August 21, 2014
Lives of the Explorers: Discoveries, Disasters (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $20.99.
Bats at the Library. By Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Five Little Monkeys Wash the Car. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Five Little Monkeys with Nothing to Do. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Five Little Monkeys Bake a Birthday Cake. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
The long-running and always fascinating Lives of… series of brief, anecdote-laced biographies by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt is even better than usual in Lives of the Explorers, and that is saying a lot in light of the ongoing excellence of the sequence. On the surface, the book follows the same format as the many previous ones, with 17 brief chapters covering the peregrinations of 20 explorers from many times and many places. As usual, there are highly familiar names (Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan) mixed with ones that young readers are unlikely to know (Ibn Battuta, Zheng He, Auguste and Jacques Piccard). Also as usual, Krull is at pains to include members of both genders and multiple ethnicities. What is even better than usual here, though, is the wealth of detail in the chapters – there is almost no “filler” – and the care Krull takes to present the coincidences and sometimes sordid realities of exploration. For example, “only eighteen of the original [Marco Polo] crew of six hundred survived” to return to Venice, and “of the original crew [of Magellan’s ships], only about eighteen [of more than 250] survived.” Many doubted Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels, but not Christopher Columbus, “who had a much-thumbed, notated copy of Travels with him on his boat in 1492.” Henry Hudson’s crew ambushed him and threw him off his ship – Magellan’s crew also mutinied. On land, Daniel Boone “was short [and] hated coonskin caps (he always wore a hat made of beaver felt).” The Indians’ reaction to the Lewis and Clark expedition: “The white men, who rarely bathed, struck them as smelly.” Richard Francis Burton had such a racy reputation that, after his death, his widow “burned almost all forty years’ worth of his journals.” Mary Kingsley beat back a crocodile with a paddle when it tried to get into her boat. Auguste Piccard inspired the character of Professor Cuthbert Calculus in the Tintin comics; his son, Jacques, was the first man to descend to the lowest known point on Earth; his grandson, Bertrand, made the first round-the-world balloon flight. Add to all these well-researched tidbits of information the fact that Hewitt’s trademark illustrations, showing the explorers with disproportionately large heads and in scenes indicative of who they were and what they did, are drawn here with greater skill and in greater detail than those in earlier books, and Lives of the Explorers emerges as a real winner in a series filled with them.
The Bats books by Brian Lies are consistent delights, too, and the new paperback edition of Bats at the Library – originally published in hardcover in 2008 – shows why. Drawn with great care and attention to anatomical detail, Lies’ bats pose in humanlike ways and do humanlike things, the highlight in this book being a wonderful depiction of the way that books in general pull readers into their worlds: “Everyone – old bat or pup –/ has been completely swallowed up/ and lives inside a book instead/ of simply hearing something read.” Lies goes on to show bats in illustrations delightfully reimagined from all sorts of stories, some of which kids (and parents) may recognize and some of which are more obscure – bats show up everywhere from the road to Oz to the famous Make Way for Ducklings scene in which a policeman stops traffic, and Lies even shows an older bat reading Goodnight Sun (not, of course, “moon”) to two young ones. Mr. Bat’s Wild Ride, Pooh Bat, Little Red Riding Bat and many more are here, all beautifully conceived and wonderfully drawn, all constituting a marvelous library visit for the anthropomorphic-but-realistic bats and all adding up to a book that is a joy to discover – or rediscover.
The Five Little Monkeys series by Eileen Christelow continues to be plenty of fun, too. The new board-book version of Five Little Monkeys Wash the Car, a series entry originally released in 2000, gives parents and young children a chance to enjoy or re-enjoy what happens when the little monkeys decide to spruce up Mama’s old car to help her sell it – and end up having it roll down into the swampy lake where the crocodiles live. But these crocs, although boastful and theoretically dangerous, are really pretty good guys, and they not only help the little monkeys get the car unstuck but also help them solve the problem of selling and replacing it. Much of the fun here comes from watching the little monkeys do what they think is needed to make the car more attractive to buyers: “Then four little monkeys/ find paint in the shed./ Blue, yellow, and green,/ purple, pink, and bright red./ They paint the old car/ with designs all around,/ while one little monkey/ sprays perfume he found.” The rest of the enjoyment comes from the interactions with the crocodiles – and Mama’s expression when she wakes up from a nap and discovers everything that went on while she slept. Throughout the book, one or another of the monkeys says “I know!” to help solve a problem. What parents will know is that kids will have a great time reading this book, or having it read to them.
And for parents concerned about books that dwell so much on the constant unsupervised activity, even hyperactivity, of the little monkeys, there is now a board-book version of Five Little Monkeys with Nothing to Do, which originally dates to 1996. Here, for a change, it is Mama insisting that the little monkeys get up and get going when they repeatedly say they are bored and have nothing to do. Anticipating a visit from Grandma Bessie, Mama tells the little monkeys all the things they can do to get ready: clean their room, scrub the bathroom, beat the dirt out of the rugs, and pick berries. The fun here is seeing the enthusiasm with which the formerly bored little monkeys throw themselves into all the household chores – until Mama tells them to come home from the berry patch, wash their faces and put on clean clothes before Grandma Bessie arrives. So the little monkeys enthusiastically do just what Mama says, getting themselves as clean, neat and tidy as can be. And everything is just fine – well, almost. What the little monkeys never considered was how messy they were when they hurried home (as Mama told them to) from their berry picking so they could wash themselves and change their clothes. Sure enough, they have managed to track dirt and mud all over the house in their rush to clean up. And so, when Grandma Bessie arrives and the house is a complete disaster, the little monkeys are left wondering who could possibly have messed things up – and Mama is left to remark that “whoever did this has plenty to do!” The little monkeys’ misadventures remain as amusing in board-book form as they were when originally published. Kids who want to learn to read these board books themselves will have plenty to do, and plenty to enjoy.
And speaking of messes and little monkeys, there is also a new board-book version of Five Little Monkeys Bake a Birthday Cake, originally published in 1992. Here the little monkeys wake up early, determined to celebrate Mama’s birthday in their own inimitable style – which readers will quickly realize means there is trouble ahead. And so there is: trying to be quiet while baking a cake for their still-sleeping mother, the little monkeys completely mis-measure pretty much everything, add far too much of this and that, spill things and fall and finally put the cake in the oven while they go back upstairs to make a gift for Mama. Needless to say, their gift-making is very noisy indeed, but each time the little monkeys check, Mama – who sensibly wears earmuffs to bed – remains sound asleep. Soon the cake overflows all over the oven and makes such a big mess that two firemen show up – but end up helping to frost the cake and to get Mama up to enjoy it. And Mama is indeed delighted – except that it turns out the monkeys got the date wrong and tomorrow is Mama’s birthday. Well, they can always make another cake – but the book ends before Mama goes downstairs to discover the state of the kitchen, so who knows what will actually happen? The determined adorableness of the little monkeys, and the unending toleration of Mama, combine to make this a highly enjoyable entry in Eileen Christelow’s series – as much fun now as it was more than two decades ago.
The Magician’s Land. By Lev Grossman. Viking. $27.95.
Coming-of-age books have a bad reputation, largely deserved and largely of their own making. Modern fantasy books, ditto. But every once in a while, a coming-of-age fantasy transcends both genres – while remaining firmly within them – and shows that these approaches to fiction, when handled with a paucity of cliché and a large helping of creativity, still have a lot to offer to readers. So it is with The Magician’s Land, which completes the trilogy that Lev Grossman started with The Magicians and continued with The Magician King. Far from a Harry-Potter-esque story despite some obvious resemblances, Grossman’s trilogy is a coming-of-age tale for adults who have already been buffeted by life and experienced love and loss, wounds and healings. It is built around a kind of matter-of-fact magic that does not so much transform the world as coexist with it – while providing the very basis of another world, Fillory, that is initially reached in tried-and-true C.S. Lewis fashion through the back of a grandfather clock but that turns out to be far richer, stranger and more psychologically (and less religiously) focused than Narnia (despite, again, some obvious resemblances).
