April 10, 2014

(++++) MEANWHILE, BACK WHERE IT’S FLAT


Turtle Recall: The Discworld Companion…So Far. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs. Harper. $27.99.

     An absolute must-have for fans of Terry Pratchett’s 40-book series set on the thoroughly unbelievable but almost believable Discworld, Turtle Recall – despite an abundance of irritating flaws – will enthrall and delight Pratchett’s constant readers and is quite likely to change inconstant ones to the constant type. There is just so much here, so much richness and variety and depth and utter, complete and unremitting silliness! Turtle Recall is an alphabetical presentation of places, people, non-people, objects, gods, small gods, characters, characterizations, and other miscellany from 55 sources – yes, 15 more than the total number of Discworld books, and that is because some of the material comes from ancillary sources and thereby confuses things somewhat, a fact that (irritatingly) Stephen Briggs, who assembled the project using snippets and sometimes extended elements of Pratchett’s prose, never discusses.

     The 55 sources are abbreviated for ease (ease?) of cross-reference at the end of entries referring to them. The abbreviations, however, do not always make sense. Thud! very logically becomes T! But Guards! Guards! becomes GG, without exclamation points. And Maskerade, whose title lacks an exclamation point, becomes M!!!!! (yes, five of them). Also, The Wee Free Men, which ought to become TWFM, since other books starting with “The” have the “T” included, is actually listed in the table of abbreviations as WFM; but in the alphabetical entries within the book itself, it is indeed TWFM. Irritating. Also, the dates of the books, which it would have been very helpful to include, are not included, except that the dates of Diary books (e.g., Reformed Vampyre’s Diary) are given, thus ensuring confusion and frustration, which do not appear to be the point here, but perhaps are.

     Oh, and Turtle Recall, which is actually a not-quite-thoroughly revised version of earlier Briggs “companion” material, is cleverly subtitled, “Fully updated and up to Snuff!” – or that would be clever if Snuff! were the most recent Discworld book. But it isn’t – it is the 39th, and the 40th, Raising Steam, is actually listed on the “Also by Terry Pratchett” page but is not included in the Turtle Recall contents or comments. Irritating.

     But Pratchett’s world is so wide and wonderful that this companion book is most welcome, for Discworld is so complex that pretty much any companionship while navigating it would be. Welcome, that is. Discworld perches on the backs of four elephants that in turn stand upon the carapace of a “star turtle” named A’Tuin, and while this compendium of mythologies shows what has grown for years in Pratchett’s fertile mind, it does raise some questions that Pratchett resolutely refuses to answer: “People have asked: how does the Disc move on the shoulders of the elephants? What does the Turtle eat? One may as well ask: what kind of smell has yellow got? It is how things are.” This begs the question in many ways, not the least of which is that yellow does have an odor, at least to those with synesthesia, but it matters little: acceptance of “how things are” is a necessity for enjoyment of the Discworld books, and is a smaller willing suspension of disbelief than Samuel Taylor Coleridge would likely have expected, given the outré nature of Pratchett’s creation.

     What Turtle Recall does well is to collect bits and pieces of Discworld lore in a single spot and elucidate them wonderfully, frequently through generous descriptive helpings drawn from Pratchett’s writing. Here are the deliciously awful puns and the words that you simply must say aloud, or at least within your own mind, to get what Pratchett is driving at – the kingdom of Djelibeybi, the village of Bad Schuschein, and the N’tuitif people, for example. Here are characters such as the Igors, “a clan which, instead of myths and legends, passes on the secrets of incredibly skilled surgery (except in the area of cosmetics), plus various associated hints and tips, often to do with weird chemistry and lightning rods. …Igors do not so much die as get broken down for spares.” And they typically work for such typical-sounding typical mad scientists as “Mad Doctor Scoop, Crazed Baron Haha, Screaming Doctor Berserk, Nipsie the Impaler, Dribbling Doctor Vibes and Baron Finkelstein.” All this on Igors, who are ancillary characters. Turtle Recall also includes extensive discussions of central protagonists, such as the perfectly Machiavellian Lord Vetinari, ruler of the endlessly fascinating and endlessly corrupt city of Ankh-Morpork; Granny Weatherwax and other witches; the self-important, strutting wizards of Unseen University, and the thoroughly incompetent Rincewind, who may be the most powerful of them all; Sam Vimes of the City Watch; and many, many more. Dabbling at random in this book – a great pleasure, and one that will be new to anyone accustomed to the directed search at which the Internet excels – also shows just how marvelously inventive Pratchett is with names: Eumenides Treason, ‘Gobbo’ Nutt, Troglodyte Wanderer, Banana N’vectif, Malicia Grim (not to be confused with Agoniza Grim or Eviscera Grim), Casanunda (the Discworld variant of Casanova), Cripple Mr Onion (a card game), Death (the character) and New Death (a temporary replacement), Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Cosmo Lavish, Frankly Ottomy – and on and on and on.

     The ways in which Discworld turns in on itself are amply reflected in Turtle Recall, as in the entry on “Laws of Ankh-Morpork,” which begins, including an ellipsis: “There aren’t any. Well… Not entirely true.” The first-mentioned “known and somewhat fossilized” law is the “Being Bloody Stupid Act” of 1581. But if there are not laws, there are rules, some of them quite explicit, laid down by the various guilds, several of which get extended descriptions. There are mundane rules, and then there are the rules, most of them quite flexible, governing magic and magical interactions. Turtle Recall is a good place to find out why wizards are not the same as magicians, who are not the same as conjurers. It is a good place to learn about the city of Ephebe (“major export: ideas”) and the continent of Fourecks, spelled Xxxx; the demon Wxrthltl-jwlpklz; the Glingleglingleglingle Fairy, whose “sole job is to make the ‘glingleglingleglingle’ noise which heralds the arrival of any other fairy”; Gaspode, a dog that can talk, “but not many people pay any attention, because everyone knows that dogs can’t talk”; the Apocralypse, “the Half-Hearted End of the World”; Kaos, “the Fifth Horseman of the Apocralypse, although he left before they became famous”; and, yes, on and on and on.

     Discworld is a wonder; Turtle Recall, basking in reflected glory, is less so. It is not, for example, the place to turn to explore Pratchett’s marvelously garbled Latin mottos for the Guilds: the book gives them but does not explain most of them. These are hilarious if you know Latin – and when they are translated, may not be given accurately. One motto of Ankh-Morpork, for instance, is stated to be “Merus In Pectum Et In Aquam,” which is “literally” translated as “Pure in mind and water” but actually translates as “Pure on the site and in the water” (either way, it is pure in neither way). Turtle Recall is also not the place to turn for unquestioned accuracy or consistency, with Ankh-Morpork referred to at one point as being nicknamed “the Big Wahoonie” – the comparison is with an unpleasant 20-foot-long vegetable – and at another as “the Great Wahoonie.” Nor is this book the place to explore the Guilds’ coats of arms, which Pratchett creates with remarkable heraldic understanding but which are all shown incorrectly, as mirror images, in Turtle Recall: when Pratchett says something is in the top right quarter, it is shown in the top left, and when he says something is in the bottom left, it is in the bottom right – an unconscionable book-design error.

     Pratchett himself, who was diagnosed in 2007 with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, continues to produce remarkable works that mix out-and-out absurdity and a great deal of fun with some barely concealed social commentary and occasional hints of profundity (lightly sprinkled throughout). He is the greatest British fantasy writer since J.R.R. Tolkien, whose work somewhat influenced Pratchett’s early Discworld books but beyond whom Pratchett has long since moved. Pratchett does like to throw in sometimes-subtle allusions to the work of other fantasists, though – for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s “Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young,” becomes, on Discworld, “Tshup Aklathep, the Infernal Star Toad with a Million Young,” and you can look him (it?) up in Turtle Recall. But you cannot look everything about Discworld up here – not even some things that the book says you can find. For example, the entry for “Curious Squid” cross-references the land of Lesph (sic), but there is no entry for Lesph – only one for “Leshp (sic), Brass Gongs of.” And “Genetics” cross-references a supposed entry for “God of Evolution,” but there is no such entry under either G or E. Maybe it evolved into other letters.

