May 16, 2013
Bluebird. By Bob Staake. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
A short, wordless, beautifully presented, bittersweet tale, Bob Staake’s Bluebird tackles some big issues in a wonderfully sensitive way – despite one glaring oversight that kids who become emotionally involved in the highly affecting story are likely to notice. The book, created primarily in shades of grey, features round-headed, stylized children portrayed in a style that is quite recognizable Staake’s. One child in particular draws Staake’s and the reader’s attention: he is lonely, isolated, walking with his eyes cast down and excluded from the happy games of the other kids. There is no way to know why; this is just the way things are – and a way that many sensitive children feel. The boy is laughed at in school and clearly isolated and bullied, for whatever reason or for no reason at all.
The urban landscape of the story is almost all right angles, as if accentuating the unforgiving nature of the world around this lonely boy. But a spark of color appears in the form of the bluebird of the title, colored a very rich blue indeed and trailing a lighter blue streak while flying here and there. Soon boy and bird are interacting, not unrealistically but in a way that could really happen, with the boy coming close to the bird but not too close, feeding it some cookie crumbs, smiling and laughing and enjoying its presence even as he finds himself isolated from yet another group of kids playing soccer on the street. At that point, things become less realistic but more heartwarming, as the bluebird seems to realize what is going on and actually flies to the boy and perches on his shoulder. The two go to the park – a stylized Central Park, in New York City – and have a lovely time playing with a small boat on a lake; the boy even makes a couple of sort-of-friends there.
But then boy and bird encounter three bullies, and what the nasty kids do even horrifies those boys themselves – leading to a tragic outcome that moves the story all the way into fairy-tale territory, as the boy is suddenly surrounded by many brightly colored birds, none of them blue, and the birds carry him skyward to a genuinely moving conclusion that will resonate with kids and adults long after they finish paging through the book.
This is beautiful work on almost all levels, both as storytelling and as art; and it is a very moving tale indeed. But it does have what might be called a Wizard of Oz fallacy. In the movie version of that story, which also contrasts grey (actually sepia) with bright color, Dorothy overcomes all obstacles and disposes of the Wicked Witch of the West, returning happily to her home at last – but the movie never resolves the incident that propelled Dorothy to Oz in the first place: the viciousness of nasty neighbor and landowner Almira Gulch, who becomes the witch in Oz. Miss Gulch has arranged for Toto to be destroyed, remember? So what is going to happen to Toto and Dorothy after the movie’s happy ending? There is no way to know – just as there is no way to know what will happen next to Staake’s sad, bullied little boy when he no longer has the bluebird around to cheer him up and help him connect with a more-pleasant, less-grey world. We can hope for the best for him, as we do for Dorothy and Toto, but it is just that: a hope, scarcely a certainty. And yes, kids will notice, as generations of them have noticed the narrative flaw (or omission, if you prefer) in the famous 1939 film.
Still, Bluebird is so beautifully drawn and so lovingly told that the book will linger in family members’ thoughts far longer than more-elaborate books usually do. This bird is scarcely the proverbial bluebird of happiness – there is too much grey in Staake’s world for anything so simplistic, and in this way Staake’s New York parallels L. Frank Baum’s original vision of Kansas as well as the one transferred to the movie screen. But what Staake does offer is a bluebird of possibility, and in the real world, that is about the most that any child, or adult, can hope to find.
Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood. By Drew Magary. Gotham Books. $25.
Learning to Listen: A Life Caring for Children. By T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. Da Capo. $24.99.
Read the title of this article two ways. The second word could be a plural noun; hence “family issues.” Or it could be a verb; hence “family is important.” And thus it helps to read these two books in very different ways as well. Both are first-person, experiential works, but Drew Magary’s is designed primarily descriptively and with a great deal of humor, while T. Berry Brazelton’s is far more prescriptive and serious.
Magary writes in a punchy, tell-it-all style that never varies, whether he is making notes about drunk driving and a child urinating in a hot tub or discussing a life-or-death situation in a hospital. Magary thinks four-letter words are cool, and he uses them incessantly. So one has to admire the comparatively mild bonding-with-his-daughter scene in which the two exchange “butt” jokes at bath time rather than ones using stronger language. In fact, his agreeing to stop those jokes – at his wife’s insistence – shows more maturity, even if unwillingly, than most of the rest of what he writes about. Magary overdoes pretty much everything: when his wife is sound asleep, he says, “She was down like a gunshot victim” – just one of many tasteless and inappropriate remarks in Someone Could Get Hurt. Yet the book is often a pleasure to read, if only because Magary seems so clueless about just how clueless he is, or was. “You’re supposed to leave a baby in a crib alone, with no other accoutrements around, because it can roll into things like pillows and suffocate. If I propped her up on a pillow, she might die. Then again, I was very, very tired. I propped her up on a pillow.” Magary is very much into pop culture – in fact, most of his writing is for publications and Web sites that promote pop culture as if it means something – so he is given to such comments as, “All the little girls grabbed at the dresses like [sic] it was the first night of eliminations on The Bachelor, and my daughter followed suit.” He also has a kneejerk anti-corporate bias, except of course when he desperately needs something made by a corporation, and he often manages to combine tastelessness with a rant within a page or so, as when there is a possible issue of flat head syndrome involving his son: “I kept running my hands along the boy’s head, checking for imperfections as if I were a Third Reich phrenologist. …When your child is in danger of having a flat head, you quickly learn that the money-grubbing executives at Big Helmet have gone to great lengths to make baby helmets seem like a normal, even fashionable thing.” But then, as if accidentally slipping into sensitivity, he actually comes up with an occasional touch of insight: “We live in an age of remarkable sensitivity, where other parents go to great lengths to appear tolerant and accepting of ALL children, not merely their own. But deep down, we’re just as judgmental and catty a species as we were decades ago. The patina of niceness almost makes it worse.” This nearly inadvertent thoughtfulness is displayed to its greatest and most affecting extent at the end of the book, when Magary’s third child is born and is at risk of dying – and is placed in the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. This chapter, which immediately follows one filled with slapstick about making a “masterpizza” at home, finally shows that Magary is a real human being who is not always putting on a “how cool I am” act. “I cried and I could see the tears dripping down onto the plastic [of the isolette], obscuring my view. That’s all you can do when your baby is in the NICU. You cry and you cry and you don’t stop crying until the child is finally home. …I knew he had to be in the NICU for a long time – weeks, months, perhaps even half a year. He would die otherwise. Still, I wanted him out of this horrible place. If I could just get him home to his crib, to his mother and brother and sister, then everything would be fine. I knew it.” Magary’s honesty here, which keeps reemerging even when he dons his “coolness” again in his dealings with the doctors and nurses, makes up for a very great deal of the superficiality in which he wallows elsewhere. The result is that Someone Could Get Hurt becomes, at the end, a real, affecting and memorable narrative that overcomes much of the snarkiness of earlier chapters by showing that even in the 21st century, real families with real emotions and real crises – and real love – find ways to bond and grow together.
