September 28, 2017
Cats on Skates 48-Piece Floor Puzzle. By Kestutis Kasparavicius. Pomegranate Kids. $18.95.
Winter Wonderland 48-Piece Floor Puzzle. By Angelea Van Dam. Pomegranate Kids. $18.95.
Kids Cooking: Tasty Recipes with Step-by-Step Photos. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $19.99.
Publishers have different tastes, strategies and motivations, but there is ultimately a certain sameness to what most of them do: book publishers put out books, although different ones focus on different areas, and magazine publishers offer magazines, albeit with different target audiences, and so on. Pomegranate, however, is genuinely unusual, because it produces all sorts of different products in line with its stated mission “to invigorate, illuminate, and inspire through art.” Yes, that is a marketing slogan, but it is not just a marketing slogan, because it is genuinely reflective of the company’s offerings in everything from books to calendars to note cards to informational “knowledge decks” to, well, puzzles. That is puzzles as in traditional, complex jigsaw types in the thousand-piece range and also quite untraditional puzzle designs, such as “floor puzzles.” These are big, not in total number of pieces but in overall size: two feet by three feet or three feet by two, depending on the orientation of a particular scene. Individual pieces are big, too, averaging about five inches square – which makes the puzzles fun for the whole family. Yes, a lot of puzzles claim they are for family use, but these really are, since even small hands can easily grasp pieces without concern about squashing or damaging them. The pieces have the same intricate shapes as jigsaw-puzzle pieces generally do, but their size makes them less delicate and easier to fit together – although, as with any puzzle, a lot of the fun comes from trying to match the colors and designs of scenes perfectly so as to choose exactly the right piece for exactly the right place.
A couple of particularly charming floor-puzzle examples, both having the sort of whimsical humor in which Pomegranate (or rather the artists whose work it showcases) specializes, are winter scenes, one vertical and one horizontal. But these are not standard snow-on-trees-and-fields pictures. One features a delightfully amusing ice-skating-on-frozen-pond picture that is stopped from being ordinary by the fact that all the participants are cats. Cats on Skates was created in 1993 by Lithuanian artist Kestutis Kasparavicius (born 1954). It shows 14 cats doing the things that people normally do on icy ponds (in art works, anyway): skating alone or in couples, balancing on a single skate, doing a balletic dip, or looking rather bewildered after having apparently just fallen. All the cats are anthropomorphic, and all are wearing clothing that is part of the fun here: one has an elegant grey-and-white coat and matching hat, one wears a pink tutu-like skirt, several sport jaunty tasseled caps, and so on. The scene is a pleasantly amusing one of an idealized winter landscape, with a stone bridge and thatched-roof homes in the background, and the piece-by-piece assembly of the brightly colored picture is a real family treat. So is Winter Wonderland by New Zealand artist Angelea Van Dam (born 1979). This is a vertical puzzle (Cats on Skates is horizontal) and is even more brightly colored than Kasparavicius’. In fact, all three characters are swaddled, head to toe, in beautifully intricate full-body-length sweaters plus contrasting scarves, everything neat as a pin and the neckwear knotted absolutely perfectly. It just happens that the three characters are – penguins. And, of course, without pants, which somehow makes them extra-adorable. Two adult penguins stand in the background, looking down their beaks at a little penguin in front, which stares directly out of the frame from a face both rounded and fuzzy (the adults’ heads are sharper in shape and brighter in color). There is no action in the scene and no particular point to it except cuteness, which it has in abundance. In this case, cuteness is its own reward – and Winter Wonderland, like Cats on Skates, is very rewarding indeed, perhaps especially so if a human family finds itself stuck inside because of real-world winter weather and would prefer to spend some time with fanciful wintry scenes that are considerably more enjoyable than the ones faced in everyday cold-weather life.
Kids who are stuck indoors in any season – and even ones who are not stuck but just happen to be indoors – can express their creativity in a different sort of puzzle with a new Klutz “books-plus” offering called Kids Cooking. When you think about it, cooking is a puzzle of sorts: the right things have to be put together in the right way in order to end up with the right result. Cooking is also applied chemistry: the word “catalyst” may sound technical, and its definition of “something that changes other things without being changed itself” may seem abstruse, but anyone who cooks knows that heat is a perfect example of a catalyst in everyday life. This does not mean that heat is needed for all the recipes in Kids Cooking: one of them, the cleverly titled “Kick-the-Can Ice Cream,” has nothing to do with warmth at all – the recipe name perfectly fits the explanation about the importance of rolling around the ingredient-containing coffee cans (a smaller one nested within a larger one) “across the ground for about 20 minutes. It’s good to do this with a friend, preferably outside.” Um, well, yes. This approach to ice cream really works, even if it is scarcely as elegant as making the cool delight with an appliance designed for the purpose. But elegance is not the point here: fun is. And as usual in Klutz “project books,” there is plenty of it. The recipes almost all require a “grown-up assistant,” which makes them great for teaching kids about cooking and baking – or, for kitchen-challenged adults, learning along with children. Just as in adult cookbooks, there are sections for preparing different meals: breakfast (muffins, eggs, smoothies), lunch and snacks (kebabs, lemonade, burritos, popcorn and more), family dinner (noodles, tacos, pizza, etc.), and desserts (cookies, brownies, and, as noted, ice cream). Dishes’ names are on the cutesy side: “Scrambled Egg Buddies,” “Bugged-Out Snack Platter,” “Curry in a Hurry,” “Rrraw-some Cookie Dough.” And presentations are designed to be enjoyable. The recipes themselves are fun, too, with cartoon drawings for the “you will need” section, good information on preparation and (where relevant) baking time, and helpful illustrations of some basics that even adults need to keep in mind – for instance, the right way to level off a measurement, such as a tablespoon. Klutz “books-plus” productions usually include everything needed to do the crafts projects explained in the books, but unfortunately there is no way to put all those delicious ingredients into Kids Cooking. There is, however, a way to include something that kids will certainly find useful in the kitchen: a whisk (a rainbow-colored one, no less), sized smaller than whisks usually are and therefore especially suitable for smaller hands. Cooking and baking are puzzle-and-chemistry skills that kids can take with them throughout life, so they might as well be gained as enjoyably as possible – and, with Kids Cooking, they are.
Calendars (page-a-day for 2018): Church Signs; Medical Cartoon-a-Day; Peanuts. Andrews McMeel. $14.99 each.
There is one thing that is absolutely certain to be true in 2018: some days will be a lot worse than others. And that means some will be a lot better than others. And there is very little that most of us can do to predict which will be which and to ensure that the crummy ones are a little less crummy. Except – well, page-a-day calendars help. Never mind getting daily electronic access to cartoons – that is all well and good, but sometimes the electronics themselves are the source of what makes a day crummy. There is something sturdy, self-sufficient and sometimes even uplifting about stand-up-on-a-table-or-desk, tear-off-a-page-at-a-time calendars that help you through the year by brightening the dull days and making the already-bright ones just a bit more enjoyable. And speaking of calendars being uplifting, that is the whole point of Church Signs. Subtitled “Little Sayings to Help You on Your Way,” this is a year-long presentation of those amusing notices planted outside many churches, designed to lure worshipers in or just give passing motorists or pedestrians a little something to encourage them in their lives – with, perhaps, a smidgen of spiritual uplift. Some of the signs here are pithy, sermon-like remarks: “Thank God for what you have. Trust God for what you need.” Others are closer to self-help thoughts: “An obstacle is something you see when you take your eyes off the goal.” Some are reassuring, especially on crummy days: “It is brave to have a soft heart in a cruel world.” And there is even an occasional pun: “No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.” Then there are the worth-thinking-about items: “Takers may eat better, but givers sleep better.” And the ones quite as applicable to the secular as the sacred: “Sometimes the easiest way to solve a problem is to stop participating in it.” And, now and then, a touch of thoughtfulness that crosses the secular/sacred boundary line: “Some people come into your life as blessings, others come into your life as lessons.” And even a touch of deviltry from time to time: “Forgive your enemies. It messes with their heads.” These little signposts can be very reassuring when things are going less than well – and with this calendar, the thoughts and homilies are available all week, not just on Sundays.
