August 10, 2017

(++++) FAIRY TALES, TWISTED


Bean Stalker and Other Hilarious Scary Tales. By Kiersten White. Illustrations by Karl Kwasny. Scholastic. $16.99.

Even Fairies Fart. By Jennifer Stinson. Pictures by Rebecca Ashdown. Harper. $17.99.

Paddington Goes to Town. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Harper. $9.99.

     Fairy tales have spoken to readers – and, before widespread literacy, to listeners – for uncounted generations, and still do so both in their original forms and in contemporary variations. Most were not stories for children but explanations of the way the world works and warnings about it. And many were very frightening, as readers of the collections by Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers can easily discover by tracking down and reading those groupings’ original versions. The stories have been significantly toned down for younger readers’ consumption – even later editions of the Grimm tales did some of this – but nowadays often exist in separate versions for adults (emphasizing and even accentuating the stories’ darker side) and children (keeping things light). Kiersten White’s Bean Stalker and Other Hilarious Scary Tales stakes out (so to speak) a kind of middle ground, being intended for middle-school reading and aimed at providing a certain number of rather ick-inducing incidents mixing mild scariness with offbeat humor. The book’s cover, by illustrator Karl Kwasny, does an unusually good job of encapsulating White’s whole approach: leaves and vines from Jack’s beanstalk form the eyes and nose of what looks like a scowling skull, with the turrets of a castle in the background forming jagged-looking “teeth” and with traditional fairy-tale characters, human and otherwise, appearing in the picture looking eerier than they usually do in versions of the stories for young people. What White does in the stories is create a kind of mashup “overview” narrative that she eventually uses to connect a number of different tales – and within the individual stories, she makes things creepy and/or gross and/or funny in ways that allow her eventually to bring the whole book to an interrelated-tales climax. White is also fond of puns: in the very first story, a variation on the tale of Rapunzel, “let down your fair hair” sounds just like “let down your fair Herr,” which turns out to make a great difference to the hapless prince and also to the narrator, who points out the importance of proper spelling. White introduces each tale with a suitably modified little poem: this story of Snow White starts with “one, two, buckle your shoe,” in a version that ends, “nine, ten, something’s hungry again.” And there is plenty of snarkiness as well: in the same story, the narrator comments that the queen who wanted a baby must not have spent much time around babies, because “they smell bad, they throw up a lot, and they cry instead of sleeping.” On and on the book goes, through “The Princess and the Pea” (in which the spelling of the final word turns out to matter quite a lot), “Little Dead Riding Hood,” “Cinderella” (here called “Cinders and Ashes” and ending even before the fairy godmother shows up, then starting again to be sure she is included) – and so forth. The typical evil stepmother turns out in this book to be as close to heroic as anyone or anything does: she “had devoted her life to putting out fires,” sometimes metaphorical ones and sometimes not. And the tales are enlivened (sometimes en-dead-ened) not only by Kwasny’s pictures but also by occasional fancy typography, such as that used to show the way the beanstalk grows after the beans take root thanks to all the drool that comes out of Jack’s mouth while he sleeps. Bean Stalker and Other Hilarious Scary Tales is certainly a version of multiple fairy tales, and a few nursery rhymes, unlike any other – and although it does not supplant the old tales either for humor or for fright, it does a mighty good job of aligning both the amusement and the scariness with the experiences and expectations of young readers today.

     One thing today’s young readers apparently expect – or at least one that authors and publishers expect them to expect – is frequent use of the word “fart” in stories and even in book titles. Families that find the word offensive, or simply unnecessary when a short phrase such as “pass gas” works quite as well, will have no interest in a book such as Jennifer Stinson’s Even Fairies Fart. But the book is not intended to shock (apparently even extra-large lettering for this word, as on the book’s cover, is now acceptable). Stinson’s underlying message is fine: fairy tales (at least as directed at children) seem to show an ultra-perfect world, but in reality, life is not like that. Really, a book of this type would be even better if aimed at the pervasive forms of entertainment directed at contemporary children: television, movies, YouTube, video games, etc. All these offer hyper-unrealistic worlds in which natural bodily functions are either absent or played for laughs. Stinson’s story and Rebecca Ashdown’s well-matched illustrations try to meld humor and a degree of realism; but the emphasis is on amusement, as on the inside front and back covers, which show fairies of all colors, shapes and sizes emitting gas, and the front cover, which has one fairy (who looks just like a little girl) sending out a cloud big enough to cover almost the whole front of the book. The somewhat-serious message here is presented after showing the perfection that usually appears in fairy tales: “It all seems so amazing!/ Can’t we be perfect too?/ If we wish on the brightest star,/ could all this stuff come true?” The answer, of course, is “no.” Perfection is unattainable, and even fairies, Stinson says, do not have it. Nor do other fairy-tale characters: a dragon is shown cheating at cards, a princess picks her nose, an elf has a bathroom accident, “wizards mope and pout,” witches whine, “monsters sometimes want their mommies,” and so on. These shortcomings are not important, according to Stinson’s writing and Ashdown’s illustrations. All sorts of bodily functions, all sorts of less-than-perfect behavior, are simply normal, no matter what fairy tales may say and no matter what they omit. “And who cares?” asks Stinson. None of this stuff matters – it’s fine to love and enjoy fairy tales, and by extension to love and enjoy all the kids who play “let’s pretend” and who themselves like fairy-tale stories, even in the knowledge that perfection does not really exist anywhere. That is a fine and uplifting message, and one that parents will be glad to pass along to their children. Whether this specific book, using this specific language, is the best way to do that, will be a matter for individual families to decide.

     The fairy-tale world of Paddington Bear is scarcely perfect, but the late Michael Bond had no need of bodily-function words or any sort of strong language to provide joy and entertainment to young readers and equally enchanted adults for more than half a century. Paddington Goes to Town dates to 1968 and is the eighth collection of Paddington’s adventures to be published (the first came out 10 years earlier). Now available in a new edition, Paddington Goes to Town is not officially a memorial to Bond (1926-2017) but will feel like one to Paddington’s many fans. Its seven stories of curiosity and misunderstanding are entirely typical of tales in the Paddington canon. The first, in which Paddington is an usher at a wedding, is especially amusing. “Mr. Brown wasn’t overenthusiastic about weddings at the best of times, and the thought of attending one at which Paddington was lending a paw filled him with foreboding” – a suitable feeling, as things turn out. Also here, Paddington tries golf, mistakenly visits a psychiatrist at a hospital and causes considerable verbal confusion, rolls a boulder down the aisle of a bus, and has several opportunities to display the “very hard stare” that he had “when he liked.” Peggy Fortnum’s illustrations perfectly encapsulate all Paddington’s expressions, both the facial ones and his body language. Charming and gentle errors in which Paddington behaves like an inquisitive human child are Bond’s stock-in-trade in all the Paddington books, as is language that, while simple and easy to follow, does not talk down to its intended young readers. The language is certainly not as direct or crude as in many recent books for young readers – indeed, even Bond’s 21st-century books retained old-fashioned sweetness and verbal sensitivity. There are occasional British expressions that may take some getting used to for Americans, but the writing will just as likely add to the stories’ overall charm: “Altogether he was thankful when at long last he peered round the side of his load and caught sight of a small queue standing beside a familiar-looking London Transport sign not far ahead.” Paddington Goes to Town is as good an introduction to the bear from Darkest Peru as any other of Bond’s collections: the stories are all independent, and the bear’s personality shines through in them all. The pleasantries of Bond’s urban fairy tales are a continuing source of joy, and it is easy to imagine these stories still being found quite delightful when books featuring cruder language and characters have been supplanted by the next new or faddish creation.

(++++) STRUGGLES TOWARD FRIENDSHIP


Confiscated! By Suzanne Kaufman. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

Hannah Sparkles: A Friend Through Rain or Shine. By Robin Mellom. Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Harper. $17.99.

