February 04, 2016

(++++) SWEETNESS AND BEYOND


Plant a Kiss. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Harper. $7.99.

Lost & Found. By Brooke Davis. Dutton. $16.

     Small things and small people bloom and blossom in books for young readers and adults alike. Sometimes those books reach for meaning beyond their words, however simple those words (and accompanying pictures, if there are any) may be. Sometimes they find it, as occurs in Plant a Kiss, a lovely little board book in which Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s text is married perfectly to Peter H. Reynolds’ fairy-tale-like drawings to spin a charming little fable in which the phrase “plant a kiss” is taken literally – to very fine effect. “Little Miss/ planted a kiss./ Planted a kiss?/ Planted a kiss.” And the sweet Little Miss waters what she has planted, makes sure it has plenty of sunshine, greets it pleasantly day after day, and waits and waits for it to sprout. Which it does not. Hence: “Doubt./ Pout.” But then: “Sprout!/ SHOUT! SHOUT!” And the friends of Little Miss gather about to see a mostly shapeless golden speckled something-or-other weaving its way from the ground into the air. Little Miss is determined to share the joys of the kiss, despite the misgivings of her friends, and she does just that, sweeping it into a bright red bowl and bringing it to all sorts of people in all sorts of places, “To and fro./ High and low./ Rain or snow./ With a bow!” Until, at last, all is gone – and Little Miss returns to the place where she first planted the kiss – and then, wonder of wonders and delight of delights, the small golden sprout has spread to “endless bliss!” Golden tendrils of love and loveliness pour forth from the planted-kiss spot, leaving Little Miss at the end with plenty of love to spread wherever she may go – which is just what she sets out to do on the final, wordless page. A completely non-preachy way to suggest that love grows when tended properly, and grows even more when given away and shared, Plant a Kiss is everything a fable should be: short, simple, easy to read on a superficial level, yet concealing – barely below the surface – thoughts that go far beyond the words and pictures with which the story, on its most basic level, is told.

     Considerably longer and more elaborate, but still possessing at its core the sensibilities of a fairy tale and a desire to reach out beyond the basics of the story it tells, Brooke Davis’ Lost & Found has a “Little Miss” of its own as its chief protagonist. She is seven-year-old Millie Bird, a red-haired amalgamation of pluck and seriousness whose mother improbably abandons her one day in the ladies’ underwear department of a store. The notion of a child left alone to discover who he or she really is, with the help of (often magical) mentors, is a basic story arc of fairy tales and is the scaffolding on which Davis builds her novel – her first novel, a point worth emphasizing in light of some of the notable weaknesses that accompany the book’s notable strengths. Little Millie, after hiding for a time and discovering that her mum is not returning for her, sets off to find her on the sort of quest journey that is quite typical of fairy tales. She soon crosses paths with two quirky old people, the sort who would be trolls or spirit guides in other fairy tales. One is Karl the Touch Typist, who is 87 and mourning the death of his wife – and who has escaped from a nursing home. He is called Touch Typist because he constantly touch-types letters to his dead wife. The other is a widow named Agatha Pantha, who is 82, has not left her home in seven years, and spends her time shouting insults at whatever she can see from her living-room window. Her name is as descriptive as Karl’s, since in Australia, where Davis is from, Agapanthus perennials – large, flowering plants sometimes called “lily of the Nile” – are often considered to be weeds. Obviously the relationship among these three characters is going to be as symbolic as all get-out. Davis makes that all too clear by introducing oddity after oddity: the red gumboots that Millie always wears, the plastic sidekick named Manny with whom Karl travels, the constant shouting of the cranky Agatha. The purported plot has the three joining forces to search for Millie’s mother, who obviously does not want to be found but is going to be anyway, if these three have anything to say about it. The book is about the journey, however, not the destination, except insofar as the destination is greater understanding of life at the end than at the beginning. Really, the underlying topic of the whole book is less life than it is death: the novel begins disconcertingly and on an unpleasant note with Millie’s dead dog and her parents’ apparent indifference to it, continues as Millie assembles a list of dead things, and goes onward as one thing on the list turns out to be Millie’s own father; and of course there are the dead spouses of Karl and Agatha always in the background as character motivation (or, if not motivation, explanation). The fact that this is a first novel comes through again and again, sometimes gratingly, in Davis’ tendency to lay everything on too thickly: Millie’s repeated notes to tell her absent mother that she is “In here mum,” and Karl and Agatha’s increasingly childish (as opposed to childlike) behavior, all come across entertainingly and even charmingly for a while, but all are done to death – well, not quite to death, but certainly tending in that direction – as the book goes on. And on. It is actually a short novel, but it comes to seem longer through its tendency to belabor the obvious (notably in Davis’ portraits of the elderly characters: it is as if she has had very little contact with the real-life elderly). The total absence of reality in the book – recluse Agatha quickly becomes outgoing as she rapidly and without any real explanation intermingles her life with Millie’s and Karl’s, for instance; and no one ever really tries to track down and rescue the abandoned seven-year-old, for another example – is justified by its underlying fairy-tale structure. That structure also makes it sensible, or at least understandable, to have the three protagonists eventually give up their unsuccessful quest and go back the way they came, sadder and wiser and better connected to each other and all that. But the fairy-tale underpinnings are not enough to salvage the book’s ending, which is abrupt and rather peculiar, as if Davis understood that a book preoccupied with death has to end with something about death, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. Davis’ writing tends to be quaint and sentimental when she presumably wants it to be heartfelt, and some aspects of her presentation – such as putting words spoken aloud in italics in the middle of narrative paragraphs, an abrupt and jarring technique – come across as affectations, and irritating ones at that. There are enough charms in the book, especially in some of the characteristics of Millie, to garner it a (+++) rating, but it is scarcely as profound as it wants to be and certainly not as revelatory about the way life is (and the way death is) as Davis intends.

(+++) LOVE AND MARRIAGE


A Practical Wedding Planner: A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating the Wedding You Want with the Budget You’ve Got (without Losing Your Mind in the Process). By Meg Keene. Da Capo. $19.99.

Worm Loves Worm. By J.J. Austrian. Illustrated by Mike Curato. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     They used to go together like a horse and carriage – does anybody even remember that song? – but these days, love and marriage seem to go together only incidentally, or for the purpose of “making a statement,” or as an affirmation of one’s faith (for marriages performed in religious settings) or declaration of independence from spirituality (for civil weddings, beach weddings, mountaintop weddings, etc.). This makes Meg Keene’s A Practical Wedding Planner a touch quaint with its naïve assumption that weddings are “all that,” even though Keene is smart enough to know that sometimes they are all that one needs to take the great leap into losing your mind (hence Keene’s subtitle). Keene posits that A Practical Wedding Planner will be used as an encyclopedia, not read cover-to-cover as a guidebook, and that is a good thing, since the sheer amount of detail and option discussion and expert opinion and “pro tip” material will quickly become overwhelming to anyone who tries to read the book straight through. In truth, not all of what is here is necessary for wedding planning, thank goodness. “If you have a wedding with every single element included in this book, you’re not having a wedding; you’re having some sort of three-ring circus,” Keene opines, and that is a highly useful perspective – except for the fact that some people want to have a three-ring circus of a wedding, and certainly the wedding industry does everything it can to encourage that mindset (it “is mostly trying to sell us more things” – well, duh). A Practical Wedding Planner is a highly useful and plainspoken guide to the intricacies of arranging your own wedding, with some very helpful checklists and spreadsheets in the back that can assist with everything from budgeting to a highly specific timeline for the event (“guests seated for dinner, 6:00 pm; first guests to buffet, 6:10 pm; last guests through buffet, 6:30 pm; toasts—four total, 6:30 pm; first dance, 7:10 pm” – and on and on for a total of 35 entries, each with four columns labeled “when,” “what,” “where” and “who”). There is material here on bridesmaid dresses (“the perfect dress that everyone will like does not exist”) and on buying a wedding gown from China: “Dress will generally be made from a cheap fabric. …Detailing will be sub-par. Workmanship will generally be a little shoddy. …But alright [sic] already! You’re a woman of daring and risk, and you want to give this thing a whirl! Here is what you need to know….”  And so on. And so on. And so on. Want to know what to expect of a DOC (“Day-of Coordinator”)? That’s here. Pluses and minuses of “officiants,” whether clergy, civil servants, officiants-for-hire or friends and family? Yes, that’s covered. Hiring a DJ and choosing music? Oh yes, that’s here – and it shows some of the predilections and prejudices with which Keene approaches wedding planning, with which it is important to be in sync in order to get value from this book. “The older crowd is going to be out in force for the early part of your set. Play some classics everyone will like early on, then work your way up to that old-school hip-hop after Nana has gone off to bed. ..Your average pop song is long…[so] cross-fade…before that eight-minute song has run its course. …Nobody’s gonna dance if you’re not dancing.” A Practical Wedding Planner strives mightily to be simultaneously up-to-date and sensitive to tradition – the section on addressing wedding invitations is a good example – and ends up being something of a mishmash; but then, encyclopedias always are. The book has a very thorough index, some of whose entries are themselves worth reading: “Colorado, self-solemnizing marriage in,” for example, and “botanical gardens wedding with 65 guests, budget pie chart example for,” and “mason jars, estimating amount of alcohol needed for serving in.” Anyone who thinks the whole wedding-planning concept is faintly ridiculous (maybe not so faintly) will have that impression confirmed here; anyone who takes the whole thing seriously enough to believe that a onetime party somehow has something to do with living with another person for an extended period – a notion right up there with the horse-and-carriage notion of being wed – will also find confirmation.

