February 23, 2017

(++++) SMALL BUNDLES OF CUTENESS


Gossie & Friends Say Good Night. By Olivier Dunrea. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

Dot & Jabber and the Big Bug Mystery. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.

Folk Tale Classics: Cat Goes Fiddle-I-Fee. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

     Sometimes the whole point of a kids’ book come through simply because of how adorable the characters are. Certainly the goslings in Olivier Dunrea’s stories about Gossie and her friends are as cute as can be. Gossie & Friends Say Good Night features them doing exactly what the title says – the aim being to help small humans go quietly and restfully to sleep, just as these small birds do. The book has no particular plot – all that happens is that Ollie walks around Old Farm and finds all the friends getting ready for bed and dropping off to sleep, each in his or her own place and own way. The book does, however, have a special feature that very young readers – or pre-readers, to whom it would be wonderful to read this slightly oversize board book – will especially enjoy: this is a “Touch-and-Feel” book, and most pages have something for small fingers to latch onto or stroke gently. For example, Ollie finds Gossie with her head all the way in her water bowl, getting a pre-bedtime drink – and kids can feel the smooth slipperiness of the bowl. After Gossie goes to sleep, covered by a sweet little green blanket, kids can feel the blanket’s velvety texture. They can also experience the slight roughness of the bark of the tree behind which Gertie snuggles up, and the stickiness of the spaghetti that BooBoo is having for a bedtime snack, and the mildly hay-like feeling of the haystack where Peedie sleeps, and more. After Ollie says good night to everyone, he goes to sleep as well, covered by a bright red blanket that, yes, can be felt (and feels like felt). There is not much story to this book, and there does not have to be: the engaging characters and the bonus of being able to touch and feel the illustrations make it a lovely little bedtime story.

     The lesson of the Dot and Jabber books is that science is interesting, and fun, and all around us. And the fact that Ellen Stoll Walsh’s “mouse detectives” are so adorable helps that lesson go down very smoothly indeed. Dot & Jabber and the Big Bug Mystery was originally published in 2003 and is now available as a “Green Light Reader” at the Level 2 stage, which indicates “reading with help” and is intended for first- and second-graders. The mystery that the detectives are trying to solve this time is one of disappearance: there are bugs all over the meadow until, suddenly, all of them are gone – they have turned invisible! And it is not only the insects that disappear – so does a toad that a rabbit says is right there but that the mice cannot see. Dot and Jabber have a feeling they are being watched, but from where? What clues will help them solve this mystery? Walsh soon has the mice learn about camouflage – and her illustrations are particularly well-done for the purpose, because kids will be able to see the missing creatures only if they look very carefully indeed at the pictures. Green butterflies really are almost completely invisible against the green grass here, and that missing toad looks so much like a rock that the only way the mice can be sure it isn’t one is by seeing it breathe. Lesson learned, the mice quickly apply it – or at least Jabber does, hiding in plain sight by lying down on some fur-matching dirt. A final page gives Walsh’s more-extensive but still age-appropriate explanation of how camouflage works and what purpose it serves, and the book as a whole may well whet kids’ appetite for more knowledge about animal behavior in general and ways of going unseen in particular.

     Sometimes, of course, cuteness is its own reward in kids’ books, and that is the case in the new edition of Paul Galdone’s version of Cat Goes Fiddle-I-Fee, which is in the “Folk Tale Classics” collection but is really not much of a tale at all. It is one of those house-that-Jack-built narratives, with one thing added to another and the whole set of them repeated each time. The pleasantly warm illustrations follow the writing very closely, starting with the black-and-white cat looking up happily while drinking milk: “I had a cat and the cat pleased me,/ I fed my cat under yonder tree./ Cat goes fiddle-i-fee.” There are plenty of animals to be fed under yonder tree: hen (“chimmy-chuck”), duck (“quack”), goose (“swishy, swashy”), and so on until the tree is also the feeding place for a sheep, pig, cow, horse and dog. Eventually the grandmother of the boy who narrates the story feeds him, and the animals all take a nap under the tree – except for the cat, resting in a basket and still going “fiddle-i-fee.” More a nonsense verse or nursery rhyme than a story per se, the book – originally published in 1985 – is still a delightful read-aloud, its repetitions and eventual sleep scene even making it a possible bedtime book if the Gossie story is not quite right for a child. The interactions of the animals are pleasant and downplayed, and Galdone’s trademark insertion of added little visual elements to complement the basic narrative – a bird watching the sheep, a curious turtle looking up at the horse – will give kids plenty to look at while they enjoy the deliberately repetitive text. Parents should, however, be prepared for the inevitable question of what “fiddle-i-fee” actually means. In this case, it means a pleasurable reading experience.

(++++) NOT QUITE FITTING IN


Duck, Duck, Dinosaur and the Noise at Night. By Kallie George. Illustrated by Oriol Vidal. Harper. $17.99.

Samson: The Piranha Who Went to Dinner. By Tadgh Bentley. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     One of the most-common themes in children’s books is that it is fine to be yourself, and that even if you don’t seem to fit in, there will be others who will accept you just as you are. You may have to make a little extra effort, but it will be worth it. Spike, for instance, had to make an extra effort to fit in when Kallie George and Oriol Vidal introduced him in Duck, Duck, Dinosaur. He had to make that fitting-in effort quite literally, because when the ducks’ mother finished hatching her eggs, one of them turned out to be a dinosaur egg, and while Feather and Flap were normal enough in size for ducks, Spike was – well, he was normal enough for a dinosaur, but scarcely the right size for a duck’s nest! And so we come to Duck, Duck, Dinosaur and the Noise at Night, which starts as Mama Duck’s family grows too big for her nest – much too big, in Spike’s case. In fact, Spike is so huge that Vidal cannot fit all of him on one page when he first shows him in this book. Well, the three little ones, one of them a gigantic little one, have to give Mama Duck some room by moving into their own nest, so off they go to a resting place of their own, where they read and snuggle and fall happily asleep – until a giant-size noise startles them all: “GRRORE!” Scared, they all wake up and try to decide what to do – after all, they cannot just hide. Or, well, maybe they can. So they do – and when nothing terrible happens, they resume their bedtime rituals, fall asleep again, and then hear the same horrible noise another time! What can they do? They cannot just run away – or maybe they can. Well, they do, but running around makes them even sleepier, and they fall asleep again, and then…  Well, it is obvious where this is going, because sure enough, the noise comes back – but this time the intrepid adventurers finally figure out what completely harmless thing is going on, and by now they are so tired that they do not need stories or snuggles or songs or anything except rest. So all ends happily, with the three little ones (including the huge little one) sleeping peacefully under the watchful eye of nearby Mama Duck. The story is silly and thoroughly amusing, its “just be yourself and everything will be fine” moral is clear but suitably downplayed, and Spike is so endearing – Vidal draws him with gigantic head and enormous feet and essentially nothing in between – that kids will be eager to reread this adventure while awaiting the next one.

     A piranha named Samson learns to be himself, too, in Tadgh Bentley’s Samson: The Piranha Who Went to Dinner. But it is not easy. Samson is all huge eyes and an extremely toothy smile, and unlike the other piranhas – who are content to sit around and watch TV and eat lots of fish – Samson has a hankering for fine dining. There is no particular reason for this – it is just Bentley’s way of showing how very different Samson is from the rest of his piranha family. Well, it just so happens that not one, not two, but three fine-dining restaurants are about to open nearby, and Samson knows he just has to get to them to try out some elegant dishes. So off he swims to Café Pierre, where his polite comment to a turtle waiter leads to an exclamation of “Salty Mother of Mackerel!” and an immediate emptying of the establishment. Obviously, Samson figures, he will never get fine food by being himself, so he dons a disguise and heads off to Linguine’s under the name of Samson P. Rana. Everything looks so good there that he breaks into a smile. A big smile. A big, toothy smile. One scream of “Scaly Neptune’s Crabcakes!” and this restaurant too is completely empty. Poor Samson! Clearly he was not different enough from his real self – he needs a more-elaborate disguise. And sure enough, this gets him into the last of the fine-dining establishments. But unfortunately the disguise includes a hat, and when the helpful waiter removes it, the hat gets caught in the rest of the disguise, everything comes off, and “For the Love of Smoky Sea Bass!” But not quite everyone flees this time. It turns out that there are some other fearsome fish at the restaurant in disguise, and they too want a chance to enjoy some first-rate food. And that gives Samson an idea. They open their own fancy restaurant, and at the very end of the book, in a laugh-out-loud touch of illustrative silliness, it turns out that their food is so good that all the mild-mannered water dwellers disguise themselves as fierce fish so they can feel comfortable eating at the restaurant – which is suitably called “Big Bites.” So for Samson, as for so many central characters in kids’ books, being himself turns out to be exactly the right thing to do.