If Magary is hyperkinetic, Brazelton is sober, even staid. Readers of Brazelton’s previous books will be somewhat taken aback by Learning to Listen, because it is not a book giving advice about children, except indirectly. It is, instead, an autobiography, and a suitably modest and outwardly focused one, at that. Brazelton’s plainspoken style is as much a part of this book as it is of all his others, starting on the very first page when he talks about the “three distinct social classes” in Waco, Texas, when he was born there in 1918: “White people owned and ran everything. Black people did all of the domestic work, and Mexican Americans did the rest.” Most of the book is about the child-related discoveries that Brazelton has made throughout his life, largely by keeping his eyes and ears open and by not getting locked into traditional ways of thinking. To the extent that personal pride is expressed in Learning to Listen, it comes in Brazelton’s repeated comments on the ways in which he was an outsider: a subhead in one chapter called “Troublemaking in the Delivery Room,” for example, and an entire chapter called “Bucking the System.” Brazelton comes across as a knowledge sponge, learning everywhere he goes and from everything he sees. A fascinating chapter called “Listening to Other Cultures,” for instance, includes a dramatic scene highlighting a difficult birth among Mayans in southern Mexico – in which Brazelton’s recommendations were not effective, but the actions of a native midwife were. Rather than bemoan the situation as primitive and risk-filled, which it certainly was, Brazelton modestly remarks on his own failure and the midwife’s success: “It seemed a miracle of psychosomatic medicine and of the role of belief in their culture. My suggestions had no effect. It was another lesson in respecting different cultural beliefs and practices.” Yet Brazelton is no wide-eyed innocent about this – he is a very keen observer. In the same section, for example, he discusses counting the number of breast feedings of babies he observed in southern Mexico – 80 to 90 a day. “In the United States, mothers generally wait until the baby’s crying activity rouses him thoroughly. Then, she feeds him – reinforcing him for his own active participation. The goal of the Mayan mother was that of having a quiet, docile baby. She was protecting his low motor activity and high degree of sensitivity to stimuli from the first. These goals are completely different.” This is fascinating material, if not as directly instructive as readers have come to expect Brazelton’s books to be. Yet there is a great deal of useful information in Learning to Listen, as Brazelton describes the evolution in the 1970s of his famous Touchpoints “map of behavioral and emotional development” and explains that the map “is designed to reassure parents that regressions lead to predictable spurts in development and that they can navigate them with the resources they can find within themselves, their communities, and their cultures.” Brazelton’s stories of his experiences outside the United States – not only in Mexico but also in Caracas, New Delhi, South Africa, Sydney, Hong Kong and elsewhere – show that his Touchpoints and other discoveries and approaches are not unique to one country or culture but have applicability worldwide. By the end of Learning to Listen, readers will realize that there are two equally valid ways to read the book’s subtitle: A Life Caring for Children as in “a life taking care of children” and, equally correctly, as in “a life caring about children.” The two ways together sum up a great deal of what is special about T. Berry Brazelton.
Made by Dad: 67 Blueprints for Making Cool Stuff. By Scott Bedford. Workman. $18.95.
Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round: A “Cul de Sac” Book. By Richard Thompson. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Ten Little Dinosaurs. By Pattie Schnetzler. Illustrated by Jim Harris. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Plenty of books are purely for fun, designed entirely to show how enjoyable it is to be a kid – although if a little something instructional happens to slip in, well, so much the better. Thus, the projects in Made by Dad are pure enjoyment when completed, but doing them as father-and-child endeavors (which, by the way, could just as well be mother-and-child, the book’s title aside) creates bonding time and learning opportunities and….errr….a fair number of chances for disappointment. You see, even though Scott Bedford subtitles the book, “Projects You Can Build For (and with) Your Kids,” that is not entirely accurate. The ones labeled “easy” will be fine for just about anyone, but there are plenty of things here that really should not be attempted by anybody who is less than handy with tools and art supplies (considerable drawing is frequently recommended, although there is a workaround for it). The book’s title refers to “Blueprints” for a reason: each project is shown in finished form at the start and then broken down, blueprint-style, into step-by-step instructions that parents may well be able to follow. The projects are not arranged by difficulty level but by topic: “Dangerous Décor,” “Home Hacks,” “Suspect Science,” “Geeky Gadgets,” “Covert Creations,” “Arty Party” and “Playful Parenting” (that last title being one that actually applies to all the sections). Individual project names are part of the fun here: “Claw-Through-the-Wall Picture,” “Spaghetti & Marshmallow Eiffel Tower,” “Teddy Through the Center of the Earth,” “Snail Soup Decoy,” “Saber-Toothed Spiders,” “Jelly Bean Reward Rocket” and many more – 67 in all, just as the book’s title says. The project names, though, do not explain the difficulty levels; for those, you have to turn to the first page of each project. “Alien Abduction Mobile” is “tricky,” for example, while “Sitting on Eggshells” is “medium,” “Sword Transformer” is “easy,” and “Balloon Ballast Balancing Act” is (gulp) “challenging.” Parents would be well-advised to leave the more-difficult projects alone until they have done some of the simpler ones and made sure that the kids enjoy them. As for the art workaround, Bedford helpfully provides a 47-page appendix with templates of things that need to be drawn for the various projects, even though he says, “I wholeheartedly encourage you to draw your own elements (or get the kids to do it!).” So the artistic part of Made by Dad need not be a barrier to anyone whose skills in that area are less than Bedford’s. The actual project assemblage, though, may be a bigger deal than Bedford suggests. For the “medium” difficulty “No Place Like Home Twister,” for example, required materials include craft knife, cutting mat, medium-sized corrugated cardboard box, ruler, pencil, white medium-weight cardstock, paper glue, felt-tip markers, toilet-paper tube, hot glue gun, glue sticks, drafting compass, long cardboard tube, scissors, large clear plastic bags or sheets (such as dry-cleaning bags), clear tape, stirring sticks and mounting putty. Got all that? If not, be sure to assemble everything – for any project here – before trying to build an item. Everything that Bedford calls for is needed to get things done; attempting shortcuts is not a good idea. Made by Dad is a great book for handy, workshop-type fathers (or mothers) whose kids really enjoy hands-on crafts projects and are not frustrated by a certain level of complexity, which even the easiest concepts here include. The finished products tend to be both clever and amusing, and the experience of making them together can be great for parent-child bonding if both parent and child can be patient and meticulous – and if neither is easily frustrated in the event that things do not go quite as smoothly as these “blueprints” say they will.
Things do not always go smoothly for the Otterloop family, a wonderful suburban creation by cartoonist Richard Thompson. But the bumps in the road of everyday life encountered by four-year-old Alice, eight-year-old Petey, and their frequently bemused but always well-meaning parents, are what make the Cul de Sac comic strip such a treasure. Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round is a standard-book-size collection of more-or-less random selections from the strip, with sequences originally printed on weekdays shown here in black and white and Sunday strips in color. It is more an introductory book than anything else: Andrews McMeel places it in its “Amp! Comics for Kids” line and presumably intends it for young readers not already familiar with the Otterloop antics in newspapers. “What’s a newspaper?” some young readers may ask. Well, Thompson has an answer for that, sort of, since he sometimes deals with newspapers and comics in his comics – as in one Sunday strip in which Petey explains to Alice that comics are “a mighty, yet dying art form,” while Alice is unable to understand that a multi-panel sequential strip with a cat in it is supposed to be about the same cat at different times, not different cats doing different things. Thompson’s tweaking of himself and other cartoonists is more for adults than kids, but most of Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round will provide equal enjoyment to children and adults. There are the talks with Mr. Danders, the guinea pig who is the pet at Alice’s preschool and who tells the kids how under-appreciated he feels; Petey’s determination to advance in the world rankings of picky eaters, and his concern that “strange babies keep attacking me”; Alice’s mom’s impossible holiday sweaters and her dad’s impossibly tiny car, which at one point ends up in Alice’s sandbox as a toy; the many oddities of Alice’s friend Dill, who looks through mail slots “as a community service” and hopes to marry Alice if she ever stops grabbing his toys; and much more. Thompson brilliantly channels – or remembers – the way young children perceive and absorb the world, and his dialogue captures childhood moments that readers young and old will probably remember even if they never happened. There is, for instance, Alice’s foray under a restaurant table to retrieve a dropped crayon, and her comment that she has entered “a world where everything is sticky.” And then there is her remark about Petey’s dislike of sledding: “I call it ‘keeping Mom’s expectations low’ and I’m all for it.” Readers new to Cul de Sac will be every bit as charmed by Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round as will ones who already know the strip and are simply rediscovering it through this collection of selected snippets.
