September 26, 2013
The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair. By Kate Bernheimer. Illustrated by Jane Parker. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Dog Loves Counting. By Louise Yates. Knopf. $17.99.
Dog Diaries #3: Barry. By Kate Klimo. Illustrated by Tim Jessell. Random House. $6.99.
Mice get to be protagonists of their own stories often enough in children’s books, but when they are subsidiary characters, as often as not they just get in the way. Kate Bernheimer obviously knows this, because she has rung some delightful changes on the “mouse persona” for kids by making the rodents – who are foils for the title character – intrusive and irritating, but at the same time thoroughly enjoyable and adorable. The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair is a gently surreal story about just what the title says: a girl with super-long hair who washes it regularly but does not like to brush it, with the result that it becomes thoroughly tangled and soon looks to some mice like an ideal place for them to live. And not just live – they end up building a palace (complete with “a tiny circular moat”) atop the girl’s head. Now, you might think this would be undesirable, but the girl doesn’t. She had “read enough fairy tales to remember that mice always turned out to be your helpers,” so she welcomes the mice as they arrive one by one, and then in groups, and eventually in droves. Jane Parker’s wonderful illustrations show the dark-haired, wide-eyed girl – whose motto is “It’s just my way” and who is especially fond of her hairless baby doll, Baby – reacting to and interacting with the mice as the population of her hair grows and grows. The adults in the book, including the girls’ parents, are seen as shadowy figures or from behind, and they are minor presences, although her mother does refuse to pack the mice lunch and thus force the girl to share her own food with them to the point that “she found herself very hungry.” Clearly “mouse-topia” for the mice is not utopia for the girl – as becomes increasingly clear when the mice refuse to allow her to take baths, throwing the words “It’s just our way” back at the person from whom they learned them. Oh, my – complications. And things do get more and more difficult for the girl, leading eventually to her teacher’s statement that she can no longer bring Baby to school because “each child may have only one friend for naptime,” and the girl already has more than a hundred mice in her hair. Well, something’s got to give, and something does, but there is no big blowup, no anger, no gigantic confrontation here – just a huge-haired, sad-eyed little girl clutching the doll she loves and realizing, belatedly, that things have gone too far. She works everything out with the mice (Parker must have loved creating the two-page picture of the girl talking to dozens upon dozens of them), who leave “singing a mournful song” but not seeming particularly downhearted. And yes, the girl eventually washes and brushes her super-long hair, while the mice move on and – but that would be telling. The Girl Who Wouldn’t Brush Her Hair, for ages 4-8, is a delight from start to finish, both to read and to look at – a modern fairy tale that weaves its own magic.
The Dog Loves books by Louise Yates, intended for the same age group, have fairy-tale elements, too, along with a nice touch of the surreal and a gentleness in the appearance and personality of Dog that is immediately winning. Yates has followed up Dog Loves Books and Dog Loves Drawing with Dog Loves Counting, but this is, of course, not just a counting book – not with Dog at its center. It all starts with Dog trying to count sheep so he can sleep, but she sheep fail to cooperate, so Dog considers counting other animals – and, naturally, turns to a book for ideas. “A Big Book of Curious Creatures and Their Habitats” is its title, and indeed the creatures become curiouser and curiouser as Dog Loves Counting progresses. No. 1 is a baby dodo that hatches from a huge, red-spotted egg; Dog includes himself with the dodo chick and says, “Together we are two.” And then Dog and dodo search for other animals whose physical characteristics really do include specific numbers. In other words, instead of just piling creature upon creature as the numbers get larger, Yates brings in some genuine zoology: three-toed sloth, four-legged camel, five-lined skink (a lizard), and so on. Yates is especially clever in getting from five to six: the lizard leaps up and catches a fly, which has a bewildered expression as it finds itself in the skink’s mouth – but instead of eating the insect, the skink flips it on its back to show that it has, yes, six legs. And so Dog and friends move along all the way to the number 10 – and then have a reason to count down, too. It all makes perfect sense in a gently nonsensical way, as Yates delivers yet another winningly written and drawn Dog tale.
The Dog Diaries books are for slightly older readers, ages 7-10, and their mixture of entertainment and education is accordingly balanced differently. Dogs serve an altogether different purpose here, “telling” their own stories in the same way that horses tell theirs in the similar Horse Diaries sequence. The third Dog Diaries book is an especially affecting and involving tale, the story of a very famous Saint Bernard named Barry der Menschenretter (“lifesaver”), who lived in Napoleon’s time and saved more than 40 people from death in the snowy Alps. Barry’s exploits are the stuff of legend, and in fact there are a number of legends about him, making it hard to be sure just what he did – even the exact number of people he rescued is unknown. The Foundation Barry du Grand Saint Bernard, a hospice and breeding foundation in Switzerland, is named for Barry, whose remains were stuffed after his death and can still be seen (although, for reasons explained in the book, the stuffed Barry does not look all that much the way Barry did in life). So the real-world connections of Kate Klimo’s book are many and are very clear. Indeed, Barry’s story is so remarkable that a purely factual telling would make a fine book – but the Dog Diaries are by definition fictionalized, since they are told in the dogs’ own imagined voices. Klimo has Barry (from the word bari, “little bear” in Swiss German) tell his tale in straightforward, modest fashion, emphasizing again and again that he is nothing special and not the hero that humans have made him out to be – just a dog who always loved his work and did it as well as he could. This modesty is a becoming trait, and it melds well with the historical elements of the story – a tale of clerics and their helpers, the marronniers; of robbers in the mountains; of the Napoleonic wars; and of avalanches and blinding snowfalls and the constant threat posed by weather to frail human bodies. Barry’s rescues are movingly told, as are the many losses in his life, including the death of the man he calls “my master, my teacher, my friend, my brother.” Also told movingly is the tale of Barry’s own later life, after he is seriously injured by a boy he is trying to save, who mistakes him for an attacking wolf and stabs him repeatedly with a knife. Barry recovers but ends up going into retirement in the city, where Klimo leaves him rolling happily in snow – the element where he lived and worked for so long. Tim Jessell’s final picture is a suitable one, and his illustrations throughout work quite well, giving Barry expressiveness without anthropomorphizing him. The book concludes, as do the other Dog Diaries books (and the Horse Diaries ones, too), with facts – here not only about the real Barry but also about Saint Bernards in general, including information on what it is like to own one. The longstanding notion of these dogs as carrying barrels around their necks, with life-sustaining drinks for the stranded and injured, is a myth – but the dogs certainly did save many lives in the days long before modern rescue methods existed. Barry’s story is a tribute to the breed as a whole as well as to him, and a well-deserved tribute it is.
Where’s Boo? By Salina Yoon. Random House. $6.99.
Absolutely Lucy 6: Thanks to Lucy. By Ilene Cooper. Illustrated by David Merrell. Random House. $4.99.
The Christmas ABC. By Florence Johnson. Illustrated by Eloise Wilkin. Golden Books. $3.99.
Seasonal books tied to specific holidays are certainly common enough, but sometimes a book that downplays the holiday connection is all the better for it – and may continue to be of interest to families after the holiday itself is over. That is the case with Salina Yoon’s adorable board book, Where’s Boo? The black kitten of the title has a long tail, which shows on the final page of the book through a semicircular cutout that makes the tail – or at least the tail’s shape – a part of every one of the book’s pages. Yes, there is a bat on the cover and all the pages, and yes, the orange-and-black colors and opening reference to a jack-o’-lantern make the Halloween tie-in clear, but Yoon’s book manages to transcend seasonality simply by being clever and adorable. The idea is to find Boo after thinking mistakenly that the kitten is in several incorrect places. Boo is not behind the jack-o’-lantern – what looks like a tail is a candle holder. Not behind the cookie jar – that’s one leg of a very large (but smiling) spider. Not behind the broom – that is the fancy brim of a witch’s hat. Eventually, of course, Boo is found, complete with tail and costume and friendly accompanying ghosts. The book is Halloween-focused throughout but is still amusing enough in itself to be fun for kids after the holiday is over.
