November 26, 2005


Stephen Albert: Tapioca. Lalo: Symphonie Espagnole. Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1. Baibe Skride, violin; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Graf. Performance at Strathmore Music Center, North Bethesda, Maryland, November 25, 2005.

Starting with a paean to pudding and ending in a winter wonderland, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Hans Graf gave the audience for its latest Classical Thursdays performance plenty to be thankful for – including the fact that the concert was held on Friday so it would not interfere with the holiday.

Graf set a tone for the evening – serious music that isn’t too serious – with Tapioca by Stephen Albert (1941-1992). Created for the BSO’s 75th anniversary in 1991, this two-minute work is based on a tune once used for the orchestra’s public-radio broadcasts. It is all fluff and nonsense, sounding a bit like the opening to a Broadway show – a trifle with less substance than its namesake.

Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole is more familiar territory, but not in the way played here: by a 24-year-old, Stradivarius-wielding violinist in a bright red, spaghetti-strap evening gown. Baibe Skride is someone to watch as well as hear: she moves with the music, exchanges wry glances with conductor and concertmaster, and all the while fingers her 1725 violin (on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation) with consummate skill. The combination of instrument and performer is well-nigh irresistible.

Skride has a very even tone with substantial carrying power. Graf held the orchestra back (sometimes a bit too deferentially) to let her stay in the forefront. The first movement highlighted sweetness in the violin and the always impressive brass of the orchestra. The second was also sweet, but without being cloying, and Skride’s articulation was excellent. The third highlighted the violin’s very rich lower register and made it clear that this is music more flashy than profound. The fourth had a strong opening in brass and low strings, but then went a bit out of control and was emotionally unconvincing. Things were back on track in the finale, which had rhythmic vitality to spare and a wonderful sense of playfulness. Skride is an artist who relates as well to the audience as to the other musicians on stage: she has star power as well as musical power.

The evening concluded with Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard Symphony No. 1. This composer’s first three symphonies were so neglected for so long that it seemed as if he had written only three such works, which he had capriciously labeled No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6. The neglect is doubly surprising because the first three symphonies all have nicknames – usually a ticket to concert success. These days, No. 2 (“Little Russian”) gets occasional performances, but No. 3 (“Polish”) and No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”) rarely do.

This is a real shame, because so much of the music in these works is marvelous. Symphony No. 1 was written in 1866, when Tchaikovsky was 26, but not worked into the form in which we now hear it until 1874. It has elements of stylistic maturity and immaturity in nearly equal measure – but the measure is irrelevant except to scholars. This is a work that simply sounds splendid, and Graf and the BSO handled it very well indeed. The opening of the first movement was positively magical, and the movement itself propulsive (though a bit brass-heavy). The slow second movement – taken very slowly indeed – started as a showcase for the BSO strings, then became one for oboe and flute, intertwining to produce some of the work’s loveliest moments. This movement contains a horn entrance that can easily sound crude, but Graf and the BSO made it work.

The third movement featured a strongly rhythmic scherzo and a particularly lovely waltz-form trio – another of this symphony’s highlights. The finale began in appropriately lugubrious mode, after which Graf made the Allegro moderato more of an Allegro vivace and turned most of the movement into an out-and-out celebration. The BSO’s violas played especially well here. This G Minor symphony ends with one of the strongest affirmations of G Major to be found anywhere – a kind of tub-thumping insistence on the key that is right on the line of bombast, and sometimes over it. Graf and the orchestra went all-out for this coda, bringing the audience an altogether bracing experience – definitely a performance for which to be thankful.

November 24, 2005


Wall and pocket calendars: Dilbert—Now If You’ll Excuse Me, I Feel a Nap Coming On; Anne Geddes Collectors Edition Mini; “Purse”onalized. Andrews McMeel. $13.99 (Dilbert); $7.99 each (Geddes; “Purse”onalized).

Desk/engagement calendar: Mary Engelbreit’s The Art of Friendship.  Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Day-to-day calendars: Family First; Chocolate Mini.  Andrews McMeel. $11.99 (Family); $7.99 (Chocolate).

     If you haven’t gotten calendars for 2006 yet, it’s high time to do so – not only for yourself but also as gifts (a calendar is one thing you know the recipient will be able to use!).  Because people have so many different tastes and interests, Andrews McMeel has taken to making its pop-culture calendars in a wide variety of shapes and sizes – so you really can find something for just about anyone.

     Take wall calendars as an example.  The days when they were dull and similar are long gone.  What cubicle dweller would not appreciate the latest 12-month full-color rendition of the antics of Dilbert, Dogbert, Catbert, Wally, Alice, the Pointy-Haired Boss and other denizens of Dilworld (resemblance to Earth not coincidental)?  Each month features six panels of corporate misadventures, a large blowup of one particular panel, and a full-color character at the bottom – plus date boxes with plenty of writing room.  If your cubicle isn’t big enough for this calendar, you could get the smaller Dilbert version – or try something entirely different, such as the latest Anne Geddes mini wall calendar.  This one is totally non-corporate, featuring Geddes’ trademark photos of perfect tiny babies curled up in flowers, sleeping atop mushrooms or looking like little angels (as all babies do when they sleep).  For a still smaller size, plus portability, try a pocket-or-purse calendar, such as the clever one called “Purse”onalized: it has a slot on the front into which you can place your own photo or one of the included personalizations – 26 letters and the 12 symbols of the zodiac.  The calendar’s purple color is a real standout, too.

     If you prefer a book-style calendar that stays on your desk – a non-electronic way to keep track of daily appointments and phone calls – you have plenty of choices here as well.  The Mary Engelbreit calendars are favorites year after year, and this year’s “The Art of Friendship” should continue the trend.  Here, Engelbreit’s usual sentimental drawings of girl and boy pals are combined on prettily colored pages with quotations about friendship (“A friend can tell you things you don’t want to tell yourself”); a space to write a “to do” list; and a week’s worth of dates on each right-hand page – with enough room to jot down a few appointments, phone calls and the like.  Engelbreit fans will enjoy it all year.

     If you are looking for a calendar gift and unsure what format a recipient wants, day-to-day calendars are a good choice – especially if you know the person’s special interests.  Family First, for example, showcases daily recommendations by Dr. Phil McGraw and is named for his most recent book.  “Reinforce your family’s values,” Dr. Phil says; and “Positive experiences lift children up to help them see all kinds of possibilities for themselves.”  If your family, or a friend’s, is strengthened through thoughts like these, you’ll find a year of them here.  But if you’re really not sure what to get, there’s always chocolate.  It’s hard to go wrong with a miniature, chocolate-colored daily calendar packed with facts and quotations about almost everyone’s favorite indulgence: “There’s nothing better than a good friend, except a good friend with chocolate.”  Warning: don’t eat the calendar pages…however tempting they look.  Here’s to a sweet 2006!


Thelonius Turkey Lives! (on Felicia Ferguson’s Farm). By Lynn Rowe Reed. Knopf. $15.95.

Three Hungry Pigs and the Wolf Who Came to Dinner. By Charles Santore. Random House. $16.95.

     It’s prime turkey time from now to the end of the year, which is good news for people and not such good news for turkeys – unless you are a highly inventive turkey named Thelonius.  Lynn Rowe Reed’s hilarious turkey tale is about Thelonius’ determination not to become dinner, and the increasingly bizarre pranks he plays on farmer Felicia in an attempt to keep away from the chopping block.  He paints a “pinch me” sign and hangs it on Felicia’s back, and since all the geese on this farm know how to read, they make the farmer’s life miserable.  Thelonius puts the pigs in Felicia’s bed and gets the chickens to lay hard-boiled eggs.  All his running around has him dropping feathers all over the place – and it is those feathers that turn out to help Thelonius become a “fashion phenom” and get to live happily ever after.  Reed’s illustrations are unusual and quite wonderful, being a mixture of drawings, collages and photos.  And she thoughtfully provides two very nice recipes at the end of the book, neither of them calling for turkey: one is for “feather cookies” and the other for a sweet-potato casserole with marshmallows.  The result is a sweet ending for a sweetly silly book.

