January 26, 2006


Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship. By Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu. Photographs by Peter Greste. Scholastic. $16.99.

The Journey: Stories of Migration. By Cynthia Rylant. Illustrated by Lambert Davis. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $16.99.

     One of the most heartwarming animal stories of 2005 – and certainly the most unusual – was about the friendship that developed between an orphan baby hippopotamus and a 130-year-old tortoise.  Owen & Mzee tells that story with wonderfully lucid prose and truly astonishing photos.  The tale begins with the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, which wiped out a hippopotamus herd and left a single baby stranded.  This was Owen, who was only two feet tall but weighed 600 pounds and could not easily be moved from the reef where he was stuck.  The story of his rescue and move to Haller Park, an animal sanctuary 50 miles away, makes up the first part of this book – and a riveting story it is.  But it is after the move that the remarkable event occurs.  Owen meets Mzee (pronounced mm-ZAY), an old Alhambra tortoise from islands off the African coast, east of Tanzania.  For reasons that scientists do not yet fully understand, Owen attaches himself to Mzee – and Mzee, usually solitary and unfriendly, soon accepts and starts to encourage Owen’s attention.  The narrative that follows, and the photos that illustrate it, make for a genuinely uplifting experience: Owen will eat only when Mzee is near, and the two swim together, sleep together, and show genuine affection by nuzzling each other.  The conclusion, indicating what is happening now and is likely to happen in the future to these two unlikely friends, ends the book on a positive note.  And speaking of unlikely: the impetus for this book, and some of its contents, come from Isabella Hatkoff – age six.

     Cynthia Rylant’s The Journey cannot compete with Owen & Mzee for heartstring tugging, but it is quite remarkable in its own way.  This is the story of some of the amazing animal migrations that take place regularly, but of which most people are only sporadically aware.  Imagine swarms of locusts covering 100 square miles of sky…gray whales traveling 6,000 miles on an empty stomach…and eels successfully moving between fresh and salt water in a journey that would kill other fish.  These are just some of the stories Rylant tells, enlivened by realistic and beautifully detailed paintings by Lambert Davis.  Rylant does not simply say what happens during migrations – she also tries to explain why things happen.  But she does not hesitate to say what scientists do not know: caribou surely travel to find food in bitterly cold weather – but no one knows how the caribou locate the forests 600 miles away in which they can feed.  Nor does anyone know for sure how the Arctic tern can fly an astonishing 25,000 miles – from North Pole to South Pole and back – every single year.  Rylant concludes that migration is “one of the most wonderful mysteries on this earth.”  Readers will surely agree – and marvel.


Pompeii: Lost & Found. By Mary Pope Osborne. Frescoes by Bonnie Christensen. Knopf. $16.95.

Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit. By Eric L. Haney. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     There have been many books about the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D. by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius – and about the remarkable preservation of the city’s artifacts, including impressions of its people, because of the speed and nature of the catastrophe.  But there has never been one quite like this.  Mary Pope Osborne focuses on the everyday life of Pompeii, and Bonnie Christensen illustrates Osborne’s words by creating actual frescoes in the style of the ones that still decorate Pompeii’s walls.

     The results can be positively eerie, as they are in the two final two-page spreads.  One shows Pompeii in ancient days, with four people and a dog going about their lives.  The other shows the scene from the identical angle today, with Pompeii’s walls now in ruins and the people in modern dress but otherwise doing almost exactly what their ancient counterparts were doing – down to the presence of a dog that seems identical to the long-ago one.  The effect is utterly remarkable, and teaches a history lesson in a way that only art can do.

     Osborne’s words are more ordinary than this, but highly informative.  She explains the disappearance of Pompeii and its reappearance some 1,700 years later, with many objects (excellently depicted by Christensen) remaining intact.  Osborne enlivens her descriptions by focusing on the little things, such as graffiti that praised individual gladiators: “Celadus, glory of the girls.”  The result is a book whose words and illustrations truly make Pompeii come alive again.

     Volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters still claim thousands of lives today – but the modern world also faces dangers the ancient Romans never did, such as international terrorism.  Videogame players ages 12 and up, who have often had the chance to “take out” modern terrorists through intense first-person shooters, will be surprised to learn that the super-secret antiterrorist squads of which they pretend to be members have a real-life counterpart.  Inside Delta Force is the story of this counterterrorist group, as told by founding member Eric Haney.  Obviously, Haney does not reveal all the details about Delta Force, which requires secrecy to function effectively.  But he tells a surprising amount, both about the organization and about himself.

     Haney is a no-nonsense person and a no-nonsense writer: “Some army posts have a real beauty about them.”  “The friendliness in his voice came to a screeching halt.”  “Side straddle hops, the high jumper, squat thrusts, pushups, turn and bounce.”  “I felt beat-up, violated, and helpless to do anything about it.”  Through prose like this, Haney explains how Delta Force was formed, how its members were chosen and trained, what sorts of tactics and techniques they learned, and how they handled sample missions.  There is no detailed information on real missions, though Haney mentions working around the world, in many of the planet’s hot spots.  For instance, he casually remarks, “In 1983 we led the invasion of the island of Grenada.”  Inside Delta Force is exciting in a scary and rather creepy way: it’s good to know we have people like Haney and his comrades protecting the United States, but it’s frightening to realize how much we need them.


The Warrior Mind: Ancient Wisdom from the Martial Arts for Living a More Powerful Life.  By Jim Pritchard with Sharon Lindenburger. AMACOM. $14.95.

     The notion that some sort of ancient wisdom holds the key to modern life is scarcely new.  To cite just one example, scores of business books have been written to show how to use Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in modern commerce.  Self-defense and conflict-resolution teacher Jim Pritchard, a black belt in several martial arts, argues in The Warrior Mind that six mental aspects of martial arts provide the key to facing both professional and personal modern challenges.

     Pritchard distills martial-arts awareness into six principles: 1) Attentive curiosity – slow down and observe the situation calmly.  2) Undulation – move in a relaxed, flowing way, either physically or psychologically, whether to build strength before striking physically or to muster mental resources before tackling a tough problem.  3) Clear intent – focus on when and how to act.  4) Grappling – use the energies of your mind and body to defeat whatever is blocking you.  5) Rolling waves – persistence and the will to succeed.  6) Whirlwind – an explosion of energy into carefully targeted action.

     Pritchard’s presentation smacks of a standard you-can-do-it rah-rah self-help plan – which may not be surprising, since he is a motivational speaker.  Like other formulaic approaches, this one has potential if you happen to find it congenial; it is neither better nor worse than other ideas about paying attention, developing focus, leaning how to handle obstacles, and using the necessary techniques to accomplish your goal.  Pritchard and coauthor Sharon Lindenburger, a health and fitness journalist, deserve credit for explaining the approach in simple, straightforward language, and trying to show how it can help in everyday life situations: “You could look at anger as a relief valve for anxiety. …You can easily go very quickly from anxiety to anger and then to the expression of anger. …[It is better for you to] gain awareness of the feeling, accept the feeling, just let it be there, [and] choose not to act on it unless there is a clear reason for you to do so.”

