November 29, 2012
The Other Side of Town. By Jon Agee. Michael di Capua/Scholastic. $17.95.
Cold Snap. By Eileen Spinelli. Illustrated by Marjorie Priceman. Knopf. $17.99.
Lemonade in Winter: A Book about Two Kids Counting Money. By Emily Jenkins. Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
The Berenstain Bears and the Tooth Fairy. By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $3.99.
Dixie Wins the Race. By Grace Gilman. Pictures by Jacqueline Rogers. Harper. $16.99.
A Birthday for Frances. By Russell Hoban. Pictures by Lillian Hoban. Harper. $16.99.
Big Girl Panties. By Fran Manushkin. Illustrated by Valeria Petrone. Robin Corey Books. $7.99.
Box. By John Hutton, M.D. Illustrated by Andrea Kang. Blue Manatee Press. $7.99.
Toast to Counting. By Sandra Gross and Leah Busch. Blue Manatee Press. $7.99.
Pictures are the driving force in all these books, but there are some delightful stories to be had, too. The Other Side of Town is set in New York City and has a traditional New York character, a taxi driver, as narrator. But you know from the start that this is a very odd book: the title is on the back cover, not the front – the front only shows a picture of a strange-looking mustachioed man dressed in a green body suit and carrying a pink briefcase. It turns out that pink and green are favored colors on “the other side of town,” where New York City landmarks have peculiarly different names: the Finkon Tunnel instead of Lincoln Tunnel, the Spankees baseball team instead of the Yankees, roads with spotholes instead of potholes, the Snooklyn Bridge instead of the Brooklyn Bridge, and so on. The little man helps the driver get to the other side of town, but the driver has to find his own way back – and does, with some difficulty. And then it turns out that maybe the other side town of is having more of an influence on the driver’s side than he ever thought. Jon Agee’s book is silly and funny, clearly intended for New Yorkers and people familiar with the city, with plenty of absurdity to leaven what could otherwise be a Twilight Zone sort of experience.
Eileen Spinelli’s Cold Snap takes place in the small town of Toby Mills, which is as different as can be from New York. It is a simple story – rendered charming by Marjorie Priceman’s gouache-on-watercolor-paper illustrations – in which the icicle on General Toby’s statue keeps growing, day after day, while people shiver and knit sweaters and help feed the birds, and a dog begs “for his fuzzy red coat – the one he had balked at wearing before.” With the cold comes wind that “nipped at noses” and “flipped Chip off the creaky schoolyard swing.” The movie theater has heat problems, so it cuts prices in half and urges patrons to bring their own blankets. The mayor works overtime listening to complaints about the weather. The pastor tapes hot-water bottles to his feet so can nap peacefully. It gets colder and colder – until eventually the mayor’s wife comes up with the idea of making a bonfire to warm people up and help them enjoy being together, even in winter. “Everyone had such a warm and cozy time that they forgot all about the cold snap,” which is just the cue that the weather needs to start getting gradually warmer. Cold Snap is pleasant, naïve and just right for reading on days when it seems too chilly to go outside at all
Back in the city, it’s cold, too, with icicles hanging from windowsills and “a mean wind” blowing through the streets. So Pauline and her little brother, John-John, decide to – have a lemonade stand! True, people are staying off the streets; true, it is cold and windy; but the children become increasingly enthusiastic about “lemonade and limeade – and also lemon-limeade!” So they dig up quarters wherever they can find them and head to the corner store to buy lemons, limes, sugar and cups, then home to make the drinks. And thus there are two stories here: the improbable midwinter lemonade stand and the way kids can use and understand money, from the six dollars they spend on ingredients (24 quarters) to the 50 cents they charge per cup. Emily Jenkins keeps the story moving smartly along, as the kids sing, cartwheel and drum to attract attention; G. Brian Karas makes Pauline and John-John adorable and quite determined, and does a fine job showing their concerned parents watching them from a window above. After some price cuts to attract new business, balloons, and increasingly vociferous singing, eventually the pitchers of drinks are empty – but it turns out that the kids spent more money on ingredients than they made selling the drinks, so they learn a little lesson in capitalism even as they have fun and come up with a way to have a happy ending. The explanation of money at the back of the book is a bonus – the story itself, with its unusual blend of amusement and finance, is the real delight.
Money is important in The Berenstain Bears and the Tooth Fairy, too, because Sister Bear is looking forward to getting a quarter when her loose tooth falls out – until she learns that her best friend, Lizzy Bruin, got a whole dollar for her last lost tooth. This is a typical Berenstain Bears book, with gentle lessons about being patient (the tooth just doesn’t want to come out!), comparing yourself with others, and the way costs increase: “The price of gas for our car went up twenty cents just last week!” says Papa. “Maybe the same thing happens with teeth.” The plot here is thinner than in many Berenstain Bears books – to fill it out, Jan and Mike Berenstain have it be Lizzy’s birthday, which means time for a party and games and an eventual solution to Sister Bear’s concern about the tooth taking so much time coming out. The eventual appearance (in a dream) of the Tooth Fairy – a bear with wings and a wand – ensures that, as usual, everything ends happily and with the typical warmth of Berenstain Bears stories.
Berenstain Bears books are sometimes used as “easy readers,” but they are a bit talky, and the sentences are a bit long for kids just learning to read. The “I Can Read!” series provides a better alternative, using familiar characters and easy-to-follow stories to help kids get the hang of reading on their own. Dixie Wins the Race is a typical Level 1 book (“simple sentences for eager new readers”), while A Birthday for Frances is typical for Level 2 (“high-interest stories for developing readers”). This fifth book about Dixie features the pup trying hard to be good while Emma runs a relay race – Dixie knows to sit, stay and cheer, but not to try to run. However, Dixie’s cheering (that is, howling) proves a distraction to everyone, including Emma, leading to a comedy of errors in which Dixie ends up running after all. The Frances book is a new version of one dating back to 1968, in which Frances is jealous of the fact that it is almost birthday time for her little sister, Gloria. Frances produces a series of endearing misspellings (“q-p-m” equals “ice cream”), and despite being angry at Gloria, decides she really wants to give her sister a present. So she gets some allowance money in advance, buys some special candy, and then starts to wonder whether she should actually give it to Gloria or just eat it herself. Frances eventually does the right thing, but not until she has spent some time struggling with her own impulses. Both the Dixie and Frances books have enough storytelling interest and attractive enough pictures to make them good choices for early readers in the 4-8 age range.
Big Girl Panties is a board book for even younger kids – specifically for little girls just making the transition out of diapers (or perhaps for little girls whose parents want them to make that transition). Simple, enthusiastic text by Fran Manushkin (“Happy panties! Snappy panties!”) mixes with a whole series of adorable pictures by Valeria Petrone that show “panties for every single day” (each pair with a day of the week on it), “princess panties that sparkle and shine,” “polka-dot panties” and many more. The little girl goes out of her way to explain that not everyone can wear panties – “No, little baby!” “No, crocodile!” And she shows how grown-up she is by saying that “mommies and grandmas and aunties wear panties,” too. A short, cute, amusingly illustrated book with a simple, well-reinforced message about what it means to be a “big girl,” Big Girl Panties is both an affirmation for girls just past the diaper stage and a teaching tool for ones who are almost but not quite there yet. For little girls – and their parents, too – it is both fun and instructive, and quite enjoyable to look at.
