Apollo's Angels by Jennifer Homans; Random House, 643 pages ($35).
Jennifer Homans was a professional dancer, and her book reflects that. It is taut and sinewy. It is reportedly the first comprehensive history of ballet, and the New York Times has named it one of the top 10 nonfiction books of 2010. Ten years in the making, "Apollo's Angels" carries us in about 500 pages from the Renaissance to the present day. The best thing about it is how readable it is.
Not all of it is pretty. I never want to hear the music for "The Miraculous Mandarin" ever again, let alone reread the description of the dance. The horrors of the French Revolution, which Homans treats rather lightly, also chilled me. On the bright side, disturbing aspects illustrate the vividness of Homans' writing, and the writers she quotes. Mercurial characters flit constantly in and out of the wings. Pavlova, as a student, earned the nickname of "the broom" for her gaunt determination. "Pavlova despaired at her willowy body and tried to fatten herself by drinking cod liver oil, but in fact her frailty turned out to be her biggest asset." Of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, Homans writes: "The onstage chemistry between them has often been explained by sex: that they had it, wanted it, or suppressed it (they never told). But their partnership also stood for something much larger."
Much of the story takes place in Russia, a fertile ground for weird beings -- like Nijinsky, Matilda Kshessinska (the dancer who was the mistress of the young Czar Nicholas II), and Rasputin, who naturally gets a mention. Though dancers fared relatively well in the Soviet Union, the situations they endured bring to life the injustice of that failed regime. It is sad that after all the centuries-long drama, Homans' book concludes pessimistically, and has ruffled feathers. "Over the past two decades ballet has come to resemble a dying language," she writes. "Apollo and his angels are understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers in a closed corner of culture. The story -- our story -- may be coming to a close."
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
World's End: The Second Book of Dormia by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,$18 496 pages. Ages 8 to 12.
Former Buffalonian Halpern and Kujawinski, a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department, offer the second installment of their elaborate fantasy series featuring Dormians who perform amazing feats while asleep. (The authors' website, www.worldofdormia.com, has interactive maps and more). Anyone who did not read the first book may get a little lost trying to follow the odyssey of Minnesota teenager Alfonso Perplexon, who is on a class trip to France when he falls asleep and wakes up on a ship headed to Egypt with syringes and snakebite serum in his backpack. Something is calling him back to the fantastical underwater land of Dormia (he delivered the Founding Tree to Dormia three years before). And in his dreams he sees a man who looks like his father, Leif Perplexon, who drowned while swimming. Or did he?
Halpern and Kujawinski have constructed a dizzyingly detailed, action-packed, complex fantasy universe anchored partly in real places like Estonia and the Ural Mountains and hopping with colorful characters with evocative names and fantastic beasts including anteaters three times the size of elephants, aggressive 200-pound ants and terrifying 80-foot-long snow snakes. (Other hazards include razor hedges and coma-inducing lotus berries.) As Alfonso and his friends encounter ever more bizarre hazards, one might feel the need to take notes to keep track of what's going on. The ending is a cliffhanger.
-- Jean Westmoore