September 29, 2005


Thor’s Wedding Day. By Thialfi, the Goat Boy, as told to and translated by Bruce Coville. Illustrations by Matthew Cogswell. Harcourt. $15.

Chet’s Gecko’s Detective Handbook (and Cookbook). As decoded by Bruce Hale. Harcourt. $9.95.

     Norse mythology is dark, dark.  It is the gloomiest of all major mythologies, with its expectation of the eventual destruction of the gods themselves, and with the only afterlife worth noting being eternal feasting in Valhalla for those who die nobly in battle.  But there is one Norse mythological comedy that has come down to us, and it is this brief and rough-hewn story that Bruce Coville vastly expands and turns into scene after scene of hilarity in Thor’s Wedding Day.  The mythic tale says that Thor’s hammer was once stolen by a giant who demanded Freya, loveliest of all the goddesses, as his bride in exchange for the hammer’s return.  Thor himself dressed as Freya, journeyed to the giants’ realm, recovered his hammer and destroyed the giant who had stolen it – and many others.  This is the basis of Coville’s story, which is written in the voice of a human goatherd working for Thor in Asgard to atone for an earthly mistake.  Coville gives the goat boy, Thialfi, a pleasant and playful disposition; introduces various new characters and concepts (the goats talk, often sarcastically); and gives the gods themselves a great deal of personality: Freya is prone to temper tantrums, and when Thor gets angry – a frequent occurrence – a thunderstorm forms above his head.  The comic elements here are wonderfully highlighted at the expense of some of the darker ones – Loki, for example, is more than the mere mischief-maker into which Coville turns him.  Matthew Cogswell’s illustrations are not at Coville’s level: Thor is sometimes foreshortened, Loki is fey, Thialfi often looks more like a puppet than a person, and the giants seem more silly than threatening.  Nevertheless, Thor’s Wedding Day is a delight, a modern take on an old tale that is told with Coville’s trademark humor and bounce.

     Bruce Hale’s trademark is more of the bad-pun variety.  Chet Gecko’s Detective Handbook (and Cookbook) fits in nicely with Hale’s elementary-school mystery series featuring Chet and his faithful, punful mockingbird companion, Natalie Attired.  This is an unusually designed book – the cover opens the usual way, but the inside pages are spiral-bound at the top, so they flip upwards – in which offbeat detective tips are mixed with real, honest-to-goodness recipes.  Example of the former: “Once in a rare while, you actually want to get spotted.  (Of course, if you’re a leopard, you’re always spotted, but never mind that….).”  Example of the latter: “Mothcake Shortbread” is made with butter, brown sugar, flour and moth wings – or oatmeal, if you prefer.  The food recipes really work; the detective ideas will be fun for devotees of the Chet Gecko series (try “wandering around like a doodlebug hoping to get lucky,” one of Chet’s best methods); and the book as a whole makes a nicely offbeat addition to Hale’s tales.  Just don’t follow all the recommendations, such as “eat until bloated.”


The Scarecrow and His Servant. By Philip Pullman. Illustrated by Peter Bailey. Knopf. $15.95.

The Science of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.” By Mary and John Gribbin, with an introduction by Philip Pullman. Knopf. $15.95.

     Here’s a good guideline when writing about books and their authors: Never. Underestimate. Philip. Pullman.


     Even in Pullman’s lightest fare, such as The Scarecrow and His Servant, there is depth as well as charm aplenty.  Like L. Frank Baum’s Scarecrow, Pullman’s is somewhat lacking in brains, but he makes up for it with all the heart and courage that Baum’s Tin Man and Cowardly Lion eventually find between them.  There’s more than a bit of Don Quixote in Pullman’s scarecrow, too, and more than a bit of Sancho Panza in Jack, the orphan boy who accompanies the scarecrow on his adventures and addresses him as Lord Scarecrow.  Readers of Baum and Cervantes will have a wonderful time picking up cognates, but absolutely no such in-depth analysis is necessary to have a rollicking good time with this book.  The scarecrow’s fight with a road sign is wonderfully funny for readers who know nothing of Don Quixote’s battle with windmills – and even funnier for those who know Cervantes.  You need not know Virgil, Gluck or commedia dell’arte to laugh at the notion of “The Tragical History of Harlequin and Queen Dido…with Effects of Battle and Shipwreck, a Dance of the Infernal Spirits, and the Eruption of Vesuvius,” but you will laugh even more if you pick up some of the background.  Pullman’s work is also full of twists, turns and not a little heart.  The story has the scarecrow come magically to life; go on a series of journeys while being pursued by a minion of the evil Buffalonis (who are after his “inner conviction”); and eventually emerge triumphant, to the betterment of the environment.  Never underestimate Philip Pullman: he makes all this make sense, even bringing a tear or two to one’s eye at the scarecrow’s sacrifice for the starving Jack – and a glimmer of added amusement at the plot twist that event later produces.  This is, in a word or three, a wonderful book.

     To read Pullman at his full depth, one turns, of course, to his magnum opus (at least so far): the His Dark Materials trilogy.  It reads like heroic fantasy, but Mary and John Gribbin argue persuasively that there is real science at the trilogy’s heart.  Pullman himself professes little understanding of science in his introduction to the Gribbins’ book, but understanding may be beside the point: the Gribbins quote Richard Feynman, one of the greatest of all physicists, as saying, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”  The Gribbins certainly do a good elementary job of explaining modern scientific ideas, anyway.  They show how the many-worlds concept, string theory and other abstruse notions of physics underlie His Dark Materials, also noting some of the scientific background of such important elements of the trilogy as the Northern Lights and the Golden Compass (the first book is called Northern Lights in England, The Golden Compass in the U.S.).  Science and pseudoscience mingle oddly but interestingly here, as in discussions of the I Ching and the “spirit companion” called Philemon that psychiatrist Carl Jung believed he had.  The Gribbins’ book is more a byway than a deep exploration of His Dark Materials, but it is an entertaining and informative supplement for readers fascinated not only by Pullman’s characters but also by his settings.  There are many such readers: never underestimate Philip Pullman.


The Republican War on Science. By Chris Mooney. Basic Books. $24.95.

     The people who ought to read this book won’t, except to find new things to complain about and condemn.  And at least part of that is Chris Mooney’s fault.  This is Mooney’s first book – he is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and has done a fair amount of short-form writing elsewhere – and it fits perfectly into the current Washington culture of turning everything into politics and then staking out a clear position on one side or the other of the great political divide.  This sort of thing pulls in only the audience on the side of the divide where you happen to be – and makes the divide wider at the same time.  That may be the way Washington works, but it’s no way to make Washington work better.

     Mooney’s basic thesis is that Republicans – including President Bush but by no means limited to him and his immediate circle – have become virulently anti-science, part of an “ideological merger between business interests and religious conservatives that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s” and is only now coming fully to fruition.  Mooney is distressed that this is so different from the use of science and politics together to win World War II in the glory days of FDR, and from “the romance with scientists” under President Kennedy.  All the misguided modern handling of crucial scientific issues – global warming, stem-cell research, missile defense, sex education and many more – is traceable, Mooney writes, to the unholy alliance of business and religious conservatism.

     Well, there’s nothing new about railing at the military-industrial complex (which President Eisenhower first identified, except that he called it the “industrial-military complex”).  And there’s nothing new about attacking this or that unholy alliance, especially in Washington circles.  But in this case, those being attacked consider themselves a holy alliance, and this is where Mooney has trouble figuring out what is going on.  He quotes Russell Train, who founded the U.S. branch of the World Wildlife Fund and subsequently worked for Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford, as saying, “I don’t understand the religious conservatives.  They’re so far out of my ken.”  The statement applies equally well to Mooney, who no more understands the forces he despises than those forces understand how anyone can try to interfere with what they see as the clear will of God.

