January 26, 2017
A Greyhound, a Groundhog. By Emily Jenkins. Illustrated by Chris Appelhans. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
What This Story Needs Is a Bang and a Clang. By Emma J. Virján. Harper. $9.99.
Simple, sweet, and celebratory of the power of both friendship and language, Emily Jenkins’ A Greyhound, a Groundhog has no plot at all – and does not need one. It is all word play interpreting animal play, starting right on the first page, which says, in totality, “A hound. A round hound.” Chris Appelhans’ picture shows a greyhound curled tightly into a circle, not identifiable as a dog, much less a dog of a specific type. But by the next page, the hound unfolds, all long-necked elegance; and on the page after that, there is nothing to be seen but a hole in the ground – with the words, “A hog. A round hog.” And then, on the following page, the groundhog appears, and once that happens, the two soon-to-be-friends stretch and yawn in their own individual ways, and the text starts to mix things up verbally: “A groundhog, a greyhound, a grey little round hound.” Play and good-natured chasing ensue, the illustrations bursting with lively activity and the text shaped to match the action, as when words are typeset vertically and in curves to accompany a scene of the two friends chasing each other (or themselves) in circles. This is a perfect read-aloud book, because the words’ round sounds abound, all the way until – near the end – some butterflies astound. The book simply ends, since without a plot, there is no particular need for a story arc – and that is just fine, because if ever there was a book likely to make kids ages 3-7 listen all the way through and then clap their hands in joy and say, “Again!” it is this one. Parents had best be prepared to explore this non-narrative story some more and still more, from its open to close…as around and around and around the book goes.
The easy-to-read “Pig in a Wig” books by Emma J. Virján may not have the panache and sheer exuberance of A Greyhound, a Groundhog, but they have pleasures of their own – including a host of amusing sound effects in What This Story Needs Is a Bang and a Clang. Here the titular pig, wearing her usual high-piled bright red wig, is inspired by musical scores and old-fashioned vinyl records to build a bandstand and prepare “to conduct the Pig in a Wig Band.” As the band members show up, so do their instruments’ sounds: “a twang, a tootle, a ping, a boom, a brup, a jingle, a doom-doom-doom” (the last of those from a plucked double bass). Soon there is a motley but apparently tuneful collection of instruments being played by a variety of animals: bear, dog, cat, monkey, turtle and more with flute, trombone, triangle, cymbals – and a cow brings a cowbell, of course. All is going well until a mouse shows up with “a squeak,” that being the sound of the mouse himself rather than that of his instrument, which is a mouse-sized tuba. The mouse’s appearance frightens the cymbal-playing elephant, and soon all the animals are rushing higgledy-piggledy around the stage with “an EEK, and a SHRIEK,” and other highly unmusical noises. But not to worry: the Pig in a Wig insists that “the show must go on” and must include the mouse, who, after all, only wants to play in the band. So the animals march back to the stage and bring along sounds including “a tish, a tootle, a bwap, and a boom,” and the concert evokes “a clap, clap, clap” from the animals that have helpfully shown up to be the band’s audience. A slight story whose sounds can make it fun to read aloud – or can be fun for early readers to figure out and read on their own – What This Story Needs Is a Bang and a Clang offers good fun and a good sense of the rhythm that words, like music, can have…in their own way.
My Clay Critters. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $14.99.
My Egg Carton Animals. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $12.99.
There is nothing particularly complimentary about being called a klutz – derived from Yiddish, the word means someone who is awkward or clumsy. But the charm of calling a company Klutz lay in the implicit notion that we are all klutzes, one way or another, and can nevertheless make interesting things with our hands if guided carefully enough and given all the things we need for our projects. Maybe “Un-Klutz” would have fit the concept better, but it would not have been as much fun as a name. And now that Klutz operates within Scholastic rather than as a separate, independent company, it is showing that even very young children can be klutzes – or Klutzes, or Un-Klutzes, as you wish – by offering crafts-project kits intended for kids as young as age four. (Traditional Klutz products are generally best for ages eight and up.) My Clay Critters and My Egg Carton Animals adhere to the basic Klutz philosophy of simplicity and amusement – with a touch of additional cuteness thrown in. And, like Klutz “books-plus” products for older kids, these contain clear, easy-to-read-and-follow instructions plus all the items necessary to create a batch of adorable homemade playthings.
My Clay Critters starts, not surprisingly, with clay – the air-dry type, not the kind that needs to be baked. Six rolls are included, in different colors, along with a 28-page book that gives typically simple Klutz instructions for making 10 different ocean-dwelling creatures: sea turtle, crab, fish, octopus and more. In deference to the age range for which My Clay Critters is intended, the focus here is on manipulating, working with and forming the clay, using the included shaping tool: the potentially over-challenging elements of these brightly colored projects, such as fins and tails, are provided as pre-cut shapes, and screw-on eyes (with insertion points not sharp enough to injure young craftspeople) are included as well. In making the octopus, for example, kids actually make only the octopus’ body, then attach pre-cut tentacles to it and press eyes into the clay to give this critter a more wide-eyed expression than any octopus outside a cartoon will ever have. As it typically does, Klutz throws in an offbeat fact here and there to enliven the proceedings further – for instance, that a group of crabs is called a cast. For each critter, the book shows the finished project, the specific items needed to make it, and then how those items are put together – with everything in easy-to-read language and big, bright illustrations. The clay-working techniques that kids learn here will stand them in good stead when they move on to do other, self-guided projects on their own or in school: My Clay Critters can be a good foundation for further adventures in simple sculpture.
You would think that if My Clay Critters starts with clay, then My Egg Carton Animals would start with an egg carton. But that is not quite the case. Egg cartons vary a lot, after all: some are cardboard, some are foam, and they come in different colors, with different sorts of printing on them – and may be easy or difficult to cut apart into individual egg cups. So in this case, Klutz provides a kind of idealized egg carton for kids’ projects, in the form of 12 cups that look a lot like the ones in which eggs are packed but that have no printing on them at all and are designed to be easy to break apart and use to build the six farm-animal projects explained in the instruction book (sheep, chicken, goat, cow, and so forth). The plainness of the egg-carton-like basic cups here is wholly intentional, since My Egg Carton Animals includes four colors of paint (and a paintbrush), cotton balls for wool and such, a tube of glue, a dozen googly eyes, and – as in My Clay Critters – lots of punch-out items for animal features that would otherwise be difficult for young children to make, such as wings, ears, tails and horns. The reason the 12 included cups make only six animals is that all the projects here start with gluing two cups together by attaching their rims to each other. That provides the basic shape that kids then decorate with paint, cotton and punch-outs. There is typical, age-appropriate Klutz humor here to keep things interesting, such as the suggestion to make a goatee for the goat. And there is nothing stopping ambitious kids from moving on from the Klutz egg cups to actual pieces of egg cartons in order to create additional creatures – although ambitious young craftspeople will quickly find that everyday egg cartons do not come apart or go together in paired cups as neatly as do the ones that Klutz provides. Still, by the time they finish My Egg Carton Animals and My Clay Critters, young children will know enough about doing these crafts projects so they can strike out on their own with a reasonable expectation of success – and not feel like klutzes at all.
The God Wave. By Patrick Hemstreet. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
Originally published last year and now available in a new paperback edition, Patrick Hemstreet’s debut novel, The God Wave, still seems both as prescient and as in-the-moment as when it first appeared. The first book of a trilogy – the second, The God Peak, is expected later this year – The God Wave remains chillingly realistic. The title does not refer, except perhaps obliquely, to the Higgs boson, known as “the god particle,” but instead is a reference to a biological rather than physical phenomenon. This is a brain wave, so far undiscovered, that operates above the measurable frequencies of alpha, beta and gamma waves and that can lead to manifestation of superhuman abilities (which Hemstreet says are really human abilities) in the 90% of the brain that generally goes unused (that 90%-of-the-brain-is-unused notion is a fiction, but one of such long standing that Hemstreet’s employment of it is not too big a strain on one’s credulity). The idea of discovering something new in the human body is scarcely far-fetched – consider, for example, the very recent discovery that the body contains a previously unknown organ called the mesentery. Yes, the presence of tissue connecting the abdomen to the intestines has been known for some time, but the realization that the tissue is a single organ rather than a series of similarly functioning but discrete clumps is a new one, requiring scientists and physicians to look at this part of the body in a new way.