Grossman creates a world where some characters can do magic and some are magic, and the distinction is as crucial as it is difficult to explain. In this concluding book of the series, events move apace both in Fillory and on Earth – the latter not being “the real world,” since the two worlds are equally real – as well as in the Neitherlands, which, as their name indicates, are in neither the Fillory universe nor that of Earth. The universe of these books is one where Grossman, who is ever adept at turning a phrase, tosses off a line about “one of the small unfairnesses of magic” and, sure enough, shows repeatedly, in large ways as well as small ones, just how unfair magic (and, by extension, life) can be. Grossman’s universe is one in which the characters themselves are quite aware of, and often exposed to, the rudiments of magic and fairy tales as used elsewhere, but one in which those traditional clichés of the fantasy/coming-of-age genre are inadequate, if not irrelevant: “Here was a perpetual motion machine, and a pair of seven-thousand-league boots. He showed them one drop of universal solvent, which no vessel could contain and thus had to be kept magically suspended in midair. He showed them magic beans, and a pen that would write only the truth, and a mouse that aged backward, and a goose that laid eggs in gold, silver, platinum, and iridium. He spun straw into gold and turned the gold into lead. It was the end of every fairy tale, all the prizes for which knights and princes had fought and died and clever princesses had guessed riddles and kissed frogs.” But it is not enough; none of it is enough. Not for the man showing it – a banished, isolated genius of a magician derailed and exiled because of love, lust or their combination – and not for the man to whom he shows everything: Quentin Coldwater.
Quentin, whose story does indeed throw cold water on many fantasy and coming-of-age tropes, is the central character both on Earth and in Fillory, even though he has been banished from the latter – where the friends he has left behind speak and think of him often, making him a continued presence even in his absence. It is Quentin the immature, Quentin the uncertain, Quentin the occasional hero, Quentin the damaged and misunderstood, Quentin the reluctantly self-aware, Quentin who is at times anomie-laced and at others desperately unhappy, around whom Grossman’s story revolves – but Quentin too refuses to descend into cliché, for all the opportunities he has to do so. Quentin is always on the verge of realizing that he is a character in a story, and perhaps not a very compelling one: “When he graduated [from Brakebills, the not-much-like-Hogwarts school where magic is taught] he’d thought life was going to be like a novel, starring him on his own personal hero’s journey, and that the world would provide him with an endless series of evils to triumph over and life lessons to learn. It took him a while to figure out that wasn’t how it worked.”
And yet, remarkably, that is how The Magician’s Land and the trilogy it concludes work. Other characters here also wonder what story they are in, and where it is going, and the recurring theme of being in a story while telling a story while living a story is one thing that makes Grossman’s work so intriguing. All the major characters here are part of this story, part of their own stories, part of lives that are imperfect and uncertain and, even when magical, filled with something less than wave-a-wand-and-solve-everything events. Almost as important in The Magician’s Land as Quentin is his onetime student Plum, whose family history ties her deeply to Fillory in ways as crucial as those that tie Quentin to it, and who is just as almost-aware in her way as Quentin is in his that they are characters in search, not of an author, but of the reason and meaning and coherence that are so rare in life and so common in books. Plum’s reading of a book-within-the-book is a central event here (almost literally, by page count, and surely deliberately so). But her reasons for reading it are as mundane – yet wonderful – as can be: “She wanted a book to do to her what books did: take away the world, slide it aside for a little bit, and let her please, please just be somewhere and somebody else.”
But what Plum discovers, what Quentin discovers, what other characters discover as well, is that you can only be who you are, only grow in your own way within your own world or worlds, whether or not it or they are made of magic or merely contain it. So much of what magic there is comes from within, so much transcends boundaries and binds people and holds worlds together – and so much comes from books themselves. This is what Grossman ultimately shows in The Magician’s Land, with an effect that lasts well beyond the novel itself, well beyond the trilogy that it concludes. As Plum realizes, “That was one thing about books: once you read them they couldn’t be unread.” Just so. The Magician’s Land is scarcely perfect – in parts it is rambling, discursive, even unfocused, and it occasionally trips over itself in a spasm of self-importance – yet this is a book that readers will surely not wish to un-read.
Fly Guy #14: Fly Guy’s Amazing Tricks. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
The Zombie Chasers #5: Nothing Left to Ooze. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by David DeGrand. Harper. $16.99.
Galaxy’s Most Wanted #1. By John Kloepfer. Illustrated by Nick Edwards. Harper. $12.99.
Some series are so reliable that parents can buy them for children without even pre-reading the new entries. Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy books are an example. These easy-to-read adventures always start by explaining about Fly Guy’s ability to say the name of the boy who keeps him as a pet, Buzz – and then moving into a short and amusing story of boy and fly doing things together. In Fly Guy’s Amazing Tricks, Buzz shows friends how Fly Guy can do the backstroke in any liquid, fly around swiftly and confusingly in the “Dizzy Doozie,” and perch beneath Buzz’s nose as “the Big Booger.” All is fine with the other kids, but when Fly Guy shows the same tricks to Buzz’s parents during a family meal, Buzz realizes some control is needed. So he tells Fly Guy only to do tricks after hearing the word NOW. Then, wouldn’t you know it, Buzz and Fly Guy encounter a neighborhood bully, who insults Buzz (mildly); Buzz tries to ignore him; but the kid gets angry and orders Buzz to answer him NOW. And so Fly Guy goes into action, confusing the bully so much with the tricks that he bumps into a garbage can and is chased away by “a zillion angry flies.” A typically silly and true-to-its-characters series entry, Fly Guy’s Amazing Tricks will be fun for anyone who already enjoys these offbeat little books.
Fans of Lucille Colandro’s many variations on the old rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly (and lots of other things) will also have plenty of fun with that series’ newest entry – which is really where things should have started, since this one uses the original rhyming story. But it does not use it in quite as fatal a way as the original, which constantly repeats the line, “Perhaps she’ll die,” and ends with the old lady swallowing a horse, after which “she’s dead, of course.” None of that here – these variations are strictly for humor, and although not all the books in this sequence are rhymed or plotted successfully, this one is. Here the refrain is “She won’t say why,” and nobody dies – not even the fly, spider, bird, cat, dog, goat or cow swallowed by the always-smiling old lady and landing in her capacious stomach. At the end, the old lady simply coughs everyone up, and everybody becomes friends with everybody else – a thoroughly silly conclusion that is right in line with Colandro’s usual handling of these books and that, thanks to Jared Lee’s typically enjoyable illustrations, makes the whole thoroughly implausible tale as amusing as it can be.
