October 27, 2005


Desk/engagement calendars: The Far Side: Mating Rituals; Art of “The Lord of the Rings.” Andrews McMeel. $12.99 each.

Day-to-day calendars: FoxTrot; Pearls Before Swine; George W. Bushisms; An Insult a Day; Insight from the Dalai Lama. Andrews McMeel. $11.99 each.

As we move inexorably toward the end of one year and the start of another, let us consider what sort of year we want 2006 to be. A nostalgic year? A forward-looking one? A year focused on politics? On pop entertainment? On watching sports? On participating in sports? Pick your direction and you can find an Andrews McMeel calendar to help you get there: South Beach Diet, Zelda the English bulldog, Pop Culture Quiz, origami, daily golf tips and much more. Then, of course, you have to decide what type of calendar you want. Do you want your year’s plans (and hopes) on your desk, displayed a week at a time? Then you want a desk or engagement calendar – the spiral-bound type that opens flat so you can see a week of dates at a time. These come in several types: with dates on both left and right pages, for example, or only on left-hand ones. But the most traditional type has illustrations on the left and dates on the right. And what could be more traditional than The Far Side, the long-gone but ever-present Gary Larson cartoon? Larson stopped drawing it years ago, but the packaging and repackaging continue at full speed. And the single-panel drawings are as funny as always. This year’s desk calendar, “Mating Rituals,” features typically Larsonian takes on courtship – particularly among fish, dinosaurs, apes, clowns and other denizens of Larson’s world. If you want to spend the year laughing about insect or alien mating rituals – and imagining they have nothing to do with your own life – then this calendar is for you. (One female shark to another: “My marriage is in trouble, Barbara. You ever tried communicating with a hammerhead?”)

Care for fantasy of a slightly more serious sort? New for 2006 is an Andrews McMeel engagement calendar featuring art work for the film trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. This is for devotees of the films only: each left-hand page shows a hand-drawn illustration that may be a moody landscape, a character study of a featured actor or actress, or an action scene (for instance, one shows trolls pushing a siege tower; another shows bright-white Gandalf facing off against the stark-black mount of a Ringwraith). The printing and design make the calendar look like a relic of Middle-Earth – a nice touch.

Ah, but what if you keep your appointments electronically and don’t want a calendar displaying a week at a time? In that case, check out Andrews McMeel’s day-to-day calendars. There are plenty of them, featuring characters from Dilbert to Garfield to Ziggy. An especially enjoyable one is FoxTrot, with excerpts from the trials and tribulations of Bill Amend’s slightly skewed suburban family (example: son Jason manages to find a cereal whose only ingredient is sugar). Equally funny, even more skewed, and new for 2006 is the Pearls Before Swine calendar, featuring the death obsessions and other cynical hilarities of Rat, Pig, Goat, Zebra and George W. Bush. No, wait – not that last one. He’s featured at his inimitable fracture-the-language best in George W. Bushisms, a calendar that will add fuel to the fire of Bush detractors while potentially being rather endearing to Bush supporters. This president is well known to be syntactically challenged, but many of his misspoken comments have a certain charm to them: “I think we can all agree, the past is over.” Buyers hoping for a year of self-generated Bush insults won’t find them here, though certainly some of the comments are eye-opening: “You disarm or we will.”

Actually, if what you want is an insult a day, you should just go ahead and get An Insult a Day, a calendar that delivers exactly what its title promises. It’s filled with one-liners from comedians old and new, including a hearty helping from master insulter Henny Youngman (“Why don’t you step outside for a few years?”). Book reviewers, talk-show hosts, second-rate and third-rate celebrities, and many others get to take their best shots here – or have someone else’s best shots directed at them.

But if you want to look ahead to a 2006 filled with greater contentment than 2005, you may prefer a calendar of a whole different type. Insight from the Dalai Lama is just that: a full year of thoughts of the exiled Tibetan leader, a man who by all accounts is very much at peace with himself, his life and the world. “Without spiritual sustenance, it is difficult to get and maintain peace of mind,” you will read here. And: “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.” These are words to make you think – not only about what sort of new year you want, but also about the kind of life you hope for in all the years thereafter.


Merry Christmas, Merry Crow. By Kathi Appelt. Illustrated by Jon Goodell. Harcourt. $16.

Junie B., First Grader: Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! (P.S. So Does May). By Barbara Park. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. Random House. $11.95.

     It’s not quite time to deck the halls with boughs of holly, but there’s plenty of early Christmas cheer in these two books, plus a touch of emotion that can be hard to come by later in the year, when everyone is all caroled and Muzak-ed out.

     Merry Christmas, Merry Crow is simply a marvel.  Kathi Appelt offers wonderfully trenchant rhymes: “Round the chimneys/Over the yards/Down the busy boulevards/A button here/A feather there/A crow can find things anywhere!”  But most of the space on the pages is taken up by Jon Goodell’s illustrations, which are simply outstanding.  Goodell manages to evoke an urban winter wonderland in which the crow, seeming almost to half-smile despite its otherwise realistic appearance, goes about doing typical crow things by gathering bits of this and bits of that.  Goodell’s use of perspective is a real treat: on one page, the crow flies toward the foreground and right at the reader, dwarfing the people far behind; on another, the crow perches on a snowman that looks huge, as if a camera took the snowman’s picture by looking up at its head from the ground.  And there is more to the book than fresh-sounding rhymes and wonderful pictures, as a seasonal mystery slowly develops about what the crow is doing: “What’s his hurry?/What’s his mission?/What’s his secret expedition?”  The solution is a surprise, a delight, and a lovely testimony to all that is best in Christmas spirit.

     That spirit apparently got to Barbara Park, too.  Her Junie B. Jones stories are among the most reliable of all kids’ books: Junie B., first as kindergartner and then as first grader, will mix up grammar, get into trouble and somehow come out of everything happily.  Jingle Bells, Batman Smells contains all the usual elements, but it has more heart than Park’s other books and contains an understated moral that is just right for a season of good will.  The focus here is on the enmity between Junie B. and her irritating tattletale classmate, May – a feud that gets them pulled out of class for a stern talking-to and almost brings them the first-grade equivalent of detention.  Later, when the students draw names for Secret Santa gift-giving, whose name should Junie B. get but May’s?  This is a great opportunity for payback, Junie B. realizes – but things don’t go quite the way Junie B. expects them to, with her basically good heart leading her astray from her planned revenge and with readers learning that May is not so much mean as she is sad.  Denise Brunkus’ illustrations, as always, perfectly complement a story in which Park’s plot has more depth than the Junie B. tales usually do.


Uneasy Listening: A Caricature Guide to 20th Century Composers. By John Minnion. Checkmate Books. ₤12.50 from Checkmate Books, www.checkmatebooks.com.

     Caricature is an old art and one step more honorable than cartooning, especially in the hands of such famed practitioners of the form as Thomas Nast, bane of Boss Tweed and the old Tammany Hall – and inventor of the symbols of both the Republican and Democratic parties.  Musical caricature is somewhat more rarefied, being a subgenre within a genre that is itself a subgenre of cartoons.  There are few towering figures in this area.  Perhaps the greatest was Gerard Hoffnung, whose works remain hysterically funny and very pointed, and whose popularity led to production of not one but three Hoffnung Music Festivals (the last of them posthumous) in the late1950s and early 1960s.

     Still, it is arguable whether Hoffnung was a caricaturist or simply a highly specialized cartoonist.  There is no such argument about John Minnion.  He is not only a caricaturist of the highest skill but also – now this is a surprise – someone who communicates quite as well in prose as in his drawings.

     Uneasy Listening shows Minnion at his best.  It is a year-by-year guide to the 20th century in music, listing notable works from every year, providing narrative about musical trends throughout the century, and presenting lovingly produced, occasionally caustic caricatures of a wide (though by no means comprehensive) selection of composers.

     The far left of each two-page spread gives dates and compositions: Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy is among those for 1908, Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony appears in the 1917 listing, Copland’s Billy the Kid dates to 1938, John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer comes from 1991, and so on.  Some pages pithily discuss and delightfully illustrate individual pieces: for example, Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale (1918) gets a wonderful illustration of the soldier and the Devil, plus an explanation of the controversy caused by Stravinsky’s extensive use of jazz.  Other pages describe broad musical trends, such as “Decline and Fall of the Romantic Empire.”  All the text is well written and very much to the point.

