September 25, 2014
Elmer. By David McKee. Harper. $7.99.
Huff and Puff Have Too Much Stuff! By Tish Rabe. Pictures by Gill Guile. Harper. $16.99.
Splat the Cat Goes to the Doctor. By Catherine Hapka. Illustrations by Loryn Brantz. HarperFestival. $4.99.
Aw, Nuts! By Rob McClurkan. Harper. $17.99.
Colors versus Shapes. By Mike Boldt. Harper. $16.99.
No child is too young to enjoy a well-crafted character, which is one reason books with morals or lessons can be created for just about any age – provided that they communicate through interesting protagonists having amusing adventures. The new board-book edition of David McKee’s delightful fable, Elmer, is for kids up to age four, and is as much fun to look at as it is for pre-readers to hear. McKee’s original story dates all the way back to 1968, but its message of the importance of individuality – of being yourself – remains entirely relevant. Elmer is a patchwork elephant, a burst of the multicolored amid a herd of typically grey elephants. Elmer makes everyone laugh with his jokes and games, but he comes to suspect that the other elephants are laughing at him, not with him. So he finds a way to transform himself into just another grey elephant – that is, to fit in and conform. The change makes him look like everyone else, but it turns out that it does not make him happy. And then he finds out that it does not make the other elephants happy, either. The result is a bit of self-discovery that applies not only to Elmer but also to the entire elephant herd – and there is a wonderfully colorful conclusion that kids will enjoy even before they are old enough to get McKee’s point about being true to yourself.
Very slightly older children, ones just on the cusp of learning to read on their own, will enjoy Tish Rabe’s train characters, Huff and Puff – an engine and a caboose who, between them (literally!), make trains move. Huff and Puff Have Too Much Stuff! is a “My First” entry in the I Can Read! series – at a level described as being “ideal for sharing with emergent readers.” Very simple rhymed writing and large-print pages make the book easy to follow, and Gill Guile’s pleasant illustrations flow well through a story in which the two friends, accustomed to moving lots of stuff along the track in freight cars, decide to get even more stuff – including books, cows, ducks, toys, a goat, rugs and bugs, cats and hats, and all in all so much stuff that even between them, they can no longer move the train. Realizing that they have overdone things, Huff and Puff are relieved when Farmer Fluff shows up and offers a home to all the animals and a place at his farm for all the other things Huff and Puff have acquired. Lesson learned, Huff and Puff settle down with – the perfect rhyme – enough. The message of moderation is soft-pedaled but clear, and the smiling, wide-eyed train characters do a fine job of putting it across.
The message is one of trusting the doctor and not being afraid in a medical office in a new Splat the Cat book – one based on Rob Scotton’s character but created by others. This is a sticker book, so in addition to the story, there are more than 30 stickers for kids ages 4-8 to enjoy. The story itself is super-simple: Splat is due to leave school early for a checkup, and he is fine with that until his friends start telling him worrisome stories about the doctor wrapping kids in bandages and taking away (not simply taking) their temperature. Splat gets so scared that he clings to his school desk when his mom comes to pick him up, and she eventually has to pull him by the tail into the doctor’s office (the doctor being a DVM – that is, a veterinarian – which is a nice touch). Splat of course finds out soon enough that there is nothing to be afraid of, and is tempted to be on extra-good behavior by the prospect of a “good patient” sticker, which he duly receives at the end of his exam. The message is a little on the heavy side here, but Splat is such an amusing character, and the images of his reluctance to see the doctor are so funny, that Splat the Cat Goes to the Doctor ends up being both fun and informative.
“Informative” is scarcely the word for Rob McClurkan’s Aw, Nuts! But there is so much that is enjoyable in it that no one is likely to miss the lack of a teachable moral. The pictures tell most of the story in this tale of a squirrel named Squirrel who really loves acorns, especially an absolutely perfect one that he spies one day but that bounces away from him. There ensues a Keystone Kops sort of chase, with Squirrel donning sneakers to chase the bouncing acorn – but running again and again into mishaps that cause him to exclaim, “Aw, Nuts!” He is close to the acorn when he loses a sneaker. He jumps into a taxicab, which runs out of gas. He leaps onto a convenient pogo stick, but bounces into a manhole. He hitches a ride on the back of a truck, but ends up in Bucksnort, Tennessee. Eventually, after a series of ridiculous near misses, Squirrel not only catches the perfect acorn but also finds plenty of nuts to carry him through the winter. So all ends happily – except that Squirrel suddenly sees another perfect-looking acorn, and here we go again! There are lots and lots of “Oh, Nuts!” moments and lots and lots of adorably silly occurrences in a book that relies heavily for its considerable humor on the extreme ridiculousness of Squirrel’s quest and his wide-eyed, relentlessly naïve pursuit of it.
Things are also quite silly, although there is more of a point to them, in Mike Boldt’s Colors versus Shapes, which follows closely the pattern of Boldt’s earlier 123 versus ABC. There are two competing groups, the members of each proclaiming themselves better and more worthy of attention, and demonstrating their supposed superiority with antics that show their particular talent. In Colors versus Shapes, the colors start as three “primaries” – red, blue and yellow – and “mix it up” to create other colors, such as green, orange and purple. The shapes show their combinatorial prowess, too, as triangles become a square and additional sides produce a pentagon and hexagon; then shapes such as star and rhombus appear on the scene. Just as things get increasingly competitive, a color and shape collide, producing – a colored shape. And that gives everyone a let’s-get-together idea, which results in the creation of a multi-shape, multi-color two-page climatic illustration that takes full advantage of the special qualities of shapes and colors alike. The whole book is set up as a talent competition, with three judges (a number, a letter and a hat-wearing alligator) eventually proclaiming that a better title for the book would be “Colors and Shapes.” Funny, clever and instructive in showing how some colors and shapes can be mixed and matched to make others, Colors versus Shapes makes its cartoon-character protagonists into colorful, and shapely, blue-ribbon stars.
The Getaway God: A Sandman Slim Novel. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $24.99.
The Witch and Other Tales Re-Told. By Jean Thompson. Blue Rider Press. $25.95.
