February 23, 2006


Bone, Book Three: Eyes of the Storm. By Jeff Smith. Graphix/Scholastic. $18.99 hardcover; $9.99 paperback.

     It is in this third book of the Bone saga that Jeff Smith turns his comic-book romp into an epic. Scholastic is re-releasing the entire nine-book Bone series, originally published as a series of comics. The releases are coming maddeningly slowly, but the impressiveness of Smith’s accomplishment continues to increase with each one.

     The title character here is Fone Bone, who looks like a cross between Casper the Friendly Ghost and the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Fone Bone’s near-complete featurelessness contrasts with the extraordinary detail that Smith brings to his work on every other character – and every background. Fone Bone is Candide indeed – Voltaire’s character’s name comes from the Latin word for “white,” and the pure-white Fone Bone has all the charm and naïveté you could wish for in a guide through this increasingly complex and dark-hued fantasy.

     Fone Bone and his two cousins – onetime rich miser Phoney Bone and happy-go-lucky Smiley Bone – continue to make their way through The Valley in Eyes of the Storm, with Phoney and Smiley providing most of the comic relief in a volume that is far more serious than the first two. Phoney continues as the constant schemer, always looking for a way to make a quick buck – or in this case, a quick egg, since The Valley’s economy is poultry-based. Smiley becomes a deeper character here, showing both cleverness and bravery, though even they are always mixed with a kind of joyful ineptness.

     But the primary focus in this book is on Fone Bone and the farm people with whom he is living: no-nonsense Gran’ma Ben and her gorgeous granddaughter, Thorn, with whom Fone Bone has fallen in love (a patent absurdity when you look at the two of them – they are clearly not even the same species – but an absurdity that seems less ridiculous by the midpoint of this book, when they walk hand-in-hand). It is in Eyes of the Storm that the sense of menace of the first two books becomes full-blown, and readers learn some extremely important information that picks up on bare hints from Book One and Book Two. The revelations are communicated with tremendous effectiveness, through Smith’s spare dialogue and his perfect rendering of his characters – and through the exceptional coloring work of Steve Hamaker, whose contribution to the best panel in this graphic novel (a large one, occurring at the climax of the main revelation) equals Smith’s own.

     It would spoil the plot of Eyes of the Storm to reveal too much of it, but suffice it to say that it plugs certain holes opened in the first two books and opens a great many new ones, turning the Bone saga into true heroic fantasy. Somehow the absurd-looking Bone cousins, especially Fone Bone (who has the least to him, graphically speaking), here attain solidity, and Fone Bone begins to assume the mantle of a hero. There are tantalizing hints here of how heroic he will be in later books. The only irritation in Eyes of the Storm is its extremely abrupt ending – forcing entranced readers to wait overly long for Scholastic to bring out Book Four.


Pezzettino. By Leo Lionni. Knopf. $15.95.

Veronica. By Roger Duvoisin. Knopf. $15.95.

     Here are two wonderful tales about wanting to be what you are not, the perils of discovery, and the eventual lesson that it’s best just to be who you are.  It’s good to have these books back in print: Pezzetino dates to 1975 and Veronica to 1961, with its most recent edition in 1989.

     Pezzetino is Italian for “little piece,” and Leo Lionni’s fable is about a little square being who is so small that he believes he must be part of something else.  And indeed, every creature he visits to find out where he belongs is made up of little pieces that look a lot like Pezzetino.  This is some of Lionni’s cleverest art: Pezzetino visits “the one-who-runs,” a tall creature made of small pieces; "the strong-one," a blocky, powerful-looking shape also made of small bits; “the swimming-one,” a fishlike mass of little pieces; and so on.  All say he is not a piece of them.  Eventually, “the wise-one who lived in a cave” sends Pezzettino on a journey of self-knowledge to “the Island of Wham,” where the little piece climbs up, up, up, and then, exhausted, falls down – and (wham!) breaks into littler pieces.  Thus, his revelation: he is himself – a message he brings back to all the puzzled creatures he visited while trying to find out where he belonged.  This is one of Lionni’s more humorous tales, and the illustrations are particularly clever both in design and in color.  The various creatures are made of multicolored pieces, for example, but the Island of Wham is all done in browns and other earth tones and is clearly deserted when Pezzetino arrives.