     But it is Minnion’s caricatures that make the book so outstanding.  Here are bearded, patriarchal Charles Ives sitting on a wicker chair on a lawn in his beloved New England; pipe-smoking Ralph Vaughan Williams strolling in the English countryside; wide-eyed Béla Bartók beside an old-fashioned victrola; Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergey Prokofiev, both bespectacled, with a Soviet flag flying behind them; Bohuslav Martinů with a much-lengthened, impossibly curved head; Leonard Bernstein in extreme closeup – all lines and creases with half-frame eyeglasses and half-smoked cigarette; and many more.  It is easy to quibble with Minnion’s inclusions and exclusions (Robin Holloway is in; David Diamond is not) – but quibbling is quite beside the point here.  This is a highly personal book giving Minnion’s views of 20th-century music and some of the people who made it.  It is a delight to read and a joy simply to thumb through for the sake of the art – even for people not totally immersed in classical music.


Queen Bee. By Chynna Clugston. Graphix/Scholastic. $16.99.

Billy Clikk: Rogmasher Rampage. By Mark Crilley. Delacorte Press. $10.95.

     Anyone who has seen or even heard of the movie Mean Girls will immediately understand most of the plot of Queen Bee.  Transfer the movie’s high-school setting to middle school and you’ve got it: new girl in school, unsure whom to befriend and how to be accepted, gets involved with the officially most popular girls and dumps the better kids who were first there for her; then she succeeds on her own and finds out who her real friends are.  That’s most of the plot here, but there’s an extra wrinkle: this new girl in town, Haley Madison, has psychokinetic powers – she can make things move through the power of her mind.  The powers are rudimentary and a source of embarrassment to her – she makes the wrong things happen at the wrong times – but things get really sticky when it turns out that her major rival, Alexa Harmon, has powers of exactly the same type, and can control them better than Haley can.  This is pretty good fodder for a graphic novel, and Chynna Clugston is very good at putting it together.  She has an appropriately brash, manga-influenced black-and-white style, constantly mixing up squared-off panels of various sizes with scenes in which characters move outside the panels, ones in which there are no panels at all, and ones in which the panel shape changes as the action progresses.  The result is a book that is actually more fun to look at than to read – the plot, despite its telekinetic twist, is really pretty obvious.  Still, this first book in a new series for girls ages 9-12 is an entertaining start.

     Also for ages 9-12 are the Billy Clikk books, of which Rogmasher Rampage is the second.  These are not graphic novels, but they might as well be.  They are cartoonishly written and equipped with comic-book-like sound effects: “GGGRRREEEEEEE-YYYYOOOOOGGGHH!” and many more.  Mark Crilley’s Akiko series, which contains seven books so far, did get its start as a comic, so the Billy Clikk books share a heritage.  Like Creatch Battler, Billy’s first adventure, Rogmasher Rampage takes Billy from his home in Piffling, Indiana, on round-the-world adventures battling dangerous aliens as an agent-in-training for AFMEC, the Allied Forces for the Management of Extraterrestrial Creatches.  Billy’s partner, Ana Garcia, is Billy’s age but is already a full-fledged AFMEC agent (“Affy”) – a source of some hard feelings for Billy.  But there is little real human interaction here, the focus being on Billy’s battles with the huge and hyper-violent Rogmashers of the title and on his piecing together clues that everyone else, Ana included, misses.  It seems strange that Billy gets little credit and no advancement for solving a mystery that threatens all of AFMEC and that no one else has figured out – but that’s comic-book thinking for you.  The patently unrealistic action scenes are fun if you ignore their inherent silliness, and Crilley no doubt has many more Billy Clikk adventures up his sleeve.


The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy.  By Peter W. Huber & Mark P. Mills. Basic Books. $26.

The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream. By Andrea Rock. Basic Books. $26.

     The Bottomless Well is about as counterintuitive as a book can be – doubly so in the wake of the fuel-supply disruptions that occurred after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged many Gulf of Mexico oil rigs and refineries.  Manhattan Institute senior fellow Peter Huber and physicist Mark Mills tell us, with an absolutely straight face, “Energy is infinite.” And they are not talking about all the energy in the universe – which is indeed infinite, or near enough to it.  They are talking about energy availability right on good old Earth.  Huber and Mills know they are propounding “seven great energy heresies,” and propound them they do: 1) The cost of energy has less to do with the cost of fuel over time, and more to do with the cost of hardware needed to process the fuel; 2) so-called waste is actually a good thing, because most waste occurs when we refine even more energy; 3) as technology gets more efficient, people consume more; 4) the competitive advantage in manufacturing is swinging toward the U.S.; 5) humans will always demand more energy; 6) raw fuels are not running out – the faster we extract them, the faster we find more; and 7) the American pursuit of high-grade energy is actually good for the global environment, not bad for it.  Huber and Mills argue some of these points more effectively than others.  They are especially good with their benefits-of-waste discussion, their increasing-consumption analysis, and their demand-always-increases argument.  Their graphs and charts – there are many – are fascinating, such as one showing that the cost of lighting has dropped ten-thousand-fold in the last 200 years.  But their text is sometimes self-contradictory: one paragraph says that “while it lasted, the 55 mph speed limit slowed people down and this limited how far we drove and (indirectly) what we opted to drive,” but the very next one says, “no one honored the 55 mph speed limit.”  And their correct argument that we find more fuel all the time does not fully address the fact that discovering fuel is very different from obtaining it, in light of cost and political pressures.  Indeed, Huber and Mills generally tend to downplay political realities, even though those realities largely shape the modern energy industry.  Still, this is a highly thought-provoking work with some trenchant thinking and an unusual take on perpetual talk of an “energy crisis.”

     Speaking of bottomless wells: the mind certainly seems to be one, and we dig deeper into it all the time in search of understanding and meaning.  The most cogent analysis of dreaming, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, is now more than 100 years old and still highly valuable to psychoanalysts.  But dream investigation is increasingly occurring through forms of science of which Freud did not even…well, dream.  Brain imaging has brought neuroscientists into dream discussions, and it is their research – and other hard-science dream studies, dating to the 1950s – that Andrea Rock explores in The Mind at Night.  The book is breezily written and frequently anecdotal, e.g., Paul McCartney dreamed the melody of “Yesterday,” then thought when he woke up that he had heard it somewhere before.  Rock throws lots of information at the reader, entertainingly if not with analytical clarity: she concludes, rather lamely, that “the role of dream-rich REM sleep undergoes an evolution within each individual.”  But the journey to that non-conclusion is an enjoyable one, thanks to stories like the one about cats that leap up and stalk prey or attack imagined enemies during REM sleep.  We may have gained as many questions as answers in the century since Freud’s seminal work on dreaming, but those questions are fascinating to contemplate.


Bruch: Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Cello and Piano; D’Indy: Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano.  Amici Ensemble: Joaquin Valdepeñas, clarinet; David Hetherington, cello; Patricia Parr, piano. Naxos. $7.99.

Mozart: Concertos for Three and Two Pianos; Sonata for Two Pianos. Wolfgang Brunner, Florian Birsak and Leonore von Stauss, Hammerflügel; Wolfgang Brunner directing Salzburger Hofmusik. Profil. $16.99.

     Certain instrumental combinations just aren’t heard very often.  When they are – that is, when they are well played in pieces written for them rather than in arrangements – they provide unusual revelations and considerable pleasure.  Such is the case with the Amici Ensemble’s new Naxos CD.  Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces is a late work, written in 1910, when the composer was 72 and experimentation was becoming the norm.  But these pieces are thoroughly Romantic in sonority and sensibility.  The soulful clarinet and dark-hued piano tones are reminiscent of Brahms’ late sonatas for clarinet and piano – which, like the Bruch work, can be played on viola instead of clarinet.  Most of Bruch’s pieces move at deliberate speed: five are marked Andante or Moderato.  But each uses the instruments differently.  The third, for instance, opens with dramatic cello flourishes and piano arpeggios and chords, then becomes meltingly beautiful.  The sixth, marked Nachtgesang, sounds like a contralto aria.  The seventh is a bouncy mini-scherzo.  The Amici players handle everything with superb ensemble and great enthusiasm.

