February 22, 2018
So Many Bunnies: A Bedtime ABC and Counting Book. By Rick Walton. Illustrations by Paige Miglio. HarperFestival. $6.99.
Rabbit & Possum. By Dana Wulfekotte. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Bunny vs. Monkey, Book Three. By Jamie Smart. David Fickling Books. $7.99.
Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur: Eggs, Eggs, Eggs! By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by John Nez in the style of Syd Hoff. HarperFestival. $6.99.
In children’s books, the uses of rabbits are many, and their usefulness in stories considerable – although it is different for kids of different ages. An exceptionally clever use is in Rick Walton’s So Many Bunnies, originally published in 1998 and now available in a sturdy board-book edition in which the illustrations by Paige Miglio are as attractive as ever. As the book’s subtitle indicates, this is both an ABC book and a counting book, and that is where its cleverness lies. Instead of just “an old woman” who lived in a shoe, here it is “Old Mother Rabbit” who does just that – and instead of having so many children that she didn’t know what to do, Old Mother Rabbit knows just what to do when it is bedtime for each bunny. After a supper of “carrots, some broth, and some bread,” she puts her bunnies to bed one by one, in all sorts of delightful-to-imagine-and-see places that rhyme perfectly with each little one’s name. Abel “slept on the table,” Blair “slept in a chair,” Carol “slept in a barrel,” and so on. Link “slept in the sink,” Pat “slept in a hat,” Quinn “slept in a bin,” Vern “slept by a fern,” and yes, there is even an X bunny: Xen “slept with his pen,” and is shown falling asleep right in the middle of writing down all the letters of the alphabet in purple. The attractive setting, the counting all the way to 26 when most books for the youngest children go no higher than 10, and the relationship between numbers and the letters of the alphabet, add up to a bunny book that kids will enjoy hearing and looking at time and time again.
Dana Wulfekotte’s Rabbit & Possum uses the bunny of the title differently: simply as a friend to the easily startled Possum. Rabbit looks forward to playing with Possum, but by the time she cleans up her house and comes to get him, he is fast asleep and she cannot wake him up. But something wakes him up: a rustling in the bushes that scares Possum so much that he dashes away, “down the hill and up a very tall tree.” Unfortunately, Possum now finds he cannot climb down from his high perch – and Rabbit cannot climb up, although she does try. Wulfekotte’s funniest illustrations show Rabbit’s ideas for getting Possum down, such as getting a beaver to gnaw through the branch on which Possum is perched or having three birds lift Possum off the branch and fly him to the ground. Then comes a more-practical idea: Rabbit builds a ladder. But unfortunately the sticks she finds to build it do not make a ladder tall enough to reach to where Possum is perched. What to do? Well, remember that mysterious noise that woke Possum in the first place? Wulfekotte’s illustrations have shown hints of what made the sound throughout the book – and now Rabbit looks for and finds the actual maker of the sound, who turns out to be Moose. Moose follows Rabbit to the tree, where Possum is convinced he is a monster and “he’ll eat us both,” but in fact Moose simply stands under the tree and Possum uses him to get down. How exactly does that happen? Wulfekotte does not say and does not show – figuring it out is up to young readers, who will have fun doing just that. And when Possum thanks Moose “for not eating us,” Moose accurately if rather crabbily responds, “I’m a vegetarian. Geez.” And the book ends with one more idea from Rabbit: to have Moose as well as Possum come over for a snack.
The ideas flow freely, albeit in very silly fashion, in Jamie Smart’s Bunny vs. Monkey graphic novels, which simply use a rabbit as the good guy in the very short stories – opposed to bad-guy Monkey and his henchman, Skunky the inventor. Actually, Skunky has most of the ideas here, and they are what make these stories fun – although Bunny vs. Monkey, Book Three shows a friendlier side of the title characters that makes the action less intense and earns the book a (+++) rating. Really, there is almost as much cooperation in these stories as there is competition. For instance, in one, Monkey strolls along singing to himself about being “Emperor of the Woods! Meanie of the Forests! Tyrant of Nature!” But he is soon brought up short by a group of warthogs, who inform him that they “are the meanest, roughest, toughest animals in the woods.” And when Monkey tries to prove his toughness by attacking Bunny, he only manages to run into a door and hurt himself, after which he is comforted by Bunny. Similarly, Skunky at one point decides to be good rather than bad, although he reverts to type at the end of that story because evil is “a lot more fun.” However, he also helps Bunny: when human rangers drive into the woods after an explosion identified as “The Kakapo Poo Kaboom,” Skunky – at Bunny’s request – solves the problem of exploding bird poo by creating “a fully plumbed toilet for birds.” The silliness of Bunny vs. Monkey remains fully in evidence here, even though the underlying good-vs.-evil theme is somewhat soft-pedaled.
And when a book’s theme is Easter, there are sure to be bunnies present – most of the time. But not, as it happens, in Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur: Eggs, Eggs, Eggs! This is the latest update/re-creation of Hoff’s more-than-half-century-old notion of a long-necked dinosaur that lives in a museum and has mild adventures with a modern-day child. In fact, this particular (+++) book is more about the “extras” within the binding than it is about the thin storyline, which has Danny helping his young cousin, Jack, find Easter eggs by perching on the dinosaur’s head so he can do some aerial egg-spotting. The “extras” have more to them than the tale does. There is a poster that folds out to 15” by 22” and shows Danny, lots of egg-hunting kids, and the dinosaur, all beneath a banner headline, “Have an Eggstraordinary Easter!” There are dozens of stickers showing eggs, Danny, other kids, the dinosaur, and the egg hunt. And there are no fewer than 14 perforated tear-out cards featuring scenes from the book and saying, “Have a very DINO Easter!” A dinosaur is no substitute for the Easter bunny, of course, but in this case, the dinosaur makes a pleasant (if scarcely compelling) stand-in for the traditional rabbit – and after all, even though the book does not mention it, some dinosaurs did lay eggs, while no rabbits ever did.
Anywhere Artist. By Nikki Slade Robinson. Clarion. $16.99.
Grandma’s Purse. By Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Knopf. $17.99.
It would be hard in real life to match the sheer exuberance of the girl at the heart of Nikki Slade Robinson’s Anywhere Artist, but Robinson makes it seems just barely possible to do so – since, after all, the girl uses anything, anything, to make artistic creations. Most tellingly, she uses her own mind, and that in one sense is what art is all about. In joyful poses that practically leap off the page (as does the girl herself), the first-person narrator asserts, “I can make art anywhere. My imagination is all I need.” And Robinson’s own imagination works overtime here, not only in the words and illustrations but also in the lettering, which expands and contracts, leans this way and that, and seems to be straining to keep up with all the enthusiasm that barely fits within the book’s covers. There really is such a thing as “found art,” but Anywhere Artist goes beyond that: the girl finds different things in different places and uses them in different, always highly creative ways. And although she is a cartoon character, the “art objects” with which she interacts – or rather the objects that she turns into art – look completely real, giving the book itself a very attractive balance between reality and make-believe (which, in a second sense, is exactly what art is). So we see the girl marching along after finding, in the forest, “fluffy lichen, twisted sticks, and smooth stones,” plus “lacy leaf skeletons,” and then we see the hyper-excited, smiling and running beast-of-some-sort that she makes from what she has picked up. We see her as a beach artist using shells, sand, seaweed and driftwood, then as a “rain artist” making puddle patterns and sculpting “oozy mud into silly shapes.” And finally she is a “sky artist,” making “art inside my head” from the clouds and saying, “My imagination is my brush.” That is the heart and soul of Anywhere Artist, and a wonderful central concept it is – and when, at the end, the girl asks young readers what they will make today, it is easy to think that real-world kids will soon be coming up with all sorts of remarkable and delightful imagination-generated art of their own.