     The trials and tribulations of friendship are a frequent theme in picture books, and the eventual message of cooperation and getting along is a standard one. But the circumstances, and the form in which the concluding message is delivered, may differ greatly – which is why so many books on this topic can be enjoyable. The eventual friends in Suzanne Kaufman’s Confiscated! happen to be brothers and happen to be sort-of-lizardlike-sort-of-dinosaurs, at least as they have been Photoshopped to be. Brooks and Mikey fight constantly, as many siblings do, and in particular they fight over things – toys and games of all sorts. Unsurprisingly, this state of affairs is extremely annoying to their mother and is thoroughly unacceptable to her. So she teaches the boys the meaning of the word “confiscated” by taking away anything about which they fight. But they fight about everything, from Grandpa’s tuba to a Mexican wrestling mask: Kaufman has great fun showing just what sorts of things provoke the boys into fights and just how many ways those fights occur. The problem is that there are, after all, only so many things in the house over which fights are possible (even including the dog); so after a while, Kaufman shows the two boys all alone with a plain white background on one page while the facing page shows a locked storage cabinet absolutely bulging with confiscated items (and with the dog peering out rather nervously through the slightly open doors). By now, “Mama had confiscated ALL their toys.” And Brooks and Mikey are bored. Really, really bored. So bored that they TALK to each other instead of fighting. And that talking leads to something totally unexpected, at least by them: cooperation! They decide, together, to get a favorite red balloon out of the “confiscation cabinet.” To do that, they pile up everything they can find, from a salami to a Viking helmet  to a fishbowl (complete with fish) to a clock and a cactus and an old-fashioned record player, creating a mountainous mess that they can climb to get to the slightly open cabinet door and pull the balloon out. Great idea – except that pulling it out snaps the cabinet’s lock, and everything comes tumbling out and tumbling down; yes, even the lava lamp and the whole watermelon, the ship in a bottle and the freshly baked pie. And THEN…a shadow looms over the scene, and a very large and definitely dinosaurish Mama appears. But it turns out she is not angry about the mess – because the boys are sharing the balloon and actually being friendly to each other. So a happy ending is had by all, although Mama reminds the boys that they still have to clean everything up.

     Mess-making figures as well in Robin Mellom’s Hannah Sparkles: A Friend Through Rain or Shine, a book about a girl with an exceptionally sparkly name and a personality to match. Ever-smiling Hannah spends her time cheering the world with pom-poms and drawing double rainbows, because just one rainbow is not enough to contain all her hyper-cheeriness. Just imagine how happy she is when a new family moves to the neighborhood, along with a girl her own age – with the even-more-sparkly name of Sunny Everbright. Wow! Or – maybe not. Hannah has huge blue eyes and dresses in bright, clashing colors, but Sunny is dark-eyed, dark-haired and dressed almost completely in black and gray. Uh-oh. Hannah tries her best to be friendly: she takes Sunny outdoors to find butterflies, but Sunny is more interested in a lizard she discovers. Hannah draws unicorns – Sunny draws centipedes. Hannah shows how to use magenta for drawing hearts – Sunny prefers drawing a large black spider. Hannah picks strawberries – Sunny gets messily down in the mud to interact with a frog. Nothing works for Hannah: Sunny does not even smile when Hannah gets out her pom-poms and cheers Sunny on at hopscotch and other games. And then, to make matters worse, it starts to rain, and rain is not one of Hannah’s happy things. But now Sunny smiles! And in some of Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s most evocative illustrations, she dances, runs sloppily through puddles, plays in a mess of mud, and generally acts “super-strange,” at least by Hannah’s standards. Bewildered, Hannah asks her mom that night why Hannah’s favorite things do not make Sunny happy – and her mom suggests that “maybe Sunny finds her sparkle in other things.” Lesson learned – especially when Sunny leaves Hannah a let’s-play invitation on which Sunny has drawn a smiling lizard carrying an umbrella. Friendships, after all, are like other growing things: they need both rain and sun to thrive.

(++++) SWEET OR MONSTROUS


Good Night, Sweetie. By Joyce Wan. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

Monsters Unleashed No. 1. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Mark Oliver. Harper. $16.99.

     Adults do not always realize just how wide the scope of children’s books is – with ones for certain age groups being so different from those for other ages that it sometimes seems as if very young and not-so-young children are different species, at least from the viewpoint of publishers. The youngest kids get the sweetest material by far, and authors such as Joyce Wan are adept at providing it. Good Night, Sweetie is a warm, cute board book with a cover featuring a sleepy moon atop a cloud and eyes-closed stars in the background. Wan specializes in board books that come across as highly personalized through the frequent use of “we,” “my” and “you,” as in a recent one from her called You Are My Cupcake. This makes it simple for parents to read the easy-to-follow words with warmth and expressiveness. So Good Night, Sweetie, starts with “You are my wish upon a STAR,” showing a happily smiling (and pink-cheeked) shooting star trailing a rainbow, and continues with “My bright, shining MOON from afar,” with a red-cheeked crescent moon smiling above a house whose chimney emits heart-shaped puffs of smoke. It is easy to dismiss this material as cloying, but that misses the point: for the very youngest children, from birth to age three or four, books such as Good Night, Sweetie are deeply reassuring and really can make the potentially frightening experience of unconsciousness – that is, sleep – much easier to handle. The cutest notion here describes the child to whom the book is being read as “My cozy, dozy bedtime BOOK,” a sort of “meta” approach to this book itself: here the illustration features a smiling book from whose pages eyes-closed stars and hearts are popping out, along with a sleeping moon wearing an old-fashioned nightcap. Everything in Good Night, Sweetie is plush-looking, warm-seeming and relaxing – the illustrations here being an alternative to the approach of using gently rhyming text to lull a young child to sleep (as was done famously in Good Night, Moon and is also tried in innumerable other bedtime books). Wan’s book is short, simple and strongly focused on its purpose, and in the event that a young child is not asleep by the time it ends and says “again,” it is quite easy to re-read as needed, re-showing each of the relaxing illustrations to produce the intended feeling of deep relaxation and comfort.

     Fast-forward a few years to a time when kids are very much reading on their own and are well past the stage of “baby books” such as board books – and you discover a huge number of familiarly plotted adventures stories for preteens, featuring groups of kids (largely indistinguishable from each other) who band together to deal with issues that are much simpler and more straightforward to handle than the problems and difficulties of everyday real life (which mostly show up in books for even older readers: teenagers). One of the virtuoso producers of formulaic (+++) preteen fantasy/adventure books is John Kloepfer, who has now started a new series (amply illustrated by Mark Oliver) called Monsters Unleashed. The first thing to do in sequences like this one is to assemble the team, making sure there are a few nods to differing appearances and ethnic backgrounds. The protagonist here is sixth-grader Freddie Liddle, who is the opposite of his name, being big (six-feet-four-inches tall) and rather klutzy. The child of divorced parents, he has moved to New Mexico and found only one friend, a small Hispanic boy named Manny Vasquez. The three other members of the “inner circle” here start out as Freddie’s enemies: they are bullies – a jock and jerk named Jordan, an “evil mega-nerd” named Quincy, and a black wannabe actress named Nina. Trying to handle his feelings about his tormentors, Freddie draws three monsters based on them, and then, with Manny’s help, uses a 3-D printer to make actual physical versions of the creatures – called Kraydon, Mega-Q and Yapzilla. But there is something mysterious and magical about this particular printer (never explained; why bother?), and the monsters it makes come to life – and start growing enormously as soon as they come in contact with water. Soon enough, mayhem ensues throughout the school, where as usual the adults are oblivious and/or clueless and/or invisible. To control the monsters, Freddie realizes, he has to understand how they think, and since they are modeled on Jordan, Quincy and Nina, he has to enlist the three bullies in the anti-monster fight. And that is how Kloepfer sets up the five-person anti-monster team that battles the baddies in Monsters Unleashed while the kids bond among themselves, all thoughts of bullying forgotten except for a brief reference here and there to the way things were before they all got together and found a common cause. Monsters Unleashed is unbelievable, silly and funny enough to keep preteens interested if they enjoy mindless fantasy adventures whose endings are a foregone conclusion: of course the kids will rescue the town and make sure that the monsters are returned to a harmless state. This means the creatures end up shrunken to adorable size and are ready to take on the onslaught of insects promised for the second book in the series, Bugging Out. Fast to read, formulaic and forgettable, Monsters Unleashed is a fine example of book creation for the preteen “species,” which indeed, on the basis of books like this, seems to be very little like the cuddly early-childhood type of human.