     The implementation difficulty of The Warrior Mind, as of other one-size-can-fit-all self-help plans, is that everyday life does not appear in a convenient package that gives you plenty of time to select an approach and implement it thoughtfully.  Visceral reactions, many of them learned by the time we are in kindergarten, can be undone and rewired, but this is a long, difficult process, not the simple “you can do it” one that Pritchard implies.  Furthermore, some of the advice here, though unexceptionable, is also not very helpful.  How many more times do readers need to be told that exercise and improved nutrition are good for them?  How often have books explained that relationship problems stem from not paying close attention to a partner’s wants and needs?  Discussing those problems in “rolling wave” terminology ultimately does nothing new to solve them – unless, that is, you are predisposed toward martial-arts thinking already.  If that is the case, The Warrior Mind may be helpful in showing how to apply such thinking to events outside the martial-arts sphere itself.  But the book offers no significant new insights, and will be of little interest to those not already interested in the mental side of martial arts.


The Government Manual for New Superheroes. By Matthew David Brozik and Jacob Sager Weinstein.  Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     One of the many delightful minor characters in Pixar Animation’s film The Incredibles was the sour-faced little government guy charged with cleaning up the mess after superheroes’ superheroic exploits.  Take this idea one step further: what if the government put out a guide for superheroes before they started doing all those superheroic things, trying to help them along in the usual friendly government way?

     If the government attempted such a benevolent project, you might expect something like The Government Manual for New Superheroes to be the result.  It covers everything from choosing a superheroic name to picking the right costume and equipment, establishing a base of operations, finding a sidekick if you want to have one, hooking up with fellow good guys and with appropriate supervillains, and more.

     This sounds like a marvelous sendup of government training manuals, but unfortunately the book is better when described than when you actually read it.  There is nothing pointed about it: Matthew David Brozik and Jacob Sager Weinstein go for the easy, usually juvenile laugh at every opportunity.  For instance, “If you are The Beachball because you are as wide as you are tall and your costume is made up of brightly colored strips of plastic, fine.  But if you are The Beachball because your primary, perhaps only, tool of the trade is a beachball (of justice, rightfulness, what have you), then you had better have that beachball on or near your person.”

     The authors’ approach works better in some sections than others.  It is fun to read their comments about locating a base of operations in a crowded metropolitan area “for financial, logistical, or elderly-aunt-tending reasons.”  They warn “that many districts require extensive site impact reports before any new superhero construction, in order to mitigate concerns regarding noise, giant alien death rays, and additional traffic.”  A few more words like “mitigate” would in fact go a long way to make the book more satirical and less silly.  The warning about what to do if a superhero organization chooses not to admit you is especially enjoyable, because part of it is just the sort of thing you might find in a real government guide: “Applicants who respond to rejection by becoming evil and devoting themselves to the destruction of the offending heroes are rarely invited to apply for future openings… However: Under certain circumstances, it might be appropriate to file a lawsuit.  Under the Super-Disabilities Act of 1992, superorganizations may not discriminate on the basis of physical handicaps that have caused you to develop other uncanny abilities in compensation.  Additionally, discrimination is forbidden on the basis of race, ethnicity, alien origin, religion (your own or that of those who worship the ancient pantheon of which you are a part), sexual orientation, or milquetoastness of secret identity.”

     More government-ese like this would make the book cleverer, but the authors simply aren’t sure that they want to be clever.  Silliness does have its place, of course: “Except for the occasional skirmish in The Silent Zone, The Eternal Vacuum of Dimension X, or the Library of Congress, battles will be noisy, chaotic affairs.”  But Brozik and Weinstein flip-flop so frequently between juvenile humor and more-trenchant satire that they seem unsure what sort of book they wanted to write.  Maybe one of them wanted one type, the other a different sort.  What they have produced is an amalgam that doesn’t quite hang together, despite its frequent funny moments.


The Misadventures of Maude March. By Audrey Coulombis. Random House. $15.95.

The Power of One. By Bryce Courtenay. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     Both these books for ages 10-14 take place at times and in places so remote from those of their likely readers that they have an exotic flavor about them.  Preteens and young teens who enjoy the settings are likely to respond more favorably to the books than those who do not – even though both books are packed with adventure and designed to focus on their characters.

     The exoticism of The Misadventures of Maude March, subtitled “Trouble Rides a Fast Horse,” comes from the Wild West of Iowa and Missouri in 1869.  Two sisters, Sallie and Maude March, have only two living relatives, and when the one they live with is killed, they set out to find the other, who is rumored to live in a city 300 miles away.  Maude and Sally disguise themselves as boys for the trip, take two horses from the Reverend Peasley (with whom they have been living temporarily), and set out on their journey – until Peasley reports the horses stolen and the girls become wanted men…err, ladies.  Then Audrey Coulombis makes things even more complicated by having Sallie and Maude accidentally get involved in a bank robbery committed by a notorious cowboy about whom Sallie used to read.  It is not Sallie but Maude who is branded the robber, though, and as a result both girls find themselves on the run from just about everyone in the Wild West – on both sides of the law.  The girls eventually make it to the city they are seeking, which happens to be Independence, Missouri, which happens to be where Jesse James lives, which happens to lead to yet another plot complication.  The book would have worked better with a generous helping of humor, but there is little of that: Coulombis prefers to write a mostly straightforward adventure story.  Fans of Westerns and of U.S. history after the Civil War are most likely to enjoy this novel.

     The Power of One takes place in much more modern times: the World War II era, 1939-1945.  But it is set in a land most of its readers have never seen: South Africa.  And it is not a war story, except in the sense of being about a war between one boy and his surroundings.  This is a condensed version for young readers of Bryce Courtenay’s tale of Peekay, a boy with talent for both music and boxing, who makes his way through life using his fists while continuing to look for a way to succeed by keeping his hands on piano keys.  The book’s central theme of growing up with racial and social intolerance is effectively presented, but there is little in it that has not been written many times – albeit in different settings.  This condensation tells about half the story of Peekay, who survives loneliness and humiliation in childhood to pursue a dream of becoming welterweight champion of the world.  It takes readers from the Northern Transvaal in 1939 – where Peekay, as an English speaker in a land where Afrikaans is dominant, is an outcast – to his attainment of a Royal College of Music scholarship, to begin in 1946.  There is brutality here, and comradeship, and self-discovery.  The pacing is quick, the writing effective.  But Peekay’s boxing dreams may not resonate with many readers; and despite the book’s unusual setting, much of what it says has often been said before.

January 19, 2006


Non Sequitur’s Sunday Color Treasury. By Wiley Miller. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

Thriving on Vague Objectives: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     It turns out that Wiley Miller, creator of the unusual and offbeat Non Sequitur comic strip, isn’t just a funny person (though he is that), an artist with strong political convictions (though he is that, too), or a thoroughgoing cynic (he’s that as well, though not all the time).  Miller is also a highly thoughtful innovator – as is proved in one of the best oversized “Treasury” books to come from Andrews McMeel in a very long time.  No mere collection of previously collected material, with color added – the usual format for “Treasury” volumes – Miller’s book is an extended discussion, packed with examples, of the evolution of Non Sequitur and the way that the strip has in turn pushed the evolution of Sunday comics in general.  It is certainly possible just to read the strips collected here, without the connective copy, and have a wonderful time following Miller’s slightly skewed characters: Obviousman, Lucy and Danae, Homer the Reluctant Soul, Pierre of the North, and many more.  But Miller’s discussion adds a whole new dimension to the comic art.  He explains the way comics have traditionally been colored on Sundays in recent years – and how he became the first artist to color them in a different and far superior way.  He explains how he came up with Obviousman as a character (he is a non-superhero-shaped superhero whose symbol is the word “duh” with a line through it, as in “no duh”) – and to whom the character is a tribute.  He explains why he started drawing Lost Leonard, who wanders the universe messing things up…and Ele, a marsupial mother from “the time before Man” whose name is an acronym for “Extinction Level Event.”  And if you have ever wondered why Miller’s Sunday strips usually run vertically, like a column, instead of in the traditional horizontal pattern, you will find the answer here – and be impressed anew with this artist’s analytical ability.  Some of these strips have been collected before, but never like this: the commentary is as fascinating, and in many ways as much fun, as the strips themselves.