     Read this book for a series of in-depth looks at science-related controversies from a specific political point of view, but do not even try to read it as an attempt to find an answer to any of those controversies.  It may be that no answer can be found – how can one start a dialogue with someone who genuinely believes that God is on his or her side and that anyone holding different opinions is at best a heretic?  But not all Republicans are religious zealots, and not all have a monolithic anti-scientific view.  And the scientific view itself has a way of shifting as new data emerge or old data are reinterpreted: it was just a few decades ago that most climate scientists were warning the world about imminent global cooling.  Mooney’s conclusion that “we have no choice but to politically oppose the antiscience right wing of the Republican Party,” even assuming everyone knows who “we” are, is simply a recipe for more of the same – in both science and politics.  “We” – and that means all of us – can do better, starting with an attempt, which Mooney does not offer, to accept as valid, or at least heartfelt, the concerns of those with whom we disagree politically.


User: InfoTechnoDemo. By Peter Lunenfeld. Visuals by Mieke Gerritzen. MIT Press. $25.95.

     Every once in a while, MIT Press puts out a book that is every bit as forward-looking as MIT’s famed engineering school, and every bit as offbeat as the notorious pranks that the school’s students are known for perpetrating.  User: InfoTechnoDemo, a sort of visual implosion/explosion in the form of a paperback, is one such book.

     What’s it about?  That is both easy and hard to say.  The easy part is that this is collection of essays written by Peter Lunenfeld for the magazine artext.  The hard part is that the words, even when they are coherent and pointed – as is sometimes but not always the case – are not the main means of expression here, or the main thing expressed.  What is expressed is difficult to pin down.  One page contains only a stylized picture of a squared-off bottle and the two words, “FOR EVER.”  Another is bright yellow, has the numbers “25/8” repeated along the top, and contains only the underlined and capitalized words, “HOW ARE WE INTERNALIZING VELOCITY?”  The word “HOW” is in larger type than the rest.

     Another page has a rainbow-colored background with text that looks more typical/ordinary.  Among the statements here is, “Although some ardent youngsters (and not-so-youngsters, unfortunately) protest that something as commercially ‘tainted’ as the professional practice of design has nothing to say to artists like themselves, the impact of contemporary graphics is indisputable.”

     It is certainly indisputable in this book.  There’s a red-white-and-blue-striped page with some graphics of CDs in the middle and a comic-strip-style balloon at the bottom, discussing Andy Warhol as “Saint Andy.”  There’s a black-white-red-and-yellow-striped page that repeatedly gives the word “USER” on one line and the words “PERMANENT PRESENT” on the next.  There’s a page with a skull and crossbones at the top and a spider containing a crossed hammer and wrench at the bottom, with the single word “ANTHROPOMORPHOMETRIC” above everything.

     Clearly, this is a book not to read in a traditional way but to experience – and at $25.95 for a standard-size, 172-page paperback, it’s one you really have to want to experience if you plan to buy it.  The table of contents tells what the essays are about, albeit cryptically: “Solitude Enhancement Machines,” “Visual Intellectuals,” “Growing Up Pulp,” “Wireless Cosmopolitans,” and so on.  But the essays without the graphics would have far less (or far different) impact, and the graphics without the essays would be meaningless.  This is a work not of mixed media but of intermingled media, and one of those books that – as with some of the pranks of MIT students – you’ll either enjoy or you won’t.  PERIOD.


6X: The Uncensored Confessions. By Nina Malkin. Point/Scholastic. $8.99.

     Scholastic’s teen-themed Push and Point series aspire to more edginess than other Scholastic lines, and they usually deliver it.  But even their better books – of which this is one – don’t deliver much in the way of compelling characterization or themes that go beyond the superficial.

     Nina Malkin’s novel is about a teenage wish-fulfillment come true – four kids become rock stars – and about the consequences (some drug and alcohol use, a bit of sex, parental confrontations, a mild increase in self-awareness).  The rock group’s name, 6X, comes from a clothing size for kids on the verge of growing up, sounds like the word “success,” and also – as the one boy in the group remarks – sounds like “sex,” which is a definite plus.

     The group was supposed to be a girl group, featuring Wynn Morgan (drums), Stella Saunders (bass), Kendall Taylor (voice) and a fourth girl – but the guy putting the group together (friend of Wynn’s dad; long story) can’t find the right girl, and then someone pitches the idea of using a really cute boy instead, and so the fourth member is A/B Farrelberg (yes, A/B), who plays guitar and keyboard and is the best musician of the bunch.

     The idea of the book is to tell the story of 6X in verbal flashbacks, with the four band members’ voices alternating.  Although Malkin does not give their voices significant individuality, the approach works rather well, because she does give them different perspectives on the band and on their own backgrounds.  Each of the four has a nickname: Kendall is The Voice, Wynn is The Body, Stella is The Boss and A/B is, of course, The Boy.  Each is a cardboard character cut from different cardboard: Wynn is rich, gorgeous and at best a so-so musician.  Stella is black (child of a mixed-race marriage), intense, pushy and determined (one of the first things she does to mark the start of the band is lose her virginity).  Kendall is Southern and religious (initially shocked at many of the band’s lyrics), with a mother who is a stereotypical steel magnolia.  A/B is Jewish, highly talented and fairly amazed at being surrounded by girls all the time.

     Once you get the stereotypes down – which doesn’t take long – you can enjoy the narrative, which does have a few surprises (such as Stella’s relationship with the simpatico band manager and the ways in which Kendall falls from grace) and which moves along at a fast pace.  There is very little descriptive detail here; everything is not-too-deep introspection, as when Kendall says, “Singing is so simple.  When I sing, all I feel is love, coming and going.”  Teens who like rock music and can identify with any of the characters will enjoy the group’s ups and downs – provided they don’t take any part of the story too seriously.


Weill: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Lady in the Dark: Symphonic Nocturne (arr. Robert Russell Bennett).  Marin Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $7.99.

     The major musical products in the short life of Kurt Weill (1900-1950) were theatrical: The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Silverlake and many others.  But Weill did some interesting orchestral writing, too, primarily in his early 20s, and created a single mature symphony – the one now known as No. 2.

     The works on this CD fit exceptionally well with the conducting style of Marin Alsop.  She is a conductor highly attentive to detail but frequently lacking in a “big picture” view of a piece; she is also a strong advocate of 20th-century music.  She does a very fine job with Weill’s episodic symphonies, which meander rather than forming cohesive structures.  The one now called No. 1 (Weill himself did not number the symphonies) dates to 1921.  It is in a single long movement built around a series of highly dissonant chords that prevent the listener from forming any tonal orientation and that recur throughout the work’s three loosely defined sections and at its end.  Alsop lets the music flow naturally through multiple tempo changes, never trying to impose more order than Weill himself did.  This is an effective performance – although the symphony itself does not seem to have much to say or offer much insight into Weill’s later, more distinctive style.

     Symphony No. 2 dates to 1934 and is the only major non-theatrical work of Weill’s maturity.  Many of its themes and much of its instrumentation have a “Weill sound,” such as a first-movement trumpet theme that has close kin in The Threepenny Opera.  The second and longest movement starts with the sort of unusual rhythm in which Weill specialized, and even though marked Largo, contains a forceful midsection with strong rhythms that Alsop highlights quite nicely.  The finale features angular themes that also have a theatrical sound.  Alsop takes each element of this work as it comes, revealing the fragmented nature of the movements’ building blocks without trying to force the symphony into greater unity.  The result is an effective performance that does not try to give the work real depth or cohesiveness.

     Lady in the Dark was a 1940 collaboration among Weill, Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin – an attempt to bring dramatic cohesiveness to Broadway in the days before Oklahoma!  Robert Russell Bennett’s six-movement concert suite contains some heady music, notably a march and a tumblers’ dance, though there is no profundity here.  Alsop treats the suite as an extended encore that, if it does not contain Weill’s best music, is certainly worth an occasional hearing.

