November 16, 2017
Life on Surtsey, Iceland’s Upstart Island. By Loree Griffin Burns. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
Impact! Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World. By Elizabeth Rauch. Photos by Karin Anderson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
One of the most amazing things about the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series is the way it shows some scientists focusing on tiny things and others on the very big picture – and in all cases doing so with meticulous attention to detail and absolute commitment to their projects, small or large. Life on Surtsey looks at the very small but very important things happening on a volcanic island that was formed in 1963 by an eruption 15 miles off the coast of Iceland. For 50-plus years, scientists have studied the very small elements that turn barren rock into a place teeming with life, both plant and animal. Loree Griffin Burns focuses on Erling Ólafsson, who has spent nearly half a century studying some very small things on Surtsey: insects. They are among the first colonizers of the island, but not the very first. As Life on Surtsey explains, it was only two weeks after Surtsey formed that something alive was there: a seagull, one of the many that live and breed on other rocky outcrops in the area. And birds do not simply visit on their own: they bring nesting materials that may contain plants or seeds, their feathers harbor mites and other insects, and as the seagulls catch and eat fish and other foods, leftovers from the meals rot and provide potential nutrients for various plants. Nor did the colonizing of Surtsey happen only because of birds: the sea itself washed plant matter onto the island, and some of it took root. Bit by bit, life took hold. The photos showing Surtsey at different stages are fascinating: the close-up views of plants, eggs, insects and birds show how quickly life attaches to and thrives on the new land, and the discussion of the care the scientists take to avoid impinging on the island’s natural development is especially intriguing and indicative of just what it means to be a scientist in the field. For example, there is the matter of bathrooms. To avoid having human waste become a factor in Surtsey’s development, urinals for men and women consist of small holes in the sand in specific places. Any toilet paper used must be disposed of in the trash can inside the simple hut where the scientists stay – none may be left outdoors. As for “anything more than pee,” Burns explains that the scientists must walk to a specific, rocky part of the island, lift a rock, make use of the hole beneath it, and replace the rock – choosing a location “close enough to the ocean that the waves can come up and carry away your deposit at high tide, but not so close that the waves come while you’re squatting there and carry you away.” Juxtaposing these conditions with the remarkable photos and carefully explained experiments of the scientists makes Life on Surtsey a truly amazing experience, one that will give young readers a firm understanding of the fascination, if not exactly glamor, of the lives of the scientists who study this still-developing island.
Life on Surtsey is all about the very small, but the scientific focus is on enormous matters in Impact! The book opens with a scene that could come from a fictional end-of-the-world thriller: explosions, shattered glass spraying everywhere, buildings shaking, earthquake-like jolts, the immediate fear that a nuclear bomb has detonated nearby. It turns out that all the effects were the result of an asteroid strike by a comparatively small space rock, one the size of a six-story building that had exploded in the sky and rained pieces of itself to the ground over many miles. Yes, a six-story asteroid, including the one that came down near Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, and was heavier than the Eiffel Tower, is rather small – there are much, much bigger ones out there. The question of what to do if one of those appears on a collision course with Earth lies at the heart of Impact! Science fiction aside, we do not yet have a way to prevent a potential planetwide catastrophe. The scientists profiled in Elizabeth Rauch’s book are working toward that goal. The research may be complicated, but the way the scientists go about it comes across in Rauch’s writing as easy to understand, as in a search for meteorites near Creston, California: “It’s a game of ‘One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.’ What looks different from all the other rocks around? What doesn’t fit in? What might have come from outer space?” An excellent page of Karin Anderson’s photos shows “Meteor-Wrongs” on top and meteorites on the bottom, visually explaining to readers what scientists must sort through when trying to find space rocks and use them to study the potential effects of future collisions with Earth. Anderson’s photos are an excellent complement to Rauch’s clear text: the pictures show everything from a large meteor crater to a thinly sliced section of a meteorite about to be examined under a microscope. Inevitably, the book discusses the origin of the solar system and the extinction of the dinosaurs – caused, in large part, by an asteroid six miles wide colliding with Earth and forming what is today called the Chicxulub crater, half in Mexico and half under the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this material may be familiar to readers, but other information will not be, such as the fact that 183 asteroid impact craters have been discovered on Earth – the map showing all their locations is fascinating. How often do major asteroid strikes occur? About once every 300 years, Rauch writes in the caption beneath a photo showing some of the destruction that one impact caused in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, when 80 million trees were destroyed. And what about risks in the future? The book’s second half focuses on the search for PHAs (potentially hazardous asteroids) and the importance of getting some warning, even a small amount, before any of them hits – hopefully enough time to evacuate the impact area and protect what structures can be protected. The scientists’ enthusiasm as they search for PHAs is tempered by the reality that they may one day discover something that could be a major threat to our planet. Possible ways of dealing with an imminent threat – none of them currently practical – make up the last part of Impact! An asteroid-breaking bomb, a crash-landing by a spacecraft, solar sails to collect energy that would redirect the asteroid, and other ideas (including one based on paintball) are discussed and shown in intriguing diagrams. None of them is practical yet; most will never be developed; but some are well along in research stages and will hopefully be ready for deployment before a scientist, perhaps one of those profiled in this book, discovers an Earth-bound asteroid whose path is likely to intersect our planet’s, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Ruby & Olivia. By Rachel Hawkins. Putnam. $16.99.
Lock and Key, Book One: The Initiation. By Ridley Pearson. Harper. $9.99.
Lock and Key, Book Two: The Downward Spiral. By Ridley Pearson. Harper. $17.99.
The usual preteen drama always takes up a good deal of space in novels for preteens, with much of the underlying plot of individual books being added to (or subsumed within) the interpersonal issues that publishers seem inevitably to favor in works for ages 8-12. Thus, Ruby & Olivia is as much about the highly unlikely friendship of the title characters as it is about the possibly haunted house whose contents the girls are required to catalogue as part of a summer-long community-service project. The way Rachel Hawkins throws Ruby and Olivia together into unlikely partnership during community service is clunky in the extreme: Ruby is indeed something of a troublemaker, sent to a camp for “Bad Kids” after she scatters loads of glitter at school in a prank gone wrong, but Olivia is quiet and respectful. However, Olivia has a twin sister, Emma, who is very much Ruby’s type and has in fact been Ruby’s close friend. When Emma shoplifts some lipstick, Olivia steps in and takes the blame for absolutely no reason whatsoever – Hawkins tries to get past this by having Olivia say she herself is not sure why she does it, but the sleight of hand does not work as a narrative device and leaves Olivia’s action thoroughly unbelievable. In the context of the book, though, the precipitating event of Olivia’s being sent to the same camp as Ruby does not matter – what counts is that the two very different girls are sent to the same place and have to learn to get along, eventually becoming (against all odds but scarcely against the usual plot vectors of books like this) close friends. Strange occurrences in Live Oaks House – more unsettling than genuinely creepy – become a mystery that Ruby and Olivia decide they want to solve, then decide they do not really need to solve after all, then eventually decide that they must solve. Hawkins gives a broad hint of what is going to happen by having two long-ago girl residents of the old mansion turn out to be named Rebecca and Octavia – same first letters as in Ruby and Olivia, guaranteeing that some sort of ghostly connection is reaching across the years to ensnare (maybe) the two 21st-century girls. It is hard to take any of this seriously, and even the obligatory mild crush on a boy seems creakily patched into the story: he helps the girls in their climactic visit to the old house, then conveniently gets scared and runs away, leaving them alone – while even more conveniently leaving them exactly the tools and implements they need to solve the mystery and overcome the mansion’s dark forces. It is very hard to take Ruby & Olivia seriously, but as a genre entry that has some of the flavor of a lightweight “beach read,” the book has its points.