     It’s not an island but a city that is the destination of Veronica the hippopotamus in the book that bears her name.  Roger Voisin (1904-1980) had a distinctive style, best known from his books about Petunia the silly goose.  His wife, Louise Fatio, used a similar style in her Happy Lion books.  There is more narrative in those books, and in Veronica, than is usual nowadays in works for ages 4-8; and the alternation of colored and black-and-white pages, also unusual today, gives the books special charm.  The stories are equally charming, as when Veronica worries about being inconspicuous because “she lived with so many mother and father hippopotamuses, uncle and aunt hippopotamuses, brother and sister hippopotamuses, [and] cousin hippopotamuses” (no quibbling it you prefer to say “hippopotami”!).  Veronica’s determination to stand out leads her to a nearby city, where she is very much a hippo out of water (until she finds a fountain in which to splash).  Her adventures are amusing in a “Curious George” way, even to her eventual rescue by a nice old lady with plenty of money to pay for the damage Veronica has done and hire a moving van to take her home (no, the lady does not wear a yellow hat; she actually more closely resembles Babar’s old lady than The Man in the Yellow Hat).  Some of Voisin’s illustrations may make kids laugh out loud, such as one that shows Veronica sleeping peacefully in a parking lot, parallel parked between other cars that are approximately her size and color.  In the end, like tiny Pezzetino, huge Veronica realizes that it is best to accept herself as she is – although she does become a bit more conspicuous among the other hippos as she regales them with stories of her city adventures.  Like Lionni’s book, Voisin’s is gentle, good-humored and a delight to have back in print in a new edition.


Dude: The Big Book of Zonker. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $19.95.

     More than a decade ago, Andrews McMeel brought out a book called Action Figure!  It featured the multi-decade life and times of Uncle Duke, one of the more bizarre and intriguing recurring characters in G.B. Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic-strip-cum-editorial.  The book was packaged with an actual action figure of Uncle Duke in one of his “exploitation of war-torn areas” costumes.

     Change a single letter in “Duke” and do an attitudinal about-face and you get Dude, a larger and even more handsomely produced volume dedicated to another of Trudeau’s deeply weird creations: Duke’s nephew, Zonker Harris.  But don’t look for an action figure this time.  It would be entirely out of character: Zonker is the ultimate inaction figure.

     Like Uncle Duke and the eponymous Mike Doonesbury himself, Zonker has mellowed somewhat over the years – or changed, anyway; he was plenty mellow to begin with.  His days as an unreconstructed drug-addled hippie, wearing a star-covered helmet while playing college football (yes, football), are over, as are his times on the championship tanning circuit – an ideal place for Zonker, except that the always socially conscious Trudeau became worried about sending readers a message that could lead them to behavior that would increase their risk of skin cancer.  Nowadays Zonker is the mostly incompetent nanny for B.D., the gung-ho ex-quarterback he used to freak out at college by kissing him on the lips (B.D. is now married to college sweetheart Boopsie, has a child – hence the need for a nanny – and lost a leg fighting in Iraq).  As good-hearted as ever, and as averse to work as always, Zonker seems to pass through life with minimal interaction with the world.  He is a perennial flower child crossed with a touch of Peter Pan.

     Dude: The Big Book of Zonker wonderfully chronicles the offbeat life and times of this highly unusual character – who is, in fact, one of Trudeau’s best creations.  The days when Zonker spent as much time as possible in “Walden puddle” are here; so is his jail time for marijuana possession – with a cellmate who is in for first-degree murder; his untimely appearance on the cover of Time magazine; his many discussions with plants; his scientifically accurate “exposure charts” from his tanning days; his $23 million lottery win; his purchase of an extremely long British title with the help of a “peerage broker” called “Lords-R-Us”; his various adventures as a nanny; and much more.  Trudeau’s art work noticeably improves throughout the book, and his characters gain complexity as his plots spiral into multiple overlaps and sometimes toward near-unintelligibility (Trudeau has acknowledged readers’ understandable notion that even he must have a hard time keeping track of all his characters).  Zonker interacts with numerous other Doonesbury denizens, of course, but Trudeau makes sure he remains remarkably untouched by the grubby world in which he lives (even when he encounters some of its grubbier elements).  In a Sunday strip near the end of the book, Zonker asks B.D. if he really went to Vietnam, and B.D. reminds Zonker that he himself was there: “You followed me around for the school paper.”  Zonker pauses and, with a straight-toward-the-reader look of perfect bewilderment, says, “I thought I’d made that up.”  There you have this character’s self-summation.  Dude is a wonderfully offbeat tour of some of the more bizarre byways of Trudeau’s Doonesbury world.


Always Friends: Honey Bunny. By Josephine Page. Illustrated by Roberta Beasley. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Duck Book and Purse. Illustrated by Jill McDonald. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Eric & Julieta: Como mamá/Just Like Mom; Es mío/It’s Mine. By Isabel Muňoz. Illustrated by Gustavo Mazali. Scholastic en Espaňol. $3.50 each.

     Sometimes the packaging is the point.  Scholastic does not expect parents to buy its so-called “novelty books” for children because of the quality of writing or pictures.  These books are put together in such a way that the packaging itself is the main attraction, with the book secondary – although one hopes that the young children who get these items will enjoy the books and want to move on to more traditionally bound ones.