(++++) AMPHIBIAN ANTICS


Frogkisser! By Garth Nix. Scholastic. $18.99.

     There have been lots and lots and lots of variations on the old tale of the princess and the frog, and there have been lots and lots and lots of amusing send-ups and mash-ups of fairy tales – in which themes are turned upside-down and inside-out, characters rethought and remade, and plots thoroughly mangled and mashed together. So there is plenty with which to compare Frogkisser! But although Garth Nix’s novel – intended for ages 12 and up, but written at a level that will be just fine for many 10-year-olds – is reminiscent of many other adventure-driven mixtures of fairy tale, fantasy, humor and silliness, it has enough offbeat and unusual elements to be more fun than most other books of its ilk.

     The plot is not particularly unusual. Princess Anya, the protagonist, wants to be left alone to study magic. Unfortunately, her older sister, Morven, who will be queen one day, has a bad habit of falling in love with visiting princes. Even more unfortunately, the evil Duke Rikard, who is the girls’ “stepstepfather” and a dark sorcerer with designs on the crown, has a bad habit of transforming Morven’s suitors into frogs. No worries – a dash of “Fairly Reliable Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm” and a suitable kiss will restore the froggy royals. Unfortunately, there is none of it left, so Anya must make some, which means she must go on a quest for the proper ingredients, and this is where the book gets interesting. Anya heads off in the company of Morven’s latest suitor, the now-frogified Prince Denholm; a faithful if somewhat overenthusiastic talking dog named Ardent; and a boy named Shrub who happens currently to be a newt. Also along on the trip are weasel assassins sent by Duke Rikard – and hilariously interchangeable journalists, all named Gerald the Herald, who talk in shouted headlines (this is not as unrealistic as Nix may think).

     Not everything is hilarity: there is an intended undertone of meaningfulness to Frogkisser! Unfortunately, it is laid on too thickly and makes parts of the book unnecessarily message-heavy. It is fine that Anya must learn about the All Encompassing Bill of Rights and Wrongs, the dangers of misuse of power, and the importance of treating people fairly. And it is fine, even admirable, that she encounters Roberta (called Bert), the strong, beautiful Robin-Hood-like character who leads the Association of Responsible Robbers and who happens to be not only female but also black – a welcome deviation from the usual portrayal of capable, forthright characters. But, well, Bert’s role is to challenge Anya to examine the privilege to which she has been born and to accept limits on it and the unfairness of having some people born to better things than others and all that. This is well-meaning but tedious. Yet Nix almost gets away with it – until he insists on introducing a second perfectly balanced, all-good, knowledgeable and powerful and revelatory and beautiful dark-skinned female character, thereby abandoning the obsolete notion that all fairy-tale characters are white in favor of the idea that white characters may be good, bad or indifferent, but black ones are all perfect.

     This stance gets old quite quickly, but luckily is not the primary point of Frogkisser! There are some much better elements elsewhere, such as having the Good Wizard’s teacher be a combination of Merlin and Snow White (and yes, there are seven dwarves in the book). Taken as a whole, the minor characters are intriguing if uniformly one-dimensional: no one in the book is as interesting or fleshed-out as Anya, although Ardent comes close. Still, the relatively bland characterization is a small matter. Among its counterbalances are the subtle ways Nix pays homage to other amusing-but-serious fantasies for younger readers: at one point, for example, Anya ends up with “a Wallet of Inexhaustible Crunchings and Munchings,” a direct reminiscence of Gurgi in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain and the little-noted Disney film, The Black Cauldron. What is also so good here is the complete absence of romance, or even a hint of it in the future, in what is essentially a story of growing self-awareness under the gentlest of adult guidance (also a recurrent Alexander theme). Anya believes that princesses need to be able to rescue themselves, and that concept is right in line with 21st-century thinking. Anya is actually far less perfect than Bert and the Good Wizard, and that makes her all the more admirable: she persists even when frightened instead of being always above the fray. Nix sometimes tries a little too hard to make the goings-on hilarious, which is why the readership for the book may skew toward the young side even though the themes will be of interest to teenagers. The unraveling and reweaving of fairy-tale tropes is skillfully done here, and if the weight of social commentary is at times a bit blatant and overdone, the fact that Nix introduces it at all is worth something. Scarcely a profound book – it is, at its foundation, a romp – Frogkisser! contains a soupçon of meaningfulness that places it a cut or two above most of the many other frog-and-princess rethinkings and reimaginings. The sequel – there is not the slightest doubt that there will be one – will be most welcome.

(+++) THE INEVITABILITY OF HEROISM


The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan. By Gregg Zoroya. Da Capo. $27.

     It is as certain that there will be heroes in war as that there will be cowards. The political rationales for war are many: expanding or protecting territory, imposing ideology or religion, obtaining resources or preventing others from using them, and more. But the methods of war are singular: send people, mostly young and mostly men, to kill other people, mostly young and mostly men, using whatever forms of death-dealing are most efficient in a given age.  War is thus an ultimate crucible of personality, with the absolute certainty that some of those on the front line will die – and the equally absolute certainty that some will prove cowardly in the face of imminent death, while others will prove valorous. Therefore, as long as there are wars – and there is little evidence that there will ever not be wars – there will be fodder for books such as Gregg Zoroya’s The Chosen Few. The specifics chronicled will differ from book to book, but the form of the storytelling – indeed, the transformation of chaos and terror into narrative – will remain essentially the same.

     Zoroya, a specialist in war coverage for USA Today, gets the formula right and employs it with skill in his story of paratroopers who moved into a remote and largely lawless part of eastern Afghanistan in May 2007 for what seemed a fairly routine mission to support the shaky Afghan government – but who ended up trapped almost from the start, and had to fight their way through three significant battles and substantial loss of life before some of them, the survivors, could leave the area safely. The story is a complicated one that will mainly interest those who find the minutiae of war enthralling. The men’s final battle, at Wanat, was extensively reported, but it may be little-remembered today, since it happened in July 2008 and there has been so very much more that has occurred in the world, and in wars, since then. The two earlier battles, one at an outpost called Ranch House and the other involving an ambush, received little to no media coverage, even though, in the second of them, every single member of the patrol was either wounded or killed. Zoroya, certainly an expert on digging out information on these obscure parts of a war of which most Americans are at best dimly aware in the first place, plays up the heroism of the paratroopers (who really did nickname themselves the Chosen Few) and certainly explains why so many were killed or wounded in action: of the 75 or so members of the group, 56 received Purple Hearts.

