August 18, 2016

(++++) THINK LIKE THE ANIMALS


When the World Is Dreaming. By Rita Gray. Pictures by Kenard Pak. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Faraway Fox. By Jolene Thompson. Illustrated by Justin K. Thompson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

     Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle was renowned for being able to talk to the animals. Today’s children’s-book authors prefer to spin tales based on the notion that they can communicate well enough with animals to know what they are thinking – essentially to “think to the animals.” In the case of Rita Gray’s When the World Is Dreaming, this leads to a remarkably beautiful bedtime book whose sweet Kenard Pak illustrations beautifully complement Gray’s sensitive, thoughtful and imaginative text. The book opens with a quotation from Fukuda Chiyo-Ni (1703-1775), a Japanese poet whose verse asks the butterfly what it dreams of when folding its wings. This sets Gray off on a journey into the thoughts and dreams of various animals watched by a wide-eyed little girl. In the girl’s thoughts, each animal plays – and does other things – during daytime, then finds shelter, sleeps and dreams. The snake rests “after the wriggling, the sunning, the play”; the deer does so “after the walking, the grazing, the play”; the newt does so “after the watching, the crawling, the play”; and so forth. The little girl, Gray’s stand-in, gives each animal a vivid imaginary dream life, and Pak’s illustrations are so lovely that children may just sit and look at them again and again. The snake, for instance, dreams of being the tail of a high-flying kite, the deer of being “tucked beneath a mushroom cap” during a rainstorm, the newt of being transformed into a leaf to stay hidden. For each animal, Gray produces a haunting refrain: “Sleep, Little Newt,/ safe and warm./ Dream until the light of morn.” And “Sleep, Little Rabbit,/ safe and warm,/ Dream until the light of morn” (in this case dreaming of flying, using cabbage leaves as wings); and “Sleep, Little Mouse,/ safe and warm./ Dream until the light of morn” (dreaming of using a boat made of tree bark and a pea pod oar to row across a pond, away from a cat). At the book’s end, the little girl herself is “in a cozy bed, all tucked in,” as all the creatures she has thought about come to visit her sleep and give her “the best of all dreams.” This is so gentle, so lovely a book, that it will cosset children sweetly into slumber night after night and help them awake in the morning with warm and wonderful feelings about nature and the things that animals might, just might, dream about.

     The wife-and-husband team of Jolene and Justin K. Thompson has produced a beautiful nature book as well: Faraway Fox. But this is a different sort of book, one intended to make a point about human encroachment on animal habitats and the ways in which humans can help make right some of the things they have done wrong by spoiling the natural places. The argument itself is the weakest part of the book, being very simplistic and overdone – every single picture showing human habitation is ugly, and there are no people to leaven the dismal scenes, not even children in a playground. The story follows the fox of the title as he bemoans the loss of “the forest where I lived with my family” and searches through the angular, uncaring, dismal landscape of homes and yards and culverts that has replaced “the great shade trees” where he and the other foxes used to rest “after playing all day.” Of course, foxes do not really play all day – like other animals, they forage for food and try to avoid enemies – and there is nothing idyllic about animals’ existence or uniformly ugly about human settlements (many of which have foxes in them: this is an animal that is quite adaptable). The Thompsons want to make a point, though, so they show Faraway Fox, for example, huddling beneath a parked car during a rainstorm, thinking about his big brother and how the two foxes “both loved the water and we’d have contests to see who could swim the fastest and the farthest.” Faraway Fox is terribly lonely when thinking of his absent family: a scene of him crossing a deserted street amid fallen leaves and trash cans has real pathos despite being tremendously overdramatized, as is one of him standing in a deserted commercial parking lot. Finally, though, humans are seen in the book, at a place where there is a sign designating a future wildlife preserve, which the humans are building – and which includes a “new burrow” that runs beneath a highway and that Faraway Fox walks through to find, wonder of wonders, woodland on the other side, and his family waiting for him within it. “I am home!” he exclaims at the end, and children will surely celebrate the happy ending and rejoice with him – while adults will be interested in the author’s note explaining about engineered solutions for displaced wildlife and showing examples of accommodations that have been built in The Netherlands and Canada. Faraway Fox is so well-meaning and so tender in its imagination about how a fox that becomes separated from its family might feel that adults and children alike will be moved by the story and perhaps even want to learn more about how it relates to the real world – using the list of organizations at the book’s conclusion as a starting point. The problem with the book is that it is so determinedly one-sided as to make humans into caricatures and foxes into exemplars of perfection – an understandable approach in a picture book, but one that can be effective without needing to go as far overboard as the Thompsons do. Still, author and illustrator draw attention to some significant issues here, and succeed in producing a thought-provoking story that includes animals that are as beautiful to look at as the human elements are ugly. Reconciling the tale with kids’ real-world experiences and everyday lives will be a necessary task for parents who read the book with their children.

(++++) GETTING GRAPHIC


Ghosts. By Raina Telgemeier. Color by Braden Lamb. Graphix/Scholastic. $10.99.

Dog Man. By Dav Pilkey. Color by Jose Garibaldi. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

     Graphic novels are now firmly established as a genre unto themselves, not quite traditional narrative (not even traditional narrative with ample illustrations) and not quite comic books. But not all creators of graphic novels use the form the same way or with equal skill. Raina Telgemeier has an immediately recognizable drawing style and a firm grasp of ways in which graphic novels can communicate more effectively than all-words novels can. Ghosts is not what most people will think of as a “ghost story” – that is, it is not designed to scare, and most of the spookiness is in the mind of the protagonist, Catrina (Cat), not in the ghosts themselves. Oh yes, there are plenty of ghosts here, but the book is mostly about loneliness, disaffection, worry, and the meaning of family. That is a lot of freight for a traditional novel for young readers to carry; Ghosts bears it better than an all-words novel would, thanks to Telgemeier’s illustrative skill and the complementary, well-thought-out color work by Braden Lamb. The story is about preteen Cat and her younger sister, Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. Because of that, the family moves to a Northern California town called Bahía de la Luna, where the climate is supposed to make it easier for Maya to breathe. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but what it certainly does is make Cat unhappy and uneasy, all the more so when she hears constantly from residents about the ghosts that are to be found everywhere in and around town. These are not evil, scary, haunted-house ghosts but matter-of-fact spirits that interact from time to time with the living residents, especially on Día de los Muertos, November 1. The book starts in August as Cat’s family moves; it climaxes on Día de los Muertos. What makes it work so well is the sure-handed way Telgemeier shows the relationship between Cat (who initially scoffs at the idea of ghosts and then becomes terrified of them, even after she meets some and finds them harmless – because she is afraid they will take away her little sister, whose disease is progressive and incurable) and Maya (whose joy-filled personality shines through her illness and who wants to interact with the ghosts to learn more about them and about what it is like to be dead). The third major character here is Carlos, a boy Cat’s age who leads “ghost tours” in town and whose introduction of the girls to a large number of the spirits inadvertently lands Maya in the hospital. Unsurprisingly, the adults in the book get short shrift – Cat’s parents’ insensitivity to Cat’s fears and worries is particularly irksome – but this is, after all, a book about and for preteens. And Telgemeier’s use of the graphic-novel format is consistently impressive. At a street fair, for example, a full-page wordless drawing shows Cat and two friends walking along as well-differentiated people all around them engage in everyday activities that are immediately apparent in the art but would require considerable descriptive text. Later, four pages of panels showing the town’s celebration of Día de los Muertos bring the scenes of interaction with ghosts to life more immediately and clearly than words would, so that when Cat eventually says, “This is incredible,” readers will surely agree. There is no great drama here, but the matter-of-fact acceptance of ghosts leads to a fully satisfying, family-centered conclusion that wraps up the story neatly without trying to force readers to accept anything outlandish, such as a miracle cure for Maya.

     Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man is a much lighter book, intended for younger readers, but it too makes good use of the graphic-novel format, although in this case it tilts toward the comic-book side of things. Pilkey is best known for the Captain Underpants series that was supposedly created by two friends, George Beard and Harold Hutchins, in first grade. Dog Man is presented as an earlier (kindergarten) collaboration between George and Harold, but one they have now updated and improved. It is still ridiculous, but that of course is the point. The title character comes into being when the nefarious cat Petey blows up the city’s top cop and his dog: the cop’s head is dying, doctors say, and so is the dog’s body. The solution they come up with is to remove the dog’s head (which could always think better than the cop’s could) and sew it onto the cop’s body (which was always stronger and tougher than the dog’s). The result is Dog Man, the stitches between his head and body always clearly visible as he runs around foiling the plots of Petey and various other evildoers. The funniest story is about the criminal activities of the city’s mayor, who manipulates Petey as well as the police force, creating a robot to take the place of the chief of police and make sure the cops do not get in the way of her commercial enterprises (stores such as Tim’s Burglar Supplies, Illegal Stuff 4 Sale and Supa Scam). One effective way Pilkey uses the graphic-novel format is to show these various stores and leave their contents to readers’ imaginations. And other stories are hilarious, too, such as the one in which hot dogs become conscious and try to take over the world. That tale certainly benefits from the graphic-novel approach. Another thing that does is Pilkey’s periodic inclusion of a flip page. No, not a full flip book – it is simply one page that needs to be flipped with the following one, back and forth and back and forth, to create a very crude form of almost-animation. Pilkey tosses a few sly elements into Dog Man that are clearly for adults. For instance, the first-grade teacher who objects to the drawings of George and Harold is named “Ms. Construde.” And at the book’s end, Pilkey offers several how-to-draw-them lessons for characters in Dog Man – including “Invisible Petey” (he is invisible in the criminal-mayor story). That lesson shows eight steps, all of them blank, then gives four examples of expressions, also all blank, the last blank spot being labeled “obsequious.” These drawing lessons alone show the strength of the graphic-novel format for this story, and the fun Pilkey has with his plots – such as one in which Petey gets rid of the words in all the world’s books so everybody will be dumber than he is – comes through more directly and amusingly in graphic-novel form than it would if Pilkey had to produce a traditional, coherent narrative. Graphic novels, it would appear, have definitely come of age – different ones for different ages, all the good ones using the blended words-and-pictures format to very good effect indeed.

(++++) FACT FINDING


The Dolphins of Shark Bay. By Pamela S. Turner. Photographs by Scott Tuason. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

Snakes. By Nic Bishop. Scholastic. $3.99.

Fly Guy Presents: Weather. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.

     Young readers, from those who are just learning to read on their own to those with more-advanced reading skills, have plenty of books that can help them understand the world around them in accurate but still entertaining ways. The excellent “Scientists in the Field” series skews toward older children and a comparatively straightforward approach to narrative – and its looks at the everyday lives of real-world scientists are invariably fascinating. Pamela S. Turner’s The Dolphins of Shark Bay, originally published in 2013 and now available in paperback, is about the only known tool-using dolphins on Earth. These marine mammals find and tear off sponges, use them to uncover edible fish, drop the sponges to eat the fish, remember where they dropped the sponges so they can go back and get them again, and then repeat the process. These dolphins live in the waters off Australia and have been studied for more than 25 years by a research team led by Janet Mann, whose work is at the center of the book. The interaction between humans (scientists or not) and dolphins is unpredictable. For example, at one point Mann discovered that humans were unwittingly raising infant mortality rates among a group of dolphins, at a place called Monkey Mia, by feeding them: dolphin mothers who took food from people learned to beg from beachgoers and boaters, but did not spend enough time nursing their calves or protecting them from sharks. As a result, the calves had a high mortality rate: “Monkey Mia’s baby dolphins starved in a stew of good intentions.” Yet this book is scarcely a generalized condemnation of human behavior toward dolphins; it is more nuanced than that. Still, it shows again and again just how delicate – and amazing – the balance of nature can be. Scott Tuason’s photographs bring the scientific research to life in truly remarkable ways: a dolphin leaps high out of the water, possibly to dislodge an irritating lamprey or possibly just for fun; a shark makes a meal of a dugong carcass; a newborn dolphin calf pops above water to breathe; a dolphin hydroplanes in the shallows to catch a fish; another holds a trumpet shell out of the water and shakes it. These and other photos, along with Turner’s narrative, never quite answer a question posed early in the book: why are dolphins intelligent? This is a query with profound implications – after all, sharks have small brains, as Turner points out, but are extremely successful in evolutionary terms. Brain power is only one survival strategy – one to which we humans gravitate, since we share it, but not necessarily the “best” in any significant way. Turner ends the book with a discussion of whether dolphins can be said to have culture, and what “having culture” really means. There is no answer here – whether the query is even answerable is a matter of opinion – but this is the sort of thoughtfulness that can get young readers interested in these scientists in particular and in science in general. After all, as Mann remarks, “The dolphins’ interactions with each other are far richer, more complex, and more interesting than any interactions they have with us.”

     Shorter, simpler, illustration-heavy books for much younger readers – as young as kindergartners – are invariably less thought-provoking, but can provide a good basis for kids to read more-complex works later as they become more interested in the world we live in. Two new Scholastic “Level 2 Readers” are good examples of this form of real-world learning.  Snakes by nature photographer Nic Bishop, a simplification of his book of the same title from 2012, features Bishop’s wonderful  close-up pictures of snakes’ appearances and activities. From an astonishing view of an egg-eating snake swallowing a meal four times the size of its head, to a hognose snake pretending to be dead to fool predators, to a beautiful close view of an infant Honduran milk snake emerging from its egg, Bishop captures snakes’ colors and distinguishing characteristics with a precision that would make any herpetologist (a scientist who studies snakes) proud. But his narrative is not equal to his photography. The first three words in the book are “snakes are scary,” which is not a good way to introduce young children to fascinating animals with which they may be unfamiliar. And Bishop shows a disproportionate number of venomous snakes, presumably because so many have such striking appearances – even though only about 11% of all snake species are venomous, and few of those have venom strong enough to harm humans.  Bishop’s Level 2 Snakes, like the longer version on which it is based, is lovely to look at as an example of gorgeous photography of fascinating animals. But its spare text, while it provides very basic information on snakes in an age-appropriate way, is best seen as a doorway through which young readers can go on their way to get more-detailed, more-balanced information elsewhere.

     Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy Presents: Weather is at the same reading level, and like other entries in the Fly Guy Presents series, will be particularly enjoyable for kids who are already fans of the fictional adventures of Fly Guy and his boy, Buzz. The book is narrated by Buzz, with occasional comments from Fly Guy but, more often, with Fly Guy being used as visual comic relief – for instance, when Buzz explains that weather originates in outer space, Fly Guy is seen flying about in a space suit, and when Buzz mentions that cumulus clouds look like cotton candy, Fly Guy is hovering nearby eating cotton candy. There is good basic information here on how weather happens, and some material that young readers will likely find especially interesting, such as the fact that a rainbow’s colors always appear in the same order (Arnold shows what they are but does not give the “Roy G. Biv” acronym). Fly Guy is amusing in a rain slicker and a snow suit; Buzz’s drawing of a pinwheel to illustrate the shape of a hurricane as seen from space is a useful visual aid; and the explanation of Earth’s four basic climates (desert, polar, temperate and tropical) is nicely done and readily understandable. In fact, adults may appreciate some of the simple, straightforward explanations here, which are not often provided in standard weather reports: “A hurricane forms when a group of thunderstorms spins over warm oceans. As this group of storms becomes stronger, winds rush to its center. This causes the entire group to spin, forming one massive storm.” The basics of the water cycle are also well explained and clearly illustrated. Fly Guy Presents: Weather is a good example of how skillful writing and attractive illustrations – including lots of photos, plus the drawings of Buzz and Fly Guy – can combine to provide early readers with a solid introduction to science in a way that will encourage them to continue learning as time goes on.

(+++) THE OUTSKIRTS OF PERSONALITY


The Man Who Wasn’t There: Tales from the Edge of the Self. By Anil Ananthaswamy. Dutton. $16.

     Readers interested in a blending of scientific research with philosophical speculation and forays into artistic endeavors will be fascinated by Anil Ananthaswamy’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, originally published last year and now available in paperback. The front cover gives the subtitle as “Tales from the Edge of the Self,” but the title page is more informative, giving it as “Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self.” In fact, although there are tales, and parts of tales, in the book, it is the science underlying the anecdotes and stories that primarily interests Ananthaswamy, a consultant to New Scientist, where he was formerly a deputy news editor. Unlike a book that it appears on the surface to resemble, neurologist Oliver Sacks’ 1985 The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Ananthaswamy’s work does not dwell on the personal elements of the stories the author tells, using them instead to set up scientific discussions. Thus, the reports about people with schizophrenia, autism, body image integrity disorder (BIID), and other conditions are less the focus than the conditions themselves – the result being a comparatively clinical and at times dry look at the brain and the way its functions are reflected in everything from mental illness to modern art, rather than a series of human-interest stories told from a foundational scientific perspective.