     The pigs at Felicia’s farm are bit players in Reed’s story, but pigs are the stars of Charles Santore’s Three Hungry Pigs and the Wolf Who Came to Dinner.  A truffle-finding pig named Bianca and her two piglets help a farmer find the rare, expensive fungi – until Bianca decides it is more fun to eat truffles than to hunt for them.  The farmer throws them out when he discovers that they are eating his livelihood, and the pigs find themselves deep in the forest, amid scary sounds and the even scarier sight of a huge wolf.  Bianca has never met a wolf before, but realizes he is unlikely to want to be friendly – so she picks up a truffle and pops it into his mouth.  The wolf likes it so much that he and Bianca become partners in truffle hunting – until a pack of wolves smells the three pigs and closes in for a meal.  What happens then is a study in unlikely friendship and an equally unlikely happy ending – but this is, after all, a fairy tale, invented by Santore and illustrated by him with gorgeously realistic precision that makes all the animal characters come alive.  It’s a feast for the eye – though truffles are not included.


In My World. By Lois Ehlert. Voyager Books/Harcourt. $7.

King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub. By Audrey Wood. Illustrated by Don Wood. Harcourt. $17.95.

     All Lois Ehlert’s worlds are wonderful and filled with wonder.  In My World starts with a remarkable cutout cover that seems to put the whole world in the reader’s hand, then continues with page after page of cutout shapes accompanied by no more than a word or two.  Ehlert introduces the shapes by saying, “My world is made of things I like.”  A cutout of an insect says “creeping” on one side of the page and “bugs” when you turn to the other side.  Other cutouts are described as “wiggling…worms,” “singing…birds,” and so on.  It is the layering of these designs and their colors that produces the appearance of a whole world when you close the book and look again at the cover.  The effect is splendid.  Some individual cutouts are exceptionally clever, such as one that says “splashing rain” on one side of the page and “glittering stars” when you turn to the other side, and one of the “glowing moon” that also shows stars.  Ehlert is an expert at producing complexity through the layering on of simplicity.  By the end of this book, when she returns to narrative form to urge readers to touch, hear, taste, look at and pick up the real-world versions of her cutouts and to love them all, there is nothing a sensitive reader would rather do.

     Ehlert’s world is the real world seen differently.  Audrey and Don Wood’s world of King Bidgood is a different world seen exceptionally realistically, thanks to Don Wood’s meticulously detailed drawings.  Audrey Wood’s story is a delightful bit of absurdity.  The Page who attends King Bidgood in his bath announces that the king refuses to come out of the water.  A succession of nobles tries to persuade him to leave, but each of them merely ends up in the tub with the king.  The Knight tells the king it is time to battle, but the king insists on a battle in the tub, complete with beautifully rendered toy ships and medieval fighters.  The Queen says it is time for lunch, but the king insists on having an exceptionally sumptuous meal in the water.  The Duke says it is time to go fishing, but the king insists on fishing in the tub, and the Page ends up burdened under a huge mound of flopping fish.  In the end, it is left to the Page himself to figure out what to do – and he comes up with a very neat solution indeed.  This edition of King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub comes with a wonderful bonus: a CD of six original songs that tell parts of the story to music.  Now the tale is great fun to read, to look at, and to hear – a veritable multimedia extravaganza.


The Girl with the Broken Wing. By Heather Dyer. Illustrated by Peter Bailey. Chicken House/Scholastic. $15.99

Rebel Angels. By Libba Bray. Delacorte Press. $16.95.

     Angels have come a long way since the days when they were God’s helpers – and the brightest of them all, Lucifer, whose very name means “bringer of light,” rebelled against God and was thrown from Heaven and renamed Satan.  Today’s angels – the literary ones, anyway – are more likely to be earthbound and less likely to be either wholly pure or in total rebellion.  They are, in fact, filled with human traits – though their frequent association with Christmas, which emerges in both these books, shows them retaining a hint of their medieval origin.

     The Girl with the Broken Wing is a short and gentle book about a winged girl named Hilary who crash-lands one night at the home of twins Amanda and James, with whom she then has a series of adventures.  Hilary can only read pictures, not writing, and her feet are dirty (a charming detail), and she tends to snore, and one of her wings is broken because of her crash-landing.  But she is thoroughly charming, and she enjoys being with the twins in school, and after her wing heals she can take them on rides through the air, and she eventually participates in a rescue or two.  The latter part of the book changes tone with the arrival of “icky Vicky,” the twins’ troublemaking cousin, but even the problems Vicky causes are eventually solved pleasantly enough – just in time for Christmas, which turns out to have a super-special meaning for Hilary, who finally departs with a promise to return in the future.  Peter Bailey’s illustrations are lovely in an old-fashioned way, especially the one of Hilary standing at the Christmas tree.  The story has old-fashioned charm, too, but is likely to be a touch too sweet-natured and a little too pat for many young readers’ tastes.

     Rebel Angels is a much longer book and a much less gentle one.  It is a 500-plus-page sequel to Libba Bray’s first novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty, which was a bestseller in 2003.  Rebel Angels will likely satisfy fans of the earlier book, but does not make much of a story on its own.  Gemma Doyle and her friends, Felicity and Anna, are still at Spence Academy in the new book; Christmas is approaching – that angelic connection again! – and the girls’ thoughts are of fancy balls and future husbands.  But that is in London.  Gemma is even more focused on the magical Realms, where the girls’ friend Pippa lives, and where Gemma senses trouble and danger.  There is danger in London, too, and it appears to have magical origin; and Gemma comes to realize that she will eventually have to find and confront Circe, once Gemma’s mother’s greatest friend but later responsible for her death.  The plot is complex and multifaceted, its 19th-century realistic-world and magical elements expertly interwoven.  The story is not, however, highly original, combining the usual “go on a quest” and “avenge a parent” themes so common in magical fantasy.  The ending portends further adventures to come, which will likely solidify Bray’s fan base if not necessarily add to it.


Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way—A Biography. By Peter Levinson. Da Capo. $27.50.

     This is a thorough, carefully researched biography of a man virtually unknown to many people today, though he was a musical giant in his time and something of an icon to people of a certain age – including those, such as Peter Levinson, who chronicle Dorsey’s time.  This is Levinson’s third book about important figures in the Big Band era, after Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James and September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle.  The names of James, Riddle and Dorsey will be instantly familiar to those who, like Levinson, attended college in the early 1950s (Levinson started at the University of Virginia in 1952).  Those who are not in or close to their 60s and 70s will probably have little interest in this book, but those who remember Dorsey’s music with fondness will likely cherish it.

     Dorsey himself was far harder to cherish.  The jazz-trombone style of Dorsey (1905-1956) sustained many soldiers through World War II after they had danced to his music in the years leading up to war.  Dorsey was a famous perfectionist, a highly demanding band leader, an alcoholic – or at least a heavy drinker – and an inveterate pursuer of women.  Levinson traces Dorsey’s self-destructive lifestyle, which helped bring on his early death by suffocation, back to his childhood in the coal-mining towns of eastern Pennsylvania.  If “life on the Dorsey band bus was always freewheeling and full of humorous moments,” as Levinson says, Dorsey’s own emotional life was more seriously troubled.  A man with a volcanic temper, he split up with his one-year-older brother Jimmy despite the fact that the brothers’ band was one of the most popular of their era.  After starting his own band, Tommy Dorsey launched the career of a young singer named Frank Sinatra – a bit of history for which he is remembered even by people who may not recall Dorsey’s own music.  The complex Dorsey-Sinatra relationship – Sinatra idolized Dorsey but hated him at the same time – is well explored here.

