November 22, 2017
Mouseling’s Words. By Shutta Crum. Pictures by Ryan O’Rourke. Clarion. $16.99.
I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream Because Puns Suck: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.
An exceptionally charming book that manages to merge a cat-and-mouse tale with a story about growing up and finding oneself, Shutta Crum’s Mouseling’s Words enchants from the start with Ryan O’Rourke’s unusually warm-looking digital illustration of the silhouette of a small mouse standing in a backlit mouse hole at the side of a pirate-themed restaurant called The Swashbuckler. The softly rounded pictures, unusual in digital illustrations, are a big part of the book’s attraction, and are exceptionally well integrated with an unusually thoughtful storyline. The very first double page of the story itself shows Mouseling, who narrates the book, sleeping with many siblings beneath comforters made of words collected by the young mice’s Aunt Tillie from menus, place mats, signs, food packages and other written material in the restaurant. The wall decorations are bottle caps labeled “Cola,” “Grape Soda” and “Pop!” And the mice are cuddled under “warm,” “noodles,” “yummy,” “zest,” “tidbit,” and so on. The story continues as the little mice set off from this pleasant nest on their own, one by one, until eventually only Mouseling is left – reluctant to leave all those wonderful words. But thanks to some persuasion by Father, Mother and Aunt Tillie, he finally agrees to explore the world outside – aided by a map that Aunt Tillie draws and that includes an ominous picture of a cat, labeled “The Beast.” Mouseling decides that his calling is to discover new words and bring them back to the nest, starting with the word “sing,” which he sounds out to himself and brings back – Father calls it “a right treasure.” The next day, Mouseling runs into a building that turns out to house a library – but he knows nothing about books, only about words, so he starts searching for them and finds “float” on a piece of paper that floats gently down onto…uh-oh…a cat! Mouseling carefully retrieves the word anyway; and over the next days, he says, “I climbed. I rappelled. I tunneled.” And in so doing, he uses words that will expand and enhance the vocabulary of young readers of the book. Crum has Mouseling find words in ways that reflect their meaning – “perfume” smells good, for example, because it comes from a small perfume sample packet. This becomes important when Mouseling re-encounters the cat while “nibbling on a milky word” – the word “milk” taken from a thrown-away milk carton. Because the word still has some actual milk on it, the cat sees it as a gift when Mouseling offers it, and the two potential enemies become friends, eventually bonding over (what else?) a story. This happens after the cat (whose name tag reads “Webster” – one nice touch among many) shows Mouseling that all the books are packed with words. Mouseling’s Words expertly conjures up a world of warmth and wonder from the mundane setting of word-bearing discards and book-lined library shelves. It is a genuine delight of a story that makes its own words, and so many others, simply wonderful.
Word play of a very different sort, for a very different audience, lies at the heart of some of Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine comic strips. Pastis has made this playing around an integral part of Pearls Before Swine – by creating atrocious puns set up through elaborate word sequences by characters in the strip and perpetrated by Pastis’ in-strip avatar, the cartoonist drawing the cartoons including the cartoons of the cartoonist himself. It is worth noticing the amount of attention Pastis pays to words even as he tortures them and turns them inside-out for the sake of extended sequences with puns as their payoff. And it does not matter if you find the payoff puny: that is part of the joke, with the characters in the strip objecting vociferously and sometimes violently to the pun sequences – in which they have no choice but to take part (since they are, after all, cartoons being drawn by the cartoon Pastis, who is drawn by the real-world Pastis, in an ongoing exercise in existential angst). The title of the latest Pearls Before Swine collection, whose cover features Pig screaming and covering his ears in the style (sort of) of Edvard Munch’s famous “The Scream,” calls directly on the “pun” elements of the strip. But the book’s contents, as always, include only some of those. Other sequences, just to cite two example, involve Judge Rat, who has a tip jar to influence his rulings and who slides along a tilted judge’s bench “to show that the scales of justice are not balanced in my courtroom”; and the discovery of a money tree, which turns Rat into “a tree-hugging hippie.” As for puns and other word play, one strip sets up the notion of Pig learning how to make wood into paper in a class taught from the pulpit by a priest who uses puppets to clarify what he says – making Pig “a pulpit puppet pulping pupil.” Another strip has Pig suggesting that an unwanted hamster be sent to “the city in Europe that they control,” which is “Hamsterdam” – and when Goat says that is not what the city is for, Pig asks, reasonably (at least from a language point of view), “Then what holds back the Hamster River?” Interestingly, although the elaborate pun setups garner most of the attention of the strip’s characters, it is often the simplest plays with (and on) words that are the most effective, as when Rat and Pig change the standard Halloween request for candy to “Trick or Tweet,” thus getting “more candy than ever” and leading Rat to comment that “social media is the key to extortion.” All right, that should be “are the keys” (since “media” is a plural noun), but that sort of word-related matter is not germane to Pearls Before Swine. This is a strip that starts where the love of words and love of libraries in Mouseling’s Words have metamorphosed into something altogether darker, more adult and nastier – and it makes perfect sense, in that context, to have the lovable little mouse of Crum and O’Rourke’s book be replaced by the surly, snide and sarcastic Rat in Pastis’ cartoons.
The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Go to Bed. By Dave Engledow. Harper. $17.99.
Fox and the Bike Ride. By Corey R. Tabor. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Beecause I Love You. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Cuteness and disobedience go together charmingly in various visual ways in a multitude of books for kids ages 4-8. Dave Engledow’s way is entirely photographic, helped immensely by the fact that his daughter, Alice Bee, is so photogenic. The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Go to Bed has a very old and straightforward plot, so old and straightforward that it is barely a plot at all: a little girl imagines all the great things that must happen while she sleeps at night, so she decides not to go to sleep at all; but after she succeeds in staying up, she is so tired the next day that she misses out on things that really are fun, because she keeps dozing off while playing in the park, attending a party, and so on. Lesson learned? Not quite, because Engledow does not make this a “lesson” book. First he turns it into a counting book by having the little girl count down from 10 to one by doing numbers-related activities – which are so elaborate that it is scarcely surprising they take her all night to complete. Second, he uses his elaborately Photoshopped images – which are more the point of the book than the story is – to show all the things the girl does and all the ones she cannot do the following day: the pictures of her struggling to eat breakfast and eventually falling asleep on the “soft and fluffy” pancakes are a highlight. Third, Engledow reserves a photographic twist ending for the final page: early in the book, the girl has tried to catch her parents having fun late at night but has only found them doing uninteresting adult things, but when the girl falls “into a peaceful sleep” the next night and the parents go back “to doing their boring grown-up stuff,” Mom and Dad are actually bedecked in costumes indicating they are going to be having some sort of outlandish fun after all. So we have a touch of mischief from the parents coupled with the more-expected mischief of a little girl refusing to get the rest she needs, all shown in suitably silly photos of the cuddly/huggy/cute variety, all adding up to a very conventional kind of story told very unconventionally.
The underlying convention of Corey R. Tabor’s Fox and the Bike Ride is that of using cartoon animals as stand-ins for the children who are the book’s target audience. And here too there is one mischief-maker, Fox, amid a group of more-serious friends (Rabbit, Frog, Turtle, Elephant, Bear). The friends are about to take a nice long bike ride, a careful and safe one, and have some snack s at the end, and Fox is not happy about it – except for the snacks; he’s fine with those. Fox wants something altogether more unconventional and adventurous than what his friends plan, and he has a sneaky way to get it. He happens to be in charge of getting the bikes ready for the ride. And that gives him the chance to put all the bikes together into a single massive five-seater with a “secret red button” up front, where Fox himself will be sitting. Sure enough, at just the right point – “the tip-top of the tallest hill” – Fox puts his plan into action, sending the bike careening down what looks like a gigantic mountain (you have to turn the book sideways to see the scene) and then pressing the button. That causes expanding wings to deploy, sending the bike and all the animals into midair loop-the-loops, through the trees, down to the beach past the forest, and into the ocean – where a good and super-exciting time is had by all, assuming comments such as “gurgle glub burble” are positive ones. Eventually everyone ends up happily on the beach, except that Fox, alas, has no snack: it was supposed to be a chicken, but the chicken is floating safely in the water, with sharks between it and the shore. So Fox has learned his lesson – sort of, just as Alice Bee sort of learns hers in Engledow’s book. Fox is left at the end of Tabor’s story using a telescope to see where the chicken is, unable to get to it and presumably plotting how to do so while the other animals sleep peacefully.
