March 28, 2013
Frogged. By Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt. $16.99.
Boris on the Move. By Andrew Joyner. Branches/Scholastic. $15.99.
Boris Gets a Lizard. By Andrew Joyner. Branches/Scholastic. $15.99.
Herpetology, the scientific study of reptiles and amphibians, doesn’t garner much attention in books for young readers, but the ups and downs of people with herps, or people who are herps, provide a lot of entertainment. Vivian Vande Velde takes her own unique and rather dark view of fairy tales into Frogged, the umpteenth version of the Grimm fairy tale of The Frog Prince and one of many modern retellings in which the kissing of the frog doesn’t do quite what it should. Here, Princess Imogene, fresh from being bored by being required to read a book called The Art of Being a Princess, encounters a talking frog that claims to be a bewitched prince despite being ill-mannered and not very well-spoken. Imogene, who has a good heart, kisses the frog to break the spell, and finds herself turned into a frog – a no-longer-unusual twist on the old story. But this is a Vande Velde book, not a sweet Disney retelling such as The Princess and the Frog, the 2009 movie in which two companion frogs need to find themselves, find each other and find true love. It turns out that the transformed-into-a-frog character was not a prince at all, but a mere commoner and a rather nasty one to boot, who ran afoul of a witch by treating her rather foully, and who fully deserved to be frogged. But the spell under which he was placed, while it could be broken by someone kissing the frog, would turn the kisser into a frog while transforming the kissee back to a (rather unpleasant) human. This seems pretty unfair, especially to Imogene, who, having experienced frogginess, does not want to turn someone else into a frog through a kiss. She tries to persuade the boy, Harry, to help her get to the witch so she can try to cajole the magic wielder into reversing the spell; but Harry does not care at all and goes on his merry and unconcerned way, leaving Imogene thoroughly frogged and unable to make the long trip (for a frog) to the witch’s home, much less back to her parents’ castle. And then there’s the traveling theater troupe. What is that doing here? Well, Vande Velde at her best and most amusing (which she is in Frogged) pulls the story this way and that, testing out its directions and limits until she finds how to shape it just right. Think of it as a taffy pull with words. Imogene, it turns out, has a long way to go and a lot of growing-up to do before she will have a chance to live happily ever after; and while it spoils nothing to reveal that she does get her happy ending, it would spoil quite a bit to explain how. Finding out requires a hop, skip and jump into Frogged for a refreshing dip into silly absurdity that nevertheless has some heart and soul at its core. Amphibians such as frogs are often wrongly said to be cold-blooded (untrue: they simply heat their bodies from external sources rather than an internal furnace like the one we mammals have); but the cold-bloodedness in Frogged lies not in the frog but in some of the surrounding humans, while the warmth and amusement of the book penetrate just about everywhere.
The herp in Boris Gets a Lizard is, of course, a lizard, not a frog, but what kind of lizard it turns out to be is what the book is all about. The first two Boris books are in Scholastic’s new “Branches” line, which offers easy-to-read, nicely illustrated chapter books that are more substantial than early chapter books from other publishers. Andrew Joyner’s Boris is an anthropomorphic pig, somewhat more bristly than pigs usually are in children’s books, and he has a taste for books, sports, pets, and big dreams. In the first Boris book, Boris on the Move, lizards make a couple of cameo appearances: a small one when Joyner introduces Boris and a big one in one of Boris’ imagined adventures. The real adventure here, though, is suitably small. Boris lives with his parents in an old bus that no longer goes anywhere but that his folks used to use to travel the world – they seem to be upright-standing porcine hippies who have now settled down. Realizing that Boris is unhappy about never going anywhere, his parents get the bus going again one day and take Boris on a trip to a nearby “conservation park,” where he gets separated from them and encounters something coming through the bushes – not, however, a dangerous beast (or even a herp), but a quickly adopted pet to add to the family. Then, in Boris Gets a Lizard, Boris’ big dreams lead him to ask the local zoo to let him borrow a Komodo dragon – the world’s largest lizard – instead of the small skink that he actually has as one of his pets. Certain that the Komodo dragon will soon be visiting him, Boris, who has been regaling his class with Komodo dragon stories every Tuesday, makes preparations at home and invites everyone to come see the huge reptile when it arrives. But of course it doesn’t, and Boris has to work his way through the self-created misunderstanding and mend fences with all his friends – which he does quite neatly. A zoo visit lets Boris and friends actually see a Komodo dragon, and a snake and skink have cameo roles in this book as well, and the whole thing is a pleasantly happy and herpy adventure in a series that looks as if it will appeal to a great many early readers.
43 Old Cemetery Road, Book Five: Hollywood, Dead Ahead. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt. $15.99.
I Represent Sean Rosen. By Jeff Baron. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
There is always some additional grist for the entertainment mill in the antics and excesses of Hollywood, where for the past century overpaid and under-talented people with the right appearance and sufficient deficiency of scruples have become America’s version of royalty – until they go too far and audiences move on to the next person who is famous for being famous. The Klise sisters have a great deal of fun with Hollywood stereotypes – and remember that stereotyping exists because it is, at some level, an accurate portrayal – in their fifth visit to 43 Old Cemetery Road. This is the house in Ghastly, Illinois, where author Ignatius B. Grumply and ghost Olive C. Spence live with their adopted son, Seymour Hope, whose name (“see more hope”) is but one of the entirely apposite appellations in Hollywood, Dead Ahead. As always in this series, the book is told through printed matter: letters (the only way Olive can communicate with the living), newspapers, scandal sheets, even a transcription of a climactic movie scene. In this book are a slimy, scheming studio owner named Moe Block Busters (“more blockbusters”); his even slimier and more-scheming assistant, Myra Manes (“my remains,” with a pun on “mane” as hair, which turns out to be important); and his almost-equally-slimy would-be successor as studio head, Phillip D. Rubbish (self-explanatory). There is also a 92-year-old star who has won every Hollywood award except an Oscar and is therefore named Ivana Oscar. And there are Luke Ahtmee (“look at me”), image-makeover specialist, and tooth-makeover specialist dentist Dr. Miles Smyle, and (back home in Ghastly) an overreaching and overconfident handyman named Hugh Briss (“hubris”) who gets his comeuppance, or come-downance, in the end. The rollicking plot has Iggy, Olive and Seymour cheated out of their work by Moe Block Busters, who is determined to create a film that instead of featuring Olive will be about an evil ghost named Evilo (“Olive” spelled backwards). A horrendous contract and ridiculous makeovers combine to infuriate and depress Iggy and Seymour, while an even worse contract including a “death clause” almost makes the awful movie into Ivana Oscar’s final performance, until eventually the tables are appropriately turned and everything works out all right for everyone except the bad guys, Hugh Briss, and FAA inspector Don Worrie, who may tell travelers “don’t worry” but who finds Olive’s presence on flights both worrisome and puzzling. Self-referential newspaper ads about upcoming movies and new chapters of (what else?) 43 Old Cemetery Road add to the fun in a book that shows there is certainly no place like home, or if there is, it certainly isn’t Hollywood.
