Friday, December 25, 2015

A Special Christmas Message From The Jade Sphinx

The Christmas spirit, like most truly important things, is difficult to define.  It means more than just being ‘aware’ of Christmas, just as it means more than waiting for gifts or looking at glittering decorations.  (Delightful as these things are!)  No, the Christmas spirit is a shared moment when we open our shut-up hearts and pause for a moment to realize the subtle, quiet miracle of our lives. 
It is also that moment, when, during the long calendar of the year, we make the conscious decision to be happy.  Yes, our jobs are irritating, our bank accounts low, our presidential prospects dire, the climate is changing.  But … none of that really matters for just a few scant, magical weeks in December.  We are still here, the potential for fun and joy (two different things) remains, and we are free to delight in the time we have left and that the pleasures of having one-another has not yet been closed off.  It’s the time when we’re reminded that it’s possible that our souls may indeed be as eternal as Christmas itself, and that our lives are, ultimately, what we make of them.
Space, scientists tell us, is vast, and life seems to be quite rare.  The conditions for life are exacting – a few subtle alterations in conditions millions of years ago, and the Earth would be as dead as Mars.  The sheer improbability of our very existence illustrates a staggering triumph against near incalculable odds.  Honestly and objectively recognizing this fact can lead only to endless wonder … In the face of such mystery, how can I – how can anyone – fail to be happy?
And, if life is so rare, how can we fail to recognize that each and every one of us is special?  Are we perfect?  Certainly not!  Troubled?  Quite possibly.  Unique in all the universe?  Most definitely!  Christmas, again, draws the map to follow: we must cherish ourselves and one another.
It is at this time of year particularly that Your Correspondent finds it impossible not to believe in the invisible world.  Just as an ant is innocent of knowledge of the human beings that teem around it, we are unaware of the great mystery that surrounds us.  Christmas plugs us directly into great channels of mystery and wonder, leading to a realization of the simple, abundant joy of creation.
The tradition of Christmas has been a boon to Your Correspondent that is impossible to measure.  Its celebration has made me part of a millennia-long tradition of finding light in the darkness, warming the human heart, and celebrating the wonders of existence.  Just as the food and drink of the season underscore the pleasure of our physical, corporeal selves, the Christmas spirit nourishes and replenishes our emotional, philosophical and spiritual selves.
For the past several years, I have shared with readers that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the central text of my holiday.  In view of the above, I can find no better way of closing this year’s message than with the closing lines of this, perhaps the greatest of all novels:
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Christmas Cornucopia Part III: Holiday for Swing! By Seth MacFarlane, Arranged and Orchestrated by Joel McNeely

Before you protest, rest assured that Your Correspondent already knows.  Yes, Seth MacFarlane (born 1973) is an extremely low comedian, a vulgarian, politically incorrect and all the rest.  Check.
But … MacFarlane is also having a romance with the Great American Songbook, which he calls, in a most felicitous phrase, “orchestral jazz.”  I actually prefer the MacFarlanism, and will start using it myself.
He has previously released two albums of standards, doing his best to replicate the sound of Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), down to using the same, now-vintage microphone the older artist used.  With sprightly, energized arrangements by Joel McNeely (born 1959), these albums are, in a word, terrific.  (The spirit of homage is evident even on the album cover, which features a painted portrait of MacFarlane in the manner of many early 1960s Christmas swing albums.)
So, it was with a great deal of pleasure that I received a (very thoughtful!) early Christmas gift of his new holiday album, Holiday for Swing!  If you like Orchestral Jazz even a little bit, then this album is for you.  If you like holiday tunes with a touch of swing, this album is for you.  If you like singers who are clearly having fun, then this album is for you.  In short … get it already.
MacFarlane opens with Let It Snow!  This is a tuneful recording, but MacFarlane really hits his stride with the second number, Christmas Dreaming.  This song was only recorded by Sinatra and Harry Connick (that I’ve heard), but MacFarlane is better than either.  I have been humming this infectious tune for weeks, and it is now in my personal pantheon of Christmas classics.
MacFarlane returns to the seldom-heard with Little Jack Frost Get Lost (which I have only previously heard recorded by Bing Crosby) and Marshmallow World, which is also seldom released.  But are excellent – with MacFarlane having so much fun with the latter that we are happy just to listen to him.
His Baby, It’s Cold Outside is, frankly, openly sexy, and his Mele Kalikimaka (also only known to me through Crosby) is delightful.
There are several other numbers included (among them Moonlight in Vermont and The Christmas Song), and all work wonderfully well.
If you had told us that the recording of the season for us here at The Jade Sphinx would be by Seth MacFarlane, we would’ve signed you up for an extended stay in Bedlam.  But … Christmas is known for miracles, so we should expect the unexpected.  This is a great album and a worthy addition to pop Christmas standards. 

A special Christmas message tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Christmas Cornucopia Part II: The Four Faces of Scrooge