Something along those lines is what happens in The God Wave, although matters are understandably ratcheted up quite a bit for the sake of drama. The primary characters here are well-meaning, if flawed, scientists; and yes, they are types to some extent, but Hemstreet does a good job of humanizing them. One is idealistic Chuck Brenton, a neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins who is looking for real-world applications of brain waves. After all, if they can move the needle during an electroencephalogram, why not use them to drive cars or paint pictures? Back here in the real world, there are already experimental systems that let quadriplegics and other severely physically limited people use their brains for certain types of functionality. Hemstreet’s creation of a desire by Brenton to go just a bit beyond that readily passes the believability test. The problem for Brenton is that math is not his expertise, and he needs help using very complex aspects of it to turn brain waves into commands and actions.
That is where MIT professor Matt Streegman comes in. A borderline misanthrope and a genius in his own field, Streegman hears an interview with Benton and thinks immediately of how Brenton’s research, if pushed just a bit further, could benefit Streegman’s wife, Lucy. She is hospitalized and comatose, but has active brain waves. Perhaps Brenton’s findings – aided by Streegman’s math expertise – could let Streegman communicate with Lucy. Besides – and, yes, this coincidence does strain credulity a bit – it just so happens that Streegman works not only in higher mathematics but also in robotics.
Anyone who remembers Edgar Allan Poe’s deeply chilling “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” will see just how wrong things could go in this scenario, although that is not quite the way they actually do go wrong. (In fact, Lucy more or less disappears from the story after being used to set up Streegman’s background. A little more attention to her would better have humanized her husband.)
It is the partnership of Brenton and Streegman that gets the book going; and if the scene-setting is a touch on the slow side, it helps to remember that this is, after all, the start of a three-book series. The two men form Advanced Kinetics, gather the usual variegated mixture of subjects – gamer, artist, martial-arts specialist, construction worker – and engage in intense research. And fault lines between the researchers develop soon enough. Brenton’s goal is to aid the handicapped and make sea and space exploration easier and safer. Streegman, far less altruistic and more focused on a big financial payoff, is quite willing to get military rather than medical backing for their lab, and his stronger personality soon leads to the involvement of one General Howard, who really is a cardboard character: he gets the lab working on complex research, for military purposes, with the super-secret Deep Shield, and Brenton does not realize what is happening until there is no turning back. But the test subjects themselves (Lanfen, Mike, Mini, Sara and Tim) know that military control of their growing abilities can lead to disaster, and those newly developed capabilities give them powers of which even Brenton and Streegman are unaware. No, this is no Frankenstein or R.U.R., but Hemstreet calls up elements of those tales as the plot of The God Wave enmeshes the characters more and more tightly. The book fits firmly in the SF/action genre while raising the sorts of questions that only the greats in that field raise consistently: philosophical queries about individuality, creativity, and what it means to be fully human. Hemstreet also manages to employ some sly humor from time to time, with references to films ranging from The Matrix to Independence Day to Transformers. The result is a provocative novel that is not only fast-paced and fun to read but also unusually thoughtful and involving. And its cliffhanger ending is quite well done and flows naturally from what has gone before, rather than having the tacked-on quality so common in “stay tuned” conclusions. It will be most interesting to see where Hemstreet goes with his premises and characters as this trilogy continues.
Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out! Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood. By Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Schwartz & Wade. $24.99.
The way to perpetuate racism is to insist, repeatedly and at every turn, that the first thing people should notice and pay attention to is the color of someone’s skin. It helps to dress the concept up in flowery language when possible: “affirmative action” rather than “preference based on skin color” is a popular example. But the underlying idea is the same: skin color comes first and everything else comes later. There is certainly justification for Americans of African descent to believe they are entitled to redress longstanding societal imbalances by showing the many highly positive accomplishments of people with darker skin – but even that notion, fraught with the slippery concept of “entitlement,” is a less-than-forthright one. By definition, and often by design, race-based labeling is exclusionary, creating a them-vs.-us world in which any possibility that we are all “us” remains remote and sometimes becomes increasingly so. Thus, for example, museums dedicated to the African American experience are intended as uplift for African Americans but, despite any politically motivated rhetoric to the contrary, are not intended or expected to draw crowds of people of other races, ethnicities and skin colors.
Missed opportunities to produce a more colorblind world for our children are particularly sad, because even if we accept the notion that our current world remains hopelessly mired in racial identification despite the enormous (although scarcely complete) progress of recent times, there is always the hope that things may be better for the next generation – if, ideally, there is willingness to hold one’s long-held resentment in check for the sake of trying to improve the future. And this is the reason that the new book by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, is at the same time so wonderful and so disappointing. The contents – games, rhymes, songs, folk sayings and folk tales, and much more – are often wonderful; but the way they are presented, the unending emphasis on looking at this material first and foremost through the lens of skin color, is a deeply disheartening way of guiding today’s young children to a future filled with feelings of victimization rather than hope.
Take, for example, the presentation of The Ballad of John Henry. Imagine the effect on two children of different races hearing this story, becoming involved in the man-against-the-machine narrative (which still has great resonance today), and learning at the end of John Henry’s tragic but noble death in representing humanity against the soulless power of machinery – and then learning that John Henry was black. That would be a marvelous teachable moment for both children, because the focus would be on John Henry’s humanity, the way he stands for all people in a time of job loss and automation, the way he stands up for what it means to be human – not black, pink or purple with polka dots, but human. However, that is not what McKissack offers. “John Henry is an African American folk hero,” she states at the start of the first paragraph of her introduction. And: “An African American railroad worker named John Henry actually lived,” she says at the start of the second. So for African American children, we now have a meaningful story – but for others, either nothing or a story about someone “not like me.” That is how racism flourishes.
Or take McKissack’s retelling of a story of Br’er Rabbit. McKissack trots out the old canard that Joel Chandler Harris, the journalist who brought these stories to widespread attention, was merely a white man perpetuating stereotypes by using “historically inaccurate language patterns” for the characters. McKissack deliberately ignores the fact that Harris lived on a plantation for four years during and after the Civil War, spending much of his time with the slaves because he felt like an outcast himself, being red-headed and Irish at a time when there was considerable discrimination against the Irish and their Catholic religion. Harris specifically named several slaves who told him the Br’er Rabbit stories, and said that he wrote down the tales as they were told to him. Certainly it is possible that Harris was misstating or misremembering in later years, but that is by no means certain. But McKissack does not want to accept the Harris stories, and prefers to rewrite her Br’er Rabbit tale as if told by someone with very good vocabulary and standard-English expressiveness: “They slipped under the fence and proceeded to fill their bellies full of the vegetables.” The rewriting is certainly her prerogative, and she is scarcely the first to do so; but her main objection, that the stories were popularized by someone with the “wrong” skin color, is racist. Nor does she mention Harris only in this connection. In discussing Paul Laurence Dunbar, McKissack mentions that Dunbar not only wrote in standard English but also used dialect, which “was authentic” rather than “stereotypical” like that employed by Harris. So a line such as “Bees gwine to ketch you an’ eat you up yit” is fine when written by Dunbar, but virtually identical lines by Harris are unacceptable because Harris was white. That is racist.
