August 14, 2014

(++++) BRINGING HISTORY TO LIFE


Mr. Ferris and His Wheel. By Kathryn Gibbs Davis. Illustrated by Gilbert Ford. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life. By Catherine Reef. Clarion. $18.99.

Superstars of History: The Good, the Bad, and the Brainy. Created by Basher. Written by R.L. Grant. Scholastic. $7.99.

     Young readers get some fascinatingly involving stories of the past – ones that tie into the present – in these well-written books that simplify complex subjects and people, but not to the extent of rendering them into caricatures. In the case of Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, the story has so many fascinating elements that all Kathryn Gibbs Davis needs to do is tell it straightforwardly to make it gripping. Kids today may not realize that the Ferris wheel is named after its inventor (who himself called it a “Monster Wheel”). But they will certainly understand why Ferris’ investors – without whom he could not have built the wheel, since the banks refused to lend him money for it – decided to give it his name. There is so much that is fascinating here. The Ferris wheel was built in response to the Eiffel tower, then the world’s tallest man-made structure, which had been erected for the 1889 World’s Fair. Ferris conceived of his wheel as the main attraction for the next such fair, in 1893, and specifically wanted to show that American ingenuity could produce a marvel even greater than French skill had already made. The trials and tribulations that Ferris faced in trying to get the project approved and funded, the frantic pace needed to get it done before the opening of the World’s Fair – these are the stuff of great drama, and Davis’ decision to let the events unfold naturally only heightens the excitement. Davis explains how Ferris first conceptualized the wheel based on his boyhood memories of water wheels in Nevada. She tells how it worked, why it did not collapse despite widespread belief that it would, and even a bit of the engineering behind it: “George’s wheel worked like a bicycle wheel. Both are supported by skinny, flexible rods called spokes. As the wheel turns, the spokes work together to share the weight. These are called tension wheels.” The enormous success of the first Ferris wheel went beyond the engineering marvel itself. Ferris used electric lights on it at night – helping convince people that the then-new form of lighting was safe. And his wheel helped make the 1893 World’s Fair, known as the “White City,” the inspiration for some very famous places in future generations: the Emerald City of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories, and Walt Disney’s Disneyland – Disney’s father had been a construction worker at the 1893 World’s Fair. The words in Mr. Ferris and His Wheel bring history to vibrant life, abetted by Gilbert Ford illustrations that attractively mix digital media with ink and watercolors. Today’s Ferris wheels owe a lot – everything, in fact – to the original. Kids who read Mr. Ferris and His Wheel will never again look at a modern carnival ride in quite the same way.

     Nor will they look at the art of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as old-fashioned museum pieces after they read Catherine Reef’s Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life. The story of these two extremely turbulent and unconventional personalities is a difficult one to tell for younger readers, filled as it is with sex, violence and Communist sympathies. Simply understanding the background of the lives of Rivera and Kahlo is a potentially difficult task for young readers – one that Reef tackles with care and compassion but without attempting to gloss over their personal flaws or controversial political stands. She does not, for example, hesitate to include a photo of Kahlo at the site of Rivera’s now-lost mural, The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace, or to explain that, in this work, “Rivera had again contrasted life under capitalism and the ideal world he believed was possible through communism. He portrayed Mao Tse-tung and Joseph Stalin as peacemakers and the United States as the world’s warmonger, the only nation to have used the atomic bomb. He showed a dying soldier hanging from a cross, and a humble Mexican laborer guiding his people toward peace.” To be sure, Reef suggests that “Rivera did these things because he was painting dishonestly. He created this mural to please the Communist Party, in the hope of being readmitted to it.” This is a mild remonstrance, although it is true that Rivera was an avowed Communist who had been expelled by the party in 1929, the year he married Kahlo, and was not readmitted until after Kahlo’s death in 1954. But the passage shows just one of the many difficulties inherent in discussing Rivera and Kahlo for younger readers – difficulties that Reef’s forthright exploration of their interconnected lives and their very different art helps overcome. Reef does not shy away from discussing the many love affairs of each of them (including, speaking of Communism, Kahlo’s brief one with Leon Trotsky). But her primary focus is on other elements of their personal lives – and on their art, a number of samples of which appear at the back of the book. The artists’ complex relationship with the United States is explored as well, involving not only the lost Rivera mural but also Rivera’s commission by the Rockefeller family to create a mural for the RCA Building in New York City – a project abandoned when the Rockefellers fired Rivera after he refused to remove Lenin from his art. Then there are the murals Rivera painted for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the 27 panels he created for the Detroit Institute of Arts – plus the very personal art that Kahlo created, including Henry Ford Hospital, after a miscarriage in 1932 required her to spend 13 days under hospitalization. Controversy dogged Rivera and Kahlo, singly and together, throughout their interlinked lives. It is ultimately the many ways in which their lives were linked that makes their story so fascinating, and if Reef does not get into those ways in depth, she at least gives them more than passing references, as when Rivera describes Kahlo’s paintings as “acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing.” A caption for one of the many photos that enliven the book sums the core of it up neatly: “Kahlo and Rivera were happiest when they were together.” But happiest does not necessarily mean happy, and it is this difficult concept that Reef strives to communicate. She explores it well enough so that young readers of this book will be able to see the art of both Kahlo and Rivera with new understanding.

