December 27, 2018
Go! Field Guide: Rocks and Minerals. Scholastic. $12.99.
Fly Guy Presents: Garbage & Recycling. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.
One thing that books can do especially well, even in our video-saturated age, is to help us connect with the world around us. A TV show, video or podcast may make it seem as if we are somewhere that we are not, doing things that we are not really doing, and the growing field of virtual reality lets us fool ourselves even more efficiently and effectively. But books can go beyond this by actually explaining about the world and helping readers get involved in it. This can be particularly important for screen-obsessed young readers – and a book such as Go! Field Guide: Rocks and Minerals does a very good job of separating kids from their electronic devices. This is really a kind of “box book,” box-shaped and containing a bound-in box that has four plastic-covered storage compartments containing actual rock samples – an excellent way to intrigue young readers about the topic and get them started on the subject matter and on making rock collections of their own. The small samples are of fluorite, amethyst, lapis lazuli and dolomite, and they are interesting enough to look at so they will encourage young readers to find out more about them in the book’s pages. The book is quite well-organized and does a good job of balancing basic facts about rocks with encouragement of discovery. Laid out with a strongly visual orientation – we do, after all, live in a highly visual age – the book explains everything from the rocks used to build cities to the three different classifications of rocks (igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary) to the step-by-step basics of identifying minerals. Pictures and tables abound: the 10 levels of hardness appear in a table, for example, with a picture beneath of a penny being used to scratch a mineral, which means “the mineral’s hardness is less than 3.5.” There is information here on why graphite is used in pencils (it is “super-slippy,” which means “flaky masses fall off and leave black marks”); how to be sure, if you happen to find silver, that you have not also discovered dangerous arsenic, which can sometimes be found nearby (“hit [arsenic] with a hammer and it smells like garlic”); and why jewelers and geologists mean different things when they talk about sapphire: to the jeweler it “is a gem made blue by the mineral almenite,” while to a geologist “any corundum gem that’s not a ruby is a sapphire – whatever its color!” Page after page of Go! Field Guide: Rocks and Minerals gives rock-related information that is fascinating in itself and also very useful for anyone interested in rock hunting and collecting. “A U.S. penny is 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper” and costs more than one cent to make; power plants using coal “produce about 41 percent of the world’s electricity”; thanks to amber, more than 1,000 types of extinct insects – which became caught in it in the distant past – have been identified; and much more. Little boxes marked “look” and “dig it” enliven the book’s layout while pointing to specific visual or factual information of particular note, although the “dig it” symbol – a stick figure using a shovel – is not always apt: it appears with the phrase “don’t dig it” above a box explaining that many coral reefs are dying and that coral should be looked at but not taken away, but the figure does not have the line through it that is the international symbol for something not to do. Still, little misfires in Go! Field Guide: Rocks and Minerals do not prevent it from being a first-rate introduction to its topic, clearly explaining what rocks and minerals are, why they are important, and what can be learned by studying, collecting and simply enjoying them. The science here is well-presented and often surprising, as in a comment about the periodic table, which takes up two pages of the book: “99.4 percent of all rocks and minerals are made from only nine elements.” It is the sense that the wonders of rocks, and the unusual facts about them, are all around us, that makes the book such a solid introduction to its topic, and that should result in it tempting young readers away from screen time and indoor activities for at least a while, to explore the real world in which they live.
Readers will not, on the other hand, be likely to head for landfills on the basis of Tedd Arnold’s latest factual foray featuring Fly Guy and his boy, Buzz. This is Fly Guy Presents: Garbage & Recycling, which does have an amusing underlying theme for readers who already enjoy the title character: Fly Guy really is a fly, and spends some time in most of his books searching for and, when possible, eating garbage. So this real-life topic is right up the fictional fly’s alley. The book itself is serious, as are all the Fly Guy Presents books, but the cartoon illustrations of Fly Guy and Buzz help keep the topic from dragging too much and sometimes become really amusing: on one page, Fly Guy is saying “Yumzee!” as he flies happily over a smelly landfill, while Buzz is seen at the bottom of the page wearing a gas mask because of the odor and commenting, “A fly can smell garbage from almost five miles away!” The book has its share of statistics – people in the U.S. throw away 250 million tons of trash a year, including $1,300 worth of food – but it is mostly explanatory, with an ample selection of pictures to illustrate the narrative. For example, there are contrasting photos of garbage trucks that use diesel fuel and ones that “run on a natural gas created from landfill gases [that] is less expensive and better for the environment.” There is information on how a landfill is created, how it is used, and what happens when it is full: it “is covered and closed” and may be “turned into a park, a golf course, or even a ski resort.” There is an unusually detailed explanation, considering its brevity, of just how recycling works, from a truck’s arrival at a recycling center through a series of photos showing how a plastic recycling center handles a huge cube of bottles known as a bale. There is information on composting, too – it is, after all, a form of recycling – and on the environmental impact of trash that “doesn’t get disposed of properly” and “ends up in our lakes, rivers, and oceans.” Arnold does a good job of making this information relevant to a young audience by pointing out that because birds and marine animals eat bits of plastic that accumulate in the ocean, “if you like to eat fish, you might find yourself eating our oceans’ plastic trash one day, too!” Of course, that is as likely to make young readers decide to avoid fish as it is to make them determined to do their part to clean up the environment, but Arnold quickly moves on to “the three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle,” and has Buzz and Fly Guy directly urge readers to follow 10 tips to help “make our planet a better, healthier place.” Like all the short Fly Guy Presents books – a mere 32 pages in length – Fly Guy Presents: Garbage & Recycling does not have room to handle its topic in any depth; but that is not its reason for being. The idea is to use enjoyable characters to give young readers a once-over-lightly look at a significant element of their lives about which they may not have thought very much, so they can get additional information elsewhere through parents, teachers, or other adults. As a basic look at a topic of considerable importance, this little book, like most of its predecessors in the series, does an admirable job.
Snoopy: Boogie Down! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Magic Eye Amazing 3D Illusions: 25th Anniversary Book. By Magic Eye Inc. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
Care to revisit the disco craze of the 1970s or the pre-virtual-reality 3D visualizations of the 1990s? If so, these are the books for you. Actually, there is much more than disco in Snoopy: Boogie Down! It is the latest re-collection of some of the wonderful Peanuts strips that generally seem as fresh, funny and innovative today as they did during the lifetime of Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000). Peanuts endures in part because Schulz explored childhood’s wisdom, uncertainty, discoveries and trials in so thoroughly timeless a manner. Charlie Brown and his friends changed appearance over the decades – none more than Snoopy – and the nature of Schulz’s writing changed, too. But his focus remained always slightly off-kilter, turning traditional notions of childhood innocence inside-out by having the Peanuts characters behave in both childlike and adult ways, dealing in their everyday lives with everything from thumb-sucking to Biblical exegesis. Peanuts could be a surprisingly bittersweet comic strip, but it was almost never a news-oriented one, and that is one reason it still stands up so well. Nevertheless, Schulz and his characters did not exist in a vacuum, and the strip contained occasional contemporary references: in one sequence, for example, Charlie Brown loses a spelling bee by spelling the word “maze” as “Mays,” since he is thinking of baseball great Willie Mays. That story would have none of the resonance today that it had when Schulz created it: Mays retired in 1973. Still, even if disco is long-dead, there is something very Snoopy-ish about seeing the smiling beagle in an arms-raised dance pose on the cover of Snoopy: Boogie Down! It is fun to look at even if today’s young readers, for whom this book is intended, will not likely understand why Snoopy is wearing a white suit and sporting gold chains. And most of the strips in the book are not time-bound at all. There is the one, relevant in any year, in which Lucy observes that there are “only six more shopping days until Christmas,” while Snoopy lies peacefully atop his doghouse thinking, “Not if you don’t buy anybody anything.” There is the one in which Charlie Brown laments that he has “always been criticized,” that even when he was born “they said I wasn’t right for the part.” There is the one in which Snoopy, frustrated that it is raining on his face, asks if it could just rain on his feet – and that is exactly what happens, to the amazement of Lucy; but Snoopy knows “there are always ways of working things out.” Of course, the book also contain samples of recurring Peanuts themes, such as Lucy holding a football that Charlie Brown never manages to kick, Schroeder playing brilliant and complex music on his toy piano while Lucy asserts her undying (and unreciprocated) love for him, Sally talking to the school building as it reminisces or complains, and Charlie Brown’s never-flying kite getting stuck in improbable places (in one strip, the kite string has managed to weave itself although all the uprights of a picket fence). There are also multi-strip sequences, such as one in which Snoopy’s brother, Spike, leaves his home in Needles, Arizona, and Charlie Brown tries to find a neighborhood family to adopt him. The attempt fails; unadopted, Spike eventually hitchhikes back to Needles. But the final strip of the series, like one of the earlier ones, contains one of those dated references that pop up from time to time in Peanuts: Spike enjoys watching TV, especially a show containing the dialogue, “Ah, Colonel Hogan!” That would be Hogan’s Heroes, a comedy set in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp (no kidding). It ran from1965 to 1971, and neither today’s kids nor their parents will likely remember it or even know about it – or find the premise amusing. The whole thing seems even more outdated than the very thick TV set, complete with rabbit-ear antenna, on which Spike watches the show. Still, if there are occasional strips in this collection that will not resonate with 21st-century readers, there are many, many more that will. Peanuts will not be losing its entertainment value anytime soon – in fact, the strip has never really gone away at all, even though Schulz himself has been gone for nearly two decades.