     And what about love? Oh yeah, that. Well, one would expect a level of charm and simplicity about the feeling in books intended for children, and one would often get it. But just as A Practical Wedding Planner tries to guide adult readers through and among the many intricacies and traps of the love-and-marriage maze, while subtly introducing its author’s own predilections, so some kids’ books seem designed to inculcate values even as they appear, on the surface, to be simple appreciations of love. Worm Loves Worm is one such – an unlikely-on-the-face-of-it advocacy book that families must be careful not to pick up unwittingly, but that some families will find a very useful story of what love and marriage mean in the contemporary United States. Worm Loves Worm looks like pretty much any recent picture book, and it reads that way at the start, too, with two worms deciding to “be married” because they love each other. In the absence of A Practical Wedding Planner, the worms take advice from various insects. Cricket, standing on hind legs, wearing a vest and glasses, and clutching a book, is clearly the right “someone to marry you.” In fact, “That’s how it’s always been done,” Cricket explains. Beetle offers to be “best beetle,” and the Bees say they will be “bride’s bees,” which is all well and good. But what about rings? Worms have no fingers! Well, “we can wear them like belts,” they decide, and since they do not have feet to dance with, they “can just wiggle around.” J.J. Austrian’s point, of course, is that love and marriage transcend the trappings of weddings – an unexceptionable message, to be sure. But then the book turns in an unexpected direction, as Worm and Worm say they both can be the bride and both can be the groom – they are, after all, identical in appearance – and even though Cricket reminds them that “that isn’t how it’s always been done,” Worm and Worm insist on getting married anyway, “because Worm loves Worm.” Somewhere along the way, a cute book about love and marriage has turned into an advocacy work about same-sex marriage, carefully structured by Austrian and illustrator Mike Curato – who himself is in a same-sex marriage – so that the primary message emerges slowly and even a bit slyly, well after all the marriage trappings have appeared in a forthright way. Same-sex marriage is now legal in the United States, but that does not obligate anyone to accept it, agree with it or give children books supporting and advocating it – opponents emphatically do not believe that the statement that “Worm loves Worm” supersedes “how it’s always been done.” Families that do believe in same-sex marriage will find Worm Loves Worm an enjoyably simple explanation of what proponents have said for some time, with pleasant illustrations that end with even the clergyman-like cricket smiling approvingly at the newly married couple. But families that pick up the book on the basis of its pleasant illustrations or the first few pages of text may find themselves surprised to be pulled into the middle of a legal decision that remains highly controversial and, to some people, highly objectionable. This is a book that parents should definitely read on their own before reading it to children or having children read it themselves: it raises issues that, wherever a parent stands on the sociopolitical spectrum, a child is likely to want further explained after the book is over.

(+++) ASSERT AND ADVOCATE


Women Who Changed the World: 50 Amazing Americans. By Laurie Calkhoven. Illustrated by Patricia Castelao. Scholastic. $8.99.

     Sixty-six women, actually: there are the 50 referred to in this book’s title and 16 others listed more briefly at the end. Women Who Changed the World is not really about women who changed the world – it is about women who, to at least some extent, changed the United States, or who at least accomplished significant things. The never-stated foundation of the book is the phrase “despite being women and being neglected or downplayed by male-dominated history books” – a typical redress-the-balance approach for a work avowedly aimed at 21st-century girls who, Laurie Calkhoven clearly hopes, will grow up to do special things themselves: “Seemingly ordinary girls grew up to become extraordinary women! …[Y]ou, too, can grow up to change the world!”

     This is a bit over-the-top, but Calkhoven’s brief biographies and Patricia Castelao’s straightforward illustrations are solid enough – although some of the drawings of the women look little like the photographs that are also included, with Castelao going out of her way to make her subjects seem dynamic and intense even if, for example, her color portraits of Lucille Ball and Maya Angelou bear little resemblance to the inset black-and-white photographs.

     Most of the names here are de rigueur for books intended to inspire contemporary girls: Pocahontas, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, and a slew of women born in the 20th century (30 of the 50 in the primary list, unfortunately implying a paucity of female role models from earlier times). It is good to see some less-familiar names among the frequently mentioned ones: journalist Nellie Bly, photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, pharmacologist Gertrude Eliot, ballerina Misty Copeland. And it is good to have the book laid out in a readily accessible format, with a “Fact File” about each woman (birth and death years and locations, spouse if any, children if any) and a couple of specific facts of interest in addition to those contained in each brief biography. For example, the item about author Laura Ingalls Wilder talks about how much the children in Wisconsin in her time enjoyed roasted pig tail as a once-a-year treat; the one about athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias explains that she got her nickname after hitting five home runs in one baseball game, putting her on par with Babe Ruth in the eyes of her neighborhood friends; and the one about Nancy Reagan mentions her starring opposite Ronald Reagan in a film called Hellcats of the Navy.

     There are no profundities in Women Who Changed the World. That is not the purpose of a book intended as an easy-to-read work of uplift for 21st-century girls who may be searching for role models. The specific women chosen for the main list and the subsidiary one at the end are arguable: Ella Fitzgerald makes the main list, but Marian Anderson does not, for example, and – genuinely strangely – Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is in the main sequence while Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman ever to sit on that court, is not. The book also includes a rather odd 25-term glossary that contains the words “classify,” “eclipse” and “settler.” The word selection makes it seem as if the book is targeted at very young children indeed, but the writing itself is appropriate for somewhat older readers – up to age 10 or even 12. Girls who encounter a paucity of discussions of women in traditional school books – a less-common occurrence now than a generation ago – may find Women Who Changed the World a useful supplement to classroom reading. It is not a particularly entertaining book, and is not intended to be; but as a gateway to basic information on some women whose roles in United States history may be inspirational for young girls today, it is certainly a satisfactory work.

(++++) AMERICANA


Ives: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4; The Unanswered Question; Central Park in the Dark. Seattle Symphony Chorale and Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.