     Aimed at younger readers and taking a much longer historical perspective, a new Basher book called Superstars of History manages to take the Basher trademarks from science and math books and apply them in a whole new way – to excellent effect. Those trademarks include make-believe first-person narration by the characters portrayed (mixed with some real quotes); art in which everyone is round-headed and drawn in a very simple way that nevertheless manages to capture his or her personality; and a clean book design and layout that make it very easy to read what is written and digest the well-researched facts. Basher books look like no others, and this one shows that they can be used in previously unexplored fields and be as effective as they have proven to be in math and science. Superstars of History is divided into “The Ancient World,” “The Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” “Revolution and the Enlightenment,” and “The Modern Era,” with each section starting with a very clear timeline giving dates of major events – and names and drawings of people associated with those happenings. The following pages are then devoted in more detail to the people – starting with a full-page illustration and quotation and then offering a page of narration “by” the individual, with information on what he or she did and what his or her legacy was. For example, for China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi: “I defeated all the other states and paid officials to run the different regions. …Let’s face it, there was only going to be one ruler, and that was going to be me.” One part of his legacy: “If it weren’t for his example, China might now be split into a number of different countries, just as Europe is.” Another example, for Isaac Newton: “I never had much time for people. I rarely spoke, had no friends, and often forgot to eat. Science was my thing.” In a box called “Quirky Fellow,” we find out that “Newton tried to calculate the day on which the world would end. Using the prophecies of Daniel in the Bible, he reckoned 2060 was the likeliest year.” As for the actual quotations from the people in this book, we have Simón Bolívar saying, “I have been chosen by fate to break your chains”; Queen Victoria proclaiming, “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist”; and Joseph Stalin stating, “I trust no one, not even myself.” Superstars of History is an engaging and engrossing book, fascinating for including people from Aristotle to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Attila the Hun to Adolf Hitler. Not comprehensive and not intended to be so, it is just the sort of book that – like the Basher books on math and science – is designed to pique young readers’ interest and encourage them to learn more elsewhere. History books for adults would do well to be as involving as this one.

(++++) WORD-DRIVEN PAGE TURNERS


2015 Calendars: 365-Day—Signspotting; Church Signs; Dog Shaming; Ultimate Optical Illusions. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.

     Not everyone wants a page-a-day calendar that focuses on visuals. Some people find the many picture-focused calendars too distracting, or cutesy, or just not particularly interesting. And for such people, Andrews McMeel has a wide variety of 2015 calendars that, while attractive to look at, are far more about words than they are about cartoons or pretty photos of this or that. Doug Lansky’s Signspotting, for example, is subtitled, “Absurd & Amazing Signs from around the World,” and although every page of it is in fact a photo, it is not the pictorial element that will keep you amused all year. Instead, it will be the words, such as the ones on a real-estate sign in Nevada: “Beach Front Views (just kidding).” Or the sign in India that says, “Please do not Annoy, Torment, Pester, Molest, Worry, Badger, Harry, Harass, Hackle, Persecute, Irk, Rag, Vex, Bother, Tease, Nettle, Tantalise or Ruffle the Animal.” Or the more-modest one in China: “Please don’t hurt the animals while teasing them.” Or the sign by a temporarily closed escalator: “Caution: Escalator Acting as Stairs.” Or the warning sign (if it is a warning sign) in New Zealand: “Wong Way.” Or the one at a beach in Australia: “Warning: Water.” Or the “No Outlet” sign conveniently placed adjacent to a cemetery. Some of the signs are amusing examples of mistranslation and misunderstanding, while others are simply amusing for anyone trying to figure out just what the people who put them up were trying to communicate. For instance: “Point of Hysterical Interest.” Or the sign pair in which one points to “Bluegrass Riding Tour” off to the left while the other forbids a left turn. These are not just signs of the times but signs of the places – and worth a chuckle or two throughout the coming year.

     Chuckles are in order in the Church Signs calendar, too. These are not your ordinary fire-and-brimstone threats or expressions of gratitude, although certainly many churches with roadside displays offer those. Instead, these are attempts to engage people walking or driving past with some gentle humor and reminders of the space supposedly beyond everyday cares to be found inside. True, the exact purpose of a few of these signs is a bit opaque: “Creditors have better memories than debtors.” But others are genuinely thoughtful: “God prefers kind atheists over hateful Christians.” And many are pointed reminders of what counts, or should count, in life: “The happiest people don’t have the best of everything – they just make the best of everything.” “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” “God does not make misteaks.” “Be yourself! Everyone else is already taken.” “You think it’s hot here?” Always pithy and often wry, these church offerings can be a way to connect with a better part of yourself in your daily life: “Instead of pointing a finger, lend a hand.” Or they can be words of wisdom for any day of the week: “A man is also known by the company he avoids.” Or they can simply be thought-provoking: “Always put off until tomorrow what you shouldn’t do at all.”