The Magic Eye illusions – which look three-dimensional even though they are flat, provided you train yourself to see them the right way – have never really gone away, either, even though they are well past their heyday in the 1990s. The illusions continue to appear in various forms, ranging from calendars to vision-improvement books, as the rather self-congratulatory introduction to the 25th-anniversary Magic Eye book points out. Aside from that introduction and some instructions on how to see the illusions, this is a wordless book: the pictures are the point. Actually, Magic Eye pictures are still impressive after all these years, even though virtual reality and computer-generated imagery have long since produced more-3D-ish appearances than anything Magic Eye is capable of offering. These pictures still have charm, though, and the charm varies depending on how the pictures are designed. Most look like jumbled overlays of objects, sometimes to the point that a whole page resembles little more than a smear of colors. Looking correctly at the pictures by “diverging your eyes,” to use the Magic Eye term, results in the many images coalescing and producing what appear to be different but related images that seem to float against a backdrop in the distance. For example, a flat image of dogs and balls becomes an apparent 3D one in which dogs are actually chasing the balls, running and leaping toward them, against a background of dog pictures. Equally intriguing, in a different way, are what Magic Eye calls “floaters,” pictures that show the same objects in “3D” as when you first look at them – except that the objects end up appearing three-dimensional. These can be strikingly realistic: for example, a picture showing a large flock of seagulls above a beach turns in “3D” into one in which some birds are over the sand, some are over the waves breaking at the shore, and some are – that is, seem to be – over water considerably farther out. Verbal descriptions have never done justice to Magic Eye creations, which are a strictly visual phenomenon. For example, one page in the 25th-anniversary book simply shows roses of all colors and a few red hearts – a pretty enough picture all by itself. But viewing the page by “diverging your eyes” turns it into a view of a huge, white, rose-and-red-heart-covered “3D” heart appearing to float in front of a background of additional roses and red hearts. To be sure, there has always been an issue for some people regarding Magic Eye images: not everyone sees them. The creators of Magic Eye believe this is just a matter of training and practice, and certainly it is true that once you get the hang of seeing a few pictures, it becomes much easier to see others. If, however, you simply cannot see these images in their apparent 3D, as their creators intend, there are plenty of other ways of seeing and enjoying 3D imagery in the 21st century – ways that did not exist when Magic Eye was at its zenith. Still, it is worth the effort (and does not require much of it) to practice “diverging your eyes” so you can see the material in the 25th-anniversary Magic Eye book. These cleverly made pictures use design and printing technology in a way that produces some unusual effects, presented in this book with a very pleasant overlay of nostalgia for those who remember when Magic Eye first appeared – and with a very pleasant sense of the curious and unusual even for those encountering Magic Eye for the first time.
Berlioz: Grande Messe des morts. Bror Magnus Tødenes, tenor; Choir of Collegiûm Mûsicûm, Edvard Grieg Kor, Royal Northern College of Music Chorus, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag, musicians from Bergen Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and Crescendo, and Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. Chandos. $18.99 (SACD).
Hector Berlioz had a penchant for excess, and it is especially evident in his Requiem, for which the name “Requiem” did not suffice – no, for Berlioz this was the Grande Messe des morts, emphasis on “grand.” First performed in 1837, when Berlioz was 34, this unprecedentedly large-scale version of the familiar Latin mass for the dead produced at its première one of the many anecdotes that made Berlioz seem the quintessential Romantic composer: when conductor François-Antoine Habeneck put down his baton momentarily to take a pinch of snuff, doing so at the extremely inopportune moment when the Tuba mirum was about to start, Berlioz himself interceded, jumping to the stage and assuming control of the orchestra to ensure that the new tempo of the upcoming section was set correctly and maintained.
Berlioz’ Grande Messe des morts is certainly not the only such work to indulge in some over-the-top scoring and intensity – Verdi’s Requiem of 1874 comes immediately to mind as another such – but Berlioz was the first composer to treat the mass for the dead with operatic splendor and to demand gigantic forces, both vocal and instrumental, to communicate the meaning of the words. The way to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” was paved by Berlioz’ Grande Messe des morts and the 400-plus people needed to perform it.
It is reasonable to wonder whether the true meaning of the Latin Requiem gets lost beneath all the intensity and splendid scoring: Berlioz was a master orchestrator, never more clearly so than here. There is a foundational simplicity to the Latin text, from its opening plea to God to grant the dead eternal rest (at least until the Last Judgment), to the final Agnus dei, in which the same request is given even more plaintively and hopefully. The rising scales at the opening of Berlioz’ Grande Messe des morts seem clearly to represent prayer rising to Heaven, a technique later employed more extensively by Arrigo Boito in Mefistofele, which was first performed a year before Berlioz’ death. The conclusion of Berlioz’ work, with its long-held chords, also seems to have a clear intent, of producing a feeling of peace and bringing back elements originally heard earlier in the work so they may be, in a musical sense, laid to rest.
It is what happens between the opening and concluding sections of the Grande Messe des morts, however, that brings the work most of its attention. There are the four offstage brass ensembles sounding the knell for Judgment Day, and the 16 timpani, two bass drums and four tam-tams that soon join in to produce great gouts of splendid sound. There is the reappearance of the brass groups in the Rex tremendae. There is the splendidly calculated gradual accretion of brass and percussion in the Lacrimosa, the only sonata-form movement in the Grande Messe des morts. There is the fugue in the Offertory, and the only appearance of the solo tenor, in the Sanctus – one of the few elements of the work about which Berlioz may not have been 100% certain, since at one point he suggested that the solo part could be sung by 10 tenors. And there are the numerous felicities of orchestration throughout – to cite just one example, the setting of Quid sum miser for tenors, basses, and eight bassoons, plus two cors anglais, cellos, and double basses, resulting in an exceptionally effective musical depiction of the lowest depths to which the sinner’s soul has sunk, from which only the mercy of God can rescue it.
