June 27, 2013
Sheep in a Jeep Big Book. By Nancy Shaw. Sandpiper. $26.99.
Three Little Kittens Big Book. Illustrated by Paul Galdone. Sandpiper. $26.99.
In the early days of television, when variety shows filled the airwaves and competed intensely with each other for the big stars and big acts of the day, host Ed Sullivan became famous for telling audiences that he was bringing them a “really big shew” (his pronunciation of “show”). It would take a 21st-century Ed Sullivan to proclaim the bigness of these new books from the Sandpiper imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, because they are really BIG!!! In fact, they are so big that families had better think before buying them about where exactly they will keep them. They won’t fit in or on bookshelves, are too big for end tables, may make it on some (but not all) coffee tables, and are much too large for small children’s hands to hold. These are books to be read as a family, preferably sprawled on the floor and lying partly on top of the pages, the way some families used to read the Sunday comics sections of newspapers – except that in these books, the ink won’t get on anyone’s clothing.
These are big, big, big. Really big!!! Sheep in a Jeep Big Book is 18 inches wide, which means it opens to 36-inch two-page spreads; and it is 18 inches high as well. Three Little Kittens Big Book is also 18 inches wide but is “only” 13¾ inches tall. Both books are quite short – 32 pages apiece – so what we have here, more or less, would be two almost-board-books (in terms of content and story length) blown up to huge proportions so kids and adults alike can revel in the art as well as the words. And that is one of the great pleasures here: the art is huge, and anyone interested in the very skillful illustrations of Nancy Shaw and Paul Galdone will have a wonderful time looking at the minutiae of the pictures here. Indeed, given the size of the pages, there are no minutiae, but there are certainly details aplenty.
These books – both originally published in 1986 – happen to adapt very well to this unusual format. Sheep in a Jeep is a modern classic in its simply rhymed and very funny story of the sheep going on an outing that turns into one misadventure after another, until eventually “jeep in a heap” is all that is left of their vehicle. Three Little Kittens is the traditional nursery rhyme about lost mittens and pie, illustrated particularly attractively by Galdone in the last year of his life: he gives the three kittens different personalities as well as appearances, and makes them particularly expressive each time they complain with a “meow, meow, meow.” In these huge books, tiny details come through that readers might otherwise miss. In Sheep in a Jeep, there are, for example, the expressions of the small bird that watches the sheep make a mess of things, the befuddled look on the frog displaced from the “gooey mud” into which the jeep goes at one point, and the anchor tattoo on one pig that helps push the jeep out. In Three Little Kittens, some details are the labels for multiple forms of catnip in the kitchen, the changing expression of the decorative cat on the lid of the cookie jar, and the amusing elements of the pictures hanging on the wall of the house.
These huge Sandpiper volumes are specialty books, to be sure, and some families simply won’t have room for them – maybe not even room to read them, much less to store them. But for families that do have the space, and especially ones in which children already know these stories and enjoy them in normal-size formats, these big-book versions can bring a great deal of pleasure, as well as an excuse to sprawl on the floor somewhere reading and rereading the familiar tales while pointing at this, that and the other enjoyable bit of the art. Big these books emphatically are, not only in size but also in the ways in which young readers can have fun with them.
Lives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought). By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Harcourt. $20.99.
Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. By Stefan Ekman. Wesleyan University Press. $27.95.
The ongoing “Lives of…” series by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt has a highly successful formula, which does not seem formulaic because it comes out so differently when applied to different groups of people. The author and illustrator present brief biographical information on a number of people known for their work in one field or another, focusing less on their familiar accomplishments and more on their personal quirks and peccadillos. The illustrations are always beautifully rendered, in cartoonish style (disproportionately large heads, for example) but with great accuracy in terms of the people’s appearances when those are known. In the case of Lives of the Scientists, there are 20 scientists profiled in 18 chapters (William and Caroline Herschel share a chapter, as do James D. Watson and Francis Crick). As always in these volumes, the people discussed range from the extremely well-known (Galileo, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein) to ones who are scarcely household names in most households (Ibn Sīnā, Grace Murray Hopper, Chien-Shiung Wu). It is fascinating to learn about Zhang Heng’s creation, in the second century C.E., of a seismometer – which used eight copper dragons and eight copper frogs to detect earthquakes; to find out about Barbara McClintock’s studies of the genetics of corn – which she did not like to eat; to learn that Marie Curie’s office furniture was so radioactive that it had to be replaced with replicas after her death, when the office was turned into a museum; to find out that Ivan Pavlov was so fanatical about punctuality that friends who arrived a minute early would stand outside his door and wait to knock until the precise time of an appointment; to discover that George Washington Carver was offered a job by Thomas Edison, at a salary of more than $100,000, but declined; to be told that Edwin Hubble affected a British accent, hired a publicity agent in an unsuccessful attempt to win a Nobel Prize, and used to read his wife’s journals about their social life and correct them for accuracy. Lives of the Scientists, like other books in this series, is a marvelous mixture of the everyday and the outré, turning big names (and some not-so-big but still-important names) into fully formed, genuine human beings, helping young readers (and parents, too) learn that even when humans accomplish some truly amazing things, they are still, after all, human.
Scientists explore reality. Fantasists explore unreality – sometimes in just as much detail as scientists bring to the real world. In Here Be Dragons, Stefan Ekman of Lund University in Sweden ventures into a study of the landscapes of fantasy and the ways in which they are integral to fantasists’ work – not backdrops for events but participants, in a sense, in them. The notion is intriguing; the book, unfortunately, is not. This is very rarefied writing indeed, strictly for people who are thoroughly familiar not only with J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare and Milton, but also with Hope Mirrlees, China Miéville, Garth Nix, Poul Anderson and Steven Brust. Those who are indeed well-versed in the fantasy landscape – or landscapes – may nevertheless find Ekman’s ruminations unnecessarily discursive and long-winded: “Faerie, the mysterious home of any number of magical beings, is a popular location in much fantasy fiction. There is, however, no consensus about what the (often) nonmagical, everyday domain of humans should be called in opposition to Faerie. Many suggestions, such as the real world, the natural world, the mortal world, or the world of men, are problematic, since Faerie is often portrayed as a place just as real and natural as its counterpart, where both men and women live as well as die. …More precise, and poetic, is Lord Dunsany’s ‘the fields we know,’ which he uses throughout The King of Elfland’s Daughter; but such an expression suggests that the critic would look at Faerie from without and at those well-known fields from within. In his introduction to The King of Elfland’s Daughter, however, Neil Gaiman refers to the mundane world, a term that, apart from being somewhat tautological, captures the quality of the earthly as well as the prosaic, connotations that are well suited to opposing the glamour of Faerie.” Ekman goes on and on like this about topic after topic, whether writing in general of wide-ranging matters or dealing in detail with ones to which he chooses to pay close attention, such as Charles de Lint’s Newford stories: “The popular Fitzhenry Park, Newford’s equivalent to New York’s Central Park and Toronto’s High Park, and one of the most frequently used settings in the Newford stories, is also, counterintuitively, a prominent bubble of wilderness. …The impression is of the park as a totally cultural space, an impression common to almost all the Newford stories. Like the rest of the city, Fitzhenry Park is a place of social interaction, not of flora.” Some of Ekman’s observations and analyses are indeed interesting, but the reader will have to search for them or stumble upon them in the course of reading many others that are of far less value. One positive, if somewhat overdone and overwritten, example: “I would like to clarify that by using the expressions landscape of evil and evil landscape, I do not mean that the landscape itself is necessarily evil. That would imply a volition that the land does not generally have; to the contrary, the land is commonly portrayed as a victim of its ruler’s evil. (Tolkien provides a clear example of this.) Rather, the land is an expression, through its physical characteristics as well as through its flora and fauna, of the evil that resides there, mainly in terms of a Dark Lord. For this reason, I have refrained from using a (possibly) less ambiguous term such as cacatopia or maletopia (bad or evil place), as such a term removes the focus from the connection between the moral nature of, in particular, the evil rulers and the landscape of their realm.” Truly, a little of this writing goes a long way, but there is a great deal more than a little here. Readers thoroughly familiar with the writers discussed in Here Be Dragons may give the book a (+++) rating despite its flaws. However, ones who love fantasy but lack the specific knowledge of the foci around which Ekman builds the book will barely give it a (++) rating. And those familiar with the fantasy genre in general but not necessarily intensely interested in it – especially readers in the United States – are likely to be surprised at some inexplicable omissions. For example, throughout the entire book, there is not one single mention of H.P. Lovecraft.