     Always Friends: Honey Bunny is barely a book at all.  Intended for the very youngest children – up to age three – it is a small, attractive yellow bunny with a Velcro closure that, when opened, reveals a tiny six-page board book about the things Honey Bunny likes.  Parents will have to read the little book to their children – the type is small – and that is part of the fun: a baby can play with the plush toy and then, when he or she asks for a story, Mommy or Daddy can say, “Let’s read Honey Bunny’s very own story.”  The board book is very solidly bound into the bunny, and its pages are double-strength – it should withstand any level of enthusiasm with which a young child handles it.

     Duck Book and Purse is for slightly older kids – ages 3-5 – and accordingly has a greater emphasis on the writing.  This too is a book inside a toy, but here the book is a larger-size board book and the purse simply covers it as an additional binding.  This eight-page book uses bigger type and should be readable by young children.  The purse itself is cute, with a duck on the cover and sturdy handles.  But you can’t carry much in it: the only open space is a small pocket marked “duck” on the back.  (Scholastic also offers a bunny purse – same idea, different color and different book.)

     As kids get a bit older and are reading on their own, many will be exposed to multilingual classrooms – whether they are native English speakers or students learning English as a second language.  The Eric & Julieta books look like ordinary eight-inch-square paperbacks, but what is special here is the way they tell their simple stories simultaneously in two languages.  Each page is given first in Spanish, then in English.  Thus, in Como mamá/Just Like Mom, kids will read, “Falta un poco de maquillaje, nada más.  All you need is a little make-up.”  And in Es mío/It’s Mine, they will read, “Al final, le di un crayón: el violeta (que a mí no me gusta).  I gave her the purple crayon. I don’t like the purple crayon, anyway.”  The translations are not precise, but the words are idiomatic in both languages, and should give children a good sense of how to express themselves in both Spanish and English.  And the stories – fairly straightforward big-brother-little-sister tales with a touch of humor – are pleasant in either language.


After Your Divorce: Creating the Good Life on Your Own. By Cynthia MacGregor and Robert E. Alberti, Ph.D. Impact Publishers. $16.95.

     Give the authors of After Your Divorce credit: between them, they cover in their own lives many of the variations on human marital experience.  Cynthia MacGregor, who has written more than 50 books, is divorced.  She has a daughter – who is also divorced.  Robert E. Alberti, a psychologist and marriage-and-family therapist, has been married to the same woman for 45 years.  But his parents were divorced.

     So the authors have all sorts of experience and expertise in matters marital.  Alberti is at something of a disadvantage in not being a woman – this is strictly a book for women, which is a bit of a disappointment in light of its plainspokenness and the fact that many issues it raises apply equally to men.  But MacGregor certainly presents a female viewpoint effectively.

     After Your Divorce tries, usually successfully, to offer sound and practical advice with a nonthreatening, even humorous style.  Hence a chapter title about starting to go out again: “The Other Dating Game: Kids 2, Dates 0.”  The book’s language and chattiness will go a long way toward determining whether a reader finds it useful or off-putting.  The information here is excellent, and there is a great deal of it: the 238 pages are really packed.  But not everyone will be comfortable reading about “Self-Defense When Dealing with ‘Buttinskis’” or, referring to children, “Don’t Make Them the ‘Puny’ Express.”

     MacGregor and Alberti have a stylistic habit of setting up straw men and knocking them down: “You may be tempted to avoid necessary conversations with [your ex] and, instead, send messages through the kids.  In a word: Don’t.”  Or: “There are some women who are ready to give in [to a sexual relationship with an ex].  The advice from here?  Don’t.”  Again, the ideas are solid, but the presentation may not be to all tastes.

     If you do like the style of this book, you’ll find it a treasure trove of clear, helpful, practical advice.  Starting with the process of divorce recovery, the authors take women through practical matters of life alone (food, finances, etc.), issues involving the kids (whether they are living with you or with him), and matters involving adults (your ex, your family, your friends, your potential new dates or mates).  The authors’ willingness to offer options for handling difficult situations is especially commendable.  “Don’t berate yourself for being human” if you are upset seeing your ex with a new wife or girlfriend, they say, suggesting you gear your response when you run into them to the level of discomfort you feel.  They even give specific examples of what you might say if you feel awkward – or if you don’t.

     Of course, this book is not intended or expected to address every situation or solve every problem.  An appendix on whether to see a therapist is particularly helpful – as is one on safer sex.  After Your Divorce can be very helpful indeed for women who want some straightforward, sensitive single-again advice – as long as they want it delivered in MacGregor and Alberti’s very casual style.


Stravinsky: Pulcinella; The Fairy’s Kiss. Diana Montague, mezzo-soprano; Robin Leggate, tenor; Mark Beesley, bass; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft (Pulcinella). London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft (The Fairy’s Kiss).  Naxos. $8.99.

     Every CD in Naxos’ superb Robert Craft Collection is excellent, but each is excellent in a different way.  Craft is unexcelled at understanding Stravinsky, and Naxos’ latest Craft/Stravinsky CD is above all filled with that understanding.  The programming shows it by pairing two highly contrasting works in which Stravinsky pays homage to and then soars beyond the music of the past.  Both these recordings have been released before by Koch International Classics: Pulcinella was recorded in 1997 and The Fairy’s Kiss in 1995.  But this particular pairing adds depth to performances that are already of the highest quality.