Copland: Billy the Kid; El Salón Mexico; An Outdoor Overture; Rodeo. Colorado Symphony conducted by Andrew Litton. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

     There is something transcendental about the music of Charles Ives even a century after it was written. In one sense, this is scarcely a surprise, given Ives’ attraction to Transcendentalism. But in a different sense, it is nothing sort of astonishing. With a few very rare exceptions, such as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, how much music written early in the 20th century still sounds ultra-modern, sit-up-and-take-notice modern, early in the 21st? The Second Viennese School seems positively tame nowadays, the late Romantics and early neo-Romantics sound just as tied to the past as they wished to be, and the genuinely new thinking of composers such as Carl Nielsen no longer seems particularly revolutionary even though its subtleties and beauties remain impressive. But Ives’ music can still shock, can still force an audience to wonder what in heck the composer thought he was doing, and can still come across as a blend of seriousness and humor, of (on the one hand) old-fashioned techniques plus hymns plus folksongs and (on the other) extreme dissonance, polytonality and polyrhythms that even now are difficult to grasp. When Ives stopped writing music in the 1920s after saying that the notes would not do what he wanted them to anymore, the world lost the musical thoughts of a genuine American original, a composer so far ahead of his time that it is fair to suggest that his works will continue to delight, puzzle and outrage audiences for years to come. A generally excellent Ives CD from the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot, released on the orchestra’s own label, shows many facets of this multifaceted composer without ever leaving the impression that it has fully plumbed his depths or completely explored his heights. The highlight of the disc is an absolutely first-rate performance of Ives’ Symphony No. 4, one of his grandest, strangest and most confusing works, in which the ultra-radical and ultra-conservative sides of his output are displayed distinctly and clearly in succeeding movements (the second and third, respectively). Almost always presented using multiple conductors, as it is here (Morlot is assisted by Stilian Kirov, David Alexander Rahbee and Julia Tai), the work is in effect for multiple sub-orchestras, which need the additional conductors because they must often play without regard to each other but in such a way that their parts juxtapose (“blend” is not quite the right word) as Ives intended. Like many Ives works, this symphony raises philosophical questions without ever answering them, yet it can be enjoyed as absolute music without knowing anything of the underlying issues that Ives was exploring in it. The polytonality and intense dissonance make the symphony extremely difficult to absorb in a single hearing, and this recording well repays multiple performances: each time, something new in texture, melody or instrumentation comes through, and the work grows along with one’s understanding of it. There is one very unfortunate omission: the words for the first movement are not provided, and for all the fine singing by the Seattle Symphony Chorale, those words are needed. Listeners will gain much by looking them up before their first of many hearings.

     The remainder of the disc is not quite at this level, but both The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark are excellent in their own way. These pieces form a bit of a pair – Ives thought of the first as a contemplation of something serious, the second as a contemplation of nothing serious – and their sonic environment, especially the handling of the strings, shows close parallels. The trumpet’s seven intonations of the question are beautifully handled by David Gordon, with fine breath control and an actual sound of inquisitiveness at the end of each phrase. The string background, as clear in its portrayal of a probably indifferent universe as are the sounds of “Neptune, the Mystic” in Holst’s The Planets, is also beautifully managed. However, the woodwinds, which “speak up” in varying ways and eventually seem to be mocking the repeated question, are not quite biting enough; still, the playing is excellent. It is just as good in Central Park in the Dark, where the quiet nighttime setting and the raucous outbursts provide just as much contrast as Ives intended. When it comes to the Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting,” however, Morlot falls a bit short: this generally accessible three-movement work tends to drag here. It is neither as heartfelt nor as bright in its middle movement as it can be. Again, though, the orchestra’s playing is at a very high level, and the disc as a whole is a wonderful reminder – one among many – of just how much Ives still has to say and just how intriguing it can be to listen to him saying it.

     Aaron Copland aptly and pithily commented of Ives, “His complexities don’t always add up, but when they do, a richness of experience is suggested that is unobtainable in any other way.” That is about as good a summation of Ives’ music as anyone has offered – and it describes, to a certain, more-limited extent, the effect of Copland’s own music as well. That is, it refers to the totality of Copland’s music, which – like that of Ives – has elements of simplicity, naïveté and straightforwardness, and also has dense, complex and difficult-to-unravel portions. What is different in Copland is that he generally kept the simple and popular elements of his music separate from the complicated and intense ones, while Ives threw the different forms of communication together willy-nilly and without apparent concern for how confusing the result could sometimes be. In Copland’s case, it is the straightforward and more-popular works that, not surprisingly, became instant successes and have remained so. A new BIS recording of four of those works, featuring the Colorado Symphony under Andrew Litton, shows for the umpteenth time just why this portion of Copland’s production turns up again and again in the concert hall. The music is very well-made, with fine attention to instrumentation and excellent rhythmic and structural sensibilities. It is also comparatively unchallenging harmonically and thematically, in fact including folk-music elements in prominent ways that are quite different from those used by Ives with his frequent invocation of hymns and Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean. Copland’s two “Western” ballets, Billy the Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942), are gems: eminently danceable, filled with short and hummable tunes, sprinkled throughout with lyrical and dramatic elements, and structured so their stories can be easily followed or can simply be ignored in the pleasures of the music. Litton and the orchestra play them with relish and appear thoroughly to be enjoying the experience – Litton, a fine pianist, even does a turn at the honky-tonk piano in the Ranch House Party movement of Rodeo, and makes the music about as rollicking an experience as it can be. The dramatic elements of both ballets, including Copland’s clever use of percussion, are particularly effective in this recording, but the lyrical material does not get short shrift, either: everything flows smoothly and with a fine sense of contrast between sections and among themes within sections. The two shorter pieces on the recording also come off quite well. An Outdoor Overture (1938) is bright and brassy, as befits both its title and its atmosphere. And El Salón Mexico (1933-36), whose title is the name of a nightclub in mid-1930s Mexico, has a sort of quasi-folk flavor and South of the Border flair even though it does not contain any actual folk tunes. The more-difficult, more-demanding works by Copland tend to be underperformed, while the ones on this release tend to be, if anything, over-performed. But there is so much enjoyment here, such a feeling of joie de vivre, that the popularity of these pieces is eminently understandable – all the more so when performances are as skillful and high-spirited as these.

(++++) OLD, BUT NEW AGAIN


Weill: Die Sieben Todsünden; songs from Berliner Requiem, Happy End, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Die Dreigroschenoper. Gisela May, soprano; Peter Schreier and Hans-Joachim Rotzsch, tenors; Günther Leib, baritone; Hermann Christian Polster, bass; Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig conducted by Herbert Kegel; other ensembles conducted by Henry Krtschil and Heinz Rögner. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

The French Influence: Music for Trumpet and Piano by Honegger, Ibert, Henri Senée, Enesco, Jolivet, Eugène Bozza, Théo Charlier and Claude Pascal. Gerard Schwarz, trumpet; Kun Woo Paik, piano. Delos. $7.99.

     It is a rare pleasure to discover, or rediscover, first-rate performances that not only display and enhance the effectiveness of the music but also provide insight into the special qualities of the performers. And to find such performances at a bargain price is a particularly rarefied form of enjoyment – the form provided by new CDs from Brilliant Classics and Delos. The Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht collaboration The Seven Deadly Sins, created in 1933 and labeled a ballet chanté, is not heard very often – and not just because all Weill/Brecht works are very much of a particular time. This one is a difficult work to perform: it is indeed a dance piece that also includes singing, and to make matters more complex or confusing, its lead roles are named Anna I and Anna II, perhaps two sisters but perhaps two parts of the same woman -- a psychological twist that the words themselves suggest. A satirical work filled with the collaborators’ typical anti-bourgeois bitterness, it uses a prologue, epilogue and seven scenes to detail a twisted, modern version of Sloth, Pride, Anger, Gluttony, Lust, Greed and Envy. Anna I repeatedly admonishes Anna II – who says very little – not to behave morally, because real life allows no room for morals. For example, Anna II becomes angry at injustice – and Anna I tells her to be more self-controlled; Anna II is initially too proud to perform provocative cabaret dances, but Anna I says she must do so in order to please the clientele and make the money that is at the foundation of the entire work (to be used to help the family build a home back in Louisiana; the family consists of a four-man chorus). Longtime Brecht singer Gisela May, who spent 30 years in Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble, portrayed both Ana I and Anna II when she recorded The Seven Deadly Sins in 1966, and her smoky, burned-out voice (not really burned out, but sounding that way) fits the music exceptionally well: this is true cabaret singing, and while May does not quite match the incomparable Lotte Lenya, she has a solidity and intensity of delivery that are very nearly at Lenya’s level. Weill’s music remains as craggy and cutting as ever, and if Brecht’s words nowadays seem more like a jeremiad than a genuine social commentary, that means only that we have – perhaps – discovered a new set of deadly sins. May shows her versatility in this repertoire with a series of additional recordings of the same vintage. There are two excerpts from Berliner Requiem that were recorded in 1968, plus a series of 1967 recordings from Happy End, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and The Threepenny Opera. The three songs from the last of these are the least satisfactory readings: neither Barbara-Song nor Seeräuber Jenny hits quite the right emotional pitch – they seem altogether too casual – although Song von de sexuellen Hörigkeit has the requisite level of sarcasm. The two Berliner Requiem excerpts and the two Mahagonny songs are fine, but it is in the excerpts from the almost forgotten Happy End that May really displays both her vocal prowess and her characterization abilities. One song from this failed musical is among its creators’ best-known pieces: Surabaya Johnny, which May delivers simply splendidly – here she really is on par with Lenya. The three other songs crackle and sparkle just as they should, too: Bilbao-Song, Was die Herren Matrosen sagen and Ballade von der Höllen-Lili. However, the one great disappointment of this release becomes apparent here: there are no lyrics given to any of the material, and no links to any online locations for finding them. The words of The Seven Deadly Sins are reasonably simple to locate, as are those of The Threepenny Opera, and Mahagonny can be tracked down with a bit of effort. But not so Berliner Requiem and Happy End, and anyone who listens to May’s splendid and pointed vocalizing and does not readily speak idiomatic German is going to believe, quite rightly, that he or she is missing a great deal of what is going on. There is so much to celebrate in this re-release that it is a shame to have to draw attention to its one great shortcoming; but it is nevertheless a wonderful recording by a singer whose handling of the material is absolutely top-notch.