Ah, fairy tales and myths. They continue to grip us, as they probably have since the beginning of oral history, so long before the beginning of written history. Seeking explanations of un-understandable things, trying to arrange and make patterns of a world that is inherently without any human-imposed arrangement or pattern, these stories of things beyond the mundane draw upon and comment on our innermost concerns, worries, fears and hopes. Jungian, yes, and religious (or proto-religious), also yes; but they are above all stories, by their very nature having a beginning, middle and end in a way that everyday life, in which things tend to go on pretty much the same way from day to day, does not. And so they endure, they charm, they captivate and worry and grab and concern us still, these tales of the outré, of things seen or glimpsed beyond what passes for the world we live in, lending that world an aura of wonder that it does not, perhaps, deserve. Plumb the core of fairy tale and myth and you come out in some mighty dark places, which you can then use for entertainment, thoughtfulness, or some combination of the two. Richard Kadrey opts decidedly for the “entertainment” approach in his Sandman Slim novels, of which The Getaway God is the sixth – after Sandman Slim, Kill the Dead, Aloha from Hell, Devil Said Bang, and Kill City Blues. Sandman Slim, also known as James Stark, is one of those traditional fairy-tale characters, half human and half something else, in his case half angel – but he is no angel, not in any classic sense, and the angels themselves are no angels in these books. Kadrey’s world and characters are dark, dark, dark, and not only because The Getaway God is set in a Los Angeles on the verge of Armageddon, where it rains unceasingly and the skies remain so dully depressing in their overcast appearance that the relatively few residents who have not fled in unending traffic jams are all suffering from a massive case of seasonal affective disorder. They are living through a bad case of mass murder and hallucinatory, existential angst, too, both of those helped along by a serial killer called Saint Nick – yes, this is a Christmas story – whose mutilation of dozens upon dozens of bodies is done for the purpose of reassembling the body parts into chapels and vessels suitable to expedite the return of the Old Gods, known as the Angra Om Ya, the current God of this world having splintered into parts (one of which is dead). “But here’s the scary question: which God is worse? The Angra, who might be competent, but want to wipe us out, or our God, who isn’t good at his job, but if not benign, is at least indifferent to us? Parental neglect is starting to look pretty good right now, isn’t it?” Actually, nothing looks particularly good in The Getaway God, not Stark and not his lover Candy (herself a supernatural Jade), not Wells of the Golden Vigil (fundamentalists who pursue law enforcement, or at least organized preparation for the Rapture), not the long-dead and mummified Shonin with whom Wells insists Stark work on the Saint Nick case – not anyone or anything in Kadrey’s crazy world of Hollywood extremes, Blade Runner weather, Lovecraftian tropes, imagined creation of movies that never existed, and dead/undead characters for whom there is little distinction between the two states. Kadrey here creates (and not for the first time) a black-humor-permeated roller-coaster of a novel in which there is not a shred of believability or the slightest concern for character development, but which is so avowedly unstylish and action-driven that it addictively sweeps readers along, into and through a world that, thank some God new or old, is way, way beyond belief. Kadrey’s prose is about as bare-knuckled as it is possible to be, but the fact that The Getaway God and the Sandman Slim series are utterly unpretentious is a big part of what makes them so compulsively readable. There is nothing here but ridiculousness – serious ridiculousness, a closed circle of bizarre adventures, world without end (Armageddon and Ragnarok notwithstanding).
In contrast with the sweeping malapropisms of Kadrey’s mythic world are the eight small, character-focused, emotionally trenchant, fairy-tale-based Jean Thompson stories in The Witch and Other Tales Re-Told. There are modern, updated, rethought and reimagined fairy tales aplenty out there, including versions exploring the old stories’ psychological elements, looking at the tales from a feminist viewpoint, interpreting the events through this lens or that and producing the results as short stories, novels, even operas (Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle). The many dour modern versions stand side by side with the equally modern, sanitized ones known from Disney animated movies (which themselves have become somewhat more “adult” in recent years, if scarcely hard-edged). Thompson’s contribution to the field does not so much rewrite fairy tales as rethink them into a contemporary milieu. This means a lot of focus on the sorts of people who increasingly inhabit contemporary fiction. “Inamorata,” for example, turns the Cinderella story into a one-shoe-left-behind tale involving a one-night stand between a man with a traumatic brain injury and a deaf woman. “The Witch” is a Hansel-and-Gretel rethinking featuring a shattered family, foster parenting and an open-ended conclusion. “Three” uses that significant fairy-tale number for a story in which three boys, the second three years younger than the first and the third three years younger than the second, search with their father for a steadier life and their own self-actualization after their mother abandons the family. And so on, through tales called “Candy,” “Faith,” “The Curse,” “Your Secret’s Safe with Me,” and “Prince,” the last of these about a mentally fragile woman, with what she herself considers “a flawed mind and soul,” who magically connects with a stray dog and worries that “if I have another bad spell of crazy, they can put me in the nuthouse again.” Thompson’s preoccupation with mental illness, or at least mental instability, runs through these stories in a destabilizing way, making it harder than it needs to be for readers to connect with and truly empathize with the characters – a flaw only because Thompson is striving so hard for just that sort of connection. Nevertheless, the reworkings of fairy-tale elements, their use in a deeply foundational rather than surface-plot-related way, are attractive: Thompson has absorbed some of what the old stories are about and used that something to construct entirely new narrative edifices that are, as often as not, examples of what fairy tales might be in our mundane and magic-challenged modern world. Thompson’s style is, however, too weighty and self-important for the old stories, both in narration and in dialogue: “It did not occur to Richard that everyone else might also have their own secret and fraudulent self.” “‘So you’re the nonverbal type. Strong and silent and solvent.’” “She had the kind of mobile, sharp-featured face that did almost too good a job of showing disdain.” “Anyway, you could kind of like being all alone and tragic in the storm, like somebody in a song.” It is because of this sort of pretentiousness that the book becomes a fairly mediocre execution of a very interesting idea, although it gets a (+++) rating for its positive elements. Readers who can get past the self-consciously “literary” approach of The Witch and Other Tales Re-Told (“She was balanced between two different lives, two different stories, and the whole world waiting for her to choose”) will find here some snippets of genuine thoughtfulness, some interesting attempts not merely to plaster fairy-tale notions onto modern settings but genuinely to plumb the stories’ underlying reasons for being – and, having done that, to figure out ways in which those same foundational elements, molded like verbal clay and spread like rebar-strengthened concrete beneath stories of contemporary characters and events, can grow into edifices that lack the charm of the old tales but that, like modest modern office buildings, hold within them many of the thoughts, hopes and dreams of our workaday world.
Anatomy of a Misfit. By Andrea Portes. HarperTeen. $17.99.
The Triple Threat, Book I: The Walk On. By John Feinstein. Knopf. $16.99.
The Turtle of Oman. By Naomi Shihab Nye. Illustrations by Betsy Peterschmidt. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Death, dislocation and deep heartache – these are the basics of books that proclaim themselves more serious than others intended for preteens and teenagers. The angst tends to flow in predictable channels, although it is edgier in books specifically aimed at ages 14 and up, such as Andrea Portes’ Anatomy of a Misfit. This is in many ways a typical high-school novel, about popular kids, ones who do not fit in, ostracism and crowd involvement, loners and extroverts. Said by Portes to be based on her own high-school experiences, the book nevertheless reads like a delving into formula writing. There is a popular girl, protagonist Anika, who is, however, not the queen bee of the school and who must therefore listen when the queen bee, Becky, tells her what to do. And one thing Becky tells Anika is not to date Logan, an outsider who does not quite fit in even though he is, predictably, hot. Instead, Anika dates Jared, a prototypical “bad boy” and thus a hot guy himself. But Anika’s heart is not cooperating with what Becky tells her, and things are further complicated by the usual-in-books-like-this family issues: Anika herself needs social acceptance because she is living in Nebraska and the background of her father, who is from Romania, means she does not fit in with the well-scrubbed Midwesterners who populate the school; Logan, for his part, has genuinely serious family issues involving, primarily, a father who is both a drunk and abusive. That seriousness eventually turns explosive, just when Anika is about to take a chance and reveal her true feelings to Logan – and the result is violence, heartbreak and Anika’s eventual realization that the only thing that matters is to listen to your heart and say what is in it as soon as possible, because tomorrow may be too late. This is so contrived and saccharine an ending – even if it is based on events that actually occurred – that readers may look back at it after throwing away the tear-sodden tissues that it will surely provoke and wonder why exactly they reacted so strongly to something so pat and expectable. The writing here is drenched in I’m-so-with-it-ness: “This dinner is gonna be like the most uncomfortable dinner of my lifetime.” “‘So, um, Anika. You made my night kinda.’” And the book as a whole insists, absolutely insists, that it Means Something. Or wants to.
