April 27, 2023


B Is for Bananas. By Carrie Tillotson. Pictures by Estrela Lourenço. Flamingo Books. $18.99.

Counting to Bananas. By Carrie Tillotson. Pictures by Estrela Lourenço. Flamingo Books. $18.99.

     There are lots of kids’ books about not wanting to go to bed. Everybody knows that. There are lots of kids’ books in which characters talk back to the narrators. Everybody knows that. There are lots of kids’ books in which the recalcitrant-sleeper and talking-back character is a banana. Everybody knows that.

     Well, maybe not that last one.

     But it only takes one. And now, thanks to Carrie Tillotson and Estrela Lourenço, there is one, and one heck of a one it is. Tillotson has the narrator of B Is for Bananas going merrily along with a bedtime book, while the central character – Lourenço’s wonderfully drawn cartoon banana, with huge eyes and big smile and stick arms and legs – determinedly turns the narrative toward bananas of all sorts except the sort that would be going to bed. Not that bananas typically go to bed, but you get the idea.

     Indeed, parents will get the idea quickly: the banana/kid is going to keep fighting against bedtime and sleep until eventually becoming tired and nodding off. But that overall plot is scarcely the point of B Is for Bananas. The fun here comes from Tillotson wearing two hats, one as narrator using sleep-focused language and one as banana fighting back against bedtime in every way possible. All this is in the context of an alphabet book, too. The narrator insists, for instance, that B is for bedtime, C for cozy, J for jammies, N for night, and Q for quiet. The banana – who, by the way, not only changes the narrator’s word but also “alters” Lourenço’s illustrations by “drawing” over them – insists that B is for banana, C for Captain Banana (a very active pirate), J for jumping, N for ninja, and Q for quarterback (the penciled-on helmet atop the aggressive-looking banana that is nevertheless clutching a bedtime teddy bear is one of the funniest pictures in the book). Eventually and inevitably, all the non-bedtime-focused activity becomes exhausting, and by the time the narrator says that T is for tired, the banana is having trouble protesting: “I’m not tired. I’m T. wrecked. I mean a T. rest” (the illustration shows a very sleepy sort-of T. rex wearing a bedtime outfit). Things turn plaintive at the letter W: “I wish I could stay up later,” says the banana, and the narrator goes along all the way to “Z is for bananas…when they’re finally zonked” – a perfect ending to a just-about-perfect bedtime-but-not-really-bedtime tale.

     This is actually the second time Tillotson and Lourenço have used a banana theme to exceptionally good effect. Before the alphabet banana book, there was a numbers banana book, and it is hard to imagine buying and reading either without wanting to buy and read the other. Counting to Bananas, described as “a mostly rhyming fruit book,” has the banana – here sporting a bowtie rather than jammies – waking up at the beginning, then modestly avoiding intruding on the narrator as the text presents “1 plum, 2 figs, 3 oranges,” all featuring wonderfully expressive faces courtesy of Lourenço’s adept art. Things get argumentative at the number 4, though, with the narrator saying “4 pigs” and the banana barging in and objecting that “pigs aren’t fruit” and the narrator replying that “no other fruit rhymes with figs.” Matters go rapidly downhill from then on, gaining both speed and hilarity. The number 8 gets bears (to rhyme with pears), the number 10 gets plantains (almost bananas but not quite), and by the number 16 the narrator is offering leeches (to rhyme with peaches). Eventually we get to 20 baboons (rhyming with 18 prunes) and, when the banana objects, that gets changed to 20 raccoons (also rhyming with 18 prunes). It is only with a final leap to the number 100 that the banana gets its due – and comeuppance – as the narrator offers “100 apes” (a rhyme with grapes) that all happen to be hungry for, you guessed it, a banana. The banana’s final escape, running all the way off the page, is exactly the right ending for this wonderful send-up of a counting book that pairs so delightfully with B Is for Bananas as a wonderful send-up of a bedtime book. And just to provide kids and adults alike with a little extra fun, both books have front and back covers inside the wraparound paper jackets that are completely different from what appears on the jackets themselves – an added dose of amusement that carries the banana theme in a whole series of new and equally silly directions. What will Tillotson and Lourenço come up with next? No idea, but it is a pretty good bet that whatever it is will once again go bananas.