Not so Thanks to Lucy, a (+++) book that is a straightforward Thanksgiving story and the sixth in Ilene Cooper’s Absolutely Lucy series. The plot involves the approach of the holiday and all the things that Bobby is thankful for – his grandma’s pending visit, his mom’s pumpkin pies, the fact that he will soon be a big brother, and of course Lucy. He is especially thankful for her. But Lucy herself does not seem very thankful – in fact, she is quiet and seems to be moping. Lucy is usually an active, bouncy puppy, so when her too-quiet behavior continues, Bobby decides something may really be wrong, and goes with her to the vet. Sure enough, she has an infection, and even the vet visit turns out to have a connection to the holiday, as the doctor explains: “It’s a good thing you brought Lucy in when you did. The office is closing for the Thanksgiving holiday.” The book’s climax is not Lucy’s recovery, which is scarcely a surprise, but what happens when Bobby’s mom gives birth – which is a surprise, and which leads to some big changes for Bobby and is sure, he knows, to lead to more. With an all-better Lucy as a companion, though, Bobby knows everything will turn out fine, so the book has the expected heartwarming ending both in the story and in David Merrell’s pictures, which show Lucy back to her old enthusiastic self. This is a perfectly nice Thanksgiving tale that fans of the series will enjoy, but once their focus turns to Christmas, it will likely turn away from Thanks to Lucy.
And speaking of Christmas, the reissue of Florence Johnson’s 1962 The Christmas ABC is 100% intended for reading at or near the holiday. A straightforward rhyming book whose text and Eloise Wilkins illustrations are pleasant enough but somewhat dated by modern standards, this (+++) book has a stronger religious message than alphabet and other secular books have nowadays. It is not just the J entry: “J is for Jesus,/ Who was born Christmas Day,/ The baby God sent us/ to teach us His way.” The approach is clear from the very first page: “A is for angels/ Looking down from above,/ Guardians of Heaven/ That sing of God’s love.” The capital letters throughout the book look a bit like the ones in illuminated manuscripts, further connecting this book to religious messages. True, there is plenty that is secular here as well: “I is for icicles/ that shine in the sun/ And ice on the pond/ where skaters have fun.” And, of course, “S is for Santa Claus,/ Stockings and Sleigh,/ And all of the things/ that make Christmas day gay.” But even that perfectly legitimate use of “gay” may be jarring to today’s families, given the more-common current use of “gay” to mean “homosexual.” The Christmas ABC is really a throwback in time, pleasant enough in its stylized way and probably of interest mainly to families that want to be sure the religious underpinnings of Christmas are not forgotten in the wave of commercialization that seems to characterize so much of the season. The book is certainly not one with 21st-century mass appeal – nor is it a work that will have staying power beyond the holiday for which it was written half a century ago.
Norton Internet Security, 2014 edition. Windows XP/SP2 or later. Symantec. $79.99.
Norton 360, 2014 edition. Windows XP/SP2 or later. Symantec. $89.99.
Symantec deserves considerable credit for knowing when to tweak, when to change, and when to leave things alone. Its intelligence in this regard is everywhere apparent in the 2014 versions of its Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 suites. The company stopped putting identifying years on these products a while back, but since it updates them annually, a year association is the only reasonable way to identify them – dropping the mention of the year is a small miscalculation on Symantec’s part. On the other hand, there are no large miscalculations, which is more to the point. Both suites are very little changed from the 2013 versions, and that is all to the good: very little needed changing, and Symantec does not do software redesign for its own sake (are you listening, Microsoft?). These security suites have the same components as in the past, do their jobs well, and integrate a variety of functions seamlessly so they protect your computer while running neatly and generally unobtrusively in the background – exactly what you would want in products designed to keep your computer secure at all times.
The products are priced on a licensing basis, each giving you one year of protection for up to three PCs. At the core of both is Norton AntiVirus, which is as good a program of its type as you will find anywhere. Norton AntiVirus is available as a standalone product for $49.99 for a single PC, but for the vast majority of users, the suites are a better deal. Between the antivirus program and its other components, Norton Internet Security monitors the files you run, download and access, and keeps an eye on program behavior to detect malware before it gets into and compromises your system. Its firewall is as effective as ever; there is browsing protection to keep you away from phishing sites and ones that would download malware if you visited them; and there are a spam filter, password manager and form filler, network monitor, startup program manager and more. Norton Internet Security has parental controls, too, and online identity protection. In Norton 360, you also get PC tuneup tools and two gigs of free online storage, with more available for purchase – although that is not a particularly good deal when you can get significantly more free storage from Google, Microsoft, Dropbox and elsewhere.
One of the things that make these Symantec products especially useful is the changing landscape of online threats. Nowadays malware does not just show up when you visit phishing sites or are redirected to them by a botnet. It also comes from wholly legitimate sites that have been hacked by the bad guys. The complexity of the attacks has increased, and therefore the complexity of the defenses must increase, too, in a never-ending “virtual arms race.” Most of us could not care less about the details: we just want to use the Web safely and securely, and that is exactly what these Symantec products let us do. Despite their inner sophistication, they are remarkably unobtrusive in operation, taking care of issues and potential issues silently, then simply offering a monthly report on what they have done – which you need not read if you do not wish to do so. Once these products load – which they do even more quickly now than in the past, a remarkable achievement considering how extensive their functionality is – they simply do what they are intended to do quietly and efficiently. Except for small icons and occasional notifications, you will not even know they are there unless you choose to open them and perhaps make manual adjustments – which are available but quite unnecessary for most people.
The interfaces for 2014 are very similar to those used in 2013, although there are some relatively small modifications here and there – nothing that users of previous versions will find hard to understand or adjust to, although certain changes in appearance do render some displays a touch more complex-looking. Most of the latest improvements are invisible, but some are not: for example, the form filler in Norton Identity Safe, the password manager, now supports drag-and-drop, and allows login searches directly from the toolbar. In general, though, the enhancements involve such things as improved behavioral detection, more-reliable cleanup tools in case something does get through the various security levels, 15% faster startup, and lower RAM usage – a really significant improvement on the technical side, although not one that most users will notice.
A major philosophical change n recent years that is now deeply ingrained at Symantec is away from insistence on user involvement in these suites and toward set-and-forget design that allows but by no means requires users to participate in what the programs do and how they do it. This means that the suites include advanced settings that, for example, allow users to exclude files from scanning or block specific signatures – but if that sounds too technical or makes no sense to you, that’s perfectly fine, since it is totally unnecessary for the vast majority of today’s computer users.
Reports of the death of the personal computer are greatly exaggerated, but the increasing use of other devices for Web access and information consumption – if not for creativity – is leading Symantec to expand the applicability of its security products. For example, for 2014 the company has added a Norton 360 Multi-Device edition for $99.99 – which includes a version of Norton Internet Security for Mac and Norton Mobile Security, a security suite for Android, and which supports up to five total devices for one year. It is smart of Symantec to look beyond its base in PC protection, given the changing landscape of device use, and also smart of it to retain its long-term focus on PCs (dating back to the days of Peter Norton himself) as a foundation from which to grow. Given the quality of its products, Symantec should do just as well on other platforms as it has done on PCs.