     The material is far more urbane but no less involving in its own way on the CD entitled The French Influence. This is a revelatory disc for anyone who knows conductor Gerard Schwarz (born 1947) solely for his orchestral work. For Schwarz started out in music not on the podium but as a trumpeter – and a very, very accomplished one. Back in 1971, he and fellow Juilliard student Kun Woo Paik recorded some 40 minutes of material by French composers, all of it short and most of it very little known. It is this recording that has now been re-released, and it is a joy to hear. No one will confuse anything here with profound music: these are pleasantries, salon pieces one and all. Yet every one gives Schwarz an opportunity to display his expressive abilities, his virtuosity, his excellent breath control, his sensitivity to various styles, and his wonderful sense of rhythm. This last characteristic comes to the fore, for example, in Ibert’s very short Impromptu, one of the composer’s jazz-influenced works. Even shorter and even more virtuosic – at less than 90 seconds, the briefest piece here – Jolivet’s Air de Bravoure is instantly intriguing and is over all too soon. Honegger’s Intrada and Enesco’s Légende give Schwarz and Paik chances to explore the trumpet-piano connection at somewhat greater length, while Senée’s rather old-fashioned Concertino offers three charming movements and an interesting contrast with Charlier’s Solo de Concours, whose conclusion is more Russian than French and in comparatively unusual 5/4 meter. Bozza’s eight-minute Caprice and Pascal’s two-minute Capriccio also make for interesting contrasts: both require considerable virtuosity of technique but are more than simple display pieces, offering a really good trumpeter several chances to showcase the ability to vary the instrument’s sound capabilities in different sections. Schwarz brings pep and pizzazz to the music when appropriate, lyricism and lovely flow when they are fitting, and shows himself throughout the disc to have total command of his instrument and to be quite capable of having fun with it. Listeners will have fun here, too, not only with the music but also with the discovery – or rediscovery – of the earlier performing years of a musician who became far better known in a role very different from the one he fills on this CD.

January 28, 2016

(++++) DELIGHTFUL DALLIANCES


How to Dress a Dragon. By Thelma Lynne Godin. Pictures by Eric Barclay. Scholastic. $16.99.

I Love You Already! By Jory John. Illustrated by Benji Davies. Harper. $17.99.

     Silliness abounds here. How to Dress a Dragon is about, yes, how to dress a dragon, starting with catching one with a butterfly net as he flies by, then knowing how to “tickle-tackle him to the floor and give him belly kisses” (a wonderful Thelma Lynne Godin idea with a particularly winning Eric Barclay illustration) so he will sit still while you get him dressed. Well, almost still. Dragons are fine putting on underwear, “especially froggy superhero ones,” but socks are a bit difficult because “dragons have very ticklish toes.” And shirts – well, shirts simply will not do! There just aren’t any that dragons find acceptable! Luckily, dragons “do like capes,” and the scene showing a cape-clad, underwear-and-socks-wearing dragon flying aloft while carrying the little boy who dressed him (to the bemusement of a spectacles-wearing woman who looks out her window and sees the pair) is laugh-out-loud funny. Later, the dragon-dressing continues with shorts (better than long pants for going over big dragon feet), boots (dragons like green ones with googly frog eyes on the front), and hats (“they will only wear ones that fit nicely between their horns”). The eventual look at the fully-dressed dragon in froggy boots, cape and baseball cap is exceeded in amusement only by what happens after the dressing is complete: the dragon throws off all his clothes to get ready to play “his favorite game of Dragon and Knight,” in which, of course, he insists on being the knight. The concept of How to Dress a Dragon is already thoroughly ridiculous – and wonderfully apt as a dress-up-game book for young children. And that final twist really confirms the book’s sheer joie de vivre (which is a dressed-up way to say “fun”).

     Just as silly as the boy-and-dragon pairing of How to Dress a Dragon is the bear-and-duck combination in I Love You Already! The title here needs a touch of explanation: it does not mean a discovery that, my gosh, I really do love you. Instead, it is a comment made with a hint of exasperation, as in “doggone it, yes, OK, I love you.” Why the undertone of irritation? It is left over and expanded from Goodnight Already! In that book, Jory John and Benji Davies introduced quiet-and-peace-loving Bear and bouncy, wakeful Duck, next-door neighbors who get on each other’s nerves. Well, to be accurate, Duck gets on Bear’s nerves: Duck simply will not take “no” for an answer. Nor will he listen to “I want to be by myself,” which is how Bear feels in I Love You Already! It is a weekend, and Bear just wants to relax around the house. Not so Duck, who shows up and insists, “We’re having fun, whether you want to or not.” That is, they are having fun by Duck’s definition, which means going outdoors, having an ice pop (which Duck offers to buy until he realizes he does not have any money, so Bear has to lend him some), and taking an extended walk. Duck simply cannot take a hint, and does not accept Bear’s direct comment that although he likes Duck, “I also like quiet time by myself.” Duck is all about activity: “I’m bored already,” he says, as soon as Bear goes to sit quietly under a tree. So Duck interrupts Bear’s reverie – again – although eventually the two agree that they are “basically…family” and really care for each other. This ends well – or maybe not too well, because as soon as he is reassured that Bear loves him, Duck announces that they can go on walks together “every single day,” and Bear is left thinking that he has to stop answering his door. Placid Bear and over-enthusiastic Duck make an odd but amusing pair, and kids will likely be able to identify, to at least some extent, with both of them. Long-suffering parents who feel like Bear and have children who behave like Duck will, in their own way, enjoy the book, too.

(++++) CANINE AND FELINE CONNECTIONS


Dogfulness: The Path to Inner Peace. Compiled by Michael Powell. Illustrations by Lorenzo Montatore. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Catfulness: The Path to Inner Peace. Compiled by Michael Powell. Illustrations by Lorenzo Montatore. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Love. By Kimberly & James Dean. Illustrations by James Dean. Harper. $12.99.