Excessive the Grande Messe des morts may be, but it is also magnificent, and it is a rare performance that does not produce at least the occasional breathtaking moment. The new Chandos recording of a live performance conducted by Edward Gardner has more than its share of those. It is a moderately paced version of the Grande Messe des morts, which can last as long as 90 minutes but here comes in at 81 (on a single, excellently recorded SACD). French choral works, like French operas, require careful attention to the balance of vocal and instrumental elements, and Gardner is especially sensitive to this: both the sung and instrumental materials get their full due, and when the massed chorus and orchestra perform together, the attention to detail is remarkable (aided by the nature of SACD recording, but clear even when the disc is played as a standard CD). Bror Magnus Tødenes has a clear, well-balanced voice for his solo passages, and the various choruses cooperate smoothly and evenly throughout. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra plays the music with sensitivity as well as fine sectional balance, and if the overall effect is somewhat more grandiose than warm and intimate, that is an understandable approach to this music. Certainly there is beauty here when it is called for, and if the more-dramatic sections of this performance of the Grande Messe des morts stay with listeners to a greater extent than do the quiet, introspective ones, the audience will be justified in attributing that reality as much to Berlioz as to Gardner and these performers. By any measure, Berlioz’ Grande Messe des morts is a musical spectacle, even when heard rather than seen. Gardner’s excellent handling of the material shows more of its power than of its humanity and humility – but it is certainly arguable that that is exactly what Berlioz wanted on display in his setting.
Bartók: String Quartets (complete). Arcadia Quartet (Ana Török and Răsvan Dumitru, violins; Traian Boală, viola; Zsolt Török, cello). Chandos. $37.99 (2 CDs).
Listeners interested in a single group of works through which to approach the music of Bartók can find it in his six string quartets, which collectively span most of his compositional life: he lived from 1881 to 1945 and the quartets date from 1908 to 1939. They tend to be thought of as “difficult” music, not only for performers but also for listeners, and certainly all of them have thorny aspects that prevent them from being immediately accessible. They are works that must, in a sense, be learned both by the players and by the audience. But they are certainly worth the investment of time, and a number of fine recordings of the set have shown, each in its own way, just how well these complicated and sometimes forbidding pieces repay listeners’ attention.
The new Chandos recording by the Romanian members of the Arcadia Quartet stands up very well in some strong company. The quartet was founded in 2005 by four students at the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy in Cluj-Napoco, the second-largest city in Romania, and has grown in stature and maturity in its dozen-plus years of existence. The Bartók cycle is in fact a sort of coming-of-age proposition for quartets willing to tackle it, and it comes across in this recording as a set of pieces through which the performers find numerous common threads despite the works’ outward differences of style and approach.
The Bartók quartets benefit from being heard chronologically until one becomes accustomed to them, which in the case of this recording requires constantly changing the CDs or flipping back and forth between them, since Nos. 1, 3 and 5 are on the first disc and Nos. 2, 4 and 6 on the second. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, since it ought to encourage listeners to take some time between quartets to contemplate what they have just heard and prepare themselves aurally for what is to come.
The Arcadia Quartet views Bartók as a poetic composer, not quite neo-Romantic but not far from that designation. This is a rather unusual approach to someone whose music often comes across as acerbic when it is not folklike, but it is an approach that pays numerous dividends in this recording. The first quartet (1908-09) is filled with dramatic passages and a kind of starkness that is leavened by the elegance of the performers’ approach. The shifts in tempo and dynamics seem to give the Arcadia Quartet members no difficulty: their ensemble work is nearly flawless, and they provide this quartet with a sense of forward momentum and rhythmic flow that serves the music well. The first quartet’s final movement has an attractive springiness here that is almost jazzlike, although not quite – and the “not quite” is important, since Bartók, unlike many other 20th-century composers, loathed jazz. The Arcadia Quartet here shows how he found his own way to something approximating it but certainly not identical to it.
The passion and intensity of the wartime second quartet (1915-17) come through effectively here, with tempo choices that are a touch on the slow side and as a result allow the beauty of the music to emerge despite the darkness within which it was composed. It is Quartet No. 3 (1927) that is really bleak, especially in what Bartók labeled its Prima parte, and here too the tempo changes and substantial variations in intensity are key to a successful performance and receive their due from these performers. The best word to describe this particular performance is “controlled”: the players have an overarching sense of the music’s style and of Bartók’s concerns at this point in his life, and there is an inexorable quality about the way the Arcadia Quartet moves through the work, finding considerable depth even though this is the shortest piece in the Bartók quartet cycle.
The fourth quartet (1928) is more substantive and features a central slow movement that, although marked Non troppo lento, is the work’s emotional heart. The Arcadia Quartet’s drawing-out of the solo sections for first violin and cello is particular effective here, emphasizing the inward-looking aspects of the music and producing a particularly fine contrast with the last two movements – the pizzicato section of the fourth movement is a highlight, and the final movement’s intensity comes through equally well. Quartet No. 5 (1934) is also exceptionally well-played, notably in the Adagio molto, where the quiet sections are outstanding, showcasing both the players’ excellent sense of ensemble and their ability to convey emotional subtlety through careful attention to dynamics. The central Scherzo of this quartet presents particular challenges that the Arcadia Quartet handles with aplomb: the movement centers on C-sharp but refuses to use it as a traditional tonic note, as Bartók plays subtle games with alternative scales such as the Dorian and Phrygian. True, the humor of what the composer does here is rather rarefied, but these plyers make it more down-to-earth than do most others, appearing to have a genuinely good time with the material and bringing special bounce to the sections that sound more or less like folk dances. There is humor in this quartet’s finale, too, and again the players pick up on it effectively, making its sardonic elements clear. And then, in the sixth quartet (1939), in which all four movements bear the marking Mesto (“sad,” with an overlay in this context of “thoughtful” or “pensive”) as the world teeters on the brink of another devastating war, the Arcadia Quartet shows firm, solid control throughout, especially notably in the difficult opening of the third movement and the way it contrasts with the Burletta section that follows.
This is a quartet whose members are firmly in control of their individual parts as well as their massed sections: the performers seem not only to have grown together since the group’s formation but also to have, in a sense, grown up together. They allow Bartók more flexibility and even a touch more rubato that these quartets tend to elicit; this is why the performances have a slight Romantic flavor. But there is plenty of acerbity here as well, and the performers pay particular attention to the frequent accentuation marked in the scores – which gives this music much of its “Bartókian” flavor. The overall poetic quality of the performances is perhaps their most notable feature, but the players’ sensitivity to the quartets’ drama and humor is also highly attractive, and their involvement in the material is practically tangible. There is no “best” recording of the Bartók string quartets, which, like so much other great music, contain so many elements that varying ensembles can emphasize different ones to produce highly distinctive performances that are all equally valid. Indeed, the same ensemble is likely to play these (and other) quartets differently as it revisits them over time, so there is not even such a thing as a single quartet’s definitive reading of the music. Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, these Arcadia Quartet recordings are highly pleasurable to hear and contain many points of detail that are as attractive as their overall sweep and warmth. This is a fine introduction to the quartets – and thus to Bartók’s multi-decade stylistic development – and is also a fine addition to the collection of anyone who already knows the music and is interested in hearing it in a new and very attractive and involving way.
December 20, 2018
Titanosaur: Discovering the World’s Largest Dinosaur. By José Luis Carballido, Ph.D., and Diego Pol, Ph.D. Illustrated by Florencia Gigena. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $18.99.
An extraordinary adventure packed into an extraordinary book that will intrigue and charm young readers and adults alike, Titanosaur provides an amazingly detailed look at the discovery in Patagonia, in the far south of Argentina, of the bones of the largest dinosaur ever found to date. And it is written by the men who led the team that uncovered and preserved the dinosaur fossil and transported it to a museum for investigation and eventual copying that allowed display of a full-scale model of the animal.
The scale is amazing: this titanosaur – one of the super-heavy, long-necked dinosaurs familiar from species such as Diplodocus and Apatosaurus – turned out to be 122 feet long and 26½ feet tall. And it all started with a gaucho and his dog, searching for a lost sheep and discovering something huge and strange poking out of the ground.