     That last admonition does not apply to dogs, as is abundantly clear from the words in the Dog Shaming calendar for 2015. Consider: dogs are odor-driven creatures (unlike humans, who are sight-driven), and dogs’ basic idea of food is “anything that fits into my mouth or that I can make small enough so it fits.” Put those two elements together and you have the recipe for a lot of the things that dogs do “wrong,” which is to say, things that dogs do simply because they are dogs. That is what this calendar is all about: dogs simply being dogs, and the way in which that drives their human companions up the proverbial wall. Taken from the Web site www.dogshaming.com, the pages of this calendar feature humans writing things about their dogs’ (mis)deeds and placing them on or adjacent to the canines – which look properly abashed or completely indifferent, depending on each dog’s personality. “Mittens are my favorite snack.” “We ate our mom’s homework” (pieces of which are strewn about). “I ate the whole stick of butter still wrapped.” “Don’t let my handsomeness fool you; I can’t be left at home alone. In the two months since my adoption, I’ve already destroyed two crates, a patch of carpet, and a couch leg.” “When you leave I get sad and lick all the couch cushions.” “I bit a lady’s bike tire today and Dad had to drive her home because my teeth punctured it!” “I stink because I roll in dead fish!” “I play in mud after I get home from the groomer.” “I ate another loaf of bread.” The dogs’ expressions and body language are a big part of the fun of this calendar, and the pups’ misadventures run the gamut of everything you would expect from a nonhuman species with which humans have shared space (but not sensory experiences) for many thousands of years. Some of the dogs actually do look ashamed, at least to human eyes, but plenty of them look unconcerned by or even delighted with whatever it is they have done. And so many of them are adorable that any dog lover will immediate gravitate to and appreciate this year’s worth of “oops” moments. Dog lovers with a sly sense of humor may consider buying an extra calendar to give to their cat-loving friends – since, as is well known, cats have no shame about anything, ever.

     Just as the dog pictures enhance the words in Dog Shaming, so the words in Ultimate Optical Illusions enhance the experience of looking at the illustrations. Here, though, explanatory words and pictorial elements are equally important. In this 2015 calendar by Gianni A. Sarcone and Brad Honeycutt, each day offers something to gaze at with a sense of wonder, surprise or discovery – and an explanation of why you see what you are seeing. “Hypnotic Discs,” for instance, are 16 multicolored discs against a purple background, and they seem to move: “Repeated concentric patterns with contrasting hues cause many visual systems to ‘see’ the presence of motion where there is none.” And “tunnel effect” is a “mysterious tunnel [that] appears to be expanding toward you!” Then there is a picture showing a four-eyed cat – which is disconcertingly difficult to look at: “What makes your eyes dizzy is the fact that they are trying to focus while your brain is fighting to give you the most coherent image of a cat.” Then there is a snail shell that is clearly a spiral, except that it isn’t: “The recurring pattern is actually made up of concentric ellipsis,” which you can prove by tracing them with a finger. Not all the pages here are drawings: there is a vintage photo of a woman with something menacing lurking within it, and another of the Eiffel Tower in which a man’s face appears when you look carefully. There is even earlier history, too, such as “a reconstitution of the oldest apparent moving pattern, first devised in Roman times” and featuring the head of Medusa in the center. There are also several “impossible” drawings, in which there may be three objects or four depending on how you look at the page. These are pictures – and words – that will intrigue you throughout the coming year, helping keep your brain active and in some cases ensuring that you have your daily dose of frustration as you try to figure out what you are seeing. But at least this is frustration that will disappear in a day – to be replaced by different frustration, and different challenging amusement, on the next page.

(++++) THE CHEESINESS STANDS ALONE


Dear Daughter. By Elizabeth Little. Viking. $26.95.

The Perfect Stranger. By Wendy Corsi Staub. Harper. $7.99.

     What is it with Americans and celebritrash? Lacking a hereditary aristocracy – the Rockefeller and Kennedy names having been largely tarnished over the years – more and more people seem to gravitate to a focus on people of no distinction whatsoever. They are the “famous for being famous.”  Or the ones who say words that other people write while standing where other people tell them to stand and dressing the way other people tell them to dress while a camera captures all of it. Or sometimes the ones who can push a large round object through a hoop or knock a smaller round object into a hole in the ground or beef up to grotesque proportions and carry a non-round object across an arbitrary line. These celebritrash, who live grotesque lives of entitlement that, together with their obscene wealth, put them completely and forever out of touch with the existence of those who obsess about them, have spawned entire cottage industries of celebritrash photography, celebritrash rumor and innuendo, celebritrash magazines, celebritrash television – and celebritrash thriller and mystery books, replete with pop-culture references and would-be with-it narration and make-believe insight into the ways in which the celebritrash think (when they think at all) and behave (or, for one must have titillation, misbehave).

     The problem with celebritrash as central characters in books is that, in real life – or life as real as publicists and media hacks allow anyone to see – the celebritrash are not very interesting. Think about asking any celebritrash about anything other than what he/she/it is known for – that is, anything but partying or drugs or moving some round or roundish object here or there. Count on a vacant stare, a prolonged “huhhhhhhhhh?” and maybe an offer of some substance designed to enhance or diminish your and his/her/its consciousness. No real answers there, right? But the nearly inevitable vacancy (“nearly” because there are always, of course, exceptions), while perfectly acceptable and perfectly expectable in the real world, leaves writers with few places to go. A whole book of “look at him/her/it!” and “huhhhhhhhhh?” would get pretty boring pretty quickly. And books are for people who, you know, read, so boredom is less acceptable than on, say, television.