(++++) LIVE RECORDINGS DONE RIGHT – AND WRONG


Handel: Occasional Oratorio. Julia Doyle, soprano; Ben Johnson, tenor; Peter Harvey, baritone; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin conducted by Howard Arman. BR Klassik. $37.99 (2 CDs).

Lehár: Der Graf von Luxemburg. Daniel Behle, Camilla Nylund, Louise Alder, Simon Bode, Sebastian Geyer, Margit Neubauer; Chor der Oper Frankfurt and Frankfürter Opern- und Museumorchester conducted by Eun Sun Kim. Oehms. $29.99 (2 CDs).

     Minor Handel done splendidly and major Lehár handled thoughtlessly show the promise and peril of releasing live recordings of infrequently performed music with enough attention to packaging – or not enough at all. The occasion for Handel’s Occasional Oratorio was the Jacobite revolt of 1745, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie: the work was intended to rally the populace, if not the troops, in the months before the battle of Culloden brought a brutal end to the revolt in April 1746. Handel created the work in haste and did considerably more than his usual plethora of self-borrowings, including bits of everything from Israel in Egypt to Zadok the Priest to the Concerti Grossi, Op. 6. The libretto, a mishmash of material from Milton, Spenser and others, takes various Old Testament verses out of context and throws them together for a strong assertion that righteousness (in the form of King George II and his Protestant supporters) will triumph – a most suitable position for a composer beholden to the king and court to take. But for all the haste of its composition and all the flaws of its construction, and they are many, the Occasional Oratorio comes through highly effectively in a live recording on the BR Klassik label, in a sure-handed and elegantly paced performance led by Howard Arman and featuring first-rate singing and the knowing use of original instruments by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. The music is by and large excellent in a “greatest hits” sort of way, the many recognizable arias and choruses never really blending – they do have different sources, after all – but coming across individually as highly effective. Because the occasion for the work’s composition is now obscure, it is easy to listen to the oratorio divorced from the religious turmoil and political machinations of Handel’s time and simply enjoy the assertiveness, poetry and beauty of the music. Soloists and chorus alike manage their parts with a sure sense of period style and with all the seriousness and solemnity the rather overwrought texts require. Like Beethoven’s Der glorreiche Augenblick, another work that could be called an “occasional oratorio,” Handel’s piece is scarcely among his best, being more interesting for showcasing the political realities surrounding and impinging upon musical creation in the times when Handel and Beethoven wrote – realities that were forerunners of those faced by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, among others, at a much later date. BR Klassik has given the Occasional Oratorio the best possible showcase not only by making this excellent performance available but also by including just what a well-made modern recording should have: a booklet containing information on the work and its time, well-done but not overdone material about the performers, and a full libretto in the original language (here, English), with translation (here, into German). The presentation on CD makes this release of Handel’s Occasional Oratorio into an occasion worth celebrating – modestly – in its own right.

     At the opposite extreme, the execrable packaging by Oehms of Lehár’s Der Graf von Luxemburg will leave lovers of this wonderful operetta continuing to hunger for a top-notch modern recording and clinging gratefully to the EMI version featuring Nicolai Gedda if they have it – despite the fact that that reading, conducted by Willy Mattes, is now almost 50 years old. The problem here is certainly not the music. This is Lehár’s most-tuneful opera, without a single number that falls flat or fails to bring joy or heartbreak, whichever the composer intended. It is the composer’s ultimately lighthearted tribute to his friend Puccini’s La Bohème, with the work’s second couple even being introduced in a “Bohème-Duett.” It is also very much a fin de siècle piece in orientation, if not in its actual date (1909): there is a certain nostalgic gloom underlying the proceedings, and the primary story is of two world-weary people, to whom nothing much matters (certainly not love, with which both clearly have considerable experience), discovering that love does matter after all, and it is not too late to find that süsse, goldene Traum. Of course the naïveté of operetta pervades this formulation – Lehár himself was soon to rebel against it – but in Der Graf von Luxemburg the whole thing works, and works brilliantly, because of some wonderful touches in the operetta’s libretto (by Robert Bodanzky, Alfred Maria Willner and Leo Stein) as well as the unremitting beauty of the music. This is an operetta that desperately needs dialogue, which was surely included in the live performances from which Oehms took this recording. But there is none of it here: the melodramas (words spoken through music) are present, but the dialogue that carries the action along and explains it is wholly missing. And there is no libretto here – a horrible decision, the opposite of that made for the Handel recording, and one that is not easy to rectify by looking online (Oehms does not offer any way to get the words). And to make matters worse, the summary of the action is one of the worst accorded to any operatic work in years. It goes beyond truncated to become incoherent and well-nigh illiterate. The central importance of the perfume Trèfle incarnat (“crimson clover”)? Never mentioned. The marvelous device by which René and Angèle enter into a sham marriage, without seeing each other, so she can obtain a title – using a painting through which she inserts her hand, giving him the chance to be enchanted by it and flirt with it? Never mentioned. The basic story arc of two jaded personalities finding each other through an unlikely but emotionally satisfying chain of events? Omitted. The summary is beyond useless: it is insulting to the story and music. Making matters even more disappointing is the fact that Oehms had plenty of room on the CDs for dialogue (the discs run just 35 and 51 minutes, respectively), and plenty of room in the booklet for a libretto or, at the very least, a far more extensive and decently written summary: the synopsis takes up a mere three pages (with plenty of white space), but there are five pages promoting other Oehms CDs, 19 giving information on the performers, and eight that are blank except for graphics or section titles. This is beyond the realm of ridiculous and into that of insulting to purchasers. The egregious presentation errors make it tempting to dismiss this recording outright or give it only a basic rating, perhaps (++). But the music is so wonderful, the orchestral playing so fine, and the singing by some of the soloists so good that the release gets a (+++) rating. The two female leads are particularly good: Camilla Nylund, an opera singer of considerable quality, is a wonderful choice for Angèle – who, in one of the libretto’s many felicitous touches, is an opera singer. And Louise Alder is light and airy enough to be a convincing Juliette – her “Chanson” in the first act is lovely – although it is hard to figure out what she sees in Armand, who is sung rather stolidly by Simon Bode. Unfortunately, the weakest soloist is Daniel Behle as René: he repeatedly pushes his voice and characterization too far, and the mundanity of his introductory aria makes Lehár’s brilliant stroke of later turning the bright and carefree music into a bitter lament less effective than it can and should be. Eun Sun Kim has a knack for bringing out the composer’s delicious orchestral touches in this score – she particularly highlights the percussion, to fine effect – but she tends to push the music too hard and too quickly from time to time, as in the breakneck conclusion of the Act III “Marsch-Terzett” and, even more clearly, the end of the Act II “Polkatänzer.” The fact that the orchestra can even keep up with the conductor in these and other passages is rather remarkable; indeed, the orchestral playing is a big plus here, as is the choral singing. This recording of Der Graf von Luxemburg could have been a great or at least near-great one. All it needed was somewhat closer attentiveness to the score and much more attention paid to the packaging and presentation of a truly marvelous work that remains vastly under-appreciated. As is, what listeners get here is something wonderful-sounding but largely incoherent – so the Gedda/Mattes recording remains the treasurable version of this most cherishable operetta.

(++++) WHEN WORDS AND MUSIC MINGLE


Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Kristin Sampson, soprano; Edith Dowd, alto; Cameron Schutza, tenor; Brian Kontes, bass; New Amsterdam Singers, West Point Glee Club, Young New Yorkers’ Chorus, and Park Avenue Chamber Symphony conducted by David Bernard. Recursive Classics. $18.99.