Still, the allure of Hollywood – all that fame, all that money – is never-ending, and the fact that there is something juvenile about all the grabbiness and self-importance merely means that Hollywood wannabes are good subjects for books for young readers. Say, ones about 13 years old – which is the age of Sean Rosen in Jeff Baron’s debut novel (although Baron has previously written plays and screenplays). I Represent Sean Rosen is a typical Hollywood tale, G-rated for the readership at which it is targeted, with some cleverness in presentation and an underlying premise that isn’t nearly as far-fetched as you might think when you first hear it: Sean has a blockbuster script to sell to Hollywood (where scripts do seem to have been mostly written by 13-year-olds), but he knows he can’t do it on his own and needs an agent/manager…so he invents one named Dan Welch. And grabs an E-mail address for DanWelchManagement. And is quickly off and running, complete with podcasts and meetings via Skype and the Web site www.SeanRosen.com (which, not surprisingly, really exists, as part of the is-this-reality-or-isn’t-it premise of the book). So Sean makes his lists (“when I have a lot to do, I make a list”), keeps up minimally with his school work, and stays focused where he really wants to focus: “The movie idea. I love movies. How hard can it be to come up with one? It’s not like I actually have to make a movie by tomorrow. Or even write a script for a movie by tomorrow. All I need for tomorrow is an idea for a movie. Or a series of movies.” And of course Sean wows everybody with his concept, A Week with Your Grandparents, which the Hollywood types like because (like most Hollywood movies) it is a little bit of one successful film and a little bit of another and is slightly different but not so different that anybody would have to, you know, take a real chance and get creative and maybe lose his or her job if the thing crashed and burned. Well, all goes swimmingly for Sean, who inevitably discovers that without creativity – and, more specifically, creative control – his vision will not be his anymore, so he learns an important lesson and finds tremendous success in ways that really count. And makes a bunch of money in the process. I Represent Sean Rosen isn’t quite satirical or sarcastic enough to be as funny as Baron seems to want it to be, and it isn’t all that unusual on the wish-fulfillment scale, either. But this (+++) book is well-paced, written to be super-easy to read, and enjoyable both in itself and through its online tie-ins. The total cluelessness of Sean’s parents, typical enough in books of this sort, is overdone, and an eventual twist in which Sean finds out why his father never finished college does not evoke the emotion that it seems designed to bring out. But most readers of more-or-less Sean’s age will simply enjoy the fantasy here and not look too closely at the plot or the very thin characterizations. And that, come to think of it, means that I Represent Sean Rosen fits into Hollywood thinking very well indeed.
Drunk Tank Pink and Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave. By Adam Alter. Penguin. $25.95.
The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep: Simple Solutions for Kids from Birth to 5 Years. By Harvey Karp, M.D. William Morrow. $15.99.
“At its heart,” writes Adam Alter in Drunk Tank Pink, “this book is designed to show that your mind is the collective end point of a billion tiny butterfly effects,” referring to meteorologist Edward Lorenz’ famous talk suggesting that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas. Alter’s assertion of a wholly deterministic model for human thinking and response is something of a Holy Grail for an assistant professor in the marketing department of the Stern School of Business in New York City – which is what Alter is. After all, if one’s mind, one’s thinking and one’s reaction pattern are created by minuscule circumstances distant in time or place from where one happens to be, then there must be a way for marketers to harness the butterfly effect and use it to shove more consumer products of dubious value down people’s unwitting throats – and have the people, thinking they bought the products for their own good reasons, thank the marketers for “alerting” them to the great benefits of the oobleck of the month. Not that Alter puts things so crassly – not by a long shot. In fact, Drunk Tank Pink is an utterly fascinating study in science and pseudo-science, a remarkable journey through experiments that certainly demonstrate that influencers on humans are disparate and widespread and frequently unconscious – even if it does not show purveyors of crass commercialism how to harness human thought and emotion consistently (yet).
The book’s title refers to a specific shade of pink that was discovered in the 1970s to reduce aggression, and that soon began to be used in places where unruly prisoners were kept, in an attempt to calm them. Then it caught on for other purposes: on seats in bus waiting areas to reduce vandalism, in visiting teams’ locker rooms to try to give an edge to home teams, and so on. And does it work? Well….maybe. This book is full of “well, maybe” thoughts presented with a touch too much certainty – or perhaps a touch too much intensive marketing. Much of what Alter discusses is so interesting that it is worth reading even if his conclusions are questionable. There is, for example, an amazing study of chess grandmasters – about as controlled, rational and cerebral a bunch of humans as you are likely to find. Researchers discovered that because heterosexual male chess players, like other heterosexual males, produce more testosterone in the presence of attractive women, they tend unconsciously to adopt riskier gambits when playing such women than when playing other men. In a related experiment designed to find out whether men’s response to attractive females is caused by sexual desire or merely by distraction, researchers – yes, different ones – discovered that the tipping pattern of men who received lap dances from topless women was fascinatingly different based on elements of the women’s behavior that the men could not know: if the women were not using oral contraceptives, they consistently earned larger tips during their monthly fertile phase than at any other time of the month, while if they were taking birth-control pills, they earned about the same amount throughout the month. The pill really did regularize their cycles – financial as well as menstrual. And what is the point of all this, assuming findings like these cannot (yet) be harnessed for marketing purposes? There may be no real “point” in terms of practical applicability of all the research that Alter cites, and in fact the real-world value of it is questionable: would an angry person in a bar be less likely to slug someone wearing a “drunk tank pink” shirt because of the shirt’s color, or more likely to attack because of some imagined association with the color, such as homosexuality? Outside the laboratory, there is no real way to know. But when a “laboratory” can be a “gentlemen’s club” in Albuquerque (where the lap-dancing study was conducted), and when experiments can show that responses to an identical cartoon panel are very different between Japanese and Americans because of cultural differences involving individualism and collectivism, then there are certainly lessons of some sort to be learned from Drunk Tank Pink. The thing is that, by Alter’s own argument, each reader’s response is likely to be wholly different from that of the next reader, since the confluence of events bringing each reader to and through the book is likely to be deterministically different. There is something philosophical to be garnered here, even if philosophy is scarcely Alter’s interest. Whatever that something may be, however it may vary from reader to reader, it is worth exploring and thinking about, because the experiments that Alter recounts are absolutely fascinating even if their implications are, like the effects of a butterfly’s wings, uncertain and ultimately unknowable.
Behavioral issues are far more down-to-earth and have far more immediacy for the parents of young children, and that is Harvey Karp’s milieu. The paperback edition of The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep, available now – a year after the original hardcover publication – will be a great find for parents whose own sleep is constantly interrupted by infant and toddler sleep difficulties. There are time-tested ways of handling middle-of-the-night infant-sleep issues, from rocking chairs to walking around the house cuddling the baby to taking a nighttime drive. Those approaches sometimes work, sometimes do not, but have the disadvantage that even if they do succeed where the child is concerned, they result in parents being sleep-deprived and starting the next morning exhausted, bleary-eyed and mentally dull. This is not a recipe for success in either work or parenting – and repeating the behavior night after night, resulting in exhaustion day after day, only makes matters worse.
Karp, a pediatrician and child-development specialist, is a sort of one-man baby-advice factory, and is not above reminding readers of it: “If you’ve seen my DVDs and books, you’ll recognize some old favorite techniques…” “You can find a detailed demonstration and discussion of the calming reflex and 5 S’s in The Happiest Baby DVD or digital download.” And he has a folksy style that may take some getting used to: “Most new moms notice that their memory turns to mush right after giving birth (or even a few months before).” “Once you have your S’s in place, here are additional cues that will make your little one’s nighty-night routine even more comforting.” About those S’s: they stand for specific things (swaddling, side/stomach, shushing, swinging and sucking), but Karp is enamored of the 19th letter of the alphabet throughout this book: “Setting the Stage,” “Soothing Your Sweetie,” “A Short, Sweet, Sacred Time,” “Another S: Smell,” “Sleep Schedules,” “Sleep Success,” and so forth. There is nothing wrong with this same sort of stylistic stuff if you happen to like it, but it does tend to become cloying and overly cute after a while.