As for what today’s individual and small-business PC users should do, the best bet for most will be Norton Internet Security, which provides very wide functionality and very efficient operation. The storage component added to Norton 360 is not really of significant incremental value, and while the PC tuneup tools are useful, the vast majority of today’s computer users are unlikely to care much about them – we are well into the era of computers as appliances, ones that most people are no more interested in modifying and adapting than they are in making changes to a TV set or, say, a toaster. Aficionados of computers may bemoan this fact – and certainly these Symantec suites provide plenty of ways in which you can make changes to functions if you wish to – but for most people, the object today is to use computers for many everyday tasks while being confident that they are safe and secure in an era in which hackers are becoming ever more sophisticated, necessitating ever more sophisticated responses to their attempted depredations. Ultimately, most people should look at Norton Internet Security and Norton 360 as insurance policies: for a fairly modest investment, these suites let you go about your everyday business just as you wish to, while they provide seamless and unobtrusive background protection against a multiplicity of threats that would otherwise keep you up all day and night attempting to counter them. Like insurance in general, Symantec’s security suites can help you sleep better at night and feel more confident that you are protected against misfortune. For 2014, the suites are marginally more functional – but what really matters is that they continue to give users confidence and the ability to work without constant worry about all the potential dangers out there. That is an accomplishment that makes them well worth their cost.
Allusions: Evocative Chamber Works—Music of Sarah Wallin Huff, Kjell Magne Andersen, Vera Ivanova, Christopher Dietz and Timothy Dwight Edwards. Navona. $16.99.
Howard Quilling: Sonatas Nos. I and II for Violin and Piano; Suite for Alto Saxophone and Wind Orchestra; Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano. Navona. $16.99.
Ayala Asherov: Yizkor (Remember); Memories of a Homeland; Tomorrow Never Came; Pauses Notes and Rhythm; A Prelude to a Kiss and a Dance; Cycles of the Moon; Single Voice. Navona. $14.99.
Couloir: Wine Dark Sea—Music of Jocelyn Morlock, Baljinder Sekhon and Glenn Buhr. Ravello. $9.99.
Chamber music has changed considerably over the centuries, but even today it remains a way for composers to use the interaction of a small number of instruments to communicate with a level of conversational subtlety that can be difficult to achieve with larger instrumental groups. Contemporary composers continue searching for new ways to use chamber forces, creating some works that are interestingly evocative even though, like today’s music in general, they will not be to all tastes. The six pieces by five composers on the Navona CD called Allusions have little in common except for their use of chamber-size forces, and even listeners who like one or two of the works may not care for all of them. The composers’ approaches do show considerable variety, though. Vera Ivanova’s Three Studies in Uneven Meters directly acknowledges earlier composers’ influence, although it does not slavishly imitate the approaches of Stravinsky, Piazzolla or Scriabin, toward whom its three movements point. Sarah Wallin Huff’s Anima Mechanicae: Soul of the Machine is intended to interpret a modern trope, that of the computer program with a human soul, although its expressiveness does not specifically point in that direction. The expression of Kjell Magne Andersen’s six-movement Suite for Oboe and Piano is more traditionally classical in orientation, as are the contrasting moods of Timothy Dwight Edwards’ The Conjecture. The two remaining works are by Christopher Dietz: Le Fleur du Ciel, a string trio inspired by Camus' The Stranger, and Quintet No. 2, a two-movement study in contrasts. The works are distinctive enough, but none is especially gripping – like anthology discs in general, this one comes across more as a sampler than as any sort of in-depth consideration of today’s chamber-music approaches.
There is an in-depth feeling to Navona’s new Howard Quilling release, which offers an hour of the composer’s music. Three of the four pieces are outright chamber works – the two violin-and-piano sonatas and the violin-cello-piano trio. The sonatas are intended to be expressive in specific ways, bearing the subtitles “The Dahl” and “Shapiro” respectively, but in fact they simply showcase Quilling’s understanding of the differing roles and capabilities of the two instruments and of ways to play the two off against each other – and bring them together. Although not traditionally classical in sound, both sonatas are more-or-less classical in their three-movement design and overall structure. The four-movement Trio shows its classical roots clearly, too, having more the feeling of a suite than of a closely integrated and carefully argued work. Its four movements are all around the same length, but they offer a variety of moods and forms of expressiveness, and the whole has a pleasant if not especially memorable feel to it. Suite for Alto Saxophone and Wind Orchestra stays more firmly with the listener. This is overtly a suite in design, and it is not exactly chamber music, using a full wind complement, but it is sufficiently small-scale to fit a “chamber” designation – and sufficiently varied in mood and instrumentation to be worth hearing more than once. Smooth, melodic and energetic by turns, with fine use of the alto saxophone in more of an obbligato than concerto-like role, the suite is one of Quilling’s better-constructed and more-winning compositions.
Israeli composer Ayala Asherov tries to construct her works according to the emotions she wants them to explore, at least on the basis of the seven pieces on Navona’s new Asherov CD. Three of the works here are quite short and are for single instruments: Yizkor (Remember) for cello, Pauses Notes and Rhythm for clarinet, and Single Voice for flute. Asherov is wise to keep each work’s movements short – and the totality of each piece as well – since the musical ideas are not grand or broad enough to sustain effectively over a more-extended period. But within their brief compass, all the pieces sound well on the solo instruments and are expressive in structures that are essentially tonal, if not traditionally Romantic. Two works here have the flavor of suites, a form much favored by contemporary composers even when their works do not formally receive that label. They are the four-movement Cycles of the Moon, for viola and strings, and three-movement A Prelude to a Kiss and a Dance, for flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone and piano – an intriguing instrumental combination that gives the latter work an even mellower and darker sound than the solo viola gives to the former one. The remaining two pieces are darker still, to the point of solemnity. Both are inspired by poetry written by children from the Terezin ghetto: Memories of a Homeland for flute, bassoon and piano manages to express the young people’s grief and longing without use of voice, while Tomorrow Never Came takes a more-traditional approach by using a mezzo-soprano as well as violin, viola and cello. These pieces, especially the latter, will perhaps have more emotional impact for those familiar with Terezin and the effects of the Holocaust than for people in general, but Asherov certainly strives to reach out to listeners in general through her use of gripping (if not always very distinctive) melodies.
What is distinctive on the new Ravello CD called Wine Dark Sea is not so much the music as the instrumental combination: cello (Ariel Barnes) and harp (Heidi Kurten). The focus here is really on the performers, who play very well together and truly turn the three works they offer into traditional “conversational” chamber pieces, even though none of the three is traditional in structure or sound. The cello-harp combination wears a bit thin after a while, despite the fact that this is only a 48-minute-long disc, but until it does, it is unusual and interesting enough to overshadow the specifics of the works being performed (all in world première recordings). There is something evanescent in the harp and something earthy and grounded in the cello, and all the composers of this impressionistic music seem well aware of this, creating works with something of a New Age flavor despite their use of classical compositional techniques. Jocelyn Moorcock’s Three Meditations on Light shows this particularly clearly, through three frequently appealing movements entitled “The birds breathe the morning light,” “Bioluminescence (wine-dark sea),” and “Absence of light – gradual reawakening.” Although there are many similarities among the three movements, there are also enough differences among them to keep the piece aurally interesting. The extended single-movement works by Baljinder Sekhon (Drifting Seeds) and Glenn Buhr (A monk, dancing) keep listeners’ attention less well: despite tempo and rhythm changes, they both start to pale after a while, seeming more repetitive and overextended than they need to be for their relative paucity of ideas. The main attraction of this disc is really the chance to hear an extended presentation of an unusual instrumentation, one that takes the “conversational” element of chamber music into regions where listeners will not often have had the chance to experience it.