     Levinson’s thorough biography is stronger in its exploration of Dorsey the man than of Dorsey the musician.  This is the first Dorsey biography in three decades, and Levinson clearly wants it to be exhaustive as well as revelatory.  It is more the former than the latter, perhaps because tales of self-destructive celebrities with troubled upbringings are now so common as to seem ordinary.  Tommy Dorsey was not ordinary: whatever his failings as a man, he had a highly personal and highly effective musical style that, Levinson argues with feeling, was not only unmatched in his own time but also remains so in the present.  Fans of Dorsey and the era he represents will find the ins and outs of the man, his career and his music fascinating.  But Levinson’s book will be of little or no interest to people who are not already fans of Dorsey’s music and the times in which he made it.  This biography is, in the final analysis, a period piece.


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 17 (“Tempest”), 21 (“Waldstein”) and 23 (“Appassionata”). Fazil Say, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

     Turkish pianist/composer Fazil Say has superb technique when his ego doesn’t get in the way.  He gives these Beethoven sonatas capital-R Romantic performances, with big sound and frequent rubato.  These are not readings necessarily appropriate to the period in which the sonatas were written, but they are almost always emotionally convincing.

     The C Minor “Tempest,” op. 31, no. 2, gets an emotional opening movement in which the slow sections are almost Chopinesque.  The second movement is pleasant enough, but curiously uninvolving.  The third is bright, with all lines in both hands clear: Say here combines a delicate touch with plenty of power when needed.

     Say gives the C Major “Waldstein,” op. 53, a fast, dramatic, well-articulated opening movement with extreme delicacy of touch.  Abetted by Naïve’s excellent sound, Say does a superb job here and in all these sonatas of making every note audible, even in the fastest runs.  This sonata’s brief second movement comes across as a gentle, quiet interlude.  The finale is a trifle brusque at first, then becomes steadily more involving despite a little too much rubato.  The coda is speedy, delicate, and quite impressively played.

     Sonata No. 23 in F Minor got the name “Appassionata” not from Beethoven but from a publisher who issued an edition 11 years after the composer’s death.  Nevertheless, the name fits this work exceptionally well, and Say’s style does, too: this is the best performance on the CD.  Say presents a highly dramatic opening to the first movement, then plays as if every note in every run is crucial to the emotional impact of the work.  The coda is exceptional, subsiding into quiet, then exploding with great bursts of sound before dying away.  The second movement then begins very softly, its gentle rhythms building inexorably to the start of the finale, which is taken at a very fast pace and played as high drama.  Say balances the notes in the left and right hands as if he were playing Liszt – a most effective approach, if not one entirely faithful to Beethoven’s style.  The slowdown near the end of the movement comes across as a sigh, as if there is nowhere else to go – but then comes the wonderful concluding burst of forward motion.  This could have been a great coda had Say not overdone the rubato in the two repeated chords that are designed to emphasize the drama of the ending, not interfere with it.

     These readings will not be to everyone’s taste, but they are fresh and memorable, representing an unusual and mostly successful approach to the music.  Naïve’s packaging is, as usual, some of the most attractive in the industry – a nice bonus.  But Richard Millet’s booklet essay, “A Music Beyond All Sentimentality,” is one of the silliest pieces of artsy, self-important, pseudo-academic excess attached to a classical recording in years – a sure turnoff for people not already in love with these marvelous sonatas.

November 17, 2005


Boxed Panoramic Notecards: M.C. Escher—Metamorphosis; Frank Lloyd Wright—Avery Coonley Playhouse Windows. Pomegranate. $15.95 each.

Boxed Holiday Cards: Frank Lloyd Wright—Avery Coonley Playhouse Windows. Pomegranate. $15.

Classical Music: An Illustrated Journal. Pomegranate. $16.95.

     The winter holidays are fast approaching, and with them comes the annual epidemic of gift-itis: What to give to whom?  Where to get it?  How to find something reasonably priced but not tacky?  Is there anything reasonably priced but not tacky?  And so on.

     If you tend to catch gift-itis, you should know that there is a one-word cure for its symptoms: Pomegranate.  This is a company dedicated to producing art for mass consumption – and if that sounds like an inevitable contradiction in terms, you haven’t seen Pomegranate’s product line.  The company licenses images from some of the great artists, museums and other art spots of the world, then puts them together in consistently high-quality packaging, in forms that are perfect for gift-giving or for you to use yourself.  Pomegranate’s offerings cover a wide variety of items, some of them quite unusual.  Boxed notecards, for example, are scarcely a new gift idea – though it must be said that Pomegranate’s many ones are unusually well made.  But what about panoramic boxed notecards?  These are cards measuring just under four inches by just over nine inches, packed 16 to a box (four each of four designs), and featuring art that fits the long-and-thin format exceptionally well.  Two especially attractive card sets are based on works by M.C. Escher and Frank Lloyd Wright.  The Escher set contains four details from his Metamorphosis II (1940), each a fascinating study in transformation.  In one, a city’s buildings and streets become steadily more stylized until they turn into chess pieces on a chessboard.  In another, geometric shapes increasingly approximate perfect hexagons; then the hexagons start to look like chambers of a beehive, and dots in them start to look like bee larvae; finally, adults insects emerge from the hive.  Descriptions never do Escher justice, though: his works, which combine surrealism with science, have to be seen to be believed (and even when seen will trick your eyes).  The panoramic format fits these examples extremely well.

     It fits Frank Lloyd Wright’s window designs for the Avery Coonley Playhouse very well, too.  Wright’s highly recognizable works use geometric shapes quite differently from the way Escher’s works do.  For the Coonley playhouse in Riverside, Illinois, Wright worked from 1911 to 1912 creating both vertical and horizontal patterns with a subtle-yet-clear patriotic theme.  The dominant color of the gorgeous Wright panoramic cards is white, but there is plenty of red and blue as well – plus green and orange and black.  There are two vertical designs and two horizontals in Pomegranate’s gift box, making it easy for a recipient to express himself or herself either up and down or side to side.

     The colorful Wright designs also work exceptionally well as holiday cards.  Pomegranate offers boxes of individual Coonley window details or – an especially nice touch – an assortment of 20 cards, five each of four designs (two vertical and two horizontal).  Thanks to the stylized American flag in three of the designs, these well-made cards can be an excellent way to communicate a sense of patriotism in the midst of holiday happiness and traditions.  This makes the holiday box either a wonderful gift or a great item to buy and use yourself.

     This is not to say that all special Pomegranate gift items are cards – or even that most of them are.  The company’s product variety is very wide.  For example, if you need a gift for someone who simply doesn’t write many notes by hand, you might consider a journal.  Pomegranate’s journals do not have cute licensed characters or trendy covers – they use the company’s typical high production quality and artistically interesting designs.  There are many choices here, including some for people for whom it can be very hard to buy gifts.  What does one get for a classical musician, for instance?  Pomegranate’s answer is a journal sprinkled with fascinating illustrations from the Library of Congress, with a handsome violin and bow on the cover, and containing brief quotations by musicians or about music on a number of its pages.  One example, from Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály: “The laws of morals and the laws of art are the same.”  Think about it – and think about how rare it is to find holiday gifts that make you think, as these and other Pomegranate products consistently do.


Shadow Games. By the editors of Klutz. Chicken Socks/Klutz.  $9.95.

Room Lanterns. By Anne Akers Johnson and Kate Paddock. Klutz. $19.95.

Utterly Elegant Tea Parties. By Julie Collings. Chicken Socks/Klutz. $12.95.

Quilting: Design and Make Your Own Patchwork Quilts. By Barbara Kane. Klutz. $21.95.

     Intentionally or not, those strange-but-wonderful creative types at Klutz have recently developed some products that seem to come in little-kid and big-kid versions – perfect for a younger and older sibling (or maybe parents will buy one when a child is young and remember to pick up the other a few years later).

     In-room play for younger children, for example, is what Shadow Games is all about.  Klutz gets extra credit for including a flashlight with batteries.  The Chicken Socks line offers smaller, less expensive, spiral-bound Klutz books that are just as well and cleverly made as the company’s traditional line.  Shadow Games does two basic things: it shows kids how to use their hands to make shapes on the wall, and it provides clever cutout pages that kids hold at the wall and onto which they shine their flashlight.  Shine the light at the special cutout of a city skyline, for instance, and you’ll see shapes of (not-very-scary) space monsters among the buildings.  The book also explains how to put on a shadow-puppet play – and offers a two-page stage on which to do so, plus cutouts from which to make the puppets.