Speaking of Bee, Sandra Magsamen’s Beecause I Love You is for even younger kids than the Engledow and Tabor books: it is a board book, for children up to age three or four. The mischief in it is suitably toned down, too, and in fact comes mainly from seeing the way Magsamen’s illustrations use a smiley-faced bee and other animal characters to tell the youngest book-aware kids just how special they are. The bee goes with the words, “You’re so beeutiful in every way!” And then come suitably simple rhymes with pictures showing a smiling ladybug, a happy firefly, a delighted whale (how did that get in here?), an air-dancing butterfly, and a cutely crawling caterpillar. All the creatures, even the whale, sport a pair of plush black antennae, thanks to the book’s very clever design. The antennae emerge from the extra-thick final page and joined-to-it back cover of the book, and Magsamen’s drawings are positioned so each critter depicted seems to wear them on its head (and yes, the whale-with-antennae is the funniest, and this illustration is clearly the book’s most mischievous). Brightly colored, very simply written, charmingly illustrated and including the simplest lesson possible – which it communicates in language that is fairly straightforward and pictures that are anything but – Beecause I Love You is a delightful little board-book foray into a not-quite-serious way of sharing a sentiment of some serious love.
Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. By Scott Adams. Portfolio/Penguin. $27.
This is a book that has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump and absolutely nothing to do with the Dilbert comic strip, even though the front cover shows Dogbert from the strip wearing Trump hair, and even though the whole thing is written and illustrated by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. If all that causes cognitive dissonance, well, that’s good, because this book is all about cognitive dissonance (a specialized form of rationalization in which incompatible beliefs and actions, when they are our own, are forced to merge and mesh) – so it might as well provoke some. Win Bigly is also about confirmation bias (the tendency, once we have a belief, to see later information as supporting the belief even when it doesn’t). If it gives you some of that as well, so much the better.
Win Bigly is a book about Trump that isn’t about Trump at all. It is about some themes that have appeared piecemeal in previous Adams books – he repeatedly refers to How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, but The Dilbert Future also struck similar chords, as did Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! Actually, there are themes developed in Win Bigly that date back nearly to the start of Dilbert, which means they have been percolating in Adams’ brain (monkey-type or not) for over a quarter of a century. Now that’s percolation.
Win Bigly is not about Trump because it uses Trump as an example (and exemplar) of outstanding persuasiveness – ignoring his policies (which don’t matter in this context), his missteps (which also don’t matter), his bluster (doesn’t matter), his pigheadedness (ditto), and his hair (well, actually this last does matter, and Adams explains why). Adams made an early prediction that Trump would win the presidency, thus vaulting himself immediately into the higher reaches of the punditocracy when Trump did win. What he does in Win Bigly is to explain how and why he made the prediction and how and why it had nothing to do with anything specific being espoused by Trump (with whose policies, Adams freely and repeatedly says, he generally does not agree). This is a book about victory, not the victor.
A few of the things Adams explores here will not (or should not) surprise anyone who has been in the upper reaches of business. Trump’s early and loud “build a wall” proclamation, for example, is recognizable as the initial gambit in a negotiation process, an attempt to set the stage for walking back the bid later but still getting fairly close to what one really wants. Adams points out that Trump surely knew a straightforward wall along the southern U.S. border could not be built – in some areas, fencing or careful monitoring or some other approach would be needed – but by insisting repeatedly on the wall, he created an image in people’s mind and took control of the situation and the debate about it, making it easier for him to walk back the extreme position later (which is exactly what he did). But if this is familiar territory, some of what Adams puts forth is less so. There is, for example, the concept of the “talent stack,” which Adams has discussed before (in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big). This is, in effect, an example of the whole being much greater than the sum of its parts: using himself as an example, Adams says he is not a great artist, has never taken a traditional writing class, and is not the funniest person in his own social circle. But the combination of being good enough in all these fields is what has brought him success, wealth, fame, and so forth. By the same token, he says that Trump is a Master Persuader (yes, with capital letters) who has abilities in the fields of publicity, reputation, strategy, negotiating, persuasion, public speaking, sense of humor, being quick on his feet, being thick skinned, having high energy, having a certain size and appearance (the hair is part of this and is a positive thing, because it is so distinctive), and being smart. Trump is not tops in any of these fields, Adams argues, but he is good enough in all of them so he can masterfully persuade people to go in the direction he wants them to go even when he makes a large number of seemingly serious policy gaffes and other specific errors.
Some of this analysis, for both Trump and Adams himself, is arguable, or at least overstated: would Dilbert have been successful or Trump have been elected in, say, the mid-1950s? There is a matter of timing, of society being “ready” for certain people and concepts, that Adams neglects. On the other hand, he correctly observes that the Trump “talent stack” matters far more than any policy Trump may put forth, any method he may choose to use to advance his cause (Twitter vs. conventional media being an obvious example), and any countervailing facts put forward by his opponents. Adams says that Trump and other Master Persuaders exist in a world beyond facts, able (in effect) to “push the buttons” of large numbers of people in order to get what they want. Think you don’t have buttons that can so easily be pushed? That belief is one such button – making you easier to manipulate because you believe yourself immune to manipulation. Adams gets into this topic from two complementary angles, his “moist robot” concept (which says that people, like the robots they make, are programmable, provided you know which inputs will produce the desired outputs) and what he learned through a professional study of hypnosis (which does not at all mean what most readers of Win Bigly will likely think it means). Adams’ point, which he makes repeatedly and sometimes subtly (sometimes less so, to push different buttons), is that even people who are not Master Persuaders can learn a number of Master Persuader techniques and use them for personal advantage in business, personal life and even, if they wish, politics. Some people will search this book (vainly) for proof that Adams is a big Trump supporter and maybe even helped engineer his victory, perhaps with assistance from Russians or aliens or something. Other people will search (also vainly) for assurance that Adams agrees with them that Trump is the greatest president since John Hanson (first president of the Continental Congress, which takes us back way before that latecomer George Washington). A few people, though, may actually get past the Trump window-dressing of Win Bigly and find the substantive thoughts inside. Watch for them – and watch out for them – in your next business meeting, or a couple of election cycles hence.
Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old? Plan Now to Safeguard Your Health and Happiness in Old Age. By Joy Loverde. Da Capo. $17.99.
This is scary stuff. Start by thinking: when exactly do you become old? You can imagine it as always being 15 years older than you are – both Bernard Baruch and Francis Bacon are credited with saying that. You can call it the time when you start paying less attention to what people say and more to what they do – Andrew Carnegie made that observation. You can join George Bernard Shaw in lamenting that “youth is wasted on the young.” Or you can take to heart the comment by 19th-century American evangelist Dwight L. Moody, “A life which is empty of purpose until 65 will not suddenly become filled on retirement.” But homilies and witticisms aside, the only alternative to old age is one most people would not opt for: early death. Therefore, prescriptive books on how to handle getting old abound, and Joy Loverde, an eldercare consultant (there’s a job title that didn’t exist until very recently indeed), tries to lay out a simple-to-follow prescription for aging well in Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?
“Prescription” brings to mind health, and that is indeed one part of what Loverde discusses. But it represents only half the book’s subtitle, and it is a fair bet that anyone reading this work will be more interested in the other half, about preserving happiness – always assuming, of course, that health is there as a foundation. Loverde’s own relationship to aging is a somewhat curious one: she is described as “a leading consultant in the senior/active adult industry for thirty years,” and she writes about “the old people in my life,” but she is noticeably circumspect and thoroughly noncommunicative about her own age. In this context, that is a shortcoming: it is fine to write, as Loverde does, “Sixty is not the new thirty. Sixty is sixty.” But failing to be up-front about one’s own place on the age spectrum casts a more-negative light on the experience of reaching 60-plus than is warranted in a book whose author tells readers, “You must promise that from this moment on you will be completely honest with yourself about the fact that you are getting older.” Readers have the right to expect such honesty from the author as well.