Thinking of You (but not in a weird creepy way). By Beth Evans. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     A near-perfect gift book for people who live their lives virtually and believe that praise and reinforcement from total strangers are somehow more worthwhile than interactions with, you know, actual human beings IRL, Beth Evans’ Thinking of You is determinedly warm, upbeat, sweet, reaffirming and – if you are not in the target audience – totally obnoxious. Not that the book intends to be divisive – quite the opposite. In sections called “Everyday Struggles,” “Big Old Feelings,” “Go You!!!” and “Hard Things and Validation,” Evans has conical blobs repeatedly deliver versions of the statement that “even though we don’t know each other personally, I am cheering for you.” The final section is called “Uplifting Messages,” but that really could be the title of any of the sections – or of the book as a whole.

     The positive messaging itself is just fine, and is the sort of thing that uncounted numbers of affirmation books and affirmation posters and affirmation memes and affirmation everything elses have been offering for a very long time (since well before Instagram, where Evans lives, or at least where her characters and thoughts do). The difficulty – if it is a difficulty, which it will not be for the book’s target audience – is the extent of the personalization of the advice. “I do think you’re doing just fine, doing whatever it is that you do. You’re human, and you’re doing. There’s not much more you can ask of yourself.” So says Evans in one chapter introduction. On the facing page, her blob character is telling readers, “Everything is scary and terrible! You, however, are pretty darn awesome. Thanks for facing another day of this – you’re doing great.” Elsewhere, the character wears a crown emblazoned with the words, “One step at a time, you’re doing just fine,” and on still another page, is saying, “You shine brighter than you even know.” The message is delivered – hammered home, in fact – again and again. It is a worthwhile and positive message, and for someone with the right mindset, a helpful one. But the mindset required is that of a person who thinks well-intentioned platitudes about positivity really are personally valuable when delivered by complete strangers who are totally ignorant of the person’s everyday, real-world concerns and struggles.

     Evans’ point, of course, is that everyone has everyday, real-world issues to handle, and so everyone needs exactly the same sort of uplift delivered in exactly the same way – a one-size-fits-all approach to stress, emotional difficulty and mental health that is absurd on the face of it but that makes perfect sense to people who believe, at some level, that Evans is speaking directly to them even though she has never met them and never will.

     All this is a version of the displays in various corners of the Internet that prove that everybody else’s life is happier, more upbeat, more successful and more joy-filled than yours. Much-edited visuals (with much, much more of daily life omitted) convince some people that their own lives are trash by comparison and may not even be worth living. Hence the reports of suicides of people who come to believe that they will never measure up in any way to the mostly falsified displays of wonderfulness sent into the virtual world by perfect strangers.

     Evans’ Thinking of You is the other side of the same coin – the positive spin, if you will. And on a few pages, it actually uses the visual elements of blob display cleverly, as in its “Cycle” pages – with “The ‘I Spent Money’ Cycle” always coming back to “I need this impulse purchase or I will die,” and the “Cycle of Thoughts” revolving back to “Something NEW to be upset about.” And there are occasional flashes of genuine humor in the book, such as its very last page, “As long as I have a package to obsessively track, I can probably get through anything.” More mild amusement along the same line would have been a better leavening agent than yet another assertion along the lines of, “We don’t always know what the road we’re on will bring, but moving forward is a total achievement in itself – wherever you end up, you’ll do great.” Oh, really? Try that when standing two steps from a precipice and taking three steps forward.

     The point is that the relentlessly upbeat nature of Thinking of You is nice to have as a counterbalance to all the negative elements of everyday life today – lord knows there are plenty of those. But the constant repetition of essentially the same thoughts in essentially the same words soon becomes syrupy, even treacly. Seen one at a time on Instagram, sought out when someone who thinks Internet connections represent real friendships is feeling low, Evans’ blobs’ praise can provide a momentary “up” that can be most welcome during emotionally dark times. But these “perk up” pieces come and go in an Instagram instant, and a full book of them may not be more effective than occasional single ones, given how similar the material is, page after page. “I know you can do this,” writes Evans. “Your talent, humor, personality, kindness, and awareness of the world will take you places.” And that would be wonderful to hear from someone who actually knows your talent, humor, personality, kindness, and awareness of the world. From Evans, it is all just words. And drawings. At best, hopefulness. At worst, nonsense.


Mozart: Complete Piano Sonatas. Yeol Eum Son, piano. Naïve. $39.99 (6 CDs).

     Mozart’s 18 piano sonatas do not have the same scale and variability as Beethoven’s 32, nor are they as fiendishly difficult as some of Beethoven’s, and the Mozart cycle therefore tends to get comparatively short shrift from pianists and listeners alike: at times there is a sense of the obligatory about some performances, as if pianists are saying “of course these matter because, after all, this is Mozart, but everything is a little ho-hum here, isn’t it?”