Both boys and girls will get a kick out of the visual impact of two other board books, Box and Toast to Counting. The first of these is a paean to the wonders of the boxes in which gifts are packed. Many parents have experienced this: a child may have initial excitement about a present, then quickly lose interest and start playing with (or in) the box in which the gift came. Why not celebrate that? Pediatrician John Hutton, abetted by some amusing illustrations by Andrea Kang, does just that, as a boy and girl quickly empty out birthday presents from boxes and then find numerous ways to enjoy the boxes themselves: fill them up, dump them out, use one as a drum, draw on them, cut them up to make cardboard masks, turn several of them into a train or a robot, and more. These are clever uses of boxes, and the whole concept of the book is clever as well: it is part of a series called “Baby Unplugged,” intended to provide real-experience-based ideas to counterbalance all the electronics and other technology in so many families’ everyday lives. Toast to Counting is part of a different board-book series, which is called Toast to Baby, and the book by Sandra Gross and Leah Busch has a unique look to it: all the illustrations were made using glass at the authors’ glassmaking studios in Cincinnati. This is a book in which the counting only becomes clear at the very end. What happens – well, nothing happens, but what is shown – is toast. Yes, toast. Toast to which eggs, butter pats and other ingredients are added until, at the end, a plain piece of toast has become an amusing-looking face slightly reminiscent of Groucho Marx’s. After working their magic on the toast, Gross and Busch show, at the back of the book, what they did, and this is where the counting comes in: one piece of toast, two cracked eggs, three pats of butter, and so on. It all adds up to “one new friend,” as the book says – and to some delightful visuals that young children will enjoy looking at again and again, and will probably want to duplicate on their own, using real food (parents, be forewarned!).
Big Nate: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $9.99.
Big Nate: Here Goes Nothing. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $9.99.
Big Nate: Fun Blaster. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $10.99.
Big Nate: In a Class by Himself—Special Edition. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $12.99.
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate, featuring 12-year-old sixth-grader Nate Wright in a series of perpetual misunderstandings brought about by his own lack of self-awareness and his feelings of superiority (to his friends and classmates) and oppression (by his father, big sister and especially his teachers, in particular Mrs. Godfrey), is one of those strips that appeals both to adults and to kids of around Nate’s own age. As a result, it lends itself to collections of daily strip sequences (Big Nate: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? and Big Nate: Here Goes Nothing); to participatory activity books (Big Nate: Fun Blaster); and to illustrated novels written in Nate’s voice and including individual panels from the strip, or sometimes groups of them (Big Nate: In a Class by Himself).
This is unusual versatility for a comic strip, but Nate’s stories hold up surprisingly well in all three formats. The collections of strips are obviously going to be as successful as Peirce’s storytelling and drawing abilities can make them. Big Nate: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? includes strips from November 2007 to June 2008, and Big Nate: Here Goes Nothing includes ones from June 2008 to January 2009, so the two books together provide about 14 months of Nate-isms. These fall into predictable patterns: Nate has a crush on classmate Jenny, which she does not return, instead taking up with super-nice Artur, whom Nate tries to hate but who is so nice that he is impossible to dislike as intensely as Nate wants to dislike him; Nate wants a dog, his sister wants a cat, and their father refuses to get either; Nate’s nerdy friend, Francis, goes through factoid withdrawal when Nate and others stage an intervention to stop Francis from constantly reading out loud from a book of trivia; Nate gets into all sorts of trouble in Mrs. Godfrey’s class; Nate’s school develops a mold problem and has to be closed for remediation, forcing Nate and friends to share space for a while with an arch-rival school; Nate’s goalkeeping in soccer brings his team a big victory; Nate’s uncle, the ne’er-do-well Ted, gets in the way repeatedly; and so on. The specific events do change, but the overall feeling of them does not, as Nate negotiates preteen life with his misconceptions largely intact and with a rather endearing balance of pluses (chess skill, friendliness, sports abilities) and minuses (laziness, self-importance, inability to see himself as others see him).
Big Nate: Fun Blaster is a different sort of book. Part of Nate’s persona is that he is a would-be cartoonist – as was Peirce himself in sixth grade – and this activity book is filled with “Nate’s” own drawings as well as puzzles, coded messages, rhymes to create, speech bubbles in which readers are supposed to guess what Nate would say, word games, design contests and more. Of course, it will be fun only for existing fans of Big Nate, since the whole thing is built on Nate’s personality and the occurrences and characters in the strip. But it will be a lot of fun for preteens who enjoy Nate’s predicaments and want to emulate some of his better qualities – for instance, there are “doodle pages” giving readers a chance to draw their own cartoons, and others offering readers chances to draw characters from the Big Nate strip either imitatively or in their own style.
The “Nate novels” are an interesting hybrid form. Big Nate: In a Class by Himself was the first of these, published in 2010, and it set a style that other Nate books of this type have followed. Nate “writes” a story that goes through a couple of hundred pages, tackling in words the same themes that he deals with in Peirce’s everyday strips, but in narrative form. However, this narrative is very amply illustrated, sometimes with panels from Big Nate, sometimes with “Nate’s” drawings and cartoons, sometimes even with his (bad) poetry – the three poems to Cheez Doodles, his favorite snack, are hilarious. Nate’s level of self-awareness comes through here with lines such as, “I know I have potential. I’m just saving it for something more important than school.” Nate’s adventures in Big Nate: In a Class by Himself are largely occasioned by a fortune-cookie fortune telling him, “Today you will surpass all others,” which Nate therefore tries to do – repeatedly – leading him into trouble again and again, and detention again and again, and failure again and again. But one of the most endearing things about Nate is that however many times he gets knocked down, he comes back up one time more. And sure enough, that is what happens here, in a most unexpected way, leading Nate’s fortune to come true after all and leaving him happy and satisfied at the end – although what satisfies him would not make most other sixth-graders happy. But that is the whole point: Nate both is and is not a sixth-grade “everyman.” As for what makes the new edition of this book a Special Edition: it contains a 16-page bonus section called “Holiday Hullabaloo” that includes a “Dear Santa” page from Nate, “Gina’s Grinch List” from the super-brainy classmate with whom Nate constantly fights, a mix-and-match game, and some Christmastime panels from 2004. This small additional section certainly does not make the book a must-have for anyone who already owns Big Nate: In a Class by Himself. But for those who do not have the book, why not buy the Special Edition? It costs the same as the regular version and does offer at least a bit more of Nate’s thoughts, feelings and antics – which is what Big Nate, in all its various book forms, is intended to do.