The book is divided into five sections called “Personal Readiness,” “Where You Live Matters,” “Ties That Bind and Unbind,” “Safety Nets,” and “No Tomorrow.” Each section in turn is subdivided into chapters, and there are many dozens of concluding pages of worksheets, Web sites, books, movies, TV shows and other information sources at the end. This is not a book to be taken in hand lightly. Loverde uses one of the standard approaches of self-help workshops by starting chapters with “objectives” that she says can be achieved within the pages that follow. She also includes worksheets, numbered and unnumbered lists, and material for “Insights and Inspiration” at the end of each chapter. The result is that tackling this book seems like a big, big project. Whether that is Loverde’s point is not clear: tackling the needs of old age is a major undertaking, as she says repeatedly, but it is not certain that that requires making such a slog out of Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?
Readers willing to go along with Loverde’s well-organized approach will find some genuinely helpful guidance, as in the reminder that when making a difficult age-related decision, you should look back at difficult choices you have made earlier in life, such as deciding on a career, choosing whether or not to marry and whether or not to have children, or stopping a bad habit. However, Loverde’s useful thoughts all too often appear adjacent to much-less-helpful ones – such as observing elderly people of all sorts in order to see that some choices turn out well and some badly. The frustration of this book lies in the way its plethora of good thinking and good advice is so often juxtaposed with less-useful material or intrusive suggestions to go elsewhere for further information. Planning for old age is difficult, time-consuming and complex enough without being urged again and again to read more, watch more, see more, arrange more. For example, it can be daunting enough to contemplate creating an income stream after retirement – a list suggesting ways to do it that includes impossible-for-most-people positions such as keynote speaker, comedian and caricature artist does little to encourage readers to pursue this worthy goal.
Still, Loverde’s basic outline of the needs of aging is correct and helpful, and some parts of her book, such as her discussion about what to do if you want to age at home in your own community and how to compare that possibility with moving to an age-friendly location, are usefully thought-provoking. Her “No Tomorrow” section, an extended discussion of planning for one’s inevitable death, is very well thought through from an objective standpoint although thoroughly lacking in empathy – a difficult read on a very difficult subject. It will take a super-strong and super-patient individual to get through the chapter called “‘Just Shoot Me’ Is Not a Plan” and all the places it suggests consulting (13 interactive sites for discussing dying, 12 online “additional resources” on the topic, seven spiritual/religious Web locations to visit and explore, and many more). In one of her few self-revelatory comments, Loverde writes, “All my life I have lived with goalposts – relentless real-life demands pull me in every direction imaginable.” She then discusses the importance of slowing down, saying she herself has managed to do this. Perhaps – but she sets goalpost after goalpost after goalpost for the readers of Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old? They are well-positioned goals that generally make a great deal of sense. But there are a lot of them, and there is no “slow it down” way of attaining them all for people who have things going on in their lives other than reading this book and following its suggestions. Loverde tries to gather everything into a single “Cross It Off Your List” chapter, encouraging readers to choose a time by which to do things and then write down the time they actually did them – a recipe for stress if there ever was one. And many will find these six single-spaced pages completely overwhelming, especially given everything that is involved in even one single item, such as “engage advisers,” “manage grief responsibly” or “research medical tourism.” If you did not feel bombarded and swamped by all the planning needed for a comfortable old age before picking up this book, you will very likely feel that way by the end – assuming you make it all the way through Who Will Take Care of Me When I’m Old?
Saint-Saëns: Complete Works for Cello and Orchestra. Gabriel Schwabe, cello; Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot. Naxos. $12.99.
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 2; Viktor Ullmann: String Quartet No. 3; Szymon Laks: String Quartet No. 3. Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello). Cedille. $16.
The richness and versatility of strings make them ideally suited to convey the widest possible variety of moods, and Saint-Saëns used them to finely variegated effect throughout his career – especially notably with regard to the cello. A new Naxos CD featuring Gabriel Schwabe contains all the cello-and-orchestra music Saint-Saëns wrote, even including a Paul Vidal arrangement for cello and orchestra of The Swan, the sole part of Carnival of the Animals that the composer allowed to be published in his lifetime (he thought the rest of the piece too trivial and dismissible). Schwabe is one of those young cellists with technique to spare but expressive maturity still to come, as is instantly clear in his performance of Cello Concerto No. 1, the composer’s best-known cello-and-orchestra work. This is a speedy, fluid, beautifully played rendition of the concerto that hits all the right notes except the emotional ones. Schwabe, abetted by the rather bland accompaniment of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Marc Soustrot, never characterizes the music as much of anything except a display piece. It is more than that, and deserves to be given some emotional heft and depth; Schwabe may come to that in time. For now, what he offers is genuinely impressive technique at the service of – well, not very much. Schwabe does somewhat better with Cello Concerto No. 2, perhaps because this work is less-known and there is less competition against which a cellist tends to measure himself or herself. Written in 1902, three decades later than the first concerto, the second is technically more difficult and emotionally less trenchant – a combination that seems to fit Schwabe just fine as he scales the work’s many difficulties with clarity and skill (despite some thinness of tone). This is a highly worthy performance of music that is more interesting than it is usually credited with being – although it is not as satisfying as the earlier concerto. The third extended work on this CD is the Suite in D minor, which is very late Saint-Saëns (1919) and shows clearly the musically conservative streak that became more pronounced as the composer aged. This piece has many of the hallmarks of Baroque suites, being a five-movement work consisting mainly of dances. But it is not rhythmically or harmonically imitative of the Baroque except in very general terms. It requires sensitivity of balance between cello and orchestra and a firm rhythmic hand from the soloist. Schwabe is somewhat less convincing here than in the second concerto – he seems less emotionally in tune with this music – but his first-rate technique results in a convincing performance. Also here, in addition to The Swan, are two short works that are interspersed with the longer ones and provide useful musical punctuation points in the recording: the Romance in F (1874) and Allegro appassionato in B minor (1873-76). Neither is of much consequence, but both are pleasant and are nice to have for, among other things, the sake of completeness.
String use is quite different for the three composers whose works are played by the Dover Quartet on a new Cedille disc. The quartets here all date from World War II, and they have some other elements in common as well, such as the folk-dance character of the opening of the Shostakovich and the pervasive folk elements in the quartet by Szymon Laks (1901-1983). The musical argument of the CD tries to connect the quartets in a different way: the disc’s title is “Voices of Defiance.” But this is a bit of a stretch. The Shostakovich, from 1944, is the composer’s first ambitious and large-scale quartet (lasting 36 minutes), and it has notable dramatic elements, such as passionate violin declamations in the second movement, which is labeled “Recitative and Romance.” But there seems more uncertainty, and perhaps bitterness, in the music than defiance of anything specific or general. The quartet progresses in a distinctly odd way, opening in its official key of A but ending up in the finale in A minor – about the only way in which anything by Shostakovich closely parallels anything by Mendelssohn, whose Symphony No. 4 progresses the same way. The Dover Quartet catches the emotional elements of the quartet well, although the players seem a touch unsure of what to do with the speedy waltz of the third movement, which admittedly (and deliberately) fits the rest of the work uneasily. The performers are more comfortable with the Laks quartet (1945), whose pervasive Polish folksiness takes on an added dimension for listeners who know that Laks was condemned to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which he survived by working as music director of the camp’s orchestra. On its own, without the historical background being known, this is a well-made quartet that needs some fine ensemble playing to pull it effectively together – and it gets exactly that from the Dover Quartet. The performers also do a fine job with the quartet by Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), whose deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau had a far more tragic ending than that of Laks: Ullmann was killed in the gas chambers there. Ullmann’s Quartet No. 3 (1943) was written at Theresienstadt, the camp to which the composer was first sent, and is unusual in structure: an extended first movement is followed by a very short second that ends Poco largamente. Ullmann had a strong personal style that incorporated the thinking of the Second Viennese School without being firmly bound to it. His Quartet No. 3, if it qualifies as “defiant,” does so through contrast, offering a kind of impressionistic beauty rather than any overt expression relating to the circumstances of its composition. The Dover Quartet is at its best here and in the Laks quartet, finding the works’ centers and bringing out their emotions to very fine, if not necessarily defiant, effect.