     So authors such as Elizabeth Little and Wendy Corsi Staub are obliged to reinvent celebritrash in order to make their books, you know, readable. Little, in her debut novel, turns out to be better than Staub at this. Dear Daughter is a typical modern whodunit in which the protagonist, Janie Jenkins, mighta coulda dunnit but maybe didn’t, and after her release from prison on a technicality, she sets out to uncover her past and find out more about her murdered mother and discover whether she herself maybe dunnit after all. And if not, maybe she can learn about herself in the process of discovering who diddit. No, scratch that – even Little doesn’t make this piece of celebritrash that self-aware or self-motivated. Basically, post-prison Janie is being pursued by the usual celebritrash followers, including one who makes explicit and dire threats that for some reason Janie never reports to anybody; since her release, Janie’s got nothing to do; so she decides to do stuff in a place (South Dakota) where beautiful celebritrash never ever go. Why there? Because of the usual-for-the-genre cryptic comment she overheard from her mother just before mom’s untimely and exceedingly messy demise. Janie’s quest (nah; too arty; say “search”) leads her to the proverbial Small Town Filled with Dark Secrets and the equally proverbial People Who Are Not What They Seem to Be, and to the inevitable Confrontation with Her Past. All the available clichés are trotted out here, but by George and oh my goodness, they’re handled so neatly and entertainingly that it’s easy to forget that they are clichés. Points and props and a shout-out to Little for that. What she has done is to make Janie not particularly sympathetic – except in the “little girl lost” and “protagonist in danger” clichés of the thriller genre – but so improbable that following her escapades becomes a real pleasure. Janie, you see, is not only an actress in professional (pre-prison) and personal life, assuming and discarding personalities as often as she changes clothes, but is also a kind-of intellectual. She has been schooled in many subjects and has actually retained some knowledge. This leads to some hilarious writing. It is barely possible that celebritrash might need/want to know about some aspects of home decorating, if only to talk to their decorators: “To my left was the salon – well, you might call it the sitting room, but in my opinion any room that contains a recamier can only be called a salon – and to my right was the reception area. There, at a Hepplewhite desk, sat a slender girl with a paperback book…” But it is absurd to imagine celebritrash “trying really hard not to do this math” of the time since his/her/its last cigarette, then instantly doing the math mentally and giving the result in hours, minutes and seconds. And it is even more absurd to imagine celebritrash thinking and writing this way: “I took a long sip of water, because as Sun Tzu said, the general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand, and also the general who hydrates has a nicer complexion.” Or this way: “Hope is asymptotic in its decline.” Or: “I stepped into the kind of room you can feel in your nose hair.” Or: “The house stank of liquored-up Kool-Aid and delusions of invincibility.” Or: “He could be my very own Renfield. If he did a good job, maybe I’d even give him a spider or two.” The writing here makes for a compulsively readable book, one of those “guilty pleasure” novels that are so hard to put down – not because of the plot, whose twists and turns are comparatively mundane, but because of the sheer style of the thing. And if there’s one thing celebritrash know, it’s style. Some authors, clearly including Little, know it, too.

     Wendy Corsi Staub  has more authorial experience than Little does, but her (+++) The Perfect Stranger is less interesting than Little’s book and not nearly as intriguing a take on the celebritrash world. Partly that is because the celebritrash character here is only one of an ensemble: the book is about five women who meet as bloggers about their breast cancer, not really knowing anything about each other beyond the diagnosis. One of them turns out to be celebritrash – and a gigantic and obvious red herring, to boot. Indeed, the obviousness of the plot and the interactions of the women, and the unsurprising story arc from trust to extreme paranoia, get in the way of reader involvement in this book: you can almost see Staub pointing her author’s finger here and there, telling readers to look in this wrong place and that one and then the other. The wrong places are so obviously wrong that the book creaks instead of pulling readers headlong into a place of danger. The characters never really come alive, either: Alabama housewife Landry Wells, the primary protagonist, is better fleshed out than the others, but neither Kay nor Elena nor Meredith (whose murder in the first pages sets the plot in motion) is ever fully formed in terms of motivation or background. And celebritrash Jaycee, who gets a fair amount of time in the pages to go through typical celebritrash contortions of anomie and hysteria – none of them particularly well explained – is almost as obvious and thorough a type as a subsidiary character who has “next victim” written all over him from the moment he first appears. This is one of those books in which one occasionally lurches into the mind of the murderer, but in this case there is not much there there, since the killer’s motivation is unconvincing and the leave-behinds at the murder scenes – yes, this is also a book in which the killer leaves clues – have no clear connection to the murder motive. Staub’s writing tends to be frustratingly sloppy, as when she makes sure that a character hears everything she is being told by phone except, conveniently, for just a couple of words that would solve everything. That is an old, old trope: “I can tell you who the killer really is. Yes, I know who did it. You won’t believe it when I tell you. I’m going to let you know the truth right now. It’s – arrgghhhh!!!” Well, The Perfect Stranger isn’t quite that bad, but portions of it are in that vein. Staub eventually seems tired of the book, too: once the murderer is identified, she simply drops the story, so readers who, against all odds, have become genuinely interested in the characters, get no sense of “what happened afterwards” at all. A quick read that is most interesting for playing into modern fears of the unknown, Internet style, and for using breast cancer as a significant point of connection among its characters, Staub’s book assembles its “thriller” elements too obviously and creakily to provide readers with more than a brief diversion from their everyday lives – or their obsession, if they have one, with the celebritrash world.

(++++) SOULS ABOUNDING


All Souls Trilogy, Book Three: The Book of Life. By Deborah Harkness. Viking. $28.95.