     More elaborate room play – for older kids – is in Room Lanterns, which comes with a string of lights and many pages of punch-out patterns for shades.  Carefully punch out the paper patterns, use snaps and rings (included, of course) to put them together, and you can make seven different lanterns, from a pinwheel to a water lily to a kukui – the Hawaiian candlenut tree.  The project requires some time and attention, making it perfect for older children kept indoors by bad weather or even a not-too-serious cold.

     Back in the land of Chicken Socks books is one to help little girls put together the perfect tea party.  Utterly Elegant Tea Parties comes with a complete tiny tea service for two, menus and place cards for guests, suggestions for tea-party themes (such as doll, princess or fairy), and – this is a very nice touch – recipes for “Real Food (real small)” that requires no cooking and is both cute and tasty.  Girls who would stage tea parties anyway will enjoy them even more with this book.

     Similarly, older girls who would be interested in quilting anyway will find it easier to do and even more fun with the Klutz take on the subject.  Quilting has a very clever design element: the included fabric lets kids design with triangles but sew with squares – a much easier shape to handle.  The book contains a “design deck” of cards that have an instant quilt pattern on one side and can be flipped over and used to make a design of your own – another clever idea.  The basics of quilting are well covered in the instruction book; and with batting, thread, pins, needles, thimble and pressing tool included, Quilting provides older girls with everything they need for a hobby they can take up when they’re a bit too old for tea parties – one can stay with, if they wish, all the way into adulthood.


I Love You Dude. By V. Radunsky. Gulliver Books/Harcourt. $16.

How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? By Jane Yolen & Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $15.99.

     Vladimir Radunsky’s books are, in a word, weird.  And we mean that in the nicest possible way.  His last one, The Mighty Asparagus, told the tale of the titular vegetable with art taken from Old Masters paintings.  Now he has turned to art of a different sort: doodling.  I Love You Dude is about a strange-looking skinny blue shoe-wearing elephant doodled on a wall with the book’s title above him (that’s “him,” not “it”).  Dude runs away from the wall before he can be cleaned off or painted over, attaches himself to a little girl’s drinking mug, flees again when the girl’s aunt pours hot coffee into the mug, has an adventure at the seashore involving a huge wave and a man with a tremendous belly, tries unsuccessfully to join a circus whose feature attraction is seven elephants in pink underwear, and eventually ends up framed and hanging in an art museum, where perfectly parodied self-defined connoisseurs compare him with Picasso and Matisse and call him “subtle, yet provocative!”  This breathless summary pales before Radunksy’s tale itself, which he calls “a long short story.”  The book will delight even very young kids, who will feel sad for the blue elephant that wants a home and will enjoy the silly art work, which includes two-page spreads of the seven elephants and of a billboard for an elephant-hunting movie designated “a V. Radunsky production.”  Older kids and adults will get even more from this book, whose subtle satire, clever use of perspective in the drawings, and frequently changing typefaces make it as much fun to look at as it is to read.

     The “How Do Dinosaurs” series by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague has a fine surrealistic look to it as well.  It is used to create perhaps the most unusual “mind your manners” books around.  Teague draws anatomically accurate dinosaurs – their real scientific names are given inside the front and back covers – in completely absurd poses in modern urban and suburban settings.  Of course, the dinosaurs represent kids, making huge roaring fusses about everything: “How does a dinosaur eat all his food?  Does he burp, does he belch, or make noises quite rude?”  Human parents stare disapprovingly at the misbehaving dinosaurs – but in the latter part of the book, the dinos stop sticking beans up their noses and squeezing orange juice with their toes and start eating properly.  When they do, they look every bit as silly as they did when misbehaving – a fact that should make the etiquette instructions go down more easily.  A particularly nice touch here is a mini-book attached to the inside back cover.  It’s just the right size to slip into a pocket or purse when taking your little dinosaur to a restaurant, where a refresher course in etiquette is always in good taste.  Especially when it keeps his or her hands busy.


Sammy Keyes and the Dead Giveaway. By Wendelin Van Draanen. Knopf. $15.95.

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. By Melanie Rehak. Harcourt. $25.

Smart, sassy, with-it and anathema to stereotypes, female detectives – especially young female detectives – have all the elements needed for long-term series success. That is, they do as long as they have as much personality and as many minor personal foibles as seventh-grader Sammy Keyes, Wendelin Van Draanen’s redoubtable mystery-solver. Sammy’s latest adventure is not quite at the top of Van Draanen’s form – this time, the author makes things not just complicated but over-complicated – but it has some typically wonderful moments: “Then I started seeing birds. They were everywhere. …I’m not talking big ugly ones like in that Alfred Hitchcock movie. These were scarier than that. These were pretty little tweety birds. …And I know this is going to sound crazy, but I swear on my high-tops – these birds were tweeting at me.” Why this none-too-tweet scene? It’s part of that somewhat confusing plot, which involves a teacher’s pair of lovebirds, a series of rocks thrown through windows, and a city council trying to evict elderly people from their houses. It also involves Sammy doing something wrong for which her archenemy, Heather, is taking the blame, leaving Sammy with a moral conundrum made more complex because Heather is acting guilty, which means she must have done something else. There’s some pirate stuff, too, and a golf course, and a cemetery, and of course eventually everything makes “horrible, bone-chilling sense” and Sammy solves another mystery. Although a tad overdone, the book is fun and a fast read.

“Fun and a fast read” is a perfect description of the 56 books of the Nancy Drew Mystery Series – and at least some of the 124 books in the Nancy Drew Files created much later. Nancy, in fact, is the model on whom Sammy Keyes and many other girl sleuths are at least loosely based. Girl Sleuth is filled with information and trivia on Nancy and the women who wrote the books about her. It’s strictly for fans and for students of popular culture, but it’s delightful if you fit either of those categories. Here Nancy’s adventures are traced back to their start, when she dressed properly in gloves and cloche hats while out doing detective work. You will find out differences between Nancy as seen by Mildred Wirt Benson and as envisioned by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams – the two women who together were author “Carolyn Keene”: Benson’s Nancy was brash, skeptical of authority and unapologetic; Adams’ was well-bred and had perfect manners. The tidbits are great for Nancy fans: Nancy carried a gun until the late 1950s; she and boyfriend Ned Nickerson never kissed; Nancy was originally 16, but her age was changed in the 1960s to 18, after the driving age was raised, so she could keep using her famous blue roadster – which was maroon for a time; and much more. Readers who have the publication date of the first Nancy Drew book mentally tattooed on their brains will have an absolutely great time with Melanie Rehak’s well-researched, well-written book. Those for whom April 28, 1930 is just another day will probably prefer to read something else.


A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. By James Horn. Basic Books. $26.

Jamestown, Virginia, gets surprisingly short shrift in most American history books, considering the fact that it was the first permanent English settlement in North America – 13 years before Plymouth, Massachusetts. The story of Pilgrims seeking religious freedom – never mind that what the Pilgrims really wanted was the freedom to be more dogmatic and less tolerant than the mainstream Protestants they left behind – has more resonance with modern American ideals than the story of settlers looking for gold, land and improved geopolitics. But it was Jamestown, not Plymouth, that paved the way for the ascendancy of the British Empire over such major 17th-century rivals as France, Holland and Spain (whose famed armada had been defeated only 19 years before Jamestown was settled).

The story of Jamestown is one of great bravery in the face of the unknown and presumably deadly: the previous English colony, at Roanoke, had simply vanished. Historian James Horn, O’Neill Director of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a lecturer at the College of William & Mary, tells in A Land as God Made It of Jamestown’s first 18 years – in considerable detail. Horn has a deep understanding of geopolitics at the time of Jamestown’s founding, and his basic approach is international: he shows how the settlement decision was driven as much by the desire to counterbalance England’s colonial competitors as by hopes for finding gold or a passage to China (though those were present as well). Much of the book, especially its first half, is the story of John Smith, one of the few well-known names associated with Jamestown – thanks largely to Smith’s story of how he was captured by Indians and saved by Pocahontas. That account, Horn argues forcibly, is implausible – an exaggeration if not an out-and-out untruth. But other writings by Smith give a clear picture of what everyday life was like in Jamestown’s early years.