Imagination is at the service of family closeness rather than anything officially artistic in Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s Grandma’s Purse, but there is nevertheless something artistic in the way the little girl who narrates the book transforms herself into a replica of her grandma Mimi by using “found objects” from inside grandma’s purse. The sheer wonder on the girl’s face when she contemplates the purse “full of some magical things” is delightful to see. So is the hopefulness of the girl as she asks her grandma to show her what is inside the purse. And grandma Mimi does just that, showing the “mirror to see myself before you see me,” the “smell-good so you know I was here even after I go home,” the extra earrings “in case I want to feel extra-fancy,” a coin purse that not only holds coins but “also holds memories,” and much more. The little girl looks with wonder and delight at each and every item, eventually concluding that “this is how Mimi gets to be Mimi. With everything in her purse, I can be Mimi, too!” And so the granddaughter turns herself more or less into the grandma, with earrings and lipstick and sunglasses and others odd and ends. And then she sees toward the bottom of the purse a picture of Mimi as a child, and the little girl says, “She looks like me! Only without all of Mimi’s accessories.” Yet the purse holds one final surprise even after this: a smaller purse for the little girl to start her own collection of must-have-it items. The girl, accompanied throughout the book by her curious and cooperative cat, really does make the exploring of the purse and trying-on of different items into a kind of work of art. And at the very end, when she has already started decorating her purse in her very own way – and when she makes sure that the very first thing she puts into it is a picture of herself and her grandma – this particular intergenerational artistic collaboration comes to a warm, happy and heartfelt conclusion.
Pinkalicious at the Fair. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $16.99.
The Berenstain Bears and the Ducklings. By Mike Berenstain. Harper. $16.99.
Pete the Cat and the Cool Caterpillar. By James Dean. Harper. $16.99.
Beat Bugs: In My Life. Adapted by Cari Meister from a story by Josh Wakely. Harper. $3.99.
Louise Loves Bake Sales. By Laura Driscoll. Pictures by Kelly Light. Harper. $3.99.
Batgirl: On the Case! By Liz Marsham. Pictures by Lee Ferguson. Harper. $3.99.
My Weird School: Teamwork Trouble. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $16.99.
There are many guided reading programs intended to help turn pre-readers into beginning readers and then into full-fledged readers of chapter books. But the distinctions among the programs’ various reading levels are not always obvious. That is one thing that makes the five-level “I Can Read!” system so good: there really is considerable care taken to place books at appropriate levels so children, parents and teachers can select ones with a particular label and have confidence that they will interest early readers and somewhat challenge them as well. The initial level, “My First,” and Level 1 (“simple sentences for eager new readers”), have the largest type and the shortest stories and sentences. The transition Level 2 (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) is the trickiest to manage, but generally comes across well through increasing complexity and word count without trying to pull young readers too far ahead too quickly. Levels 3 and 4 then further expand plot complexity and get kids ready for chapter books. As a whole, “I Can Read!” is a (++++) series, although a number of the specific books at the various levels are less than compelling and would individually get (+++) ratings.
Within each level, the “I Can Read!” books often use well-known characters in simplified circumstances, the idea being that as kids move beyond guided reading, they will seek out more-extended adventures of the same type, generally by the same author and illustrator (although either or both of those will occasionally be different in the “I Can Read!” series from the originators of the characters). The variety of characters and authors is quite wide here, as is seen in five recent Level 1 releases. First is Victoria Kann’s Pinkalicious at the Fair, which focuses on one aspect of the pink-loving little girl: the fact that she has a pet unicorn named Goldie. In the story, which of course liberally uses pink in its illustrations, Pinkalicious has fun at the fair but misses Goldie – and is often reminded of unicorns by, for example, the Unicorn Ring Toss game. Eventually Goldie shows up at the fair, bringing a friend – so both Pinkalicious and Molly, her friend, have unicorns with which to share the fun. Second is The Berenstain Bears and the Ducklings, which is by Mike Berenstain, son of character inventors Stan and Jan, and follows a familiar-to-fans trajectory in which any problems are very mild and are readily solved by the super-cooperative residents of Bear Country. In this story, ducks from a nearby farm settle in at the Berenstain Bears’ yard and build a nest, so the bears rearrange their comings and goings to help the ducks – and eventually, after ducklings hatch, the family manages to get the local police to stop all traffic so the ducks can waddle to a nearby pond. The story is somewhat overly sweet, as are many involving these characters, but it is true to type.
The third new Level 1 book, Pete the Cat and the Cool Caterpillar, omits the musical material that James Dean almost always includes in Pete books, instead focusing on a backyard “bug safari” during which Pete finds an interesting caterpillar, takes it home, and soon discovers that it has become a pupa – and, after a considerable period of time, emerges as a butterfly, which Pete and his parents release back into the yard. The emphasis here on the time needed for the caterpillar to become a butterfly provides a touch of realism that is absent in another caterpillar-focused Level 1 book, Beat Bugs: In My Life. This book is a paperback rather than a hardcover – “I Can Read” books come both ways – and is one of a series based on an animated TV show in which anthropomorphic bugs act out scenes very vaguely related to songs by the Beatles. The focus in this one is on Katter the Pillar, who does not feel well during her birthday party and eventually goes home to sleep, which she does for two days and with her head clearly visible outside a cocoon-like blanket. She then emerges as a butterfly, and everyone is happy. Like the other Beat Bugs books, this one is strictly for fans of the TV program – it is among the more thinly plotted books in the Level 1 series. The fifth new Level 1 book, also a paperback, requires knowing before starting to read that the little brother of Laura Driscoll’s character, Louise, is named Art: the information is not presented directly in the first part of the book, but is crucial to its climax. Louise Loves Bake Sales starts with Louise proclaiming how much she loves art – while she does things in the kitchen with Art to get ready for a bake sale. Determined to make her cupcakes extra-colorful, Louise gives young readers a quick lesson in how colors combine to make other colors. But Art then mixes all the colors, creating gray and not very artistic frosting that at least tastes good. At the end, though, Art’s appearance (he has been wearing a costume throughout the book) inspires Louise to create something that is art after all. The twist is clever, and early readers who like Louise will enjoy it.