And for kids too young to read Thompson’s comics and perhaps disinclined to take part in Bedford’s projects, but still looking for something amusing and offbeat and looking more like a crafts item than a traditional book, there is Ten Little Dinosaurs by Pattie Schnetzler and Jim Harris. This is a variation on the traditional counting-down-from-10-to-one rhyme, and probably the first time that rhyme has ever included words such as Pachycephalosaurus and Saurolophus. It also contains floating, swirling, bright-green “googly eyes” mounted to the front of the board book and appearing within the face of every dinosaur on every page – and even within the face of the archeologist who, at the end, points out that, alas, all the dinosaurs are extinct. That small bit of scientific accuracy aside, this little book is a romp, showing dinos doing very modern things: bouncing on a bed, riding a tricycle, rafting down a river, and so on. And they get into trouble with each thing they do, resulting in lines such as, “”No more feather-heads jumping off a peak” and “No more big mouths watching baseball.” The rhyme scheme is not perfect, so parents planning to read the book aloud may want to read it to themselves first so they can make the poetry flow well – especially with all those names of dinos in it. And parents also need to know about one oddity before they read the book – the result of confused communication between Schnetzler and Harris. On one page, dinosaurs – Tyrannosaurs, no less – are seen “munching on a mooth.” Schnetzler invented that word to get a rhyme for “tooth,” intending “mooth” to mean “moose.” But Harris did not want to show dinosaurs eating a moose in a book intended to appeal to very young children, so he drew what looks like a gigantic strawberry. This makes absolutely no sense, especially since Tyrannosaurus Rex was a carnivore, but parents – now forewarned – can make a joke out of the whole thing, and appear wise as well as skilled in rhymed reading as they go through this clever and inventive little book.
Troubletwisters, Book Three: The Mystery. By Garth Nix and Sean Williams. Scholastic. $16.99.
The Flame in the Mist. By Kit Grindstaff. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
“In Portland, nothing ever seems to make sense,” would be a laughable line if one were talking about, say, Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon. But it is a perfectly sensible statement when talking about the Portland of the Troubletwisters series, where in fact very little does make sense – and when things turn out to make too much sense, all it takes is a little clouding of one’s memory to prevent a person from connecting the dots. The Troubletwisters protagonists are twins Jack and Jaide Shield, and they are, yes, a shield between good and evil, and just in case there is any uncertainty about that, the force they fight again and again is actually called The Evil. They get much help from others with powers (“Gifts”) similar to theirs, notably Grandma X – yes, she is really called that – plus assists at times from ordinary people such as their school friend, Tara, whose memory, however, must be suppressed because….well, just because. “After The Evil had been vanquished [temporarily, in the previous book of this series], one of Grandma X’s fellow Wardens, a big-haired man named Aleksandr, had used his Gift to cloud Tara’s memory of everything that had happened to her.” And so we are now in the third Troubletwisters saga, a book that moves along expertly thanks to the pacing talents of Garth Nix and Sean Williams but that is nevertheless, really, a little silly when it comes to such things as plot coherence. This series entry has to do with an old castle in Portland and the old man who lives there and then dies there mysteriously – of course “mysteriously” – so that Jack and Jaide have to search the house for a treasure that The Evil wants and that they must find first. But it happens that they do not know what the treasure is or what it looks like, and that certainly complicates things. In fact, complications abound here – Nix and Williams are good at pulling them out of every narrative corner. They are not so good at keeping their writing believable – it often seems on the verge of being unintentionally funny: “If Ari suspected that there was a giant, vulnerable bird cooped up, who knew what he might get up to?” “Jack shook his head, remembering kamikaze insects that had been drawn toward him, only to die upon touching his skin.” There are some intentionally funny passages, too, but by and large, The Mystery is an adventure, complete with a talking death mask, issues involving the twins’ mother and father (as well as Grandma X), a painting of a woman in yellow, characters named Rodeo Dave and Zebediah, a macaw that talks in nautical phrases, and a meaningless quatrain that – as usual with meaningless quatrains in books like this – turns out to be very important indeed. The twins eventually figure out what they are looking for, and find it, and then things get really complicated as The Evil reemerges in a way that surprises Jack and Jaide but probably will not surprise readers – it is a pretty obvious twist. A revelation about the generalized importance of twins in the Troubletwisters world is the main plot advance here, given that the defeat of The Evil – yet again – is scarcely unexpected. The Troubletwisters series is light reading, despite its occasional moments of drama, and preteens who enjoyed the first two books will not be disappointed in this third entry.
The Flame in the Mist is a more-intense good-vs.-evil story, and is something of a rarity in modern preteen fantasy adventures because it is a standalone novel rather than the first of a series (although it is certainly possible that future books could be set in the same world if this one is successful). This is Kit Grindstaff’s debut novel, and it is a remarkably sure-handed one in navigating the largely familiar territory of sort-of-alternative sort-of-history. Set in a land that somewhat resembles medieval England, the book is the story of Jemma Agromond, who somehow knows she is not really an Agromond, that being the name belonging to a vicious family that rules Anglavia and keeps the land shrouded in mist, and in which the mother wears a perfume called Eau de Magot. Jemma’s red hair is an obvious symbol of fire or light to burn away the mist, eventually, and there is never the slightest doubt about how evil the Agromonds are: an early scene has them using a death chant to evoke a spirit that will keep light away and force everyone to live in darkness. So the book’s theme is quite explicit and straightforward from the start. So are many of the accoutrements of Jemma’s adventures: ghosts, an ancient prophecy that she must fulfill, a mysterious book, a close friend and helper, and animal companions. Actually, the animals are not typical for a story such as this: they are rats – golden ones, to be sure, and telepathic, but still, they are rats, and as such are rarely cast in heroic roles. This casting-against-type may be why they turn out to be some of the strongest and most interesting characters in the book (weasels, on the other hand, are decidedly evil here). Despite the sort-of-medieval setting, the dialogue here is entirely modern, with some attempt to set “country” characters apart by giving them a kind of “rural-speak.” For example: “Been watchin’ yer fer years, haven’t I, while you was doin’ yer fetchin’ an’ carryin’ in the kitchen an’ stables. You never saw me, ’cause I kep’ hid to make sure you wouldn’t.” The speech of all the characters can be awkward, with passages such as, “‘Me no kill,’ he said, ‘only find what fall off crag.’” And many elements of the book are far from surprising, such as Jemma’s discoveries about her real family, including the fact that she has (or had) a brother, and the way Jemma’s dreams reveal reality to her. Grindstaff’s authorial inexperience shows from time to time, as in a scene during a wide-ranging search by multiple people in which the only two characters with information important to Jemma happen to stop precisely within earshot of her current hiding place and happen to discuss exactly what she needs to know to advance the plot. There is also a hilariously inapt scene in which Jemma discovers news clippings (which are barely plausible), one of which contains a thoroughly incongruous reference to “a family spokesperson” (so silly in this “medievalism and magic” context as to be laugh-out-loud ridiculous). In general, Grindstaff seems less interested in reaching beyond her novel’s genre than in exploring it thoroughly – which means that The Flame in the Mist will be of interest to young readers who enjoy fantasy adventures in a sort-of-medieval setting but will scarcely attract others. The light-vs.-dark theme is at times overdone: “Here, we call [today] Sunday, in honor of the sun, the bringer of light and life. ‘Mord’ is everything opposite to that: darkness, and death. Before Mordrake Agromond, there was no Mord-day. Only Sunday. We have always refused to call it otherwise.” And the final confrontation, which Grindstaff handles well, has the inevitable effect of setting something mystical and light against something mystical and dark, with the light, of course, finally triumphant. The ending of The Flame in the Mist is no surprise, and neither are many of the individual events in it, but because the book as a whole has a well-told story and some attractive characters, both human and animal, genre fans will certainly enjoy it.