     Vincent D’Indy’s Trio, written in 1888, is a different sort of work: graceful, flowing and very idiomatic in its use of the instruments – all of which D’Indy could play.  The lengthy first movement ebbs and flows more than it progresses; the second has some clever and surprising cello pizzicati; in the third, the cello sings like a viola, and in a comparable register.  The extended finale is part rondo, part fantasia, with faster and slower episodes alternating.  The trio is polished and more tightly structured than Bruch’s Eight Pieces, but has less inherent thematic beauty.  It makes a worthy complement to the later composition – and is equally well played.

     There is nothing at all unusual about Mozart and the piano, but the multi-piano pieces on a new Profil CD do qualify as instrumental rarities – doubly so when played, as they are here, on period instruments or carefully crafted replicas.  The Concerto for Three Pianos, K.242 is pretty rather than profound, but sounds very good indeed when the 18th-century-style pianos called Hammerflügel are contrasted with a small group of period instruments.  That is, it sounds best when played as Mozart intended.  The Concerto for Two Pianos, K.365 is a more mature and substantial work, written on a larger scale – comparable to the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K.364, with which it is contemporaneous (both date to 1778-9).  The two-piano concerto is more complex than the three-piano work, but it is still at heart a showpiece.  In both these concertos, the resemblance between the Hammerflügel and the harpsichords from which they were derived is quite plain, especially in fast runs and trills – which are distinctly harpsichord-like and sound far more effective in this music than would a modern piano.

     The Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448 is the latest work here (1781) and the most pianistic in the modern sense.  By this time, Mozart is clearly reaching for additional instrumental power in unison sections, though there is still great delicacy when the two Hammerflügel are played against each other, tossing melodies and runs back and forth.  The performers seem thoroughly comfortable with 18th-century performance practices and with their instruments, which deserve to be heard less rarely than they are – provided they can be played this well.

October 20, 2005


Built to Last: Building America’s Amazing Bridges, Dams, Tunnels, and Skyscrapers.  By George Sullivan. Scholastic. $18.99.

Egypt in Spectacular Cross-Section. By Stewart Ross. Illustrated by Stephen Biesty. Scholastic. $18.99.

     It is difficult, in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the vast human tragedies they spawned, to think of works created by people as enduring.  As an old saying has it, “Man proposes.  Nature disposes.”  Yet some human works do endure.  Even the dinged, dented, damaged bridges of southern Louisiana survived Katrina’s wind and water – worse for wear but by no means irreparably damaged.  What makes it possible to build things that handle not only once-in-a-lifetime weather extremes but also the dull daily routine of people, cars, trucks, trains, and all sorts of weather changes?  Kids ages 9-12 will find many of the answers in Built to Last, a highly impressive tour of some major American construction projects that not only shows the results but also explains how these architectural icons came to be.  Thus, we learn about the little-known Frederick P. Dinkelberg, the architect responsible for New York City’s famous wedge-shaped Flatiron Building, whose design is based on a Greek column.  We read about America’s deadliest avalanche and how it spurred work on what would become the Cascade Tunnel.   And we get all sorts of information on well-known American landmarks: the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, Gateway Arch and more.  The book’s final section, about current major construction projects, neatly highlights two contrasting ones: Boston’s Big Dig, infamous as perhaps the costliest construction project ever in the United States; and New York’s City Tunnel No. 3, a virtually unknown project 600 feet below the surface that is also extremely expensive – because the future of the city’s water supply may depend on it.  This is an excellent combination of photos and narrative, of wonder at the works created and matter-of-fact discussion of how they were built.

     Far older than anything in the United States, the grand monuments of ancient Egypt are the sole survivors of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  But just as modern San Francisco involves far more than the Golden Gate Bridge and modern Boston far more than the Big Dig, life in ancient Egypt had far more elements than the Pyramids at Giza and the Sphinx.  Indeed, although the Valley of the Kings and step pyramid at Saqqara appear in the latest “Spectacular Cross-Section” book, they are not central to it.  Stewart Ross’ story and Stephen Biesty’s as-marvelous-as-always illustrations focus on a 30-day journey up the Nile River in 1230 B.C.E. by an 11-year-old boy, his father and several relatives.  The storytelling device works extremely well here, allowing Biesty to showcase everyday life while also giving glimpses of ceremonies that today’s readers ages 9-12 will find strange and enthralling, such as the preparation for rebirth of the body and soul of a village headman.  A short book like all those in this series, Egypt is so packed with meticulous drawings and carefully written text (in small type) that it provides many hours of pleasurable discovery and is worth returning to again and again.


Regarding the Trees. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Gulliver Books/Harcourt. $15.

Miranda the Great. By Eleanor Estes. Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. Harcourt. $16.

     Regarding the Trees is the long-awaited (by fans of the Klise sisters’ offbeat humor) successor to Regarding the Fountain and Regarding the Sink.  There’s no longer a strictly watery theme here (though trees, of course, need water to live), and this is a traditionally sized book instead of the oversize-page type (because it is intended for ages 9-12).  But there is no question that this is a Klise production.  It is told entirely in letters, newspaper articles, illustrations, secret notes, and so on; the puns are pervasive (one girl’s date for a dance is Will U. Merrame – think about it); and the story is rooted in trees of every type, from weeping willow to phone to family.  Klise tales are notoriously difficult to encapsulate – much of the fun is in meandering hither and thither – but it will not spoil anything to say that this one starts with a tree-trimming proposal at Geyser Creek Middle School and includes an Italian cafeteria chef living in a classroom, a sixth grader living in a weeping willow, a boycott of the boys by the girls, a flashback to the Maids of May of 74 years ago, letters to and from Watertown, California, and much more.  It sounds (and, thanks to the format, looks) chaotic, but the Klises do a tree-mendous job of knotting together all the branches of their tale.  And wooden you know it?  They’re already at work on their next book, to whose subject readers are made privy at the end of this one.

     Eleanor Estes always went for straight narrative rather than anything convoluted in her books.  Miranda the Great, one of her less-known works, is one of her most charming – and is unusual in that it is a fable whose roots in the past have grown all the way to the present.  One of Italy’s more unusual traditions is cat protection: street cats are allowed to roam at will and cannot be evicted from wherever they live (there are even groups of Romans who spend their time feeding the cats in a semi-official capacity).  Why this feline fondness?  Estes traces it back to a cat of ancient Rome named Miranda, living happily with Punka, her favorite daughter, in a villa in the time of Nero.  Alas, barbarians attack the city, the family that owns the villa flees, and Miranda and Punka are left to fend for themselves.  Soft-hearted Miranda gathers homeless kittens as she and Punka roam, eventually bringing a large group of cats to the Colosseum – where all hope to find shelter.  But things do not go easily, as Miranda must deal with enemy cats, dog packs and even a hungry lion.  It is because she handles all the challenges successfully that she earns the title Miranda the Great – and eventually takes the lead in a “great cat cantata” celebrating her accomplishments.  The story is charming, told in an Aesopian style that is unusual for Estes, and will delight readers ages eight and older.


The Symantec Guide to Home Internet Security.  By Andrew Conry-Murray and Vincent Weafer.  Symantec Press/Addison-Wesley. $19.99.

     Calling this “the only home Internet security book you’ll ever need,” as the subtitle does, is a bit of a stretch – after all, security issues will continue to change over time, so you’ll need to know more in the future than now.  But this is certainly a top-notch guide to self-protection when using the Internet as it currently exists – a fine introduction to viruses, spyware, online identity theft, firewalls, spam and much more.