The Walk On, football-focused first book of a sports-oriented trilogy for ages 10 and up, is altogether milder, but it still tries to prove its real-worldliness by having a positive test for steroids figure significantly in the plot. The story itself is straightforward: protagonist Alex is a triple threat (hence the series title), being great at football, basketball and baseball. Or he was multiply talented in the place where he used to live – now he and his mom have moved to a new town, where sports really matter and where Alex is going to have to prove himself again. And again. He wants, of course, to be quarterback – why not start at the top in a new town where everyone’s loyalty has already been established? But Alex comes head-on against the reality of established relationships in the Philadelphia suburb where he now lives: the current quarterback, Matt, may not be as good a player as Alex, but he is settled into his positon and commands the full loyalty of the coach. So the coach benches Alex, conceals his abilities, and so on – which is about as real-world as…well, as nothing in the real world, since a sports-obsessed small town is inevitably going to want the absolutely best players on the field that it can get, and winning-is-all-that-matters coaches will gladly dump good and loyal players for a better chance at a championship. This opposite-of-reality book also has Alex and Matt developing such a good-buddy sort of rivalry that, when Alex’s dad calls him after a game and says something about Alex bailing Matt out, Alex responds that Matt is “a really good quarterback. Plus, he’s been my biggest supporter all season.” Then comes the drug test, with Alex testing positive for steroids; this sets him and his mom on a quest to prove his innocence – resulting in a series of charges, counter-charges, revelations, counter-revelations, and eventual comeuppance for the bad guys (whose motives are intended to be understandable, if scarcely admirable) and success for Alex. And onward heads The Triple Threat to the next novel, in which Alex will surely excel in the next sport. The Walk On is fine for football-obsessed readers who do not care much about character development, of which there is none here: even Alex is simply “the talented quarterback,” which is all anyone needs to know about him, and the other characters are even thinner.
A planned relocation sets in motion the events of The Turtle of Oman, too, but this is a move over a much greater distance than Alex’s. Aref Al-Amri and his family are about to move to Michigan from their home in Oman, with Aref continuing a family tradition by making lists of things – including facts about turtles, which he finds fascinating. Aref does not want to move – he would prefer somewhere closer, such as India – but he knows he must, since his father has gone on ahead. Both of Aref’s parents are university teachers, his father of biology and his mother of English, so Aref comes from a well-to-do and well-educated family, but he is nevertheless provincial and unsure of what to expect from the upcoming move. Naomi Shihab Nye’s book is not about adjustment to the United States, however; it focuses on the necessities of departure from Oman, as Aref says goodbye to his friends and his homeland and looks forward to the time when he will return. Nye is at pains to show the multigenerational love and complete, secular reasonableness of the Al-Amri family, no doubt to counter concerns that parents of kids ages 8-12 (the book’s target audience) may have about people and events in the real Arab world. In fact, the book tries so hard to make readers identify with and like Aref that it becomes a little fairy-tale-like, with the many lists within the narrative serving to humanize the characters even more than the story itself does. In one list about what people eat on airplanes, for instance, one of Aref’s items is, “Maybe the passengers gobble gigantic mounds of cotton candy since they are above the clouds.” In one of his lists about turtles, he writes that May 23 is World Turtle Day. In another, he writes, “People hunt turtles for their meat. Yucko.” And in a list about Michigan, Aref writes, “The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island features the world’s biggest porch.” Everything is so warm, so well-meaning here that it is difficult to see the book as anything more than a young boy’s journal – which is most of what The Turtle of Oman is. It is a pleasant work, certainly a well-meaning one, largely without drama or, indeed, significant occurrences of any kind – a slice-of-life book aimed at showing that people from Oman are just like people from Michigan in all the ways that matter. The real-world terror and trauma associated with so much of the Arab world simply do not exist here, making the book one that is curiously divorced from reality even as it accurately explores some (but only some) aspects of it.
Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema. By Anne Helen Petersen. Plume. $16.
One of the casualties of the demise of the Hollywood studio system was the studios’ old-fashioned publicity-and-protection machine, designed not only to pump up the latest films and stars but also to protect the stars from themselves – to craft carefully arranged “star personas” reflecting the supposed naïveté and wholesomeness of the movies’ audiences rather than the seamy, steamy realities of many performers’ actual lives. The publicity machines did not cease to exist after Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, of course, but they were transformed into movie-hype factories rather than facilities operating in loco parentis. Just how much the studios’ publicity people had to do in movies’ early days, and how much they tried to do in more-recent times, becomes clear from Anne Helen Petersen’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood, a strange hybrid of the savvy and the salacious by an author who has a Ph.D. in, believe it or not, the history of the gossip industry.
The book includes a number of familiar names and a few that may sound familiar to modern filmgoers and gossip-enjoyers even if they are not quite sure who the people were: Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Rudolph Valentino, Mae West, James Dean. Much of the genuinely interesting material here relates to performers whose work is less known today: Fatty Arbuckle, Wallace Reid, Jean Harlow, Montgomery Clift. The efforts of studios to sanitize and promote their stars, to do damage control while also producing plenty of hype, are the most interesting part of Petersen’s book, especially when she gives examples drawn from a time with standards very different from those of today. Regarding Arbuckle, for example, she writes, “When a fan queried Photoplay as to the identity of Arbuckle’s wife, the magazine offered [Minta] Durfee’s name, then asked, ‘Wouldn’t you love to be the wife of a fatty de foie gras?’ Today, these jokes read as incredibly poor taste; then, they were simply part of the image production machine. As Photoplay pointed out, ‘His fat is his fortune.’”
Speaking of image production, the Hollywood studios decided – after a number of scandals that they could not fully manage, notably including allegations against Arbuckle – that they needed to clean up their act, at least on screen if not behind the scenes. This led to one of the most notorious of all decisions of the studio era, and one that still affects Hollywood films today: establishment of a censorship organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), led by “devout Presbyterian and former postmaster general Will H. Hays…[who] instituted mandatory ‘morality clauses’ in star contracts, which effectively forced stars to hew to strict standards of moral behavior.” The fact that the clauses were more honored in the breach than the observance was not the point – they showed the studios’ willingness to adhere to the most narrow-minded images of morality possible, and paved the way for a modern censorship arrangement (the familiar G, PG, etc. ratings system) in which violence and viciousness are deemed far more palatable and family-friendly than sex. The Hays office, as it is still referred to, always focused primarily on sex, as Petersen’s chapter on Mae West makes clear: “The popularity of West, her films, and their explicit attitude toward sex weren’t [sic; should be “wasn’t”] just a fad, or a boon to an industry struggling to make its way through the Depression. They were [sic; should be “It was”] a flagrant, incendiary violation of common decency, a threat to the morality of the nation, evidence of the abject failure of the MPPDA and Will Hays to protect audiences from sin in the form of the moving image. …[So] in the summer of 1934, the Hays office decided to ‘grant enforcement’ of the censorship code via the Production Code Administration (PCA) and its very Catholic, very no-nonsense head, Joseph Breen.” What followed, and what resonates even today, makes for fascinating reading – a lot more interesting than much of Petersen’s surface-level focus on which stars were sleeping with which other ones and which publicity machines were churning out what sort of attempted cover-ups.
True, it is the headliners of the book that will most likely bring readers to it: Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. But Petersen’s name-dropping is not the most interesting part of Scandals of Classic Hollywood – it is her insights into the way Hollywood used to operate that are the book’s primary attraction. Still, those seeking the salacious will find a fair helping of it here; but they will have to wade through some execrable editing to get to it. The book is distractingly filled with inelegant writing and with errors of all sorts. A small sampling includes page 13, “high-class, gentile [sic], wholly above scandal”; page 50, “his marriage to Rambocha” [the correct name is Rambova]; page 56, “you’re not [sic] angel”; page 67, “the lifestyle that had made her performative” [sic]; page 195, “had stuck [sic; should be “struck”] her violently”; page 202, “Hollywood, at least at in [sic] that era”; page 213, “all he cared about what [sic] re-creating”; page 218, “and wiling [sic; should be “whiling”] away.” The old Hollywood scandals, in an era long before the Internet and today’s anything-goes morality, seem somewhat quaint now, but the publicity machine that fed scandal-mongering and existed to support and encourage moviegoers’ fascination with celebrities is still very much with us. It just works differently today: more diffusely and with greater immediacy. Scandals of Classic Hollywood may lack analytical skill, but at least it opens a window into a time when well-known performers were supposed to be better people than they in fact were – as opposed to today, when they are not required to be much of anything at all.