Wolf: Italian Serenade; Puccini: Crisantemi; Verdi: Quartet; Turina: La oración del torero; Piazzolla: Four, for Tango; Paganini: Capricci, Op. 1, Nos. 6 and 24. Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton, violins; Paul Cassidy, viola; Jacqueline Thomas, cello). Chandos. $18.99.
Kenneth Fuchs: String Quartet No. 5, “American”; Falling Canons—Seven Movements for Piano; Falling Trio. Delray String Quartet (Mei Mei Luo and Tomas Cotik, violins; Richard Fleischman, viola; Claudio Jaffé, cello); Christopher O’Riley, piano; Trio21 (Jeffrey Biegel, piano; Kinga Augustyn, violin; Robert deMaine, cello). Naxos. $9.99.
Jörg Widmann: Violin Concerto; Antiphon for Orchestral Groups; Insel der Sirenen for Solo Violin and 19 Strings. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding. Ondine. $16.99.
Vagn Holmboe: Concerto for Viola; Concerto No. 2 for Violin; Concerto for Orchestra. Lars Anders Tomter, viola; Erik Heide, violin; Norrköping Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dima Slobodeniouk. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).
Ernest John Moeran: Cello Concerto; Serenade in G; Lonely Waters; Whythorne’s Shadow. Guy Johnston, cello; Rebecca Coffey, soprano; Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
The very varied works on these fine CDs – some familiar, many quite unfamiliar – showcase the contrasting communicative power of small (chamber) groups with that of soloists set against larger (orchestral) ensembles. The new Brodsky Quartet CD for Chandos, entitled “In the South” in an attempt to establish connection among pieces that are really very different in tone, style and intent, is a beautifully played, warm and heartfelt hour-plus of music that speaks sometimes to its composers’ strengths and sometimes to byways in their thinking. Hugo Wolf’s well-known Italian Serenade is lovely here and seems all too short, while Astor Piazzolla’s Four, for Tango, one of his better-known works, nicely blends the dance with a grander canvas. Joaquín Turina’s La oración del torero is less-known but is quite effective here in its singing style and emotive gestures, while the première recording of string-quartet versions of two famous Paganini Capricci (arranged by violist Paul Cassidy) is every bit as much a showcase as one could wish – and the music sounds deeper and more involving, less surface-level virtuosic than in the original solo-violin version. And then there are the instrumental pieces by opera composers who barely tipped their creativity into the quartet medium: Puccini’s lovely Crisantemi, whose evocative expressiveness will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the composer’s operas, and Verdi’s early and very effectively structured Quartet – the longest piece on this CD – which does not sound like the composer’s operatic productions but which shows he had considerable skill as a craftsman, if not perhaps very much creative individuality, in purely instrumental music. The CD as a whole is very pleasant if not particularly challenging listening, especially notable for the Brodsky’s Quartet’s expressive and beautifully balanced playing.
The music of Kenneth Fuchs (born 1956) is considerably more modern, of course, but Fuchs is so expert a composer that even the more-challenging aspects of his work – for both players and listeners – seem to flow logically from his concepts rather than to be created out of a misplaced sense of “necessary modernity.” Two of the works on the new Naxos CD trace to the same source: Fuchs’ Falling Man, written for baritone and orchestra in the aftermath of the September 11, 2011 terrorist mass murders in New York City. Falling Canons takes the main theme of Falling Man through a series of elegant and rigorous movements for solo piano, which Christopher O’Riley handles with sensitivity and just the right amount of virtuoso display – which is to say, not too much. Falling Trio uses the same principal theme for a one-movement work that, like Falling Canons, has seven parts – in this case, seven variations, all of them expertly developed and very well played by Trio21. As for String Quartet No. 5, “American,” it is a larger-scale work than either of the others, but resembles them in one key way: it too is based on a single theme, which Fuchs adapts, arranges, tosses about and develops in a series of clever and often elegant ways through four movements lasting nearly half an hour. The Delray String Quartet plays the work with verve and considerable sensitivity, and this CD as a whole shows why Fuchs’ music is some of the most popular worldwide among performers and audiences interested in modern American composers.
There is a mixture of chamber-like and full-orchestra music by Jörg Widmann (born 1973) on what Ondine says is the first CD release devoted entirely to this composer’s works. Widmann, a clarinetist, has written some interesting chamber music in a series of string quartets, one of which includes a soprano voice, and some unusual orchestral music that interrelates vocal forms and orchestral ensembles. The pieces on this CD, though, are more straightforward, and although they are well-constructed, they suffer from a common contrivance among modern composers in being somewhat self-consciously accretive and sonically experimental. The Violin Concerto (2007) is the most traditional piece here, and the longest, and it stands up quite well in its genre, thanks in large part to the intensity and enthusiasm with which it is performed by Christian Tetzlaff and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding. Widmann shows that he has a firm command of orchestral forces and a good sense of ways to balance soloist against orchestra, highlighting one or the other. But the concerto, although not devoid of ideas, is not exactly brimming over with them, either – it is interesting enough, but not particularly memorable. Insel der Sirenen (1997) is more intriguing: it too sets the solo violin against an ensemble, but the smaller instrumental grouping here, and the fact that it consists entirely of strings, combine to inspire Widmann to greater creativity both thematically and in the sound of the instruments – what could be monochromatic comes across as quite nicely varied, and this piece, which lasts just 12 minutes, does not overstay its welcome. The third work on this CD, Antiphon (2007/08), shows how well Widmann can balance orchestral elements and instrumental sections, playing them off against each other or combining them in interesting ways. A sort of short concerto for orchestra (lasting about 19 minutes), Antiphon is formulaic in some ways but hangs together well as a whole, requiring skill in performance reflecting Widmann’s care in constructing it.
The Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) wrote an even shorter Concerto for Orchestra, which lasts just 13 minutes and was never even performed before being recorded for Dacapo’s new SACD of Holmboe’s music. A very youthful work, dating to 1929, it is heavy on brass and percussion and is not particularly distinctive harmonically or thematically, nor does it point clearly toward Holmboe’s mature style; it is thus more a curiosity than a substantial addition to the repertoire. It does show, however, that even at this age, Holmboe had the ability to produce effective orchestral music that would sound good while giving performers something of a workout. For that reason alone, it is an attractive work to hear. The much more significant pieces on this SACD have far greater depth and are considerably more mature, although – oddly enough – neither has been recorded before: Concerto No. 2 for Violin dates to 1979 and Concerto for Viola to 1992. Holmboe went through a wide variety of influences in his compositional life, from Sibelius and Bartók to Nielsen, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, and was particularly distinguished as a symphonist, producing 13 symphonies between 1927 and 1994. The second of his violin concertos was written more than 40 years after the first, and it is notably free of experimental or modernistic tendencies, being primarily tonal and influenced by folk music, as are many of Holmboe’s works. Erik Heide plays it with relish, and gets fine support from the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under Dima Slobodeniouk. The ensemble does a first-rate job backing up Lars Anders Tomter as well, and Tomter handles the viola concerto with real flair. It is probably inevitable to see any 20th-century concerto for this instrument through the lens of the two preeminent ones – by Bartók and Walton – and while Holmboe’s does not quite measure up to those, it does take advantage of the viola’s warmth and singing abilities, coupled with its virtuosic potential, to showcase the instrument effectively. Holmboe is a composer who is not particularly well-known outside Scandinavia but whose musical acquaintance is well worth making.