     Pulcinella (1920) is a one-act ballet with seven songs.  It is based on what was thought to be music by Giambattista Pergolesi (1710-1736), but it turns out that many works attributed to Pergolesi were actually by others.  Thus, the ballet contains Stravinsky’s reworking not only of Pergolesi’s music but also of pieces by two Pergolesi contemporaries, Domenico Gallo and Alessandro Parisotti.  The ballet is all about identity confusion, so the musical confusion underlying it makes a strange kind of sense.  Stravinsky deliberately made the work far more complex than its sources through unusual instrumentation: using the trombone, a sacred instrument in the 18th century, in Jazz Age form; introducing flute and string harmonics; creating a double-bass solo with glissando; and much more.  Stravinsky borrowed the songs from various operas, and used them in ways that complicate the action rather than simplify it.  Yet the composer follows the harmonic and melodic structure of 200 years earlier rather closely, giving the ballet simultaneously a 20th-century feeling and a strong identification with the past.  In lesser hands than Craft’s, Pulcinella can come across – especially on a CD, with no action visible – as rather confusing, its music neither here nor there.  Craft understands that this is exactly Stravinsky’s point, and that the apparent musical inconsistencies are directly in tune (so to speak) with Léonide Massine’s you-never-know-who’s-who libretto.  Craft sees the logic underlying the apparently mismatched elements of this ballet and produces a performance that flows forward while holding admirably together.

     The Fairy’s Kiss (also known by its French title, Le baiser de la fée) was written later than Pulcinella, in 1928, and revised in 1950.  It uses music of the more recent past – Tchaikovsky’s – and uses it quite differently.  Stravinsky’s deference to the past in Pulcinella is missing in The Fairy’s Kiss, most of which is really Stravinsky’s own music on Tchaikovskian models.  The Tchaikovsky pieces used by Stravinsky are not taken from the familiar symphonies and ballets, but are short movements from early piano works and songs.  Stravinsky built his own music on Tchaikovsky’s foundation, using it for a balletic story about Tchaikovsky himself: a young man whose muse, the Fairy, is not entirely benevolent.  Scholars can dissect the ballet to see just what Stravinsky did with and to Tchaikovsky’s music – Craft himself explains some of the techniques in his booklet notes for this CD.  But listeners do not need the intellectual underpinnings to enjoy The Fairy’s Kiss and appreciate its style.  Craft conducts it with loving sensitivity tempered by intimate knowledge of Stravinsky’s techniques.  The result, here as in Pulcinella, is as effective as it can possibly be.

February 16, 2006


Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference. By Joanne Oppenheim. Scholastic. $22.99.

     It was greatly shaming to America.  At the start of World War II, within hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government rounded up hundreds of Japanese immigrants and put them in federal prisons as possible spies or saboteurs.  A few months later, all remaining Japanese Americans on the West Coast were abruptly moved out of their homes and into government-run camps.  Two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens.  Many were children.  They lived in the camps for three-and-a-half years.

     It is possible, with hindsight, to understand – if not approve – the government’s actions.  The Pearl Harbor attack seemed to come out of nowhere; why not expect attacks within the continental U.S. as well?  The first Japanese taken into custody were aliens, not citizens – never mind that many had lived in the U.S. for decades and could not become citizens because of restrictive U.S. immigration laws.  The remainder of those taken from their homes were citizens by birth – but who knew what plots their families might have been hatching?  Had not Charles Lindbergh, a true American hero, later become an apologist for the Nazis?

     If there are chilling parallels between the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the treatment of Arabs and Arab Americans after September 11, 2001, there are also heartening differences, as Joanne Oppenheim points out: there were no camps set up for those of Arabian descent, no mass confiscation of homes and property.  There was, in fact, a public attempt to recognize that the vicious murderers who flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center did not represent all Arabs or all of Islam.

     There was no such attempt in 1941.  Recognition of the displaced Japanese Americans had to come from individuals – of whom a notable, little-known one was a librarian named Clara Breed.  She had come to know middle-school and high-school Japanese children in San Diego, she realized the great wrong that had been done to them, and she responded with kindness and persistence – by becoming someone with whom they could communicate regularly, who would lend them a friendly ear, write back to them, even bring small items to the camps to the extent possible and allowable.

     Dear Miss Breed is a wonderful, uplifting story of an ordinary woman made extraordinary to those she helped by her insistence on treating them like human beings, not possible agents of the “yellow peril.”  Oppenheim’s book is largely made up of letters, whose mundane nature packs a slowly building emotional wallop.  “Well, mamma had to go to a certain office, so while we were going, we saw a dead snake.  I saw a rat skin too.  There are lots of red ants around here.  There are Scorpions too.  There was on[e] under our house.  I think it is all very nice here except for the heat, sand, and insects.”