David Bednall: Choral Works. Stephan Farr, organ; The Epiphoni Consort conducted by Tim Reader. Delphian. $19.99.

David Garner: Chanson für Morgen; Mein blaues Klavier; Phönix; Song Is a Monument. Nanette McGuinness, soprano; Adaiba MacAdams-Somer, cello; Dale Tsang, piano. Centaur. $14.99.

     The choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth has long been considered so overwhelming –and was in its own time so genuinely new – that it has overshadowed the first three movements even though those three make up two-thirds of the symphony’s length. The symphony is now so familiar, even over-familiar, that the meaning and importance of its words is sometimes lost in enjoyment of the finale’s extremely well-known theme and the movement’s many fascinating and even peculiar touches (what exactly is a Turkish march doing in it?). Certainly Beethoven himself felt the words of Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude deeply, and there have been some suggestions that Schiller really intended the verses to be sung about Freiheit, freedom, as Leonard Bernstein had them sung after the fall of the Berlin Wall – and that Beethoven knew this. Whatever the truth of the matter, it shows quite clearly the importance of words even when the music paired with them is transcendent, as Beethoven’s is. The new Beethoven Ninth led by David Bernard makes this unusually clear: Bernard conducts a relatively small orchestra and quite a large chorus, or rather three choruses singing together. This is musical chance-taking: Beethoven’s deafness led to some compositional infelicities and lack of clarity in this symphony’s final movement, and conductors always have to figure out how best to dispose the solo quartet against the chorus and the voices against the instruments. Indeed, it is in decisions about balance that many of the major differences among performances may be found. Bernard strongly emphasizes percussion in the finale in order to bring out the big sound he is looking for – an unconventional approach that is certainly worth hearing. The singing is worth hearing, too, with the choruses all quite fine and the female soloists, Kristin Sampson and Edith Dowd, sounding warm and intense and, indeed, somewhat better than the men: Brian Kontes is smooth-voiced but rather stolid, and Cameron Schutza sounds somewhat strained, notably in that Turkish-march section. Bernard’s tempos are on the brisk side, not only in the finale but also in the first three movements – and although Bernard does somewhat over-emphasize the symphony’s conclusion, as do so many other conductors, he also offers some fine touches earlier in the work. The shimmering opening of the first movement, strongly contrasted with the intensity of brass and timpani soon afterwards, is a highlight; the smooth flow of the fairly quickly paced third movement is another. The sound on the Recursive Classics release is quite fine, capturing the many nuances of Bernard’s attentive reading and making the comparatively small size of the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony into an advantage most of the way through the work. The balance in the finale, which is indeed a balancing act, takes a bit of getting used to, but it does work and does lead to some insightful as well as skilled presentation. It is a shame that the symphony appears alone on the CD, because the work is so well-known that it is hard to understand why a listener would want yet another version of it – the disc would have been more attractive if, for example, it had also included the Choral Fantasia, which uses the same theme as the finale of the symphony but sets very different words and, as a result, has a very different effect. As is, this is a well-played, well-sung, well-recorded Beethoven’s Ninth with attractive details and a strong sense of the importance of the way words and music fit together in the finale – not a must-have recording, but one well worth owning.

     A new Delphian disc of choral works by David Bednall is a (+++) CD of more-limited interest, but for those who do want to hear some very well-made and sensitively sung choral music – especially those who themselves sing in a chorus – it will be quite welcome. Bednall (born 1979) has a sure sense of antiphony and polyphony, a good feel for expressive vocal writing, and the ability to produce works that are attractive whether using secular or sacred texts. The 17 tracks on this CD lean more toward the sacred, and there is a certain similarity to all the writing that stamps it as firmly grounded in British choral tradition. One reason is a kind of folklike sound to many of the pieces, both religious and worldly. Bednall is quite capable of handling a large number of voices with excellent sonic clarity – Lux orta est iusto, a 40-part motet, is a perfect example of this and the single most impressive (and expressive) piece on the CD. But Bednall also shows considerable understanding of more-modest settings such as those of Shakespeare’s well-known Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) and his less-popular Sonnet 98. The remaining works here are Three Songs of Love (the second in two parts on two tracks); three movements from Welcome All Wonders; the English-language Rise up, my love, Everyone Sang, A Wedding Prayer, Sudden Light,, and The Argument of His Book; and the Latin Te lucis ante terminum and Tota pulchra est. Only three of the tracks include Stephen Farr on organ – the rest are strictly choral, with Tim Reader expertly leading the Epiphoni Consort (the name, pronounced “epiphany,” being somewhat over-cute, but the singers being dedicated, well-balanced and clearly committed to this music). Contemporary choral music and choral works in general tend to be of somewhat limited interest, with a few notable exceptions (Beethoven’s Ninth being perhaps the obvious one). But Bednall’s pieces are so well-made and effective in their verbal settings that listeners with any interest in hearing a skilled modern composer’s handling of the chorus, with a clear understanding of choral music of the past and of the British choral tradition, will find this disc highly attractive.

     Another fine CD of limited scope and appeal – defiantly so – is a new (+++) Centaur recording of music in which David Garner sets the words of four Jewish women who endured and survived World War II and Nazism. The performers are members of Ensemble for These Times, one of many chamber groups focusing specifically on 20th- and 21st-century music. Garner’s settings are effective, particularly in the longest work here, Chanson für Morgen (2012) to words by Mascha Kaléko (1907-1975). The eight songs encapsulate both the Jewish experience of World War II and that of Poland, from which Kaléko and her family emigrated. The pieces’ effectiveness lies in the way they speak of the destruction of Judaism and Jewish culture in Eastern Europe while making the loss of history and of a sense of belonging into a wider experience, not one unique to Jews or to a specific time period. This poetic reaching-out beyond the specific lends Chanson für Morgen generality, if not quite universality, that goes beyond the effect of the other works here: the three-song Mein blaues Klavier (2015) to poems by Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945), six-song Phönix (2013) to poems by Rose Ausländer (1901-1988), and five-song Song Is a Monument (2014) to poems by Yala Korwin (1933-2014). These three works speak from different angles of the poets’ determination to prevent the Jewish experience of the Holocaust from being forgotten. That makes them testimony of a sort, certainly valuable to the modern Jewish community and to historians focused on World War II and its effects. But neither the words nor Garner’s well-thought-out settings give these pieces anything like the reaching-out quality of Chanson für Morgen. The CD is by definition a “cause recording,” bearing the overall title “Jewish Music & Poetry Project – Surviving: Women’s Words.” It is thus self-limiting in audience and unlikely to be heard by anyone who does not already feel a kinship with or commitment to its concept. The implication is that the recording is designed for a narrow purpose and audience, and that limited focus is indeed present in three of Garner’s four works. It is the fourth, though, Chanson für Morgen, that will be most involving for anyone who hears it despite not being firmly committed to the material by a Jewish background or by a pre-existing interest in the time and topic explored here by Ensemble for These Times.

August 03, 2017

(++++) BIRDS AND BUDDIES


Pigeon P.I. By Meg McLaren. Clarion. $16.99.

Penguins Love Their ABC’s. By Sarah Aspinall. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $17.99.

Thank You, Mr. Panda. By Steve Antony. Scholastic. $16.99.