Man of Steel: The Early Years—Junior Novel. Adapted by Frank Whitman. HarperFestival. $5.99.
Man of Steel: The Fate of Krypton; Superman Saves Smallville. By John Sazaklis. Illustrated by Jeremy Roberts. HarperFestival. $3.99 each.
Man of Steel: Reusable Sticker Book. Adapted by John Sazaklis. HarperFestival. $6.99.
Man of Steel: Superman’s Superpowers; Friends and Foes. Adapted by Lucy Rosen. Illustrated by Andie Tong (Superpowers); pictures by Steven E. Gordon (Friends). Harper. $3.99 each.
Batman: Who Is Clayface? By Donald Lemke. Pictures by Steven E. Gordon. Harper. $3.99.
Flat Stanley Goes Camping. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $16.99.
The return, reinvention and repackaging of comic-book superheroes for the big screen continues apace, with Superman, the original DC Comics action hero, the latest to get a makeover as a highly chiseled, prototypically square-jawed and almost-grotesquely-muscled good guy with a form-fitting uniform and a cape. The film Man of Steel revisits Superman’s origin on the doomed planet Krypton, his journey to Earth, his adoption by the perfectly parental Kents of Smallville, and his gradual discovery of his unearthly powers. To create a modest degree of angst, young Clark Kent has to decide on his own to make use of his powers rather than conceal them; but at the same time, he must conceal them, even to the point of allowing himself to be bullied, lest he seriously damage those who do him wrong. Superman is a creation of the 1930s, but his one-dimensional life seems to fit pretty well into the largely flat and surface-level moviemaking that has become the norm in recent years – and generated considerable profits despite the abject failure of occasional would-be spectaculars, such as John Carter. In any case, Man of Steel is ripe for book tie-ins, and it is getting plenty of them. For ages 8-12, there is an easy-to-read paperback novel that essentially tells the story of the entire movie, and includes eight pages of stills from the film. For younger kids, ages 4-8, there is a lot of choice. The Fate of Krypton and Superman Saves Smallville pick up portions of the movie’s plot, the first focusing on the doomed planet and baby Kal-El’s escape from it, the latter being about a trio of equally super bad guys also arriving on Earth – and somehow managing to be defeated by Superman even though they have the same powers he does and a three-to-one numerical advantage. Hey, it’s a superhero comic-book story, you know?
Kids who particularly enjoy the highly stylized poses incorporated into the film will have fun with the Reusable Sticker Book, which actually has one page called “Poses of Power” and which invites kids to, among other things, “stage the smackdown” between the good guy and the baddies. And Man of Steel is even being enlisted to help early readers through the “I Can Read!” series. Both Superman’s Superpowers and Friends and Foes are Level 2 books (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) in this early-reading sequence. The first deals with young Clark’s eventual decision to use his great powers for good, and the second zips along from Clark’s school days (friend Lana Lang, bully Pete Ross) to his adult life in Metropolis (“ace reporter” Lois Lane, bad guy General Zod). Families that enjoy Man of Steel certainly have plenty of ways to bring the film home and re-live the experience.
DC Comics’ other super-famous hero, Batman, has been viewed and re-viewed through many recent movies, and has shown appeal to a wide variety of movie directors and a number of different audiences. He continues to show up in short, simple books, too, including yet another Level 2 entry in the “I Can Read!” series – called Who Is Clayface? The bad guy here is an “evil mud man” who poses as Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, in order to make a million-dollar cash withdrawal from a bank – all of which money he gets without identification, and all of which money fits in a standard-size briefcase, which is a little more of a suspension of disbelief than even comic books usually require. The fact that the bad guy’s skin “started bubbling and bulging through his suit” might have given the bank personnel pause if they had not apparently been lobotomized and then hypnotized as a pre-condition for getting hired (that is how they look, anyway). In any case, Batman catches up to the crook in a wax museum, where Clayface actually, no kidding, is quoted as saying, “BWAHAHA!” The good guy wins, of course – with cleverness, which is the attraction of the non-superpowered Batman character – and eventually gets to “clean up this money mess at the bank” and restore Bruce Wayne’s good name. And if these silly heroics help new readers get involved in books, so much the better.
Families seeking a more down-to-earth hero, who is one-dimensional in a different way from comic-book stars, will likely prefer Flat Stanley Goes Camping, the latest Level 2 book based on the character created by Jeff Brown. The “I Can Read!” books about Flat Stanley have little to do with Brown’s original works, simply using Stanley’s flatness as a plot device for small-scale adventures. There is nevertheless something inherently pleasant about these Stanley stories, and in this one he really does get to be a hero of sorts, acting as a parachute to help his brother, Arthur, down from a cliff, then becoming a raft to get himself and Arthur back to the family campsite. The book starts with Stanley being “sick of being flat” and ends with him deciding that his flatness is not so bad after all. Brown himself had Stanley (who was originally flattened by a falling bulletin board back in 1964) returning to normal boyhood, but neither the origin of the flatness nor the return from it is significant in Flat Stanley Goes Camping or other recent books that have followed Stanley through a series of mild but pleasantly involving tales that in some cases – including this one – have an amusing twist at the end. Flat Stanley may not have the highly angular appearance of modern-day versions of Superman and Batman – he is, in fact, rather rounded in appearance despite being only half an inch thick – but he is heroic in his own way. And despite being just as unrealistic as DC Comics heroes, Stanley seems like someone that early readers might meet on the street or in school, not like a character to be found only in Smallville, Metropolis or Gotham City.
The Long Earth 2: The Long War. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Harper. $25.99.
The pleasures (occasional) and frustrations (frequent) of The Long Earth are present in abundance in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s sequel, The Long War, which picks up a decade after the nuclear disaster that ended the first book about Datum Earth (the original planet) and the many millions of other Earths reachable by “stepping” from world to world – either through one’s natural ability or, in more cases, by use of a potato-powered stepper box.
Not to give too much away, but the story arc of The Long War follows that of the previous book so closely in some ways that this second book also ends with a disaster on Datum Earth and also concludes with a very clear setup for the next book in the series. One would like to think that Pratchett and Baxter – the one a real genius of science fiction and fantasy, the other a more-than-competent craftsman in the same fields – could come up with greater plot creativity than this. Unfortunately, no.
It is important to understand that The Long War is not a bad book but a disappointing one. It has many elements that are attractive – personality conflicts, portrayals of alien races, mysteries, views of alternative societal arrangements – but there is nothing particularly creative about any of this, and while the formulaic nature of so much of the storytelling would be forgivable in a tyro writer, it is not in two consummate professionals. The Long War and its predecessor read like “cash in on our name recognition” books, and while there is certainly nothing shameful in bowing to economic necessity – especially when one’s name is sufficient to guarantee substantial sales – it is a bit of a shame to see the legacy of a writer like Pratchett (who has an unusual form of Alzheimer’s disease and whose future production of books is therefore highly unpredictable) tarnished by works this amateurish.