Parents may want to pre-read John Kloepfer’s series for slightly older readers, ages 8-12, to be sure they are comfortable with the grossness level – which, however, they can be pretty sure will not bother many kids in the target age group at all. The original trilogy of The Zombie Chasers has now expanded into a series of “re-zombification” books, so there is now a fifth book in the overall series, with David DeGrand’s illustrations ably taking over for the earlier ones of Steve Wolfhard. The plot of the extended sequence is pretty much what you would expect: Zack and his zombie-chasing team (Madison, Ozzie, Rice and Zoe) are hunting for a lasting antidote to the zombie virus, their previous discovery having turned out to keep the bad bug at bay only temporarily. In Nothing Left to Ooze (bad puns are part and parcel of this series) they are searching for Madison’s cousin, Olivia, which entails (among other things) traveling to the nation’s best amusement park and dealing with such things as zombified vacationers. In a typical scene, a Canadian Air Force pilot named Chet is zombie-bitten: “‘Hey, man,’ Ozzie spoke to the delirious pilot as the zombie virus coursed through his bloodstream. ‘You’re about to turn into a zombie. You have to take these.’ Ozzie gave him a small handful of ginkgo pills. ‘Will this keep me from turning into a zombie?’ Chet asked. ‘Well, not really,’ said Ozzie. ‘But it’ll keep you from turning us into zombies.’” And there are, of course, the usual narrow escapes: “‘Hey, man, hurry up!’ Zack called to Ozzie as he limped quickly toward the pull-down gate at the exit. ‘We gotta get outta here!’” A few super zombies, popcorn/brain-flavored gumballs, Floridian freakazoids and “a dense pack of undead brain-gobblers” later, the Zombie Chasers realize they have to get off the mainland to figure things out, thereby setting the scene for the next book in the series, which will be called – no kidding – Zombies of the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, back at the origin of series like this, Kloepfer is starting Galaxy’s Most Wanted in a similar vein – this time with illustrations by Nick Edwards. The preteen group here includes Kevin and his science-camp friends, Tara, TJ and Warner. Together they make contact with actual alien life and get to meet an actual alien named Mim, who is cute and purple and fuzzy and four-eyed (literally four-eyed; this has nothing to do with wearing eyeglasses). But Mim tells the kids he is in trouble because of some galactic baddies who are after him, so the Earth kids have to hide him (they have him put on a hoodie) and help him. Soon enough, a pursuer shows up, yelling “‘Gluck-gluck-Mim-yim-yarkle’” and being as scary as only a giant extraterrestrial insect can be. Mim explains that the “space poachers” are after his entire species, “hunting us down and killing us for our fur so they can make coats out of us. It can get really cold in outer space.” So now the kids really need to help Mim, and they do a pretty darned good job of it, too, until they begin suspecting that maybe Mim is not telling them the whole truth, as in maybe not even 1% of it – and soon there are issues involving positron force fields, a “half-cyborg ET tracker,” a holographic rap sheet, a giant spider named Poobah, and all sorts of other nonsensical goodies that will undoubtedly delight preteen readers who are tired of earthbound zombies and looking for alternative amusements. These Kloepfer series are easy to follow, easy to read, plot-and-action driven (the characters are virtually identical), and packed with just enough consistent fun so that both Nothing Left to Ooze and Galaxy’s Most Wanted #1 get (+++) ratings. Some kids, however, will rate them higher – ones who are thrilled by dialogue such as, “‘Umm, hey, nimrods… There’s kind of more important stuff going on here than the Invention Convention. Like saving the world.’”
Parenting on the Go: Birth to Six, A to Z. By David Elkind, Ph.D. Da Capo. $14.99.
The Power of Positive Confrontation: The Skills You Need to Handle Conflicts at Work, at Home, Online, and in Life. By Barbara Pachter with Susan Magee. Da Capo. $16.99.
It is said that free advice is worth exactly what you paid for it. But the advice in books can easily be worth significantly more than their cost if you happen to be in the target group being addressed and can extract enough specificity from the suggestions to apply them to yourself and your everyday life. This is no small task: there is so much information out there – and obviously not only in books – that finding the relevant and useful information can be extraordinarily difficult. A big plus of child psychologist David Elkind’s Parenting on the Go is that it makes it comparatively simple to find what you are looking for – which then makes it easy to decide whether Elkind’s views and recommendations will work for you. The book is arranged from A to Z, so a quick glance at the Table of Contents makes it simple to locate the material you want to find. This is not 100% effective, because some of Elkind’s characterizations may be counterintuitive: “Divorce” and “Emergencies” are under D and E, respectively, but “Preschool” is under E (as “Education, Preschool”), and some categories may be ones you do not know whether you want to check out (“Bad Theories, Bad Effects”). Still, the contents listing is easy to skim, and so is much of the book itself, so if you are not sure what a particular section is about, you can simply turn to it and do a quick read. It will have to be quick: Elkind’s basic point here, an entirely valid one, is that life is so complex and fast-paced nowadays that parents do not have enough time to read through parenting books at a leisurely pace – they need to find information speedily so they can use it as soon as possible. The information itself is given here in easy-to-digest form, although it sometimes is a trifle over-simplified, such as this in regard to “Fantasy, The Uses Of”: “Young children think differently than we do. It is not a wrong way of thinking, just different and age-appropriate.” Yet Elkind does not hesitate to tackle difficult and complex issues, such as “Gender Identity”: “A child does not wish to be born with a cross-sex preference. Indeed [the child] may, initially at least, consider it a curse. And it is certainly not the fault of parents. …For parents, the real challenge is to mourn for the child they had hoped to have and to accept, love, and support the child that they were given.” This last comment shows a strength of the book in Elkind’s plain-spokenness on difficult subjects – and a weakness in that his style can make him seem blasé about difficult, even wrenching parental matters. Parenting on the Go also offers little of the how information that parents may be seeking – as in how to learn to accept a child with a cross-sex preference. Of course, giving that sort of information on all the subjects here would be impossible; but Elkind does not even provide a list of further resources, which could have been a helpful starting point. Still, within the confines of a book designed to be fast and easy to consult, and not to be read through cover-to-cover at all, he offers a great deal of helpful thinking on subjects from Acid Reflux to Zoos, with such stops along the way as Chores for Tots, Food Strikes, Military Children, Security Blankets and a great deal more.
The Power of Positive Confrontation takes a different stylistic approach to a more-adult subject. Instead of alphabetizing, Barbara Pachter and Susan Magee “cuticize,” trying to pull readers in with chapter titles such as “The Confrontational Road Less Traveled Is Paved by Bullies and Wimps,” “The Jerk Test,” and “When You Get WAC’ed.” As you might expect, WAC is an acronym – they are inordinately popular in self-help books. It stands for “three key steps in gathering your words for a difficult conversation,” those being What is really bothering you, Asking the other person to do or change something, and Checking In to find out what the other person thinks about what you want. This is a more-tortured, less-clear acronym than most, but because it sounds out as “whack,” it allows Pachter and Magee to “cuticize” around it in many ways. Not that the cuteness is the point here: The Power of Positive Confrontation contains a number of useful ideas, if you do not mind getting to them through the sometimes-annoying style. The authors point out, for example, that “the W is not accusatory” – a very useful thing to know. “You have a right to comment on another person’s behavior if it affects you. You don’t have a right to verbally attack the other person.” Similarly, “you must be specific about your A,” and “if you don’t know what to ask for, don’t confront yet.” As for C, the point is that “just as it takes at least two people to have a confrontation, it takes at least two to resolve a confrontation” – which means you must connect (which would have been a better C than “check in”) with the other person to be sure he or she has heard you and will do what you ask. Pachter, a communications speaker and coach, and Magee, an assistant professor of communications, provide a list of what they call “the twelve most annoying behaviors,” and show how their WAC acronym can apply to them. Readers may have their own list, which will probably not be as alliterative as the one here – it includes “Space Spongers,” “Interjecting Interrupters,” “Work Welchers,” “Annoying Askers” and so forth. Again, the “cuticizing” tends to undermine the seriousness and effectiveness of the authors’ recommendations, but if you can get through the presentation, the ideas can be genuinely helpful. The core of what Pachter and Magee show is in the book’s second section, “Making Positive Confrontation Work for You,” which – although, again, infected by “cuticizing” – shows how to take techniques that the authors repeatedly describe as “Polite and Powerful” and use them in many different situations, both personal and professional. Read past the list-making tendencies here and elsewhere in the book (“Eleven Simple Things You Can Do to Have a Positive Confrontation,” “Twelve Simple Ways to Establish Rapport”), bypass the overly cutesy chapter and section titles (“WAC’ing in Writing,” “WAC’ing by Phone,” “Don’t WAC Behind Someone’s Back”), and you will find some genuinely thoughtful approaches to managing confrontation effectively. A lot of the ideas here are scarcely new: choose conflicts wisely, practice before confronting, pick the right time and place, keep things short and simple, etc. But conceptually easy is not the same as easy to implement, and the real value of The Power of Positive Confrontation lies less in telling you what to do than in telling you how to do it. That value helps overcome a writing style that tends to be too flippant for its own, and readers’, good.