     The very first Discworld book was called The Colour of Magic. If there were to be a better compendium of Pratchettiana than Turtle Recall, it could well be called The Direction of Wonder. Until it is produced, though, Turtle Recall will serve very nicely as recollection, exploration and appreciation.

(++++) OH, BABY!


Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck. By Lisa Wheeler. Illustrated by Ivan Bates. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Reasons My Kid Is Crying. By Greg Pembroke. Three Rivers Press. $15.

     The littlest children – or rather the littlest ones with enough attention span to handle a read-aloud book – will have a simply wonderful time with the new board-book version of Lisa Wheeler’s Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck, originally published in 2004. A rollicking rhyming story with a lot more going on than is usual in a board book, and with Ivan Bates illustrations that amplify the fun and keep the pace quick, Wheeler’s poetic tale relates the far-from-simple journey of Farmer Dale (a dog) to town with a load of hay. It seems that various animals keep getting in the way of the truck – first a bossy cow, then a woolly sheep, then a “roly pig,” a goat with an accordion, and…well, at this point the truck, in which Farmer Dale has been obligingly giving all the animals a lift to town, is so overloaded that it can no longer move. How it gets out of that mess – with the assistance of still more animals – is the subject of the remainder of the book, as Wheeler’s poetic cadences keep the story moving even when the truck cannot. “The truck bounced up. The springs all popped./ The bumper bumped. The pickup stopped.” The animals here actually have personalities, in the writing as well as the illustrations: “The pickup rocked and rumbled./ It rolled an inch or so./ ‘It’s moooving!’ shouted Bossy Cow./ The rooster crowed, ‘Too slow!’” For that matter, the truck itself has a personality: “The pickup bounced and shimmied./ It groaned and squeaked and wheezed./ It spit a thankful cloud of smoke/ and started with a sneeze.” Kids from babies to toddlers not only will enjoy the rhymes but also will have fun finding out, at the book’s end, that everyone was heading to town for a talent contest. That explains the goat with the accordion!

     Now, what explains the many and varied expressions of dismay, anger and all-around angst on the faces of the entirely human babies in the (+++) Reasons My Kid Is Crying? Based on Greg Pembroke’s Tumblr blog – whoever thought the Internet would kill printed books did not reckon with this sort of cross-pollination – the book features many dozens of photos of many dozens of boy and girl toddlers, all in the “easy meltdown” age range, all melting down for reasons that run from the possibly real to the entirely fanciful. For a little girl with a scrunched-up face: “She’s not allowed to eat garbage out of the garbage can.” Boy in a highchair: “He threw his dinner on the floor and now he wants to eat.” Boy with two fingers in his mouth and a pained expression: “He wanted to wear socks and flip-flops.” (And that would be terrible…why?) Girl with face and bib coated in spaghetti sauce or something equally red and messy: “I told her that I had to wash her face after dinner.” Little boy next to adult woman who is holding the handle of a sharp tool: “His aunt wouldn’t let him play with this ax.” Boy standing in pool: “Water got on his bathing suit.” Boy in kitchen: “I wouldn’t let him eat this unsweetened cocoa powder by the spoonful.” Boy near television set: “We turned on his favorite show the minute he asked us to.” Enough already? But there is more, much more, some of it funny, some of it mildly witty (but not very witty), some of it silly and some of it instantly recognizable by any parent of a current or former toddler. The problem is that there is much more of this, and a book with an endless parade of unhappy children’s faces, contorted and/or in tears, comes across very differently from a blog into which computer users can dip briefly and from which they can quickly depart at will. True, it is possible to read just a few pages of Reasons My Kid Is Crying and then put it aside, coming back to it later, but this is a book with very few words and a lot of pictures, clearly meant to be read quickly, and the whole point of it – to the extent that it has a point – is to show how many different ways kids of a certain age melt down. The totality of the thing turns out to be more depressing than funny: do you really want to see page after page of young children in full evidence of misery, even if they show it theatrically and even if you know (as you will if you are a parent) that the “slights” are minor and the kids’ tantrums short-lived? A little of Reasons My Kid Is Crying goes a long way, and it is easier to engage with just a little of this sort of thing online than in book form. Still, fans of the blog are likely to enjoy seeing some of the postings in a high-quality printed book. Some of them.

(++++) ANIMALS STRANGE AND WONDERFUL


Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy. By Dr. Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein. Blue Rider Press. $19.95.

Galápagos George. By Jean Craighead George. Paintings by Wendell Minor. Harper. $15.99.

Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree. By Eileen Christelow. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Martha Speaks: Play Ball! Martha Habla: ¡Juega al sóftbol! A Spanish Bilingual Book. Based on the characters created by Susan Meddaugh. Adaptation by Marcy Goldberg Sacks. Translated by Carlos E. Calvo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $3.99.

     There is something uniquely Victorian about the odd, whimsical creations of taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918), who took anthropomorphic depictions of animals to extremes by stuffing rabbits, squirrels, cats, mice and other critters and setting them up in dioramas depicting scenes from the mythic to the then-modern. Potter lived in the village of Bramber, in West Sussex, England, and there created a museum in which to display his remarkably detailed tableaux, from items inspired by Goethe to ones that sprang entirely from Potter’s own mind. The stuffed animals in human scenes, a curiosity when created, are something more than that today: they show with remarkable accuracy what everyday life was like in Victorian times, displaying furniture, clothing, events and poses with remarkable accuracy – but in miniature and with animals as the “players.” Guinea pig musicians perform in a brass band; toads cavort in a playground; beautifully dressed kittens attend a remarkably detailed wedding; other kittens play croquet during an elaborate tea party; rabbits attend school, taking notes and reading books; squirrels play cards; and on and on. Potter was a skilled taxidermist, and it was only after his death that his humanizing arrangements of small animals started to seem peculiar to some observers. His mythic scenes, however, have stood the test of time quite well. For example, “The Death & Burial of Cock Robin,” based on the old nursery rhyme, was his first tableau – it took him seven years to create – and one of his most elaborate, containing nearly 100 birds (including some that are now rare or extinct in Sussex). Taxidermy expert Dr. Pat Morris writes knowingly and glowingly of the Bramber Museum and its creator, while the photographs by Joanna Ebenstein display Potter’s remarkable creations in all their beauty and, to modern eyes, peculiarity. The Potter collection, which included not only the tableaux but also preserved oddities such as a two-headed lamb and conjoined twin pigs, was broken up at auction in 2003, its pieces scattered worldwide – a sad ending to Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy and to a collection with remarkable historical importance as well as considerable inherent interest. The reassembly of the collection, as Morris notes, “is precluded,” but at least we have this beautifully made and thoroughly fascinating book to document a footnote to history that is filled with charm, a touch of erudition, and considerable skill in animal preservation.

     Modern taxidermy is altogether more scientific and is handled in museums and laboratories far more often than in small-town museums. It has been brought into play to preserve Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise from the Galápagos Islands, who died in 2012. After a necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy for humans), George’s body was transported to the American Museum of Natural History for extended taxidermy work to allow him to be seen by future generations. But Galápagos George, by the late Jean Craighead George (1919-2012) and Wendell Minor, focuses not at all on George’s postmortem treatment and mentions his death only at the end. The book is about how Lonesome George came to be, who his ancestors likely were, how those ancient tortoises came to the Galápagos Islands in the first place, and how Charles Darwin’s observations of them fueled his theory of evolution. Starting with Giantess George, an imagined ancestor of Lonesome George, author and artist trace the giant tortoises’ heritage and explain, in simple enough terms for kids ages 4-8 to understand, how one type of tortoise became 14 different types over many, many years of life in subtly different environments among the Galápagos Islands. The flowering of the multiple species, and the natural and human-made reasons for their decline, are explored with sensitivity and a clear understanding of the food chain – more accurately, the food web – on which all life depends, and the ways in which people and the animals they brought interfered with the natural balance of the Galápagos Islands and eventually reduced the tortoise population nearly to the point of no return, and in some cases all the way to it. Writer and artist manage to make the ending of their book a positive if not entirely upbeat one; the story will encourage involved young readers to find out more about what happened to the Galápagos Island tortoises and to Lonesome George himself – and the resources at the back of the book will be an excellent starting point for further exploration.