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; Three Movements from Petrushka. Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers, piano four hands. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Mara Gibson: Conundrums—Preludes 1-6; Blackbird; Spark; Folium Cubed; Sky-Born; One Voice. Navona. $14.99.
Christopher Biggs: Works for Instruments and Electronics. Ravello. $14.99.
Fine playing in conditions that are either intimate or crowded, depending on your point of view, characterizes a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianists Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers. The two offer rhythmically strong readings of Stravinsky’s two-piano “rehearsal” versions of The Rite of Spring and the same three movements from Petrushka that the composer turned into a short solo-piano suite. “Short” is an operative word here, and a disappointment: the entire CD lasts only 48 minutes, and it would have been quite possible – and preferable – to include the entirety of Petrushka rather than just three movements. Beyond that, the question of whether these two-piano versions are best played on a single piano, as Lomazov and Rackers do, or dual pianos, as is far more often the case, is a matter of opinion. True, the issue may be of primary interest to pianists, but listeners familiar with the music, especially in its piano versions, may have their own views based on the way the material sounds on a single instrument compared with how it comes across from two spatially separated ones. Either way, Stravinsky did not intend the piano versions of these ballets as concert pieces – they existed to give stage performers something with which to practice. Yet the works have a solid place in duo-piano recitals, and Lomazov and Rackers make it easy to see (and hear) why: Stravinsky’s early ballets are filled with rhythmic vitality and frequent metrical changes to which dancers would have had great difficulty adapting if their training was primarily in earlier ballets, such as those of Tchaikovsky. The rhythmic verve of the scores comes through very clearly in these performances, at the expense of some of the more interesting and then-experimental techniques, such as bitonality; that kind of sound is far more apparent and impressive in these works’ orchestral versions. The felicities of Stravinsky’s orchestration are also, of course, missing here, and the piano versions have a kind of skeletonized quality to them that works somewhat less well with The Rite of Spring than with Petrushka – another reason it would have been better to have the whole Petrushka here rather than brief excerpts. Still, piano fanciers and Stravinsky lovers alike will enjoy what Lomazov and Rackers have to offer, even while wishing that they might have chosen to offer a bit more.
Mara Gibson’s writing for piano is quite different in the music on a new Navona CD. Indeed, whether written for piano or other instruments, Gibson’s works are more firmly rooted in contemporary approaches to music than Stravinsky’s trailblazing ones were to common practices in their time. Stravinsky was inspired in his early ballets by Russian folklore; Gibson’s inspiration lies in paintings and poetry. Conundrums, six piano preludes written in 2016, scattered through the disc and played by Holly Roadfeldt, are musical responses to paintings by Jim Condron, who is scarcely a household name – making the works’ ability to stand on their own all the more important. They do so reasonably well but not especially evocatively: there is little impressionism here and much standard-for-contemporary-music pounding and dissonance. The six titles are considerably more interesting than most of the music: For Saturday, The few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, I have saved all my ribbons for thee, The bones becoming light, I have tried in my way to be free, and Home is a failed idea. Playing any of this music with any of the titles would make little expressive difference. Other works here partake of similar sensibilities despite differing instrumentation. Blackbird (2015), taking off not very gracefully from Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, is for string quartet (here, the Cascade Quartet) – and it goes on and on for 15 minutes, alternating standard-issue dissonant, glissando and ostinato elements with occasional near-lyrical ones. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Music is the other work by a well-known poet that inspired a Gibson work heard here: Sky-Born (2015) features the UMKC Conservatory Singers conducted by Robert Bode, with violinists Samuel Huang and Elaine Ng and cellist Esther Seitz. With voices as with instruments, Gibson favors sonic contrast over emotional connection or, in the case of the words here, intelligibility. The remaining pieces on the CD are more of the same, stylistically, in different instrumental guise: Spark (2014) is for trombone (JoDee Davis) and piano (Trevor Thornton and Emily Trapp); Folium cubed (2015) is for soprano saxophone (Zachary Shemon); and One Voice (2016) is for mezzo-soprano (Megan Ihnen) and viola (Michael Hall). Gibson clearly knows what sorts of effects she wants to extract from performers, both vocal and instrumental, and she knows how to get them. The issue for listeners is likely to be that there is little unique in Gibson’s approach, little sense that what is heard here has not been heard many times before.
The situation is somewhat analogous on a new Ravello disc of music by Christopher Biggs. The pieces here combine traditional instruments – piano and others – with electronic sounds, always in now-familiar ways. Biggs, like Gibson, is sometimes inspired by literary works: A Letter to the Moon for trumpet (Samuel Wells), percussion (Adam Vidiksis), and piano (Keith Kirchoff) is based on a story by Italo Calvino, and Promethea for alto saxophone (Alex Sellers) takes off from a graphic novel. But most of what moves Biggs to create these pieces is material external to any sort of art. He is one of those socially conscious composers who try to use their work to further environmental, social and political agendas. This is scarcely new territory – think only of The Threepenny Opera and its much older, socially challenging source, The Beggar’s Opera – but Biggs does not have the focus or sheer musical adeptness of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, or John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch. The music here does not make significant aural or emotional connections with its topics; pretty much any title could be placed with pretty much any of these works to elicit the same response. The CD is mainly interesting for the way Biggs deploys specific instruments and interweaves them with electronic effects. Decade Zero is for brass quintet (Western Brass Quintet: Robert White and Scott Thornburg, trumpets; Lin Foulk, horn; Daniel Mattson, trombone; Jacob Cameron, tuba); Externalities is for solo cello (Zachary Boyt); Recombinant Serenade features solo horn (Foulk again); Decoherence is for solo trumpet (Samuel Wells); and Amass is for solo clarinet (Mauricio Salguero). So listeners who want to hear an amplified cello mixed with electronics will gravitate to Externalities, while those wanting to hear a clarinet mingled with electronics will prefer Amass. But whether the cello work will ever connect with listeners as a commentary on consumerism, or the clarinet one as being inspired by a hunger for change such as the Arab Spring, is another matter altogether: even people who find the sounds of these pieces congenial will likely have a hard time connecting them with the externalities that led Biggs to create the music.
November 16, 2017
Life on Surtsey, Iceland’s Upstart Island. By Loree Griffin Burns. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Impact! Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World. By Elizabeth Rauch. Photos by Karin Anderson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
One of the most amazing things about the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series is the way it shows some scientists focusing on tiny things and others on the very big picture – and in all cases doing so with meticulous attention to detail and absolute commitment to their projects, small or large. Life on Surtsey looks at the very small but very important things happening on a volcanic island that was formed in 1963 by an eruption 15 miles off the coast of Iceland. For 50-plus years, scientists have studied the very small elements that turn barren rock into a place teeming with life, both plant and animal. Loree Griffin Burns focuses on Erling Ólafsson, who has spent nearly half a century studying some very small things on Surtsey: insects. They are among the first colonizers of the island, but not the very first. As Life on Surtsey explains, it was only two weeks after Surtsey formed that something alive was there: a seagull, one of the many that live and breed on other rocky outcrops in the area. And birds do not simply visit on their own: they bring nesting materials that may contain plants or seeds, their feathers harbor mites and other insects, and as the seagulls catch and eat fish and other foods, leftovers from the meals rot and provide potential nutrients for various plants. Nor did the colonizing of Surtsey happen only because of birds: the sea itself washed plant matter onto the island, and some of it took root. Bit by bit, life took hold. The photos showing Surtsey at different stages are fascinating: the close-up views of plants, eggs, insects and birds show how quickly life attaches to and thrives on the new land, and the discussion of the care the scientists take to avoid impinging on the island’s natural development is especially intriguing and indicative of just what it means to be a scientist in the field. For example, there is the matter of bathrooms. To avoid having human waste become a factor in Surtsey’s development, urinals for men and women consist of small holes in the sand in specific places. Any toilet paper used must be disposed of in the trash can inside the simple hut where the scientists stay – none may be left outdoors. As for “anything more than pee,” Burns explains that the scientists must walk to a specific, rocky part of the island, lift a rock, make use of the hole beneath it, and replace the rock – choosing a location “close enough to the ocean that the waves can come up and carry away your deposit at high tide, but not so close that the waves come while you’re squatting there and carry you away.” Juxtaposing these conditions with the remarkable photos and carefully explained experiments of the scientists makes Life on Surtsey a truly amazing experience, one that will give young readers a firm understanding of the fascination, if not exactly glamor, of the lives of the scientists who study this still-developing island.