     The way a reader approaches Ananthaswamy’s book will thus determine a great deal of what he or she gets out of it. Those interested in the neurological and  biological bases of conditions such as autism, ecstatic epilepsy, even Alzheimer’s disease, will absorb more from The Man Who Wasn’t There than those looking for stories about the impact of these conditions of the everyday lives of the people who have them – and on those around them.  Ananthaswamy’s narrative is more textbookish than empathetic. For instance, rather than discussing the tremendous impact of Alzheimer’s disease on caregivers as well as patients, Ananthaswamy prefers to look at what Alzheimer’s indicates about whatever the notion of “self” may be. Referring to a scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, he writes, “Pia Kontos is not comfortable with claims that Alzheimer’s disease patients ultimately have no self. She argues that even in the face of severe cognitive decline evident in Alzheimer’s patients a form of selfhood persists, a precognitive, prereflective selfhood that’s embedded in the body.” In a similar vein, rather than provide a seamless narrative about a schizophrenic man who eventually committed suicide, Ananthaswamy pauses midway through the story for a paragraph of history: “Schizophrenia was originally called dementia praecox, a term coined in the 1890s by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin. It was Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler who renamed it schizophrenia in 1908. …Yet another stereotype, popularized by the antipsychiatry movement and some of the literary avant-garde, was of the schizophrenic as a romanticized wild man, in touch with his deepest desires and instincts.”

     It is difficult to get a handle on where Ananthaswamy is going with the various case histories and scientific analyses he presents, at least until he ties things up in an epilogue that is managed rather neatly. The case-by-case instances are more problematic. For instance, the BIID chapter does not get into what form of selfhood is involved in people wishing to conform externally to their internal identity as amputees. People who have amputations out of necessity are often greatly determined to use prostheses to reduce the chance of being perceived as amputees and evaluated through that lens; but people with BIID wish to match their external appearance to their internal self-image by having amputations done unnecessarily. What this implies about the self, Ananthaswamy does not explore. He has less interest in this sort of individual-person-centered query than in more-general matters: “In adults, a set of brain regions is strongly correlated with theory of mind: the temporoparietal junction (TPI), the precuneus (PC), and the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). These brain regions are activated when you think about what others are thinking. MIT’s Rebecca Saxe studied these brain regions in children five to eleven years old, ages when they are developing and honing their theory-of-mind abilities. Turns out the same brain regions are implicated in these children in tasks that require theory of mind. In fact, the right temporoparietal junction (rTPI) is most strongly correlated with theory-of-mind abilities in children.”

     This sort of objective, analytical narrative pervades The Man Who Wasn’t There, and readers who find this rather coolly removed style conducive to thoughtful exploration of issues of self and identity will be drawn to the book. So will readers who are interested in philosophical debates that are couched in terms more dense and abstruse than they are transparent and accessible: “One hard-nosed way of looking at the self is to ask whether it can exist independent of all else – as a fundamental part of reality, giving it a unique place in the basic categories, or ontology, of things that make up reality – a self that could not be explained away as being constituted of things with a more basic ontological status.” Readers who find this sort of thinking and argument prolonged to the point of tedium are not the intended audience here; neither are those hoping to learn much of real-world, everyday applicability from Ananthaswamy’s case histories. This is a book for thinkers with a penchant for scientific research into philosophical questions. For others, it is neither particularly accessible nor, ultimately, particularly revelatory.

(++++) SEEKING THE AUTHENTIC


Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths. Klanglogo. $18.99.

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23; Violin Concerto No. 5. Francesco Corti, fortepiano; Thibault Noally, violin; Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski. C Major DVD. $24.99.

Concerto: A Beethoven Journey—A Film by Phil Grabsky. Seventh Art DVD. $27.99.

     The increased interest in historically informed performances of Classical-era and Romantic music – not just Baroque works – has led to some reevaluations regarding the way well-known pieces “should” sound. Some appropriate-to-their-time changes are fairly straightforward, if not necessarily easy to put into practice: violins seated left and right of the podium rather than clustered to the left; much-diminished use of vibrato, reserving it only for special effects; gut strings; natural horns; and so forth. But there are also matters of considerable subtlety, relating to how composers thought in particular time periods – how they assumed (without writing anything down) that their music would sound. Listeners know some of this already: ornamentation was a foundational element of the Baroque era but of course was not written out by composers, since some of the creativity of performers involved devising it in performance, and cadenzas in later music might or might not be written by composers (and if they were, might or might not be intended as the only suitable cadenzas to play). Matters get murkier in the Romantic era, which is why Howard Griffiths’ Brahms cycle with the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt is so interesting. Griffiths has gone back to the notes of conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), considered one of the preeminent Brahms interpreters in Brahms’ own time, and a man who played a large part in establishing Brahms’ symphonies as part of what we now think of as the classical canon. Griffiths has also worked with a book by Steinbach’s student Walter Blume (1883-1933) that incorporates many of the approaches and specific recommendations made by Steinbach with regard to the symphonies. A lot of this material is technical and, unsurprisingly, detail-oriented; Griffiths’ use of the approaches gleaned from interpreters of Brahms’ time may seem to modern listeners to make little difference. But some historically informed elements come through with considerable clarity, such as an easy flexibility of tempo that is by no means rubato but that allows careful accentuation of themes and countermelodies, especially ones that are heard across bar lines. The orchestra plays for Griffiths with care and beauty, and that makes his performance of Symphony No. 3, in particular, an outstanding one. In some performances, this symphony seems to blend and blur, as if its tightly knit sound and structure in fact add up to a single extended movement rather than four related ones. Not so here: Griffiths gives each movement its own character while at the same time highlighting the flow from one to the next and the eventual circularity of a work whose final bars recall its first ones. The repeat of the exposition of the first movement gives the symphony just the right scale (and unfortunately highlights the biggest disappointment in this cycle, the omission of the exposition repeat in Symphony No. 2). The mixture of warmth and clarity in the orchestra’s strings fits Griffiths’ interpretation of the Third particularly well. Symphony No. 4 is less successful, notably in its rather plodding first movement. This is the most Bach-infused of Brahms’ symphonies, and here a clear line and rhythmic sensitivity are absolutely necessary; the work also contains the only true Scherzo in the four symphonies – which here lacks the brightness that it makes it most effective. The overall interpretation of the Fourth is, surprisingly, rather pedestrian – all the other symphonies seem to engage Griffiths in a way that the last does not. It is by no means an inadequate performance, and the orchestra’s playing is again exemplary; but it is primarily the high quality of the Third that makes this Klanglogo release worthy of a top rating.

     The search for authenticity takes a different direction when Marc Minkowski is involved. This is a conductor as intrigued by Offenbach as by Mozart, and as willing to look for the most appropriate, historically informed way to perform them both. For Mozart Week 2015 in Salzburg, Minkowski delivered an unusual approach to historic-performance practice that has now been released as a C Major DVD. In this reading of two wonderful A major scores, the piano concerto K488 and “Turkish” violin concerto K219, Minkowski’s soloists use instruments that Mozart himself once owned. This is a wonderful idea – if not quite the “oh wow” moment of revelatory performance perfection for which listeners might long. These instruments are, after all, more than 200 years old, and although both are in good repair and still sound quite fine, it is highly unlikely that they now sound just as they did in Mozart’s time. They do, however, shed considerable light on Mozart’s own performance capabilities and his attitude toward concertos. This is particularly true for the fortepiano, whose sound is very, very different from that of a modern concert grand and whose compass is much smaller. Seeing Francesco Corti’s hands spanning this instrument and working within its capabilities gives a very different impression from that of a typical performance of the Piano Concerto No. 23. Everything here is lighter, more transparent, cleaner as well as clearer, with Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre providing appropriate-size backup that shows the work to be more a partnership than a display piece. The earlier Violin Concerto No. 5, on a violin from the workshop of Pietro Antonio Dalla Costa, comes across quite well, too, although Thibault Noally’s fingering and drawing forth of considerable brilliance from the violin is not quite as special as is Corti’s handling of the fortepiano – the violin has, after all, changed far less over the centuries than have keyboard instruments. In addition to the two concertos, this well-recorded DVD brings the soloists together for the Violin Sonata No. 21, K304 – but unfortunately only for the second movement, Tempo di Menuetto. Just as a listener starts enjoying the way these instruments sound together, the movement ends – a frustration. The other “bonus” here is even odder: the finale of Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony, which Minkowski and the orchestra handle with beauty and enthusiasm but which really does not fit the rest of this program at all. Nevertheless, for a chance to see and hear two of Mozart’s own instruments in some of his music, this DVD is fascinating.