     Anthropomorphic taxidermy may have gone out of style, but the anthropomorphic use of animals certainly has not, especially in children’s books. Eileen Christelow’s Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree, which originally dates to 1991 and is now available in board-book form, shows just how much times have changed – and not only in the way animals are handled in stories. The book is based on the old nursery rhyme about five little monkeys taunting an alligator and getting snapped up one by one, until at the end there are no little monkeys left. But that is no good for hyper-cautious modern sensibilities, under which much time is spent trying to shield young minds from any hint of violence – even in an amusing, fairy-tale-like setting. And never mind that crocodiles, which (unlike alligators) live where monkeys do, really do eat monkeys if they can catch them! Anyway, Christelow turns the silly old nursery rhyme into a story in which the little monkeys and their mama go on a picnic, mama falls asleep, and the monkeys then decide to tease Mr. Crocodile – who smiles at them even as he snaps his jaws, and who never actually threatens them, much less eats them. One by one, the little monkeys hide from the crocodile, frightened by the snapping, while mama and other on-shore monkey observers become theatrically upset at what is going on. Of course, it turns out that the little monkeys are all just fine, and not even particularly frightened, and their mama tells them, “Never tease a crocodile. It’s not nice – and it’s dangerous.” It’s sort of hard to see how it’s dangerous, in light of what happens here – it all seems like fun, and even as mama gives her warning, the very anthropomorphic crocodile is smiling and resting his head on his front feet in quite a human-like and thoroughly nonthreatening pose. At the end, the little monkeys and mama eat their picnic and do not tease Mr. Crocodile anymore, and he waves jauntily and smilingly at them at the end. The mixed messages here and the unnecessary revamping of the old nursery rhyme for somewhat too-delicate modern tastes mean that Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree is not among Christelow’s best stories of the little monkeys, but it still gets a (+++) rating and will be fun for fans of the series – especially if parents carefully explain just how unrealistic the entire scenario is.

     The Martha Speaks books are always completely unrealistic, at any time and in any language, since the whole point of them is that a dog talks to kids and helps them out. Martha Speaks: Play Ball! Martha Habla: ¡Juega al sóftbol! gets a (+++) rating and fits right into the sequence: it is effective as a dual-language entry at Level 2 in the “Green Light Readers” series – being for ages 5-7 and written with short sentences and simple dialogue. The story is that Martha’s friend Truman wants to run away from home because he is supposed to play softball and cannot catch. Martha says that she can catch and will help Truman learn, and that is just what she does, with a little assistance from several of Truman’s human friends. So during the game, Truman does make a catch – but he does not throw very well, and Martha cannot help him with that because, as she points out, dogs have no thumbs (“no tenemos pulgares”). Word-matching and fill-in-the-blanks activities at the back of the book are in both English and Spanish, along with the story itself, and the whole short work is appropriate for its target age group and will be fun for young children who are both fans of Martha and interested in learning some basic English/Spanish translations. There is nothing consequential about the book, but as one part of early bilingual education, it serves a good purpose.

(+++) EXPANSIVE FANTASIES


The Mark of the Dragonfly. By Jaleigh Johnson. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The 39 Clues: Unstoppable—Book Three: Countdown. By Natalie Standiford. Scholastic. $12.99.

     Engagingly unwieldy, The Mark of the Dragonfly, the first novel for middle-grade readers by Jaleigh Johnson and the start of a series, somewhat uneasily combines elements of steampunk with more-traditional fairy tales. Conceived as a grand adventure for preteens, with friendship and camaraderie at its core, the book is set in a sort-of dystopia that is also a variation on the faux medieval model of kingdoms and fiefdoms populated by high-living royalty and by commoners who are left to scavenge for their livelihood.  The title refers to a tattoo indicating that those who have it are under the protection of King Aron, a ruler of singularly mechanical-minded interests whose kingdom borders a warlike region called Merrow. “There hadn’t yet been open conflict, but relations between the two places had been strained to near breaking point ever since the king [Aron] stopped trading them iron.” As the book’s primary protagonist, Piper, explains, “‘All Merrow wants is weapons, and the Dragonfly’s too busy with his factories. Do you know he wants to have a fleet of steamships ready to set sail for the uncharted lands by next summer?’” Actually, Aron wants more than that – for one thing, he wants the book’s other protagonist, Anna, who has turned up in the downtrodden Meteor Fields where Piper lives, sporting a dragonfly tattoo and compromised memory. The protective instincts and self-interest that lead Piper to take Anna under her wing and attempt to get her back where she belongs are entirely typical in quest tales, and the journey via an unusual method – in this case, a fascinatingly described train called the 401 – is typical as well. So are the encounters with unusual people, or in this case shapeshifters – one of the fairy-tale elements of the story. The idea that the protagonist will assemble an unlikely crew of helpers on what is physically a geographical journey and metaphorically a voyage of self-discovery lies at the heart of genre books like this one, and Johnson has clearly studied the field and absorbed its lessons as well here as in her books for older readers. The dialogue shows this clearly, as when one character (a “chamelin,” who can change his shape) comments on how different Piper and Anna are and Piper replies, “‘That’s the truth—a scrapper from the north and one of Dragonfly’s own from the south. We couldn’t be any more apart in the world.’ Her expression turned serious. ‘I think she’s been through some terrible things. Maybe it’s a blessing that she doesn’t remember most of it. I want her to be safe, to find a home.’” Piper needs a home, too, having decided never to return to her miserable existence in Scrap Town Sixteen. She knows she is “the scrapper who didn’t belong,” and one thing driving the story is having Piper find out where she does belong and who exactly she is – as well as who Anna is. The Mark of the Dragonfly mixes all these entirely expected elements quite well: Johnson has a real knack for creating exciting adventure scenes. The fact that so much of the story is so much like other stories may actually be to its benefit, since the novel will appeal to a ready-made escapist-oriented readership as well as to fans of the steampunk genre. More-experienced readers may sigh in exasperation at plot points such as Anna’s inevitable decision to seek out the apparent “bad guy” who has been pursuing her and Piper, complete with the wholly unoriginal left-behind note in which Anna tells Piper, “I don’t have that many memories, but the ones I have of you are the most important.” But for every reader who sighs and rolls his or her eyes at the predictability of portions of the plot and dialogue, there will be another who is swept away with wonder into Johnson’s created world and who will be eager for the book’s inevitable sequel.

     And then there are sequels upon sequels upon sequels – the stuff of which The 39 Clues is made. Fans are now well into the third multi-book, multi-media series of the adventures of Dan and Amy Cahill, their friends and their nefarious enemies, as yet another author, Natalie Standiford, provides formulaic plot advances and edge-of-the-cliff frights, revelations and surprises. Countdown reads like all the other books in the sequences – it is amazing how well the authors subsume any personal style they may have into series requirements. This entry packs just as much excitement as its predecessors and, presumably, successors, and it is packaged with the usual six game cards. Being a middle-of-the-series book (the Unstoppable sequence will have six in all), Countdown needs to advance the plot so far and no farther, which is exactly what it does as Dan and Amy continue their desperate quest for the ingredients that will let them make an antidote to the super-powerful serum that has made the Cahills the most hyper-powerful family in history. The counter-serum is needed so Dan and Amy can stop would-be U.S. president and world ruler J. Rutherford Pierce (no relation to actual presidents Rutherford B. Hayes or Franklin Pierce, except in the name department) – Pierce has stolen the serum and has nefarious plans for it. In Countdown, the major plot point involves another reason for the increasingly desperate quest for the antidote – one directly tied to a fateful decision made by Amy, who has to make that decision to save Dan’s life. Despite these books’ frequent references to real historical figures and events, and despite plots that take the characters to a variety of far-flung real-world sites, it is impossible to see The 39 Clues as anything more than imaginary-world entertainment, a sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark for preteens. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that: escapism, even escapism according to a tried-and-true formula, is fine for young readers as well as adults, and Countdown continues to deliver what the eager fans of this series look for in every printed entry, on every included game card, and at every associated Web site.