     The authors are experts who are able to write for a wide audience without talking down to people – a rare and welcome trait in the highly technical Internet-security world.  Andrew Conry-Murray is technology editor of a professionally oriented publication called IT Architect.  Vincent Weafer is operational leader of the Symantec Global Security Response Team.  Incidentally, despite the authorship and publication connections to Symantec, which makes a variety of Internet-protection products, the book does not in any way urge purchase of those products, simply mentioning them and others in its various chapters and leaving it up to readers to decide what to do.  Special kudos to the authors for their anti-virus discussion: Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus is the dominant product in the field, but Conry-Murray and Weafer note that the free AVG product from GriSoft “includes all the common features of paid products,” and they provide a Web address from which to download it.

     There are really two parts to this book, but they are intermingled: understanding the problems of Internet security and doing things to protect yourself.  If you already know about the many forms of malware, you can skip the chapters that differentiate, for instance, between adware and spyware, explaining what each does and how they differ.  But additional knowledge may help you fight back: you can find out exactly how spyware, adware and Trojan horses infect your computer, or how spammers operate and why the amount of spam keeps increasing (the section called “Spamonomics” is concise and excellent).  If your focus is on protection rather than understanding threats in more depth, you can skip the explanatory material and read about spam filtering approaches, methods of removing malware, firewalls and other protective software, operating-system patches, browser fixes and alternatives, and much more.  Everything is carefully and clearly explained, with numerous illustrations showing what you will see on-screen while performing certain tasks; tables and lists of available free and paid protective software; and resources to learn more about specific topics.  You will not be an expert on all existing forms of Internet threats after reading this book – or be able to predict what new threats will emerge in future months and years – but you will know a great deal more about what’s out there, why it’s out there, and what exactly you can do to keep it out there…or get rid of it if it has already compromised your computer’s security.


Schoolyard Rhymes. Selected by Judy Sierra. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Knopf. $15.95.

Ready, Set, Preschool! By Anna Jane Hays. Illustrated by True Kelly. Knopf. $16.95.

     School may not always be fun, but recess should be with “Kids’ Own Rhymes for Rope Skipping, Hand Clapping, Ball Bouncing, and Just Plain Fun” (as the subtitle puts it) from Schoolyard Rhymes.  The book is nothing more (and nothing less) than a set of nonsense rhymes likely to be heard at elementary schools just about everywhere.  Lots of them poke fun at authority: “Silence in the court/While the judge blows his nose,/Stands on his head,/And tickles his toes.”  Lots are just slightly naughty: “Tarzan, Tarzan, through the air,/Tarzan lost his underwear./Tarzan said, “Me don’t care./Jane buy me another pair.”  Some are wonderfully convoluted: “1-1 was a racehorse./2-2 was one, too./1-1 won a race one day,/And 2-2 1-1-2.”  Some are classics that parents are likely to remember from their own schoolyard days: “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me./Guess I’ll eat some worms./Big fat juicy ones, long slim slimy ones,/Itsy bitsy fuzzy wuzzy worms.”  (Adults who do not recall this precise version will probably remember a similar one.)  And a few may be losing their meaning in our age of cellular communication: “Liar, liar, pants on fire,/Nose as long as a telephone wire.”  The book is fun in the silliest possible way, and Melissa Sweet’s highly amusing illustrations – which often include the rhymes in tiny type as part of the picture – make it even more enjoyable.  The only real question about this book is: for whom is it intended?  Kids won’t want to learn rhymes from it – they’ll get them from friends.  Parents won’t want it for nostalgia (well, maybe for really strange nostalgia).  And since a little of this sort of rhyming goes a long way, this doesn’t seem like the sort of book a parent would want to read to a young child.  Still, if this sort of material does appeal to you (it’s okay to be a tad offbeat), this is a fine collection of it.

     If you think all this silliness is beside the point and it’s important to take school seriously – starting with school for the youngest children – then you’ll want Ready, Set, Preschool!  This is a well-meaning, sober-sided approach to early education: Anna Jane Hays is former director of the book publishing program of Sesame Street.  Hays’ background shows in the topics, though True Kelly’s appealing illustrations do not use the famous TV show’s characters.  For instance, “Shapes Round-Up” introduces kids to the triangle, square, circle and rectangle; there are stories to read about a child who is eager to go to preschool and another who is worried about making friends; a section called “The New Shoes” consists entirely of pictures and encourages young children to make up a story; and the book ends with “Notes to Parents” intended to enrich the educational experience of each element or story.  There is nothing wrong with any of this, and a great deal that is right – but the book lacks playfulness, making it more of a chore to go through than it should be, and potentially making parents who are concerned about sending a child to preschool even more worried about everything that will be “expected” there.  A little lightening up, for parent and child both, is recommended.


The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need. By Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. Basic Books. $24.

Your Own Words. By Barbara Wallraff. Counterpoint. $14.

     The self-help industry is so mindlessly self-indulgent, so vapid, so celebrity-infused and so utterly without shame that it would be wonderful if The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need were indeed the last self-help book you would ever need.  It probably won’t be, though, because it flies too strongly (even brutally) in the face of too many tenets of the self-help industry, as Paul Pearsall’s subtitle makes clear: “Repress Your Anger, Think Negatively, Be a Good Blamer & Throttle Your Inner Child.”  Pearsall is a neuropsychologist based in Hawaii, where it would seem easier to lead the good life than in, say, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  But his point is that there is no single “good life,” and attempting to identify one and then attain it is a recipe for feeling as if you are constantly falling short. That is just how many people feel, Pearsall argues, and that is why self-help books are so popular.  They are, however, fundamentally flawed, he says, because they try to make people conform to impossible ideals.  If there is a single counter-prescription Pearsall offers, it is to be realistic: Grow up and take responsibility for your life instead of blaming your parents or your environment; be happy with who you are and do not keep trying to be something more or better; don’t be afraid to quit when something isn’t working; learn how to blame – blame is not bad if properly directed; focus in a mature way on your “outer elder,” not on your “inner child.”  These are good precepts for which Pearsall argues emphatically, if a touch dogmatically (a failing his book shares with other self-help tomes).  Unfortunately, some of Pearsall’s other recommendations are harder to accept: Give up hope, which falsely makes us feel that happiness is only in the future (but can’t hope for something better be a spur to attaining it?); practice cheerful denial of the bad things in life instead of insisting on facing reality (but aren’t there many cases in which the failure to face reality lies at the root of unhappiness?); be satisfied with feeling okay and stop trying to feel great (but is it so bad to want to feel better?).  Like anyone with a cause, Pearsall runs roughshod over counterarguments in his conviction of his own rightness.  He is, in truth, more right than wrong, but too often slips into the same hectoring tone that he bemoans in the self-help industry he so despises.

     Your Own Words offers self-help of a more modest and practical kind.  Barbara Wallraff’s book is for writers – from professionals to occasional E-mailers – who are concerned about using English correctly.  Her point is that there is no single blueprint for correct usage: sources such as dictionaries differ, grammarians argue among (amongst?) themselves, and popular usage is often best even when official sources deem it wrong.  Her chapters on stylebooks, an imaginary perfect dictionary, and special-purpose tools are especially interesting, and her own writing is bright and to the point throughout.  The main difficulty with Your Own Words is that it is all too easy to take Wallraff’s precepts too far and believe there is simply no right way to use English.  This linguistic equivalent of moral relativism is a distortion of what Wallraff says, but she gives this incorrect interpretation a little too much credence by insisting on the shortcomings of all existing sources of information on the right way to write.


Brahms: Symphony No. 2; Hungarian Dances Nos. 1, 3, 10, 17-21. Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos. $7.99.

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring; The Nightingale. Robert Craft conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Rite) and Philharmonia Orchestra (Nightingale). Naxos. $7.99.

     Marin Alsop’s Brahms cycle really hits its stride with this release.  The “happy symphony” (Brahms’ own name for his No. 2) has never sounded happier – or, more precisely in light of its scale and orchestration, more jovial.  Alsop, a detail-oriented conductor, seemed a bit overwhelmed in her recent recording of Brahms’ First, missing the work’s sweep and grandeur in her efforts to bring out details of its construction.  But No. 2 faces no such problems.  Yes, there are some unusual details highlighted in the first movement, and some instances of unexpected balance, but there is also a sense of the cohesiveness of the whole movement, combined with real warmth – notably at the start of the coda.  The second movement’s tempo seems a touch fast at the start, but Alsop’s reading is convincing on its own terms.  The gently lilting third movement rocks along very pleasantly, and then Alsop has the orchestra cut loose with joy at the start of the finale – retaining rhythmic drive and intensity even as she picks out particular details to highlight (staccato passages, for example).  This is a lovely and effective performance.