     The letters are printed with their original grammatical and spelling errors; and while they often deal with elements of the incarceration that did become more widely known – a riot at Santa Anita, for example – they are mostly about attempts to manage everyday life.  Those attempts had to begin anew when the war was over and the camps finally closed.  Reintegration into a society that had abruptly expelled them was often difficult, but these young people – now several years older, or several lifetimes – seem mostly to have remained upbeat: “Here is what I say: there is no need to be bitter. …There is nothing to gain by eternally brooding for things that might have been.”  There were so-called “redress hearings” during the 1980s, and some families received some compensation, but obviously there was no way to replace the lost years.  Miss Breed was a lifeline during those years: “Clara Breed taught me not all people are prejudiced through her kindness and caring ways.”  This book makes a fine and long-overdue memorial to Miss Breed and what she did.  It seems, in fact, too modest.  How much better we would be as a nation if we erected, in addition to our many monuments to brave fighters, a few to people with Miss Breed’s kind of quiet courage.


Aliens Are Coming! The True Account of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” Radio Broadcast. By Meghan McCarthy. Knopf. $16.95.

George and the Dragon. By Chris Wormell. Knopf. $16.95.

     We humans seem to want there to be monsters out there, if only so we can overcome them.  It is important, however, that the monsters not come too close, either in distance or in time.  And that was the problem with Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds: people thought the monsters were right here, right now.  Aliens Are Coming! explains how that was possible – which requires kids to take a brief history lesson.  This occurred before most people had televisions, before emergency communication was immediate, at a time of rising world tension (World War II would begin the next year) and a time when radio was a chief source of both entertainment and up-to-the-minute news.  Welles’ radio play was structured to sound like a news broadcast breaking into an entertainment show.  There was a disclaimer before it started, but people who missed that heard no more notices until the very end, when Welles announced a tie-in of the play to Halloween: the broadcast aired on October 30.  People panicked, law enforcement was mobilized, professors started looking for evidence of aliens, and cars choked highways as listeners tried to flee to somewhere – where, they did not know.  Meghan McCarthy tells the story of this unusual (to say the least) chapter in American history with great style and in an age-appropriate way for young readers: she talks about panic but shows little evidence of it, distancing the story from reality by illustrating it with art reminiscent of what the pulp magazines of the time used.  At the end, she explains more about what happened in an Author’s Note for adults – and some kids will be fascinated by that, too, since it includes (among other things) a brief discussion of how H.G. Wells and Orson Welles actually met, and what the former thought of the latter.

     The legend of St. George and the Dragon is much older than that of the supposed Martian invasion of 1938 – but notice that the title of Chris Wormell’s book is George and the Dragon, with no “St.”  Wormell, author of the strange and touching The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit, gives the dragon tale an entirely new twist.  After showing the destruction that the dragon can and does wreak on armies, castles and the countryside where he lives, Wormell states that the dragon had a very small weakness: “He was terrified of mice!”  This statement, accompanied by a two-page panoramic drawing showing one small mouse standing on his hind legs, switches the book instantaneously from drama to farce – which is where it remains.  Wormell tells of the little mouse – that would be George – who happens to move into a tiny hole by the dragon’s cave, and pays a friendly visit next door, in the process quite inadvertently rescuing a kidnapped princess.  The princess adopts him, of course, and the final scene of George as a designated castle guardian is a gem.  So, in fact, is the whole book – a fine example of the triumphant spirit of mankind.  Or mousekind.


Gangsta Yoga with DJ Dog: A “Housebroken” Collection. By Steve Watkins. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

When Bad Things Happen to Stupid People: A “Close to Home” Collection. By John McPherson. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     There is something about the ever-expanding American suburban experience that just aches to be punctured.  Here are two comic strips – one relatively new, one of long standing – that handle the deflation of suburbia gently, but still with an edge.

     Steve Watkins’ Housebroken is the simple, homespun tale of a now-broke rap star living with the family of the lawyer who tried unsuccessfully to defend him against losing an endorsement contract for not being “urban” enough.  The lawyer has a seven-year-old son who is usually a co-conspirator with the ex-rapper and a nine-year-old daughter who is preoccupied with corporate life and hopes to become a CEO, preferably by age 10.  Just an ordinary suburban family, right?  Oh: the rapper is a dog.  A real dog. Just an ordinary talking pit bull who teaches yoga classes such positions as “just chillin’” and “hide from driveby.”  Who helps seven-year-old Malik and nine-year-old Mya change their school orchestra into the “Murderers Bows Orchestra,” which isn’t “playin’ any music written by a white man.”  Who calls telephone information and asks for the number of the “fine honey from the club last night.”  Who dresses up as the “Easter homey” and insists kids ask for “eggs of color,” not “colored eggs.”  Get the picture?  There are lots of pictures, actually – Housebroken is a comic strip, after all.  And there is lots of character-oriented comedy as well as some sendups of everyday American (not just suburban) life: Mya’s sale of “Girl Scout Cookie-backed securities” nets $127 million, but DJ gets “paid in after-tax dollars.  Here’s $2.71.”  This is Watkins’ second Housebroken collection, and it shows his humor becoming more pointed and his characters more fully developed.  His strip is worth watching – and reading.