Smith himself provoked such antagonism among other town leaders that they eventually tried to kill him by dropping a lit match into his lap as he slept in his boat, igniting his powder bag. Horribly burned and in great pain, he survived – but was summarily shipped off to England by his political enemies, who “spent the next few weeks drawing up a comprehensive list of his abuses in office” to make sure he would be discredited and never return. Thus did 17th-century politics set the stage for much that would come later.

Jamestown set the stage in other ways, too. It was the first of England’s colonies to adopt representative government on the British model, and the first to bring together people of many different backgrounds. It was also the place where slavery was introduced into English-speaking North America – a development to which Horn pays surprisingly little attention. And it was a colony that first tried to form an alliance with Indians against Spain, then began a series of deadly clashes over territory when the hoped-for agreement did not materialize. The level of detail in Horn’s book will be daunting for non-specialists. But the writing is mostly clear, the excerpts from period documents are well chosen, and the book as a whole sheds valuable light on a too-little-studied subject.


Microsoft Wireless Laser Desktop 6000. Windows 2000 or later; Mac OS X v.10.2 to 10.4. Microsoft. $104.95.

Microsoft Wireless Notebook Laser Mouse 6000. Windows 2000 or later; Mac OS X v.10.2 to 10.4. Microsoft. $54.95.

Microsoft Notebook Optical Mouse 3000. Windows 2000 or later; Mac OS X v.10.2 to 10.3. Microsoft. $34.95.

     Microsoft is famous – or infamous, if you prefer – as a software company, especially as the maker of the Windows operating system that is used on around 90% of the world’s computers.  Microsoft is also known – notoriously, to some people – for using its corporate muscle in anticompetitive ways, for some of which it has had to pay substantial fines.

     But there is another side to Microsoft, and it is one that shows the company can meet and outmatch any competitors out there on an entirely level playing field.  This is Microsoft’s hardware division, which quietly and consistently turns out top-quality, well-designed products that make it easier, faster and more comfortable to use whatever computer you choose to buy.

     Among this division’s most recent releases are three standouts in the input-device field.  Microsoft Wireless Laser Desktop 6000 combines a full-size keyboard with a top-notch mouse whose precision is noticeably better than that of non-laser mice when playing games.  The mouse has certain excellent features that Microsoft has used for some time, such as a pleasant ergonomic shape (better suited for right-handed users than lefties, though) and a Tilt Wheel that lets you move left to right as well as up and down.  Web pages and photos that are larger than your screen size are much easier to view with the Tilt Wheel.  The mouse also has a new feature that will bring joy to anyone who would like slightly bigger characters on the screen temporarily – without having to do a global change of font size.  This is a Magnifier button that, when pressed, enlarges details on the screen temporarily without changing any underlying settings.  It’s remarkably helpful when trying to read, for example, the tiny-type disclaimers on Web sites of all sorts.  (On Macs, the Magnifier enlarges text and images on the entire screen.)  The mouse’s laser technology does not make an appreciable difference in standard document usage, but anyone who plays games or tries to navigate Web sites that require precision pointing will appreciate the underlying technology.

     The keyboard in this desktop set is feature-rich, too.  It is one of Microsoft’s “Comfort Curve” designs, with a gently flowing shape that really does make it easier to type for hour after hour.  The built-in, cushioned palm rest helps, too, and may head off carpal tunnel syndrome, that bane of the modern office.  A “Zoom Slider” works a bit like the mouse’s Magnifier button, letting you take a closer look at whatever is on the screen.  There are hot keys to take you to frequently used programs, media-center keys for easier listening and viewing, and a couple of redesigned carryovers from earlier Microsoft keyboards: “My Favorites” keys and one-touch keys for E-mail, Web home page, calculator and more.  All these keys are programmable, and it has always been a nice touch that Microsoft includes a Show Favorites key to let you know what your chosen favorites currently are.  The only complaint about this new design is the layout of the one-touch keys: they sweep in an arc along the far left of the keyboard, and you can read their labels only by twisting the keyboard (or your head) 90 degrees.  But a little bit of regular use lets you know which key is where without recourse to the labels.

     The same laser technology that makes Microsoft’s new desktop mouse so precise is also used in the Microsoft Wireless Notebook Laser Mouse 6000.  Pointing devices are a continuing issue in laptops.  Touchpads and pencil-eraser joysticks simply do not give the speed and precision of a mouse – certainly not this mouse.  Microsoft has sized this mouse as a compact – it is only half the size of its new laser desktop mouse – and shaped it symmetrically, so righties and lefties can use it with equal ease.  It has the same Tilt Wheel and Magnifier features as the laser desktop mouse, and its small size and precision make it easy to use in tight spaces (think of an airline seat – in coach).  The size takes some getting used to: most women and men with small hands found adaptation easy, but men with large hands and broad fingers took longer to be fully comfortable with the device.  This mouse works well on any surface, so you really can use it just about anywhere.

     If you think you might lose a wireless mouse – which is, after all, entirely separate from your laptop at all times – or if you simply don’t need quite as much precision as Microsoft’s laser mouse provides, consider the Microsoft Notebook Optical Mouse 3000.  This one is a real bargain and is especially good for people with small hands: it is even smaller than the notebook laser mouse.  Comfortable to use with either hand, offering the same Tilt Wheel and Magnifier features as its laser cousin, this optical mouse uses high-definition technology that makes it as easy to control as a laser unit except in extreme situations – which most laptop users will rarely, if ever, encounter.  The blue LED tail light looks cool, too.

     You won’t go wrong with any of these new Microsoft hardware products.  They compete in a very crowded field, and excel neither in price (you can buy less-expensive input devices) nor in status (you can buy more-expensive ones, too).  They simply offer durability, excellent design for their purposes, surprisingly good battery life in the wireless products (which – oh joy! – actually come packed with the batteries they require), and attractive styling.  Microsoft’s hardware division has a whole batch of winners here.


Bernstein: Serenade for Solo Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion; Facsimile—Choreographic Essay for Orchestra; Divertimento for Orchestra. Philippe Quint, violin; Marin Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $7.99.

Bolcom: Music for Two Pianos. Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann, pianos. Naxos. $7.99.

     Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom were exposed to many of the same musical influences, but they managed those influences and integrated them into their own works very differently.  Both expressed themselves in multiple musical forms – and Bolcom, who is only 67, continues to do so – but they used those forms in different ways.

     Bernstein’s concert music is less well known than his show tunes, but Marin Alsop, herself a Bernstein protégé, makes a strong case for it.  Bernstein (1918-1990) had a way of ingesting the musical trends of his time and making them his own; he also managed to create programmatic music that can often be enjoyed even if you do not know what it is about.  That is the case with the Serenade for Violin, Strings, Harp and Percussion, which is nothing less than a musical interpretation of Plato’s Symposium.  Relate the ins and outs of the arguments among Phaedrus, Pausanias, Aristophanes, Erixymachos, Agathon, Socrates and Alcibiades if you like, but you don’t have to.  You can simply listen to the well-designed orchestral color and to such highlights as the violin themes foreshadowing Candide and the song “Maria” from West Side Story, the lyrical and flowing Allegretto, and the brief and intense Presto.  The fourth movement, an Adagio representing Agathon, is the work’s heart, sweetly transforming the Presto’s theme on a violin kept muted until its cadenza.  The extended finale, which includes a broad start, a violin-cello duet and then an angular, swaggering section intended to represent the drunken Alcibiades, succeeds simply as highly listenable music.  Alsop’s attentiveness to detail, always a strength of her conducting, is impressive here.