     Zoroya also does a fine job of humanizing the men, his contrast between the two Medal of Honor winners, Ryan Pitts and Kyle White, coming across especially well. In all, Zoroya interviewed 42 members of the Chosen Few for this book, and his sympathy and empathy and understanding of them – along with his ability to get to the heart of the grinding everyday reality of men under near-constant bombardment, sniper fire and the ever-present threat of death – are everywhere apparent. It is clear that Zoroya admires the men and is glad to have the opportunity to rescue their heroism from obscurity. But it is worth pointing out that it is an everyday sort of heroism during warfare – to a greater degree than is typical, for sure, and with more casualties and more honors handed out to survivors than usual, but nevertheless the same circumstances that members of the United States’ all-volunteer army face every single day, somewhere in the world. This sort of story should by all rights be exceptional, and certainly Zoroya indicates that there is much exceptional about the Chosen Few and the combat they endured. What is missing here, though, and is missing from so many other books that explore wars and the people who fight them, is any sense that this horrible everyday reality is exactly what war is about – it is what war is supposed to be. The enemy – the Taliban, in this case – has its own good reasons for trying to exterminate the heathen foreigners from the land that the Taliban is meant by Allah to rule; this is never stated, but surely it is essentially the rationale of those who tried for 15 months to destroy all the Americans in this one part of the Afghan mountains. For their part, the Americans have every reason to back and try to strengthen a non-Taliban government that, despite enormous corruption and imperfections of all sorts, is at least something of a bulwark against worldwide Islamic murder cults. But for those who chronicle the enormous hardships and heroism of warriors, the rationale for putting them in constant jeopardy, for demanding of them sacrifice after sacrifice – including the ultimate one of their young lives – is almost beside the point.

     The Chosen Few is not a geopolitical book or, indeed, a political book at all. Its unerring focus on the enormous bravery of so many members within a single company of paratroopers succeeds in establishing these men as everyday, under-appreciated heroes of far, far greater value to their country than, for example, entertainers and sports figures who receive constant attention and huge amounts of money while denigrating the society that makes their success possible and the people who literally die to maintain that society’s integrity. In the long run, The Chosen Few is an upbeat, even celebratory book, yet deeply depressing at the same time – because the sad reality is that there are many, many, many more stories like this out there at all times, and neither Zoroya nor others who report on war will ever write the vast majority of them. And those responsible for creating the circumstances faced by the Chosen Few are highly unlikely ever to read about them, and even less likely to take their heroism and sacrifices to heart.

(++++) THE SPARE AND THE SUMPTUOUS


Beethoven: Symphony No. 3. Die Taschenphilharmonie conducted by Peter Stangel. Edition Taschenphilharmonie. $18.99.

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos—Symphony-Suite; Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme—Suite. Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $12.99.

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Méditation in D minor from “Souvenir d’un lieu cher”; Sérénade mélancolique. Moonkyung Lee, violin; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.

     Perhaps the most interestingly named orchestra in the world, Munich’s Taschenphilharmonie (“Pocket Philharmonic”) is also engaged in one of the most interesting musical experiments: to revive Arnold Schoenberg’s short-lived “Society for Private Musical Performances” of the early 1920s and use its format to explore the inner essence, essentially the skeleton, of numerous large-scale works. Schoenberg and his colleagues wanted audiences to hear then-new and then-radical music – their society’s programs were not announced in advance, so no one could decide to stay away out of dislike of a particular work or specific composer. Since the society could not afford full-scale performances, Schoenberg and others undertook to arrange major, large-scale pieces for a very small number of musicians. Mahler as chamber music? Yes, that is what resulted – and since Peter Stangel and Die Taschenphilharmonie have revived the concept, its strengths (as well as its obvious limitations) have become abundantly clear. Now Stangel and 15 players – the string section consists of two violins, a viola, a cello and a bass – have produced a fascinating reading of Beethoven’s “Eroica.” It is a rendition wholly lacking in the scale that so intimidated musicians of Beethoven’s time, and entirely without the broad grandeur of the funeral march that has made that movement so effective for more than two centuries. Yet it is a performance in which the final two movements fit well with the first two, which so often overshadow them – one in which the final variations on a theme from The Creatures of Prometheus do not seem tacked-on or trivial, but come across as a musically (if not narratively) effective capstone for the symphony as a whole. It is a performance in which the opening two chords call the audience to attention without sounding like the hammer blows of the later Fifth Symphony. It is a performance to scale – not only to the scale of the small complement of musicians but also to the underlying scale of the music. The framework shows through here – indeed, the performance is of the music’s framework – and the elegances of Beethoven’s instrumentation come through particularly clearly in a reading in which there are as many wind instruments as strings and the four-instrument brass section offers chamber-music clarity and plays with care to avoid overwhelming the rest of the ensemble. This is emphatically not the symphony as Beethoven intended it to be heard – although neither did he intend it to be performed by a massive, hundred-piece orchestra, as it so often is. True, much of the warmth of the music disappears in this well-paced and carefully considered approach, which admittedly is something of an intellectual exercise. Instead of heat, what Stangel and the instrumentalists offer is a level of clarity, of clean sound, of continuity and careful construction, that many other performances fail to present. Probably this will not be anyone’s first choice for a recording of the “Eroica,” but surely those who have long known, loved and admired the work will gain new insights into it from this performance. And for those who know German, there are four bonus tracks called Hörakademie, discussing specifics of each of the four movements, with musical examples.

     It is hard to see how Stangel and his ensemble would reduce the tremendous sumptuousness of the music of Richard Strauss to its basics – all those doublings and triplings are integral to the effect of Strauss’ music – but we may find out someday. Until then, first-rate full-orchestra performances of Strauss will just have to do, and the latest one from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta does very well indeed. Falletta, an explorer, likes to look into little-known and under-performed music, and at first glance there may seem to be little of that here – but the Naxos CD deserves a second glance, because the longer of the works on it, Ariadne auf Naxos—Symphony-Suite, is a world première recording. Strauss never extracted a suite from this wonderfully melodious opera; this one was created by D. Wilson Ochoa, and it nicely highlights many of the musical gems of what has always been one of the composer’s stranger works. Like Strauss’ final opera, Capriccio (1942), Ariadne auf Naxos (original version, 1912) is an opera about opera, a work of art about works of art, and its self-referential nature can be thoroughly confusing – although it has considerably more action than does Capriccio and as a result is more frequently and more successfully staged. In truth, the Buffalo Philharmonic’s impressive precision and sectional balance are not quite all that the Strauss-Ochoa suite needs: a certain devil-may-care opulence of tone is ideal for all Strauss’ music, and this level of breadth and fullness is one that the Buffalonians do not possess. Nevertheless, Falletta gets excellent playing from the ensemble, spinning out the themes skillfully and showing the orchestra’s rhythmic skill again and again. The seven movements of the suite are a potpourri of Straussian techniques: extended solo sections, comedic elements, luxuriousness, and melodic beauty. And the suite pairs quite nicely with one that Strauss did put together himself, using music from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Originally, Ariadne auf Naxos was supposed to be paired with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for a mixed theater-and-opera evening that ran some six hours (and is still occasionally revived in that form). There are clear resemblances as well as obvious contrasts between the works themselves and in the nature of the music Strauss created for both of them. Hearing first the music from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and then the suite from Ariadne auf Naxos, as on this recording, is just right: the play with incidental music was supposed to be performed before the operatic divertissement. Certainly this CD does not and cannot give the full flavor of the original structure and planned juxtaposition. But Falletta’s usual sure-handed conducting, and the orchestra’s clear grasp of Straussian intricacies and beauties, provide a very intriguing and wholly successful view of two very different works that have retained their rather uneasy partnership for more than a century.