     There is less fascination, although plenty of brilliant piano playing, in Phil Grabsky’s film featuring pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, Concerto: A Beethoven Journey. The journey of the title is both a geographical one, as Andsnes performs in various venues around the world, and a compositional one, in terms of Beethoven’s development through his five well-known concertos (the sixth, an arrangement of the Violin Concerto, is not included). Andsnes decided to spend four years seeking an authentic view of and feel for Beethoven by playing and recording the concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and Grabsky’s film presents elements of the performances as well as commentary, by Andsnes and others, on the music and on Beethoven the composer. The film is well-made but scarcely revelatory: Andsnes plays a modern piano, the orchestra’s compact size works well for the music but sometimes leads to imbalances between soloist and ensemble, and there is nothing revelatory in the biographical information on Beethoven or the discussions of ways to interpret his music. The interpretations themselves are quite fine: Andsnes plays beautifully and thoughtfully, repeatedly bringing nuances of phrasing and emphasis to the fore in well-paced readings that shine a clear light on Beethoven’s development of the piano concertos even though they reveal no new depths in the works. It is worth remembering that, although Beethoven’s oeuvre is traditionally divided into early, middle and late periods, there are no late-period piano concertos: by the time he wrote No. 5, Beethoven could not even give the première, because of his increasing deafness. So there is no “journey” in these concertos comparable to that made by Beethoven in the symphonies and, to an even greater degree, the string quartets. Indeed, the musical journey here is a truncated one, no matter how far the physical journey takes Andsnes, the orchestra and the filmmakers. For fans of Andsnes – and he deserves to have many of them, based on his playing here – the DVD provides a chance to linger over his ideas and thoughts as well as his musicianship. But the whole hour-and-a-half film can offer only snippets of Beethoven’s concertos, and listeners who start to get involved in the music rather than the visuals and discussions will be frustrated to be unable to follow Andsnes through the entire Beethoven cycle. This Seventh Art release is a (+++) presentation that is visually attractive but, inevitably, musically lacking. It may entice viewers into a journey through Beethoven’s piano concertos, but it will not escort them along the way.

(++++) THE EVOLVING CHAMBER


Brahms: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano; Scherzo from FAE Sonata. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Lars Vogt, piano. Ondine. $16.99.

Hakki Cengiz Eren: Buffavento; Six Studies on Archipenko; Music for Strings No. 1 (Doors); Four Pieces for Solo Viola. Ravello. $14.99.

New Music for Clarinet: Another Look—works by William O. Smith, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Adolphus Hailstork, Dana Wilson, F. Gerard Errante and Sydney Hodkinson. F. Gerard Errante, clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone; Nyle Steiner, evi (electronic valve instrument); Lee Jordan-Anders and William Albright, piano. Ravello. $14.99.

Maya Beiser: TranceClassical. Maya Beiser, cello. Innova. $14.99.

     There are two primary difficulties with the Brahms Violin Sonatas. One is that, for all the differences among them that can be explored analytically, they tend to have a certain sameness of overall sound, and performers do not always do a good job of differentiating them. The other is that Brahms, being a pianist, gave a lot of the heft of the sonatas to the piano rather than the violin, which means the pianist in a performance must be quite restrained, even modest, to avoid swamping the stringed instrument. These issues are worth mentioning in connection with the new Ondine recording of the sonatas, featuring Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt, simply because neither issue is of any real significance here. These are warm, expressive readings throughout, always beautiful and very nicely paced: they actually feel somewhat slower than they are, since Tetzlaff and Vogt emphasize the works’ extended lines and thematic subtleties – bringing the latter out effectively in the sort of true partnership that Tetzlaff and Vogt have evolved through longstanding performance together and that stands them in particularly good stead in these works. The flow, the lyricism here are beautifully shaped, and while there is noticeable rubato from time to time, it never seems out of keeping with the spirit or intent of the music: Tetzlaff and Vogt approach these sonatas with as much thoughtfulness as virtuosity. The two recorded these works before, in 2002, and those readings were released as a live recording, but their performance here is even more assured and beautifully blended than the earlier one, and the sound quality is significantly better. As something of an afterthought, Tetzlaff and Vogt offer Brahms’ contribution to the three-composer FAE Sonata: Albert Dietrich wrote the first movement, Schumann the second and fourth, and Brahms the third, the scherzo heard here. The sonata as a whole deserves to be performed more frequently – it is an occasional piece, but of more than passing interest. But the scherzo often stands alone when musicians offer a Brahms recital, and in that case, it can come across as a pleasing trifle and fine encore – which is how it emerges here.

     Brahms actually extended the scope of violin sonatas in his three works, especially the final one, which is larger in scale and less intimate than the first two. But whatever Brahms did for chamber music was done within a clearly delineated Romantic context that sets his violin sonatas firmly in their time period. These days, contemporary composers of chamber works seem far more interested in new boundaries for their music, sometimes stylistic ones and sometimes ones that incorporate multiple musical approaches. Thus, on a new Ravello CD featuring works by Turkish composer Hakki Cengiz Eren, the first piece, Buffavento for large chamber ensemble (Thornton Edge conducted by Donald Crockett) is both highly dissonant (based loosely on earlier works by Gyorgy Ligeti) and impressionistic (intended as a depiction of castles in Cyprus). Without knowing the work’s provenance, listeners will simply hear sounds that could have come from innumerable other works of our era. Six Studies on Archipenko for quartet (ECCE: Diamanda Dramm, violin; Paolo Vignoroli, flute; Vasko Dukovski, B-flat and bass clarinet; Virginie Tarrête, harp) has a more interesting sound – the instruments both complement and contrast with each other to good effect – but it too depends for full understanding on listeners knowing that it was inspired by an Alexander Archipenko painting called “La Coquette.” Music for Strings No. 1 is for string quartet (Argus Quartet: Clara Kim and Jason Issokson, violins; Diana Wade, viola; Joann Whang, cello) and proceeds by contrasting layered contrapuntal elements, which have a kind of “horizontal” motion characterized by grace notes, with evenly rhythmic interjections that provide a sort of “vertical” set of punctuation points. Four Pieces for Solo Viola attempts to paint four short scenes – “Wandering,” “Scenic,” “Insistent” and “Dialogue” – by having the performer (Garth Knox) take the instrument through contortions that sometimes sound dramatic and sometimes merely painful. Like so much contemporary music, the pieces on this (+++) CD are carefully constructed along lines chosen and understood by the composer but by no means evident to listeners – and, indeed, the audience seems almost irrelevant to works that appear to be intended to show compositional bona fides but not to communicate anything in particular except to those “in the know.”

     The primary focus of another (+++) Ravello CD seems to be the performer, clarinetist F. Gerard Errante, rather than what he performs. The chamber-music works here, originally recorded on vinyl by Errante some years ago and mostly dedicated to him, are among many that take instruments (and not only the clarinet) as building blocks for sounds that work against what the instruments’ construction and sonic range were intended to be, all in the name of expanding performers’ (and, theoretically, listeners’) auditory experience. This is not really a new concept: it dates at least as far back as Charles Ives’ notion that music should stretch the ears. But Ives always cared about listeners’ ears as well as his own; the focus is much less certain in the works heard here. Errante’s own piece, Souvenirs de Nice, for example, is a clarinet improvisation punctuated by prepared piano and including, among other things, Errante playing two clarinets at the same time. To what end? To Errante’s, certainly, and theoretically to other performers’, but not noticeably to an audience’s. Two William O. Smith pieces, Solo for Clarinet with Delay System and Asana, use technology that makes real-time changes in the clarinet’s sound – a collaboration between composer and performer, certainly, but with the audience largely left out. Sonic difference is also the main point of Vladimir Ussachevsky’s Four Studies for Clarinet and Evi, the latter being essentially a breath-actuated synthesizer. Adolphus Hailstork’s A Simple Caprice is more fun than the other pieces here, with a certain bouncy irreverence to its handling of clarinet and piano; it does, however, go on much too long (at nearly 15 minutes, it is the longest work on the CD). A contrast to Hailstork’s outgoing work is the introverted Piece for Clarinet “Alone” by Dana Wilson, which uses a multitude of techniques, often to good effect. The final piece here, Sydney Hodkinson’s The Dissolution of the Serial, is actually fun to listen to as clarinet and piano together make fun of multiple musical genres and styles of composition – including,  knowingly or not, some of the ones employed in all seriousness elsewhere on the disc.