So is that of the Anglo-Irish Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950), another composer strongly influenced by folk music, whose flair for melodic invention and firm handling of scoring produced some particularly interesting works in the mid-20th century. Naxos’ new CD features a warm, singing rendition of the Cello Concerto of 1945, with lovely playing by Guy Johnston and excellent support from the Ulster Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta – who is proving highly adept at conducting orchestras worldwide. This concerto, inspired by Moeran’s not-always-happy marriage to cellist Peers Coetmore, is expressive without being overly sentimental, virtuosic without being overbearing, and deserves more-frequent performance. So does Serenade in G, heard here in the original, eight-movement version from 1948. A work that recalls Baroque suites in its sequencing of dance movements, including some distinctly old-fashioned ones, the serenade is very well scored and somewhat weightier than its title might indicate. Also on the CD are two touching and emotive pieces from 1931: Lonely Waters, a rhapsody in which the orchestra is joined at the end, to fine effect, by lines of melancholy poetry sung by soprano Rebekah Coffey, and Whythorne’s Shadow, which reaches back even beyond the Baroque, to Elizabethan madrigals, for a short and warm fantasy. Moeran was deemed rather old-fashioned in his time because of his folk-music interests and some superficial musical parallels to Delius, Ireland and Vaughan Williams, but his music bears re-hearing and reconsideration for its fine structure and warmly lyrical qualities – which Falletta’s performances fully explore.
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6. Berner Symphonieorchester conducted by Mario Venzago. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4. Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3; Symphonic Dances. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.
Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Symphony No. 1; Impressions from the Countryside. Czech National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $9.99.
Mario Venzago continues to produce Bruckner recordings that are absolutely astonishing in their sound, their revelations about the composer, their clarity, and their overall brilliance of interpretation. But this is not to say they will be to everyone’s taste – although any listener who loves Bruckner will surely want to hear them, if not necessarily to make them his or her first choice in a collection. Venzago is using a series of orchestras, each with its own unique sound, for this Bruckner cycle, trying to match the orchestral sonority to each symphony. And he has revisited each symphony as if it is an entirely new score, discovering in Bruckner far more of Schubert and even of Haydn than of, say, Mahler. There is transparency and clarity to Venzago’s Bruckner that no other conductor has committed to disc. Venzago’s readings also include near-constant rubato, extended silences, agogic accents and frequently faster-than-usual tempos, all adding up to an altogether personal approach to this music that is so different from “typical” Bruckner as to come as a genuine shock. This is even more apparent in Symphony No. 3 than in some of Venzago’s earlier recordings for CPO (previous releases have included Nos. 0, 1, 2, 4 and 7). No. 3 is the gigantic “Wagner” symphony, but not for Venzago, who uses the sparest version of the work (from 1889) and emphasizes not its broad themes and “heavy” scoring but, instead, its delicacy, its inner voices, its carefully building climaxes, and its structural use of triplet-vs.-duple meter (a Bruckner signature that is extensively used for the first time in this symphony). It is truly amazing to hear a Bruckner Third that sounds light, almost airy in spots, and that moves propulsively rather than ploddingly, practically skipping along in spots – all without losing any weightiness. There is something magical about the way Venzago forms this work, or transforms it, somehow making it far less “Brucknerian” than listeners will expect while at the same time keeping it truer to the composer’s intentions than do conductors who emphasize cathedral-like sonorities above all. This is a remarkable performance that takes some getting used to, and is well worth the multiple hearings needed to appreciate just how different from the norm it is. Venzago’s Sixth is not quite as big an initial shock or quite as pleasant a surprise, probably because there is only a single version of this symphony and it has been played in many different ways – although it is not performed as often as other Bruckner symphonies. “Why not?” is a reasonable question in light of Venzago’s reading, which thoroughly explores the work’s oddities (an atypical non-tremolo opening and near-themeless Scherzo, for example), shows full understanding of Bruckner’s use of the Phrygian mode that only at the end of the work turns into A major, and presents the symphony as a cohesive whole that, far from lurching about (as it seems to do in some performances), builds carefully and coherently from start to finish. Venzago has gone beyond studying Bruckner to, in some sense, absorbing him, connecting with Bruckner’s music and form of expressiveness so thoroughly that even when Venzago makes interpretative choices that are highly atypical, there is no way to gainsay them. Hearing these performances leads to a series of “why didn’t I hear it that way before?” moments, and they are as exhilarating as they are puzzling and even, at times, destabilizing.
There is no such discomfort in the Bruckner Fourth performance by the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst. This is a pleasant, straightforward and unchallenging reading, very well played and very much in the “massiveness” tradition that either bedevils Bruckner or is entirely appropriate for his music – depending on one’s point of view. Many orchestras perform Bruckner in religious settings, and certainly the composer’s grand sonorities and overblown orchestration (if one does not take the Venzago “transparency” approach) fit well in a cathedral or, as is the case with this DVD, a monastery (St. Florian’s in Austria, where Bruckner was organist for a time). There are many iterations of Bruckner’s Fourth, and Welser-Möst uses Benjamin Korstvedt’s 2004 edition of the 1888 version – a choice that differs from most (conductors generally prefer the 1878/80 version) but is scarcely controversial and will not be of major concern to most listeners. Welser-Möst plays into the sonic environment of the monastery, seeking rich tone, overwhelming climaxes, and an overall grandeur that makes the symphony seem less “Romantic” (Bruckner’s own title for it) than gigantic. The DVD also benefits or suffers (again, depending on one’s viewpoint) from its visuals, which can be quite striking in the hands of director Brian Large but which are frequently distractions from the music, as they would not have been for the audience at the September 2012 performance where this DVD was recorded. There is nothing troubling and nothing revelatory in this Bruckner Fourth, a (+++) recording that will please those who want to see the beauties of St. Florian’s and hear the fine playing of the Cleveland Orchestra but that sheds no new light on the music, which it presents in a very traditional way.
The Detroit Symphony’s new Naxos recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 is also fairly traditional, but it has some significant pluses in Leonard Slatkin’s willingness to strive for clarity as well as expressiveness. There is considerable warmth here – although the orchestra’s strings are not really deeply mellifluous enough for Rachmaninoff – and there is also fine attention to the symphony’s rhythmic vitality, on which Slatkin relies again and again in moving the music forward from one height to the next. Slatkin manages to avoid the “swooning” sounds that Rachmaninoff often seems to provoke in his grandly Romantic themes, but at the expense of making some of those themes – such as the second theme of the finale – less emotionally fulfilling than they can be. This is a good performance and a satisfying one on many levels, but it feels as if it somewhat lacks intensity and commitment: there is a sense of holding back at the most dramatic and involving parts of the symphony, which is better than wallowing in them but in this case seems to have gone a bit too far in the opposite direction. Also on this (+++) CD are the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff’s last work, and here too there is somewhat more restraint than necessary, especially in the first section, which can stride and stamp with an almost eerie insistency but in this performance seems altogether too mild. The orchestra plays quite well but not very idiomatically, and the overall impression of the disc is of less-than-full commitment to the music and less-than-intense involvement in it.