     It serves Facsimile and Divertimento for Orchestra well, too.  The former is a ballet of post-World War II malaise in interpersonal relationships, alternating between lush and spare passages and offering some bright and rhythmic dance music that evaporates at the end.  It speaks not quite of despair but of ennui.  The Divertimento, in eight short movements, is a delight.  Created for the centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it is based on the notes B-C, for Boston Centenary.  The work is filled with puckish humor: a waltz that wanders into 7/8 time, a quotation of the oboe tune from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a “Turkey Trot” à la Copland, a jazzy slow movement called Blues, and a finale that quotes the Radetzky March and Bernstein’s own Mass, that sounds Ivesian, and that still has Bernstein’s own personal stamp on it.  Alsop brings tremendous verve and spirit to this music.  (She seems to have a thing about orchestras with the initials BSO: the Boston Symphony’s piece is played by the Bournemouth Symphony, and Alsop will soon become music director of the Baltimore Symphony.  Hmm.)

     Little of Bolcom’s two-piano music has the raucous splendor of Bernstein’s work: this composer absorbs and adapts his influences differently.  Recuerdos melds ragtime with South American music to fine effect: a bright and bouncy first movement is followed by a slower, sinuous one, and then a rather bangy finale with tonal and rhythmic wanderings.  Equally enjoyable are two movements from the four-movement suite, The Garden of Eden: “The Serpent’s Kiss” is dramatic, bouncy ragtime that includes tongue clicks, foot stomps and knocking on the wood of the pianos; “Through Eden’s Gates” is a quiet and gentle cakewalk in major key – there is no sense of doom, worry or fear here, but only calm and a slight wistful feeling as Adam and Eve leave the Garden together.

     Highly effective, in a different way, is Bolcom’s Sonata for Two Pianos in One Movement.  This musically integrated atonal work has strong rhythmic drive, drama, and good interplay of the instruments.

     The other works here, though, are less worthwhile, no matter how well Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann play them – which is very well indeed.  Interlude features disconnected notes, bits of phrases, and repeated stops and starts, sounding like a parody of modern (or modernistic) music.  And Frescoes for Two Pianos, Harmonium and Harpsichord, in which the players switch among instruments, is both pretentious and banal.  Written in 1971, it is one of those pieces of the late 1960s/early 1970s that claim to stretch the bounds of music by incorporating chance, tone clusters and plucked piano strings.  Its two movements, “War in Heaven” and “The Caves of Orcus,” last nearly half an hour and seem interminable.  The first alternates great bursts of sound with near-silence.  The second features a lengthy, almost inaudible harmonium passage punctuated by occasional piano notes – and, later, more quiet harmonium sounds with loud chords played over them.  There is no mystery or majesty here, though there is a sense that this work may be more fun to play – or to watch others play – than it is to hear in recorded form.  As well as Bolcom made ragtime and other influences his own, in this case he tried too hard to adopt and adapt some self-consciously esoteric gestures that already sounded dated three decades ago.

November 10, 2005


Mutts Sunday Evenings. By Patrick McDonnell. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

Surfer Safari: The Tenth “Sherman’s Lagoon” Collection. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Rugrats Volume 2: A Baby’s Work Is Never Done. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     One does not usually think of beauty and sensitivity as coexisting, or even existing at all, in comics.  This is why Patrick McDonnell’s Sunday Mutts strips are both so unusual and so welcome.  McDonnell’s daily strips, while still well drawn and sometimes quite pointed, have become enmeshed in a “cause” mentality that gets in the way of some of the gentle humor they originally had: Save Endangered Species!  Adopt from a Shelter!  (Etc.)  But the Sunday strips retain the quietness and gorgeous style that originally made Mutts such an extraordinary creation.  In Mutts Sunday Evenings, we find Mooch the cat thoroughly enjoying himself by making New Year’s resolutions – which turn out to be for Earl the dog.  Mooch says he’ll miss his friends if he and Earl hibernate for the rest of the winter – so he brings them all into the same big bed, leaving Earl with a pricelessly bemused expression.  Guard Dog, eternally chained outdoors, yowls at the moon, which comes down and gives him a kiss – a marvelously surrealistic scene.  Crabby the crab visits “strange waters” drawn in Dali-esque style, in a strip introduced by a homage to the old EC horror comics.  In fact, the introductory panels – which some newspapers do not even run – can be as interesting as the main story: one gently parodies a schoolhouse reader, one a Dick Tracy strip, another a Flash Gordon story, another a Wheaties box, and so on.  This is a simply wonderful collection.

     Wonderful in its own (very different) way, Surfer Safari continues the delightfully bizarre adventures of Sherman the shark and his somewhat skewed (but not skewered) companions.  Jim Toomey’s art isn’t at McDonnell’s level, but Toomey’s funny bone is in the right place, and he manages an effective mixture of character comedy with one-liners.  Check out the flow chart that Megan, Sherman’s wife, makes to shorten arguments: every path leads to Sherman being wrong.  Moneygrubbing Hawthorne the hermit crab creates a friendship service, selling one prospect on it by telling him he is “slow, dimwitted, unattractive.”  Sherman encounters the kelp monster, who unsuccessfully tries to meet other monsters through (Internet jokes are a staple here).  And Sherman and Megan have a baby – you can imagine what additional chaos that causes.  But you don’t have to imagine: you can read all about it (and look at it, too).

     Not all comic strips are this successful, though.  McDonnell and Toomey both get (++++) ratings, for different reasons, but the committee-produced Rugrats deserves (++) at best.  Based on the Nickelodeon show and looking like not-too-well-drawn stills from it, it offers not-too-endearing dialogue: “Where do eggies come from?  Chickens.  Where do chickies come from?  Eggs.  (Pause.)  Where do toasters come from?”  A series of “10th anniversary” strips points to what this book is all about: each consists of two panels showing how little will change even after the Rugrats get past babyhood.  The message to readers: if and only if you want repetition and sameness, page after page and year after year, you – or your very young Rugrats TV fan – will enjoy this.


Young Warriors: Stories of Strength. Edited by Tamora Pierce and Josepha Sherman. Random House. $17.95.

The Five Ancestors, Book II: Monkey. By Jeff Stone. Random House.  $15.95.

     The meaning of war – the reasons for it – what makes a true warrior – what is worth fighting for: these are the themes, all with significant contemporary real-world resonance, explored through fantasy in these two books.  Young Warriors examines them at length through 15 short stories about heroes (and, often, heroines) of all sorts: powerful, seemingly weak, self-aware, largely unknowing, naïve, worldly.  This first anthology ever from Tamora Pierce – co- edited by Josepha Sherman, an experienced editor – is by turns moody, amusing, surrealistic, thoughtful and strange.  Most of the youths on whom the stories focus are about 14 or 15 years old.  All are tested – some more in physical ways, some more in emotional or mental ones – and while all emerge victorious, they do not always gain the victory they expected or sought.  Thus, in Bruce Holland Rogers’ “The Gift of Rain Mountain,” the wonders of peace turn out to have a dark side; in Laura Anne Gilman’s “Serpent’s Rock,” the worlds of darkness and light come into conflict in aboriginal Australia; in Janis Ian’s “Eli and the Dybbuk,” the young hero – a Jewish boy in Czarist Russian – wins only what he could have had without a battle, but learns to appreciate it in a way he never did before the fight; in “The Magestone,” boy meets mermaid and mermaid meets boy, and both gain and lose something in a wry conclusion.  Some tales fit into authors’ existing fantasy worlds, and there are flashes of humor to lighten the seriousness of the subject: Mike Resnick’s “The Boy Who Cried ‘Dragon!’” is a delightfully offbeat take – or rather a double-take – on the old story of the boy who cried wolf.  This is a collection both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

     Jeff Stone’s Monkey continues the saga of five young monks seeking their ancestors and destinies – which are much the same thing – in the China of 350 years ago.  The first book of The Five Ancestors, Tiger, told the story – recapped here – of the destruction of Cangzhen Temple and killing of all its warrior monks.  Five youthful monks, who are not fully trained, are the sole survivors: Fu, She, Hok, Long and Malao.  It is Malao’s older brother, Ying, who led the destruction of the temple, and this gives Monkey an extra level of resonance – for this book is Malao’s story.  Malao is only 11 when the temple is destroyed and its Grandmaster, before dying, tells the young monks to “uncover the past, for it is your future.”  The timid Malao steadily gains courage throughout the book, helped by a white macaque that leads an unusually militant group of monkeys.  The theme of searching for one’s roots has special resonance for the author, who was adopted and spent 15 years searching for his birth mother – whom he finally found (he later found his birth father as well).  Perhaps the personal connection is responsible for the intensity of this book and its predecessor.  Certainly Stone’s own knowledge of martial arts, which he practices daily, lends credibility to the fighting scenes and the notion that each young monk has been trained in a style associated with a specific animal.  Fast-paced and well-plotted, Monkey is satisfying both in itself and as the second part of the five-part puzzle that Stone is assembling piece by piece.