     John McPherson’s Close to Home is now in its 13th collection (there have also been two oversize “Treasury” volumes), and this one is among the very best.  The reason is that the panels are interspersed with commentary – and some cartoons are included that never made it into newspapers.  McPherson is well known for taking things just a bit too far for his scenes to seem realistic.  But what happens when he takes them even a bit farther?  The “Killed by the Editor” section in When Bad Things Happen to Stupid People contains, for example, a hilarious “Viagra Falls” panel in which the water rises high just before plunging down.  McPherson also includes an “Angry Letters” section – for instance, some chiropractors objected to a cartoon showing a chiropractor treating a patient’s back by jumping onto it from a stepladder.  Those would be the chiropractors with no sense of humor.  Outside the special sections, the book is packed with the usual Close to Home absurdities: dental credit cards giving 3% credit toward root canals; a jacket for grandmothers that is covered with 48 plastic pouches for photos of grandchildren; a Greek mythology class in which the teacher is a centaur; and many more.  The book’s combination of traditional Close to Home panels with some behind-the-scenes information makes McPherson’s not-quite-suburban world even more fun to visit than usual.


A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl. By Tanya Lee Stone. Wendy Lamb Books. $14.95.

     Tanya Lee Stone’s debut novel is a very fast read that comes across like something girlfriends would write to each other about a really bad time in their lives.  It’s written in something between free verse and prose, all mixed up and unsure what it wants to be.  The three girls who tell the story are all mixed up and unsure what they want to be, too.  And just as the slightly odd style is never off-putting, so the morally and ethically skewed choices of the narrators never make us think less of them.  That’s quite an accomplishment.

     To be sure, this isn’t Stone’s first writing.  She has done numerous nonfiction and picture books for kids and, before she started writing, was a children’s-book editor for 13 years.  But A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, for ages 14 and up, is new territory for Stone, and she explores it adeptly.

     There are three interlinked stories here, of three high-school girls – Josie, Nicolette and Aviva – who all fall for the same guy.  He’s a typically thoughtless high-school jock, a senior and a typecast love-’em-and-leave-’em hottie with only one thing on his mind.  In fact, he is such a predictable, cardboard character that the book would fall flat if anyone else in it were so one-dimensional.  But the girls are not.  They are as different as can be, but all really seem to live and breathe, to have individualized personalities that respond to the guy in different ways – all of which, unfortunately, lead to heartache.

     Josie, a freshman who finds out she is one of “the freshmeat girls,” tells the first story.  She comes out of her experience with the guy who will always be known as T.L. with a stronger sense of herself and a determination to help other girls who are, have been or might be trapped by this boy.  Her vehicle for helping is a book: Judy Blume’s Forever, a tale of a girl’s first love affair and a work that middle-school girls frequently read.  Josie finds a copy with blank end pages in the school library, and writes a warning note in it: “I won’t stoop to his level and call him by name but his initials are T.L.”  Josie’s note’s intention is clear: “Forewarned is forearmed.  Forever.”

     This doesn’t help Nicolette, an older and more sexually experienced girl who thinks she can handle anything T.L. dishes out, but discovers that he can get through her hard shell to the softness underneath – and then take advantage of it and her.  Nor does it help Aviva, who is as innocent as Josie at first but who finds out more than she bargained for through her relationship with T.L.  Still, Josie and other girls at school (who make brief appearances) form a sisterhood of the hurt to help Nicolette and Aviva get through their troubles.  And the resulting notes in Forever – shown at the front and back of Stone’s book – indicate just how many girls T.L. has hurt and how determined they are to gain strength and show mutual support as a result.  It is through this sort of “girl power” that A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, according to Stone – a rather bleak view of high-school romance, but not an unrealistic one.  Nor is it unrealistic, unfortunately, that the girls create their self-help network only after so many of them have been victimized by the same superficially attractive sexual predator.


Bionicle Legends #1: Island of Doom. By Greg Farshtey. Scholastic. $4.99.

Just My Luck. Adapted by Laurie Calkhoven. Scholastic. $4.99.

Fear Factor: Yuck! Grossest Stunts Ever! By Jesse Leon McCann. Scholastic. $4.99.

Winx Club: P.A.S.S. Book. Scholastic. $7.99.

Winx Club: Alfea School for Fairies. Scholastic. $4.99.

Care Bears: Phonics Box Set. Scholastic. $12.99.

Guinness World Records: Fearless Feats. Scholastic. $4.99.