     There’s no commentary in the latest (26th) Dilbert collection except what is inherent in the strip itself – but that’s plenty.  Scott Adams is as single-mindedly consistent in what he produces as Miller is deliberately scattered.  You always know what to expect from a Dilbert collection: pithy observations about modern corporate working life, so-so artwork that has become an imitated style in itself, and weird characters who seem more realistic the farther from reality they are.  In Thriving on Vague Objectives, you will find the dead guy to whom the Pointy Haired Boss pledges his loyalty; the vampire hired as a CEO who turns out to be ineffective in daytime; Loopy, “the woman who couldn’t end a story,” who has a “pursuit chair” so Dilbert cannot escape her droning; and many more.  Also here are Dogbert’s typical schemes, such as becoming responsible for 100% of the spam on the Internet and then getting rid of the FBI agents investigating him by producing a badge and saying he is their boss in disguise.  The lunacy and the reality run on parallel tracks here – sometimes on the same track.  When they collide, as they consistently do, Dilbert is at its funniest.


Ithaka. By Adèle Geras. Harcourt. $17.

     Five years ago, Adèle Geras produced a reworking of Homer’s Iliad under the title Troy.  It was an interesting novelized retelling of the story from the point of view of Troy’s women, in thoroughly modern language.  It was not a fully successful book, somehow reducing the tragedy of the Iliad to pathos.  But it set the stage for Geras to produce Ithaka, which is a fully successful book – though it is not Homer’s Odyssey.

     Here too Geras offers a female point of view, but here, unlike in Troy, she does not attempt to tell the famed story itself, except incidentally.  Homer helps her: The Odyssey spends far more time on Odysseus’ wanderings and adventures than on what is happening back home to Penelope and the hero’s long-abandoned household.  Geras switches the focus to that home, invents characters at will to fill out Homer’s rather thin handling of the subject, and as a result creates a satisfying human-interest story that is complete with a number of godly intercessions, as makes sense in any Homeric tale.

     Readers familiar with The Odyssey should not expect faithfulness to it.  An important element of Ithaka, for instance, is that the distressed and long-suffering Penelope has taken a lover, Leodes, and that she fears for Leodes’ life should her son, Telemachus, find out.  This is entirely different from what happens in Homer’s epic, where the whole point is Penelope’s faithfulness through 20 years of Odysseus’ wanderings.  (Geras reduces the length of time, too, thereby keeping the characters younger.)

     Geras forms her novel largely around the perceptions and adventures of Klymene, whom the author invents as a handmaiden of Penelope – a girl so close to her mistress that she is almost a daughter.  Klymene also has feelings for Telemachus, giving readers a greater chance than Homer provided to see how Penelope’s son reacts to the constant presence of the suitors.  And Geras gives the suitors themselves more character – of the negative sort – through scenes such as one in which they throw stones at the aged dog Argos and Klymene (and later Leodes) come to the animal’s rescue.

     Ithaka succeeds so well because – unlike Troy – it never seems a pale copy of its source.  It seems more of a side tale, the way the play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was a side tale for Hamlet.  Although Geras’ novel is for ages 14 and up, it omits some elements of female focus that The Odyssey itself suggests, notably the patently unfair fate of the women servants whom Odysseus kills because they have been servicing the suitors sexually, thus keeping their urges toward Penelope under control.  Yet when Geras does use elements of Homer’s epic, she uses them thoughtfully, as in the frequent but usually momentary appearances of the gods, sometimes only seen and other times taking a brief but crucial role in the story.  The Homeric notion of humans as the gods’ playthings certainly comes through – but Geras also makes it clear that humans are the playthings of their own ambitions and wishes to at least the same extent.  Ithaka is not only a fine book in its own right but also, potentially, a gateway through which young readers will decide to discover what makes The Odyssey a tale that has inspired so many writers, Geras being merely the latest among them.


Alphabet City 10: Suspect. Edited by John Knechtel. MIT Press. $15.95.

     Boil down the thinking of an interdisciplinary think tank on a single subject, put the boiled-down material between the covers of a thick (350-page) but small-format (a bit more than six-by-six inches) hardcover book, and you have Alphabet City 10.  Alphabet City – founded in 1991 by John Knechtel, editor of the book – says it is committed to “advancing knowledge and public debate on fundamental concepts” in a nonpartisan way.  What that means in Suspect is a series of written, drawn and photographed essays on the dual meanings of the word: suspect, the noun, meaning someone thought to have done something…and suspect, the verb, meaning to think that someone else has done something or that something has happened.

     Anthologies tend to be mixed bags, and this one is more mixed than most.  There are almost two dozen contributors, from A (Stephen Andrews) to Z (Slavoj Žižek).  The book’s opening offers some of its most startling images: eyes, from the human to the Masonic one on the dollar bill to an eyelike red machine glow.  Eyes also figure in an intriguing black-and-white photo essay by Patricia Rozema, which seems like a film noir displayed frame by frame until the text becomes needlessly self-important: “Hmmm. There’s not much force in moral suasion absent the mechanisms of enforcement.”  Intriguing too is “The Sequel” by Joey Dubuc, in which the reader becomes a digital drawing located in a nonexistent city in which Dubuc presents binary possibilities involving sneakers, an ATM, an arcade and more.  The book also offers photos: of airliners being blown up, of detainees in Iraq, of Webcam views disrupted by various occurrences, and more.

     Among the essays are ones on advice that philosopher Immanuel Kant might give the United Nations, on the case of Madrid bombing suspect Brandon Mayfield (who was eventually cleared), and on security surveillance technologies used in three cities (Amsterdam, Beijing and London).  There is a study of the 1970 Italian Film Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion, an attempt to determine what it means to be a suspect by enlisting the aid of Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe, and a graphic novel about an artist arrested because his petri-dish art was considered possibly dangerous under anti-terrorism statutes.

     These disparate approaches to disparate views of the subject of “suspect” come to no conclusion and never quite avoid the impression that they are often being clever for the sake of cleverness rather than informative, argumentative, convincing or even discursive.  Style is as important here as substance, with the result that the book is handsome to hold and look at, the individual items are often intriguing, but the reader is likely to come away feeling at least as much entertained as enlightened.


Open Ice. By Pat Hughes. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.95.

Ball Don’t Lie. By Matt de la Peňa. Delacorte Press. $16.95.

     There is something vaguely unpleasant about making sports the be-all and end-all of teenage life.  Kids ages 14 and up – the intended audience for both these books – often dream of untold riches obtained easily (they think) by simply playing games they would play for free.  In truth, similar dreams are not unusual for anyone who feels deeply connected to something done for pleasure – art, music, writing.  But the inherent competitiveness of sports, to the point of violence, lends a deeply disturbing element to sports-focused get-rich-quick schemes and dreams.  Nevertheless, those are dreams many teens, especially teenage boys, seem to share. And many of them will therefore gravitate to these two books, at least until they encounter the intense physical and emotional pain that the authors make an integral part of the stories.