Matters become a bit more complex in Level 2 books, such as the paperback Batgirl: On the Case! This is actually a rather weak book for anyone interested in comic-book-style crime-fighting and general derring-do, because the whole story is about Batgirl’s search for a package that she has misplaced while fighting crime. The main point of the book is Batgirl’s niceness: she scours the city for the missing gift, is shown mugging for the camera with one fan and posing for photos with others, and eventually gives the recovered package to her police-commissioner father – the box turns out to be a birthday gift for him. The story is quite mild and will mainly interest kids who already know Batgirl in a more-active role and are looking for something different. The hardcover My Weird School: Teamwork Trouble, on the other hand, is a fairly typical entry in the long-running Dan Gutman/Jim Paillot series. Sports-loving Ryan narrates the book, but the main focus is always-arguing A.J. and Andrea, whose constant fighting is indeed a significant ongoing element of the various My Weird School series. The most interesting thing in this book is the specific sport for which Ryan is assembling a team: curling, not a particularly well-known activity in the United States (although it is popular in Canada and elsewhere). The plot has Andrea on Ryan’s team but A.J. off it – there is room for only so many people – with the result that A.J. is frustrated, because if the team wins, the members will get to visit the sports-themed mansion of super-athlete Mo Deen. A.J. really wants to go there, and a couple of complications later, he does get to play, the team wins, and everybody is able to make the visit. This is one of the “I Can Read!” books that is particularly effective at presenting early readers with characters and situations that they will be able to explore at much greater length when they “graduate” from guided reading and start looking for longer (but not much more complex) chapter books featuring the same characters.
Wildlands No. 2: Witch Creek. By Laura Bickle. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
The Witch’s Kiss No. 2: The Witch’s Tears. By Katharine & Elizabeth Corr. HarperCollins. $9.99.
Laura Bickle’s second Wildlands novel and her fourth featuring geologist Petra Dee – Dark Alchemy and Mercury Retrograde are prequels to the current series – picks up with a real-world scenario as chilling as anything in Bickle’s supernatural environment, with Dee fighting the effects of cancer chemotherapy while confined to a hospital bed. Petra’s metastasizing leukemia is an unusual element of the plot here, and Bickle manages to make some skillful-but-not-overly-obvious parallels between it and the metastasizing otherworldly evil that will be readers’ primary reason for reading Witch Creek. In truth, cancer and chemotherapy are far too real-world frightening to provide the moderated frisson of chill that Bickle wants readers to feel. Yet the cancer is integral to the plot of Witch Creek, because an important element of the scenario of this sequel to Nine of Stars is that the world of the living and that of the dead are closely intermingled, with Petra passing between them – perhaps in part because her advanced cancer means she is nearly simultaneously in both. This is actually the most intriguing element of Witch Creek, which in other ways is far more conventional. It is a quest novel, with Petra searching for her husband-of-convenience, Gabriel Manget, who has become something more – again, partly because he may be able to help her face her mortality. Gabe is a 150-year-old former immortal, now fully human since the object that gave him ongoing life, a tree called the Lunaria, has been destroyed. But it has not quite been destroyed after all – this is one of the many plot points that pick up on earlier material and look ahead to where Wildlands will go next. Gabe is in the clutches of the evil and probably insane Owen Rutherford, a sheriff whose family owns (or at least controls, or at least seems to control) the ranchland where the Lunaria grew, or grows. Rutherford, whose primary confidant is Anna, the ghost of a young girl, is both brutal and unremittingly stupid, which makes his ability to outmaneuver Petra and Gabe hard to swallow. His stupidity is particularly in evidence in Witch Creek in the offhand, unthinking way he frees a devilish mermaid-like creature called Muirenn from her underground imprisonment – without even wondering who imprisoned her in the first place and why, and whether letting her go would be a good idea. Needless to say, it isn’t. Arrayed against the ravenous and revenge-seeking Muirenn and the dimwitted and revenge-seeking Owen are Petra and three others: Petra’s human friend, a healer named Maria; her former-wolf friend, still sometimes seen in lupine form, Nine of Stars; and the coyote Sig. He is in many ways the most interesting character here other than Petra herself, because Sig very clearly has coyote instincts and behaviors and yet shares perceptions and abilities that go beyond them and hint at a reservoir of knowledge that may prove crucial to the human characters. Bickle writes in a matter-of-fact tone that fits the story well, creating a context that makes its many fantasy elements more believable. And Petra’s ongoing battle with leukemia, and her knowledge that even as she seeks answers from the spirit world, she will likely enter it permanently in the near future, raise Witch Creek above what would otherwise be a fairly formulaic story about the fantastic elements that lie just beyond the everyday world of the fictional town of Temperance, Wyoming.
Matters are even more formulaic in The Witch’s Tears, the second book of The Witch’s Kiss trilogy by sister coauthors Katharine and Elizabeth Corr. This is not altogether surprising, since this trilogy is intended for teenagers rather than adults – and draws heavily, although not unthinkingly, on fairy-tale tropes. The first book, The Witch’s Kiss, drew largely on “Sleeping Beauty” and included a sleeping curse, three magical sisters, being raised by people who are not one’s true parents, and – yes – the kiss of true love. Its most notable element, though, was its least imitative: the relationship between protagonist Meredith (Merry), a young witch uncertain of her powers and just coming into their full flowering, and her older and non-magical brother, Leo. The two are not only siblings but also best friends, and Leo in the first book was strong and supportive and eventually proved crucial to the story – while Merry was rather slow on the uptake as she proceeded through a fairly standard quest with the usual finding-yourself elements. The exposition in the first book tended to drag, but the interesting brother-and-sister relationship made reading the novel worthwhile. Unfortunately, that relationship becomes much less intriguing in The Witch’s Tears, whose awkwardness of structure and style therefore becomes more apparent. The second book picks up three months after the ending of the first (which readers really must know in order to make sense of this sequel). Both Merry and Leo are still coping with the events of the first book, and Merry is still trying to learn how to use her magic properly – which means she is now more involved with the coven headed by her grandmother. But the coven mistrusts her and insists that she practice magic only according to the group’s rules and requirements – an obvious red flag for any teenager coming into her own, even in the everyday world. The Witch’s Tears eventually becomes another quest novel, after Merry’s grandmother is kidnapped and the coven decides that Merry will be useless in trying to rescue her. This book also introduces some new characters, with the apparent aim of showing how it is possible to move on beyond loss. One is Ronan, the new love interest for Leo, who has come out as gay; another is Finn, a wizard trying to help his brother and perhaps become Merry’s new love. The Witch’s Tears builds slowly to an action-packed climax and a cliffhanger ending that is so overdone that some readers will feel cheated as well as eager for the forthcoming final book in the trilogy, The Witch’s Blood. But until the late-in-book action, the story tends to meander, and the strong relationship between Merry and Leo that held the first book together shows signs of fraying for no apparent reason, with their disagreements and argumentativeness becoming repetitious and, after a while, simply tiresome. Second books of trilogies are very often the weakest, and certainly The Witch’s Tears has less to offer than its predecessor. The Witch’s Blood is likely, like many other trilogy conclusions, to pull everything together with a bang-up and hopefully satisfying conclusion. But it is a shame that some of the engaging elements that started this sequence were not carried more effectively into its continuation.
Mutsuo Shishido: Complete Works for Piano. Akina Yura, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
François Rossé: Music for Saxophone and Piano. Adam Estes, saxophone; Stacy Rodgers and Amanda Johnston, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The Core-tet Project. Evelyn Glennie, percussion; Jon Hemmersam, guitar; Szilárd Mezei, viola; Michael Jefry Stevens, piano. Naxos. $12.99.