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4; Dona nobis pacem; The Lark Ascending. David Coucheron, violin; Jessica Rivera, soprano; Brett Polegato, baritone; Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano. ASO Media. $18.99 (2 CDs).
Milhaud: L’Orestie d’Eschyle. Soloists, percussion ensemble, Chamber Choir, University Choir, Orpheus Singers, UMS Choral Union and University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Kiesler. Naxos. $29.99 (3 CDs).
Cécile Chaminade: Piano Music. Joanne Polk, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
Ralph Vaughan Williams famously said that he was not sure, after the fact, whether he really liked his Symphony No. 4, but it was what he meant to write at the time he wrote it. That was in the mid-1930s – the work was first played in 1935 – and the piece has been a knotty one ever since. Its dissonance is pronounced, its tension and drama almost unrelieved, and it is one of only two Vaughan Williams symphonies to end loudly (No. 8 is the other). The work stands in such strong contrast to the composer’s better-known, more-familiar pastoral music that it sometimes barely seems to be by him at all. Yet its language, in orchestration, harmony and rhythm, is unmistakably his, and even though it stands outside the primary body of his work, it is a symphony that deserves to be heard much more frequently. The new Robert Spano recording with the Atlanta Symphony, on the orchestra’s own label, is broad-scale and a touch on the slow side, but the music’s intensity comes through clearly, and its pronounced overall severity is very well communicated: the concluding fugal epilogue stands here as a true capstone. The symphony contrasts very strongly with The Lark Ascending, which dates to 1914 in its original form for violin and piano and to 1920 in the better-known version heard here, for solo violin and orchestra. Styled a Pastoral Romance, this lovely and delicate work, its solo part feelingly handled by concertmaster David Coucheron, moves onward and upward in a spiral of beauty and warmth, reflecting and going beyond the 1881 George Meredith poem that inspired it. Naïve and forthright in expression, with a solo part that soars higher and higher and draws the audience along with it, The Lark Ascending has long been one of Vaughan Williams’ most-popular works for its uncomplicated approach, its accessible sound, and its carefully crafted orchestration. The performance here is particularly effective because of the contrast between this music and that of the Fourth Symphony. Also on this two-CD set is the 1936 cantata, Dona nobis pacem, and it too contrasts fascinatingly with the symphony. Set to a text consisting of sections of the Mass and the Bible, poems by Walt Whitman, and – of all things – a political speech by John Bright (1811-1889), Dona nobis pacem was written as the clouds of war were again building over Europe, and it constitutes the composer’s heartfelt (if naïve) plea for peace through a reminder of the depredations of wars past. The fact that the work seems apposite to the world today is a measure of Vaughan Williams’ ability to reach well beyond his own time to tap into universal feelings and longings. The phrase Dona nobis pacem ("Give us peace"), set in multiple ways, resounds through the music and knits the work together. In the Spano performance, soprano Jessica Rivera and baritone Brett Polegato deliver their lines with feeling, and the chorus sings with warmth and clear diction, with the result that the cantata as a whole offers uplift untouched by irony and seeming, if anything, particularly apt in light of current geopolitical events.
Neither the Fourth Symphony nor Dona nobis pacem is particularly well-known among Vaughan Williams’ works, but both are vastly more familiar than is L’Orestie d’Eschyle among those of Darius Milhaud. It took Milhaud more than a decade (1913-23) to complete this sprawling, highly ambitious setting of all three Aeschylus Oresteia plays: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Furies. This is an early work by Milhaud (1892-1974) and is quite uneven, not only in the lengths of its parts but also in the composer’s approach to the material, which ranges from the conventional to the genuinely original. Agamemnon emerges as a short and rather ordinary prelude to the rest of the work: the setting of a single scene of the play, for soprano and chorus, is intended as part of a stage performance of the whole drama, and gives little hint of what is to come. There is much more to Les Choéphores (Milhaud’s title for The Libation Bearers, which he used in a Paul Claudel translation): here he employs full orchestra, 15 percussionists, very complex choruses and an odd – and oddly effective – rhythmically notated speech that retains a feeling of considerable modernity even a century later. Even this half-hour portion, though, pales before the 95-minute treatment of Les Euménides (The Furies). Here the orchestra is expanded even further, including saxophone and saxhorn quartets, and the music reaches out in ways comparatively typical of Paris in the 1920s but tending to sound more like Stravinsky of that time than like the Milhaud of Le boeuf sur le toit, which dates to 1920 – three years before Les Euménides. The new Naxos release of the complete L’Orestie d’Eschyle is highly ambitious, being a reading by many of the same forces who so brilliantly handled the equally daunting Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Bolcom – who studied with Milhaud and was the prime mover behind the April 2013 presentation recorded here. This was the first-ever North American performance of L’Orestie d’Eschyle, and this is the first complete recording of the score. And all of that is well and good, but the question for listeners is whether the whole endeavor is worthwhile and the performers as good as they need to be. The answer is a qualified yes: this is complex music, requiring a very large number of participants (120-piece orchestra, 320-voice choir), and it is also uneven music – frequently quite interesting but at times rather pedestrian. The soloists, especially soprano Lori Phillips as Clytemnestra and baritone Dan Kempton as Orestes, are fine, but the combined choruses do not always enunciate clearly enough (although the libretto, available online from Naxos, helps a great deal). The musicians include professionals, amateurs and students, and while everyone clearly approaches the project with considerable enthusiasm, there are ragged edges in both singing and playing here and there – although it must be said that the very large group of percussionists is highly impressive. L’Orestie d’Eschyle does not really hang together very well – it is not a strongly unified work, feeling sometimes like opera, sometimes like oratorio, sometimes like a stage play with music. In parts, it is compelling, but as a whole, it is intriguing for its scoring and intensity rather than emotionally gripping for its story. It is highly unlikely that this work will ever enter the mainstream of musical performance, but the chance to hear it at all – in a very fine, if scarcely flawless, performance – is an extremely welcome one, and kudos are due to Bolcom, Naxos and the University of Michigan performers for making it available.
The scale is much, much smaller, far more intimate, on a new Steinway & Sons recording of piano music by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944), performed by Joanne Polk. This is a combination of avowed salon music, finger exercises, and one large-scale work designed with considerable seriousness: Sonata in C minor, Op. 21 (1893). In traditional three-movement form, this is an earnest work that indulges in mild chromaticism and fairly typical late-Romantic emotional exaggeration – well-crafted but scarcely riveting. The études performed by Polk, even if intended primarily as developmental tools for performers, are more intriguing, showing that Chaminade had considerable skill as a miniaturist. Four excerpts from Études de Concert, Op. 35 (1886) comprise Scherzo, Automne, Fileuse (Spinner) and Impromptu. Also here are individual pieces: Étude Symphonique, Op. 28 (1884), Étude Mélodique, Op. 118 (1906), Étude Pathétique, Op. 124 (also 1906), and Étude Romantique, Op. 132 (1909). These are all attractive works that can fairly be called pièces caracteristiques, reflecting not only virtuoso requirements but also the stances or emotions their titles are intended to evoke. But they are not avowed salon music, as are the other three pieces here: La Lisonjera (The Flatterer), Op. 50 (1890), Les Sylvains (The Fauns), Op. 60 (1892), and Autrefois (Bygone Days), Op. 87, No. 4 (1897). It is easy to dismiss these short pieces as “lesser” music, but difficult to do so without also dismissing the similar works of, say, Chopin or Field. True, there is not a great deal beyond pleasantries on this CD, not much to stir the soul or invite deep thought or considerable introspection – not even in the sonata. But there is a considerable amount of very well-made music that stands firmly within the French Romantic tradition, played with strong commitment and understanding by Polk and highlighting a voice with enough individualistic qualities to make listeners wonder what other neglected Chaminade pieces may lie out there. There are in fact quite a few: even her works with opus number run to Op. 171 and include not only solo-piano music – in which she, a virtuoso herself, specialized – but also a ballet, a number of songs and even a Konzertstück (although not a full-fledged concerto) for piano and orchestra. Hopefully there will be more Chaminade releases to come.