The points that Ridley Pearson is trying to make in the Lock and Key series are more complex, but a lot of the intricacy is as creaky as anything in Hawkins’ standalone novel. Lock and Key is a reconsideration of the Sherlock Holmes stories, set in the United States in modern times but for some reason having the characters speak in language that seems taken, at least in large part, from the 19th century. The idea here is that Holmes comes from England to a U.S. boarding school -- called Baskerville Academy, of all things – and becomes the roommate of none other than James Moriarty, who will eventually become his arch-enemy. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Moriarty for the express purpose of killing Holmes off, and Moriarty plays very little role in the authentic Holmes tales – but he has appealed to many authors since Doyle’s time, and Pearson seems to find the light-against-dark juxtaposition of the teenage Holmes and Moriarty irresistible. Readers will likely find it less so. The series is narrated by Moriarty’s sister, Moria (yes, Moria Moriarty, a name that is one of the creakiest elements in Lock and Key), even though many events happen when she is not present and readers have to accept her assertion that she has re-created some scenes that she was told about years later by various characters. This does not work very well: there is an awkwardness to the narrative that goes beyond the inexpert writing, which is even more ill-fitting when Pearson tries to give Moria, who is 12 (two years younger than James and Holmes), some personality of her own: “The sky held an elaborate mix of colors: aqua, gray, pink, and purple. A painter’s sky. …We all smelled like suntan lotion in summers, and hamburgers, and fresh-cut grass. Ice cream doesn’t smell or we would have smelled like that as well.” In the first Lock and Key book, The Initiation – originally published last year and now available in paperback – Moria has a bit of a crush on Holmes even though he comes across, in Pearson’s story, as a rather insufferable know-it-all. For his part, James is whiny, thoroughly unappreciative, and enormously arrogant and self-centered, at one point telling his sister, “I think some of us are meant to lead and some to follow, regardless of how old we are or what grade we’re in. …It’s like pilot fish and sharks, soldiers and generals. It’s prehistoric or something.” The idea of two very different central characters needing to get past their dislike of each other and form an uneasy alliance is as present in Lock and Key as in Ruby & Olivia, but Pearson tries to lend the disconnect between James and Holmes greater importance by drawing on elements of Doyle’s stories. That means The Initiation and its successor, The Downward Spiral, must have mysteries as well as a rivalry at their heart. Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the brilliant and aloof detective in his works about C. Auguste Dupin, called those stories “tales of ratiocination,” and emphasized careful thinking rather than personality development in them. Doyle picked up the approach to great effect in his Holmes tales, but Pearson tries to balance mystery with traditional preteen-novel tropes, and the mixture is more a colloidal suspension than a solution. Speaking of solutions, the first book is about a missing Moriarty family Bible – the school was founded by James and Moria’s ancestors – and the second gets more deeply into the Moriarty family’s troubled history and pushes James farther down the dark path onto which he enters in the first volume. The books include some typical trappings of certain parts of the mystery genre: events of the past coming home to roost, a death that may or may not have been accidental, a secret society, and so on. Whether the intended preteen audience will enjoy the ins and outs of the mysteries themselves, or be more interested in the byplay between Holmes and James as reported by Moria, is an open question. As for Pearson’s style, it swerves uneasily between contemporary references (James Moriarty doing Sudoku?) and old-fashioned expressions, some of which are not quite right, as when Holmes says of his deduction that certain jewelry belonged to James and Moria’s mother, “That was my presumption” (he means “assumption” or “deduction”). And the portrait of Holmes is really not much more flattering than that of James – at one point, for instance, Holmes begins an analysis to Moria with the words, “If my theory is correct – and when am I wrong?” It is hard to imagine modern preteens identifying in any significant way with any of the three central characters in Lock and Key, but Pearson’s pacing is skillful enough so the first two books can be read as simple mystery adventures rather than as reconsiderations of a rivalry dating back to the century before the last one.
Scholastic Book of World Records 2018. By Cynthia O’Brien, Abigail Mitchell, Michael Bright, and Donald Sommerville. Scholastic. $12.99.
Scholastic Year in Sports 2018. Scholastic. $9.99.
Here, from the back cover, is the self-description of the latest annual Scholastic world-records book: “Another Year of Amazing World Records and All the Latest and Greatest Pop Culture Crazes!” And that pretty much says it all: in an information age within which “best” and “greatest” change daily, hourly, even by the minute, it is very hard indeed to come up with “amazing world records” that have any lasting value and will appeal to the young readers at whom this book is targeted. But pop-culture crazes? Ah, there is an infinite well of silliness, meaninglessness and stupidity on which an enterprising book-creation group (in this case, Toucan Books Limited) can draw at will; and even better, because the so-called “records” associated with unimportant pop-culture occurrences are so evanescent, the book can be updated year after year. After all, “world’s sleepiest animal: koala” is a record that is highly unlikely to change, but “highest-paid TV actress” and “top radio song” are 100% certain to change over time. Hopefully in time for the next edition of the book – which means by May 2018 (this “2018” edition actually covers only material through May 2017).
Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of this. In fact, it is rather amusing to have a book that, on one page, describes the “largest sculpture cut from a single piece of stone: Sphinx,” which has withstood the depredations of time for some 4,500 years, while the facing page describes the “record-breaking LEGO structure: LEGOLAND Günzberg,” a tower built between June 24 and June 30, 2016. Maybe some people care about the “celebrity with the most Instagram followers: Selena Gomez,” but whether or not they do, it is pretty sure that this particular record will not stand very long, as other flavor-of-the-moment celebrities pop up to eclipse it. Similarly, the “top-grossing mobile game app: Clash of Clans,” while it may retain its position for a time, is scarcely likely to do so – or even to be remembered – for very long. So Scholastic Book of World Records 2018 has built-in expiration dates for many of the items it describes, and that is just fine for a work that appears year after year.
As always, the book is very heavily visual: every page is packed with visual elements, and in some cases the pages are nothing but visuals, with a small amount of information printed over full-page photos. For a visually oriented time, this makes perfect sense, even when the specific items included in the book are scarcely new or surprising, as in the “Amazing Animals” section. Here appear the “world’s heaviest land mammal: African elephant,” “world’s largest primate: gorilla,” and “world’s fastest land animal: cheetah,” none of which is likely to be supplanted in its record anytime soon. Because these are “evergreen” records, the way they are presented becomes especially important, and it is in this design element that Scholastic Book of World Records 2018 shines. The page about the cheetah, for example, has five analog speedometers along the bottom, displaying the speed of the five fastest land animals in descending order (cheetah, African ostrich, pronghorn, springbok and lion). The two pages on the “world’s tallest living animal: giraffe” not only feature a gorgeous photo of a herd of the animals but also include large-type boxes giving information such as the length of a giraffe’s tongue (up to 21 inches) and the height of a calf at birth (six feet). And “America’s most popular dog breed: Labrador” features a list of the top 10 breeds in the U.S. – a list that may very well change by the next edition of this book, although the Labrador’s place atop it may not, since it has now held the top spot for 26 years in a row.
The book’s nine sections offer a mixture of items that will almost surely be altered in the near future and ones that almost certainly will not change. “Music Makers,” “Screen and Stage,” “On the Move,” “High Tech” and “Sports Stars” have far more soon-to-be-eclipsed records than “Super Structures,” “Amazing Animals,” “Incredible Earth,” and “State Stats” – although the last of these is actually easy to change each year by simply selecting a different record for each state. That is, Scholastic Book of World Records 2018 says Alaska is the “state with the most pilots per capita,” Tennessee is the “state that makes all the MoonPies,” and Wisconsin is the “state with the prize milk cow,” but each state has other distinctions that would lend themselves to alterations in this chapter in the future. Really, the book is not about multiple records as of 2018, but about multiple records up to May 2017 that it can be fun to read about as 2018 approaches. It can even be enjoyable, in the new year, to find out about various record-breaking matters and make note of them on the appropriate pages of this book – just to see whether they end up being the events and people mentioned in the work’s version for 2019.