José Luis Carballido and Diego Pol tell the story of this discovery in a way that is both matter-of-fact and fascinating. The upper parts of the pages detail what happened, with illustrations by Florencia Gigena giving an idea of scenes that were not captured by cameras – the original discovery of the first bone, for example. Then, on the sides and lower parts of the pages, Carballido and Pol explain the background of what is going on and include, when available, photos showing the actual work that went into uncovering, removing and eventually assembling the titanosaur fossil. One page, for example, shows an illustration of members of the team of scientists at work in the area where the bones were found. It also shows actual photos of team members and some of the equipment they used – with the explanation that while “paleontologists use power tools such as jackhammers and rock saws, as well as shovels and wheelbarrows to remove all the rocks” surrounding specimens, the fossils themselves are actually quite delicate and must be carefully extracted using “much smaller and more delicate tools, such as dental picks, awls, and brushes, because the bones are so fragile.” This is the sort of matter-of-fact but fascinating comment found throughout Titanosaur, likely to interest young readers and surprise adults who may have thought that fossils – which are, after all, rocks – can simply be pulled out of the ground by heavy equipment.
Readers will share some of these experienced scientists’ sense of wonder at this particular find. One page has Pol asking Carballido why it took 10 days to dig up a single bone – the first one discovered. “Come and see for yourself!” says the text, and the expressions of joy and amazement on both paleontologists’ faces (in Gigena’s illustration) may well mirror those on the faces of readers. As the book continues, illustrations show the 20-person team at work – and photos show team members gathered at the site. Illustrations show where the bones were located at the dig – and explanatory material discusses how much scientists can learn from individual discoveries. There is, for example, a simple explanation of the way scientists estimate the weight of an extinct animal by measuring the thickness of its leg bones and employing known measurements of modern weight-bearing animals that walk in a similar way – for example, on all fours – to figure out how much weight a bone of a specific size could support. For another example, there is information on how much scientists can learn from a single fossil tooth about an extinct animal’s diet. And within that explanation is the fascinating fact that because “teeth are much harder and stronger than skull bones,” they are preserved as fossils fairly often, while head bones are not: “Even though over seventy species of titanosaur have been discovered, only four skulls have ever been found.”
Titanosaur takes readers on a step-by-step trip from the fortuitous discovery of a fossil bone, through the complexity of removing and preserving that bone and the many others found in the same area, to the museum where all the bones – some 180 of them – had to be carefully cleaned, cared for, and scanned with high-tech equipment so accurate models of all bones could be made without harming the fossils themselves. The time it took for all this is notable – 14 months – and worth discussing with young readers who may be inspired by Carballido and Pol to become paleontologists themselves. Discoveries like this one occur regularly but not frequently, and the painstaking work of extracting the fossils and uncovering their secrets requires dedication, knowledge, appropriate equipment, and a great deal of time. The results can be remarkable both in knowledge gained and in the experience that scientists are able to share with the public: Titanosaur includes a wonderful two-page-wide photo of the enormous, fully assembled model of the dinosaur being welded onto a stand in a gigantic warehouse, and it also includes – inside the book jacket – a poster showing what this dinosaur may have looked like when it lived 100 million years ago. The book is educational and exciting at the same time – an absolutely wonderful combination.
New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, & Equal Pay. By Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer. Plume. $14.
A political screed disguised as a humor book, essentially a pamphlet expanded to nearly 150 pages of hectoring, New Erotica for Feminists has one good idea that it repeats nearly endlessly before getting to its real, distinctly unfunny call to arms. The four authors’ idea is clever: take the tropes of mildly erotic literature and reinterpret them to deal with distinctly non-erotic matters such as workplace issues, societal wrongs, parental realities, even – okay – some sexual/erotic matters, since they too are a part of modern (and all) life. At its best, the vignettes resulting from this idea make their points very well, as when two people hesitantly decide to call in “that woman we met” even though the narrator writes, “I hesitate. We’ve never done this before. It feels so dangerous and forbidden, but a part of me is dying to say yes.” It turns out that the woman is a babysitter and the two people are parents who finally are seizing the chance to spend some time together without their baby.
Another good example of creating and deliberately undermining expectations has to do with “my every intense craving” for “the many sacraments of this lustful worship,” resulting in walking “up to a woman in red, feeling her knowing gaze pierce me, see me.” That woman turns out to be ringing up the narrator’s purchases at Target.
This creation and undermining of sort-of-erotic expectations is what New Erotica for Feminists is about on the surface – but it is not the point or purpose of the book. The true rationale for this little paperback comes through directly in some of the vignettes, such as the one about being “catcalled on the street by a construction worker. He says he can see that I’m smart because I have enormous books.” Or, even more directly: “’No, I don’t want to have sex right now,’ she says firmly. ‘Okay!’ he says cheerfully…” In other words, this is a book about women being in control, women getting back at men, women – self-described feminists – who may think they are onto something original and clever in their way of expressing themselves, but who cannot hold a non-erotic candle to Geoffrey Chaucer, whose “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from more than 600 years ago says (putting the words into modern English) that a knight, sent to discover what women most desire, states “with manly voice, so that the whole court heard,” that “women desire to have the sovereignty/ As well upon their husband as their love,/ And to have mastery their man above.” Women want to be in charge – of men, yes, but above all of their own lives.
The Wife of Bath is one of the great creations in English-language literature, but inconveniently, Chaucer was a man, and whether any of the authors of New Erotica for Feminists knows who he was, or has read any of his works, is an open question. It is also a moot point, since the desire of these authors goes beyond “mastery” into matters strictly societal and political. That becomes abundantly clear after the seven short chapters of forms of “new erotica” that include, among other things, Juliet turning Romeo down and living to be 98, Rapunzel getting a buzz cut, and Sacajawea “proving that for every two men who ‘discover’ something, there’s a woman giving them directions” – that last happening to be darn close to the truth. After those chapters, though, comes what the authors really care about: a chapter called “14 Ways to Make Our Fantasies a Reality,” which tells people details of how to Read, Volunteer, Speak, Listen, and so forth. That is, take action and man the barricades – sorry, woman the barricades. Everything in New Erotica for Feminists builds up to this final chapter and is used to highlight it. The authors’ point is that they came up with funny (OK, sometimes funny) twists on erotic scenes for the purpose of urging readers to get socially, societally, politically involved in the causes in which the authors believe. It is all a bit of bait-and-switch, but obviously Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer do not see it that way: they see themselves putting their talents to use to draw people into a cause that is far greater and more important than undermining standardized somewhat-erotic scenes. Surely some readers of New Erotica for Feminists will be energized – non-sexually! – by the admonitions and recommendations that are the book’s real reason for being. Equally surely, some will find the book’s concept to be essentially a single joke with multiple variations – along the lines of the 2005 movie The Aristocrats, featuring more than 100 comedians telling, retelling and revising a dirty joke ad infinitum or, perhaps, ad nauseam. Political pamphlets can certainly inspire, but they can also bore. The same is true of multiple variations on a theme, very definitely including an erotic one.
Wilhelm Stenhammar: Symphony No. 2; Musik till August Strindbergs “Ett drömspel.” Antwerp Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christian Lindberg. BIS. $19.99 (SACD).
Holst: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—A Winter Idyll; Symphony “The Cotswolds”; Invocation (“A Song of the Evening”); A Moorside Suite; Indra; Scherzo. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Chandos. $18.99 (SACD).
Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3; Symphonic Dances. Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Signum Classics. $17.99.