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 10. James Brawn, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
What to do with the piano? This is no simple question nowadays, and indeed has not been simple since John Cage invented the prepared piano in 1938 (although he was not the first composer to alter a piano’s sound by placing objects on or between the strings). Eight decades after Cage formalized the prepared-piano concept, composers remain split between those seeking to elicit expressive, lyrical and emotionally trenchant sounds from the piano and those wanting to exploit its essentially percussive nature. Mutsuo Shishido (1929-2007) came down firmly on the emotionally expressive side of things, albeit with an intriguing difference: he sought to combine elements of music from his native Japan with traditional Western ones. This is scarcely a unique approach nowadays, when composers frequently mix Western sounds with ones from Asia, Africa and elsewhere, but a new MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Akina Yura shows that Shishido handled the combinatorial aspects in an unusual way. What Shishido tried to do – with mixed success, as this recording shows – was to maintain the Japanese identity of his piano music while having it be accessible to audiences outside Japan and the Orient. His very first attempt to do this, Suite de Danses pour Piano (1957), shows the approach clearly, imitating traditional Japanese instruments on the piano – as Cage and others sought to imitate other percussion instruments through piano preparation – while still using recognizable Western classical forms. Suite pour le Clavier (1968) extends the approach, imitating taiko (Japanese drums) and eliciting some of the feelings of Shinto meditation while, again, having recognizably traditional Western elements. The flip side of this serious approach is shown in Shishido’s two sonatas (1966 and 1968), which are lighter in character and somewhat more buoyant in their musical mixtures. To complete this survey of all Shishido’s piano music – there is less than an hour of it – Yura includes three short works that show how Shishido handled his cultural potpourri in briefer pieces: Yūzakura Dōjo No Eri No Usu Aoku (1971), Kimagure Kouma (1976), and Toccata, with Flute and Drums (1988). Everything on the CD is a world première recording, and everything is handled by Yura with sensitivity and apparent appreciation of the ways in which the music and its composer tried hard to straddle and unite two disparate worlds.
Another MSR Classics release, featuring works by François Rossé (born1945), takes the piano in a much more “Cage-ian” direction and pulls the saxophone along with it. As Cage sought to extend the piano’s range and sound palette, so does Rossé wish to do for piano and saxophone alike. This means the instruments often sound like something other than themselves, or at least other than anything approaching their traditional sounds – and while listeners may find it fairly easy to accept the aural changes for the piano (Cage’s formalization of the prepared piano has, after all, been around and in use for 80 years), it is harder to do so where the saxophone is concerned. Largely gone here is the warmth and sonic depth for which this instrument is known, and the jazz elements with which listeners may well be familiar are generally absent as well. Rossé wants to open listeners’ ears to new sounds, as do many contemporary composers; whether he succeeds, especially for a full 45-minute-long CD, will depend on how accommodating individual listeners’ aural perception is to the sorts of sounds that Rossé evokes. The nine works here are not presented in order of composition, but because their titles have little if any relationship to their sounds, and there is no particular sense of stylistic progress or difference among the pieces, the exact sequence does not matter. The works are called Nishi Asakusa (2004), Løbuk Constrictor (1989), Seaodie I and II (both 1989), Jonction (2008), La main dans le soufflé (1999), Sonates en arcs (1986), and Le Frêne égaré (1979). The difference between Rossé’s and Shishido’s handling of more-or-less Japanese material (Nishi Asakusa refers to a shopping district in Tokyo) and a more-or-less classical approach (to the extent that Sonates en arcs reflects traditional notions of a sonata) shows just how wide the gulf can be between contemporary composers even when they use the same instruments – and even when their pieces are performed with as much commitment as Rossé’s are by saxophonist Adam Estes and pianists Stacy Rodgers and Amanda Johnson.
It is not just one instrument paired with and set against the piano on a new Naxos CD called The Core-tet Project. And the piano is not the sole openly percussive instrument here – in fact, the whole disc revolves around percussionist Evelyn Glennie, whose skill with multiple forms of sound generation is considerable. The piano does take the lead role in some of the 14 pieces on the disc, though, as at the opening of The Calling, where it is in fact that piano that seems to be calling to the other instruments. There is a lot of “seems to be” in this session, because the whole thing is very much subject to individual listeners’ interpretations. The reason is simple: all the works here are improvisations, which means nothing on the CD would be the same if the cutely named ensemble (“core-tet” rather than “quartet”) should get together again. The players make some attempt to match their performances to the works’ titles – and the performances could just as well come first and then be given titles reflecting their sound. Grotesque Fantasy, for example, does indeed sound grotesque in its focus on the high ranges of the instruments and the intensity of the playing. In other cases, though, listeners have to be guided by Glennie to hear the music as she and the other players want it to be heard. Do the sound of viola and tone of piano really add up to Iron Stars? Does the use of small drums on a timpani head, alongside the ethereal sounds of a waterphone, produce Flutter Gaze? Yes, there is intensity in Walk of Intensity, as in other improvisations here, but is there more or different intensity, justifying the title? These questions become philosophical more than musical, and in fact the entirety of The Core-tet Project has a philosophical underpinning without which the music degenerates – but of course that is not the right word – into mere (but they are not mere) sounds. In addition to the tracks already named, the CD contains Steel-Ribbed Dance, Silver Shore, The Wake, Unseen Fires, Crystal Splash, Breath of Validation, Black Box Thinking, Scissor Shower, and Rusty Locks. The fanciful titles could be changed, in some cases even swapped, and they would still have the same impact, or perhaps would pull listeners’ thoughts in somewhat different directions despite offering identical notes. And of course these are one-time-only notes, as in any improvisation, so wherever interested listeners may be taken by the piano and other instruments in The Core-tet Project will be a different place from where they would be taken by these same players, using the same instruments, at a different time.
It can be salutary, after hearing how today’s composers and improvisers handle the piano, to turn to piano music that was quite advanced in its own time, exploring new sonorities and emotions, but that is now an accepted part of the standard classical repertoire. Beethoven’s early sonatas fit the bill perfectly, and the latest release in James Brawn’s Beethoven cycle for MSR Classics – his fifth – shows this quite clearly. All four of the sonatas heard here are those of a young man, written before Beethoven turned 30 – that is, before 1800. And all are evidence of the composer being a very fine pianist, and one already pushing beyond the sonata models of Haydn and Mozart. The considerable seriousness of Sonatas Nos. 5, 6 and 7 (Op. 10, Nos. 1-3), especially the third and longest, already shows Beethoven moving into emotional territory whose intensity is well beyond that of his predecessors; and it is worth remembering that his very next sonata, No. 8 (Op. 13), is the famous “Pathétique.” Brawn’s handling of all four sonatas here continues his approach from earlier releases: he plays cleanly and with feeling, but without overdoing any of the sonatas’ proto-Romantic elements and without any exaggerations of tempo or unwarranted changes of rhythm. His playing is perhaps best described as forthright and, to the ear, uncomplicated, but that scarcely means it is unfeeling or uninvolved – quite the opposite. In fact, while Brawn is usually careful to observe Beethoven’s intentions, with notable focus on getting the dynamics correct, he is so determined to elicit the emotional undercurrents of the music that he makes some decidedly historically incorrect decisions by utilizing the resources of a modern piano to play beyond the five-octave range of the instruments for which Beethoven composed and on which he himself played. There are longstanding academic and musical arguments about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of performing Beethoven (and other composers) in ways that clearly go beyond the intent of the music; the argument for Brawn’s approach is, essentially, that this is what Beethoven would have done if the instruments of his time had allowed it. Certainly listeners without a firm commitment to one side of this debate or the other will find Brawn’s readings of these sonatas convincing. And his handling of the lyrical and good-natured Sonata No. 10 (Op. 14, No. 2) provides some welcome relaxation in contrast to the greater depth of the Op. 10 set. Brawn’s ongoing Beethoven cycle continues to show him to be a thoughtful pianist who does not draw attention to his own technique but to the intricacies of the music – an approach that works particularly well for works of Beethoven’s time, and one that is quite different from the requirements placed on the piano by many more-recent composers.