     A sprawling conclusion to a sprawling trilogy that spans time as well as geography, The Book of Life is a satisfying but not wholly satisfying wrapup of a series that began with a truly outstanding novel (A Discovery of Witches) and continued with a lesser but still highly engaging one (Shadow of Night). Deborah Harkness’ first book detailed the discovery by historian Diana Bishop of a mysterious manuscript, Ashmole 782, at the Bodleian Library – and the further discoveries that 1) several pages of the book are missing and 2) the book as a whole is absolutely crucial in some unknown way to the daemons, vampires and witches of Diana’s world, including Diana herself (a witch, albeit initially a reluctant one). A Discovery of Witches soon became a paranormal romance between Diana and Matthew Clairmont (or de Clermont), a dashing vampire with a highly complex and tragic past and a thoroughly modern scientific expertise in genetics. The romance heated up in the second book, which found Diana and Matthew, now married, traveling in time back to 1590 to search for clues to the mysterious manuscript’s origin, importance and disfiguring. The second volume was an absolute delight for history lovers: Harkness, herself a historian, thoroughly indulged her predilections in introducing a huge cast of characters (real and imagined) and in limning the world of 16th-century Europe with marvelous detail that non-historians could be forgiven for finding, well, boring –or at least long-winded. The exploration of olden times was reason enough, depending on one’s personal interests, for reveling in the second book or becoming frustrated with the extent to which the descriptive material got in the way of advancing the plot.

     Well, second books of trilogies do have a tendency to meander as they immerse the characters of first books deeply into the problems that third books are meant to resolve. So the flaws of Shadow of Night were at best ones associated with its placement in the All Souls Trilogy, at worst ones occasioned by Harkness’ overindulgence in a field she knows well and quite obviously loves. Indeed, the felicities of her historically oriented writing in the second book helped make up for some irritating plot elements, such as unexplained personality changes in Diana and Matthew that made them more one-dimensional and in many ways less interesting characters in the second novel than they were in the first.

     Those stylistic felicities are largely absent in The Book of Life, which returns to plots and counterplots with a vengeance bordering on ferocity. The gigantic cast of characters is nearly 100% replicated for this conclusion, as Harkness makes a valiant attempt to follow not only the main plot and main relationship but also a whole series of subsidiary activities and interminglings of lives. This book makes sense only when read in conjunction with the other two – there is no value to entering Harkness’ fictional world for the first time here, and the author makes little attempt to recount earlier elements of the story, which in retrospect is really a single tale spanning some 1,500 pages (similar in this way, if in few others, to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original one-volume plan for The Lord of the Rings). Indeed, it sometimes seems that Harkness herself has forgotten some of the subjects introduced previously: for example, the secrets of vampire-witch interbreeding and of the search for Ashmole 782’s missing pages, which Diana and Matthew were at desperate pains to conceal in the first two books, are revealed entirely too casually, to entirely too many other characters, in the third. So what was all the fuss about? Still, Harkness by and large pulls the Bishop and Clairmont/de Clermont families into and through this conclusion adeptly: family trees and family connections are absolutely crucial to the events here. Readers will welcome the return, with increasing authorial attention, of such characters as Gallowglass (Harkness surely knows that the gallowglasses were elite mercenary Scottish warriors, but her character is a great deal more); Sarah, the matter-of-fact witch; and the icy Ysabeau. And they will very definitely welcome the birth of Diana’s twins, each of them half witch and half vampire – but, again, may wonder what all the fuss has been about when it turns out that there are other crossbreeds in the world.

     What readers may not welcome is Harkness’ decision to make Matthew’s son Benjamin the prime evildoer of the story – an unexpected development (although not wholly unexpected) that would be more effective if Benjamin did not tend to speak in cartoonish-evildoer language that is a significant step below the otherwise crisp, well-thought-through dialogue in which Harkness generally excels. Benjamin’s vile actions are also overdone to such a degree that some of the power of intrafamiliar warfare is vitiated – besides which, Matthew’s dogged pursuit of his son becomes something of a distraction from the Diana-Matthew relationship that held the first two books together. For that matter, the frequently shifting points of view in the third book’s narration can make the narrative unnecessarily intricate, although Harkness apparently intends them to elucidate rather than complicate.

     The eventual resolution of the Ashmole 782 mystery is somewhat puzzling. There is still much we do not know at the end about the book that started it all, including just who created it – which would seem to be an important piece of information. On the other hand, we do find out why the book matters so much and how it fits into the overall mythological framework within which, it turns out, the entire trilogy takes place. The mythology itself may not satisfy all readers – the goddess to whom Diana made a crucial promise earlier in the trilogy seemed like a dea ex machina at the time and seems to be even more of one here. But the books’ structure and events do make sense within the weltanschauung that Harkness provides toward the end of The Book of Life, and this, after all, is her world to create and explain.

     Ultimately, The Book of Life proves itself a more-than-serviceable conclusion to a remarkably cogent and very well realized series that is part paranormal romance, part historical fiction and part intellectual adventure. Those are a lot of parts, and it is perhaps unreasonable to expect any author to balance them all satisfactorily and knit them all together seamlessly at the end. Harkness is in part the victim of expectations that she herself raised: A Discovery of Witches was so good, so intriguing and so out of the ordinary in its concepts and characters that it was a terribly hard act to follow. Harkness followed it well, partly by moving it in new and admittedly sometimes confusingly overdone directions, with Shadow of Night. With The Book of Life, she manages to get her entire story back on track and to bring it – and the tale of Diana and Matthew – to a logical and satisfying conclusion. That it is not an entirely compelling one, nor as stylishly written as some of what came earlier in the All Souls Trilogy, is the result in part of just how much Harkness has tried to do here – and in part of just how high and unfair were the expectations that she created by constructing such a marvelous story and such intriguing characters in the first place. It will be difficult for readers of the trilogy to say farewell to Diana and Matthew at the end of The Book of Life, especially in light of some questions that remain unanswered and some plot threads that are left hanging. But perhaps the not-fully-satisfactory leave-taking has two positive elements to it: 1) A work that leaves readers with plenty to discuss and debate afterwards is one that lives on in the imagination in ways that perfectly buttoned-up ones do not; and 2) A followup or companion work is certainly possible, although by no means assured – and if Harkness does contemplate one, there seems a distinct possibility that Gallowglass, in particular, will loom large in it.