     There is nothing the slightest bit bird-brained about Meg McLaren’s Pigeon P.I., which is so packed with story and information that it is almost two books in one. There is the main noir-ish detective tale itself – slightly hard-boiled, although no eggs are harmed in its creation – and then there is the material from the inside front and inside back covers, a total of four pages of how-to-do-it information on avian-style private investigation. These pages should be read separately from those of the main narrative: they do include the two main characters, but here in instructional rather than investigational mode. The opening “beginner’s guide,” for instance, offers nine “detecting hats” (from fedora and deerstalker to boater and cloche) and a selection of possible snacks to carry along (from “delicious but noisy” chips to “quiet but impractical” Jell-o). The closing “advanced detection” inside-cover pages explain that you should “have a witty line ready when you solve your case,” and they include a bit of back-and-forth byplay called “discuss ideas with your partner” that, whether McLaren realizes it or not, virtually duplicates a very funny scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Ltd. The four how-to-do-it pages are ancillary to the main Pigeon P.I. story, but they are so much fun in their own right that young readers (and parents) will double their enjoyment here. And the main story itself, crammed as it is with the tropes of hard-edged detective tales, is just wonderful. It starts with the usual down-and-out onetime detective who has thrown in the proverbial towel after his partner “skipped town a while back,” and who is lured back into the detecting game by a persistent dame. In this case the dame is a kid, and the kid is a chick, which makes sense when the gumshoe is a pigeon. It seems several of the kid’s friends have mysteriously disappeared, and then the kid herself suddenly goes missing, so Pigeon P.I. realizes he really needs to get on the case. And he does, while McLaren peppers the pages with incidental amusements such as a newspaper called “Pigeon Post” with a headline saying “House Prices Set to Soar” next to a picture of a birdhouse, and entryways to places called “Bird, Bath & Beyond” and “Legal Eagles.” Soon enough, Pigeon P.I. uncovers a dastardly plot, finds the many missing birds – who, it turns out, were birdnapped so a nefarious bad guy could pluck some of their feathers – and is told, “You’ve been sticking your beak where it doesn’t belong. …Cook his goose, boys.” Then there is a timely rescue, a newspaper headline saying “Plumage Plunderer Pinched,” and a suitably upbeat ending in which Pigeon P.I. and the kid are seen happily slurping takeout food from an establishment called “The Early Bird.” Adults who know the conventions of detective fiction will have a ball with this book – the “advanced detection” pages even include pictures of famous detectives such as “Monsieur Parrot” and “Duck Tracy” – and kids will have a great time with both the main story and the opening and closing detection guides. And as an extra bonus, both the book’s back cover and the back cover of its wraparound offer more amusements, the former showing a bulletin board with posters and notices (one of which says “please do not draw attention to this notice”) and the latter offering comments and commentary by pigeons that are not otherwise in the book on the events that take place within it. Story, ancillary story, meta story and more – Pigeon P.I. has them all, and all are thoroughly delightful.

     Sarah Aspinall’s Penguins Love Their ABC’s is also lots of fun, but it is an altogether simpler and more-straightforward book – aimed at kids who are just learning the alphabet, not older ones who are ready to learn some of the ins and outs of detective stories. Like Aspinall’s previous book, Penguins Love Colors, this one features six identical and adorable penguins distinguished from each other by something colorful that is reflective of each one’s name – in this case, sunglasses whose colors make it easier to identify Tulip, Tiger Lily, Dandelion, Bluebell, Violet, and Broccoli. In this book the penguins are going on “an alphabet hunt” arranged by Mama Penguin: the little ones need to find things beginning with each letter, starting with “A is for apple” and including, for example, “C is for cactus” and “M is for magnifying glass” – this being shown on a two-page spread on which Broccoli is hugely magnified. Typical-for-alphabet-book words are here interspersed with less-usual ones, such as “N is for noodles,” “R is for radish” and “U is for underpants” – a chance to show all six little penguins wearing “lucky underpants” in different colors and patterns. By the end of the book, the penguins have found all the letters, Mama has praised them for their success, and it is time for a dinner of – what else? – alphabet soup. Gently instructive and cutely amusing, Penguins Love Their ABC’s is a winner of an alphabet book whose attractive characters and bright colors will encourage young readers to follow the six little penguins all the way from A to Z.

     Thank You, Mr. Panda also features some interesting characters and is also a “lesson” book, but it is one that somewhat misfires and will be of most interest to readers already familiar with and enamored of Steve Antony’s panda character, as previously seen in Please, Mr. Panda and I’ll Wait, Mr. Panda. What keeps this book at the (+++) level is its rather odd handling of the reasonable and helpful notion that, when it comes to gift-giving, it is the thought rather than the gift itself that counts. The story involves Mr. Panda, accompanied by Lemur, giving presents to several animal friends – but none of the gifts is quite right. Lemur reminds each friend that it’s the thought that counts, and then Lemur gets the final gift himself – and is reminded by Mr. Panda, even before Lemur opens the gift, that the thought is what matters. The difficulty here is that it is apparent that Mr. Panda knows the gifts are wrong: Lemur gets underwear big enough for two of himself, Mouse gets a sweater so large that he can barely be seen within it, Octopus gets stockings for only six of his eight legs, and so on. The question is why Mr. Panda appears deliberately to give gifts that he knows are inadequate or the wrong size. The only answer would be that he is teaching the “thought that counts” lesson – but it seems rather unkind, if not exactly cruel, to teach the lesson by deliberately giving gifts that one knows to be useless. Lemur’s abundant joy when he finds out that the final gift is for him turns to bewilderment when he too gets a gift that Mr. Panda clearly knows is not right for him – and the inside back cover pages, showing all the animals trying to wear or use their presents but looking rather befuddled, are actually kind of sad. The “thought that counts” lesson is, after all, intended to mean that a well-intentioned gift that does not quite work is less important than the thought that inspired it. But Mr. Panda’s gifts seem to be on the sly side, designed to be wrong so Mr. Panda can teach his friends a lesson. That is rather manipulative and  not really reflective of what “it’s the thought that counts” means. So Thank You, Mr. Panda is not a very good introduction to Antony’s Mr. Panda books and not a particularly winning way to explore the niceties of gift-giving. But for kids who already know Mr. Panda’s personality and like it, this book will be enjoyable even if its underlying message is not communicated as effectively as it could be.

(++++) DOGGONE IT


Suit Your Selfie: A “Pearls Before Swine” Collection. By Stephan Pastis. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Dog Man #3: A Tale of Two Kitties. By Dav Pilkey. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.

Sorry I Humped Your Leg (and Other Letters from Dogs Who Love Too Much). By Jeremy Greenberg. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     Dogs are not major characters in Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine comic strip, but as the latest collection for younger readers shows, their cameo appearances with series regulars such as Pig, Rat, Goat and Zebra fit Pastis’ skewed and sometimes strange humor quite well. One strip features “the dreaded poodle drone,” designed not to bomb enemies but to harass them into submission: it is a pink poodle that hovers above the counter where Rat and Goat are sitting, repeating its “yap!” 24 times in the confined space of a single panel. Then there is neighbor Bob’s dog, which Bob tells Pig he got because dogs are “loyal, trustworthy, and will stick with you to the very end” – at which point the dog comments, “I’d sell your soul for a strip of bacon.” That is definitely a Pearls Before Swine perspective. Actually, Pig proposes introducing a regular dog character to the strip in one place here, saying it would make things easier when the strip is translated into other languages, since dogs “go ‘arf arf’ everywhere.” Not so, says Pastis in his cartoon iteration, then showing the identical dog “speaking” in 10 different languages, from “mung-mung” in Korean to “bub-bub” in Catalan to “bad-bad” in Persian. Even without a prominent canine, though, this collection manages to reflect much of the strip’s generally dark approach to life and other mishaps – without getting too far into elements that are common in Pearls Before Swine but considered inappropriate for younger readers, such as all the beer drinking. Death, however, is obviously deemed all right, since one strip has a dead crocodile being stored in a home freezer and others feature identical-looking lemmings committing or about to commit mass suicide. Death is also referenced in an “alternative history” strip in which Abraham Lincoln sends tweets on Twitter, including one about his upcoming evening at Ford’s Theatre. But there is a distinctly odd bit of editing in this Lincoln strip, showing where modern sensibilities regarding younger readers lie. One tweet here reads, in its entirety, “Slaves free! #DoingBestICan.” But Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves, and the original Pearls Before Swine version of this strip had the correct information in its tweet: “Slaves free! (if living in Confed.) Rest of you – not so much. #DoingBestICan.” That is an accurate tweet (given the absurd underlying premise) but apparently was considered too difficult, or controversial, or politically incorrect for Suit Your Selfie. Very odd. This misstep aside, though, the book is fun in the usual offbeat and suitably strange Pearls Before Swine manner.

     Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man graphic novels are offbeat and strange as well, and they too have quasi-literary aspirations. Or at least A Tale of Two Kitties does. Yes, this book – ostensibly created by fifth-graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins – starts with references to and echoes of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. And at the very end, after three separate happy endings, the book concludes with some real-world seriousness about the benefits of reading to your dog, complete with the hashtag #Readtoyourdogman. In between the Dickens references and the hashtag, Pilkey weaves a story that is tangled even by his standards: evil cat Petey clones himself but ends up with a kitten; multiple buildings come to life and start yelling “Gooba Gaba” after an explosion at the Living Spray Factory; the dastardly now-dead fish Flippy (from the previous book, Dog Man Unleashed) gets a bionic body and is reanimated to do more bad things; there are several of the usual “flip-o-rama” sections, in which readers are told to flip two pages back and forth quickly and repeatedly to simulate animation (very primitive animation); and the little kitten, who loves Dog-Man, ends up helping take care of the various baddies by using Petey’s invention, the “80-Hexotron Droidformigon,” a “transforming supa-robot” that the kitten is using in “Robo Suit mode.” There is a surprising amount of warmth in A Tale of Two Kitties – even Petey shows that he has a softer side – and there is also some thoroughly unsurprising mayhem, along with jokes and quotations from Dickens and, as usual, “how to draw” instructions after the story ends. This time the “ridiculously easy” drawing steps show how to re-create the kitten (now known as “Li’l Petey” but identified as “Cat Kid” in the promo for the next book in the series), the 80-HD, and a “beasty building,” as well as Petey and Dog-Man. It is all in good fun, and really is funny, and the touches of seriousness harm the humor not at all – they actually enhance it, although calling the book in any sense “educational” would be stretching things a bit too far.

     The dogs are real, not cartoon characters, in Sorry I Humped Your Leg, but the “letters” they have “written” spring entirely from the mind of Jeremy Greenberg. The idea of this small gift book is to show endearingly adorable dogs of all types in poses that just might reflect their feelings about situations described and discussed in the letters. An adorable pup named Thatcher is shown splay-legged on an apparently slippery wooden floor, so the letter here begins “Dear Foul Floorboards” and explains, “I hope to grow old sleeping on your sunniest spots, but if this keeps up I’ll refuse to have my claws clipped until they have no choice but to resurface you into sawdust.” A dog named Truman is seen with extended tongue lapping up the juices flowing from a cooked but still-uncarved turkey on a countertop cutting board, and the letter to “Dear Thermometer-Popping Pack Leader” says, “Next year our ears will ring with the sound of crunching exoskeletons as your survivalist sister-in-law serves her traditional Thanksgiving feast of fried crickets and tap water. I had to lick the cutting board, or next year the only thing we’d be thankful for would be a travel-halting snowstorm.” Elsewhere, a dog called Ozzy, newly arrived in a foster home, writes, “Since this is the first time I’ve seen you get out of the shower, it’s probably good to break the news that Ozzy barks at butts.” And then there is the “Dear Grandpa Pack Leader” letter from Rusty: “Has anyone told you that you might just be the most interesting human in the world? …I love watching you wake up wondering which room you’re in. It means you’ll probably forget and feed me two breakfasts.” True, that “maybe you’ll forget” sentence is ageist and a trifle cruel – Greenberg’s fault, not Rusty’s – but the notion of a dog, any dog, considering a person, any person, to be “the most interesting human in the world,” is a pretty solid insight into the delights of dog ownership and the delightfulness of the antics and activities of cartoon and real-world dogs alike.

(+++) REGAL ACTS


The Queens of Renthia, Book One: The Queen of Blood. By Sarah Beth Durst. Harper Voyager. $7.99.

The Queens of Renthia, Book Two: The Reluctant Queen. By Sarah Beth Durst. Harper Voyager. $19.99.

     Wonderful worldbuilding whose effectiveness is diminished by mostly uninteresting characters and a too-straightforward use of many of the tropes of magical fantasy characterizes Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queens of Renthia series. The basic concept of the world of Renthia and the land of Aratay within it is outstanding: here there are spirits associated with natural processes akin to the old notion of “the four elements” on Earth, but in addition to earth, air, fire and water, there are spirits of wood and ice. And all six types of spirits are viciously, violently and quite terrifyingly inimical to human beings: they see people as invaders of the spirit domains and seek nothing less than to exterminate the human race. Humans cannot seek the spirits’ destruction in return, because without the spirits there would be no natural world within which humans could live – no rain, no fire, nothing living at all. So humans must hold the spirits at bay, and they do this by the rather improbable device of having a queen who is capable of sensing the spirits and holding them somewhat in check – sufficiently to allow a very uneasy coexistence.

     So far, so good – indeed, very good. These are fascinating premises and no more far-fetched than many other assumptions underlying worlds of magic and wonder. But series such as The Queens of Renthia rise or fall with their handling of the characters who live within the fantasy worlds. In the first book here, The Queen of Blood – originally published last year and now available in paperback – the central character is Daleina, who discovers her abilities to hold off the spirits when there is an attack on her village that claims many lives. Soon the book shifts into standard young-protagonist-discovering-her-true-abilities mode, complete with the umpteenth iteration of a “school of magic” to which Daleina and other potential queens are sent to explore and hone their powers. Happily, Durst rings some changes on this particular fantasy formula. Daleina turns out to have weaker powers than many of the other students, and she is accepting of this reality and relies instead on her drive, intelligence and determination to carry her forward through her studies. The question Durst poses is whether this will be enough. To find out, Durst has Daleina come to the attention of one of those traditional Obi Wan Kenobi types, a disgraced Champion named Ven who is also the former lover of the current queen, Fara. It is Ven who helps Daleina develop her true potential – and, along the way, learns a terrible secret (yes, one of those) about Queen Fara that helps explain why spirit attacks on outlying villages are becoming increasingly common and deadly. Despite the formulaic elements throughout the story, Durst keeps things interesting with some unexpected material, such as the character of Merecot. She is an arrogant overachiever at the magical academy and will quite clearly be expected (by readers familiar with this genre) to become Daleina’s arch-enemy. Instead, though, Merecot and Daleina become fast friends, or at least seem to, and this takes the story in more-interesting directions than it would have gone in if Durst offered yet another Harry Potter vs. Draco Malfoy scenario. The second half of The Queen of Blood is better than the first, because Durst has largely completed her setup and what characterization she offers, and the story moves into high gear with a very considerable amount of danger and drama. The books builds to an ending that is intense, violent and quite bloody, following naturally from all that has come before while producing a climax so strong that it is hard to see where the story can go from that point – and how Aratay can survive further onslaughts of the spirits.