February 15, 2018
Out of the Wild Night. By Blue Balliett. Scholastic. $17.99.
Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. By Sally J. Pla. Illustrations by Steve Wolfhard. Harper. $16.99.
Books for preteens and young teenagers typically contain a multitude of formulaic elements: they are coming-of-age stories involving friendship, an adventure/quest, lack of adult understanding, family difficulties, often a mystery as the core or at least part of the plot, and more. And they are almost always multi-protagonist stories, with one central character but one or more almost-as-important ones. Publishers seem to think these tropes are de rigueur in books for this age group, but the best authors know the expected material is not enough for a meaningful story. And it is in their willingness to incorporate the expected items while simultaneously pushing beyond them that the finest authors of works for this age group excel. Indeed, in some cases authors push the boundaries of the preteen/early teen format so far that their books are somewhat iffy for many readers, requiring a higher level of involvement and sensitivity to language and characterization than many younger readers possess. That is precisely the case with Blue Balliett’s latest outstanding work, Out of the Wild Night. Although the cover calls this “a ghost story,” it is far more than that: much of it is a book of poetry masquerading as prose. “November is our thinking month – a time of crisp, bright moons and of liquid mockingbirds in the tallest trees.” “Clouds and ocean and land are rolling, like crumbs on God’s knee.” “When you’re really in the present, I believe you’re most in the past, because it never actually went away. It’s what makes us all people and not horseshoe crabs or stones.” The language is lovely – and the “I” of that last excerpt is dead. Yes, the narrator of Out of the Wild Night is a ghost, so the book is absolutely, 100% a ghost story, a ghost’s story – and its title comes directly from a work by British poet A.S. Byatt about inviting ghosts in. That is what Balliett’s book is about: ghosts being invited into the lives of living children, ages six to 11, in a place where the line between life and death is unusually thin and the dead and living commingle to each other’s benefit and in each other’s support, even if adults are too, well, adult to realize it. The place is Nantucket, the narrator is 100-years-dead Mary W. Chase, and the plot is one of preservation vs. modernization, of the collision between the old and the new and the value of deliberately not subsuming the former into the latter: “As long as the settled landscape of an old house remains, we spirits, those of us whose lives were anchored in its walls and floors, who were born, gave birth, and died inside them, can stay. As can our dreams. BUT. Rip out all of the rooms and you rip the beach from beneath the shells. You tear the poetry from the shore. You destroy what should rightfully linger. You butcher what we protect.” What lovely language – thoughts of the dreams of those who have passed on. Adults who read this book – and adults will enjoy it – may think of Hamlet: “What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” But these dreams are not nightmares, these ghosts not threats: the threats here are from the living, from modernity, from a world that has long moved past the time of the old Nantucket houses and now seeks to preserve only their exteriors, making them literally shells of their former selves. And Mary and the other ghosts can do nothing about this unless they can find a way to interact with the only people receptive to them: children. There is quite a group of kids here, known collectively as the Old North Gang: Gabe Pinkham; Paul, Cyrus, and Maddie Coffin; Phoebe Folger Antoine; and twins Maria and Markos Ramos. Their backgrounds and ethnicities vary, but they are united in their love of and sensitivity to old Nantucket and their willingness to fight for it – by being involved in, if not directly causing, a series of “accidents” that will stop the cold-hearted and uncaring developers (whose one-dimensional sliminess, until an eventual abrupt turnaround, is the only significant flaw here: making the bad guys caricatures makes the tale somewhat too one-sided to be a fully effective moral/ethical lesson). Balliett paces Out of the Wild Night with relentless skill and beautifully rendered language: “Happy is too easy a word, but I think that sadness in a house can change into something else if you allow it to, like rubbing oil into wood to make it shine. It isn’t just oil anymore. It becomes part of the beauty of the wood. Beautiful things don’t always smile.” Nor does beautiful language always make reading easy. But the words not only tell the story but also become part of the story here. Balliett’s love of Nantucket permeates every page and shows at the back of the book in photos of the real-world island. This is a book that asks young readers to rise above themselves and delve into a writing style to which they are unlikely to be accustomed, and issues with which even adults have difficulty coming to terms. It is a wonderful novel for the thoughtful, a thoughtful novel filled with wonders.
Sally J. Pla’s Stanley Will Probably Be Fine is less skillfully written and more conventionally plotted, but it too stretches the conventions of novels for preteens in ways that set it above the vast majority of books targeting this age group. Protagonist Stanley Fortinbras is a 12-year-old comic-book-trivia fanatic with a 14-year-old brother and a post-divorce family: the boys live with their mom; their grandfather has moved in as well; and the boys’ dad is somewhere in Africa, trying to better the lives of people there while paying very little attention to the lives of his own children. Stanley also has physical and emotional challenges, being prone to panic attacks that even lead to him fainting in front of his whole school. Stanley’s best friend, Joon, has started behaving like a jerk and hanging out with guys who don’t think much of Stanley, so Stanley is receptive when he meets a new neighbor, a girl named Liberty – who has her own fractured family and her own dark health secret (which readers will likely guess well before Stanley finds out what it is). Then Stanley has the opportunity to enter a comic-book-trivia contest whose winners will get VIP passes to the upcoming Comic Fest; and he ends up paired with Liberty after Joon decides to enter the contest with someone else. There is nothing especially original about any of these plot elements, but the way Pla handles them is out of the ordinary. For example, Stanley responds to school disaster drills, of which there are many, by sitting alone in a safe room (given to him because of his emotional condition) and drawing the adventures of a comic-book superhero he invents and names John Lockdown – a hero who ends up figuring in the book’s plot in wholly unexpected ways. (Steve Wolfhard’s illustrations, which show the drawings that “Stanley” makes of John Lockdown and other things, help buoy the story.) For another thing, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine makes some real-life connections, not only through the disaster practices at school – unfortunately all too real nowadays – but also through some social consciousness about comic books. At one point, Liberty says, “I don’t get why they call the male superheroes men, like Superman, Batman, Aquaman. But the female superheroes are all called girls. Batgirl, Supergirl, Aquagirl.” And Stanley, who narrates the book, writes, “I think about the busty, crazy-shaped women they have in a lot of those old issues. ‘A lot of stuff in the history of comics hasn’t been fair to girls.’ ‘A lot of stuff in history hasn’t been fair to girls,’ Liberty says…” Thankfully, Pla does not belabor this point; but thankfully, she does raise it – and in a context that makes sense. Indeed, a great deal of Stanley Will Probably Be Fine makes sense, even when that means it does not get neatly tied up with a happy ending – which it does not. The enforced separation of Stanley and Liberty, not long after they have become firm friends, is uncomfortable but realistic in context; the re-emergence of Joon as a friend is a bit more forced but understandable; the twist involving John Lockdown pulls the latter part of the book in unexpected directions that, again, make sense because of the way Pla handles the plot; and Stanley’s out-and-out-heroism when an accident occurs that ties back to disputes between his mother and his grandfather also fits Stanley’s well-developed personality. Stanley and Liberty are, in fact, so well portrayed that Pla almost gets away with turning Stanley’s family members – his mom, dad, grandfather and brother – into cardboard characters. Ultimately, readers will realize that the book’s title is quite apt: with all that has happened to him by the novel’s end, Stanley will indeed probably be fine – but that “probably” hangs over the book’s finale, as it does over everyone’s life, because despite the optimism in evidence here, Stanley’s ongoing happiness is something less than a foregone conclusion.