     Whether you call them furry companions, “furry kids,” or even, yes, pets, there is no question that dogs and cats teach us a great deal about a great many things, from responsibility to odor toleration. They can also, as these new books note, teach us a lot about devotion and love. The small hardcover gift books called Dogfulness and Catfulness try perhaps a little too hard to parallel each other, with Michael Powell including quotations from many of the same sources in both and Lorenzo Montatore insisting on exploring the same venues again and again (for instance, a human bathroom where there is no toilet paper because the dog – or cat – has taken it outdoors to play with it). This is all in good fun, of course, particularly the illustrations, which look like stills from any number of shows on the Cartoon Network. But the books want to be more than celebrations of human interactions with dogs and cats: they try for a kind of wry humor focusing on irritating things that animal companions do (although we love them anyway), and they even seek a certain level of thoughtful depth. Dogfulness, for example, quotes, without a trace of irony, theosophist Helena Blavatsky: “Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself” – a comment whose illustration shows an over-eager cat-chasing dog trampling his human into the mud (which is not quite what Madame Blavatsky mean about needing to “become the Path”). Blavatsky’s is one of the best-known names here; most quotations come from people of whom readers are unlikely ever to have heard. It is the words that matter, though, not the sources. “Do one thing every day that scares you” (Mary Schmich) shows a worried-looking dog gazing at the door to a veterinary clinic while a worried-looking man looks at the door to a dentist’s office. “Persistence and determination are always rewarded” (Christine Rice) features a smiling dog that has actually managed to catch its own tail. In Catfulness, “Those who are not chasing their dreams should stay out of the way of those who are” (Tim Fargo) features a cat about to go after the residents of a birdhouse in a tree while a man yells disapprovingly from below, while “Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity” (Danny Gokey) shows a man opening a clothes dryer to discover a wide-eyed and rather bemused-looking cat inside. Neither of these little books truly charts a “path to inner peace,” but then neither of them really intends to: both offer readers a path to inner chuckles and occasional thoughtfulness, and it is the combination of laughter and thinking that may, just may, show the way to internal peacefulness.

     Although Dogfulness and Catfulness, which are intended for adults, draw on the underlying assumption that humans love the animals with which they share their homes, the love connection is more explicit in the latest Pete the Cat book, Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Love – which is intended for children, but offers quotations from much-better-known people than those included in the books for grownups. This is a particularly engaging Pete the Cat offering, because it features Pete commenting in his own Pete-like way on the more-flowery love-related comments from great writers and thinkers of the past. That explains the book’s subtitle, “Tips from a Cool Cat on How to Spread the Love.” For example, one page quotes Marcel Proust: “Love is space and time measured by the heart.” The illustration shows Pete piloting a spaceship and thinking, “Far out! Love is out of this world.” On another page is the famous quotation from Virgil, “Love conquers all.” This page shows Pete planting a flag that says “Love” on top of a mountain and thinking, “Love makes anything possible!” On still another page, Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted: “Love is the master key which opens the gates of happiness.” Here the illustration shows Pete holding a big golden key and standing in front of a large gate festooned with hearts. He is thinking, “Come on in!”  Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Love is a particularly happy (Pete would say, yes, “groovy”) collaboration between the wife-and-husband team of Kimberly and James Dean: the sources are delightfully varied (Pierre Beaumarchais, Lennon/McCartney, Audrey Hepburn, Euripedes); the glosses by Pete on the comments are true to his thinking and fun in their own way; and the book even finds room for a couple of small adventures, in one of which Pete rights an upside-down turtle and in another of which he revives some flowers by watering them. Pete the Cat’s Groovy Guide to Love is, on the surface, for kids, but there is plenty of wisdom and fun in it for adults as well.

(++++) WITH HUMOR OR WITHOUT?


The Woodcutter Sisters, Book III: Dearest. By Alethea Kontis. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

Seeker, Book II: Traveler. By Arwen Elys Dayton. Delacorte Press. $18.99.

     If there is one thing that tends to distinguish adventure fantasy for preteens and young teens from the same genre for older teens, it is the use of humor. The thinking seems to be that the more humor a series possesses, the younger the readers to whom it will appeal. Certainly humor can minimize the intensity of adventure, but it can also provide some leavening within a generally dark tale – even The Lord of the Rings, which has inspired such a huge percentage of more-recent adventure fantasy, has its moments of levity (not many, but some). The pluses and minuses of humor-infused adventures are clear in Dearest, which is intended for younger teenagers, and Traveler, which is aimed at older ones. Dearest is the third book in Alethea Kontis’ very clever multi-book mashup of fairy tales, which tells or will tell the stories of the seven Woodcutter sisters – one named after each day of the week. The series opened with Enchanted and continued with Hero, and now moves on to the story of Friday Woodcutter, apprentice seamstress and all-around sweetheart. Indeed, Friday is so good that readers of the first two books may expect her to come across as something of a prig. But Kontis is, in the main, too clever to let that happen. She avoids the too-nice trap largely through marvelous turns of phrase (“this girl shone in the gloom of adversity so brightly that she cast rainbows”) and through, yes, humor. For instance, Friday turns out to be a bit boy-crazy (which, however, does not stop her from instantly recognizing her true love when she sees him and experiences one of those fairy-tale love-at-first-sight moments). Yes, she is innocent, rather endearingly so, and wonderful with the children who seem drawn to her like iron filings to a magnet. Kontis goes beyond the Grimm fairy tales that she usually interweaves in these books when it comes to some of those children: Friday takes care of three orphans named Wendy, Michael and John, and calls them her, um, darlings. Get it? The Darlings? Peter Pan? This is a good example both of humor and of a certain subtlety: it is possible to read all the books in this series without knowing the underlying fairy tales, but it adds a great deal of enjoyment if you do know them. The primary tale here is the Grimms’ The Six Swans, and Friday’s true love is one of those, so the breaking of the swan spell is a central part of the book. But some of the novel’s byways are fun, too: the brothers are really funny in their interactions with each other (that humorous penchant of Kontis coming to the fore yet again), and one of them is in love not with a human but with a swan, whose name happens to be Odette, as in Princess Odette of Swan Lake. Again, knowing the references is generally unnecessary but certainly gives Dearest more scope and depth. But in truth, at some points it is almost necessary to know the stories on which Kontis draws, for instance when Tristan, Friday’s true love, gets transformationally stuck between swan and man: that is a crucial event in the Grimms’ story, but here it just sort of happens without explanation. Of course, a great deal “just happens” in all fairy tales, but there are usually explanations within the context of the stories: “because of the prophecy,” “because of the evil spell,” that sort of thing. There is none of that here. Kontis does not shrink from the darker sides of the old fairy tales: for instance, there is a death in Dearest that, while admittedly very convenient for the plot, is troubling and comes across as rather arbitrary (as do many Grimm deaths). But what Kontis does consistently and well is to keep enough humor in the Woodcutter novels to prevent the darkness of the foundational tales – which were very dark indeed – from swamping the enjoyable aspects of the narratives and making them depressing.

     The second book in Arwen Elys Dayton’s very interesting Seeker series, Traveler, is almost humorless and steeped in darkness, as befits a typical novel aimed at ages 14 and up. But like its predecessor, Traveler is better than most books of its genre. Dayton humanizes her characters effectively and tells the story well from multiple points of view – albeit in language that does not vary much from character to character. Primary protagonist Quin Kincaid has learned that her role as a Seeker is not to protect people through intense training and the use of a special weapon called an “athame” (three syllables: ATH-uh-may). That was the Seeker way, but now Seekers are assassins, killing for money. Why? That is an important element explored in Traveler, as Quin and Shinobu use Catherine’s journal as a guide to, or toward, the truth about their world. Catherine’s storyline is crucial in this second book, providing background information that helps make both Traveler and its predecessor much clearer. It is worth remembering that Dayton’s world has at its core a set of three laws whose resemblance to Isaac Asimov’s justly famed Three Laws of Robotics is likely deliberate: “First law: a Seeker is forbidden to take another family’s athame. Second law: a Seeker is forbidden to kill another Seeker save in self-defense. Third law: a Seeker is forbidden to harm humankind.” Trying to find out what the laws mean, and what the whole Seeker experience was supposed to mean and has now come to mean, is a great deal of what Traveler is about. In addition, star-crossed lovers Quin and John are not only separated in Traveler but also have gone their own different ways in terms of training: John is learning from Maud (known as the Young Dread) so he can become strong, fast and powerful enough to avenge the death of his mother – Catherine. Thus, Catherine’s story helps pull Quin and John apart and at the same time unites them in their different forms of seeking – the sort of adept narrative twist that Dayton employs in Traveler as she did in Seeker. The book is perhaps too packed with the secrets and the twists and turns typical of its genre, and is certainly too Perils-of-Pauline in its pacing: again and again, a chapter ends with a cliffhanger, thus presumably pulling readers quickly into the next chapter but also showing a certain level of authorial manipulativeness that is overdone. Still, the technique is undeniably exciting, at least the first few times Dayton uses it. By the end of Traveler, Dayton has answered a lot of questions, raised others, resolved a love triangle, and left her characters in difficult positions from which she will need to extricate them in the series’ concluding volume. The Seeker trilogy does have formulaic elements, such as setting events in different geographical areas without really differentiating the locations; and in truth, the overall story arc and writing style are not especially distinguished. But the pacing and skillful use of multiple viewpoints are as impressive in the second book of the trilogy as they were in the first, and Traveler is certainly strong enough to leave readers eager for the wrap-up of the adventure in the forthcoming Disruptor.