McKissack is a first-rate writer and recounter of stories. She is also mired and enmeshed in a time far distant from that in which today’s children, of any color, are growing up, and her perceptions are shaped by the fact that when she “was growing up in the 1950s, the southern United States was mostly segregated.” That was an absolute fact of life 60-plus years ago. And the trials and troubles faced by African Americans even today – and not only in the southern United States – are also a fact of life. But the desire to perpetuate resentment of a society that no longer exists is a deeply unfortunate one; the wish to have young children today see marvelous cross-cultural and cross-racial stories, songs, rhymes and fables only or primarily through the lens of skin color, is a deeply distressing one. The items in this book are stated to be “from an African American childhood,” which specifically means from McKissack’s childhood; and as formative bits of nostalgia, they certainly have their place in her life. But our children’s lives can be better than McKissack’s, no matter what color our children’s skins may be, and that is an attitude wholly missing in this skin-color-first collection. Hopefully McKissack does not really believe that today’s children live in a world like the one in which she grew up. It is depressing that she wants to perpetuate that world rather than put it behind her and help give today’s young people a better one.
Of Love of You: A Tribute to Emery W. Harper. Sharon Harris, soprano; Robert Osborne, bass-baritone; Todd Crow, Lowell Liebermann and Yehudi Wyner, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Jane O’Leary: The Passing Sound of Forever and other chamber music. Navona. $14.99.
Hans Bakker and Peter Greve: Lines to Infinity. Navona. $14.99.
Georges Raillard: Butterflies in the Labyrinth of Silence. David William Ross, guitar. Navona. $14.99.
Contemporary composers frequently try to make their points as much through words as through music. And some compositions, although they can stand on their own, have their individuality subsumed under the umbrella of a larger purpose – often, as is the case with Of Love of You, a very insular and inward-directed purpose, whose full meaning will be apparent only to those who are musical intimates of the composers. Very, very few listeners outside the inner circle of Luigi Terruso and Emery W. Harper will get the full effect of the works on a new MSR Classics release; and that is by intent, since Terruso, who lived with Harper for more than 20 years, conceived of this project as a tribute to Harper, who died in 2009, and had the component parts created by composers who were friends of the two men during their two decades together. There are 11 composers represented here, some of them quite prominent among followers of modern classical music: William Bolcom, Joan Morris, David Del Tredici, Steven Stucky, Lowell Liebermann, Bernard Rands, John Eaton, Paul Moravec, Yehudi Wyner, Tania León and Jorge Martín. The works on the CD, all world première recordings, include three for piano solo (Rands’ Impromptu No. 2, Del Tredici’s Bank Street Prelude, and Wyner’s Amoroso) and one for piano four hands (Bolcom’s piquant Sentimental Waltz, a highlight of the disc). The remaining seven pieces are songs, some of which use thoroughly unsurprising words (Emily Dickinson’s in Moravec’s You Left Me, John Milton’s in Eaton’s Lycidas, Percy Shelley’s in Liebermann’s Music, When Soft Voices Die) and some of which go a bit further afield in terms of familiarity (Carlos Pintado’s in León’s Mi Amor Es, and Arnold Weinstein’s in the title track, set by Morris and Bolcom). And there are two songs using words by Walt Whitman: We Two Boys by Martín and Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking by Stucky. Does this mean that Terruso and/or Harper had a particular fondness for Whitman? Does the balance of vocal and instrumental music signify anything? The titles aimed at expressing love are obvious elements of a project such as this, but is there special significance to a place such as “Bank Street”? These and other questions are ones to which the contributors to this project surely know the answers – and for that closely connected group, those answers surely have significance. And a few of the pieces here reach out for meaningfulness beyond their occasional purpose. But really, this is an “in” project for a designated “in-group,” and it is not a musical paean, eulogy or celebration for anyone not already part of those “in the know.” If you were not among the close friends of attorney Emery W. Harper (1936-2009), the works here will have only minimal significance and, in the main, little to communicate beyond the conventional.
The Navona CD called The Passing Sound of Forever would seem, on the basis of its title, to be another encomium for someone or something. Here, though, the title track, which dates to 2015, refers to a specific piece for string quartet, inspired by a Beethoven quartet and expressing, in all three of its movements, a sense of striving or yearning, communicated effectively by the ConTempo Quartet (Bogdan Sofei and Ingrid Nicola, violins; Andreea Banciu, viola; Adrian Mantu, cello). The rest of the music here is simply a sampling of Jane O’Leary’s style in chamber works for various instruments. A Way Through (2013) is for alto flute (Madeleine Staunton), bass clarinet (Paul Roe), and accordion (Dermot Dunne), a particularly intriguing instrumental combination that makes possible some unusual sounds and contrasts – which O’Leary explores with skill. There is also rather unusual, and interesting, sound from concert harp (Andreja Malir) and cello (Martin Johnson) in a work from 2011 called (with ellipses) …From Hand to Hand… The remaining pieces here are more ordinary. They are No. 19 (2012) for violin solo (Elaine Clark); Murmurs and Echoes (2015) for clarinet (Paul Roe) and piano (David Bremner); and A Winter Sketchbook (2015) for alto flute (Staunton) and violin (Clark). O’Leary seems especially interested in the emotional coloration of varying instrumental sounds – she is fond of harmonics, for example – and likes to blend instruments at some times while contrasting them strongly at other times. She also enjoys creating, from time to time, a sense of spatial distance or distortion, as in the final movement of Murmurs and Echoes. All these works have effective moments; those using atypical instrumental combinations are the most engaging.
The evocative title of another new Navona chamber-music CD, Lines to Infinity, turns out not to refer to any specific piece by Hans Bakker or Peter Greve: instead, it is supposed to reflect the overall feeling of all five works on the disc, acting as a sort of guidepost for listeners looking to explore the intended emotional landscape of the recording. It does help to have some sort of guide here, because the pieces themselves are not particularly closely related to each other. True, four of the five use flute, but one does not include it and one (Bakker’s Leys/Krachtlijnen) is for a solo flute (played by Cora Greevenbosch). There are three works here by Bakker, the other two being Easy Piece – Petite Pièce for cello (Ludmila Bubeníčková) and piano (Lucie Kaucká), and Trio for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet (respectively, Markéta Soldánová, Gabriela Kummerová, and Aleš Janeček). The two pieces by Greve are Sonata for Flute and Piano (Petr Hladík and Kaucká) and “Dialogues” for Flute, Cello and Piano (Soldánová, Petr Nouzovský and Kaucká). Both the Greve works are representational to some extent, the sonata being primarily modal in construction and strongly influenced by Turkish folk music, and the trio being intended to represent four elements of communication between lovers: “Discussion,” “Dispute,” “Reflection” and “Celebration” – although the finale returns at last to the tempo of the first movement, suggesting a certain repetitive circularity of interplay. Of the three Bakker works, Leys/Krachtlijnen is built around a hymnlike melody, Easy Piece is indeed simple-sounding and rather like film music, and the trio – the most substantial of these three pieces – is structurally and rhythmically complex, giving each instrument a chance to stand out from the others. Whether these five disparate chamber works add up, collectively or in some combination, to Lines to Infinity, is scarcely obvious and, in truth, not especially relevant.