When Spring Comes. By Kevin Henkes. Illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $7.99.
Biscuit’s Pet & Play Farm Animals. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Illustrations by Rose Mary Berlin. HarperFestival. $7.99.
Biscuit’s Neighborhood. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Pat Schories. Harper. $16.99.
Paddington Collector’s Quintet. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $16.99.
Paddington on Top. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Harper. $9.99.
Specialized-format books are the rule for the youngest children, both those to whom adults must read and those just beginning to read on their own. Sturdy board books are always a worthwhile choice for first exposing kids to the delights of books and reading: board books are generally intended for anyone up to age four. But that does not mean all these books are super-simplified versions of ones for older children – sometimes they are the ones written for older kids, but reformatted. When Spring Comes, for example, is a charmer from 2016 that is now available in board-book form, and Kevin Henkes’ writing is just as pleasant in this version as in the original. Laura Dronzek’s illustrations fit the text perfectly: Henkes writes that “Spring will make the leftover mounds of snow smaller and smaller and smaller until suddenly – they’re gone,” and Dronzek first shows the remnants of a snowman with a bird perched on top and then has the snow shrink more and more and more, until finally the bird is pecking at the remains that have melted completely into the ground. In another bird sequence, Henkes writes that “Spring comes with sun and it comes with rain. And more rain and more rain.” And Dronzek’s four pictures show a bird building a nest, sitting on eggs in it, sitting still more as buds become flowers, and finally standing above three chicks as the rain comes down on the whole family. There are kids in this springtime tale, too, with rain boots and umbrellas and bubble-blowing and flower-sniffing, and the whole sweet story is about the way children and other youngsters wait for and then celebrate springtime – and can then, when spring is in full flower, start to wait for summer.
Some board books are less story-focused than experience-focused: they contain elements designed to involve the littlest children directly. An example is Biscuit’s Pet & Play Farm Animals, which is designated “a Touch & Feel Book” because some of the animals seen by the curious puppy of the title can also be felt by the curious fingers of little humans enjoying the story. Really, though, there is no story here: Alyssa Satin Capucilli, creator of Biscuit, simply has him and the girl who owns him spending a day on a farm and seeing the animals there. The illustrations are not by Pat Schories, Capucilli’s regular collaborator on the Biscuit books, but by Rose Mary Berlin “in the style of Pat Schories,” from which they deviate enough to be clear to adults but probably not to kids. Children will simply enjoy feeling the silky mane of a foal, the wool of a lamb, the softness of a calf’s hide, and so on. Biscuit is adorable in interacting with all the animals, and children will enjoy their own chance to experience some of what the puppy finds so engaging.
Biscuit stories actually make excellent transitions between being read to and reading on one’s own, as is clear in Biscuit’s Neighborhood, a five-book boxed set in which all the books are in the “I Can Read!” series at its initial level, “My First” (“ideal for sharing with emergent readers”). These pleasant little books do have Schories’ illustrations, which complement Capucilli’s words very well indeed. Biscuit introduces the puppy and shows all the little things he wants before bed: a snack, a drink, several hugs, and more. Biscuit Plays Ball shows the happy puppy insisting on participating in a kids’ ballgame. Biscuit Goes Camping is a night-in-the-back-yard adventure with wind, a frog, a firefly and an unexpected thunderstorm to stir things up. Biscuit Feeds the Pets has the puppy trying to be helpful but just being too easily distracted by some new, even smaller puppies – the result being a major mess that, however, proves to be no big deal. And Biscuit Loves the Library is about “Read to a Pet Day,” with bunny, bear and dinosaur books, distracting puppets, and the eventual discovery of “a book that’s just right,” which happens to be the book Biscuit. These are warm and pleasant stories written at just the right level for adults to read while starting to show very young children which words are which, how they are strung together, and what fascinating tales result.
A slight move ahead among easy books in the “I Can Read!” series takes kids to Level 1 (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) and gives them a chance to meet a furry character even more famous than Biscuit: Paddington Bear. Michael Bond’s delightfully befuddled bear “from Darkest Peru” appears in five amusing adventures that are boxed as a set, collectively labeled Paddington Collector’s Quintet, and illustrated stylishly by R.W. Alley. Paddington Sets Sail has the bear swept out to sea – not too far out to sea, though – on his first beach trip. He soon floats back to shore in a bucket and is swarmed by people who think he must have traveled across the ocean. Paddington and the Magic Trick is set on his “first birthday since moving in with the Browns,” and features some misplaced marmalade and magical mixups. Paddington Plays On takes place at a fair in France, where the family has gone for a visit, and has Paddington temporarily trapped beneath the big drum he has been playing. Paddington’s Day Off has the bear and amiable shopkeeper Mr. Gruber visiting friends and going to a concert in the park, where Paddington gets to guest-conduct. And Paddington’s Prize Picture also features Mr. Gruber, who shows Paddington how one painting can sometimes be seen underneath another, leading Paddington to try his paw at painting, make a major mess of everything, and nevertheless create a picture that wins a prize for Mr. Brown. Paddington’s gentle misadventures always have upbeat endings, and very young readers will have a wonderful time working their way through these books to find out what will go wrong next and why whatever-it-is will turn out just fine in the end.
All these books then help prepare kids for reading full-fledged “chapter books,” including the original ones about Paddington with their delightful Peggy Fortnum illustrations. The most recently reissued of those is the tenth collection, Paddington on Top, which originally appeared in 1974. The seven stories here are Paddington Goes to School, Paddington Cleans Up, Paddington Goes to Court, A Birthday Treat, Keeping Fit, Paddington in Touch, and Comings and Goings at Number Thirty-two. The tales involve, among other things, a grumpy teacher with a distaste for marmalade sandwiches; confusion relating to a phony vacuum-cleaner salesman and a frequently angry next-door neighbor; misunderstandings about water skiing; the consequences of responding to a misleading advertisement; and the appearance in London of none other than Paddington’s Aunt Lucy from Peru. Everything is written in Bond’s deadpan style, which makes the many manifest absurdities pleasant rather than ridiculous (although a certain amount of ridiculousness does creep in, and the stories are all the better for it). And Fortnum’s illustrations capture the spirit of Bond’s writing beautifully, enhancing the narrative without drawing too much attention to themselves and away from the words. Young children who make their way from board books to read-together ones to first readers and eventually to the original Paddington books will have a very pleasant journey indeed, filled with captivating characters, much mischief and all manner of delightful doings.
Colleges That Pay You Back: The 200 Schools That Give You the Best Bang for Your Tuition Buck, 2018 Edition. By Robert Franek, David Soto, Stephen Koch, Pia Aliperti, and the Staff of the Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $22.99.