So what we have here is the still-unexplained existence of millions of Earths, many containing alien races (several new ones are introduced here), but none containing humans beings until the steppers from Datum Earth arrive. And arrive they have in this time period a decade later than the original explorations of natural stepper Joshua Valienté and distributed intelligence Lobsang, whose nearly godlike abilities did not result in prevention of the disaster at the end of The Long Earth and who explains in The Long War that there is a reason for that: “‘Even then, when the Twain returned, ten years ago, you were…’ Joshua groped for the old religious word. ‘Immanent. You suffused the world. Or so you claimed. Yet you let those nutjobs walk into the city with a nuke….’ Lobsang nodded. ‘All the time I could have snapped my metaphorical fingers and put an end to it. …I am not God, Joshua. …I cannot see into the souls of men and women. … And even if I could have stopped those bombers – should I have? At what cost? How many would you have had me kill, in order to avert an action that would have remained entirely hypothetical?’” And so forth. This is what passes for wisdom here, and if you agree that it is wise, you will enjoy the dialogue in The Long War.
The story intentionally spreads every which way. The “war” angle comes largely from a planet more than a million “steps” from Datum Earth, called Valhalla, that resents centralized control from a distant planet (or, control not being much of an issue, simply resents paying taxes to the home world) and intends to declare independence along the lines of America in Revolutionary War times. But there are also warlike aliens interested in throwing out the interloping humans from various planets. And there is a sort of unintentional war being waged by the human race against the sweet, gentle humanoid trolls – regarded as animals by narrow-minded humans and as fully human by the more enlightened. The trolls are hive-mind creatures that are disappearing as humans advance, and this is clearly a metaphor for the general dissonance caused by human expansion, since the trolls not only live in perfect harmony but also communicate through music. Joshua has been deeply estranged from Lobsang since the disaster at the end of The Long Earth, but when summoned to help avert the multiple potential catastrophes (Lobsang is everywhere but still insists that Joshua come to a particular place), Joshua does his duty and shows up, incidentally abandoning his family in the process.
The authorial hand moving the characters and events of The Long War about is far too apparent. Characters have their personalities because Pratchett and Baxter want them to have personalities, but few seem even close to three-dimensional. There are occasional interesting situations here that showcase characters neatly – just not enough of them. “Jack Green, aged about sixty, was a bookish firebrand of a guy, it seemed to Nathan Boss. He stared down Lieutenant Allen on his doorstep – actually stared down this huge, armed marine – before allowing him and his troopers into his house. Even then they did indeed have to leave their weapons at the door, and take their combat boots off at the porch. So they were all in their socks when they walked into the house’s big living room….” By and large, descriptions of people are done pithily so Pratchett and Baxter can get on to actions – with the result that many characters seem like replaceable parts. “Nelson had rather misjudged Ken when he had first met this suntanned, rugged, rather taciturn man, a local whose ancestors had lived on these hills since there were such things as ancestors. It was only by chance that he found out that Ken had been a lecturer at the University of Bath….”
And what are the actions for which Pratchett and Baxter clear the decks of descriptive material as quickly as possible? Sometimes what happens here is simply a matter of exploration, of discussing ways in which this world or that differs from Datum Earth. “And off in the distance he saw movement. A herd of some huge, slow-moving, rather lumbering creatures, seen in silhouette against a pale blue sky. Walking on all fours, they looked like rhinos to his untrained eye. Presumably they were some marsupial equivalent, perhaps hunted by a local version of a lion. …The world was intensely silent, save for the distant bellow of one giant herbivore or another. …And it was a different sort of world, without humans.” By and large, though, the activities here connect loosely to the idea of a heretofore unimaginable sort of war and to the further exploration of parts of the many Earths that remain inexplicable, such as the Gap where an Earth ought to be but isn’t. In addition to Joshua and Lobsang, the other key character from the first book of course returns this time: Sally Linsay, daughter of the man who gave the world the stepper box. And there is a new and quite interesting character here in the person of Sister Agnes, a reincarnated and notably strong-willed person who even tells Lobsang, or one part of Lobsang, what to do, as Lobsang explains to Joshua: “‘If I wanted to be part of humanity, I had to become embedded in humanity. Down in the dirt, at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak.’ ‘And you went along with it?’ ‘Well, there wasn’t much point going to all the trouble of reincarnating the woman if I’m not going to listen to her advice, was there?’”
The Long War sprawls, just as The Long Earth did, and is equally earnest and – unfortunately – often equally dull. One seeks almost in vain for some of the trademark Pratchett humor, at once good-natured and distinctly snide (quite a combination), that is ever-present in his Discworld novels. From Baxter, a lesser stylist, one hopes – again, almost in vain – for some of the fast pacing and complex plotting that he has produced elsewhere. It is disappointing to find this second book in The Long Earth series to be, like the first, less than the sum of its parts, and it is even more disappointing to realize that as currently structured, this series can go on and on and on, like the multiplicity of Earths, ad nauseam if not ad infinitum. A more-apt title for the whole sequence may turn out to be The Long Haul.
Jan Van der Roost: Sirius; Sinfonia per Orchestra; Manhattan Pictures. St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande (Sirius; Sinfonia); Philharmonic Orchestra of the Belgian Radio conducted by Fernand Terby (Manhattan). Navona. $16.99.
NOVA: Society of Composers, Inc.—Music by Phillip Schroeder, Vera Ivanova, Mark Engebretson, Chan Ji Kim, Leonard Mark Lewis, Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn, Piotr Szewczyk and Alan Chan. Navona. $16.99.
There is a great deal of contemporary classical music that is well-made and professionally structured, and that sounds perfectly fine in performances by any number of orchestras, chamber groups and soloists, but that remains more a specialty item than a general-interest one for the simple reason that it is not strikingly original and tends to sound like a great deal of other well-crafted contemporary music. This is by no means a unique modern phenomenon: the vast majority of composers in any age may be perfectly competent without offering the striking insights and skilled communicativeness of each era’s giants. So just as fanciers of 19th-century opera may enjoy the pre-Romantic works of Franz Ignaz Danzi or the avowedly Romantic ones of Heinrich Marschner – without regarding either composer as a towering figure – so listeners who enjoy contemporary compositions in general may find themselves attracted to music by some good but not highly distinguished composers. Jan Van der Roost (born 1956), for example, writes in a number of forms and seems comfortable with several styles, without ever quite evolving a style of his own – at least on the basis of the three works on a new Navona CD. Sirius (2003) is an attractive and largely upbeat concert overture that shows some influence of Shostakovich and contrasts a pleasantly lyrical central section with more-energetic, nicely scored ones. Sinfonia per Orchestra (1989) is a four-movement work – some elements of the first three movements recur in the fourth – and is written largely in traditional forms: modified sonata in the first movement, a second movement marked “Funebre” and containing a children’s song, a contrapuntal scherzo in the third movement, and a finale that includes a canon and fugue before ending in the same mysterious atmosphere with which the whole work began. This is an effective piece that is worth hearing more than once, even though it is not especially distinctive in style. Manhattan Pictures was written for symphonic wind band and is also a four-movement work. Like many other pieces about New York City, it is intended to showcase the urban area’s energy, vitality and variety, and it does so well enough but without bringing any particular new musical insights to the portrayal. Its most interesting movement is its third, slow one, which is marked “Mesto” (“sad”) and is very quiet throughout – with a focus on flute, clarinet and oboe. All these Van der Roost pieces are pleasant and well-made enough to be worthwhile experiences, but none has sufficient distinction to raise the composer to the first rank among moderns.