Yet another evocatively titled Navona release, Butterflies in the Labyrinth of Silence, actually draws its name from two of the dozen solo-guitar pieces by Georges Raillard heard on the disc. One is called Butterfly and the other The Labyrinth of Silence. The two works exist together only in the CD’s title – they are not even juxtaposed on the recording. But in this case, the overall disc title, if not taken too literally, does give a fair summation of the moods of the works, from delicate to quiet. There is little of the dramatic here, although He Burst Out Laughing does start with a burst of what could be laughter before it subsides into serenity. These works’ titles are rather good reflections of their sound: in addition to those already mentioned, they include Shells on the Beach, Night Waves, Pacemaker, To Pilar, Summer Evening at the Rhine, Three Child’s Plays for Selina, Dance of the Shadows, Measuring Clouds, and Patio. Raillard does a good job of balancing consonance and dissonance in his guitar writing, and David William Ross skillfully evokes the many capabilities of the instrument even as he brings forth the various emotions that Raillard wants to communicate. For all its multiplicity of approaches to guitar composition, though, Raillard’s music ultimately has a certain sameness of sound that makes an hour and a quarter of it less than fully appealing – after a while, the works tend to recede into the background, although listeners whose attention starts to drift will likely find themselves brought back to attentiveness from time to time by one unusual or striking compositional element or another. These may take the form of unexpected dissonances, for example, or rapping on the guitar’s body for a percussive effect. On the whole, this is an inward-focused CD that will be of particular interest to guitar players – for others, it is on the monochromatic side, although the music is certainly well-suited to the instrument and the performances are well and sensitively done.
January 19, 2017
No More Bows. By Samantha Cotterill. Harper. $17.99.
Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match. By Megan Mayor. Illustrated by Rosalinde Bonnet. Harper. $17.99.
Adrift: An Odd Couple of Polar Bears. By Jessica Olien. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Books for ages 4-8 sometimes tend to lay their messages on rather too thickly, but even when they do, the books can be rescued by a certain lightness in storytelling and by illustrations that make the educational elements go down more easily. Samantha Cotterill’s No More Bows is a good example of how this can work. It is a simple story of friendship – between a little girl named Milly and her dog, Hugo – but the cover picture of an obviously irritated pooch with an enormous polka-dot bow on his head offers immediate insight into what is going on here. The story’s lesson has to do with the importance of friendship and how friends make compromises for each other, but what makes the book work so well is its amusement level, especially when it comes to Hugo’s expressions. The two friends are clearly devoted to each other, but Milly loves to dress Hugo up with bows before they go on walks, and does not understand how humiliated he feels when he has to walk past a large number of other neighborhood dogs, watching from apartment windows and laughing at how ridiculous he looks. The first time Milly dresses Hugo up, Hugo’s enthusiastic “Zip…Zap…Zoom” at the prospect of a walk with Milly soon turns into “a tug…a pull…and a POP” to get the bow off. But the very next day, Milly has another, even larger bow for Hugo, and the whole scene is repeated, with the other dogs laughing even more loudly. Hugo gets rid of this bow as well, but then Cotterill shows two pages of laugh-out-loud drawings of poor Hugo wearing a wide assortment of bows, each more humiliating than the last. Fed up, Hugo runs away from home! But he soon feels lonely, and so does Milly, who posts “missing dog” posters everywhere. And then Hugo sees another dog wearing a bow and looking happy – so he realizes what he needs to do. He comes back to Milly and leads her to a pet store in whose window there is a simple, elegant bow, “neither frilly nor sparkly” and with “no buttons or jewels.” Milly likes the bow, too, and soon the two are walking happily as Hugo proudly shows off his new bow – and, since it is raining, the yellow dog booties he also got at the store, which match Milly’s yellow rain boots perfectly. Compromise and understanding: the recipe for a continuing beautiful friendship.
Milly’s and Hugo’s boots may match, and their taste in bows does, too – eventually – but complete matching is not necessary for a solid friendship. That is the message of Megan Mayor’s Ella and Penguin: A Perfect Match, the second book about these two adorable friends. Mayor makes her point about friendship a touch too strongly and obviously, but the delightful illustrations by Rosalinde Bonnet help keep the story light and somewhat playful. The tale has Ella insisting that Penguin be just like her, because friends just must be alike and do the same things. So if Ella wears a tutu, Penguin cannot wear pants – even if a tutu makes Penguin uncomfortable. If Ella loves peppermint candies, then Penguin has to love them, too, because friends need to be “matchy-matchy.” And if Ella wants to finger paint, of course Penguin has to finger paint as well. But clearly things are not going well for Penguin, who “waddled after Ella in his too-tight tutu, fanning his minty breath.” Penguin tries to match Ella, he really does, but he simply does not like finger paint. Or mints. Or wearing a tutu. So obviously – a bit too obviously – the two can no longer be friends, and they separate to different parts of the house and cry. It is obvious where this will go, and it goes there: Ella and Penguin realize it is all right to match some of the time but is not necessary to match all the time, “because friends don’t always match.” And everything ends happily, with Mayor and Bonnet successfully lightening the theme by having Penguin decide to wear his pants on his head, while Ella decides to wear something on her head as well: a pair of socks. The simplicity of the lesson here makes the book most appropriate for readers toward the younger end of the 4-8 age range – and, of course, for ones who met Ella and Penguin in their previous outing and have been eagerly awaiting a new, homespun adventure.
Cold-weather critters from the North Pole rather than the South figure in Jessica Olien’s Adrift, but Karl and Hazel look less like polar bears than Penguin looks like a penguin. Karl wears prominent eyeglasses, and Hazel wears a yellow scarf with orange polka dots – and sits by herself, reading, first Moby-Dick and later, amusingly in an in-joke-for-adults way, Camus’ The Stranger. Karl is talkative, a classic extrovert, and smells of old fish, while Hazel is shy and prefers things to be quiet. Inevitably, when a chunk of ice breaks off one day, the two mismatched characters are on opposite sides of it. They soon discover each other and build a wall to keep their portions of the ice floe separate. But then, also inevitably, they get lonely and start to communicate, eventually sharing games, food, songs and the view. And when they finally drift to land, they realize that they do not want to go their separate ways, because they are now best friends and want to stay together. So they do just that, the final story page showing Hazel sitting on the floor eating cookies as Karl – yes, Karl – sits in a chair and reads a book (Pride and Prejudice, of all things). The story of mismatched characters learning to get along is straightforward and quite simple, but it does not quite end there: Olien rather jarringly turns the last couple of pages of the book into a lecture on climate change, how it could affect polar bears, and what kids can do “to help save polar bears and their Arctic habitat.” Actually, there is nothing wrong with any of this, but it meshes oddly with a book whose central characters did not have to be polar bears at all – any different-personality people or animals would do, and there is nothing particularly polar-bear-ish about Karl and Hazel or their adventures. Although Olien does offer several Web sites to visit to “learn more about polar bears,” Adrift is not really about the bears at all and is therefore unlikely to spur kids’ interest in them. Still, it works nicely as yet another of the many, many “odd couple” stories, in which friendship takes root in unlikely soil – or, in this case, on ice.
When the Sky Breaks: Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and the Worst Weather in the World. By Simon Winchester. Viking. $22.99.
Although officially intended for ages 10 and up, Simon Winchester’s When the Sky Breaks has so much well-presented and important information in it that parents will be as eager to read it as will their children. Weather, after all, affects every one of us, every single day, and despite the famous statement that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it (Charles Dudley Warner, wrongly attributed to Mark Twain), the urge to learn about weather and try to predict it is a strong one. Maybe we cannot do anything about the weather itself, after all, but maybe we can better prepare ourselves for whatever the weather may be.
Or maybe not. Weather events are far more complicated, hence unpredictable, than most people realize, and Winchester shows just how complicated that is. It was mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz who coined the term “the butterfly effect” to describe major weather changes caused by small, seemingly inconsequential events – although perhaps nothing quite as small as the flapping of a distant butterfly’s wings – and the observation is shown to be correct, time and time again, in Winchester’s book. For example, “Who would have thought that the existence of the Sahara Desert, with its pale and reflective yellow sands and equatorial heat bearing down upon it, would cause disturbances in the atmosphere that could in turn cause storms in the Carolinas or Texas or New York?” Yet this is exactly how hurricanes form, thanks to an event called an African easterly wave (AEW) that is caused by air moving from the Indian Ocean and encountering the heat and aridity of the Sahara. Winchester explains what happens and how, and also why there are not constant hurricanes – here his ability really shines, as he uses the example of a fully fueled car that is ready to go anytime but does not go all the time, because some small thing (the turning of an ignition key) is necessary to start it. That is a small, humdrum version of the butterfly effect, one so common that most readers will likely never have thought of it in these terms – yet it is the very mundanity of the example that helps Winchester clarify the strangeness and enormity of cyclonic storms.