September 19, 2013
Cowboy Boyd and Mighty Calliope. By Lisa Moser. Illustrations by Sebastiaan Van Doninck. Random House. $17.99.
Sophie’s Squash. By Pat Zietlow Miller. Illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf. Schwartz & Wade. $16.99.
Squirrels on Skis. By J. Hamilton Ray. Illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre. Random House. $8.99.
Somewhere out on the range, there’s a young cowpoke with a big hankerin’ fer some good solid work with his trusty….rhinoceros. Yup, that thar’s a big fat two-horned rhino with Cowboy Boyd. No way to know where it came from or what it’s doin’ out on the prairie, ’cause Cowboy Boyd don’t ever explain ’cept to say he raised her himself, and somehow no one in the book thinks to ask more. Maybe it don’t matter. Mighty Calliope, Cowboy Boyd calls his trusty steed, and yup, the Double R Ranch won’t ever be the same now that they’ve shown up. Slim, Hardtack and Rancher Rose don’t quite know what to make of it all when the mismatched pair ride in “looking for a place to call home.” But they’re game to give Boyd and Calliope a try. Fence mending? Well, Calliope sure can carry weight, but she’s so slow that a tortoise, laughing, passes her by. Herding stray cattle? Well, they herd strays all right, but one’s a prairie dog, one’s a jackrabbit and one’s a coyote. Nope, this just don’t seem to be workin’ real well. And then Calliope plows through the pasture fence and barn wall and bunkhouse door and makes such a mess of everythin’ that Cowboy Boyd’s explanation, “She just doesn’t know her own strength,” don’t help much. They gotta go, and Rancher Rose tells ’em so. And so they plan to head out in the mornin’ – but there’s a big storm that night, and all the cattle get out, and there’s bound to be a stampede if someone can’t round ’em up soon. But they’re so skittish that no one can control them. Until – well, pardner, let’s just say that Lisa Moser and Sebastiaan Van Doninck figure out how to make Calliope and Boyd the heroes of the moment, and everyone’s real happy at the end, includin’ Calliope, who’s last seen rollin’ in the dirt – along with that blamed tortoise, who looks to be havin’ one whale of a time.
And if you think that is unusual, wait until you read Sophie’s Squash, an utterly delightful book that Pat Zietlow Miller says is based on a true story about her daughter. And what a story it is: Sophie is just an ordinary little girl, shopping at the farmers’ market with her parents, picking out a particularly nice-looking squash – until her parents plan to serve it for supper, at which point Sophie draws a face on the squash and names it Bernice. Her indulgent mom orders pizza for dinner, and soon Sophie and Bernice are inseparable, whether going to the library or turning somersaults in the garden. Sophie gives Bernice a bottle, a hug and a kiss every night, and refuses to consider baking her best friend – even with marshmallows – or playing with a truck or doll instead. Eventually, of course, nature takes its course and Bernice becomes blotchy (Sophie says she has freckles) and starts to get soft. So Sophie asks a farmer how to keep a squash healthy, listens carefully to his advice about fresh air and good dirt, then tucks her friend into some nice, soft soil and kisses her good night. And then, that night, it snows! Poor Sophie worries constantly about Bernice throughout the whole winter – never quite accepting Ace, the fish her father buys her, as a substitute. Come spring, Sophie is ready to find Bernice – but instead finds a small green shoot that, come summer, produces two tiny squash. “You look just like your mom!” says Sophie happily as she cuddles Bonnie and Baxter – a lovely and amusing ending to a story about a girl who really loves vegetables, and whose expressions, wonderfully rendered by Anne Wilsdorf, show her feelings as effectively as Miller’s words describe them.
The squirrels in Squirrels on Skis aren’t pets, exactly – more like pests – but they are suitably cute ones in the pictures by the always-reliable Pascal Lemaitre. This is a rhyming Beginner Book and the first effort by J. Hamilton Ray, who benefits tremendously from Lemaitre’s contribution but still ends up with a (+++) book whose rhymes trip over themselves just a little too often. For example, “And each of them balanced/ on two little skis” scans very well, but “And all of them holding/ two tiny poles” is missing a syllable in the second line, which could easily have had the word “to” at the start as a filler. The story here is a touch over-complicated: the initial scenes of squirrels skiing into town are wonderful, but then the tale veers into one of a pest-control expert vs. someone who thinks it would be cruel to vacuum up the squirrels. And then it veers further as we meet a key character: “It was Sally Sue Breeze./ She could not have been shorter./ But everyone listened,/ ’cause she’s a reporter.” (Here the lines scan but the tenses don’t match.) The mayor gives her 24 hours to find out where the squirrels are getting their skis, and then the story veers even further, involving a scurrilous rabbit (who turns out to have a good heart), a closed popsicle-stick factory, and the eventual creation of a ski chalet just for squirrels. Ray manipulates the story too obviously – it doesn’t so much flow as jump from one place to another – but he does have a nice sense of silliness and absurdity, and that saves him from some of his own writing and plotting missteps. The Beginner Books, which famously trace their lineage to Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, remain enjoyable entry-into-reading creations with, in most cases, enough of an offbeat touch to keep young readers intrigued. Squirrels on Skis is not at the pinnacle of this line, but it is a pleasant entry that kids will have fun reading on their own and, thanks to Lemaitre’s illustrations, will find particularly enjoyable just to look at.
Babymouse: Queen of the World! By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $6.99.
Too Cool for This School. By Kristen Tracy. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The ultimate worry for many preteens and teenagers – how to fit in, specifically as part of the “cool” group – is at the heart of these two very different books. The very first Babymouse book, originally published in 2005 and now available in a new edition, takes on the issue straightforwardly for readers ages 7-10. It may be hard to remember back to this book for those who have followed the series for years – there are 17 of the books now, and the sister-and-brother team of Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm shows no sign of slowing down. But there are reasons these small-size graphic novels became instantly popular, and rereading Babymouse: Queen of the World! shows why. The title character is befuddled enough but good-natured enough to grab readers’ attention and hold onto it; her minor oddities (curly whiskers, tendency to say “typical” when things do not go well, as they frequently do not) are nicely balanced by her all-too-human foibles (such as the “fitting in” theme of the first book); and the books’ structure, including Babymouse’s daydreams and her back-and-forth repartee with the sometimes-snarky narrator, is attractive and innovative. Like the title character in the Cathy comic strip, Babymouse perpetually dresses in outfits with a heart on them, a subtle indicator of the extent to which she wears her heart on her sleeve (well, in her case it’s her dress, but the meaning is still clear). In this first book, Babymouse really, really, really wants to be invited to a sleepover at the home of Felicia Furrypaws, soon to become Babymouse’s arch-enemy but in this book the coolest of the cool kids. Babymouse is willing to compromise her friendship with Wilson the Weasel and her own integrity (by giving her book report to Felicia to hand in as Felicia’s own) to wrangle an invitation – and of course, when she gets what she wants and goes to the party, she discovers that what she gave up is worth more than what she thought she wanted, and walks out. Babymouse imagines herself as “queen of the world” and eventually decides that she already is, in the ways that matter. The lesson is simple and straightforward, but the presentation so effectively avoids being preachy that readers will accept this little morality tale as a delightful adventure featuring a highly attractive central character – which is in fact how readers did accept the book when it first appeared.