Inkspell. By Cornelia Funke. Chicken House/Scholastic. $19.99.

Poison. By Chris Wooding. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     The notion of a story exploring relationships between author and characters is nothing new, as anyone who has read Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, will attest.  But books likes these two, giving younger readers a chance to explore the tricky territory of creator/creation relationships, are quite unusual.  It takes a fine author to make a book with philosophical underpinnings of this sort more than an empty exercise – and fortunately for readers, both these authors qualify.

     Cornelia Funke remains better known in her native Germany than she is in North America, but the consistently high quality of her magic-permeated, alternative-reality fantasies should change that.  Inkspell is a sequel to Inkheart, a story about a book whose characters come to life and invade the reader’s world.  In Inkspell, the focus is more strongly on what it means to write words that are literally embodied, and the world-invasion theme works both ways.  The heroine of Inkheart, Meggie, is a major force in Inkspell as well, but not the prime mover of the story.  What happens here is that Dustfinger, a fire-eater brought into being through words and transported to Meggie’s world from his own alternative-medieval reality, desperately wants to return to his original tale.  He finds a storyteller who can send him back – read him back, actually – and departs, leaving behind his young apprentice, Farid.  Farid seeks out Meggie and the two find a way into Dustfinger’s world, where they meet the author of Inkheart, a man named Feroglio. Feroglio is now living within the story he himself created, and finding problems in it that he did not create.  Who did?  That is the mystery at the heart of Inkspell.  Funke gives us characters from two worlds who interpenetrate them both, a story run amok, and a story – Inkspell itself – about the other story.  Juggling all this would be a chore for a lesser writer, and many seams would show, but Funke pulls the whole thing off virtuosically, providing a thrill ride with unusual levels of complexity.

     Poison seems at first a more straightforward book; it is certainly a darker one.  The title is the name of “a young lady who lived in a marsh,” who gives herself the name after her stepmother tells her she is “poison to this family, poison!”  This confrontation, when Poison is 14, leads two years later to a journey both of soul-searching and self-searching, as Poison seeks out her younger sister, Azalea, who has been stolen by the phaeries.  This sounds like a dark fairy tale in the mode of Lord Dunsany, but it soon becomes something more, as Poison finds herself in a supernatural world at war with itself over its most powerful member, the Hierophant – a writer whose words will determine the fate of the entire realm.  An old Antiquarian named Fleet helps guide Poison through what is or may be happening: “The whole story has to be known before it can be recorded; otherwise it might suddenly change.  …When the tale is ended, then the writing will be visible to your eyes; until then, it is unwritten.”  Confusion piles upon complication until Chris Wooding, an adept stylist, unravels the self-references and produces a tie-up-loose-ends final chapter called, of course, “To End the Tale.”  Complex and thoughtful, Poison is a bracing mental tonic, a danger only to the dull mind.


The Curious Adventures of Jimmy McGee. By Eleanor Estes. Illustrations by John O’Brien. Harcourt. $17.

Three Good Deeds. By Vivian Vande Velde. Harcourt. $16.

     Eleanor Estes’ tale of Jimmy McGee was one of her last works, written in 1987, the year before she died.  But it retains, for better and worse, the sensibilities of earlier decades – times in which she wrote of the Moffats (1940s), Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye (1950s), and other characters much beloved in their time but now seeming a trifle fusty.  The Curious Adventures of Jimmy McGee is a sequel to The Witch Family, which dates back to 1960.  Amy and Clarissa, the two little girls from the earlier book, return in this one; but it is Amy’s doll, Little Lydia, who is a central character – more so than Amy herself.  More central still is Jimmy McGee, a magical and curious little fellow, for sure, thought of as a plumber with wrenches and pipes and bolts but especially lightning bolts, which he catches in his thunder and lightning bolt box.  Jimmy experiences the wave, Monstrous, and the hurricane, Lobelia, and in the best scene of the book goes through a variety of zany antics with Badger and Snakey and Owl and Frog and Cardinal Bird and other animals.  At the center of that scene is Little Lydia, who has been exposed to the lightning that Jimmy McGee likes to catch and therefore has a case of the zoomie-zoomies, which are a fine sort of magic for Jimmy himself but create all sorts of trouble for the doll and everyone around her.  Jimmy eventually gets Little Lydia de-magicked and back to Amy, who declares Jimmy a HERO, in capital letters.  This is a fairy tale of considerable charm and an even greater dose of naïveté.  It is nicely written and thoroughly pleasant, but its old-fashioned feel means it will likely appeal to only a small percentage of today’s children ages eight and up, who are the book’s target audience.

     Vivian Vande Velde’s spare, to-the-point writing is far more up-to-date than Estes’, and Three Good Deeds – a fairy tale, like Jimmy McGee’s story – has the potential to be fun for many eight-to-12-year-olds.  It is not, however, one of Vande Velde’s better books: she rarely leaves as many plot holes as she does here.  A boy, Howard, teases the geese in his town once too often, and is turned into a goose by the geese’s guardian, who happens to be a witch.  The spell will release him, the witch says, only after he does three good deeds – but this is a tall order for someone who can only make honking noises, no longer has hands, and tends to fly into things when he manages to get airborne.  It is a foregone conclusion in a story like this that Howard, after many misadventures, will eventually become human again.  But the misadventures themselves are not up to Vande Velde’s usual standard; Howard himself is not a very interesting character; and the notion that many months would pass without a police search for Howard or more than a single cursory visit by his parents to Goose Pond strains credulity too much – even for a fairy tale.  A few scenes here are fun, and the names the geese give each other are amusing, but this is minor Vande Velde at best.


The E-Bomb: How America’s New Directed Energy Weapons Will Change the Way Future Wars Will Be Fought. By Doug Beason, Ph.D. Da Capo. $26.

     Doug Beason is one of the people whose job is to think the unthinkable, then think of what to do about it.  He is Associate Director (Threat Reduction) at Los Alamos National Laboratory and has spent more than two decades working on directed-energy weapons – the stuff of light sabers and space battles, yes, but also a very real alternative and supplement to the weapons we know today.

     Beason’s The E-Bomb is an introduction to light-emitting weapons of all sorts, both offensive and defensive.  A chapter on “The World’s First Force Field” discusses a system called Active Denial, in which non-lethal energy is used to stop attackers in their tracks by heating their bodies to levels of extreme discomfort.  A chapter called “ABL: The Airborne Laser” discusses a weapon that could theoretically destroy terrorists’ weapons without the necessity of entering an unfriendly nation harboring them.  And there is much more here – seemingly the stuff of science fiction, but, according to Beason, very close to reality.

     The book is fascinating on many levels, from its initial timeline divided into “prelaser” and “postlaser” events, to its photos of the sites where energy weapons with such acronyms as MIRACL, EDL, SBD and THEL have been or are being developed.  Much of the work is classified, but Beason provides enough information to show that some agencies of the government have been working on energy weapons for years or even decades – and that certain types of these weapons are ready for deployment (Beason says they will soon be used in Iraq).  The book is also disturbing on many levels, partly because it is as easy to imagine directed-energy weapons used against us as by us, and partly because it is hard to know how our own government will handle any such weapons that are being or have been developed.  Government deployment of resources after recent Gulf Coast hurricanes, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, does not inspire a great deal of confidence.  Besides, as Beason points out, what keeps standing in the way of effective development of energy weapons is funding, which is needed consistently but – given our political process – is supplied on a hit-or-miss basis.