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1—a comprehensive music lesson. Lara St. John, violin; Eduard Laurel, piano. Learning from the Legends. $79.99 (2 DVDs).
Bach: Partita No. 1; Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 15, “Pastoral”; Chopin: Ballade No. 3; Scherzo No. 2; Gluck-Sgambati: Orfeo Melody; Schumann-Liszt: Frühlingsnacht. James Rhodes, piano. Instrumental Records. $17.99.
Fauré: Lydia’s Vocalises; works by Chabrier, Saint-Saëns, Reynaldo Hahn, Rameau, Couperin and Louis Marchand. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, trumpet; Roy Howat, piano (Vocalises); Daniel-Ben Pienaar, piano (other works). Linn Records. $19.99.
Myroslav Skoryk: Violin Concerto No. 7; Cello Concerto; Carpathian Concerto for Orchestra; other works. Nazary Pilatyuk, violin; Valery Kazakov, cello; Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hobart Earle. Naxos. $9.99.
Wood Works: Nordic Folk Tunes. Danish String Quartet (Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland, violins; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola; Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello). Dacapo. $16.99.
Defiantly offered for only a very, very limited subset of classical-music listeners, these recent releases are all fascinating in their own ways – even though they do not reach out to anyone beyond a small core audience, and do not intend to. The Lara St. John two-DVD set focusing on Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is an outstanding use of the DVD medium for classical-music presentation. It is in effect a master class in a box: the complete performance of the concerto is the least of what is offered here. St. John is a fine violinist, but what matters is that she is also a fine teacher: these DVDs are strictly for violinists seeking to learn and understand this concerto, as St. John goes through the work movement by movement and measure by measure. This release on the Learning from the Legends label combines elements that have previously been offered on CD by Naxos and on vinyl by a company called Music Minus One. Naxos’ seven-disc set of “Suzuki Evergreens,” played by Takako Nishizaki, was an excellent example of a top-notch violinist performing student music in an accessible manner that students could themselves follow and from which they could learn through repeated listenings. Music Minus One released vinyl LPs containing the orchestral accompaniments of a variety of works for soloist and orchestra – the idea being that students would play the solo parts and understand how it would feel to blend in with and perform in front of an orchestra. The St. John DVD set goes beyond both these earlier, audio-only offerings by letting students see just what fingerings St. John uses and why – she explains performance practice clearly and provides a highly useful and quite extensive set of technical exercises for tone, vibrato, bowing techniques and more. Also here is a play-along accompaniment track – not orchestral, unfortunately, but on piano, which is certainly helpful for learning this concerto. There are also discussions of how to practice more effectively, how to find the right teacher, and more. The DVD set is certainly not inexpensive, but if regarded as a master-class lesson, it is more than reasonably priced. Violin students interested in this famous Bruch concerto will find here a treasure trove of information and guidance – this is a remarkably useful release for its admittedly narrow target audience.
The audience is surely intended to be wider for a new CD featuring pianist James Rhodes, but what narrows things down here is the self-indulgence of the whole project. Rhodes is determined to achieve pop-star status in the classical-music world by using a certain amount of pop-star attitude, reflected in this case by entitling the unusually packaged and designed disc “Five” because it is his fifth release – and by creating his own label, Instrumental Records, to handle the recording. Rhodes is scarcely the first performer to set up a label of his own – indeed, it has become quite common for individuals, ensembles and orchestras to do so, for purely economic reasons – but Rhodes’ entry is on the grandiose side, with the pianist claiming that the label exists to further multiple artists’ endeavors and as part of Rhodes’ own overall dedication to music education. So far, though, there is nothing here to hold even a small candle to something like the St. John DVD release. Rhodes takes a highly visual approach to classical music – not on this CD, of course, but in his live and DVD performances and on TV – and seems determined to make it as “cool” as pop music (for those who consider pop music “cool”). Pop music focuses more on the performer and less on the works performed than classical music generally does, so Rhodes’ approach lets him put himself very much center stage at all times. More power to him if that works for him; and if it does bring new listeners to classical music, more power to the whole concept. But this specific recording really does nothing to advance Rhodes’ stated cause or to attract new or existing classical-music lovers. There is nothing bad here, but there is nothing revelatory, either. Bach played on piano is always a compromise, and Rhodes’ determination to make Bach’s Partita No. 1 into a pianistic work does neither composer nor performer very much good. Rhodes’ way with Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata is all right, but the performance lacks nuance and sensitivity – it is fine, but scarcely stirring. Rhodes seems more comfortable with Chopin, giving rather over-indulgent readings that at least reflect a high level of emotional commitment. And the two short encore pieces are played quite adequately. The CD as a whole, though, does not possess any particular thematic unity or any forcefulness in arguing for the music – lacking a visual element, Rhodes must be judged strictly as an interpreter, and on that basis he is middle-of-the-road rather than highly distinguished.
There is thematic unity to the world-première recording of Gabriel Fauré’s Lydia’s Vocalises, and here there is also a teaching element: the works were written when the composer headed the Paris Conservatoire and were intended to help teach and improve students’ vocal techniques. There are 30 of these very short works, most lasting less than one minute, and the recording also includes six “appendix” Vocalises, some certainly by Fauré and others probably by him. The entire recording of music unheard for a century is of historical value and of importance to those interested in Fauré and in the reforms he brought to music education, but the works themselves – even as arranged in the six neat groupings they receive on this Linn Records disc – are of variable quality and only intermittently interesting. And the decision to perform them on trumpet and piano is an odd one: yes, the trumpet makes possible clarity of expression and articulation in a way that Fauré would surely have favored, but unlike, say, the clarinet or French horn, the trumpet has little of the “human voice” register or range that would make its use here a clear choice. And these are not “songs without words” – they are instructional materials, usually with very simple chordal accompaniments in the piano; they lack the sort of emotive qualities that would make a trumpet-and-piano reading truly compelling. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and Roy Howat handle the music well, but there is little of strictly musical value here, although there are certainly elements of extramusical interest for historians and musical academicians. The CD is filled out with a potpourri of arrangements in which Freeman-Attwood is accompanied by Daniel-Ben Pienaar. These include Chabrier’s Aubade and Danse villageoise; Saint-Saëns’ Romanza poco adagio from his Cello Sonata No. 2; A Chloris by Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947); Rameau’s Overture and Gavotte pour les Zephirs from the Naïs Suite; Couperin’s Cromorne sur la Taille from Messe pour les Couvents; a work called Grand Dialogue by Louis Marchand (1669-1732); and the Allegro non troppo from Fauré’s Deuxième Sonate pour Violin et Piano. None of these works is of much consequence when heard on trumpet and piano and when isolated from the larger pieces from which most are taken; the pieces come across as an extended series of encores, pleasant enough to hear but scarcely a reason for most people to own this disc – although trumpet players will likely find the CD an attractive demonstration of their instrument’s capabilities.
A specialty item of a different sort, and also one packed with world-première recordings, is a new Naxos CD featuring music by Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk (born 1938). Six of the eight works here have never been recorded before – in particular, both Skoryk’s Violin Concerto No. 7 (2009) and his Cello Concerto (1983) get their first recorded readings here. These two works show Skoryk’s personal style quite clearly: his is music of dramatic and often unexpected contrasts, with intensity and dynamism suddenly turning into or following passages of lyricism and even sweetness – although, more usually, the tone is bittersweet. Nazary Pilatyuk and Valery Kazakov make fine soloists in the concertos, and the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra under Hobart Earle performs admirably in support and throughout this recording, which was made during live performances marking Skoryk’s 75th birthday in 2013. The other world premières here are of shorter works: Diptych (1993), the humorous Caprice No. 19 from “24 Paganini Caprices” (2003), the quietly thoughtful Melody (1981), and the Spanish Dance from “The Stone Host Suite” (1973). The two pieces here that have been recorded in the past are the short “Childhood” from the “Hutsul Triptych” (1965) and the particularly approachable Carpathian Concerto for Orchestra (1972). This last work’s combination of rhythmic clarity and folk-music elements makes it unusually accessible for a work of its time. Skoryk may not have all the incisiveness and appeal of other composers from the region, but he does have a distinctive voice that emerges in music that is quite well-crafted.