(+++) PERSONALIZED DEBUTS


Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto; John Adams: Violin Concerto. Chad Hoopes, violin; MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi. Naïve. $16.99.

Svjetlana Bukvich: Before and After the Tekke; You Move Me; Sabih’s Dream; Over Water Over Stone; Six Letters. Big Round Records. $14.99.

Alexandra Ottaway: The Jakob Trio; Radio Silence Quartet; Four Choral Pieces; The Merlin Études; The Zen Sutras. Navona. $16.99.

Juan Álamo: Marimjazzia. Juan Álamo, marimba; UNC Percussion Ensemble. Big Round Records. $14.99.

Anne Vanschothorst: Works for Harp. Big Round Records. $14.99.

     Many modern première recordings focus not on music that has never been offered before but on artists offering works that range from the well-known to ones created by the performers themselves. There is a celebrity-ization of music that has gone beyond the pop-music world, where it has long been common, to classical music and to the increasing number of eclectic compositions that mix multiple musical forms into what composers hope will produce a unique experience and unique voice. Some debut recordings are merely curious, such as Chad Hoopes’ for Naïve. It lists the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor as “No. 2” in an odd bow to the very early one in D minor; but yes, the one Hoopes plays is the concerto that has been famously described as not the most difficult work of its type to play, but the most difficult to play well. Hoopes’ performance shows the truth of this description. It is technically excellent, swooning in all the right places and smoothing all the others, with the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kristjan Järvi staying firmly, perhaps too firmly, in the background throughout. But the performance is curiously uninvolving: the work’s beauties are put on display, but its soulfulness is not. It is tempting to suggest that this reflects the 19-year-old Hoopes’ lack of maturity, but this is not necessarily so – it is equally likely to reflect an unfortunate increasing focus on the performer rather than the underlying music. A great performer delves into a great work, such as this concerto, in a way that makes the music rather than the performer himself or herself the star. Hoopes does not do this, and he and his contemporaries may no longer consider it necessary to do so. The pairing of the Mendelssohn with the interesting but scarcely great 1993 concerto by John Adams confirms this. These two works do not make for any particularly meaningful musical juxtaposition, but they are effective as a performer juxtaposition, since both focus heavily on the soloist (who plays almost nonstop throughout the Adams) and therefore both shine the spotlight in the same place if the performer chooses to have it do so. The Adams concerto lends itself better to this sort of treatment than does the Mendelssohn, and here Hoopes’ technical prowess is just what the music calls for – this is a strongly rhythmic piece, and Hoopes seems more comfortable with its angularity than with the sweetness and smooth flow of the Mendelssohn. Hoopes is a player of considerable skill who, at the moment, puts his ability more at his own service than at that of the music – a better approach for Adams than for Mendelssohn.

     Svjetlana Bukvich’s debut all-Bukvich CD on Big Round Records has an even stronger focus on a single person, despite the fact that Bukvich herself is only one of the performers. For here the music is by Bukvich herself, and her role in interpreting it is absolutely central: she performs as narrator and voice and on piano, synthesizer and a variety of electronic instruments and tracks. Her work is electro-acoustical and an often bewildering and rather misshapen blend of influences. Clearly she draws on rock and jazz, but old-style electronic music (whose proponents always consider it newfangled) also features here, and so does that catchall form called “world music.” As often in modernistic works, the titles of Bukvich’s compositions are intended to call forth images and meanings that are not necessarily conveyed by the music itself. In this instance, there are differentiations among the pieces as well because they are set with different lyrics, and there are some differences of orchestration as well: Over Water Over Stone features a trumpet, for example, while Sabih’s Dream and Before and After the Tekke have a traditional violin among the electronic instruments and sounds. The issue with the music, though, is that it would be easy to rearrange all the titles and still get the same effect – none of these works really sounds significantly different from any of the others, and the topics (largely of love and loss) are similar throughout. This is a short CD, just 43 minutes, but seems longer than it is because of the many similarities among the works as well as within individual pieces. It is clearly neither for all tastes nor intended to reach out to large numbers of listeners.

     The new all-Alexandra-Ottaway Navona CD is a similar debut with similar pluses and minuses, and is even of similar length (41 minutes). But Ottaway has clearer classical antecedents, and two of the three vocal portions of her music are choral rather than for solo voice. Ottaway offers two very short all-instrumental pieces here, a trio for clarinet, bassoon and piano and a quartet for flute, violin, cello and piano; each is a two-movement work with fanciful titles (“Jakob in Blue” and “Jakob Flying” for the trio, “Radio Silence” and “Radio Silence II” for the quartet). The dozen songs for solo voice and piano called The Merlin Études are more or less in the classical art-song tradition, although they certainly do not sound like most of their predecessors: Ottaway’s musical language is defiantly serial and atonal in what is now a rather old-fashioned way, and none of her half-minute to minute-long songs is especially notable for expressiveness. The two choral works on this CD, performed by the New York Virtuoso Singers under Harold Rosenbaum, are the most interesting pieces here: a couple of the Four Choral Pieces for chorus and piano have some depth to them, notably one based on poetry by John Donne; and the seven movements of The Zen Sutras, for chorus and chamber ensemble, are alternately engaging and overdone, with some interesting aural effects attained by mixing, among other things, xylophone, vibraphone and marimba. Again, this is scarcely music for all or even most tastes, but it does have its moments.

     Speaking of marimba, that instrument is the star of the awkwardly titled Marimjazzia, the debut Big Round Records album from marimbist Juan Álamo – who also composed six of the eight works on the CD. Once again, the “debut” element here focuses on performer as much as on music, and once again – as on the Ottaway CD – multiple influences from classical music are in evidence in Álamo’s works, which also draw heavily on jazz, a medium in which the marimba excels. Just how much it excels is evident from the Álamo arrangements of the two pieces here that the marimbist himself did not write: Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debby and Mongo Santamaría’s Afro Blues. Álamo’s arrangements involve his marimba with the very fine UNC Percussion Ensemble, whose mixture of instruments keeps all the works on the CD interesting even when the music itself tends to sound very much alike, as several of Álamo’s pieces do. The Evans and Santamaría arrangements are actually high points of the disc: they are sensitive and involving even though they are the shortest pieces offered. Álamo’s own music tends to be somewhat discursive and rambling, likely most enjoyable for jazz fans who enjoy hearing musical meanderings down a variety of roads and byways. The use of such instruments as conga, shakers, and güiro (an open-ended, hollow gourd with parallel notches cut in one side, played by rubbing a stick along the notches to produce a ratchet-like sound) gives a Latin flavor to much of the music, Álamo’s intention apparently being to reflect his native Puerto Rico. To listeners, much of this music will be pleasant and undemanding.

     The jazz elements are also prominent on the Big Round Records debut of another composer-cum-performer, Anne Vanschothorst. But the harp music composed by this Dutch musician has a very different effect from that of Álamo’s works. The 11 pieces here are mostly in the pop-music time span of three or four minutes, and do tend to some sameness of sound except when Vanschothorst, like Álamo, introduces some intriguing instrumental combinations – here, in particular, trumpet and viola da gamba. The production of this disc clearly shows pop-music roots, since Vanschothorst’s harp was recorded separately and the other instruments were overdubbed, their players reacting to Vanschothorst’s performance and putting their own spin on it. The result is jazzlike without having the freewheeling spontaneity and thematic push-and-pull of the best jazz, since Vanschothorst in effect “hands off” to the other players but cannot take handoffs back from them. Technical elements aside, the music is often intended to evoke and explicate elements of nature: three works’ titles refer to trees, three others to birds. But there is nothing particularly emotive about any of the music, and nothing to prevent title-swapping – no work reflects its label intimately enough so that listeners will realize what Vanschothorst is getting at without the benefit of the label she bestows. Nevertheless, it will be interesting – for some listeners, although scarcely all – to hear the many ways in which a harp can lead or be incorporated into contemporary music that comes across primarily as jazz but that retains a certain level of classical sensitivity, if not formal style.