     The luxuriousness of Strauss’ orchestration has some things in common with the intensity and expressiveness of Tchaikovsky’s, but it is possible to take both of those characteristics a bit too far – and that is what violinist Moonkyung Lee does on a new Navona CD. Tchaikovsky wrote less than 80 minutes’ worth of music for violin and orchestra; his entire output fits neatly on a single compact disc. Lee and conductor Miran Vaupotić do not offer it all, however: they omit two of the three movements of Souvenir d’un lieu cher (a work actually orchestrated by Glazunov) and pass over the lovely Valse-Scherzo. The reasons for the omissions are not apparent. What is clear, though, is that Lee’s way with Tchaikovsky is of the rather old-fashioned swooning school, with highly emphatic treatment of emotionally moving phrases and plenty of rubato to tell audiences that such a phrase is about to come. Indeed, the frequency of pauses before phrases becomes something of a nervous tic here, frustrating to hear even though surely done deliberately. This is most apparent in the Violin Concerto, which descends into a glacial pace so frequently that it too often seems to exist largely in stasis. At 38 minutes, this reading is exceptionally long – this is usually about a 35-minute work, and can even handle being whirled away in under half an hour, as Jascha Heifetz did. Other violinists, such as Jennifer Koh, also make the concerto expansive, but they do so with more consistency than Lee, whose performance is full of stops, starts and stutters. The first movement comes off reasonably well in its faster sections and cadenzas, but the slower portions simply drag; the second movement is better-paced and has pleasant warmth; but the finale simply stops moving after about two minutes and never regains momentum – this is an Allegro moderato treatment of a movement that is marked Allegro vivacissimo, which really should be an emphatic enough instruction to make the composer’s intentions clear. The shorter works sound better: Lee seems more comfortable with their largely uncomplicated emoting. Because of that and because of some interpretative niceties in the concerto’s first movement, this is a (+++) CD. But it will scarcely be any listener’s first choice for this repertoire – all the more so because other recordings include the rest of Tchaikovsky’s violin-and-orchestra compositions as well as the ones heard here.

February 16, 2017

(++++) SHAPES AND SIZES


Round. By Joyce Sidman. Illustrated by Taeeun Yoo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Carrot & Pea. By Morag Hood. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

     A poetic celebration of circles and spheres, Joyce Sidman’s Round offers kids a way to find the wondrousness in everyday things, from seeds to eggs to oranges. “My hands want to reach around their curves,” says the little girl narrator as she embarks on a journey into roundness, in which Sidman’s sweet and simple language is nicely matched by Taeeun Yoo’s pleasant illustrations of things that are “swelling into roundness” (mushrooms) or “budding, ripening” (blueberries). The little girl – sometimes alone, sometimes with a grown-up – explores not only small and transitory things but also large ones whose roundness comes only after millions and millions of years: rocks, shown as jagged peaks along the seashore in one illustration and gently rounded stone hillocks in the next one, after “all the sharp edges wear off.” From a dung beetle rolling its precious ball along to the round spots on a ladybug, from pipe-blown soap bubbles to rain-caused “circles of ripples” in a pond, roundness is everywhere in this little girl’s world – and the gentle word cascade and pleasantly involving pictures invite readers to find all that is round in their own environment as well. At the back of the book, Sidman gives a sweet and simple, but scientifically accurate, guide to the reasons so many things in nature are round: round eggs and seeds have evenly distributed weight that helps prevent stress from being too great on any single point; round nuts and fruits scatter better because they can roll along farther to start forming new plants; planets are round because of the way gravity works; and so on. “Round things are snug, symmetrical, cosmic,” writes Sidman, and Round itself is a snug little exploration of the circular and spherical, a warm touch of joy in the everyday, and an invitation to explore and be fascinated by all the shapes that sur-round all of us.

     Peas are round, too, and they are green, and they roll and they bounce and play games together in Morag Hood’s Carrot & Pea. But one particular pea, Lee, happens to have a friend who cannot do the things that all the other peas can do – because this friend, Colin, is not a pea but a carrot. How did they ever meet? Who knows? What matters is that they did meet, and somehow became friends despite their obvious differences and Colin’s inability to, for example, play hide-and-seek (because his large size and orange color make him instantly findable). Poor Colin? Well, no, because Hood shows the ways in which Colin does fit into pea play: he becomes a tower on which Lee and the other peas can perch; he makes himself a bridge over a gap too large for peas to cross; and, propped up by peas on one end, he becomes a slope down which other peas can slide. Colin seems not to fit in, but in reality he does, in his own way, and all the peas celebrate having him around and pile themselves up to reach high enough to give him a pea-utiful hug. Carrot & Pea could all too easily have been a heavy-handed sermon about celebrating differences and accepting those who are not like you, but Hood’s touch is too deft for that: her very simple collage illustrations, against a plain white background, maintain the same light tone that her easy-to-follow writing introduces, with the result that the friendship of Colin and Lee seems the most natural thing in the world. And that is a much better way to offer a lesson in tolerance than to lay it on thickly and with a slew of moral and ethical demands. The fact that many young readers of Carrot & Pea are likely to know peas and carrots as an enjoyable food combination makes it even more natural to think about how irrelevant the differences between Colin and Lee are. And the irrelevance of differences is a far better teaching point than the more-typical demand to focus on differences and then make a conscious effort to see beyond them. Colin and Lee have the right idea. And so does Hood.

(++++) AMAZING CREATURES


Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training. By Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater. Illustrations by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Tapir Scientist: Saving South America’s Largest Mammal. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

     Fresh from the unicorn stampede and the plague of Fuzzles with which she dealt in Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures, the intrepid protagonist of the title is back in Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training, still unique in her ability to understand and speak to magical creatures and still accompanied by her best friend, Tomas Ramirez, who is allergic to pretty much everything in the world, including magical things – which cause him to have magical allergic reactions, such as one in which he hiccups multicolored bubbles. This time, Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater plunk the two preteens – as well as Pip’s irritating, stars-in-her-eyes 13-year-old cousin, Callie – down at a unicorn competition, where the terrified-of-absolutely-everything Regent Maximus needs somehow to be calmed down enough to make an effort to become the “show unicorn” he is supposed to be by birthright and lineage. Stiefvater, as illustrator of the jointly written novel, offers another set of pictures that ostensibly come from Jeffrey Higgleston’s Guide to Magical Creatures, the book that Pip uses as a guide for almost everything – and that invariably comes up short just when Pip needs guidance the most, which is why Pip is always taking her own notes and thinking about what she would write about the creatures for which Higgleston’s descriptions are at best incomplete. Meanwhile, Tomas is discovering something extraordinary: there is one magical creature that he really, really likes, and to which, to the astonishment of everyone including Tomas, he is not allergic. It is the dullest magical creature of all, a brownish-gray or grayish-brown sheeplike thing called a Rockshine, which constantly says “hey” (rather than “baa”) and has eyes that point in different directions – and which becomes invisible when frightened. Tomas takes to Rockshines to such a degree that, at one crucial point of the book, he controls an entire herd of them – to the amazement of several police officers, who ask, “Is he a wizard?” The police officers are on hand because someone has been cutting off unicorn tails – a horrible bit of vandalism that turns out to have a complex motivation tied into ecological matters and magical-species extinction. Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Unicorn Training is amusing enough, complex enough, adventurous enough and simply enjoyable enough so it will be hard for young readers to put down – this is one series that deserves to go on and on. Or at least it would deserve that if Pearce and Stiefvater could be a little more careful to keep the text and pictures in accord. The problem with that here relates to a magical creature used by the police in their investigations because of its extraordinary sense of smell. It is a kind of slug that can rearrange its body parts at will. And it is called – well, that’s the issue. The illustration’s headline and text repeatedly refer to it as “wimpleling,” but throughout the text of the actual narrative, it is called “wimpeling,” losing one “l” somewhere along the line – or gaining it, depending on how you look at things. This barely diminishes the story but does take a little of the magic out of it.

