August 02, 2012


Apple Cake: A Recipe for Love. By Julie Paschkis. Harcourt. $16.99.

Ballet Beautiful: Transform Your Body and Gain the Strength, Grace, and Focus of a Ballet Dancer. By Mary Helen Bowers. Da Capo. $20.

      Sometimes a book that is ostensibly for young readers transcends its genre and goes well beyond its intended audience through sheer distinctiveness.  Such a book is Julie Paschkis’ Apple Cake, a short charmer with virtually no plot but with such lovely illustrations and so attractive an overall concept that it can be read – or rather looked at – again and again for the sheer joy of its appearance.  The story is that “beautiful, kind, brilliant Ida” is always so busy reading that she ignores Alfonso, who wants desperately to get her to pay attention to him.  But “what could be more interesting than her book?”  Well, the first time we see Alfonso, he is clutching an amazing bouquet of flowers, larger than he and Ida put together, as beautifully ornamental butterflies as big as a man or woman flutter delicately overhead.  Ida does not respond to the flowers, or to Alfonso’s serenade, so the determined and very graceful suitor – his gouache body all curves and colors – decides to bake Ida a cake.  The rest of the book shows him gathering the ingredients in utterly enthralling ways: riding a horse to a mountaintop to pick apples, cutting the apples with a sword as long as he is tall, getting butter from a sunbeam and sugar from a puffy cloud, hanging upside-down from a high tree branch to drop an egg into a bowl on the ground, diving into the ocean for a pinch of salt, then diving into the batter bowl to stir everything together.  The illustrations could easily be absurd, but they are not – or not only absurd, because they convey so much emotion and are simply gorgeous to see.  The butterflies flit about throughout Alfonso’s cake-baking quest, and in one especially lovely picture, he imagines himself and Ida transformed into butterflies themselves.  There is just the right touch of piquancy in the narrative – for example, Alfonso adds three wishes to the batter, “one bitter and two sweet.”  And when Ida peeks past her book – only her eyes showing above the binding – there is just the right touch of humor, too.  Nothing really “happens” at the end – Ida and Alfonso simply eat the apple cake together – but any reader will know that this is the start of a beautiful friendship, or perhaps much more.  A thoroughly lovely book with a delicious recipe as its foundation (and given in full at the end), Apple Cake is a treat and a joy.

      The beauty in Ballet Beautiful is of a very different type and is aimed squarely at adults.  Anyone familiar with ballet will immediately know that this is not just an exercise book but a book about grace, style and elegance, which ballet dancers have in abundance – and which they work very hard to attain and maintain.  Anyone not knowledgeable about ballet will find out very quickly just how demanding an art form it is, and just what it takes to assume some of the poses that ballet requires.  Professional ballerina Mary Helen Bowers, formerly with the New York City Ballet, now trains and tones celebrities, several of whom are quoted as endorsing her method – but that is the least interesting part of this book.  The most interesting part is the photographs of the various exercise positions, because Bowers is so poised, so closely in tune with her body, so stylish, that the photos themselves become encapsulations of the art form from which the poses and exercises are drawn.  Unfortunately, this is also the book’s primary weakness and the reason it gets a (+++) rating – and that only for readers who are willing to overlook their own comparative physical imperfections when examining the pictures and considering the Ballet Beautiful approach to toning and fitness.  Bowers tries to be encouraging, urging readers to “try it with me” as she describes some positions and including quotations like this one: “I noticed a change almost immediately when I started Ballet Beautiful.  My body felt different.  My butt and muscles became more toned.  And I discovered muscles that I never knew I had – after two weeks!  The look and feel was [sic] totally different and I felt so proud of my results.”  These comments are surely sincere, as anyone who tries this program for two weeks will find out: these stretches and extensions are hard.  Ballerinas manage to make the long, lithe look seem almost effortless, but Bowers’ forthright introduction to using ballet moves as exercise tools shows just what is involved in creating that illusion.  Only a few readers of Ballet Beautiful are going to end up looking as toned and graceful as Bowers does – it would have been much fairer (although less visually attractive) to have shown photos, perhaps before-and-after ones, of everyday non-celebrities who have tried Bowers’ approach and succeeded at it.  Beyond the fitness routines, the book is straightforward, including some recommended recipes and five “Ballet Beautiful Eating Principles” that all come with exclamation points: “Principle 2: Eat Often!”  “Principle 4: Be Flexible!”  Specific food recommendations are exclamatory, too: “Beware of Sweet Drinks!”  “Don’t Be Afraid of Carbs!”  There is nothing new to learn from the dietary portions of Ballet Beautiful, but they are not the book’s main point.  The fitness routines, which are the book’s main reason for being, are an unconventional approach to toning and shaping, and will certainly be effective for readers who can stick to them.  But just as very few dancers are capable of becoming ballerinas, very few readers who do not look like Bowers will likely have the fortitude and stick-to-itiveness to stay with this program long enough to attain significant results.

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