September 22, 2005


Kids Travel: A Backseat Survival Kit. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $19.95.

     Now that the summer car-travel-with-kids season is over, parents can sit back and relax and not worry about keeping the kids occupied until next year.  Except, of course, for the Columbus Day long weekend, Thanksgiving, Christmas or winter vacation, assorted Monday holidays, weekend-lengthening teacher workdays, and…arrrgghh!

     Never fear – Klutz to the rescue.  Kids Travel is good for any car trip, at any time of year, and will last a long time, even if your kids are more than usually restless.  The book is intended for ages 7-14, but is also fun for younger kids and even for adults.  It’s a big board-and-paper book with stuff to do on every page.  The back cover, for example, is a shoot-the-penny-toward-the-hole board.  It also has a sturdy clip built in at the top – into which is clipped a 100-page “Kids Pad” filled with puzzles, dot-to-dot games and other activities.

     And that’s just the back of the book.  Toward the front are hand games, decoder games (with spinning wheels built into the page), word games (try “Skilled Lying”), geography games, palm reading, an IQ test for grownups, even a really interesting test for drivers (kids ask parents how many sides a stop sign has, which of two states has more accidents per mile driven, when it is legal to cross a double yellow line, and so on).  There are mini-mysteries, an April-Fool picture by Norman Rockwell, songs for the road, dollar-bill folding – the list goes on and on and on.  That’s why, when the miles go on and on and on, this book can be such a sanity saver.

     As usual with Klutz, everything you need to play the games (well, except the dollar bill for folding) is included.  There’s a string for playing Cat’s Cradle, a pair of dice, felt markers, thread and much more.  There are also good descriptions of classic car games (20 Questions, Hangman, and so on), plus some games designated as classics that are really pretty innovative (use letters taken from license plates of passing cars to make up silly sentences).  Klutz is innovative even in the most old-fashioned game of all: spotting license plates.  The book has a wonderful two-page spread showing 65 license plates from the U.S., Canada and Mexico, with a place to note when and where you see each one.  Good luck spotting the bear-shaped Nunavut plate with the motto, “Explore Canada’s Arctic.”  That would require a loooooong car trip at any time of year.  But even that trip would seem much shorter, and be much more fun, with Kids Travel to help keep the family occupied.


Book of Lies and Book of Secrets. Produced by Essential Works Ltd.  Andrews McMeel. $14.95 each.

     It probably tells us something about the 21st century – just what, it is hard to know for sure – that something looking like the venerable Little Red Book of Mao Zedong now appears as Book of Lies, while the even more venerable “little black book” of much fame and infamy now shows up as Book of Secrets.  These two British-produced compendiums of trivia – the former by six authors, the latter by five – are very distinguished in appearance, being solid in color with the title (and nothing else) stamped in gold on the front and spine, and with a color-coded ribbon bookmark sewn in.  They look elegant, even erudite.  Don’t be fooled.

     Each of the books is a miscellany of oddities in history, politics, writing, transportation, animals, and pretty much anything else that strikes the authors’ fancy.  Saying that this produces a mixed bag of material is understating the case.  Book of Lies, for instance, has information on chicken farming on one page and an optical illusion on the facing page.  Book of Secrets juxtaposes “The Secret History of Kotex” with “The Secret to Surviving Snake Bite.”  You might think this arrangement makes the books ideal to read in any order whatsoever, but that is not quite true, since certain elements are scattered throughout the works.  Book of Secrets, for instance, devotes 10 widely separated pages to closed New York City subway stations, discussing nearby streets in considerable detail.  One page about a closed station will refer back to the previous one, so you really need to read in order.  (Oddly for a British book, the 40-odd closed stations of the London Underground get only a single paragraph).  Book of Secrets contains, among other things, a series of “Little Known Culinary Curios,” but don’t look for No. 3 – that section was omitted (two sections are given as No. 4).  Book of Lies, similarly, has multiple “New Age Lies,” “Lies We Tell Ourselves,” “Animal Lies or Truth,” and more.

     Of course, the books rise or fall on the entertainment value of their contents.  Book of Lies is somewhat less interesting than its companion.  It includes such lists as “Lies We Tell Teenagers” (“If you don’t come home, I’ll tear up your driver’s license,” “Good girls don’t wear eyeliner on their lower lids,” and other questionable remarks); extremely far-fetched conspiracy theories about Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy; and lots of items that are more folkloric statements than lies (“Elephants never forget”).  Book of Secrets includes “The Secret History of Striptease” (it was invented at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893); “The Secret First Screening of Star Wars” (for Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma); and “The Secret Bond Boy” (one minor actress had had a sex change).  Despite some oddities – such as all those pages on closed New York subway stations and a two-page list of chemical food additives giving their European Union “E numbers” – this book has enough genuine secrets to make it fun almost throughout.  Could secrets in general be just a touch more interesting than lies?


Last of the Cold War Spies: The Life of Michael Straight—The Only American in Britain’s Cambridge Spy Ring.  By Roland Perry.  Da Capo.  $27.50.

     This is for devotees of Cold War trivia only.  There is a lot of detail here: Australian journalist Roland Perry has done an enormous amount of digging and unearthed a huge amount of information about the infamous Cambridge spy ring – one of whose members, Kim Philby, became one of the most notorious spies of the 20th century.  But people not already immersed in Cold War studies and real-world spy stories are likely to find the book simply boring.  The details of the recruitment, life and false confession of Michael Straight, the only American in the Cambridge group, are fine for a course in modern history but make for a daunting read.

     In addition to Philby and Straight, the Cambridge spy ring included Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt.  All handed secrets over to Soviet intelligence for decades.  Straight confessed in 1963 that he had done so until 1942, but Perry argues convincingly and with overwhelming evidence that the confession was false and that Straight was a KGB mole for decades more – even while serving Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

     This sounds like quite a revelation, but the pileup of fact bites upon fact bites makes it hard to care.  Consider, for instance, Straight’s first assignment, which was to drive a wedge between Barbara Rorthschild and her influential husband, Lord Victor Rothschild, by having an affair with her (though both the Rothschilds were already infamous for their frequent adulteries).  “Not long into the evening,” writes Perry, “Barbara suggested that she and Straight go for a walk through darkened cloisters.  Straight, still in two minds but caught in the daring and risk of the moment, went with her.  Once out of sight, she embraced and kissed him.  Barbara wanted an affair to begin immediately.  Straight was uncertain, not knowing how Victor would react if he found out.  Barbara was persistent.  [Anthony] Blunt kept encouraging her and tried to push Straight.”  And so on and so forth – much ado about not very much, dating back to 1936.

     The level of detail here really is impressive: a Russian agent says his name is Michael Green, and Perry notes, “Green, alias William Greinke, Michael Ademic, and other names, had at least two code names for communications back to Moscow – MER and ALBERT.  His real name was Ishak Abdulovich Akhermov.”  And so it goes, on and on, an endless recital of facts and names and places in which tidbits of real interest (e.g., Straight founded Communist fronts while running his family’s magazine, The New Republic) have to be picked out gingerly from a morass of minutiae.  Despite its double subtitle, Last of the Cold War Spies ultimately seems to have little to tell 21st-century readers – at least those not already enamored of the Cold War as historical artifact.


The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter. By Katherine Ellison. Basic Books. $25.

     So determined is Katherine Ellison to prove that motherhood makes women smarter, not less smart or less capable or more focused on child-oriented things than adult-oriented things, that she ends up twisting the word “smarter” until it is nearly unrecognizable.  This is arguably a good thing – our society tends to define “smart” too narrowly and is only belatedly realizing that there are many ways of being smart and many different things to be smart about.  But Ellison is unwilling to concede (if it would even be a concession) that motherhood makes women smart in ways that are different from traditional “smartness.”  Smart is smart, and moms have more of it, and that’s the end of it, so there.