Faces from the Past: Forgotten People of North America. By James M. Deem. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.
My First Day: What Animals Do on Day One. By Steve Jenkins & Robin Page. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.
An engrossing mixture of history, detective work and art, Faces from the Past is packed with information on people who lived many thousands of years ago – or, in some cases, a little more than a century ago – and who died unknown, vanished for many, many years, then were resurrected through the work of people with titles such as “archeological-crimes investigator,” the wonders of modern technology, and the old-fashioned skill of sculptors. It is a book about lives and deaths distant in time, of people far from famous, and of the clues to their lives that scientists painstakingly assemble when old bones are uncovered by excavations, grave robbery or natural forces. A man who sailed with the French explorer La Salle in the 1680s seems to live again after a CT scan and some excellent sculpting work by Amanda Danning show what he looked like when alive. Replica skulls of Monacan Indians from the early 17th century are fleshed out by sculptor Sharon Long until they seem to look around and contemplate the new era into which they have emerged. The stories of these and other people from long ago are fascinating, the ways their remains were discovered are highly intriguing, the excavations and other methods by which the bones came into modern times are amazing to read about and to see (the book’s photos are uniformly excellent), and the pictures of modern archeologists carefully exhuming bits of the past provide tremendous insight into the way history is rediscovered and brought back to life. James M. Deem’s prose makes this factual book read much of the time like a story: “They were the poorest people in town when they were buried in the almshouse cemetery. The oldest of them died in the almshouse hospital or dormitory, the youngest in the nursery at birth.” “Sometimes, though, even when written information was available in diaries or journals, church records, court documents, and newspaper accounts, certain people were not respected enough or considered important enough to have their stories told. And sometimes people were simply erased from history altogether.” Deem takes readers to “the forgotten burying ground at Schuyler Flatts” (1750-1790), to the ruins of Fort Craig in New Mexico (deactivated 1885), to Spirit Cave in Nevada (where the remains of a man who lived more than 9,000 years ago were found), and to many other sites where archeologists, anthropologists and other explorers of the past – amateur and professional – delve into mysteries left behind by long-ago deaths, long-ago battles, and long-ago lives of all kinds. Faces from the Past brings history vividly to life while telling and showing readers the remarkable work that goes into reconstructing the remains of people who died so many ages ago.
My First Day starts at the opposite end of life, with brief descriptions of what happens to animals when they are first born. This proves to be quite amazing: even though the book is written in simple language, parents as well as children are likely to learn quite a bit from it. In text by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, with collage illustrations by Jenkins, readers learn the first-day experiences of some well-known animals (tiger, zebra, giraffe) and some little-known ones (kiwi, sifaka, megapode). A baby Darwin’s frog says, “On my first day, I hopped out of my father’s mouth.” A tiny parent bug says that “my mother did something most insect parents don’t. She stayed close and protected me – and my brothers and sisters.” A baby Mexican free-tailed bat comments that “my cry and scent led [my mother] right to me.” A baby capybara says, “On my first day, I made a splash! I could swim and dive when I was just a few hours old.” The charm of the illustrations and the simple-but-accurate recounting of what happens to baby animals right after birth are complemented at the back of the book by three pages giving more detail on each of the 22 animals shown, including, for example, the fact that a wildebeest calf weighs 35 pounds at birth and grows to 600 pounds, while a hatchling leatherback sea turtle is only two inches long but grows to a length of seven feet and a weight of 1,500 pounds. As in Faces from the Past, the information in My First Day is scientifically accurate, carefully researched and highly interesting in its own right – and is presented so well and with such élan that readers, young and old alike, will absorb it without even thinking about how much they are learning.
Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons. By Peter Trachtenberg. Da Capo. $24.
Best Food Writing 2012. Edited by Holly Hughes. Da Capo. $16.
Dog Company: The Boys of Pointe du Hoc—The Rangers Who Accomplished D-Day’s Toughest Mission and Led the Way across Europe. By Patrick K. O’Donnell. Da Capo. $26.
One of the best things about giving books as gifts is how closely they can be tailored to a recipient’s personal tastes. There really is something out there for everybody, and the sensitive gift-giver will figure out what will especially delight a particular recipient, then match person with present, and end up offering something that will continue to be meaningful and enjoyable well after the holiday season. Peter Trachtenberg’s memoir of dual love affairs, with his wife and with his cat, will certainly not be to all tastes, but its sensitive writing, its focus on love and loss and the way the two sometimes merge, will intrigue people trying to come to terms with their own relationships (human and animal) and interested in a journey that proves as enlightening as it is entertaining. This is not to say that it is all entertaining, by any means. The book is a journey on multiple levels, the surface one being that Trachtenberg’s cat, Biscuit, goes missing, and Trachtenberg seeks her over a distance of, eventually, 700 miles. But the journey is more than physical, as the search leads Trachtenberg into his own past, into contemplation of the many mysteries of cats, into a search for the meaning of love as it applies not only to human-animal relationships but also to human-human ones. What gives Trachtenberg’s search a large part of its impetus is that Biscuit disappears just as Trachtenberg finds his marriage disintegrating, a state of affairs that the author recalls with considerable intensity, “but, as Freud showed us, there is such a thing as an excess of vividness.” Trachtenberg intersperses scenes from his marriage, his love life, and his cat search with sudden dips into history: “An early description of the domestic cat is this one by one Bartholomew de Glanville, written in 1240: ‘A beast of uncertain hair and color. …And he is a full lecherous in youth, swift, pliant, and merry…’” Like most memoirs, Trachtenberg’s is ultimately about his search for himself, not just for Biscuit or for love or for what has happened between him and his wife, whom he designates simply as “F.” Along the way, Trachtenberg meditates on the effects of Skype, on Schrödinger’s cat, on the Catskill Mountains’ origin in the Devonian era of 350 million years ago. The book does not build to a grand conclusion, but ends as it has progressed, as a slice of life. Another Insane Devotion is for readers who want to immerse themselves in life, love and felines.
Food fanciers will find much that is delectable in Best Food Writing 2012, a book whose eight sections encompass just about every angle from which food can be viewed and skewed with the exception of an actual cookbook. Holly Hughes arranges the book into “Food Fights,” “Farm to Table,” “Home Cooking,” “Foodways,” “Dude Food,” “The Family Table,” “Someone’s in the Kitchen,” and “Personal Tastes,” although that final title could really stand for every article here: all the discussions are matters of personal taste. The writing comes not only from expected sources such as Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and Edible Manhattan, but also from Garden & Gun, Memoir Journal and Texas Monthly, among other sources. There are 50 essays in all, on subjects so wide-ranging that the section titles only hint at them. From “Pastoral Romance” by Brett Cunningham, for example: “We have no history of a food system that does not depend on oppression of some sort, and it seems unlikely that we will be able to create a future system that avoids this fate. …[I]f a central goal of the movement is a more equitable food system, then the notion that we once had it right is deeply problematic.” From “The Pastrami Dilemma” by John Birdsall: “The owners of these three pastrami factories, kind of like dons in a benign pastrami mafia, each control their own turf.” From “Truffle in Paradise” by John Gutekanst: “As our last night in Italy winds down and Bruno’s pathetic karaoke version of ‘Baby, We Can Talk All Night’ wafts across the disco, I think about our unique tartufo adventure. Was there really danger or impending doom at the hands of the truffle mafia?” This is food writing that goes beyond food itself, that sometimes deals with the intricacies of food preparation and consumption but even more often discusses what food means, what it stands for, where it fits into life rather than where it fits into our mouths and bellies. It is for readers who find the contemplation of food in a larger context particularly delicious.