     Eight Hungarian Dances – the first three orchestrated by Brahms himself, the others by Dvořák – make delightful encores.  Alsop never met a grace note she didn’t like – listen to No. 3 for confirmation.  She handles each of these pieces individually rather than as part of a set.  No. 20, for example, begins very slowly, with such strong swells of sound that the rhythm practically gets lost – but the middle section is as clear as a listener could wish.  No. 21, in contrast, is straightforward and bouncy, with a very fast middle section.  A recording by Alsop of all 21 Brahms Hungarian Dances would be an excellent idea.

     Robert Craft’s Stravinsky cycle hit its stride with the first note of Naxos’ “Robert Craft Collection” and has never flagged.  Craft is an absolute master of this music, negotiating its complex rhythms and difficult orchestral balances and vocal/instrumental relationships with apparent ease.  His version of The Rite of Spring shows what all the fuss was about at the famous riot at the work’s 1913 premiere.  This Rite, recorded in 1995, sounds magical and ultra-modern, intense and filled with otherworldly beauty.  It is hard to think that it is nearly a century old: Craft treats it as if the ink is still wet on the manuscript.  The Nightingale is handled with equal care.  The complexly orchestrated one-act opera, based on a fable by Hans Christian Andersen and dating to 1914, is excellently sung in this 1997 recording.  Soprano Olga Trifonova as the nightingale and tenor Robert Tear as the fisherman are particularly good.  The instruments of the orchestra get as much attention from Craft as do the singers, and a good thing, too, since the percussion-heavy scoring is a wonderfully exotic mélange of imitation birdsong.  Listeners may not know what harmonics are or recognize the ones played on the harp or the unusual ones made possible on the cellos by retuning some of their strings.  But Craft makes sure everyone clearly hears the exotic colorations that not only transport the audience to China, where the work is set, but also indicate that this is both a fairy tale and a celebration of the life-affirming power of music.

October 16, 2005


Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata. Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Virginia Opera production conducted by Peter Mark.  Presented October 14 and 16, 2005, at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia.

     Even after 152 years, La Traviata remains a gem of an opera, and Virginia Opera gives it a jewel box of a production.  This is a troupe that really makes the most of a stage.  In just one of many felicitous touches, Production Director Dorothy Danner gives us brilliant colors for Violetta’s party in Act I but switches to darker, red-dominated ones for Flora’s party in Act II – making it look as if that gathering takes place in a brothel, and indicating Violetta’s descent since leaving Alfredo.  Yet Violetta’s Act II, Scene 2 dress, though using the same predominantly red tones as the other costumes, is still lighter-hued: she is in this society but at the same time not quite of it.

     Why not?  This production shows why, taking part of the story of the real Alphonsine Plessis, on whom Violetta is based, and turning it into a mimed show seen through a screen during the opera’s overture.  We see a very young girl sold by her father to be used by whatever man will have her, until she luckily connects with men who give her greater and greater finery – and then shows up dressed in white in front of the curtain.  This is a remarkably effective way to begin an oft-told tale.

     The telling itself requires a Violetta of surpassing artistry, and Virginia Opera has one in Cristina Nassif.  Although she sounded slightly strained at the opening of Act I, as if she had trouble projecting her voice over the orchestra, she soon warmed up and sang splendidly for the balance of the act and the rest of the performance.  An island of stability in the ceaseless activity of her party – more fine stage direction there – she played Violetta as someone ready to leave her life as a demimondaine even before Alfredo’s appearance.  She is clearly making the best of this life while being eager to find a way out – a state of affairs that gives her Sempre libera more depth than this aria has in more typically flighty renditions.  Nassif gives dignity to her scene with the odious Giorgio Germont in Act II, and in the second scene of the act shows real poignancy as she affirms her love for Alfredo even as she tells him he will never understand – and refuses to return to him.  The final act, in which she sings flawlessly while lying down, bent over and kneeling, is more moving than this overlong bit of melodrama tends to be nowadays.  Indeed, Nassif is as much actress as singer in this performance: her Violetta seems truly to live as well as to sing.

     The same cannot be said of Daniel Snyder’s Alfredo.  Snyder’s voice seems forced much of the time, he seems to have some difficulty with Italian pronunciation, and his acting is on the wooden side – more noticeably so because Nassif’s is so supple.  Snyder sounds as if he is going through the motions of love, not really feeling its emotions.  He is simply not convincing – until the final act.  Here Snyder seems to find some core of belief in the story, and his tenderness toward and solicitude for Violetta seem genuine, as does his grief when he realizes she cannot survive.  He finally acts and sounds worthy of her – adding to the unusual effectiveness of this act.

     Grant Youngblood sings the thankless and rather repellent role of Giorgio Germont very well indeed.  It is impossible not to see Verdi’s personal situation at the time he composed this opera in the interference of this priggish character with Alfredo’s and Violetta’s love: In 1853, Verdi’s wife had died and he was living with Giuseppina Strepponi, who had created the role of Abigaille in Nabucco. Verdi did not marry her until 1859 – and Verdi’s father-in-law’s attacks on the couple’s living arrangement brought forth a reaction from Verdi similar to the one Violetta initially has to the elder Germont.  Given the fact that this thoroughly unsympathetic character cannot be dismissed as merely a sop to Victorian morality, Youngblood wisely uses his powerful baritone to turn Germont into a misguided authority figure who preys on Violetta’s extraordinary inner goodness and realizes only at the very end how he has misused his power.  It is an effective interpretation that is very well sung – though even Youngblood cannot get around the way Di Provenza brings the action to a screeching halt.

     Peter Mark knows this music inside out and could practically conduct it in his sleep – but his careful tempo choices and fine ear for orchestral balance make the score ever-new.  One felicitous touch among many was the unusual prominence of the clarinet line in Act I as Violetta repeats Alfredo’s words of love.  The members of the Virginia Symphony played throughout with empathy and feeling.  Indeed, empathy and feeling were the hallmarks of this entire production – another success for an opera company that gets better every year.

October 13, 2005


Dr. Seuss Pops Up!  Paper engineering by Keith Finch.  Random House.  $24.95.

     It’s hard to believe that Dr. Seuss has been gone for well over a decade – and will be harder still when you leap into this panoply of pop-ups based on seven Seuss stories: The Cat in the Hat, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Fox in Socks, The Sneetches, and I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!  You have never seen these tales told this way – and Dr. Seuss, a wordsmith above all, might not have appreciated the reduction of the stories’ basics to a couple of pages of three-dimensional paper art – but darn it, this really is a wholly new and fresh way of viewing well-known and beloved Seuss tales.

     You do have to be sure your child knows and loves the tales first.  This book is not a good introduction to Seuss: his great verbal flow and wonderfully silly drawings are here reduced to a few high points from each work.  Nor is this a good book for very young children: It is explicitly not recommended for kids under age three, but even ones as old as six or seven may have trouble working some of the more elaborate fold-ins, foldouts and other designs without damaging the book.  This is really a book for parents and children who already know and love Dr. Seuss and want to revisit oft-read stories together, from a different angle.

     Keith Finch’s design for The Cat in the Hat, for instance, has a half-page foldout that causes the children’s chairs to pop up – after which you open a door that, in opening, actually pulls the cat into the room.  There is also a tab to pull to show the cat juggling all those objects that he then drops – but you don’t see him drop them, because you’re on to the next book.  The encapsulation is equally extreme for all these works – and the paper art is equally clever.  Green Eggs and Ham has a foldout-plus-tab arrangement in which Sam actually presents the unwanted dish to its uninterested recipient, who leans away from it.  Fox in Socks has split pages with multiple pop-ups.  The Sneetches gives nearly the whole story in two pages, thanks to foldouts and pop-ups and even a tab that has the money-hungry Sylvester McMonkey McBean nodding happily.  A few elements are a touch over-complicated, such as a tab that has to be moved in a circle to reveal words, and a small paper car to be dragged (very gently!) along a paper roadway – both elements of I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!  But some items here are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the multiply folded Seven Hump Wump from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.  This book is, in sum, an utter delight for Seuss lovers who are already well acquainted with the seven works from which it draws.  It is so well done that it is almost as if the good Dr. is still with us.  Sigh.

(++++) FUZZY FUN

Hamsters to the Rescue. By Ellen Stoll Walsh. Harcourt. $16.

The Great Fuzz Frenzy. By Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Harcourt. $17.

     Kids ages 3-7 are big fans of all things fuzzy, from carpet fuzz to fuzzy stuffed animals to fuzzy real animals.  There is lots of fuzzy and funny stuff in these two books, in which adorably fuzzy critters have adventures with feathers and…well…fuzz.

     The feather adventure is Hamsters to the Rescue, which features adorably fuzzy Henry and Pell racing pell-mell (or pell-henry) to help a seagull who appears to be losing the feathers he needs to fly.  The helpful hamsters find it not as easy as they thought to recover a missing feather: They catch it, then they lose it, then they find out that seagulls eat certain small creatures, then the feather gets damaged, then they come face to face (or face to beak) with the seagull, and THEN…well, the seagull certainly doesn’t want to eat Henry and Pell, and in fact makes them a gift of some additional feathers so they can play seagull games instead of being plain earthbound hamsters.  Everything works out happily – and Ellen Stoll Walsh includes a search-for-the-shells game at the end that will encourage kids to go through the book again.

     Everything turns out well in The Great Fuzz Frenzy, too, but this is a more complex book with more plot twists and a distinct moral.  The book is based loosely – very loosely – on fact: Janet Stevens’ dog once dropped a tennis ball into a prairie-dog hole.  That got Stevens and her sister, Susan Stevens Crummel, wondering how prairie dogs might react to this big round fuzzy thing in their midst…and The Great Fuzz Frenzy was born, complete with foldout pages showing the ball going deeper and deeper into the prairie dogs’ burrow.  The story unfolds as a morality tale, involving little but brave Pip Squeak, big and loud-mouthed and mean Big Bark, and lots of prairie dogs determined to decorate themselves in stylish tennis-ball fuzz.  The ball, of course, ends up fuzzless – but that’s not the end of the story, which takes a turn in a dangerous direction as Big Bark takes the fuzz from all the sleeping prairie dogs, bedecks himself with it, and as a result catches the eye of a passing eagle.  He gets away, though, and the whole colony learns a lesson, and Big Bark’s big bark is put to good use.  The eagle in a tennis-ball-fuzz wig is but one of the delightful illustrations that help bring this charming tale to enthusiastically fuzzy life.


Capsters. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $14.95.

Building Cards: How to Build Castles. By Doug Stillinger. Klutz. $12.95.

Design Your Own Charm Watch. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $21.95.

Draw Christmas Thumbprints. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $7.95.

     There’s a distinct chilly tang in the air in many areas right now, meaning it’s time to think of great indoor games for those even chillier (and, often, rainier or snowier) days and nights to come.  This makes it a great time to turn to some of the new offerings from Klutz, a company whose innovation apparently knows no bounds – and whose creativity inspires your creativity.  Take Capsters as an example.  It’s simply a bottle-cap design set that comes, as usual with Klutz products, with everything you need to create art projects.  If you use lots of bottles with old-fashioned caps, you can make tons of refrigerator magnets, belt-loop hangers, backpack decorations and other such stuff with the punch-out art and craft lacquer included with the instruction book.  If you don’t use lots of bottles with caps, don’t worry – Klutz includes 15, all of them (in a particularly nice touch) with safety-coated edges.  You can easily make Capsters showcasing a car, penguin, alien, lizard, short word, photo – just about anything that you can fit into a bottle cap.  Cool.

     Castles are cool, too, especially when built with the new Building Cards set.  These cards are unusual: there are 58 of them that break apart into 158 pieces along carefully marked perforations.  Those pieces are square, skinny, arc-shaped or rectangular.  Each piece has slots that you line up and use to push the cards together.  It’s a little like making a house of cards with stronger-than-usual cards that fit together a lot better than playing cards do.  These particular houses of cards are, of course, castles.  Interestingly, Klutz here does not give step-by-step building instructions or design templates.  Author Doug Stillinger shows how to make parts of castles, but leaves it up to you to create a design of your own.  Yes, there are pictures of some castles you can make with the cards – and even a buildable windmill – but you’ll have to figure out just how to make them by yourself.  Really neat for budding architects.

     Castles tend to attract more boys than girls, and Design Your Own Charm Watch is likely to attract more girls than boys.  It’s a…well…charming offering, nicely explained on the back cover: “This box contains 4,000,000 watches.  Your job is to pick one.”  The kit includes a cool-looking bracelet watch with interestingly wavy numbers (3, 6, 9 and 12 only); a dozen charms; more than 100 glass beads; rings and wire to attach things to the bracelet; and instructions on making a blossom watch, fashion watch, seaside watch, ribbon watch – or any watch you can think up.

     If you’re thinking of the weather getting still colder – with Christmas and other winter holidays not too far in the future – then think about drawing Christmas thumbprints with (what else?) Draw Christmas Thumbprints.  This is pure cold-weather (or any-weather) fun: you get red and green ink pads and a little black pen to use for making designs that you decorate with your inky thumbs.  Make Christmas stockings or lights, trees, ornaments, Santa, carolers and more.  The instructions are simple, and there is plenty of blank space in the book to make thumbthing special for the holidays – even gift tags sealed with a thumbprint!


Unlikely Exploits #1: The Fall of Fergal. By Philip Ardagh. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Philip Ardagh is determined to follow up his delightful Eddie Dickens Trilogy with another delightful trilogy – but, at least in this first book, he’s a little too determined.  The Fall of Fergal seems to be trying too hard to be funny, offbeat, morbid and weird, all at the same time.  Among the Eddie Dickens books, the first – A House Called Awful End – was the best, with Dreadful Acts and Terrible Times not quite at the same level.  In this new trilogy, one has to hope that Ardagh will reverse things and get better as he goes along.

     The Fall of Fergal begins with the fall of Fergal McNally from a 14th-floor window in a hotel.  Fergal is thoroughly smushed, and no, it does not turn out to be a dream or an alternative universe or an imaginary sequence or a video game.  Fergal is well and truly splatted onto the pavement, leaving Ardagh with the task of preventing the rest of the book from being an anticlimax.  He does this by flashing back to the events that led to Fergal being at the window, while occasionally flashing forward to remind us that Fergal really has been removed from the story even though you are reading about him.  It all gets a bit confusing as well as more than a bit morbid, which is fine if you like that sort of thing.

     If you do, you’ll enjoy this story of the McNally family, which is headed by a nasty one-legged father named Rufus McNally – a war hero whose personality disintegrated when he lost his leg.  Actually, the McNally children are under the care of “older older sister Jackie,” who is old enough almost to be her siblings’ mother even though she isn’t, and about whom Ardagh throws in a weird secret toward the end that he says readers should have figured out but that you really can’t unless you read the book back-to-front.

     In this story, Le Fay McNally travels to town to be in the finals of the Tap ‘n’ Type typing competition, and her siblings have to find a way to join her and root for her.  In addition to Jackie and the unfortunate Fergal, the siblings include Albie and Joshua, “almost-identical twins” who travel on a single bus ticket (the family being desperately poor) because “Jackie hoped that if they kept on the move and took it in turns to hide in the loo, the bus driver would think that they were one and the same person.”  Also featured here are a ventriloquist with a large mustache, who turns out to have an important role in the typing competition, and a hotel detective nicknamed Twinkle-Toes who does not have a major role in the competition but has a highly important part in the end-of-book climax (not to be confused with the start-of-book defenestration climax).  There is much self-reference here by Ardagh, who keeps pointing out how witty he is instead of just going and being witty as in some of his other books.  Still, The Fall of Fergal is fun in many spots (not bloodspots), and perhaps later books in the trilogy will rise a bit higher.


Pedestrian Safety Expert Gets Hit by Bus. By Huw Davies. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

A Brief History of the Smile. By Angus Trimble. Basic Books. $14.

     Books of “wild and wacky things people do” are a publishing-industry staple, practically a genre of their own.  They are reliable in three ways: there will always be material for more of them; some of the material will always be funny, or at least wry; and some of the material will be unfunny, if not outright tasteless.  Huw Davies has produced a series of books of this type, the latest of which bears the wholly appropriate subtitle, “Another Weird Year of Bizarre News Stories from Around the World.”  Weird and bizarre these snippets certainly are.  There is one about a man who tried to beat his dog to death with a shotgun.  The dog fought back, the shotgun went off, the man was fatally wounded by both gun and dog, and the animal survived.  Not your cup of tea?  How about the story of 15 Ugandan prisoners who escaped by repeatedly urinating on the same spot of a wall, weakening it enough so they could dig through it with spoons?  Or you can read about the exploding salad dressing: a bottle that was past its sell-by date fermented, producing gases that built up to such an extent that the bottle blew up, blowing the door off the refrigerator.  Or, still on the topic of food, find out about the Wisconsin man who eats nothing but Big Macs – he has consumed more than 19,000.  Then there’s the new business suit, with powdered charcoal and jade sewn into the crotch and armpits, designed to protect the wearer from electromagnetic radiation.  And the story of the Indiana woman who was browsing the wedding notices when she saw her husband’s name – he had just committed bigamy.  You get the idea: a decidedly mixed bag of this and that from here and there, intermittently smile- and groan-inducing.

     If you’d like to know a bit more about why we smile at something funny, read Angus Trimble’s A Brief History of the Smile.  It won’t make you laugh – it is a serious work, even a touch too scholarly at times.  But it will make you think about the meanings of smiles in various cultures and contexts.  Human smiling starts in infancy, but its meaning develops over time and changes according to where we live, whether we are in public or private, and what we are trying to communicate.  Smiling, Trimble argues, is its own form of communication, with its own rules and quirks.  Trimble discusses everything from the smile as enticement to its sinister aspects as a lewd grin or leer.  His analysis is based partly on biology and partly on history and art, and it is often quite intriguing: the Mona Lisa’s smile, Trimble suggests, is fascinating because it combines beauty and decorum.  Trimble also discusses the difference between smiling and laughter, the latter being “an entirely different proposition…long thought to have beneficial or therapeutic effects as a kind of valve to release nervous tension.”  Trimble’s writing may not make you smile, but it will help you understand why you do.

October 06, 2005


Leaf Man. By Lois Ehlert. Harcourt. $16.

Jackalope. By Janet Stevens & Susan Stevens Crummel. Illustrated by Janet Stevens. Harcourt. $17.

     When summer ends and leaves turn, that is the season of the Leaf Man, a wholly endearing character who is seen blowing in the wind in Lois Ehlert’s latest charming book.  This is a wonderful cool-weather treat for the whole family – though intended for ages 4-8, it is actually a bit too delicate for little fingers, since the gorgeous die-cut pages are all different sizes (this is part of the book’s considerable charm) and their edges must be found and turned with some care.  The story is slight and utterly wonderful: Ehlert tells of finding a Leaf Man shaped from some of the leaves in a pile, but the wind blows him away, because – as her recurring refrain tells us – “a Leaf Man’s got to go where the wind blows.”  The fanciful Leaf Man shape, created by Ehlert from multicolored fall leaves with a couple of acorns and other bits of trees here and there, blows through the book, the leaves assuming other shapes of objects past which you can imagine Leaf Man blowing: a turkey, potatoes, a turtle, fish, butterflies and many more.  Ehlert, whose art is always marvelous, created it here from color copies of leaves she picked up around the United States.  The book’s inside covers show some of the leaves and identify the trees they came from, while the story pages show some of the many shapes leaves can assume as the wind whisks them hither and yon.  The result is a delightful odyssey and a great imagination booster.

     Jackalope is imagination of another sort.  Kids of all ages – that includes grown-ups – will laugh out loud at this absurd story of how the mythical jackalope of the American West “really” came to be.  A cowboy-booted armadillo sittin’ in a chair, wearin’ a 10-gallon hat, tells the tale in a mixture of rhyme and prose, and a delightful tale it is.  There’s this jackrabbit who’s unhappy ’cause he’s not scary enough, see, and he knows he’s not scary ‘cause he’s got a magic mirror tellin’ him so, but he’s also got a punnin’ fairy godrabbit who talks vegetable-like (“lettuce see,” “you butternut come any closer”) – and she checks her “first-time-in-paperback, step-by-step copy of Wishes for Wabbits,” and the next thing you know the jackrabbit’s got horns and lives happily ever after….NOT!  Nope, those horns cause a whole mess o’ trouble, and they’ve got a kind of Pinocchio thing ’sociated with ’em, and there’s this hungry coyote who thinks the horns make for a right good “jackrabbit kabob,” and the story gets more and more complicated and more and more outrageous ’til – but that would be tellin’.  No use doin’ that – you just gotta get this one and find out for yourself.  It’s sure-enough, down-home absurdity of the finest quality.


Vampire Plagues: London, 1850…Paris, 1850…Mexico, 1850. By Sebastian Rook. Scholastic. $5.99 each.

     For exciting escapist adventure, untainted by the slightest touch of profundity, kids ages 9-12 should flock to Sebastian Rook’s Vampire Plagues trilogy.  It has thrills aplenty, just enough gore to stand up well in a videogame world, and fast, cinematic pacing.  There are none of the profound implications of the encroachment of modern civilization upon ancient mysteries, leading to an ultimate battle between the world of the future and that of the past, that make Bram Stoker’s Dracula a great novel.  Instead, Rook’s trilogy features a trio of plucky young heroes designed to mirror the hoped-for readership: two boys and one girl, with one boy and the girl being well-to-do brother and sister and the other boy being a poverty-stricken wharf rat with plenty of “street smarts.”  The characters are more vehicles through which the reader  participates in the action than fully formed individuals – but in this case, the approach works very well, precisely because Rook pares the good-vs.-evil theme down to its basics and effectively uses the heroic trio (with periodic adult help) as the vessels of all that is right.

     The vessel of all that is wrong is a vampire called Camazotz, imprisoned for a millennium in a cave in Mexico that is disastrously disturbed in the London volume by an expedition led by Harrison Cole.  Cole’s son, Ben, is along on the expedition and becomes its sole survivor, eventually returning to London after a series of harrowing adventures and setting out to find his sister, Emily, who is one year older.  The street urchin, Jack, helps Ben at the London docks and eventually becomes an equal partner in vampire-hunting.  Camazotz is more a bogeyman of the “creature under the bed” variety than the force of elemental evil that is Stoker’s Dracula.  But the vampire hunt, which is very well paced, has numerous exciting moments, leading eventually to a potent spell-casting that should send Camazotz to Hell.  But the spell does not quite work, opening the way for volumes two and three.

     Paris starts with Jack dreaming of being estranged from Ben and Emily and trapped by a resurgent vampire horde, continues with news of a plague of death and bloodlessness in Paris akin to the one the vampire fighters thought they had overcome in London, and proceeds with a trip to Paris and the assistance of a new vampire fighter, Dominique.  The focus here, more than in the first book, is on a broken amulet that will grant Camazotz even more power if the pieces can be found and joined.  The amulet then becomes the primary focus in Mexico, which takes Ben back where the story began in a search for the final section of amulet – with Camazotz and his minions close behind.  “We are locked in a terrible battle here with an inhuman enemy….If we lose, our men are dead – or worse!” exclaims one character.  Well, yes – the dialogue isn’t much, but somehow this trilogy is better as a totality than its component parts would indicate.  It is a great deal of fun to read and is often genuinely exciting – perfect for whiling away the hours in a place of warmth, where all the chills are mental.


First in Thirst: How Gatorade Turned the Science of Sweat into a Cultural Phenomenon. By Darren Rovell. AMACOM. $21.95.