     Hockey players expect the physical sort of pain.  Pat Hughes’ Open Ice is the story of Nick Taglio, a high-school sophomore and top hockey player for whom occasional concussions are simply part of the game.  He has one at the start of the book, but feels so good that he starts making out with his girlfriend while in his hospital bed – until the nurse puts a stop to that sort of playing.  Then it turns out that the repeated concussions are going to put a stop to the other sort of playing – the hockey that means more to Nick than sex, more than life itself.  That, of course, is exactly the point: responsible adults see that Nick would truly be taking his life in his hands if he resumed playing his particularly rough brand of hockey.  Nick sees only that he must play: it’s what he does; it defines who and what he is.  Yet Nick has been diagnosed with “mild traumatic brain injury with postconcussion syndrome,” and he has to find out what there is to his personality and his life beyond hockey.  A “diversity project,” a deeply troubling discovery involving his girlfriend, and a variety of medical and school-related events leave him wiser and perhaps on the road to greater maturity – but still with hockey always in his dreams.

     Similar sports-related missteps on the road to adulthood characterize Ball Don’t Lie, the first novel by Matt de la Peňa.  Here the protagonist is a bitter foster child named Sticky Richard, who connects with people only by playing basketball (the author went to college on a basketball scholarship).  A girl figures in Sticky’s life, of course, but the intensity here is reserved for Sticky’s relationship with his past more than his feelings for others.  Gradually, through a series of scenes in gritty urban settings, Sticky gains street smarts he never knew he still had to learn.  And he endures some serious violence – which unlocks in him the ability to look within and reveal some of the worst events of his past to himself.  He eventually even finds himself able to cry, and realizes, “This feels more than good, it feels like life.”  And life contains basketball but is not contained by it – a good lesson for sports-obsessed teens everywhere, if they will only learn it.


Busoni: Fantasia Contrappuntistica; Improvisation on the Bach Chorale “Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seele”; Fantasie für eine Orgelwalze; Duettino Concertante nach Mozart. Allan Schiller and John Humphreys, pianos. Naxos. $7.99.

Schoenberg: Six A Cappella Mixed Choruses; String Quartet No. 2; Suite in G for String Orchestra. Robert Craft directing Simon Joly Singers (Choruses); Fred Sherry String Quartet with Jennifer Welch-Babidge, soprano (Quartet); Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble (Suite). Naxos. $7.99.

     The deeply ambivalent feelings of 20th-century composers for earlier music are strongly in evidence on those exceptionally well-performed CDs.  Both Ferruccio Busoni and Arnold Schoenberg professed great respect for past composers and the forms they employed, but both found those forms unreasonably constricting of their own talents – and Schoenberg, of course, ended up discarding harmony, the basis of all that had gone before, altogether.

     Yet neither composer ever fully escaped the past, and it is hard not to believe that neither really wanted to.  Busoni sought to internalize and modify what had gone before; Schoenberg, to rise above it and create a new musical language.  After hearing these CDs, listeners will have a good opportunity to decide for themselves the extent to which each composer succeeded.

     Busoni’s huge Fantasia Contrappuntistica sounds better in the two-piano version from 1922 – the composer’s final iteration of this often-revised work – than in any earlier version.  Allan Schiller and John Humphreys have played together for 30 years, and it shows: their interrelationship sounds almost magical (which means it results from a considerable amount of hard work).  This is dense, complex music that can easily become turgid – but not in this performance, which is limpid and filled with understanding.  Busoni’s incorporation and reinterpretation of Bach comes across as a monumental work on its own terms and in its own right.

     The other works on this CD are more straightforward and of somewhat less interest – though still enjoyable to hear.  The Improvisation combines elements of Bach’s chorale with variations Busoni originally composed for a violin sonata.  It seems neither wholly Bach nor wholly Busoni – a transitional work for the latter’s evolving style.  The two pieces based on Mozart are lighter still.  Orgelwalze means “barrel-organ,” and Busoni’s piece is based on a late and rather serious fantasy for that instrument (K. 608).  It is less effective than Mozart’s original and does not add much to it.  The Duettino Concertante adds even less to its source – the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 – but comes across better.  This is Busoni at his most unassuming, free of the intellectual pretension that tends to intrude into much of his work.  It is more arrangement than interpretation – and, as such, is effectively pianistic and pleasant to hear.

     Unlike Busoni, Schoenberg seems always to have found a way to make the past his own, even when the resulting music is less “Schoenbergian” than most of his works.  The Six A Cappella Mixed Choruses, three from 1928 and three from 1948, are remarkably tonal and polyphonic for mature works by Schoenberg.  All are based on 16th-century folk songs and pay homage to that time.  Yet Schoenberg’s hand is ever-present and ever-clear, in subtleties of balance, use of different voice ranges, and unusual contrasts – such as that between the 1928 and 1948 settings of the same song, “Two Good Maiden Friends.”

     The Suite in G – yes, it has a key signature – is also mature Schoenberg (1934) and also beholden to olden times.  It was the first piece Schoenberg wrote in America and was intended for student performance – but is so difficult that even professionals have trouble with it (though the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble seems not to).  Cast as a Baroque suite – Overture, Adagio, Minuet, Gavotte and Gigue – Schoenberg’s work combines the bare outlines of old forms with highly modern approaches to harmony, counterpoint and rhythm.  Its elegance, for instance in the contrasts between legato and pizzicato sections, is decidedly of a 20th-century kind.

     The only work on this CD not tied directly to the past is Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, here given in its original form: two purely instrumental movements and two with soprano.  The piece is tonal (F-sharp minor) and clearly reaching out in new directions: it dates to 1907, when Schoenberg was still finding his way into history.  Its motto could be the soprano’s first line from the final movement: Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten – “I feel the breeze from another planet.”  There is something otherworldly about the work as a whole.

     This CD is the latest in Naxos’ superb Robert Craft Collection – a series showcasing much little-heard music with unerring style and skill.

January 12, 2006


Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 2006. By Roger Ebert. Andrews McMeel. $22.95.

     Years after you have forgotten the mostly forgettable movies about which Roger Ebert writes – years after you have decided that you don’t want to waste two hours of your life on this one or that one – you can still turn to Ebert’s writing itself for a much better time than you would likely have had with those unwatched films.

     No one but Ebert and other movie critics is going to watch (or have watched) every film Ebert discusses in his latest annual wrapup: there are some 700 here.  No one, perhaps even including Ebert, would want to watch all these films: Catwoman is “tired and dated,” Scary Movie 3 “understands the concept of a spoof but not the concept of a satire,” the cast of Masked and Anonymous “wanders bewildered through shapeless scenes,” and so on.  Say what you will about Ebert: you always know where he stands.

     The consistency of Ebert’s reviews makes it easy to use them to choose a film to rent or buy.  Whether you like his approach or hate it, he applies the same standards to everything he sees.  So if you find yourself disagreeing with his evaluation of one type of movie – say, Quentin Tarantino films, about which he never seems to have anything bad to say – then you can make your view-or-not decision just as easily as if you agree with everything Ebert writes.