Winchester humanizes weather forecasting, too. Again in his section on hurricanes, he does not merely present the inevitable discussion of the devastating storm that in 1900 smashed into and nearly destroyed Galveston, Texas – still the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. What Winchester does is build his story around that of forecaster Isaac Cline, who lived in Galveston and was largely responsible for the erroneous forecasts of the storm’s track – but who was repeatedly right about the storm’s earlier path, which changed in a bizarre way because of “a strange and unseen ripple in the upper atmosphere” that the science of the time could not possibly have known about or understood.
As the subtitle of When the Sky Breaks indicates, the book discusses tornadoes as well as hurricanes – and also deals with cyclones, the Southern Hemisphere version of hurricanes. The pages about Cyclone Tracy, which hit Darwin, Australia on Christmas Day 1974, are especially harrowing. Like the Galveston hurricane three-quarters of a century earlier, this cyclone “quite unexpectedly…made a sharp right-angled swerve [and] bore down with withering accuracy toward the dead center of Darwin. …Ten thousand houses, 80 percent of the city, were totally destroyed, reduced to matchsticks and pulverized concrete.” The death toll was modest for so intense a storm – 71 people were killed, compared with some 8,000 in Galveston – but “Darwin was brought to its knees,” and did not even have regular communication with the outside world for three days. “In the end, almost the entire city of Darwin had to be evacuated. Forty-one thousand of its forty-seven thousand inhabitants were without home, shelter, water, food, medicine, or communication.” But the city was rebuilt, essentially from the ground up, and today is thought to be cyclone-proof – not that a storm as strong as Tracy has ever tested it. Yet.
That “yet” matters. The human ability to rebuild after disaster is sorely tested by vast storms, but rebuilding does occur, hopefully with major lessons learned – including those discussed in When the Sky Breaks about severe weather being both predictable and unpredictable. And that has much to do with tornadoes. Winchester accurately describes the tornado as “America’s national storm,” since most of the world’s tornadoes happen in the United States. The conditions under which a tornado will form are well-known, but the actual formation of a particular tornado remains unpredictable – and the speed of formation and movement are such that when a tornado does occur, there is very little time to respond. And safety is harder to come by than in hurricanes: tornado winds are so strong that they cannot be accurately measured, because “even the sturdiest of anemometers, or wind-speed instruments, is invariably destroyed by the strongest tornado.” There are plenty of photos of the destruction wrought by tornadoes and other storms in When the Sky Breaks, but this is not primarily a picture book: it is descriptive and explanatory. The tornado section, for instance, contains a fascinating explanation of why the “accident of geography” of the United States makes tornadoes likelier in the U.S. than anywhere else: the deadliest tornado ever was actually in Bangladesh in 1989, but 14 of the 50 worst have occurred in the U.S. When the Sky Breaks is packed with information, but even with everything scientists and researchers now know, Winchester acknowledges the limitations of meteorology, noting that “little is certain” even though “global forecasting is less of an enigma, less of a throw of the dice, than it once was.” The fascinating material in this book will not make it any easier for readers to decide what clothing to wear the day after reading it, but it will help them understand the vast, interconnected global patterns of which their local weather events, however severe, are just one small part.
Harry Potter Cinematic Guides: Harry Potter; Hermione Granger; Ron Weasley; Albus Dumbledore. Scholastic. $8.99 each.
Harry Potter Magical Places & Characters: Poster Coloring Book. Scholastic. $24.99.
Harry Potter Magical Places & Characters: Postcard Coloring Book. Scholastic. $9.99.
The recent release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and the earlier opening of the play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, have together expanded the “Potterverse” created by J.K. Rowling in ways intended to reach out to audiences that may not have grown up with the original seven books and eight movies about “the boy who lived.” At the same time, the new entries are intended to revive the flagging interest of people who did grow up with Harry, Hermione and Ron and have now, as adults, presumably moved on to other fantasies and other entertainments.
It is largely for this second group, or perhaps for the children of its members, that Scholastic has released a series of very well-done reminders about the original Harry Potter films. Each slim hardcover book uses multiple scenes from the movies and brief connective copy to remind readers of key film events and how they tied into the overall story of Harry, his friends and their adventures. Every Cinematic Guide follows this pattern, and all are well done within their self-imposed restrictions. The one about Harry mentions his survival as a baby when Voldemort killed his parents and provides cinema stills of Harry, his parents, Hagrid straddling the motorcycle on which he brought Harry to the Dursley home, the detestable Dursley family – and, later in the short (64-page) book, highlights of Harry’s time at Hogwarts, portraits of some of the people with whom he interacted in the film sequence, and his eventual final duel with Voldemort. The Hermione Granger book focuses on her intelligence, some of the unexpected difficulties she encounters at Hogwarts, her cleverness in helping solve various mysteries (including several stills showing the effects of the identity-disguising Polyjuice Potion that she proves adept at making), her role in the final battle against Voldemort, and her eventual pairing with Ron Weasley – one element of the books and films that many fans found rather hard to accept. The guide to Ron does little to explain what the whip-smart Hermione sees in him: it shows him as the pleasant, rather feckless hanger-on who is a good person to have with you in a pinch (as Harry repeatedly discovers) but who has altogether less personality and less depth of character than either Harry or Hermione. However, the book about Ron does a good job of summing up his and his family’s involvement with Harry and with the dramatic story arc of the films. And then there is the guide to Albus Dumbledore, who was played in the first two films by Richard Harris and in the others – after Harris died – by Michael Gambon. In some ways this is the most interesting of these guides, because it gives some prominence to matters that are on the incidental side in the other books: Dumbledore’s brother and sister; his first meeting with the student who would become Voldemort; his relationships with Snape and with his former friend, Gellert Grindelwald; his death and the larger plan that it sets in motion; and more. Taken as a set, these four books provide a handy, if surface-level, overview of the Harry Potter films and their main characters: they will help fans familiar with those films to remember them and will provide some useful background to anyone for whom the Fantastic Beasts franchise, which is intended to last for five movies, represents first contact with Rowling’s created world.
For those of an artistic bent, some additional entry into the world of Harry Potter is available in the form of one large coloring book and one small one. Each contains 20 black-and-white scenes from the films, including some overlap between the volumes. The scenes are not identified, so these are books for the real Potter-film enthusiast. The smaller book, for that matter, is best for people who know what traditional postcards are and who still send them: each perforated page is exactly the size and shape of a card, with room on the back for an address and blank space to wrote a few words. The poster book, much larger and more elaborate (and thus considerably more expensive), is best for a really committed Potterphile artist: some of the scenes, such as one of Diagon Alley and one showing Hagrid sitting on the steps in front of his house in the woods, are very intricate indeed, and will try the patience of anyone not fully committed to this imaginative world. What the coloring books provide – and what the Cinematic Guide books offer in different form – is a chance to re-live one’s entry into the Harry Potter world as it appeared on film, and (in the case of the coloring books) the opportunity to reimagine the appearance of that world in one’s own way, using whatever colors one likes so as to highlight the characters and settings in the poster and postcard volumes. Whether or not the theatrical and cinematic expansions of the original Harry Potter franchise are worthwhile is arguable and is in fact being widely argued – but whatever disputes those extensions of the original novels may create, what is not in dispute is the fact that Rowling created one of the most fascinating and apparently durable fantasy worlds of modern times, one that garnered many millions of now-adult young fans and has the potential (through the new film entries) to bring in even more. Certainly these various guides and coloring books “exploit,” in a sense, the popularity of Harry Potter’s adventures. But it is hard to argue that that is an inherently bad thing, given the pleasure that Rowling’s writings – and the films made from them – have brought to so many, and the likelihood that the purchasers and readers (or colorers) of these books will relive the events that brought them enjoyment and maybe even get some additional Potter-themed gratification for themselves and perhaps for the next generation of Potter fans.