(++++) WOODWIND TOURS DE FORCE


Telemann: Sonatas for Recorder. Erik Bosgraaf, recorder; Francesco Corti, harpsichord. Brilliant Classics. $7.99.

Grainger: Music for Saxophones. Joyce Griggs, J. Michael Holmes, Phil Pierick, Jesse Dochnahl, Adam Hawthorne, Drew Whiting, Ben Kenis and Adrianne Honnold, saxophones; Casey Gene Dierlam, piano. Naxos. $12.99.

     The sheer variety and wide-ranging abilities of Telemann continue to amaze nearly 250 years after his death. Self-taught as a musician, he became one of the most prolific composers in history (with more than 3,000 works to his name) as well as a more-than-serviceable performer on flute, oboe, violin, double bass – and recorder. The recorder was a far more popular instrument in Telemann’s time than afterwards, and it is no surprise that Telemann, who composed in so many forms and for so many instruments, would write a variety of works for it. The nine sonatas on a new Brilliant Classics CD, seven in four movements and two in three, show the level of virtuosity that Telemann expected of performers of his music, undoubtedly including himself. As with much of Telemann’s music, the works mix Baroque-era styles of various countries: elements are Italian, French and English, and also – noticeably and interestingly – Polish. In particular, Polish folk music here gives a unique flavor to movements otherwise written in a single style or a blend of more-familiar styles. Drawn from various collections of sonatas – Telemann typically produced sonata groupings including works for a variety of instruments – the works played by Erik Bosgraaf and Francesco Corti are both in major keys (four sonatas) and in minor ones (five sonatas). The sonatas’ individual touches make particular movements stand out to fine effect. One in B-flat (No. 28 from Der getreue Music-Meister) is in canon at the unison for all four movements, its sound neatly varied by changes in the time interval between the two voices. One in D minor (No. 7 from Essercizii musici) contrasts a highly ornamented opening movement in Italian style with a second-movement Presto whose syncopations and rhythms reflect Polish folk tunes. One in C minor (No. 2 from Neue Sonatinen) offers a first movement full of rhythmic unpredictability. Many of the movements are small gems – most movements last less than two minutes – and all the works not only show the poise and contrapuntal elegance associated with the Baroque, but also, at the same time, incorporate dancelike and folk-music elements that give the sonatas Telemann’s unique compositional flavor. The first-rate performances here are in assured period style, by players highly conversant with the music and quite comfortable exploring its intricacies and nuances.

     A wonderfully offbeat new Naxos CD focusing on Percy Grainger is less about the composer than about Joyce Griggs, who is the disc’s executive producer, editor, co-producer and primary performer – as well as the writer of its booklet notes. Griggs, whose versatility in multiple roles is evident everywhere here, edited and engraved a variety of saxophone works created by Grainger as arrangements of the music of other composers. Just two of the 16 pieces here are by Grainger himself: The Immovable Do (the only piece on the recording that is not a world première) and The Lonely Desert-Man Sees the Tents of the Happy Tribes (the only work here that includes an instrument other than the saxophone: a piano). Those two titles show some of Grainger’s own versatility – and oddity – but in the case of this release, Grainger is no more the star than Griggs, and indeed rather less. The composers from whose works Grainger made saxophone arrangements range from the well-known (J.S. and C.P.E. Bach) to the little-known (John Jenkins, 1592-1678), and they lived from the Middle Ages (Guillaume de Machaut, c. 1300-77) to modern times (Sparre Olsen, 1903-84). Griggs performs these works on tenor saxophone most of the time and on alto sax part of the time; her many colleagues use not only those two instruments but also soprano, baritone and bass saxophones. The saxophone comes in so many varieties, with so many ranges, that sax ensembles can blend in a huge number of ways, and they certainly do here. Olsen, for example, is represented by two separate versions of a folk song whose title translates as When Yuletide Comes – one for soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, the other for alto, tenor and baritone instruments. A 6-Part Fantasy by William Lawes (1602-45) is arranged for so many saxophones that the resulting sound is organ-like: Grainger here used two soprano saxes, one alto, one tenor, two baritones and a bass. Another highlight of the disc is the saxophone-quintet version of the anonymous Lisbon, which uses a soprano sax, two altos, tenor and baritone. The sound of Lisbon contrasts fascinatingly with, for example, that of the saxophone sextet (soprano, alto, two tenors, baritone and bass) used in Fugue No. IV from The Well-Tempered Clavier. The careful arrangements throughout this CD speak to Grainger’s instrumental skill as well as his particular love for the saxophone, which he regarded as having a sound more like that of the human voice than any other instrument. Certainly there are many “singing” phrases in the works collected here, but there are also some pointed rhythms, some dancelike exuberance, and a great deal of warm lyricism. Griggs has brought to fruition with this disc a tribute both to Grainger and to the saxophone family, all while creating a highly impressive demonstration of her own versatility both as musical scholar and as performer.

January 21, 2016

(++++) DESIGN DELIGHTS


Frankencrayon. By Michael Hall. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Green Lizards vs. Red Rectangles. By Steve Antony. Scholastic. $16.99.

     A book so clever that it will have young readers turned in circles, tied in knots and laughing both at the story and at themselves, Frankencrayon is an absolutely marvelous use of the picture-book medium and of art itself. Michael Hall, who was brilliant in creating his previous book, Red, is even better in this multi-level, self-referential mystery that starts with Frankencrayon being canceled. Yes, readers are told at the start that there is no book here – but several of the crayon protagonists are already wondering, on the front flap, how they can be in a book if there is no book. Things get even more dizzying when the story starts, or rather stops, since the opening pages bear multiple stamps reading, “This picture book has been canceled.” The crayons discuss their disappointment at there being no book, but then, when the reader turns the page, Hall brilliantly breaks the traditional fourth wall of theater and cartooning by having the crayons be aware that someone is trying to read the non-book. And things get stranger and more fascinating from there. The crayons ask the narrator, a pencil, to explain what has happened, and the pencil talks about assembling crayons of various colors for a story about “a horrible monster lurking in our midst.” But then, the pencil says, “without warning, the lights went out,” and suddenly a big red scribble appears across two full pages. The crayons are aghast: “A scribble can ruin a picture book!” So the pencil calls in the crayon clean-up crew – but they, being crayons, only make the scribble worse by adding new colors to it. Eventually the scribble is so huge that all the crayons flee and someone, apparently the publisher, sends a notice to the pencil that the book is canceled. But it turns out there is more to the story: the three-crayon (green/orange/purple) Frankencrayon, who was told at the start of the tale to go to page 22 and wait to make a scary entrance, does not know about the cancellation and shows up as planned. So Frankencrayon encounters the gigantic scribble – and likes it. The three Frankencrayon colors give the scribble an eye and a mouth, and the scribble asks politely for help getting to “an important event.” So the helpful crayons provide legs, and the “beautiful scribble” walks off the page. Well, eventually Frankencrayon finds the other crayons and the pencil, and everyone learns lessons such as “don’t try to unscribble a scribble by scribbling on it,” and that is that, except…how did the original scribble come to be? That is revealed on the last page, providing a hilarious and perfectly calculated conclusion to a book that is wonderfully plotted, wonderfully written, wonderfully drawn, and altogether wonderful. Yet even that is not all: the back cover is an unstated epilogue that perfectly ties the entire book together, including the “important event” for which the squiggle was almost late. And my goodness, yes, a look back at the squiggle after seeing that astonishing back cover does show that the squiggly thing looks quite a bit like a certain very famous and very hungry children’s-book character. Frankencrayon is a work of range, virtuosity, intelligence and care befitting a first-rate book for adults, with all its marvels lavished on children lucky enough to have a chance to see it and read it.