(+++) VIEWS FROM AMERICA


Richard Danielpour: Toward a Season of Peace. Hila Plitmann, soprano; Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony conducted by Carl St. Clair. Naxos. $9.99.

Marie Nelson Bennett: Orpheus Lex. David Arnold, baritone; Wendy Baker, soprano; Nathan Bahny, narrator; New York Virtuoso Singers and Artemis Chamber Ensemble conducted by Harold Rosenbaum. Ravello. $14.99.

John Beall: Sonata for Viola and Piano (2004); Quintet for Piano and Strings (2009); Wondrous Love Variations (1999). Ravello. $16.99.

Richard Festinger: Diary of a Journey (2003); The Coming of Age (2003); Laws of Motion (2004); A Dream Foretold (2001). New York New Music Ensemble. Naxos. $9.99.

Frederic Rzewski: Piano Music—Fantasia (1989-99);Second Hand, or Alone at Last (2005); De Profundis, for Speaking Pianist (1992). Robert Satterlee, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

Some Other Time: Music of Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss and Aaron Copland. Zuill Bailey, cello; Lara Downes, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.

     Persian poetry, the shaping of a seven-movement oratorio, and an eclectic mixture of American and Middle Eastern sensibility are the foundations of Richard Danielpour’s 2011 Toward a Season of Peace. The world première recording of this work on Naxos shows it to be heartfelt, well made, and rather naïve; make that very naïve. Written in Danielpour’s typical neo-Romantic style, the piece is far more accessible than most contemporary music and thus far more communicative. It is intended to use the metaphor of springtime as an indicator of change and forgiveness, in the context of a work that explores violence motivated by religion. The piece is undoubtedly well-meaning, and it is performed with heartfelt involvement and authenticity by Hila Plitmann and the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony under Carl St. Clair. But there is something plaintive in the way in which Danielpour tries to assemble texts from ancient and often very lovely poetry in a way that elucidates and then overcomes vicious, ultra-violent, “God”-given terrorist murders. Peace is intended as the outcome, and a striving toward peace as the process of the oratorio; but it in the contrast between violence and peace that the latter really shines forth – think, in an admittedly different way, of the Mars and Venus sequential movements of Holst’s The Planets. What Toward a Season of Peace misses is the tremendous intensity and, for some, the undoubted attractiveness of indiscriminate mass murder as some sort of means to some sort of end. It is not Danielpour’s intention here to make destructiveness in any way attractive, but by choosing not to show how it could be so, he minimizes  the contrast between the reality of extreme violence and the hope of an end to it, creating a moderate and moderating work that does not fully reflect the topic on which it is built. Toward a Season of Peace is very well-made and often moving, but it falls short of an understanding of the impulses behind religion-based violence and therefore shortchanges the hoped-for peace that Danielpour wishes would supplant it.

     Orpheus Lex is also well-meaning and also somewhat shortchanges its topic, which is the old Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Marie Nelson Bennett, using a libretto by David Kranes, robs the story of classical allusion by turning it into a modern tale of a folk singer, complete with heaped-on meanings of poignancy and remembrance. What the story gains in contemporary impact through this treatment it loses in resonance, with its subtleties – and they are many – being largely subsumed within a libretto that insists on making the tale’s points obvious for a modern audience, accompanied by music that emphasizes those points without commenting on or expanding them. Like Danielpour’s oratorio, Bennett’s work – which is essentially an opera, in contrast to her oratorio, Once in Israel – uses solo voices well and chorus even better: the choral writing is particularly fine, and the New York Virtuoso Singers deliver it to very good effect on this Ravello CD. Because the story is familiar, it is hard to avoid seeing the changes that Kranes and Bennett have wrought by turning it into the tale of a retired folk singer in Idaho, looking back on his life in a way analogous to that in which Orpheus, in the original myth, looked back on Eurydice and thus lost her forever. But the Orpheus experience and that of the folk singer are not parallel, for a modern and rather superficial sense of the pathos of loss does not compare with the world-resounding misery of Orpheus after his fatal look, much less with the bard’s eventual fate and, not at all coincidentally, the fate of the music he made. The Orpheus tale is a story of music as well as one of love, and this is a reason it has attracted so many composers for so many years. Bennett simplifies it and brings it into easy-to-comprehend pop culture, but in so doing she and Kranes trivialize it as well. Orpheus Lex is nicely done as a dramatic production but is, at its core and in terms of meaning, rather vapid.

     The use of a folk connection is equally explicit, albeit in a different way, on a Ravello disc called “Appalachian Inspiration: Appalachian Chamber Music, Vol. 3.” The two “Appalachians” should be more than sufficient to tell listeners that John Beall, who has been composer-in-residence at West Virginia University since 1978, has been heavily influenced by folk tunes and has found many ways to adapt them to and within classical forms. The three works here all show the blending to good effect. Sonata for Viola and Piano uses phrases from a folk song called The Rejected Lover as its primary thematic basis, presenting them in traditional three-movement structure and using considerably modified sonata form. The performance is a family affair, with Beall’s son, Stephen Beall, on viola, and the elder Beall’s wife, Carol Beall, as pianist. Both clearly understand the music and are comfortable with it, resulting in a strong and heartfelt performance. The same two players collaborate on Wondrous Love Variations, which combines the hymn of its title with a folk song called Tender Thought to produce a work that is rather too sweet for its own good but is nicely formed and pleasantly presented. The most ambitious work here is somewhat less successful. Quintet for Piano and Strings is a four-movement piece tied to a poem called “December among the Vanished” by W.S. Merwin and utilizing instrumentation inspired by Schubert’s magnificent “Trout” quintet: Mikylah Myers McTeer on violin, Andrea Priester Houde on viola, William Skidmore on cello, Andrew Kohn on bass, and James Miltenberger on piano. The poem is not recited, and it is not well enough known to influence listeners’ perception of the quintet unless they already know it, so Beall’s attempt to tie music and poetry together is somewhat less than successful. The music itself is sometimes tender, sometimes brisk and bright, but it is not particularly consequential, although it is played quite well and quite fervently.

     There is plenty of fervor in the chamber music of Richard Festinger as well. A new Naxos CD offers works for various combinations of instruments and, in the case of The Coming of Age, for voice as well: soprano Jo Ellen Miller presents poetry by Denis Johnson with considerable sensitivity, although the words themselves are not especially evocative. Festinger’s settings are interesting, though, because in addition to a piano (played by Margaret Kempmeier), they call for a violin (played by Sunghae Anna Lim) – thus lending the songs the aural effect of a trio in which one instrument just happens to be the human voice; and this trio even involves a conductor (Harvey Sollberger). The other pieces here are non-vocal.  Diary of a Journey sets percussion (played by James Baker) against an ensemble including Linda Quan, violin; Lois Martin, viola; Christopher Finckel, cello; Jayn Rosenfeld, flute; Jean Kopperud, clarinet; and Stephen Gosling, piano – all conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky. This is scarcely the usual makeup of a sextet, and the single-movement work is itself far from typical: it is filled with contrasting propulsive and quiet, almost entirely still sections, as if the journey of its title is one that the journeying person is not completely sure about undertaking. The percussion lends the piece more spirit than it would otherwise have. Laws of Motion is centered on the cello (Finckel), with an exploration of the instrument’s many moods and capabilities set against an ensemble consisting of viola (Martin), flute (Rosenfeld), clarinet (Kopperud) and piano (Gosling) and conducted by Milarsky. A Dream Foretold is a more-modest work, including only cello, flute, clarinet and piano – a sonic combination that produces some surprises in a work characterized by more contrapuntal sections than Festinger offers in the other pieces here.