     Errante is scarcely the only contemporary performer whose interest is pushing musical boundaries as far as possible, even if that means breaking some of them; in fact, especially if that means breaking some. The same approach is something of a stock-in-trade for cellist Maya Beiser, whose well-played but vapid (+++) Innova release, TranceClassical, bears a title suggesting that this music is entrancing (which it is not) and also transclassical – across and beyond the classical (which it is). Self-indulgent CDs like this are strictly performer-focused and very much an acquired taste: listeners who think that Beiser is fascinating/important/intriguing and that a cello altered and augmented to such an extent that its underlying tonal beauty and range are largely concealed will delight in the disc; everyone else will wonder what all the fuss is about and/or simply dislike the whole self-important production. Beiser can certainly play Bach – she offers a Bach arrangement to open the proceedings here – but what she wants to play is music that shows how clever she, as a performer, can be, which is why the other bookend of the CD is a Beiser arrangement of a piece by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) that celebrates the divine power of wisdom. The seven works between those of Bach and von Bingen include three world première recordings and pieces ranging from a Kol Nidre by Mohammed Fairouz to Lou Reed’s Heroin in an arrangement by David Lang that actually includes some arpeggiation. This is a disc for people who do not especially like the cello (although the von Bingen arrangement is actually rather affecting) but who very much like celebrity performances. In a live recital or on DVD, Beiser might well be mesmerizing to see: getting the variety of sounds that she extracts from her instrument surely requires circus-worthy contortions and intensity. An audio recording, though, rises or falls on the basis not only of playing but also of what is being played. The material here, intended to be variegated, is really just a hodgepodge connected by Beiser’s interest in it and her skill at playing arrangements (her own and ones by others). This sort of production can no longer be considered defiantly different or consciously contemporary – it is simply one more performer-as-celebrity offering in which the material presented is mostly thin and the focus is more on the person delivering the musical message than on the message’s content.

August 11, 2016

(++++) EARNING THEIR EXCLAMATIONS!


Hooray for Today! By Brian Won. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

Move Over, Rover! By Karen Beaumont. Illustrated by Jane Dyer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

You Had One Job! By Beverly L. Jenkins. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     There is nothing unusual in the use of exclamation points to make a book’s title seem more emphatic or intense. The exclamatory approach can be overdone, of course, but sometimes it just seems to fit a book’s theme particularly well. For instance, Brian Won’s story of a little owl that wakes up and wants to play with all the other woodland creatures is aptly called Hooray for Today! The title reflects the eyeglasses-wearing owl’s upbeat feelings as she leaves her home in a tree and pulls along a red wagon laden with all sorts of things for playtime, from books to balloons. The only problem is that “today” for an owl is “tonight” for all the other animals. And there is quite an assortment of animals here – this is not just a typical forest full of birds, chipmunks, squirrels and the like. The very first animal whose home Owl, wearing a party hat, approaches, is Elephant, who is sleepy and cannot play when Owl wants to – so Owl cooperatively tucks him in and wishes him good night. The second animal is Zebra, for whom Owl blows a blast on her trumpet. But Zebra too wants to sleep, “so Owl tooted a lullaby” (which Zebra, holding hoofs over her ears, appears not to find very restful). And off Owl goes to find Turtle, the third friend to whom she says, “Hooray for Today!” in big, multicolored letters. But Turtle is not tempted to play by the balloons that Owl brings – he wants to sleep. Owl helpfully ties the balloons around his shell to raise him a bit into the air, then pushes him gently back and forth, as if on a swing. Unfortunately, Owl’s upbeat helpfulness does not bring her anyone to play with – not Giraffe, not Lion, not anybody. Eventually Won shows a wordless silhouette scene of Owl, her wheelbarrow empty except for the party hat and her eyes wide open, standing on a rock all by herself, with nobody else there. She walks sadly back home as the sun rises – and then, of course, all the other animals wish her good morning and now want to play. But now Owl is too sleepy to have fun, and – of dear, how will Won ever end this happily? The answer is that Owl decides simply to take a nap, not to sleep the whole day away, so the very last page of the book has her and her friends wide awake and enjoying themselves. And the book’s final words are suitably exclamatory: “Hooray! Let’s play!”

     Playtime is not the issue in Karen Beaumont’s Move Over, Rover! In this book, everyone wants to sleep at the same time. The problem is that all the animals want to sleep in the same place as well: Rover’s doghouse. The book actually starts with Rover alone in his doghouse, wishing for someone to play with, but then a big storm begins and Rover is just glad to have a nice, cozy place to sleep until the rain ends. The doghouse gets a mite too cozy as time goes on, though. First Cat comes by, looking for a place to stay dry, and accommodating Rover gladly makes room. Then Raccoon needs a warm place to rest while the rain comes down, so both Rover and Cat scoot over. Next comes Squirrel, and then Blue Jay, and then Snake (who can slide in pretty easily), and then Mouse – but now Beaumont’s narrative explains, “Tight fit. Might split./ Sorry, Mouse, Full house!” Indeed, Jane Dyer’s delightful illustrations, which give each animal a personality, clearly show the increasingly tight quarters into which the would-be sleepers cram themselves. Then, all of a sudden, everyone rushes out into the rain! Why? It turns out that one other animal needs a warm, quiet place to stay for a while: Skunk! And so the animals scurry about as the storm comes to an end – and when it does, they all look for Rover, who, it turns out, has gone back to his now-vacated doghouse all by himself to have some well-earned, if interrupted, rest. Originally published in 2006 and now available in paperback, Move Over, Rover! is as enjoyable a decade later as it was when it first came out, with the simple, simply told story having just as much charm and the illustrations being just as winningly expressive.

     Intended not for kids but for adults – perhaps that should be “for kids of all ages” – Beverly L. Jenkins’ compilation of “Hilarious Pictures of Jobs Gone Horribly Wrong” (as the subtitle has it) certainly deserves both its exclamation-point title and the word emphasis within it: You Had One Job! This is one of those books that capture evanescent Internet scenes and give them a kind of permanence between old-fashioned paper covers. The scenes here are ones so self-evidently wrong that Jenkins’ captions are usually unnecessary (although sometimes quite amusing). There is the packaging of a child’s plastic tea set, for which a copy writer clearly unfamiliar with English has produced the promotional line, “Happy tea time to argue!” There is the supermarket display of ears of corn labeled “bananas,” and the individually wrapped bananas that are individually labeled “whole apple.” There is the back-of-a-school-bus sign that reads, in its entirety, “This Vehicle Does Not.” There is a neatly lettered store sign directing patrons to “Restooms,” and another – this one in a parking garage – telling people to “Pay Your Parking Fee Before Existing.” There is the sign on a repair department – you know, where you go to have things fixed – that reads, “Maintenanc.” Also here are the Thanksgiving-themed item misprinted as “Give Thinks,” the be-careful road warning that you are approaching a “CSOHOL” (with the “C” backwards, too), the picture of a big-eyed and child-friendly snail labeled as “sanil,” and the carefully identified utility label (actually cut into concrete) in the California capital city of “Sacarmneto.” The retail industry proffers a display of “ZzzQuil” nighttime sleep medicine with a big sign saying “Feminine Creams” and a bounteous display of lipsticks on the front of which hang coupons for $1 off cheese. There is a Staples-brand calculator whose 12 numbers read, in groups of three, “7-8-9,” “4-5-4,” “1-2-1,” and “0-decimal point-0.” There is a colorful display of butane lighters labeled “Pregnancy Test.” There is a “one way” street sign pointing to the left and, just below it, a “no left turn” sign. There is a well-made, very professional-looking sign in a coffee shop that offers the slogan, “Every coffee freshly is ground to order, just for you.” And there is a bookstore whose “Self Help/Reference” section proudly displays Dr. Seuss books. Come to think of it, that last one makes sense. The rest of the entries in You Had One Job! don’t, but the job of this book is clearly to make people laugh at the foibles of the world around us, and that job is one it does well, and with exclamatory enthusiasm.

(++++) FOR THE LITTLEST ONES


You Are My Cupcake. By Joyce Wan. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $12.99.