Whatever the state of one’s spiritual health, it must coexist with one’s physical health, and that is where the Medical Cartoon-a-Day calendar comes in. Jonny Hawkins has been producing single-panel cartoons on health topics for a long time, and his “daily dose of humor” (frequently of the “groaner” variety) can help cheer you up if you find yourself feeling down, dull, blue, achy, or otherwise yucky. One panel has a doctor telling a very overweight patient, “I can see you’re living life to the fullest, and that’s the problem.” Another shows a tombstone with the epitaph, “I can use the rest.” One has a trendy theme, with a man asking a doctor if he sells medical marijuana and the doctor replying, “Yeah, think of me as a joint specialist.” Another trend-following panel has a doctor telling a woman she has holes in her remote-control flying toys – that is, “Drone’s Disease.” But many cartoons use more-classic situations. One has a doctor climbing up a mountain to ask the stereotypical guru, “When was your last meta-physical?” Another has a duck telling a human doctor, “I want to see a quack.” Still another features a giraffe being suitably worried about a recommended procedure: “Remove my tonsils?!” And then there is the occasional otherworldly cartoon, such as one in which one winged being tells another, “I am a tooth fairy, not an indentured servant.” And then there is the chicken about to visit a “Wishbone Specialist.” And the firefly whose rear fails to illuminate, being asked by a specialized proctologist, “How long have you been suffering from burnout?” None of this is great humor and none of it is intended to be – the idea is to elicit a chuckle on each page, lightening the day just a smidgen, and for that purpose, even the “groaners” are just fine. After all, groaning at a joke is better than groaning at physical pain.
Some calendars do celebrate genuinely innovative and even meaningful humor, always including the ones based on the marvelous Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz (1922-2000). Because Peanuts daily strips contained four panels (many more-modern strips have only three), they shrink quite a bit to fit into page-a-day form. But the art, characterization and humor (usually gentle, sometimes pointed) are more than enough to make up for the necessary format compromises. In one series, for instance, several of the girl characters march intimidatingly to a “crab-in” that Snoopy eventually breaks up by kissing ever-crabby Lucy on the nose when she opens the door after he knocks. In another sequence, Sally says she was insulted by a kid at school, and wants Linus to be her “knight in shining armor” who will “clobber” the kid; when Linus refuses, she asks Snoopy to bite the kid, but Snoopy also says no, his comment on biting being, “How gauche.” Then there is Linus’ question to Lucy about why trees do not have leaves in winter, followed by Lucy’s comment that Linus asks stupid questions – and Linus’ rejoinder, “Even stupid questions have answers.” As baseball-team manager, Charlie Brown says he wants the players to do 20 pushups every day, but Lucy counter-offers with “one pushup every twenty days.” Then there is Linus’ “new theological discovery” one night at bedtime: “If you hold your hands upside down, you get the opposite of what you pray for.” Elsewhere, Snoopy gets invited to play in the Masters Golf Tournament and assumes his “flying ace” costume to take himself there. He also uses it in its more-usual way, when he becomes a World War I Flying Ace and gives highly detailed information on what he is seeing, commenting in the final one of the four panels, “Have you ever in all your life seen such good research?” Snoopy also heads off at one point to a wrist-wrestling tournament, leading Charlie Brown to offer him a tearful goodbye and then say, “Goodbyes always make my throat hurt. I need more hellos.” There is gentleness to this humor, true, but there is also an underlying awareness of the human condition – not specifically involving children, even though all the humans in Peanuts are kids. The latest Peanuts calendar can be an exercise in nostalgia for those who have long known and loved the strip – and a source of discovery of a thoughtful, occasionally erudite, often surprisingly moving sort of warm-hearted humor for those who do not really know Peanuts well, or at all. This is a day-brightener that comes equipped with a touch of “think about it” message on many occasions – a winning combination throughout the year to come.
Deadliest! 20 Dangerous Animals. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Trickiest! 19 Sneaky Animals. By Steve Jenkins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $14.99.
Charley Harper’s What’s in the Desert? By Zoe Burke. Pomegranate Kids. $14.95.
A distillation and repackaging of material from his many fascinating books about animals, Steve Jenkins’ new “Extreme Animals” series consists of short, highly visual, easy-to-read books focusing on specific ways in which animals of all sorts are likely to be intriguing to young readers. The exclamatory titles are, it is true, a bit overdone, but they are intended to draw attention to the animals shown in Jenkins’ colorful and anatomically accurate drawings, and they certainly do that. Sensationalizing aside, both Deadliest! and Trickiest! are nicely arranged, carefully researched books that do a good job of explaining why animals are, by human standards, deadly or tricky. For example, “hunters use fangs, venom, and other deadly weapons to catch and kill their prey,” while “other animals protect themselves with spines, poison, or a powerful kick.” When it comes to sneakiness, some animals “have tricky ways of hunting,” some “use imitation to catch their prey,” some “use a lure to attract their victims,” some “warn, distract, or confuse their enemies,” some “pretend to be something else,” and some “startle an attacker.” In other words, all the dangerous and tricky elements of animal appearance and behavior have to do with survival – with getting food and avoiding becoming food. But presenting these everyday adaptations in the form of books called Deadliest! and Trickiest! certainly does make the information seem more dramatic and involving.
Among the animals in Deadliest! are the bull shark, which lives in both fresh and salt water and attacks without warning; the hippopotamus, which looks ungainly but can run as fast as a horse and is quick to anger; and the Brazilian wandering spider, which sometimes turns up in bunches of bananas and has large red jaws and a potentially fatal bite. For each creature in the book, Jenkins shows where it lives, what it eats, and what size it is compared to a human adult (or, for insects, a human hand). And in addition to creatures of the wild, such as the Komodo dragon and cassowary, Jenkins includes a couple of deadly animals that are commonplace and not usually thought of as being especially dangerous: dogs and mosquitoes. In fact, at the end of the book, Jenkins lists all the animals in it and shows how many human deaths they cause every year. The tiger kills 60 to 100 people annually, for instance, and the Cape buffalo about 250 – but dogs kill 55,000 people a year by spreading rabies, and the most dangerous creature of all, the mosquito, is responsible for one million human deaths every year. These statistics and explanations help young readers see animals, both exotic and well-known, in new ways. And the approach is much the same in Trickiest! Here there is a bird called the fork-tailed drongo, which “can imitate the calls of more than 50 other animals” and uses that ability to trick other creatures out of their food; there is the huge alligator snapping turtle, which has a reddish tongue portion that looks like a worm and that lures fish close enough so it can snap them up; there is the harmless wasp beetle, which looks almost exactly like a wasp but has no stinger; and there is the “satanic leaf-tailed gecko,” which sports a tail so realistic in looking like a leaf that it even has ragged edges like the ones leaves develop. The animal kingdom is full of marvels, and Jenkins spends much time and many books exploring them and explaining them, usually in somewhat greater depth than in Deadliest! and Trickiest! But these once-over-lightly books are sufficiently clear and interesting to intrigue young readers into getting more-in-depth information from Jenkins’ other books or from other sources.
Speaking of dangerous and tricky animals, the desert has more than its share of both, although they do not appear in either new Jenkins book. However, a new book featuring the marvelous, geometrically oriented animal drawings of Charley Harper (1922-2007) gives the desert its due and is a delight to read, too. Zoe Burke strikes a whimsical note in most of her text: “Watch out for the Cactus; avoid its sharp spines./ But notice its flowers—such pretty designs!” And: “This Roadrunner flies even though he can scurry./ On two nimble legs, he takes off in a hurry!” The purpose of Burke’s rhyming text is not informational along the lines of Jenkins’ prose – rather, Burke provides a kind of singsong accompaniment to the delightful Harper portrayals of numerous desert dwellers. “A Cactus Wren’s dotted, and so is the Flicker./ I wonder when flying which one of them’s quicker!” So Burke writes – but the point is not to say which really is the faster flier; the idea is simply to let young readers see what these different desert birds look like. Harper’s mastery of the basic identifying features of animals was outstanding, allowing him to create portrayals that have a realer-than-real look. On the one hand, the art is stylized, its angles and curves more perfect and its colored more elegantly balanced than any in real life; but on the other hand, Harper shows the colors and shapes of these creatures so clearly that his art, in its own way, makes birds and other animals just as identifiable as John James Audubon’s art made birds in its way. Charley Harper’s What’s in the Desert? is scarcely a comprehensive view of desert animals, featuring mostly birds, omitting snakes altogether, and showing a few creatures only in part (e.g., the tail of a Gila monster). Harper also turns his attention to desert plants, not only cacti but also yucca and sagebrush; and to insects, including a moth and a tarantula. The book has a particularly nice touch at the end: a colorful, foldout, turn-the-page-sideways Harper picture showing every single animal, plant and insect in the book, with a black-and-white numbered key to let readers identify every Harper drawing that has been seen in larger size earlier in the book. That final all-in-one picture is enough to entice readers to go back through all the previous pages to see larger versions of Harper’s delightfully detailed drawings of dozens of desert denizens.