     Thus, the book is a vast oversimplification, but it is fascinating and often entertaining to read.  Ellison, an investigative journalist who has won a Pulitzer Prize, has a take-no-prisoners attitude toward anyone who would suggest that she is somehow less smart as the mother of two young boys than she was before she had kids.  Good for her.  This book itself shows that she can write, argue and push her points as intensely as anyone.  It’s just that the points she makes – even when they are excellent ones – aren’t quite the ones she claims to be making.

     Ellison argues, and cites scientific evidence to show, that mothers’ brains are literally re-mapped to change their level of perception; that maternal hormones make women more competitive in their drive to protect their children; that mothers instinctively mirror their children’s expressions and show other evidence of increased emotional sensitivity.  These are species survival characteristics that bond women and their children more closely together; they are real and important; but they have nothing to do with being “smart.”  Science aside, many mothers are themselves the first to argue that having kids erodes their brains; that they can’t focus on adult things anymore and don’t even have much interest in the outside world; that their attention spans seem to have shrunk to match those of their babies.  These are also species survival characteristics; they too are real and important; and they too have nothing of significance to do with the notion of being “smart.”

     All these feelings – the ones on which Ellison focuses and the ones many (but not all) mothers experience on their own – point toward the necessary biological drive to protect and nurture a helpless new human being, to the exclusion of external events that are not immediately relevant and do not show signs of soon becoming important to mother and/or child.  A highly driven career woman who is determined not to be held back by childbirth or any other life circumstances, such as Ellison, will experience increased child-centered awareness and necessary child-rearing multitasking as characteristics to be embraced and eventually used outside the home in a resumed career.  Someone less highly motivated by workplace success, or just differently motivated in defining what matters to her, will experience similar feelings but will use them to draw inward with her child, forming a protective moat between the child-mother unit and the potentially threatening world outside.  These are fascinating phenomena that deserve more study.  They can, when harnessed by women who retain the drive to succeed in business after childbirth, remake the very structure of corporate life by bringing to it some of the enhanced perceptions and altered sense of reality that women experience when they become mothers.  This may be helpful in some environments, disadvantageous in others.  But none of this has anything to do with being smarter.  Ultimately, what Ellison shows is that women’s perceptual apparatus changes with childbirth and that the changes can be beneficial outside the family unit.  That’s true; it’s useful to know; but it does not require Ellison’s intensity of argument or her determined focus on the word “smart.”


Where We Are, What We See: Poems, Stories, Essays and Art from the Best Young Writers and Artists in America. PUSH/Scholastic. $7.99.

     This is an anthology of works by middle-school and high-school students who won the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards from 2002 through 2004.  It is, like anthologies in general, uneven in quality; and because there is no discussion, commentary or introductory material before or after the works – they just flow, though scarcely seamlessly, one into the next – it is virtually impossible to read sequentially and somewhat difficult to read at all.  There is, not surprisingly in light of the age of the writers and artists, a certain sameness of preoccupation and a certain self-consciousness of style, as if the works were designed for the purpose of winning the awards for which they were submitted (and they did win, fulfilling a self-fulfilling prophecy).  It is, finally, hard to figure out what the audience for this book is, beyond the writers’ families, friends and schools.  Only they will know who these authors and artists are: the book gives their names but not their ages, locations or any other information.

     This is as it should be with writing and art in most cases: the story or picture tells its tale even if we do not know where or from whom it comes.  But since this book purports to provide insight into the thoughts and feelings of “the best young writers and artists in America,” it would be nice to know at least what age the contributors are and where they live.

     Without that information, what we have is a considerable amount of juvenilia and a few items with wisdom beyond the creators’ (presumed) years.  There is not much to the strictly adolescent preoccupations of a poem such as “Hundred Percent Virgin” or a story such as “I Didn’t Know.”  But there is a fine opening of a poem called “Left of Center”: “I’m so shy/my cat has started/attending parties for me.”  And there is a moving and rather mature story about books, history and the Alaska Gold Rush called “Understanding the Stories.”

     But there is also a self-important “relationship” poem, “Proximities,” and a possibly autobiographical and definitely self-conscious story called “Crybaby Moon,” and a pseudo-sophisticated one called “Numbers,” and one in pseudo-experimental style called “Something in the Air.”  In the middle of the book is a mishmash of photos and paintings and collages, a few with surprising power but not one really shown to its best advantage.  In sum – if it is even possible to sum up a book like this – there is sincerity aplenty, a fair amount of posturing, some genuine insight, and a great deal of fairly standard material that might seem more special if presented in context (sincere seventh-grade thoughts seem merely puerile if expressed by a 12th-grader).  This book’s successes are scattered throughout; its failure is in its overall conception.


Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies.  Kurt Masur conducting Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. PentaTone. $59.99 (5 SACDs).

     This is a near-perfect example of the way sound quality can enhance performances that are already excellent.  Ironically, it is not the sort of release that is PentaTone’s main reason for being.  The company was founded to produce top-quality Super Audio CDs (SACDs) recorded with the latest technology.  The SACD standard under which PentaTone produces its recordings allows for five separate audio channels; hence the company’s name.  But this Beethoven cycle has four channels, not five – and it is, of all things, an analog recording.

     These Masur performances date to 1972-1974 and were recorded by Philips using a then-revolutionary four-channel system.  This quadraphonic technique never found a consumer audience in the days when stereo LPs were preeminent, and it was soon shelved – but the original four-channel tapes remained.  It is those that have now been digitally remastered as the basis of this recording.

     Sonically, the project is an all-out success.  Both on multichannel systems and on traditional CD players (with which the SACDs are compatible), the sound is nearly flawless, tremendously clear from the softest passages to the loudest, and superb in picking out some of the less-heard middle voices of the orchestra – which Masur’s performances themselves highlight.  The technical and artistic sides of this five-SACD set are seamlessly intermingled – to the great benefit of the music.

     None of this would matter if the performances did not justify the splendid sound.  But they do.  This is one of the very few Beethoven cycles whose conductor understands the time at which each symphony was composed.  This means, for example, that No. 1 should ideally be conducted as if No. 2 has not yet been written, while No. 4 – which has some superficial similarities to No. 1 – can and should be handled as the successor to the “Eroica,” not to Beethoven’s first symphonic creation.

     Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig give us a fleet-footed No. 1 with notably clear articulation, especially in the runs.  The conductor and players clearly paid special attention to these details; the sonic engineers make sure we hear them.  For No. 2, the intensity is ratcheted up, and there is a sense of grandeur absent in the first symphony.  The orchestral balance is especially good in the Larghetto.  And Masur is consistent even in his quirks, such as the pause before and after the trios of the first two symphonies’ third movements.  This approach was more common in the conducting style of the 1970s than it is today, but it takes little getting used to.

     Other decisions, also common in the 1970s, now seem less justifiable, notably the matter of not taking repeats.  In the first movement of the “Eroica,” for instance, the exposition is not repeated, with the result that the scale of the movement is diminished – a shame, since the music is otherwise beautifully balanced between intensity and forward motion.  (Repeats elsewhere in this set are inconsistent; the ones that belong here and in the finale of No. 5 are sorely missed.)  The second movement has a particularly dramatic middle section, and Masur manages to prevent the smaller-scale third and fourth movements from becoming letdowns through careful attention to pacing and orchestral balance (again, abetted by the very clear sound).

     Symphony No. 4 is, as it should be, jovial but powerful.  The horns in the Adagio are particularly impressive, and the chords and tutti in the finale unusually well-paced.  In No. 5, Masur is straightforward, not overblown; dynamic, not frenetic.  This is above all a musicianly performance – indeed, that single word best encapsulates Masur’s approach to all these symphonies.  The second movement opens more intensely here than usual, then becomes lyrical; the third is suitably mysterious; and the fourth starts with drama and ends with speed.

     The “Pastoral” is a highlight of this set.  The first movement glides – there is nothing overstated here.  The second has lovely, graceful flow, while the third is bouncy and pleasant.  The thunderstorm sounds highly dramatic but not out of proportion to the rest of the symphony, with the flute transition to the finale especially gentle and effective.  The sole disappointment here is an under-emphasis on the horns at the very end – a conductor’s decision that the sound cannot (and should not) alter.

     Despite slightly over-loud trumpets, the first movement of No. 7 is well balanced and well paced.  The second is elegant, flowing almost like a perpetuum mobile.  The third nicely contrasts very bouncy scherzo sections with a chorale-like handling of the trio.  And the fourth has great rhythmic vitality – with, again, especially clear and pleasant sound.

     Masur understands that Symphony No. 8 is short but not small.  It is actually the shortest of the nine symphonies, but was written at the same time as No. 7 and uses some of the same extremes of dynamics.  It is worth noting that neither of these symphonies has a true slow movement – a fact that Masur’s performances make clear.  Masur does not sugarcoat No. 8 or handle it as a throwback to No. 1 or to Haydn.  This is mature Beethoven, with all the rhythmic vitality and dynamic range that implies.

     Beethoven’s Ninth, the “Choral,” is, like the “Pastoral,” a highlight here.  Masur knows that the first three movements are not merely incidental to the finale, and gives them their full due.  The first has wonderful detail and no lessening of tension all the way through the coda.  The second has both rhythmic vitality and genuine delicacy – a word rarely heard in connection with this movement.  Yes, Masur gives the timpani their due – indeed, they are surprisingly brash in the trio sections.  Yet he also lets the bassoon sing and beautifully balances the winds and strings – abetted once more by the excellent sonic engineering.  The sound also aids the gently flowing third movement – listen to the pizzicato strings before the famous horn scales, not just afterwards, for a sample of what makes this recording so special.  But it is in the finale that the melding of musicality and sound is truly outstanding.  Masur balances the “anticipation” and “recall” sections of the movement’s introduction very well – and then come the words, which are exceptionally clear here both from the soloists and from the chorus.  It helps that the singers pronounce the German so well and naturally: bass Theo Adam is especially good, but soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow, mezzo-soprano Annelies Burmeister and tenor Peter Schreier are also quite fine.  It also helps that the Radio Chorus Leipzig sings the words idiomatically and with genuine expressiveness.  But without the superb sound, not all of this would come through.  Every conductor faces balance difficulties in this movement – the quartet before the final chorus is a particularly rough spot – but Masur handles the problems expertly, and the sonic design lets listeners hear just how well he has done so.  Even the silence is wonderful, the long pause before the bassoon introduces the mid-movement march being absolutely, perfectly quiet.  The result is music and sound of the very highest quality.

     This set is not without flaws.  The outer packaging is mediocre; there is no text given for the finale of the Ninth; and the individual SACDs are in flimsy sleeves whose flaps are sealed with rubber cement that periodically sticks to the disks and makes them unplayable without careful cleaning.  Still, if the presentation is less than ideal, the music and sound are so good that the defects are easy to overlook.  PentaTone has produced one of the very best Beethoven cycles available today.

September 15, 2005


The Legend of the Wandering King. By Laura Gallego García. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.95.

     A tale straight out of the Arabian Nights – but set in an even earlier age – The Legend of the Wandering King is rooted in the true story of a prince of pre-Islamic Arabia.  It was a time, as Laura Gallego García wonderfully writes, when “the only rules of behavior were those of honor and love – and honor and love break all the rules.”  This is thus a novel of honor, of love, of rules and of rule-breaking, and it will sweep you into its panorama of olden days at once.

     The theme of this book, which is not revealed until near the end, is, “A man’s true nature always shines forth, though he thinks he is able to hide it.”  The man at the center of the tale is King Walid ibn Hujr, who wanders on a search for a fabled carpet that tells every individual his or her fate, and also contains within it the history and fate of the entire human race – or, to be more accurate, the history and fates of individuals and the race, for the carpet is in its own way a testimony both to wisdom and to free will.  It is also a thing of immense power that can drive to madness anyone who dares look at it.

     Someone dares not only to look but also to touch, stealing the carpet from the old palace in whose treasury it has been kept and leading to young King Walid’s quest to bring it back.  This quickly becomes a journey into himself as well as through the deserts and cities of the ancient Middle East.  For King Walid bears an internal scar caused by a terrible secret that drives him on and that appears, in the novel’s first pages and again at its end, to lead him to a death that perhaps he fully deserves.  Or perhaps not – that is one lesson of the carpet he seeks.

     This is a tale of wonder that is wonderfully told, filled with bandits and blowing sands and djinns and a beautiful woman whom Walid may be fated to marry (or perhaps not).  García’s skill lies in taking traditional narrative forms, from fairy tale to quest story to journey of self-discovery, and combining them seamlessly into a book that is both fast-paced and frequently emotionally moving.  It can be funny, too, as when one unfortunate character who has gazed at the carpet starts spouting remarks about “television” and “automobiles” without knowing what the words mean.  By the end, readers have traveled to exotic lands in ancient days and been left with something, or several possible somethings, to think about.  It is quite a tale and quite a journey.


Tales of Terror. By Edgar Allan Poe. Illustrated by Michael McCurdy. Includes CD narrated by Edward Blake. Knopf. $15.95.

Tales from the Brothers Grimm and the Sisters Weird. By Vivian Vande Velde. Illustrations by Brad Weinman. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $5.95.

     Preteens can take their scary stuff straight or with a few grains of salt, depending on which of these books they read.  It may be better to read both and see two sides of the “scary stories” coin (so to speak).  The serious side – which really is still frightening – is in the six Edgar Allan Poe tales, four of which can also be heard on an included CD.  Here are “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  The first four are read with straightforward intensity by Edward Blake.  All six are introduced and illustrated by Michael McCurdy, whose dark and stark pictures are well done but actually add little to the pictures that young readers will form on their own as the result of Poe’s words.  McCurdy correctly points out that “Poe’s lyrical language, his rich vocabulary and musical rhythms, beg to be read aloud,” but they do not beg to be pictured: Poe’s terror tales are stories of the mind at war with itself, and are most chillingly experienced within the reader’s own mind.  McCurdy gives each tale a short introduction, but fails to translate passages that younger readers can scarcely be expected to understand, such as the Latin quatrain that begins “The Pit and the Pendulum” and the French couplet that starts “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  The tales themselves are their own glory, though: atmospheric, intense, ghoulishly frightening and still tremendously evocative more than a century and a half after they were written.

     Fairy tales have been around even longer than that, in non-Disney versions filled with gore and fear and frequent sexual implications.  They are therefore ripe for parody, of which Vivian Vande Velde serves up a tasty helping.  What she does is take some of the manifest absurdities of the old stories and run with them.  The king in “Rumpelstiltzkin,” for instance, is a decidedly nasty and self-absorbed character, and a miser to boot – is the miller’s daughter really better off as his queen?  The princess whose golden ball is found by the frog prince is deceitful and murderous – is she really a good match for the transformed frog?  Jack, of beanstalk fame, is lazy and none too bright, not to mention a thief of the giant’s possessions – does he deserve the usual happy ending?  Vande Velde mines a considerable vein of humor from these situations, interspersing them with an all-points bulletin for Goldilocks for breaking and entering, a commercial for hair products featuring Rapunzel, and a few “fairy-tale endings you’re not likely to see,” including “the Emperor orders the execution of everyone who’s seen him naked” and “Snow White and Sleeping Beauty simply refuse to get out of bed.”  The one tale that misfires is “Twins,” a retelling of “Hansel and Gretel” that is quite frightening – Vande Velde writes very effective horror when she chooses to – and is thus out of keeping with the tone of the rest of this collection.  With that exception, this is great fun for all readers of fairy tales (not just ages 8-12, the officially targeted audience).  Brad Weinman’s pointed illustrations neatly complement Vande Velde’s piquant prose.


Famous Pairs: A Deliciously Absurd Collection of Portraits. By Jeannie Sprecher with Kim O’Brien. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

My Hot Dog Went Out, Can I Have Another? A FoxTrot Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $8.95.

     It has to be said that Famous Pairs is not just weird but deliciously weird.  Pears – pairs of pears – are the point here, each of them a thoroughly twisted interpretation of a famous couple of modern or olden times.  The pear pairings range from out-and-out hilarious, to somewhat obscure, to slightly risqué – pick your pear pair and take your choice.  “American Gothic” shows the upper parts of a larger and smaller pair with the tines of a fork (representing a pitchfork, as in the famous Grant Wood painting) in between.  “Bonnie and Clyde” shows two red pears with plenty of holes in them – not really bullet holes, but that’s what they look like.  “King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn” shows a fine-looking gold pear at the left and a similar pear with its top neatly lopped off at the right.  “Chang and Eng” shows two nearly identical pears apparently joined at the hip – which makes sense if you know the story of the original Siamese twins.  “Stop and Go” shows a red pear and green pair side by side – an unusually simple and pleasing juxtaposition.  Also simple and to the point is “Adam and Eve,” showing two pears separated by an apple.  The more complicated creations are somewhat less successful.  “Dudley Do-Right and Penelope Pitstop” is hilarious for fans of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, once you look closely at it, but will be meaningless to everyone else.  “Picasso and Marie-Therese Walter” is even more obscure, and “Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall II” will be meaningless to all but the most dedicated watchers of third-tier celebrities.  Still, there are far more hits than misses here: this pair of pear authors creates a most fruitful collaboration.

     Bill Amend needs no collaborator to keep turning out some of the funniest character comedy in the comics pages in FoxTrot.  Unfortunately, much of the focus in the latest (18th) collection is on the weakest character in the Fox family: father Roger, whose ineptness at everything is a throwback to the “bumbling dad” strips of the early 20th century and similar TV sitcoms of the later 20th century.  A few views of Roger’s incompetence go a long way: he gives his wife, Andy, a virtual makeover with emphasis on the chest (and of course she catches him); told to back up the computer, he pushes it off the desk and wrecks it; he unintentionally creates Independence Day sparklers by setting everything he grills on fire; and so on.  Luckily, the unusual antics of the Fox children more than make up for Roger’s all-too-usual ones.  When Jason does his virtual makeover, he gives himself octopus arms like those of the evil “Doc Oc” in Spider-Man 2.  When Peter returns to his summer job at the local multiplex, he is assigned to wear a promotional costume – which turns out to be a Garfield suit.  When Paige goes to a fair and meets Morton, the geek who adores her but whom she hates, he asks her to go in the tunnel of love – and when she says she loathes him, he finds a ride called “Tunnel of Loathe.”  There’s much more of this, including a trip to Washington, D.C. that produces much chaos but actually gives an unusually serious moment to, of all people, Roger.  Amend continues to be an expert at fulfilling readers’ high expectations of FoxTrot – while throwing in the occasional unexpected twist that raises those expectations even higher.


A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down. By Robert Laughlin. Basic Books. $26.

The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max Born, the Nobel Physicist Who Ignited the Quantum Revolution.  By Nancy Thorndike Greenspan. Basic Books. $26.95.

     We live our everyday lives in a Newtonian/Euclidean world: the analyses and discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton and Euclid about gravity and mathematics are excellent approximations on the gross material level at which we operate.  But at the atomic and subatomic levels – at the levels of the building blocks of the universe – our intuitive grasp of how things work, and even what they are, is wrong.  It is customary to call the workings of the universe Einsteinian, but that is at best shorthand.  These two books go a long way toward explaining that the frontiers of science are not so distant from our everyday lives after all.

     A Different Universe is the more accessible of the books, and has a fascinating underlying premise: that the interactions and patterns of everyday objects, not the abstruse thought processes of higher mathematics, provide clues to the nature and workings of the universe.  Robert Laughlin, a Stanford University physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1998, mixes personal history with historical analysis (with nicely pointed comments about such matters as Galileo and Isaac Newton being “rebellious individual[s] disinclined to trust authority”), then brings to scientific concepts a breathtaking simplicity that really forces the reader to think: “By far the most important effect of phase organization is to cause objects to exist.”  Laughlin does not shrink from addressing difficult concepts, but he is gentlemanly enough to acknowledge that they are far from obvious: “Superfluidity and superconductivity are the fluid versions of ideal crystalline rigidity.  This is not at all obvious….”  Thanks in part to some wonderful chapter titles – “I Solved It at Dinner,” “Carnival of the Baubles,” “Star Warriors,” etc. – Laughlin is able to take readers on a tour of the frontiers of modern physics without making them feel like interlopers in an erudite field: “Antimatter is one of those bizarre facts of nature that is too crazy to have been made up by science fiction writers.”  Or: “It is ironic that Einstein’s most creative work, the general theory of relativity, should boil down to conceptualizing space as a medium when his original premise was that no such medium existed.”  A Different Universe is not easy going – the concepts are complex, and often counterintuitive – but Laughlin makes such a wonderful guide that readers with a shred of intellectual curiosity will find themselves both charmed and challenged.

     The End of the Certain World is more conventional and denser than A Different Universe, but in its own way no less compelling.  It is the biography of Max Born, close friend and intellectual rival of Einstein, the man to whom Einstein made the famous comment about God not playing dice with the universe – a glib critique of Born’s theory of indeterminacy, which however has proved the primary basis of modern physics and which won Born the 1954 Nobel Prize.  In 300-plus pages of small type and dense text, Nancy Thorndike Greenspan traces Born’s roots in old Germany; his preeminent role in the 1920s Golden Age of Physics; his exile when Hitler came to power; his eventual training of nine Nobel physicists; the irony of this lifelong pacifist’s extensive work in educating the developers of the atomic bomb; and his campaign against nuclear proliferation in the years after he won his Nobel award.  Superb family photos from the Born family’s private collection do a great deal to humanize the scientist.  But Greenspan’s writing style is not a strong point: the book reads as if she stands a bit too much in awe of her subject.  Sentences tend to be long and peppered with clichés: “In spite of the ills Born recounted and the daily disruptions in life, the confined and meager existence of wartime had been transformed into a world of reunion and opportunity permeated by an aura of excitement.”  Yet the book is successful in communicating the intellectual vitality and underlying personal gentleness of one of the very greatest physicists the world has produced.


Just a Little Too Thin: How to Pull Your Child Back from the Brink of an Eating Disorder. By Michael Strober, Ph.D. and Meg Schneider, M.A., L.M.S.W. Da Capo. $25.

     Teenage girls – they are almost always girls – sometimes find themselves in an uncontrolled spiral, heading for a serious eating disorder and major health consequences.  Half or more of normal-weight teens consider themselves too heavy – media images tell them so – and up to 60% of teens diet regularly.  But there are innocent diets and not-so-innocent ones, and this book is designed to help parents learn the difference in time to intervene when intervention is necessary.

     According to Michael Strober, a leading expert on eating disorders, and Meg Schneider, a therapist who frequently writes about family issues, eating disorders progress through three stages.  First a girl diets innocently enough, but with a certain rigidity and compulsiveness – checking the scale every day, exercising daily as well, thinking about how good she is looking.  This stage is not negative by itself, but it can lead to the second, in which she becomes preoccupied with dieting, food in general, exercise and persistent feelings of hunger (which she is sure she can overcome for the greater good of improving her body).  Then comes the third stage, in which the whole day is spent strategizing about what and when to eat, how and when to do more (and more intense) exercise, and how to take care of “problem areas” she sees in the mirror.  Her reactions to food veer from cravings to nausea.