     The Tapir Scientist, originally published in 2013 and now available in paperback, is entirely factual, but some elements of it are strange enough so they could almost be made up. For one thing, most people living where the tapir does – in and near the Pantanal, a huge freshwater wetland in Brazil – have never seen one. Although the tapir is the largest mammal in South America, as the book’s subtitle says, it is hard to find; and although it is known to be endangered, its very elusiveness makes it difficult to save. Sy Montgomery’s prose does a first-rate job of capturing the inherent difficulties and periodic successes of the scientists’ work. And Nic Bishop’s superb photographs not only showcase the lives of the researchers who work with and on behalf of tapirs but also show amazing views of the animals themselves – such as one picture that includes a typically dull-colored adult female with her adorable striped and spotted infant. The book’s title is a trifle misleading in speaking of a scientist, singular, because in fact there is a “tapir team” here, a five-member, mostly Brazilian group that searches for tapirs and works to preserve the Pantanal, which is 10 times the size of the Florida Everglades. The tapir itself is strange enough to be a magical creature: it is an animal largely unchanged for 12 million years, distantly related to rhinoceroses and horses but looking like a sort of elephant-hippopotamus. In addition to information on tapirs, the book includes slices of life in the areas where the animals live, with discussions of the drinking of maté tea from a cow’s horn, a close-up view of the deadly fer-de-lance snake, and a look at a caiman that especially enjoys snacking on piranhas. Many of the sidelights of this science story are as fascinating as the main one, such as a discussion of the ticks that infest tapirs and why it is important to study them, and one about the very-little-understood giant armadillo. These animals, although not fictional, all deserve to be called exotic, but that does not mean they fade into unimportance – they are, in fact, crucial to the ecosystem in which they live; and The Tapir Scientist explains why their preservation is important on multiple levels. Many matters in this book are as strange as anything that Pip Bartlett encounters among her magical beasts, and the fact that the information in The Tapir Scientist is real makes the book all the more intriguing.

(++++) EGG-ZACTLY


Egg. By Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

The Story of the Easter Bunny. By Katherine Tegen. Illustrated by Sally Anne Lambert. HarperFestival. $7.99.

Fancy Nancy and the Missing Easter Bunny. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser and Carolyn Bracken. HarperFestival. $4.99.

     Take the same topic and the same age range, and authors will come up with a wide variety of ways to entertain children. For example, if the topic is eggs and the age range is 4-8, Kevin Henkes shows one utterly delightful way to get kids interested in his simple, simply titled and simply wonderful Egg. The first pages are divided into four equal parts, each displaying an egg of a different color: pink, yellow, blue and green. Then cracks develop in three of the eggs – but not the green one. Then birds hatch from three eggs – but not the green one. And then the little birds say good-bye and fly away – leaving the green egg still waiting. Really waiting. One page shows it 16 times in 16 identical squares, each with the word “waiting” at the bottom. So the birds come back to investigate, and soon they go “peck-peck-peck” at the green egg – another page divided into 16 boxes shows how long they continue doing it – and then, finally, the green egg goes “crack,” and out comes, as Henkes writes, a “surprise!” It is not a baby bird at all – it is an adorable little alligator. But it scares the birds, and they fly quickly away, leaving the alligator to be shown in four equal-size square panels on one page as “alone,” “sad,” “lonely” and “miserable.” Poor little gator! But guess what? The pink bird flies by to see what is going on. And then the yellow bird comes over to take a look. And then the blue one shows up. And then all three fly down to perch on the now-happy alligator’s back and become, as Henkes puts it simply, “friends.” The end? Not quite – because the four friends glance up at the peach-colored sun, and as the end of the book approaches, the sun transforms into – an egg!  And who knows what will happen next?  Young readers – and pre-readers – will be charmed with the story, the winning illustrations, and the chance to watch the tale continue: the second-to-last page of the book says “the end…” (complete with ellipsis), and then the very, very last page contains only the word “maybe” beneath a picture of a peach-colored bird flying away. The whole book is inventive in design and storytelling mode, and the way it invites kids to participate in the story through the multiply divided pages and the “what next?” ending makes Egg all the more special.

     Eggs are, of course, associated with Easter, and a very different approach to them for the same 4-8 age range is the one offered by Katherine Tegen and Sally Anne Lambert in The Story of the Easter Bunny, originally published in 2005 and now available as a board book. This is traditionally a format for the very youngest children, but not in this case, since the narrative is quite extensive – the contrast with the few words in Egg is immediately apparent. The book offers a pretty little freshly minted legend, in which an elderly man and woman make and color Easter eggs, year after year, as their pet rabbit watches – “eggs the color of daffodils and of soft new leaves and of robins’ eggs and of violets.” The old people weave baskets during winter, and make chocolate eggs in early spring as the snow melts. And on Easter, the man and woman bring every child in town “a straw basket filled with Easter eggs, as they did every year. And the little rabbit watched.” In time, the rabbit starts helping the man and woman prepare all the Easter goodies, and some time afterwards, when the man and woman become too old and frail to handle the work, the rabbit takes on the entire job, moving out of town to the woods and enlisting the help of other rabbits to get everything done in time for Easter. It is a pretty story and a prettily illustrated one, a fable created by Tegen and Lambert and as good an explanation as any to use when young children ask why rabbits, of all creatures, are delivering eggs. This is a warm and cuddly story whose board-book format makes it easy to handle for small hands – and the prose is gentle enough so it could even be used as a bedtime book to lull little ones to sleep.

     Something brighter and more upbeat, also with an eggs-and-Easter focus and also for ages 4-8, comes in the form of Fancy Nancy and the Missing Easter Bunny, which is based on the series by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser but has only a cover by Glasser – the interior illustrations are by Carolyn Bracken. This is also a sticker book: 33 of them are included. The main attraction for Fancy Nancy fanciers, though, will be the story, which is a typical one of light misunderstanding, minor misbehavior and rapid forgiveness by Nancy’s always-understanding parents. The Easter Bunny of the title is a rabbit named Nibbles, class pet of Nancy’s little sister, JoJo. Nibbles is home with Nancy and the family for Easter weekend.  Nancy, as adorably overdressed as usual and with an Easter basket that is equally overdone, is all set for the kids’ egg hunt; she takes Nibbles out of the cage so her friends, Bree and Freddy, can play with the bunny; but then, in the excitement when the egg hunt starts, Nancy forgets to lock the cage after putting Nibbles back in it, and the rabbit escapes. So instead of searching for eggs, Nancy has to do a Nibbles hunt. She does eventually find the rabbit, and of course her mom forgives her for leaving the cage unlocked – but all the eggs have been found, leaving Nancy with none. To the rescue come her friends and JoJo, who re-hide some eggs so Nancy can search for them, and of course everything ends happily. Fancy Nancy and the Missing Easter Bunny is a pleasant enough backyard adventure, if not one of the most-engaging Fancy Nancy books. The stickers are nice to have, but they are a supplement to the story rather than an integral part of it. Kids who already enjoy Fancy Nancy will like this short spring-and-holiday-themed book, but it is not likely to garner Nancy any new fans.

(+++) HISTORIES, SIMPLIFIED


Time for Kids: Presidents of the United States. Liberty Street. $15.95.

Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition. By Margot Lee Shetterly. Harper. $16.99.

     History is a fascinating topic that is too often rendered dull by making it into a recitation of dates and events. It is also an important topic: it is a truism that we cannot know where we are going if we do not know where we have been, and while the statement smacks of cliché, it really does have value. The authors of history-focused books aimed at young readers have in recent years done much more to try to show the human side of history, sometimes through exploring the day-to-day lives of the famous and sometimes by showing how many non-famous people have contributed to events of major significance. Even a brief book that sets out on the simple task of telling a bit about each president of the United States can give the nation’s leaders more humanity and context than such books used to – and that is what Time for Kids: Presidents of the United States tries to do. It does not always succeed – for example, the portrait of George Washington is straightforward and gives little sense of him as a human being. But the book generally does a good job of showing the humanity of the presidents, not only the recent ones (to whom it easier for modern young readers to relate) but also some of those from a much earlier time: Thomas Jefferson, for instance, is described as a “tall man with a face full of freckles [who] was more comfortable writing down his thoughts than speaking in public.” The book does oversimplify, not only in a way made inevitable by the small amount of space devoted to each president but also in the name of a lurking sense of political correctness – again using Jefferson as an example, it notes that he wrote against slavery but “owned as many as 600 slaves in his lifetime,” a statement that unnecessarily denigrates the sincerity of his beliefs by evading issues of economic reality in his era. Still, little bits of interestingly humanizing information show up again and again in these verbal portraits: Franklin Pierce at one point gave up politics to please his wife, who disliked Washington, D.C.; William McKinley “impressed people because he was cheerful, wise, and respectful”; after Warren Harding’s death, his widow “destroyed many of Harding’s personal papers to avoid more gossip.” More-recent presidents get even more personal information and, generally, more space in the book, which includes President Trump (whose victory is said, in an understatement, to have “surprised many experts”). And the book ends with an explanation of the process through which a president is chosen; some specifics on the 2016 campaign; photos taken inside the White House; and a couple of pages on “first ladies” – including the fact that the term itself did not catch on until the time of Lucy Hayes (wife of Rutherford B. Hayes, president from 1877 to 1881). Scarcely an extensive or in-depth study of presidents or the presidency – and not intended as one – Time for Kids: Presidents of the United States offers enough good, solid basics to serve as an introduction to its subject, and enough off-the-beaten-path information to keep the topic from becoming dull.

     Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures is one of the history books focused on people whose names are scarcely household words. The new edition for young readers is a fair compression of the original book for adults, whose focus is on African-American women mathematicians who worked on the U.S. space program at a time of pervasive racial discrimination and amid numerous Jim Crow laws. One among very many “untold story” books and books intended to “redress the balance” of American history by focusing specifically on African-Americans’ contributions to it, Hidden Figures – which has already been made into a movie – focuses more on the human elements of the story than on the scientific ones. This may make it easier reading, especially for younger readers, but it leads to a skimming over of scientific matters that really could be fascinating if handled more deftly than Shetterly does. This is less a popular-science book than yet another overcoming-obstacles work, which is fine and admirable and all that but scarcely has the reach that a genuinely penetrating look at the math and science performed by these women could have had. Hidden Figures reads more like an extended, even stretched magazine article than a 200-plus-page book: parts are repetitious, and material that a book author could explore in depth (again, matters of math and science) tend to be passed over quickly. The African-American female number crunchers portrayed here had considerable responsibility for American aeronautical successes from World War II into the space age, yet they contended again and again with discrimination that was so extensive that it will be difficult for contemporary young readers to understand. Their path must have been extraordinarily difficult – yet, curiously, it does not come across that way in the book. Yes, Shetterly asserts repeatedly that this law and that rule caused difficulties, but in her portrayals of the women themselves, readers find such equanimity and such heroic perseverance in the face of tremendous societal pressure that these very human mathematicians come across as being every bit as unflappable and wooden as U.S. presidents usually do in more-traditional history books. Hidden Figures tells a fascinating story that is made less interesting by the way Shetterly tells it: its central characters are brave, accomplished and very smart, but young readers (and, for that matter, older ones reading the original version of the book) are likely to find it difficult to relate to people portrayed as being so close to perfect.

(+++) PERSONAL TRIBUTES


Ein Feste Burg—Luther in Music. Soloists and ensembles conducted by Ludwig Güttler. Berlin Classics. $18.99.

Jack Gallagher: Piano Music. Frank Huang, piano. Centaur. $18.99.

Derek Bourgeois: Trombone Concerto; William Goldstein: Colloquy for Solo Trombone; Stephen Lias: River Runner; Jean-Baptiste Arban: Variations on “The Carnival of Venice” (arr. Hunsberger). Deb Scott, trombone; Ron Petti, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     The influence of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses can scarcely be overestimated: 500 years ago, it led to the first substantial chink in the thousand-plus-year-old armor of the monolithic Catholic Church, ushering in an era of questioning and freethinking that forever ended the Church-focused control of the Dark Ages and that led to the multiplicity of Western religions that the world knows today. That this was not Luther’s intent is clear: Lutheranism, the Protestant religion that most closely follows Luther’s precepts, retains a great deal of the style and substance of Catholicism – indeed, so much that people dissatisfied with more than the Church’s sale of indulgences (Luther’s primary focus and concern) went on to create forms of Protestant worship even further distanced from the control and trappings of Rome. And the different forms of worship used music quite differently, with Lutheran music standing highest in the Baroque era because of the Bach family and other composers who were nearly as notable. Ludwig Güttler’s assemblage of performances of music that draws on Luther’s own words and tunes – notably but not exclusively Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (c. 1529) and Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (words 1534, music 1539) – is not only a commemoration of the five centuries through which Luther’s thinking has resonated, but also an intriguing compendium of musical styles dating as far back as the time of Johann Walter (1496-1570) and continuing to our own time through music by Daniel Schnyder (born 1961). This Berlin Classics release is a specialty item rather than a CD likely to appeal to listeners at large, as so much of Bach’s music does: it does include, inevitably, several short Bach works (three excerpts from the Weinachtsoratorium, for instance, all inevitably out of context); but other works here are of considerably less interest except in this specific context. For example, Güttler assembled a Partita on Ein feste Burg by pulling together seven brass-and-trumpet versions of the tune by Heinrich Schütz, Melchior Franck, Melchior Vulpius, the aforementioned Walter (two versions), Michael Altenburg, and Johann Crüger; and this is interesting to scholars of Baroque composition and brass-music fanciers, but will simply sound repetitious to many listeners. A similar Partita on Von Himmel hoch incorporates works for brass by Johannes Eccard, Michael Praetorius (two pieces), and Johann Hermann Schein; it has the same strengths and weaknesses as its sibling. Also here is Baroque music by Dietrich Buxtehude, Christian August Jacobi, and Johann Ludwig Krebs – and much newer works by Max Reger (who was Catholic, but whose two short contributions here are notable), Matthias Kleemann (born 1948), Jean Langlais (1907-1991), and the aforementioned Schnyder, who gets more time here than anyone else except Bach: Part I of Schnyder’s Oratorium “Eine Feste Burg” is given in its entirety. Unfortunately, this work drags on and on and spends too much time incorporating the usual contemporary choral and orchestral techniques into a piece that bears little resemblance to the spirit (much less the letter) of Luther’s music and teachings. It, and the other recent works given here, do show that Luther’s influence has persisted for five centuries, but they also show it so transmogrified as to be barely recognizable at times. The performances, by various soloists and groups, are generally quite good; they are selected from a wide variety of recordings dating from 1982 to 2014. The arrangement of pieces on the disc is clearly a personal one: there is no inherent reason for presenting this material in this specific order. The CD thus stands largely as Güttler’s own acknowledgment of and tribute to Luther, rather than being a recording that reaches out to audiences at large to display the tremendous influence, musical and otherwise, that Luther has had for so many people for so many years.

     The new Centaur CD of piano music by Jack Gallagher, performed by Frank Huang, is personal in a different way: most of the nine works are dedicated to Gallagher’s family and friends. This could easily turn the disc into a speak-to-oneself-and-one’s-intimates experience. Happily, Gallagher’s music is better than that, reaching out beyond a core audience more effectively, in some ways, than does Güttler’s project. One reason for this is that Gallagher has rethought six of the nine pieces here and appears, in so doing, to have made them quite accessible – although the easiest-to-enjoy work here, Six Pieces for Kelly (1989), has not been substantially revised. This is a kind of “Kids’ Corner” (distantly related to, but not to be confused with, Children’s Corner by Debussy): intended for young pianists, Gallagher’s work includes a short and cheery March, suitably sweet Lullaby, bright and forthright Piping Song, warm Chant d’Insouciance, wistful Folksong, and dashing final Balkan Dance. Gallagher has considerable skill as a miniaturist, shown also in Six Bagatelles (1979), dedicated to six different people – five movements are heard here, with an explanatory note about the other. The short Pastorale (1978) also shows Gallagher to be effective in miniaturist mode. It is one of four pieces here that are dedicated to Gallagher’s wife, the others being Sonata for Piano (1973/2005), Nocturne (1976/2008), and Happy Birthday, April (1976/2014). The Sonata, which opens the album, is somewhat reminiscent of Hindemith in a lyrical mood, but it is more transparent and less turgid. Nocturne is almost too close to its clear lineage back to Field and Chopin: pleasant enough, it somewhat overstays its welcome after 10½ minutes. Happy Birthday, April concludes the CD pleasantly – another effective Gallagher miniature, this one with distinct pop-music roots – but it has less of an encore flavor than the work placed before it here, Malambo Nouveau (2000/2009), a bouncily rhythmic piece that gives Huang’s fingers a real workout. The other two pieces heard here are Evening Music (1998/2009), a pleasantry that is more effectively evocative than Nocturne, and Sonatina for Piano (1976/1999), whose Berceuse second movement is a sweet little lullaby that Gallagher later orchestrated. Huang’s pianism, although not technically perfect, is involved and enthusiastic, and is a reason that this compilation of works written and rewritten over a period of more than 40 years comes through as much more than a series of pieces united primarily by Gallagher’s affinity for the people to whom he dedicated them.