Last week we reviewed Fred Guida’s masterful A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens’s Story on Screen and Television, and it got us thinking of our favorite dramatizations of the story.
The Carol is perhaps Charles Dickens’ most theatrical work.  Whole sections of dialogue are infinitely quotable (and have, indeed, entered into the language), and the simple, basic dramatic arc of the story cries out for dramatization.  Dickens himself made a performance piece of it, doing public readings of the text over several years, enacting all the parts himself.  (The closest we have to this type of protean reading was the magnificent one-man show starring Patrick Stewart (born 1940); sadly, his own full-cast dramatization made for Hallmark television is something of a disaster.)
It is no exaggeration to say that Your Correspondent has spent his entire life closely watching various versions of the Carol, so naturally I have some opinions in the matter. 
So, in no particular order, my favorite versions of A Christmas Carol are:
Scrooge made in 1951, starring Alistair Sim (1900-1976) as Scrooge.  This has been hailed by many as the yardstick by which versions of the Carol are measured.  However, while we certainly love this film, it is not our favorite.  Screenwriter Noel Langley (1911-1980) takes a great many liberties with the original text, providing an extended backstory for Scrooge and introducing many non-Canonical characters.  In addition, while Sim is magnificent, we find that none of the Christmas spirits are particularly memorable. 
Finally – heresy coming! – while Sim is terrific, he is not the definitive Scrooge to our way of thinking.  Sim is essentially a great comedian, while we believe Scrooge is best performed by a tragedian.  Sim’s quirky eccentricity, his giddiness upon his reclamation and his heavily-circled eyes make him something of a cartoon.
The great actor Basil Rathbone (1892-1967) essayed the role of both Scrooge and Marley several times on early television, but perhaps never better than as the all-singing all-dancing Scrooge in 1956.  This broadcast-live musical, The Stingiest Man in Town, was originally part of The Alcoa Hour.  This production had been counted as lost for decades, and only recently come to light in a terrific DVD transfer that preserves the live broadcast, flubs and all.  The show also starred Martyn Green and Vic Damone and the score, while not stellar, is certainly pleasant.
What is fascinating here is Rathbone’s take on Scrooge.  I think Rathbone a fascinating figure – he was really the first actor to bridge the classical and popular worlds; were he alive today, he would have Ian McKellan’s career.  Too bad he ended up in some of the films he did.    I appreciate Stingiest Man more than I like it, but Rathbone is never less than captivating.
Where Rathbone shines is that his post-reclamation Scrooge is little different from his frosty Scrooge.  His mannerisms and approach are the same … we see here a Scrooge who is still trying to figure out the impact of the Spirits on his life, and post-Scrooge will always be a work-in-progress.
There are many animated versions of the Carol, but by far the very best features Mr. Magoo.  Produced in 1962, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol offers one of the most faithful adaptations of Dickens’ story, and includes some truly champion songs, performed by the likes of Jack Cassidy, Jane Kean and Paul Frees
The centerpiece, though, is Magoo, as voiced by character actor Jim Backus.  This is in every instance a real performance, filled with anger, fear, pathos and joy.  Whole swathes of dialog were lifted verbatim from Dickens, and now it is nearly impossible for Your Correspondent to read many of these lines without hearing Backus’ voice.
Nearly every version of interest takes some central part of the story and turns it into a showpiece (demonstrating that Dickens’ tale is nearly inexhaustible).  The highlight of the Magoo Carol is definitely the musical number involving the Undertaker, Laundress and the Charwoman, all of whom have robbed the dead, unloved body of Scrooge.  Catchy, funny and infinitely memorable (perhaps the only tune to ever rhyme “reprehensible” with “pencil-ble”).
Finally, our very favorite version was made for television in 1984 starring George C. Scott (1927-1999).  Directed by Clive Donner (1926-2010), this Carol is the most faithful, artful and moving version of all.
One pitfall that it is all-to-easy for adaptations to fall into is portraying Bob Cratchit as a spineless milksop.  Donner neatly avoids this by casting screen villain David Warner (born 1941) in the role, who plays Cratchit as a simple working man of unusual decency.  He is ably supported by Susannah York (1939-2011) as Mrs. Cratchit.  Here, when Bob talks about Tiny Tim’s inherent goodness or his hope’s for the boy’s recovery, York looks aside, as if she is more than used to Bob trying to convince himself of good outcomes that will never come to pass.
The philanthropists seeking money from Scrooge are wonderfully played by Michael Gough (1916-20111 -- who appeared in countless horror shockers in the 1960s) and John Quarmby (born 1929) – and they turn these usually sanctimonious nudges into simple humanitarians.
The late Roger Rees (1944-2015) is excellent at Scrooge’s nephew, Fred.  As with Cratchit, many actors make Fred nearly simple-minded in his goodness; here, Rees, is simply a warm, kind man who feels responsibility towards his uncle.
Perhaps the finest thing about this version of the Carol are the Spirits.  In Dickens, the Spirits are mighty creations, other-worldly visitations that are both great and terrible.  Things start with a magnificent, sonorous, stentorian Marley, played with histrionic biro by Frank Finlay (born 1926).   Angela Pleasance (born 1941) is truly … unnerving as the Ghost of Christmas Past.  There is something positively inhuman about her, and her line readings sound as if they come from another world.  Perhaps even better is Edward Woodward (1920-2009) as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Playing on stilts beneath a rich mantle of green, this is a Ghost of great joviality, but he is also tormented and angry at witnessing man’s inhumanity to man.  His revelation of the horrid children, Ignorance and Want, residing beneath his robe is one of the most affecting, chilling moments in television movies.  The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Michael Carter) is little more than a shrouded skeleton, a truly terrifying, gothic figure.
Which leaves us with Scott.  This is a Scrooge to be reckoned with.  This Scrooge ableydefends himself against the accusations of the ghosts, and has a marked sense of humor while relishing his own wickedness.  But, at heart, Scott is a tragedian.  This is a Scrooge who feels, more than any other, what might have been.  Perhaps Scott himself, who had many career ups-and-downs, understand the variable nature of life and how certain roads led to ruin or success. 
After his reclamation, Scott is transformed.  Unlike Sim, who merely tapped into the whimsy patently within him, Scott is saved by finding a new lightness of heart, a sense of salvation, and the certainty that he now has the ability to change his life.  This is the Scrooge who I would like to know personally.

More Christmas dispatches tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Christmas Cornucopia Part I: R. O. Blechman and Victorian Voices

As we close out our holiday week, I thought I would add some holiday cheer with smaller stories before posting a special Christmas message.  (Be sure to read it on the 25th!)  And so, with no further ado:
Vintage Holiday Greetings From R. O. Blechman
Jade Sphinx readers of a certain age surely remember a period before cable television when national networks created simple, heart-felt holiday messages at this time of year.  Though such a gesture would be unthinkable in these rather hard and uncharitable times, these spots brought home simple messages of charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence. 
The CBS network excelled at these messages, and the most famous were created in 1966 by celebrated cartoonist and animator R. O. Blechman (born 1930).  Blechman is perhaps best remembered for his amusing, simply-drawn cartoons for The New Yorker, but is also a champion author of children’s books, including The Juggler of Our Lady (1953).
Robert Oscar Blechman was born in Brooklyn, New York, and attended the High School of Music and Art.  He worked for animation studio Terrytoons (home of Mighty Mouse), winning a BAFTA for his animated version of The Juggler of Our Lady, narrated by Boris Karloff (1887-1969).
In 1977, Blechman produced a holiday special animating his drawings, along with segments by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) and Seymour Chwast (born 1931), and it was narrated by Colleen Dewhurst (1924-1991). 
These moving stories are simply too good to be missed, and here are links.
Simple Gifts can be seen here (the first of seven parts):
One of his CBS holiday greetings can be found here:
Your Correspondent’s favorite holiday message can be found here:
That last piece has haunted me for years, so thank heavens for Youtube!