(++++) KEYBOARD MARVELS AND EPIGONES


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-6. Arthur Schoonderwoerd, fortepiano and conducting Cristofori. Alpha. $34.99 (3 CDs).

Frederic Rzewski: Four Pieces; Hard Cuts; The Housewife’s Lament. Ralph van Raat, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Carter Pann: The Piano’s 12 Sides; The Bills; The Cheese Grater—A Mean Two-Step; Your Touch. Joel Hastings, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Cameron Carpenter: If You Could Read My Mind. Cameron Carpenter, organ. Sony. $11.98.

     Rare, rare, rare indeed is it to find a recording that is a must-have for music lovers, but that is exactly what Arthur Schoonderwoerd’s version of the complete Beethoven keyboard concertos is – yes, all of them, complete, including the Op. 61a piano version of the Violin Concerto, Op. 61. These performances, recorded in 2004 (Nos. 4 and 5), 2007 (Nos. 3 and 6), and 2008 (Nos. 1 and 2) are truly revelatory, and for that reason utterly magnificent. They are not grandiose – indeed, quite the opposite. And they are not even piano concertos – at least, not quite. They are fortepiano concertos, and Schoonderwoerd proffers them in one of the most historically accurate and thrilling recordings to be had anywhere, involving any music. These are recordings that, more than any other currently available, show with absolute clarity the ways in which Beethoven was a composer both of his time and beyond his time. They are a perfect introduction to a world in which the Classical era was giving way to the Romantic through a portal named Beethoven.

     These are concertos for an instrument spanning five, five-and-a-half or six octaves, not the 11 of a modern piano. They are concertos written for such an instrument, and here played in earlier versions (when such versions exist) rather than as the music was later emended to take advantage of larger, stronger, deeper, more resounding instruments. These are concertos written to be conducted from the keyboard, which means that, to keep the ensemble together, the soloist plays as continuo in the tutti passages, where he is not in the limelight. This alone dramatically changes the sound and impression of the works. And the ensemble itself is not an orchestra by modern definition – it is a chamber group, with just one pair of violins and one pair of violas, a single cello and bass, and distinctly and appropriately modest complements or woodwind and  brass, plus timpani that penetrate the sound thrillingly whenever they appear, more like lightning than distant thunder. These are concertos meant to be played on an instrument such as the original Johann Fritz fortepiano of 1807-1810 used in Nos. 4, 5 and 6, or on an Anton Walter instrument of 1800, a facsimile of which is used for Nos. 1, 2 and 3. These are narrow-key instruments, close kin to harpsichords, with a shallow fall (about 6 mm, compared with 10 for a modern piano) and – depending on the manufacturer and date of the instrument – with knee levers instead of pedals; or, when they did have pedals, perhaps with four of them. Heard on this recording, Beethoven’s concertos retain their ingenuity and forward-looking compositional elements while fitting to an absolutely perfect extent into the world of Mozart and Haydn. Never has it been clearer how indebted to those earlier masters Beethoven was; never has it been clearer to anyone but a non-specialist how many were the ways in which he moved beyond them – not surpassed them, but moved in new directions that made the Romantic era possible as piano technology developed apace and as the notion of a conductor as a non-performing orchestral leader started to emerge after 1820 (although the performing conductor remained important in many circumstances; witness the Strauss family and its Viennese competitors). Schoonderwoerd’s elegant, poised, beautifully balanced, nuanced, sensitive Beethoven concertos are scarcely the only ones available on fortepiano – the fine version of Nos. 1-5 by Melvyn Tan with the London Classical Players under Roger Norrington comes immediately to mind – but no one but Schoonderwoerd places the works so firmly, and so thrillingly, in their historical context, while at the same time providing such absolute and total pleasure – a chance to journey back in time and to appreciate Beethoven’s genius all the more as a result. No matter how many versions of the Beethoven concertos you already own, this one on Outhere Music’s Alpha label is, to repeat, a must-have.

     A major shift in mental, emotional and auditory gears is required to move from contemplating the fortepiano era to thinking about the piano as used by contemporary composers Frederic Rzewski (born 1938) and Carter Pann (born 1972). New (+++) CDs from Naxos clearly show where the piano, and composers for it, stand today. The comparative gigantism of the instrument itself has long since been taken for granted, and today’s composers are often concerned with extending the piano’s considerable capabilities (and those of the pianist) even further than have previous composers. Even musicians such as Rzewski and Pann, who accept the piano as it is – as a percussion instrument that also partakes of some of the subtleties of the strings used to produce its sounds – frequently try to take the instrument to its sonic and emotive limits, albeit without feeling it necessary to “prepare” the piano to turn it into something it was never designed to be (or have the pianist sprawl over it to pluck or bow its strings, as some modern works require). There is actually a Beethoven tie-in in one Rzewski work here: The Housewife’s Lament (1980) is a set of variations on a 19th-century tune written by an anonymous composer who was audibly influenced by Beethoven – although Rzewski’s variations are clearly 20th-century in sound, technique and focus. His Four Pieces (1977) run the gamut from lyrical warmth (again, in 20th-century style) to dynamic drama, their Andean dance rhythms reflecting the now-common use of comparatively exotic, folk-music-based elements as building blocks. Folk rhythms permeate Hard Cuts (2011) as well, in a work that – unlike the others here – is clearly built with the minimalist style that many modern composers favor. Ralph van Raat performs all the music with sure-handed understanding, as Joel Hastings does the very different music of Pann. The Pann CD is dominated by the full-hour The Piano’s 12 Sides (2011/12), a kind of songs-without-words cycle whose dozen movements are intended to encompass pretty much all the moods of which the instrument is capable: lyrical, sardonic, introspective, virtuosic, danceable, forthright, strange and intense. The piece makes its points rather obviously and goes on at somewhat too much length, but it has many effective moments even though, as a totality, it does not quite hang together. The shorter works on this CD are complementary. The Bills (1997) shows clear ragtime influence; Your Touch (also 1997) is the slow movement from Pann’s Piano Concerto and is suitably quiet, restrained and jazzy; and The Cheese Grater—A Mean Two-Step (1996) is fast-paced, bouncy and intense.