     There are surprises as well on the new Naxos disc of music by Frederic Rzewski – or maybe “shocks” is a better word when it comes to De Profundis, for Speaking Pianist. Described by Rzewski as a “melodramatic oratorio,” the work is certainly melodramatic enough, but whether it deserves the same label as Danielpour’s Toward a Season of Peace is at best a matter of opinion. De Profundis is one of those self-consciously modernistic works in which the job of the pianist does not primarily involve playing the piano: Robert Satterlee must hit the instrument and himself, sing, hum, whistle, recite, and even blow a horn of the type favored by Harpo Marx. What Satterlee recites, apparently without a trace of self-consciousness or a sense that there is anything particularly peculiar here, is text written by Oscar Wilde while Wilde was imprisoned. It is unclear whether Rzewski thinks the title of De Profundis has anything to do with profundity – it in fact means “from the depths,” and the work does sound like something conceived rather hellishly. It tries to be “deep” in the sense of being meaningful, but its surface-level bizarrerie makes it virtually impossible to take its intended seriousness seriously. De Profundis is the major work on this CD, taking up more than half the disc’s length; but Fantasia, the shortest of the three pieces offered here, also shows signs of being deliberately obscure. In fact, Rzewski says that in his 1999 revision of a work originally written 10 years earlier, he deliberately obscured the piece’s central tune, “kind of stomping on and smudging everything.” And why? Simply because he wanted to – which is of course a composer’s prerogative. In a similar vein, it is a listener’s prerogative to decide that a stomped and smudged work has nothing particular to say, except perhaps “look how clever I am and what I can do.” This is not much of a message, except in a self-referential sense. For listeners beyond Rzewski himself, the most intriguing work on this CD will be Second Hand, described as “Six Novelettes for piano, left hand.” Although no one will ever confuse any of this music with that of Schumann’s eight Novelletten of 1838, there is a certain level of novelistic drama in these brief pieces. There is also a pleasant sense of their being “novel” in the sense of new: they require tremendous virtuosity from the left hand, and Satterlee, for whom they were written, obliges with a performance so, ahem, dexterous as to be musically quite convincing. Few listeners will likely want this CD for Second Hand alone, but even fewer will be captivated by the other works here, which appear to show Rzewski being interested primarily in communicating with himself, to the exclusion of, or at least quite indifferent to, any larger audience.
     There is, on the other hand, not the slightest question about the extent to which cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Lara Downes are reaching out to a wide audience on a new Steinway & Sons disc called Some Other Time. This is an hour of music drenched in nostalgia and “popular” in the sense, most of the time, of being very much intended for consumption by the largest possible number of people. The original music and transcriptions heard here are mostly easy to listen to and generally slight – the two Copland works, for example, are Simple Gifts (best known from Appalachian Spring) and Long Time Ago (which is the final piece on the disc and an apt ending for it). And there is a pleasant interconnectedness among the works: a short one by Bernstein is For Lukas Foss, a brief one by Foss is For Lenny, and another brief Bernstein piece is For Aaron Copland. Actually, there is more “serious” Bernstein (as opposed to “popular” Bernstein) here than usual: yes, the CD includes Dream with Me, Some Other Time and In Our Time, but it also includes the Clarinet Sonata, a substantial work that deserves to be better known – and that is certainly effective in this version for cello and piano. Foss’ Capriccio for Cello and Piano is also a piece of some depth, and although one Barber work here, Sure on This Shining Night, is rather trivial, the other, his Cello Sonata, is anything but: it is impressive in construction and really shows the skill with which Bailey and Downes plumb some genuine musical depths. The CD as a whole is more clever than substantive, but it is exceptionally well played: both performers treat the lesser works with the same care and skill that they bring to the more-imposing ones. Not every track here will appeal to every listener, but the disc as a whole is certainly intended to reach out both to audiences interested in very well-played classical music and to those who would like to hear something beyond the standard repertoire and written in a more overtly popular vein.

April 03, 2014

(++++) GOLDEN SILVERSTEIN


The Giving Tree. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $16.99.

Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $16.99.

Don’t Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $17.99.

A Giraffe and a Half. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $16.99.

Where the Sidewalk Ends. By Shel Silverstein. Harper. $18.99.

     It has been fully half a century since the first publication of The Giving Tree and Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back and other early more-or-less-children’s books by the multiply talented Shel Silverstein (1930-1999). Just in case the time period was unclear to anyone, the new editions of four Silverstein books bear gold “50th Anniversary” stickers on their covers, while a fifth book, Where the Sidewalk Ends, has a red-and-white “40th Anniversary” sticker and is labeled “Special Edition: 12 Extra Poems.” Silverstein was indeed known for his poetry, but not only his poetry; and he was indeed known for his books for children, but not only his books for children. In fact, the phrase “more-or-less-children’s books” is as applicable to much of Silverstein’s work as it is to Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! The justly famous The Giving Tree, for example, is a touching, even tear-jerking little fable about love, loss and the inevitable changes wrought by age – it looks like a children’s book, and it is written in simple language, but its message has resonance and meaning far beyond what most young readers will understand. For some reason, this and the other re-released Silverstein books are designated as for ages 4-8; but while kids in that age range will generally be able to read the words, there is no way they will pick up on many of the sentiments and messages – or, if they do, they will likely find them somewhere between incomprehensible and disturbing.

     That may in fact have been Silverstein’s point in books such as the one about Lafcadio. Significantly longer and more wryly amusing than The Giving Tree, the Lafcadio story (which was Silverstein’s first book) is a fable about identity: what makes a man a man, a woman a woman, a child a child, and – more directly to the point – a lion a lion. Although addressed directly to “children” by “Uncle Shelby,” and containing many amusing elements, such as speculation as to whether lions run “lickety-split” or “clippety-clop” or even “pippety-pat,” Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back explores issues of identity quite profoundly enough to intrigue adults. Certainly Lafcadio does plenty of lion-ish things, including eating the unpleasant hunter to whom he tries to surrender and later eating other hunters to get the bullets he needs to practice shooting the gun that he took from the first hunter; but he also does plenty of person-ish things, from talking and arguing to becoming famous, walking on his hind legs and dressing in human clothing. Lafcadio eventually has an identity crisis, which Silverstein shows quite clearly even without using that exact phrase, and – this is the crux of what makes this book adult-ish – it is not resolved, not really, the concluding sort-of-happy ending seeming tacked-on and not being likely to fool any but the youngest readers. Silverstein uses language simple enough for children in order to communicate ideas far more complex than most kids will be accustomed to encountering in books with so pleasant a surface appearance and such intriguing illustrations (Silverstein was quite a fine cartoonist, with an instantly recognizable style). The new editions of these Silverstein classics provide an extra hint of the underlying seriousness of their contents through the author photos on their covers – the picture on the back of The Giving Tree, in fact, is so severe that it may scare some children away from the book.

     Some Silverstein, though, is lighter fare, albeit often with an attitude that would not be out of place in the work of Charles Addams. Don’t Bump the Glump! and Other Fantasies has some of the sensibilities of Jack Prelutsky’s absurdist poetry for kids, but Silverstein is more sarcastic and darker. In “The Gletcher,” he draws an empty birdcage with its lock and door torn off to illustrate a quatrain: “See the Gletcher in his cage,/ His claws are sharp, his teeth are double./ Thank heaven he’s locked up safe inside,/ Or we’d all be in terrible trouble!”  Another quatrain, “Slithergadee,” has a two-page-spanning drawing of a slithery something with an evil look in its eye: “The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea./ He may catch all the others, but he won’t catch me./ No, you won’t catch me, old Slithergadee,/ You may catch all the others, but you wo—.”  Even the self-referential humor has a dark side here, as in “About the Bloath,” which shows a big-horned, rhinoceros-like creature with a little piggy tail: “In the undergrowth/ There dwells the Bloath/ Who feeds upon poets and tea./ Luckily I know this about him,/ While he knows almost nothing of me.”