And for readers who remain enthralled by the military history of World War II, there continue to be some fine and finely detailed books available, such as Patrick K. O’Donnell’s Dog Company. This is about D Company of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, which joined other Ranger units in climbing the 90-foot-high sheer cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day to disable and destroy the German guns pointing down on the beach from above. The 68-man company lost half its members in the assault, and the survivors had no rest, helping lead the charge inland to Germany, through the Battle of the Bulge and beyond. Books like Dog Company are, inevitably, 100% devoted to celebrations of heroism, to uncomplicated people doing great deeds in an incontrovertibly just war. Portraits of the men are fleshed out enough to make their reality apparent, but not enough to detract from the hagiographic approach. O’Donnell humanizes the members of Dog Company by discussing the five-foot-three sniper who was a professional tap dancer, the company prankster and his practical jokes, the soldier who broke both legs in a parachute training exercise and thereafter walked like a duck, the sergeant who scaled the cliffs despite being hit in the side by a machine-gun bullet, and others. He talks not only about the well-known D-Day battle but also about other, nearly forgotten ones, such as the fight for Hill 400 in Germany’s Hürtgen Forest: “Rain and fog, dense trees, deep ravines, and the ever-present shelling transformed the Hürtgen into a dark green hell.” And O’Donnell even ties Dog Company’s heroics to more-recent times: President Reagan thanked the Rangers in a speech at Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, the 40th anniversary of D-Day. There is plenty of action here, plenty of detail about battles major and minor, plenty of heroism to contemplate, and plenty of material to keep readers fascinated by the events of World War II interested well beyond the holiday season.
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. SDG. $18.99.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3; Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by Bruno Weil. Tafelmusik Media. $16.99.
It may come as a surprise to home listeners and concertgoers to learn that there is any sort of “Beethoven problem.” After all, his works, particularly the symphonies, are ubiquitous, performed just about everywhere by just about everyone, available in every format from 78-rpm records to cell-phone ring tones.
That’s the problem. How is it possible to make these works sound fresh, to keep them as interesting and surprising, as dynamic and dramatic, as they were in their own time, when they are now heard everywhere, all the time, under pretty much all sets of circumstances? These two new CDs provide one answer: perform the music on the instruments for which Beethoven wrote it. That is, bring the concept of historic performance practice, long accepted for Baroque music and gradually making its way into other eras, into the Beethoven symphonies.
When well done, this approach proves remarkable – as it is in the CD of Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 played by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner. This live Carnegie Hall performance from November 2011 is nothing short of revelatory. Horsehair bows and gut strings significantly change the sound of violins; natural horns and trumpets produce sounds that pierce the air differently from those of modern instruments – and then fall back more readily into the ensemble; the occasional strain of producing the correct notes at the proper volume comes through as a positive thing, not a negative, showing just how revolutionary Beethoven’s music was and why some of it was initially deemed unplayable. John Eliot Gardiner also uses the exaggerated tempos that Beethoven himself indicated he wanted, with the result, for example, that the introduction to the first movement of Symphony No. 7 stretches out and out, while the movement’s main section really dashes along – and the contrast is pronounced between the symphony’s scherzo and its trio sections. The sound world of these performances is distinctly different from the one that modern concertgoers expect, and that difference is all to the music’s benefit. The introduction of trombones into the finale of Symphony No. 5 here creates a very distinct change in the sound of the orchestra – the instruments were previously used in sacred choral music but not in symphonies, and they give the finale a distinct overtone of “last trumpet” character (German speakers do in fact expect a trombone, not a trumpet, to herald the Day of Judgment). These are outstanding performances on every level – sonically, in ensemble, in the emergence of individual voices and their quick reabsorption into the orchestra, in tempo choice and in overall concept. They are indeed “revolutionary and romantic” readings, quite unlike typical modern ones of Beethoven, and they solve the “Beethoven problem” brilliantly by presenting the composer’s works as he intended audiences to hear them – a guise in which, even today, they still startle and amaze.
Bruno Weil and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra also offer an original-instrument approach to Beethoven, and create a different sort of context by juxtaposing the “Eroica” symphony of 1804 with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony, first played in 1833, six years after Beethoven’s death. Weil’s Beethoven is not as startling as Gardiner’s, its tempos being more in line with modern expectations and its entrances and exits of instruments being smoother and less craggy: the Tafelmusik players are almost too comfortable with their instruments. Nevertheless, it is quite clear how this first large-scale Beethoven symphony builds in ways never before attempted, how it scales heights in its first two movements that surpass anything that came before, and how Beethoven makes unprecedented demands on orchestra players – the horns in particular – that he was to expand even further in later works. Like the Gardiner performances, those by Weil are live recordings (dating to May 2012), and there is a sense of palpable involvement and excitement in them, although in both these recordings the audience is commendably silent. The addition of the Mendelssohn symphony to the “Eroica” is an interesting experiment that is not wholly successful. The reason for the pairing is not really clear: the works are very different, and even though Weil gives the “Italian” symphony somewhat more-stately pacing than it generally receives, especially in the first movement, this is by no means a companion piece to the “Eroica” or a work on the same scale or of comparable seriousness. The CD certainly shows – and perhaps this is part of the intent – just how much Beethoven changed music, for the “Eroica” itself is a dramatic break with the past, and Mendelssohn’s “Italian” would have been quite inconceivable in the years before Beethoven’s symphonies. The performances here are skilled and diligent, and if they do not quite soar in the way that Gardiner’s do, that is more a testimony to Gardiner’s superb approach than a criticism of Weil’s somewhat more-straightforward one. And Weil certainly provides another very fine answer to the “Beethoven problem,” not only using original instruments but also showing Beethoven’s writing in its more-or-less-contemporary context, giving listeners a welcome chance to hear the “Eroica” as a living, breathing, highly influential work, not as a museum piece or one heard too frequently to be fully appreciated.
Gershwin: Fantasy on “Porgy and Bess”; Bernstein: Serenade after Plato’s Symposium; Waxman: Carmen Fantasie. Rachel Kolly d’Alba, violin; Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire conducted by John Axelrod. Warner. $18.99.
The American Trumpet: Music of Leo Eylar, Steven Rouse, Robert Starer, Stephen Sondheim, John Carbon, William Thomas McKinley and David Froom. Jeffrey Silberschlag, trumpet; Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.