     The intensity is more performer-focused than music-related on a new (+++) Sony CD called Cameron Carpenter: If You Could Read My Mind, its title combining the performer’s name with that of a Gordon Lightfoot song heard on the disc. This is the sort of crossover CD that is aggressive about what it is doing: Carpenter plays what he calls his International Touring Organ, an instrument that he had built to his own specifications to combine sonic elements from cathedral and cinema organs from around the world. The grandiosity of the concept is coupled with a celebrity orientation here, the celebrity being Carpenter himself or perhaps Carpenter-plus-instrument, but certainly not the music. There is nothing particularly bad in what Carpenter offers, and his Bach Organ Sonata BWV 530 and Scriabin Piano Sonata No. 4 performances are respectable if scarcely revelatory. But this is primarily a “look at me!” disc, or rather a “listen to what I can do!” one. Carpenter overdoes the elaboration of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, and in a different way overdoes Bernstein’s wonderful Candide Overture by making it sound like honkytonk music. Carpenter throws a little bit of everything into this disc: Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise (Op. 34, No. 14); Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion; Marcel Dupré’s Variations sur un Noël pour grand orgue; “song paraphrases” including the Lightfoot work plus Burt Bacharach’s Alfie, Leonard Cohen’s Sisters of Mercy, Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s Pure Imagination, and Bob Montgomery’s Back in Baby’s Arms; and Carpenter’s own Music for an Imaginary Film. The juxtapositions might work in concert or on DVD, with the audience’s focus being on Carpenter the performer rather than on the works being played, but here the mixture just sounds self-indulgent and a little silly. What Carpenter wants to do is show things off: his organ and his own playing. What he does not want to do is showcase the music – the works are means to an end, the end being self-aggrandizement. And while this is perfectly acceptable (and even expected) in celebrity-oriented pop concerts, one tends to hope for more from a medium (CD) where the sounds are the things that matter. Carpenter certainly has talent, as his own work and his dabblings in Bach and Scriabin show. But they are dabblings, indulgences in search of ways to keep listeners’ attention on Carpenter and his instrument rather than interpretations where what counts is the music and what the composer was trying to communicate with it. Despite a few impressive elements, this Carpenter disc is a musical disappointment – although fans of Carpenter (one of those obviously being Carpenter himself) will undoubtedly revel in it.

(+++) WHERE INSPIRATION VENTURES


Edward Gregson: Dream Song; Horn Concerto; Aztec Dances; Concerto for Orchestra. Richard Watkins, horn; Wissam Boustany, flute; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Bramwell Tovey. Chandos. $18.99.

Walter Ross: Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra; Piano Concerto, “Mosaics”; Clarinet Concerto. Artem Churkov, double bass; St. Petersburg State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande (Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra); Marjorie Mitchell, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Black (Piano Concerto, “Mosaics”); Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Warsaw National Orchestra conducted by George Manahan (Clarinet Concerto). Ravello. $14.99.

Pendulum—Music of Doron Kima, Clifton Callender, Jorge Variego, Alex Freeman, Eric Nathan, Chris Arrell and Philip Carlsen. Navona. $16.99.

Spectra—Music of Michael K. Slayton, Ken Steen, Stephen Michael Gryc, Ryan Jesperson, Margaret Collins Stoop and Elizabeth R. Austin. Navona. $16.99.

     Contemporary composers are no different from earlier ones in drawing their ideas from multiple sources – whether the world of nature or the works of other composers. But modern compositional techniques take today’s composers down some unusual paths. Dream Song (2010) by Edward Gregson (born 1945) was inspired by and designed to share a concert program with Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, and it is an odd reinterpretation and tribute to that work. It is scored for essentially the same orchestral forces, but Mahler’s alpine cowbells have been replaced by, of all things, a steel band. And the gigantic canvas that Mahler created is reduced by Gregson into 20 minutes and three movements: two slow outer ones and a pounding central Scherzo. The world Gregson evokes is very different from that of Mahler, and the peculiarity is increased when Gregson, in addition to deriving thematic material from Mahler’s Sixth, suddenly pulls in a direct quote – incongruously, from the Adagietto of the Fifth. The result is a hybrid and not wholly satisfactory work, but an intriguing experiment in composer-to-composer inspiration. It is very well played on a new Chandos CD by the BBC Philharmonic under Bramwell Tovey – and the ensemble also handles the other Gregson works here with suavity and smooth skill. The Horn Concerto was written in 1971 for soloist with brass band. Gregson rearranged it for orchestra in 2013, and Richard Watkins plays it very well indeed. The concerto is in in the traditional three movements, each highlighting a different element of the solo instrument: serious, warmly lyrical, and playful (although the horn’s hunting origin gets short shrift). Aztec Dances, a concerto for flute and orchestra, was originally written for recorder and piano. Wissam Boustany asked Gregson to rework it for flute and piano, and Gregson in 2013 made another version – the one heard here – for flute and orchestra. Boustany fully explores the colors and ritual-like rhythms of a piece whose inspiration lies in the British Museum, which had an exhibition of Aztec culture that led Gregson to create the original work. Also on this disc is Concerto for Orchestra, which originally dates to 1983 and was revised in 1989 and again in 2001. At one point, Gregson called it “Contrasts,” and that is what it is all about: varieties of musical characteristics and orchestral sound. Neither as substantive nor as clever as similar works – the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra of 1945 remains the finest of its kind – Gregson’s concerto is nevertheless pleasantly listenable and far less thorny than much contemporary orchestral music.