I Love Hugs and Kisses. By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

How Do Dinosaurs Go to Sleep? By Jane Yolen. Illustrations by Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $6.99.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bell! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Turkey! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     It is never too early to get kids interested in reading, or at least in the concept of books as sources of enjoyment. That is a large part of what board books are all about – yet even they are not designed for the very youngest babies. For an age group that might be called pre-pre-readers, there are some truly adorable cloth books, basically book-shaped toys that they can crush and hug and hold and cuddle and, oh yes, open and shut just like books – and can hear read aloud to give them their first taste of the notion of words, pages and stories. Joyce Wan’s You Are My Cupcake is a delicious (sorry about that) example of this subgenre of kids’ books. On the cover, the book’s title is also the first line of the text, and Wan’s illustration shows a very simple, broadly smiling cupcake with multicolored dots sprinkled on top. The next page has the words “my sticky little gumdrop” and a picture of a smiling purple gumdrop – speaking of which, parents will be happy to know that the cloth book wipes clean with a damp cloth when a child inevitably falls in love with it and cannot resist gumming or teething on it. Then come the words “my mushy little sweet pea,” with a smiling yellow pea peeking (or pea-king) out of a green peapod. And then “my oven-baked cutie pie” with, yes, a pie, whose crust is all smiles and whose whipped topping looks a lot like a swirl of a baby’s hair. One more page turn, and there is the back cover, with the words, “Baby, I could just eat you up!” And the picture here is again of the happy cupcake, now with a slightly different expression. So few words, such simple pictures, and yet there is clearly a story of sorts here – one that the very youngest potential readers will gravitate to immediately, even if the book itself doesn’t taste quite as good as the goodies Wan has created for it.

     Board books get slightly more complicated than this, but the ones for the littlest children have much the same theme. Sandra Magsamen’s I Love Hugs and Kisses simply gives an example of the former on each left-hand page and the latter on each right-hand one, with suitably snuggly pictures. “Hug me when we’re in the car,” the book starts out; “kiss me when we’re under a star,” it continues. The first page shows big and little foxes, the second big and little frogs, none of the animals being at all realistic but all of them being doggone cute. Later pages feature owls, ducks, monkeys, pandas, bears, and rabbits, each time in large-and-small pairs and each time hugging or kissing – with red hearts decorating every picture. Simple to page through and fun to read to a very young child, I Love Hugs and Kisses is made sturdily enough so kids can grab and play with it – which they will want to do because of the cover, which features a panda with a big smile and fun-to-touch ears and arms made of felt. The cover identifies this eight-inch-square volume as a “heart-felt” book, which it certainly is both in theme and in cover design.

     Some smaller-size board books go farther into storyland and feature a lot more words. The Jane Yolen/Mark Teague How Do Dinosaurs Go to Sleep? is only six inches across and seven inches top to bottom, but it is packed with words – not only in Yolen’s rhyming story but also in the accurate labeling of the dinosaurs that Teague draws with such expertise here and in other entries in this delightful and unusual series. This really is a sequence unlike any other, using accurately rendered dinosaurs to stand in for kids being disobedient early in each book and behaving properly later on. Yolen reasonably asks whether a dinosaur, at bedtime, will “stay in the closet?/ Behind a closed door?” And there we have the very toothy, highly horned head of a wide-eyed estemmenosuchus peeking out of the closet. Yolen asks whether bedtime is the time to scream “NO NO NO!” at one’s mother, and Teague shows a brilliant-yellow, blue-striped, birdlike enigmosaurus doing just that (and disobediently pointing a claw at mom, too). A few pages later, though, in the “proper behavior” part of the book, there is a hilarious picture of a Tyrannosaur-like majungasaurus about to use one of its very small forelimbs to brush a great many teeth – using a teeny-tiny (definitely child-size) toothbrush. Still later there is an in-bed picture of “bear on his left side,/ and cat on his right,” which happens to feature a dragon-like sauropelta looking lovingly at the stuffed animals. The disparity between the huge, fierce-looking dinosaurs and their human parents and surroundings is what gives all the books in this series so much visual interest. Kids who do not yet know these books can start with any one of them, and are sure to want more of what they get in How Do Dinosaurs Go to Sleep?

     Other multi-book series are somewhat less inventive – fun in their own way, but a bit overdone. Lucille Colandro’s There Was an Old Lady… sequence is amusing enough as it revisits, updates and plays around with the old song about the old lady who swallowed a fly (and many other things) and “perhaps she’ll die.” No one ever dies in Colandro’s books, neither the old lady nor all the creatures she consumes and inevitably disgorges at each book’s conclusion. The latest of these books have holiday themes  but otherwise follow the expected formula. There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bell! was originally published in 2006 and is now available as a board book. There is never really any mystery as to why the old lady is swallowing the bell and some bows and some presents and a gigantic sack – one reason these books are not quite as intriguing as some others for this age group and get (+++) ratings. Much of the fun here is in Jared Lee’s always-appropriate illustrations, which get especially amusing in this volume when the old lady swallows a sleigh (Lee needs two pages to show that bit of consumption). Colandro’s text is more uneven than Lee’s pictures, the words often lacking rhythm and meter and not always offering particularly clever rhymes: “There was an old lady who swallowed some reindeer./ They were in full flight gear, those soaring reindeer.” The Christmas theme of the book will make it enjoyable for kids, though, and Colandro wisely avoids having the old lady swallow Santa – he simply waits for her to give him a ride in the sleigh she has just coughed up. Kids who already enjoy this series will have fun with its holiday orientation here – and will also enjoy the Thanksgiving-focused There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Turkey! This one is not a board book, but text and illustrations are right at board-book level, and it is easy to imagine a board-book version showing up at some point. What is important to note here is that the old lady does not eat a turkey: she swallows a turkey, which remains very much alive and eventually emerges from the old lady’s stomach along with everything else that has been swallowed (a football, a huge balloon in the shape of the old lady’s ever-present and long-suffering dog, a rowboat, and more). As usual, Lee’s exuberant illustrations make up for some of the deficiencies of the text: “There was an old lady who swallowed a horn of plenty./ She could’ve swallowed twenty horns of plenty.” Kids looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas will find these seasonal offerings enjoyable if they have already made the old lady’s acquaintance and are curious about just what she will swallow next, and how she will look when doing it.

(+++) SPOOKY STUFF


Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom. By David Neilsen. Illustrated by Will Terry. Crown. $16.99.

Shadow House #1: The Gathering. By Dan Poblocki. Scholastic. $12.99.

     David Neilsen cleverly opens his debut novel with the 17th-century nursery rhyme about disliking Dr. Fell but not knowing why (“I do not like thee, Dr. Fell….”). That becomes, in effect, the plot of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom, except that after a while, protagonists Jerry and Gail Bloom and Nancy Pinkblossom know full well why they do not like Dr. Fell. They just do not quite know who, or what, he is. Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom is a self-contained novel (although the ending hints of possible sequels) in which the creepiness is occasionally leavened by humor and the style is engaging, if somewhat uneven, throughout. It starts when an abandoned brick house on Hardscrabble Street, which has stood empty for a generation, is sold to Dr. Fell and thus removed as a play area for neighborhood children, who have been having a grand time in what any self-respecting parent would have forbidden them to visit (it’s long-unused, after all, and who knows what dangers there might be?). Dr. Fell apologizes to the children for buying the house and thus removing their play area, and promises to make amends, which he does by building a genuine playground that is filled with all sorts of marvels and wonders. Dr. Fell is a kind of anti-Willy Wonka: he is elderly, stooped, dressed all in black, and wears a purple top hat. That is, he starts as an elderly man, but as strangeness follows strangeness in Neilsen’s book, he seems to grow – younger. Now, you might think this involves something nefarious, some sort of damage to the children. But not so: all that happens is that as more and more kids play in Dr. Fell’s playground, they inevitably have accidents, and Dr. Fell quickly cures their hurts and returns them to play and everyday life. What could possibly be wrong with that? Well, a lot of things, as it turns out. Dr. Fell does take something from the children when he heals them, but Jerry, Gail and Nancy only gradually come to understand what it is and why he must be stopped. The three central characters have a fair amount of personality. Gail and Nancy are best friends; Jerry is two years younger than his sister and possessed of a quick, facile intelligence. Nancy barely tolerates him – she insults him at every turn – but her courage, especially as things get complicated, makes up for a great deal. As for Gail, she holds the modest middle ground among the three, being quiet and risk-averse, but with a core of solidity that stands her in good stead. The differentiation of the three protagonists helps make their team effort to stop Dr. Fell more exciting, giving readers three different sorts of characters with whom to identify. Certainly young readers will not think much of the feckless parents and other adults here, since they are pretty much useless – with one exception, as Jerry, Gail and Nancy eventually discover. Actually, the parents are worse than useless, because they soon come under whatever spell Dr. Fell is casting and begin acting strangely – to such a degree that in the book’s dénouement, one of them is left to wonder, “Honey, do you have any idea why I’m carrying the turkey baster?” This seems to lay things on a bit too thickly, and that is the primary failing of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom: it tries a little too hard to be clever. For example, Dr. Fell speaks in elaborate sentences the first time he says anything (“I imagine you are in a great deal of severe pain at this particular moment, my fine young rapscallion”); then he generally translates himself afterwards – and while this is a nice bit of characterization at first, it grows old quickly and very old as it goes on and on. Also, as the plot deepens, or at last thickens, Neilsen tries to have it turn on one of those insatiable-bloated-darkness beings from a world where the geometry is somehow wrong – a distinct touch of H.P. Lovecraft that fits at best uneasily onto what has come before. Preteens will enjoy the three central characters here and some of the initial buildup of the plot, including the specifics of some of the attractions of Dr. Fell’s playground. They may even like to read yet another book in which the ultra-clueless adults must be saved by their quick-thinking kids. But Neilsen simply overdoes the attempt to combine humor with scariness, managing to diminish both in the process. Will Terry’s illustrations do enliven the book, but do not really make it any more atmospheric.