There is no question about the involvement of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra under Marek Štilec in the music of Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900) on another new Naxos CD: here the performers are entirely in command of the music and play it with sure strength and understanding. This is nevertheless a (+++) CD for the simple reason that the music itself is less than compelling. Fibich’s Symphony No. 1 is a nicely constructed work possessing very little originality thematically, harmonically or rhythmically – it sounds a bit like warmed-over Schumann. There are many perfectly serviceable late-19th-century symphonies that have little original to say. Fibich’s First, finished in 1883, has far less originality than the first symphony of his countryman Dvořák, even though Dvořák’s work (“The Bells of Zlonice”) was written 18 years earlier and is filled with imperfections that the composer never had a chance to fix. There are two later Fibich symphonies that will presumably appear later in this series of his orchestral music and contain more that is of interest. As is, the more-involving work on this CD is Impressions from the Countryside, a suite that dates to 1897/98 and contains some lovely, evocative music as well as some very well-orchestrated folk dances. It is a nationalistic work in a way (and was influential with later Czech composers), but what listeners will notice first and foremost is that it is well-conceived, nicely planned and offers deeper feelings for the composer’s homeland than might be expected in an impressionistic piece with strong folk elements. Hopefully later volumes in the Fibich series will be as well-played as this one and will show more-consistent strength in the music of this relatively little-known composer, who never attained the fame or popularity of either Dvořák or his other contemporary countryman, Smetana.
May 09, 2013
Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat—The Art of Dr. Seuss. By Caroline M. Smith. Images compiled and edited by William W. Dreyer, Michael Reagan and Robert Chase Jr. The Chase Group/Andrews McMeel. $75.
The Robot Book. By Heather Brown. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Good books age well. The best ones do not seem to age at all. The books of Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) show every evidence of being ageless, and their author is as beloved now, more than 20 years after his death, as he was in life. He is also known these days as a more fully-formed human being, not “merely” an author of children’s books (not that there is anything “mere” about that). Ever since The Seven Lady Godivas became widely available in 1987 and showed a slightly risqué side to the good doctor, ever since The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss revealed sculptures, paintings and other “serious” (or at least gallery-worthy) Seuss art in 1995, it has become increasingly clear that Dr. Seuss (pronounced, incidentally, the German way, “Zoyce,” not “Soose”) was more than the sum of his kids’ books, no matter how marvelous those are. And so, in the spirit of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz (“pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”), Caroline M. Smith, William W. Dreyer, Michael Reagan and Robert Chase Jr. have made it possible for readers to pay considerable attention to Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat. This is a revised and updated edition of a book originally titled, less elegantly, Secrets of the Deep, and although there is in fact a certain amount of depth here, it is the sort of depth into which readers will be delighted to plunge. It has all the warmth, sparkle and beauty of a dive into a clear sunlit ocean.
Well, okay, maybe it isn’t quite that poetic, but my goodness, Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat is fun! Much of the enjoyment is in the form of sheer delight at viewing and re-viewing art that adults will remember loving as kids – and showing to their kids and expecting their kids to show to theirs. In addition, there are the Seussian marvels that were created before the first book for children, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) – a book rejected by 27 publishers, incidentally. The earlier work, in advertising, calendars and elsewhere, is filled with images that would later become iconic. Seeing them in their original forms is an absolutely wondrous experience – a retrospective one, to be sure, yet one filled with the deliciousness of the newly discovered, since these early ads and personal drawings and paintings have never been widely disseminated. Here you can see The Rape of the Sabine Women, a 1930 creation for The Dartmouth Club and a precursor of The Seven Lady Godivas (1939). Here are the original 1928 ads for “Flit,” an insecticide; drawings for Standard Oil (that is, Esso, which became Exxon, and which owned – among many other things – the insecticide Flit); amazing illustrations for Life and Judge magazines; and a series of World War II editorial cartoons that, in some cases, have surprising continuing relevance – one has Uncle Sam using a “mental insecticide” to get rid of the “racial prejudice bug” in people’s heads. Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat is only partially chronological, tracing much of what Seuss (it is hard to think of him as Geisel) created over the years while cleverly interspersing many of the older drawings with later ones for which they were clearly prototypes (Horton the elephant, for example, was one of Seuss’s earliest creations, although not named until much later). Also scattered about the book are comments by Seuss and writing by him that readers are unlikely ever to have seen, such as a November 17, 1957 article for The New York Review of Books. Smith, Dreyer, Reagan and Chase have done a superb job with Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat by the simple-seeming expedient of stepping back and not appearing to have much to do with the book. Yet this is considerably harder than it looks. Clearly a lot of work and thought went into becoming so unobtrusive – making it seem as if all the Seussian drawings and paintings and writing just kind of sit there, flowing wonderfully from page to page, with minimal connective copy and very little that forces the reader to progress from one section to the next. The result of this unobtrusiveness is absolutely first-rate: a coffee-table book (for a sturdy coffee table: this tome is quite heavy) that will be picked up again and again, time after time and year after year, by the many, many, many kids and former kids who have delighted in Dr. Seuss and been delighted by him. One Seuss quotation in the book says it all, or almost all: “I don’t write for children – I write for people.” The only thing to add is that he drew and sculpted for people, too. Lots of people. Now and as far into the future as it is reasonably possible to see.
Book concepts for kids do change, of course, and while it is inarguably true to say of Dr. Seuss that we shall never see his like again, it is also inarguable that other authors, other creators, will produce fascinating works for children in forms that not even Dr. Seuss, in his prime, captured. Take, for example, the immensely clever The Robot Book by Heather Brown. In a mere 12 heavy-cardboard pages, with texts even more minimal than those in Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat – indeed, so minimized that they almost fade into nonexistence – Brown incorporates the Seussian notion of plastic arts (he was a fine sculptor, bringing to three-dimensional life a number of the odd characters he drew) into a book that is 100% for children but that draws for some of its charm on, yes, The Wizard of Oz. Brown’s The Robot Book harks back – not overtly, but in a way that all parents will recognize – to the Tin Man’s plea for a heart, in both the movie and the L. Frank Baum book from which it was made. The visual and tactile elements in The Robot Book are so involving that even the youngest children will be absolutely entranced. Parents will, too: the book is participatory, not at all passive, and will stimulate kids’ cognitive abilities as well as their physical ones. Gorgeously created in three-dimensional, multicolored glory, Brown’s book takes children through a robot’s body, part by part, with every page having something to lift, turn, move or rotate. The super-sturdy pages show a robot’s gears, nuts and bolts, connectors and more – and everything slides up and down, moves back and forth, rotates, or otherwise invites kids to a hands-on delight. But that is not all: the book has a message, one that is simple and truly heartfelt. For Brown explains that, despite all the wondrous things on the outside of the robot, it is what’s inside that really counts – and the final page displays the robot’s heart, within which are three gears (one large and two small) that interlock, moving together as children turn any one of them. This is a book that young kids will want to explore again and again – and it is made strongly enough so they can do just that. Well crafted, well thought out and just, well, delightful, it makes a wonderful gift for any child who is just waking up to motor abilities and story comprehension. It is about as different from the works of Dr. Seuss as it is possible to be, but it springs from the same sense of wonder, of delight, of “wow!” that the good doctor’s books produced, in very different ways, for so many years.
The Fifth Wave. By Rick Yancey. Putnam. $18.99.