     A new Navona CD featuring contemporary music by Derek Bourgeois, William Goldstein, Stephen Lias and Jean-Baptiste Arban is highly personal as well – in this case, reflecting the personal taste of trombonist Deb Scott, which may or may not reflect listeners’. Scott clearly has an affinity for jazz as much as for classical forms – it shows in how she plays as well as in what she plays. Arban’s very virtuosic Variations on “The Carnival of Venice,” originally written for trumpet, ought to be more fun than they are here: they do not lie very well on the trombone in this arrangement, and there is a resulting breathiness to Scott’s playing that is continually (if not continuously) distracting, although pianist Ron Petti backs here up here and throughout the disc with considerable aplomb. More interesting than Arban’s work is Lias’ River Runner, which has the most personal background of anything here: it is a reflection of a paddling trip that the composer and Scott took together. The three movements – Lajitas, The Sentinel and Rock Slide – all offer effective tone painting with considerable jazz inflections, to which Scott takes quite readily. The expressiveness of the trombone, which often comes as a surprise to people accustomed to its ceremonial use, comes through especially well in the central movement, while the excitement of the finale is very well communicated. Scott also has a chance to show the emotional expressiveness of her instrument in Goldstein’s Colloquy for Solo Trombone, a kind of “duality” piece that alternates between intensity bordering on anger and calm bordering on stasis. The most conventionally structured work here is Bourgeois’ concerto, and it is also the one in which trombone and piano are most effectively paired rather than having the keyboard primarily in a support role. The conventional three-movement form of this work belies its stylish amalgamation of classical and jazz idioms with periodic hints of soulful (and somewhat overdone) pop music. The songfulness of the trombone comes through to fine effect in the central Adagio, after the multifaceted opening Allegro; and the concluding Presto is a particularly buoyant display piece in which both Scott and Petti get a real workout. The overall feeling left behind after the music concludes is that both Scott and Petti seem to have had a great time recording this work. Trombone fanciers will certainly find this disc a pleasure, and even listeners with a more-casual relationship with the trombone will discover a fair share of intriguing material here.

February 09, 2017

(++++) REALER THAN REAL


Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper. Pomegranate. $50.

     Maybe it is only because the word “beguiled” appears in this book’s title, but the single adjective that seems most fitting to describe the book itself is “beguiling.” There is nothing else quite like the nature art of Charley Harper (1922-2007). His stylized, simplified, geometric renditions of animals of all types have the remarkable ability to make the creatures seem more clearly themselves, more definitive in some way, than they would if photographed or drawn in the hyper-realistic style of, say, James Audubon. Harper captures what makes a particular animal distinctive to us humans without anthropomorphizing any creature unduly, except to a limited extent for the sake of humor. And Harper’s humor itself is distinctive: fond of written puns and amusing artistic layouts, he uses both verbal and visual techniques to pull the reader/viewer into a piece of art and notice things that he or she only thought were clear before Harper delineated them so skillfully.

     Thus, in this wonderful coffee-table book that should, at all costs, be kept away from coffee and any other potentially staining materials, one page is called Foxsimiles and shows the heads of 11 foxes – two adults and nine kits – stacked atop each other and looking directly out of the page, as if from a dark, perfectly circular den opening. Geometrically perfect too are the foxes’ triangular ears, their circular eyes and noses, their trapezoidal reddish faces. And the whimsical text complements the art perfectly, suggesting that readers “hear the din in the den at dindin, the sibling quibbling of the disputatious duplicates, the irascible replicas.” Elsewhere, Arctic Circle offers a background of stylized square and triangular ice floes and a foreground where musk oxen are lined up exactly like a line of football players, the impression accentuated by horns drawn to look just like helmets, facing off against wolves that are seen from behind, as if the camera is placed behind them – with imagined sports bravado concealing, or rather elucidating, the harsh realities of life in a harsh climate: “‘C’mon, wolf pack! Make yer play! Youse bums rush like glaciers! We’ll oxidize youse guys! We’ll bury ya in the permafrost, we’ll stomp ya unda th’ tundra!’ How’d it end up? Sudden death in overtime.” The puns, the lighthearted treatment of matters of underlying seriousness, the contrast with messy reality of the perfect geometric shapes that Harper uses to create scenes that embody the essentials of wildlife and the wild life, all while presenting animals and their habitats with striking clarity – these are the elements that are so captivating here.

     Every page has its pleasures, and every page repays multiple closer looks. Tall Tail includes a road runner, facing right, that holds a lizard’s tail in its beak – the lizard itself, having shed the tail, is racing away to the left. And the road runner’s tail seems as tall and broad as the cactus right next to it – until, on closer examination, it becomes clear that Harper here plays with perspective, and that the road runner must be in the foreground, the cactus some distance away, making sense of the fact that the lizard seems to be running through the bird but in fact must be fleeing somewhere between it and the cactus. Perspective is also at play in Phancy Pheathers, a wonderful two-page look at a ring-necked pheasant, which requires the book to be turned sideways to accommodate the bird’s extremely long and elegantly patterned tail. And here Harper ruminates, “A rainbow in the snow is a better bromide for the midwinter blahs than buying a new spring outfit around the phirst of Phebruary.” Harper’s musings, however amusingly expressed, often convey matters of considerable seriousness. Green Cuisine, which shows a line of cows munching grass, each cow blending perfectly into the next so the animals look like one extremely elongated bovine, is about “harmless herbivores” that eventually become “protein for the predators,” and asks, “Can a nature lover ever find true happiness at the top of the food chain?” A very difficult question, that – although Harper’s work certainly helps nudge nature lovers toward happiness, as well as in the direction of greater appreciation of the natural world, so he himself is part of the answer to his own rather rhetorical question.

     Many of Harper’s most-intriguing works in Beguiled by the Wild feature birds: owls, painted buntings, cardinals, black skimmers, woodpeckers and more. But certain other animals also make recurring appearances, and it is hard to escape the notion that Harper simply enjoys some creatures to an exceptional degree. Foremost among these would be raccoons, whose faces Harper seems to find quite irresistible: a line of them, all black and grey, peeks into a window at the brightly wrapped Christmas gifts inside; four of them, stacked, are seen through the eaten part of a watermelon slice that they have just been enjoying; eight are standing on hind legs next to and behind each other for a “masked ball in the backyard” whenever food is about; a whole passel of them may be seen peeking from behind a woodpile, scouting out a skunk who is quietly consuming some sort of food that the raccoons are clearly thinking about purloining as soon as they can figure out how to avoid provoking an odor attack; and more. With this last picture, called Raccoonnaissance, Harper makes some of his interest in this particular creature quite clear: “Raccoons have the brain. High in IQ, cutes, cunning, and caution, they move into the suburbs with their upwardly mobile lifestyle. Raccoons will scatter your garbage, trash your property, and charm you right out of your tree.” Clearly they  charmed Harper right out of his. And Beguiled by the Wild will charm you right out of yours. This is truly a feast for the family: beautifully delineated and colored art that is sometimes very easy to figure out, other times inventively designed into visual puzzles, along with writing that is lighthearted, funny, informative and engaging all at once. Beguiling indeed.

(++++) FRIENDSHIPS, STRAINED


Muddle and Mo. By Nikki Slade Robinson. Clarion. $14.99.