The symphony was reconsidered and redefined in multiple ways in the late 19th century and through the 20th, but no matter how thought of, it continued to exert tremendous fascination on composers, who often considered it a pinnacle of accomplishment even if they were not particularly devoted to symphonic form as a major part of their work. As a result, some very interesting symphonies were produced in the late 1800s and throughout the 1900s by composers who are not usually associated with the form. Sweden’s Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), for example, created two completed symphonies but completely disavowed the first; he also started a third symphony, but it exists only as a few sketches. Therefore, his Symphony No. 2 is his only surviving score that truly reflects his compositional maturity and structural ideas, which retain some of the German heritage evident in his Symphony No. 1 but in No. 2 have moved much farther into the orbit of Nordic composers, especially Sibelius and Nielsen. An excellent new performance of Stenhammar’s Second by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra (the name adopted in 2017 by what was previously the Royal Flemish Philharmonic), conducted by Christian Lindberg, shows how skillfully Stenhammar used and developed his version of symphonic form even though most of his music is of other types (piano, chamber and vocal). Dating to 1911-15, Stenhammar’s Second offers an unusual combination of folklike and very learned elements, all treated in Stenhammar’s highly personal style. It progresses from a first movement that takes a folk tune and handles it modally to a finale – the symphony’s longest movement – in the form of an elaborate double fugue. In between these movements are a solemn but restrained slow movement and a rather gentle Scherzo; the result is a symphony whose component parts have little in common, but are united through Stenhammar’s treatment of the material and his skillful handling of keys and modal structure. The work is unemotional, indeed rather cool, and a trifle off-putting on initial hearing, but it repays repeated listening that evokes respect for its clarity and the care of its construction. It is paired on a new BIS SACD with a 1970 arrangement by composer Hilding Rosenberg of some of Stenhammar’s music for August Strindberg’s A Dream Play. Rosenberg turns the stage music into an 11-and-a-half-minute tone poem that is rather episodic – it incorporates brief references to scenes from the play – but that comes to a satisfying and well-orchestrated conclusion. The work juxtaposes well with the grander and more abstract Symphony No. 2.
Gustav Holst’s dates are close to those of Stenhammar – Holst lived from 1874 to 1934 – and Holst too is known for works other than symphonies. Indeed, he is known primarily for a single work, The Planets. But Holst’s musical interests were quite wide and in many ways quite unusual, ranging from the trombone (which he played in an orchestra conducted by Richard Strauss) to English folksongs (he and Ralph Vaughan Williams were friends) to Sanskrit literature. Yet Holst, like Stenhammar, dipped his talent into the symphonic realm – in both composers’ cases, more or less three times. For Holst, that meant the creation of A Choral Symphony (1923-24) plus work on a symphony during the last two years of his life – plus the composition of a single orchestral symphony, in F, known as “The Cotswolds” and dating to 1899-1900. Modest in scale (at about 23 minutes, it is half the length of Stenhammar’s Second), Holst’s symphony is primarily distinguished by its second, longest movement, “Elegy in memoriam William Morris,” which is beautiful and heartfelt. The symphony’s Scherzo also has a measure of what would come to be Holst’s mature sound – which is particularly interesting because the only finished movement of the symphony on which Holst worked near the end of his life was its Scherzo. That movement – whose changes of emotion and impact are rather abrupt and surprising – is heard on the same new Chandos SACD that features “The Cotswolds.” The disc is the fourth in a series (originally featuring the late Richard Hickox) in which the BBC Philharmonic under Sir Andrew Davis plays Holst’s music idiomatically and with considerable affection as well as understanding. The recording features one work even earlier than “The Cotswolds,” namely A Winter Idyll, which dates to 1897 and is a charming concert overture, if one without much individuality. Also on the disc are Invocation for cello and orchestra (1911), a genuinely lovely work with a highly affecting cello part (played here by Guy Johnston); Holst’s only symphonic poem, Indra (1903), whose striking opening brass fanfares are its most notable element, although there are some other felicities of orchestration as well; and A Moorside Suite (1928), originally written for brass band and intended for school performance – except that it proved too difficult for that purpose. The version heard on this disc is Holst’s 1932 string arrangement, which has a high level of warmth and beauty in the central Nocturne but loses some of the punch and brightness of the outer movements. Holst was scarcely a symphonist, but this recording does a fine job of showcasing his occasional symphonic interests and placing them in the context of some of his other compositional forms.
Rachmaninoff is known for his symphonies, although calling him a “symphonist” would still be stretching things, given the extent to which his small compositional output includes piano music (solo and the four concertos) and vocal works (including liturgical ones). However, Rachmaninoff’s final opus numbers are in fact symphonic: Symphony No. 3, Op. 44 (1936), and the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940). Both these works receive first-rate readings on a new Signum Classics release that completes Vladimir Ashkenazy’s survey of the Rachmaninoff symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Like the two earlier recordings, this one is taken from live performances, and as with the earlier releases, Ashkenazy and the orchestra seem to be energized by the presence of an audience. Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony is large-scale despite being in only three movements, but it lacks the sumptuousness of the earlier two and has few of the very extended melodies with which Rachmaninoff’s other music abounds. Calling it austere would be an overstatement, but by the standards of this composer, the Third is somewhat held back emotionally. Ashkenazy approaches the symphony with close attention to detail, being especially effective in bringing forth some of the attractive instrumental touches, such as the horn-and-harp opening of the second movement. This is a well-controlled performance that lets the music flow naturally and does not attempt to wring more emotion from the music than Rachmaninoff included in it. There is careful control in the Symphonic Dances as well, and this large and often rather strange work benefits from it. The three dances, broadly speaking, connect both with times of day and with times of human life – that is their connective tissue – and Ashkenazy seems well aware of this. The first dance, representing midday, includes the unusual touches of an alto saxophone and a quotation from Rachmaninoff’s ill-fated Symphony No. 1. The second, representing twilight, is a distinctly crepuscular waltz with very little resemblance to anything from the Strauss family: here Ashkenazy lets the woodwind solos paint a picture of coming night. And night – specifically midnight – does come in the third dance, whose reference to death is made clear by Rachmaninoff’s inclusion here (as in a number of his other works) of the Dies irae. Yet the Symphonic Dances end in hopeful, even upbeat mood, and the performance here suggests that Ashkenazy’s own Russian heritage stands him in particularly good stead in understanding and interpreting the music of Rachmaninoff, both in symphonies and in the other large-scale works that so clearly resonated with this composer’s feelings and emotions.
Hummel: Piano Sonatas (complete); Fantasina in C. Costantino Mastroprimiano, fortepiano. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (3 CDs).
Enescu: Complete Works for Solo Piano. Josu De Solaun, piano. Grand Piano. $24.99 (3 CDs).
Long neglected, frequently derided as a neither-here-nor-there composer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) has all too often been thought of as someone who never lived up to his great early promise: he studied with Mozart and Beethoven and actually lived with Mozart for a time. Hummel was, in his own time, considered a brilliant pianist, but as tastes changed during his lifetime to favor greater front-and-center virtuosity and more-dramatic display during performances, even his star as a performer faded. It is very difficult to rescue Hummel and other transitional musical figures from the neglect and disrepute into which they tend to fall. True, there were ways in which Hummel’s transitional nature was important: his Trumpet Concerto for the new keyed trumpet remains one of the most brilliant works for the instrument and amply displays the ways in which the new design has far more capabilities than the old. But by and large, Hummel was trained in the Classical period and, despite his association with Beethoven, never moved as far or fully into the Romantic era as Beethoven himself did. To be sure, Beethoven was a transitional figure, but on a scale so large that composers with lesser inspiration pale beside him. All of this makes the new Brilliant Classics release of Hummel’s six piano sonatas all the more interesting and valuable, because Costantino Mastroprimiano plays them on the transitional instrument for which these transitional works were written: the fortepiano. This instrument was not fully satisfactory to many composers – again, Beethoven is a notable example, and was known for destroying fortepianos by making demands that they simply could not fulfill. However, a composer who was comfortable writing for the fortepiano, as Hummel was, could produce some remarkably well-formed music on it, with all the elegance and balance of the Classical era and a smattering of the emotionalism that was soon to flower in a full-fledged way as Romanticism took hold under Liszt, Thalberg, Kalkbrenner and their competitors. Thus, for example, the minor-key episodes in the concluding Rondo of Hummel’s Sonata No. 1 in C, Op. 2, No. 3, come as unexpected and pleasant surprises and lend the movement a thoughtfulness beyond what might be expected of a finale in this form and this home key. No, the episodes are not profound, but they are inward-looking and thoughtful, even a trace melancholic, lending some depth to what is essentially an upbeat, Haydnesque work.