As for Navona’s new CD called NOVA: Society of Composers, Inc., it is simply an opportunity for listeners who generally like contemporary classical compositions to sample a variety of short works by composers with whom they may or may not be familiar. Nothing here is substantial enough to make the disc worth buying for the sake of that one piece or that specific composer. The whole CD runs just 53 minutes, with the longest work on it – if you regard it as a single piece rather than three – being the 12-minute Three Etudes for Piano by Leonard Mark Lewis. This work does indeed show off various pianistic techniques. Somewhat similarly, Vera Ivanova’s Aftertouch explores what the piano can do, although here the study is of different amounts of pressure applied to the keys. Some of the other works have programmatic elements: Piotr Szewczyk’s Apparitions is supposed to suggest ghostly beings floating in a forest; Alan Chan’s Daughter’s Lullaby is a rather affecting setting of Nicky’s Schildkraut’s story of a Korean child adopted by Western parents; and Phillip Schroeder’s Metaphors is a somewhat drier adaptation of the poetry of Marck L. Beggs. The remaining works are Mark Engebretson’s well-put-together Two Duos, which explores old-fashioned and newfangled harmonic approaches; Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, which also uses and contrasts traditional and modern musical language; and Chan Ji Kim’s 9 Years, intended as a homage to musical mentorship but not communicating that objective in any particularly clear way. This CD is essentially a sampler of compositions and a sampler of contemporary composers, reaching out in only a limited way: to people so interested in modern classical chamber music that they would like to hear various composers’ ways of handling it.
June 20, 2013
Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two, #4: What I Don’t Know Might Hurt Me. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $5.99.
The Silver Six. By A.J. Lieberman. Illustrations by Darren Rawlings. Graphix/Scholastic. $22.99.
Mia and the Girl with a Twirl. By Robin Farley. Pictures by Aleksey and Olga Ivanov. Harper. $16.99.
Dixie and the Good Deeds. By Grace Gilman. Pictures by Sarah McConnell. Harper. $16.99.
There are some books whose illustrations, intentionally or not, become their main attraction, even if their stories are well done. Jim Benton’s “Tales from Mackerel Middle School,” in the form of the ongoing diary of Jamie Kelly, always mix the visual with the written, but sometimes one of the books just insists on being mostly a) read or b) looked at. Choose (b) for What I Don’t Know Might Hurt Me, which actually tackles a significant problem in the text – and does so surprisingly well – but ends up being even more fun to see than to read. The primary subject of the book is bullying, which Jamie and friends and frenemies get involved in combating as part of the club-joining scene that they got into in the previous book, Nobody’s Perfect. I’m as Close as It Gets. The blond, super-sweet and generally perfect Angeline is of course a total anti-bully, except for what she surprisingly reveals about herself here when Jamie compares her to Isabella. For her part, Isabella has all the makings of a bully, and here we find out how she hones some of her questionable skills through her interactions with her brothers – and how she eventually puts those skills to exceptionally good use by stopping a major school bully named Butch and then making things OK with him by, err, threatening to rip the outside mirror off Butch’s dad’s car….well, you have to be there to see why this works and why it’s funny. But long before that climactic event, we are treated, for example, to an absolutely perfect “Jamie drawing” of herself with eyes half-closed and tongue sticking out, holding a definitely deceased varmint in both hands, to go with the text, “I’m always positive even when I would rather lick fungus off a dead rat’s eyeball that I dredged out of a garbage disposal in an abandoned insane asylum because I am sweet and I am classy.” Again, you sort of have to be there, but it’s not hard to arrive – just turn to page 11. Then there are the parallel pictures, on facing pages, of a chimpanzee eating cupcakes and a “girlpanzee” doing the same. There is Jamie’s visual impression of “The Attractive Olympics,” which includes, among other things, “The 50-Yard Saunter.” There are the “Beagle Sharks,” Jamie’s ever-hungry Stinker and Stinkette. There are some of the absurd things that Jamie’s dad is determined to do to prevent the house from getting messy while Jamie’s mom is helping care for Jamie’s grandma – and the pictures showing why Grandma needs help are hilarious, too. And then there is Dicky Flartsnutt, first introduced in a picture that includes everything from “ear lubricant” to shoes that “smell like [an] inflatable baby pool,” a boy who is absolutely born to be bullied and who, at some level, doesn’t mind, because the bullies are the only ones who talk to him at all – and besides, he has “bizarre optimism.” The way Benton pulls all these threads together into a really weird garment that somehow fits Jamie and readers exceptionally well is quite remarkable and very, very funny from start to finish. Just catch the pictures of Jamie’s dad demonstrating non-messy eating over a dustpan and non-sloppy shaving over the toilet and you will be hard-pressed to stop laughing even though, amazingly, the book really does handle the issue of bullying with a certain degree of sensitivity.
The Silver Six is for older readers and, being a graphic novel, is intended to communicate more with pictures than with words. Good thing, too, because the words are pretty formulaic, although A.J. Lieberman strings them together skillfully in this all-too-typical tale of a dystopian future in which an evil corporation (is there ever any other kind?) is despoiling the planet to produce a crucial energy source, and the thoroughly rotten head of the company (again, is there ever any other kind?) is not above killing people to protect his profits. But he picks the wrong people to pick off when he goes after the parents of a plucky group of now-orphans – who wear silver uniforms in the horrible government-run orphanage (is there any other kind?) and therefore call themselves the Silver Six when they realize they are united by tragedy and should stick together. One good thing here is that the preteen kids don’t take their name too seriously – especially Oliver, the cynic of the group (every group has one, right?). It is Phoebe, the primary protagonist, who has chosen the name, but at an awful orphanage meal (is there any other kind?), Oliver says, “Give the Silver Six thing a rest, OK? …We’re not some bogus superhero team, OK? Look around. This is real.” But of course the kids do get plenty of chances to perform heroics, including a breakout from the orphanage and a journey through space to a moon once discovered by their parents, who had hoped that a better energy source might be found there but had been disappointed. The kids’ adventures on the moon, and their involvement with Phoebe’s hand-built robot, Max, are the core of the book, which also involves the usual evil henchman of the corporate bad guy – who, unsurprisingly, is not really evil, but has a bond to the bad guy that results in evil behavior. Anyway, the story is on the thin and unsurprising side, but the pictures by Darren Rawlings are so well-integrated with the words that they carry the book along strongly and intensely from beginning to end, complete with colors that vary from nighttime brown-and-purple to bright daylight blues and greens and match the action very effectively. For everything expected in an adventure of this kind – the bad guy’s name is, um, Craven, which is also the name of his evil company – there is something in the illustrations that lifts The Silver Six out of the ordinary and keeps it moving briskly, if not always particularly innovatively, from event to event. It is a fast-paced, thoroughly exciting book filled with likable central characters, suitably overstated adventures and a thoroughly satisfying save-the-world conclusion – all brought to vivid visual life throughout.
Pictures are crucial in the “I Can Read!” series and similar early-reading books, too, since they tell much of the story and help early readers see the relationship between narrative and illustration. Mia and the Girl with a Twirl is at the “My First” level for “emergent readers,” and Dixie and the Good Deeds is at Level 1 (“simple sentences for eager new readers”), but the two books are quite similar both in text and in their use of pictures. The latest story of ballet-loving Mia involves a new girl in ballet class who does moves differently from the way the other girls and the teacher, Miss Bird, do them; of course everyone decides that doing things differently is just fine, and the whole class ends up experimenting with various kinds of dance. In the new book about Emma and her dog, Dixie, Emma has over-volunteered around the community because she is so excited at all the good deeds she can do – but she soon realizes that she is trying to do too much, and matters get worse (and then, eventually, better) as Dixie tries to help out. There is nothing profound in either book, but both are pleasant and teach nicely soft-pedaled lessons while helping young readers learn how words and pictures go together. Mia’s multi-animal ballet class is always fun to see: giraffe, hippo, elephant, porcupine and others in tutus are pleasantly amusing. And the well-meaning mischief-making of Dixie is fun in a different way, as she manages to cover herself in flour and juice, step in paint, get washed off only because she interferes with Emma’s car-washing duties – and then make everything all right by actually helping Emma out at the end of the long, tiring day. The stories in these two books are thin, but that makes sense in works created primarily to present attractive characters who will pique young readers’ interest. And the illustrations support the words very well indeed – pulling kids into the stories and hopefully into the whole reading-on-their-own experience.
Scholastic “Discover More”: Reptiles. By Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris. Scholastic. $12.99.
Scholastic “Discover More”: Weather. By Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris. Scholastic. $12.99.
Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages. By Nathan Belofsky. Perigee. $14.
The two new entries in Scholastic’s “Discover More” series deliver more of the same, and the same is very good indeed. These are highly visual books in which brief paragraphs (sometimes just sentences) of text are arranged around extraordinary, high-quality photos from a wide variety of sources. The books present accurate scientific information in a visually striking way and then offer even more through the inclusion of codes for supplementary digital books available at a special Scholastic Web site. Reptiles and Weather both tackle subjects that are highly visual in the first place, and this certainly makes it easier to present books with a strong “look at me” orientation. But it does not diminish the effectiveness with which the information is given. Penelope Arlon and Tory Gordon-Harris mix fascinating facts with a few questionable ones. In Reptiles, for instance, the generally accurate science is somewhat spoiled when the authors refer to reptiles as “cold-blooded” rather than “ectothermic,” although they do explain that this “doesn’t mean that their blood is cold.” The accurate word would not be a stretch for the readers of this book, though: the authors do not hesitate to include words such as “antivenin,” and that is a big plus, since it is the correct word for the medication used to treat the bites of venomous snakes (“antivenom” is wrong). Some of the writing in Reptiles is on the sensationalized side, in keeping with the format: “Prehistoric snakes ate baby dinosaurs!” But by and large, the book is a very fine introduction to reptiles, and the many superb closeup photos of snake fangs, snakes’ brilliant rainbow-like colors, lizards of a huge range of sizes and shapes, an alligator mother carrying one of its babies protectively in its mouth, and much more, provide a fascinating look at reptiles of all sorts – their appearance, how and where they live, and how many shapes they have (the two-page spread showing turtles is a real eye-opener). The illustrative science is well done, too: a cutaway section of a turtle’s anatomy is really quite something to see. An interview with a wildlife explorer and a helpful glossary – features of the books in this series – add to the level of knowledge and enjoyment.
Weather also contains a back-of-the-book glossary, but its interview is in the middle rather than the end: the last part of this book presents energy-saving recommendations designed to help young readers reduce the carbon-dioxide emissions that most scientists hold responsible for global warming. That subject remains controversial, and this book avoids the sociopolitical disputes about it, simply saying that “many experts think that humans produce too much CO2, which is making our greenhouse blanket thicker.” This statement comes near the book’s conclusion – most of Weather is about, well, weather: what it is, why it occurs, how it affects various places on Earth (polar areas, temperate zones, deserts), and what forms it can take. Along the way, the book mentions some facts that readers may already know (“water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface”) as well as some they may not have heard before: “The amount of water in the air stays constant. …Since all water is recycled, your next glass of water may have once been drunk by a dinosaur!” In addition to thunderstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes and other spectacular weather upheavals, the book explains some everyday occurrences (rainbows) and some less-known ones (halos, fog bows, double rainbows). It not only discusses clouds but also shows one type that looks like a flying saucer – and explains that another type is created when jets reach the speed of sound. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the story of a park ranger named Roy Sullivan, whose was struck by lightning seven times and survived all seven. Weather, like Reptiles, is an effectively produced introduction to its subject – there is not enough here for in-depth understanding, but plenty to whet young readers’ appetites so they seek out further information elsewhere.
Strange Medicine is another science-fact book that delivers “more of the same,” but in a different sense and for a less uplifting reason. Numerous books over the years have delved into the past for the explicit purpose of making fun of times when science (in this case, medical science) was less advanced than it is today – seeking a kind of “ugh factor” by detailing the excesses and general awfulness of what people used to do in the name of scientific endeavor or, as here, in the often-vain hope of curing disease. Nathan Belofsky’s (+++) book has a mocking tone that makes one wonder how future generations will look at the primitivism of today’s medicine, which is unable to cure many conditions and uses techniques that may well seem primitive when looked at from a vantage point of hundreds of years hence – or thousands, as are some of the things that Belofksy discusses. A typical passage, about an approach called “counter-irritation,” notes that “‘counter-irritation’ let doctors treat, or pretend to treat, illnesses they knew nothing about. It was the subject of long volumes and countless meetings and congresses, but doctors never quite figured out how or why counter-irritation worked, which it didn’t.” Or there is Belofsky’s remark that, at a time when masturbation was believed to be a medical issue, it “was a mechanical problem begging for a mechanical solution. …The 1885 Handbook of Medicine described a metal cage that allowed an erection but prevented touching; some similar devices had padlocks on them. …In 1876, Dr. Abraham Jacobi, later to become president of the American Medical Association, advocated infibulation (surgical mutilation) of the penis and the infliction of ‘artificial sores.’” Again and again, passages like these mock the knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of earlier times, and do not even give practitioners the benefit of the doubt by saying they were doing the best they could with the knowledge and tools at their disposal – that “pretend to treat” comment about counter-irritation is all too typical of Belofsky’s approach. To be sure, the writing is entertaining much of the time, as when Belofsky talks about the early years in which men rather than or in addition to women delivered babies – this was in the 18th century. England’s leading gynecologist, Dr. William Smellie, came under fire from Elizabeth Nihill, the “most prominent of the female midwives,” who said men who delivered babies were “‘broken barbers’ and said one used to be a sausage stuffer. In pamphlets, she even mocked Smellie himself, suggesting he made house calls in a flowered calico nightgown with pink ribbons.” And what, ultimately, is the point of all this? Strange Medicine seems designed not to horrify (although it often does) but to provoke laughter at the expense of those ignorant fools of the past who thought they were curing people but were only making things worse – often fatally worse. No time of the past is safe from Belofsky’s contempt: “With a few glorious exceptions, the great achievements of the Renaissance passed medicine by.” “In 1839, teething took the lives of 5,016 of London’s babies, according to the city’s registrar general.” “Penicillin was a wonder drug, but no thanks to its famous discoverer, Dr. Alexander Fleming, [who] kept it on the shelf – for ten years.” Presumably Belofksy does not know (or does not care) about the fact that many medical discoveries, including modern ones, have occurred by accident or have turned out to be something different from what their discoverers thought. For instance, the erectile-dysfunction drug sildenafil, best known as Viagra®, was originally developed to lower blood pressure and treat angina. Strange Medicine is essentially a collection of cheap laughs and equally cheap horror stories at the expense of people in ages when, Belofksy apparently believes, ignorance was far more widespread than it is today. Perhaps he is right about that – or perhaps we are just as ignorant now, about medicine and other things, as people used to be…but simply ignorant in different ways: medical mistakes in the United States alone are estimated to claim 200,000 lives a year, and there is nothing funny about that. Perhaps today’s doctors no longer hang cuckoos’ heads from the necks of epileptic patients, as was done in the Middle Ages, but how will some future Belofsky look at the things that today’s doctors do when they are doing the best for their patients that they know how to do?
Everything Goes: Blue Bus, Red Balloon—A Book of Colors. By Brian Biggs. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $7.99.
Dig, Dogs, Dig: A Construction Tail. By James Horvath. Harper. $15.99.
Little Critter: Just Big Enough. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $3.99.
Little Critter: Just One More Pet. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $3.99.
Lots of activity here – in books that will appeal to kids from pre-readers up to about age eight. For the youngest, the Brian Biggs board book called Blue Bus, Red Balloon is indeed a book of colors – and it is also an adventure, featuring the balloon of the title, which escapes from a little girl right at the book’s beginning, as she and her parents get into a taxi, which drives away. The balloon reappears on every succeeding page of the book: seen by men in a green van, noticed again by the little girl as she rides a blue bus, catching the hat of a man in a black sports car that zips along with its convertible top open, and so on. It is fun seeing all the people, and occasional critters, that observe the balloon’s flight, while also learning colors and enjoying whimsical drawings such as the one of a multicolored “rainbow train” whose engineer is a bird. Eventually, as the balloon drifts higher and higher, it is clear that the little girl will never get it back – but she does, very satisfyingly, in a concluding scene that brings back the words “red balloon” from the first page. As a minimal-words adventure with an instructional objective and just plain fun-to-see pictures, Blue Bus, Red Balloon is an all-around winner.
The action is construction in James Horvath’s Dig, Dogs, Dig, intended for ages 4-8 but appealing mostly at the lower end of that age range. The six “construction dogs” – Duke, Roxy, Buddy, Max, Spot and Spike – leap out of their bunk beds early in the morning, have a quick breakfast, then rush off to the job site, urged on by a simple poetic narrative and extra-big letters for words such as “Run, dogs, run!” Horvath, like Biggs, includes instructional material, which in this case comes in verse. For instance, one page shows six different heavy-construction vehicles and explains what they are in these words: “Start up the loader, dump truck, and grader,/ bulldozer, backhoe, and excavator.” Then Horvath shows and tells what the machines do: “The excavator digs deep with its scoop,/ pulling up dirt with a swish and a swoop.” The work goes smoothly until the heavy equipment runs into a huge, hard something-or-other below the ground, and the dogs have “some busting to do,/ with hammers, a pick,/ and a rock splitter, too.” They tackle this job – and all their work – with enthusiasm, and get a big surprise when the underground object turns out to be…a gigantic dinosaur bone! It takes a crane to lift the bone out – and then it’s back to work, work, work, with a cement mixer showing up and trucks starting to bring….hmm, what are the dogs building? Why does the name on one truck say “1-800-DUCKS”? Bit by bit, the work comes into focus, as “Greendog Landscape” arrives and the construction dogs keep hard at work despite an occasional amusing misstep, such as one opening the wrong end of a carton, another getting soaked by water from a fountain, and two being puzzled by some assembly instructions. But everything eventually comes together, and it turns out that the dogs have been constructing – a park! And their one day of super-fast activity ends with other dogs visiting the new park, reading and flying a kite and jogging and playing games and admiring the dinosaur bone. Yes, the bone becomes the park’s centerpiece, and the gate to the whole area proudly proclaims it to be “Dinosaur Bone Park.” And at the end, “The job is complete. We’ve built something new./ Tomorrow we’ll find a new job to do.” Well, no construction job has ever gone this smoothly or this quickly, but watching this one turn out so well, with so much speed, is delightful.
There is plenty of activity in two new Mercer Mayer books about Little Critter as well, but it is not quite so frenetic. Both books have “Just” in their titles for a reason: one is about Little Critter’s unhappiness with his size (because bigger kids at school take advantage of him, although Mayer’s story is too mild for there to be any out-and-out bullying); the other is about all the pets Little Critter’s family has and whether maybe they could add another to the mix. These books for ages 4-8 will appeal to kids throughout that age range who enjoy Mayer’s stories and characters. Just Big Enough shows Little Critter’s frustration when bigger kids tell him he is too small to play football with them – and when they refuse to share school-lunch cupcakes, leaving Little Critter without any. So Little Critter builds a “growing machine” for himself – which, of course, doesn’t work. He expresses his frustration to Grandpa, who gives him a demonstration of ways in which being littler can be better. Little Critter, taking the lesson to heart, challenges the big kids to a relay race; and the smaller kids turn out to be faster, proving that “sometimes being small is just big enough.” In Just One More Pet, Little Critter finds a friendly little dog, without a collar, in the bushes one day, and wants to keep the pup – but his parents do not think that is a good idea, and the family dog and kitty do not like the new arrival. Little Critter quickly bonds with the new dog, which Dad says it is all right to keep while the family searches for the owner. Then the dog, unhappy at being locked in the garage for the night, escapes, and does a lot of mischief around the neighborhood – as Little Critter and his family discover during a search the next morning. Eventually, the dog shows up back in the garage, just as a little girl and her mom drive up, searching for “a little lost dog.” Ah, but there is a surprise here – one that ends the story amusingly and results in Little Critter’s parents agreeing to “just one more pet” after all. Mayer’s well-formed, well-intentioned characters always find ways to overcome the modest but real problems they encounter; and because these books are notably non-preachy, they are consistently enjoyable for kids – and adults – who like spending time with some very engaging characters.
Bean Dog and Nugget: No. 1—The Ball; No. 2—The Cookie. By Charise Mericle Harper. Knopf. $4.99 each.
Squish No. 5: Game On! By Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. Random House. $6.99.
Graphic novels move all the way down the age range to ages 5-8 with Charise Mericle Harper’s adventures of sort-of-frankfurter-shaped Bean Dog and sort-of-chicken-nugget-shaped Nugget. The two comestible comrades have suitably silly adventures, involving only themselves, in the first two books, and there is more edginess to the characters and the narration than you might expect in books for this age group. The Ball involves Bean Dog losing his favorite ball in a bush – because he has thrown it at Nugget and it has bounced off her and hurt her enough to elicit an “Ow!” The friends imagine the bush as a monster, so they have to come up with a monster-fighting way to retrieve the ball and their shoes (which they have thrown into the bush in the hope of knocking the ball out). Thus are born Superdog and Ninja Nugget, who together get everything out of the bush and then find themselves thoroughly bored – so they throw everything back in and resume their costumes, except that this time Bean Dog dresses up as a cake instead of a superhero, which works out fine because the costume is a cake and the friends get to have a snack before dealing again with getting their things back. The premise, the characters, the narration and the overall approach are absurd enough to be amusing and entertaining, and the writing is simple enough so that kids in the target age range will enjoy reading The Ball all by themselves. They will also enjoy The Cookie, in which something unusual happens: the characters lie to each other and are not reprimanded. Nugget goes through elaborate machinations to get Bean Dog’s attention by claiming that she has a huge invisible donut, which eventually disappears, or gets lost…well, whatever. Then Bean Dog brings in three cookies for the two to share, but the third one does not break in half evenly, so the friends argue over who gets the bigger half – and Bean Dog gets revenge for the invisible-donut prank by getting Nugget to close her eyes long enough for him to take the larger piece for himself. This is scarcely exemplary behavior by either character, but the fact that these books are not preachy and not determinedly filled with correct manners will make them all the more appealing to young readers – especially since the characters accept each other’s foibles and remain friends even when they behave less than upstandingly with each other.
Friends are not entirely good for each other in the latest book in the Squish series, either. The first four of these books – which are for ages 7-10 – did not stand up particularly well against the Babymouse books created by the same sister-and-brother team of Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. This one, though, does. The unicellular friends here are Squish, Pod and Peggy, and the plot has to do with Squish being introduced by Pod and Peggy to a video game called “Mitosis” that is so captivating that – driven by his friends’ greater game-play success – Squish neglects pretty much everything, from reading and writing about Moby-Dick (correctly shown with the hyphen!), to preparing for a comic-book convention that he has been eager to visit with his father, to small matters such as sleep, food and personal hygiene. The authors – who make a cameo amoeboid appearance of their own here – effectively use variations of some of the narrative tricks that have worked so well in the Babymouse series. For example, they comment on the story and characters by having large word-containing arrows pointing to things at certain times, and they include a dream sequence in which Squish finds himself transformed into a pixelated Squish within the game that he has been playing so obsessively. Eventually Squish realizes on his own – thanks in part to elements of a comic-book story about his hero, Super Amoeba – that he is overdoing the whole “Mitosis” thing, and he decides to take a break from the game. This does not help him turn in his Moby-Dick report on time, but in a nice plot twist, he gets permission to work for some extra credit to raise his grade when it turns out that his teacher is, like Squish himself, a comic-book fan. The lessons learned here are reasonable and soft-pedaled, the story moves along smartly, and the characters have more unicellular depth than in earlier entries in this series. Hopefully the authors will keep the adventures of Squish going at the same high, and highly amusing, level that they reach in Game On!
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence; Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht. Emerson String Quartet (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; David Finckel, cello) with Paul Neubauer, viola and Colin Carr, cello. Sony. $11.99.
Gordon Getty: Usher House. Christian Elsner, tenor; Etienne Dupuis, baritone; Phillip Ens, bass; Lisa Delan, soprano; Orquestra Gulbenkian conducted by Lawrence Foster. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
The Hours Begin to Sing—Songs by Jake Heggie, David Garner, John Corigliano, Gordon Getty, Luna Pearl Woolf and William Bolcom. Lisa Delan, soprano; Kristin Pankonin, piano; Matt Haimovitz, cello; David Krakauer, clarinet; Maxim Rubtsov, flute. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).
The Emerson String Quartet’s new CD for Sony is entitled “Journeys,” and it represents the culmination of a journey for the quartet itself: the quartet has had the same personnel for more than 30 years, but this disc is its final release with original cellist David Finckel, who has left to journey on to other musical projects. The “Journeys” title, of course, is not intended to refer to Finckel’s departure but to the music, which is an interesting juxtaposition of works composed a decade apart but generally thought of as being very different. The CD also represents a journey of the quartet into some uncharted waters (this is its first-ever recording of a work by Schoenberg) and some little-traveled ones (it has not recorded anything by Tchaikovsky since the 1980s). What will matter to listeners, though, is little of the reasoning behind the disc’s title and much about the works and how they are performed. As usual, the Emerson ensemble is excellent both individually and as a group, handing off themes and blending harmonies adroitly and clearly fulfilling the conversational elements of chamber music – in which additional participants Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr are fully engaged. As is less usual, the music as performed here is handled in a way to emphasize the similarities between what Tchaikovsky wrote in 1890 and what Schoenberg wrote in 1899, and to downplay the stylistic and harmonic differences between the pieces. To that end, Tchaikovsky’s external journey to Italy is played in a way that emphasizes the dissonances within the work and gives it a kind of nervous, almost skittish energy. Schoenberg’s journey, which is inward rather than outward, gets a warm and Romantic interpretation that is certainly valid but is at odds with the cooler approach, looking ahead toward the composer’s later works, that this piece usually receives. It is almost, but not quite, as if the performers are playing up Schoenbergian hints in Tchaikovsky and Tchaikovskian revenants in Schoenberg. Yet the intention is not to turn the works into something different from what they are – it is to showcase the elements within them that are parallel and indicative of the times in which the two sextets were composed. These are thoughtful and genuinely interesting performances that are not really first choices for either work but are more in the nature of reconsiderations, re-viewings, that will be of particular interest to listeners already familiar with the music and wanting to experience it in some different ways.
Gordon Getty’s opera Usher House is a different way of experiencing Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and this too is an interesting and in some ways unexpected journey – in this case, into Poe’s thinking and the way it meshes, or fails to mesh, with that of Getty (born 1933). The moody, introspective, epicene qualities of Poe’s tale would seem less a match for Getty’s rather expansive temperament than for the approach of, say, Debussy, who did in fact write a libretto for an opera based on this story but who never completed the music. Debussy was so sensitive to the nuances of Poe (whose work he knew in Baudelaire’s translation) that he planned to have the three male singers in his work all be baritones – a powerful indication that Debussy saw them (the narrator, doctor and Roderick Usher) as three sides of the same personality. Whether Debussy would have carried through this intention is of course unknown. What is known is that Getty is not the only contemporary composer fascinated by this Poe tale: Philip Glass wrote an opera based on the same tale in 1987. Getty’s work, whose staged première is scheduled for next year, is not so much true to Poe’s tale as it is based upon it. Getty turns the story into one of good vs. evil, making Poe himself the narrator, adding ghostly ancestors and a Faustian bargain, and wrapping the whole tale in a kind of gothic warmth that is quite foreign to Poe’s writing and lacks Poe’s anticipatory psychological profundity. Getty’s approach does, however, hark back in some ways to the tale that influenced Poe himself: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Das Majorat” (“Primogeniture”). Whether the Hoffmann echoes are deliberate or not, they are there. Getty writes well and effectively for the voice, and his primarily tonal orientation allows him to use dissonance effectively to make points about disturbance and disorientation – of which there is quite a bit here. The expansion of the story, the involvement of elements not included by Poe, removes some of the sense of claustrophobic inevitability from the tale, but Getty offers, in compensation, some well-considered, atmospheric orchestral writing that pulls listeners into a skewed and disturbed world that, if it is less haunting than Poe’s, is as effective in its own, different way. Usher House will not be to the taste of many opera lovers or Poe lovers, but it is a legitimate translation of Poe’s story to the stage and has the advantage of being very well sung by all the soloists and played with appropriate lugubriousness and portentousness by Orquestra Gulbenkian under Lawrence Foster. And it is recorded in top-notch SACD sound. Unlike Getty’s earlier Plump Jack, which uses Shakespeare’s actual language but deviates rather too much from the spirit of the Falstaff plays to be wholly engaging, Usher House succeeds on its own terms and proves both theatrically and musically satisfying – although it should not be, and will not be, mistaken for what Poe actually wrote.
Listeners who are particularly impressed by Lisa Delan’s handling of the role of Madeline in the opera, and want to hear more of her in songs by Getty and other American composers, will enjoy The Hours Begin to Sing, in which Delan does a lovely job with Getty’s Four Emily Dickinson Songs, whose sensibility is worlds apart from that of Poe even though the poets were near-contemporaries and both obsessed with death. Getty’s settings make an interesting contrast with Four Cabaret Poems by William Bolcom (born 1938) – and Delan’s handling of these very different works says a great deal about her vocal sensitivity and versatility. Bolcom’s songs channel but do not reproduce the spirit of Kurt Weill, and Delan is comfortable both with their nuances and with their torch-song elements. The other works on this very well-recorded SACD are of somewhat less interest, resulting in a (+++) rating despite the high performance quality. Three Irish Folksong Settings by John Corigliano (born 1938) are pleasant and unobtrusive enough, although the music is not Corigliano’s most distinguished. Rūmī: Quatrains of Love by Luna Pearl Woolf (born 1973) has something of the exotic in its origins but is rather ordinary in execution. The Vilna Poems by David Garner (born 1954), while pleasant enough, are too slight to merit their greater length (21 minutes) than anything else on the disc. From the Book of Nightmares by Jake Heggie (born 1961) is more successful and actually goes rather well with Getty’s Poe-based opera, although it was not intended to; but its effects are on the expected and rather unsurprising side. It is a line from the poetry of Galway Kinnell, used in Heggie’s work, that gives this disc its title. This recording is certainly a fine showcase for Delan, who is very well supported by pianist Kristin Pankonin and the other musicians here. But the music itself, although impressive from time to time, does not generally sustain particularly well; nor does most of it cause listeners to sit up and take notice in the way that some American songs do – such as those of Charles Ives.
June 13, 2013
The Green Bath. By Margaret Mahy. Illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.
Coral Reefs. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
How much of an adventure can a child have while taking a bath? Not much – unless he happens to be in The Green Bath. In this wonderful story from the late Margaret Mahy (1936-2012), Sammy’s father brings the odd-looking, claw-footed (or paw-footed) tub home from the flea market, just as the next-door neighbor comes home with a sleek speedboat, leading to the neighbors’ boys teasing Sammy for his thoroughly uninteresting water-related object. But…well, as Sammy’s dad installs the old bathtub, Sammy notices some strange things about it, and readers – thanks to Steven Kellogg’s illustrations – see even more than Sammy does, as the bath chuckles and smiles and scratches itself and then closes its eyes (yes, it has eyes) when Sammy’s mother orders him into the tub in preparation for a visit from his grandma. Sammy decides to have as much of an adventure in the tub as possible, so he dons swimsuit, snorkel and water wings and starts to imagine that the bath is jiggling and jumping and leaping and bounding…. But is he imagining it? The bath rushes out the house’s back door and zips all the way to the beach, where its entry into the water causes a wave that swamps the boys from next door, who are there with their father and his new boat. And suddenly Sammy is caught up in a whole series of adventures: mermaids singing, a race with a sea serpent, and then an encounter with pirates whose dastardly plans are foiled by Sammy, the bath and the sea serpent acting together: “Sammy bewildered them with bubbles and baffled them with soapsuds.” After a delightful wild-water ride back to shore, the bath rushes back across the beach and all the way home, settling itself in place just as Sammy’s mother and grandma show up at the bathroom door, putting an end to all the imaginary fun. But is it imaginary? Well, Sammy is wearing a pirate’s hat now, and happens to have a treasure chest, which he spends some time unloading on the window ledge, and at the very end of the book, on the copyright page and inside back cover, we see Sammy taking his grandma to the beach in the brightly smiling bathtub and introducing her to the sea serpent. Real, unreal, or a little bit of both, The Green Bath is completely charming and a quintessential case of good clean fun for readers and the book’s characters alike.
The redoubtable Seymour Simon turns his attention to some real-world water wonderfulness in Coral Reefs, using his usual formula for a book about the world around us: compact, easy-to-read, fact-packed text combined with beautiful photographs from a variety of sources. Starting with an explanation that a coral reef is “a gigantic community of living things,” Simon discusses and shows hard and soft corals, explains where coral reefs are found and how exceptionally diverse the life is in and around them, talks about the three main types of reefs (fringing, barrier and atolls), and then mentions some reef denizens and how they live. Extreme closeups of a moray eel and parrotfish are among the visual attractions here, along with the super-bright colors for which reefs and reef fish are known – contrasted with, on one page, a reef that has turned white and is dying, as Simon explains ways in which reefs can be contaminated and otherwise threatened. Beautiful photos taking up more than a full page conclude the book as Simon talks about people whose livelihoods depend on the reefs and explains that reefs can be “thousands of times larger than even the tallest skyscraper” – a truly amazing fact that hopefully will make young readers even more interested in studying coral reefs and finding out the importance of protecting them and the millions and millions of creatures that depend on them. A short “Read More about It” list at the end of the book – on the same page as an index and a useful glossary – is a fine place to start getting more information after absorbing this latest of Simon’s very impressive introductions to the natural world.
The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy. By Martha Brockenbrough. Illustrated by Israel Sanchez. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.
Fly Guy #13: Fly Guy and the Frankenfly. By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School. By Barbara Park. Random House. $12.99.
Pity the poor Dinosaur Tooth Fairy. The last of her kind, she has long outlived the creatures whose baby teeth (including some really big baby teeth) she used to collect. She does still have her collection, which she polishes and cares for way, way in the back of a museum, but she has not had a tooth to add to it in – well, in millennia. So imagine how excited she gets when a little girl who is visiting the museum has a very, very loose tooth that pops out right there! The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy simply must have that tooth, even if that means confronting modern creatures that she finds scarier than the dinosaurs she remembers: a “giant, roaring monster” with “swoopy lashes” (a bus with big windshield wipers), for example, and “a beast who has splendid fangs of his own and a great deal of drool” (a dog). Martha Brockenbrough adds to the frantic pace of The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy by giving the title character a rival: the modern, human tooth fairy, first spotted in disguise in the museum but soon seen chasing after the same little girl’s tooth that the Dinosaur Tooth Fairy craves. There are misunderstandings and confusions aplenty here as the two tooth fairies both show up at the girl’s home, and Israel Sanchez’ illustrations keep the amusement level of the story high at all times – for instance, check the expression on the upside-down hamster (“the small furry mammal”) dumped unceremoniously out of his cage as the Dinosaur Tooth Fairy searches for the little girl’s tooth. Eventually, the two tooth fairies meet, arrange an exchange that pleases both of them, and become friends, while readers will see that the still-sleeping girl is going to wake up not only to money under her pillow but also to a nice selection of bones (she can always give them to the dog!). Cute characters and an amusingly offbeat story combine to make The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy a tasty treat of a book.
There is nothing as big as a dinosaur in Tedd Arnold’s 13th Fly Guy book, Fly Guy and the Frankenfly. There is, however, a monster – which Fly Guy’s boy, Buzz, dreams that Fly Guy has created after the two friends have spent the evening (actually the proverbial “dark and stormy night”) playing Frankenstein-related games. Buzz has made Frankenstein-monster puzzles, costumes and a drawing, but when he is ready for bed, Fly Guy proclaims himself “bizzy” and does not go to sleep. In his dreams, Buzz realizes that Fly Guy is making a Frankenfly monster – which turns out to be momentarily scary but not really dangerous. Then, in the morning, Buzz learns what Fly Guy was really making: a “Buzz iz bezt frienz” picture. So everything ends as happily as ever in the latest entry in a consistently silly series that has more warmth than you might expect for the ongoing story of a boy and his fly (or a fly and his boy).
Speaking of ongoing stories with unforgettable central characters, the adventures of Junie B. Jones show no sign of letting up, and that includes her school adventures now that she has progressed all the way to first grade. The new edition of Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School is unusual in that this hardcover book has come out after the paperback (which was in spiral-bound format) rather than before. The book itself is the same as it was when first published in 2009, being an informational work rather than a school adventure – but bubbling over with typical Junie B. enthusiasm: “I have learned a jillion helpful hints that will help you SURVIVE at school. …I am going to pass this information on to Y-O-U!!! (Right in this EXACT BOOK, I mean!) I am a GEM for doing this.” There are sections here that include “Getting Started,” “Getting There” and “Getting Bossed Around (Some of the bossy bosses who will boss you.)” The “boss” section includes not only the principal but also the janitor (“boss of keys”), the nurse (“boss of sick kids”), teachers, and even “the boss of cookies.” Not surprisingly, there is a section called “Getting in Trouble,” that being a subject in which Junie B. is an expert; but she is also pretty good at this section’s subtitle: “Plus how to stay out of it!” Here you will find “Names you should not call people – probably” and “Dumb school rules” and “More rules I didn’t know about until I actually got notes sent home.” Junie B.’s personality comes through clearly on every page of the book, and Barbara Park manages to use her character’s unending enthusiasm to communicate some important school-related advice (“Do NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT peek at your neighbor’s test paper”), in part by juxtaposing it with silliness (“Do NOT eat a ham sandwich during science. [This (rule) seems unreasonable to me.]”). It would be stretching things to say that Junie B.’s Essential Survival Guide to School is actually essential for a good school experience. But for all Junie B. fans, it will be a must-have – not only for reading in its new hardcover format but also for drawing on the pages where Junie B. happily invites reader participation.