Life on Surtsey is all about the very small, but the scientific focus is on enormous matters in Impact! The book opens with a scene that could come from a fictional end-of-the-world thriller: explosions, shattered glass spraying everywhere, buildings shaking, earthquake-like jolts, the immediate fear that a nuclear bomb has detonated nearby. It turns out that all the effects were the result of an asteroid strike by a comparatively small space rock, one the size of a six-story building that had exploded in the sky and rained pieces of itself to the ground over many miles. Yes, a six-story asteroid, including the one that came down near Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, and was heavier than the Eiffel Tower, is rather small – there are much, much bigger ones out there. The question of what to do if one of those appears on a collision course with Earth lies at the heart of Impact! Science fiction aside, we do not yet have a way to prevent a potential planetwide catastrophe. The scientists profiled in Elizabeth Rauch’s book are working toward that goal. The research may be complicated, but the way the scientists go about it comes across in Rauch’s writing as easy to understand, as in a search for meteorites near Creston, California: “It’s a game of ‘One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.’ What looks different from all the other rocks around? What doesn’t fit in? What might have come from outer space?” An excellent page of Karin Anderson’s photos shows “Meteor-Wrongs” on top and meteorites on the bottom, visually explaining to readers what scientists must sort through when trying to find space rocks and use them to study the potential effects of future collisions with Earth. Anderson’s photos are an excellent complement to Rauch’s clear text: the pictures show everything from a large meteor crater to a thinly sliced section of a meteorite about to be examined under a microscope. Inevitably, the book discusses the origin of the solar system and the extinction of the dinosaurs – caused, in large part, by an asteroid six miles wide colliding with Earth and forming what is today called the Chicxulub crater, half in Mexico and half under the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this material may be familiar to readers, but other information will not be, such as the fact that 183 asteroid impact craters have been discovered on Earth – the map showing all their locations is fascinating. How often do major asteroid strikes occur? About once every 300 years, Rauch writes in the caption beneath a photo showing some of the destruction that one impact caused in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, when 80 million trees were destroyed. And what about risks in the future? The book’s second half focuses on the search for PHAs (potentially hazardous asteroids) and the importance of getting some warning, even a small amount, before any of them hits – hopefully enough time to evacuate the impact area and protect what structures can be protected. The scientists’ enthusiasm as they search for PHAs is tempered by the reality that they may one day discover something that could be a major threat to our planet. Possible ways of dealing with an imminent threat – none of them currently practical – make up the last part of Impact! An asteroid-breaking bomb, a crash-landing by a spacecraft, solar sails to collect energy that would redirect the asteroid, and other ideas (including one based on paintball) are discussed and shown in intriguing diagrams. None of them is practical yet; most will never be developed; but some are well along in research stages and will hopefully be ready for deployment before a scientist, perhaps one of those profiled in this book, discovers an Earth-bound asteroid whose path is likely to intersect our planet’s, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Ruby & Olivia. By Rachel Hawkins. Putnam. $16.99.
Lock and Key, Book One: The Initiation. By Ridley Pearson. Harper. $9.99.
Lock and Key, Book Two: The Downward Spiral. By Ridley Pearson. Harper. $17.99.
The usual preteen drama always takes up a good deal of space in novels for preteens, with much of the underlying plot of individual books being added to (or subsumed within) the interpersonal issues that publishers seem inevitably to favor in works for ages 8-12. Thus, Ruby & Olivia is as much about the highly unlikely friendship of the title characters as it is about the possibly haunted house whose contents the girls are required to catalogue as part of a summer-long community-service project. The way Rachel Hawkins throws Ruby and Olivia together into unlikely partnership during community service is clunky in the extreme: Ruby is indeed something of a troublemaker, sent to a camp for “Bad Kids” after she scatters loads of glitter at school in a prank gone wrong, but Olivia is quiet and respectful. However, Olivia has a twin sister, Emma, who is very much Ruby’s type and has in fact been Ruby’s close friend. When Emma shoplifts some lipstick, Olivia steps in and takes the blame for absolutely no reason whatsoever – Hawkins tries to get past this by having Olivia say she herself is not sure why she does it, but the sleight of hand does not work as a narrative device and leaves Olivia’s action thoroughly unbelievable. In the context of the book, though, the precipitating event of Olivia’s being sent to the same camp as Ruby does not matter – what counts is that the two very different girls are sent to the same place and have to learn to get along, eventually becoming (against all odds but scarcely against the usual plot vectors of books like this) close friends. Strange occurrences in Live Oaks House – more unsettling than genuinely creepy – become a mystery that Ruby and Olivia decide they want to solve, then decide they do not really need to solve after all, then eventually decide that they must solve. Hawkins gives a broad hint of what is going to happen by having two long-ago girl residents of the old mansion turn out to be named Rebecca and Octavia – same first letters as in Ruby and Olivia, guaranteeing that some sort of ghostly connection is reaching across the years to ensnare (maybe) the two 21st-century girls. It is hard to take any of this seriously, and even the obligatory mild crush on a boy seems creakily patched into the story: he helps the girls in their climactic visit to the old house, then conveniently gets scared and runs away, leaving them alone – while even more conveniently leaving them exactly the tools and implements they need to solve the mystery and overcome the mansion’s dark forces. It is very hard to take Ruby & Olivia seriously, but as a genre entry that has some of the flavor of a lightweight “beach read,” the book has its points.