Mark-Anthony Turnage: On Opened Ground; Texan Tenebrae; Lullaby for Hans; Riffs and Refrains; Mambo, Blues and Tarantella. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Lawrence Power, violin; Markus Stenz, conductor (Ground); Marin Alsop, conductor (Texan); Vladimir Jurowski, conductor (Lullaby); Michael Collins, clarinet; Marin Alsop, conductor (Riffs); Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Vladimir Jurowski, conductor (Mambo). LPO. $16.99.
Tan Dun: Concerto for Orchestra; Symphonic Poem on Three Notes; Orchestral Theatre. Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tan Dun. Naxos. $9.99.
A fantasy, a serenade and a fantasie add up to “American Serenade,” apparently, since that is the title of the new Warner CD featuring violinist Rachel Kolly d’Alba. However you mix them together, the works are a study in contrasts, and are very well played – although the three are somewhat out of keeping with each other thematically and expressively. The Gershwin fantasy is actually an arrangement by Alexander Courage (1919-2008), and it includes a number of the “greatest hits” themes of Porgy and Bess, just as the very well-known Carmen Fantasy by Franz Waxman (1906-1967) contains quite a bit of instantly recognizable music from Bizet’s last and greatest opera. These two works are virtuosic and on the “popularizing” side of things, giving Kolly d’Alba plenty of display opportunities while also allowing her to dip into a sort of swooning emotionalism – a surface-level thing, true, but affectingly communicated. Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium (1954) is made of sterner stuff, or at any rate more-serious stuff. A five-movement work that seems to call for three soloists – on violin, harp and percussion – in reality it uses the violin most prominently and has the effect of a violin concerto. But this is a concerto with narrative purpose, based on the varied statements in praise of love made by different characters in Plato’s work: Phaedrus, Pausanias, Aristophanes, Eryximachus, Agathon, Socrates and Alcibiades. The philosophical underpinning makes this a deeper work than the other two here, and in fact it helps to know Plato’s dialogue to get the full flavor of Bernstein’s music. Kolly d’Alba and conductor John Axelrod do not treat the piece with any particular depth, but it is well-played and comes across as an interesting contrast to the two lighter works here – and lasts as long as both of them put together.
The works on a Naxos CD called The American Trumpet are mostly short, and they are varied enough so the disc will be of interest primarily to lovers of the instrument’s sound and of modern American classical composers – or sort-of-classical ones, such as Stephen Sondheim. He is heard here in two Sweeney Todd excerpts from 1979, arranged by Jeffrey Silberschlag and orchestrated by William Thomas McKinley, himself represented by the interesting and witty Miniature Portraits (1988), the longest work on the CD. Silberschlag is not only the soloist but also the dedicatee of a number of these pieces, and the fact that conductor Gerard Schwarz is himself a trumpeter guarantees idiomatic and ebullient performances throughout. One of the Naxos re-releases of music originally heard on Delos, this CD was recorded in 1994; thus, nothing here is later than that date, but several pieces were brand-new when the recording was made. They include Leo Eylar’s bright Dance Suite, David Froom’s Serenade, and the revised version of Steven Rouse’s Enigma-Release from The Avatar (originally written in 1951). Also here are Invocation (1962) by Robert Starer and the warm and attractive Notturno (1944) by John Carbon. This is a mixed bag of music, to be sure, but it is all very well played and constitutes an enjoyable survey of some American composers’ recent thinking about the trumpet.
The prolific Mark-Anthony Turnage thinks in multiple directions and multiple forms, and as Composer in Residence with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (2005-2010) created a wide variety of works for orchestra with and without soloists. Five of his pieces are collected on a new LPO disc featuring various soloists and conductors – “variety” seems to fit pretty much everything Turnage does. On Opened Ground (2000-2001) is a viola concerto, Riffs and Refrains (2003) is a concerto for clarinet, and Mambo, Blues and Tarantella (2007) is one for violin – and the only one of the three written while Turnage was in residence with the LPO. So this CD is really built around the concerto format, with Turnage handling each of the works differently and to different effect. The two non-concerto pieces here do both date to Turnage’s residency: Lullaby for Hans (for string orchestra) was written in 2005 and Texan Tenebrae in 2009. There is a certain facility and slickness to Turnage’s music that keeps it approachable at the cost of a degree of superficiality. Most of it is strongly influenced by jazz, which is scarcely unusual in classical compositions nowadays but in Turnage’s case is more apparent than in many other composers’. Marin Alsop, a strong advocate of modern American music and therefore quite familiar with jazz inflections, does a particularly good job in the two works she conducts, but Markus Stenz and Vladimir Jurowski also handle their contributions very well. All the soloists do a fine job, and the orchestra is clearly very comfortable with Turnage’s style and handles all the works very admirably indeed. Turnage’s music does not tend to stay with a listener long after it ends, but much of it is quite pleasant while actually being performed.
The music of Tan Dun tends to have more aural staying power. Still best known to many listeners for his score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Tan is far more than a film composer, and continues to explore new sonic worlds that combine such influences as John Cage, Philip Glass and Steve Reich with classical training and frequent reminiscences of his upbringing in Hunan, China. The earliest work on Naxos’ new CD, Orchestral Theatre (1990), is the most closely connected to that upbringing, including considerable amounts of folk music and the folk-music sound along with Western-style orchestration and forays into atonality. The other two works here are both new, written in 2012. Symphonic Poem on Three Notes has a fairly ordinary musical arc – nature to industry and back to nature – but some intriguing aural effects, thanks to Tan’s well-known fondness for sonic sources not usually considered instrumental. In this case, he uses wind, stones and the brake drums of cars to contrast the natural world with the industrialized one. Concerto for Orchestra is a tribute of sorts to Marco Polo, its four movements recalling elements of his journey to the East while also trying to reflect his imagined spiritual progress: “Light of Timespace,” “Scent of Bazaar,” “The Raga of Desert” and “The Forbidden City.” It is “Raga,” the third and longest movement, that is most effective at scene-painting, but Tan manages to convey exoticism and the spirit of exploration throughout. He is also an effective interpreter of his own work, which the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra plays quite well. After a while, Tan’s music starts to pale a bit, and the works on this CD are of more interest when listened to one at a time than when heard straight through. But they will certainly be attractive to listeners interested in a composer who manages to meld Eastern and Western influences with an unusual degree of facility and, often, felicity.
November 21, 2012
Annie and Helen. By Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrated by Raul Colón. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills. By Renée Watson. Pictures by Christian Robinson. Random House. $17.99.
Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird. By Stephanie Spinner. Illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf. $17.99.
Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama. By Selina Alko. Knopf. $16.99.
Room for the Baby. By Michelle Edwards. Illustrated by Jana Christy. Random House. $17.99.
Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town. By Warren St. John. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Even in the few dozen pages of a picture book for ages 4-8, it is possible for an author to communicate a great deal of engagement, pathos and real-world information, all of which Deborah Hopkinson provides in Annie and Helen. This is the latest of many books about the relationship between the young Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, and it is quite an extraordinary introduction to an even more extraordinary story. Hopkinson keeps the words simple but affecting: “Helen was like a small, wild bird, throwing herself against the bars of a dark and silent cage.” Hopkinson intersperses her narration with excerpts from Sullivan’s own writings, and Raul Colón’s sensitive illustrations effectively imagine the facial expressions and body language of teacher, student and the few other characters in the book. The difficulties Sullivan encountered in teaching Helen are clearly explained: “She didn’t understand that each motion [made in spelling out words in sign language] was a letter, that letters made up words, and that words could be names for things.” But after the famous breakthrough when Helen understands the word “water,” Helen learns remarkably quickly, and Hopkinson explains some of Helen’s further education and the delight she took in learning: a Colón illustration showing Helen in four poses, leaping into the air and landing again on the ground, is tremendously expressive of the joy of discovery. The book ends when Helen, during a trip, is able for the first time to write a letter to her mother – and the letter, from 1887, is on the story’s final page. A tale that remains touching, heartwarming and uplifting no matter how often it is told, the story of Helen Keller is beautifully presented in Annie and Helen – in a way that hopefully will inspire young readers to learn more about it from other sources.
Florence Mills is as little-known to most people as Helen Keller is well-known. A short-lived singer and stage performer (1895-1927, although the book gives her birth year as 1896), whose voice was never recorded and whose performances were never filmed, Mills was famous in her own time, an era of deep-set segregation. Mills was black – Duke Ellington composed the song Black Beauty as a tribute to her – and she was a trailblazer in many ways: the first black woman photographed for a full spread in Vanity Fair, she was offered a leading role in the Ziegfeld Follies and would have been the famous show’s first black star if she had not turned Flo Ziegfeld down. A very poor girl, daughter of former slaves, Mills used her tremendous talent first to pull herself up in the world and then to give others of her race a chance to perform as well. The best thing about Harlem’s Little Blackbird is that the book reaches out to children of all races: although African-Americans can be justifiably proud of Mills, it scarcely matters (except historically) that Mills was black and that Renée Watson and Christian Robinson are as well. This is not to minimize the discrimination and racial troubles that Mills had to overcome – but this is, at heart (and it is full of heart), a book about a young person with talent learning to harness and develop her abilities, overcome the difficulties of her external circumstances, and succeed, to a very great extent, on her own terms. It is an uplifting tale that does not try to hammer home politically correct messages about the evils of racism and discrimination – instead, it tells the story of a little girl who made it big in a life cut tragically short by tuberculosis (a fact not mentioned in the book). More surprising than the omission of the illness that caused Mills’ death is the fact that the book does not give her nickname. It was not “blackbird” – the book’s title comes from a line in one of Mills’ songs. No, what Florence Mills was called was “the Queen of Happiness.”
There is a real bird at the center of a more-recent real-life story in Stephanie Spinner’s Alex the Parrot. Alex was a year-old African grey parrot bought at a pet shop in 1977 by graduate student Irene Pepperberg, who then spent 30 years demonstrating the remarkable intelligence of African greys – something taken for granted now but deemed out of the question just a few years ago, when “most people thought that animals were just barely intelligent” and scientists believed that learning correlated strictly with brain size, which would mean that African greys’ walnut-size brains could not be good for much beyond management of basic bodily functions. Pepperberg spent years teaching Alex and finding ingenious ways to determine that he really did understand what he was talking about – for instance, he invented the word “banerry” to describe an apple (banana + cherry). Alex, shown by Meilo So engaged in many forms of learning, had real personality and was no more patient with repetitive testing than are young children, so he rebelled by sometimes ignoring his trainers or deliberately giving the wrong answer. Spinner’s book is about progress in science and about the way entrenched ideas sometimes need a single champion, or just a few, to question them. Spinner introduces Roger Fouts, who taught Washoe the chimp sign language, and Francine Patterson, who did the same for Koko the gorilla – Fouts and Patterson were among the few scientists who knew that animals other than humans could speak and understand words. But Pepperberg’s work with the bossy, impatient Alex was something entirely different, and her work with another African grey, Griffin, after Alex’s death in 2007, has extended our knowledge of animal communication further. The subject of Alex the Parrot is an unusual one in a book for young readers; just as Alex was no ordinary bird, this is no ordinary book.
Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama is more straightforward and more to be expected at this time of year, but Selina Alko’s (+++) tale still has its share of real-world pleasures. It is, as the title makes obvious, the story of a religiously mixed family: “Our tree is crowned with one shiny star./ And we light eight candles for Hanukkah.” The whole book consists of ways in which the family mixes Jewish and Christian winter traditions, sometimes in quite charming ways: “Mama scatters golden gelt under the tree./ Daddy hooks candy canes on menorah branches.” The unnamed girl who narrates the story helps with the decorating, the singing “about Maccabees and the manger,” the cooking, the gift-giving and the storytelling: “Uncle Zachary recalls the miracle of the oil./ Aunt Faith tells about the animals in the manger.” Everything is pleasant, warm and cooperative, even during post-holiday cleanup and a look ahead at the new year and “all the other holidays following/ Hanukkah and Christmas.” There is not, though, a single forthright mention of the religious underpinnings of the two winter holidays (of which the Christian one is far more important to members of that faith than the Jewish one is to Jews; the primary Jewish holidays occur at other times of the year). The book is really for families comparable to the one invented by Alko, who already know the differing traditions and will enjoy reading about inventive ways to mix celebrations together.
Room for the Baby, another (+++) story with a strong Jewish flavor, also uses an invented family to present real-life circumstances. Here the subject is the soon-to-come new baby (announced by Mom “one fine spring morning, as we buttered our Passover matzos”), and the need to clear enough space for a crib in the family’s sewing room. The book is also about recycling, because what is all over the room is old material, such as worn-out sheets, that Mom has been meaning to work on but has never quite gotten to remake. Now, spurred by her pregnancy, she makes “dozens of soft diapers for the baby” and then some more for a neighbor’s coming granddaughter; then she makes clothing, and “that autumn on Rosh Hashanah…Mom had stacks of tiny sleepers and onesies and little shirts ready for the baby.” And sure enough, neighbors admire the clothing and want some for their own families, and Mom obliges – she is clearly an excellent and very fast-working seamstress. There is no particular reason for the family to be Jewish in Michelle Edwards’ and Jana Christy’s book, but Jewish holidays are used to mark the progress of the seasons and the pregnancy, and the new baby, a girl, is born on the third night of Hanukkah. And in a final pleasant twist to a very pleasant story, after the boy narrator gives away a last batch of unneeded items to make a little more space in the sewing room, those items return in modified form as baby gifts made by all the neighbors for whom Mom had made clothing. It is a gentle and entirely suitable ending for a sweet book.