The difference between “highly anticipated” and “tremendously hyped” is largely a matter of who is doing the talking. Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave, a dystopic science-fiction novel for teens, is already optioned as a movie and has managed to generate enough advance publicity so that many people will regard it as a must-read, if only to figure out what all the fuss is about.
That is good news for Yancey, his publisher and his publicists, but not so good for readers, who will quickly discover that although The Fifth Wave is well put together and hits all the right buttons for its primary genre, it is ultimately not anything particularly special. The “waves” are forms of attack by evil aliens (oh, that’s original) that, at the book’s start, have already claimed the life of the mother of the book’s protagonist, 16-year-old Cassie. Soon Cassie’s father will die, too (this is not much of a spoiler; it is obvious from the start), and Cassie will embark on a quest to find her little brother, who has been taken away – apparently by military operatives who are bringing children to a place safe from The Others (the aliens), but maybe for something more sinister, since one of the rules of Yancey’s post-apocalyptic world is to trust no one (oh, that’s original).
So the book becomes Cassie’s quest (oh, that’s original) to find her younger brother and figure out what The Others are up to and why they have, like, destroyed humanity. And eventually, she happens to have a chance to confront and hear the story not from a regional leader of The Others, not from a leader of The Others in charge of the entire country, not from one from The Others ruling the hemisphere, but from the Ultimate Supreme No. 1 Top Head of Everything Evil, who has nothing better to do than to chat with a teenage girl and tell her what’s going on (oh, that’s original).
Cassie narrates most of the book; her little brother, Sammy, who is about five years old, narrates sometimes, too, although “narrates” is an exaggeration – he mostly just describes what he is seeing, which makes sense given his age but also makes dull reading. Cassie herself is rather dull, too, and also somewhat superficial. And she has the usual love interest, another rather dull character (named Evan) whom Cassie is not sure she can trust (oh, that’s original) and who turns out to be – well, that would be a spoiler, but let’s just say the eventual revelation is not much of a surprise.
The Fifth Wave is the start of a series, which will be all about survival and – want to bet? – the eventual triumph of Earthlings, who will at the end move toward building a new and better world (oh, that will be original). Much of the book is slower-paced than readers will likely expect, spending time setting scenes and creating background that will presumably be referred to again in later installments; as a result, it is longer than it needs to be to tell the story (by about one-third). In some ways, the most interesting character in the book is not Cassie but Ben, a 17-year-old football star on whom Cassie once had a crush (oh, that’s original). Ben is now trained as a soldier, and while sections describing his training are formulaic, he himself seems a more fully formed character than Cassie, who is far too flippant for the circumstances – although Yancey presumably intends her “voice” in the early part of the book to reflect immaturity, since she does seem somewhat more in tune with the horrendous reality around her as time goes on. Still, at a crucial point near the end of the book, amid death and near-death and all sorts of intensity, Cassie is busy being jealous of another girl’s prettiness and “microscopic pores.” Ugh.
The pluses of The Fifth Wave lie in some of the things Yancey does not do. For instance, he does not show The Others for quite some time – one plot point that does work is that even though 95% of Earth’s population has been destroyed, the survivors are not quite sure what has done this to them. Another plus is that Yancey lets readers know what the first four “waves” were without dwelling on them to such an extent as to distract attention from the story: Wave 1 was an electromagnetic pulse that instantly rendered machines useless; Wave 2 was a set of coordinated tsunamis; Wave 3 was a deadly bird-borne plague; Wave 4 was attack by humans who had been implanted with alien intelligence as fetuses.
And another plus, at least for marketability, is that The Fifth Wave actually straddles genres, being not only SF dystopia but also romance and quest tale; readers get several plots for the price of one, even if the plots themselves are often unsurprising and tend to have elements that strain credulity rather more than necessary.
The Fifth Wave is being heavily promoted in two ways: as a teen read akin to The Hunger Games (which, however, is a more-focused trilogy with a much better central character) and as a kind of crossover that will appeal to older teens and even adults, as did the Harry Potter books (forget it). Really, what The Fifth Wave offers is fast pacing in some of its scenes, reasonably good dialogue, consistent writing, a multiple-points-of-view structure, and a number of different characters who can easily be typecast for movie purposes. Indeed, it seems to be written with a future screenplay in mind – you can almost see the point-of-view shifts as they will look on screen. This is by no means a bad book, but it is a very formulaic one – formulaic in multiple ways, given its multiplicity of characters and plot elements. It certainly has big-screen potential, but on the inner screen of readers’ minds, it will appeal almost entirely to younger teens who have not already read umpteen dystopic/romantic/futuristic/alien-invasion novels and who will therefore deem it far more original than it actually is.
Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution. By Nathaniel Philbrick. Viking. $32.95.
As a nation, the United States tends not to be very inwardly focused or very past-oriented. It is both a strength and a weakness of the national character to spend so much time looking ahead and beyond – an approach that either favors innovation or promotes superficiality, depending on who is discussing it. Historians such as Nathaniel Philbrick therefore doom themselves to serious consideration by only a small portion of the population at large, even when writing books that are not intended as academic exercises. Philbrick, who has explored matters ranging from Mayflower to the real-life events that inspired Moby-Dick (and has also written a book about Moby-Dick itself), turns in Bunker Hill to a seminal engagement of the American Revolution – and produces yet another meticulously researched, carefully written foray into the early days of the United States…and the days before there was a United States.
The names that even history-phobic Americans know about the Revolutionary War certainly make their appearances here: George Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock. But at the center of Bunker Hill is someone less known today: Joseph Warren, a 33-year-old physician who was the person largely responsible for fomenting rebellion and fanning its flames when they gave every indication of flickering out. Philbrick begins by introducing modern readers to a Boston that was almost unimaginably different from the great city of modern times: a one-square-mile town of 15,000 people, little more than an island connected to the mainland. Unsurprisingly, Philbrick opens with the Boston Tea Party, but in novelistic and dramatic fashion, he handles it as backdrop to a confrontation in the Old South Meeting House at which a loyalist warns Josiah Quincy Jr. against “intemperate language” and the 31-year-old Quincy – who was dying of tuberculosis – responds, in the sort of verbiage that now sounds elegant and high-flying but was then simply the discourse of educated men, “If the old gentleman on the floor intends, by his warning to ‘the young man in the gallery’ to utter only a friendly voice in the spirit of paternal advice, I thank him. If his object be to terrify and intimidate, I despise him.”
The scene portends more than the coming confrontations between loyalists and patriots. It sets up the very style of Bunker Hill, as Philbrick not only uses primary sources to excellent effect but also absorbs some of the rhetorical flourishes of the 18th century and adapts them into a style for the 21st. Thus: “In the fall Warren had worked to soothe the outrage of the country people. By the spring, he was desperately attempting to inject some life into what had become a dangerously listless Provincial Congress. …What [Warren’s medical apprentice William] Eustis and other patriots took to be Warren’s natural and laudatory adjustment to the increasingly perilous times was seen by loyalists as part of a highly calculated strategy.” Again and again, Philbrick personalizes the political maneuverings and the actual skirmishes and battles of the early days of the American Revolution, drawing portraits both intellectual and physical of the primary players in the drama: “They were a most unlikely pair. [William] Heath was fat and bald. Warren was tallish and handsome, his hair pinned up on the sides of his head in stylish horizontal rolls. There is no mention of Heath taking any extraordinary risks that day, but Warren was, according to one contemporary, ‘perhaps the most active man in the field.’”