Spirit Hunters. By Ellen Oh. Harper. $16.99.
The Supernormal Sleuthing Service No. 1: The Lost Legacy. By Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe. Illustrations by Glenn Thomas. Harper. $16.99.
Supernatural series starters for preteens inevitably have certain things in common, including the establishment of a team, the discovery of a mystery, and the explanation of why the inevitably feckless adults cannot solve a problem that must be and eventually is solved by the plucky young protagonists. But authors have to decide which of two directions is better for the first book and planned later ones: the highly serious and danger-filled one or the lighter and more-humorous type. Once that decision is made, the first novels in supernaturally focused series proceed in much the same way, with something bad happening, the supernatural nature of that something gradually becoming clear, the necessity of overcoming the bad thing by delving into its background developing, and the young team’s eventual triumph against all apparent odds providing a suitable climax and entry point for the next book.
Ellen Oh’s Spirit Hunters takes the serious path. Harper Raine and her family move to a new house – actually an old house – that immediately gives Harper the creeps. Her parents feel nothing, and her hyper-logical Korean mother, Yuna, cannot even admit the possibility of anything outré. Then Harper’s younger brother, Michael, starts behaving more and more strangely, in ways so obvious that the obliviousness of the adults becomes increasingly hard to swallow. Harper, sensitive and increasingly worried, becomes more and more alarmed. But Harper herself has a history that leads her parents to disbelieve her when she tries to tell them what she thinks is going on: she had a mental breakdown of some sort (she does not really remember what happened), was institutionalized for a time (she remembers little of that), and she is accused of eventually starting a fire (she is pretty sure she did not). Slowly but surely, Harper recalls bits and pieces of her earlier life, including the existence of her longtime friend, Rose, who happens to be a ghost living in a mirror. Harper and Rose are two members of the supernatural-perceiving team here; the third is Dayo, a new (and living) friend whom Harper has met in Washington, D.C., where the book takes place. Oh’s story becomes rather convoluted: there is a revelation about an evil ghost of a child, and that is the ghost causing problems for Michael; but there is a puppet master, an even-more-evil ghost, manipulating the evil child ghost, and it turns out that Harper must get rid of both of them to save her brother. How can she do that? Her Grandma Lee – from whom Yuna is deeply and apparently permanently estranged – turns out to be a mudang, a spirit hunter, and Harper has inherited the ability to be one as well (hence the plural title of the series). But, in a twist that is not fully believable even for fantasy, Harper herself must handle the exorcism of both ghosts afflicting Michael, and the puppet-master ghost, portrayed as super-powerful, is beaten much too easily by Harper even though this ghost is able to prevent Harper from getting help from yet another ghost who is a supposedly super-strong spirit helper of Grandma Lee. Of course, the explanation of Harper’s success is that she has such amazingly deep, if untrained, abilities as a spirit hunter, and those will be explored in future series entries. There is also a rather uneasy rapprochement between Yuna and Grandma Lee at the book’s end. All of the currents, cross-currents and counter-currents get a bit in each other’s way here, and the various ghostly manifestations are the entirely usual stuff of spooky movies (unreal fire, oozing walls and all that). Still, Harper is a character whom readers will be interested in meeting again, and the way her serious past personal troubles turn out to be keys to her future spirit-hunter success is an attractive element of the book – as is its slightly exotic Korean background. What the book lacks, clearly intentionally, is any sort of leavening humor at all: Spirit Hunters is all tension and intensity.
Not so The Supernormal Sleuthing Service. This is a book that is not quite sure whether it wants to be a lark or a sort-of-serious work; it ends up not quite being either. Wife-and-husband coauthors Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe start with an odd letter to central character Stephen Lawson from his grandmother, Nanette, known as Chef Nana, about her work at a hotel in New York that, at least according to the letter, has some very strange clientele. Then Bond and Rowe switch to Chef Nana’s funeral, where weird things happen to Stephen because his father has never bothered to tell him anything whatsoever about his mother (who has long been missing) or the Lawson family or much of anything else. The father’s neglect almost lands Stephen in supernatural hot water, because it turns out that his mother is a fey and a ruling member of the supernatural realm (here called “supernormal”; hence the series title). The specific fey Stephen encounters are the bad guys here, trying to get him to join their ranks by hook or by crook; when he refuses their initial clumsy overture, they steal a Lawson family cookbook (yes, a cookbook) that is full of all sorts of magic and history and whatnot. So Stephen has to form the “sleuthing service” of the title with “a short boy about Stephen’s age” with “close-cropped red hair and glasses” (that would be Ivan, son of two supernormal-world detectives) and “a girl with a high, curly ponytail and a flouncy black dress” (that would be Sofia, daughter of high-ranking supernormal-world diplomatic types). The assembled three-young-person team proves strikingly inept, largely because the kids disobey pretty much every rule the adults have set down at the hotel, which is a gathering place for supernormals of all sorts and a location where a truce is permanently in effect. The kids make wrong decision after wrong decision, and Bond and Rowe are fairly clumsy about it: the team members think they are a lot smarter and more-aware than they are, and their ineptness trips them up time and again; and then Stephen (in particular) gets terribly distressed because he may cost his father his newfound job and prestige (the fey who stole the Lawson cookbook did so while disguised as Stephen). Misstep follows misstep until eventually, of course, the kids succeed, but the authors so obviously and so frequently push events in the direction in which they want them to go that the book feels clumsily and forcibly crafted rather than carried through on the basis of either plot or character. The humorous elements are actually the best ones here: there is a highly self-conscious talking elevator that steals the scene every time it appears, having more personality than the three team members put together; there are croquet-playing and somewhat accident-prone gargoyles; and there is a delightful dragon character who is obsessed with art and absolutely delighted by Stephen, a budding artist who discovers accidentally that some figures in his drawings actually move around (a fey ability that he apparently inherited from his mother). On the whole, The Supernormal Sleuthing Service is silly and light enough to be a pleasant read for preteens who are not especially concerned with plot or characterization niceties. Its very basic good (Lawsons) vs. evil (many fey) plot will certainly be carried into later series entries, as will the camaraderie of the three-person sleuthing group. And hopefully the elevator, gargoyles and dragon will get bigger roles in future installments.
Bach: Cello Suites (complete). Richard Narroway, cello. Sono Luminus. $16.99 (2 CDs).
Bach: Cello Suite No. 2; Violin Sonata No. 3; Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2; Andante from Violin Sonata No. 2. Tanya Gabrielian, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Debussy: Images—Book I; Préludes—Book II; Rameau: Castor et Pollux—Tristes Apprêts; Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin—Gavotte et six doubles. Jeffrey LaDeur, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Every generation brings its own thinking to the music of Bach and others of Bach’s time, with the result that music created 300 years or more in the past retains freshness and is constantly being reinterpreted to fit new circumstances, new scholarship, and new personal preferences. It is the “personal preferences” aspect that dominates these recent recordings, all of them exceptionally well-played and all reflecting contemporary artists’ personal circumstances and proclivities as well as their research into the music. In the case of Richard Narroway’s reading of Bach’s Cello Suites, there is a delicate balancing act (for listeners who like the approach) or a neither-here-nor-there quality (for those who remain unconvinced). It is difficult nowadays to escape studies of historically correct performance practices and of the sound world within which Baroque and other pre-modern music was created; and Narroway is quite clearly aware of when and how Bach wrote and how these suites were intended to sound. Indeed, he appears to see the suites as a progression from comparative simplicity through ever-increasing complexity, leading eventually to the sixth suite’s call for a five-string cello. Narroway’s tempos are carefully chosen, his reduced use of vibrato is admirable, his handling of ornamentation is intelligent and aware, and his overall interpretation of the suites’ movement sequences is carefully managed and creates a satisfying arc for each of the works. However, Narroway consciously chooses to perform the suites with a modern instrument, modern bow, and higher and brighter tuning than used in Bach’s time – that is, “no” to gut strings and “yes” to a cello manufactured with an endpin. Does this confluence of authentic and inauthentic elements matter? That is as personal a question for listeners as the entire interpretation is personal for Narroway. Anyone familiar with the suites – that is, used to hearing rather than playing them – will likely find the combination here a bit odd or strained: the care and attentiveness to authentic technique is an uneasy match for an instrument designed and built centuries later and for different purposes. Yet there is something refreshing in hearing a performer who uses a modern instrument (as, for example, every pianist does when performing Bach’s harpsichord works) but does so with so much sensitivity to the nuances of the time when this music was created. Narroway’s reading of these suites on Sono Luminus is unlikely to be a first-choice recording: listeners will do better to pick a fully modern interpretation or a fully historical one, depending on their own feelings about the music. But the grandeur of this music makes it common for people to own multiple recordings, and Narroway’s is certainly intriguing enough to become a thought-provoking supplement to whatever an individual’s primary preference may be.
