom, its delicacy and its magic. She just knew that if she could pay the fairies a visit, all the beautiful things in her own royal life would seem ordinary and even dull by comparison. When she actually got to meet the fairies, though, things did not work out quite the way she expected.” That sounds about right, but no – actually this is what we don’t get, and that is the flaw in the setup of what is otherwise an enjoyable exchanging-places book. Vande Velde instead has Princess Gabriella kidnaped by the fairies in what humans and fairies alike agree is an exceptional situation, since she is not an infant – and once she is exchanged for a fairy named Phleg, the princess is bullied, abused physically and mentally, repeatedly humiliated, and made to go hungry. This is not the recipe for an amusing book, especially because Phleg wants to change places so as to win a bet with her annoying brother, Parf. In other words, the Twain formula has both sides interested in the exchange, or at least thinking that it might be interesting, and as a result the various mishaps are balanced and the learning-about-oneself is, too. But in The Princess Imposter, only one girl wants or has thought about this sort of exchange, so the other is at a distinct disadvantage and is badly treated into the bargain. True, the book is called The Princess Imposter rather than The Princess and the Imposter, so presumably Vande Velde wanted the focus to be on Phleg more than on Gabriella; but the fact remains that there is more awkwardness to the tale-telling here than is usual in Vande Velde’s books. The good news is that things proceed considerably more smoothly after the initial chapters in which Gabriella is mistreated and misused – and all the chapters involving Phleg are handled with Vande Velde’s usual wit and charm. Of course the whole book turns on the idea of finding out who you really are and where your skills really lie. Phleg meets Prince Frederic, to whom Gabriella was betrothed in childhood, and after a series of misunderstandings (Phleg uses magic to look just like Gabriella, but she knows almost nothing about the ways of humans), he falls in love with her and she with him. That is, the prince falls in love with Phleg, and at the very end of the book finds her even more beautiful when she resumes her fairy form than in her disguised appearance. As for Gabriella, she slowly learns some fairy ways – even though she never had any desire to do so – and eventually brings her royal human abilities with words and analyses to get Parf’s father out of a very serious legal situation into which he has been thrust by the machinations of a bad-guy fairy relative. Vande Velde realizes that the nature of the two girls’ relationships is not quite equal: she ends the book with happily-ever-after for Phleg and Frederic but says of the budding relationship between Gabriella and Parf, “that one took a little more work.” Nevertheless, all’s well that ends well – although in the case of The Princess Imposter, all’s well even when not all begins well.

     Jo Whittemore’s Confidentially Yours series began five books prior to Vanessa’s Design Dilemma, and by this sixth book you would think that middle-school would-be clothing designer Vanessa Jackson would have a sense of who she is and where she is going. But no – each of these books (each narrated by a different girl in a group at Abraham Lincoln Middle School united primarily by involvement in an advice column called “Lincoln’s Letters”) poses a different difficulty and gives each protagonist a chance to explore, on a very superficial and easy-to-read level, a different aspect of her developing personality. In the case of Vanessa’s Design Dilemma, there are two issues. One is that somebody is bullying the people who submit personal letters about embarrassing problems to the advice column. Vanessa and the others involved in the column need to figure out who is undermining the column and why – and put a stop to the trouble. The other issue is that Vanessa is co-leader of KV Fashions (with friend Katie Kestler), and the girls are planning to introduce their designs to the entire town at a fashion show. They find out, to their surprise, that the buyer for a local boutique is interested in attending the show and may actually buy some of the designs – and that sets off a flurry of excitement along with what passes here for soul-searching. The problem is that Vanessa and Katie have a great sense of their own style and stylishness, but what they like is very, very different from what the boutique stocks. Do they stay true to themselves and their designs even though that means the boutique will not be interested? Or do they accept the real-world necessity of compromise and create items for the fashion show that resemble those they know the boutique favors and sells? This is a pretty narrow problem and is not likely to appeal to the preteen girls at whom this series is aimed, except for those who also consider themselves fashion-forward and care more about clothes and appearance than just about anything else. The lesson here, it turns out, is that the real world does not require or even desire compromise, and that staying true to yourself is the one and only way to succeed. That finding is quite out of tune with everyday real-world reality, but it works as a self-esteem builder and a way to create an “aww, too bad” moment when Vanessa finds out that her willingness to make compromises has had an effect that is opposite from the one she intended. Well, no matter – she and Katie have plenty of resilience, and the book ends on the same upbeat note as all the previous ones and, it is safe to say, the ones still to come. And yes, the person responsible for the advice-column problems is caught and suitably punished – by being maneuvered into helping KV Fashions have a successful show. It is a fair bet that Vanessa and the other girls who narrate the Confidentially Yours series will be back again (and again) with more situations through which they need to learn who they really are and how many limits they face as a result (hint: not many).