     The illustrations are a big part of the effect of The Gathering, the first book in a series called Shadow House, but saying that they “enliven” the proceedings would be stretching things. The vintage-looking photos are genuinely creepy, and neither they nor anything else in this book even tries to be funny. Dan Poblocki goes entirely for the dark side here. Poblocki sets up a series of different story lines involving children who end up together in the house of the series title. Poppy, living in an orphanage, gets a letter inviting her to live in her great-aunt’s mansion. Marcus is invited to a music school. Azumi is invited to a school as well – in her case, a prestigious and academically challenging one. Brothers and sitcom stars Dash and Dylan are invited to film a horror movie. And so all five kids end up in the same house, which of course is not as it has been described to any of them. Kids in old-fashioned outfits pursue them as all the usual horror-book (and horror-movie) effects are trotted out, from moving hallways to disappearing doors. The five kids try to figure out what is going on, and readers will be kept guessing, too, but may end up even more confused than the protagonists are. Unlike Neilsen, Poblocki does not make any real attempt to flesh out the characters – they remain types as he focuses entirely on what sort of scare he can come up with next. And the narrative changes point of view often, sometimes in the middle of a chapter, to a degree that can be confusing. Poppy eventually finds papers that say an ancestor of hers ran an orphanage where he abused children, and somehow Shadow House is tied to that, but readers hoping for even a glimpse of what all this means or who is behind it will be distinctly disappointed, because there is no trace of that in The Gathering. In fact, the ending of the book, which quite explicitly sets up the sequel, is not at all satisfying: nothing is concluded or explained, and while this is to some extent inevitable in the first book of a series, Poblocki takes the arrangement to an extreme that comes across as more a cheap trick than a genuine cliffhanger. The peculiar illustrations – the damaged dolls, the shambling boy in a dog mask, the letter-bearing balls mysteriously spelling out “let’s play” – pull readers into the story more effectively than much of the text. In fact, the book’s very clever cover is quite a come-on: a plastic overlay creates a ghostly effect for the head of a girl who seems to be holding up a mirror – then, opening the cover reveals the girl herself looking completely normal, except that there is the shadow of a mysterious, long-fingered, long-nailed hand on the wall behind her, apparently about to grab her hair or head. Shadow House tries to replicate some of the approaches used so successfully by The 39 Clues: images and sigils in the book tie to a free app that readers are encouraged to download and interact with. That will be fine for anyone wanting additional hauntings, but it does nothing to make the formulaic elements and non-ending of The Gathering any more satisfying.

(+++) IDEALISM AND REALITY


Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child. By Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. Scribner. $26.

     In the sweetness and light of a fully rational and emotionally balanced world, parents with an infinite amount of time and no stressors outside the home will joyously affirm and implement child psychologist Ross W. Greene’s inspirational child-rearing model, Collaborative & Proactive Solutions. Practicality and Pollyanna-ism are at constant war in this extremely well-meaning, very well-written handbook, in which Greene tries to reorient child-rearing for an increasingly collaborative and interconnected future. His basic approach is to simplify methods of raising kids into Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. The first, the traditional method, involves parents’ unilateral imposition  of solutions, and is the one against which Greene has set up Plan B – which is the idea that all people, including children, want to do well and will do well if they are able to and are given the chance. Plan C is not a middle ground but a holding back, the temporary avoidance of an unsolved problem until a better time, and the decision to see whether a child can handle it on his or her own; the problem, if and when it must be dealt with later, is then managed using Plan B.

     Like economists assuming that all economic decisions are inherently rational, Greene assumes that all parent-child interactions inherently involve understanding, mutual respect and a joint desire to do what is best. Communication, constant and at length, is the core of Greene’s Plan B, whose three steps involve empathy, defining adult concerns, and capital-I Invitation, which means mutually agreeing “on a solution that (a) is realistic, meaning both parties can actually do what they’re agreeing to do, and (b) will address the concerns of both parties.” The foundational argument here is that such solutions can always be found.

     Beware of “always.” Greene cogently and intelligently argues that parents should not react to a child’s poor behavior as if it is a problem, because it is in fact a reaction to a problem that parents and children must identify and solve together. This is often true, but not always true. He argues that children, even ones as young as, say, five, can understand collaborative problem-solving and can, when exposed to it, use it beneficially so that they eventually grow into the sorts of human beings parents want them to become. This is often true, but again, not always true. The simple reality is that some adult concerns – notably ones involving safety, a word that does not even appear in this book’s index – are not matters for collaborative, cooperative problem solving, which in fact would abrogate parents’ underlying need to care for children until they are able to care for themselves.

     Greene presents lots of real-life situations and narratives to support his Plan B approach, and his question-and-answer segments, of which there are many, will be very valuable when things progress in real life as he predicts that they will. They often will, but not always. There is so much reasonableness here: “Remember, unsolved problems are shared by you and your kid. Your energy, effort, and persistence alone won’t solve them. You still need your partner.” That is really what Raising Human Beings is all about: the notion of children as partners in a family. Readers who can accept that concept will find a wealth of implementation assistance here. Those who cannot – well, Greene is not always helpful in answering some of the many questions he sprinkles throughout the book. He has a tendency to bend words and evade direct responses. Take the matter of actions having consequences, for example. He provides the question, “So adult-imposed consequences are out of the parenting mix completely?” This invites a “yes,” “no,” or “yes, in one sense, but no, in another,” response. What Greene does, however, is say, “The big question is whether you really need adult-imposed consequences.” A bit later, he moves on to, “Don’t you think it’s important for kids to be held accountable and to take responsibility for their actions?” Again, “yes, but not in the traditional sense of accountability,” or something along those lines, would be a reasonable thing to say. Instead, Greene writes, “Too often, the phrases hold the child accountable and make him take responsibility are really codes for punishment.” Parents who read Greene’s many responses along these lines may be forgiven for wanting to say, “Doggone, answer the question already!”

     At least one hopes parents may be forgiven. There is not much forgiveness in Greene’s formulation for parents who may fall short of the ultra-reasonableness that lies at the core of Plan B. “Maintaining your perspective is crucial to keeping your anxiety under control,” Greene writes, which means that parents having anxiety in trying to handle their children under Plan B are suffering from a failure of perspective. Again and again, Greene indicates that parents who do not follow Plan B are heading for trouble of their own making, since the basis of Plan B is the notion that children are inherently rational and desirous of doing well: “Kids do well if they can – if your kid could do well, he would do well, because doing well is preferable” (italics in the original). Measuring up to Greene’s ultra-rational child-rearing method will be a tall order for many parents, especially ones who head single-parent households, work two jobs to keep food on the table, work long hours under stressful conditions, have adult-to-adult difficulties with partners or work colleagues or other family members, or simply have significant time limitations that make the no-shortcuts approach to every parent-child interaction impossible or, at best, extremely difficult (and, yes, stress-provoking and anxiety-producing). Greene’s Plan B is an admirable concept and an enormously worthy goal, and his attempt to provide specific implementation advice in Raising Human Beings is equally admirable. But there is something utopian about the notion of adults using Plan B throughout the child-rearing years. Just as “Homo Economicus” allegedly has an infinite ability to make rational economic decisions, so Greene’s Plan B parents have infinite patience, time and verbal ability for rational family discussions and decisions. A goal of using Plan B, at least to the extent possible, is a very worthy one. An expectation of using it is a recipe for parental self-doubt and fear of falling far short of the “right” way to raise kids.