The funniest words in the 2018 edition of Colleges That Pay You Back – which is priced a mere dollar higher than the 2017 edition – are on page 29. They are Nota bene. College students and would-be college students whose focus is on the best ROI (return on investment), as determined by the statistics and analyses in this book, will likely have not the slightest idea what the words mean. No, they are not pronounced “not a bean” or “note a bean,” and they have nothing to do with dietary matters or Post-Its. They are Latin, meaning “take careful note” or “note well.” But who needs Latin these days? Certainly not the intensely driven, earnings-focused soon-to-be college students at whom this book is targeted. Those students are most likely to be interested only in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, and they will find plenty of schools to which to gravitate listed here. There are excellent lists of colleges to consider if you are interested in aerospace engineering, architectural engineering, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, civil engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, industrial engineering, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, nuclear engineering, petroleum engineering, software engineering, systems engineering, or various engineering technologies (electrical engineering technology, environmental engineering, industrial technology, mechanical engineering technology).
Student and parental naïveté about college has no place in these pages. Colleges That Pay You Back is a hard-headed look at the cost of attending 200 colleges (135 private, 65 public) and the likely payback on your investment in those college years – based on starting and mid-career salaries of graduates in a wide variety of fields. The notion of college as a broadening experience is long gone – in fact, undergraduate education has to some extent assumed the former mantle of graduate education, where the purpose is to become increasingly knowledgeable about a narrower and narrower field, eventually earning a super-high degree in which one proves one’s tremendous expertise in a vanishingly small area of knowledge (hence the old joke that says Ph.D. stands for “piled higher and deeper”). Nowadays specialization starts in the undergraduate years and, on the evidence of Colleges That Pay You Back, even before admission: the book’s purpose is to help students use objective data to figure out what schools they would do best to attend if, with all the maturity of high-schoolers, they have already figured out what narrow focus they intend to have for the rest of their lives.
Well, all right, things are not quite that cynical. Not yet. But they are getting there. The notion of college as just another commodity, of higher education as a job ticket and no more, makes considerable economic sense in the developed world in the 21st century. The question is how far to push the commoditization when one has a great deal of learning still to do about life, not just about, say, supply chain management (median starting salary $53,900; median mid-career salary $92,400). Parents who are on speaking terms with their high-school-student children may want to make this point while going through Colleges That Pay You Back with them: not all learning occurs in classrooms, and there is (or can be) more to college than a strict return on dollars invested. There are also time and social investments, among others, to consider. Of course, if the parents attended school in a less-intense era than the present and majored in, say, theater or music or, heaven forbid, Latin, little they say will likely carry much weight in the face of the onslaught of excellent quantifiable material in this book. It is absolutely true that there is no better book out there for students and families looking to maximize the financial and career impact of choosing a school. The question is whether that is the only impact to consider – and that query is one to be made within families, not in the pages of Colleges That Pay You Back.
The book’s time-honored format includes statistics of all sorts and lists of all sorts compiled by merging, analyzing and tweaking those statistics. And many of the top schools in the lists are exceptionally good on an all-around basis, so even a student who does not take one of the currently favored majors and go into one of the currently hot professions has a good chance – thanks largely to strong alumni networks – of doing well in life, financially speaking, by attending one of these schools. That, of course, assumes the student can get in and can afford to attend – but given these schools’ outreach to “under-represented” groups and some extensive endowments, that is certainly a possibility for more students now than it would have been a few decades ago. There is actually little that is surprising in most of the lists here. The overall top-50 list starts with Stanford, followed by Princeton; that reverses the order of the first two from last year, but at this lofty level, it matters little. The top-50 list continues with MIT, California Institute of Technology, Cooper Union, Harvey Mudd College, Dartmouth, Williams, Yale, Harvard, Vanderbilt, Amherst, University of Virginia, University of California at Berkeley, and Georgia Institute of Technology. Other schools with a longstanding reputation for overall excellence dot the top-50 list: Columbia (No. 16), Duke (No. 20), Cornell (No. 22), College of William and Mary (No. 32). And students may want to search the top-50 list for excellent pay-you-back schools that are somewhat less-known in this context, such as Wabash College (No. 18), University of Richmond (No. 39), Bates College (No. 42), and University of Florida (No. 50). But this book, and the college experience itself, are or at least can be about more than the dollar value of higher education and the speed with which one recoups what is spent. Students using Colleges That Pay You Back will find excellent material here – but will benefit most from the book if, before using it, they look inward and decide what they, not society or friends or book producers, want from a college education, and to what extent their focus is on return on investment. Nota bene.
Bad Princess: True Tales from Behind the Tiara. By Kris Waldherr. Scholastic. $12.99.
Free as a Bird: The Story of Malala. By Lina Maslo. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Authors of fact-based books for young readers inevitably have to confront the fact that a great deal of real life is unpleasant in the extreme – even deadly. How much of that to reveal in books aimed at children is a difficult question, and saying “it depends on the age targeted by the book” is at best an imperfect answer. However, it certainly does seem more appropriate to delve into greater detail in a book for preteen readers, such as Bad Princess, than in one aimed at ages 4-8, such as Free as a Bird. The difficulty in both cases is translating the general “more or less detail” notion into specific writing that will interest readers and draw them in without horrifying or frightening them – while at the same time not glossing over everything potentially upsetting. Kris Waldherr handles this issue in Bad Princess by framing his factual anecdotes with fairy-tale notions of what it means to be a princess and whether there is any real-world value to the notion of “happily ever after.” And despite the book’s deliberately provocative title, only some of the royals he discusses would be considered “bad” by the standards of their time or ours. For example, Waldherr writes of Princess Margaret Fredkulla of Sweden (c. 1080-1130) that she did all that was expected of her: “Arranged marriage. Check. Moving around from country to country. Check. Creating peace. Check. Ruling a kingdom. Check. Providing the king with heirs to his throne. Double check.” So by what standards might Margaret be considered “bad”? There really are none, and all Waldherr can muster is, “Was Margaret happy? Who knows?” In other cases, there is no doubt the woman portrayed was horrible. The terrifying tale of Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614) is an example. She was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of young girl servants, perhaps more than 600 – for no certain reason, although there are longstanding rumors that she bathed in their blood to try to preserve her own youth. However, she was not a princess – a matter that Waldherr glosses over in the name of retelling her story. Waldherr also tries with little success to lighten matters up in writing about Báthory, noting that after her crimes came to light, “she was walled up for the rest of her life in her castle chamber without Internet – and hopefully without a mirror.” Waldherr never seems quite sure of what points he wants to make with his brief biographies, beyond the obvious one that real life has little in common with fairy tales as they are known today (the original tales, far darker and far scarier, are another matter). Waldherr does not delve only into tales of times long past. He discusses the “dollar princesses” of the 19th century, whose wealth allowed them to marry titled men with blue blood but little money. And he contrasts the comparative happiness of ones such as Lady Jennie Churchill (1854-1921), whose “first years of…marriage [to Lord Randolph Churchill] were blissful,” with the misery of Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964), whose mother pushed her into a horrible royal union and told her, “I do the thinking, you do as you are told.” There are also pages on 20th-century princesses Diana (1961-1997) and Grace (1929-1982). Bad Princess is not all about princesses and not all about bad royals of any title, and the word “bad” is a loaded one in any case, often depending on judging people of one time by the standards of a different one. The book’s once-over-lightly treatment of royal life may counter the standards of sanitized fairy tales, if anyone actually believes them, but it sheds little light on the lives and times of the people Waldherr profiles.