     There are positives and negatives in licensed products for both parents and publishers.  Parents get recognizable products that children will really want to read or play with if they are fans already – but the likelihood of long-term interest, substantive information or ongoing enjoyment is small.  Publishers get products with a built-in audience – but must meet that audience’s expectations by not straying too far from the simple, formulaic ideas and stories that created the fan base in the first place.  Not even Scholastic, as good a children’s publisher as exists today, is immune to the lure of licensed products – or to their limitations.

     These products come with target age ranges from the youngest children to preteens.  Bionicle Legends #1: Island of Doom, for ages 9-12, is based on the Bionicle characters created by the makers of LEGO blocks after they decided that free-form play, the company’s stock in trade for nearly half a century, was not enough for today’s kids.  Adventure and predetermined characters were called for.  This decision turned LEGO into pretty much just another toy company and went strongly against its reason for being (the very name LEGO comes from a Danish phrase meaning “play well”).  But kids who think LEGOs are action-figure things will immediately recognize this story of the six beings that arrive on an isolated island in pursuit of something that is both of great value and of great evil potential.  Ho-hum, again, you say?  Then pass the book by.

     Also for ages 9-12 – but targeting mainly girls, as Bionicle targets mainly boys – is Just My Luck, a very simple novelization of the latest Lindsay Lohan film.  The idea is that Lohan’s character, Ashley Albright, has great gobs of good luck and therefore is fabulous, stunning, successful and all that.  Her co-star, Chris Pine, has great gobs of bad luck, and Lohan seems to catch (through kissing!) a case of the same stuff, leading her to career disaster (no fair saying “yay!”) and an eventual appreciation of pizza, good friends – and Pine’s character, Jake Harden.  The book follows the movie plot closely, and anyone wanting to re-live the film – without a DVD – will enjoy it.

     Anyone wanting to re-live Fear Factor (why?) will enjoy Yuck! – whose title is not a comment on the TV show but a reference to tanks full of mealworms, a shake of maggots and house flies, a box containing 10,000 Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and so on.  This book, for ages 7-13, is actually cleverly arranged, with facts, photos, crossword puzzles, quizzes and interviews with Fear Factor contestants.  It’s still gross, though; fans will consider that a compliment.

     Winx Club, offering five cutesy-pie fairies to the 5-to-10-year-old set, comes with offerings for the younger and older part of the age group.  The acronym in P.A.S.S. Book stands for “Pass Along Secretly and Silently,” and the book looks like an old-fashioned diary, complete with lock and key.  Aimed at ages 7-10, it includes quizzes, fill-ins, glitter stickers and more.  For ages 5-7, Alfea School for Fairies offers a look at the fairies’ rooms at their school, with lots of stickers to decorate the individual rooms and shared living room.

     Care Bears: Phonics Book Set, for ages 3-5, stands out among these licensed products for its educational orientation.  The box includes a dozen short books that use the Care Bears characters to help kids learn to read.  Each book contains a simple story, such as Meet the Care Bears or All Set for Bed!  And each story has a purpose: for example, Best Friends helps young readers learn about plural words.  This is a set worth having if your young children like the Care Bears and if you, as a parent, can handle an overdose of treacly sweetness in the name of education.

     The most interesting of these licensed products has no specific age target: Fearless Feats, based on “Incredible Records of Human Achievement” (so the subtitle says) from Guinness World Records.  The first Niagara Falls tightrope walk, the heaviest vehicle ever pulled with teeth, the most surfing championships won, the youngest solo transatlantic sailor, the oldest barefoot water-skier – learn about these and many other unusual people and  human achievements here.  Some entries are worthy of Fear Factor: chainsaw juggling, bathing with rattlesnakes.  Others are simply odd: longest toenails, heaviest weight lifted by a human beard.  The biggest oddity, though, may be Scholastic’s publication of a book that promotes the Guinness volume – and ignores its own annual Scholastic Book of World Records.  That must be just another of the wonders of licensing.


Handel: Water Music; Music for the Royal Fireworks. Aradia Ensemble conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $8.99.

Haydn: Piano Music. Jenő Jandó, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

     Here are two nicely performed CDs of music that is pleasant to hear – one CD of super-familiar material and one whose offerings are less well known.  Neither CD is a must-have, but both have much to recommend them.

     Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks have been recorded so often that it is unimaginable for a classical-music lover not to have at least one recording of both works – perhaps several.  The Aradia Ensemble’s performance has interesting elements, such as use of a transverse flute – specified in the original manuscript but not used in other recordings – and inclusion of a military side drum in the Overture to Royal Fireworks, reflecting Handel’s original plan to use military instruments in this outdoor music.  But this is scarcely a true “original orchestration” performance, since it uses the strings that Handel added later rather than a band consisting entirely of wind instruments.  The mixture of adherence and non-adherence to Handel’s original intentions is a bit odd.  There are some peculiarities in Water Music as well.  Kevin Mallon paces all the music interestingly but sometimes capriciously, choosing faster tempi than usual in many sections and thus giving these well-known pieces an extra sense of liveliness and verve – but also keeping things a bit too brisk at times.  Whether the overall approach works is a matter of one’s individual preference.  Mallon balances his forces skillfully, the players are quite fine, and it is certainly nice to have both these standard-repertoire Handel works on one CD.  This may not be a first choice among available recordings, but a collector looking for a third or fourth version will find much to like in Mallon’s somewhat unusual approach.