Confidentially Yours #5: Brooke’s Bad Luck. By Jo Whittemore. Harper. $6.99.
Roxbury Park Dog Club #5: A New Leash on Life. By Daphne Maple. Harper. $6.99.
Roxbury Park Dog Club #6: A Bone to Pick. By Daphne Maple. Harper. $6.99.
Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club novels, which have sold a remarkable 175-million-plus copies through 35 books by Martin and many more by other writers, have inspired a whole set of “preteen girls doing good things and having occasional minor difficulties” novel groupings, including Confidentially Yours and Roxbury Park Dog Club. The four original members of Martin’s club, when her series started in 1986, were Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia and Stacey. In today’s many sequences along the same lines, there is little that differs from series to series except the names of the girls (and an occasional boy) and the specific activities around which the four-person groups’ interactions revolve. For example, Confidentially Yours features Brooke, Heather, Vanessa and Tim; Roxbury Park Dog Club includes Taylor, Kim, Sasha and Brianna.
Multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity are part and parcel of the new book groupings, and some of the family circumstances are updated to reflect modern family groupings, but by and large, the central issues of these book series are minor ones in which the protagonists have to confront something troublesome (although small in the grand scheme of things), figure out what to do about it, and as a result become wiser and more tightly bound in friendship. Thus, Brooke’s Bad Luck is all about superstition. Brooke visits a psychic who warns her about an upcoming run of bad luck, and the prediction seems to come true because of a series of little things that Brooke blows out of proportion, such as spilling food and playing soccer poorly. What connects Brooke’s troubles with the overall theme of Confidentially Yours is that the advice column that gives this series its title, and the newspaper that she and her friends put out together, are competing in a contest that Brooke fears they will lose because her luck has turned bad. So she creates a good-luck charm to counter the bad luck, and sure enough, it works! But anyone who remembers stories such as, say, Dumbo, will know that it is belief in good-luck charms – and bad-luck predictions – that gives them their power, and this is the lesson that Brooke has to learn in order to take charge of her own life again and stop believing she is somehow “destined” to have things go poorly for her. It even turns out that Brooke’s soccer troubles were engineered – by another player, who is jealous of her – and Brooke gets to mend that particular fence while conquering her worries about superstition. “The fear is in your head,” Brooke concludes, and everything ends, expectedly, in upbeat fashion.
The two latest entries in the Roxbury Park Dog Club series follow a very similar story arc. A New Leash on Life focuses mainly on Brianna, who came to the club late – she was invited by the three other girls – and feels somewhat left out of the trio’s close friendship. So she bonds more closely than ever with the dogs in the club, which the girls started to help dogs whose owners had to work all day and to raise money for the local animal shelter. In fact, Brianna (Bri) bonds especially closely with one particular dog, an older shelter resident called Lily, and ends up deciding that she would like to foster Lily – if she can get her mother to agree to take the dog into their home. So the issues here involve friendship among the girls, bonding both with humans and with dogs, and family matters – in effect, increasing the size of a family by bringing a dog into it. Eventually, things work out even better than Bri ever thought they would, as she develops a new and closer bond with her mother as well as her friends, and Lily does in fact get to join the family. So all is smiles as the book ends. But there are frowns, of course, as the next one starts. A Bone to Pick focuses on Sasha: in all these series, different books focus on different members of the central ensemble. Sasha feels she does more work for the dog club than her friends do, and as a result she is starting to harbor resentment toward them. The question is whether the friendship can withstand this sort of thing, in which the girls find they just cannot communicate effectively with each other. It gets so bad that even well-meant comments are taken the wrong way: “Maybe she was trying to be nice, but it came out like she was being condescending.” Clearly something has to give, and it must not be the girls’ friendship or their commitment to the club. But matters get to such a point that Sasha eventually finds it “impossible to be happy about anything.” So then, of course, the girls realize it is “time to get our priorities straight,” and everybody apologizes to everybody else, and the club is restructured to be sure all duties are apportioned fairly, and happiness abounds for everyone – until, of course, another small crisis gets blown out of proportion. But that can wait for the next entry in the series. Fans of the preteen-focused Roxbury Park Dog Club and Confidentially Yours sequences will just be happy that things have, once again, turned out so well…until the inevitable next time.
Shostakovich: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin; NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester conducted by Alan Gilbert. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).
Paganini: 24 Caprices, Op. 1, with piano accompaniment by Schumann. Maristella Patuzzi, violin; Mario Patuzzi, piano. Dynamic. $19.99.
Vivaldi: Twelve Concertos, Opp. 11 and 12. Federico Guglielmo, violin; Pier Luigi Fabretti, oboe; L’Arte dell’Arco. Brilliant Classics. $11.99 (2 CDs).
Cimarosa: Opera Overtures, Volume 5: Atene edificata; Componimento drammatico; La bella Greca (Il matrimoni impensati); La felicità inaspettata; La villana riconosciuta; I due supposti conti, ossia Lo sposo senza moglie; Le trame deluse, ossia I raggiri scoperti; Il marito disperato (Il marito geloso); L’Olimpiade; La ballerina amante; Il fanatico burlato. Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice conducted by Patrick Gallois. Naxos. $12.99.
There is very little that is straightforward in the music of Shostakovich, and this is nowhere clearer than in his two complex, difficult and variegated violin concertos. Frank Peter Zimmermann gives splendid readings of both on a new BIS release, wallowing fully in what sentimentality there is, then switching without apparent effort to the dry acerbity so common in Shostakovich’s music, finding ways both to highlight and to balance the numerous (and almost mutually exclusive) demands of the disparate movements. There is something deeply unsettling in the way Shostakovich repeatedly juxtaposes musical forms and musically expressed emotions that do not fit each other particularly well – and makes everything work, at least in hands as skilled as those of Zimmermann and conductor Alan Gilbert, who whips up the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester (better known under its former name, NDR Sinfonieorchester) into a froth of intensity that fits these works with glovelike precision. The odd scherzo of the first concerto, superficially bright but always containing a hint of darkness, comes through especially well here, but Zimmermann also makes much of the crepuscular Nocturne that opens the concerto and even manages to find a way to tie the initially trivial-seeming Burlesque to all that has come before, including the technically demanding cadenza that immediately precedes it. Zimmermann does just as well with the second concerto, with the mixed emotions of the central Adagio – now despairing, now merely sad, now quietly contemplative – coming through especially effectively. These are excellent, highly knowing performances that, although thoughtful, give the impression of flowing naturally from an intuitive understanding of the complexity of Shostakovich’s personality and the way it is reflected in music of so distinctive a character – or, more accurately, of so many distinctive characters.