The points that Ridley Pearson is trying to make in the Lock and Key series are more complex, but a lot of the intricacy is as creaky as anything in Hawkins’ standalone novel. Lock and Key is a reconsideration of the Sherlock Holmes stories, set in the United States in modern times but for some reason having the characters speak in language that seems taken, at least in large part, from the 19th century. The idea here is that Holmes comes from England to a U.S. boarding school -- called Baskerville Academy, of all things – and becomes the roommate of none other than James Moriarty, who will eventually become his arch-enemy. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Moriarty for the express purpose of killing Holmes off, and Moriarty plays very little role in the authentic Holmes tales – but he has appealed to many authors since Doyle’s time, and Pearson seems to find the light-against-dark juxtaposition of the teenage Holmes and Moriarty irresistible. Readers will likely find it less so. The series is narrated by Moriarty’s sister, Moria (yes, Moria Moriarty, a name that is one of the creakiest elements in Lock and Key), even though many events happen when she is not present and readers have to accept her assertion that she has re-created some scenes that she was told about years later by various characters. This does not work very well: there is an awkwardness to the narrative that goes beyond the inexpert writing, which is even more ill-fitting when Pearson tries to give Moria, who is 12 (two years younger than James and Holmes), some personality of her own: “The sky held an elaborate mix of colors: aqua, gray, pink, and purple. A painter’s sky. …We all smelled like suntan lotion in summers, and hamburgers, and fresh-cut grass. Ice cream doesn’t smell or we would have smelled like that as well.” In the first Lock and Key book, The Initiation – originally published last year and now available in paperback – Moria has a bit of a crush on Holmes even though he comes across, in Pearson’s story, as a rather insufferable know-it-all. For his part, James is whiny, thoroughly unappreciative, and enormously arrogant and self-centered, at one point telling his sister, “I think some of us are meant to lead and some to follow, regardless of how old we are or what grade we’re in. …It’s like pilot fish and sharks, soldiers and generals. It’s prehistoric or something.” The idea of two very different central characters needing to get past their dislike of each other and form an uneasy alliance is as present in Lock and Key as in Ruby & Olivia, but Pearson tries to lend the disconnect between James and Holmes greater importance by drawing on elements of Doyle’s stories. That means The Initiation and its successor, The Downward Spiral, must have mysteries as well as a rivalry at their heart. Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the brilliant and aloof detective in his works about C. Auguste Dupin, called those stories “tales of ratiocination,” and emphasized careful thinking rather than personality development in them. Doyle picked up the approach to great effect in his Holmes tales, but Pearson tries to balance mystery with traditional preteen-novel tropes, and the mixture is more a colloidal suspension than a solution. Speaking of solutions, the first book is about a missing Moriarty family Bible – the school was founded by James and Moria’s ancestors – and the second gets more deeply into the Moriarty family’s troubled history and pushes James farther down the dark path onto which he enters in the first volume. The books include some typical trappings of certain parts of the mystery genre: events of the past coming home to roost, a death that may or may not have been accidental, a secret society, and so on. Whether the intended preteen audience will enjoy the ins and outs of the mysteries themselves, or be more interested in the byplay between Holmes and James as reported by Moria, is an open question. As for Pearson’s style, it swerves uneasily between contemporary references (James Moriarty doing Sudoku?) and old-fashioned expressions, some of which are not quite right, as when Holmes says of his deduction that certain jewelry belonged to James and Moria’s mother, “That was my presumption” (he means “assumption” or “deduction”). And the portrait of Holmes is really not much more flattering than that of James – at one point, for instance, Holmes begins an analysis to Moria with the words, “If my theory is correct – and when am I wrong?” It is hard to imagine modern preteens identifying in any significant way with any of the three central characters in Lock and Key, but Pearson’s pacing is skillful enough so the first two books can be read as simple mystery adventures rather than as reconsiderations of a rivalry dating back to the century before the last one.
Scholastic Book of World Records 2018. By Cynthia O’Brien, Abigail Mitchell, Michael Bright, and Donald Sommerville. Scholastic. $12.99.
Scholastic Year in Sports 2018. Scholastic. $9.99.
Here, from the back cover, is the self-description of the latest annual Scholastic world-records book: “Another Year of Amazing World Records and All the Latest and Greatest Pop Culture Crazes!” And that pretty much says it all: in an information age within which “best” and “greatest” change daily, hourly, even by the minute, it is very hard indeed to come up with “amazing world records” that have any lasting value and will appeal to the young readers at whom this book is targeted. But pop-culture crazes? Ah, there is an infinite well of silliness, meaninglessness and stupidity on which an enterprising book-creation group (in this case, Toucan Books Limited) can draw at will; and even better, because the so-called “records” associated with unimportant pop-culture occurrences are so evanescent, the book can be updated year after year. After all, “world’s sleepiest animal: koala” is a record that is highly unlikely to change, but “highest-paid TV actress” and “top radio song” are 100% certain to change over time. Hopefully in time for the next edition of the book – which means by May 2018 (this “2018” edition actually covers only material through May 2017).
Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of this. In fact, it is rather amusing to have a book that, on one page, describes the “largest sculpture cut from a single piece of stone: Sphinx,” which has withstood the depredations of time for some 4,500 years, while the facing page describes the “record-breaking LEGO structure: LEGOLAND Günzberg,” a tower built between June 24 and June 30, 2016. Maybe some people care about the “celebrity with the most Instagram followers: Selena Gomez,” but whether or not they do, it is pretty sure that this particular record will not stand very long, as other flavor-of-the-moment celebrities pop up to eclipse it. Similarly, the “top-grossing mobile game app: Clash of Clans,” while it may retain its position for a time, is scarcely likely to do so – or even to be remembered – for very long. So Scholastic Book of World Records 2018 has built-in expiration dates for many of the items it describes, and that is just fine for a work that appears year after year.
As always, the book is very heavily visual: every page is packed with visual elements, and in some cases the pages are nothing but visuals, with a small amount of information printed over full-page photos. For a visually oriented time, this makes perfect sense, even when the specific items included in the book are scarcely new or surprising, as in the “Amazing Animals” section. Here appear the “world’s heaviest land mammal: African elephant,” “world’s largest primate: gorilla,” and “world’s fastest land animal: cheetah,” none of which is likely to be supplanted in its record anytime soon. Because these are “evergreen” records, the way they are presented becomes especially important, and it is in this design element that Scholastic Book of World Records 2018 shines. The page about the cheetah, for example, has five analog speedometers along the bottom, displaying the speed of the five fastest land animals in descending order (cheetah, African ostrich, pronghorn, springbok and lion). The two pages on the “world’s tallest living animal: giraffe” not only feature a gorgeous photo of a herd of the animals but also include large-type boxes giving information such as the length of a giraffe’s tongue (up to 21 inches) and the height of a calf at birth (six feet). And “America’s most popular dog breed: Labrador” features a list of the top 10 breeds in the U.S. – a list that may very well change by the next edition of this book, although the Labrador’s place atop it may not, since it has now held the top spot for 26 years in a row.
The book’s nine sections offer a mixture of items that will almost surely be altered in the near future and ones that almost certainly will not change. “Music Makers,” “Screen and Stage,” “On the Move,” “High Tech” and “Sports Stars” have far more soon-to-be-eclipsed records than “Super Structures,” “Amazing Animals,” “Incredible Earth,” and “State Stats” – although the last of these is actually easy to change each year by simply selecting a different record for each state. That is, Scholastic Book of World Records 2018 says Alaska is the “state with the most pilots per capita,” Tennessee is the “state that makes all the MoonPies,” and Wisconsin is the “state with the prize milk cow,” but each state has other distinctions that would lend themselves to alterations in this chapter in the future. Really, the book is not about multiple records as of 2018, but about multiple records up to May 2017 that it can be fun to read about as 2018 approaches. It can even be enjoyable, in the new year, to find out about various record-breaking matters and make note of them on the appropriate pages of this book – just to see whether they end up being the events and people mentioned in the work’s version for 2019.
Much the same thinking applies to Scholastic Year in Sports 2018, but this is a book that includes nothing at all that is expected to remain the same in a year. Instead, it gives scores, records and statistics from 2017 – through August, actually – with the full knowledge that there will be another set of scores, records and statistics available for the 2019 version of the book. As with Scholastic Book of World Records 2018, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with this, provided that buyers know what they are getting and do not expect anything else. Scholastic Year in Sports 2018 is of course solely for sports fans, but more than that, it is for fans of multiple sports, not ones who, for example, fixate on college basketball or NASCAR. Both those fields do get coverage here, but so do the National Football League, college football, major league baseball, NBA/WNBA, National Hockey League, soccer, golf, tennis and a few miscellaneous categories labeled “Other Motor Sports” (drag racing, motorcycle racing and others), “Action Sports” (Summer X Games, Winter X Games), and simply “Other Sports” (figure skating, lacrosse, America’s cup and more). Since no single sport in the entire book gets even as many as 20 pages – and most of the space is taken up with photos rather than information – Scholastic Year in Sports 2018 is not for anyone looking for in-depth coverage of anything. It is a kind of once-over-lightly about the world of sports, a chance to see some attractive pictures, relive a few game highlights and read about some “Sudden Stars,” who are “the young superstars you will be watching for years to come” and who are drawn from football, baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey and so forth. Again, the book clearly targets the sports junkie – but a particular type of sports junkie, one who is interested in brief highlights of the year (up to August) in a wide variety of games and activities. Young hyper-fans of sports in general will have a good time with the book; those who care about only one, two or even three sports will probably bypass Scholastic Year in Sports 2018 and look instead for more-intense coverage of the areas to which they are devoted.