There are joys and surprises aplenty to be found in these sonatas. For example, No. 4, Op. 38, another sonata in C, features a genuinely grand (although short) first-movement introduction that neatly sets up the scale of a work that lasts more than half an hour and includes a slow movement con molto Espressione (a marking that appears in slightly varied form in two additional sonatas). The only other one of these sonatas built on so large a scale is No. 6 in D, Op. 106 – which is the only one in four movements and which includes a very well-made and clever scherzo all’antica. Also in a major key is Sonata No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 13, a well-balanced work that is somewhat slighter than Nos. 4 and 6 – perhaps because No. 2 is dedicated to Haydn and shows a considerable amount of his influence. Then there are the two minor-key sonatas: No. 3 in F minor, Op. 20, and No. 5 in F-sharp minor, Op. 81. Certainly neither is as dark-hued or deeply probing as Beethoven’s minor-key works, but both fit exceptionally well on the fortepiano, with its lighter sound, lesser key travel than modern pianos possess, and altogether “cleaner” production of runs and arpeggios. Indeed, No. 5, a fascinating work that features a very unusual and forward-looking first movement, does reach for some profundity, even if it never quite attains it. Mastroprimiano plays Hummel’s sonatas on two instruments: a modern fortepiano based on an Anton Walter instrument from about 1790, and a genuine Erard from 1838. The fortepianos sound quite different, but both fit these sonatas exceptionally well. It is worth remembering that Hummel improvised at Beethoven’s memorial concert, as Beethoven had explicitly requested, and that Schubert dedicated his three magnificent final piano sonatas, D. 958, 959 and 960, to Hummel. True, listeners today may think of Hummel more as someone who could compose (or improvise) elegant drawing-room works such as the Fantasina in C, Op. 124, which is based on familiar themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and handles them wonderfully adeptly. But there is a great deal more to Hummel the composer than this little work, as pleasant as it is in Mastroprimiano’s performance. There was a great deal more to Hummel as pianist – or fortepianist – as well. This excellent release offers an ideal opportunity to rethink the quality of what Hummel wrote and how he played.
The pleasures are somewhat different in Grand Piano’s three-CD set of the piano works of George Enescu (1881-1955). Enescu was not a transitional figure but one with an unusual combination of influences: he absorbed both French and German approaches of the late Romantic era, and was also strongly influenced, especially early in his life, by Romanian folk music. It took him some time to sort out, absorb and merge these influences, which he eventually turned into a strongly personal style. But little of that style is apparent in his early piano works – and most of the music played by Josu De Solaun is early. Every piece on the third CD in this set was written before Enescu turned 20, and of the seven works on the first two CDs, only four were written after the composer’s 30th birthday: Pièces impromptus (1916), Pièce sur le nom de Fauré (1922), and the sonatas of 1924 and 1935. Furthermore, those sonatas are an odd pair, being numbered 1 and 3, with No. 2 apparently never having progressed beyond a few sketches. There is a certain confusion about all this music, exacerbated by the arrangement of the discs, which are neither chronological nor arranged in any other discernible order: the whole project has a slapdash feel about it. Yet there is so much interesting music here – and De Solaun, winner of the 2014 George Enescu International Piano Competition, plays it so well – that the recording is intriguing and highly worthwhile almost in spite of itself.
Enescu was a prodigy, so the fact that he wrote many of these piano pieces when very young is not in itself detrimental to their value. Nor is the fact that he was primarily a violinist: no less an authority than Alfred Cortot said Enescu had better piano technique than his own. But these piano works are not really the best compositions through which to enjoy Enescu, much less evaluate him: they are his solo piano pieces (and, despite the title of the release, not quite all of them), but he also wrote works for two pianos, for piano four hands, and for piano with other instruments. And many of these 17 solo-piano works are less creative and unusual than other Enescu compositions: he wrote a work for chromatic harp, one for four trumpets, one for violin and piano four hands, one for two pianos with violin and cello, etc. Interestingly, though, one piece that is especially noteworthy is in the same key as the most intriguing of Hummel’s piano sonatas: F-sharp minor. This is Enescu’s dense and complex Sonata No. 1, whose unusual structure consists of two faster movements followed by a slower one, and whose contents are so multifaceted that the work seems very extended even though it is, in reality, shorter than Hummel’s in the same key. From a tinge of Shostakovich to a finale that persists in delivering a pedal-point B despite uncertain tonality, this is a work that shows how creative Enescu could be in his compositions, and often was. In fact, the sonata’s finale has many surprises, from its use of the melancholic Romanian doina to a dynamic range that never strays far from pianissimo. In contrast, Sonata No. 3 initially sounds somewhat more like a Hummel (or Beethoven) work, and has a more conventional fast-slow-fast structure. There are slight hints here of Scriabin and Stravinsky, but they are fleeting and occur within a series of melodic and harmonic elements that testify to Enescu’s considerable ingenuity. The other later piano works have considerable attractions of their own. The seven Pièces impromptus are character sketches that range from the nostalgic to the forward-looking and that conclude with the fascinating bell imitations of Carillon nocturne. And Pièce sur le nom de Fauré is a character sketch of a different sort, a two-minute exploration of the musical notes in the name of Enescu’s onetime teacher: F, A and E.
There are many pleasantries and points of interest in the other works that De Solaun plays, but their attractions are generally momentary and passing ones. The extended Suite pour Piano “Des Cloches Sonores” (1901-03) deserves special mention for the ways it both resembles similar works by Debussy and Ravel and goes well beyond them – Ravel actually used one theme from this suite in his own Tombeau de Couperin. The even earlier Suite dans le Style Ancien (1898), Enescu’s first major piano work intended for public performance, shows the young composer adopting and adapting Baroque models skillfully, if a touch pedantically. The Prélude et Fugue of 1903 is also skillfully done but rather academic, while the earlier Prélude et Scherzo (1896) offers insight into Enescu’s somewhat awkward attempts to reconcile the German and French elements of his training. Of much greater interest is the Nocturne in D-flat, “Hommage à la Princesse Marie Cantacuzène” (1907), an extended (nearly 20-minute) work written in tribute to Enescu’s wife, whose mental illness haunted his personal life. Perhaps reflecting this, the work has an overall unsettled, somewhat yearning quality. The other pieces on this release are less compelling. They include Barcarolle (1897), La Fileuse (1897), Regrets (1898), impromptus in A-flat (1898) and C (1900), and three pieces that have never been recorded before: Scherzo (1894), Ballade für Klavier (1894), and Modérément (1896-1900). De Solaun brings poise and sensitivity to all this material, even the slightest works, and plays the deeper and more-extended pieces with conviction as well as skill. Listeners who know Enescu from his works for orchestra, violin and other instruments will scarcely get the full flavor of his creativity from these piano pieces, but the set’s in-depth exploration of one element of Enescu’s compositional life is most welcome, and the skill with which De Solaun presents the material makes the recording a worthwhile exploration of the abilities of this young pianist (born 1981) as well as the quality of what he performs.
December 13, 2018
The Bad Guys #8: Superbad. By Aaron Blabey. Scholastic. $5.99.
Peep, Peep, I Love You! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.
Mama Loves Her Silly Goose! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.
Our Little Love Bug! By Sandra Magsamen. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.