     Steve Antony’s Green Lizards vs. Red Rectangles is also very colorfully and delightfully drawn, although it is not at the very, very lofty level of Hall’s book. Antony sets up an improbable conflict between green lizards (seen completely packed together on the inside front cover pages) and red rectangles (which are all over the inside back cover pages). For no apparent reason, these characters/shapes are fighting, with each trying to overcome the other in an amusing way. First, the lizards pile upon each other to topple a rectangle, but the rectangles are arranged in a circle, like dominoes, so knocking over the first knocks over a whole collection of them, and the last is clearly going to fall right on the lizards (although the actual impact is not shown). Then the rectangles get together into a huge almost-two-page-wide solid block of red, trying to push the green lizards off the right side of a right-hand page – but the lizards pile themselves up and push back, forcing the rectangles off the left side of a left-hand page. The intense but unexplained battle continues as a lizard questions the whole thing, only to have a rectangle fall right on top of him – which leads to “THE BIGGEST WAR EVER” in a two-page drawing of rectangles and lizards all over the place and all over each other. That is followed by an even bigger battle, drawn at wider scale with much smaller lizards (implying much larger rectangles). But then everyone collapses, exhausted, onto everyone else, and at last a tiny lizard and tiny rectangle move tentatively toward the center of the book to negotiate a truce. How do they find a way to coexist in peace? Antony’s solution is elegant, amusing, and perfectly sensible from a geometric point of view. The expressions on the lizards’ faces are excellently varied in the final red-and-green drawing, and if rectangles had expressions, they too would no doubt be ones of relief, happiness, enjoyment, delight, and all the variants that Antony skillfully shows on lots and lots of lizard faces. Oh – and that squashed lizard that dared to ask why everyone was fighting turns out to be all right. He appears on one of the inside back cover pages, the sole lizard on pages otherwise containing only rectangles, and is seen suitably bandaged and kissing a leaning-forward rectangle; there is even a pink heart above the lizard’s head. A touch of Romeo and Juliet, perhaps? Or just a way of cementing what may become a beautiful interspecies (or inter-object) friendship? Either way, this is an apt, amusing, cute and clever conclusion for a thoroughly winning book in which the ultimate victors are not only green lizards and red rectangles but also the children who encounter all of them.

(++++) FINE FUN FOR FANS


Can You See What I See? Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun. By Walter Wick. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $12.99.

Stampy’s Lovely Book. By Joseph Garrett. Random House. $9.99.

     It helps to know what is in these books before opening them. If you do know, you will enjoy the contents; if not, you may be puzzled or could find the material off-putting. Actually, though, being puzzled may not be a problem when it comes to Can You See What I See? Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun, since puzzling is what Walter Wick is all about: he creates fascinating photographic collages in which common objects are seen in unexpected sizes, from unexpected angles, and in unexpected surroundings, making them very difficult to spot among all the other objects on the page. Then Wick asks young readers (or adults, who can enjoy these visual puzzles just as much as kids can) to find specific things that are hidden in plain sight. This is an enjoyable game, a kind of modern and visual update of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous detective story, “The Purloined Letter,” in which the missing missive turns out to be hidden right where anyone could see it – by being willing to look in a place so obvious that it is easy to overlook. In the case of Wick’s Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun, the pages are taken from the nine previous books in the series called Can You See What I See? Those books’ covers are shown at the end of this one, so if you particularly enjoy pages in Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun that come from, say, Treasure Ship or On a Scary, Scary Night, you can get the original books and find additional, similar displays. The nice thing about Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun is its considerable variety: Wick has applied his photographic and layout expertise to many kinds of objects over the years, and this book lets readers see and search for a generous sample of his not-really-hidden items. Indeed, Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun goes beyond reaching out to Wick’s existing fans through its diversity of images: kids who have never tried to, say, look at a card table and find four horses, a red heart and a bowling pin, or examine a layout of parts for building a robot and locate a mouse, a magnet and the number 12, will quickly be pulled into Wick’s worlds and – if they do not get too frustrated in their searches – want to spend more time in them. What is more, the visual attractiveness of all Wick’s creations is so strong that the pages of Big Book of Search-and-Find Fun can be enjoyed just as pictures – before readers start their quest for specific elements within the layouts.

     The world of Joseph Garrett’s Stampy Cat is an online one, specifically one on YouTube, and it is a “lovely” world only because Garrett and the blocky, Minecraft-style cat say it is. The same is true of Stampy’s Lovely Book: there is nothing objectively lovely about the book, but it is taken from what is called Stampy’s lovely world, so it gets the same adjective. Unlike Wick’s book, Garrett’s is strictly for existing fans and highly unlikely to attract new ones: there is not much to the book itself, and it draws heavily on the assumption that young readers already know all about Stampy Cat. For instance, pages about “my favorite friends” note that the “best lovely world moment” for Ballistic Squid (who looks nothing at all like a squid) is “being the Kraken in episode 124,” while the distinguishing features of Amy Lee 33 are “bright pink hair and is usually seen holding a lovely jubbly love love petal.” Stampy’s Lovely Book is partly intended for fans who are considering making their own YouTube creations: one page explains “my five-step process when making a Lovely World video,” and actually contains some useful suggestions. However, the book is mostly for fans who just cannot get enough of Stampy Cat and want to know “some completely confidential secrets” such as “my Funland used to be a lake” and “There’s a jungle biome in my world, as well as a mushroom biome. You just can’t see them.” Stampy Cat is a popular Internet character – one among many – and some pages of Stampy’s Lovely Book are intended to bring the Internet experience into print. These include, for example, “My Lovely Cake Maze” and a story called “Cow Calamity” that features Stampy drawn in comic-strip style in an adventure involving cows and “my lunar friends.” Existing fans may enjoy these off-the-Web elements as a change of pace, but the book’s contents are unlikely to intrigue non-fans and make them want to find Stampy in his primary presence online. Stampy’s Lovely Book gets a (+++) rating for its very narrow focus and fan-only orientation: it is an adjunct to material in a different medium and does not stand particularly well on its own. However, existing fans may find it a nice souvenir of Stampy’s online world – fun for times when they happen to be away from their electronic connections.

(++) SEEDS OF DISCONTENT


The Story of Seeds: From Mendel’s Garden to Your Plate, and How There’s More of Less to Eat around the World. By Nancy F. Castaldo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

     A polemic in the guise of a documentary, Nancy F. Castaldo’s The Story of Seeds hides, behind its innocuous primary title, the instincts and approach of a Michael Moore film. Selective in presenting information and omitting extremely important facts that do not gibe with its underlying opinions, the book takes readers through a First World analysis of biodiversity while purporting to represent the interests of Third World nations.

     “Why plant heirlooms?” Castaldo asks at one point, offering three unconvincing reasons before getting to her real answer. First she says heirlooms offer a variety of tastes (true) and “in some cases” have higher nutritional content than modern varieties – but “some cases” is scarcely a major rationale. Next she says heirloom seeds grow true to type every year, but hybrid seeds “might not” do so – again, scarcely a strong statement. Then she says heirlooms “are usually quite hardy,” with “usually” being the operative word (and an arguable one). Finally, she gets to what she really wants to say: “Heirlooms come with stories that are continued and added to by farmers who plant them. They are a legacy that is given to us from the past and that we give to the future.” This is a perfect example of noblesse oblige, entirely ignoring the soaring populations of Third World countries and their desperate need for far larger and more-reliable crop yields than “heirloom” varieties of seeds are capable of providing.