One of the cello suites, in a transcription by Leopold Godowsky, also makes an appearance on a new MSR Classics release featuring pianist Tanya Gabrielian. This is an even more personal CD than Narroway’s, resulting from what Gabrielian describes as an epiphany of sorts that brought her wholeheartedly to a musical career through listening to Bach’s works for unaccompanied cello and violin during her recuperation from an injury. The “giving back” element of these performances shines through, and the chance to hear some rather unfamiliar versions of some very familiar music is quite welcome. Gabrielian brings considerable passion to Cello Suite No. 2, and indeed the whole program here is one of dedication that borders on devotion. But for that very reason, the performances will not be to all tastes. Unlike Narroway’s attempt to incorporate Baroque stylistic practices into a performance on a modern instrument, Gabrielian takes an old-school approach of using the emotional scope of the piano to highlight and expand the feelings generated by Bach’s notes on their own. Thus, although there is not a great deal of rubato, there is considerable use of pedal and much expressive warmth in the playing. These are by-and-large Romantic readings – not only of the cello suite but also of Violin Sonata No. 3 (one movement transcribed by Bach himself, although not for a modern piano; two by Saint-Saëns; and one by Arturo Cardelús). The virtuosic elements intended for cellists and violinists recede into the background when these pieces are played on piano, and the music’s overall feeling comes across quite differently, especially when it is given the degree of emotional intensity that Gabrielian provides. The same is true for two solo-violin movements transcribed by Alexander Siloti (the same musician who insisted on cuts in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2): the Chaconne from the second partita and Andante from the second sonata function here as filler items, respectively opening the disc and separating the violin sonata from the cello suite. Gabrielian treats both the pieces with care, involvement and considerable feeling. From the perspective of performance, this is a lovely disc, played feelingly and heartfelt from start to finish. As meaningful as it clearly is to Gabrielian, however, it is not especially insightful in terms of the music she plays.
The connection of the Baroque world to the contemporary one is even more direct, yet more abstruse, in a new MSR Classics CD on which pianist Jeffrey LaDeur plays music of Ravel and Debussy. To most listeners, this pairing is at least unusual and at most rather odd; many would assume that LaDeur has a personal reason for offering the music of such different and long-separated-in-time composers on the same disc. And so he does, but the reason is more than personal. LaDeur explains that his teacher, Annie Marchand Sherter, did a close analysis of certain Debussy works and discovered that they intimately reflect certain pieces by Rameau, in very definite and indeed unarguable ways. LaDeur is using this recording to demonstrate Sherter’s discovery pianistically. And he certainly has a way with Debussy, performing Images—Book I and Préludes—Book II with limpid, elegant technique, finely controlled and nuanced hand balance, a firm grasp of rhythm (and when to let it fluctuate), and an overall assurance that is highly impressive. When it comes to the two Rameau pieces included on the CD, however, matters are less salient. Like Bach, Rameau did not write for the then-nonexistent modern piano, and Rameau’s music lies even more uneasily on piano than does Bach’s, if only because it has become commonplace to hear Bach played this way. So the Rameau works here, although prettily played, are less involving and less impressive than those by Debussy – which, to be sure, take up the vast majority of the disc. Furthermore, the underlying argument on the basis of which LaDeur created this recital is so esoteric and, in truth, so difficult to hear in performance, that it is, although accurate analytically, quite irrelevant to the effect of the music as LaDeur plays it. In other words, LaDeur here presents an elegant demonstration of the rightness of Sherter’s discovery and analysis of links between Rameau and Debussy – indeed, the disc is called “The Unbroken Line” – but in terms of what the vast majority of listeners will perceive, Sherter’s assertions and LaDeur’s support of them will be inaudible, irrelevant, or both. Listeners who simply want to hear a fine rendition of the specific Debussy pieces recorded here, and are content with only one of the two books of Préludes and only one of the two sequences of Images, will enjoy this recording. In terms of connections between Debussy and Rameau, though, most listeners will likely find it quite sufficient to remember that the second of the Images performed here bears the title, Hommage à Rameau.
September 21, 2017
Grimelda and the Spooktacular Pet Show. By Diana Murray. Illustrated by Heather Ross. Kathrine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
I Love You More Than the Smell of Swamp Gas. By Kevan Atteberry. Harper. $17.99.
Even Monsters Need to Sleep. By Lisa Wheeler. Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Grimelda, a cute but messy young witch, has a monstrous problem in Grimelda and the Spooktacular Pet Show, and her pet cat, Wizzlewarts, is only part of it. Wizzlewarts isn’t especially spooktacular, so Grimelda goes hunting for a pet to outdo all the others, including the dragon, Blaze, that belongs to Grimelda’s neighbor, Hildegard. Initially, Grimelda decides that Wizzlewarts would be quite spooktacular with a little magical help, but unfortunately, her home is so messy that she cannot find her spell book anywhere – so she has to search elsewhere in Cobweb Town for just the right pet. Diana Murray’s rhyming text and Heather Ross’ just-right illustrations make the quest into quite a spooktacle….err, spectacle. At the local store, the one available pet, a “hairy mountain boar” (a tiny one in purple, with big horns) isn’t spooktacular enough, so Grimelda heads outdoors, where she finds an adorable baby dragon (“too cute”), a huge-eyed something-or-other (“too pink”), a scowling bat (“too plain”), and a bug waving hello (“too small”). But then she finds just the right thing, “a monster eel/ With spiky fins and huge fangs, too.” Except – uh-oh. It is maybe a little too spooktacular, and is not happy about being disturbed. So Grimelda speeds home, slams the door, and is about to give up when Wizzlewarts finds the spell book, open to just the right page. So off Grimelda and the cat go to the pet show – where Grimelda’s learns a lesson about messiness as she smudges the page with the spell she wants to use, cannot read it properly, and ends up transforming Wizzlewarts into an utterly adorable cutie-pie little pink kitten. Disaster! But not quite: that ultra-scary monstrous eel suddenly shows up, Wizzlewarts shows that even cute pinkness does not deter him from protecting Grimelda, and eventually everything is happily sorted out and Grimelda wins a prize that includes “fifty bags of Batnip Snacks” for Wizzlewarts. Messiness lesson learned? Not really – but Grimelda’s charm overcomes her neatness-challenged lifestyle.
The monsters themselves take center stage in Kevan Atteberry’s I Love You More Than the Smell of Swamp Gas. The stage here is a swamp – a dark and stinky one in which a father monster and child monster are on a skink hunt before bedtime. Just like human children, the little monster wants to know if his parent loves him as much as, or more than, this or that. It is the specific “this and that” examples that provide the amusement here. One little-monster question, for example, is, “Do you love me as much/ as the BUBBLING SLIME/ that covers our feet/ in a THICK GOOEY GRIME?” And papa monster replies in kind: “I treasure you more/ than the SLOW OOZING MUCK/ squished through our toes/ as we pull them unstuck.” You can imagine what sorts of illustrations accompany these words – but you do not have to imagine them, since Atteberry provides them, again and again. The monsters encounter bloodsucking ducks, a gas-spraying purple-horned skunk, mummified bass, toe-biting stones, and other denizens of the deep, dark, dismal, and delightful (to the monsters) swamp. Again and again, the little monster asks if his papa loves him more than whatever thing they happen to encounter, and again and again, the big monster assures and reassures the little one. Atteberry’s funniest illustration shows the two monsters, still chasing the elusive skink, watching a spider parade in a graveyard whose headstones memorialize, among others, “Winnie the Boo,” “Little Skunky Foo Foo,” “Edgar Allen Potato,” “Batticus Finch” and “Pogo.” Yes, just Pogo – that and the Finch reference are ones that kids and even some parents may have to look up. Eventually, back home and skinkless (which does not seem to bother either papa or child), it is time for “a bowl full of bees/ drizzled with SLIME and/ sprinkled with FLEAS,” and then bed in a room decorated with plush versions of many of the creatures previously encountered on the swamp trek. It is all in monstrously good fun.