     True, Ebert does sometimes get a little too far into the “in” side of the film world.  His review of The Brown Bunny is all about Cannes, Venice and Toronto film festivals; the cutting-room floor; long takes, “especially by Ozu”; and Ebert’s own weight loss.  It’s self-referential as all getout.  Also true, Ebert is too much a part of the Hollywood “in” crowd to see the gaping holes in such anti-Bush-administration films as the three-star The Day After Tomorrow: “Of the science in this movie I have no opinion.  I am sure global warming is real” – which apparently means he takes it on faith.  And Ebert’s three-and-a-half star review of Michael Moore’s overt propaganda piece, Fahrenheit 9/11, seems to have been written in a world where Moore’s frequent camera tricks and misleading editing have never been discovered: Ebert calls Moore “a populist rabble-rouser, humorous and effective,” though the John Kerry supporters who had such hopes for Fahrenheit 9/11 may respectfully disagree.

     But if Ebert has his blind spots, so do all movie reviewers – and viewers, for that matter.  Because Ebert consistently puts his out in the open for all to read, he is entertaining as well as informative.  He spins a mean phrase (sometimes literally).  He also spins some exceedingly clever ones: “One of the fundamental philosophical questions of our time is why Goofy is a person and Pluto is a dog.”  “Every genre has its cadre of moviegoers who think they dislike it.”  “The jolly reds, yellows and blues of the classic Superman and Spiderman have been replaced in these grim days with black and gunmetal gray.”  It is writing like this that makes Ebert more than a fine guide to films.  It also makes him so enjoyable to read that you may decide to skip the movie and spend a few hours with this book instead.


Dog Train. Songs and illustrations by Sandra Boynton. Workman. $17.95.

     Hooray!  Boynton’s back!  Not that she has ever really been away – but everything new from Boynton is a cause for at least an itty-bitty celebration.  In the case of Dog Train, make it a biggy-wiggy one.

     This is the third book-and-music production from Boynton, after Rhinoceros Tap (originally a book and audiocassette, later reissued as book and CD) and Philadelphia Chickens.  The Boynton humor and charm remain intact in this self-described “wild ride on the rock-and-roll side.”  If Rhinoceros represented a Boyntonian reinterpretation of traditional kids’ songs and Philadelphia her look at Broadway musicals, Dog Train is Boynton’s take on the commercial music business.  It even features some of the well-known denizens of that business: Hootie & the Blowfish, Kate Winslet, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme, and many more.

     The songs’ words are presented in a “Deluxe Illustrated Lyrics Book of the Unpredictable Rock-and-Roll Journey.”  The title song, for instance, begins, “Along about midnight when it’s dark, dark, dark,/there’s a long, low whistle and a faraway bark.”  The illustration of dogs leaning out train windows is pure Boynton, as is the pig-filled one for “(Don’t Give Me That) Broccoli,” with its stirring words, “Yes, I know I’ve never tried it, but it doesn’t look right.”  Equally wonderful are the lyrics to “Boring Song” (sung antiphonally by Lawrence and Gorme): “This song is so boring/and I’m boring, too./Won’t you let me be boring/so boring for you?”

     There is not even the pretense of a plot here, although “Cow Planet” (sung by Billy J. Kramer) comes in parts one, two and three, and there’s a brief and portentous opening number, lasting all of 40 seconds, called “Thus Quacked Zarathustra.”  Boynton’s illustration for this one shows ducks singing with cow backup, while bemused dogs look on saying, “Beats me!”  “I have no idea.”  “Strauss?”  It’s adorable, but no more so than “Penguin Lament,” whose chorus goes, “I’m a little too cute./Oh, yes, I know./I’m all dressed up,/but I’ve got no place to go.”

     The music is well done and more mainstream than you would expect the fringes of rock-and-roll to be – but of course what’s “fringe” here is the Boynton humor, not the notes to which it is set.  All the performers seem to have a wonderful time delivering the lines (and who wouldn’t love singing such words as, “My old sneakers are friends of mine—you can’t trust any shoes that shine”?).  The tunes are given in a “sing and play along” section toward the back of the book, and if you absolutely insist on something reasonably serious here, there is a final section called “About the Artists” with actual photos of the singers, on none of whom Boynton has drawn even a single mustache.  What restraint!  Thankfully, it’s about the only restraint shown in this otherwise unrestrained series of odes to the many aspects of musical ridiculousness.  Dog Train is a treat indeed – perfect for, as the book itself says, “children and vintage children.”


The Discipline Miracle: The Clinically Proven System for Raising Happy, Healthy, and Well-Behaved Kids.  By Linda Pearson, DNSc, with L.A. Stamford. AMACOM. $14.95.

     It seems a little strange for AMACOM, the publishing arm of the American Management Association, to be producing a book about disciplining children.  It also seems a little strange to find out that business techniques are the best way to run a family.  Yet such techniques are essentially what Linda Pearson recommends.

     This is, in many ways, an attractive proposition.  It somehow recalls the way Mickey Mouse used to ask TV’s original Mouseketeers, “Everybody neat and pretty?  Then on with the show!”  Yet Pearson, a family psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, is not naïve.  She knows kids cause problems and can be difficult for parents to handle, and she approaches that parental task in a straightforward manner.  Her ideas may not be miraculous, but they’ve got a lot of common sense behind them.

     Pearson reduces child discipline to three fundamental principles: 1) Give your child a sense of security by always being dependable and emotionally available.  2) Act like a good corporate boss by insisting children follow rules that will make them feel safe while teaching them self-control.  3) Give kids what they will need for the real world – boundaries, rules, consequences – instead of always giving them what they want.

     Stated this way, Pearson’s approach sounds a bit soulless.  That is the problem many parents are likely to have with this book: it calls on them to have strong emotional connections with their children, but it has none itself.  It is more a training manual, both for parents and for kids, than a set of recommendations for loving enforcement of necessary family rules and restrictions.

     Its somewhat off-putting style aside, The Discipline Miracle is filled with good ideas and clearly written examples.  After stating her three principles, each in its own chapter, Pearson follows up with separate chapters on putting each principle to work (that corporate approach again).  The application chapters mix excellent advice with more problematic comments.  For example, it is very good to know that certain fears are normal in children of certain ages, but it is far more difficult, as a practical matter, to follow this advice: “If you suspect that your child has modeled her fear of something by watching an important person in her life react with an intense emotion…allow her to watch you deal calmly with a similar event or thing.”

     On balance, Pearson’s principles are sound, though not as easy to follow as she suggests.  And she takes things a bit too far in later chapters by suggesting that her three principles can lessen the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (maybe in some cases, but surely not as a general rule) and that they can mitigate especially difficult family circumstances, such as divorce (again, perhaps in some cases, but not all).  Pearson’s book is best used as a guide to techniques that make intellectual sense but may not have the right emotional connection for all families.  If you find a largely businesslike implementation of structural principles a sound way to manage discipline issues, you will find Pearson an excellent guide.  But her ideas are certainly no “miracle.”


Eloise Wilkin Stories. Stories and poems illustrated by Eloise Wilkin. Golden Books. $10.95.

     Eloise Wilkin (1904-1987) was a children’s book illustrator, doll designer, and homemaker and mother of four.  Most of her illustration work was for Little Golden Books, originally published by Simon and Schuster.  Random House, which now handles the line, has combined a number of works written between 1948 and 1962 for this treasury collection, and added an introduction, remembrance of Wilkin, and illustration from a posthumously published book of poems.  The result is a lovely tribute – but, it must be said, not necessarily a book that modern-day parents and children will find attractive.

     Wilkin’s strength in a certain illustrative style may be her undoing for 21st-century readers, because that style is one that seems at least quaint, at most old-fashioned and out-of-date today.  In the end-of-book “Remembrance of Eloise Wilkin,” written in 1987 after Wilkin’s death, Jane Werner Watson says “she has left us, only slightly idealized, rich reminders of a lovely time not very long ago.”  In the ensuing two decades, though, that “lovely time” has come to seem very, very long ago indeed.

     Some children will no doubt still find these mid-20th-century books charming.  The oldest, Busy Timmy by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, is simply a series of pictures of a charming towheaded toddler going through everyday play.  Guess Who Lives Here (1949) by Louise Woodcock has a cute premise: showing objects associated with a home’s residents and asking young children to guess whose things they are.  But the apron-wearing housewife (not “homemaker,” which is a modern term) and trench-coated, briefcase-toting father seem like relics of olden times.  My Little Golden Book about God (1956) by Jane Werner Watson offers some unusually interesting illustrations – a two-page extreme closeup of a child bending over to look at an insect on a flower is exceptional – and will likely please traditionalists who want their children to see the hand of a Western, paternalistic deity in everything.  But it may make many families uncomfortable with its simplistic approach and implication that everyone sees God the same way (would a book like this even be published today by a mainstream company?).  And so it goes: lovely pictures of idealized children living an idealized life in idealized settings, no matter what the subject matter. Even Wilkin’s illustrations of nursery rhymes and Robert Louis Stevenson poems have the same slight otherworldly flavor.

     From a certain angle, there is tremendous charm here, and parents who themselves grew up with Little Golden Books may want this treasury as a keepsake as well as something to share with their own children.  From another point of view, Wilkin’s pictures sugarcoat a world that never really existed – and now, decades after she made them, contain more of curiosity than of easily accepted beauty.  Wilkin was a talented artist, and her work is certainly heartfelt.  But it may be harder for her pictures to touch 21st-century hearts than the hearts of those for whom it was originally intended.


Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006. Windows 98SE or later. Microsoft. $99.99.

     Ask anyone who does frequent digital photo editing and you’re likely to be told that Adobe Photoshop 3.0 is “the one to beat” among editing suites.  That may be true for experienced photo editors, but novices are likely to find Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 easier and more pleasant to use – and even for more adept users, this new product gives Adobe’s a run for the money.

     Microsoft’s 2006 product is a mostly revamped and upgraded version of its earlier ones, and the improvements are all to the good.  It is essentially three products in one: Library to organize images, Photo Story 3.1 to create slide shows, and Editor to change components of images.  Library is neatly designed and easy to use.  You can create keywords and assign them to individual images, as before – and now you can organize the keywords themselves so you don’t have to sort through long alphabetical lists.  You can also rank individual images (up to five stars) so you can more easily put together the best ones.  Photo Story 3.1 makes it easy to create video slide shows – including music and motion effects.  It’s a very nice product, but not in itself a reason to buy the suite – since it is available for free as a download from Microsoft’s Web site.

     Editor is something of a mixed bag.  Although newly named, it is not much different from earlier Microsoft digital-editing products.  The interface is clumsier than in the suite’s other components, and although the editing tools work well, there is nothing special about them and nothing particularly new – except for a really neat feature to convert color images to black-and-white.

     Ease of use and mostly well-done suite integration are the big selling points here.  Expect to spend a couple of hours learning all the ins and outs of the suite and practicing with it– but that’s much less than you would spend with Adobe’s product.  And some elements, such as image enhancement, are so intuitive that you can use them almost immediately.  Others, such as layer and transparency, are much easier than in Adobe’s software.  Users of the RAW image format will be pleased that Microsoft’s new suite supports it.

     New users of digital-editing programs will find Microsoft Digital Image Suite 2006 to be a great deal of fun.  It takes only a few clicks to correct color balance and contrast, switch photo backgrounds, remove objects from pictures, E-mail photos in a size that is small enough so even dialup users can send and receive them quickly, and much more.

     The program installs easily and painlessly, though it does require 400 megabytes of disk space.  Slower computers (microprocessor clock speed below 1 GHz) and ones with less than 512 megabytes of RAM can run it but probably shouldn’t – it works, but slowly.  Users may run into occasional glitches with certain photo formats in certain types of projects, but the Help files are genuinely helpful and can usually point you toward a fix or workaround.  Automatic resizing and the sharpening tool are weak points, but neither is a serious problem – they are just not up to the quality of the rest of the suite.

     Expert digital editors and those with a strong technical inclination may continue to prefer Adobe’s product for its top-of-the-line image editing tools and an integration even tighter than Microsoft’s.  There are also some other good editing suites out there, such as Corel’s Paint Shop Pro X.  And some buyers may balk at spending $100 for a three-component suite when one of those components is available free.  Despite all this, Microsoft Digital Image 2006 is a good value and a very worthwhile competitor in its field – especially for people who want to start getting top-notch results quickly and without wading through mounds of jargon.


Hummel: Fantasie in G Minor, Op. 123; Fantasie in E-flat Major, Op. 18; Rondo quasi una fantasia in E Major, Op. 19; “La Contemplazione” in A-flat Major from “Six Bagatelles,” Op. 107; Fantasie “Recollections of Paganini”; Fantasina in C Major on “Non più andrai,” Op. 124. Madoka Inui, piano. Naxos. $7.99.

     Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) had the misfortune to be both ahead of and behind his time.  Madoka Inui’s excellent performances of his piano fantasies show how and why.  There is no single “Hummel style” in these works – instead, there is a multiplicity of styles, each of which was to be extended, improved upon and incorporated into the works of Hummel’s contemporaries and successors.

     The most obvious “extenders” were Beethoven and Liszt.  Hummel’s Op. 18 Fantasie, written in 1805 and by far the longest work on this CD, is really a grand piano sonata, with an especially intense Lento introduction to the first movement and a series of difficulties for the player throughout.  Beethoven knew the work, which may well have influenced his own Fantasie, Op. 77, a curious, improvisational-sounding piece of ever-shifting moods.  Hummel’s Op. 18 even has elements that seem to have been absorbed and expanded by Beethoven in the Hammerklavier of 1818.  Now, so many years after all these works were written, Hummel’s – for all its intensity – sounds somewhat like a pale imitation of better music, when in fact it was more likely an inspiration.

     As for Liszt – who so admired Hummel that he arranged for a Hummel monument to be erected in what is now Bratislava – he surely took pieces like “Recollections of Paganini” and the Fantasia on “Non più andrai” to heart in his own very extended reminiscences, expansions, contemplations and virtuoso variations on the works of many composers.  These two Hummel works are quite charming, and Inui plays them with both delicacy and panache.  But they are also superficial, being closer to reproductions and expansions of the original Paganini and Mozart tunes than analyses or extensions of them.  They are fun to hear, but the listener must keep Liszt’s ghost at bay.

     It is Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini who are suggested by Hummel’s Rondo, Op. 19, which has an operatic quality to it.  So does “La Contemplazione,” a slow and extended meditation (nearly as long as the four-movement Paganini fantasy) whose quiet beauty would fit well into many operas of the time.  The Fantasie Op. 123, though, has an entirely different quality.  This work – here given its world-première recording – is based on folk-song themes by two minor composers, with an introduction and march on themes by Hummel itself.  The work is in five disconnected movements and does not aspire to the profundity of some of the other fantasies.  Yet it too makes one think of Liszt – specifically the Liszt of Hexameron, a grand work with contributions by Chopin, Czerny, Thalberg and others.  Inui makes a strong case for Hummel’s piano music, which was a key to his successful career as a much-admired virtuoso.  The music itself does seem a little pale today; but, taken on its own terms and without (if possible) comparing it too minutely to the works of other composers, it stands well on its own and is decidedly worth hearing.

January 05, 2006


Scholastic Atlas of Earth. Editor: Johanne Champagne. Scholastic. $17.99.

Unexpected: 11 Mysterious Stories. Edited by Laura E. Williams. Scholastic. $5.99.

     The early part of a new year seems like a good time to choose directions.  In the case of books, that can mean choosing to start the year reading fiction or nonfiction.  Interestingly, no matter which way young readers choose, they can find something to enjoy from Scholastic, which offers both fictional and nonfictional books of consistently high quality.

     If you’d like to start the year by learning more about our planet, Scholastic Atlas of Earth makes a fine introduction.  Arranged in sections called “History of Earth,” “Inside Earth,” “Breathtaking Landscapes,” “Earth’s Fits of Anger,” and “The Environment,” this book gives basic and amply illustrated information on how life began and developed, how fossils are formed, how different climates affect life, the formation of mountains and caves, tectonic motion, volcanoes and earthquakes, and more – including the latest thinking on climate change, global warming, deforestation and other important ecological issues of the day.  This is not an in-depth work: the emphasis is as much on attractive presentation as on transmitting facts.  But it is a good start for learning the material, and each paragraph packs in a surprising amount of information.  For example, the brief section on the food chain – from plants to herbivores to carnivores to top predators to decomposers and back to plants – is nicely complemented by a box explaining that “each link in the food chain gets only 10% of the energy that was stored by the preceding link,” and what that means in terms of how plants and animals grow.  Bonus hands-on activities at the end can make the study of Earth even more enjoyable: young readers can easily make their own fossils or create mountains, using techniques that quickly duplicate, on a small scale, the tremendously slow and vast forces that constantly change the face of our planet.

     If you’d rather begin by reading fiction, one recent release worth considering is Unexpected.  The title fits with any new year – we are always sure to experience the unexpected! – but the subject matter is the timeless stuff of mysteries and shudders.  Some of the stories are scary precisely because they really could happen – such as Will Weaver’s “Marked for Death,” about a deer hunt gone horribly wrong.  Others couldn’t, but their twists and turns make them shuddery anyway – such as Laura E. Williams’ Poe-etically titled “The Telltale Croak.”  Still others have the characteristic blend of fright and humor for which their authors are well known, such as Bruce Coville’s abduction-by-trolls story, “The Troddler.”  The remaining eight tales – by Peter Lerangis, Gail Carson Levine, Norma Fox Mazer, Graham Salisbury, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Marion Dane Bauer, Dian Curtis Regan, and the team of Heidi E.Y. Stemple and Jane Yolen – are darksome in different ways.  This is a good book to read when early-year busy-ness makes it hard to find the time for a novel, since the stories are loosely connected by mood but otherwise quite independent (the preponderance of authors using triple names notwithstanding).  Of course, if the early part of the year is just too busy, it’s fine to put either or both of these books aside for a while.  Their levels of interest will keep quite nicely.


Kate, the Cat and the Moon. By David Almond and Stephen Lambert. Doubleday. $15.95.

The Me Book. By Jean Tymms. Illustrated by Tibor Gergely. Golden Books. $5.99.

     Young children need not search for adventure in far-off places.  They can find plenty of it close to home, as these two books show.  Kate, the Cat and the Moon, for ages 4-8, is novelist David Almond’s first picture book.  And a charming one it is, thanks partly to Almond’s story and partly to Stephen Lambert’s pleasantly evocative illustrations.  The tale is a simple one of a young girl named Kate who has a wonderful dream.  Late one moonlit night, she sees a brilliant white cat sitting on a garden wall near her home.  The cat says “meow,” and when Kate responds “meow’ in turn, she is transformed into a cat herself, spending the night seeing the wonders of everyday feline life: a cat-shaped moon, a “sky [that] was full of dreams,” and all the fields, hedges and ditches of a pleasant countryside.  The tour over, Kate returns home, and with another “meow” exchange, is transformed back to a little girl, whose whole family talks about dreams at breakfast.  It’s a straightforward tale, but very well told and highly enjoyable.  Try it as a bedtime story – it invites pleasant dreams.

     The Me Book represents adventure of a different kind.  It is all about self-discovery: what a child’s body is and what it can do.  Originally published in 1974 and now reissued in an attractive board-book format, The Me Book is simplicity itself, using animals as stand-ins for kids until the very end.  For example, monkeys are featured on the “my arms are for” pages, which show simians – dressed in kids’ clothing – hugging, making muscles and more.  Koalas appear on the “my hands are for” pages – tickling and making mud pies, among other things.  Tibor Gergely’s hippos on the “my waist is for” pages are especially whimsical, notably when twisting and when putting a belt on.  At the end, Jean Tymms writes, “all of me is for” such activities as climbing, hiding, dancing and somersaulting.  Here the illustrations actually show children – modified in this edition for 21st-century multicultural sensibilities.  This is an attractive early-reading book with some genuinely funny illustrations: check out the parasol-carrying kangaroo wearing floral-design sunglasses, the pig whistling a tune, and the frog putting on sneakers.


Sky in a Bottle. By Peter Pesic. MIT Press. $24.95.

     This is one of those books that would likely be described the same way by those who enjoy it and those who do not: offbeat, capricious, skewed, quirky.  Those who consider those positive adjectives will enjoy Peter Pesic’s meandering study of blueness.  Those who find the adjectives pejorative had best avoid Sky in a Bottle altogether.

     Pesic’s book has a disarmingly simple starting point: the common childhood question, “Why is the sky blue?”  The scientific answer is straightforward enough: atmospheric particles scatter the redder wavelengths of sunlight less than the bluer wavelengths.  The more-scattered wavelengths are more visible – so we see blue when we look up at a clear sky.  But to Pesic, a physics Ph.D. who is now Tutor and Musician-in-Residence at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this phenomenon, known as Rayleigh scattering, barely scratches the surface of blueness.  From the opening of his book’s first chapter (“A mystery must emerge before it can be solved”) to an appendix showing how readers can try to duplicate color experiments of times past, Pesic pulls in art and history as well as science in his discussion of celestial blueness.

     In fact, Pesic is less interested in why the sky is blue than in the ramifications of the question “why is the sky blue?” itself.  A given page is as likely to contain a bit of a poem by William Wordsworth; a sketch by the elder Lord Rayleigh (his son also held the title) of his first observations on the blue of the sky; or an illustration from 1815 of Arago’s cyanometer, which allowed light from different areas of the sky to be seen against a color scale.