     This is not only a well-researched and entertainingly written history of one of the most recognizable brands in the United States, but also a case history that can help marketers and brand managers focus on techniques that can bring them at least a modicum of Gatorade’s success – though probably not its 80% market share.

     Darren Rovell, sports business reporter for ESPN.com, has spent years studying Gatorade and has gained remarkable access to the people who made and still make it a success.  That success dates back to a foul-tasting, salty liquid created in 1965 for the University of Florida’s football team, the Gators.  Developed by Robert Cade, an associate professor of medicine specializing in kidney disease, with the help of three research fellows, the original drink was a sodium-and-potassium-enhanced formula designed to move quickly through the body and replace fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat.  It didn’t taste good, but it helped the college athletes maintain stamina and body weight during games.

     Rovell takes the story from its origin through numerous highs, a few lows, and a fair number of byways.  He explains how a company known for pork and beans improved Gatorade’s flavor…how the famous Gatorade bath started with an act of revenge against New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells…how the Disney movie The Jungle Book inspired the “Be Like Mike” jingle that brought Gatorade unprecedented attention and popularity…how Gatorade fought off challenges from Pepsi’s AllSport and Coca-Cola’s POWERade…and much more.  The book tends toward hagiography – perhaps one reason Rovell got such extensive access to Gatorade sources – but does not ignore the brand’s marketing missteps, such as Gatorade Light and the misguided brand extensions of Gatorgum and Gator Bars.

     Marketers and brand managers would do well to focus on the nine “Gatorade Rules” that Rovell extracts from this story: Be sure you have a unique product or service, and know why it is unique; keep researching the market; identify what drives your business, and focus on it; keep working to get new consumers; focus on packaging; learn from mistakes; connect passion to the brand; stay disciplined to avoid devaluing the brand; form smart strategic alliances.  The specific ways Gatorade implemented these rules are unique – for  instance, it was able to identify team trainers as the pros who influence top athletes because of Olympic javelin champion Bill Schmidt, who took over Gatorade sports marketing in 1983.  But the basic principles are sound, as is a tenth one: be lucky.  Gatorade as a brand has passed through several owners, from Stokely-Van Camp to Quaker Oats to PepsiCo, without ever losing its niche, its marketplace strength or the commitment of marketers and executives to make it even better.  The lesson is that great planning and execution, in marketing as in sports, is a necessity for victory.  But so is at least a smidgen of luck.


The Last Giant of Beringia: The Mystery of the Bering Land Bridge. By Dan O’Neill. Basic Books. $15.

Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution. By Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman. Westview Press. $29.95.

     The great “devil creature” sitting in the mud of a stream on the Berezovka River in eastern Siberia in 1900 was one piece of evidence.  The knobby protuberance from which Siberian gold miners hung their lantern in the 1970s was another.  The plant debris in the Devil Mountain Lakes in North America’s far north was another.  From these and countless other clues, with painstaking work that extended over decades, geologist Dave Hopkins pieced together the story of the land bridge called Beringia that once joined Siberia and Alaska.  Arguments for the bridge date back 400 years, but it was only in the late 20th century that Hopkins assembled enough hard data to convince the scientific world in general that the bridge had really existed, and had been a conduit for woolly mammoths, saber-tooth cats and other extinct Ice Age predators and prey.  Dan O’Neill’s book is as much biography as science – Hopkins himself was the last giant of Beringia, according to a comment made at Hopkins’ funeral in 2001 that O’Neill adopts as his book’s title.  It is certainly true that without Hopkins’ endlessly inquiring mind and apparently endless perseverance, the mystery of Beringia might still not be solved to general scientific satisfaction.  But it is also true that the book sometimes veers unsteadily between its scientific and biographical interests.  A chapter on an archeologist in whose footsteps Hopkins followed is an example: “For the next three weeks, [Louis] Giddings located and excavated archeological sites on the upper Kobuk, then bought a canvas-covered kayak from a Native man and worked his way another one hundred sixty miles downriver to the Eskimo village of Kiana, where he caught a boat to Kotzebue and a plane to Fairbanks.”  Historical detail of this kind shows impressive research skills but tends to leave the focus-seeking reader meandering, if not floundering.  O’Neill never quite knits together his tales of Hopkins the dogged researcher and Hopkins the real and vulnerable human being.

     Man the Hunted – the title deliberately recalls the common phrase, “man the hunter” – studies the past in a different way.  Wildlife-conservation expert Donna Hart and anthropologist Robert W. Sussman look at the supposed history of humans as hunters with a jaundiced eye, concluding that until very recently, humans were far more likely to be prey than predators.  Having studied modern primate predation – leopards, for example, are typically primate hunters – and examined the fossil record, Hart and Sussman argue that human ancestors were frequently eaten by big cats and dogs, giant hyenas, reptiles such as snakes and crocodiles, and even birds.  The authors’ view, which is by no means universally accepted, is that such adaptations as speech and larger brains were a response to regular predation of humans by other creatures – and that the cohesiveness of human social groups was a defense against such predation.  Man the Hunted is very well written – the chapter on giant snakes as possible human predators even today is particularly good – and the evidence, while not conclusive, is certainly highly suggestive.  The book is both a good read and a thought-provoking one.


Eldest: Inheritance, Book Two.  By Christopher Paolini. Knopf. $21.

     Christopher Paolini burst onto the publishing scene two years ago with a well-orchestrated publicity campaign focusing on the fact that he started writing his first novel, Eragon, at the age of 15.  The question for readers of Eragon was whether their enjoyment would focus on the author’s precocity or on the story itself.  The book was a considerable achievement for a young writer, but not a considerable novel in its own right.  Highly derivative of J.R.R. Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey and other fantasy novelists – and of George Lucas’ original Star Wars films of the late 1970s and early 1980s – Eragon told of a young man, the eponymous hero, who might be the sole heir to the vanished Dragon Riders, heroes who were betrayed by one of their own and then destroyed.  The betrayer of the Jedi…err, Dragon Riders then assumed the mantle of kingship and began systematically terrorizing everyone and everything.

     This is a very formulaic plot; and despite some deft touches, perhaps born of naiveté, Eragon never rose much above ordinariness in its nearly 550 pages.  And so we come to Eldest, longer by more than 100 pages and denoted as the second book of the Inheritance trilogy, written by an author now in his early 20s.  Yet Eldest remains as derivative as its predecessor.

     To be fair, virtually all modern Western fantasy has its roots in Tolkien, and much is rooted in McCaffrey as well.  The few fantasists who have gone entirely in their own directions – Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett come immediately to mind – have vision, scope and style far beyond those of other writers.  It is unfair to expect Paolini to operate anywhere near this level.  Nevertheless, Eldest remains so resolutely derivative that it will likely appeal only to preteen and early-teen readers, or ones for whom any flight of fancy will do.  Take the odd admixture of place names, for example: Ellesméra, Nädindel and the Beor Mountains, right out of Middle-Earth, are mixed with Bullridge and The Spine.  And then there is Alagaёsia, which sounds a bit too much like analgesia.  The writing is of this sort: “She understood her maid’s reluctance; she too felt uncomfortable whenever she had to interact with magic users….It scared her to consider magicians’ and sorcerers’ powers.  The thought that a seemingly ordinary person could kill with a word; invade your mind if he or she wishes; cheat, lie and steal without being caught; and otherwise defy society with near impunity…”  Fantasy readers have experienced all this before.

     Despite all this, there is a certain amount of real power in Paolini’s imagination, perhaps not yet fully formed but clearly there.  The plot here has Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, travel to the land of elves for training in magic and sword fighting, followed everywhere by uncertainty and out-and-out treachery…while an additional threat arises at Eragon’s home of Carvahall, where his cousin, Roran, must face it.  There are enough threads, characters and events of interest in Eldest to keep the book moving – though it is, in truth, longer than it needs to be.  Paolini seems still to be absorbing the plot and style details of the fantasy tales he has read for years; he has not yet made fantasy writing truly his own.  But he has the skill to do so.  The final book of the Inheritance trilogy, when it comes, is likely to be the strongest, and Paolini’s later writing is likely to be stronger still.