The new Dynamic release of Paganini’s 24 Caprices, Op. 1, featuring violinist Maristella Patuzzi, reflects two characters in particular: that of Paganini the virtuoso showman and surprisingly adept composer, of course, and also that of Robert Schumann – who, influenced by Paganini in important ways early in his own career, produced at the end of that career (and of his life) a set of piano accompaniments for these solo violin works. On the face of it, this was an exercise in futility and, it could be argued, further evidence of the deterioration of Schumann’s mind and creative spirit after he was institutionalized. Certainly these 24 wonderful miniatures (some of them not so miniature!) need no instrumentation beyond that of the violin. But in Schumann’s time, music for unaccompanied violin was thought to be thin and somehow incomplete, at least in some quarters; and besides, by producing pianistic elements to go with the solo-violin ones, Schumann was quite clearly paying tribute to Paganini, not in any way diminishing or minimizing his accomplishments. The Schumann material is of course wholly unnecessary, but it is fascinating: Schumann had so much respect for Paganini’s music, and such understanding of it, that he created piano elements that neatly complement the violin material without ever overwhelming it or preventing it from remaining in the forefront – all this despite the fact that Schumann was himself a pianist. The exceptional interweaving of violin and piano here may owe a little something extra to the fact that Maristella Patuzzi performs with her father, pianist Mario Patuzzi, with whom she has made other recordings: the two have a familial bond that seems to extend to deeply similar understanding of the material and strong mutual respect for each other’s contributions to these readings. Certainly this is an unusual and, in the most literal sense, inauthentic performance of the 24 Caprices. But it is an excellent interpretation of the authentic Schumann elements of a composition that remains wholly Paganini’s while at the same time offering fascinating glimmers of Paganini’s tremendous influence on one of his great contemporary admirers.
Vivaldi’s contemporaries were beginning to have significant influence on his violin compositions by 1729, the year of Vivaldi’s sets of concertos published as Op. 11 and Op. 12. This was the time of Tartini and Locatelli, who – like Vivaldi himself – were top-flight violinists and substantial composers for their chosen instrument. It was also the time in which galant style began to make itself widely known, and Vivaldi proved himself as sensitive to stylistic developments as to the changing technical capabilities of violinists. Most of the concertos in these sets – each containing six works rather than the 12 of earlier groupings – are not particularly well-known, perhaps because they have something of a “transitional” feeling about them, as Vivaldi expanded and modified his style to stay abreast of new harmonic and rhythmic expectations among performers and listeners alike. It is not certain whether Vivaldi himself actually authorized these specific groupings, although his authorship of the concertos themselves is not in dispute. Most of these concertos are somewhat longer than Vivaldi’s earlier ones, and the slow movements, in particular, tend to be spun off at greater length and with greater emotional impact, if scarcely to the extent that those of later composers would possess. The performances on Brilliant Classics by Federico Guglielmo and his ensemble, L’Arte dell’Arco, are as historically informed and consistently outstanding as all the Vivaldi readings by these players seem to be. There are a few oddities in the groupings as heard here, such as the way Guglielmo continues to arrange the concertos rather capriciously (the Op. 11 sequence is 5, 4, 2, 3, 1, 6; for Op. 12, it is 5, 1, 4, 2, 6, 3). But some of the unexpected material traces directly to Vivaldi: one of these works (Op. 11, No. 6) is actually an oboe rather than violin concerto, and one (Op. 12, No. 3) is for strings and continuo without solo violin – Vivaldi’s only known work of this type. There are also some pleasant surprises to be heard here, such as the lovely pizzicato accompaniment in the central movement of Op. 12, No. 6, and the greater depth of feeling throughout the minor-key concertos (three in Op. 11, including the oboe concerto, and two in Op. 12). The stylistic sensitivity and easy virtuosity of playing in these performances are winning, and the chance to experience these mostly less-known but beautifully shaped concertos is one that fans of Baroque music in general, and Vivaldi’s in particular, will very much enjoy.
There is enjoyment to be had in the fifth Naxos release of Cimarosa overtures as well – and here too the primary aural elements are the strings, although in a few of these works Cimarosa also shows himself able to use winds effectively. Cimarosa wrote more than 80 operas, most of them light in a kind of pre-Rossinian Rossini mode. As with many other composers (Rossini included), Cimarosa would sometimes reuse overtures, and because Cimarosa’s overtures were not typically built around themes from the operas that they opened, this was particularly easy to do. Furthermore, many of his operas were performed under multiple titles, not only in different stagings and different languages but also within Italy itself, as they moved from Naples or other points of origin to other city-states within a not-yet-united country. This explains the multiple titles of some overtures on this CD and the others discs in this series. Cimarosa also wrote overtures in two different styles: single-movement ones of the type now generally thought of as fitting the word “overture,” and two-or-three-movement ones that may be considered “sinfonias.” Since there is nothing that inherently links the overtures heard here to their operas with any specificity, what this disc – like its predecessors – offers is simply a wealth of well-made instrumental music that is very much of its time and is performed with considerable élan by the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under Patrick Gallois. This is not to say that the overtures are all of a piece: in length alone, they range from the three-movement, more-than-11-minute one to La bella Greca (also known as I matrimoni impensati) to the charming, barely-there, one-and-a-half-minute opening of La felicità inaspettata. And although nine of the 11 works on this CD are opera overtures, two have different provenances: Atene edificata comes from a cantata that Cimarosa wrote at the court of Catherine the Great of Russia, and Componimento drammatico was produced for a cantata celebrating the birth of the firstborn son of France’s ill-fated King Louis XVI. These pieces, in two and three movements respectively, share the characteristics of the opera overtures: they are well-constructed, focused primarily on the orchestra’s string section, and sound like miniature sinfonias with no obvious connection to the circumstances for which they were created. Cimarosa was an adept composer who was very much in and of his time. His overtures are very pleasant to hear but are, in the most part, not especially innovative and thus not, on an individual basis, highly memorable.
January 12, 2017
A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies. By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Anna DiVito. Harper. $16.99.
Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation. By Cokie Roberts. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Harper. $17.99.
The notion that there is more to history than traditional rulers-and-battles accounts include is nothing new; history itself has become fragmented into writings that attempt to “right wrongs” (by strictly contemporary standards) by discussing “under-represented” ethnic, racial or religious groups and alleging that “true” history is correctly understood only when seen from those groups’ perspective instead of – or in addition to – the more commonly known one. In reality, the vast majority of what we think of as “history” is resolutely mundane: people simply live within the strictures of their time and do their best to get through each day, each week, each month, each year. A large amount of what we make a big deal about nowadays is neither more nor less than the vicissitudes of everyday life in a past that we can never fully understand, because we never experienced it and never can. It is worth remembering, just to cite one small example, that Thomas Jefferson, a polymath and one of the greatest presidents of the United States, did not consider the presidency important enough to be mentioned on his tombstone. It states – and these were Jefferson’s explicit instructions, “not a word more” – that he was “author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” The fact that most people nowadays deem the omission of the presidency unaccountable is a failing of modern thinking, not a problem with Jefferson’s beliefs or values.
That said, there is value to understanding multiple perspectives on lives lived and ended long ago, and well-written books that explore such lives can give young readers (and, for that matter, adults) some insight into the past that traditional histories do not. Generally, the key to the books’ value is whether or not they are cause-driven – the ones determined to “redress” some sort of imagined (or even actual) “imbalance” in standard histories tend to lecture and hector, while the more matter-of-fact ones often provide genuine insight. Kathleen Krull generally does a fine job with books of this type, and A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies is no exception. Jefferson, as it happens, is one of the few presidents who did not have a “first lady” in the form of a wife: his beloved Martha had died nearly 20 years before Jefferson assumed the presidency. The wives of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren and Chester A. Arthur also died before those men became president; and James Buchanan never married. A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies briefly mentions how those presidents handled the expected hostess duties and other functions that First Ladies traditionally assumed – but of course it spends most of its time on presidential wives and the things they did. In doing so, Krull offers some genuine insight. For example, Edith Wilson’s commanding role in government after Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke is well enough known to appear in most histories – but the connection of what she did with the 25th Amendment, which states that the vice president takes over when the president is incapacitated, is not always explained clearly. And the fact that Edith Wilson supported John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, and rode in the parade during his inauguration, is mentioned even less frequently. Furthermore, the fact that there was (informal) precedent for what Edith Wilson did is rarely mentioned – but Krull notes that Julia Grant, the devoted wife of Ulysses S. Grant (who was equally devoted to her), “was an active adviser in private” and was the first First Lady to issue a press release and regularly inform the media (that is, the newspapers) of the activities of the First Family. Krull also humanizes each First Lady – again using Julia Grant as an example, Krull says she had “one eye that moved uncontrollably” and therefore “walked awkwardly if she didn’t have someone guiding her,” but Ulysses talked her out of having corrective surgery because he loved her just as she was. Small, heartwarming bits of information like that, although scarcely the main point of A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies, make the book all the better. For instance, Bess Truman, when asked which earlier First Lady she most identified with, chose Elizabeth Monroe – who had followed super-popular Dolley Madison just as Bess followed the very dynamic Eleanor Roosevelt. One thing that becomes clear from A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies is that the majority of these women were very much of their time – subservient when that was the expectation, then increasingly assertive as women gained additional legal rights. Some, however, helped lead women into more-modern times: for example, Caroline Harrison was the first to deliver a speech in public that she had written, and Ida McKinley was the first First Lady to come out in public as supporting women’s right to vote. A Kids’ Guide to America’s First Ladies includes illustrations by Anna DiVito that are nothing particularly special but that do help give a sense of what the First Ladies looked like. They do a good job in their supporting role – much as most First Ladies did in theirs.