(+++) LATIN TOUCHES AND OTHERS


Havana Moon. TransAtlantic Ensemble (Mariam Adam, clarinet; Evelyn Ulex, piano); Liana Gourdjia, violin; J.P. Jofre, bandoneón. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

Ferdinando De Sena: Spalding’s Bounce; Deceptive Clarity; Pulsonic Turn; Art Market; Lasting Virtue; Eyes of Resurrection; Anima Mea; The Wind from the Fire. Navona. $14.99.

Miguel Chuaqui: Confabulario; Saturniana; Trance; Blues en el Corazón. Ravello. $9.99.

MODES: Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 30. Navona. $14.99.

     It has become commonplace for contemporary “classical” composers to produce music that is often not recognizably “classical” in any meaningful sense. Instead it is “crossover” music, with a shape and heritage of its own – or rather multiple heritages, since it draws on some mixture of “world music” (that is, non-Western, non-European material), jazz, popular tunes, rock, blues; the list goes on and on. Listeners attracted to this sort of musical blend have a great many places to find it: one of the issues with the style (for composers if not necessarily for an audience) is that it sounds so similar no matter who has put a particular set of influences together. There is generally very little distinctive about blended music by Composer A vs. that of Composer B, and this can actually be good for listeners, who can seek out works by unfamiliar composers with some assurance that they will find the style congenial. But it can be off-putting for listeners not (or not yet) enamored of the combinatorial approach, who cannot be quite sure where to turn for samples of this type of music. Some releases do try to make it easier to approach musical blends. Havana Moon from Steinway & Sons, for example, mixes a couple of short, evocative, authentically Latinate piano works by Heitor Villa-Lobos (Skyline of New York and Valsa da Dor) with Latin-influenced pieces by three contemporary composers. The three are Paquito D’Rivera (born 1948), who contributes The Cape Cod Files (four movements), Habanera, Contradanza and Vals Venezolano; Miguel del Águila (born 1957), whose Tango Trio, Nocturne and Silence are heard here; and bandoneón player J.P. Jofre (born 1983), whose works on this CD are Sweet Dreams and Primavera. Several of the pieces are world première recordings, and all are quite well handled by performers who are clearly comfortable playing “fusion” music whose Latin traditions blend with a mellow jazz sound and, frequently, pleasantly rhythmic dancelike melodies. The Villa-Lobos miniatures are pleasant enough, but it is D’Rivera’s The Cape Cod Files, two movements that open the CD and two that close it, that offers the widest variety of moods and the most interesting instrumentation. The remaining pieces here are pleasant enough but rather forgettable, with little sign of compositional distinction among the works or their composers.

     Despite his Latin-sounding name and his longstanding association with the University of Miami School of Music, Ferdinando De Sena was actually born in Brooklyn, New York. The Latin influence and orientation of his chamber music is nevertheless quite pronounced, as are elements taken from pop music: De Sena was a pop/rock vocalist and keyboard player in the 1970s and 1980s. A new Navona CD showcases De Sena’s compositional versatility in eight short works for varying instrumental combinations. Spalding’s Bounce features Philipp Staeudlin on tenor saxophone, Javier Caballero on cello, and Karolina Rojahn on piano; it has a kind of bebop flair and is intended as homage to jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding. Deceptive Clarity, for flute (Diedre Viau) and guitar (David Ross), blends overtly Latin guitar elements with other styles, including jazz and pop. Pulsonic Turn features Maria Wozniakiewicz on violin, Rane Moore on clarinet, and Rojahn again on piano, in a meandering, gestural atonal stylistic mixture. Art Market is electronic music, with De Sena himself producing the synthesizer sounds that he combines and recombines into six voices. Lasting Virtue for flute (Viau) and viola (Peter Sulski) is interesting mainly for the sonic contrast between the instruments. Eyes of Resurrection features contrasting sound worlds as well, here between violin (Julia Okruska) and harp (Molly McCaffrey). Anima Mea goes in a somewhat different aural direction, using the subtle differences in sound between flute (Sarah Brady) and alto saxophone (Philipp Staeudlin) to good effect. And The Wind from the Fire seeks an impressionistic interpretation of its title, using the unusual combination of mandolin and mandola (Rafael Ramirez) with guitar (Jorge Gomez Abrante). De Sena’s music is more clever than emotive, its evocative sound worlds showing the composer’s interest in various compositional forms but not being particularly focused on communication with listeners.

     Chilean-American composer Miguel Chuaqui has a stronger focus on emotional connection in the four works on a new Ravello CD. Confabulario, written in 2012 for wind quintet, takes the traditional notion of chamber music as conversation to an extreme. Its first movement, “Rapsodia,” focuses on the differences among the participating instruments, while its second, “Concertación,” seeks confluence if not exactly harmony, and eventually attains it. It is well-presented by Lisa Byrnes, flute; Robert Stephenson, oboe; Lee Livengood, clarinet; Stephen Proser, French horn; and Lori Wike, bassoon. The other pieces on the disc are all solo works, although electronics figure in them as well. Saturniana (2009) is for bass trombone (Donn Schaefer) and sounds almost like a parody of contemporary music in its determination to take the instrument to the extremes of its range so that at times it barely sounds like what it is. Trance (2010) does something similar with cello (Madeleine Shapiro): it is a work showcasing this warmest of strings as a percussion instrument. Blues en el Corazón (2009) is less self-involved and more artful, its three movements for piano (Marilyn Nonken) straddling various harmonic techniques and producing frequently intriguing dips into traditional blues writing in contrast to other sections that play with and at times deliberately forsake the blues model. There is some emotional as well as intellectual heft here.

     Chuaqui’s overt forays into Latin music are only occasional, and such approaches are even less pronounced on the latest Navona CD featuring works from the Society of Composers, Inc. The one genuinely Latinate piece here is within the Five Songs of Love by Arthur Gottschalk: the final song uses words by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The cycle features mezzo-soprano Karol Bennett with the Gotham Quartet (Quan Jiang and Lun Jiang, violins; Sheila Browne, viola; Cheng-Hou Lee, cello). The setting for voice and string quartet is an interesting one, and the five songs have some intriguingly different poetic voices (the first four are by Langston Hughes, Shel Silverstein, Malcolm Brodwick and Mina Loy). Gottschalk’s piece is the highlight of a disc that otherwise seems designed to show listeners just how contemporary “contemporary” can be. As Far as Possible by Karen Keyhani, with Elena Schwarz conducting a chamber group called Ensemble MATKA, shows the Iranian composer’s fluidity of style and interestingly incorporates the Persian santour. Robert A. Baker’s Valence III for oboe (Howard Niblock), cello (Miyoko Grine-Fisher) and percussion (Alexy Rolfe) explores the instruments’ varying sounds but not their expressive capabilities. Nolan Stolz’ Princess Ka‘iulani (he mele ho‘oipoipo) is a work for solo flute (Melanie Chirignan) that produces sounds by having the performer sing and speak Hawaiian words and phrases into the instrument; the result is merely odd. Melodía sin melodía (stereo mix) by Benjamin D. Whiting is one of those self-directed electroacoustic mixes of interest primarily to other makers of electroacoustic mixes. A Mournful Cry by Yip Ho Kwen Austin features Chiu Tan Ching on guzheng, mixing that ancient zither with poetry from China’s Song Dynasty of the 10th to 13th centuries. And Acoustic Field by Chin Ting Chan, performed by a group that calls itself “Nonsemble 6/Melos Music,” uses techniques developed by Olivier Messiaen to extend modernity even farther, largely for its own sake. Like many CDs of this type, this disc seems designed primarily for the composers themselves, their colleagues and friends and families; the music tends to be defiantly insular, making no attempt to reach out to a general audience or in any way persuade potential listeners that there is something worth hearing here. These are mostly technical explorations rather than attempts at any sort of emotional connection – works that are crafted rather than felt, no matter what their provenance may be.