The lesson is ultimately not that different in Kristen Tracy’s Too Cool for This School, but since this is a traditional novel and is aimed at older readers – ages 10 and up – the presentation is a great deal more complicated. Unlike Babymouse, who is unhappy with her life until she realizes how good it is, Lane Cisco, the protagonist of Tracy’s book, is more than satisfied with things until they get destabilized. The destabilizer is Lane’s visiting cousin from Alaska, Angelina “Mint” Taravel, whose offbeat, nonconforming style proves highly attractive to the rather straitlaced crowd at Rio Chama Middle School – including the boys that Lane and her best friend, Ava, like. Clearly something has to be done – doesn’t it? Ava certainly thinks so, and comes up with a plan to undermine Mint. But this puts Lane in a quandary: be mean and get back at Mint for being just too cool, or stick up for family and end up defending someone who is really getting in the way and is just plain weird? Unattractive choices – and that is the whole point. Luckily, Tracy presents them, and the whole situation at school and home, with enough humor to prevent things from dragging or getting too dismal. Take Lane’s reaction to the outfit Mint picks for the first day of school: “Angelina had chosen to wear her wolf T-shirt…. Inside out! She looked ridiculous. Was she trying to hide the fact that her T-shirt had a wolf on it? Because even inside out, you could clearly see the outline of that beast. I thought people might think she was trying to hide a stain. And then maybe these same people would think she didn’t have enough money to buy an unstained ugly shirt.” Clearly Lane thinks too much – and worries too much about acceptance and coolness. Later, while deciding whether to go ahead with the plan to ruin Mint, Lane tells her mom – who thinks, correctly, that Lane is being mean to Mint – that she has introduced Mint to a lot of people. “Which was basically true. Except my best friend and I had both decided to hate her openly.” Still later, after Mint has thoroughly “trashed my life,” Lane explains, “Avoiding Angelina Mint Taravel became my only goal.” But then Lane has second thoughts – more like 22nd thoughts by this time – and notices that “somewhere in [Mint’s] inability to blend she’d stolen that light that usually glowed above Ava. But was that light really supposed to glow all the time? Was it possible to share the light?” Uh-oh. Sounds as if a touch of maturity is rearing its ugly head. And so it is, notably in a conversation at the end of Mint’s visit, in which Lane admits to herself, “I never really wanted Mint to fit in. And so I never gave her a chance.” And then everyone sort of makes up with everyone else and sort of parts as friends and everything works out just fine in the end and – well, the sappy conclusion is not the best part of the book, but is probably inevitable given what has come before. Too Cool for This School is a (+++) novel that does not solve the eternal coolness problem or even really bring much insight to the issue, but it has enough quirkiness and enough heartfelt (if somewhat overdone) emotion so preteens and young teenagers will find themselves entertained, if not really enlightened.
Joshua Dread 2: The Nameless Hero. By Lee Bacon. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The Five Ancestors: Out of the Ashes, Book 2—Lion. By Jeff Stone. Random House. $16.99.
Dragon Keepers #6: The Dragon at the North Pole. By Kate Klimo. Illustrated by John Shroades. Random House. $15.99.
Reliable characterizations, familiar settings and uncomplicated plots – or plots complicated in ways that preteen readers will expect them to be complicated – are among the attractions of these series continuations. Lee Bacon’s Joshua Dread sequence starts with an offbeat idea: a young superhero whose parents are supervillains. Bacon doesn’t do a great deal beyond the obvious with the premise, but the premise itself is unusual enough to have made the first book something more than run-of-the-mill, and it sustains the second, The Nameless Hero, as well. This is one of those books in which readers will know something is special and even magical because of the way it is spelled: Joshua is invited to the “Gyfted & Talented” program for kids with superpowers. So are his best friends, Sophie and Milton – who, it turns out, are hand-picked to join Joshua and form the greatest superhero team of all time, ever. This would be wholly conventional if all they had to do was watch out for a major-league supervillain – which they do, since Phineas Vex is still alive and determined to destroy Joshua. But what makes The Nameless Hero intriguing is that Joshua just can’t let his supervillain parents know that the new superhero (who becomes a celebrity) is their son. How would they ever deal with the humiliation? Well, this isn’t that much of a plot twist, but it is enough of one to keep the book interesting. There aren’t many kid-superhero books with a narrative like this: “I drew in a nervous breath. I guess it was just an instinct that came with having supervillains in the family. Anytime something went horribly wrong in the world, the first thing I wondered was where my mom and dad were when it happened.” Actually, there is some hero-to-villain mobility here, just to keep readers involved, as when Joshua learns about “the X-Treme Team,” one of whose members, Multiplier, has become a villain after initially being a hero. There seems to be some fluidity in the whole superpower game, although it is never taken terribly seriously – or, for that matter, terribly humorously, although there is some humor here, as when Joshua comments of Multiplier, “suddenly he was back with a new look and a new career path.” The dialogue in this novel is often not as good as the narrative: “It is too easy.” “Lookie what we have here.” “It’s me you want. Not him.” “Release your evil grip on those children, you fiend!” “Please – I don’t want to disintegrate!” (Actually, that last one is pretty good.) As a whole, The Nameless Hero is a fine series continuation that readers who liked Joshua’s first appearance will certainly enjoy.
The Five Ancestors is a longer-running series; two series, actually. There was a seven-book series set hundreds of years in the past, and now there is a contemporary series that moves some of the same themes – mainly the usual good vs. evil one – into the modern world. Lion, the second book in the modern series, continues the tale of Ryan Vanderhausen, mountain biker (in the first book) and road biker (in this one) and an all-around good guy being put upon by some all-around bad guys. Like the Joshua Dread books, Jeff Stone’s Out of the Ashes novels involve team efforts – typical for works aimed at preteens. Ryan has three friends here: Phoenix, Jake and Hú Dié – and all are heading to California for road-bike training with Ryan’s cousin, Peter. Unfortunately for the team, but fortunately for the story, Peter is kidnapped – right in the middle of Chinatown. And someone or something seems to be killing experienced cyclists, who are dropping dead at an alarming rate. And someone that the good guys would rather not ever see again finds them. And how are they going to handle everything – rescuing Peter and fending off evil – and still win the race? This plot summary makes the book seem sillier than it is, but in fact it is pretty silly, having none of the resonance of the original The Five Ancestors series and seeming rather warmed-over. The characters just aren’t particularly interesting or memorable, and the dangers they face (and overcome) do not have the frisson of magic and otherworldliness that the ones in the original series possessed. Indeed, the magical elements tend to sound rather silly in this context: “Dragons are complex creatures. They can mean many things.” The context itself is the problem: “He was wearing a tool belt with a huge buckle that read TEXAS ELECTRIC.” And this series is really for young readers who are highly interested in the intricacies of bike racing: “When you race BMX, your feet aren’t connected to the pedals, so you’re always hammering down with your legs, never pulling up.” For a certain niche of preteens, The Five Ancestors: Out of the Ashes, Book 2—Lion will be involving enough, but this middle book of the trilogy (no seven-book series this time) will be far from gripping for readers hoping for more of the fascinating elements from the original series.