Music for Harp by J.S. Bach, Elias Parish-Alvars, Michael Kimbell, Joaquín Turina and Henriette Renié. Katrina Szederkényi, harp. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music for Flute and Piano by Pierre Camus, Charles Koechlin, René-Emmanuel Baton, Albert Roussel, Philippe Gaubert, Mélanie Bonis and Pierre Max Dubois. Francesca Arnone, flute; Terry Lynn Hudson, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music for Bassoon and Piano by Boris Papandopulo, Benzion Eliezer, Tadeusz Baird and Luboš Sluka. Maria Wildhaber, bassoon; Scott Pool, second bassoon; Mia Elezovic and Tania Tachkova, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Music for Strings and Orchestra by David Kirtley, Robert Burrell, Rain Worthington, Raymond Bokhour, Daniel Burwasser and Marvin Schluger. Navona. $16.99.
Carol Barnett: Choral Works. Navona. $16.99.
Not all the music on these unusual recent releases is equally involving, but every one of the CDs contains some interesting pieces, and all feature very fine, committed performances that successfully bring out the best qualities that the various composers have to offer in these works. The Katrina Szederkényi disc from MSR Classics is more than a virtuoso showcase: it is a demonstration, if another one is necessary, of just how good Bach’s music can sound even on instruments for which it was not written. The Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903, translates very well indeed to the harp, whose plucked tone is, after all, not that different in the way it is produced from the tone of the harpsichord, for which this fascinating piece was originally written. Indeed, the transparency of sound that Szederkényi’s playing brings to the music, particularly the fugal portion, provides genuine insights into Bach’s structure – as well as considerable listening pleasure. Szederkényi also does a marvelous job with Joaquín Turina’s Tocata y Fuga—Cicle Pianístico I, Op. 50, a work that harks back to Bach in spirit as well as form and that moves from piano to harp almost as effectively as does Bach’s piece to harp from harpsichord. The three other works on this CD are less impressive musically, although still played with very considerable skill. Grande Fantaisie et Variations de Bravoure sur des Motif Italiens by Elias Parish-Alvars (1808-1849) is something of a find – a sprawling, ambitious piece that is harmonically conservative but that shows considerable skill in the variation form. Parish-Alvars, whom Berlioz described as “the Liszt of the harp” after hearing the Englishman perform, exploits all the subtleties and grand gestures of which the harp is capable in this music, and if the work is more a showpiece than anything else, it is certainly one that gives Szederkényi ample opportunity to display her sheer virtuosity. The remaining two works are of somewhat less interest. Légende d’après les Elfes de Leconte de Lisle by Henriette Renié (1875-1956) is a turn-of-the-20th-century work that is pleasant enough but rather forgettable. And the world première recording of Ballade Arctique (2013) by Michael Kimball (born 1946) offers expressiveness but no especially deep musical thoughts. Despite the unevenness of the selections, this is a highly impressive recital by a first-rate harpist who shows herself adept in music from several different time periods.
The flute is the focus of another MSR Classics release, this one entitled Dedications and featuring Francesca Arnone with pianist Terry Lynn Hudson. All the music here is French, all the works date to the 20th century, and each piece has a distinctly Gallic flavor. The most interesting are the finely wrought 1913 Sonate pour Piano et Flûte by the still-underrated Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) and the small but elegant and poised Andante et Scherzo (1924) by Albert Roussel (1869-1937). Also here are two very brief and nicely contrasted movements from 1913 in Chanson et Badinerie by Pierre Camus (1885-1948); a short Passacaille (1924) by René-Emmanuel Baton (1 879-1949); and two small, encore-like works by Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937). None of these brief pieces makes a particularly strong impression, but the two remaining works on the CD – both sonatas – do. Deuxième Sonate pour Flûte et Piano (1924) by Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941) is directly in the Romantic tradition, giving the flute many opportunities for legato playing and expressiveness. Sonate pour Flûte et Piano (1959) by Pierre Max Dubois (1930-1993) is more aware of 20th-century musical trends but nevertheless harks back to earlier French compositional approaches. The grab-bag nature of this CD is such that flute lovers will be its primary audience: little of the music stands out as exceptional, but all the playing does.
A new MSR Classics bassoon-and-piano disc focuses farther to the east in Europe, offering world première recordings of music by four composers whose names will almost surely be unknown to listeners – plus four arrangements of Bulgarian folk songs by bassoonist Maria Wildhaber, herself born in Bulgaria. The bassoon has spent some time climbing out of its straitjacket as the comic member of the orchestra: Vivaldi took it seriously, but in later years much music for the instrument was of the bubbly but inconsequential type. Not so the works on this CD, which is called Eastern Discoveries: the composers here treat the bassoon as a woodwind just as capable of multifaceted expressiveness as are other winds, although they still allow a certain level of amusement to come through in more-energetic pieces and movements. The 1969 sonata by Benzion Eliezer (1920-1993), for example, concludes with an Allegro assai e giocoso, and the Four Preludes (1954) by Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981) conclude with one marked Allegro giocoso. The fine performances are the attraction here, but neither Eliezer nor Baird has a great deal to say in these works – indeed, the primary issue with this CD is that it is delightful to hear once but has little staying power, the music being well-crafted but far from compelling. Similarly, the two-movement sonata by Luboš Sluka (born 1928), written in 1954 and arranged for bassoon in 1971, is pleasant enough, and two short movements by Boris Papandopulo (1906-1991), Elegy and Scherzo, are nicely reflective of their respective titles. The most involving works here, though, are the four song arrangements, which were made in 2013 and are for two bassoons – and in which Wildhaber and Scott Pool complement each other beautifully. The CD is mostly a curiosity, but it is one that the musically curious should enjoy
The appeal of a Navona anthology called Luminescence is a bit more difficult to pin down: several of these orchestral pieces have interesting elements, but none is so outstanding as to make purchase of the CD for it alone worthwhile – and the six composers represented are heard for only seven to 20 minutes apiece, so even listeners familiar with a particular composer will not get enough material by him or her to make the disc an attractive buy. Still, the performances are all dedicated, and listeners who want to sample recent orchestral music may find the CD of interest. The longest work here, Serenade for Strings by Robert Burrell, inevitably calls up comparisons with similarly titled works by Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, with which it does not compare. Based loosely on the sounds of Australian birds, the work is pleasant and flows well, and it is nicely played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský. The same conductor and orchestra perform Within a Dance—A Tone Poem of Love by Rain Worthington, a work that more-or-less recalls Weber’s Invitation to the Dance – but with less formality and more of a focus on the budding of a relationship that begins during the dance itself. Leaves Falling from the Holy Tree is David Kirtley’s exploration of Oglala Sioux holy man Nicholas Black Elk, although the tone poem – played by the Kiev Philharmonic under Robert Ian Winston – does not seem especially evocative of anything more than a general mystical experience. New York, 2013 by Raymond Bokhour (played by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislav Vavrinek) and Manhattan Suite by Marvin Schluger (performed by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra under John Yaffé) are both tributes to and personal experiences of New York City, and while both are fine, neither seems particularly adventurous or unusual in the type of focus it brings to the area. A smaller matter, and one portrayed with greater grace and a welcome light touch, is the innocence of childhood fun as heard in Catching Fireflies by Daniel Burwasser, played by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz. Disparate subjects, different compositional styles, multiple orchestras – this is a CD for listeners who want a sampling of contemporary music and the people who create it.