Real-world stories for young readers are of course not limited to picture books. Outcasts United is a (+++) adaptation by Warren St. John of his adult book, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference. The subtitle has been changed for younger readers, ages 8-12, and the story has been shortened and simplified, but it remains essentially the same: the Fugees, a youth soccer team made up of refugees from around the world, have a dramatic season in the town of Clarkston, Georgia, under the inspirational leadership of their tough coach, Luma Mufleh. The team members are from various war-torn countries; Mufleh herself is Jordanian, although educated in the United States. Although the story is essentially true, it follows the fictional arc of many, many sports-as-bonding stories: team members learn how to behave on and off the field, find out how to start making new lives for themselves in their adopted country, and learn to get along with each other and their coach; and everyone matures and learns something about himself or herself. There are debates and disputes – about hair cutting, about bonding with young people, teammates or not, from the same country, vs. bonding with the team as a whole. There is slow progress with learning English and understanding what the coach wants; there are comical or almost-comical moments, such as the Under Thirteen team doing laps only when in Luma’s line of sight, but otherwise walking and chatting while she cannot see them; and there are, of course, the games, some of which inevitably go better than others. And when one goes well, “Her players, some of them still strangers to each other, were high-fiving and shouting joyfully at the sky as they ran toward her on the bench.” The whole book is both heartwarming and obvious from start to finish; despite the many problems and all the heart-tugging, or perhaps because of them, it reads almost like a fairy tale come true – one with sports at its center.
Star Wars: A Galactic Pop-Up Adventure. By Matthew Reinhart. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $36.99.
Justin Bieber: Just Getting Started. Harper. $21.99.
One Direction: Behind the Scenes. Harper. $10.99.
Charlotte’s Web: 60th Anniversary Edition. By E.B. White. Pictures by Garth Williams. Harper. $8.99.
Goodnight Moon Cloth Book. By Margaret Wise Brown. Pictures by Clement Hurd. Harper. $14.99.
Warriors: Omen of the Stars #s 1-3. By Erin Hunter. Harper. $16.99.
The Wildwood Chronicles, Book I: Wildwood. By Colin Meloy. Illustrations by Carson Ellis. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $8.99.
The Wildwood Chronicles, Book II: Under Wildwood. By Colin Meloy. Illustrations by Carson Ellis. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Books of Beginning, Book One: The Emerald Atlas. By John Stephens. Yearling. $7.99.
Books of Beginning, Book Two: The Fire Chronicle. By John Stephens. Knopf. $17.99.
Vegan Eats World. By Terry Hope Romero. Da Capo. $35.
Sometimes books that are already pretty good can become very good simply by virtue of their usefulness as gifts – especially at this time of year. Figuring out what to give that the recipient will appreciate for some time after gift-giving season itself is not always easy, and with so many electronic devices and forms of instant gratification competing for young people’s attention, finding a “mere” book that will sustain young readers’ interest is by no means simple. But there are various approaches that adults can take to this perplexing situation. There is, for example, an electronic component to Star Wars: A Galactic Pop-Up Adventure, in the form of a battery-operated lightsaber that actually changes color. The fact that it has not all that much to do with the book is, in the gift-giving context, largely irrelevant, because the book also has a very strong visual element. It is, in fact, one of the cleverest and best-designed pop-ups books to come along in several years, with huge three-dimensional foldouts throughout and smaller ones within and around the big ones – a sort of wheels-within-wheels approach that is made doubly attractive by the sheer skill of Matthew Reinhart’s designs and the astonishment they evoke. The book’s weakness is the story, since all it really does is rehash the by-now-well-known elements of the Star Wars movie sequence, with different pop-ups illustrating different specific events and characters from the films. But this is not a book to be read so much as one to be gawked at, and fans of Star Wars will indeed gawk at the wizardry of the design, which is little short of spectacular. The book is designated for ages seven and up, but somewhat “up” is probably best, since the unfolding and refolding of the pages needs to be done with some care to preserve their elaborate and very carefully made designs. This is a book to be looked at again and again.
The same is true in a different way for two (+++) pop-music picture books, Justin Bieber: Just Getting Started and One Direction: Behind the Scenes. Strictly for fans and not pretending to have any other reason for being, both books will give those fans just what they want: lots of photos, very little text and no information of any consequence. Just who put the Bieber book together is not even clear, since its design is attributed to Taylor Cope Wallace but it contains the line, “Justin Bieber asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work,” which means he most certainly did not write it. In any case, fans will scarcely care, since the writing – on subjects such as Bieber meeting Kobe Bryant and singing for President Obama – really has little to recommend it. But, again, the writing is not the point: what matters here are all the photos, which come with such captions as “I’m living proof that dreams do come true. Work hard. Pray. Believe.” Bieber fans – the book calls them “Beliebers” – will love it, just as fans of the five members of One Direction will love the way “the boys open their photo albums and share their childhood stories,” which include such comments as, “At one stage I wanted to become a boxer” and “I’ve always been the loud one in my house.” A shorter book than Justin Bieber: Just Getting Started, and less expensive because it is a paperback rather than a hardcover, One Direction: Behind the Scenes is cut very much from the same cloth, complete with such comments as “It’s crazy how close we are” and “We all wanted to keep our individuality.” Unlike the Bieber book, this one does have an author listed (“text by Sarah Delmege”), and in fact there is more verbiage here, including some quizzes and trivia offerings for fans. Nevertheless, in both books, the words are entirely subservient to the pictures, and it is the visual elements that will bring existing fans back to these gift offerings time and again.
Now, for a present where the words do matter, gift-givers can scarcely do better than the 60th-anniversary edition of Charlotte’s Web, the (++++) E.B. White tale that is as charming, heartwarming and endearingly sad as it was in 1952. The new edition includes the classic cover and all the other illustrations by Garth Williams, and a good thing, too, since they are inextricably linked to the story of Wilbur the pig, Charlotte the spider, and all the other delightful and memorable characters. Adults who remember the book fondly but have not read it recently may be surprised to find that it is quite short – only 184 pages. But its memorability and emotional connection far outstrip its length, and even without pop-ups, foldouts, or full-color photos, the book exudes attractiveness and warmth that will enliven many a wintry day and stay with its new readers – and older ones who reconnect with it – for a very long time to come.
For a classic gift for the very youngest children, from newborns on up (but not very far up), there is a wonderfully cuddly version of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s 1947 classic, Goodnight Moon, available this season. This (++++) offering really is a “cuddle book,” made of soft polyester, only eight pages long (including the front and back covers), excerpting what is already a very short and enduringly charming book by showing some of its words and a few of its pictures printed on soft cloth that looks attractive, feels comfortable and comforting, and is very easy to clean if baby spits up or otherwise dirties it. The “great green room” is as attractive as it has always been, and even though the text is much truncated, very young children will absorb enough of the book’s quiet charm from this shortened version to be ready, when they are not much older, for the full-length Goodnight Moon, which shows every sign of becoming as much of a classic for today’s kids as it has been for children for the last 65 years.