There is nothing nice about the Bad Guys, the heroic antiheroes of Aaron Blabey’s extended series of ridiculous comic-book-style adventures. No, these guys are bad, even if in a good way. They are also, well, guys, which turns out to be part of the amusement in the series’ eighth entry, Superbad. This is emphatically not a satisfactory entry point for newcomers to Blabey’s sequence, because the book makes absolutely no sense if you have not read prior ones. It does not make a whole lot of sense if you have read the earlier volumes, but let that pass. The previous book was called Do-You-Think-He-Saurus?! It transitioned the series from one about formerly-bad-but-now-trying-to-be-good characters fighting an evil alien disguised as the world’s most adorable guinea pig into one about formerly-bad-but-now-trying-to-be-good characters trying to return from the age of dinosaurs to the modern world, just in time to encounter an alien invasion orchestrated by the aforementioned evil alien. Oh, and the equipment that returns the Bad Guys to modern life endows them with superpowers and brings along a dinosaur that said equipment transforms into the smartest creature in the world, or maybe the universe. Nothing complex here at all, right? Well, in Superbad, there is a hilarious opening sequence in which the Bad Guys use their newfound powers to fight off monstrous alien war machines – not. Unfortunately, the Bad Guys are completely unable to control their powers. Mr. Piranha’s super speed does nothing but get him to zoom head-first into walls and hard objects, very quickly. Mr. Shark’s transformational ability has him turn into a tremendously threatening….toaster. Mr. Snake’s ability to levitate objects works fine, but hurling the items in the right direction, or even putting them down properly, works much less well. And Mr. Wolf’s super-strength would be useful if it didn’t cause him to burst out of his clothing and realize that he is naked, causing him to flee in monumental embarrassment. As for Mr. Tarantula – well, he initiated the sequence that gave the others superpowers, but that means he did not get any himself, so he is in a major funk – until Milton, the dinosaur with an IQ of 512, picks Mr. Tarantula to hatch an alien-beating plan. Now, this is not nearly complicated enough for Blabey’s taste, so all these failures and plans and arrangements occur at the same time as the introduction of the members of the International League of Heroes, a group that has been alluded to in prior volumes but whose only visible member has previously been Agent Fox. In Superbad, readers meet the rest of the league members: Agent Kitty Kat, Agent Hogwild, Agent Doom, and Agent Shortfuse. And they are all, well, girls, which makes for some interesting sidelights on all the mayhem and ridiculousness. The International League of Heroes manages to more-or-less whip the Bad Guys into fighting shape by the end of Superbad, and everything seems to be going along as well as things ever go along in this series – until Rupert Marmalade, the evil alien/adorable guinea pig, shows up at the end of the book and spoils everything just enough to set the stage for whatever is going to show up at the beginning, middle and end of the next book. Whew.
Matters are considerably calmer and animals considerably cuter and sweeter in the many board books by Sandra Magsamen, who is constantly finding new ways for parents to say “I love you” to young children and for kids to interact with all the adorableness. For example, there is a plush basket of multicolored eggs tightly bound into the cover of Peep, Peep, I Love You! This lets kids feel and push on something cute and squishy even before the book is opened – and they have plenty to do after it is opened, too. This one is a lift-the-flaps book about farm-animal parents and babies, all drawn by Magsamen in her usual looking-like-a-sampler style. First there is a mommy cow munching grass on a left-hand page – and on the right are three smiling flowers drawn on a flap that opens to the words “Moo, Moo” and a picture of a baby calf. Then there is a mommy sheep, looking sweetly woolly, on the left, while rows of vegetables adorn the flap on the right – which opens to the words “Baa, Baa” and a picture of a little lamb. After several farm animals are shown, Magsamen concludes the book by putting all of them, moms and babies alike, on a left-hand page, while the right-hand one shows an attractive red barn and affirms that even though there are lots of mommies and babies on the farm, “my favorite baby in the world is – YOU!” This is Magsamen’s usual message, delivered in her usual method, in a book whose interactivity is only part of its charm. One thing the book does not have, though, is a goose; but Magsamen offers that in Mama Loves Her Silly Goose! This is not an interactive book but is an unusually shaped one, much taller than it is wide (a bit like a heavy-cardboard pamphlet). The attraction here is the “goose” part – specifically Mother Goose. What Magsamen does in the book is to take well-known Mother Goose rhymes and abridge and twist them just enough to make them enjoyable – and non-scary – for the littlest children. The white rabbit in “Row, row, row your boat” looks thoroughly relaxed and happy, as do the little yellow fish jumping about. But that is a straightforward and pleasant rhyme. What about “Humpty Dumpty”? Well, he does have the traditional “great fall” in Magsamen’s version of the rhyme – and shows a big frown when it happens – but instead of the king’s horses and men unable to reassemble Humpty, Magsamen writes, “Mommy and Daddy knew what to do: They gave him lots of hugs and kisses, too!” So this turns into an ultimately happy experience – which is the direction in which Magsamen likes to take pretty much everything. Jack and Jill, for another example, do fall down the hill, but the “broke his crown” line about Jack is missing: he is a teddy bear who twirls around rather happily, upside down, as he heads downhill, and Jill is also seen twirling down the hill, right side up. By combining well-known Mother Goose rhymes with her own sense of how to bring comfort and enjoyment to the youngest children, Magsamen here encourages the same sort of parent-child bonding that she aims for in her other board books – all of which keep things short, sweet and enjoyable for parents and kids alike.
There are no geese to be found in Magsamen’s Our Little Love Bug! But the basic cute cuddliness of her farm-animal and Mother Goose board books shines through in this one as well. As the title hints and the smiling, six-legged, multicolored caterpillar on the front confirms, this is a book inviting parents to “go buggy” about their little ones. And it encourages young children to touch and feel the illustrations, each of which has bug parts – feet, legs, wings – made out of soft felt (the cover calls this a “Heart-Felt Book” – awwww!). Magsamen creates her own text here, with her usual bright colors enhancing key words on each page: “Your smile is so sweet, it makes our days,” for example, has the word “smile” in a larger size than the other words and in multiple colors – with different designs for the different letters (red stripes on the white “i,” white polka dots on the orange “e,” and so forth). The book continues with, “You brighten our world in so many ways” – showing a black-and-green moth with yellow felt wings – and eventually wends its way to truly adorable adult and baby purple spiders, the little one’s eight legs all created in felt for a text that concludes with the book’s title, “you’re our little love bug!” Parents need not worry about any “ickiness factor” involving Magsamen’s bugs, which are about as un-icky as it is possible to be. She shows yet again in this book that characters of all kinds can be used to reach out to parents and very young children to affirm love, warmth, and all sorts of adorableness.
What Is Inside THIS Box? A Monkey & Cake Book. By Drew Daywalt. Illustrated by Olivier Tallec. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
Catwad #1: It’s Me. By Jim Benton. Graphix/Scholastic. $8.99.
Sentient animals and plants are not enough for some children’s book authors – such as Drew Daywalt, who has created the exceptionally improbable friendship of a monkey called Monkey and a cake. Yes, as in birthday cake, angel food cake, devil’s food cake, or, in this particular case, as in two-layer yellow cake with pink legs, flat pink face and pink filling between the layers, all topped with a single maraschino cherry. That visualization comes courtesy of Olivier Tallec, whose whimsy and weirdness are a fine match for Daywalt’s. And then there is the story told in What Is Inside THIS Box? This is nothing less than a child-focused rumination on the famous thought experiment of Erwin Schrödinger, which dealt with the counterintuitive elements of quantum physics by imagining a way in which a boxed cat could be both alive and dead at the same time, attaining its definitive state only when observed after the box was opened. There is nothing so gloomy (or potentially gloomy) here, however – and, in fact, nothing in the story specifically explaining where it comes from. But there is a very sly key to the origin on the inside back cover, where Tallec draws a small, big-eyed black kitten that has the words “Schrödinger’s cat” next to it. Young children will pass right over this, but adults will enjoy the book more if they look up the reference. What actually happens in the book is that Monkey presents a big box to Cake and insists that there is a kitty cat inside it. Cake becomes so excited that his cherry bounces off the top of his frosting, and he asks if he can please see the kitty cat. No, says Monkey, because “it is a magic cat” that “disappears when I open the box.” Cake cannot figure this out – not even when Monkey, donning a suitably pseudoscientific lab coat, attempts to draw illustrations explaining the concept. The two friends argue, with Cake stating, “I think that there is NO cat in the box when it is open, and when you close the box, there is still NO cat inside it.” In fact, since there could be anything in the box, or nothing, Cake declares that there is a dinosaur in the box. Now Monkey is the excited one, asking to see the dinosaur, and Cake is the one saying “it is a magical dinosaur” that disappears when you open the box. The friends conclude that “we will never know” what is in the box, and head away together to get some pie – leaving the box behind. And when there are no observers, what do you suppose happens? The box opens, and out comes a dinosaur with a cat on its back. But no one gets to see them – except, of course, delighted young readers, and adults who will find this particular version of “Schrödinger’s dino-cat” to be particularly delightful.