Lina Maslo’s Free as a Bird profiles a single person, Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, the youngest-ever person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (she shared the 2014 prize with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children's-rights activist). The difficulty Maslo faces in telling Malala’s story, and it is a major one, is that Malala won the prize because she survived a vicious attempted murder by Islamic killers determined to prevent her and other girls from committing the “crime” of becoming educated. The Taliban mass murderers, like the similar Daesh murder cult sometimes known as “Islamic State,” care more about death than anything else, and it was death they sought to bring to Malala – and almost succeeded in giving to her. But the word “Taliban” appears nowhere in the main part of Maslo’s book, the word “Islamic” is not there, and Maslo turns Malala’s story into a kind of unequal-rights-for-no-known-reason tale. This is understandable in a book for very young readers, but it creates puzzlements for its intended audience that parents will have to find ways to handle. For instance, Maslo writes that Malala “realized that women in Pakistan did not have the same rights as men.” Why not? Maslo does not say. She writes about Malala taking part in public-speaking contests at school and says that, at some point, “a new enemy came to Pakistan.” What enemy? What does this have to do with the already-existing differences between women’s and men’s rights? Again, Maslo does not say, clearly trying to avoid the word Islam or bring religion – the foundation of all the violence and viciousness in this tale – into the picture. As for Malala almost being murdered by the Islamic fanatics, all Maslo says is that “the day came when [her father] could not protect her,” and then there is a wordless two-page abstract illustration made with red, black and blue. There is not even the indication of a sound. “What happened?” is sure to be any young child’s question at this point – but Maslo does not say. She has Malala sleeping and dreaming for a week, then awakening in a British hospital and being told “that the enemy had tried to end her life.” Why? Maslo does not say. The remainder of the book, in which Malala travels the world speaking out for girls and for others held voiceless by Islamic murderers and others, is upbeat and effective, and Maslo’s illustrations give Malala an understated heroism that fits the personality of this young women (born in 1997) very well. The Author’s Note at the back of the book provides a timeline and at last uses the word Taliban to explain who the “enemy” unnamed in the main story is. Parents unfamiliar with Malala’s story will want to read this explanatory material before allowing young children to tackle the main tale on their own: Maslo’s writing is age-appropriate, but her determination not to frighten her intended audience too greatly makes Free as a Bird less clear and less understandable than it could be. Sometimes, as here, an author bends over backwards a bit too far in trying to sanitize real-world horrors in the name of bringing a tale of heroism to children who are just becoming able to read books on their own.
Music in the Listening Place: Contemporary Choral Works. Vanderbilt Chorale conducted by Tucker Biddlecombe. Navona. $14.99.
Lionel Sainsbury: Time of the Comet; Clive Muncaster: Reflective Thought Patterns; Patricia Julien: Among the Hidden; J.A. Kawarsky: Fastidious Notes. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský (Sainsbury, Julien); Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Ian Winstin (Muncaster); Jonathan Helton, alto saxophone; Chicago Arts Orchestra conducted by Javier Mendoza (Kawarsky). Navona. $14.99.
Anthology discs have an inherent weakness for listeners primarily interested in what music is being performed on a CD: even when the recordings are carefully curated and assembled with an eye (or an ear) toward an integrated presentation, the differences among the compositions increase the likelihood that the audience will enjoy some of the material but not all of it. This reality can be turned to advantage when introducing unfamiliar music, by coupling something well-known and likely to be attractive to listeners with something unknown but complementary. In fact, this is a frequent approach for introducing contemporary music into recitals and concert programs. However, when an entire anthology release consists of contemporary works, matters become more problematic. So one way to handle things is to make the focus not on the music but on the performers – and that is what Music in the Listening Place, a new Navona release, does. The CD is really a showcase for the Vanderbilt Chorale, some individual singers within it, and the ensemble’s conductor, Tucker Biddlecombe, rather than a recording designed for listeners primarily interested in composers Daniel Read, Eric Whitacre, Michael Slayton, Maurice Ravel, Alf Houkum, Eliza Gilkyson, Jonathan Dove and David Dickau, or in the traditional African song Indodana. The music of Ravel, far and away the best-known composer here, takes up only six of the disc’s 66 minutes for a nicely harmonized Trois Chansons. Far more extensive is Dove’s The Passing of the Year, and this is an exceptionally interesting work: its seven songs are in three sections rather than the expected four that would correspond to seasons, and the seasonal focus itself is interesting, with the first section looking forward to summer, the second looking back at its departure and the coming of autumn, and the third focusing on winter. Dove’s choice of poets is intriguing as well: he combines William Blake, Emily Dickinson, George Peele, Thomas Nashe and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The music is heartfelt if somewhat less compelling than the words and the overall arrangement of the work – but this is nevertheless a high point of the CD. Whitacre’s Three Songs of Faith, to words by e.e. cummings, is also intriguing, with music that effectively expands upon the poet’s texts. The other pieces on the disc are of less interest: Read’s Windham, Slayton’s Three Settings of Ezra Pound, Gilkyson’s Requiem, and Dickau’s If Music Be the Food of Love. But all the pieces are well-crafted, including the Indodana arrangement by Michael Barrett and Ralf Schmitt (which includes the African goblet drum called the djembe). Nevertheless, the primary attraction here is not so much the music or the poetry, some of it very fine, that underlies it – the main reason listeners will be attracted to this CD is the quality of the performances, and the chance to hear some very fine vocalists, as soloists and in chorus, offering well-constructed, mostly contemporary music.
Another approach to the limitations integral to anthology discs is, in effect, to ignore them and hope that the selected works will have enough in common – and in contrast – to intrigue a potential audience. This is what happens on a Navona recording of music by Lionel Sainsbury, Clive Muncaster, Patricia Julien, and J. A. Kawarsky. In truth, there is more contrast than commonality among the four works here, and while it would not be surprising if a listener new to these composers found something or several somethings to enjoy, it is unlikely that he or she would find all four pieces on the recording equally worthy. Sainsbury’s Time of the Comet, despite a title that could be portentous, is essentially celebratory, having been composed in 1987 in connection with the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet. Its essentially bright and optimistic sound partakes of some of the feelings of old-fashioned science-fictional predictions of a grand future in space. Muncaster’s Reflective Thought Patterns is, again, not exactly what one might expect from its title: it refers not to inward contemplation and reflection, but to a literal reflection in the music – the opening progresses toward a central section and then reverses so that the conclusion repeats the start. Effective enough as an intellectual exercise, and featuring some nice writing for brass and percussion instruments, the work is nevertheless emotionally rather vapid. Julien’s Among the Hidden is a quieter, darker piece with some of the repetitiveness of minimalist music, relieved in the middle by lighter material that soon subsides back into a kind of crepuscular mood. Kawarsky’s Fastidious Notes, unlike the other music here, is a set of variations – on a folk song called “Goodbye Old Paint.” There is considerable cleverness here in the instrumentation, and the grounding in folk music, although it perhaps inevitably recalls Copland, has a style of its own, especially in the jazzlike alto saxophone riffs with which some of the material is decorated. Each of these four works is, of course, a matter of taste, and the taste required for each of them is quite different. Many listeners who enjoy the sound of contemporary music will find parts of the disc quite pleasurable, but as in so many other anthology releases with little genuine connection among the pieces offered, the whole ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts.