December 29, 2005


Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo: A 15-Month Centennial Calendar. By Peter Maresca. Sunday Press Books. $22.95 from

     It does not matter how many wall calendars you have for 2006.  You need another one.  If you have none and want one, this is the one to get.  If you don’t care for wall calendars, this one will change your mind.  There is simply nothing like it anywhere – and hasn’t been, really, for a century.

     Talk about a labor of love (and very, very, very long hours): Peter Maresca has resuscitated the most beautifully drawn comic strip of all time, Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, and turned 15 of McKay’s magnificent Sunday panels into calendar pages.  At 14 by 20 inches, the calendar is actually smaller than McKay’s work was when originally printed in The New York Herald on cheap newsprint (the horror!).  You can see McKay’s work in full size in Maresca’s superb book of Sunday pages – but at $120 plus postage, it is pricey if you are not a devotee of comic art (though it’s priceless if you are).  As an alternative to the book, or a supplement, this calendar is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in an experience largely unavailable for a century.

     There is nothing at all fusty about McKay’s adventures of five-to-six-year-old Nemo, an ordinary little boy who has extraordinary adventures every time he goes to bed.  Yes, some of the narration sounds a bit dated – but it flows from drawing to drawing in very modern style.  Yes, the characters’ clothes are old-fashioned – but the surrealistic landscapes, people and creatures of Slumberland are timeless.  This strip has never lacked for a cult following – now Maresca’s calendar opens it up to everyone.

     And what an opening!  Even calling McKay’s work a “comic strip” cheapens it – it was artwork, offered every Sunday to anyone with the price of a newspaper.  Maresca has done a wonderful job of selecting Sunday pages for the calendar.  The January page features Nemo meeting Father Time, who takes him to the wall where years are made and invites Nemo to choose a year and see what he will look and feel like then.  Thus, Nemo instantly becomes 15, then 25, then 48 – and then, when left alone, over-curiously heads for the year 1999….

     The marvelous March page, filled with forced perspective and McKay’s usual extraordinary detail, features a magnificent peacock-pulled cart beneath a smiling and astonished sun.  For May, Nemo turns into a five-year-old giant (in one panel, a tiny, realistically drawn bear looks up at him from ankle height) and confronts the mountainous Guards of the Fourth Gate.  September features an utterly amazing set of five huge vertical panels showing the approach toward the reader of a gigantic elephant, whose trunk and open mouth nearly fill the fifth of them.  Every single page is a garden of delights – worthy of keeping year after year, no matter what the date.  It was McKay’s conceit that each page ended with Nemo waking up, safe at home but often frustrated, in a manner related to his Slumberland adventures.  But you won’t want to awaken from the world into which McKay takes you.  This is less a calendar than a work of art in 15 pages.  If you want a really happy new year, treat yourself to this unmatchable experience.  And buy a second calendar if you care deeply enough for someone to share dreams with him or her.


Babylon Babies. By Maurice G. Dantec. Translated by Noura Wedell. Semiotext(e) Native Agents/MIT Press. $19.95.

     Cross Tom Clancy with Robert Heinlein, throw in some Michael Crichton and a touch of William S. Burroughs, add cyberpunk sensibilities and a set of characters of whom the most interesting is a machine, and you have something of a hodgepodge.  Which is what Babylon Babies is.

     Maurice Dantec’s book was originally written in French, and it appears to suffer in Noura Wedell’s translation, which includes such words as “heteroclite,” “volute” and “millefeuille” (yes, used as a translated word), and has trouble with tenses: “Speeded” is used as the past tense of “speed,” and “fit” rather than the correct “fitted” to mean “attached.”

     Still, it would be unfair to lay all the inelegance and stylistic uncertainty at the translator’s door.  After all, it is Dantec who writes in one paragraph of “clouds shaped like zeppelins” and then, two paragraphs later, of “clouds…like menacing zeppelins.”  It is Dantec who writes, apparently without humor or irony, the following one-sentence paragraph: “It wasn’t easy being a closet.”  It is Dantec who has his central character, in another one-sentence paragraph, think, “Brilliant plan, in fact” – and, on the very next page, in yet another one-sentencer, “It was a perfect plan,” which means every reader knows that the plan is going to go tremendously wrong.

     Yet Dantec has genuinely interesting ideas, if he could only control them a bit and not sprawl quite so much: the book runs 526 pages.  The central character is a sort of Everyman named Toorop, if an Everyman is a for-hire fighter in small and large wars worldwide, with expertise in all forms of weaponry and survival.  Toorop’s latest job is to lead a three-person team escorting a young woman from Russia to Canada, and then to deliver this human package, Marie Zorn, to a specified recipient.  The whole thing involves the Russian Mafia and a set of real or incipient double- and triple-crosses, and Marie turns out to be both psychotic and enormously valuable – not because of who she is, but because of what she is carrying within her body…which is something that could end human life as we know it.

     Babylon Babies is part thriller, part Messianic fantasy, part an updated Dr. Strangelove (a lot of the bad guys seem to be near-cyborgs).  Its characters are types rather than people, except for the fascinating machine called Joe-Jane, “a bionic brain, a network of artificial neurons, grown on DNA biofiber and plugged into input-output electronic devices that served as organs of perception.  She is alive, or at least considers herself as such, which is, apparently, the distinguishing trait of living beings.”  Joe-Jane steals every scene in which she appears – too bad there are not more of them.

     The plot veers between adventure story and future dystopian fantasy.  Early on, Dantec writes, “Toorop told himself things were going from outlandish to sci-fi,” and the reader would do well to tell himself or herself the same thing.  Babylon Babies, for all its stylistic and structural flaws, is jam-packed with ideas, some of them fascinating and some truly outré.  Because scenes of genuine excitement alternate with ones of banality, it can be a frustrating book to read.  But it is also a fascinating one, and some elements will leave you thinking after you finally turn the last page.


The Dark Flight Down. By Marius Sedgwick. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.95.

Falcondance. By Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Delacorte Press. $14.95.

     A reader expects something rip-roaring at the end of a multi-book fantasy series.  A middle volume may flag a bit – most do – but the conclusion needs to pull everything together, reward the good, punish the evil, and leave the reader feeling that the long journey was worth the trip.

     These two books’ conclusions may do that for some readers, but probably not all.  The Dark Flight Down is actually the second half of a story rather than the more usual third part of a trilogy.  In his prior novel, The Book of Dead Days, Marius Sedgwick was able to weave an interesting journey around a fairly standard sorcerer’s-apprentice plot.  The magician Valerian – who, it turned out, might have been the apprentice Boy’s father – was undone at the end of the first book, but the future of Boy himself was uncertain.  This sequel starts with Boy on the run – but he is soon captured and taken to the emperor’s palace, where he encounters a world of far greater splendor than he has ever known…and one whose dark undercurrents and treachery are all too familiar to him.  Boy and his friend, Willow, have to deal with scheming courtiers, depraved necromancers, and a frightening entity called the Phantom.  But Boy’s greatest danger may come in the form of the apparently well-meaning Kepler, who has cast Boy’s horoscope and learned a secret of great importance.  All these familiar currents are eventually sorted out in a familiar way, leading to a predictable climax that may have readers wondering whether the trip was worthwhile after all.

     The journey in Falcondance is a longer one, since this is the third book of a trilogy – three-book series being the norm in fantasy at least since J.R.R. Tolkien (who, unknown to most modern fantasists, actually wrote The Lord of the Rings as a single, extremely long novel).  The first two books of Amelia Atwater-Rhodes’ The Kiesha’Ra series, Hawksong and Snakecharm, established a fascinating world of interrelated shapeshifters, each group having its own customs, strengths, weaknesses and worries.  The settings were generally more interesting than the plots and characters: the latter settled into Romeo-and-Juliet mode with the love between an avian and a serpiente.  The most powerful of the shapeshifters, the falcons, are feared and hated by the other groups (in our world, of course, falcons prey both on other birds and on snakes).  Falcondance focuses on a young falcon named Nicias, who lives in the unified avian-serpiente land as a royal guard and endures the distrust and dislike of others at court.  Nicias ends up returning to the falcons’ land of Ahnmik, where he confronts a choice between duty and destiny – the sort of thing fantasy protagonists run into all the time.  Falcondance could possibly spawn further sequels, but the book comes to a satisfactory if not very original end, and Atwater-Rhodes – a talented young writer who created her first novel at age 13 – may do better to turn her hand to deeper characters and more innovative plots…if she can.


The Begum’s Millions. By Jules Verne. Translated by Stanford L. Luce. Wesleyan University Press. $29.95.

     The Begum’s Millions – a more accurate translation of the French title would be “The Begum’s 500 Millions” – is one of the less-known novels of Jules Verne and is not one of his best.  It is nevertheless a fascinating work, especially for scholars of Verne and of early science fiction, but also for readers who are familiar with such Verne classics as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in 80 Days and are looking for something different that still bears Verne’s unmistakable stamp.

     First published in 1879, The Begum’s Millions is the first novel in which Verne’s generally optimistic view of technology starts to darken.  It is also the first in which his later thorough distrust of the Teutonic temperament begins to come to the fore.  It is the story of the unexpected bequest of 500 million francs to two scientists by an Indian rajah (the “begum” of the title) – and what the two do with the money.  The French scientist, François Sarrasin, creates a city called France-Ville that is focused entirely on the health and safety of its inhabitants.  The German, Herr Schultze, builds Stahlstadt, the City of Steel, in which he manufactures weapons with which to take over the world.

     This may sound prescient to our post-World War II world (or even a post-World War I one), but it is more likely the result of simmering French resentment over the nation’s defeat by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.  The book is ably translated by Stanford L. Luce (this is the first complete and correct English translation, though two others appeared the year the novel was first published).  The free-flowing prose makes it clear that Verne is mostly interested in the negative uses to which technology can be put – not in making specific political points.  Verne lavishes more attention on Stahlstadt and its evils than on France-Ville, showing the underhanded and overbearing ways Herr Schultze competes with his well-intentioned French counterpart.  Eventually, in the sort of event that would later become typical of movie climaxes, Herr Schultze is spectacularly undone by the untimely explosion of one of his weapons of mass destruction – though this climax also has its laughable moments, as the evil scientist is expanded to giant size instead of being blown to tiny pieces.

     The biggest problem with The Begum’s Millions is that Verne does not present an attractive alternative to Stahlstadt.  At the end, Sarrasin and France-Ville take over Stahlstadt and turn its productive capacity to good ends, but France-Ville itself is not the sort of city in which modern readers would likely want to live. It looks like a huge housing project, with detailed rules for building its rigidly uniform houses, which are constantly under observation by sanitation police.  The city is a place of rules and strictures, all designed to ensure citizens’ health (to be sure, a greater worry in the 19th century than in the developed world today).  France-Ville comes across as nitpicky, communistic and unpleasant (“idle lives will not be tolerated,” notes one part of one rule).  In the absence of a real-seeming (or at least interesting-seeming) utopia, the Stahlstadt dystopia becomes more of a rant and less of a genuinely interesting exploration of technology gone awry.  Verne’s pacing is, as always, swift and sure, but The Begum’s Millions is a book of more interest to specialists or those seeking something different for its own sake than for the general reader or typical Verne fan.


Norton SystemWorks 2006 Premier. Windows 2000 Professional SP4 or higher, or Windows XP. Symantec. $99.99 ($20 rebate available for current customers or users of competing products).

     As a company, Symantec Corporation was buffeted from many directions during 2005: some of its own products came slowly to market, Microsoft got into some of the same business areas that Symantec has long dominated, malware creators started to target protective products by Symantec and others, and some free software available online improved to the point that it became a real challenge to Symantec’s paid products.

     It is good to know that these currents and cross-currents do not show at all in Norton SystemWorks 2006 Premier, Symantec’s latest version of its top-notch computer-protection suite.  The 2006 version of SystemWorks continues the commendable trend of recent years by packing more value into the software while making it far simpler for consumers to use.  The old days, when Norton-branded software was excellent but too geeky to be useful for most people, are long gone.

     The best thing in the new version of this software is Norton Protection Center, a single place for users to go to get a clear and relatively straightforward summary of everything they need to know about protecting their systems – based on their own computing habits.  The Protection Center aggregates information from Norton AntiVirus, the most basic computer protection of all; Norton GoBack, which lets users return to an earlier, safe configuration if a computer is ever compromised; Norton Cleanup, an easy way to get rid of the clutter that comes from Web surfing and other everyday tasks and that eventually clogs a computer and slows it down; Norton Utilities, the heart of the suite, the redoubtable program for solving all sorts of operational problems and fine-tuning a computer for better ongoing performance; and more.

     The Premier version of Norton SystemWorks 2006 costs $30 more than the standard version because it includes the excellent and efficient, but previously somewhat under-utilized, Norton Ghost 10.0.  Long sold as a standalone product for businesses needing an automated backup feature, Norton Ghost integrates remarkably well with SystemWorks 2006 Premier, which even includes a Symantec Recovery Disk feature to rescue unbootable PCs – the ultimate horror for a computer user.  The operation of this new Ghost is particularly impressive: it automatically creates an initial backup schedule based on current configuration, makes backups either on its own or on command, displays scheduled backups conveniently, and works well with Maxtor external drives equipped with OneTouch backup-starting buttons.  It is a significant enhancement of SystemWorks and well worth the extra cost.

     Not everything in this generally excellent new suite will please all users, though.  Norton GoBack is installed by default and takes a big chunk of memory.  Users satisfied with existing backup systems may not want Norton Ghost (in which case they should opt for the standard rather than premier suite).  Although some enhancements are quite useful (Norton Cleanup is now compatible with multiple browsers and can automatically import and preserve favorites and trusted Web sites), other elements are unhelpful or confusing (Process Viewer and System Optimizer are not for the faint of heart).  And a full installation of the Premier suite requires 250 megabytes – not a small amount of space even on today’s large hard drives.  Symantec’s policy of providing only one year of updates continues to be an annoyance, too, especially when excellent free products for many functions are readily available (AVG Anti-Virus, Ad-Aware SE, Spybot – Search & Destroy, etc.).

     Nevertheless, it has to be said that there is an elegance to Symantec’s suite that its competitors, paid and free, lack.  The parts of Norton SystemWorks 2006 work seamlessly together, the interface is well-designed and more comfortable than ever for near-novices to use, and the number of functions monitored, boosted, assisted and fine-tuned by this suite is unmatched by anything else on the market.  The result is a product that keeps Symantec Corporation in the forefront of computer protection, fine-tuning and performance improvement – an excellent investment for the year to come and beyond.

December 22, 2005


A Survival Guide for Working with Bad Bosses. By Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D. AMACOM. $15.

     ‘Tis the season to be jolly, but not if you work for one of the pointy-haired idiots (to borrow a Dilbert description) discussed in these pages.  Unfortunately, Gini Graham Scott’s book is about workplace reality, not the almost-reality (or surreality) of Scott Adams’ super-popular comic strip.

     This is a depressing tome in which columnist Scott, who has written more than 40 books, accurately portrays some of the worst boss types around through a series of to-the-point, based-on-reality anecdotes.  Unfortunately, the book does not quite live up to its subtitle: “Dealing with Bullies, Idiots, Back-Stabbers, and Other Managers from Hell.”  The reason is that Scott’s prescriptions are less helpful than her descriptions.  Her recommendations tend to involve becoming devious, creating a lot more work for yourself to track what a bad boss does, or finding a new job.  These may in fact be the best things you can do in the particular situations Scott presents, but if that is true, the modern workplace remains as drab and dull as any long-ago assembly line.  Not a pleasant thought.

     For example, Scott tells the story of Janice, an assistant to a demanding film director.  The director insisted on having child actors work beyond allowed hours, despite the protests of a child-welfare guardian on the set, and then decided to have the children do a physically dangerous scene in those non-allowed hours.  By coincidence, the director was injured during the filming and the scene was not shot, but that did not solve Janice’s bigger problem.  Scott lays out her options, as she does for everyone whose story she offers: say nothing and hope for the best, discuss the problems with others or the director, etc.  But Scott concludes that “this situation is one of those cases where you can do little” and suggests that people who do not fit well in an organization should “find someplace where you will find a better fit” – not an easy or pleasant task.

     Other examples involve the perfectionist/micromanaging boss (“be ready to stand up for yourself”), the boss who combines praise with putdowns (“don’t take the putdown personally”), the boss who pits coworkers against each other (“come up with some plays to end the game”), and many more.  There are 37 chapters here, almost all of them dealing with specific types of bad bosses, and one has to admire Scott for the amount of research she has done on distinguishing characteristics of boss trouble – while bemoaning the many variations of the species.  Scott’s greatest service is helping readers see the signs of particular types of mismanagement in their own bosses – and letting them know they are not alone; others face a similarly miserable environment.  Scott’s specific suggestions, though, are sometimes too glib and sometimes too difficult and time-consuming to implement while also doing one’s job and hopefully having a life outside work.  Since it is not always practical to find a new job (and possibly a new bad boss), Scott’s ideas are at least worth attempting, but the cures seem unequal to the severity of the disease.


Girl, Nearly 16, Absolute Torture. By Sue Limb. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

Chloe Leiberman (Sometimes Wong). By Carrie Rosten. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     The slightly over-clever titles of these two teen novels introduce two slightly over-clever books.  Both have considerable charm and a kind of off-kilter goofiness; neither has much more profundity than a typical “beach read.”

     Girl, Nearly 16, Absolute Torture is a sequel to Sue Limb’s Girl, 15, Charming but Insane – and is a somewhat better book.  This time, heroine Jess Jordan doesn’t seem quite as much of a cliché, and a few of the things that happen to her are at least a bit out of the ordinary.  Limb’s good sense of pacing and dialogue are intact, making the book easy to read for its intended audience: ages 10 and up.  The two intertwined themes here are Jess’s relationships with her boyfriend, Fred, and with her divorced parents.  Jess plans a perfect summer with Fred, only to be whisked away by her mother for a two-week trip to visit her father – which, incidentally, leaves Fred available to Jess’s gorgeous best friend, Flora, who in the past expressed an interest in him.  The predictable worries and jealousies are nicely offset by some less-predictable events, including Fred’s decision on a trip that he takes and Jess finding out from her father why he and her mother really broke up.  The book’s lighthearted tone prevents any of the revelations from hitting too hard, with the result that everything ends happily and in clear anticipation of another Jess book to come.

     Chloe Lieberman (Sometimes Wong) could also spawn a sequel: it ends by announcing that “the end is always just the beginning.”  Chloe has the feel of a slightly older Jess: she is a high-school senior who is trying to pursue a career in fashion design and therefore has not applied to college (though her parents think she did – how clueless are they??).  Intended for slightly older readers than Sue Limb’s book – ages 12 and up – Carrie Rosten’s relies heavily for its effect on Rosten’s writing style and format tricks.  The book is arranged as a sort of application for design school, as if every question on such an application were considered at great length and answered in entirely non-academic prose.  Chapters begin with a “do” and a “don’t,” as in one called “Sacrifice.  DO: Sacrifice for the right cause.  DON’T: Sacrifice just because.”  Chloe is half Jewish, half Chinese (hence the book’s title, with “wong” also a pun on “wrong”), and lucky enough to have highly supportive friends who help her try to realize her design-school dream.  The book is frothy and rather too blasé about major life decisions, but Rosten’s bright writing compensates for the flippancy and makes it easy to root for Chloe – who, you just know, will be fine by the end (and is).


Cryptography in the Database: The Last Line of Defense. By Kevin Kenan. Symantec Press/Addison-Wesley. $44.99.

     Encryption can contain the seeds of its own undoing.  Sony BMG Music discovered this when it included a hidden file to prevent certain forms of use of songs on several dozen of its CD releases, only to have hackers take advantage of the file’s invisibility and nonremovability to create malware on computers whose owners were unknowingly running the automatically installed code.  The major public embarrassment for Sony BMG led to a recall of nearly five million CDs, removal programs being created by Microsoft and (ineffectively) by Sony itself, and (of course) a spate of lawsuits.

     Despite cautionary examples such as this one, any database manager knows that protection of information is crucial – and, in many cases, a legal obligation.  Kevin Kenan, who leads Symantec Corporation’s information technology application and database security program, protects data for a living.  In this book, he shows other database managers how to do it.

     Understanding the book’s audience is important.  The first of this book’s four parts, “Database Security,” contains a great deal of information that a reasonably well-informed computer user will be able to understand and that will add to his or her knowledge of the environment in which data are created, collected, protected and compromised today.  But the three other parts of the book – “A Cryptographic Infrastructure,” “The Cryptographic Project” and “Example Code” – are strictly for professionals who handle corporate databases.

     Those professionals will find an exceptionally to-the-point presentation here, starting with a basic philosophical overview (“the more data a key encrypts, the weaker it becomes”) and continuing step by step through creation of a well-protected database from the initial “state of primordial innocence” through completion.  Kenan shows not only how to build a database that is secure from outside intrusion but also how to make sure it cannot be compromised from within: have different programmers work on different security-sensitive components, make different system administrators responsible for different areas, etc.  Any reader who thinks this approach steps over the line from security consciousness to paranoia needs to read more news headlines about data disruption and compromise.

     Kenan shows how to design, build and test an encrypted database, and how to decommission one that is no longer needed.  His “Example Code” section, the longest part of the book, gives precise technical instructions about code needed to implement the recommendations in the previous sections.  So what is to prevent hackers from reading Kenan’s book, learning his techniques and figuring out how to compromise them?  In theory, this cannot happen, since Kenan’s encryption system changes protective elements constantly in ways that are not predictable.  In practice, of course, purveyors of malware continue to surprise data defenders with their adaptability and cleverness at finding chinks in systems’ armor.  So Kenan’s road map should be seen as an excellent way to find a route to protection against today’s known threats – but should not be considered the be-all and end-all of data defense.  New attacks, in new forms, are a virtual certainty.


Norton Internet Security 2006. Windows 2000 Professional with SP3 or higher, or Windows XP. Symantec. $69.95.

Norton AntiVirus 2006. Windows 98, Me, 2000 Professional, or XP. Symantec. $39.95.

     The coming new year is sure to bring surprises both pleasant and unpleasant.  One way to avoid the most unpleasant computer-related surprises is to use Norton Internet Security 2006.  Like an insurance policy, this product is designed to help you sleep better at night, knowing that an important part of your life is safe and secure.  Unlike insurance, though, it works actively to make sure that threats to your electronic well-being are kept away.

     This is not one product but a suite.  Its innards are a good deal more complex than in prior versions, because threats have become more complicated and more difficult to fight.  But its user interface, thankfully, is simpler and easier to use than in previous years – Symantec seems to get better annually at this aspect of design.

     The functions of Norton Internet Security 2006 sound familiar enough: virus protection, spyware removal, firewall, intrusion prevention, privacy protection, spam detection and content filtering.  The last two of these remain only moderately helpful: no spam filter is completely satisfactory, and most parental controls are either too tight or too easy for younger users to outfox.  The rest of the suite, though, is highly useful, and contains some notable improvements over past years’ offerings.

     The greatest enhancements are in the simplicity department.  The new Norton Protection Center uses non-technical language to summarize what a user needs to know about computer defense.  Security Inspector, also new, is a super-easy-to-use, automated way to find and fix security problems.  Norton AntiSpam now has an improved filter for automatically identifying phishing – the growing problem of attempts to divert Web users from legitimate sites to phony ones that extract personal data.  Home Page Hijacking Protection adds to safety by preventing a would-be hijacker from redirecting a user’s home page to a spyware site.  And, at last, the default setting for Norton Personal Firewall is “on,” so users unfamiliar with the technology are automatically protected by this important safety feature.

     All the parts here work well together, and everything can be updated at the same time – a big advantage of this suite over downloadable programs available free or at low cost via the Web, since those programs may or may not work well in concert and are sure to require multiple updates.  Note, though, that updates of Norton Internet Security 2006 are free for only 12 months – an ongoing design and marketing irritation.

     The most basic of all Internet protection components is an antivirus program, and the excellent Norton AntiVirus 2006 not only comes within the security suite but is also available on a standalone basis.  In reality, if you install antivirus software and nothing else, your computer remains at risk; also, if you do want just an antivirus program, there are some excellent free ones available, such as Grisoft’s AVG Anti-Virus.  But if you run an older Windows operating system, you would do well to pay for Norton AntiVirus 2006.  You can’t count on the ability of most new programs to handle virus protection under Windows 98 or Windows Me, but you can depend on Symantec’s product, which in effect grew up under those operating systems and handles them very well indeed.  Most users will do best with Norton Internet Security 2006, especially now that its use has been so well simplified.  But, at minimum, get Norton AntiVirus 2006 if you run an older version of Windows.


Karel Komzák I and II: Waltzes, Marches and Polkas. Christian Pollack conducting the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra. Marco Polo. $9.99.

     The Strausses were not the only family members churning out delightful dance tunes in and around 19th-century Vienna.  From Lanner to Ziehrer, other composers with their own bands complemented and competed with Johann Sr. and Jr., Josef and Eduard.  In fact, there was one family that went the Strausses one better, at least generationally: the Komzáks, originally from southern Bohemia, later Prague, and still later Vienna itself.  All three – father (1823-1893), son (1850-1905) and grandson (1878-1924) – were named Karel or Karl.  And all three were composers – though it is not always clear who wrote which pieces, since Karel II, the most prolific, edited and possibly changed his father’s works, and it is not sure just where Karel II’s output ended and Karel III’s began.

     None of this matters to enjoyment of the Komzáks’ music, though, and it turns out that there is much to enjoy.  Saying that the Komzáks were not the equal of the Strausses is no insult – nobody was.  But the 13 works on this new CD, 10 by Karel II and three by Karel I, show a fine sense of rhythm, structure and joy that make them worthy of being much more widely known.

     The best pieces here are generally the shorter ones.  The marches are Sousa-ish – big, bold and brassy rather than having the ballroom style of the Strausses: this was a military family, and it shows.  Karel II’s Kaiser-Marsch, which won a competition at the 50th-anniversary jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph I in1898, is effective in its four-square way.  Karel I’s Feldzugmeister “Von Kuhn” Marsch, written to honor a distinguished military leader, is exceptionally marchable, with a strong beat.

     The best waltz here is the shortest: Karel II’s Petite Valse, whose gentle sweetness anticipates Lehár.  It lasts only five-and-a-half minutes and is more consistent than others that are nearly twice as long.  Karel II’s Warschauer Mäd’ln, for instance, has a good opening, but unusually long pauses in the middle and toward the end deprive it of a feeling of sweep and motion.  Similarly, Karel II’s Dein gedenk’ ich is episodic and lacks overall flow and cohesion.  Karel I’s Moldauwellen has a nice lilt, but do not look for a tone painting of the waves of the Moldau: the title, like the others here, is fanciful rather than directly related to the music.

     There are no fast polkas on this CD – only the slower Polka Mazurka and Polka Française forms.  The best is Karel II’s Maiblümchen, a delicate and bright work that nicely reflects its floral title.  All the remaining pieces have their attractive moments, even if none has a sustained tunefulness matching the best works of other composers of the Komzáks’ era.  Yet given the over-familiarity of some of the works by the Strauss family, it is a real pleasure to have high-quality, less-known music of the same type available for the dual pleasures of listening and discovery.

December 15, 2005


Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History. By Bryn Barnard. Crown. $17.95.

Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses, and Crescents. By Mark Podwal. Doubleday. $15.95.

     In this season of supposed peace on Earth, there are, as in all such seasons, worries as well as good cheer abounding.  Young readers interested in getting some perspective on news stories of today will be helped – and potentially uplifted – by reading these two books.

     There is actually more information than uplift in Outbreak, but it can certainly help put worries about a bird-flu pandemic in perspective.  This is the story of widespread disease outbreaks that caused major changes in civilization – such as the Black Death, which sounded the funeral knell not only for millions of people but also for the feudal system under which Europe had until then been governed.  Bryn Barnard, whose previous book looked at disasters of another sort (it was called Dangerous Planet: Natural Disasters That Changed History), manages as much bright writing as possible on a super-serious subject: one section of a chapter, for instance, is called “Lifestyles of the Small and Deadly.”  In addition to the Black Death, Barnard discusses smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis and influenza (the flu in all its forms).  To the extent possible, he shows positive elements resulting from disease outbreaks, trying to indicate that the changes in history caused by disease involved more than the deaths of millions of people.   Yellow fever, he suggests, helped end slavery, while tuberculosis – once thought to be a sign of wistfulness, lovesickness and artistic temperament – lost its romantic status after scientists isolated the bacterium that causes it and discovered that careful attention to hygiene could prevent the disease.  Barnard’s conclusion about the simultaneous evolution of human beings and the germs that sicken us makes the current worries about a possible worldwide outbreak of bird flu very clear indeed.

     Jerusalem Sky clarifies other matters.  Mark Podwal – a clinical associate professor of medicine as well as an author and illustrator – uses this book to explain the centrality of Jerusalem to the spiritual life of three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Starting with the legend that Jerusalem’s sky is unique because it “has a hole in it, made by a jewel that fell from God’s throne,” Podwal explains the city’s importance to the three great monotheistic religions.  Jews believe a full moon shone over Jerusalem for seven years as King Solomon built the Temple; Christians believe a star in the Jerusalem sky heralded the birth of Jesus; Muslims believe “midnight glowed like day” when Muhammad rode through the sky on a flying horse on his way to heaven.  The legends are far more uplifting than the modern reality of a city over which fighting is almost constant.  Podwal notes this fact of life, but places it in the context of people seeking peace through their prayers “all addressed to one God.”  It is a fitting, if not entirely realistic, way to view the unending conflicts over a city considered holy by so many millions of people.


Frazz: Life at Bryson Elementary. By Jef Mallett. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

BoNanas: Monkey Meets World. By John Kovaleski. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

The Other Coast: This Is Your First Rock Garden, Isn’t It? By Adrian Raeside. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     If your newspaper does not carry these three comic strips – and it may not, since none of them is particularly widely available – you have been missing a great deal of fun and, in the case of one strip, something really special.

     Frazz fully deserves a (++++) ranking for its unusual concept, clever writing and offbeat artwork.  Set in an elementary school, it is the story of a songwriter who has hit it big but prefers to stick with the job he took when he was not yet a success: school janitor.  The premise is ridiculous, but so what?  It works wonderfully, explaining why a smart, with-it young man whose frizzy hair makes him look like a grown-up version of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes is scraping gum off desks and cleaning throw-up in the cafeteria.  It is because Edwin Frazier (his real name, which no one uses) does all these things out of love for kids that Jef Mallett’s strip communicates so much warmth to readers.  There’s knowledge here, too: the word use is exemplary.  And there are some knowing observations about human relationships, as when the school’s principal, Mr. Spaetzle, laments having “a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D., nine years of teaching, two decades of managing staff, tweaking budgets, and juggling schedules as an administrator – and about one-tenth the respect afforded the guy who chased a bee out of the lunchroom.”  The characters and their relationships are thoughtful and well-developed.  Frazz’s frequent foil is a student named Caulfield – after Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye – who is brilliant but bored.  Mr. Spaetzle worries that Caulfield’s failure to take assessment tests seriously is “blowing the curve, nicking our funding and torpedoing his own transcripts,” and he asks Frazz, “What is his problem with standardized tests?”  Frazz’s answer: “Maybe they only work with standardized kids.”  There is wisdom as well as amusement here.  Enjoy this book, then seek out the strip.

     BoNanas and The Other Coast are nowhere near the level of Frazz, but both have their moments and both deserve (+++) rankings.  BoNanas is a huge-nosed monkey who speaks well, lives among humans and is even attractive to single human women (one highlight is a sequence in which he quits office work because all the women are hearing their biological clocks tick and are therefore pursuing him).  The fun here comes from an old idea: the naïf exploring the complexities of life.  But that is essentially all there is to John Kovaleski’s strip; and the drawing style, though amusing enough, is not especially interesting in itself.  This is a hit-or-miss strip: funny and pointed at times, much less so at others.

     The same is true of The Other Coast, another one-joke strip whose focus is the peculiar way Californians see the world.  Because there are so many variations of this peculiarity, Adrian Raeside never lacks for material.  But not all the variations are equally amusing.  This second collection of the strip has the same central characters: diminutive writer Toulouse and his wife, Vicky – a devotee of ecological causes who is willing to buy an alligator handbag because the skin comes from a gator that was run over by an outboard motor.  Other recurring characters are the always overweight Larry, who works in the same office as Vicky; a rock band that lives (or at least constantly practices) next door to Toulouse and Vicky’s house; Simon the vegan; and other typecast types.  The writing occasionally hits home, as when Simon boasts of his car that uses “clean, environmentally friendly electricity” and is parked near a smoke-spewing power plant.  But most of the humor is of the gentle-kidding type: worth an occasional look, but thin as a daily diet.


Confessions of a Boyfriend Stealer. By Robynn Clairday. Delacorte Press. $7.95.

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman. By Louise Plummer. Laurel-Leaf. $5.99.

     Readers ages 12 and up will immediately identify with the characters in these books and likely enjoy the far-fetched plots, provided that they realize they are far-fetched.  Robynn Clairday’s Confessions of a Boyfriend Stealer is told in blog form, starting with a section called “Behind the Confessional Curtain” by protagonist Genesis Bell.  This section helps identify the target audience immediately by revealing that Gen is 16½, loves various junk foods, has musical tastes that “fluctuate with my moods,” has a “basically dysfunctional” family life, and loved The Blair Witch Project and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The book is a series of posts and ripostes (re-posts?) about Gen stealing not one but two boyfriends from not one but two of her (former) best friends.  Gen keeps busy explaining what really happened and trying to figure out why, while other postings argue about whether Gen really set out to be a boyfriend stealer or whether everything was the fault of “her best friends, the Terribles – CJ and Tasha!  They are total nasty, conceited skanks!”  The complicated plot revolves around Gen being an aspiring documentary maker.  Like an emotional whirlpool, it pulls in everything from religion to Gen’s mom and sister being interested in the same man.  It’s a modern melodrama, for sure, silly and unbelievable and absolutely not to be taken seriously, but fast-paced and frequently fun.

     The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman is fun in a different way.  Louis Plummer, whose previous book, A Dance for Three, was gritty and dark and in many ways unpleasant, takes things much more lightly here.  Kate wants to write about her romance with the great-looking Richard, but she hates romance novels and knows how sappy they invariably sound.  Still, she herself has sappy feelings for Richard, although she also has the (inevitable) complicated and conflict-filled home life, so she actually uses a romance-writing phrase book to help her put her story together.  The result is often highly amusing: “My father, age fifty-four, could fall hopelessly in carnal love with Fleur St. Germaine, leave my mother, age forty-five, and me, his computer, his classroom, his phonetic alphabets, and Minnesota, and go off to some beach somewhere with a twenty-one-year-old college student.  It happens all the time.”  There are also sections (in different type) called “Revision Notes,” in which Kate considers different and better ways she could tell her own story.  There is plenty of navel-gazing here, but there is also genuine feeling and not a little tenderness.  This unusual book will not appeal to teens who want to get right to the heart of a story, but for those who like to wander in characters’ minds a bit, it will be a most pleasant journey.


Strengthening Your Stepfamily. By Elizabeth Einstein, M.A., MFT, and Linda Albert, Ph.D. Impact Publishers. $17.95.

     It is the height of naïveté to believe that the problems of a first marriage will not find their way into a second one.  Especially if a first marriage ends in divorce, as so many do, people should realize that the factors that brought about the end of one union will carry over to a new one.  But hope springs eternal, nowhere more so than in matters of the heart, so stepfamilies form at a fast pace as the previously married bring themselves, their children and their dreams into new romantic entanglements.  Often, what results is additional heartache for all concerned – and another marital breakup.

     You can lessen the chance of this happening to you, say family therapist Elizabeth Einstein and columnist Linda Albert, by realizing that the usual rules of family life do not apply to stepfamilies, and developing individualized standards for stepfamily success.  These standards must include your own way of coping with the realities of stepfamily life.  You must accept the fact that ex-spouses exist and continue to have a role in your new mate’s life because of his or her children.  You must analyze your own lifestyle patterns in past relationships – values, political views, hobbies and more – and decide which to keep or jettison as you create a new life as a couple.  You must bring fears out in the open and find ways to deal with them, either together or with the help of a third party, such as a counselor.

     Stepfamilies start with baggage.  Basic decisions are required about money management (several accounts or a merged one?), housing (move to one partner’s house or the other’s, or somewhere new?), and discipline of children (who decides which children get disciplined in what way?).  “Few people understand all their own expectations, let alone their mate’s,” write Einstein and Albert.  But the closer a couple gets to such understanding, the better chance a new marriage has.

     The authors recommend supportive comments that spouses can make to each other instead of the unhelpful ones that may come more readily to mind.  They provide a series of worksheets for dealing with stepfamily issues: “What did I learn from my former relationship?  What am I still repeating?”  And they present chapter-closing “points to ponder,” such as, “Remarried non-custodial parents with stepchildren often feel guilty about raising someone else’s children when they cannot be with their own as often.”  The book’s oversized pages are too information-packed for most stepparents to have time to go through them, but Strengthening Your Stepfamily can be useful if taken in small doses, perhaps by focusing on one troubling issue at a time and seeing what the authors have to say about it.  Their advice is good, although harried stepparents’ ability to implement it without third-party help is likely to be minimal.  Reading this book therefore leads to a conclusion both helpful and troubling: all stepfamilies would likely benefit from therapy of some type, both before the remarriage and during its stabilization period – which may last for years.


Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Piano Concerto No. 5, Symphony No. 5, Egmont Overture; Bruckner: Symphony No. 3. George Szell conducting Sächsische Statskapelle Dresden. Nikita Magaloff, piano. Andante. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     The name of George Szell will forever be associated with the Cleveland Orchestra, which he raised to national and international prominence through his role as its music director from 1946 until his death in 1970.  Interestingly, it turns out that Szell’s remarkable conducting techniques, which elicited a clarity and precision in Cleveland never before heard from an American orchestra, were transferable.  At the Salzburg Festival in 1961 and 1965, Szell conducted the Dresden Staatskapelle with intensity and drama that remain memorable today.

     We know how good the concerts were because the original master tapes were preserved, and have now been digitally remastered for this recording.  The sound, especially from 1961, is not up to today’s standards, though it is largely free of tape hiss and other common problems of 1960s recordings.  But the performances are up to the standards of any day.

     The 1961 selections are all by Beethoven.  The CD starts with a precisely played Coriolan Overture whose silences are as dramatic as the loudest sections – a Szell trademark.  Then there is an “Emperor” concerto in which the orchestra outclasses the soloist: Nikita Magaloff plays well enough, but his timidity (especially in the first movement) makes this sound more like the “Pretender to the Throne” concerto.  It is possible that the microphone placement put Magaloff at a disadvantage.  But he gets stronger as the work progresses, and a good thing, too, because Szell has the orchestra playing with tremendous intensity throughout.  The performance gleams despite sound that is, overall, rather thin.

     And speaking of intensity, Szell produces it to the nth degree in the Fifth Symphony: the hammering of the first movement is almost enough to make you jump, the quiet at the end of the third is both ethereal and mysterious, and the opening of the finale is so speedy and insistent that it is abundantly clear why Beethoven added trombones only for this movement.  Szell manages to maintain a hectic pace to the end, by which time he has absolutely hammered the C Major conclusion into the audience’s ears.  The performance is not perfect: parts of the second movement are a bit rushed, and the repeat of the exposition of the finale is omitted (this was customary at the time but is still unfortunate).  In all, though, this is a highly exciting and thoroughly memorable reading.

     The 1965 CD opens with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, and it is immediately clear that audio technology has advanced considerably.  Szell’s dramatic flair is as much in evidence here as in the 1961 CD, but this recording has warmth and presence that are missing from the earlier one and that add new dimension and subtlety to the performance.  The warmth is especially welcome in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3, which Szell paces with verve and spirit while not neglecting its emotional depths – to the extent that they are available in the 1888-1889 version he conducts.  This was the third and final version of the symphony, whose original (1873) version was not published until 1977, long after Szell’s death.  The 1888-1889 truncation of this so-called “Wagner” symphony (which quotes from several works by Richard Wagner and was dedicated to him) is an unfortunate one: the 1873 version is Bruckner’s longest work, running 75 to 80 minutes, while this one runs only 50 at Szell’s quick tempi.

     So this is not Bruckner for purists – but, taken on its own terms, it is highly effective.  Szell does not wallow, keeping the music moving smartly along while bringing out the relationships among the thematic groups to fine effect.  There is little he can do to make the finale coherent – it runs 11½ minutes here, compared with 20 minutes in the 1873 original – and his movement from scherzo to trio is too abrupt, making the latter seem totally disconnected from the former.  Otherwise, though, this is a performance of understanding and clarity, and well worth hearing.

     The audiences in these live recordings are reasonably quiet – the 1965 listeners more so.  The only production oddity is the long pauses between movements: 15 to 20-plus seconds, during which there is plenty of rustling and coughing.  Still, these recordings are musically rich and a fine addition to the Szell discography – and to the memory of this great conductor.

December 11, 2005


Seussical. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Production at Imagination Stage, Bethesda, Maryland, through January 15, 2006.

     Create a four-star production of a three-star musical and it’s still a three-star musical – but more fun.  That’s the Imagination Stage production of Seussical in a nutshell.

     On Broadway, Seussical was, to put it politely, less than successful.  It’s easy to see why: who is the audience?  Parents who remember Seuss’s works fondly will not take kindly to the many changes wrought on them here.  Kids who only recently read or heard the works are likely to be even less forgiving.  Very young children, or ones who do not know Dr. Seuss (are there any?), are probably the best audience.  At Imagination Stage, though, Seussical also appeals to people who simply want to have a good time.

     This is a shortened, tightened and better-focused version of the Broadway show, acted and sung by a cast whose enthusiasm is so great that it more than overcomes occasionally ragged voices.  Mollie Clement as Jojo (the youngest Who heard by Horton) is a gem: a child actress who can really project, who understands her part and who doesn’t rely solely on cuteness, though she has plenty of that.  Rob McQuay as Horton, the nominal hero, is wheelchair-bound and makes the chair into an important part of his character: the way he swerves it, pushes with one arm and then the other to give the impression of a lumbering gait, and spins it around to show surprise is simply marvelous.  Doug Sanford as the Cat in the Hat, who starts the action and helps lace it together, is bouncy, mischievous and just sly enough.

     The story basically combines Horton Hears a Who and Horton Hatches the Egg, emphasizing the former and greatly filling out the subsidiary character roles.  Horton is one of Dr. Seuss’s best creations: simple, steadfast, and warmhearted almost to the point of stupidity – but in a lovable way.  So far, so good.  Where Seussical goes astray, even in this improved version, is in making Horton both too self-aware and too formulaic.  Having him sing about being “all alone” and saying he “found magic” simply rings false.  Such lines as, “I was just a no one…you showed up and showed me something more” could have come from almost any Broadway show of the past 50 years.  They decidedly do not come from Dr. Seuss.  Nor does the idea of giving the bird Gertrude McFuzz (a charmingly animated Jennifer Anderson) an unrequited crush on Horton, which is eventually reciprocated after the egg hatches the famous “elephant bird” and she promises to help Horton care for it.  “You teach him earth and I will teach him sky.”  Oh, yuck.

     Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens might have gotten away with some of their more trivial and hackneyed lines (“alone in the universe too,” “somewhere beyond the horizon” – double yuck!) if Flaherty’s music had been outstanding.  No such luck: the songs are catchy but not infectious, with not a showstopper among them.  The result could be genuinely unlikable in an uninspired production – but this is where Kathryn Chase Bryer, lighting director Jason Arnold, choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt and stage manager Kristen J. Bishel come to the show’s rescue.

     The production is simply wonderful.  The set – one for the whole show – is big, bright and vaguely suggestive of a Seuss landscape.  A ramp in the middle, a trap door in front and various open-and-close panels give the cast plenty of chances to move about, and they do so constantly, with energy that sometimes approaches the manic and generally serves to distract from the weaknesses of the show’s book (which become most obvious in the slow ballads).  Every subsidiary part is well filled.  Patricia Hurley is especially good as “runaway” Mayzie Le Bird, here done in a Marilyn Monroe wig and with as much flashiness as possible.  Priscilla Cuellar makes an effective, bad-but-not-evil Sour Kangaroo, though the dance she leads when preparing to boil the Whos’ dust speck in oil is overdone.  As the Wickersham Brothers, the monkeys who grab Horton’s dust speck and spirit it away, L.C. Harden Jr., Michael Mejia and Joel Reuben Ganz (who doubles as the Whos’ mayor) offer a good blend of menace and mischief-making.  Smaller roles – Brianne Cobuzzi as Mrs. Who and a bird girl, Cyana Cook as another bird girl – are just fine as well.

     There is no way that Seussical is Seuss.  A few minutes with the climactic trial scene (trial scene?), in which the Cat as judge commits Horton to an asylum for the criminally insane (asylum?), makes it clear by just how much this show misses the simple, homespun values of Dr. Seuss.  Nevertheless, Imagination Stage’s production almost saves Seussical from itself.  This is far from a great musical, but the wonderful production certainly makes it captivating.

December 08, 2005


Our Server Is Down! “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 20. By Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Pimp My Lunch: “Zits” Sketchbook No. 10. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Never Wink at a Worried Woman: A “For Better or For Worse” Collection. By Lynn Johnston. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     If the only thing that mattered in cartooning was consistency, the most popular comic strip in the world would be Garfield.  (Okay, it is extremely popular, but that says more about some readers’ tastes than about the strip itself.)  The best comic strips provide a consistently high level of quality and, if they are story-oriented strips, consistently interesting and believable (or at least recognizable) characters.  But they also provide constant variation, so you never quite know what to expect from one day to the next – except that it will be something delightful.

     Jerry Scott has a hand – specifically, whatever hand he writes with – in two of the strips that are most adept at staying at the highest possible standard.  Baby Blues has remained a delight from its earliest days, when Zoe was born, right through to now, when Zoe is seven, brother Hammie is five, and sister Wren is a toddler.  That’s impressive consistency – but even more impressive are the always-bright writing, the exaggeratedly appropriate art of Rick Kirkman, and the endless variations on the theme of irrepressible children interacting with overworked and overstressed parents.  The “server” in Our Server Is Down! refers not to a computer but to mom Wanda, who spends so much time serving her kids that she eventually collapses into sleep.  Dad Darryl has his share of reasons for exhaustion, too, from trying to save money for the kids’ college educations (finding change in the dryer’s lint trap will double the college fund), to pulling everyone else out of the family minivan because the ice cream that keeps the kids quiet also attaches them to the seats (“sticky kids or whiny kids – take your pick,” says Wanda).  This collection includes “Ask a Mom/Ask a Dad” strips highlighting different parental responses to the same question, several hearty helpings of sibling rivalry (and as many of sibling revelry), and the family visiting the zoo – where Darryl asks for five tickets, “two roundtrip and three one way.”  What parent hasn’t at least considered that prospect?

     Eventually, of course, little kids grow older and bigger, out of diapers and temper tantrums and into teenagerdom – which makes many parents long for those earlier, simpler days.  But there’s no way to go back, so one must go forward into Zits, which adds a healthy dose of surrealism to the tale of Jeremy Duncan, his family, his friends and his world-weariness.  At 15, Jeremy knows just what he wants: fame and fortune without work.  But he is not sure what to say to get him where he wants to be (he compliments his girlfriend, Sara, by saying she looks like “workout Barbie”).  Jeremy is prone to fantasies (he imagines the attractive school guidance counselor wearing a leopard-print bikini and hanging upside-down like a trapeze artist) and insecurities (he changes into his “question authority” T-shirt only after leaving the house).  Jim Borgman, one of the best artists in the business, is a major reason for the strip’s success.  He perfectly captures Jeremy’s expression as he wakes up, yawns, and says, “Hello, world.  Now entertain me.”  He also shows Jeremy’s mother, Connie, literally hitting the ceiling, and sticking there; Jeremy’s dad blasted by a jet engine when Jeremy cranks up his new amp; Jeremy and his friends as inscrutable Easter Island heads when Connie suggests they place Yahtzee; and much more.

     Both Baby Blues and Zits exaggerate reality to show it more clearly.  For Better or For Worse mostly just displays reality as it is – with a few nips and tucks here and there to fit a daily four-panel format.  Lynn Johnston’s strip could fairly be called a soap opera if the phrase did not have so many negative connotations.  It chronicles the ins and outs of the Patterson family with pervasive affection and so much realism that the characters seem like next-door neighbors.  In the latest collection, daughter Elizabeth becomes a teacher and deals with an “obnoxious little twirp” in her class by remembering how she handled her older brother, Michael – who is now married and a father himself.  The third Patterson child, April, is now a teenager and a member of a rock band that does surprisingly well in a competition – until April breaks a string on stage.  Parents John and Elly remain the center of the strip’s universe, but this book focuses more on others, such as Grandpa Jim, who has a memory lapse that leads to an accident, unwanted dependency and the need for a walker; and Elizabeth’s high-school boyfriend, Anthony, who marries a woman whose jealousy of Elizabeth is truly cutting (she literally “looks knives” in one strip).

     Different all these strips surely are, but in one crucial way they are similar: readers know the characters intimately, have a strong sense of their personalities, and know they can count on the writers and artists to stay true to those personalities while keeping the day-to-day occurrences lively and engaging.  That is the formula for lasting quality and popularity.  And in strips as good as these, there is nothing formulaic about it.


Venusia. By Mark von Schlegell.  Semiotext(e) Native Agents/MIT Press. $14.95.

Flush. By Carl Hiaasen. Knopf. $16.95.

     Neither of the worlds in these books exists.  Or both do.  It’s a matter of interpretation, and of how you see where we are today.  Mark von Schlegell’s Venusia is a traditionally dystopic view of a future society, except that that doesn’t quite capture it.  It’s set on the colony of the title, an off-world place that has survived the destruction of Earth and is getting on quite well, thank you, at the end of the 23rd century.  But all is of course not well.  It is the way it is not well that makes von Schlegell’s book – his first novel – fascinating.  Venusia is historically inert, its people captured by industrialized narcotics, holographic entertainment and memory control imposed for their own benefit by a totalitarian but enlightened government.  Does this sound vaguely familiar?  It should.  Familiarity peeks through the strangeness everywhere here.  Consider von Schlegell’s description of the setup of an interview: “Sylvia was surprised to see that the journalist had unpacked a flying Iye and set it hovering above her head.  The little silver ball was turning, tracing the entire office in 3-D. …’Excuse me, Citizen Dobbs,’ Sylvia interrupted.  She took off her helmet and looked into the Iye, shaking her luxurious hair.  ‘Shhh.’  The machine whispered.  ‘Go on as if Iye wasn’t here.’”  Now, how is this different from today’s “just ignore the camera” or “talk into the tape recorder” interviews?  It isn’t, in any meaningful way.  And this familiarity within difference gives von Schlegell’s method of upsetting the stasis of Venusia a pointed quality: what happens is that a junk dealer finds a book about early Venusian history that upsets the apple cart.  It’s actually a sentient-plant cart – the plant is a significant character – but the parallels between Venusia’s history (or non-history) and our own remain clear and pertinent no matter how outrageous the narrative becomes.  And it becomes pretty outrageous – Venusia is a roller-coaster of a read.

     Carl Hiaasen’s works are usually roller-coasters, but their setting is some variation of modern-day Florida rather than a space settlement.  Hiaasen’s adventures have an out-of-this-world quality to them, though.  Flush is his second book for young readers, after Hoot, and it too puts his off-kilter characters and highly unusual plotting at the service of an ecological message.  Flush is all about the raw sewage being, shall we say, flushed into previously pristine waters and polluting previously beautiful beaches, all at the behest of a crooked casino-boat operator named Dusty Muleman (Hiaasen’s characters’ names are always redolent of their personalities).  Young Noah Underwood finds himself on a quest to stop Dusty after Noah’s father tries to sink the dastardly Muleman’s casino boat, the Coral Queen, and is arrested.  Joined by his sister, Abbey, Noah embarks on “Operation Flush” to prove that Muleman and his boat are responsible for all the recent pollution of the bay and the beaches.  The good guys eventually win, of course, but not before the reader encounters such typically Hiaasenian characters as a deadbeat former Coral Queen crew member named Lice Peking and a mysterious pirate with an M-shaped scar.  Flush is a romp, but a romp with a purpose, and if the message is a touch heavy-handed at times, the writing style and fast pacing never are.  And there is no question that Hiaasen’s world, no matter how done-up and twisted, is very much our own.


Damn! A Christmas Book with Sex, Violence, Drugs and Fruitcake: The Aberrant Art of Barry Kite. By Barry Kite. Pomegranate. $17.95.

The Nutty News. By Ron Barrett. Knopf. $8.95.

     By this time in gift-giving season, you have no doubt come up against a few recipients who are simply unclassifiable.  They are, in a word, rather weird (okay, that’s two words).  For those people – and only those people – these books may make delightful gifts, or at least suitably strange ones.

     The ins and outs of the title of Barry Kite’s book are already enough to confuse those who are easily confused.  The cover, which is also shown inside, is a hunting scene showing boaters with rifles on the River Thames, with the Houses of Parliament in the background. One man has just brought down none other than Santa Claus, who is falling into the river as his driverless sleigh continues flying high above.  Damn! indeed.  All Kite’s work in this book has the same sort of surreality and non-too-subtle undermining of traditional holiday spirit.  A picture called “Seasonal Adjustment” appears to show an old-fashioned madhouse where all the inmates are Santa, except for the one who is Napoleon; a clinician’s hands are dispensing a pill in the foreground.  One called “Maintaining Traditional Values” puts the Virgin Mary in a martial-arts costume and shows her kicking Santa for a loop.  A picture based on Renoir’s famous “The Boating Party” adds Santa, the Mona Lisa (wearing Santa’s hat) and a Picasso nude to the group.  Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Culp” is altered to show that the true cause of death of the corpse being dissected is a gaudily colored fruitcake.  To say this book is not for all tastes is to understate by quite a bit.  But there is a sort of off-center charm to the pictures and to Kite’s discussions of them.  It’s probably a great gift for someone who’s a little, you know, different.

     If that someone is a child, though, you certainly won’t want to give Kite’s book.  But you might consider The Nutty News, a reprint of a thoroughly silly 1981 book originally called The Daily Blab.  Set up to look like an undersized newspaper, Ron Barrett’s book is filled with the sorts of oddities that even today are fodder for gossip columns and “lifestyle” sections: cartoons come to life and create chaos in the house of a human family; a man named Vasco de Sussman claims he, not Columbus, “discovered” America, and in 1942, not 1492; a hostage-from-birth named Rae Punzel lets down her hair from an apartment house so a rock star named Mike Rofone can climb up for a date; a “Your Dreams” column answers sleep questions; and a comics section includes such offerings as “Nothing but Action” (tank chase, speeding train and airplane crash in three panels) and “Captain Complicated” (too much thinking interferes with fighting crime).  Most of this will provoke groans rather than gales of laughter, but some items are genuinely funny, and the whole project is sufficiently offbeat to make a really nice present for someone who is…well…sufficiently offbeat.


How to Negotiate Like a Child: Unleash the Little Monster Within to Get Everything You Want.  By Bill Adler, Jr.  AMACOM.  $17.95.

     It is Bill Adler’s thesis that everyone has an inner brat and that said brat can be used effectively to win at negotiations and succeed in business.

     Thank goodness this book is written at least partly tongue-in-cheek.  We have far too many adult children in business already.

     Adler is a book packager by profession.  Give him credit for knowing what the market wants and how to package it.  People want simple solutions that don’t really require them to learn anything new, presented with punch and attitude in books that are not too long (this one runs 161 pages).  Studying, working hard, networking and analyzing situations carefully are far less interesting than throwing temper tantrums, crying, winning through sympathy and winning through cuteness – some of the techniques Adler recommends here.  Again, to be sure, there is a tongue-in-cheek quality to the book, but that tongue is not too firmly planted.  Consider: “Make Weak Promises” is one Adler suggestion.  He draws attention to kids’ promises to care for a dog if the family gets one and to clean up a room after bedtime – promises both child and parents know will not be kept, but ones in which “hope nearly always triumphs over experience.”  Adler explains how this works in the book business, his area of expertise: an author promises a celebrity endorsement to get a contract, and does indeed try to get in touch with a celebrity; no endorsement is forthcoming; but the publisher always thought it was a long shot, and by the time the “no” arrives, “the book contract is already signed and the book has taken up a slot in the fall release schedule.”  Adler then shows how to use the weak promise to get what you want, while saving face by having a not-too-unreasonable backup to turn to when the original promise cannot be kept.  How tongue-in-cheek is all this?  Not very.

     And that is the way the whole book goes.  Kids will cry anywhere, to get anything, writes Adler, so why shouldn’t adults?  “When you cry, the person with whom you are negotiating will have to break stride and deal with your crying. …The tone and substance of the negotiations will no longer be under the control of that individual; you will be in charge.”

     And so it goes, page after page – ideas about underhanded techniques for succeeding in business, presented with just enough humor to give Adler plausible deniability if anyone accuses him of cheapening discourse and undermining workplace ethics.  “Who, me?”  Adler can say.  “I was only kidding around.”  Don’t you believe it: it’s the same sort of thing a child says after injuring another.  The injury is no less real, and the lie compounds rather than forgives it.  You just have to see through it; that’s all.


Microsoft Student 2006. Windows Professional 2000 with Service Pack 4, or Windows XP. Microsoft. $69.95.

Think of this as a “homework helper deluxe.” Microsoft Student 2006 combines homework tools from recent editions of Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia, adds a variety of bells and whistles, and ends up with a series of templates, toolbars and tutorials to make middle-school and high-school homework easier to do and more professional in appearance.

The software includes a Web Companion to pull in results from major online search engines without needing to open a browser; a full copy of the latest Microsoft Encarta Premium encyclopedia; and a Learning Essentials for Students module to make it easier for student to write reports, create diagrams, build charts and more. There are tools for managing group projects, too, and an especially neat graphing calculator that displays in either 2-D or 3-D and, with an extensive Equations Library, does trigonometry, calculus, geometry, physics and chemistry – all in full color.

This is an impressive piece of software, but it is not one that can be recommended wholeheartedly to every family, and not one that parents should buy naïvely, in the belief that a student can just start it running and get loads of help with all aspects of homework. Actually, you can’t just start up the program at all: you must first install the clunky and cumbersome Microsoft .Net technology, if you don’t have it already – and if you use the version bundled with Microsoft Student 2006, you must then download multiple service packs and patches to repair the security flaws in that version. This is not fun and not fast. Before even starting installation, you should make sure you have gobs of available computer memory – the fully installed program requires more than four gigabytes! And be sure you already own Microsoft Office XP or Office 2003, because some elements of this program require those other ones, and buying the combination just to use the student software would be prohibitively expensive. In fact, this program alone is not cheap – kids already familiar with free homework help available online or through their schools, and comfortable using the Web for research, will not get enough benefit to justify the $100 cost.

Still, there is a great deal to like here. Online Math Homework Help gives step-by-step instructions and good hints for problem-solving (but only one year of it is included); plot summaries of numerous great books, and details of their authors’ lives, make book reports easy to design and can even make them fun to write; extensive guidelines for starting essays and reports make the design-and-format drudgery easier so students can focus on creativity; foreign-language assignments are simplified by the included translation tools, verb conjugations and spell checking for French, German, Italian and Spanish; and the automatic links to more than 70,000 Encarta articles – provided in a separate window that can be minimized – make it gratifyingly easy to organize search results.

Microsoft Student 2006 has some of the feeling of a beta release, though the software itself works flawlessly. Excellent elements are mixed with less-useful ones, installation is far from quick or seamless, and this software requires a computer with plenty of spare memory and several other programs already installed. If you do have everything this student helper requires, it can be a great one-stop shop for kids seeking homework help. But if you don’t, the cost of Microsoft Student 2006 is very hard to justify.