After all, monsters really do need their rest, which is the point of Lisa Wheeler’s Even Monsters Need to Sleep, whose cover shows a big blue scowling papa monster chasing a cute little nightshirted child monster, with two-headed doll in hand, toward the bedroom. Here too the bedroom décor is suitably monstrous, although Chris Van Dusen also includes some decidedly non-monstrous elements, such as a yellow duckie nightlight and a book-within-this-book from which papa monster reads about what other monsters do at night. Bigfoot, for example, “hugs his wooby extra tight,” and three-legged aliens in UFOs “wear fuzzy-wuzzy bedtime clothes,” and a yeti makes a snow cone for a bedtime snack, and a cloud-dwelling giant “whines and cries” and brings a rainy downpour to the land below before going to sleep while sucking his thumb. The most-amusing part of Even Monsters Need to Sleep comes after the papa monster reads about all the other monsters and how they get their rest, when Wheeler reverses the usual check-under-the-bed-for-monsters idea: “Monsters have a bedtime, too./ Their dad sings them a song or two,/ then checks beneath the bed for YOU!/ Even monsters need to sleep.” And it is that last line, repeated with variations from the start of the book to the finish, that Even Monsters Need to Sleep is all about. It is a message communicated amusingly enough to keep monster-loving little humans involved throughout the book and, hopefully, get them ready to drop off to rest (after a suitable under-the-bed check) when the story is over.
The Colors of Ancient Egypt. By Amy Mullen. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.
Flowers Grow All in a Row. By Lisa Houck. Pomegranate Kids. $10.95.
There is something familiar and ultimately predictable about almost all board books, no matter how well they may be written and designed. The topics are formulaic: simply expressed emotions designed to be of interest and comfort to very young children, a few numbers to count, some colors to learn, maybe some shapes. And the books generally have a similar look as well, not only because they are usually small in size and always printed on thick cardboard but also because they either use bold colors and designs that are easy for young eyes to see (black and white, bright red) or soft pastels that are intended to be gentle and soothing for bedtime-focused and other “comfort” books. The exception to all this sameness is Pomegranate, a publisher so devoted to art in all its forms that it has rethought and redesigned even its books for the youngest kids. When Pomegranate offers a book of colors or numbers, it is certain to be anything but run-of-the-mill. Hence Amy Mullen’s The Colors of Ancient Egypt, a wonderful blend of history lesson and color instruction. The colors themselves are muted – but are not pastels – and are carefully chosen to reflect those of the ancient Egyptians. And the words associated with the colors are certainly not ones that usually appear in board books. The very first color is gold, in the form of a gold headdress (another concept not normally found in board books); and the word associated with the headdress is Nefertiti – adults reading this to even the youngest children had better learn or relearn some history to be able to explain this. The next color is “red clay,” with a far deeper and earthier tone than the bright reds usually seen in board books, and this is shown in pottery – yet another unexpected word. Then comes a surprising and wonderful concept: “yellow belly,” which goes with “crocodile,” two of which are shown facing in opposite directions, with their toothy mouths wide open. There is also green in the book, but it is the dark, rich green of papyrus; and purple, in the purple belt of a tunic; and black, as in the shell of a scarab beetle. There are 10 colors in all, all of them displayed again on the book’s last page, all of them digitally rendered and shown quite beautifully and quite unusually through the chosen illustrations. This may not be the best first-colors book for the youngest children – it cannot hurt to have them see and learn bright primary colors before anything else – but it is a book into which kids can grow, and one to which they will likely return even after they know and understand colors. The reduced likelihood of quickly outgrowing board books is something else that sets Pomegranate’s apart from most others.
The artistic sensibilities of Lisa Houck’s Flowers Grow All in a Row are quite different, but this too is a very unusual treatment of a very common topic – in this case, numbers. This is a counting book, yes, but despite its title, the book does not focus only on flowers – and it therefore shows young children that the meaning of numbers is independent of the things being counted. That is a rather advanced concept for a board book, and in fact is one that parents reading to kids will need to explain, since Houck shows it but does not say it in so many words. In fact, her words are simple and well-targeted to the very young children for whom board books are intended. And her woodcut illustrations are quite lovely – and laid out to emphasize the way in which counting is done. The first picture shows the moon in the upper right of a two-page spread, as dawn (a pinkish color) starts to emerge from night (most of the illustration is in lovely, complementary shades of purple). Moon changes to sun as the book goes on, the two celestial orbs remaining in the same page position as the blank space between them and the text (set at the far left of each left-hand page) is slowly filled up. First there is one tulip; then, writes Houck, “2 bright flowers now appear.” Then the two are joined by a third – and each flower looks completely different from the others, turning Flowers Grow All in a Row into a nature book as well as one about counting. One by one, plants are added, marching across the pages from left to right, until, when there are seven, the whole two-page layout is full. Now what? This is where Houck makes a clever switch: the next page shows the same seven plants, plus two blue butterflies that “flutter and play” as the scene darkens toward evening. And finally, “a little BUG visits at the end of the day” and crawls up the stem of one of the flowers. The result is “10 plants and critters,” all of them shown by Houck at the end of the book so kids can count them again and learn that any 10 things can be counted using the same set of numbers. The beauty of Flowers Grow All in a Row, although very different from the beauty of The Colors of Ancient Egypt, is used for much the same purpose: to create a distinctive board book that will engage and involve young children in ways that more-ordinary books of the same shape and size rarely do.
The Mouse and His Child. By Russell Hoban. Illustrated by David Small. Scholastic. $9.99.
Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Some books show their age; some wear it proudly; and some transcend it. There are a few classics for children that even transcend their genre and reach out not only to young readers but also to anyone who ever was young. These are books such as Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Mouse and His Child. Russell Hoban’s novel is half a century old now – the new printing is marked “50th anniversary edition” – and is an amazing book to rediscover or encounter for the first time. One thing that makes this novel so special is the possibility of reading it on multiple levels, as anything from a simple adventure to a fall-from-grace story with spiritual overtones. Another special element is the use of language not usually found in children’s books, including words that fit the story perfectly while expanding young readers’ vocabulary: “chthonic,” “raffishly patrician,” and many more, sometimes laid on so thickly that kids and adults alike will find them as over-the-top as Hoban intended them to be: “Absolutely nothing! Accretions and abstractions of annotated nothing. Bafflements of nothing. Charismas, demiurges, and epiphanies of nothing.” Yet another outstanding part of the book is the way Hoban echoes great literature for adults within it – works that children almost certainly will not know but may encounter later in life, at which point they will think back to where they first heard the words from them. There are, for example, eyes that “blazed up in the gloom, staring in wild surmise” (a reference to Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer), and two separate mentions that “the child is father to the mouse” (from Wordsworth’s “the child is father to the man” in The Rainbow). And there is a hilarious sendup of Waiting for Godot, very funny even for those who do not catch the satire, in a comment about “Furza and Wurza representing as they do the very ISness of TO BE, cloaked in fun and farce.”
Yet there is nothing essentially complex or overwrought in the basic story of The Mouse and His Child. It is the tale of a windup toy, a larger and smaller mouse joined at the hands so that, when wound with a key, they dance in a circle – and the adventures they have when their existence as a plaything is ended by an accident that damages the toy. The notion of toys with feelings is nothing new for children today, certainly not for anyone familiar with Pixar movies such as Toy Story and its successors – but Pixar was founded only in 1986, nearly two decades after Hoban wrote The Mouse and His Child. The emotionalism of the book, its thoughtfulness and pervasive sadness (“a world of love and pain were printed on her vision, never to be gone again”), were genuinely new at the time and retain their power today. Most of the book’s dated elements are satirical ones: the self-involved academic (here, a muskrat) determined to make a name for himself through great works, only to find when he accomplishes what he wishes that a journalist (here, a bluejay) declares it to be “not news”; and the sendup of avant-garde theater through a group called “The Caws of Art” (led by two crows), whose latest offering, The Last Visible Dog, causes a riot. A few now-old elements sit more uneasily in the 21st century, though. A tramp – that is, a hobo, not “tramp” in the newer, sexualized sense – appears at the start and end and is key, like mysterious and powerful beings of uncertain provenance in other tales, to setting the story in motion and bringing it to a conclusion; but this type of character is virtually unknown in children’s books today. And an important climactic scene includes a detailed description of train tracks and a train passing along them, “clacking through the switches” until at last “the yellow-windowed caboose and its red lantern dwindled into darkness” – but contemporary children may have no point of reference for this at all. Still, The Mouse and His Child is at its heart a quest story, and Hoban (1925-2011) tells it with all the flair of a writer of epics – which, on one level, it is. Unfortunately, Hoban’s excellent illustrations are omitted from the new edition, which instead uses ones by David Small that are quite well done but not always in keeping with the nuances of the story – for instance, the picture of a long-abandoned dollhouse that has been taken over by rats does not at all match the elaborate and very dark description of its appearance in the text. Nevertheless, the return of The Mouse and His Child is an occasion to celebrate: parents or grandparents who give this book to children, and perhaps read it with them, will be doing themselves as well as the young ones the great favor of delivering to them a world full of wonder, trouble, hurt and delight.