The Strategy of Victory: How General George Washington Won the American Revolution. By Thomas Fleming. Da Capo. $28.
A Crime in the Family: A World War II Secret Buried in Silence—and My Search for the Truth. By Sacha Batthyány. Da Capo. $28.
It is customary to think of war broadly, to regard it as, in Carl von Clausewitz’s famous words, “the continuation of politics by other means,” and therefore as something large-scale and momentous. And this is true but incomplete. If war occurs on a large canvas, it is also the individual stories of the people who fight it, and there are certainly interstices of war history that repay exploration even many decades, or even centuries, after a particular conflict is over. The late Thomas Fleming (1927-2017), in more than 40 books, returned again and again to analyses of wars and the people who fought and were caught in them. He was expert in thinking through strategies and tactics by looking closely at specific occurrences during wartime and the decisions, good or bad, that were made as a result. Fleming’s books are of scholarly interest for their interpretative excellence, even when they are somewhat too rarefied to appeal to a general readership. Books about George Washington, for example, can reliably be expected to interest people beyond a hardcore group of military historians; but The Strategy of Victory, for all its fine arguments and careful consideration of the military necessities underlying the formation of the United States, is primarily a book for those already familiar with America’s war for independence and interested in a new overview of the way that war was won. Fleming shows again and again that Washington was an exemplary adjuster: he would create strategies and tactics but would not hesitate to change them when conditions warranted, giving the Continental Army flexibility that the more-regimented British forces could not (and, in truth, did not wish to) match. Washington’s forces lost many battles, Fleming points out, but did not balk at retreating so as to be able to fight another day – the loss of posts and forts was seen as a necessary component of eventual victory. Even more interestingly, Fleming shows that when Washington and his field commanders won battles, as at Trenton, Monmouth and Saratoga, they did not use their victories to take on the British frontally in an attempt at decisive victory. Washington essentially fought a war of attrition, not one of confrontation, except when he had no choice; and he tried to make sure that he always had a choice. Fleming does a fine job of showing how Washington made skillful use not only of the perennially under-funded Continental Army (the “regulars”) but also of “irregular” militias, whose help proved crucial again and again (and undoubtedly led to the still-controversial phrasing of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). With his penchant for focusing on little-known aspects of war in addition to better-known ones, Fleming in The Strategy of Victory gives more time and attention to the last northern battles of the war than other historians do – battles such as Springfield and Connecticut Farms – before switching to discussions of the final stages of the war in Virginia and the Carolinas. And Fleming makes clear that the victory Washington sought was not fully won after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, because the continued refusal by Congress to appropriate adequate funds for the Continental Army led to simmering resentment that came to a head in March 1783 in a near-mutiny that Washington stopped through a personal gesture that deserves to be far better known. “Washington fumbled in the inner pocket of his coat and took out a copy of a letter he had recently received from Virginia congressman Joseph Jones, describing some of the positive steps Congress was planning to satisfy the officers. After reading the first few lines, he stopped and peered at the page. Reaching into another pocket, he extracted a set of eyeglasses he had recently received from Philadelphia. No one except a few aides had seen him wearing them. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.’” What an amazing, humanizing moment this is in The Strategy of Victory, and what a way to show that a man usually thought of as distant, wooden, even cold and calculating, had a deeply heartfelt side that he showed only rarely but that, when he did so, had – as it had on this occasion – an overwhelming effect. Fleming manages in this book to show that the grand matters of the American Revolution were balanced in some ways by the small ones, such as reaching for a pair of spectacles. He gives a more-humanizing portrait of Washington than many other historians do, while not neglecting the battlefield detail that the primary audience for this book will expect. The Strategy of Victory may be mainly for those already deeply involved in studies of the American Revolution, but it is also a worthy volume for readers who may just happen to stumble upon it and start thumbing through it out of a sense of curiosity.
A much more recent war, one that ended “only” 75 years ago, is the impetus behind Sacha Batthyány’s memoir, A Crime in the Family. The word “only” belongs in quotation marks in this context, because the whole point of the book is that for those deeply involved in World War II, and their descendants and families, the war’s end feels as if it happened only yesterday. Perhaps, the book argues, wars never really end, their effects being felt through generation after generation and affecting people born long after the wars’ official conclusions. Batthyány does not make this statement directly, but it permeates his telling of the story, which is an ugly, sordid and highly personal one. Batthyány, a Swiss-born journalist with Hungarian parents, learns one day that a distant relative, his great-aunt Margit – an heiress to the German Thyssen fortune – gave a party in March 1945, near the war’s end, during which an atrocity was committed: almost 180 Jews were shot dead by people attending the festivities, stripped naked and forced to dig their own mass grave as Margit and her guests, many of them prominent Nazis, drank and danced gaily. This is one horror among many, many others from World War II – wars are nothing without atrocities – but this one hits home for Batthyány because someone in his family was involved, and he sets out to learn the truth about what happened. It proves to be a seven-year search with the aid of the diary of his paternal grandmother, Maritta, and a separate record kept by Maritta’s onetime neighbor – Agnes Mandl, an Auschwitz survivor who is still alive and living in Buenos Aires when Batthyány locates her. The main thing Batthyány finds out, and it is no surprise at all, is that after all the years and all the deaths, all the records lost or changed or destroyed both by the Nazis and by the Communists who succeeded them as rulers of Hungary, all the people who still refuse to speak because they want only to put the memories of that time behind them, it is simply impossible to know the truth. Batthyány comes up with several truths, or aspects of the truth, in a search whose outcome will surprise absolutely no one. Batthyány’s methodical research and his journey into his family’s past are nevertheless fascinating, particularly in the way they stand for something beyond the personal – for the eternal search for truth and the eternal inability to pin it down as time passes, memories fade and people try to go on with their post-war lives. Batthyány is not very introspective about any of this, despite the weekly visits with his psychoanalyst – which he documents and reports carefully and which are repetitive and annoying, the weakest part of the book. Batthyány never finds out exactly what happened in March 1945; readers will realize early on that he will not. So A Crime in the Family is a journey of discovery rather than the unraveling of a mystery (in fact, the massacre of the 180 Jews in the town of Rechnitz has been known for a long time, so Batthyány is looking for details about his family’s complicity rather than for new information about the event itself). Inevitably, Batthyány tells readers that he learned much about himself during his search and was forced to realize, eventually, that if he had been present at the time the killings occurred, he would not have had the courage to hide and protect Jews. That is a touch of honesty, and indeed there is honesty throughout A Crime in the Family, to the extent that Batthyány and the others in it are capable of it in any objective sense after so many years. The reality is that Batthyány is just one of thousands upon thousands of people descended from people who endured horrendous wartime experiences in World War II and other wars, and that yes, some of those experiences were more intense and horrific than others, and that yes, there can be something salutary in dredging up the desiccated remnants of the past for those who choose to do so. But Batthyány, like others exploring long-gone times that many people would rather forget than recall, thinks not at all of the collateral damage caused by pushing people to remember in detail times and events of unimaginable trauma. What Batthyány finds helpful for himself is scarcely that for all the people he interviews and confronts. Self-focused selfishness in memory extraction is yet another of the innumerable depredations and long-lasting consequences of war.
Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Orla Boylan, Celena Shafer and Amy Owens, sopranos; Charlotte Hellekant and Tamara Mumford, mezzo-sopranos; Barry Banks, tenor; Markus Werba, baritone; Jordan Bisch, bass; Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Choristers of the Madeleine Choir School, and Utah Symphony conducted by Thierry Fischer. Reference Recordings. $29.98 (2 SACDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Utah Symphony conducted by Thierry Fischer. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).
It is ironic that although Mahler famously said that a symphony must be like the world, a comment usually interpreted to mean that a symphony should contain pretty much everything to be found in the world at large, all his symphonies can justifiably be seen as containing a single thing at their core: Mahler himself. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” Walt Whitman wrote, and in fact Mahler did exactly the same thing, presenting intensely personal thoughts, beliefs, worries and fears in every one of his symphonies; the works’ differing emphases and conclusions may be thought of as showing alternative outcomes of the composer’s internal struggles and hopes. It would not do to force too close a parallel between Mahler’s life at the time of a particular symphony and the structure of that work, however, for the symphonies explore and are reflective of his inner being, not his external circumstances. Seeing these gigantic and meticulously colored canvases – they really do resemble paintings in sound – in this highly personal way gives sensitive listeners entry to the emotional core of the music, a key to exploring the techniques Mahler used to express so many parts of his multilayered and often deeply troubled, conflicted personality. The extremely personal nature of the music is also a key to its sound: Mahler employed vast numbers of instruments, in symphony after symphony, but invariably used them much of the time with chamber-music delicacy. The grand and glorious or gloomy climaxes are there, to be sure, but the individual voices, the small groupings of color within the larger splashes of intensity, are every bit as important as the massed sound that Mahler drew forth from the many performers on whom he called to express himself to the world.
Because of the unique sonic quality of Mahler’s music, the exceptional importance of getting both the quiet passages and the huge, noisy and sometimes deliberately crude ones right, the recording quality of Mahler performances is exceptionally important, most definitely so in the case of his Eighth, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” which really does require something close to that number of performers. This symphony is ideally suited for the superb recording techniques that are always in evidence on Reference Recordings releases, and the new two-disc set featuring a live 2016 performance directed by Thierry Fischer is an exemplary case of recording quality wedded to music that begs to be treated with the extraordinary aural care it receives here. The technical details do not matter: what counts is the exceptional evenness of sound from the start of this 90-minute spectacular to the end, with the quietest passages having great clarity and the loudest, which are very loud indeed, resounding with tremendous intensity but never sounding the slightest bit muddy or indistinct. This is a performance that strongly contrasts the essentially “masculine” striving of the opening Veni, creator spiritus with the essentially “feminine” acceptance and integration of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, which is Mahler’s most operatic music and in this reading truly does sound like a vast opera score (with no fewer than eight solo voices, more than in many operas). One of the many interesting questions for conductors is how to handle the very start of this symphony – whether the words Veni, creator spiritus at the opening, just after the organ’s pedal point, should be framed as a plea for the Creator Spirit to come or as a command. Fischer leans toward the “command” side, setting a tone of strength from the music’s start and allowing himself considerable latitude, in the work’s second part, to bring forth all the warmth and expressiveness that Mahler offers there. The soloists are uniformly fine, despite the use of two mezzo-sopranos rather than contraltos (these voices’ solo sections are short and comparatively undistinguished). The major solos in this work belong to the tenor, who must be heard over the chorus without having his voice crack, and the bass, whose wide leaps are, to say the least, challenging; Barry Banks and Jordan Bisch acquit themselves admirably. The young singers of the Madeleine Choir School handle their parts well, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – a vast and amazing instrument of its own that can at times slip into ponderousness rather than grandeur – here sounds committed, strong and sensitive. Listeners so inclined can certainly nitpick Fischer’s performance, which occasionally becomes rather matter-of-fact and in the Faust scenes loses forward momentum now and then. But in its totality, this is an excellently conceived reading featuring first-rate soloists and chorus, an uplifting and convincing rendition of Mahler’s brilliant affirmation of the essentially positive nature of always striving for knowledge and creative expression. This is Mahler himself at his most optimistic, tapping his belief that always seeking the highest heights will one day bring the human spirit to the summit of experience.
Matters Mahlerian are more troubled and far less certain of positive resolution through much of the Fifth Symphony, but here too there is an eventual affirmation (a chorale rather than choral one) of consonance and hope that makes possible emergence from the inner abyss of the work’s Part I (the first two movements). The new BR Klassik recording featuring the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons makes this emergence from despair, through warmth and love, to brightness, particularly clear. The linchpin of the symphony, very oddly, is the very unusual central Scherzo, which stands alone as Part II of the work and which fluctuates between naïve Ländler elements and something more serious and introspective – as if pulling the symphony along a trajectory from the intensity and darkness of Part I toward the warmth, beauty and eventual positive outcome of Part III (the fourth and fifth movements). It is hard to miss the intensely personal core of this particular symphony, whose gorgeous fourth movement, Adagietto, is almost a standalone piece for its lovely, uncomplex beauty and spare scoring – indeed, it is often performed separately from the symphony to which it belongs, being offered as a sort of “love poem,” which is how Mahler regarded it when sending it to his wife, Alma. Yet it is only in context that the movement truly fulfills its function of turning turbulence (Part I) and thoughtful complexity (Part II) toward something far more heartfelt, driven by and toward the “eternal feminine” that Mahler was later to celebrate through Goethe’s words in the Eighth Symphony. A firm sense of structural integrity is absolutely necessary for a successful performance of Mahler’s Fifth, and Jansons certainly has that. The gloom of the opening funeral march and storm-tossed second movement give way only reluctantly in the Scherzo to something less visceral and more thoughtful; the third movement’s upbeat ending connects to only a small degree to the overflowing beauty of the fourth; and the comparatively staid, moderately paced final Rondo then builds gradually to a chorale effusion that is allowed to become the work’s capstone – standing in contrast to the chorale of the second movement, which tries to emerge from darkness but soon collapses onto itself, as if it is just too soon to experience any sort of satisfying emergence from despair. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is a great one for playing Mahler, weighty without being heavy in sound, and especially strong in the brass; and Jansons knows how to bring out the ensemble’s great warmth (the strings are gorgeous in the Adagietto) while still producing the cragginess that Part I of the symphony demands. This is a well-thought-out and very effective reading of Mahler’s Fifth that produces something like a sigh of relief at its apotheosis, a feeling that listeners – like Mahler himself – have come through a long and difficult journey and arrived at a highly satisfactory emotional conclusion.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, in the four-movement version in which it is almost always heard, is far more straightforward in approach despite its many innovative features and felicities of expression. Super-high-quality sound is less an absolute necessity for the effectiveness of this symphony than for that of the Eighth, but the Reference Recordings SACD showcasing the interpretation by the same orchestral forces as in the Eighth – Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony – nevertheless possesses the best possible sonic presentation, and it does make a difference in the impact of this brash, noisy and highly effective youthful work. The essential inward focus of all Mahler’s symphonies is already apparent even in this one’s fairly straightforward arc that leads eventually to a very big climax indeed. And the musical techniques that Mahler would later refine and develop are all here too: the songfulness (although we would later stop using direct quotations from his song cycles), the warmth, the sweetness, the sarcasm, the dips into bitterness, the juxtaposition of the mundane with the otherworldly, and the confluence of the mundane with the otherworldly – as in the very opening of the First, which is supposed to be a kind of “awakening of nature” scene but whose initial very high A on violins and violas gives the beginning a distinctly and distinctively otherworldly character. Even Mahler’s later notion of “parts,” crucial to both the Fifth and Eighth, was already present in the First, albeit only in early versions of the work. Still, the lack of an explicit label does not prevent listeners, led by Fischer’s well-paced and strongly rhythmic reading, from perceiving the First as falling into two distinct halves, the first the kind of celebratory striding-forth of the of first two movements, the second becoming distinctly darker and weirder as the strains of Bruder Martin (“Frère Jacques”) and the street-music sound of klezmer melodies become, with the crashing opening of the finale, a very deep and dark place indeed – from which abyss the music slowly emerges after, Beethoven-like, recalling and rejecting elements of the earlier movements (including a back-reference to the discarded Blumine). It is quite clear that the Utah Symphony being led by Fischer is an altogether smoother, better-balanced orchestra than the one directed by Maurice Abravanel (1903-1993) in the first recording ever made of all Mahler’s symphonies by an American orchestra. Abravanel’s pioneering spirit with this music has given way to a time in which Mahler is very much a part of the standard repertoire – and this allows conductors, including Fischer, to bring a personal imprimatur to the works, which in Fischer’s case means showing clearly just how personal these musical statements are. It does indeed turn out that Mahler’s symphonies are like the world, to the extent that each of us carries our own experience of the world with us at all times and expresses it in the most-cogent language we can command.