     It takes a pianist with the engagement and occasional audacity of Yeol Eum Son to show just how wrongheaded it is to downplay (even if not dismiss) the Mozart sonata cycle. Son shows throughout her performances that the superficial similarities among Mozart’s sonatas – every single one is in three movements, for example – are of much less account than their subtle differences. And the word subtle is particularly important here. The enormous distinctions between early and late Beethoven piano sonatas are obvious (even if some of the best and most popular, such as No. 8, the “Pathétique,” Op. 13, are early works). The differences between Mozart’s earlier and later sonatas are less apparent on the surface and have more to do with changes in expressiveness and in structural details than with significantly different technical demands.

     That Son is well aware of this is clear in her handling of the late but deliberately simple C major sonata, No. 16, K. 545, whose finale is the shortest movement in any Mozart sonata. Far too many pianists seem to consider this little gem a “throwaway,” to be dashed off out of a feeling of necessity or obligation so as to move on to more-substantial fare. This is similar to the way many pianists handle Beethoven’s two earliest sonatas, which were published as Nos. 19 and 20 (Op. 49, Nos. 1 and 2) but date to two or three years before the “Pathétique.” They are part of the cycle and are, after all, by Beethoven, but are often played as if they merit little attention in their own right. And so it tends to be with Mozart’s K. 545. But not in Son’s performance. Although she does not attempt to make the piece overly consequential, she performs it with delicacy and charm that fit the music perfectly and show that it possesses the same level of elegance and balance to be found throughout the Mozart set.

     Delicacy, charm, elegance, balance – these are the watchwords of all of Son’s performances. But they are not all the qualities of the sonatas, and not all of what Son brings to them. She is well aware of the operatic quality possessed by some of these works, and brings forth that element to especially fine effect. This is clearest in No. 10, K. 330, and No. 11, K. 331. The first of these is filled with buffa elements and has a distinctly operatic approach to its themes, complete with a middle movement marked Andante cantabile. The second is best-known for its Alla turca finale but in fact (and in this performance) is strongly weighted toward its huge first movement, nearly twice the length of the other two combined, which is a theme and variations through which Mozart expresses a very wide variety of emotions and explores numerous piano techniques. Son is particularly adept with variations, which involve contrasts that she seems thoroughly to enjoy. The longest movement in any of these sonatas is a theme and variations – it is the finale of No. 6, K. 284, and lasts a full 17-and-a-half minutes – and here as in K. 331, Son explores the material with sensitivity while giving the music an almost improvisational feeling, as if some of the variations have just sprung into being as if by spontaneous generation.

     Son is quite capable of deeper emotional engagement as well. This comes through particularly in the only two minor-key sonatas, No. 9, K. 310 (in A minor) and No. 14, K. 457 (in C minor). In fact, in the second of these, Son is perhaps a trifle over-emotive in the central Adagio, not going so far as to try to give it Romantic intensity but certainly not hesitating to use the resources of a modern grand piano to highlight the seriousness of the slow movement of a work in what was for Mozart a particularly fraught key (the same one he used for Piano Concerto No. 24, K. 491).

     It is, in fact, the use of a modern piano – a Steinway D, the go-to instrument for a substantial number of modern pianists – that is the biggest downside to this otherwise excellent six-CD set on the Naïve label. Because Son gets so strongly involved in the music, she gladly utilizes the piano’s sonority and resonance to make emotional points, underlining the pathos of slow movements and emphasizing the strength of chordal passages. She does not overdo this to an extreme – if she did, this would scarcely be a set worth recommending – but it is apparent throughout the cycle. And this approach is not quite “Mozartean” enough, certainly by the standards of historically informed performance practices (which Son does not offer). Unlike Beethoven, who seemed always to push the piano in new and more-intense directions and became famous for breaking instruments on which he pounded mercilessly, Mozart fully exploited the resources of the instruments of his time (including shorter key travel, damping operated by knee levers rather than pedals, and an overall more-delicate, less-resonant sound) without trying to transform the piano into something that, at the time, it was not capable of becoming. The much-evolved concert grand of today fits Mozart’s sonatas at best imperfectly, so while Son’s interpretations of the music are almost entirely convincing and engaging, the actual sound of her performances is somewhat less so. In this respect, Son’s set of Mozart sonatas does not compare with the cycle performed on five fortepianos by Bart van Oort for Brilliant Classics. Nevertheless, Son’s playing is so good and her commitment to the music, including a near-intuitive grasp of its moods and generally subtle changes of character, is so welcome that this cycle is one to which listeners will likely return again and again for repeated doses of pleasure both in the sonatas and in the pianist.