Even older than The Mouse and His Child and even more directly dependent on the once-romantic notion of trains, Virginia Lee Burton’s first published book, Choo Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away (1937), is also a quest adventure, but a much simpler one than Hoban’s and one much more easily resolved. The new edition, thank goodness, retains Burton’s excellent illustrations, although they have been colored, probably inevitably for a modern book (by Lauren Pettapiece). This edition includes an up-to-date bonus in the form of a free audio download in which the book is read by Burton’s son, Aristides, to whom Burton dedicated it (and who is charmingly shown as a child, surrounded by model-train layouts, on the original dedication page). A picture book rather than an extended novel, Choo Choo is a distinctly old-fashioned story of “a beautiful little engine” (a steam engine, no less – today’s kids will certainly need an explanation of what that means) who tires of pulling passenger coaches and decides to take off on her own. Everything about the book speaks of the time at which it was written, from the pipe-smoking engineer carrying a large oil can to the fireman (no, not a firefighter) who stokes the engine with coal to the conductor with his huge (analog) watch that “told the little engine when it was time to start.” Choo Choo is certainly a visit to the past, but it remains a charmer of a book. The basic “I want to get away” and “I could do better on my own” story is, after all, timeless: Choo Choo takes off one day as her three human attendants are having coffee in a restaurant, but instead of eliciting the admiration she expects to receive as she speeds along the tracks, she frightens people and animals, causes a multi-car pileup at a railroad crossing, has to leap a just-opening drawbridge, and eventually runs out of fuel on a disused siding and chugs to an unhappy halt. So much for adventure! The humans, of course, rescue Choo Choo and do not blame her for what has happened, and she, suitably chastised by her experience, returns happily to her pulling-passenger-coaches role. So all ends well for everybody. “I am not going to run away any more. It isn’t much fun,” thinks Choo Choo at the end. The message, about figuring out where you fit in and being happy about it, is not politically correct in 21st-century terms. But it retains its resonance, for children and adults alike, despite being communicated in Choo Choo using elements that are no longer part of the direct knowledge or experience of most modern readers.
Pig the Elf. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $14.99.
The Christmas Quiet Book. By Deborah Underwood. Illustrated by Renata Liwska. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Pete the Cat: Trick or Pete. By James Dean. HarperFestival. $6.99.
Duck, Duck, Dinosaur: Perfect Pumpkin. By Kallie George. Illustrated by Oriol Vidal. Harper. $16.99.
Flat Stanley and the Missing Pumpkins. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $3.99.
It’s a jolly holiday with all sorts of characters, animal and human (or kind-of-human), in kids’ books with a distinct seasonal slant. The super-selfish Pig the Pug gets his comeuppance, sort of, in Pig the Elf, in which the huge-eyed, cross-eyed pug creates a hilariously overdone list of things he wants from Santa at Christmas – the full list, not revealed until the inside back cover of Aaron Blabey’s book, includes such entries as “an inflatable banana,” “false teeth,” “a pet (giraffe would be good),” “beard,” “40 gallons of molasses,” and “the power of invisibility.” But even without seeing the list, kids will have a hilariously delightful time as Pig, bursting out of his red full-body elf suit, decides to stay awake until Santa arrives – to the consternation of Pig’s sweet canine companion, Trevor, whose entire list asks if he can please have something nice. Pig does manage to stay awake until Santa arrives, but of course is dissatisfied because “I asked for MORE!” So he chases Santa to the chimney, nips Santa in the rear, and hangs on tightly as Santa gets to the sleigh and the reindeer take off. Soon Pig cannot hold on any longer and falls. But this is a Christmas story, after all, so Pig not only survives “the big drop” but also ends up as an outdoor tree-topper – a hilarious one. Pig is so silly and his adventures are so ridiculous that his underlying characteristic, extreme selfishness, becomes funny rather than exceptionally irritating, as it would be in real life.
Animals of all sorts enjoy Christmas in Deborah Underwood’s The Christmas Quiet Book, originally published in 2012 and now available in paperback. Renata Liwska’s sweet, digitally colored pencil illustrations give the scenes warmth and beauty as Underwood gives examples of all sorts of quiet: “searching for presents quiet” as bunnies look for gifts, for example, is followed by “getting caught quiet” when they are found looking and given a time-out. “Cocoa quiet” has three friends gently sipping from mugs, while “lights on quiet” is a scene of wonderment at a fully lit tree – and the next page’s “blown fuse quiet” makes a lighting mishap adorable. A scene in a Christmas play brings both the embarrassed “forgotten line quiet” and the assistive “helpful whisper quiet” from other cast members, while “reading by the fire quiet” has two sleepy bunnies trying to get through the books they have opened and not quite managing to do so. The charms of The Christmas Quiet Book are many and are apparent on every page, with the deceptively simple language being used to showcase a wide range of lovely seasonal events and memories.
Quiet is not the watchword for all holidays, though. Halloween tends to be on the noisy and celebratory side, and there is usually plenty of bounce in Halloween-themed stories. James Dean’s Pete the Cat: Trick or Pete is a lift-the-flap book in which the pages show all the things Pete and his friends could be afraid of but don’t have to be. On one page, a shadow moves in a tree as the wind rustles the leaves; lifting the flap reveals an owl and Pete’s words, “That wasn’t too spooky.” Outside a house, there is a shape that looks strange in the dark, but is revealed in flashlight beams to be “just a scarecrow,” and again, Pete says, “That’s not too spooky.” And on things go, with eyes peering from a bush turning out to belong to “our friend Emma,” the dog, described by Pete as “not spooky but groovy.” It is only near the end that Pete is really spooked, by a ghost – but it turns out to be Grandma, who says, “Don’t be silly, Pete. It’s just me.” The very simple story, brightly colored illustrations (with lots of Halloween-y orange), and concluding “Happy Halloween” message add up to fine seasonal fun for kids who enjoy Pete the Cat’s comings and goings.
Some holiday-themed books do double duty as learn-to-read helpers, including those in the “I Can Read!” series. The series’ simplest level is called “My First” and is described as “ideal for sharing with emergent readers.” A pleasant Halloween example is Duck, Duck, Dinosaur: Perfect Pumpkin, in which the characters created by Kallie George and Oriol Vidal – two ducklings who hatched from eggs along with a dinosaur who is now an equal member of the family – search for a Halloween pumpkin. Ducklings Feather and Flap quickly get the hang of pumpkin searching when they go to a pumpkin patch with Mama Duck. But huge-footed dinosaur Spike (a kind of miniature T. rex who is all feet and head and has almost no body) keeps making mistakes: he thinks one pumpkin is perfect for jumping on and another is perfect for use as a bowling ball, and of course the result is smashed pumpkins and the need to continue the search. Eventually Spike catches on, a perfect pumpkin for decorating is located, and Mama Duck uses the Spike-smashed pumpkins to make pumpkin pie (although parents should tell kids that in real life, the pumpkins used for pie are not the huge, familiar orange ones, but a different type). Pumpkin pie – also made from the wrong pumpkins – figures as well in Flat Stanley and the Missing Pumpkins, a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”). Unfortunately, this book itself is less interesting and less successful than many others included in “I Can Read!” It gets a (+++) rating because Lori Haskins Houran’s interpretation of Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley character is only so-so. The thin plot here involves Stanley and his brother, Arthur, visiting their aunt, uncle and cousin at a farm, and finding out that someone has been taking the uncle’s pumpkins from his patch at night. Stanley poises as a scarecrow and discovers that the thieves are Arthur and Cousin Billy, who simply want to show the pumpkins at the county fair. Apparently they never just asked Uncle Bob if they could, and no one noticed that the pumpkins started disappearing only after Stanley and Arthur arrived. Macky Pamintuan’s illustrations are all right, with two of Stanley as a ramp being the most amusing and most in line with the character as created by Brown (1926-2003). But the story is not likely to bring many new fans to the Flat Stanley series – the whole narrative falls a little bit, well, flat.
Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-5; Adagio for Violin and Orchestra, K. 261; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373; Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, K. 269. Zsolt Kalló, violin; Capella Savaria conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Hungaroton. $40.99 (2 CDs).
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde. Alexandra von Roepke, mezzo-soprano; Peter Furlong, tenor; Christian Kälberer, piano. Thorofon. $16.99.
Eduard Strauss: Waltzes and Polkas. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by John Georgiadis. Marco Polo. $16.99.
Even well-known classical music takes on new shades of meaning when handled in a nontraditional or unfamiliar way. There are, for example, innumerable recordings of Mozart’s five violin concertos, and a number of them also include the three additional violin-and-orchestra pieces, K. 261, K. 269, and K. 373. But there is a paucity of recordings that bring historically informed performance practices to this material, and that is one thing that makes the new Hungaroton release featuring violinist Zsolt Kalló special. In addition to the usual elements of historically informed performances, including original or replica instruments, gut strings, cellos without endpins, and so forth, Kalló provides all his own cadenzas, as soloists would have in Mozart’s time – even though many violinists today use existing cadenzas by performers such as Joseph Joachim. More importantly, Kalló creates cadenzas that are true to the time in which these works were written: they are display pieces, yes, but they are neither so long nor so elaborate as to overweight the music and turn the concertos into the sort of virtuoso offerings that became common only in the decades after Mozart’s death. These are particularly well-balanced performances, readings to which the original-instrument ensemble Capella Savaria, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, contributes greatly. In Mozart’s violin concertos (and the supplementary movements), the soloist is not quite primus inter pares in Baroque mode, but neither is he in constant competition with the ensemble. Kalló and McGegan turn these works into chamber-music-like conversations between soloist and orchestra, giving them plenty of heft when appropriate but allowing them to soar songfully and with great delicacy when that is the more-apt approach. The title of the two-CD set is a bit of a misnomer, though: it is called “The Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra,” but since it omits the Concertone, K. 190, and Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, it really encompasses only the works for solo single violin and orchestra. However, it encompasses those with beauty and great style: far from being stodgy, as period-instrument performances sometimes are, these readings are full of verve and liveliness, bringing forth the many manifest beauties of the music with a combination of beautiful tone, excellent balance, and a firmly grounded historical understanding of the time period within which Mozart produced the music.
Unlike Mozart’s violin concertos, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is always performed in one of its two authorized versions for voices and orchestra, those being for tenor and contralto (Mahler’s preference) or for tenor and baritone. But almost no listeners know that there is a third version of this amazing work, one not only sanctioned by Mahler but also prepared by him and specifically intended as an alternative form of performance. This is a version for voices with piano, not orchestra, and it is a version so little-known that it did not receive its first performance until 1989, almost 80 years after Mahler’s death. Mahler did not make this version as a piano reduction of the orchestral one – he actually rethought the music and created a piece that is noticeably different in numerous ways, for example by omitting the final word Tod in the third appearance in the first song of the phrase, Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der [Tod]. The piano part is very difficult and has some notable differences from the orchestral one – Mahler is not here merely trying to “reduce” the orchestral sound to the piano, but is striving to give Das Lied von der Erde a different kind of emotional impact from the one it has in its much-better-known orchestral guise. The new Thorofon recording of the piano version is thus an exceptionally welcome entry in the Mahler catalogue, even though the singers are not quite at the absolute highest level for this music: Alexandra von Roepke, as a mezzo-soprano, lacks the deep duskiness that Mahler wanted in the contralto part, and tenor Peter Furlong sometimes strains his voice in trying to emote, even though he is not up against a full orchestral complement. On the other hand, pianist Christian Kälberer is excellent throughout, his solidity grounding the singers and giving this entire performance a strength hewn as if from marble. It is inevitable to compare the piano version of Das Lied von der Erde with the orchestral one, and by and large this is not to the piano version’s advantage: the non-vocal middle section of Der Abschied, for example, is far less effective in bridging the two disparate poems when heard on piano. Yet this version is more than a curiosity: even though it lacks the powerful punch of the orchestral form in which Das Lied von der Erde is usually heard, it brings greater clarity to some of the intertwinings of the vocal and instrumental lines, and it casts the overall work’s emotions somewhat differently, giving them a more-human if less-overwhelming scale. No one who thinks he or she knows Das Lied von der Erde can really know it completely without listening to it in this form.
Speaking of knowing things, everybody who knows and loves the music of the Strauss family has heard, time and time again, the famed, unendingly tuneful and brilliantly structured waltzes, polkas and other dance music that the Strauss orchestra played for decades. And yet anyone who thinks of the family as consisting only of Johann Sr., Johann Jr. and Josef will be astonished by a wonderful Marco Polo release featuring waltzes, polkas and a galop by Eduard Strauss. The youngest of the three Strauss brothers and the longest-lived (1835-1916), Eduard gained fame as a conductor rather than a composer, and garnered unending notoriety when he insisted on having the entire Strauss archive incinerated in 1907 – whether because of a pact with his older brothers or from longstanding personal animosity toward them, no one is really sure. Eduard was often trivialized as “handsome Edi” – he was exceptionally good-looking – and had not really wanted to be part of the family “music business,” being fluent in several languages and preferring a diplomatic career. For many reasons, history has been unkind to Eduard, but the new CD of 13 of his works – of which, remarkably, 10 are world première recordings – may help to redress the balance. Although those of Eduard’s pieces heard here lack the ever-present good humor of those by Johann Sr., the dramatic flair of those of Johann Jr., and the intricacy of those by Josef, Eduard’s works are exceptionally charming, even if on a surface level, and are as well-constructed and tuneful as anything by the Strauss family’s better-known members. And the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice plays all the pieces with panache under John Georgiadis. Included here are Eduard’s best-known polka, Mit Extrapost, and his two most-familiar waltzes, Doctrinen and Fesche Geister. But nothing else on the disc will likely have been heard by Strauss fanciers before: the waltzes Grüsse an die Aula, Ball-Promessen, Hypothesen and Aus dem Rechtsleben; the gallop Pest-Ofener-Eissport; and the several types of polka (schnell, française, mazur) at which Eduard was especially adept – Bruder Studio!, Die Hochquelle, Über Feld und Wiese, Aus Lieb’ zu ihr! and Schneewittchen. Given the fact that Eduard wrote more than 300 works, it is by no means certain that the high-quality ones on this CD are typical of his music; certainly contemporaries belittled him as a composer, but whether that was justified criticism or more a matter of choosing sides (for example, in the ongoing rivalry between the Strauss family and longtime rival Karl Michael Ziehrer) is unclear on the basis of this single release. What listeners have here is Strauss music with a distinct difference: rarely heard works by a very definitely under-appreciated member of the famed family, a member whose contributions to the Strauss legacy will only be better understood if additional volumes of his pieces are released in the future. Hopefully that is just what will happen – mit extrapost (special delivery).
September 14, 2017
Accident! By Andrea Tsurumi. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys. By Esphyr Slobodkina and Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer. Harper. $17.99.
If ever there was an author’s name that fit almost perfectly with the theme of her book, it is Andrea Tsurumi’s name and Accident! Her name sounds like the word “tsunami,” and her hilarious exploration of mess-making is tsunamic indeed. It all starts when little Lola, an armadillo with distinctly human expressiveness, knocks a whole pitcher of juice onto a chair and makes a huge stain. “I’ve ruined everything!” Lola exclaims, determining immediately that she needs to run away and “hide in the library,” where “they have books and bathrooms,” and stay there “till I’m a grownup.” Dashing out of the house, Lola runs “away from her mess and right into everyone else’s.” And wow, are there messes to be found. Tsurumi is amazingly inventive as she piles trouble upon trouble upon trouble, starting with a bear whose weight breaks the chains of a playground swing and a lamb who cuts through a garden hose, then continuing with mistakes and wreckage everywhere – as the characters proclaim themselves “the WORST” and think about running away “till the END OF THE WORLD!” It is all so awful, so exaggeratedly and obviously overdone – and so hilarious. An anteater into whose shopping cart Lola runs uses her tongue to form the word “yikes.” A blowfish baker into whose cake the lamb falls blows up into a super-spiky ball and joins the race to the library – which takes the hyper-upset characters past a giraffe whose just-baked cookies fall out a window, a bull carrying destroyed dishes out of a shop, a mother duck noticing that the third of her four ducklings is actually a snake, a human turning on a blender that has no top and getting drenched in whatever is inside, and much more. Everyone gets hysterical when things go wrong: Tsurumi does an amazing lettering job to show all the ways characters say “WHOOPS!” and “RUINED!” and “WRECKED!” and more; a narwhal whose horn breaks a child’s balloon and a turtle who ends up on his back in the middle of a pie are two of the many other unfortunate animals. On and on travel Lola, the bear, the lamb and the blowfish, and everywhere they go (they go to a lot of places) they find “Big Big Trouble!” Finally, as a sign reading “CALAMITY!” is seen blowing over the street, they make it to the refuge of the library – where, one stumble and a domino effect on bookshelves later, there is “a huge CATASTROPHE.” And then – well, then a little bird who has been observing all the mayhem looks Lola right in the eye and says, “Accident.” Talk about a teachable moment! “And now we make it better,” says the bird, and that is just what the characters do – lots of them – in the book’s final pages. The cleanup of the entire downtown area is hilariously elaborate and elaborately hilarious – kids will love picking out all the specific repairs going on. And Lola rushes home to apologize, just in time to see her mom make a major mess with doughnuts, coffee, plates, a trash can, papers, and the stained chair. What an object lesson – what a lot of object lessons – in what to do when things go wrong! The highly personal way the story is told (the text type is in Tsurumi’s handwriting and the display type is hand-lettered by her) adds to the considerable impact of a book that is hilarious, touching and useful all at once. And that is no accident.