Dragons may be complex creatures in the world of The Five Ancestors, but they are more straightforward – and lighthearted – in Kate Klimo’s Dragon Keepers sequence. The sixth of the books, The Dragon at the North Pole, is about nothing less (and not much more) than Santa Claus. Dragon keepers Jesse and Daisy awake one morning to find their dragon, Emmy, missing, with a note saying she has gone to help Santa. But Santa isn’t really real, is he? Well, anything is possible in a world in which the dragon-keeping cousins merely have to don magic snowshoes to follow Emmy to the North Pole. So they do, not forgetting to pack cocoa and thermal gel pads. And yes, they encounter “the Claus,” who says of Emmy, “I have need of her dragon magic,” and who has a not-so-good influence on both Emmy and Daisy, leading Joshua to be “worried sick. Both Emmy and Daisy were suddenly strangers to him.” Something unsavory is clearly going on, and Joshua soon learns, courtesy of the disappearance of his emerald’s natural green color, that he is “in the presence of treachery. Something was rotten at the North Pole!” The Dragon Keepers books are written at a somewhat easier-to-read level than the Joshua Dread and Five Ancestors novels. Klimo makes sure to give Daisy and Jesse what they need, when they need it, and then to explain why they need it. For example, Jesse discovers a stream of mead at one point, explaining to Daisy that he knows what it is because “one of my parents’ friends in Doctors Without Borders was Norwegian,” and then he finds a tinderbox, and explains to Daisy that he knows what it is because “this kid I used to play with in Tanzania, he taught me how to use his.” It soon turns out that Jesse and Daisy are on a rescue mission, first to rescue Emmy and then, it turns out, to rescue the entire planet – which they find out is in danger from a Vortex Interceptor. They learn this thanks to rhyming songs sung to them by the aurora borealis. Well, it all doesn’t make much sense, but then it doesn’t have to, since the plot here is as consistent as any in the Dragon Keepers series. Jesse gets to ride on a “light mare” and escape a wolf attack, and there are Thunder Eggs (dragon eggs, which “rain down from the heavens”) and a confrontation with Beowulf (yes, that Beowulf) and, eventually, a very merry Christmas for all. No, the book does not hang together very well, and yes, it strains credulity a little too much, but the Dragon Keepers series was never meant to be taken entirely seriously, and fans of the earlier volumes will find that this one follows quite neatly in their footsteps.
Ave Maria: Gregorian Chant. Seraphic Fire conducted by Patrick Dupré Quigley. SFM (Seraphic Fire Media). $16.99.
Robert DeGaetano: Piano Concerto No. 1; Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1. Robert DeGaetano, piano; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Yaffé. Navona. $19.99 (CD+DVD).
Sergio Cervetti: Wind Devil & Co.—DancElectronics. Navona. $16.99.
A famous collection of Robert Heinlein science fiction stories written between 1939 and the early 1960s is called The Past Through Tomorrow, and it presents a kind of “future history” based on imagined events that have not yet happened but that have clear relationships to ones that had happened at the time the stories were written. There is something of a “future history” feel to many contemporary CD releases, too, as composers and performers alike view and reinterpret the music of the past in light of contemporary understanding or in a deliberate attempt to go beyond musical approaches that have been tried before. At one end of the spectrum in observing and interpreting the past is the Seraphic Fire ensemble, which delves into works from as long ago as the 9th century and attempts to present them with understanding, respect and beauty. Founder and artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley usually succeeds admirably in the endeavor. Witness the group’s latest CD – on its own label – with its focus on chant and polyphony centered on the Virgin Mary. Views of Mary actually changed in significant ways between the 9th century and the 16th – the span of the music on this disc – so the fact that the works are not presented chronologically is a bit disappointing from a content standpoint. The performances, though, are not disappointing at all, and the way music changed over these many centuries is certainly clear here. The juxtapositions of settings of similar or identical texts are fascinating: Alma redemptoris mater from the 13th century and the 16th; Inviolata, integra et casta es from the 9th century and in a setting by Josquin des Prez (1450-1621); Salve Regina as a 14th-century plainchant and as set by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611); and so on. Those not already fascinated by music of this era – or, more accurately, these eras – may find a certain sameness to the sound, especially if they listen to the entire 55-minute CD straight through. Those who are devoted to this sort of devotional music, on the other hand, will hear exemplary performances with fine vocal balance and subtle interpretative emphases that make the CD a very impressive release.
Pianist/composer Robert DeGaetano (born 1952) also reaches into the past, although not quite that distant a past – and he then brings listeners right into the present, albeit a present with significant influence from earlier times. In an unusual coupling of works, DeGaetano, who was a pianist before he was a composer, couples his performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with his rendition of his own Piano Concerto No. 1. This is not quite as sacrilegious as it may seem – there have actually been a number of recent attempts to pair well-known repertoire works with less-known and/or modern ones, for a variety of reasons. In this case, the results are quite interesting, since DeGaetano’s reading of the Chopin is an impressive one. Both of Chopin’s piano concertos are very early works, created by him more out of necessity (to get his music before the public) than because he had any significant skill in orchestration or intense desire to develop some. The E minor concerto is large-scale, lasting more than 40 minutes, and mixes impressive and beautifully formed passages with some, particularly for the orchestra, that are rather mundane. DeGaetano says he first played the work when he was about 18 – the age at which Chopin wrote it – and certainly his interpretation on this disc bespeaks decades of familiarity with and love of the music. It is not a groundbreaking or particularly revelatory performance, but it is solid, thoughtful and very well played. DeGaetano’s own concerto pairs rather intriguingly with the Chopin. A stronger, less lyrical, more angular and less flowing work than Chopin’s, it is in four movements rather than three but is still a few minutes shorter than the older concerto. And not surprisingly, it is significantly more dissonant and rhythmically intense – although some of the dissonance, as DeGaetano himself points out, is the sound of apparent atonality caused by multiple tonal passages played together (in the mode of Charles Ives, although this work sounds nothing like Ives’). DeGaetano’s concerto is well put together and of course very well performed by the composer, who gets fine backup from the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under John Yaffé throughout the CD. Like his performance of the Chopin, DeGaetano’s creation of this concerto is effective without being particularly innovative – the work sounds good while it lasts but does not really stay with listeners afterwards, although it tends to reveal more subtleties with repeated hearings. Navona’s CD+DVD set includes one of those “making of” documentaries that enthusiasts alone will find worthwhile. Indeed, the whole production has the feeling of “for enthusiasts” about it. Hopefully those who are enthusiastic about DeGaetano as a pianist will use this opportunity to explore his compositional work.
If DeGaetano’s Navona CD represents both the past and the present, the latest one from Sergio Cervetti is completely of today. There is some traditionally composed music here, but not much of it: these seven pieces scream “contemporary” in every way from their sound to their titles (which include In Closed Time, Night Trippers and 40 Second/42nd Variations – although, to be fair, Cervetti also offers Requiem and Cantata No. 84, neither of which sounds anything like its title). The overall name that Cervetti gives the pieces, “DancElectronics,” also bespeaks an entirely up-to-the-minute orientation for these works, all of which were created for modern-dance companies. The “danceability” of the music varies quite a bit, with Wind Devil and Out of the Rolling Ocean being somewhat more clearly stageable than some of the other pieces. Without the visual element of the dancers, this music is something of a chore to hear – although in fairness, even some of the great Romantic ballets are also far less effective when the dancing is missing. There are some attractive rhythms here, some interesting sounds, and some sense of playfulness in a few of the works, but the totality here is more than an hour of music intended for a specific purpose and stripped of its reason for being when heard on a CD. Fanciers of electronic music – more than fanciers of modern dance – will find the disc appealing, although even they may well decide that the shorter pieces are more congenial than the longer ones.
September 12, 2013
Lena’s Sleep Shop. By Anita Lobel. Knopf. $11.99.
Rico the Brave Sock Monkey. By Fiona Rempt. Illustrated by Noëlle Smit. Golden Books. $3.99.