Victorian Voices at Christmas and All The Year Round
For many (myself included), Christmas means A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  But for writer, archivist and cat-lover Moira Allen, the Victorian world is an endless feast of articles, stories and dispatches, all lovingly culled from the hundreds of periodicals printed during the era. 
Allen has created an indispensable resource for neo-Victorians, an entire Website devoted to reproductions of Victorian-era magazine articles.  Each and every month the indefatigable Allen sends out a collection, and the December number is filled with treats.  You can find the current issue (and hundreds of archived pieces) here:
Better, still, Allen also has a deluxe paperback collection called A Victorian Christmas Treasury, also available on her site.  We got this book last year and have been paging through it this season with great satisfaction.
Serious historians, lovers of the Victorian ethos, designers, Christmas buffs – there is something here for everyone who is keenly aware of the past.  Be sure to check out Moira Allen’s site, and be remember to say that The Jade Sphinx sent you!

More Christmas dispatches tomorrow!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin

I don’t know why ducks are automatically funny, but they are.  From Donald to Daffy (even Darkwing), ducks are funny.  So, children ages four-to-eight will have a great time with Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho!, written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin
Cronin’s tale involves farmer Brown waiting for Santa, and jumping into bed upon hearing the patter of feet on the roof.  But that’s not Santa … no, it’s Duck, using all kinds of wonderful high-tech means for getting onto the roof.
But fate cries fowl as when Duck gets stuck in the chimney.  Soon, a whole barnyard of animals are stuck as well, trying to rescue Duck.  Before long, Sheep, Pig, Cow and a host of barnyard friends are stuck in the chimney.  Will Santa be able to smoke them out in time to leave gifts for Farmer Brown?
Have no fear.
Of all the books reviewed this Christmas season, Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! is the one most accessible to your youngest children.  This is a lot of fun, and Lewin’s illustrations are a lot of fun.  Lewin paints with a remarkable simplicity.  Each picture is constructed to get the maximum value from each joke, and most each page is embroidered with cavorting mice. 

The simple text is perfect for reading aloud, and since there is a great deal of onomatopoeia and nonsense words, children will soon be following along.  Click, Clack, Ho! Ho! Ho! is the perfect companion for your child’s first Christmases.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Miracle on 133rd Street, written by Sonia Manzano and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present walk the streets of London on Christmas day.  In the midst of a central London marketplace, revelers shop for their holiday dinners.  As they make their way, Dickens writes:
The sight of these poor revellers appeared to interest the Spirit very much, for he stood with Scrooge beside him in a baker's doorway, and taking off the covers as their bearers passed, sprinkled incense on their dinners from his torch. And it was a very uncommon kind of torch, for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it, and their good humour was restored directly. For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was. God love it, so it was.
In time the bells ceased, and the bakers were shut up; and yet there was a genial shadowing forth of all these dinners and the progress of their cooking, in the thawed blotch of wet above each baker's oven; where the pavement smoked as if its stones were cooking too.
“Is there a peculiar flavour in what you sprinkle from your torch.” asked Scrooge.
“There is. My own.”
“Would it apply to any kind of dinner on this day.” asked Scrooge.
“To any kindly given. To a poor one most.”
“Why to a poor one most?” asked Scrooge.
“Because it needs it most.”
Your Correspondent was reminded of this wonderful moment while reading the new book by Sesame Street star Sonia Manzano, Miracle on 133rd Street.  Energetically illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, Miracle tells the story of Jose and his family’s holiday dinner.  Jose and his Mami are preparing the Christmas roast, but their oven is too small for the meat.
In an inspired moment, Jose thinks that they can take the roast to the local pizza parlor, and cook it there.  As Jose and his Papi walk through their 133rd Street apartment building, they pass children fighting, scared shut-ins, arguing neighbors, and other challenges to urban life.  Outside, they tramp through the snow, passing a desperate Christmas-tree salesman and finally comforting a grouching pizza-pusher.
However, hours later after the roast has been cooked, Jose and Papi finally become holiday pied pipers as the pizza man, tree salesman and all manner of troubled apartment dwellers follow them home, beguiled by the delicious aroma of Christmas dinner.
Suddenly, the apartment that Jose’s Mami thought was too small is now just right for a holiday gathering. 
Though simple in its plot and execution, Miracle on 133rd Street is complex in its themes and approach.  This is not a tale to sugarcoat the many challenges immigrants (in Jose’s case, Puerto Ricans) have in assimilating in inner cities; nor does it paint a picture of blanket good will during the holidays as a given.  Instead, Manzano demonstrates how simple creature comforts, a warm and loving environment and reaching out to people are more than enough to generate Christmas spirit.
The illustrations by Marjorie Priceman have a madcap, energetic quality.  Like much modern art, perspective is flattened and bright (almost neon) colors pile one-atop another, as if Priceman was channeling Chagall for children.  They are a perfect accompaniment to the text, and the resulting paring is something like music.

Better still, Manzano and Priceman have created a picture book that will inspire children to cherish their homes, their friends and their communities.  It is a delightful tale reminding us that we are all going through life together, and there is no better time to share our common humanity than at Christmas.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

An Invisible Thread: A Christmas Story (2015), Text by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski, Illustrated by Barry Root

Many Christmas picture books encompass a great capacity for wonder.  Stories of Santa Claus and his magical North Pole factory, tales of elves and Christmas sprites, and even vintage stories of Christmas ghosts, for example, use magic as a vehicle for transcendence. 
These stories can be great and good (Your Correspondent was certainly raised on them), but it is rare that a picture-book uses real-world experiences to illustrate the miracle of Christmas.  Parents looking for something rare and wonderful should look no further than the delightful and heart-warming An Invisible Thread: A Christmas Story, written by Laura Schroff and Alex Trensiowski, and illustrated by Barry Root
Many readers would be familiar with the story already, as it is based on Schroff’s New York Times bestselling book of the same name.  This picture-book version softens many of the details for children’s consumption, but alert children will pick up on the inherent grittiness of the tale.
In brief:  advertising executive Schroff is hit up for spare change by a street kid, Maurice, who is hungry.  Initially Schroff says no, but turns back and offers to buy the boy lunch.
So starts an unusual friendship, where Schroff takes young Maurice to dinner every week.  As the fabric of their lives become more interwoven, Schroff learns of the poverty of the boy’s existence, of his struggling family, and of his desire to break out of his miserable circumstances.
Soon, Schroff learns that Maurice has never had a proper Christmas.  So, as the holiday rolls around, Schroff helps the boy write his first letter to Santa, asks his help putting up her Christmas tree, and, on the Day of Days itself, takes the boy with her to spend the day with her family.
In return, Maurice leaves a very special present under Schroff’s tree, one that she will treasure forever…
Based on a true story, the book closes with a picture of both Schroff and Maurice when they met, and how they look today.  Maurice freely admits that Schroff’s kindness and interest in him steered him away from a possibly troubled life; Schroff asserts that simple acts of kindness can change the world by impacting positively on individuals.  (It is, in short, a dramatic, real-life illustration of the lesson found in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.)
The book ends with a brief homily on the value of Small Acts of Kindness.  While many people will spend Christmas buying gifts, this book reminds young readers that the true meaning of the holiday is the importance of giving from our hearts.
The text (one imagines that Tresniowski did the adaptation from Schroff’s source material), is tight and smartly written.  One can see that there was a lot of judicious editing to make the hardscrabble realities of Maurice’s life palatable to youngsters, but nothing is lost by the concision.
The illustrations by Barry Root are energetic, warm and intimate.  Through smiles and body language, Root is able to illustrate their deep emotional connection.  One is touched by the primacy of Christmas trees in these pictures, as if a teeming holiday spirit was taking root and growing.  Root’s pictures are terrific, and make the story come to life.
This book is highly recommended to anyone looking to help youngsters learn the true meaning of Christmas and, perhaps, turn them into budding altruists, too.  If you have children on your Christmas list from about ages four-to-10, it would be hard to do better.
More Christmas picture books tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens’s Story on Screen and Television, by Fred Guida (2000)

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know of my deep and abiding romance with literature, and of how alarmed I have become over contemporary literary criticism.  Since the introduction of Theory and Deconstruction, the deconstructionists have … destroyed.  Tearing down pillars of artistic merit, transcendence, beauty and tradition, contemporary literary critics have succeeded only in leaving little but devastation in their wake.
Readers interested in this catastrophe should read When Nothing is Cool, by Lisa Ruddick in the current issue of The Point.  (The article can be read here:  Ruddick succinctly summarizes the state of affairs by writing:  Repeatedly, we will find scholars using theory—or simply attitude—to burn through whatever is small, tender, and worthy of protection and cultivation. Academic cool is a cast of mind that disdains interpersonal kindness, I-thou connection, and the line separating the self from the outer world and the engulfing collective … I have spoken with many young academics who say that their theoretical training has left them benumbed. After a few years in the profession, they can hardly locate the part of themselves that can be moved by a poem or novel. It is as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance.
The state of contemporary criticism was often back-of-mind while reading A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens’s Story on Screen and Television by Fred Guida.  Thankfully, Guida is utterly free of irony, agenda and the canons of Political Correctness.  He comes to Dickens’s ‘ghostly little tale’ as a Carol Connoisseur, a man who loves Dickens, the Carol and the great, ghostly tradition of all it stands for.  He is an expansive humanist, at heart, nostalgic for the best of the past and hopeful for the best of what is to come.  If The Christmas Carol is as important to you as it is to myself, then Guida’s book is indispensable.
Guida provides not only cogent and reasoned critiques of the various film and television adaptations of the Carol, but also looks at the literary, political and economic roots of the work.  He bravely addresses both Dickens’s Christian philosophy and his distaste for organized religion. Guida also strives to be more than a simple reference work, opting instead to be wonderfully comprehensive, transcending the mere facts and figures of actors, directors and broadcast dates, and instead talking about the intent, approach and emotional truth behind each adaptation.
Best of all … Guida gets it.  The Carol is a very special work, transcending literature and becoming secular liturgy.  Most who have only a fleeting experience of Dickens mistake the book for a light Christmas confection, ignoring the harsh realities and social terrors that Dickens bravely tackles.  This is a book that includes both joyous Christmas parties, and a scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the horrible children, Ignorance and Want, the legacy of man’s indifference and venality.  The key component of Guida’s argument is that the best Carol adaptations are those that: (a) maintain the core integrity of the book (b) focus on some component of it overlooked by other dramatizations and (c) comment on the times in which they are made.
Here’s an example of Guida rifting on the meaning of it all:  There is often an implication (or an inference) of frivolousness connected with the use of the world nostalgia; but we see that the nostalgia at work within Dickens was a rather complex thing.  Small wonder then that the heart and mind that would articulate so beautifully the need to touch all of the past, the sweet and the bittersweet, could also be so sensitive to, and inspired by, a very different kind of stimulus; and that this stimulus would culminate in the shattering images of two children named Ignorance and Want.
Criticisms of Guida and his book would mostly boil down to matters of preference.  Though all of his critical choices are well-reasoned, they will not always be the reader’s own, so mileage varies.  But whether you are a partisan of Basil Rathbone or Alistair Sim or Mr. Magoo or Albert Finney or George C. Scott – you will still feel united with Guida in a larger brotherhood of Carol aficionados.
Guida provides exhaustive coverage of not only the major productions of the Carol, but homages and takeoffs found in sitcoms; he looks at the history of magic lantern shows and examines operatic works inspired by the Carol.  Your Correspondent would have liked an overview of radio adaptations (for example, there is a wonderful version starring Ronald Colman that can easily be found on the Web); but that would swell an already fecund work to the breaking point.

Often throughout the text of The Christmas Carol, Dickens alludes to the fact that he is sitting beside us in spirit as we read; for many people, Christmas is a time to reconnect with both Dickens and the Carol.  Guida understands that our annual visit with Scrooge and the Christmas Ghosts is an ongoing conversation that changes every 15-to-20 years, with no end in sight.  A reflection of where we’ve been with Carol adaptations and intimation of where they might go, Fred Guida’s book is simply terrific.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The President’s Hat, by Antoine Laurain (2012)

Those wanting a perfect Christmas book without wanting a book about Christmas could do no better than this superb fable for adults, The President’s Hat, by Antoine Laurain (born 1970).
An unbeatable feat of Gallic whimsy, The President’s Hat is the story of Daniel Mercier, a nice middle-class man who decides to eat alone at a bistro when his wife is out of town.  Who should happen to be at a neighboring table, but the President of the Republic himself, Francois Mitterrand.  At first delighted to be so close to the presidential presence, Mercier is even more thrilled to see that the Great Man has left behind his hat.
With a little subterfuge, Mercier is able to get Metterrand’s hat and the next thing you know … his life has changed completely.  He wears clothes with more dash, is more dynamic at the office, is finally offered that promotion he wanted so much, and, he and is family are finally able to move to a better home.
Things look great … until Mercier loses the hat himself!  We then follow the enchanted chapeau from head-to-head in Paris, from a woman struggling to emerge from beneath the thumb of her older and more domineering lover, to a disaffected creator of perfumes, and, perhaps, back to Mercier once again.  Add to that the French Secret Service hot on the trail, and you have a delicious confection indeed.
Let me be upfront about this right now:  if you read Laurain’s book, you will feel good.  This is a fairy tale for adults; a book of almost infinite good humor and high spirits, and one that will definitely make you smile indiscriminately.
Those looking for a moral (and there are always those) will have much to sift through: are our heroes suddenly rejuvenated in their careers and personal lives because of new-found self-confidence, or, perhaps, is there a subtle alchemy as yet undiscovered in inanimate things.  (One immediately thinks of Charles Dickens, an animist of the first water, who clearly thought that tables, doorknockers, fireplaces and clocks had souls.)  It also tussles with such thorny issues as fate, romantic love, and the fundamental necessity of personal fulfillment.
This brief book (barely 200 pages) is incredibly rich, and not to be missed.  I felt a queer sense of contentment, both while reading and immediately after.  If you are the sort of reader who loves literature, comfort, simple and droll humanity, and books that are life-affirming without being silly, then The President’s Hat is for you.  It won rave reviews in its native France, and has been equally well-received in the US.  Ask your bookseller for a copy – it makes a perfect gift (even to one’s self).
As with many books these days, it ends with some fairly useless Reading Group Questions and an Interview with the Author.  Though these are usually the only disposable parts of any new book, the President’s Hat does provide an author’s quote that is worth sharing here for anyone considering this book.  When asked if he (Laurain) believed in destiny or magic, the author replied:  Certainly the former and quite possibly the latter.  I’m going to take the liberty of quoting Vladimir Nabokov, whose words on the subject far exceed anything I might have to say.  It comes from one of his lectures on literature given in the USA: “The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales … literature was born on the day when a boy came crying ‘wolf, wolf’ and there was no wolf behind him."

A children’s book for adults, The President’s Hat comes highly recommended.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature, by Selma G. Lanes (2004)

Last week, we looked at Selma G. Lanes (1929-2009) and her initial book of collected essays and reviews, Down the Rabbit Hole, published in 1972.  This book was a significant watershed in serious criticism of the genre, and Your Correspondent recommends it highly.  More than 30 years later, Lanes returned with another collection of essays and reviews, Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature.  Does the latter book measure up to the former?

Actually, Lanes’ follow-up is not only worthy of its predecessor in every way, but in many instances quite superior.  Featuring essays and reviews written between the early 70s and 90s, Lanes continues to show a keen critical acumen and love for the subject.  Her voice is one that is greatly missed.
As would be expected from one of the first critical champions of Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) , Lanes writes about both his mid-and-late career triumphs with real sensitivity.  She also tackles the enigma that was Edward Gorey (1925-2000), a unique talent in children’s publishing in particular, and the art world in general.  Anyone familiar with Gorey’s spidery pen-and-ink drawings has a ‘take’ on him, but it was Lanes who described it best for me with the phrase “arctic detachment.”  She also argues, cogently, that Gorey was not a children’s illustrator at all, but rather a sometimes visitor to this realm.  Gorey’s sense of humor, his flights of fancy and his worldview were too mordant, too bizarre and too bleak for children, and many of his best books (The Gilded Bat comes to mind) are children’s books in name only.  Lanes summarizes his peculiar charm nicely.
Also excellent is Lanes’ chapter on the latter life of Beatrix Potter, who, once she was married and living in the Lake District she so dearly loved, turned away from her fabulous children’s books with nary a second thought.  Oddly enough, it was American collectors and publishers who kept the cult of Potter alive, and it is largely through their efforts that she is remembered today.  Kudos to Lanes for this bit of insight.
Useful, too, is her look at the letters of fairy tale master Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) and American writer, editor and publisher Horace Elisha Scudder (1838-1902), of Boston, Massachusetts.  Scudder, in letter after letter over the course of many years, slavishly worked to get authorized editions of Andersen’s books in the US; he also sent the Great Man many of his own stories and books.  Scudder, it seems, barely registered as a human being to the Great Man, who was too involved, too remote and too icy a character to respond in any human way.  All of Andersen’s heart, it seems went into his work, with nothing leftover for the man himself.
Lanes writes perceptively on the drawings of Ernest H. Shepard (1879-1976), who brought A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh to graphic life, and was the ideal artist for Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.  Shepard, it seems, understood whimsy (Milne) and English countryside philosophizing (Grahame), and was able to capture both with his pen.  Also valuable is Lanes’ chapter on New Yorker writer E. B. White (1899-1985), who also wrote the classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.  Lanes argues that his brevity, style and honesty were all reflections of his inner self; a man who finely hones his talents and his emotions until they were worthy of a public airing.  White is a type much missed in the contemporary world.
But Lanes’ best chapter, as in the previous book, is on the evils of the culture of Political Correctness and how it neuters literature and emotion, and how poisonous it is in particular to children’s literature.  On one hand, Lanes bemoans an atmosphere that seeks to find intolerance when there is none.  She is against expurgated versions of Dr. Doolittle, The Five Chinese Brothers, and the illustrated Yankee Doodle because she believes that children (a) are smart enough to understand historical context and (b) read for insights on character and not to underscore racial prejudices.  On the other hand, she also (rightly) abhors books that exist for no other reason than to make certain groups of people feel better about themselves.  As Lanes wisely put it: Now propaganda is an entirely legitimate and worthwhile endeavor when undertaken in a life-enhancing cause.  But those of us who choose books for children should be both willing and able to recognize the difference between propaganda and literature.
There is a great deal more in Lanes’ book (including insight on Winsor McCay, historian Roger Sale, and an excellent essay on Harry Potter written shortly before her death), and all of it smart, wise and very, very human.  Through the Looking Glass is still in print, and can be found at Books of Wonder in New York and online.  If you are even remotely interested in the subject, get it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler (2006)

As we approach Christmastime, many Americans will be looking to the films of Walt Disney (1901-1966) for holiday comfort.  Those interested in the man behind the brand could do not better than Neal Gabler’s magisterial biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.  It will leave you with the distinct impression of having met Disney himself, warts and all. 

Surely few American entertainment icons have been more discussed – or subject to more historical revision -- than Disney.  During his salad days of the 1920s and 30s, Disney was regarded as both an important artist (embraced by intellectuals and modernists like Dali), and an emerging American institution.  It was only with the national rupture of the 1960s that Disney’s reputation started to tarnish: books such as The Disney Version by Richard Schickel in 1968 sought to take down the Greatest Generation hero down as many pegs as possible.  (Indeed, Schickel’s attack is so out-of-proportion as to seem unhinged, sadly all too common in that both sad and common decade.)

The simple and irreducible fact is that Disney was neither the plaster saint of the right nor the uber-bogeyman of left, but rather a complicated and contradictory man who achieved remarkable things in animation, live-action filmmaking and that strange mix of theater and amusement park that is Disneyland.  Few American artists have had a more influential or pervasive grip on the American mindset (indeed, I cannot think of any), and fewer have transcended their own art to become a brand name.

In addition, there are few artists as resolutely American as Disney.  Raised on and near a farm in Marceline, Missouri to middle-class parents, Walt’s earliest surroundings were a mix of Tom Sawyer and The Music Man.  Though he would remember having a contentious relationship with his father (Walt always had a touch of self-dramatization), friends and neighbors remember him as perpetually sunny and optimistic.  He was fascinated by cartooning, by drawing, and by the possibilities of animated cartoons. 

After knocking around the nascent animation industry for a bit, Disney and his brother Roy (1893-1971) lit out for California in 1929 to hang their own shingle.  Many would think the rest is history, but not so, according to Gabler’s book, which chronicle the young animation entrepreneur’s struggle over the next decades, not fully finding financial success until well into the 1950s, despite great critical and popular success.

This sense of hand-to-mouth desperation is one of the many details found in this richly detailed book.  A dreamer and idea-man, Disney often drove innovation without regard to the costs, leaving money-man Roy with the problem of finding much-needed funds.  It seems that Disney took every success they had and funneled that money into some other plan, vision or scheme. 

Like many gifted creators of children’s entertainment – Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932) and L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) immediately come to mind – Disney was pulled in opposite poles by his idealized vision of home, safety and small-village charm on one side and by an overweening sense of travel, adventure and expansion on the other.  It seems that Walt never fully recovered from his happy years at Marceline, and sought new and innovative ways to recreate it.  (It is no surprise that Main Street in Disneyland – that tribute to small-town hominess – was modeled on Marceline.)  Walt longed to return to his own personal Arcadia, one foot in an idealized past and the other foot in an idealized future.  His studio, and later Disneyland, would be the engines he used to drive him back there.

The central argument of Gabler’s book is that Disney sought to create his own personal Neverland, an Arcadia where he could create in peace and play as he wanted.  Disney’s studio in the early years was an earthly paradise, with drawing lessons, endless fun-and-games and goofy good times, all with Walt watching paternalistically.  This haven was destroyed by a series of strikes that permanently marred Disney, pointing him towards increasingly rightwing or libertarian politics, while also making him more reclusive, autocratic and difficult to work with.

After the war and as he entered the 1950s, Walt seemed to lose interest in his empire, and spent a great deal of his time building man-sized model trains.  Though many thought he was losing his grip, actually Walt was retreating within himself as he conceptualized his next innovation: an actual, physical Wonderland that he could call home.  The creation of Disneyland was a balm to Walt, and he entered his second great phase of creativity – as filmmaker and innovator – once the project gained ground.

Soon after making Marry Poppins (1964), his last great film, and conceptualizing key components of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Walt would be diagnosed with lung cancer and die, his studio and his name becoming a byword for family entertainment.  He also left behind a public persona – part real, part myth – that has attracted debunkers and back-biters for decades.

So, after so many years of pro-and-con debate, where does that leave Gabler’s readers?  There is a great deal of data to sift through in Gabler’s book – the research is exhaustive and the reporting sometimes exhausting.  (This is the type of biography where the author writes, “Walt walked the 90 feet to his office.”)  Gabler had unfettered access to Disney’s papers, and worked on the understanding that he would have complete autonomy over the final product.  Here, then, is the true Disney as he was, take him or leave him.

Disney was too slippery an entity for such classifications as hero or heel.  For example, he greatly wanted to create an Arcadia of sorts with his studio, but was also parsimonious with money, perks and control.  Gabler believes, and I agree, that he had no idea of the acrimony that would lead to such divisive strikes – strikes which cut Walt to the heart because they questioned his own inherent sense of decency.

To the charges that Disney vulgarized everything he touched, Gabler also chronicles the true artistic masterpieces for which he was responsible, including Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Fantasia.  The legacy of Disneyland is perhaps best summed up by the simple fact that a visit there has made countless millions of people happy.

A devoted husband and a doting and caring father, Disney could also be a shark in the realm of business, a credit hog, and a bully.  But Disney also faced hardships of a type that few readers of these words could ever imagine, and still managed to retain his innate optimism and come out sunnily on top.  He had grit and moxie, and, perhaps most of all, he had heart.  Bastard Saint, Everyman Bully, Uncle Hardcase – he was equal parts monster and sweetheart. 

Perhaps Disney managed to connect with America’s children in such a deep and profound way because Walt never completely grew up.  He was a paternalist who was still a kid.  The strike and financial hardship may have unfortunately politicized and soured him, but it never robbed him of his ability to dream. 

Neal Gabler’s book is a splendid chronicle of a complex and contradictory character; a uniquely American visionary of a type never to be seen again.  It is easy to see that, by the end of 800 pages, Gabler has become enamored of his subject, and Your Correspondent left the great man somewhat teary-eyed.  If you read only one book about Disney, make it Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Behzod Abduraimov, at People’s Symphony Concerts

Your correspondent has been attending People’s Symphony Concerts for well-nigh 25 years, and one of the many attendant pleasures is seeing emerging masters before they become household names.

Such a pleasure was on hand last Saturday while watching pianist Behzod Abduraimov in a concert that could only be called magical.

Born in Tashkent in 1990 Behzod began to play the piano at the age of five. He was a pupil of Tamara Popovich at the Uspensky State Central Lyceum in Tashkent, and studied with Stanislav Ioudenitch at the International Center for Music at Park University, Kansas City, where he is now Artist in Residence.

Clad in a simple black shirt and slacks, Abduraimov opened with Four Impromptus for Piano, D. 935 by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), a performance of wonderful subtlety and delicacy.  His playing went from lightly (indeed, liltingly) melodic to melancholy and back with effortless transition.  The Impromptus are a challenge to even the most accomplished player, and Abduraimov played with all the sensitivity of a man three times his age.

He followed with the Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S. 514, by Franz Liszt (1811-1886), a performance filled with drama and passion.  Abduraimov did not play the piano as much as he assaulted it … providing the dual pleasure of listening and watching the performance.  A showman as much as a musician, Abduraimov understand the body language of great playing, and the crowd rose to loud and rapturous applause at the end of the piece.

Abduraimov concluded with Pictures at an Exhibition, by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881).  Here is, of course, a splendid showcase for the young pianist’s many talents.  Mussorgsky guides the listener through a series of painting, each eliciting separate and distinctive emotions.  It is a great test of virtuosity, and Abduraimov rose to the occasion splendidly.  This is surely a great talent who will leave his mark on the classical music world.

A word now about Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, founded in 1900 by the conductor Franz Arens to bring the world’s finest music to students and workers for minimum prices.  That winter, more than 7,000 people swarmed Cooper Union to hear Arens, the son of an immigrant farmer, conduct his series of five Peoples' Symphony Concerts.  Subscriptions for the five concerts ranged from $.25 to $1.25 and single tickets went for as little as $0.10 each.

Arens himself started out a poor student in Europe who had been too broke to attend many concerts.  When Arens returned to New York, he was determined to find a way to bring music to students, teachers, workers, and others unable to pay standard ticket prices.  Since those early years, hundreds of thousands of Peoples' Symphony Concerts audience members have heard the world's foremost concert artists and ensembles at the lowest admission prices of any major series in the country.

During many years of attending, Your Correspondent heard such masters as Richard Goode, Garrick Ohlsson, and Marc-Andre Hamelin.  There are three concert series, two taking place on Saturday evenings at the spacious (and newly-renovated) theater at Washington Irving High School in Gramercy Park, and one on Sunday afternoons at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan.

Many of my readers support the New York Metropolitan Opera, WQXR and/or Tanglewood, but few seem to know this wonderful resource for people who are serious about music.

There are still tickets available for this season; visit  or call (212) 586-4680 for more information.  

Friday, December 4, 2015

Stuff Heard in Museums

Sargent's Portrait of Graham Robertson

During our recent (too long!) sojourn, we had the opportunity to visit many museums and see multiple shows.  Certainly the finest show of 2015 was the overview of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now traveling around the country.  (Look for this show … it is among the most beautiful things you will ever see.)

Aside from Sargent’s mastery, however, my multiple visits garnered some of the most amusing comments I’ve heard in my nearly 40 years of museum going.  Here’s a sampling:

Upon looking at Sargent’s masterful portrait of Graham Robertson (covered elsewhere in these pages), one Upper East Side lady-who-lunches said to her companion, “Let’s go see some art that is not as pretentious.”  (I hasten to remind you that it is she and others like her that keeps the museum industry alive.  Dark days, indeed.)

Standing before Sargent’s dramatic picture of the great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, one teenager bent to read the explanatory card and explained (in a voice that carried all the way to the lunch counter downstairs), “F—k, this sh-t is old!”  This is, perhaps, the most incisive example of art criticism coming from young people today.

Again, two middle-aged ladies standing in front of the magnificent portrait of Dr. Samuel Pozzi (perhaps the most striking piece in the show), exclaimed, “he was a gynecologist!  How crazy was that!”

Not that it was easy to see many of these masterpieces – one had to brush aside a forest of selfi-sticks, or stand aside from people having their pictures taken beside the paintings.  Indeed, we don’t seem to look a pictures any more, we merely record that we were in their presence.  A dear friend and knowing art critic once said that cameras should be banned from museums, but that each and every visitor should have access to paper and pencil so they could sketch their own impressions.  Since the greatest threat to art in museums today is not theft, but defacement from visitors, perhaps this is not such a good idea…

In another visit to the Met, I took a break from the Sargent exhibition and strolled through the medieval collection, where a couple nearby examined each and every piece of armor and wondered what the dollar value of the silver would be.  That same day, in the Chinese wing, I overheard someone say, “Those people sure were smart.”

If all of this sounds elitist or condescending, it is certainly not meant in that light and not my intention at all.  At heart, it is a call for more passionate, more engaged, more aware museum-going.  A museum is not a destination to be seen, but a place in which to see.  In the right museum, you are witnessing the triumph of the human spirit over barbarism, the evolution of artistic technique both intellectual and spiritual, and connecting with something more primal an elemental than ourselves.  Museums are sacred places … shouldn’t we behave differently inside of them?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole: Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature, by Selma G. Lanes (1972)

Though perhaps little remembered today, Selma G. Lanes (1929-2009) was an influential editor and children’s book critic.  Born in Dorchester, MA, she attended Smith College after a stint at the Dorchester High School for Girls.  She would eventually land in the Columbia School of Journalism.

She became editor of Parents Magazine, and from there became managing editor of Western Publishing children’s book division.  During this time, she wrote dozens of reviews on children’s books for the New York Times daily and magazine section.  She was one of the first members of the literary establishment to recognize the genius of Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), and would eventually write a book about his art.

But Lane’s great claim to fame were her two books about children’s literature, Down the Rabbit Hole, published in 1972, and much-delayed and far superior sequel, Though the Looking Glass: Further Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature, published in 2004.

Down the Rabbit Hole is a remarkable achievement, both as literary criticism and as a historical document.  Being a journalist, Lane clearly recycles previous reviews and covered trends.  Happily, there is a minimum of recycled journalism in Rabbit Hole, and Lane includes original chapters that are as fresh and insightful as they were over 40 years ago.

Lane seemed to be among the first in the literary establishment to fully realize Sendak’s genius, and her chapter comparing him to English illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) – of all people – is something of a tour de force.  Better still is her dissection of the American fairy tale tradition, and just how unique and separate it is from its European counterpart.  She also sites L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) as one of the central figures of American letters, a position as unpopular in 1972 as it is today.

Lane also provides historical context with a lengthy chapter on St. Nicholas Magazine, the first important periodical directed at children.  She writes at length on why such a publication would be impossible in 1972 (as it would today!), and mourns, to a degree, the then-incipient fracturing of our society.

Happily, Lane also champions children’s serial fiction, finding much value in the various adventures of The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.  She concludes that children do not see life as a story with beginning, middle or end, but, rather, as a series of adventures.  It’s only natural that their books reflect that view.  More important, the endings of individual titles in children’s series are often quite disappointing … better still is the promise at the end of further adventures to come.  (Children weaned on everything from Nancy Drew to Harry Potter become, I’m sure, besotted by the continuing adventures of everyone from James Bond to Sherlock Holmes.)

Her finest chapter, though, was on the explosion of books for African-American children.  While applauding these books – some of which by now are considered classics – she bemoans the loss of previous books about black children chucked overboard in the name of Political Correctness.  (PC seems to be a scourge of modern life – its baleful influence seemingly as potent then as now.)  Lane pleads for both historical context and intent when reading a work of the past, a simple catechism that seems inexplicable to most college students today.

Though Down the Rabbit Hole is sadly out-of-print, this title is easily gotten by or ebay, and is well worth the investment.  Delightful reading for anyone seriously (or even somewhat) interested in the genre.

In the weeks to come, we will look at her follow-up book, Through the Looking Glass, written more than 30 years later.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Christmas CDs: Antonio Vivaldi: Six Sonatas for Cello, Ashima Scripp (cello) and Eleanor Perrone (piano)

As winter grabs hold, few things can be more warming than the beautiful music of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).  Though often remembered solely for his delicious The Four Seasons, the Venetian-born composer was also responsible for works of great subtlety and charm. 

Vivaldi’s genius was marked in his ability to create instrumental works that fully exploit the range and richness of individual musical instruments.  Cases in point are Vivaldi’s masterful sonatas for cello, which bring the velvety resonance of this instrument to the forefront.  Vivaldi wrote a set of six sonatas for cello between 1720 and 1730, which were later published in Paris by Leclerc and Boivin.  They did not originally have an opus number, but many have grouped them together as op. 14.

These works have been brought to life in an indispensable new album, Antonio Vivaldi: Six Sonatas for Cello, with Ashima Scripp on the cello and Eleanor Perrone on the piano.  It ranks as our favorite classic music recording of the year, and is essential listening for fans of Vivaldi or cello music.

Cellist Scripp has previously appeared at Carnegie Hall, Tokyo’s Opera City and Boston’s Symphony Hall, among other world-class music venues.  Scripp was invited to join the critically-acclaimed Walden Chamber Players in 2014, and now serves as its artistic director.  She has crafted many of the ensemble’s successful chamber music residency programs, and Scripp remains dedicated to the mission of musical education.

Pianist Perrone has performed concerto engagements with the Boston Pops, Orquestra Sinfonica de Campinas, Billings Symphony, Merrimack Valley Symphony Orchestra and with the Brookline Symphony, where she played the Boston premiere of the Vaughan Williams Piano Concerto.  Perrone is currently on the piano faculty of the Rivers School Conservatory, Weston MA, and maintains a private studio in Watertown, MA.

Both players are evenly matched.  Scripp’s musicianship is masterful, and her control of the cello profound.  In her interpretation of Vivaldi, Scripp creates a tapestry of sound, warm and vital and across a dazzling musical range.  It is a terrific performance – sure, technically perfect and deeply emotional.  Perrone plays with energy and verve, and her technique combines charm and a lilting grace.

The music is alternately wistful, melancholy, joyful and upbeat.  Scripp and Perrone wrest the most and the best from the material, and it left this listener enthralled.  We can only hope for future collaborations.

Holiday shoppers – and music lovers – are encouraged to get a copy.  It can be ordered here: and is highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Christmas Books: Jack Frost by William Joyce

Readers of The Jade Sphinx are well aware of our high regard for well-crafted children’s literature.  The genre boasts works that demonstrate all of the best that was said and thought in the language – think Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan or The House at Pooh-Corner – and has carved out a singular literary tradition of its own.  The United Kingdom and Continental Europe owns this literary franchise (from the days of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to today’s own Harry Potter), and any serious discussion of the genre returns again and again to several key, European works.

Fortunately for us here in the United States, we have enjoyed our own golden age – but the tradition stateside has really been in fabulously-illustrated picture books.  Our great prose fantasist was L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), but most American masters have a special magic for merging word with image, and they have created art of a very high order.  For the last 50 years or so, the US has been home to some of the most fertile, creative and artistic book creators in the world. 

The fullest contemporary realization of this great tradition is the Louisiana-born William Joyce (born 1957).  We have been watching his work with great interest, and he has not lost his ability to continually surprise us.

After decades of beautiful and evocative work, Joyce has concentrated on his magnum opus, The Guardians of Childhood series, which chronicles the beginnings of such childhood gods as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman.  The series has included both prose novels and picture books, and unified his own cosmology, much like Baum’s world-building Oz books.  The latest installment in the series is the lavishly illustrated picture book, Jack Frost, created in collaboration with Andrew Theophilopoulos.

As his narrative has crossed several mediums (prose novels, picture books and a feature film), Joyce has had to juggle elements between episodes to maintain a fully-realized whole.  Jack Frost provides the bridge between the character Nightlight as seen in the books and Jack Frost, who served as the focal character of the feature film.  But as a key segment in the ongoing narrative, or as a stand-alone picture book, Jack Frost is terrific entertainment and a delightful addition of the Guardians saga.

In short, Frost tells how the heroic sprite Nightlight sacrifices his life to protect the infant Man in the Moon from the soul-crushing evil of the series villain, Pitch.  (That’s the Boogeyman to me and you.)  Nightlight saves the day, but at terrific cost.  He resurrects as Jack Frost, but has no memory of his former self or mission.

What follows is some of the most haunting and resonant themes in the Joycean canon – that of death and resurrection as well as continual change and growth.  Frost feels Olympian isolation and loneliness, and as he does, he leaves cold and frost in his wake.  This winter of the soul becomes actual winter weather for humankind – until that grief and mourning can be rechanneled into healthier, more positive energy.

Joyce accomplishes this miracle with great economy of language; he has also retained the lush blue-gold European palette of the series, paying homage to the Continental roots of many the of Guardians.

The series will continue with additional prose novels and picture books, and one wonders how Joyce will conclude his epic in the books to come.  There is the sense that the Guardians of Childhood is a mid-career summation of Joyce’s artistry, of his deepest-held beliefs, and his untiring optimism and energy. The Guardians of Childhood is a magnificent monument to a kind and benevolent genius, and an important influence on young hearts and imaginations.  More, please.

Jack Frost is available in bookstores everywhere, and is highly recommended for the young (and young at heart) this holiday season.