Another Navona CD, entitled Treasures from the Archives, includes only the work of a single composer, Carol Barnett (born 1949). It is a short CD at only 44 minutes and is exclusively dedicated to vocal music, both original and arranged. Most of the pieces here are performed by the Dale Warland Singers, but other choirs also contribute, and all are fine and offer the music with feeling. The 11 pieces are primarily but not exclusively religious in orientation, with Barnett’s setting of the 12th-century Veni Sanctus Spiritus blending nicely with her handling of spirituals such as By and By and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. There is one interesting sacred-and-secular blend here in Children of the Heavenly Father, a Swedish folk song to which hymn text has been added, and there is a nicely arranged Greek folk song called Dance of Zálongo as well. One of the more intriguing concepts is a short piece called Remember the Ladies, which pays homage to the 1776 correspondence of future president John Adams’ wife, Abigail, in which that well-known phrase appears. Musically, no specific piece here stands out – all are well done and handle the voices nicely – and the CD will likely be of interest primarily to people who have themselves sung music by Barnett or who have heard it in the past. Those who may have heard of Barnett’s vocal works and want a sampling of them will also find the disc attractive; it is a specialty item for those who want to hear this composer’s music for voices or who are particularly interested in contemporary choral music.
September 18, 2014
Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My! By Artie Bennett. Illustrations by Pranas T. Naujokaitis. Blue Apple. $17.99.
Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. By Molly Bang & Penny Chisholm. Illustrated by Molly Bang. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $18.99.
I’m Brave! By Kate & Jim McMullan. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Hmm. Yes, there certainly are different ways of providing factual information to young readers. Very different ways. Artie Bennett’s involves tackling bodily functions that are not usually discussed, much less written about, in polite society, and doing so in such an amusing way that readers will not know whether to be fascinated or grossed out. Or both at the same time. Actually, the response depends on the reader, and perhaps on the reader’s age: adults may be horrified at Bennett books such as The Butt Book and Poopendous, but the kids for whom the rhyming text and abundant illustrations are intended will more likely be, if not charmed, at least amused. Oh – and informed, too, since Bennett does get the science (and anatomy) right. And that brings us to Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My! With inside covers adorned (if that’s the right word) with Pranas T. Naujokaitis illustrations of kids, babies, snakes, giraffes, dogs, cats and other creatures emitting gas, with a copyright page on which a baby’s farts turn into boilerplate information on the book’s publication, this is a book that never takes itself seriously – but does take its subject matter seriously. That is a curious combination, and one that works exceptionally well. Even parents who find the whole topic uncomfortable will have to admit that Bennett has dug up some fascinating facts: we cannot burp while on our backs; belching during a meal in China is a compliment, not an insult; jellyfish, sponges and anemones cannot fart – while the dubious distinction of champion farter goes to the termite; humans average 14 farts per day; and so forth. More-mundane information is here, too, in Bennett’s well-structured rhymes: “Animals that chew their cud/ Pass a massive gaseous flood!” Naujokaitis offers pages ranging from one showing a boy belching the alphabet in class to one diagramming the intestinal process that leads to gas expulsion, complete with smiling and tooting bacteria. The pictures are so exaggerated that they make it difficult to dislike a topic that simply doesn’t find its way into kids’ books – or doesn’t usually show up, anyway. Bennett has a way with words that neatly complements Naujokaitis’ with pictures. For example, on one page, the words are, “The more you belch,/ the less you’ll fart./ You could even keep a chart!” The picture shows a boy and girl studying and, yes, charting the various emissions of a baby. The back of the book offers two pages of “Fart-tastic Facts & Burp-tacular Bits” that add some additional science to the narrative, such as “flatus” being the medical term for farting and “eructation” being the official word for belching, and what happens when someone burps in space (the lack of gravity usually means some food comes up as well). Funny, factual and unafraid to tackle topics usually untouched, Bennett and Naujokaitis produce…err, emit...err, expel…err, offer an offbeat winner of a book in Belches, Burps, and Farts—Oh My!
Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm tackle a much more conventional topic in a much more conventional way in Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. The presentation here is more along the lines of what is typical in nonfiction picture books – although having the sun itself as narrator is a clever touch (and one also used in three previous Sunlight books). Buried Sunlight tackles complex scientific subjects in clear, if necessarily simplified, form, explaining how photosynthesis works and what “the cycle of life” is (with Bang’s pictorial representation of the cycle being particularly attractive and clearly illustrative). The slow transition of Earth from a planet without oxygen to one with an oxygen-rich atmosphere is explained, and the way that change relates to the eventual formation of fossil fuels is presented clearly – including an explanation of why such fuels are, in a sense, “buried sunlight.” Bang and Chisholm then explain how carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere and what it means when “burning fossil fuels and burning your forests puts more CO2 into Earth’s [atmospheric] blanket every year.” They explain climate change, but also note that “Earth has changed a LOT over the billions of years since it was born” – the issue now being not change itself but the pace of change, which is “VERY VERY VERY VERY fast.” The book ends with the sun asking whether humans will “risk the changes” of continuing to use fossil fuels or “work together to use my ancient sunlight more slowly.” The question is reasonable, whatever one’s attitude toward climate change may be, and the extensive back-of-book notes (six pages of comparatively small type, with only a few small illustrations) can be excellent discussion points for families or classrooms. The book’s perspective is an intriguing one: “Since the 19th century, human civilization has been run on ancient sunlight stored in fossil fuels.” And the authors state directly that “there are things we left out, or greatly oversimplified, in writing this book.” Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth is nevertheless a surprisingly comprehensive overview of a complex and difficult subject, presented in easy-to-follow text with very engaging illustrations. The one omission that parents or teachers will have to bring up on their own – and it is a serious one that is not discussed even at the end of the book – is that of Earth’s population. All the technology and good will in the world that may be devoted to limiting fossil-fuel use and finding alternative energy sources cannot possibly cope with the enormous and continuing increase in the number of humans on the planet. Of course, that is more of a Malthusian book than an energy-centric one, but the population reality is the “elephant in the room” when energy use and conservation are discussed – an elephant that is overlooked here, as in so many other books on the same subject, whether for children or adults.
Fact-based books need not be as funny as Bennett’s or as serious as Buried Sunlight – they can fall somewhere in between, as in the case of I’m Brave! The title does not make it clear what the book is about: fire engines. But the smiling, rather self-important-looking engine on the cover points clearly enough to the topic. Just as the sun narrates Buried Sunlight, the engine itself is the narrator of Kate and Jim McMullan’s book. This is an engine with an attitude and a pronounced accent, proclaiming that he carries “a whole lotta, WHOLE LOTTA HOSE” and has a water cannon “sproutin’ from my HEAD!” Oh – and he makes it clear that he is “GOOD LOOKIN’, that’s what.” There is serious commitment behind that on-the-verge-of-bragging way of talking, though, and the engine gives young readers an interesting guide to firefighting tools – including not only familiar items such crowbars and drills but also “duck-billed lock breakers, rabbit-tool door forcers,” and “Halligan tools.” Kids will actually have an issue with the tool lists, and for that matter, so will parents, since the McMullans do not provide a key showing which tool is which – the engine simply asks, “Can you match ’em?” The rest of the book is clear enough, though, as an alarm comes in and the engine gets down to business, using blinkers, flashers and light bar to race through traffic and, at the fire, sets about ordering chocks, hydrant wrench, twin connector, pump and other equipment to get going – the engine itself issuing commands and dispatching the tools, there being no human firefighters seen in the book. There is good, solid information in I’m Brave! And there is enough that is amusing in the book’s presentation to make the facts easy to understand and absorb – all in all, a potentially dour subject handled with a fine combination of the serious and the lighthearted.