The basic ideas here, though, are so good that potential irritation with the presentation fades quickly into the background. Karp divides his book into four sections: birth to three months, three to 12 months, one to five years, and a final section on “special situations” (sigh). He presents graphs and charts, explanations of how sleep changes over a person’s life, and very useful Q&A sections for each age range. He discusses subjects such as “state control,” the level of a baby’s awareness at any particular point in time, and how you can use knowledge of your baby’s alertness to improve his or her sleep; and he offers a variety of experiments and demonstrations to show just how processes such as state control work. He spends pages and pages exploding various myths about babies and sleep. For example, one myth is that “sleeping babies need us to tiptoe around,” but the reality is that “you may like sleeping in peace and quiet, but for your baby, it’s really weird!” There are discussions of swaddling, having your baby sleep in your bed, sleep positions, use of white noise (the right kind of white noise; Karp explains what works and what does not), and how developmental stages change sleep patterns and should change parental response to them. A number of Karp’s statements will be counterintuitive – for instance, “the best time to start your bedtime routine is in the morning!” But Karp always explains why these ideas, even if startling, are not only correct but also important for a better sleep experience for children – which translates into a better one for long-suffering parents. There is a lot of information here, and the layout of the book is somewhat overdone, with bullet points, subsections, subheads, boxes of information, question sections, illustrations and other design elements tumbling over each other to the point of confusion (especially for parents who are sleep-deprived). However, the “Crib Notes” (one cutesy phrase among many) provide a good place to begin: they appear at chapter ends and summarize what has been discussed, and can be a good starting point that can send you back into the chapter for more-in-depth understanding of Karp’s ideas. The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep is perhaps a little too full of itself, but it is also full of intelligent and very useful suggestions whose value will be quickly established for exhausted, overstressed parents for whom a good night’s sleep – the adult kind – is wholly dependent on their baby’s restful slumber.
Bonk! A “Mutts” Treasury. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
Big Nate Out Loud. By Lincoln Peirce. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Dirt on My Shirt. By Jeff Foxworthy. Illustrated by Steve Björkman. Harper. $9.99.
For many decades, comic strips were almost entirely about action, from the Katzenjammer Kids’ antics to Ignatz continually throwing bricks at Krazy Kat’s head. Over time, though, some cartoonists realized that they could build strips around language and ideas, not solely activity: Walt Kelly’s Pogo was the greatest example of this, and G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury carries on the approach today. In addition, a few cartoonists – very few – discovered a way to make a kind of gentle sweetness the main ingredient in their work, using spare writing and modest action (if any) to communicate a relaxing and fascinating alternative world to which readers would be delighted to pay repeated visits. There is no better exemplar of this gentle cartooning style than Patrick McDonnell, whose Mutts is as sweet as can be but also makes a number of points very skillfully – about human-animal relationships, animal adoption, environmental issues and more. There is all of this in the latest splendid Mutts “Treasury” volume, Bonk! For example, Earl the dog and Mooch the cat find the perfect place to hibernate: in front of the counter at Fatty Snax Deli. Mooch continues his adoration of the “little pink sock.” McDonnell’s opening panels for his Sunday strips – optional drawings that many newspapers do not use – are drawn with tremendous care, cleverness and understanding of both comic art and fine art. The recurring “Shelter Stories” sequence shows just how perfectly matched animals and their humans can be, whether a singing woman brings home a singing bird or a yoga lover takes home a cat that stretches with ease in yoga-like postures. The extent to which Mutts differs from classic strips – and the extent to which McDonnell’s understanding of those earlier comics is superb – show when McDonnell deliberately recalls those strips in a series called “Klassic Komics.” One, “Little Orphan Shtinky,” features both Shtinky the cat and Earl with wide, all-white eyes, Earl proclaiming “Arf!” while Shtinky says “Leapin’ Lizards!” – two of the hallmark phrases of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie. Another, “Little Mooch in Slumberland,” features Mooch falling out of a bed taken straight from Winsor McCay’s brilliant Little Nemo in Slumberland. And comics are not the only classics that get McDonnell’s wonderful treatment. For example, there are readings from Mother Goose – by a goose – and tributes to Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and other characters. “Prof. Mooch” teaches class his unique way in one series here, while Jules (also known as Shtinky) dreams of India and a chance to meet a cobra, tiger, even a dancing bear that is a tribute to Baloo in the Disney animated version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. McDonnell is immensely knowing, even erudite, when it comes to art and comics, but there is not a scintilla of arrogance about him as he takes readers, day after day, to and through a gently surreal landscape of animals in which the strangest beasts, most of the time, are the humans.
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate is a much more traditional pratfalls-and-other-kinds-of-action strip, targeted at younger readers than is Mutts: Peirce (pronounced “purse”) creates mainly for preteens like Nate Wright himself. Nate is 11 in Big Nate Out Loud, a collection that has been around since 2011 but is now available with all strips in color and a pull-out poster of the book’s cover in the back. Here, it turns out that Nate, for all his overdone sense of self-importance, has a clever way of persuading teachers to hold class outdoors on a nice day; possesses a remarkable but selective memory (he has total recall for pop-culture facts but cannot remember anything school-related); and is the school’s “nickname czar,” explaining that “a good nickname works on many levels.” Also in this volume, Nate – a total slob, albeit one who can find anything in the complete junk heap that emerges whenever he opens his locker – is hypnotized into becoming neat, and soon drives everyone crazy with his transformation; and starts a rock band, but sings so badly that he is soon demoted to tambourine player (with Artur, the super-nice character whose unending courtesy drives Nate crazy, becoming lead singer). There are no grand societal themes in Big Nate; indeed, there is no major exploration of anything of consequence. And that is a big part of the strip’s charm: it is determinedly old-fashioned in many ways, with plenty of silliness and lots of action of the “stuffed locker spewing junk” and “trouble with teachers” types. Yet Big Nate has enough of a contemporary feel and enough goofiness in Nate himself and in the supporting cast to be a great deal of fun, day in and day out, without a shred of profundity.
Steve Björkman’s cartoony illustrations for Dirt on My Shirt are very much action-oriented, too, and are the primary attraction of this (+++) book featuring poems by Jeff Foxworthy. Foxworthy is a bit like Nate Wright in his apparent sense of himself as better at humorous poetry than he actually is. There is certainly nothing wrong with the poems, especially short ones such as “Wishing and Fishing,” whose four lines go: “I was just wishing that I could go fishing/ What I might catch I don’t know/ A shark or a whale, or a fish with no tail/ No matter ’cause I’ll let ’em go.” But the deliberately crowded illustration within which the words appear – showing water creatures of all sorts, shapes and colors – is creative in a way that makes the poem seem ho-hum. Likewise, the illustrations for “Noises” are much funnier than a poem in which Foxworthy, needing a rhyme for “fire truck in a hurry,” comes up with “my baby brother Murray” (well, it does rhyme). Again and again, the pictures here make the comparatively ordinary poems into something special. “Staring Contest” shows a boy and cat with equally bugged-out eyes and faces almost touching – and words that begin, “I am staring at my cat/ He doesn’t bat an eye.” “Uninvited Guests” features big-eyed, smiling squirrels swarming all over a bird feeder and the tree to whose branch it is attached. “What Do You See?” is a real gem: a simple poem naming things that are easily visible in a pleasant outdoor scene goes with a two-page illustration that not only contains the items specified in the words but also includes many more things to find – as explained on the book’s copyright page. Dirt on My Shirt is mildly amusing and enjoyable to read, and some of Foxworthy’s ideas are especially pleasant – such as his notion of escaped balloons rising to Heaven for little angels to play with. But it is really Björkman’s illustrations that make the book so much fun – as in the body language and expressions of those angels. Some of the pictures here are gentle, some are full of activity, and all fit the subject matter completely and lovingly.
Peepsqueak Wants a Friend! By Leslie Ann Clark. Harper. $15.99.
Marley and the Great Easter Egg Hunt. By John Grogan. Illustrated by Richard Cowdrey. Harper. $9.99.
Mia: The Easter Egg Chase. By Robin Farley. Pictures by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov. HarperFestival. $4.99.
Easter Bunny on the Loose! By Wendy Wax. Illustrations by Dave Garbot. Harper. $7.99.