Debussy: Préludes pour Piano—Book I; Estampes; Images pour orchestra—Rondes de printemps. Jean-Paul Gasparian, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Paul Paray: Seven Piano Pieces. Flavio Varani, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

     It is the distinctive sound that Debussy brought to piano music that is one of the most distinguishing and distinguished elements of his oeuvre. And it is the distinctive sound that Jean-Paul Gasparian and the engineers at Naïve develop for Gasparian’s new CD of Debussy’s works that sets his performances apart from most other readings of this mostly familiar music. There is generally a certain solidity to piano music of the German school, certainly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while the same time period brought a sense of delicacy, even evanescence, to the French piano school – with, as always, exceptions in both cases. Gasparian, in any case, fully embraces a kind of drifting, cloudlike sound for the first book of Debussy’s Préludes. His performances are most impressive when at their softest, as in the genuinely cloudy-sounding Voiles and nearly static feeling of Les son et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. And Des pas sur la neige is here so soft and drifting as almost not to be present at all – a remarkable aural effect. The liveliness of La danse de Puck provides genuine contrast in this reading with what has come before, and the concluding Minstrels seems both epigraphic and epigrammatic. Next on the disc and written in 1903, seven years before the first book of Préludes appeared, Estampes seems more like a sonic work in progress when, as here, it follows the later material instead of preceding it. Here the Impressionism of the writing, more than its sheer aural effect, is what Gasparian focuses on, so that Pagodes becomes genuinely evocative of an Oriental (or pseudo-Oriental) scene, La Soirée dans Grenade has its habanera rhythm elegantly presented but not over-emphasized, and Jardins sous la pluie has an exceptionally attractive perpetuum mobile feeling even as Gasparian makes the folksong on which it is based quite clear in its emergences. The CD ends with an intriguing encore in the form of Rondes de printemps, based by Debussy on the same folk tune as Jardins sous la pluie. This piece is from Images pour orchestre and is heard here in a world première recording of a transcription by the pianist’s father, Gérard Gasparian. The transcription itself is nicely done, faithful to the orchestral version but also containing some genuine pianistic elements, and Jean-Paul Gasparian’s inclusion of it stands as a tribute both to his father and to Debussy’s clever working and reworking of similar material in different ways. The music on this disc may be well-known, but Gasparian’s handling of it continually sheds new light on it.

     The music itself will be new to most listeners when it comes to an MSR Classics CD featuring pianist Flavio Varani. The disc includes seven works by Paul Marie-Adolphe Charles Paray, the long-lived conductor (1886-1979) who as Paul Paray was well-known for his sensitively presented concerts and recordings dating mostly to the 1950s and 1960s. These Paray compositions date to the exact same time period as the Debussy works played by Gasparian: Paray wrote all the pieces between 1903 and 1914. One of them, Sur la mer (1910), is every bit as Impressionistic as other French music of the same time period, Debussy’s included. The other pieces have considerable stylistic variety. Thème et variations (1913) uses a rather foursquare theme in numerous well-crafted ways that show Paray as a miniaturist of some distinction: the theme and six of the variations last less than two minutes each, and the final two variations just two-and-a-half apiece. The longest work on the disc is also a collection of miniatures: D’une âme (1914) starts with a proclamatory movement and soon moves through well-thought-out pieces reflecting a series of differing moods, among them Naïve, Rêveuse, Malicieuse, Fantasque, and Inquiète et Passionnée. After this, Varani offers Paray’s Impromptu (1910), which harks back to Chopin but with 20th-century harmonies. Then, with the three-movement Impressions (1912), it is again mood-setting time, especially so in the opening Nostalgie, whose title in many ways sums up all the Paray piano pieces heard on this disc. Also here is Tarentelle (1903), in which the typical rhythm of the tarantella is repeatedly interrupted by chordal intrusions, after which it breaks free again and again. Finally, Valse en fa dièse mineur (1906) offers a somewhat halting, almost limping version of three-quarter time with slight music-hall overtones. These Paray piano pieces are not in and of themselves especially innovative or distinctive, but this (+++) disc, which is very well played and which neatly showcases Paray’s varied pianistic interests, will be a treat for listeners who have heard plenty of better-known French piano pieces of the early 20th century – including those by Debussy – and would like to stretch their ears a bit by exploring some works that are much less often performed.