(+++) GETTING DEAD AND GETTING OVER IT


They Both Die at the End. By Adam Silvera. HarperTeen. $17.99.

Graveyard Shakes. By Laura Terry. Graphix/Scholastic. $12.99.

     Tear-jerking to the point of being laughable, melodramatic to the point of being utterly undramatic, Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End is pathetically desperate to be with-it and to make IMPORTANT POINTS about, you know, life and death and relationships and family and all that stuff. Written with Hollywood-cinematic storytelling flair, which means the whole book is essentially a series of unbelievable coincidences and politically correct handling of characters, They Both Die at the End tries so hard to appeal to teenage readers that its manifest absurdities are almost forgivable. Silvera really, really wants to be taken seriously, you know? So here’s the plot: there’s an outfit called Death-Cast, a kind of telemarketing service for people’s last days, that has bored, low-level, mistake-prone workers call random people (or maybe not random, because how many people die every day and how many phone calls  can telemarketers, real live ones rather than robocallers, actually make?) and tells them they will die that day. Death-Cast (which also, natch, has a Web site) is always right, never makes mistakes, and exactly what it is and how it knows and where it gets the information and why it does all this is never even hinted at because, you know, this is an important book where the focus is “what would you do if you knew you only had one day to live?” Silvera apparently thinks that’s an original idea. But since it isn’t original, even in the slightest, Silvera has to conjure up things to make it seem original. So in addition to Death-Cast itself, there is the Last Friend app that Deckers (those who got the call) can use to connect with some random someone with whom to spend their last day, or however much of the 24 hours they actually get, which either Death-Cast doesn’t know or doesn’t bother to tell them, because, you see…well, just because. So this is the story of two Deckers named Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio who meet through the app and fall in love for the last time (it is apparently important to Silvera that the boys be gay/bisexual, although he never says why). The two teens are of course super-different but find they have a deeper connection somehow, not spiritually (there is nothing the slightest bit spiritual here) but in their inmost personalities, which have been damaged in different ways but which are ultimately similar because that is, like, you know, the human condition and all that. The one thing Silvera does well here, among all the ones he does badly, is to show the monumentally coincidental ways in which the things Mateo and Rufus do affect people they do not know and never will. For example, there is Deirdre, who “works at Make-a-Moment, where she’s charging Deckers for thrills and fake experiences, fake memories,” and who is about to jump to her own death when she sees the boys (whom she does not know) riding on a bicycle on the street below – so she “makes the right decision and lives.” Ah, yes, “this day has some miracles” – yes, Silvera actually writes that, putting the words in Mateo’s part of the multifaceted narration, specifically in the chapter where Mateo and Rufus go to Clint’s Graveyard, a place for Deckers where the woman welcoming people and checking their IDs says, “Sorry to lose you,” the same words the Death-Cast telemarketers use on their calls. Then there is Dalma Young, whose chapter, like many others, begins with, “Death-Cast did not call Dalma Young [or whoever] because she isn’t dying today.” Dalma is the creator of the Last Friend app and is “in town meeting with developers from both Twitter and Facebook,” which apparently have not yet snapped up this spectacular enhancement of life in a world where a shadowy unknown organization is fully aware of everybody’s death day. Anyway, Dalma sees two teen boys – Mateo and Rufus, of course – run past her, and that makes her contemplate what her own Last Message would be if (when?) she gets the Death-Cast call. You know, when you think about it, Romeo and Juliet could also have been titled They Both Die at the End. But Shakespeare’s work, unlike Silvera’s, has warmth, depth, style, meaning, sensitivity, and an understanding of the human condition.

     Silvera’s work barely squeaks into a (+++) rating by virtue of skillful writing and pacing and some clever use of its omnipresent coincidences. Laura Terry’s graphic novel, Graveyard Shakes, lacks the narrative intensity and writing quality of They Both Die at the End but is, all in all, a better book – albeit for preteens and young teens rather than for the older teenagers targeted by Silvera. Terry takes some of the tropes of ghost stories and boarding-school stories and kids-who-don’t-fit-in stories and weaves them together into an attractive mixture that hangs together better than might be expected from its uneasy mix of plot elements. The story is set at tony Bexley Academy, where home-schooled farm girls Victoria (the older, slim, organized, wants-to-fit-in one) and Katia (the younger, chunky, messy, doesn’t-care-what-anyone-thinks one) have been admitted on scholarship. Katia refers to the other students, all of whom are wealthy and stuck up, as “sparkly show ponies,” and makes up a song about them that she sings, loudly in the cafeteria, resulting in humiliation to Victoria, who has already been denigrated for wearing her favorite tasseled hat. But readers already know something is odd before this scene occurs, because there is a prologue in which Little Ghost, the ghost of a small boy, flies through the earth beneath a graveyard and encounters one of those traditional mad-scientist/magician types, a man named Nikola, who is keeping his son, Modie, alive by stealing lives from other children – one every 13 years. It is clear that these two unrelated stories will come together soon enough, and they do. Victoria tries out for soccer and it goes badly. Katia plays piano in a chamber-orchestra tryout for which Victoria has signed her up, and she turns out to be enormously talented; but the other kids will not accept her because of her appearance and mannerisms (“she does look pretty weird” and “you flop around like an angry squid when you play” are two of the comments). Katia storms out of the audition, tells Victoria she has no intention of fitting in, and ends up in a real storm – a snowstorm. And that leads to her being captured by the evil Nikola and his three ghost henchmen (the leader being actually and improbably named Hench), since it is now time to steal another child’s life to prevent Modie from “fading.” While none of the story makes a lick of sense, it is nicely managed by Terry and drawn in an attractive variety of styles and colors – deeper reds and ochres contrasting with blues to highlight the differences between moods and locations, for example. Victoria’s search for the missing Katia takes her to the graveyard, where she encounters Little Ghost and, after getting over her fright, joins forces with him to rescue Katia. Modie eventually becomes a ghost himself – as he has wanted to do for a long time, being stopped from passing on only by his fanatical father. Modie and Little Ghost end up interacting with a band that Katia forms (she plays a keyboard) as the living kids rehearse in the graveyard, with Victoria watching. Nikola departs to “try to make up for the terrible things I’ve done,” leaving Modie with Little Ghost and the living girls, and everything ends reasonably cheerfully. There is nothing deep, and nothing that tries to be deep, in Graveyard Shakes, but Terry does a nice job of gently raising issues of conformity (an issue for Little Ghost as well as for Victoria and Katia) and how one shows love (Nikola with Modie and Victoria with Katia are both misguided, albeit in different ways). The fact that the messages here are soft-pedaled rather than used as cudgels to insist on their importance is scarcely a flaw in this graphic novel – indeed, it is a big plus, allowing the book to come across as entertainment with some depth rather than as a hard-edged, self-important lecture on what is supposed to be meaningful in life.

(++++) THE RUSSIANS, THE AMERICANS, THE ENGLISH


Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2; Études-tableaux, Op. 33; arrangement of Kreisler: Liebesleid; arrangement of Franz Behr: Lachtäubchen, “Polka de W.R.” Boris Giltburg, piano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. Naxos. $12.99.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).

The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz: Programs 13 & 14; 15 & 16. Naxos DVDs. $22.99 each.

     The broadly emotive nature of the Russian repertoire during the tremendous upheaval of late czarist times and the Soviet years continues to give musicians extraordinary opportunities to produce evocative and deeply satisfying performances. Pianist Boris Giltburg rises to this challenge yet again with his latest foray into the field for Naxos. This time he offers a strongly virtuosic, deeply emotional and satisfyingly unmawkish approach to the familiar Piano Concerto No. 2, producing a reading that emphasizes the grandeur and intensity of the first movement, which is taken at a slightly slower tempo than usual, with the result that all three movements are almost the same length. This leads to a rendition that is more tightly knit and carefully structured than those that the concerto often receives – it is easy for the work to spiral out of control into overstated turbulence, but Giltburg will have none of this, insisting on the concerto’s structural integrity throughout and handling its formidable technical demands on the basis that they exist to elucidate the composer’s communicative desires rather than simply as virtuosic display. This is a very thoughtful approach to the concerto, one in which Carlos Miguel Prieto and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra provide solid if not particularly idiomatic backup – lusher strings and a broader, warmer brass section would better have matched Giltburg’s approach. Nevertheless, this is a very fine recording, and the CD gets even better when Giltburg performs on his own in the Études-tableaux, Op. 33. As in his previously released recording of the Études-tableaux, Op. 39, Giltburg approaches the eight Op. 33 pieces (the original No. 4 is lost) with sculptural elegance, shaping the music carefully: Nos. 1 and 8 here clearly show Rachmaninoff’s debt to Chopin, while the exceptionally difficult No. 6 shows why it is nicknamed “The Snow Storm” in Russia – Giltburg’s octave leaps and right-hand travel up and down the whole keyboard sound like nothing less than a blizzard. Two interesting encores complete this very attractive CD. One is Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of Fritz Kreisler’s charming Liebesleid, reinterpreted by the Russian with some unusual harmonies, and the other is Rachmaninoff’s delightful version of Franz Behr’s Lachtäubchen (Scherzpolka), known as “Polka de W.R.” in a tribute to Rachmaninoff’s father, using the spelling Wassily Rachmaninoff to produce the letters of the title. The two short pieces make for a very effective contrast, the former gently sorrowful (the title is Liebesleid, “Love’s Sorrow,” not Liebeslied, “Love Song”) and the latter light and bright. Clearly Giltburg has considerable affinity for Rachmaninoff in all the composer’s moods.

     The appeal of Shostakovich to Manfred Honeck is somewhat more intellectual and rarefied. The first-rate playing of the Pittsburgh Symphony on a new Reference Recordings SACD of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is only part of the experience here. What makes the recording stand out is the opportunity not only to hear this now-familiar symphony but also to understand why a knowledgeable conductor handles it in his particular way. Honeck’s well-thought-out, scholarly booklet notes explain in considerable detail what he sees and hears in this symphony, what he thinks Shostakovich put into it, and what he believes the audience should take from it. It is up to readers/listeners to decide whether they agree or disagree with Honeck’s written and musical approach – for example, the first movement here is considerably stretched, to a greater extent than is the first movement of Giltburg’s Rachmaninoff concerto. Whether or not Honeck’s pacing works will depend on whether listeners find it a touch too deliberate or whether they see it as building tension effectively and exploring niches within the music with great care. Of course, Honeck argues that the effect is the latter, but the performance itself needs to be convincing whether or not listeners have read the conductor’s arguments. Similarly, Honeck’s remarks on the many ways in which he sees Mahler’s influence in this symphony may shed new light on Shostakovich’s thinking at this time – or may seem to be pushing an analytical point too far. Listeners need to hear how Honeck incorporates his thoughts on the Mahler/Shostakovich connection to decide how well this performance works. Similarly, Honeck’s assertion that the symphony’s third movement is its heart and is free of double meanings, while the finale is fraught with duplicity and sarcasm, is well-argued – but needs to convince listeners based on the music alone. This recording offers a rare chance to get inside the mind of a thoughtful and experienced conductor, understand what he is trying to evoke from specific music and why, and decide on one’s own whether his approach is intellectually correct and emotionally satisfying. It is a fascinating experience – and the top-notch playing of the orchestra certainly strengthens Honeck’s arguments. The Russian (actually Soviet) nature of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is paired rather oddly here with that of American composer Samuel Barber’s Adagio, the orchestral version of the second movement of his String Quartet, Op. 11. This is a work that is straightforwardly sad (more so in orchestral than quartet guise) and has none of the odd balancing of forthrightness and ironic ambiguity found in the Shostakovich Fifth. Here Honeck argues, not entirely convincingly, that the text chosen by Barber for an a cappella version of the movement – the Agnus Dei from the Catholic Mass – was in Barber’s mind when he first composed the movement for string quartet. Again, though, Honeck’s thinking is worth considering, and the dramatic expressiveness of his performance is convincing in and of itself.

     Russian and American composers – and British ones, too – are represented in the two latest volumes of The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz on Naxos DVDs. These are the seventh and eight entries in a series in which Schwarz explores a variety of forms of musical communication with an orchestra whose members are drawn from the ranks of multiple U.S. ensembles – and who play efficiently, if not always passionately. These offerings are essentially a modernized update of the famous Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts that ran from 1958 to 1972. However, commentary in the Schwarz series is by composers, performers and various experts rather than – as in Bernstein’s material – by the conductor himself. And unlike Bernstein, Schwarz offers programs designed for listeners of all ages, not just young people – and, more intriguingly, sometimes mixes well-known works from the standard concert repertoire with new pieces that even people steeped in classical music may never have heard before. And all the pieces are performed complete. Bernstein’s programs reached across age lines by virtue of the strength of Bernstein’s personality and the excellence of his conducting. Schwarz is a lesser conductor and by no means a raconteur, but his shows reach across generational lines as well – because of the choice of music and form of commentary. The Schwarz shows are much better produced – they were done in HD with 19 cameras – although the extensive technical capabilities are not always fully utilized to explore elements of the music. The seventh DVD, including programs 13 and 14, has a strong Russian accent, including (as program 13) Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (in the familiar Ravel orchestration) and excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. There is interesting complementarity in program 14, which is devoted to a single work: Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. Given the fraught and difficult relationship between Russia and Sibelius’ Finland, this entire DVD can be said to cast light on Russian elements in music, although in Sibelius’ case, the nationalistic composer was primarily concerned with driving a wedge between Finland and its Russian occupiers. The orchestra plays all the music well, although the Sibelius is somewhat lacking in the broad grandeur with which the composer paints his very expansive canvas. All three works on this seventh DVD are well-known, but Schwarz returns to his periodic habit of mixing better-known and less-known music when it comes to the eighth All-Star Orchestra DVD. Program 15 is distinctly British, including Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – a piece that could more appropriately have led off the entire series of these performances, being an excellent jumping-off point into orchestral playing not only for young people but also for older ones unfamiliar with classical music. The orchestra gives spirited performances of both works and appears especially to enjoy the Britten, which, after all, is supposed to be enjoyable. Program 16 is the one on this DVD with less-known material, starting with American composer Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain.” The piece seems less forward-looking today than it did when created in 1955: it anticipated the spiritual and meditative music of several later composers, but now seems rather awkwardly put together, uncertain in its attempts to blend Eastern mysticism and Western symphonic structure. The more-interesting work in program 16 is the unpublished Jubilee Variations by British composer/conductor Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) – a piece to which 10 of Goossens’ friends contributed in somewhat the same way that multiple composers created parts of Liszt’s Hexameron, which Liszt then turned into a unified entirety. The Jubilee Variations are only nominally British music, since the composers represented are all American: Aaron Copland, Deems Taylor, Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Roy Harris, Anis Fuleihan (actually born in Cyprus), Bernard Rogers, Ernest Bloch (born in Switzerland), and Paul Creston. Unsurprisingly given their title, the Jubilee Variations are generally upbeat and bright, although some are colored by wartime worry and uncertainty (the work dates to 1944). It is the chance to hear this piece and the Hovhaness symphony that makes the eighth DVD in this series so intriguing; the seventh DVD, in contrast, is fine, but it is rather straightforward in repertoire and performances. The recordings of The All-Star Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz remain excellent ways for people unfamiliar with classical music to learn about it in an enjoyable rather than strictly educational way. These DVDs are not as groundbreaking as the Bernstein concerts that are their musical and educational heritage, but they are uniformly well-produced, well-played and packed with commentary that can help make classical music as understandable and vibrant in the 21st century as Bernstein’s TV shows made it in the 20th.

September 07, 2017

(++++) DAY BY DAY, WEEK BY WEEK


2018 Calendars: Desk—Dilbert; The New Yorker. Andrews McMeel. $16.99 each.

     A funny thing happened on the way to the all-electronic life and the paperless office: they didn’t happen. Yes, when it comes to scheduling, it is now possible to do everything on computer and/or cell phone, but “possible” is a long way from “as easy as it can be” or even “desirable.” If you want a quick look at your week at a glance, or an overview of a month of plans and appointments, or even a detailed hour-by-hour plan of a specific day, and you want to take brief notes and keep them readily accessible within the day to which they relate and easy to glance back at later (or glance forward at if they are reminder notes for something coming up), there is still no substitute for the stay-flat, open-book desk planner. And the planners that include a dash of humor on every two-page spread have the added advantage of giving you something to smile about even if your list of duties, meetings, phone calls and requirements is on the dour side.

     However, two of the new Andrews McMeel desktop planners sport a design for 2018 that may give some users pause: the typical spiral binding is gone, and the Dilbert and The New Yorker planners simply have standard book-style binding – which makes it somewhat challenging to keep them open on a desktop or table top, especially near the beginning or end of the year, when there are many fewer pages on one side than on the other. Staying open starting in January is a somewhat simpler matter with The New Yorker if you use it only in 2018, since it is a 16-month planner (September 2017-December 2018); the Dilbert planner is only for 12 months. But the comparative ease or difficulty of keeping the planners open is not likely to be the determining factor in which one an individual prefers. Nor are the differences in right-hand-page design: Dilbert has lined spaces for each day of the week, with a single space for Saturday and Sunday, while The New Yorker has unlined spaces and treats all seven days of the week equally. The left-hand-page design is also unlikely to be a major reason for picking one of these planners or the other: The New Yorker has a small full-month calendar on each left-hand page, while Dilbert has both the current month and the next month on the left, and each of its full-month calendars is larger than the full-month ones in The New Yorker. Ultimately, though, these differences are simply matters of taste.

     So is the factor that will determine which of the planners you prefer: the cartoons. The Dilbert planner includes eight-panel Sunday cartoons for each week (albeit not in color), and of course every cartoon focuses on the absurdities and Kafkaesque requirements of the workplace, that being the stock-in-trade of Scott Adams’ strip. The New Yorker has single-panel cartoons covering a wider range of topics in the magazine’s signature style, which is sophisticated (if you like it) and pseudo-sophisticated (if you don’t). An office-focused cartoon from Dilbert, for example, has the boss demanding that employees “pretend to suggest good ideas,” while one from The New Yorker shows someone being burned at the stake in the middle of a set of cubicles as one worker explains to another, “He replied all.” But in The New Yorker, there also cartoons in which a display of fruit in a market is labeled “locally grown by a guy with a masters in philosophy,” and in which a SWAT team bursts into a cow-filled apartment and announces, “Police! Nobody moo!” The type of amusement that helps get you through an average week is the determinant, ultimately, in choosing which of these desk planners you find more congenial and will be more likely to enjoy having around for a full year (or a full 16 months if you start using The New Yorker immediately). With either planner, you get a well-made track-your-days book that makes it easy to see your week at a glance and look back (and ahead, to see what is coming up) without having to squint at a small screen or use software designs that do the job but are sometimes the opposite of intuitive. It is certainly true that electronic tracking of appointments, phone calls and all the rest works well for many people, and certainly someone who is frequently on the go and needs a readily portable way of staying in touch with appointments and meetings will do well with smartphone apps or a laptop computer. But if you have a central location in your everyday life – whether at home or in an office – and you do your planning and phone calls and at least some meetings there, then desktop planners such as Dilbert and The New Yorker still have advantages over anything electronic. And the cartoons should help keep the everyday stresses and frustrations of life in perspective – even as you chronicle and act upon them.