     Sky in a Bottle switches, sometimes disconcertingly, from plainspokenness to scientific discussion: “Avogadro [a 19th-century natural philosopher] could not determine the number of molecules per one mole because at that time chemistry had no way of counting the individual molecules.  Not knowing that number meant that he did not know the size of one molecule, if the number of molecules in one cubic meter of a liquid or solid equals that volume divided by the volume occupied by a single molecule.  Conversely, determining the size of atoms and molecules would fix the number.”  This sort of writing can be bracing for those of a scientific bent, but it requires a scientist-artist like Pesic himself to switch so often between poetry and analytical mathematics, chemistry and physics.  Indeed, it is hard to escape the suspicion that Pesic essentially wrote this book for himself and perhaps a small coterie of the like-minded.  If you are one of those, you will find Pesic’s musings and his ramblings from science to poesy and back again to be charming; otherwise, you will find them merely discursive.


Barry, Boyhound. By Andy Spearman. Knopf. $15.95.

Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money. By Christopher Paul Curtis. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.95.

Nicky Deuce: Welcome to the Family. By Steven R. Schirripa & Charles Fleming. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     Here’s a trio of not-to-be-taken-too-seriously romps for preteens.  Barry, Boyhound is a simple story about Barry, who looks like a boy but is actually a dog…and about his straightforward environment, which includes telepathic squirrels, a squashed frog, an exploding raccoon and a couple of talking fleas.  Hmm.  Maybe this isn’t so simple after all.  This is Andy Spearman’s first novel, and it shows a good sense of comic timing and pacing, plus design elements likely to be especially attractive to preteen boys: photos, drawings, multiple typestyles, and occasional forays into yuckiness (“maggots are the little wormy bugs called larvae that hatch after flies lay their eggs on dead animals or in a pile of rotting old disgusting garbage”).  There’s stuff here about Sasquatch, Kublai Khan, a typical boy’s brain (“girls: lobe not yet activated”), how to pick a poodle, George Washington Carver, and the five phases of upset mothers.  It’s a quick read and lots of fun.

     The same can be said of Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money, in which the Newbery Medal-winning author of Bud, Not Buddy discovers his loopy side: “(Here’s a word of warning: NEVER, EVER, EVER LICK THE CANDLES ON A BIRTHDAY CAKE.  Steven’s tongue hurt for three weeks after this little stunt.)”  The book’s plot revolves around a quadrillion-dollar bill (a one with 15 zeroes).  Nine-year-old Steven gets the bill from the blind man in the neighborhood, Mr. Chickee, with whom Steven spends time on Saturday mornings.  Mr. Chickee doesn’t know how big the bill is, of course, and “Steven’s experience with really big, gigantic, humongous numbers actually went only to 635,541,” so what’s to be done about this bill?  Is it even real?  Enter Agent Fondoo of the government, determined to get the bill back – and enter, on Steven’s side, his best friend, Russell, and Zoopy the giant dog.  Predictable mayhem – and some that is not so predictable – ensues.  Everything is frothy and amusing.

     Nicky Deuce: Welcome to the Family is not as silly; but it is, in its own way, equally enjoyable.  This is a book with “heart” written all over it – a family story.  Watch that word “family,” though: coauthor Steven R. Schirripa plays Bobby “Bacala” Baccalieri on “The Sopranos.”  And this book is all about an Italian family – but not that kind of family.  Schirripa and Charles Fleming, a novelist and entertainment reporter, tell the story of Nicholas Borelli II, who lives with his family in suburban New Jersey (okay, where else?).  But the important part of this book is connected not with the Garden State but with Brooklyn, New York, where Nicholas ends up having to stay with family because of a septic-tank explosion at his summer camp.  In Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood, Nicholas finds out about and connects with his Italian roots, learning the culture, filling up on the food, and picking up the nickname that is the book’s title.  The authors try a little too hard to force warmth into Nicky’s story – everyone is so gosh-darned well meaning all the time! – but the characters are entertaining (if one-dimensional), and the idea of learning about and enjoying one’s past really does have resonance in a country that remains, after all, a nation of immigrants.


Schumann: Konzertstück for Four Horns; Handel: Concerto in F Major; Telemann: Overture in F Major; Haydn: Symphony No. 31, “Horn Signal.” American Horn Quartet (Geoffrey Winter, Kerry Turner, David Johnson, Charles Putnam). Dariusz Wišniewski conducting Sinfonia Varsovia. Naxos. $7.99.

     There is something slightly overwhelming about the notion of four horns playing together.  It is fair to wonder how far beyond hunting calls it is possible to take the horn quartet.  This CD gives the answer: very far indeed.  Schumann, Handel, Telemann and Haydn were well aware of the design of the horn as a signaling instrument appropriate to the outdoors.  Schumann and Haydn, in particular, incorporated this element of horn playing into the pieces recorded here.  But all four composers took the horn quartet beyond the obvious doubling (or quadrupling) of parts and into unusual tonal realms.

     Schumann took things farthest – but then, he had the most adaptable instruments available.  The Konzertstück for Four Horns was written for valve horns, not the earlier and more limited natural horn.  The American Horn Quartet – which is equally at home with pieces written for both forms of the instrument – plays Schumann’s work for all it is worth, with brisk tempi and plenty of chances for the horns’ different melodic lines to be heard overlapping or in contrast.

     Handel’s work is the most modest here, lasting just a bit more than six minutes, but it has charm aplenty.  The music of the first, slow section is very close to that of the overture to the Royal Fireworks Music, written slightly later than this concerto.  Handel was an inveterate self-borrower and may have taken the theme, which has a strong outdoorsy feel to it, from this work.  The second part of this one-movement work is faster, and is attractively ornamented by the players in the virtuosic style typical of Handel’s time.

     Telemann’s Overture in F – one of the many suites of disconnected pieces at whose construction he was such an expert – is a fascinating and unusual work.  After the opening, itself called Overture, there are eight movements, each with a title in German referring to everyday life in the area around Hamburg’s Alster Lake.  “Das Alster-Echo,” for instance, has the expected echo effects; “Die Hamburgischen Glockenspiele” has a tick-tock rhythm that looks ahead to Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, “Clock”; “Der Schwanengesang” is quiet and plaintive, befitting the song of the swan; and “Der Konzertiereden Frösche und Krähen” is highly chromatic, appropriately for a dialogue between frogs and crows.  This Overture has many charms, though it does not specifically highlight the four horns – they are merely part of its alfresco orientation.  To the credit of the American Horn Quartet – and of conductor Dariusz Wišniewski – the horns never overwhelm the rest of the instruments, simply taking their places as Telemann intended.

     Horns are not the centerpiece of Haydn’s Symphony No. 31 in D, either, despite the title “Horn Signal.”  This is one of two symphonies Haydn wrote for four horns in the early to middle 1760s, the other being the greatly misnumbered No. 72.  The opening movement and very end of No. 31 are indeed filled with horn virtuosity.  But Haydn, here as elsewhere, highlighted instrumental virtuosity throughout the orchestra, not merely in one part of it.  Thus, the finale – a set of variations that is almost as long as the other three movements put together – gives as much prominence to strings and flutes in some sections as to horns in others.  Unfortunately, the performance of the symphony is the weakest on the CD, not because of the instrumentalists – Sinfonia Varsovia is a highly talented ensemble – but because Wišniewski does not seem to have any particular overview of the music.  The notes are well played, but the conductor does nothing to shape the work, which as a result sounds meandering.  Despite this flaw, this Naxos CD is an attractive one, offering an unusual chance to hear an uncommon combination of instruments, uncommonly well played.