     All this means that readers are far better off if they know The Queen of Blood before they start The Reluctant Queen, even though it is theoretically possible, if just barely, to read the second book without having gone through the first. Durst provides enough background for the second volume to make sense on its own, but in the absence of the extreme intensity and unremitting viciousness experienced by Daleina and the other characters in the first book, The Reluctant Queen comes across, on a standalone basis, as rather pale. As a sequel, though, it works reasonably well. The title gives away the trope here: there will be an ordinary woman who, however much she wants to remain ordinary, will find that she has no choice – for the sake of her family and her entire land – but to assume a mantle that she dislikes and disdains. Just like the first book’s message, which is basically that the intelligent application of limited power is more effective than the less-intelligently deployed use of much greater strength, the second book’s core is a well-worn one: we must use what powers we have for the greater good in order to do the best we can not only for society at large but also for ourselves and our loved ones. The person who must learn this lesson, Naelin, is a woodswoman and mother of two who has great control of spirits but no desire whatsoever to become queen. Because of what happens at the end of the first book, there simply aren’t any other viable candidates, and the potential queens who do go into training generally do not survive, much less make it through with the level of power they need. Finding a successor for Daleina is an urgent matter, because it turns out in this second book that she has a fatal illness – which not even her former lover, a healer named Hamon, can cure or slow down, despite the help of his mother, a brilliant herbalist. To complicate matters further (albeit formulaically), Aratay is under external threat from nearby Semo, whose ambitious queen is none other than Merecot – who, readers of the first book will recall, wields considerably more raw power than does Daleina. The personalities of Daleina and Naelin are far better developed than those of the other characters, who exist mainly to fill specified roles within the heroic-fantasy mold. But as in the first book, the worldbuilding and descriptive passages make The Reluctant Queen a fascinating read. There is a foundational contrast drawn in book books between the political machinations of the people and the unceasing brutality of the spirits, on the one hand, and the essentially idyllic nature of the setting in which the manipulations and often-horrifying events take place, on the other. The contrast is similarly drawn in both books, and the progress of the central characters follows largely expected lines both times as well. As a result, The Queens of Renthia never quite overcomes its foundationally genre-typical approach – despite touches here and there that set this series above many other otherwise similar sequences. Fans of heroic fantasy will find The Queens of Renthia more than ordinarily appealing, but readers not already drawn to books of this type will find little here to pull them in.

(+++) ANGSTY TEENS


Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen. By Jazz Jennings. Ember. $10.99.

The Rift Uprising, Book One. By Amy S. Foster. Harper Voyager. $14.99.

     Being defined by one’s race, size, appearance or sexuality is no picnic: modern Western societies have spent decades and longer looking for ways to convince and cajole people to regard other people as individuals rather than as group representatives. Some of the approaches have turned out to be silly – “people of color” is progressive and good, “colored people” reactionary and evil – but there is little doubt that there has been a discernible (if sometimes gratingly slow) movement toward seeing people as, you know, people, rather than as characteristics. This has been the case, but the pendulum in recent years has swung the opposite way – who even knew there was such a pendulum? Now various small subgroups of the general population are insisting that they indeed be identified first and foremost by how they look or what they do, and be accepted and even celebrated specifically on that basis. This is nowhere clearer than in the sexually diverse community known variously as LGBT, LGBTQ and LGBTQ+. It is no longer sufficient for someone outside this group to say something like, “Hey, what you do in your personal life is up to you, and there’s no reason to discuss it any more than there is a reason to talk about what I do in my personal life.” Now what is expected is that people outside this very small and narrow community will identify, acknowledge and celebrate its members because of what they do and how they self-identify. This is exactly parallel to identifying an African-American person first and foremost on the color of his or her skin and only afterwards paying attention to anything else – the opposite of the approach that had been advocated by progressive thinkers for many years. The result of the new position of the pendulum is a preponderance of books such as Jazz Jennings’ Being Jazz – and of Jennings herself becoming a minor celebrity and cable-TV star. Jennings’ memoir, written in a rather immature teenage style, is intended as a message of hope and uplift for other teens like her, returning again and again to her endlessly supportive and dedicated family (something other teens will likely wish they had) even as it discusses issues such as Jennings’ desire to play on girls’ sports teams, use girls’ bathrooms, etc. Jennings’ family comes across as more than commendably devoted to her; it would be interesting to have a more-in-depth understanding of the background of her parents as a potential guide for other families with children like Jennings. Instead, the book dwells on honest but largely superficial elements of being a contemporary teenager, from school to summer camp to soccer, including everything from Facebook messages to awkward sort-of-romantic moments. Some of the material in the book is just plain odd, such as the photo caption under a picture showing Jennings at age three with “a boy’s bowl cut,” with Jennings calling it “Humiliating!” Apparently Jennings’ parents were somehow supposed to recognize their son as “really” a daughter at this age. By and large, though, the book, in addition to being an enjoyably quick read for fans of Jennings’ TV show, will be useful for others like her and for teens who are not transgender but want to understand what is currently deemed the correct way to deal with people who want to be seen as transgender first and anything else afterwards. How matters will be handled when the identification pendulum again swings the other way – pendulums do swing, after all – will be a matter for other books.

     The notion of defining people by an obvious characteristic and subsuming whatever else they may be within that single element pervades fiction as well as fact for teenagers. So-called “young adult” novels tend to start from the premise that the reality of being a teen is the main thing that matters in characters’ lives; everything else is secondary and follows from that basic fact in what would be called “ageism” if it were not presented in a positive light. Amy S. Foster’s first book in The Rift Uprising trilogy gets adults out of the way neatly by having the central characters required to be teenagers – since the process that creates the protagonists actually kills adults. This is one of multiple thin plot strands, because it is never explained how or why the implantable chips from an advanced humanoid race (yes, one of those) kill adults and cannot be modified by those advanced humanoids so they are not adult-fatal; nor is it explained why the chips need to be implanted in seven-year-olds (not six-year-olds or eight-year-olds) and how human scientists figured that out. Anyway, the (adult) scientists do figure that out, and they somehow do massive numbers of implants without the seven-year-olds’ parents knowing what is going on – and without the seven-year-olds themselves knowing anything. This would be a hilariously ridiculous premise, or set of premises, if Foster did not insist that it (and everything else in the book) be taken so extremely seriously. Matters are indeed deemed highly serious here: there are mysterious rifts in reality that connect our Earth to others in the multiverse, and some bad things will come through those rifts if our Earth does not stop them, so scientists and politicians from many countries forge a worldwide conspiracy to implant otherworldly chips in seven-year olds in order to train the kids secretly so that, when they are teenagers, they can become super-soldiers known as Citadels who can patrol the rifts and keep the baddies out while accepting some non-baddies and relocating them to internment camps that are also completely secret and unknown to the population at large. Oh, please. This has to be one of the silliest dystopian premises in some time: this is allegedly our Earth’s future, but somehow there are no drones, cellphone cameras, whistleblowers, dissatisfied conspiracy members, disaffected politicians, investigative reporters, or unhappy/disgruntled researchers – in any of the participating countries – revealing anything whatsoever about any of this to the world at large. One more absurd element here is a crucial one, indeed the primary plot mover once the story gets going (which it does slowly: Foster spends much of the early part of this first book building up all the foundational elements). This element is the violent rage into which Citadels fly if they make skin contact with anyone to whom they are attracted. They do not, say, become nauseated or physically averse to the person in 1984 mode – no, they get violent, which means attraction can lead to injuries that could include or be seen by bystanders or other observers and could lead to the unraveling of the whole worldwide conspiracy and all that. Yeah, right. Anyway, this matters because the protagonist of the book, Ryn Whittaker, is 17 and has known for three years that she is a Citadel – and has done her duty dutifully until an alternative-Earth boy named Ezra comes through a rift and Ryn experiences love, or at least lust, at first sight. It is this feeling, not some noble anti-conspiracy endeavor, that leads Ryn to pair up with Ezra to question the world as Ryn knows it and search for the truth about her implant, the rifts themselves, and the shadowy figures (they are always shadowy in books like this) pulling the teenagers’ strings for undoubtedly nefarious purposes. Foster’s plot is so full of holes that the only real reasons to stay with the story are incidental ones: some suspense in figuring out how the rifts work, some surprises in what can come out of them (essentially anything), and some incidental world building that is much better than the overall structure – notably the creation of housing for otherworldly animals and other creatures that emerge from the rifts. Much of The Rift Uprising is just plain silly, but because it partakes of so many tropes of the teen romance-and-angst genre, Foster’s book will be enjoyable for readers looking for escapism that does not require too much thinking – that, in fact, militates against it.

(+++) WAYS OF REACHING OUT


Michael Kurek: Serenade for Violoncello and Harp; Moon Canticle; Savannah Shadows; Sonata for Viola and Harp; The Sea Knows. Navona. $14.99.

Bill Whitley: Los Cielos; Lily of Force; The Creation of the World; Awake; Little White Salmon. Ravello. $14.99.