Robots, Robots Everywhere! By Sue Fliess. Illustrated by Bob Staake. Golden Books. $3.99.
Pick your fear and beat it here. In Anita Lobel’s utterly charming Lena’s Sleep Shop, the fear is not that of Lena but that of the sheep she counts every night as she falls asleep. Lena, you see, wants her parents to leave the curtains open because the moon is full and she wants to enjoy it. But the full moon scares the sheep, which think it is “a round monster in the window…ready for a sheep snack,” and therefore refuse to come out and do their nightly duty. Well, this is scarcely acceptable! Unable to reassure the frightened sheep, clever Lena comes up with a great solution: have them use the clothes in her closet to dress up, so the “monster” will not recognize them as sheep. Brilliant! But unfortunately, ineffective, since the dressed-up sheep – although no longer scared – are so clumsy that they keep bumping into each other, and Lena cannot count them in the nice orderly line that she is used to. Oh, dear. But then, how wonderful! The moon disappears behind a cloud, Lena tells the sheep they scared the monster away, and the sheep counting can proceed apace – Lena does “not even get to twelve” before she falls asleep. And the moon, peeking out from behind the cloud, whispers a fond good night to Lena and even to the silly sheep. Lobel makes the whole story an absolutely wonderful bedtime tale, written with relish and illustrated with equal helpings of silliness and joy.
The fear of Rico the Brave Sock Monkey is – well, nothing, at least at first. Frequent Dutch children’s-book collaborators Fiona Rempt and Noëlle Smit talk about and show the noisy factory where Rico is born: “The factory looked like a haunted house, but the little sock monkey was not afraid.” Rico is boxed and put in a truck, driven all night to a toy store, put on display by one lady and selected by another, and wrapped in tissue paper, “and still he wasn’t afraid.” Rico hears strange sounds on his first trip outdoors while awake – the illustration is particularly attractive here – and he eventually becomes the inseparable playmate of a little boy who takes him everywhere and does absolutely everything with him (baths included). Although the boy grows older and older, he keeps Rico with him until, one day, in a moment that will surely make some families think of Pixar’s Toy Story 3, the boy puts Rico in a closet, and “for the first time in his life, Rico was a bit scared. He was afraid of being alone.” And indeed, Rico stays alone “for a long, long time,” until a delightfully crafted happy ending has the boy, now all grown up, retrieving Rico from the closet “at last” and giving him to the boy’s – that is to say, the man’s – own child, proclaiming Rico “the bravest monkey in the whole world” and presenting him with “a new best friend.” Sweet and heartwarming without overdoing the treacle, Rico the Brave Sock Monkey is a lovely book to read with a young child, or for an early reader to discover on his or her own.
Like the stories of the silly sheep and Rico the sock monkey, Robots, Robots Everywhere! is intended for ages 2-5. But this is a simpler book than the other two, not only emotionally – no fear here at all – but also in Sue Fliess’ narrative, which comes in the form of an easy-to-read, attractive poem: “Up in space, beneath the seas,/ Robots make discoveries.” And: “Working robots drill and grind./ Rescue robots seek and find.” Bob Staake’s illustrations are a big part of the fun here: he gives all the robots (as well as the humans with whom they interact) considerable personality, not to mention a very wide variety of shapes (check out the ones making doughnuts, including the robot manager with a key sticking out of his back). If anyone does still have a residual fear of robots – the very first ones, in Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R, were frightening in a Frankenstein’s-monster sort of way – this book will certainly dispel the worries, since the robots here are as helpful, talented, useful and of course amusing as anyone could wish. About the only annoyance is the lightbulb nose of the robot on the very last page, which is so bright it is keeping the two kids with whom it shares a room awake (while the robot itself sleeps peacefully). This is one of those purely-for-fun books with bright writing, bright color and the occasional brightly shining robot nose – a winning combination.
How to Prepare a Standout College Application. By Alison Cooper Chisholm and Anna Ivey. Jossey-Bass. $16.95.
One hundred hours. That is how much time Alison Cooper Chisholm and Anna Ivey say students should allot to preparing college applications, assuming they are applying to eight to 12 colleges – a typical number. Chisholm and Ivey, former university admissions officers who now work at Ivey College Consulting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, do not say what percentage of the 100 hours should be spent reading How to Prepare a Standout College Application, but count on some significant number of hours, because there is a lot of detailed, step-by-step information here.
There is also an underlying premise that should be acknowledged by readers even though the authors do not bring it up. The whole point of the book is to provide, as the extended and asterisked subtitle puts it, “Expert Advice That Takes You from LMO* (*Like Many Others) to Admit,” which is a touch confusing as well as a touch ungrammatical (why not “admission”?). But following the advice will make you LMO who follow it, because the approach is quite formulaic. Intelligently formulaic, yes, but still, an admissions officer who receives multiple essays using this book’s recommendations will know it. All the submissions will begin, “A few important things to know about me before you read my application are….” They will continue, “As a student, I….” And then they will say, “Outside the classroom….” And next – a certain giveaway – there will appear, “Close friends and family describe me as….”
These happen to be darned good elements to include in a submission, but including them with slavish devotion to the book’s format creates the risk of being found LMO who have read the book. Some creativity in presentation is called for; caveat lector (look it up!).
In fact, the balance between formula and creativity is a major element in college applications, and Chisholm and Ivey try to show how best to strike it in all the elements of the application process. For example, they suggest creating a template for multiple applications that “will result in an answer that follows a predetermined pattern for answering the question, but the details you fill in will vary from school to school.” This prevents the application process from either taking even more than 100 hours or from becoming too much of a formula through the creation of a single generic application in which a find-and-replace word-processing tool simply substitutes the names of different schools (a sure recipe for seeming LMO). Chisholm and Ivey even suggest three separate types of template – “Week in the Life,” “Burning Qualities” and “Gets Me Where I’m Going” – to help applicants pick the approach they find most congenial.
Not that the application process itself is a congenial one. Chisholm and Ivey do not pretend that it is. One reason their book is both long and dense is that there is so much to do in order to stand out, during a review that may be very quick even when it is thoughtful, from the thousands of other applicants who are also trying to stand out enough to catch admissions officers’ attention. The admissions process becomes a family affair, and the authors offer occasional “parent tip” boxes to suggest ways in which the whole family can help. Some of these involve what to do, such as trying to “make the family schedule fit the college admissions timeline” rather than the other way around; others say things not to do: do not be a coauthor of the application; and do not become an administrative assistant by typing everything up, since the application process should help students develop skills they will need after admission.
Most of the book, though, is aimed firmly at students, and wow, can it seem overwhelming! Even something as simple, on the surface, as the comment that “your application should tell your story,” leads to an admonition to “think like an admissions officer” and then discover your story – and tell it by attention to demographics in the first sentence, words rather than numbers in the second, impact in the third, and so on. Oh – and that is just in the first draft. How to Prepare a Standout College Application is simply packed with detailed, highly useful advice from start to finish, including some that students may find surprising. For example, many who have faced hardship make that the topic of their self-revealing presentation; but while that can make sense in some circumstances, Chisholm and Ivey point out that “no matter how admirable it is that you overcame adversity x, that experience alone doesn’t make you qualified for a selective college. You still need to demonstrate that you have the knowledge and skills to excel at high-level academic work.” This neatly deflates the sense of entitlement that some students have because they have indeed lived through hardships greater than those faced by most other applicants.
The level of detail in this book is impressive throughout – even to the point of suggesting what sort of E-mail address to use on an application (one that is “worthy of a serious candidate for admission to a top US college,” not one that tries to be “cute, clever, or political”). But because of the detail, the book may well be as off-putting in its way as the application process itself is in its. The authors suggest keeping How to Prepare a Standout College Application always at hand throughout the application marathon, so you can refer to it whenever you need to, and that is good if somewhat self-serving advice (not to mention potentially inconvenient: the book runs 340 oversize pages). Even if you do keep it close by, though, you will do well – whether you are a student or a student’s parent – to read through it with some attentiveness at least once before plunging into the entire application morass. And that means upping the estimated time investment for college applications to, say, 110 hours. Maybe even 120.
Greenhorn. By Anna Olswanger. Illustrations by Miriam Nerlove. Junebug Books. $17.95.
A lovely, sensitive little story – not a novel or novella, but a novelette, and barely that – with wide-ranging themes but so narrow a focus that it will have only limited appeal, Greenhorn is the latest of many, many books seeking to capture the Jewish experience of the Holocaust before the very last people who remember it firsthand are gone forever. A lightly fictionalized account of the childhood of real-world people – again, like many similar books – Greenhorn is tender and thoughtful, encapsulating in its microcosmic scope the macrocosmic experiences of an entire people who had been singled out in horrific ways because of their beliefs.
For Jews, particularly Jews in New York who will understand the many local references (“Daniel snored like the BMT train”), Greenhorn will be a bittersweet journey to a time nearly 70 years ago, when the wounds of the Holocaust – unhealed even today for many – were fresh. It is the simple tale of a boy named Daniel who comes to a yeshiva in New York City in 1946, carrying a small box that he will not stop holding, and of another boy, a stutterer named Aaron, who narrates the book – and who befriends Daniel and tries to protect him from the taunts and bullying of some of the crasser students.
The mystery of the box’s contents is the only real tension in a book that is essentially an exploration of the varied reactions of young European Jewish boys just after World War II to schooling and life in the New World. Too brief to delve into the experience in detail, Greenhorn relies on small, nicely formed scenes to reveal character: boys offering to play Chinese checkers with Daniel or let him read a Captain Marvel joke book; the school bully repeatedly calling Aaron Gravel Mouth; Daniel, who rarely speaks, being thought rather simple-minded until he reads a passage in Aramaic, Yiddish and Hebrew; and the line, “Friends don’t keep secrets from each other,” which inevitably becomes the book’s climactic saying.
It is all terribly earnest, terribly well-meaning and terribly meaningful to the cloistered community at which it is aimed. Greenhorn is an inward-focused book for Jews who just cannot get enough of Holocaust and post-Holocaust stories, for New York Jews still feeling close ties to their city’s post-World War II history, for now-elderly Jews wanting a chapbook to help communicate the feelings and events of a still-overwhelming time to today’s children – who are far more likely, outside the Orthodox communities, to be focused on electronics and reality shows than on kids’ behavior in the mid-1940s. Anna Olswanger succeeds, in fewer than three dozen pages, in bringing a small slice of a now-long-ago time to life, and Miriam Nerlove’s illustrations complement the text very well indeed. The book reaches out solely to a small, insular community, but within that community will surely be found to be heartfelt, attentive and warm.
Mahler: Symphony No. 4, arranged by Erwin Stein; Debussy: Prélude à l-après-midi d’un faune. Sónia Grané, soprano; Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble conducted by Trevor Pinnock. Linn Records. $22.99.
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Maarten Konigsberger, baritone; Ed Spanjaard, piano. Quintone. $19.99.
Despite the gigantism of Mahler’s orchestras, his scoring always has a certain chamber-music quality to it. He uses the numerous instruments not only or even primarily to create vast swells of sound in the Richard Strauss manner but to allow him to extract subtleties from specific parts of the orchestra and even from individual instruments within sections. As a result, Erwin Stein’s 1920 arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 for 14 instruments and solo soprano has a certain logic and rightness to it (although only 13 instrumental players are listed in Trevor Pinnock’s performance). The arrangement was made for Arnold Schoenberg’s short-lived “Society for Private Musical Performances,” which presented distinctive works by contemporary composers including both Mahler and Strauss as well as Ravel, Reger, Bartók and others. Harmonium, piano, and a few strings and winds comprised the society’s ensemble; hence Stein’s approach to the Mahler Fourth. Not surprisingly – indeed, intentionally – the arrangement lays forth the skeleton of the work and effectively displays its inner logic, even while giving short shrift to the big climaxes of the first and third movements, which sound wan. The tradeoff is scarcely perfect but is quite fascinating, especially in Pinnock’s poised and carefully balanced reading, which pays particular attention to details that sometimes get lost in full-orchestra performances – such as the scordatura violin in the second movement. Soprano Sónia Grané is a significant plus, too, singing with very little vibrato and just the sort of wild-eyed, childlike wonder that is appropriate for Das himmlisches leben in the finale. Although much of Mahler’s brilliant orchestral color is indubitably missing here, what takes its place is a kind of stark beauty that is revelatory of the scaffolding on which Mahler erected this last of his symphonies tied to the poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. More than a curiosity although less than the sort of work to which Mahler lovers will want to return frequently, Stein’s sensitively scaled arrangement brings forth elements of Mahler that are always there but that tend to disappear beneath the excellence of his orchestrations. And coupling the symphony with Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun makes for a highly intriguing CD: it turns out that Mahler and Debussy share more sensibilities than might at first be evident, for all that Mahler was scarcely an Impressionist (and Debussy hated being called one). The delicacy with which Debussy’s well-known work proceeds turns out to have more in common with the feelings underlying Mahler’s third and fourth movements than might be expected – indeed, more than would likely be noticed were it not for Stein’s small-ensemble arrangement.
The Wunderhorn symphonies draw on a larger corpus of songs that Mahler set in brilliant orchestral arrangements – and those in turn are part of a still larger collection compiled by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, a collection that ran to 723 songs when published in 1808. Mahler set 24 of the songs in all, his orchestrations so skillful that it is easy to forget that his original settings were in the traditional lied mode for voice and piano. Indeed, the piano versions of the songs sound rather pale to anyone who knows the orchestral ones, even when the piano is as skillfully played as it is by Ed Spanjaard. Also, the voice-and-piano songs place a particularly high burden on the singer, who – as in many other lieder – must use all his powers of communicativeness in a way that is quite different from the one required in the orchestral versions, where the instruments carry much of the emotional freight. Unfortunately, Maarten Konigsberger falls down on this level, resulting in a (+++) CD despite the quality of Konigsberger’s voice and Spanjaard’s accompaniment. The Wunderhorn songs can be sung in any order, but there is little attention paid here to putting them together in a logical sequence – the songs cover many moods, here thrown off more or less at random. And Konigsberger’s emoting tends to be overdone, with his voice rising uncomfortably toward falsetto again and again and his attempts at seriousness simply falling flat, as in Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (the final song here – a decidedly odd placement). In addition to overindulging in some of the songs’ emotions, Konigsberger downplays the effects of other pieces, being, for example, entirely too matter-of-fact in the eerie and deliberately overdone Revelge. It is nice to hear a few of the less frequently recorded songs, such as Aus! Aus! and Selbstgefühl, but most of the songs here have often been recorded to better effect than this. Unlike the Stein arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth, the voice-and-piano versions of the Wunderhorn songs are Mahler’s own, and predate the orchestral versions. But they sound like reductions from the orchestral form of the songs, and while that can give them the same clarity and precision as Stein’s version of the symphony, in the case of this recording the songs, despite their manifold beauties, merely seem pale.