Much the same thinking applies to Scholastic Year in Sports 2018, but this is a book that includes nothing at all that is expected to remain the same in a year. Instead, it gives scores, records and statistics from 2017 – through August, actually – with the full knowledge that there will be another set of scores, records and statistics available for the 2019 version of the book. As with Scholastic Book of World Records 2018, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with this, provided that buyers know what they are getting and do not expect anything else. Scholastic Year in Sports 2018 is of course solely for sports fans, but more than that, it is for fans of multiple sports, not ones who, for example, fixate on college basketball or NASCAR. Both those fields do get coverage here, but so do the National Football League, college football, major league baseball, NBA/WNBA, National Hockey League, soccer, golf, tennis and a few miscellaneous categories labeled “Other Motor Sports” (drag racing, motorcycle racing and others), “Action Sports” (Summer X Games, Winter X Games), and simply “Other Sports” (figure skating, lacrosse, America’s cup and more). Since no single sport in the entire book gets even as many as 20 pages – and most of the space is taken up with photos rather than information – Scholastic Year in Sports 2018 is not for anyone looking for in-depth coverage of anything. It is a kind of once-over-lightly about the world of sports, a chance to see some attractive pictures, relive a few game highlights and read about some “Sudden Stars,” who are “the young superstars you will be watching for years to come” and who are drawn from football, baseball, basketball, soccer, hockey and so forth. Again, the book clearly targets the sports junkie – but a particular type of sports junkie, one who is interested in brief highlights of the year (up to August) in a wide variety of games and activities. Young hyper-fans of sports in general will have a good time with the book; those who care about only one, two or even three sports will probably bypass Scholastic Year in Sports 2018 and look instead for more-intense coverage of the areas to which they are devoted.
The Strategy of Victory: How General George Washington Won the American Revolution. By Thomas Fleming. Da Capo. $28.
A Crime in the Family: A World War II Secret Buried in Silence—and My Search for the Truth. By Sacha Batthyány. Da Capo. $28.
It is customary to think of war broadly, to regard it as, in Carl von Clausewitz’s famous words, “the continuation of politics by other means,” and therefore as something large-scale and momentous. And this is true but incomplete. If war occurs on a large canvas, it is also the individual stories of the people who fight it, and there are certainly interstices of war history that repay exploration even many decades, or even centuries, after a particular conflict is over. The late Thomas Fleming (1927-2017), in more than 40 books, returned again and again to analyses of wars and the people who fought and were caught in them. He was expert in thinking through strategies and tactics by looking closely at specific occurrences during wartime and the decisions, good or bad, that were made as a result. Fleming’s books are of scholarly interest for their interpretative excellence, even when they are somewhat too rarefied to appeal to a general readership. Books about George Washington, for example, can reliably be expected to interest people beyond a hardcore group of military historians; but The Strategy of Victory, for all its fine arguments and careful consideration of the military necessities underlying the formation of the United States, is primarily a book for those already familiar with America’s war for independence and interested in a new overview of the way that war was won. Fleming shows again and again that Washington was an exemplary adjuster: he would create strategies and tactics but would not hesitate to change them when conditions warranted, giving the Continental Army flexibility that the more-regimented British forces could not (and, in truth, did not wish to) match. Washington’s forces lost many battles, Fleming points out, but did not balk at retreating so as to be able to fight another day – the loss of posts and forts was seen as a necessary component of eventual victory. Even more interestingly, Fleming shows that when Washington and his field commanders won battles, as at Trenton, Monmouth and Saratoga, they did not use their victories to take on the British frontally in an attempt at decisive victory. Washington essentially fought a war of attrition, not one of confrontation, except when he had no choice; and he tried to make sure that he always had a choice. Fleming does a fine job of showing how Washington made skillful use not only of the perennially under-funded Continental Army (the “regulars”) but also of “irregular” militias, whose help proved crucial again and again (and undoubtedly led to the still-controversial phrasing of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). With his penchant for focusing on little-known aspects of war in addition to better-known ones, Fleming in The Strategy of Victory gives more time and attention to the last northern battles of the war than other historians do – battles such as Springfield and Connecticut Farms – before switching to discussions of the final stages of the war in Virginia and the Carolinas. And Fleming makes clear that the victory Washington sought was not fully won after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, because the continued refusal by Congress to appropriate adequate funds for the Continental Army led to simmering resentment that came to a head in March 1783 in a near-mutiny that Washington stopped through a personal gesture that deserves to be far better known. “Washington fumbled in the inner pocket of his coat and took out a copy of a letter he had recently received from Virginia congressman Joseph Jones, describing some of the positive steps Congress was planning to satisfy the officers. After reading the first few lines, he stopped and peered at the page. Reaching into another pocket, he extracted a set of eyeglasses he had recently received from Philadelphia. No one except a few aides had seen him wearing them. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.’” What an amazing, humanizing moment this is in The Strategy of Victory, and what a way to show that a man usually thought of as distant, wooden, even cold and calculating, had a deeply heartfelt side that he showed only rarely but that, when he did so, had – as it had on this occasion – an overwhelming effect. Fleming manages in this book to show that the grand matters of the American Revolution were balanced in some ways by the small ones, such as reaching for a pair of spectacles. He gives a more-humanizing portrait of Washington than many other historians do, while not neglecting the battlefield detail that the primary audience for this book will expect. The Strategy of Victory may be mainly for those already deeply involved in studies of the American Revolution, but it is also a worthy volume for readers who may just happen to stumble upon it and start thumbing through it out of a sense of curiosity.
A much more recent war, one that ended “only” 75 years ago, is the impetus behind Sacha Batthyány’s memoir, A Crime in the Family. The word “only” belongs in quotation marks in this context, because the whole point of the book is that for those deeply involved in World War II, and their descendants and families, the war’s end feels as if it happened only yesterday. Perhaps, the book argues, wars never really end, their effects being felt through generation after generation and affecting people born long after the wars’ official conclusions. Batthyány does not make this statement directly, but it permeates his telling of the story, which is an ugly, sordid and highly personal one. Batthyány, a Swiss-born journalist with Hungarian parents, learns one day that a distant relative, his great-aunt Margit – an heiress to the German Thyssen fortune – gave a party in March 1945, near the war’s end, during which an atrocity was committed: almost 180 Jews were shot dead by people attending the festivities, stripped naked and forced to dig their own mass grave as Margit and her guests, many of them prominent Nazis, drank and danced gaily. This is one horror among many, many others from World War II – wars are nothing without atrocities – but this one hits home for Batthyány because someone in his family was involved, and he sets out to learn the truth about what happened. It proves to be a seven-year search with the aid of the diary of his paternal grandmother, Maritta, and a separate record kept by Maritta’s onetime neighbor – Agnes Mandl, an Auschwitz survivor who is still alive and living in Buenos Aires when Batthyány locates her. The main thing Batthyány finds out, and it is no surprise at all, is that after all the years and all the deaths, all the records lost or changed or destroyed both by the Nazis and by the Communists who succeeded them as rulers of Hungary, all the people who still refuse to speak because they want only to put the memories of that time behind them, it is simply impossible to know the truth. Batthyány comes up with several truths, or aspects of the truth, in a search whose outcome will surprise absolutely no one. Batthyány’s methodical research and his journey into his family’s past are nevertheless fascinating, particularly in the way they stand for something beyond the personal – for the eternal search for truth and the eternal inability to pin it down as time passes, memories fade and people try to go on with their post-war lives. Batthyány is not very introspective about any of this, despite the weekly visits with his psychoanalyst – which he documents and reports carefully and which are repetitive and annoying, the weakest part of the book. Batthyány never finds out exactly what happened in March 1945; readers will realize early on that he will not. So A Crime in the Family is a journey of discovery rather than the unraveling of a mystery (in fact, the massacre of the 180 Jews in the town of Rechnitz has been known for a long time, so Batthyány is looking for details about his family’s complicity rather than for new information about the event itself). Inevitably, Batthyány tells readers that he learned much about himself during his search and was forced to realize, eventually, that if he had been present at the time the killings occurred, he would not have had the courage to hide and protect Jews. That is a touch of honesty, and indeed there is honesty throughout A Crime in the Family, to the extent that Batthyány and the others in it are capable of it in any objective sense after so many years. The reality is that Batthyány is just one of thousands upon thousands of people descended from people who endured horrendous wartime experiences in World War II and other wars, and that yes, some of those experiences were more intense and horrific than others, and that yes, there can be something salutary in dredging up the desiccated remnants of the past for those who choose to do so. But Batthyány, like others exploring long-gone times that many people would rather forget than recall, thinks not at all of the collateral damage caused by pushing people to remember in detail times and events of unimaginable trauma. What Batthyány finds helpful for himself is scarcely that for all the people he interviews and confronts. Self-focused selfishness in memory extraction is yet another of the innumerable depredations and long-lasting consequences of war.
Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Orla Boylan, Celena Shafer and Amy Owens, sopranos; Charlotte Hellekant and Tamara Mumford, mezzo-sopranos; Barry Banks, tenor; Markus Werba, baritone; Jordan Bisch, bass; Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Choristers of the Madeleine Choir School, and Utah Symphony conducted by Thierry Fischer. Reference Recordings. $29.98 (2 SACDs).
Mahler: Symphony No. 5. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Mariss Jansons. BR Klassik. $16.99.
Mahler: Symphony No. 1. Utah Symphony conducted by Thierry Fischer. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).
It is ironic that although Mahler famously said that a symphony must be like the world, a comment usually interpreted to mean that a symphony should contain pretty much everything to be found in the world at large, all his symphonies can justifiably be seen as containing a single thing at their core: Mahler himself. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” Walt Whitman wrote, and in fact Mahler did exactly the same thing, presenting intensely personal thoughts, beliefs, worries and fears in every one of his symphonies; the works’ differing emphases and conclusions may be thought of as showing alternative outcomes of the composer’s internal struggles and hopes. It would not do to force too close a parallel between Mahler’s life at the time of a particular symphony and the structure of that work, however, for the symphonies explore and are reflective of his inner being, not his external circumstances. Seeing these gigantic and meticulously colored canvases – they really do resemble paintings in sound – in this highly personal way gives sensitive listeners entry to the emotional core of the music, a key to exploring the techniques Mahler used to express so many parts of his multilayered and often deeply troubled, conflicted personality. The extremely personal nature of the music is also a key to its sound: Mahler employed vast numbers of instruments, in symphony after symphony, but invariably used them much of the time with chamber-music delicacy. The grand and glorious or gloomy climaxes are there, to be sure, but the individual voices, the small groupings of color within the larger splashes of intensity, are every bit as important as the massed sound that Mahler drew forth from the many performers on whom he called to express himself to the world.
Because of the unique sonic quality of Mahler’s music, the exceptional importance of getting both the quiet passages and the huge, noisy and sometimes deliberately crude ones right, the recording quality of Mahler performances is exceptionally important, most definitely so in the case of his Eighth, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” which really does require something close to that number of performers. This symphony is ideally suited for the superb recording techniques that are always in evidence on Reference Recordings releases, and the new two-disc set featuring a live 2016 performance directed by Thierry Fischer is an exemplary case of recording quality wedded to music that begs to be treated with the extraordinary aural care it receives here. The technical details do not matter: what counts is the exceptional evenness of sound from the start of this 90-minute spectacular to the end, with the quietest passages having great clarity and the loudest, which are very loud indeed, resounding with tremendous intensity but never sounding the slightest bit muddy or indistinct. This is a performance that strongly contrasts the essentially “masculine” striving of the opening Veni, creator spiritus with the essentially “feminine” acceptance and integration of the final scene from Goethe’s Faust, which is Mahler’s most operatic music and in this reading truly does sound like a vast opera score (with no fewer than eight solo voices, more than in many operas). One of the many interesting questions for conductors is how to handle the very start of this symphony – whether the words Veni, creator spiritus at the opening, just after the organ’s pedal point, should be framed as a plea for the Creator Spirit to come or as a command. Fischer leans toward the “command” side, setting a tone of strength from the music’s start and allowing himself considerable latitude, in the work’s second part, to bring forth all the warmth and expressiveness that Mahler offers there. The soloists are uniformly fine, despite the use of two mezzo-sopranos rather than contraltos (these voices’ solo sections are short and comparatively undistinguished). The major solos in this work belong to the tenor, who must be heard over the chorus without having his voice crack, and the bass, whose wide leaps are, to say the least, challenging; Barry Banks and Jordan Bisch acquit themselves admirably. The young singers of the Madeleine Choir School handle their parts well, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – a vast and amazing instrument of its own that can at times slip into ponderousness rather than grandeur – here sounds committed, strong and sensitive. Listeners so inclined can certainly nitpick Fischer’s performance, which occasionally becomes rather matter-of-fact and in the Faust scenes loses forward momentum now and then. But in its totality, this is an excellently conceived reading featuring first-rate soloists and chorus, an uplifting and convincing rendition of Mahler’s brilliant affirmation of the essentially positive nature of always striving for knowledge and creative expression. This is Mahler himself at his most optimistic, tapping his belief that always seeking the highest heights will one day bring the human spirit to the summit of experience.