Our Solar System. By Seymour Simon. Harper. $17.99.
In the Rainforest. By Kate Duke. Harper. $17.99.
Books are a wonderful way for young readers – and adults, too – to visit places where they will probably never go in person. Seymour Simon’s ubiquitous simplified-science books take kids ages 6-10 just about everywhere on Earth – and, in the case of Our Solar System, elsewhere. Originally published in 1992 and updated in 2007, Our Solar System is now available in an again-updated edition that explains, among other things, why Pluto has been “demoted” in designation from planet to “dwarf planet.” There are three requirements for a planet, and it turns out that Pluto does not meet the third of them: it cannot clear other, smaller rocky or icy bodies out of its way as it orbits the sun. It is also interesting to learn that the dwarf planet Eris, discovered only in 2003, is larger than Pluto. Simon’s photo-essay here – most of his books are in photo-essay form – goes well beyond focusing on the sun and its planets. It certainly has plenty to say about the planets, including such fascinating tidbits of information as the fact that Venus has large craters but no small ones – because its “atmosphere is so dense that it stops smaller incoming meteors before they can hit the ground and make a crater” – and that Earth is 27 miles wider at the equator than at the poles. But there is also a lot here about the planets’ moons: Jupiter’s Ganymede and Saturn’s Titan are larger than the planet Mercury; Jupiter’s Io has exploding volcanoes; Uranus’ Miranda has strange and extensive surface features even though it is only 300 miles across; Neptune’s Triton is colder than any other object ever measured in the solar system; and so on. Add well-researched information on comets, asteroids and the sun itself, and you have another of Simon’s always-interesting, amply and very beautifully illustrated introductions to science – one that in this case is not only of this world but also out of this world.
For slightly younger readers, ages 4-8, and anyone fascinated by tropical rainforests and interested in learning more about them and the creatures that live there, In the Rainforest is a well-written Stage 2 book in the “Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science” series – this stage being one that explores comparatively challenging concepts. Nicely paced by the late Kate Duke (1956-2014) and pleasantly illustrated by her using a variety of media – pen and ink, watercolor, acrylic, pencils and pastels – In the Rainforest starts by telling readers what to bring on their imaginary tour (bug repellent, waterproof box for snacks, etc.) and what to leave at home (blue jeans, which take too long to dry; chocolate, which will melt). The make-believe journey shows a guide taking children through the understory region (where plants and animals live on the ground) as well as the arboreal one (up in the huge trees). The book explains epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants), the emergent forest layer (the tops of the tallest trees), different kinds of ants, and living places underground that can only be seen with “magic X-ray goggles.” There is a kind of “circle of rainforest life” illustration – shaped more like a rainbow – that shows the interrelationship among the forest’s sections. There is a discussion of the reasons people cut down some parts of these forests, and the effects of those actions. And there is a list of some of the things that have been discovered in rainforests, such as chocolate, vanilla, sugar, rice, coffee, dyes, rubber and medicines. The back of the book not only lists some places with rainforest exhibits but also contains instructions on making your own rainforest terrarium – a neat and not-too-difficult do-it-yourself project for home or school. Far from comprehensive but serving as a highly useful introduction to a complex topic, In the Rainforest may whet (if not “wet”) kids’ appetites for more information on a part of our planet that few will likely have a chance to visit on their own.
Nuts to You. By Lynne Rae Perkins. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Scavengers. By Michael Perry. Harper. $16.99.
The Mortality Doctrine #2: The Rule of Thoughts. By James Dashner. Delacorte Press. $18.99.
Animal-based fantasies are as old as Aesop and, in more-modern novels, as elaborate as Watership Down. And they remain ways for authors to explore human concerns while also inventing societies sharing some human foibles while avoiding others – and creating some of their own. It should not be surprising that there is something squirrelly about the society invented by Lynne Rae Perkins in Nuts to You, since it is a society of, well, squirrels. Or not exactly a society, but certainly a story about squirrels. And what a story it is! It almost does not matter what happens in the tale, because Perkins’ writing is so entertaining that it scarcely matters what she is writing about. Early in the book, for example, a squirrel named Jed is seized by a hawk and tries to escape using “the ancient squirrel defensive martial art of Hai Tchree, not well known because it doesn’t work most of the time.” It does work for Jed, though, and he slips through the hawk’s talons like water – or, as a footnote tells us, “thick water. Or perhaps like a non-Newtonian fluid. Look it up on YouTube.” There are other squirrels here, too, such as TsTs, pronounced “by making two tongue clicks, very close together. It is currently the most frequently given girl squirrel name, the ‘Emma’ of squirrel names. If you sit and watch squirrels, you will no doubt hear it.” And so we meet various squirrels, various non-squirrels such as screech owls and humans, various squirrels who talk with vaguely Cockney accents, and – well, the whole story is about squirrel problems and issues, involving humans and non-humans, and about tree cutting for power lines and how that displaces squirrels and other animals and about how screech owls speak fluent cliché: “It is what it is. …Move on. Get a grip. Deal with it.” The book is a quest story – nothing unusual there in a fantasy – but also a story about what it must feel like to be a squirrel trying to avoid foxes and bobcats while learning how to stay away from humans except sometimes to get food from them. It is a story in which readers learn that disasters can “throw us together with those who are our adversaries. Who play for a different team. For a short time, a common enemy dissolves our differences and makes us realize what we share. Until someone gets hungry.” Eventually some of the squirrels get other squirrels to do the right thing, which involves moving lots of nuts, because squirrel nature involves enjoying games and stories, so coming up with the right stories and games can get things going the right way. And if that sounds confusing, just wait until you read Nuts to You and find out what happens. Do not forget to read all the way through the five epilogues.
Human dystopias are not much like squirrel dystopias, although calling Nuts to You a dystopic novel would be stretching things. Not so giving that designation to The Scavengers and The Rule of Thoughts, which don the dystopic mantle immediately and wrap it carefully around their entire stories. However, The Scavengers is different from most dystopias because of its hearty helping of humor – which, it must be said, makes it difficult to be sure whether to laugh or gasp at some of what happens. This is a fairly standard post-apocalyptic tale in which electricity has ceased to power anything, the weather has gone wild, food is scarce, and most people live in Bubble Cities – but not Maggie and her family, who live OutBubble despite the many risks posed by daily survival needs and by the zombie-like GreyDevils. Maggie decides she needs a better, stronger name, so she determines to call herself Ford Falcon – a choice that adults who know cars will surely find laughable, although it may pass muster with younger readers. The adventures are not, in the beginning, all that scary, such as an encounter with the GreyDevils, which “are most dangerous when they start running in packs. Although GreyDevils aren’t really healthy enough to run. Shuffling in packs, I guess. And they’re not so bright, what with their brains all cheese-holed by chemical smoke and PartsWash…” Yes, there is a typical-for-the-genre invented vocabulary here, with weapons such as the Tooth Club, Spit Stick, Whomper-Zooka and flingshot. There is a fighting rooster named Hatchet, and there are people named Toad and Dookie and Tilapia Tom, and dangerous creatures called solar bears. “Whatever sort of world you live in, it will get boring if you live there long enough,” Maggie/Ford opines, but of course Michael Perry wants to be sure that this world does not get boring, so he trots out all sorts of characters and creatures while producing a typical plot in which Maggie/Ford must rescue her family after everyone mysteriously disappears. Eventually her father turns up, explaining that he must turn himself in to the Bubble Authorities because he possesses a Great Secret (you can hear the capital letters even though they are not shown), and giving himself up is the only way to get the authorities to free Maggie/Ford’s mother. Maggie/Ford’s quest – yes, this too is a quest tale – takes up the second half of the book, which is complete with bad guys called Fat Man and Lettuce Face and that most evil thing of all, a corporation in partnership with the government. Bit of a letdown and non-surprise, that, but even if The Scavengers contains numerous unsurprising elements, even if it teeters at times between cliché and overdone amusement, it has enough pacing and plot cleverness to pull readers along to the end.