     This is a scary scenario.  Strober and Schneider explain to parents what to expect at each stage, what a daughter may say and do, and how to know when your child needs professional help.  There are a few remarks about boys – who diet more to try to sculpt their bodies than to lose weight per se – but this is mostly a book for parents of teenage girls.  It is also a book requiring a great deal of parental insight, both into one’s child and into one’s own upbringing and body image.  The book is full of things for parents to do – things that would surely be beneficial if parents had time to do them.  Example: List statements your mother or father made that criticized your appearance; reflect on how each statement made you feel; list alternative statements you wish your parents had made but did not; remember how you felt if your parents ever did compliment your appearance; figure out how to compliment your daughter’s looks without making her preoccupied with them; etc.  This sort of thing is a very, very tall order for most hyper-busy parents today.  So are the suggestions for managing a diet-related crisis – for example, interview lots of therapists and other potential helpers to find the right one, seeing each two or three times if necessary (with your daughter).  This seems to assume at least one non-working parent, plenty of time to take a child out of school, and no insurance hassles – three naïve assumptions.  Strober and Schneider provide excellent diagnostic information about eating disorders, but lack a sense of reality when it comes to treatment.  Their approaches would be just right in a world of ideal circumstances, but very few people live there.  More down-to-earth help would be more useful.


Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Günter Wand conducting Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR. Profil. $16.99.

Orff: Carmina Burana. Günter Wand conducting Hamburger Knabenchor St. Nikolai, Mitglieder des Opernchors des Niedersächsischen Staatstheaters Hannover, NDR Chor and NDR Sinfonieorchester. Profil. $16.99.

     Günter Wand (1912-2002) left a substantial discography, so it is not immediately clear why there is a need for Profil’s very extensive “Günter Wand Edition.”  But listening to these two recordings from the series makes its niche quite evident.  These are very special renditions of the works, both recorded live (the Bruckner in 1979, the Orff in 1984), and both providing insights into the music beyond those in other versions by Wand and other conductors.

     This Bruckner Ninth is an especially moving experience, being a performance that Wand himself remembered and discussed years later (the included booklet quotes the conductor as saying he couldn’t put this concert out of his mind).  This is an astonishingly cohesive performance imbued with great understanding, from the truly amazing, very Wagnerian opening (the indication Misterioso has never been better observed), through a first movement that gleams with feeling; a scherzo whose odd, ghostly flickering veers from surprising to genuinely eerie; and a third movement that builds beautifully and inexorably to its famed, unresolvable, dissonant climactic chord, then restarts and closes with a feeling of peace that passes all understanding.  The performance was given before more than 3,500 people in the Benedictine Basilica of Ottobeuren, and the audience sat in silence afterwards for a full 10 minutes.  A quarter of a century later, this Bruckner Ninth remains spellbinding.

     Carmina Burana provides the strongest possible contrast.  This is not a work with which Wand is usually associated, but in fact he was quite attached to it, and clearly had a highly individual, even idiosyncratic idea of how to perform it – at least on the basis of this recording. Instead of setting clear tempi for each brief section and letting the contrasts between sections carry the work forward, Wand finds ways to vary the tempo within individual sections: the first half of O Fortuna is slower than the second, for instance, and In taberna quando sumus has more tempo variations than Orff wrote.  Also, although this is essentially a vocal work, Wand displays the orchestra quite prominently and lavishes a great deal of attention on the brief orchestra-only sections, such as the dance at the start of the Uf dem anger section. The soloists here are not all of equal quality.  The best is baritone Peter Binder, who has the most music and tries – presumably guided by Wand – to interpret different sections with different characterizations, an approach more seen in opera than in cantata.  Soprano Maria Venuti has a lovely voice, ethereal when it needs to be, though again with operatic inflections.  But tenor Ulf Kenklis is a disappointment, seeming to have difficulty with his range and even losing his falsetto at one unfortunate moment in the song of the roasting swan, Olim facis colueram.  This Carmina Burana seems unusually episodic, with some lovely touches and a few missteps – not a great performance, but one that is definitely worthy of a profile series, especially as it demonstrates a less-known side of Wand’s musical interests.

September 08, 2005


Pure Dead Trouble. By Debi Gliori. Knopf. $15.95.

     To begin with, there is Isagoth, Defense Minister of Hades (Wet Affairs), the parenthetical words referring to “the department of Hades that deals with anything involving decapitation, defenestration, evisceration, immolation, amputation, and assorted tortures too excruciating to mention.”

     Well, actually, to begin with there is Latch, faithful butler to the Strega-Borgia family, lying comatose on the front doorstep of the Strega-Borgia home, StregaSchloss.

     Well, no.  To begin with, there are the Strega-Borgias returning from a vacation in Italy, looking “as if they had recently returned from a funeral; indeed, as if all five of them had narrowly escaped being buried themselves.”

     Hmm.  Not quite.  You see, to begin with there was Pure Dead Magic, and then there was Pure Dead Wicked, and then came Pure Dead Brilliant, and now we have the fourth book of the trilogy.  Or…wait a bit.  Sorting out what Debi Gliori is doing isn’t too simple.  The first three books did make a very satisfying trilogy, and there was no particular reason to expect a fourth book, but there were many reasons to want a fourth one about the rather odd and slightly supernatural family living on the shores of a Scottish loch with several mythical beasts, including a purebred dragon that in this book has a child fathered by famous but unnamed loch creature, said dragon now preparing her wedding to said creature, except there’s the comatose butler to worry about and Tarantella the tart-tongued tarantula displaying her usual attitude and Damp being not only damp but also highly surprising, and…

     Look, don’t throw a synchronized wobbly (a group hissy fit).  It’s hard to describe or encapsulate Gliori’s books, which are some of the funniest and oddest around (and are pretty gross, too).  Numpties (idiots) and plonkers (fools) won’t enjoy the comings and goings of the various weird characters, but the bursts of Scottish slang and the thoroughly bizarre thoughts and actions of such characters as Multitudina the Illiterat (pet of 11-year-old Pandora Strega-Borgia and a better breeder than reader) will keep everyone else too busy laughing to be hacked off (peeved).  There really is a mystery here, and Gliori has great fun solving it while giving an increasingly important role to Flora McLachlan (reluctant but powerful magic wielder and nanny to Pandora, 13-year-old Titus and two-year-old Damp, who usually is).  All by themselves, the scenes involving Isagoth and S’tan the Boss (First Minister of the Hadean Empire) are worth the price of the book.  That’s no porky (lie).  Neither is this: this book is decidedly not the end of Gliori’s series.  You can be pure dead certain of that.


The Wedding of Cathy and Irving. By Cathy Guisewite. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

     Blondie and Dagwood got married 75 years ago, and remain in comfortable middle age (40-ish).  So, really, the courtship of Cathy and Irving, which led to marriage in only 28-plus years and which leaves comics readers with yet another comfortably middle-aged couple, is nothing unique.  Except for this: Cathy started as a chronicle and celebration of singleness, and Cathy Guisewite took the strip through all the up-and-down trends of being a single woman in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties before deciding, a few years into the new century, that enough was enough already.

     Whether you find cartoon Cathy’s marriage a joy or a betrayal will depend on what you think of the strip.  It can certainly be argued that the endearing neuroses that sustained Cathy for decades had begun to wear a bit thin recently, with week after week about the latest fad diet, shoe shopping, bathing-suit season, bad hair days, etc.  The strip in recent years had started to seem a bit…well…stale.  Shaking it up with the long-delayed wedding may (or, knowing cartoon Cathy and her creator, may not) be just what the strip needs.