Folk music’s influence on classical works is longstanding, but classical ensembles that actually perform folk music are far more unusual. The Danish String Quartet’s new Dacapo release is therefore something of a rarity. There are 13 tracks here, three of them being the three parts of Ye Honest Bridal Couple/Sønderho Bridal Trilogy, from Denmark’s Faroe Islands – the islands to which Carl Nielsen once took an imaginary journey about which he composed a rhapsody overture. The music here is far more straightforward than Nielsen’s 10-minute work, although the three parts combined last just about as long. Here the folk elements predominate and there is no attempt at tone-painting. Nor, indeed, is there anything especially “classical” in approach or intent in the 10 remaining pieces on the disc, of which four are from Denmark, three from Norway and three from Sweden. Many classical composers have been inspired by folk music and have incorporated it into their works to a greater or lesser degree. But what the performers do here is simply arrange a variety of folk tunes for string quartet, not attempting to make them grander or more complex than they already are. This is therefore a straightforward presentation of some very listenable but scarcely compelling music – everything is very well played, and the quartet members seem to be enjoying themselves, but the music itself has little staying power and is largely inconsequential despite its manifest pleasantries.
Sing, Ye Birds, a Joyous Song—Music of the English Renaissance and 20th Century. Yale Schola Cantorum conducted by Simon Carrington. Delos. $16.99.
My Beloved’s Voice—Sacred Songs of Love. The Choir of Jesus College Cambridge conducted by Mark Williams. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Ralf Yusuf Gawlick: Missa gentis humanæ. The Choir of Trinity Wall Street conducted by Julian Wachner. Musica Omnia. $13.99.
Julian Wachner: Symphony No. 1 (“Incantations and Lamentations”) and other works for orchestra and voices. Musica Omnia. $23.99 (3 CDs).
Kenneth Fuchs: Falling Man; Movie House; Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Roderick Williams, baritone; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.
Verdi: Lieder. Ramón Vargas, tenor; Joanna Parisi, soprano; Charles Spencer, piano. Capriccio. $16.99.
Choral music is a niche product for classical-music aficionados, and religious choral music even more so – and modern choral music even more so. Yet although the result is niches within niches, there are some very fine recordings available for people whose tastes run in those directions, even if the CDs are not the sort to attract previously unconvinced listeners to the kind of music they present. Both Sing, Ye Birds, a Joyous Song and My Beloved’s Voice, for example, combine some choral music that is very old indeed with some that is quite recent. The Yale Schola Cantorum’s performance on Delos includes the Western Wind Mass by John Taverner (1490-1545), a plainly set and for that reason emotionally effective work; the moving Te lucis ante terminum by Thomas Tallis (1503-1585); and Glorious and Powerful God and Second Evening Service by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), with Lucas Wong on organ. To the old Latin settings the CD adds The Glory and the Dream by Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) – a curious and strangely effective centerpiece of the recording, using poems by William Wordsworth that celebrate nature as well as God, and do so in musical language that differs from that of the Renaissance but complements it surprisingly well. The beautifully balanced performances led by Simon Carrington make this a very engaging disc, and Thomas Murray, organist for the Bennett work, makes a noteworthy contribution to it.
In a similar vein, but utilizing shorter pieces, the Choir of Jesus College Cambridge under Mark Williams presents 20 different works of highly varied provenance on a Signum Records release. These range from Sicut lilium by Antoine Brumel (1460-1515) and Nigra sum by Pablo Casals (1479-1528) to four pieces based on the Song of Solomon by Howard Skempton (born 1947) and Set me as a seal by Nico Muhly (born 1981). Indeed, the Song of Solomon is the underlying unifying factor for nearly all this music, whether interpreted in its original Old Testament form as a deep and highly sensual love song or, as Christians prefer, as a parable of the “wedding” of Christ and the church. The differing exegeses of the text allow for a wide variety of approaches to music based on it, and they are what Williams explores here – sometimes in highly interesting ways, sometimes in curious ones generated by the juxtaposition of music from very different times (e.g., Clemens non Papa, 16th century, followed by Louis Vierne, 20th; and Martin de Rivafrecha, 16th century, followed by one of Edvard Grieg’s Four Psalms after Old Norwegian Church Melodies, 20th). The singing, in any case, is warm and emotionally communicative throughout the CD.
There is warmth and beauty as well in the voices of eight members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street in the Missa gentis humanæ (“Mass for the Human Race”) by Ralf Yusuf Gawlick (born 1969). Laid out like a traditional Latin Mass, the work is in fact a hybrid that mixes Mass elements with selections from the Gospel of John and poetry and prose by Virgil, Brecht, Plautus, Dostoevsky, Brecht, Sir Walter Scott and others. The result is a very unusual work indeed, celebrating within an entirely religious overall structure the things that make humans human and worth saving – by whom or what, when and under what circumstances, is another matter. Pagan, Christian and irreligious, the juxtaposed texts are intended to illuminate the many forms taken by faith throughout the ages, the intent being to unite all believers, and even unbelievers, under the grand umbrella of what it means to be human. A very ambitious piece that constantly seems ready to come apart at the seams – and that certainly shows those seams often enough – Missa gentis humanæ gets sensitive shaping and a high level of understanding from Julian Wachner on a Musica Omnia disc. But the work remains, when all is said (or sung) and done, a piece that strives mightily without ever managing to be as engaging or moving as Gawlick clearly wants it to be.
Wachner does an equally effective conducting job in his own music – and is a fine organist in it, too. Musica Omnia’s three-CD compilation of Wachner’s works includes much that is jazzy and energetic as well as a good deal that is intended to be uplifting. This is a lot of Wachner, and as such is a release of even more limited appeal than is usual for a recording of contemporary music. In addition to Symphony No. 1 (“Incantations and Lamentations”) (2001), the recording includes Come, My Dark-Eyed One (2008); Regina Coeli (2002); Canticles (1990); Jubilate Deo (2006); Psalm Cycle I (1989) and Psalm Cycle III (2003); Blue Green Red (2014); Alleluias, Intercessions and Remembrances (1995); Holy, Holy, Holy (2009); Joy to the World (2004); and All Creatures of Our God and King (1992). The pervasive religious themes do not, thankfully, mean long stretches of dully worshipful music: Wachner’s palette is comparatively extensive, and he communicates his thoughts through a highly varied set of performers. These include NOVUS N.Y., a new-music orchestra; the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Youth Choir; the Majestic Brass Quintet; singers Jessica Muirhead (soprano), Steven Wilson (tenor) and Christopher Burchett (bass-baritone); Stephen Burns on trumpet; Caroline Cole on harp; and Janet Yieh – as well as Wachner himself – on organ. Wachner also serves as conductor, and he certainly knows how to evoke the expressiveness of his own music. But, again, there is a lot of it here, and a certain tedium does set in as the settings progress, despite Wachner’s attempts to make the material as sonically varied as it can be – consistent with its subject matter.