Are We Still Friends? By Ruth Horowitz. Illustrated by Blanca Gómez. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Ah, the complexities of friendship! Muddle, a duck, discovers them in Nikki Slade Robinson’s ultra-simple but thoroughly engaging Muddle and Mo. Bright yellow, huge-footed Muddle comes to a realization one day. Several of them, actually. Muddle walks over to his large, white, four-footed best friend, Mo, and announces that Mo “is a funny color for a duck!” In fact, Muddle observes, Mo has a hairy beak, wings on his head, non-waddling feet, and other characteristics that, Muddle is sorry to say, are just plain weird. Even Mo’s quack is wrong – it comes out, “Maa-aaa!” Poor Muddle is so confused – until he sees two more Mo-like creatures standing behind a sign that reads “Goat Farm.” Oh, my goodness! “You’re not a duck! You’re a goat!” exclaims Muddle. Apparently this has never before occurred to him. Mo, too kind to want muddled Muddle to become even more muddled, simply explains, “Yes, Muddle, I’m a goat.” And that is that. Well, not quite – because now Muddle, who has never found a friendship issue that he cannot make more confusing, has to ask Mo, “Am I a goat?” Not at all, Mo assures  him: “You are one hundred percent duck. And you will always be a duck.” Whew! Thank goodness that is out of the way! And so the two buddies cuddle up together and resume their unlikely friendship. How they first got together, what they do together, why Muddle never noticed the differences between them before – there is none of any of that here. Robinson simply makes this a short, sweet little story (with simple, straightforward drawings against plain blue backgrounds) of two friends who are as different as can be and yet, for whatever reason, have all they need in common, and can remain happily together now that they have straightened out questions of who’s who and what’s what.

     The things that Beatrice, a bear, and Abel, a mouse, have in common are far more apparent, and their interdependence is, too. In Ruth Horowitz’s book, the two live in side-by-side houses with just a low stone wall between them. On Beatrice’s side are the beehives she keeps, from which Abel helps her gather honey every summer. On Abel’s side are apple trees, whose fruit Beatrice helps Abel pick in autumn. And the key to all the cooperation is the bees, which tie the two friends together. “Beatrice’s bees needed flower nectar to make their honey. Abel’s trees needed bees to spread their pollen to make their fruit.” So all is fine and happy all around – until, one day, Abel is stung by a bee and, in pain, makes an exclamation that, from a distance, sounds to Beatrice like silly laughter. So Beatrice laughs in her turn – and Abel, who thinks he has been laughed at and insulted, insults Beatrice, and soon there is a war of words that rapidly escalates into a big fence between the houses and a pile of junk atop the wall to keep Abel and Beatrice apart. The bees, of course, pay no attention to any of this, and continue doing what bees always do. Then the junk pile collapses, right on top of Beatrice, and Abel realizes that his friend may be hurt, so he digs her out, both apologize for the misunderstanding, and all goes back to where it was at the start – and ends happily. The flat, cartoonish art by Blanca Gómez fits this friendship fable well, and Horowitz does a good, easy-to-understand job of showing how unintentional misunderstandings can result in genuinely hurt feelings that can put unwanted strains on what would otherwise remain a special friendship. The lesson is soft-pedaled enough so parents may want to reinforce it if reading the book with a child who has had a falling-out with a friend.  If nothing like that has happened, Are We Still Friends? can stand as a cautionary tale, with kids no doubt assuring parents that they would never misunderstand as Abel and Beatrice do. At some point, though, they likely will misunderstand in very much this way, at which time it will be good to have the book around for re-reading and reaffirmation of the importance of friendship and of not letting small slights, real or imagined, grow into big ones.

(++++) KNOT YOUR EVERYDAY KLUTZ


The Klutz Book of Knots. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $14.99.

Sew Mini Animals: More Than 12 Animal Plushies to Stitch & Stuff. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $21.99.

     Even among the always unusual “books-plus” offerings from Klutz, whose productions are crafts projects built around instructional books and including just about everything needed to get the projects done, The Klutz Book of Knots stands out. On the face of it, this is one of the simplest items Klutz has produced, being merely a spiral-bound, lie-flat book packaged with two brightly colored cords. But open the book and start looking at the information on how to tie “23 of the world’s best hitches, ties, wraps & knots,” and the cleverness of the packaging becomes immediately apparent. The instructional pages are thick and are interspersed with cardboard “guide” pages that are extra-thick and specifically contain punched-out or cutout areas through which you fit the cords while following the knot-tying instructions. The cutouts, which are various sizes and various shapes, are perfect places to practice knot-tying, because they hold the cords in the right position so you can twist and mingle them according to the clear, well-illustrated instructions. One practice page, for example, includes two lozenge-shaped holes laid out vertically, for use when tying clove hitches, and two laid out horizontally, for use with half hitches. There are also two simple punched holes on the page – for use when you flip the page over to the next set of instructions, where the punched holes prove to be just the right place to tie a bow tie. The cleverness of the practice pages really comes through as the knots get more complicated. For the complex package knot, for example, the practice page includes one round punched hole and three holes punched on three sides so they become notches at the top, bottom and left. A diagram of the finished package knot shows exactly what part of the cord should end up exactly where when the knot is tied correctly. Of course, the instruction book would not be a Klutz product if it did not include some humor to go with the information. So, for example, the “sheet bend” is described as being “handy for creating a makeshift rope (like from clothes or shoelaces) when you’re in a pinch,” and illustrated with a cartoon of a kid clad as a superhero climbing out the window of a tree house by using clothes tied together with this know. And the timber hitch, used when hauling logs, is shown being used by a busy cartoon beaver that is carrying eight gnawed, tied-together logs on its back. The knots explained and illustrated in The Klutz Book of Knots range from the simple and intuitive to the pretty doggone complicated, and mastering them outside the book will take some doing – parents, as well as the kids ages eight and up for whom this offering is intended, will really appreciate being able to learn the knots using the super-clever practice pages, and will find that this book provides a real-world skill that can be used day after day and year after year.

     A more-typical Klutz offering, also for ages eight and up – one with considerable charm and cuteness rather than a lot of practical real-world applicability – is Sew Mini Animals, which includes pretty much everything needed to make a dozen or more two-to-three-inch-high little plush toys or friends. Like most Klutz offerings, this one has a book bound, with strong tape, to a box containing the projects’ essentials. In this case, that means nine colors of felt, stuffing, eight colors of floss, two embroidery needles, some precut felt eyes and cheeks, and plenty of patterns to use when cutting out felt into animal shapes. There are real-world skills to be learned here – embroidery, and even straightforward sewing – but the primary focus is on specific techniques needed to create these particular projects. Thus, there is information here on how to make a whip stitch and back stitch, but those instructions are purely at the service of creating the little animal fiends. Klutz does its usual excellent job of explaining how to do that. Creating a seal, for example, is an eight-step process that starts after assembly of the right items: cream and grey floss, the grey cut out into two seal body shapes, one seal base and four seal fins, the cream used to cut out a circle that will become the seal’s face. The steps start with “using a back stitch, make a nose and mouth on the face piece,” and continue through assembly and attachment of the various parts – with each stage of the project clearly shown, and each needed stitch designated. The book handles every project with similar care. It sensibly starts with information on making a penguin, a simple project on which young craftspeople can hone their skills. Then there are sections called “Flat and Fuzzy” (including sloth, bat, pig, and whale), “Belly Buddies” (seal and hedgehog), “Four-Legged Friends” (fox, raccoon and alpaca), and “Cute All Around” (bunny, panda, octopus, and owl). The projects proceed roughly in order of difficulty, and in some cases learning one makes the next one much easier – for instance, “the raccoon is made in almost the same way as the fox, with a few changes in felt colors and details.” All the little felt critters created using Sew Mini Animals are adorable, and the package provides enough variety so kids can easily pick and choose which projects they want to do – one child might, for example, prefer to make nothing but penguins, in multiple felt colors, while another might want to follow the book from start to finish and try making one of every animal shown. Sew Mini Animals is a winning combination of careful instruction and enjoyable results – which is exactly the mixture that makes Klutz “books-plus” projects so special.