     In the end, it is hard to know quite how to react to Beason’s book.  On a strictly scientific basis, it is fascinating, showing real-world developments that have the potential, sometime in the future, to produce weapons analogous to those in science-fiction books and films.  On an ethical/moral basis, it has little to say about use of such weapons.  On a trust-the-government basis, it falls short through insufficient skepticism of those who would be charged with deploying any weapons successfully developed.  Beason’s enthusiasm for the lifesaving potential of energy weapons appears to be genuine.  Unfortunately, so is his naïveté about the motives and skills of those who would have to order their use.


The Very Best of Strauss. Alfred Walter conducting the Slovak State Philharmonic, Kosice. Naxos. $12.99 (2 CDs).

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5. Kurt Masur conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. LPO. $16.99 (SACD).

     The attempt to reduce classical music to a series of “best of” anthologies is almost as old as the recording medium itself.  It is an attempt that is always slightly tasteless and ultimately impossible: Classical music is not inherently short-form, so excerpting much longer works to give listeners snippets of sound not only misrepresents the works and their composers but also guarantees disappointment for any listeners who actually like the sound bites and want to hear more.  What they hear will require far more patience and focus than the tidbits ever do.

     Still, there are a very few composers for whom the “best of” approach is actually a pretty good one.  Among 10 new “Very Best of” two-CD sets from Naxos, in addition to ones featuring the usual impossible-to-encapsulate composers (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Handel, Mozart, Puccini, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Vivaldi), is one whose subject fits the format particularly well: Johann Strauss Jr.  Although he did write 16 operettas, Strauss worked primarily in dance forms and wrote mostly short works.  These two CDs of his music – 25 tracks in all – really do give a good idea of his music and really can serve as a legitimate introduction to the rest of his oeuvre.  Alfred Walter’s conducting is a touch pedestrian – one wishes for more of the Viennese “snap” that seems to be second nature to such conductors as Willi Boskovsky – but every performance here is quite respectable, and the orchestra plays well.  Included are the overtures to Die Fledermaus and Der Zigeunerbaron, such wonderful polkas as the Pizzicato, Tritsch-Tratsch and Thunder and Lightning, and of course the marvelous waltzes: Blue Danube, Voices of Spring, Roses from the South, Emperor and others (though Walter does better with most of the polkas than with most of the waltzes).  Four vocal tracks – from Die Fledermaus, Der Zigeunerbaron and Eine Nacht in Venedig – provide a sampling of Strauss’ stage works, whose effervescence will not disappoint listeners who hear them for the first time in this format.

     If someone had to choose a “very best” sampling of Shostakovich, the First and Fifth Symphonies (both intact, please!) would have to be included.  Outstanding sound on the London Philhamonic’s own SACD label is a major attraction of the live performances led by Kurt Masur.  The extremely clear sound is evident from the start of the First Symphony, as in the staccato-vs.-legato sections of the first movement.  The clarinets are especially good here and in the second movement – which, however, flags a bit in the middle.  The brass-heavy dissonances of the third movement and the solo violin near the movement’s conclusion both benefit from the extreme clarity of the sound.  So do the highly dramatic full-orchestra section near the start of the finale and the perfectly quiet pause before the timpani solo close to the end.  The performance as a whole is a very good one, though Masur seems not to bring a clear overview to the work – which admittedly does not have a single cohesive point of view.  Also, the top-notch sound does produce some oddities: audience rustling between movements and Masur occasionally stamping the podium.

     The sound is equally good in the Fifth Symphony, and the performance is even better.  The strings have real bite in the first movement, which flows well.  Brass and flutes sound especially clear.  In the second movement, both individual voices and ensemble passages are very effective.  The slow third movement features very beautiful strings and a lovely, ethereal flute.  The always problematical finale – just how triumphant should it sound? – starts at moderate tempo, with a feeling of success at overcoming obstacles.  But Masur takes the last few minutes at a very slow pace indeed, as if everything that has gone before is running out of steam.  This is a somewhat unusual approach, but Masur makes it a convincing one – and the orchestra plays at its very best throughout.

November 03, 2005


Wall calendars: Monet’s Passion: The Gardens at Giverny; Birds of Fantasy; Healing Mandalas. Pomegranate. $13.99 each.

Engagement calendar: Charles Addams. Pomegranate. $14.99.

365-day calendars: Weird and Wonderful Words; Anguished English; Latin for the Illiterati. Pomegranate. $11.99 each.

Annual calendars are, by definition, throwaway items, good only for a year. Most manufacturers know this and create their calendars accordingly: graphics are often barely adequate, content is no more than mildly interesting or mildly amusing, and the quality of the paper, glue and other elements is barely adequate to last the year.

Not Pomegranate Communications. Pomegranate’s calendars are beautiful, well made, calming or consistently amusing to look at, and always of high quality in printing and construction. Monet’s Passion: The Gardens at Giverny, for example, offers a dozen truly gorgeous photographs of water gardens, a water-lily pool, and the land-based gardens themselves. Photographer Elizabeth Murray is herself an expert gardener who helped restore these very gardens in Giverny, France, lending her work authenticity that comes through as clearly as the beauty.

Pomegranate offers beauties of all sorts for your wall. Consider Birds of Fantasy, which showcases a dozen 18th-century illustrations of mysterious provenance: they show nonexistent Chinese birds against fanciful but real-looking backgrounds, and they were painted in watercolor on paper made in Holland. No one knows quite what to make of all this, but the birds’ images – the full collection is in the Field Museum in Chicago – are enthralling: one looks like a chicken that can fly well, another like a cross between a duck-billed platypus and a duck, and so on. Or, for beauty of a more abstract kind, consider Healing Mandalas, created by combining digital scans of flowers with astronomical photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope. You do not have to accept New Age spiritualism to find these lovely multicolored geometric shapes calming and highly pleasing to the eye.

Not all Pomegranate calendars are so serious, but the company’s production quality comes through clearly even when it is just having fun. Consider the 2006 Charles Addams Engagement Calendar. Spiral bound and with sturdy plastic front and back protective covers, this is a calendar whose heavy cardboard pages display entire months, weeks on a day-by-day basis, and lots of oddball Addams illustrations. It is not a perfect desk calendar: it sometimes gives a week on the right-hand page and an illustration on the left, and other times gives a two-page spread of two weeks – those seeking consistency of display will not find it here. But where else will you find a dinosaur egg hatching in a museum’s hall displaying fossils? A mountain goat climbing the steel skeleton of a skyscraper? A symphony orchestra containing a member with dynamite and a plunger, just waiting for his cue? Or a full-color pose of the whole Addams Family? Addams fans and fanatics will love this.

Pomegranate’s 365-day calendars take humor in a different direction. Instead of quotations from celebrities, pop songs or movies, you can get Weird and Wonderful Words and learn about everything from antapology (a reply to an apology) to zoilists (critics). These are all real words, really in English, and really amazing to learn. But of course, some people never learn, even when using simpler words, and that is where Anguished English comes in. Here, neatly gathered in such categories as “Lost in Translation” and “We Stand Corrected,” are such snippets of unintentional hilarity as: “The difference between a king and a president is that a king is the son of his father, but a president isn’t.” Or: “Handmade gifts for the hard-to-find person.” Where does all this linguistic malfeasance come from? Well, a lot of it comes from Latin, since that’s where a lot of English comes from – and if you want much delectamentum (delight) from the original Romance language, you will find it in Latin for the Illiterati. From genuine Ovidian and Virgilian quotations to inspired bits of silliness (edo, ergo sum – I eat, therefore I am), this and the other Pomegranate calendars will amuse and instruct you all year, and have you looking forward to 2007. Satis verborum – enough said.