Cokie Roberts’ Ladies of Liberty is more of an agenda-driven book: its subtitle, The Women Who Shaped Our Nation, is more an assertion than a fact. There are two First Ladies here – James Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth, and John Quincy Adams’ spouse, Louisa Catherine. There is also Martha Jefferson Randolph, who did the duties of First Lady for her father, Thomas Jefferson. But most of the book is about women who contributed in other ways. Some are now quite well-known, such as Sacagawea, famed for her work with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Others are known in limited circles but not generally, such as Isabella Graham, founder of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children and originator of Sunday school. Abetted by atmospheric, stylish Diane Goode illustrations – which, unlike those in Krull’s book, are a significant element of the stories – Roberts gives two-page biographies of 10 women and discusses many more in brief on pages labeled “Women Through the Years” (the years being 1727 to 1825), “Women Educators and Reformers,” and “Women Writers.” There are some genuine surprises here, such as the inclusion of Louise D’Avezac Livingston, an early environmental activist who was the wife of Edward Livingston, the U.S. ambassador to France under President Andrew Jackson; and Rebecca Gratz, founder of the first Jewish orphanage in the United States and possibly the source of the character Rebecca in the novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, whom she had met while in England. The picking and choosing of the women here seems designed to cover as many contemporary focuses as possible, from environmentalism and Judaism to Native Americans, African Americans, Catholics, and so forth. The inclusiveness is not especially intrusive, but it does give a somewhat misleading view of the roles played by women in the American colonies and early United States. Still, Ladies of Liberty is a brief and interesting foray into the lives, adventures and concerns of a few women who, if they did not quite shape the new nation, certainly contributed in important ways to some aspects of the way it developed.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Character Guide. By Michael Kogge. Scholastic. $14.99.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Magical Movie Handbook. By Michael Kogge. Scholastic. $7.99.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Beasts—Cinematic Guide. By Felicity Baker. Scholastic. $8.99.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Beasts Poster Book. Scholastic. $7.99.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Coloring and Creativity Book. Scholastic. $8.99.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Fashion Sketchbook. Scholastic. $15.99.
Rarely are the inevitable movie tie-in books more valuable or interesting than souvenirs of a short-term infatuation with a particular film. Some of the books that take off from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are therefore exceptional – if not in themselves, then because they are genuinely interesting and could lure people to the film instead of simply being ways for those who already know the movie to remember it. The latest entry into the world of Harry Potter, the first of a planned five-movie sequence, got only mixed reviews, its heavy emphasis on computer-generated imagery and plot exegesis making it less enthralling to many than the coming-of-age story involving Harry, Ron and Hermione, which takes place 70 years later and an ocean away from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. However, the new film’s handsome staging and intriguing use of a muggle (called “no-maj” in this movie) as a major character give it a different angle on magic from that of the original eight-film sequence, while the use of the director of the last four Harry Potter films – David Yates – provides some continuity of pacing and visualization. In any case, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offers plenty of reasons to revisit J.K. Rowling’s original books and spinoffs from them, and a number of these half-dozen movie tie-ins proffer more magic and involvement than is usual in film-derived, film-dependent books.
The Character Guide and Magical Movie Handbook are actually both character-focused, giving brief biographies of the movie’s central character, “magizoologist” Newt Scamander, and the various characters, beasts and objects with which he interacts in the film: witch sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein, no-maj Jacob Kowalski, the anti-witch Second Salemers, the powerful Shaw family, members of the U.S magic-ruling organization known as MACUSA, and of course the beasts. Character Guide spends most of its time on people and their relationships with each other and the society in which they live, a reimagined 1920s New York City. Magical Movie Handbook gives less space to characters and more to the beasts, organizations and locations of the movie – and even has a section on wands and spells, the differentiation of wands’ appearance being an intriguing (if scarcely central) element in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
For an even stronger focus on the beasts of the film there is The Beasts—Cinematic Guide, which gives at least a few pages to every one of the 14 beasts seen in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, even those that make little more than a cameo appearance (although, of course, they could always play a greater role in films yet to come). At 64 pages, this is a very short hardcover book, but one that does an unusually good job of explaining what the beasts are supposed to be and do. It offers fewer scenes from the film than the Character Guide and Magical Movie Handbook, but the ones it does show are well-chosen. And then, for viewers really intrigued by the movie’s CGI creations, The Beasts Poster Book is a visual treat, offering 24 pull-out pages showing the creatures (and some of the human characters) in full, resplendent color and large 8½-by-11-inch size.
The tie-ins to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them also include, not surprisingly, some activity books; these seem aimed at younger viewers and really do function mostly as souvenirs of the film. The (+++) Coloring and Creativity Book, which includes stickers as well as black-and-white pages to color, offers a chance to reimagine the beasts of the movie as well as some of the characters and even some objects, such as a MACUSA identification card and the Magical Exposure Threat Level Clock. And a close look at the to-be-colored pages occasionally reveals a certain level of subtle humor, as on a page showing some of the items that Newt uses to track beasts and care for them: the five Ministry of Magic classification levels for beasts range from the serious XXXXX, “impossible to train or domesticate,” to the basic X, described with the single word “boring.” This book will make sense only to readers who have seen the film already, which is why it is best thought of as a souvenir rather than an involving work in its own right. And much the same is true – in fact, to an even greater degree – when it comes to Fashion Sketchbook. This book is largely based on the notion that Queenie, the younger of the sister witches with whom Newt interacts, is a 1920s version of what would now be called a fashionista: she is preoccupied with clothing, hair, and her overall “look.” In truth, the period costumes of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are a high point of the film, whatever its structural lacks may be, and for those interested in fashions and fashion design, Fashion Sketchbook will be a lot of fun. It shows how various characters (not only Queenie) and objects look in the movie, then gives readers a chance to “interact” with the film’s scenario. For instance, one of Newt’s beasts, a Niffler, is attracted to shiny objects, so this book offers four drawings of hands and arms that can be used to create ring and bracelet designs. Queenie wears her hair in short curls, a popular 1920s style, and the book provides three drawings of heads on which to create and color hairstyles. There is even a page showing seven different wand designs, with an opposite blank page for creating a wand. The (+++) Fashion Sketchbook is of limited appeal, but will be quite enjoyable for those intrigued by this aspect of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Interestingly, though, several other books among these tie-ins have the potential to reach out beyond people who have already seen the film and perhaps get them interested in viewing it – and for those who have seen and enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the tie-ins will make it easier to wait for the next movie in the series while remembering the high points of this one.