     Silverstein sometimes has as much fun with real animals as imaginary ones. A Giraffe and a Half, one of his lightest books, features a house-that-Jack-built accumulation of occurrences that start with, “If you had a giraffe…/ and he stretched another half…/ you would have a giraffe and a half.” The little boy doing the stretching then proceeds to more and more outlandish things, giving the stretched giraffe a suit, a hat containing a rat, a rose on his nose (the giraffe’s, not the rat’s), and so forth, leading to such passages as: “If you gave him a flute/ and he played tooty-toot…/ you would have a giraffe and a half/ with a rat in his hat/ looking cute in a suit/ with a rose on his nose/ and a bee on his knee/ and some glue on his shoe/ playing toot on a flute.” On and on the absurdity mounts until, halfway through the book, Silverstein and the boy start taking elements away one by one, until the book ends with the plain old (although admittedly bemused-looking) giraffe with which it began. This is a silly, reasonably straightforward and amusing story with very funny illustrations that will indeed delight young children without taking them down particularly peculiar pathways.

     For a mixture of Silverstein light and Silverstein dark, Where the Sidewalk Ends is a great choice – and can stand as an introduction to Silverstein for families not yet familiar with his work. Here are the worries of Captain Hook (he must be very careful about, for example, picking his nose) and a paean to “Hug o’War,” in which “everyone kisses/ And everyone grins,/ And everyone cuddles,/ And everyone wins.” There is a poem in which rain “dripped in my head/ And flowed into my brain,” and one with a purely charming illustration of a girl thoroughly entangled in a jumping rope. But there is also edgier poetry, such as one piece in which a sadistic dentist – perfectly pictured – insists on pulling a crocodile’s teeth, until the crocodile responds in a thoroughly crocodile-ish way; one poem written by someone while he is being swallowed by a boa constrictor; and one produced by a poet from inside a lion. There are a paean to pancakes here and a tale of a toucan, an image of a Martian with all the same body parts that Earthlings have (but in different places), a very unusual take on the Paul Bunyan legend, and a whole passel of very short delights, such as “My Beard,” a suitably amusingly illustrated trifle that says all it needs to in five lines: “My beard grows to my toes,/ I never wears no clothes,/ I wraps my hair/ Around my bare,/And down the road I goes.” Generally on the lighter side but with enough pointed examples to show that Silverstein was certainly not all sweetness and light, the poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends (including a particularly thought-provoking title poem) help show why Silverstein’s not-entirely-for-children kids’ books continue to delight – and provoke – 40 to 50 years after their first appearance.

(++++) GIVING TO MOTHER


A Gift for Mama. By Linda Ravin Lodding. Illustrated by Alison Jay. Knopf. $17.99.

Pinkalicious and the Perfect Present. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $16.99.

Mama’s Day with Little Gray. By Aimee Reid. Illustrated by Laura J. Bryant. Random House. $16.99.

Let’s Dance, Grandma! By Nigel McMullen. Harper. $16.99.

     An exceptional book, steeped in history and beautifully illustrated, with simplicity and warmth at its heart, A Gift for Mama follows the adventures of a young boy named Oskar in 19th-century Vienna as he goes looking for a birthday present that he can buy for his mother with the single coin he has. Oskar soon finds something perfect: a lovely yellow rose, which he buys with his coin. But the rose is so beautiful that it attracts the attention of a painter, never identified but supposed to be Gustav Klimt, who wants so much to paint it that he offers Oskar one  of his paintbrushes in exchange for the flower. And Oskar realizes that the brush would be a perfect birthday present, since it would let him paint a picture for his mother. So he accepts – only to be intercepted at the Opera House by a conductor who is missing his baton and wants Oskar’s brush to use in leading the orchestra. He offers Oskar a newly composed piece of music in return, and Oskar accepts, regarding this tune as, yes, a perfect present for his music-loving mother: the melody is supposed to be Johann Strauss Jr.’s immortal The Blue Danube waltz, even though (if one wishes to nitpick this lovely story) Strauss led his orchestra while playing his violin rather than with a baton, and not at the Opera House. And the trades continue as the story does, involving author Felix Salten and then Empress Elisabeth (known as Sisi) herself. And finally, through a twist of fate that will have children and adults alike smiling, Oskar ends up once again with a beautiful yellow rose, which he gives to his mother, who exclaims that it is, indeed, “Perfect.” Linda Ravin Lodding has a wonderful sense of story and of old Vienna, and Alison Jay’s illustrations are simply marvelous, looking both like period pieces and like impressionistic interpretations of the lovely Old World city. Jay fills them with the unexpected, such as a man tripping and falling in the background as a dog chases a cat past him, a stagehand carrying a palm tree at the Opera House, the Ferris wheel at the old Prater amusement park, a shop called “Mozart’s” selling stringed instruments, and more. Lovely to look at and charming to read, A Gift for Mama may itself be a perfect present – for a child and perhaps for a parent as well.

     Pinkalicious and the Perfect Present is an altogether simpler book, a Level 1 entry (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) in the I Can Read! series. But it too has a worthy and amusing take on gift-giving. Pinkalicious searches at a yard sale for something to give her mother – the occasion is not mentioned, and perhaps there is no special occasion, which itself is a nice touch. There is so much to look through that Pinkalicious does not know where to start – until she decides to be guided by her love of all things pink. Then she finds lots of possibilities, one of which, a music box, happens to play a song that her mother sings to Pinkalicious at bedtime. Pinkalicious buys it, and the yard-sale lady helps her figure out how to take it home without her mother knowing what it is, and when Pinkalicious gives it to her mother the next day, she learns that “sometimes the best presents are the ones you give!” The simple lesson and simple story are as right for early readers in the 4-8 age group as A Gift for Mama is appropriate for more-advanced children in the same age range.

     Gifts need not be things, of course – they can come in the form of attention, of special times with a parent. And animal characters can be used to show this kind of gift-giving just as well as human characters can. Aimee Read’s Mama’s Day with Little Gray, for ages 2-5, is a read-to-me book: although some children in that age range will be able to read the words, the story will have more meaning if a parent reads it and models the thoughts and behavior of the elephants featured in Read’s story and Laura J. Bryant’s illustrations. The tale follows a pleasant, familiar pattern, with Little Gray imagining that he is grown up and his mother is small. He tells her all the things he would do with and for her if their roles were reversed, and she compliments him on everything he says: “I would lead us to shade and watch over you.” “You would be smart and strong.” And: “I could show you how to make mud.” “I know you’d be a good teacher.” The book ends at nighttime, with tired Little Gray saying, “If you were my calf and you got sleepy…I’d cuddle you close,” and Mama replying, “I know I’d feel safe.” The activities may be those of elephants, but the thoughts are clearly those of people, and the heartfelt reassurances will be every bit as satisfying to human kids as they are to Little Gray.

     Elephants are often attractive surrogates for humans in kids’ books; wolves, not so frequently. But Nigel McMullen makes Lucy Wolf, her parents and her grandmother very pleasant indeed in Let’s Dance, Grandma! This generation-bridging story for ages 4-8 is about the special relationship between grandparent and grandchild, and how it can break down barriers. Lucy’s mom always warns Lucy, when Grandma is coming to visit, not to try to get Grandma to dance – even though that is Lucy’s favorite thing to do – because it will “wear Grandma out.” But the irrepressible Lucy “couldn’t help herself” during the most recent visit, so the first thing she asks Grandma is to dance – but Grandma says no. So Lucy plays other games with Grandma that look even more exhausting than dancing: ball, horsey and dress-up, Lucy style, are very active indeed. Eventually Grandma gets so tired that she asks to play hide-and-seek and goes off to hide-and-sleep in the broom closet. So Lucy offers her a cuddle, and Grandma picks her up and sings a lullaby, and sways while singing, and one thing leads to another until, wonder of wonders, Grandma and Lucy are dancing after all – before they both go down for a rest. A lovely little story featuring some unlikely but likable animal characters, Let’s Dance, Grandma! delights in  a special kind of family love that is certainly worthy of a celebratory twirl or two.