The subject matter mixes the sacred and the worldly on a new Naxos CD featuring music for baritone and full orchestra or chamber ensemble by Kenneth Fuchs (born 1956). Falling Man (2009-10) is a dramatic scena based on Don DeLillo’s post-9/11 novel; here there is an attempt to find meaning in an ultimately meaningless act of vicious mass murder, with Fuchs using excerpts from DeLillo’s prose to try – as have many others – to extract something of value from an act of war perpetrated by determined killers. Roderick Williams’ singing is effective – not only here but also throughout the disc – but the subject matter has been handled so often, with much the same intent, that the work is less emotionally potent than Fuchs intends. Movie House (2007) is something quite different: a setting of seven poems by John Updike, and an altogether lighter and less-fraught work. At more than half an hour, it goes on rather too long for the quality of its material, although it does contain some well-chosen and well-set words. More moving and thoughtful, and ultimately more meaningful even than Falling Man, is Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1977), in which Fuchs sets four poems by William Blake – whose strange, sometimes mystical sensibility stays with the listener far more tellingly than does the much more straightforward and self-consciously emotive work of DeLillo and Updike. Fuchs’ setting does not compare to the far more extensive and deeper one of William Bolcom – one of the genuine masterpieces of 20th-century music. But Fuchs’ handling of the material is careful, involving and knowing, and shows his attraction to and understanding of Blake’s unusual, sometimes difficult-to-fathom visions. JoAnn Falletta leads the London Symphony Orchestra with sure-handedness and a clear comprehension of the music, giving Fuchs’ works plenty of opportunities to connect with listeners and move them.
Vocal connection with the audience – as viscerally as possible – is what the operas of Verdi are all about. Even Verdi operatic excerpts can make a strong emotional connection with listeners, which is why there are so many CDs of them. But the new Capriccio disc featuring tenor Ramón Vargas is not just another one of these. Vargas here presents a side of Verdi that is almost as unfamiliar as his chamber music: his songs. These are works in which the opera composer experimented with the emotions he wanted to evoke and the music in which he wanted to cloak those feelings. Like the sketches of a painter, the songs of Verdi are simpler and often more-forthright, more-raw visions of what he would later do in his opera arias and ensembles. They are pale by comparison with his theatrical works for voice and orchestra, and will not be particularly gripping even for most Verdi fans; but they do provide insights into the way Verdi used music and words to characterize particular individuals and to bring forth the emotional expressions that he wanted to convey. Vargas here offers two sets of Romances, with six songs in each, plus individual tracks both secular and sacred. On the worldly side are L’esule, La seduzione, Il poveretto and Stornello; on the religious one are Tantum ergo and Ave Maria. Ably accompanied by pianist Charles Spencer on all the songs and by soprano Joanna Parisi on a few of them, Vargas evokes and emotes words by St. Thomas Aquinas, Goethe (via Luigi Balestra), poet and librettist Andrea Maffei, and others, showing that although Verdi was scarcely an expert in lieder, he was quite capable of utilizing the form of the song to explore a variety of thoughts and feelings – and later expand upon that form to produce arias with far stronger emotive qualities. Fine singing and unusual repertoire combine to make this disc an intriguing one, albeit for a decidedly limited audience.
August 14, 2014
Mr. Ferris and His Wheel. By Kathryn Gibbs Davis. Illustrated by Gilbert Ford. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life. By Catherine Reef. Clarion. $18.99.
Superstars of History: The Good, the Bad, and the Brainy. Created by Basher. Written by R.L. Grant. Scholastic. $7.99.
Young readers get some fascinatingly involving stories of the past – ones that tie into the present – in these well-written books that simplify complex subjects and people, but not to the extent of rendering them into caricatures. In the case of Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, the story has so many fascinating elements that all Kathryn Gibbs Davis needs to do is tell it straightforwardly to make it gripping. Kids today may not realize that the Ferris wheel is named after its inventor (who himself called it a “Monster Wheel”). But they will certainly understand why Ferris’ investors – without whom he could not have built the wheel, since the banks refused to lend him money for it – decided to give it his name. There is so much that is fascinating here. The Ferris wheel was built in response to the Eiffel tower, then the world’s tallest man-made structure, which had been erected for the 1889 World’s Fair. Ferris conceived of his wheel as the main attraction for the next such fair, in 1893, and specifically wanted to show that American ingenuity could produce a marvel even greater than French skill had already made. The trials and tribulations that Ferris faced in trying to get the project approved and funded, the frantic pace needed to get it done before the opening of the World’s Fair – these are the stuff of great drama, and Davis’ decision to let the events unfold naturally only heightens the excitement. Davis explains how Ferris first conceptualized the wheel based on his boyhood memories of water wheels in Nevada. She tells how it worked, why it did not collapse despite widespread belief that it would, and even a bit of the engineering behind it: “George’s wheel worked like a bicycle wheel. Both are supported by skinny, flexible rods called spokes. As the wheel turns, the spokes work together to share the weight. These are called tension wheels.” The enormous success of the first Ferris wheel went beyond the engineering marvel itself. Ferris used electric lights on it at night – helping convince people that the then-new form of lighting was safe. And his wheel helped make the 1893 World’s Fair, known as the “White City,” the inspiration for some very famous places in future generations: the Emerald City of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories, and Walt Disney’s Disneyland – Disney’s father had been a construction worker at the 1893 World’s Fair. The words in Mr. Ferris and His Wheel bring history to vibrant life, abetted by Gilbert Ford illustrations that attractively mix digital media with ink and watercolors. Today’s Ferris wheels owe a lot – everything, in fact – to the original. Kids who read Mr. Ferris and His Wheel will never again look at a modern carnival ride in quite the same way.
Nor will they look at the art of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo as old-fashioned museum pieces after they read Catherine Reef’s Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life. The story of these two extremely turbulent and unconventional personalities is a difficult one to tell for younger readers, filled as it is with sex, violence and Communist sympathies. Simply understanding the background of the lives of Rivera and Kahlo is a potentially difficult task for young readers – one that Reef tackles with care and compassion but without attempting to gloss over their personal flaws or controversial political stands. She does not, for example, hesitate to include a photo of Kahlo at the site of Rivera’s now-lost mural, The Nightmare of War and the Dream of Peace, or to explain that, in this work, “Rivera had again contrasted life under capitalism and the ideal world he believed was possible through communism. He portrayed Mao Tse-tung and Joseph Stalin as peacemakers and the United States as the world’s warmonger, the only nation to have used the atomic bomb. He showed a dying soldier hanging from a cross, and a humble Mexican laborer guiding his people toward peace.” To be sure, Reef suggests that “Rivera did these things because he was painting dishonestly. He created this mural to please the Communist Party, in the hope of being readmitted to it.” This is a mild remonstrance, although it is true that Rivera was an avowed Communist who had been expelled by the party in 1929, the year he married Kahlo, and was not readmitted until after Kahlo’s death in 1954. But the passage shows just one of the many difficulties inherent in discussing Rivera and Kahlo for younger readers – difficulties that Reef’s forthright exploration of their interconnected lives and their very different art helps overcome. Reef does not shy away from discussing the many love affairs of each of them (including, speaking of Communism, Kahlo’s brief one with Leon Trotsky). But her primary focus is on other elements of their personal lives – and on their art, a number of samples of which appear at the back of the book. The artists’ complex relationship with the United States is explored as well, involving not only the lost Rivera mural but also Rivera’s commission by the Rockefeller family to create a mural for the RCA Building in New York City – a project abandoned when the Rockefellers fired Rivera after he refused to remove Lenin from his art. Then there are the murals Rivera painted for the San Francisco Stock Exchange and the 27 panels he created for the Detroit Institute of Arts – plus the very personal art that Kahlo created, including Henry Ford Hospital, after a miscarriage in 1932 required her to spend 13 days under hospitalization. Controversy dogged Rivera and Kahlo, singly and together, throughout their interlinked lives. It is ultimately the many ways in which their lives were linked that makes their story so fascinating, and if Reef does not get into those ways in depth, she at least gives them more than passing references, as when Rivera describes Kahlo’s paintings as “acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly’s wing.” A caption for one of the many photos that enliven the book sums the core of it up neatly: “Kahlo and Rivera were happiest when they were together.” But happiest does not necessarily mean happy, and it is this difficult concept that Reef strives to communicate. She explores it well enough so that young readers of this book will be able to see the art of both Kahlo and Rivera with new understanding.
Aimed at younger readers and taking a much longer historical perspective, a new Basher book called Superstars of History manages to take the Basher trademarks from science and math books and apply them in a whole new way – to excellent effect. Those trademarks include make-believe first-person narration by the characters portrayed (mixed with some real quotes); art in which everyone is round-headed and drawn in a very simple way that nevertheless manages to capture his or her personality; and a clean book design and layout that make it very easy to read what is written and digest the well-researched facts. Basher books look like no others, and this one shows that they can be used in previously unexplored fields and be as effective as they have proven to be in math and science. Superstars of History is divided into “The Ancient World,” “The Middle Ages and the Renaissance,” “Revolution and the Enlightenment,” and “The Modern Era,” with each section starting with a very clear timeline giving dates of major events – and names and drawings of people associated with those happenings. The following pages are then devoted in more detail to the people – starting with a full-page illustration and quotation and then offering a page of narration “by” the individual, with information on what he or she did and what his or her legacy was. For example, for China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi: “I defeated all the other states and paid officials to run the different regions. …Let’s face it, there was only going to be one ruler, and that was going to be me.” One part of his legacy: “If it weren’t for his example, China might now be split into a number of different countries, just as Europe is.” Another example, for Isaac Newton: “I never had much time for people. I rarely spoke, had no friends, and often forgot to eat. Science was my thing.” In a box called “Quirky Fellow,” we find out that “Newton tried to calculate the day on which the world would end. Using the prophecies of Daniel in the Bible, he reckoned 2060 was the likeliest year.” As for the actual quotations from the people in this book, we have Simón Bolívar saying, “I have been chosen by fate to break your chains”; Queen Victoria proclaiming, “We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist”; and Joseph Stalin stating, “I trust no one, not even myself.” Superstars of History is an engaging and engrossing book, fascinating for including people from Aristotle to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Attila the Hun to Adolf Hitler. Not comprehensive and not intended to be so, it is just the sort of book that – like the Basher books on math and science – is designed to pique young readers’ interest and encourage them to learn more elsewhere. History books for adults would do well to be as involving as this one.
2015 Calendars: 365-Day—Signspotting; Church Signs; Dog Shaming; Ultimate Optical Illusions. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.
Not everyone wants a page-a-day calendar that focuses on visuals. Some people find the many picture-focused calendars too distracting, or cutesy, or just not particularly interesting. And for such people, Andrews McMeel has a wide variety of 2015 calendars that, while attractive to look at, are far more about words than they are about cartoons or pretty photos of this or that. Doug Lansky’s Signspotting, for example, is subtitled, “Absurd & Amazing Signs from around the World,” and although every page of it is in fact a photo, it is not the pictorial element that will keep you amused all year. Instead, it will be the words, such as the ones on a real-estate sign in Nevada: “Beach Front Views (just kidding).” Or the sign in India that says, “Please do not Annoy, Torment, Pester, Molest, Worry, Badger, Harry, Harass, Hackle, Persecute, Irk, Rag, Vex, Bother, Tease, Nettle, Tantalise or Ruffle the Animal.” Or the more-modest one in China: “Please don’t hurt the animals while teasing them.” Or the sign by a temporarily closed escalator: “Caution: Escalator Acting as Stairs.” Or the warning sign (if it is a warning sign) in New Zealand: “Wong Way.” Or the one at a beach in Australia: “Warning: Water.” Or the “No Outlet” sign conveniently placed adjacent to a cemetery. Some of the signs are amusing examples of mistranslation and misunderstanding, while others are simply amusing for anyone trying to figure out just what the people who put them up were trying to communicate. For instance: “Point of Hysterical Interest.” Or the sign pair in which one points to “Bluegrass Riding Tour” off to the left while the other forbids a left turn. These are not just signs of the times but signs of the places – and worth a chuckle or two throughout the coming year.
Chuckles are in order in the Church Signs calendar, too. These are not your ordinary fire-and-brimstone threats or expressions of gratitude, although certainly many churches with roadside displays offer those. Instead, these are attempts to engage people walking or driving past with some gentle humor and reminders of the space supposedly beyond everyday cares to be found inside. True, the exact purpose of a few of these signs is a bit opaque: “Creditors have better memories than debtors.” But others are genuinely thoughtful: “God prefers kind atheists over hateful Christians.” And many are pointed reminders of what counts, or should count, in life: “The happiest people don’t have the best of everything – they just make the best of everything.” “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” “God does not make misteaks.” “Be yourself! Everyone else is already taken.” “You think it’s hot here?” Always pithy and often wry, these church offerings can be a way to connect with a better part of yourself in your daily life: “Instead of pointing a finger, lend a hand.” Or they can be words of wisdom for any day of the week: “A man is also known by the company he avoids.” Or they can simply be thought-provoking: “Always put off until tomorrow what you shouldn’t do at all.”
That last admonition does not apply to dogs, as is abundantly clear from the words in the Dog Shaming calendar for 2015. Consider: dogs are odor-driven creatures (unlike humans, who are sight-driven), and dogs’ basic idea of food is “anything that fits into my mouth or that I can make small enough so it fits.” Put those two elements together and you have the recipe for a lot of the things that dogs do “wrong,” which is to say, things that dogs do simply because they are dogs. That is what this calendar is all about: dogs simply being dogs, and the way in which that drives their human companions up the proverbial wall. Taken from the Web site www.dogshaming.com, the pages of this calendar feature humans writing things about their dogs’ (mis)deeds and placing them on or adjacent to the canines – which look properly abashed or completely indifferent, depending on each dog’s personality. “Mittens are my favorite snack.” “We ate our mom’s homework” (pieces of which are strewn about). “I ate the whole stick of butter still wrapped.” “Don’t let my handsomeness fool you; I can’t be left at home alone. In the two months since my adoption, I’ve already destroyed two crates, a patch of carpet, and a couch leg.” “When you leave I get sad and lick all the couch cushions.” “I bit a lady’s bike tire today and Dad had to drive her home because my teeth punctured it!” “I stink because I roll in dead fish!” “I play in mud after I get home from the groomer.” “I ate another loaf of bread.” The dogs’ expressions and body language are a big part of the fun of this calendar, and the pups’ misadventures run the gamut of everything you would expect from a nonhuman species with which humans have shared space (but not sensory experiences) for many thousands of years. Some of the dogs actually do look ashamed, at least to human eyes, but plenty of them look unconcerned by or even delighted with whatever it is they have done. And so many of them are adorable that any dog lover will immediate gravitate to and appreciate this year’s worth of “oops” moments. Dog lovers with a sly sense of humor may consider buying an extra calendar to give to their cat-loving friends – since, as is well known, cats have no shame about anything, ever.
Just as the dog pictures enhance the words in Dog Shaming, so the words in Ultimate Optical Illusions enhance the experience of looking at the illustrations. Here, though, explanatory words and pictorial elements are equally important. In this 2015 calendar by Gianni A. Sarcone and Brad Honeycutt, each day offers something to gaze at with a sense of wonder, surprise or discovery – and an explanation of why you see what you are seeing. “Hypnotic Discs,” for instance, are 16 multicolored discs against a purple background, and they seem to move: “Repeated concentric patterns with contrasting hues cause many visual systems to ‘see’ the presence of motion where there is none.” And “tunnel effect” is a “mysterious tunnel [that] appears to be expanding toward you!” Then there is a picture showing a four-eyed cat – which is disconcertingly difficult to look at: “What makes your eyes dizzy is the fact that they are trying to focus while your brain is fighting to give you the most coherent image of a cat.” Then there is a snail shell that is clearly a spiral, except that it isn’t: “The recurring pattern is actually made up of concentric ellipsis,” which you can prove by tracing them with a finger. Not all the pages here are drawings: there is a vintage photo of a woman with something menacing lurking within it, and another of the Eiffel Tower in which a man’s face appears when you look carefully. There is even earlier history, too, such as “a reconstitution of the oldest apparent moving pattern, first devised in Roman times” and featuring the head of Medusa in the center. There are also several “impossible” drawings, in which there may be three objects or four depending on how you look at the page. These are pictures – and words – that will intrigue you throughout the coming year, helping keep your brain active and in some cases ensuring that you have your daily dose of frustration as you try to figure out what you are seeing. But at least this is frustration that will disappear in a day – to be replaced by different frustration, and different challenging amusement, on the next page.
Dear Daughter. By Elizabeth Little. Viking. $26.95.
The Perfect Stranger. By Wendy Corsi Staub. Harper. $7.99.
What is it with Americans and celebritrash? Lacking a hereditary aristocracy – the Rockefeller and Kennedy names having been largely tarnished over the years – more and more people seem to gravitate to a focus on people of no distinction whatsoever. They are the “famous for being famous.” Or the ones who say words that other people write while standing where other people tell them to stand and dressing the way other people tell them to dress while a camera captures all of it. Or sometimes the ones who can push a large round object through a hoop or knock a smaller round object into a hole in the ground or beef up to grotesque proportions and carry a non-round object across an arbitrary line. These celebritrash, who live grotesque lives of entitlement that, together with their obscene wealth, put them completely and forever out of touch with the existence of those who obsess about them, have spawned entire cottage industries of celebritrash photography, celebritrash rumor and innuendo, celebritrash magazines, celebritrash television – and celebritrash thriller and mystery books, replete with pop-culture references and would-be with-it narration and make-believe insight into the ways in which the celebritrash think (when they think at all) and behave (or, for one must have titillation, misbehave).
The problem with celebritrash as central characters in books is that, in real life – or life as real as publicists and media hacks allow anyone to see – the celebritrash are not very interesting. Think about asking any celebritrash about anything other than what he/she/it is known for – that is, anything but partying or drugs or moving some round or roundish object here or there. Count on a vacant stare, a prolonged “huhhhhhhhhh?” and maybe an offer of some substance designed to enhance or diminish your and his/her/its consciousness. No real answers there, right? But the nearly inevitable vacancy (“nearly” because there are always, of course, exceptions), while perfectly acceptable and perfectly expectable in the real world, leaves writers with few places to go. A whole book of “look at him/her/it!” and “huhhhhhhhhh?” would get pretty boring pretty quickly. And books are for people who, you know, read, so boredom is less acceptable than on, say, television.
So authors such as Elizabeth Little and Wendy Corsi Staub are obliged to reinvent celebritrash in order to make their books, you know, readable. Little, in her debut novel, turns out to be better than Staub at this. Dear Daughter is a typical modern whodunit in which the protagonist, Janie Jenkins, mighta coulda dunnit but maybe didn’t, and after her release from prison on a technicality, she sets out to uncover her past and find out more about her murdered mother and discover whether she herself maybe dunnit after all. And if not, maybe she can learn about herself in the process of discovering who diddit. No, scratch that – even Little doesn’t make this piece of celebritrash that self-aware or self-motivated. Basically, post-prison Janie is being pursued by the usual celebritrash followers, including one who makes explicit and dire threats that for some reason Janie never reports to anybody; since her release, Janie’s got nothing to do; so she decides to do stuff in a place (South Dakota) where beautiful celebritrash never ever go. Why there? Because of the usual-for-the-genre cryptic comment she overheard from her mother just before mom’s untimely and exceedingly messy demise. Janie’s quest (nah; too arty; say “search”) leads her to the proverbial Small Town Filled with Dark Secrets and the equally proverbial People Who Are Not What They Seem to Be, and to the inevitable Confrontation with Her Past. All the available clichés are trotted out here, but by George and oh my goodness, they’re handled so neatly and entertainingly that it’s easy to forget that they are clichés. Points and props and a shout-out to Little for that. What she has done is to make Janie not particularly sympathetic – except in the “little girl lost” and “protagonist in danger” clichés of the thriller genre – but so improbable that following her escapades becomes a real pleasure. Janie, you see, is not only an actress in professional (pre-prison) and personal life, assuming and discarding personalities as often as she changes clothes, but is also a kind-of intellectual. She has been schooled in many subjects and has actually retained some knowledge. This leads to some hilarious writing. It is barely possible that celebritrash might need/want to know about some aspects of home decorating, if only to talk to their decorators: “To my left was the salon – well, you might call it the sitting room, but in my opinion any room that contains a recamier can only be called a salon – and to my right was the reception area. There, at a Hepplewhite desk, sat a slender girl with a paperback book…” But it is absurd to imagine celebritrash “trying really hard not to do this math” of the time since his/her/its last cigarette, then instantly doing the math mentally and giving the result in hours, minutes and seconds. And it is even more absurd to imagine celebritrash thinking and writing this way: “I took a long sip of water, because as Sun Tzu said, the general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand, and also the general who hydrates has a nicer complexion.” Or this way: “Hope is asymptotic in its decline.” Or: “I stepped into the kind of room you can feel in your nose hair.” Or: “The house stank of liquored-up Kool-Aid and delusions of invincibility.” Or: “He could be my very own Renfield. If he did a good job, maybe I’d even give him a spider or two.” The writing here makes for a compulsively readable book, one of those “guilty pleasure” novels that are so hard to put down – not because of the plot, whose twists and turns are comparatively mundane, but because of the sheer style of the thing. And if there’s one thing celebritrash know, it’s style. Some authors, clearly including Little, know it, too.
Wendy Corsi Staub has more authorial experience than Little does, but her (+++) The Perfect Stranger is less interesting than Little’s book and not nearly as intriguing a take on the celebritrash world. Partly that is because the celebritrash character here is only one of an ensemble: the book is about five women who meet as bloggers about their breast cancer, not really knowing anything about each other beyond the diagnosis. One of them turns out to be celebritrash – and a gigantic and obvious red herring, to boot. Indeed, the obviousness of the plot and the interactions of the women, and the unsurprising story arc from trust to extreme paranoia, get in the way of reader involvement in this book: you can almost see Staub pointing her author’s finger here and there, telling readers to look in this wrong place and that one and then the other. The wrong places are so obviously wrong that the book creaks instead of pulling readers headlong into a place of danger. The characters never really come alive, either: Alabama housewife Landry Wells, the primary protagonist, is better fleshed out than the others, but neither Kay nor Elena nor Meredith (whose murder in the first pages sets the plot in motion) is ever fully formed in terms of motivation or background. And celebritrash Jaycee, who gets a fair amount of time in the pages to go through typical celebritrash contortions of anomie and hysteria – none of them particularly well explained – is almost as obvious and thorough a type as a subsidiary character who has “next victim” written all over him from the moment he first appears. This is one of those books in which one occasionally lurches into the mind of the murderer, but in this case there is not much there there, since the killer’s motivation is unconvincing and the leave-behinds at the murder scenes – yes, this is also a book in which the killer leaves clues – have no clear connection to the murder motive. Staub’s writing tends to be frustratingly sloppy, as when she makes sure that a character hears everything she is being told by phone except, conveniently, for just a couple of words that would solve everything. That is an old, old trope: “I can tell you who the killer really is. Yes, I know who did it. You won’t believe it when I tell you. I’m going to let you know the truth right now. It’s – arrgghhhh!!!” Well, The Perfect Stranger isn’t quite that bad, but portions of it are in that vein. Staub eventually seems tired of the book, too: once the murderer is identified, she simply drops the story, so readers who, against all odds, have become genuinely interested in the characters, get no sense of “what happened afterwards” at all. A quick read that is most interesting for playing into modern fears of the unknown, Internet style, and for using breast cancer as a significant point of connection among its characters, Staub’s book assembles its “thriller” elements too obviously and creakily to provide readers with more than a brief diversion from their everyday lives – or their obsession, if they have one, with the celebritrash world.