     The Wedding of Cathy and Irving certainly tells you everything you could possibly have wanted to know about the tumultuous year leading up to the ceremony, as well as the wedding itself and its immediate aftermath.  An appendix of sorts traces some elements of the Cathy-Irving relationship back to its origin in 1976.  Through all these pages – 192 of them, more than in the usual Cathy collection – it is worth keeping in mind what Cathy tells Irving in one strip as they shop together despite his constant whining: “I always dreamed how romantic it would be to go Christmas shopping with a fiancé. …I dreamed how romantic it would be before…and I’ll remember how romantic it was after.  The only time it isn’t romantic is while we’re actually doing it.”

     Well, Cathy and Irving are actually doing it – getting married, that is – through all the meet-the-in-laws strips, the mom-as-wedding-planner strips, the fitting-the-wedding-gown strips, the bridesmaid strips, the hair-and-makeup strips, the get-the-dogs-together strips, and eventually the wedding and honeymoon strips.  It’s hard to pick highlights here, because the whole book is a highlight in the development of Guisewite’s strip – unless, of course, you think the whole wedding idea took the strip in the wrong direction, in which case the whole book is a mistake.  But readers might as well let Cathy and Irving settle into married life and watch what comes next.  That’s fodder for speculation: the ages of the two have never been stated, but strips have identified Irving as a baby boomer (so he’s at least 50) and Cathy as being “mature” or even, in her own word, “old” – which must mean 40-ish, like Blondie.  So what’s next?  Parenthood, maybe by adoption?  The dogs have puppies?  (Well, no – both are female.)  Changes in neuroses, or emergence of new marital ones?  Only cartoon and real-world Cathy know for sure.  It should be fun finding out.


The Fish in Room 11. By Heather Dyer. Chicken House/Scholastic. $3.99.

The Fourteen Bears in Summer and Winter. By Evelyn Scott. Illustrated by Virginia Parsons. Golden Books. $14.95.

     There are so many ways to create animal adventures for kids that children of all ages can find animal books to enjoy.  But of course, first you have to decide how animalish and how humanlike to make the animals.  Or, in the case, of The Fish in Room 11, you have to figure out if they are animals at all!  Heather Dyer’s lightweight, lighthearted story is all about a little boy, raised as an orphan by the staff of a fading Oceanside hotel – a hotel that gets some very unusual guests.  They are the Flots (“floats,” get it?), and they are…well…mermaids.  Young Toby doesn’t mind this, and quickly becomes fast friends with Eliza, who is about his age (the book is aimed at preteens).  Then Toby meets Eliza’s parents, who would in an earlier age be described as “antic,” and decides he really likes the whole family – and wants them to stay at the hotel.  They’d love to, but of course no one must know they are mermaids…since some people, especially the nasty hotel manager, Mr. Harris, would consider them no better than fish and want to put them on display for money.  Dyer’s tale moves at madcap pace as Toby enlists the aid of an old sea captain to help conceal the Flots, while Mr. Harris becomes increasingly suspicious and eventually decides to show the mermaids to the world – a decision that doesn’t quite work out for him.  But things do work out quite well for Toby, who eventually learns who his parents were and why he mermaids have always been so interested in him.  It’s a tall tale filled with laughter.

     The two stories of The Fourteen Bears are animal stories of a different kind, for a younger readership.  There is something quaint in these seasonal tales, originally published separately in 1969 and 1973.  They are simple stories about everyday activities of anthropomorphic animals – all 14 of which have names and, surprisingly, slightly different personalities.  From the expected (a honey farm run by Mother Bear) to the unexpected (trees that look the same outside but are all decorated differently inside), the book is sweet and uncomplicated.  In summer, the bears eat and swim and sleep; in winter, they play outdoors in warm clothing, skate on a frozen pond, and make icicle decorations for one of their trees.  Virginia Parsons’ charming illustrations nicely complement Evelyn Scott’s pleasant little stories.


Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope. By Fred Watson. Da Capo. $24.95.

      Astronomers no longer look through telescopes. Starting with that remarkable (to non-astronomers) fact, Dr. Fred Watson – Astronomer-in-Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran in New South Wales, Australia – sweeps back in time to 1566 and the duel in which Tyge (later Tycho) Brahe nearly lost his sight, if not his life. Brahe later became the foremost scientist of his time, his astronomical work deemed so important that the king of Denmark gave him an island on which to work.

      Watson’s book is part history, part science, part analysis, part celebration of knowledge. If it does not always hang together, it is at least always lively and informative. Watson is equally familiar with important telescope builders little known to the public (Herschel, Ross, Hale) and with scientists who names have become household words (Galileo, Isaac Newton, Edwin Hubble). He is also highly knowledgeable about astronomical instruments; this is why he can clearly explain the reason astronomers no longer look through telescopes, which now consist of “giant mirrors, perfectly curved into shallow dishes to capture and focus the incoming light.” To put it simply, “human eyes compare very unfavourably with sensitive TV-type detectors.”

      But of course the human eye was needed for all early telescopes, and it was the human eye, looking ever farther into the skies beyond Earth, that helped confirm Copernicus’ sun-centric theory of the solar system and led to enormous advances in such earthbound endeavors as navigation and warfare. Interestingly, with all the names, dates and facts Watson tosses about, he states, “The modern consensus is that we will never know for certain who actually invented the telescope.” But we certainly know a lot about how it developed, including in some less than lofty ways (Watson’s chapter, “Astronomers Behaving Badly,” is an eye-opener). As the book marches inexorably on, it becomes rather more technical, delving into discussions of how modern telescopes are made and why – material of perhaps less general interest than the earlier, historical information dealing with the days when astronomers did look through telescopes. Still, this is a book filled with fascinating tidbits about a scientific instrument whose importance should not be underestimated. Watson’s Epilogue, written from the perspective of the year 2108, is an eye-opener worthy of science fiction – or, perhaps, soon-to-be science fact.


Scholastic Book of Firsts. By James Buckley, Jr. Scholastic. $8.95.

      The publisher Scholastic is now a huge fiction factory – it is the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books, after all – but its roots are in nonfiction, and it really ought to handle facts very well indeed. It usually does; there is certainly a lot of fascination and pleasure in this book of “more than 1,000 of the coolest, biggest, and most exciting first facts you’ll ever read,” as the cover none too modestly asserts. But there are some disturbing lapses here as well – not too many, but enough to warn parents away from accepting everything in James Buckley’s book at face value.

      The good stuff first, since there is lots of it: the book consists of 13 chapters of things that came first or were done first in such fields as exploration, food, medicine, money, sports and technology (the chapter called “Grab Bag” includes items that didn’t fit anywhere else). A few samples: The first flight across the English Channel occurred on July 25, 1909, when aviator Louis Blériot flew the route in 37 minutes. The first automatic clothes washer was invented by John Chamberlain in 1937. The first handheld pencil sharpener was invented in 1897 by John Lee Love. Ginger ale was first sold in 1850, Dr. Pepper in 1884, Coca-Cola in 1886 and Pepsi-Cola in 1898. The first U.S. president born in the United States was Martin Van Buren.

      You get the idea: this is a compendium of odd and not-so-odd facts, arranged by topic and presented in a breezy, easy-to-digest format with plenty of graphic illustrations to keep the pace up. Kids probably won’t read a book like this cover-to-cover, but it’s fun to dip into it for the interesting and unusual (some of which involves kids: the first kid to win X Games gold was 13-year-old Ryan Sheckler, in 2003).

      There are problems, though. One caveat is that, alas, not everything is accurate. The famed set of museums in Washington, D.C. is the Smithsonian Institution – the book says Institute. The book says all lasers are red, but the newest are blue. One country from the former Soviet Union is listed as “the Ukraine,” but it is simply Ukraine. Another caveat is that some of Buckley’s writing could use a lot more editing: “Army policies in those days did not permit Japanese Americans and others from receiving such medals.” Because of problems like these, which are scattered throughout the book, parents can’t really just turn kids loose and be sure they are learning interesting, little-known facts. It’s too bad that a book with so much potential doesn’t live up to it all the time.