Feline amusements are more straightforward in the first book of a new Jim Benton series called Catwad. Ever since he created snarky, greeting-card-like cynic and all-around sarcasm-spewing Happy Bunny, Benton has been casting about for other animal characters with a similar blend of the outwardly cute and inwardly devilish. Catwad is not quite in Happy Bunny’s league – Benton has in fact not come up with any character equally good – but the cover of It’s Me shows a lot of promise, with the title character drawn as a huge blue blob, with vaguely catlike ears and a mouth curved downward in a frown so emphatic that it takes up two-thirds of his face. If everything in It’s Me were at this level of characterization and amusement, the book would be up there in the Happy Bunny realm – but it turns out to be a (+++) book that is less about Catwad than about the usual “odd couple” relationship between a grouch and a bright and upbeat contrasting character. Catwad’s foil and best friend is Blurmp – who, it turns out in one of the best of the short vignettes that make up this graphic novel, got that name from his parents because that is the sound he makes when he passes gas. Yes, that is one of the best sequences here. Others, however, are duplicates of the sorts of things that even young readers will have seen elsewhere. There is the one about the relaxation chair whose remote control Blurmp misuses while Catwad, sitting in the chair, gets squeezed and pushed and mashed and generally disfigured. There is the one about the friends staying in a seedy hotel in a room filled with spiders, which crawl into Blurmp’s mouth – so he swallows them and says he loves the hotel because he gets breakfast in bed. There is the one in which Catwad tries to appreciate Blurmp’s love of rainbows – ending up standing beneath one that collapses on him. None of these is especially creative. On the other hand, some of the very short Catwad-Blurmp interactions are offbeat and highly amusing. In one, Blurmp gets a tattoo of his face on his back so Catwad can see Blurmp’s smile from either side (and that story gets a good deal more elaborate before it turns out to have been a dream). In another, Blurmp declares himself “a crime-fighting hero” and changes his appearance while trying on various “origin stories” before discarding them all – it turns out that his superpower is to see a criminal getting ready to steal something, so Blurmp swoops in and buys the item for him to prevent the crime. And there is a bit in which Catwad urges Blurmp to grow up, at least a little, so Blurmp decides he will “read all of the MATURE calorie and vitamin information” on foods and “fill out highly MATURE forms just for the mature fun of it,” and on and on, until even Catwad admits he prefers the immature Blurmp. The real issue with Catwad is that there is not enough Catwad in it: again and again, Blurmp steals the limelight, which means sweetness and innocence and naïveté win out time after time. That may be fun for the youngest readers who stumble upon It’s Me. But Blurmp has already worn thin before this first series entry is over – he is essentially too nice to have much staying power. Catwad at least has the potential to be the grumpy puss that he seems to be on the book’s cover. Hopefully he will grow into that potential in future installments.
Beyond the Call: Three Women on the Front Lines in Afghanistan. By Eileen Rivers. Da Capo. $27.
The focus on women in the armed forces tends, in the United States, to be one of combat readiness: even after the first female Army Rangers graduated in 2015, questions continued to be raised about whether standards had been relaxed for them in the name of political correctness, making the women Rangers less fit than men. Strong denials from the military to the contrary, this issue continues to reappear from time to time. Yet women’s roles in combat zones amount to a great deal more than those on both sides of the female-readiness argument in the U.S. tend to realize. Just how much more extensive those roles are, and have been, is the topic of Beyond the Call, whose author, Eileen Rivers, herself served in the armed forces: an Army veteran, she was an Arab linguist in Kuwait following Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.
Rivers, now an editor at USA Today, focuses in her book on a Marine sergeant, an Army major and an intelligence officer, all of whom were members of FETs in Afghanistan. A FET is a Female Engagement Team with an unusual and crucial mission: to develop relationships with Muslim women, who are founts of information on their nations’ customs, needs and difficulties, but are culturally forbidden to speak to male soldiers. Never mind the facile notion that they should speak to male soldiers who are there to protect them: the FETs deal with the reality on the ground, not the wished-for social equality that is many years, if not generations, away in a place such as Afghanistan. Rivers’ book follows the three women – Sgt. Sheena Adams, Maj. Maria Rodriguez, and Capt. Johanna Smoke – as they go about their duties, developing relationships with Muslim women in a bid to gather intelligence vital to U.S. success in the country. Adams, Rodriguez and Smoke are on the front lines of attempts to engage hearts and minds and thus weaken the hold of the Taliban on parts of Afghanistan – and they have to fight some dyed-in-the-wool barriers of their own to do so.
Thus, Beyond the Call is both a story of the little-known but important role of FETs in Afghanistan and of the lengths to which military women have gone – have had to go, according to Rivers – to serve in all the ways of which they are capable. The book actually starts with a short history of women in the U.S. military before the scene shifts to Afghanistan and the story of a woman named Jamila Abbas, who became a women’s-rights activist – a role placing her in great personal danger – after Taliban killers beheaded her husband. The way Abbas interacts with FET members is an important part of the book, which also details the personal struggles of the three women profiled within the U.S. military. Thus, Rivers shows how hard Adams fought her own chain of command to be assigned to Afghanistan – and what happened when, after she was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED), her advancement was blocked because she was not given credit for combat service. Is this a system glitch or systemic discrimination? Clearly the latter, Rivers suggests, and she says Adams is scarcely alone in suffering from it.
Rodriguez’ circumstances forced her to fight both the provincial government in Afghanistan and her own chain of command. She was supposed to give Afghan policewomen training, but was not allowed, under U.S. military regulations, to leave base without a male escort. There are arguments explaining this – having to do with extra risks in a culture such as Afghanistan’s if women are out and about on their own – but Rivers suggests that the rules are part of a pervasive anti-female orientation in the U.S. military that is changing slowly when it changes at all. As for Smoke, Rivers shows her working with Abbas to register women to vote, contrasting this bid for female empowerment in a repressive society with the difficulties these FET members faced in their own military lives.
Beyond the Call is as much an advocacy book as a military-history-and-analysis one, and, perhaps as a result, tends to drag: Rivers is not especially skilled at interweaving the two elements of her narrative, and her writing is matter-of-fact and rather unstylish. The underlying story of FET members helping the fight for women’s rights in a country whose entire religious and political system opposes them is a strong one. But what never quite gels is Rivers’ attempt to relate that level of systemic oppression to the comparatively small and certainly less dangerous facing of barriers involved in women’s service in U.S. defense. It is certainly true that the U.S. military has not been an equal-opportunity organization where men and women are concerned, and that the country as a whole continues to face many issues of inequality involving a wide variety of under-appreciated groups. But comparing the structural inefficiencies and slow-to-change policies of the United States with the vicious, violent, religiously based systemic oppression of the patriarchal system in Afghanistan really makes no sense. Adams, Rodriguez and Smoke certainly had to overcome barriers to be able to do the work that, by Rivers’ account, they all did well and with pride. But their difficulties are on an entirely different level from those of Abbas and the other women trapped in a system that, by the standards of the generally open and designedly secular one in the United States, is backward and borderline evil – just the sort of fertile ground in which cancerous growths such as the Taliban flourish and become extremely difficult to root out.