The coming of spring invariably brings, in books, the coming of springtime stories, and in particular Easter tales – mostly of the secular type. Pure springtime fun with the delightful chick Peepsqueak is to be found in Peepsqueak Wants a Friend! This is the second book of this character’s adventures after the eponymous first one. Leslie Ann Clark has a winner of adorableness here: wearing a red shirt with the initials “P.S.,” Peepsqueak is interminably optimistic and ever-determined to succeed at whatever modest goal he sets for himself. In Peepsqueak Wants a Friend! the goal is clear from the title: noticing that the other chicks are all “2 by 2,” but he is not, Peepsqueak decides to go into the woods and find a friend all his own. He keeps running into paired animals, including hedgehogs, birds and raccoons, and insists on continuing deeper into the forest – because he is following a set of VERY LARGE footprints that he is sure will lead him to a friend. Any possible scariness of the footprints is minimized by the narration, in which Clark repeatedly says that “Peepsqueak hopped, skipped, jumped, and skittered down the path,” with the four verbs in four different colors. Eventually coming to a cave where the footprints end, Peepsqueak calls loudly for the friend who, he is sure, is just inside – and sure enough, the huge creature in the cave is only too happy to be his friend, albeit only after some considerable startling of Peepsqueak’s fellow farm animals. A silly, pleasant springtime romp, Peepsqueak Wants a Friend! is a delight for ages 4-8.
The latest Marley adventure, for the same age range, is a particularly enjoyable one, thanks largely to Richard Cowdrey’s hyper-dynamic illustrations. All of Marley and the Great Easter Egg Hunt is fast – page after page has Marley in action and his family (and other people) in startled reaction, as the adorable but ever-misbehaving dog constantly zooms here and there after this and that. The main “this and that” things here are, of course, Easter eggs: the irrepressible Marley insists on helping Cassie in the town’s official hunt, and indeed manages to find egg after egg. But he is so far ahead of Cassie that by the time she catches up, someone else has found and taken every single egg that Marley first spotted. “Where’s that crazy dog going now?” asks Daddy at one point, and Cowdrey’s pictures certainly make Marley look, if not crazy, at least hyper-enthusiastic and constantly excited. The twist in John Grogan’s story involves one special Easter egg, which the mayor says is large but not easy to find. Readers will know that Marley will eventually be the one to find it and win the hunt, but how he finds it is the fun here. And it is very messy fun, as Marley discovers non-hardboiled eggs in a market and breaks them all over himself, then rushes into a bakery and gets covered with purple frosting, then runs through a large, egg-shaped piñata and emerges covered with confetti, which sticks to the frosting and egg. Marley is a mess, but of course he is an adorable one, looking like a decorated Easter egg himself as he continues to outrun his family and all the other townsfolk. But even Marley slows down eventually, and the way he very sloppily discovers the special Easter egg is pure Marley and pure fun.
Two (+++) series books, also for ages 4-8, offer Easter-themed entries as well, and if they are not quite as enjoyable as Marley’s latest story, they will be fun for kids who already like these specific characters and approaches. Mia: The Easter Egg Chase features the ballerina kitten in a much milder egg hunt than Marley’s. Mia gives some special help to little cousin Sophie, who cannot get to the eggs as quickly as the other cousins do. Mia’s niceness pays off for everyone, including Mia herself, with Robin Farley’s helpfulness message nicely set off by the illustrations by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov. A bound-in page of stickers adds to the enjoyment here: most of them are Easter eggs, and the book’s final page shows Mia’s back yard, where readers can “hide” them. And hiding and finding things – in particular, a golden egg – is the whole point of Easter Bunny on the Loose! This is in the “Seek and Solve Mystery” series, books with big and crowded pages in Where’s Waldo? mode, with six “suspects” shown at the beginning and the Easter Bunny acting as detective, assembling clues. The idea is to find the Easter bunny on each page – amid many, many other bunnies and lots and lots of things going on – and piece together the clues that the Easter bunny finds, one by one. Wendy Wax’s text is simple and straightforward, but Dave Garbot’s super-busy illustrations contain surprises here and there, beyond the “find it” one – for example, the chocolate Easter rabbit that seems (from its expression) to be an actual bunny inadvertently covered in chocolate. Eventually the Easter bunny finds all the clues and discovers the culprit, who – as usual in these books – meant well and was not really a thief but just someone planning a surprise that went awry. Once the mystery is solved, though, there is little reason for kids to re-read the book, although the inside back cover’s “bonus search” does suggest looking for some additional items in the pictures. And kids who enjoy brightly colored and very elaborate art may also have fun returning to Easter Bunny on the Loose! For others, it will be a one-time-use seasonal treat.
Bach: St. Matthew Passion. Werner Güra, Evangelist; Stephen Morscheck, Jesus; Lucy Crowe, soprano; Christine Rice, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass-baritone; Bertrand Grunenwald, bass; Schola Cantorum of Oxford, Maîtrise de Paris and Orchestre de Chambre de Paris conducted by John Nelson. Soli Deo Gloria. $34.99 (2 DVDs).
Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil. Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Kļava. Ondine. $16.99 (SACD).
Kaija Saariaho: La Passion de Simone. Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Tapiola Chamber Choir and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Ondine. $16.99 (SACD).
Mohammed Fairouz: Tahwidah (2008); Chorale Fantasy (2010); Native Informant—Sonata for Solo Violin (2011); Posh (2011); For Victims (2011); Jebel Lebnan (2011). Melissa Hughes, soprano; David Krakauer, clarinet; Borromeo String Quartet; Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Christopher Thompson, “baritenor”; Steven Spooner, piano; David Kravitz, baritone; Imani Winds. Naxos. $9.99.
Most people today use the word “passion” in a strictly secular sense, but the word has a much deeper meaning in religion, referring to the physical, mental and spiritual suffering of Jesus – and, by extension, of others – in the hours before death. And there is no more-intense musical passion in this sense, none more passionately (in any sense) created, than Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. A work that needs no visual support and one with which visuals can actually interfere in a recording, distracting listeners/viewers from the music’s depth and core meaning, the St. Matthew Passion rarely gets a visual presentation of such high quality as to merit serious purchase consideration by Bach lovers. But it gets one from John Nelson and the forces under his command. Soli Deo Gloria – Latin for “glory to God alone,” a phrase Bach himself employed to explain why he wrote his music – has produced a remarkably fine two-DVD set in which all the soloists sing with dramatic intensity and a feeling of spiritual fervor, the choral parts are delivered with equal understanding of the words and of Baroque style, and the orchestral playing is simply wonderful – supportive always, taking the lead when it should, supple and energetic and heartfelt throughout. Werner Güra is highly expressive as the narrator, the Evangelist, while Stephen Morscheck manages to emphasize the human side of Jesus while never downplaying his inherent divine nature. The other soloists, their vocal ranges appropriately reflecting the total span of the human voice, are uniformly excellent. And so is the clarity of the high-definition recording, in which director Louise Narboni manages to keep the video of this live performance from 2011as unintrusive into a listener’s/viewer’s experience as it can be. Narboni also directs a 52-minute bonus video that is much more down-to-earth than the performance: it features rehearsals of the work and discussions of it by Nelson, who clearly has a strong affinity for the music and the skill to bring out what he knows. This is a first-rate performance in which the video elements, far from undermining the work’s effectiveness, actually enhance it – and that is a real rarity.
The All-Night Vigil by Rachmaninoff is something of a rarity, too, being performed and recorded far less often than Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, piano concertos and other instrumental music. And this piece is fascinating to hear on Ondine’s very well-recorded SACD with the Latvian Radio Choir under Sigvards Kļava. This is an a cappella work in which Rachmaninoff took to heart what was at the time (1915) a Russian Orthodox Church proscription against the use of instruments in sacred music. Sometimes incorrectly called Vespers – only the first six of its 15 movements are settings of texts from the Russian Orthodox canonical hour of Vespers – this was one of Rachmaninoff’s own favorite pieces, and he asked that the fifth movement be sung at his funeral. The work is written in three different styles of chant, and depends heavily on the quality of the very low bass voices for which Rachmaninoff wrote the foundational parts. The Latvian Radio Choir’s basses are not as deep and resonant as some heard in earlier recordings, including the very first, made in 1965 under Alexander Sveshnikov. But they are strong and quite expressive, and indeed the expressiveness of the entire ensemble is what makes this recording so special. The harmonization is particularly good here – Rachmaninoff creates up to eight-part harmony and, in one section, 11-part – and the voices interweave with strength and emotional commitment throughout. Strictly speaking, this is not a religious “passion,” for although it focuses largely on Jesus and eventually proclaims his triumphant resurrection, it does not dwell on his last hours and martyrdom. But the work has plenty of passion in the “intensity” sense, and is delivered in this recording with style, attentiveness to detail, and a fine sense of choral balance and emotional commitment.
On another new Ondine SACD, the traditional religious sense of “passion” is embodied in the title of La Passion de Simone by Kaija Saariaho (born 1952). Like Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, this work has 15 parts, here called “stations,” with an obvious reference to the “stations of the cross.” Indeed, Saariaho links episodes of Simone Weil’s life to those stations – but the fact that the work is about Weil rather than Jesus or a more-typical martyr gives La Passion de Simone a distinctly modern slant. So does the fact that Saariaho employs electronic as well as conventional instruments. Weil (1909-1943) was something of an aberration among modern left-wing intellectuals, increasingly embracing religion over time and genuinely living out her beliefs. Indeed, her death at age 34 was in a sense a suicide, since she deliberately restricted her food intake because of her feelings about the near-starvation endured by so many during World War II. Weil was a darling of the Left through the 1960s and remains popular in some quarters at universities, especially in Europe. Certainly her increasing religious preoccupations, which shaded into mysticism, make her a fascinating subject for biography in our increasingly secular age. But despite its modern instrumentation and approach to its material, including use of a silent dancer, La Passion de Simone is more of a straightforward oratorio than any sort of in-depth psychological or intellectual exploration of Weil’s life and works. Dawn Upshaw, for whom the role of Simone was originally written, is a fine soprano soloist, and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the choral and orchestral forces with a sure hand, but La Passion de Simone never really catches fire. It is a bit too devoted to its subject, a bit too determined to make her life fit into the artificial “stations of the cross” framework, and ultimately not particularly gripping through much of its length (it runs more than an hour). The high-quality performance and some interesting musical elements earn this release a (+++) rating, but La Passion de Simone is unlikely to catch on as a major choral, much less religious, work for our time.
The new Naxos CD of the music of Mohammed Fairouz (born 1985) also gets a (+++) rating: it has high points and effectively intense moments, but much of the music sounds predictable and not particularly distinctive. The six works here are all world première recordings, and collectively they give a rather comprehensive portrait of this young and prolific composer, who favors vocal music but has also written four symphonies (and much else) to date. But it is not generally the vocal works here (such as Tahwidah, for soprano and clarinet, and Posh, for a male singer who can handle both baritone and tenor ranges, with piano) that convey the most passion in either a secular or religious sense; rather, it is the instrumental ones that recall Fairouz’ Egyptian heritage and mourn the victims of events there that plumb greater depths. True, For Victims for baritone and string quartet, his lament for those who died in the Egyptian revolution, is certainly heartfelt and effectively constructed, if somewhat predictable in its emotional flow. Also true, even when not writing vocal music, Fairouz seems to strive toward vocal forms, as in Chorale Fantasy for string quartet. But the most-effective pieces here are the most purely instrumental: Jebel Lebnan, written for and beautifully played by the Imani Winds and built around a central lamentation that feels more intense than those expressed vocally; and Native Informant, a five-movement solo-violin sonata written for Rachel Barton Pine and, again, excellently played by the performer for whom it was created. This piece too has a central movement, called “For Egypt,” that reaches out beyond specificity toward a general sense of connectedness with social and political troubles in every nation and every era. When he taps into widely felt emotion of this sort by exploring his own feelings – that is, his passions – about specific events in and related to Egypt, Fairouz writes affecting and effective works that come across better than his somewhat over-earnest vocal settings. Since he is still in his 20s, it is reasonable to expect that his style and the emotional trappings of his music will evolve and develop over time, from a foundation that has already produced some very well-constructed music.
March 21, 2013
The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf. By Mark Teague. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.
Perfectly Percy. By Paul Schmid. Harper. $17.99.
Monsters Love Colors. By Mike Austin. Harper. $15.99.
T-Rex Trying… By Hugh Murphy. Plume. $13.
Here are four books that the author/illustrators clearly had a great deal of fun inventing – resulting in plenty of enjoyment for young readers (ages 4-8) who dip into the creators’ worlds. Mark Teague’s The Three Little Pigs and the Somewhat Bad Wolf is the umpteenth retelling of the familiar story of the three pigs who build houses of different materials, here twisted so that the wolf is misunderstood and harmless and ends up embarrassed and admitting that he only huffed and puffed because “I was so hungry I could not think straight.” What sets the plot going here is the decision by a farmer and his wife to move to Florida: the farmer “paid the pigs for their good work and sent them on their way.” The first pig loves potato chips and builds a straw house so he has plenty of money left over for his favorite snack; the second adores “sody pop” and builds a house of sticks because “sticks are practically free, so he had lots of money left over for sody-pop.” The third pig – the only girl – is the practical one who builds a strong brick house and plants a garden, too, harvesting vegetables instead of consuming junk food (although she is the same size as the other pigs!). The “somewhat bad” wolf gets angry after he comes to town and finds restaurant after restaurant closed to him. By the time he stumbles upon the pigs’ houses, he is really hungry, which is why he tries the whole huff-and-puff routine. “I can’t believe that worked!” he says after he blows down the straw house – while the pig speeds away on his scooter. The second pig gets away on a bicycle after the wolf blows and blows again and is “amazed” when it works. But of course the technique fails at the brick house, and the pigs take pity on the exhausted wolf, and the four all end up living in that house as friends. The wolf “was hardly ever bad again,” Teague writes in closing a book whose words and pictures alike provide a very pleasant new twist on a very old story.
Perfectly Percy has a more-prickly protagonist – a porcupine. And the problem here is not huffing and puffing but popping: Percy loves balloons, but cannot prevent them from falling victim to his quills. Percy is drawn adorably: he is almost all quills, his body is egg-shaped, and he has little black dots for eyes and very short arms and legs and a completely winning smile. But Percy does have a problem with those balloons: “HAPPY little porcupines with balloons are soon SAD little porcupines.” Percy knows he has to come up with a solution to this problem – “Percy thought he must think,” as Paul Schmid puts it. But Percy cannot figure out what to do, and his sister, Pearl, is no help – all she does is stick marshmallows on Percy’s quills, resulting is an absolutely adorable picture but no answer to the balloon issue. Percy’s mom is too busy to help, so Percy goes back to thinking on his own, and after a day and night without ideas, he suddenly comes up with a solution at breakfast. It is a very messy solution, to be sure, but a hilariously apt one and “a perfectly Percy idea” that young readers will love (although parents should be sure not to let their kids imitate Percy too closely).
Speaking of messes, Mike Austin’s Monsters Love Colors looks like one from start to finish – there are scribbles and blotches and splats of color all over every page. It is all the fault of monsters – not very monstrous-looking ones, but certainly very messy and very colorful ones. The book is a celebration of colors, primary and mixed, starting with blue, red and yellow monsters that “mix, dance and wiggle” all over the page while smaller grey monsters peek at the goings-on. The big monsters first affirm their choices for favorite colors: red (“the color of ROAR!” and other things), yellow (“the color of HOWL!” and more), and blue (“the color of Scribble and Dribble” and so forth). Austin letters his words in different sizes, different shapes and different places all over the pages, adding to the sense of monstrous chaos while, in reality, carefully controlling the placement of everything here. Then the big monsters ask the small ones, one by one, “What new favorite color can we make for you?” And the small ones, one at a time, ask for orange, green and purple – which the big monsters create through color combinations, giving kids reading the book a quick lesson in the world of art and color amid the general messiness. The smallest grey monster, left for last, becomes frustrated (“I was supposed to say PURPLE!”) – but when his turn to pick a color finally comes, he proclaims what he wants with such intensity and in such large letters that colors and monsters go flying all over the page, or actually two pages. And then come two further pages that are filled with mixing and squishing and wiggling and dribbling, until the smallest monster ends up as – a rainbow! Part art book, part study in design, part silliness for its own sake, Monsters Love Colors is 100% fun and not even slightly monstrous, except perhaps for being monstrously delightful.
And why should kids have all the fun with monsters and colors and silliness? Hugh Murphy’s blog about a sad-sack T. Rex trying to get along in the modern world has now spawned a book about all the things this extinct monster is trying to do – everyday things that are simply beyond the abilities of the “tyrant lizard.” The problem, in most of Murphy’s concepts and drawings, comes from the well-known and still-not-understood fact that this gigantic dinosaur had enormous legs coupled with two tiny, armlike structures, each with only two claws – structures that appear completely useless, even vestigial, so out of proportion are they to the rest of the dinosaur’s body. The fun of Murphy’s book, whose drawings are black and white with a small splash of red or pink to draw attention to one element or another, comes from imagining T. Rex trying to contort his body to do things that we puny humans take for granted. Pick flowers? How, with that huge body and those tiny arms? Count to five? But the “arms” have only four fingers between them. Do a cartwheel? Out of the question. Serve himself food from a salad bar with a sneeze guard? Pull down the trap-door cord to get into the attic? Use a drive-through ATM or a public restroom’s hand dryer? Everything is pitifully and very amusingly impossible – there is no way the small arms and bulky body can possibly go together for cross-country skiing, pulling a parachute’s ripcord, playing the bongos, flossing, playing the flute… The list goes on and on, amusingly and sometimes hilariously, as Murphy manages to make T. Rex’s face just expressive enough to convey a mixture of frustration and resignation. Not all the drawings work – some rely simply on the dinosaur’s body size, such as “trying to play hide & seek,” and are not especially funny. But some are gems, such as one showing T. Rex struggling to ride a motorcycle or a bicycle – then succeeding with a unicycle (which has no handlebars) – and then facing frustration again when trying to pump up the unicycle’s tire. The wholly unrealistic and wholly ridiculous modern-world antics of this long-gone apex predator are those of a monster for our own time – one that modern life has cut down to size.
My Brother’s Book. By Maurice Sendak. Michael di Capua/HarperCollins. $18.95.
Stardines Swim High across the Sky, and Other Poems. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Carin Berger. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
The New Kid on the Block. By Jack Prelutsky. Drawings by James Stevenson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $9.99.
A Pizza the Size of the Sun. By Jack Prelutsky. Drawings by James Stevenson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $9.99.
There are poems for all ages – and not always the ages for which you expect them. Anyone who thinks of the late Maurice Sendak as a children’s-book creator will surely think again after reading, and looking at, My Brother’s Book. This is the final completed work by Sendak (1928-2012), and it is adult on every level. Drawing on verbal imagery from Shakespeare’s difficult and puzzling late play, The Winter’s Tale, and using an illustrative style reminiscent of that of William Blake, Sendak here offers a dense 24 pages of art and verbiage that jointly celebrate and mourn the closeness of brothers in general and that of Sendak himself and his own older brother, Jack (1924-1995), in particular. This is a book about “continents of ice,” a book in which a star “scorching the sky” tears brothers asunder, a book about a monstrous bear that is and is not the constellation Ursa Major, a book about the power of riddles and stories, the power of love and the irreconcilability of yearning for someone who has passed on. It is quite unlike any other book that Maurice Sendak ever wrote, and is emphatically not for children – perhaps not for most adults, either. Mysterious and pervaded with sadness even as it describes and shows transformations that seem to lead at last to warmth and peace, My Brother’s Book is a curiosity and an oddity, a book that Sendak’s many fans will find puzzling and disturbing and that fans of poetry and art will find strange and evocative.
Jack Prelutsky’s poems are far more straightforward and aimed squarely at children – sometimes ages 4-8, as in Stardines Swim High across the Sky, and sometimes ages 5-10, as in the new paperback editions of The New Kid on the Block and A Pizza the Size of the Sun. In Stardines Swim High Across the Sky, nature gets a makeover, whether the subject is astronomy (in the title poem) or whether Prelutsky is punningly writing about “poor boring chormorants” (which “labor over senseless chores” all day), ever-messy “slobsters,” effervescent “jollyfish,” or the irritating “tattlesnake,” which is “Acting so wrong,/ Sticking your snout/ Where it doesn’t belong.” Carin Berger’s offbeat collages go particularly well with these Prelutsky gems. The tattlesnake, for example, is shaped and patterned like a rattlesnake (complete with rattle), but sports an old-victrola-style, trumpet-shaped horn at the front; the “gloose” has feathers and wings, yes, but its body is made of a tube of glue; and “fountain lions” resemble big cats with decorative water displays atop their heads. The poems here are all short, and the rhymes and meter are often very clever: “The sobcat is sad/ As a feline can be/ And spends its time crying/ Continuously.” The portmanteau words that are the names of these odd creatures immediately and amusingly describe their habits, whether Prelutsky is creating a “bardvark” (an irritating poetical creature) or a “panteater” (a long-tongued consumer of “mountains of pants”).
Nor is the “panteater” the only Prelutsky creation that endangers that particular article of clothing. In The New Kid on the Block, originally published in 1984, one of Prelutsky’s longer poems, “The Carpenter Rages,” is all about the man’s problems with – what else? – carpenter ants, which eat his tools one by one and move on from there: “The carpenter suddenly leaps in the air,/ he writhes in a furious dance,/ for those carpenter ants, with incredible flair,/ have eaten the carpenter’s pants.” The immediately recognizable art of James Stevenson enlivens this book as well as A Pizza the Size of the Sun, which was first published in 1996. In The New Kid on the Block, readers will meet (or, if they are parents, perhaps re-meet) the ever-battling Mungle and Munn; find out what happened “When Tillie Ate the Chili” (featuring an especially amusing Stevenson drawing); commiserate because “Suzanna Socked Me Sunday”; and discover the Zoosher, which hangs out “with mashed potatoes on its eyes,/ with fried zucchini in its nose,/ with carrot sticks between its toes,” and so on. Some of the short poems here (which have entirely apposite illustrations) are just right: “Throckmorton Thrattle has charm and class,/ he’s wealthy and he’s handsome,/ small wonder that his looking glass/ is holding him for ransom.” Other, longer poems sometimes fall all over themselves with absurd lists, as when a boy’s mother tells him, among other things, “Do not squeeze the steamed zucchini!/ Do not make the melon ooze!/ Never stuff vanilla yogurt/ In your little sister’s shoes!” And Prelutsky, abetted by Stevenson, is just as clever in A Pizza the Size of the Sun, where “Dester Dixxer mixed elixir/ in his quick elixir mixer,” and where “I made something strange with my chemistry set,/ something all gluey and blue,/ something a little like half-scrambled eggs,/ mingled with vegetable stew.” Here are “Herman Sherman Thurman” and “The Improbable Emporium” and “Opossums” and “An Unobservant Porcupine” and “Mister Pfister Gristletwist.” The prolific Prelutsky seems to have an unending ability to have fun with language and concepts, plus unceasing delight in creating the most improbable characters and situations possible – then describing them so they come to thoroughly illogical but always-amusing poetic life.
Everything Goes: Henry on Wheels. Text by B.B. Bourne, based on the Everything Goes books by Brian Biggs. Illustrations in the style of Brian Biggs by Simon Abbott. Harper. $16.99.
Pete the Cat: Play Ball! Created by James Dean. Harper. $16.99.
Pete the Cat: Pete’s Big Lunch. Created by James Dean. Harper. $16.99.
The “I Can Read” series from HarperCollins Children’s Books is neatly divided into five levels, which have considerable overlap but are distinct enough so parents and teachers can easily use them to help new readers along effectively. The “My First” books are particularly useful in this respect. Intended for ages 4-8 – an age range that overlaps that of the later Levels 1-4 but that makes perfect sense on its own – these books feature familiar, easy-to-understand characters in modest adventures that have very little plot but plenty of pleasant illustrations to move the simple stories along. The books are frequently based on well-known children’s works and characters, modified for very young readers by people who sometimes receive credit for their work (as in Henry on Wheels) and sometimes do not (as in two new Pete the Cat books).
Henry on Wheels is a pleasant updating of the Dick-and-Jane-style books that brought earlier generations into reading. It is simply the story of Henry’s first solo bike ride and all the things he notices: “Henry rides down the street. Henry sees kids swinging. Henry sees kids sliding and playing in the sand.” And so on. The book follows all the modern dictates of early and easy readers: multiracial and multi-ethnic characters, helmets on bike riders and construction workers, and far more things to see than would likely show up in a short ride around the block in the real world. Henry at first thinks the around-the-block ride will be “boring,” although of course he agrees to be safe and do what his mother says; and at the book’s end, Henry and his mother go biking together to have lunch at some of the places that Henry rode past during his adventure. Really, not much happens here, and not much needs to – the simple drawings and repetitious words make it easy for beginning readers to follow along and get a feeling of accomplishment as they absorb the story.
Pete the Cat has more personality than do Biggs’ characters, and the two Pete books accordingly have a bit more plot. Play Ball! is almost an anti-sports book, but in a good way: it is about a baseball game between the Rocks and the Rolls, and while the Rocks (Pete’s team) win, the focus is on what Pete himself does – or fails to do. He strikes out the first time he comes to bat. “But Pete is not sad. He did his best.” In his second time at bat, he gets a walk even though he wanted a hit. In the field, he gets under a fly ball and it goes into his glove, but he drops it; later, he makes a catch, but then throws the ball too far. And in his one time on base, he is thrown out when trying to score a run. But the refrain of “he did his best” keeps the book moving, and Pete’s super-wide eyes may droop (they always droop) but never show any hint of unhappiness, much less tears. The book reinforces the idea of being part of a team and doing the best you can – even if that is not very much. On the other hand, what Pete can do is make a sandwich, as he shows clearly in Pete’s Big Lunch. Pete is so hungry that he starts with an entire loaf of bread and begins adding pretty much everything he can find to it, from a whole fish to an apple, two hot dogs, a can of beans and more. Eventually the sandwich – which is topped with ice cream (“three huge scoops”) – gets too big for Pete to eat, so he invites all his friends to share it with him, and it turns out to be enough for everybody. The message here, “sharing is cool,” is tacked on at the end and is not integral to the plot in the way “he did his best” is to Play Ball! But Pete’s Big Lunch is a more amusing book, and kids will enjoy seeing the absurd mixture of ingredients Pete uses in his sandwich as it grows and grows and grows. All three of these “My First” books are pleasant, simple, nicely illustrated and created with just enough plot so that beginning readers (and pre-readers on the cusp of managing books on their own) will find them a fine first step into a lifetime of reading enjoyment.
How to Create Chemistry with Anyone: 75 Ways to Spark It Fast & Make It Last. By Leil Lowndes. Da Capo. $16.
The Prom Book: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need. By Lauren Metz. Zest Books. $16.95.
If a book could make life perfect, how many times would life be perfect; if a book could make relationships perfect, how many times would Leil Lowndes, all by herself, have created perfect relationships? Well, how many times has she done that? The fact that the question is unanswerable is what makes it possible for Lowndes to continue spinning her advice about instant connections, ending shyness, becoming a “people magnet” (an unappealing image, when you think about it), making “anyone” fall in love with you (also an unappealing prospect if considered too closely), and now: How to Create Chemistry with Anyone. It is hard to argue with the success with which Lowndes has “branded” herself, in the sense of creating a brand of advice and self-help with which she is identified. She assembles a variety of ideas, some of them good and some of them dicey, relating to communications strategies, and then parcels them out – supposedly in refined and purified form – to show readers how to manipulate other people into doing what they, the readers, want. Of course, Lowndes does not put it that way, but in fact what she does is tell people how they can take command of relationships and other situations, arranging things to their liking and pulling the other person along, presumably against his or her will (at least initially).
If you put things this way, Lowndes’ guides scarcely sound benign, but of course she does not put things this way. How to Create Chemistry with Anyone includes such unexceptionable advice as understanding that the heady feelings of initial love and strong sexual attraction last two years or less, so you must build a firmer foundation for a long-term relationship; being sure that you and your partner share similar values and beliefs; connecting with someone who will be reliable in case of trouble – and being such a person yourself; encouraging each other’s growth, personal and professional; reserving time to have fun with each other, no matter what the pressures of everyday life may be; and so on. Very nice; very straightforward; and very much not the “sizzle” for which people will come to this book. What people will want are the 75 “chemistry sparkers,” delivered in small boxes scattered around the pages. Number 5: “Give your quarry ‘family eyes.’” Number 31: “Nudge your quarry’s neurons with a double name whammy.” Number 63: “Show you share or respect your quarry’s values.” Oh yes, this is a hunt – not every “sparker” includes the word “quarry,” but many do. And there is plenty of explanatory material to expand on the short “sparker” entries. In a chapter called “How to Spark Cyber Chemistry,” for example, Lowndes writes, “Girl, let’s say a Hunter writes you a cool message. You write an even cooler one back. You text a bit and then plan to talk. So far, so good. Visions of romance and maybe happily-ever-after dance through your head. But stop. None of these pleasures will be part of your future if he doesn’t like your image.” This is the expansion and elucidation of “sparker” number 13: “Photo Tips—Show character in your face and have an appealing background.” Coolness and a with-it style simply ooze from Lowndes’ writing, which she directs sometimes at men and sometimes at women. In fact, she emphasizes gender differences: “Huntresses, you are more romantically intuitive than males are, and you’re natural pleasers.” As for men: “Women don’t come with pull-down menus and online help,” as one chapter subsection says. How to Create Chemistry with Anyone is very entertaining and written in an expertly breezy style that makes the book sound superficial even when dealing with serious and well-thought-out subject matter. Typical advice, from “sparker” number 61, “Don’t talk when he’s fuming,” goes like this: “Huntresses, between his limbic system being wired to the physical rather than the linguistic, plus evolution, plus his upbringing, plus ten times more testosterone, what do you expect? Ignore and forgive your Quarry’s outbursts.” The whole “Spark your Quarry” thing (and “Spark the Chemistry” and similar phrases) goes beyond simplistic into silly, and the frantic level of communicative amusement with which Lowndes delivers her prose swings wildly from funny to rather sad. Readers taken in by the style of How to Create Chemistry with Anyone probably won’t notice that, though, or won’t care. What they will want to know is: does this stuff work? The answer is that it surely works some of the time and surely fails some of the time, just like every other one-size-fits-all approach to relationships, psychology, and life in general.
Speaking of which: how about making romantic connections starting in high school – say, at prom? Or how about using prom as a way to build on an existing romance? Lauren Metz’ The Prom Book is all about having the world’s most fabulous time in, like, forever, by doing everything right from prom planning to after-prom memories. Oddly enough in a book aimed at teenage girls, Metz offers more-sober writing than does Lowndes, offering – for example – a “perfect prom workout” in which you can “sculpt your biceps for strapless or one-shoulder dresses,” and/or “get sexy legs for short dresses,” and/or “work your glutes and abs for body-hugging dresses.” These are actually sensible exercise programs, and they come with sensible notions in other areas, too: “Three ways to eat out for less” suggests skipping or splitting appetizers, choosing a restaurant with large portions so you can share, and drinking water rather than overpriced soft drinks. The assumption here is that prom is rather sweet – Metz tells girls how to “brush off pressure to have sex” – and that the prom itself should ideally be just one part of a remember-forever experience: “Ready for the next round? The fun won’t fade when you host a fab after-party! (Warning: With these tips, you may even one-up the dance!)” The practical stuff here is mixed with that sort of over-the-top enthusiasm, as Metz explains how to put together a budget and plan your look (for which her flow chart is both amusing and practical); decide whom to go with; figure out makeup and hairstyles; and deal with potential seeming-disasters such as a ripped dress or broken zipper. This is a short book – its apparent 160 pages are much reduced by many blanks for notes: “Navigating the Dating Situation” has four pages of advice and six blanks, for instance, and the last 17 pages of the book are offered as places for looking back and writing down details, such as “favorite moments” and “most embarrassing moments.” And eight of those final pages are reserved, very oddly in an age of digital photography, for photos. Well, The Prom Book will not be all things to all people, or even to all star-struck (or prom-struck) teenage girls, but it does do a good job of combining a veneer of knowing sophistication with an undercurrent of anticipatory excitement – all of which is right in line with prom itself.
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Paavo Berglund. Ondine. $16.99 (3 CDs).
Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, 7 and 8. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Wiener Philharmoniker and Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Teldec. $29.99 (4 CDs).
Despite critic Eduard Hanslick’s persistent denigration of Bruckner’s symphonies in comparison to those of Brahms, there are actually many ways in which the symphonies of these composers are similar, not superficially but harmonically and even structurally. However, these two fine sets of live performances, each containing four symphonies, highlight the works’ differences in some exceptionally striking ways. Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) here commands only a 50-piece orchestra, far smaller than most of those playing Brahms nowadays and, indeed, much smaller than most (although not all) that played Brahms in the composer’s own time. Brahms’ symphonies are robust, even heavy – capable of sounding muddy and turgid, but monumental and elegant at their best. They are scarcely candidates for lightness and transparency, but hearing them in that mode is a fascinating listening experience. The middle voices, which get short shrift most of the time in these works simply because it is difficult to bring them out without mis-balancing the orchestra, peek through Berglund’s performances again and again with seeming effortlessness. Timpani resound and punctuate the music without having to be struck with undue force. Woodwinds do not seem to be straining to be heard through massed strings. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe actually sounds relaxed in these performances: no section appears to be pushing to make itself stand out above the others. Berglund paces the symphonies well, and once the initial oddity of lighter-sounding-than-usual Brahms wears off, what emerges are very well-constructed performances that date to 2000 and still sound very good indeed.
This is not to say that Brahmsian grandeur is always unmissed. The second movement of No. 1 has a lovely, yearning quality made more poignant by the small string section, and the violin solo comes through absolutely beautifully; but the finale’s opening minutes are less fraught and mysterious than they can be (although the pizzicato passages come through with exceptional clarity), so when the horns “clear the air,” there is less contrast than needed to be fully effective, and the main theme simply sounds thin. The finale is simply not as impressive as usual here. In No. 2, the first movement lacks the broad warmth that a larger string section would provide, but still sounds quite lovely. The central section of the third movement works particularly well with the reduced orchestra. And the finale, interestingly, has a very full sound – the orchestra scarcely seems reduced in size at all. No. 3 has the warmest sound in the symphonies, so the transparent texture of the opening is quite surprising; but it soon proves very satisfying, providing structural clarity and a welcome sense of openness through the first two movements. The third and fourth movements do sound thin, however, with the gorgeous strings of the finale almost too chamber-music-like in feeling to be fully effective. The ending is evanescent rather than calming after turbulence – a justifiable interpretation, but one that takes some getting used to. In Symphony No. 4, which in many ways is the grandest of the set, the reduced orchestra proves surprisingly advantageous, helping bring out the work’s ties to Bach and the Baroque era. The clarity of lines in the first movement comes through very well indeed, and the sectional balance in the second movement is unusually clear. The third movement, its style unique in Brahms’ symphonies, has real flair here, and the finale is quite remarkable: clean, clear and beautifully balanced. In fact, the Fourth is the most successful symphony in this release, and fully justifies the idea of performing Brahms’ symphonies with a much smaller orchestra than is the norm.
A few conductors, notably Mario Venzago, have also tried the reduced-orchestra approach in the music of Bruckner, but most continue to seek the biggest possible sound for Bruckner’s music, and there is no sound bigger than that of three of the world’s best orchestras: the Royal Concertgebouw and the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics. One of the great pleasure of Nicholas Harnoncourt’s performances of Bruckner’s Third, Fourth, Seventh and Eighth Symphonies is the chance to hear all these superb ensembles under the same conductor, each orchestra with its own marvelous massed and burnished sound but each sounding quite different from the others. The recordings date to different years – No. 3 to 1995, No. 4 to 1998, No. 7 to 1999 and No. 8 to 2001 – but that is not why the orchestras sound different. It is hard to realize at a time when so many orchestras, especially in the United States, seem actively to seek a homogenized sound that, however good, is largely indistinguishable from the equally good sound of other orchestras, but the top European orchestras still cherish their individuality and use differing sonic production as a way of keeping their performances distinctive. Hearing these three marvelously full-throated orchestras in Bruckner’s music is a pleasure of the first degree. These are big performances, fully in the spirit of Bruckner turning the orchestra into a sort of super-organ – although that concept is by no means always accepted these days. In fact, these performances are somewhat on the old-fashioned side, with Harnoncourt emphasizing the massive sonorities that these orchestras can produce and positioning Bruckner’s music as a sort of grand sonic cathedral. In three of the four performances, this works extremely well. No. 3 (heard here in the 1877 edition) has a very Wagnerian sound even though the “Wagner Symphony” does not, in this version, contain all the operatic quotations that Bruckner originally included. The work builds and builds again, becoming an imposing edifice that strives ever-higher until its culmination in a finale of rare power and tremendous scope. No. 4 – which, along with No. 3, is played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra – is equally impressive. Heard in its usual version (1878/80), it is flowing, warm and involving, its beauties more relaxed than those of No. 3. The Concertgebouw’s exceptionally warm strings and beautifully balanced sections produce an elegantly emotive performance that builds effectively while letting the symphony’s manifest beauties come through quite clearly.
The sound is quite different for Bruckner’s Seventh as played by the Vienna Philharmonic. This remains, as it has been for many decades if not longer, an astonishing orchestra, no section inferior to any other, all constantly playing at the top of their game and all melding into a smooth, gorgeous and unforgettable sound immediately recognizable as Viennese. The strings are as smooth as butter but never cloying, their sound washing over listeners in great waves of beauty punctuated by equally fine and equally well-modulated contributions from winds, brass and percussion. The Seventh is one of only two Bruckner symphonies to exist in a single edition (the Sixth is the other), so all orchestras play the same music, which means that the Vienna Philharmonic’s clear superiority in sound and in communicating the “Bruckner experience” is due to the orchestra’s intrinsic skill rather than to the circumstance of presenting a better or worse edition of the music. The pacing here is excellent, the sound unexcelled, and simply sitting back and letting Bruckner’s Seventh wash over you as thematic group follows thematic group and beauty follows beauty is a splendid experience. The sole somewhat-disappointing performance in Harnoncourt’s set is of Bruckner’s Eighth, heard here in the 1892 edition (not 1888 or 1890). The edition itself is not the best, and the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic – whose brass section is unexcelled for warmth and perfect unison – is certainly not a problem. But Harnoncourt seems to lose his way in this very expansive symphony. There is a lack of rhythmic precision in the first movement; the Adagio feels draggy, although it is taken at a reasonable tempo; and the finale does not come across as a capstone – it drifts and nearly comes apart into sections before Harnoncourt finally pulls everything together in the coda. This four-CD set is nevertheless highly impressive, and the chance to hear such outstanding orchestras – and such large ones – performing Bruckner is every bit as thrilling and fascinating as the opportunity to experience Brahms played by a much smaller ensemble than is customarily heard in his symphonies.