ASCEND: Society of Composers, Inc., Volume 31—Music by Patrick Houlihan, Joungmin Lee, Paul SanGregory, Mike McFerron, Justin Writer, Aaron Alon, Michael Pounds, Jeffrey Loeffert, and Stephen F. Lilly. Navona. $14.99.

Doug Bielmeier: Betty and the Sensory World—Experimental Electronic Music. Ravello. $14.99.

     Contemporary composers who seek some level of audience connection and impact often turn to chamber works rather than larger ensembles, seeking the intimacy and connectivity that a small number of instruments can provide. Composers then decide whether to look for emotional connection, which often means using tonal language with which audiences will be familiar and comfortable, or harsher and more-modern techniques that may find greater favor with other composers but not necessarily with everyday listeners. Michael Kurek’s works on a new Navona CD tend toward the Romantic (or post-Romantic) in their use of tonality, but their overall flavor is something closer to New Age music, thanks largely to Kurek’s writing for harp in three of the five pieces on the disc. Serenade for Violoncello and Harp is a pleasant, vaguely impressionistic work of considerable length (17 minutes), well played by Ovidiu Marinescu and Rita Costanzi, that comes across mostly as background music. Moon Canticle is a work for solo harp, played by Soledad Yaya, that has the sort of otherworldly sound often associated with the harp but has little forward momentum; it is in effect an extended cadenza. Sonata for Viola and Harp, played by Peter Pas and Yaya, combines the instruments’ sonorities interestingly and often with unusual effects, the harp at times assuming a distinctly piano-like sound. Moderately paced, this sonata, like the one for violoncello, has an overall meandering feeling. Savannah Shadows, for violin (Wei Tsun Chang), viola (Seanad Dunigan Chang), and cello (Kirsten Cassel Greer), is most affecting in unison passages with a sense of yearning, although there are a few too many of those for full emotional impact. The Sea Knows features Marinescu and the Vanderbilt Strings conducted by Robin Fountain, and includes some well-considered cello writing against a flowing string backdrop with some of the feeling of small-r romantic film music. The pacing of all these works is generally moderate, lending them individually and collectively a feeling of quietude and peacefulness, but not providing any sense of a deeper emotional tie to listeners.

     Bill Whitley’s music on a new Ravello CD uses small instrumental complements very differently – and uses very different combinations of instruments. The three-movement Los Cielos is for piano (Elena Talarico) and soprano saxophone (Federico De Zottis) and uses sound suspension and ostinato passages to propel its musical argument, the bluesy elements of the second movement (“Ixtapaluca”) being most effective. Lily of Force is for vibes (Stefano Grasso), contrabass (Matteo Lorito), piano (Talarico) and soprano saxophone (De Zottis), but despite the intriguing instrumental mixture, makes rather less use of contrasting sonorities than does Los Cielos, although its faster material, toward the end, is nicely propulsive. The Creation of the World, a two-movement work for two guitars (Eni Lulja and Elisa La Marca), features neatly contrasted guitar sonorities in offering creation stories from Southeast Asia and from Chinook legends. The rhythmic pulse of the first movement and the comparatively static dance of the second are appealingly different.  Awake is for soprano saxophone (De Zottis), piano (Talarico) and flute (Francesco Marzano). Intended to express the spirituality of an Indian mandala experience, it is peaceful enough, but at 13 minutes is much too long for what is essentially a slow-paced meditation without apparent direction. Little White Salmon is the most-varied work here: a suite of seven short movements, the last two being the same as the first two in reverse order and the third lasting only 16 seconds. The work is for narrator (Donna Henderson, who co-wrote the words with the composer) and piano (Talarico), and uses the life cycle of a Pacific salmon as a metaphor for the human experience – not an especially unusual parallel (one type of life seen as similar to another), but a nicely handled one in which words and music do indeed flow together and intermingle convincingly.

     There is nothing unified or unifying in ASCEND, the latest Navona release from the Society of Composers, Inc. This is purely an anthology disc in which pieces for chamber group, solo instruments and electroacoustics are tossed about to see whether anyone other than the composers themselves might find something here or there to be of more than passing interest. Recorded between 2007 and 2016, the pieces range in length from four-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half minutes and in instrumentation from the eletroacoustic Breathing 2: Re/Inspiration by Michael Pounds to the clarinet solo Fantasia by Justin Writer (played by David Carter) and the marimba solo If You Walked a Mile by Mike McFerron (played by Andrew Spencer) – and thence to a wide variety of combinations. Stephen F. Lilly is both composer and performer of Embark for kalimba (a kind of thumb piano), egg shaker, and five-bell desert chime. Jeffrey Loeffert’s Bombinate is for three soprano saxophones (played by Jonathan Nichol, Geoffrey Deibel and the composer). An alto saxophone (Caroline Taylor) and piano (Lei Cai) are used for Patrick Houlihan’s Snoqualmie Passages. A traditional string quartet (Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violins; John Richards, viola; Kevin McFarland, cello) plays Vexatious by Joungmin Lee. A non-traditional sextet (Akris Hung, oboe; Bonnie Lin and Chun Chang, violins; Hui-Fang Hsu, viola; Rou-An Hou, cello; Yi-Chin Ou, piano) performs Shining Through Cracks by Paul SanGregory. And Aaron Alon’s Dulce et Decorum Est calls for baritone (Mark Whatley) and string quartet (Eva Liebhaber and Kaoru Suzuki, violins; Elizabeth Charles, viola; Jennifer Humphreys, cello). The works are so disparate in methodology and compositional techniques, as well as instrumentation, that the CD cannot possibly be intended to appeal to listeners other than members of the Society of Composers itself – and not necessarily to all of them. Like the earlier discs in the same series, this one has a bit of something for many people and a great deal that will likely not appeal to very many listeners at all. The point seems to be to show that there are a lot of contemporary composers out there creating a lot of types of music for a lot of kinds of performers and performance groups. Whether any of the music will have any staying power at all, though, will be determined in venues other than this one, which is simply a disconnected hodgepodge of professionally created and produced but in no case particularly compelling material.

     Listeners who find themselves attracted by the one electroacoustic work on ASCEND may want to try the new Ravello CD of music composed, recorded and mixed by Doug Bielmeier. Electronic music specifically labeled “experimental,” as is Betty and the Sensory World, is proclaiming itself an acquired, rarefied taste from the start, and that is just what Bielmeier’s material is. Structurally, this is a seven-section suite lasting more than an hour, and it moves very, very, very slowly. There is nothing specific on which to focus here: occasional sounds, such as that of bells, are recognizable, but for the most part, this is an entirely typical mass of electronic swells and softenings, loudnesses and softnesses, which pass from side to side of speakers or headphones and seem to get closer and farther away in no apparent pattern and to no apparent purpose. There is minimal guidance to be had from the sections’ titles: “Echoes of Shadows,” “The Rocking Chair,” “Christie’s Bells,” “On the Monon,” “Reminded Who I Am,” “The Wisdom of the Cave,” and “Pity for a Fellow Prisoner.” But despite the portentous nature of those titles and the pretentiousness of the whole enterprise, what comes through clearly is neither more nor less than a large series of highly modified real-world sounds combined with laboratory-created groans and grimaces, yips and yawps. There may be some usefulness of this music as a background for meditation or incorporation into some sort of visual design – a way in which electronic music has been used effectively for many decades, the works of György Ligeti being employed this way to particularly good effect. But only the most committed fan of electronic music for its own sake is likely to try to pay attention for more than an hour to what Bielmeier has created here. Not all composers are really looking to make connections with an audience of any size – some are primarily interested solely in other composers’ reactions, and some create only for their own pleasure and for a small coterie of fans. Whatever Bielmeier’s intentions for Betty and the Sensory World may be, this is music that requires a strong existing attraction to its medium to be of interest, especially of interest at the length needed to hear the entire composition. Listeners who would like to explore electronic music but are not fully committed to hearing it at exceptional length will do much better to sample the many, many shorter and more evocative works of this type – Ligeti’s oeuvre being as good a place to start as any.