Matters Mahlerian are more troubled and far less certain of positive resolution through much of the Fifth Symphony, but here too there is an eventual affirmation (a chorale rather than choral one) of consonance and hope that makes possible emergence from the inner abyss of the work’s Part I (the first two movements). The new BR Klassik recording featuring the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Mariss Jansons makes this emergence from despair, through warmth and love, to brightness, particularly clear. The linchpin of the symphony, very oddly, is the very unusual central Scherzo, which stands alone as Part II of the work and which fluctuates between naïve Ländler elements and something more serious and introspective – as if pulling the symphony along a trajectory from the intensity and darkness of Part I toward the warmth, beauty and eventual positive outcome of Part III (the fourth and fifth movements). It is hard to miss the intensely personal core of this particular symphony, whose gorgeous fourth movement, Adagietto, is almost a standalone piece for its lovely, uncomplex beauty and spare scoring – indeed, it is often performed separately from the symphony to which it belongs, being offered as a sort of “love poem,” which is how Mahler regarded it when sending it to his wife, Alma. Yet it is only in context that the movement truly fulfills its function of turning turbulence (Part I) and thoughtful complexity (Part II) toward something far more heartfelt, driven by and toward the “eternal feminine” that Mahler was later to celebrate through Goethe’s words in the Eighth Symphony. A firm sense of structural integrity is absolutely necessary for a successful performance of Mahler’s Fifth, and Jansons certainly has that. The gloom of the opening funeral march and storm-tossed second movement give way only reluctantly in the Scherzo to something less visceral and more thoughtful; the third movement’s upbeat ending connects to only a small degree to the overflowing beauty of the fourth; and the comparatively staid, moderately paced final Rondo then builds gradually to a chorale effusion that is allowed to become the work’s capstone – standing in contrast to the chorale of the second movement, which tries to emerge from darkness but soon collapses onto itself, as if it is just too soon to experience any sort of satisfying emergence from despair. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is a great one for playing Mahler, weighty without being heavy in sound, and especially strong in the brass; and Jansons knows how to bring out the ensemble’s great warmth (the strings are gorgeous in the Adagietto) while still producing the cragginess that Part I of the symphony demands. This is a well-thought-out and very effective reading of Mahler’s Fifth that produces something like a sigh of relief at its apotheosis, a feeling that listeners – like Mahler himself – have come through a long and difficult journey and arrived at a highly satisfactory emotional conclusion.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, in the four-movement version in which it is almost always heard, is far more straightforward in approach despite its many innovative features and felicities of expression. Super-high-quality sound is less an absolute necessity for the effectiveness of this symphony than for that of the Eighth, but the Reference Recordings SACD showcasing the interpretation by the same orchestral forces as in the Eighth – Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony – nevertheless possesses the best possible sonic presentation, and it does make a difference in the impact of this brash, noisy and highly effective youthful work. The essential inward focus of all Mahler’s symphonies is already apparent even in this one’s fairly straightforward arc that leads eventually to a very big climax indeed. And the musical techniques that Mahler would later refine and develop are all here too: the songfulness (although we would later stop using direct quotations from his song cycles), the warmth, the sweetness, the sarcasm, the dips into bitterness, the juxtaposition of the mundane with the otherworldly, and the confluence of the mundane with the otherworldly – as in the very opening of the First, which is supposed to be a kind of “awakening of nature” scene but whose initial very high A on violins and violas gives the beginning a distinctly and distinctively otherworldly character. Even Mahler’s later notion of “parts,” crucial to both the Fifth and Eighth, was already present in the First, albeit only in early versions of the work. Still, the lack of an explicit label does not prevent listeners, led by Fischer’s well-paced and strongly rhythmic reading, from perceiving the First as falling into two distinct halves, the first the kind of celebratory striding-forth of the of first two movements, the second becoming distinctly darker and weirder as the strains of Bruder Martin (“Frère Jacques”) and the street-music sound of klezmer melodies become, with the crashing opening of the finale, a very deep and dark place indeed – from which abyss the music slowly emerges after, Beethoven-like, recalling and rejecting elements of the earlier movements (including a back-reference to the discarded Blumine). It is quite clear that the Utah Symphony being led by Fischer is an altogether smoother, better-balanced orchestra than the one directed by Maurice Abravanel (1903-1993) in the first recording ever made of all Mahler’s symphonies by an American orchestra. Abravanel’s pioneering spirit with this music has given way to a time in which Mahler is very much a part of the standard repertoire – and this allows conductors, including Fischer, to bring a personal imprimatur to the works, which in Fischer’s case means showing clearly just how personal these musical statements are. It does indeed turn out that Mahler’s symphonies are like the world, to the extent that each of us carries our own experience of the world with us at all times and expresses it in the most-cogent language we can command.
November 09, 2017
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: The Illustrated Edition. By J.K. Rowling. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $39.99.
Starting as a fairly light series, albeit with dark overtones, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books became progressively darker and darker until, by the end of the sequence, they were genuinely chilling, very intense and filled with death. But a re-reading of the series shows, retrospectively, that much of the darkness was there from the start, skillfully downplayed by Rowling or partly concealed beneath scenes of wonder and amusement. This realization comes to the fore in looking at Jim Kay’s marvelous illustrated editions of the Rowling books. The newly released third of these, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is very intense indeed. Rowling was blessed with fine illustrators throughout the original publication of her series in Great Britain and the United States: Jonny Duddle did the British children’s editions, Andrew Davidson the British adult paperback versions, and Mary GrandPré the U.S. editions published by Scholastic. But as fine as these illustrators’ works were, they were incidental to the stories that Rowling told, not integral to them. Kay’s are something different: they enter the story, help propel it, and give readers a focus on aspects that the prose alone does not.
Thus, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban includes a two-page spread showing the Hippogriffs that Hagrid, teaching a class on magical beasts, introduces to the students in what will become one of the key elements of the book’s plot. The creatures are bizarre and magnificent, their eagles’ heads, wings and front legs blending so seamlessly into their horses’ bodies, hind legs and tails that it almost seems that these animals really could exist. Another two-page spread of a minor creature, the Grindylow, makes this vaguely froglike water demon seem both realistic and very frightening indeed – and still another two-page illustration, of a werewolf, is genuinely terrifying. But in terms of integration into the text and story, all these excellent illustrations pale beside the one of a horrible, brilliantly imagined doglike Grim that stretches through parts of six pages, the text of the story running around and beside its body as if quailing at its proximity to this monstrous and portentous beast. This is illustrative brilliance.
Yet there are even more small pleasures than large ones in what Kay has done. The wholly unnecessary but very amusing picture of two troll guards comparing their clubs – which takes off from a passing phrase in the text – lightens some very scary goings-on. The facing-page portraits of Quidditch Seekers Harry of Gryffindor and Cho Chang of Ravenclaw are excellent portrayals of both young people’s personalities, not just their appearances. Early in the book, a two-page look at the Magical Menagerie shop, showing Harry, Ron and Hermione gazing at a wide variety of wonders (some of which come from the real world and only look impossible), is an excellent lighthearted touch, doubly so because Hermione’s face is amusingly distorted by the fishbowl through which it is seen. Kay lavishes as much care on color washes of page backgrounds as he does on the detail of his pictures. And his choices of what to illustrate are often unconventional in highly successful ways: for the chapter in which a Dementor appears aboard the Hogwarts Express, the large opening illustration is not of the creature but of a partially unwrapped bar of chocolate – that being what will later help Harry and his friends recover from Dementor exposure. The fact that bits of chocolate appear scattered across two pages later in the chapter is equally apt and very clever. Indeed, cleverness permeates Kay’s choices both of matters to portray and of the portrayals themselves: his portrait of the silly and inept Sir Cadogan is perfectly apt and especially funny. Kay does make an occasional error, as in a picture showing Professor Snape holding Neville Longbottom’s toad, Trevor, in his right hand, when the text says Snape picked Trevor up in his left; but little inconsistencies like this scarcely matter in the overall excellence of Kay’s art.
And what of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as a story? This particular Rowling book is somewhat over-plotted, with three separate intermingled stories: the search for the baleful prisoner of the title, the attempt by Draco Malfoy to ruin Hagrid by having Buckbeak the Hippogriff destroyed, and Gryffindor’s desperate desire to win the Quidditch Cup. Subsidiary elements focusing on Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor Lupin (who has the crucial role of teaching Harry how to produce a Dementor-repelling Patronus), flighty and possibly fraudulent Divination Professor Trelawney (who is quite unaware when she eventually does channel a message of considerable importance), and the joys and perils of visits to the town of Hogsmeade, interweave with and are used to complement the main story threads, which Rowling successfully pulls together into a rip-roaring climax that hints for the first time at just how deadly matters will become in later novels. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a top-tier book, either when discovered for the first time or when rediscovered 18 years after its initial appearance in 1999. Whether reading the book without prior knowledge of it or coming back to it after nearly two decades, readers will find Kay’s illustrated version every bit as captivating and enthralling as the intricate and exciting narrative that Kay so wonderfully brings to vivid visual life.
Little Penguin and the Lollipop. By Tadgh Bentley. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
We’re Amazing 1, 2, 3! A Story about Friendship and Autism. By Leslie Kimmelman. Illustrated by Marybeth Nelson. Golden Books. $10.99.