    Contrasts of many kinds also pervade the three concertos by Walter Ross on a new Ravello CD. All follow the traditional fast-slow-fast concerto pattern, and all showcase specific elements of their featured solo instruments. The Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra is particularly intriguing for allowing the instrument a dramatic first movement and a surprisingly graceful second one – marked Grazioso – before a finale that is filled with more energy than one might expect from an instrument so large and apparently ungainly. Ross is scarcely the first composer to explore the capabilities of the double bass – for example, Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), a virtuoso on the instrument, wrote quite a bit of delightful music for it. But unlike the viola, which attracted considerable attention in the 20th century, the double bass has never commanded much enthusiasm among more-recent composers, a fact that makes the Ross concerto all the more welcome. His Piano Concerto, “Mosaics,” is more ordinary, proceeding from a tuneful first movement through a Largo malincolico second to a genuinely interesting conclusion marked Allegro misterioso that features elements of devilish delight combined with concluding playfulness and brio. The Clarinet Concerto is filled with dance, too, in this case in both outer movements; they sandwich a dreamy and impressionistic Romanza that allows the clarinet to explore the warmth it can convey from its chalumeau register on up. The soloists and orchestras all handle these works skillfully; this is contemporary music that, like Gregson’s, is likely to be attractive even to people who tend to find modern compositions frequently off-putting and overly intellectualized.

    The audience will need to be strongly committed to musical modernity to appreciate two new Navona discs fully. Pendulum and Spectra are anthology releases offering mostly short pieces by composers united primarily by their commitment to the latest compositional techniques and to specific organizations that aim to promote today’s classical music. Pendulum is tied into the Society of Composers, Inc., and Spectra into Connecticut Composers, Inc. There is not exactly “corporate-ization” of music here, but there is little unity to either disc and little reason for listeners not already familiar with specific composers here to engage with either recording. Indeed, listeners who do know one or more of these composers may nevertheless hesitate to obtain a CD that is less than mix-and-match – mix, yes, but match, no. Pendulum includes Doron Kima’s As from a Dream, which focuses on textural variation; Clifton Callender’s Metamorphoses II, which employs techniques usually heard in folk fiddling; Jorge Variego’s Walls (flute nonet), whose title refers to the nine-note block around which it is built; Alex Freeman’s Night on the Prairies, a comparatively accessible work with a title from a Walt Whitman poem and tunes that would not be out of place around a campfire; Eric Nathan’s Wing Over Wing, a four-song cycle about flight that also uses Whitman as a source; Chris Arrell’s NARCISSUS/echo, which draws on Greek myth for a repetitive work intended to reflect both Narcissus’ image in the water and Echo’s plaintive responses; and Philip Carlsen’s October, one of those intellectually motivated works designed to make the audience question what it is hearing by using techniques that make a piano sound out of tune even though it is not. The variegated approaches and instrumentations of these pieces will be of interest mainly to listeners who simply want to hear what composers are doing these days.   

    The case is much the same where Spectra is concerned, except that here there are more works with self-consciously arty titles. In Michael K. Slayton’s Droyßiger Wald, a movement from his Sonate Droyßig, the pianist (Evan Mack) is supposed to reflect the simplicity of life in a small German town. Ken Steen’s re: Moon in the Afternoon features the Avery Ensemble (Annie Trépanier, violin; Hans Twitchell, cello; Adriana Jarvis, piano) in what is designed as a comment on a chapter from Italo Calvino’s novel, Mr. Palomar. Stephen Michael Gryc’s deep-diving loon, for solo violin (Gróa Margrét Valdimarsdóttir), is an elegy for the composer’s father based on a statement by a dervish named Yunus Emre – a rather heartfelt work, but not one whose derivation is particularly clear or meaningful. Ryan Jesperson’s BA(da)SS, for solo contrabass (Ryan Ford), is repetitive by intention – a fact that does not make this unduly cutely titled work easier to hear. Margaret Collins Stoop’s Time Piece for piano (Allen Brings) offers five movements intended to explore aspects of time – an interesting idea not fully communicated by the music itself. And Elizabeth R. Austin’s Rose Sonata, featuring the composer as reciter and pianist Jerome Reed, is a setting of poems about roses by Rainer Maria Rilke, William Carlos Williams and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – and includes a quotation from Brahms’ Intermezzo No. 2 whose relevance is not apparent, although the overall effect of the work is thoughtful and pleasantly warm. Here as in Pendulum, there is little to pull in listeners not already interested in specific composers or contemporary compositions in general – there are some more successful works here and some less successful ones, but nothing powerful or emotionally compelling enough to intrigue those who are not already intrigued by this type of material.