There is no end, yet, to The Rule of Thoughts, because this is the second book of a mundane James Dashner trilogy called The Mortality Doctrine. Dashner’s work follows predictable patterns: teenagers, chosen by authorities for never-explained reasons to do something extremely complex, find themselves confronting more-difficult choices and problems than they ever expected, all of which they overcome thanks to a series of coincidences and overt plot manipulations. In The Eye of Minds, the first book of the trilogy, Michael, Sarah and Bryson agree for no good reason to go on a life-threatening mission (for free, yet), when asked to do so by VirtNet Security (VNS). What the three poorly imagined and not-very-interesting protagonists do is “code” (never explained) in a world containing such stuff as The Chair, The Path, The Sleep, The Wake and The Coffin. The central character, Michael, is a standard-issue rich boy who doesn’t care about much of anything until he gets involved in saving the world. When he eventually does appear to save it, by completing The Path, he finds out – and here comes The Rule of Thoughts – that all he has really done is bring the Master Plan called the Mortality Doctrine one step closer to realization. This evil plan, perpetrated by cyber-terrorist Kaine, is a kind of virtual Invasion of the Body Snatchers, designed to implant sentient computer programs called Tangents in human bodies. Kaine is doing this because, being a Tangent himself (itself?), Kaine is, well, the evil mastermind here, and this is what evil masterminds do. Michael, Sarah and Bryson, who are scarcely first-rank intellects, try to figure out what is going on, with Bryson saying, “‘Maybe [Kaine] wants all the humans to start a big war and kill themselves.’ ‘That doesn’t make an ounce of sense,’ Michael countered. ‘What’s the point of the Mortality Doctrine if he wants to wipe out humans? Doesn’t he want to be a human?’ It was Bryson’s turn to shrug. ‘I guess that’s the question of the year.’” Or the question of this (++) book, anyway. Sarah follows it up by commenting, “‘We all need to chill and rest today,’ she said. ‘Get some sleep tonight. Because tomorrow we have a very big day.’” There are many such big days, actually, but the characters are so wooden, the author’s self-indulgence in the plot so obvious, that when Dashner writes at one point, “Michael felt like an idiot,” readers may well echo, “So do I.” There is, however, a sequel to this sequel still to come, and it too will undoubtedly contain chapters broken into subchapters for no discernible reason, and comments like this from Bryson: “‘I can’t wait for this to be over.’” He is not the only one.
Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians. By Justin Martin. Da Capo. $27.99.
Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher. By Jon Meacham. Crown. $19.99.
Enthusiasts for the byways of American history will enjoy Justin Martin’s exploration of the crowd that used to hang out at Pfaff’s Saloon in New York City – an establishment that was the first gathering place of Bohemian-style thinkers and possibly the young nation’s first gay bar. Henry Clapp Jr., a little-known name today, brought together a poetic and philosophical group that included Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain and such lesser lights as Artemus Ward, Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Fitz-James O’Brien, Adah Menken and Ada Clare. The gatherings in the late 1850s, as the forces built that would lead to the Civil War, featured discussions of literature and art, daily living and work, and the meaning of life – the same sorts of concerns that would engage the Bohemians of a century later. Pfaff’s was the headquarters of the artists’ own journal, Saturday Press, which published both Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! and Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was a place where Whitman, a homosexual, felt comfortable, catering as it did to people of all tastes and what were then considered eccentricities. Martin writes about Pfaff’s and its coterie with skill and attentiveness, although his style is on the dry side and sometimes unintentionally humorous, or simply grammatically challenged: “Emerging from the lake, Ludlow’s hair and beard were thickly caked with salt… No other Mormon Ludlow had encountered wore their hair in this fashion.” The Pfaff’s story is the heart of Rebel Souls, but halfway through the book, the focus changes – because the Civil War begins, which meant, writes Martin, that “most of these artists would manage to carve out their own unique places in a nation at war. To do so would require leaving New York City and the cloistered safety of Pfaff’s, though the group members would return to their favorite haunt whenever they passed back through Manhattan.” The book becomes somewhat less interesting as it follows the individual tales of the Pfaff’s Bohemians, and the book’s title seems a bit of a gaffe, since “rebel” comes to refer to the Confederates and is never applied to the Pfaff’s group. The focus on Whitman makes the book somewhat less interesting than it could be, since Whitman’s work is well-known and the poet has been so often collected, discussed and analyzed. On the other hand, Whitman did one thing that other Pfaff’s regulars did not: he lived a long time. Martin chronicles the early demise of most of the proto-Bohemians in a matter-of-fact way, much as he details John Wilkes Booth’s approach to and assassination of Abraham Lincoln. There are many small items of interest in Rebel Souls, but the book never quite catches fire as the portrait of an era, or of an unusual group, or of the special place that Martin asserts Pfaff’s to be. It comes across as an extended exploration of a historical footnote – of interest primarily to readers whose fascination with Whitman extends to a desire to explore some of his formative interests in the years before he wrote Leaves of Grass.
The exploration of Thomas Jefferson by Jon Meacham is more involving in Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher, even though this is a simplification of Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power and is intended to attract younger readers through its ample illustrations. Actually, the book so effectively strips away many of the details of Jefferson’s life that it makes the third U.S. president a more compelling figure: Meacham focuses reader attention on the ways in which Jefferson was absolutely crucial to the establishment of a new nation, and the quotations he offers from Jefferson’s extensive writings help make this consummate statesman and intellectual come vibrantly alive: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” John Adams was “always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes absolutely mad.” “I know well that no man will ever bring out of that office [of the presidency] the reputation which carries him into it.” It is fascinating to contrast Jefferson’s approach to the presidency with that of modern presidents: “Jefferson governed personally. …Making speeches at other politicians was not the best way to earn their loyalty or their help. Inviting them to dinner was much more effective.” And it is equally fascinating to note ways Jefferson acted that would provoke howls of anger and significant political opposition today: “Nothing in the Constitution gave the president power to sign treaties such as this one [for the Louisiana Purchase]. …A slower or less courageous politician might have bungled the purchase; one who was too idealistic might have lost it by insisting on a constitutional amendment. Jefferson, however, was neither slow nor weak nor too idealistic.” What Jefferson was, however, was highly intelligent as well as highly practical, a combination that served him in good stead in founding the University of Virginia – one of his enduring legacies. Meacham’s simplified biography gives somewhat short shrift to Jefferson’s other legacies, especially those unrelated to politics, but it is, after all, a simplification; and young readers intrigued by elements at which the book only hints, or to which it gives only passing mention, will have many other places to go for additional information – inspired, perhaps, by the “Revolutionary War Times” appendix to Thomas Jefferson: President and Philosopher, or by another of the several back-of-the-book items included here, from Jefferson’s family tree to a recipe he wrote for macaroni.