(++++) AS THE COMICS TURN


Pearls Falls Fast: A “Pearls Before Swine” Treasury. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $18.99.

Charlie Brown and Friends: A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

Snoopy: Cowabunga! A “Peanuts” Collection. By Charles M. Schulz. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     There is more bite to the justly famous Peanuts comic strip of Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000) than many lovers of Charlie Brown and his compatriots realize. One proof of this lies in the extent to which the strip has influenced decidedly darker, far more overtly sarcastic strips, such as Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine. In the latest first-rate, oversize “Treasury” volume of Pastis’ strip, which reprints and provides commentary on the cartoons previously collected in Unsportsmanlike Conduct and Rat’s Wars, Pastis pays overt tribute to Schulz several times. In a strip in which Zebra is building a wall for better protection from the feckless but ever-threatening crocodiles, one croc asks, “Who want talk staring over stoopid wall?” And the next panel shows Charlie Brown and Linus doing just that – as they did so many times in Peanuts. This mystifies the croc, who asks, “Who Meester Big Head?” But Pastis has made his point. He makes it even more strongly in a Sunday strip in which he explains – in one of the below-the-strip comments that he sprinkles throughout this volume – that the first four of his six panels “are an almost word-for-word tribute to my favorite Peanuts strip of all time,” in which characters are looking for pictures in the clouds. The sixth and last panel of Pastis’ strip shows a huge Charlie Brown caricature covering all three Pearls characters, as Rat, his feet sticking out, says, “Stupid runaway Macy’s floats.” That is Pearls humor, but the influence of Peanuts is clearly apparent. True, Pastis goes far, far beyond anything Schulz ever did, with his dark stories, frequent character deaths, preoccupation with beer and with potty humor, crudely drawn characters, and genuinely awful puns – which cartoon Pastis (a recurring Pearls character) cites in his own defense after being put on trial for Rat’s urging readers to overthrow the government (the “pun” defense fails when it turns out that the entire jury, the judge and Rat – who is acting as Pastis’ lawyer – all despise the pun strips). The plotting in Pearls is elaborate to the point of being convoluted – again, far beyond anything that Schulz ever did – and the characters are genuinely bizarre, from cigarette-smoking, weapons-wielding Guard Duck to hyper-arrogant bicycle rider Jeff the Cyclist to the two lazy road-runner birds that get around on a Segway. A typical Pearls “family” strip involves Zebra meeting his son, Plaid – whose mother is sure Zebra is the father because the mom is vertically striped and Zebra is horizontally striped, while the son is, indeed, plaid (turns out that Zebra is not the father: there are other horizontally striped male zebras out there). From an extended celebration of Garbanzo Day to ongoing attacks on The Family Circus (which are in good fun, even if they do not always seem to be: this “Treasury” contains Pastis’ tribute to Family Circus creator Bil Keane, who died on November 8, 2011), Pearls Before Swine has a unique and distinct approach to comics and humor – but it is worth remembering that Pastis’ work is built at least in part on that of Schulz, one of the field’s true greats.

     Schulz’s own Peanuts strips are still around in many newspapers and in book collections, such as Charlie Brown and Friends, so readers unfamiliar with Schulz or just wanting a refresher course in his brand of humor can easily find his work. Some may be surprised to discover that Peanuts is darker than many people remember. The darkness is mitigated by the pleasant drawing style and gentleness of much of the humor, but it is still there. Charlie Brown is generally at the center of it, whether engaging in his eternally unsuccessful attempt to kick the football held by Lucy or having his clothes knocked off by one of the innumerable fast line drives hit in his direction when he pitches for his perpetually losing baseball team. Charlie Brown’s life is a study in futility, but because he is so tremendously resilient, readers identify with him and appreciate his unending optimism – which inevitably reemerges right after he has one of his darkest moments and finds himself on the edge of despair. What Schulz did so brilliantly was to take elements of childhood that readers could readily understand and have them discussed by his characters in almost-but-not-quite-adult ways. In one extended sequence in Charlie Brown and Friends, for example, Charlie Brown is so obsessed with baseball that he thinks the sun, the moon, even the scoop of ice cream on his cone are baseballs, and he then develops a rash on his head that looks just like the stitching on a ball. Humiliated, he starts wearing a bag over his head after the pediatrician recommends he go to camp to get away from the stress he is feeling; and at camp, he becomes known as Mr. Sack, gets elected camp president, and solves all sorts of problems for the other campers – until his rash gets better, he takes the bag off his head, and suddenly he is just plain old Charlie Brown again. So he does triumph, but his victory is short-lived – a situation to which readers can readily relate. In another sequence, Charlie Brown rebels against the decision of all his friends to join “snowman teams” and build snowmen strictly on a competitive basis, with “adult-organized snow leagues” in which the kids “have teams and standings and awards and special fields.” As Linus puts it, “It’s winning that counts! What’s the sense of doing something if you can’t win?” Charlie Brown decides to take a stand against this regimentation of childhood: “Why can’t kids just do things on their own?” So he builds a snowman entirely by himself, in his own back yard – well, with a little help from Snoopy – and proudly shows his work to the other kids, only to have his little sister, Sally, say, “Who cares? We’re into bowling now! We have sponsors and trophies and dinners and everything!” An Everyman for the 20th century – and now for the 21st – Charlie Brown still has much to say and much to teach, not only to today’s cartoonists but also to everyone who continues to read and enjoy comic strips.

     Nor is Charlie Brown himself the only  one with things to tell today’s comics readers: Snoopy, one of the most beloved of all Schulz’s characters, has a few remarks to make, too – even if they are in the form of thought balloons that, somehow, some other Peanuts characters can “hear.” It makes sense for the inward-focused, borderline-depressed Charlie Brown to be in a sack at camp – he is, indeed, something of a “sad sack” – but Snoopy is all ebullience and extroversion, most of the time blissfully unaware of any of the world’s ills. True, he is quite capable of being negative when that is called for – for instance, when the ever-bossy Lucy sits behind him to provide “instant criticism” of Snoopy’s writing, the next thing Snoopy writes is, “Bug off!”  But more often, he is preoccupied primarily with himself. For example, when Sally carries him to the playground because there are some pushy kids there and she is “taking the advice of Theodore Roosevelt” to “speak softly, and carry a beagle,” all goes well until Snoopy unexpectedly spots his “first sweetheart” and leaves the scene, so Sally gets “slaughtered” and Snoopy invents a new motto for her, “Speak softly, and shut up!”  Elsewhere in Cowabunga! Snoopy advises the little bird, Woodstock, to cover his mouth when dragonflies are near, because “dragonflies sew up your lips so you can’t eat, and you starve to death” – and refuses to believe this is not true when Lucy tells him so, deciding that the complete lack of evidence means there has been a massive medical cover-up. Mostly, Snoopy represents a kind of forthright joy in life that the other Peanuts characters find difficult to come by, as when he gives Woodstock a Christmas hug and says, “Christmas is a good day for our kind. Christmas is for the innocent – we’re as innocent as they come.” Not completely innocent, perhaps – but close enough, as when he distributes eggs as the Easter Beagle or lies atop his doghouse during a snowstorm, ending up completely covered, but commenting, “I’m fine, but someone could slip me a toasted English muffin if he wanted to.” Like Charlie Brown’s reality, Snoopy’s is skewed – but in the opposite direction. It makes perfect sense in the Peanuts world for Snoopy to be Charlie Brown’s dog: their actions and interactions encapsulate the light and dark side of the Peanuts world, and the two characters together show just how inventive Schulz was and just how attractive readers continue to find Peanuts to be.