And then there is the opposite of a book with few words: another approach to book gifts that will keep recipients interested is simply to make sure there are lots of pages to read and lots of adventures to be had. Where White’s book is best read slowly and absorbed with thoughtfulness, more-modern fantasies tend to proceed at much more of a breakneck pace. That is certainly the case for the first three books in the sequence called Warriors: Omen of the Stars, by the four-person team collectively known as “Erin Hunter” (authors Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry and Tui Sutherland, plus editor Victoria Holmes). The (+++) gift set of these books includes paperbacks of The Fourth Apprentice, Fading Echoes and Night Whispers, all of them dealing with the latest prophecy affecting the warrior cats and their clans – in this case, a mysterious prediction that Jayfeather, Lionblaze and Dovepaw will hold the stars’ power in their paws. The usual twists and turns of Erin Hunter books are all here, with the usual sprawling settings and very large number of not-always-highly-differentiated characters. This gift set is best for fans of the Warriors books who, for some reason, have not yet encountered this particular story arc, which in fact has already moved several books beyond the three packaged here. But that may be good news from a gift-giving perspective: readers who like the Warriors tales and find themselves engrossed in these three novels will, after finishing them, have additional ones to which they can look forward.
Of course, it is not necessary to buy a prepackaged gift set in order to find an attractive multi-book present for a young reader attracted by fantasy and adventure. The Wildwood Chronicles and The Books of Beginning are both epic tales for preteens and young teenagers, filled with wonder and adventure, and so well-written and well-paced that they deserve (++++) ratings. Like Warriors: Omen of the Stars, the books by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis and by John Stephens are only parts of longer series, the difference being that The Wildwood Chronicles and The Books of Beginning will both be trilogies – but only the first two books have been written, and for both series, the second book is new. This provides a chance for gift-givers to capture the imaginations of recipients, who will hopefully become engrossed in these still-incomplete but already substantial stories and will await their concluding third books with considerable anticipation. In both these series, the first book has come out in paperback just as the second has been published in hardcover. The Wildwood Chronicles focuses on the dense, tangled forest called the Impassable Wilderness, said to be on the edge of Portland (not coincidentally, Meloy, Ellis and their son live in Portland, Oregon). Prue McKeel and her friend, Curtis, discover many of the usual tropes of fantasy in the forest, from warring creatures to dark doings of all sorts; echoes of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories will be clear to those who know them. The first book is essentially a rescue mission, although as usual in such stories, it becomes more: a bid for freedom for the Impassable Wilderness itself. Prue does rescue her little brother, of course, although Curtis remains in the forest as a bandit-in-training. In the second book, Prue is living a rather dull, mundane life until – no surprise – she is drawn back to Wildwood, which is being torn asunder by the usual evil doings as well as some unusual ones relating to titans of industry (who tend to be notably absent in other fantasy novels). Prue and Curtis do indeed need to go under Wildwood to succeed in their second quest, and it is clear from the book’s poetic conclusion that there is more to come. Speaking of “poetic,” Ellis’ illustrations often are: they are particularly fine imaginings of the scenes and characters in both books of The Wildwood Chronicles so far.
The underlying theme of The Books of Beginning is more unusual than that of The Wildwood Chronicles: Stephens’ books are about – books. Again, the tale-telling will remind readers of the Narnia books and, for that matter, of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Harry Potter stories as well. But Stephens, a TV writer and producer, knows how to pace a story in his own way, and also how to create the right mixture of protagonists (Kate, age 14; Michael, age 12; and Emma, age 11), put them in a suitably isolated setting (10 years in orphanages), and make them appropriately important (they are, of course, potential victims of a horrible evil of which they are unaware – but which, through the books of the series’ titles, they will learn about and will be able to withstand). There is a particularly well-done balance in these books of the humorous (sometimes actually silly) and the serious (the formulaic quest-to-find-one’s-true-role-in-fulfilling-a-prophecy). For example, in the first book, the atlas gets the kids into the past, but without it, they cannot return to the present, and it turns out to be in the Dead City, “the ancient dwarf capital” that “had been abandoned some five hundred years earlier after being devastated by an earthquake.” This leads to: “‘Bhuhoduuknoballdis?’ Michael asked (he had most of a banana pancake crammed into his mouth).” This sort of humor is unusual in heroic fantasies, especially when it coexists with the typical mixture of dragons, dwarfs and elves. In the second book, which takes place six months after the end of the first, Michael and Emma encounter a man who saw them 10 years earlier and who has knowledge of a map of a mysterious place that may be connected to the young people’s parents, while Kate finds herself stuck in the past (the past is an issue in both these books, in several ways) and in need of a friend to help her. Stephens does a good job of introducing recurring characters (such as Pym, a wise wizard, and Gabriel, a brave warrior) while also bringing in new ones, and readers captivated by the first book will enjoy the second as well – and look forward to the third, whether it appears during some future holiday gift-giving season or at an entirely different time.
And how about a gift item for adults, maybe even for the one doing the gift shopping for everyone else? Well, if the adult happens to be a vegan, one attractive choice could be Vegan Eats World, in which Terry Hope Romero argues that a plant-based diet is no barrier to eating Vietnamese, Thai, Belgian, Sri Lankan, Turkish, Afghani, Jamaican, French or other foods associated with specific countries. The book has a narrow focus and some presentation oddities that combine to give it a (+++) rating – for example, the cover gives the subtitle, “300 International Recipes for Savoring the Planet,” while the title page’s subtitle is “250 International Recipes for Savoring the Planet” (the recipes are not numbered, but 300 is closer to the mark). There is little narrative here: this is almost entirely a recipe book, and a handsomely made hardcover one, at that. It does not, however, arrange recipes by types of cuisine (another presentation oddity), but instead offers a dozen sections with titles such as “The Three Protein Amigos: Tofu, Seitan, & Tempeh,” “Dumplings, Breads & Pancakes,” and “Asian Noodles to Mediterranean Pasta.” Readers need to search within the sections for particular foods in which they may be interested. “Hearty Entrees,” for example, includes “Korean Veggie Bulgogi,” “Baked Punky Pumpkin Kibbe,” “Jerk-Roasted Seitan Strips,” and “This Is Sparta! Spinach Pie.” Vegan cooks will be familiar with virtually all the ingredients here, but newcomers to the field may have some difficulty with certain recipes – so it is very helpful that Romero includes a graphic for dishes that are especially easy to prepare (it is a circle with the numbers “123” in it). Actually, the graphics that go with each recipe will be useful for all chefs: one indicates recipes taking 45 minutes or less to make, one shows dishes with less-costly ingredients, one is for low-fat recipes, one indicates dishes with no wheat or barley, and so on. Full-page pictures make the dishes look very tempting indeed and add to the impression that Vegan Eats World is as much a gift book as a traditional cookbook. Vegans on your gift list will find it a treat.