     Castaldo’s main argument is that modern seeds are produced by evil corporations that actually make profits from doing so. And she is right to be angered – from a certain perspective, anyway – at the excesses of corporate protectiveness toward their products. But corporations are not social-service agencies, and after spending hundreds of millions of research-and-development dollars, cannot reasonably be expected to give away what those dollars created. Castaldo prefers to focus on tales of individual heroism and warmth rather than take an overview of the world’s need for food; as a result, The Story of Seeds includes some interesting stories of people, from genetic pioneer Gregor Mendel to seed collector Nikola Vavilov to Iraqi seed-bank scientist Sanaa Abdul Wahab El Sheikh. Castaldo presents the stories of “seed warriors” who are currently alive in a uniformly positive way, openly applauding someone who “speaks about a food revolution, a return to growing and eating genetically pure food,” never considering the underlying reasons for the increasing dominance of hybrid and human-produced seeds over “heirloom” varieties, and never ever allowing anyone from an agribusiness to make any positive comment about the corporations whose products now feed so much of the world.

     The problem with Castaldo’s Moore-like approach is the same as that of Moore himself: extreme tunnel vision. Corporations did not develop new hybrid seed varieties because they are evil entities determined to undercut heirloom growers. They developed them out of a pressing need to help feed a world population that currently numbers more than 7.4 billion and continues to grow. That issue, the population issue, is the proverbial elephant in the room of agriculture, and one that Castaldo – who lives in a rural part of the United States and maintains a plot in a local community garden – resolutely refuses to address. Nicely appointed heirloom-seed sales locations in the United States are thoroughly irrelevant to feeding the 1.4 billion people of China, the 1.3 billion of India, and so on. Perhaps Castaldo would care to explain how to feed the world, in which so many already go hungry, without the use of seeds that were created specifically to address the need for greater and more-reliable productivity, even though at the expense of dietary variety? Perhaps not.

     There are certainly abuses in agribusiness, and certainly practices that are ethically questionable, if not clearly abusive. But that is a nuanced view, and there is as little room for nuance in The Story of Seeds as in a Moore movie. Instead, to cite just one egregious example among many, Castaldo uses the fact that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was once an attorney for Monsanto to imply, wholly without basis, that the Supreme Court is somehow in Monsanto’s pocket because of a unanimous decision it rendered relating to patent law. And Castaldo tends to get so carried away by her own rhetoric that she makes statements that simply do not make sense: “When I was a baby my mother noticed that the color of my skin had turned a weird color.” “Years ago scientists grouped everything living thing into two kingdoms – plants and animals.” Castaldo seems sincere in her concerns about biodiversity and attempts to re-establish a greater genetic variety of seeds to hand down to future generations. But she never really escapes a certain moral haughtiness and self-aggrandizement of privilege that lead her largely to ignore the plight of the millions and millions of people in Africa, Asia and elsewhere who would be justified in telling Castaldo and other well-meaning First World advocates what Bertolt Brecht encapsulated so well (albeit in an admittedly different context and for different purposes) in The Threepenny Opera: Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.” Food first – morals (and moralizing) later.

(++++) NEGLECTED BEAUTY


Schubert: Complete Masses (D. 105, 167, 324, 452, 678 and 950); Deutsche Messe, D. 872; Salve Regina, D. 676; Magnificat, D. 486. Virtuosi Di Praga and Prague Chamber Orchestra conducted by Andreas Weiser, Romano Gandolfi, Jack Martin Händler and Ulrich Backofen; Spandauer Kantorei Berlin, Cappella Vocale Hamburg and Bach Collegium Berlin conducted by Martin Behrmann; Wiener Kammerchor and Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Hans Gillesberger; Kammerchor Stuttgart and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen conducted by Frieder Bernius. Brilliant Classics. $25.99 (4 CDs).

     Renowned for his songs and symphonies, celebrated for his chamber music, Schubert is very rarely thought of as a composer of Masses – despite the fact that he composed six full Latin mass settings, as well as a Deutsche Messe and other liturgical works. The neglect of this music is in some ways understandable: Schubert himself was not particularly religious, and although there is much in the Masses that is songful and beautiful, there is little in them that explores the expressive glories of the human voice to the extent that Schubert does in his songs. On the other hand, the Masses reflect Schubert’s personal, if not always well-defined, spiritual sentiments, which glow through in the music despite the composer’s impatience with formal, traditional religious practice. The personal affirmation of a single holy Catholic church is conspicuously absent in all these Mass settings, yet there is a straightforward and sincere religiosity that comes through in them again and again.

     Although the basic texts that Schubert set were the same in these works (except in the Deutsche Messe), the performance difficulties and overall quality of the Masses vary considerably. The fifth and sixth Mass settings (in A-flat, D. 678, and in E-flat, D. 950) are the longest, the most complex, the most musically interesting and all in all the most effective. No. 5 took the composer an exceptionally long time to create, by his standards: three years. It uses a full-scale symphonic orchestra plus organ, but Schubert carefully calls on instruments when they are needed for particular points of emphasis rather than to produce overall sonic splendor. No. 6 is harmonically rich and instrumentally colorful, despite the omission of the flute that is used in No. 5; and this final Mass, unlike all its predecessors, gives less prominence to the soloists and more to the chorus.

     Masses Nos. 5 and 6 stand above Schubert’s other works in this form, but those works are by no means unworthy of being heard. The Deutsche Messe is a late work (1826, which places it between Mass No. 5 and Mass No. 6); but it is a brief Mass that was written specifically for amateur performance – each section is short and largely homophonic, and the piece as a whole is effective in its intended purpose as a popularization of church music. Each of the four earlier Latin Masses has its own character. No. 1 in F, written when Schubert was 17, calls for a very large complement of performers and features a highly expressive Kyrie and some particularly engaging writing for the soprano soloist. No. 2 in G is shorter, less substantive and less complex, with an especially moving Agnus Dei. No. 3 in B-flat is longer than No. 2 but somewhat more pedestrian in its setting, lacking some of the deeper feelings brought out in the earlier Masses – although still very well constructed and tuneful. No. 4 in C has a different musical hue from the others, being written only for strings and organ – and with violas omitted. In addition to the Masses, the new Brilliant Classics release includes two shorter liturgical pieces by Schubert, Salve Regina and Magnificat.

     This single-box release of all this music, even without any texts (easy to find for the Latin Mass, but not for the Deutsche Messe), is most welcome, doubly so because it is exceptionally well-priced. The performances, though, are not at a uniformly high level – although they are always adequate. This four-CD set is actually a compilation re-release of several recordings that originally appeared on other labels. The Deutsche Messe, conducted by Hans Gillesberger, is an analog recording from 1962; Mass No. 5, impressively and sensitively directed by Martin Behrmann, is another analog recording, in this case from 1978. The other music was recorded digitally, but in several venues and with varying soloists, choruses and instrumental players. The recording date was 1996 not only for Mass No. 1, Salve Regina and Magnificat (all conducted by Andreas Weiser), but also for Masses No. 2 (led by Romano Gandolfi), No. 3 (directed by Jack Martin Händler), and No. 4 (conducted by Ulrich Backofen). Mass No. 6, recorded in 1995, is led by the best of the conductors represented here, Frieder Bernius: his sure-handedness and careful sculpting of Schubert’s musical lines give this work a songfulness and forthright expressiveness that are altogether winning and that confirm the high quality of this final Schubert Mass. None of the other performances is unworthy, by any means, but all tend to be somewhat foursquare: they are diligent and well-paced, but generally a touch too formulaic to allow the music to reach its full expressive potential. Listeners interested in the differences of performance style among ensembles from Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany will find some intriguing distinctions of approach here, but nothing is taken to extremes: all these readings are suitably solemn, well-proportioned and nicely played, although none except that led by Bernius seems really to try to get past the words of the Mass to Schubert’s personal approach to the beliefs underlying those words. Still, this set of Schubert’s Masses shows again and again, in section after section, how Schubert’s melodiousness and fine handling of vocal lines create warmly involving music that makes the straightforward liturgical sentiments of the Latin Mass into something lovely, eloquent and often poignant.