Nor is there anything accidental about the happenings in, and the creation of, Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys. This is the second time Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer has created a sequel to Caps for Sale, which has been popular ever since the book by Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002) was first published in 1940. In 2015, Sayer brought out More Caps for Sale, using her knowledge of Slobodkina’s work, of which she is essentially the curator, and ideas that she said came from Slobodkina itself. Now there is a sequel to the sequel, and Slobodkina herself is a character in it, more or less: Sayer has created a friend for the peddler, named her Essie, and based her appearance on that of Slobodkina. As for the story, it is a kind of hybrid of the original Caps for Sale and the story of the shoemaker and the elves: now the mischievous monkeys are still following the peddler and still irritating him, but the new character, Essie, tells the peddler that "sometimes what we don’t want is exactly what we need,” and urges him to clear his mind of negative expectations and see what happens with the monkeys. And sure enough, when the peddler has to leave town to visit a sick friend, the monkeys – who have spent a lot of time watching the peddler make caps to sell – take it upon themselves to make a whole new batch of caps. So when the peddler returns home, expecting to find everything a mess because of the monkeys and worried because he has spent all his money on the trip and has nothing to sell to get the money back, he discovers the monkey-made caps and realizes what has happened. The result is a level of gratefulness for the monkeys that is quite outside the scope of the original Caps for Sale but that certainly fits with this extension, as Sayer creates it. Sayer does a fine job of carrying through Slobodkina’s original art, and she does not attempt to be politically correct by changing anything (for instance, the peddler’s stereotypical appearance remains just as it has always been). Sayer clearly has big plans for Slobodkina’s legacy: at the end of Caps for Sale and the Mindful Monkeys, the peddler meets four children who originally appeared in other, non-monkey books by Slobodkina, and Sayer says in an afterword that “they will all have adventures with the peddler and the sixteen monkeys in future stories.” Clearly Caps for Sale is in the process of becoming a franchise and an extended series. If Sayer remains true to the spirit of Slobodkina’s original work – which, so far, she has – the peddler and the monkeys should have a bright future ahead of them.
The Adventures of Honey & Leon. By Alan Cumming. Illustrated by Grant Shaffer. Random House. $17.99.
The Great Puppy Invasion. By Alastair Heim. Illustrated by Kim Smith. Clarion. $16.99.
Dog owners know there is something deeply unsatisfying in being told that their dogs simply sleep all day while the humans are out and about. Surely those wonderful canine companions have something more to do! The technological solution to this burning issue involves buying a “nanny-cam” and actually observing the pups’ behavior. But Alan Cumming and Grant Shaffer have a better idea: imagine what the dogs could be doing. Well, actually, no, they couldn’t really do what Cumming and Shaffer show in The Adventures of Honey & Leon, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if dogs shared a fantasy life with humans to such a degree that they could have these particular adventures? Cumming’s story imagines that Honey, a good-sized rescue mutt, and Leon, a diminutive Chihuahua, take their canine duty to protect owners very seriously indeed, and so are very distressed when their human companions have to go on a business trip – which, Cumming writes, happens “an awful lot.” The dogs decide not to stand for this any longer when they discover that yet another trip is being planned: as soon as the humans leave, Cumming writes that Honey and Leon “quickly packed their bags” – with such necessities as a book on acting by “Marilyn Monruff” and packages of “doggie treats,” “emergency treats,” and “even more emergency treats.” Shaffer’s illustration of the pups enthusiastically getting themselves set for travel is a gem – actually, there are gems aplenty in the amusing and delightful pictures here. The dogs and their humans live in New York City, so the pups hail a taxi to take them to the airport – New York apparently being a place where cab drivers have seen it all, so picking up two dogs and their luggage to take to an airport is no big deal. Somehow Honey and Leon figure out which plane their humans have boarded, and they slip aboard themselves (What? No security?) and take seats way at the back – with Shaffer’s sly drawing indicating that perhaps the humans are not quite as unaware of the dogs as the dogs think. What follows is a European adventure in which Honey and Leon, wearing a variety of improbable disguises, repeatedly protect and help out their humans. Then, at a Parisian fashion show, photographers ask a model to turn their way by calling out requests such as, “Over here, honey!” And Honey the dog decides the calls are for her, and she takes her turn on the fashion-show runway (to the bewilderment of Leon), and she immediately becomes “the talk of the town.” And that means that the next day, Honey and Leon have to spend their time “keeping Honey’s star status hidden” from their humans (which requires, among other things, jamming the men’s cell-phone signals). Exhausted, but satisfied that they have done their guard duty while remaining undetected, Honey and Leon head home – and readers find out that, yes, their humans knew about the dogs’ adventurous diligence all along. The Adventures of Honey & Leon is a lovely little fantasy that strains credibility well beyond the breaking point – a state of affairs that matters not a whit. One thing that may matter to some families, though, is that this is also a book about gay men – the dogs’ humans – who repeatedly show their physical closeness by holding hands and putting arms around each other. This is irrelevant to the story but is clearly a desired element of it from the perspective of Cumming and Shaffer. Parents in traditional families need to be prepared to discuss this aspect of the book if their children ask about it.
The only thing parents may have to explain about Alastair Heim’s The Great Puppy Invasion is how anybody could possibly resist the adorable, enormous-eyed puppies drawn with such overwhelming cuteness by Kim Smith. But the town of Strictville does resist them – well, at first. This is a town whose motto is, “All work and no play makes for a great day!” Everybody is dutiful here, and suitably sour-faced, and no one has seen puppies before. But the people start to see them as the book begins – and soon see lots of them, despite the town’s “long history of ridiculous rules,” which include “fun was forbidden,” “play was prohibited,” and “cuteness was downright criminal.” But not even a police officer ticketing three adorable pups for daring to be cute can stop this invasion! And to make matters worse, one child, little Teddy, keeps reaching out to the puppies, despite his sensible mother’s repeated warnings not to touch them. “This is too much cuteness for just one town!” a resident exclaims at a hastily called emergency meeting. The residents think they know what they have to do to get rid of the puppies: they throw sticks at them (but the puppies delightedly fetch the sticks and bring them back), and they run toward the puppies to chase them away (but the puppies think it is a game and grow “even more delightful”). Soon the townsfolk are on the run, the puppies chasing them and yipping with happiness – until the townspeople run into their houses and slam the doors shut. But Teddy, still outside after his parents have run in, sees “the tiniest puppy of all” and wonders “how something so sweet and so playful and so adorably sad could possibly be scary” – and Smith pulls out all the stops here to show the little puppy taking up a full page, with brightly shining eyes as big as half its head and a head as big as its entire body. Awwwwww! Then the utterly adorable puppy lifts its paw to Teddy, and Teddy takes it, and soon all the other townspeople – who have been watching from inside their homes – “cautiously stepped forward” to shake paws with the other puppies. And a lickety-split (and a few licks) later, Strictville has become Not So Strictville and the people “would never be afraid of cuteness again.” The story and its illustrations are so over-the-top that kids and adults alike will likely find themselves laughing out loud at The Great Puppy Invasion – especially at the very end of the book, when another invasion is about to begin: a tiny, ultra-adorable, huge-eyed kitten winks at readers from the far right-hand side of the very last page. Awwwwww!