And Warren was as active in political circles – and rabble-rousing – as in military confrontations. His pronouncements were scarcely moderate, as in one letter he wrote for widespread distribution, seeking recruits for the provincial army. “‘Our all is at stake,’ he wrote. ‘Death and devastation are the instant consequences of delay. Every moment is infinitely precious. An hour lost may deluge your country in blood, and entail perpetual slavery upon the few of your posterity who may survive the carnage.’” The flowing and elegant language in which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written are thrown into high relief and greater clarity by Philbrick’s repeated use of the verbiage of Warren and others, revealing that the late 18th century was a time in which learned British subjects thought, spoke and wrote with an impressive elegance long since lost in the English of most of their descendants.
Warren looms so large in Philbrick’s narrative that the actual Battle of Bunker Hill – in which Warren was killed – nearly brings Bunker Hill to a screeching halt. It had, after all, been Warren who had enlisted Paul Revere and William Dawes to spread the word of the British approach to Concord – and had participated in the Battles of Lexington and Concord as well as that of Bunker Hill. Warren had become president of the revolutionary Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and his death was a significant blow to the rebellious colonists – although by then, the impetus toward freedom of the American colonies from England had become unstoppable. This does not mean it was easily won – the American Revolution was a six-year war, as modern Americans often do not realize, and even though it ended in 1781, the Treaty of Paris was not signed until 1783, eight years after hostilities began. But by the time of Warren’s death a few days after his 34th birthday, the path to the future was becoming clear.
It was Washington who was left to assemble the militiamen of Warren’s command into an army that would withstand the British, and it is to Washington and other well-known figures of the time that Philbrick turns his attention after Warren’s death. This is, of course, a matter of historical necessity, but Bunker Hill becomes less interesting when it happens. And Philbrick knows this: his narrative continues for only another 60-some pages, with the over-100-page balance of the book devoted to extended and somewhat overdone notes, a very extensive bibliography, and an index. Near the end of the narrative portion of Bunker Hill, Philbrick quotes Thomas Paine’s famous words from Common Sense, “The birthday of a new world is at hand.” This was hyperbole, but Philbrick does his best to show in what way the words were true for the fledgling United States. It is a shame that so few 21st-century residents of the country are aware of the role played by patriots such as Joseph Warren in making their modern way of life possible.
The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. By Gary Greenberg, Ph.D. Blue Rider Press. $28.95.
The troubles a book can cause! No, not this book, but the book about which this book is written: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM for short – the primary encyclopedic explanatory tool codifying mental illnesses. Periodically revised to incorporate new clinical research and understanding of mental illness, DSM was “DSM-I” at its first incarnation in 1952 and “DSM-IV” as of 1994 (with some textual updating in 2000). But a funny thing happened in the process of turning it into DSM-5, now identified with an Arabic rather than Roman numeral – or a very unfunny thing. The manual became a lightning rod for criticism by an increasing number of mental-health practitioners, some genuinely concerned and some rabble-rousing. One of the major critics is Gary Greenberg, a therapist in New London, Connecticut. The Book of Woe is Greenberg’s often-shrill 400-page attack on the DSM, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and, foundationally, the whole notion of “official” diagnosis (and therefore treatment) of mental disorders.
A book like this would be a limited-interest academic or professional exercise if the underlying subject matter did not have such wide implications. Modern therapists sometimes forget that Sigmund Freud, a physician, saw psychoanalysis as a branch of medicine and tried throughout his long career to place it on the same plane as the study of physical illness – without success. Indeed, it was not uncommon for many decades during and after Freud’s life to have physicians who treated the body look down upon those treating the mind as witch doctors of a sort, as if illnesses not susceptible of direct laboratory measurement must be less “real” than those with readily confirmable diagnoses. In fact, critics of the DSM have long called the manual’s validity into question by saying that it does not draw on any agreed-upon scientific model of mental disorder and that it is unreliable because so many different diagnoses share overlapping criteria – making the assignment of a specific diagnosis to a particular patient a matter of the therapist’s personal preference or bias.
That is a reasonable concern. And critics have also pointed to changes in the DSM associated with differing societal attitudes as undermining its validity. Everyone would agree that cancer is a disease (a set of diseases, actually), but the DSM designated homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973 and did not acknowledge Asperger’s as one until 1994 – only to fold Asperger’s into the general diagnosis of autism in the preparation of DSM-V.
Greenberg expands on these arguments, frequently dramatically, and often in rather overdone language that strives mightily to be “popular” and succeeds only in sounding rather silly, as in the matter of pedophiles. “Our destination is a meeting of lawyers. The royal fuckup was the kind that only they could love, an opportunity buried deep in the interstices of the DSM text, ready to be excavated and exploited – in this case by prosecutors who, aided by psychiatrists, can use it to keep certain sex offenders locked up well beyond the end of their sentences, indefinitely or maybe forever.” Oh yes, Greenberg practically sees the DSM and APA as the fount of all sorts of evil in modern life. His discussion of sex offenders and the diagnosis of pedophilia is typical of his handling of the issues in this book. “[A]s any scandal-scarred politician will tell you, vigorous defenses against charges of turpitude are mostly self-defeating. If you run an organization of healing professionals, you don’t want to have to prove that your members aren’t really human missiles intent on blasting us all into a secular humanist hell. …[S]tarting in 2000, a person who had sex with a child was ipso facto mentally ill. Now, that may seem obvious to you. But that’s only because of how reflexively we attribute all our peccadilloes and quirks (or, more likely, those of other people) to mental rather than moral defect.” And so on.
Leave aside the flip reference to “peccadilloes” in connection with the sexual abuse of children, and it turns out that Greenberg makes a good point here, as he does in many places in The Book of Woe: there is a difference between criminality and diagnosis of mental illness, even if Greenberg gets to that valid statement with deliberately lurid language. But The Book of Woe often seems designed more to shock and dismay the reader than to engage in serious issues of societal consequence. The APA, Greenberg suggests, is corrupt, or at the very least purchasable, needing the funds generated by the DSM to maintain itself in light of a decrease in revenue from the pharmaceutical industry. Psychiatric treatment has inherent flaws in the way it is practiced, he says, attacking Freud’s underlying notion of a medical basis for mental-health issues without mentioning the founder of the field by name: “[T]he idea that gives psychiatry the power to name our pain in the first place – that the mind can be treated like the body, that it is no more or less than what the brain does, that it can be carved at its joints like a diseased liver – is perhaps the most important of all. It reflects what is best about us: our desire to understand ourselves and each other, to use knowledge to relieve suffering. …It also reflects what is worst – the desire to control, to manipulate, to turn others’ vulnerabilities to advantage.”
Therefore, Greenberg argues, the flawed DSM should be replaced with….umm, what? Well….Greenberg has no suggestions here – he tears down but does not build up. And it vitiates the power of his arguments – some of which are powerful – to realize that while he sees the flaws in the DSM, he does not see an alternative to it. Yet this is extremely important, because the whole point of the DSM is to provide diagnoses on the basis of which insurance claims are processed, medical information is placed in patient records (often permanently), data are gathered in research studies, treatment protocols are implemented or modified, and much more. Whether or not Freud was right in seeing psychoanalysis as a branch of medicine as codifiable as any other, the modern world – including insurance, government, law enforcement and all its other complications – must have something on which to rely so that a person will receive similar treatment for similar conditions, and insurers (including the government) will handle comparable cases in comparable ways. Greenberg is correct, if shrill, in arguing that the DSM has flaws, although his claims of the venality of the APA seem overdone and overly argumentative. Still, there is substance to The Book of Woe. What Greenberg does not offer is any way for either clinicians or patients to find their way to a manual, much less a system, that is less woeful.