Small teachable moments can be valuable to children ages 3-8 when clearly communicated through books that involve young readers and pre-readers directly and at the same time have attractive stories through which the underlying message is delivered. In Little Penguin and the Lollipop, Tadgh Bentley offers an amusing twist on the notion of making up with someone you have inadvertently upset, by finding a way to amuse him or her and by giving something back as well. Little Penguin has eaten Kenneth the seagull’s “razzle dazzle seaweed lollipop,” not realizing it belonged to Kenneth – there was a sign on the lollipop’s container, but Little Penguin approached it from the side without a sign and did not see what was written. Little Penguin, having failed to cheer Kenneth up about the lollipop loss, asks the reader to help.by making funny faces, bouncing around, and generally acting silly – all in an attempt to make Kenneth smile. What eventually does amuse Kenneth is that Little Penguin bounces so enthusiastically that he falls backwards off an ice floe – now that’s funny. Even better, when down in the water, Little Penguin spots another razzle dazzle seaweed lollipop! “It was just lying there, waiting for me to pick it up,” explains Little Penguin, as Kenneth chomps down enthusiastically on the treat. “I’m sure that THIS lollipop doesn’t belong to anyone else,” says Little Penguin, but an increasingly worried-looking Kenneth is not sure – and it turns out that, well, yes, the lollipop did belong to someone else, and was labeled as such, but the label was not visible to Little Penguin as he approached from above, and now Kenneth has a problem after eating a lollipop belonging to a much larger and distinctly grumpy-looking character. Now what? There is no definitive solution: on the inside back cover, Bentley shows Kenneth attempting the same jumping and funny-face-making techniques that Little Penguin used, but readers know they did not work, so now what is Kevin to do? Find yet another lollipop somehow, somewhere? Figure out a different way to make up for eating the lollipop? The problem is a small one but scarcely trivial, especially for the intended very young readership, and Little Penguin and the Lollipop opens the door for parents and kids to discuss the whole situation and decide what to learn from it and what to do if anything similar ever happens in the real world.
A much more serious real-world situation lies at the core of We’re Amazing 1, 2, 3! This is a super-simple book about the super-complex topic of autism, now usually described as “autism spectrum disorder.” People with autism have trouble communicating and forming relationships with other people; they have difficulty with language and abstractions; and they often have repetitive habits that can be unsettling for other people to watch. Autism typically emerges in childhood, so Sesame Workshop editor Leslie Kimmelman has created a book in which hyper-childlike Elmo, who is accepting of just about everything and just about everyone, has a friend named Julia who is autistic. In the story, another of Elmo’s friends, Abby, meets Julia and is confused when Julia does not respond or react in the usual way to anything Abby says or does. Ever-patient Elmo, who is wise beyond his years in this book, explains or explains away every behavior that Julia exhibits, and eventually Elmo, Julia and Abby are all friends and all find that they have a lot in common. If only things were as simple as this extremely well-meaning book wants them to be! The behavioral characteristics of autistic children vary a great deal more than this book shows, and autistic children’s deviation from generally accepted behavioral standards can be and often is a great deal more extreme (and upsetting to non-autistic children) than are the mildly unusual behaviors of Julia, which come across as little more than quirks (for instance, she flaps her arms when excited). True, it would be neither possible nor desirable to delve deeply into the topic of autism for so young a readership; but by making the condition – which affects one out of every 68 children in the United States – into little more than a slight aberration, one to which non-autistic children can super-easily adapt, Kimmelman’s book and Mary Beth Nelson’s very pleasant illustrations minimize (without trivializing) a condition that can be very complex and very difficult for non-autistic children to relate to. Indeed, the reason for the label “autism spectrum disorder” is that this condition may in fact be very mild, as it is in Julia’s case, but may also cause deviations from usually acceptable behavior that are very considerably greater than those shown in We’re Amazing 1, 2, 3! This is a (+++) book whose excellent intentions are undeniable and whose treatment of a very mild form of autism is handled sensitively – but it is a book that neither helps children who will encounter significantly more-difficult-to-understand forms of autism nor gives parents a useful way to discuss the spectrum of the condition. The book treats autism as if it is a little thing, easy for kids to cope with when they encounter it in other children. But autism is no small matter, and parents who want their children to be sensitive to those who have it need more than this book to help boost awareness and sensitivity.
Strange Weather: Four Short Novels. By Joe Hill. William Morrow. $27.99.
In this collection, Joe Hill aspires to the horrific but comes up, at best, with the merely strange. The stories are best when self-contained and worst when Hill tries hard to give them some sort of larger significance, some connection with the real world of his readers. The first of them, Snapshot, is about a nasty-looking and nasty-acting character with a weird camera that the narrator thinks is a Polaroid but that turns out to bear the name “Solarid,” and that somehow, when it takes pictures, captures the memories of the people at whom it is pointed. This story being would-be horror rather than would-be science fiction, none of this is ever elucidated: the camera is eventually shown to contain a sort of Lovecraftian touch of evil, and the never-explained name “Solarid” seems entirely arbitrary unless readers conclude perhaps it has to do with getting rid not of memories but of one’s soul. The story’s narrator explains that he met the camera’s wielder when he, the narrator, was an awkward, bumbling adolescent, at a time when he was marginally involved in the quickly deteriorating mental life of a neighbor who had once been extremely close to him, in motherly fashion. The narrator manages to defeat the camera’s ancient and ultra-evil holder far too easily, and eventually learns the camera’s powers and is able to use them to bring a peaceful death to the deeply troubled neighbor. That is a touching moment. But the work’s finale, in which it turns out that the narrator harnessed the camera’s potency – in altered form – for the sake of computer science, in ways that readers are supposed to recognize immediately, is overwrought and uninvolving.
Loaded is an attempt to use the notorious Trayvon Martin case to show the evilness and unquenchable race-based violence of white people in law enforcement and allied fields. It is one of those ugly, racist stories in which every character can be pinpointed as good or bad by skin color and ethnicity: all the whites are evil and dumb, while non-whites and those of minority ethnicities and beliefs (African-American, Latina, Muslim, etc.) are good, honest, forthright and upstanding. The story systematically has white people, especially including a central one who is clearly modeled on George Zimmerman, kill off the good nonwhite characters, both by accident and by design; whites who get in the way, usually out of stupidity and venality, become victims, too. The dumb resentment of white central character Randall Kellaway would be laughable if Hill did not apparently expect readers to take it seriously. Typical Kellaway thinking: “What it came down to, a black guy who talked in ebonics could get hired if he had just managed to graduate high school without murdering someone in a drive-by. A white guy had to have matriculated at Yale and volunteered to work with orphans who had AIDS to even get a foot in the door.” There is as much realistic social commentary in Loaded as there is science fiction in Snapshot, which is to say, none. But the point of the story is perfectly served by simply presenting the cartoon bad guy, having him kill a bunch of people while serving as a mall security guard, then have him come up with a pathetically stupid cover story that soon unravels (thanks to a noble African-American reporter) and leads eventually to an even bigger bloodbath. Oh – the mall killings are set up by a story in which minor soon-to-die characters are enormously turned on sexually by handling guns: “She went off like a pistol. The actual sex was just the recoil.” Very hard-boiled, that – or very would-be hard-boiled, by an author who appears at best to have skimmed his Mickey Spillane.
Loaded is connected to the book title Strange Weather only because it ends when a huge scrub fire is raging through part of Florida and affecting the remaining soon-to-be-slaughtered good guys. The next short novel, Aloft, is weather-connected only because it takes place on a cloud. Yes, on one. This is no ordinary cloud: it is solid and appears to be some kind of disguised alien construction, complete with a rudimentary intelligence. A man named Aubrey Griffin becomes trapped on it, and he is the only character in the story once some minor ones are disposed of in the setup at the start. Aloft is the most successful of the four tales in Strange Weather, because Hill seems fully aware of it as an unbelievable fantasy and enjoys the oddities that this realization makes possible. Thus, the cloud not only creates some creature comforts for Aubrey out of its substance but also produces a passable imitation of Aubrey’s onetime lover, Harriet, making her solid and properly shaped enough so he can indulge himself with her sexually (although not very satisfactorily). “Harriet of the mists,” Aubrey calls her. There is also a glimmer of humor in this story – the only place any appears in this book – when the cloud makes, among other things, a coatrack and a cello. Unfortunately for Aubrey, the cloud cannot make food for him, and when it tries, what he eats makes him violently ill for reasons that are never explained or even hinted at (still nothing like science fiction here; only fantasy). So Aubrey must, must, find a way to get down from it, and thanks to his fortuitous discovery that other people once landed on the cloud in the distant past – a very clunky plot point, but a necessary one structurally – Aubrey eventually escapes. The story’s ending is poorly done: Aubrey ends up on a road after he descends, and a driver sees him and – instead of offering to help or asking what might be wrong – berates him and calls him names. But this is, in the context of Hill’s other work, not really surprising: there is a certain consistent misanthropy in Hill’s writings.
That dislike of the human race is even more apparent in Rain, the last tale in Strange Weather and the most absurd – yes, even more so than a camera containing a horror out of space or somewhere. The premise here is that a single disaffected, unappreciated scientist is so outstandingly brilliant that he invents something that alters the weather of the entire world and causes thousands of deaths, if not millions, to get even with those who did not give him his due for his work; and that his widow not only colludes with him but also uses her evil brilliance to bring down terrible things on anyone who might somehow derail the scientist’s revenge. This is even too silly for a comic book, but Hill plays it straight and with considerable ugly violence. He has the story narrated by “Honeysuckle Speck, the only twenty-three-year-old Joe Strummer lesbian look-alike on my whole block,” to quote her self-description (which defines her as a good guy in Hill’s work). Speck sees but is not out in the rain of this story’s title, and that is a good thing, since if she were out in it, she would be dead: this is a rain of nails (actually nail-like things very vaguely stated to have minimal scientific reality in much-less-deadly form). The nails kill everyone indiscriminately, and each time it rains during the story, they are more and more deadly; this is quite an accomplishment for a single angry scientist. The story also involves a weird hubcap-wearing cult whose members at one point track Speck down and severely injure her; an improbable and highly dangerous journey on foot by Speck from Boulder, Colorado, to Denver, where of course she finds only more death and is herself responsible for some; a darkly comic but very unfunny scene in which corporate bastions of capitalistic society try to help survivors of the rain as they search desperately for food and missing loved ones; a convict who escapes in a vehicle filled with bodies that keep flying out as he drives (again, not funny); and a statement from a chemist to the effect that “for all practical purposes this [deadly rain] might become a permanent part of the global weather cycle…[and] might eventually make every rain cloud on earth into a farm for crystal.” Isn’t that something? The plotting here is so bad and so silly that the hoped-for horror never really emerges, although squeamish readers will squirm at some of the specifics of deaths, human and animal, that Hill describes. Hill’s use of Rain to get in some cheap political shots also does the story no favors.
The short novels feature a few illustrations here and there: Snapshot is illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, Loaded by Zack Howard, Aloft by Charles Paul Wilson III, and Rain by Renae De Liz. The pictures do not make anything more horrifying or engaging, but they do partake of the overall cinematic quality of Strange Weather, a book that will please Hill’s fans for its mostly frantic, frenetic presentation but that is distinctly lightweight in effect even for a genre work – its genre being that of the would-be horrific.
This Is How We Rise: Reach Your Highest Potential, Empower Women, Lead Change in the World. By Claudia Chan. Da Capo. $26.
Play Big: Lessons in Being Limitless from the First Woman to Coach in the NFL. By Jen Welter. Seal Press. $26.
It is hard to escape the thought that if the world’s problems, or any subset of them, could be solved by a book, they would already have been solved. There are so many earnest, brightly written, sincere self-help and society-help books out there that surely one of them must contain the solution to whatever ails us at any given time. Unfortunately, for all their promises, self-help books can at best serve as personal memoirs of success through application of certain ideas and techniques that might help other people achieve somewhat comparable success in the future – assuming the future contains the same characteristics that made the books’ authors successful in the past. This reality, though, never stops new self-help authors from trying, with commendable earnestness, to show readers their particular vision of the utopia that would exist if only everyone would follow the authors’ prescriptions. Usually there are only a few such prescriptions, and they are gathered together into some sort of cutesy acronym. Not so in Claudia Chan’s case, though. In This Is How We Rise, Chan, founder of a media company and former president of an event-planning firm, offers no fewer than 13 “foundational pillars of personal leadership.” The decidedly non-acronymic list consists of Purpose, Vision, Faith, Resilience, Energy, Productivity, Humility, Gratitude, Grace, Community, Self-Love, Courage and Mindfulness. There is nothing modest in the goals Chan expects her readers to set for themselves: “Get ready to take on the challenge of your life and show the universe what you’re made of.” The first part of Chan’s book is strictly for women, containing multiple tables such as “Women and Confidence,” “Women and Financial Literacy,” and “Women Globally,” designed to show where gender matters stand now and where improvements are needed. Chan does argue for “synergizing the sexes to service society,” though, and she bends over backward to be politically correct in saying that “luckily, we live in a new gender-pluralistic era that embraces the many differences that make up the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersex, asexual) community.” Having established her bona fides, she then moves into the practical portion of This Is How We Rise, in which she lays out her 13 pillars and gives readers “Homework” in the form of questions to “ponder and answer…in your journal.” In “Faith,” for example, she asks, “Where do you have the most scarcity in your life and need to build more faith?” In “Energy,” one question is, “How can you proactively design your life so you spend more time with people who give off positive energy?” And in “Gratitude,” she says to “take a moment now to name and write down your three to five most common scarcities, then cross them out and write gratitude/abundance statements.” Chan essentially invents her own jargon that readers must absorb in order to follow her “Homework” suggestions; those who find Chan’s approach congenial will of course benefit from her guidance more than those who do not. At the same time, This Is How We Rise includes plenty of old-fashioned self-help statements and ideas; for instance, “You are already what you seek.” She labels quite a few of these sentences as “mantras,” such as “Obstacles are growth opportunities if I pause to see the lesson,” “Grace is forgiving others even when I don’t think they deserve it,” and “Vulnerability is the greatest act of courage.” Chan is to be commended for trying to offer practical rather than pie-in-the-sky recommendations to readers who accept her underlying premises and her approach to life and work, even if some of what she writes sounds a bit like the fortune-cookie thought, “When in doubt, just take the next small step.” As with all self-help books, Chan’s will resonate with some people but not all; others will find motivation elsewhere.
For example, people who actually believe that sports are important may prefer to turn to Jen Welter’s motivational memoir, Play Big. Professional sports are important, of course, to billionaire team owners and the many multimillionaire players who take the field against many other multimillionaire players. They are also important to gamblers, to healthcare professionals who treat sports injuries, and so on. But their relevance to most people’s everyday life is exactly zero, except that people want sports to be meaningful and therefore indulge in all sorts of decorations, rituals and celebrations designed to make themselves feel part of teams that know nothing of everyday people’s lives and care about them even less. This is a rather sad state of affairs, and unfortunately not a unique one: people who follow the meaningless lives of entertainment celebrities outside the sports field are in much the same position as sports fans. But it does create enthusiasm for self-help books by people for whom sports do matter. Welter is one such: a former football player (the first woman to play in a professional male league) and the first female coach in the National Football League (for the Arizona Cardinals). Play Big – a title that becomes a phrase that Welter repeats and varies cringingly often – is mostly directed at young female athletes, although Welter does spend some of her time detailing her own background and experiences. Most of the book, though, is intended, like Chan’s, to be inspirational, and Welter tries to state lessons that she believes would serve the business world as well as the sports world. This is actually not all that big a stretch, since professional sports teams are themselves simply businesses; but Welter has little original to offer in this regard. For instance, she says it is important to appreciate diversity, because “football just doesn’t work if all eleven people are identical, or if the coaches treat every player alike.” But that formulation is not what is meant in modern, politically correct discourse about diversity, which refers specifically to skin color and ethnic background rather than to talent – in fact, about 70% of NFL players are African-American, so the league has very little diversity even in PC terms. Welter’s book, however, suffers from what might be called over-diversity: she packs so many things into it, personal and professional and advisory and memoir-ish, that it is a bit of an unfocused mishmash – certainly less goal-directed than Welter indicates sports coaches (and, by extension, people following the advice of sports coaches) need to be. Actually, Welter’s book is more original and interesting as a memoir than as a rather lukewarm self-help volume. For instance, after discussing breaking up with her fiancé (by text message, a rather déclassé move that seems justified in context), she writes, “Many times he had promised that if I ever left, he would do everything in his power to ruin my life. What he didn’t know: he wasn’t that powerful. He had watched me tackle the biggest and baddest women in football and then pop back up and do it again with attitude. He should have known he couldn’t break me.” Those are the words of a woman from whom other women – and men – can expect strong, well-directed, goal-oriented advice. But they are not the sorts of words Welter uses in her much milder, more-refined self-help recommendations. And that is too bad: sports may not be important, but Welter is someone whose life experiences could be turned into something important to others – they may not be unique, maybe not even atypical, but they become important because when she chooses to write about them, she does so with force, sincerity and more strength than she brings to her avowed self-help pronouncements and recommendations.
Reynaldo Hahn: Songs. Zachary Gordin, baritone; Bryan Nies, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Andrew Maxfield: Choral Music on Poems by Wendell Berry. Rex Kocherhans, baritone; Salt Lake Vocal Artists conducted by Brady R. Allred. Tantara. $16.99.
Melody for Love. Olga Senderskaya, soprano; Bella Steinbuck, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
It is possible, sometimes, to trace much of a composer’s life through his music, particularly when the music is as heartfelt as the songs of Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947). The new MSR recording of some of Hahn’s songs – mélodies, the French term for art song, to be more specific – provides a fine overview of Hahn’s work even though the presentation is not entirely chronological. Baritone Zachary Gordin has a warm, assured voice that fits the tone of Hahn’s songs well, and pianist Bryan Nies provides thoughtful, well-considered accompaniment that never moves far into the foreground (that was not Hahn’s style) but that offers a fine pairing for Gordin’s vocals. One thing the disc makes clear is that Hahn stayed firmly in the French classical song tradition throughout his life: although some of his works are decidedly more chromatic than others – notably the three-song cycle Amour sans ailes (“Love without Wings,” texts by Mary Robinson) of 1899 – songs written both beforehand and afterwards are firmly tonal and very much mainstream in sound. That is, throughout his life, Hahn was a firm adherent of tradition, somewhat in the same way that Saint-Saëns remained true to the roots of his early musical career even when later developments had taken music in other directions. There is great beauty in all the songs heard here, with Hahn showing a particular fondness for the genteel and emotionally stirring. The CD includes Rêverie (1888, text by Victor Hugo), the seven Chanson Grises (1887-90, Paul Verlaine), Trois Jours de Vendange (1891, Alphonse Daudet), Études Latines (1899-1900, Leconte de Lisle), L’Incrédule (1893, Paul Verlaine), Nocturne (1893, Jean Lahor), Dans la Nuit (1904, Jean Moréas), La Chère Blessure (1900, Augustina-Malvina Blanchecotte), L’Énamourée (1891, Théodore de Banville), À Chloris (1913, Théophile de Viau), and Fêtes Galantes (1892, Paul Verlaine) – a veritable catalogue of poetry by better-known and less-known French authors, all of whose works receive a kind of yearning, passionate setting in which the most frequent focus is unrequited love. There is a mixture of both beauty and melancholy in these short love songs, a sense of pervasive sadness that never, however, drifts into despair, because it sounds as if Hahn is reveling (if not quite wallowing) in the emotions the words evoke in him. There is, as a result, a certain sameness to the CD, an indication that Hahn did not progress very significantly in strictly musical terms during the quarter-century within which he composed these works. That in turn suggests that once Hahn found his musical place, biographically, he was content to remain within it and not challenge its boundaries.
Wendell Berry has clearly found his poetical place, too, and has connected with a composer who resonates to it: Andrew Maxfield. Berry’s words partake of spirituals, and of a very American notion of wide open spaces, and of a simple and straightforward faith that brooks no denial. The Maxfield/Berry collaboration on a new Tantara CD is a particularly happy one: just as Hahn seems totally in tune with the atmosphere and feelings of a particular set of French poets, so Maxfield seems entirely comfortable with channeling Berry’s words into music that complements them and allows singers to bring out their sentiments clearly and cleanly. There is a forthright assertiveness to this music that seems quintessentially American, a plainspokenness in the poetry that does not prevent it from transmitting feelings of joy, faith and uplift, that in fact enhances them all. Maxfield allows sections of the writing to remain entirely a cappella while providing spare instrumental backup in other parts of the material, resulting in a flow that feels entirely natural and is clearly guided by the words – which are set in a cadence that makes them easy to understand, especially when they are as well-pronounced as they are by the fine singers of the Salt Lake Vocal Artists under the direction of Brady R. Allred. As with Hahn’s music, that of Maxfield does have a certain sameness to it when the CD is played straight through, but within that similarity of sound there are many details of difference. For the Future, for example, opens with revival-style clapping as the chorus sings of tree plantings that bring birds both today and in the future; Stay Home is a sensitive setting for baritone of a pastoral scene; The Little Stream Sings, another pastoral poem, opens a cappella with divided voices and soon comes to sound like a hymn; The Seed Is in the Ground has a very similar churchlike sound and comes across as almost prayerful; and Whatever Is Foreseen Is Joy has some of the characteristics of both chant and Christmas carol. The other tracks here are I Love the Passing Light, Here Where the World Is Being Made, Not Again in This Flesh, A Gracious Sabbath Stood Here, and The Necessity of Faith – this last a particularly apt title that can stand not only for that particular poem and setting but also for the CD as a whole. There is a directness to the religiosity here, or rather to a kind of nondenominational spiritual stance that finds consonance and calm in nature and makes it possible for Maxfield to bring those same characteristics to his settings. Berry himself appears on the CD, too, and his readings of his verse are as straightforwardly communicative as is Maxfield’s music. Poet and composer seem made for each other.
Unlike the Hahn and Maxfield discs, which focus on composers and how they set poetry, a new MSR Classics release called Melody for Love focuses on a performer and how she interprets compositions by a variety of people. In fact, variety is the primary watchword for Olga Senderskaya’s recital with pianist Bella Steinbuck: no fewer than 13 composers are represented here, with the Russian language most common but several others (including Hebrew and English) heard as well. Some of the composers are quite well-known, if not always for this specific repertoire: there are five songs by Rachmaninoff (the only composer with more than a single track on the CD) plus pieces by Poulenc, Grieg, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Gershwin (a warmly inviting version of I Got Rhythm). The remaining names range from unfamiliar to almost completely unknown: Aleksey Machavariani, Fernando Obradors, Lenny Sendersky, Ernest Sanderson, Mordechai Zeira and Ernest Charles. The songs really have very little in common except, loosely, their focus on love – in a greater variety of forms than in Hahn’s songs. The recital serves mainly as a showcase for Senderskaya’s pleasant but sometimes rather thin voice, which soars effortlessly above the piano but sometimes seems rather characterless, making, for example, Grieg’s A Swan sound rather too much like Dvorák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, which is heard immediately afterwards. Performer-focused discs are generally intended primarily as items for fans, with the music on them of less importance than the chance to hear the person presenting it. That is certainly the case here: none of the songs is especially outstanding, although listeners who are so inclined may enjoy comparing Rachmaninoff’s setting of Pushkin (Sing Not to Me, Beautiful Maiden) with Rimsky-Korsakov’s of Tolstoy (Not the Wind, Blowing from the Heights). Senderskaya seems fairly comfortable in all the languages here, and her singing is effectively communicative of the songs’ words if not always of their underlying emotional expressiveness. Listeners who have heard her before and are interested in her handling of a varied multilingual repertoire are most likely to appreciate and enjoy these selections.