     The Haydn works played by Jenő Jandó are not nearly as well known as the Handel ones.  This Haydn CD has no unifying theme: the pieces are unrelated.  All are well constructed and at least modestly interesting to hear, though Haydn’s piano music does not have the staying power of Mozart’s (the younger composer was a virtuoso pianist; Haydn was not).  The longest work here is Twenty Variations in G Major, based on a simple dance theme handled skillfully.  Theme and Variations in C Major is a later work of more modest scope.  Capriccio in G Major is based on a simple folk song whose topic seems quite odd today: castration of a boar.  Arietta con 12 Variazoni is based on the minuet of the composer’s Quartet, Op. 9, No. 2.  The Variations on “Gott erhalte” use Haydn’s famous Emperor’s Hymn from his Quartet, Op. 76, No. 3.  Divertimento: Il Maestro e lo Scolare is for piano four hands – here, Jandó is joined by Zsuzsa Kollár – and is a two-movement work designed for teaching purposes.  The CD adds up to something of a mishmash, with pieces from different time periods and of different levels of interest following one another.  Some of these works were probably written for harpsichord, others for a square piano or other early pianoforte – certainly not the modern instrument Jandó uses.  The CD is enjoyable to listen to – Haydn’s music can withstand far more idiosyncrasies than it faces here – but ultimately comes across as a minor compilation of less-than-significant works.

February 09, 2006


The Simple Truth about Love. By Bradley Trevor Greive. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

In a Cell Phone Minute. By Judy Reiser. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

     Groundhog Day and Valentine’s Day are both, in their own ways, harbingers of spring.  Love is always in season, of course, but there is something optimistic about setting aside a day in midwinter – right in the middle of a month that often has the worst weather of all – to recognize so supreme a human emotion.

     Or maybe it’s an animal emotion, as in Bradley Trevor Greive’s latest charming book – using, as usual, brief words and outstanding animal photos to illustrate some very human feelings.  The Simple Truth about Love is one of Greive’s best books, perhaps because there is no simple truth about love, and Greive knows it.  His introductory acknowledgments bring forth some of his funniest writing, starting with, “If ever I felt like a pungent fraud, this book proves that such inklings were perfectly correct.”  The entire book is funnier than many others by Greive.  Just when you know he is about to talk about French kissing, for instance, he writes “Hello Mr. Tongue!” beneath a photo of a cow’s impossibly long tongue, taken with a lens that makes it seem longer still.  For “a violent post-smooch rapture,” he gives us one of the cutest kitten photos ever, with the kitty standing on back paws, clutching front paws together as if holding an invisible microphone, with mouth half open as if singing an ecstatic love song.  Greive also throws in a few funny real-world jabs, for instance by noting that love “is an intoxicating force that draws all living creatures (except for telephone salespeople who call you at home and maybe aphids – we don’t know about them for sure).”  This last remark is beneath a photo of a toad so squat and bulbous that its sides are off the page.  Even when Greive gets serious here, he picks photos that keep the mood playful: “The process is all about trust” appears beneath a picture of two giant tortoises sticking their heads out of their shells toward each other, while “You have finally found true love” is underneath a picture of a big dog lying in a very relaxed posture, with one paw thrown protectively over a cat.  The Simple Truth about Love is simply delightful in any season – just like love itself.

     Of course, the ways of finding love do change over time.  Take the story of the man who was attracted to a woman in the car next to his.  He showed his cell phone, drove past her car, and she wrote her phone number in reverse on her car’s windshield – in lipstick – so he could call her.  They “got acquainted with each other over a few drinks” and then started dating.  As the pleased cell-phone user says, “I’m now happily married to someone else.”

     Okay, so things don’t always work out.  In a Cell Phone Minute – a cleverly designed book shaped like an overlarge you-know-what – chronicles outcomes happy, sad and hilarious.  One man gave his girlfriend a camera-equipped cell phone that already contained a picture of him holding up a sign asking her to marry him (she said yes).  After a big storm that caused a widespread blackout, when cell phones couldn’t get signals because so many people were trying to use them, some people used them as flashlights instead of communication devices.  A man whose cell phone was missing called the number to try to find it – and his dog started ringing: the dog had swallowed it (yes, the man got it back).  There are many other stories like these in Judy Reiser’s book – some funny, some serious, some touching – proving that cell phones now touch our lives every day and, like love, in every season.


Five Little Ducks. Illustrated by Ivan Bates. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $12.99.

Goodnight, My Duckling. By Nancy Tafuri. Scholastic. $6.99.

Dinosaur Dinosaur. By Kevin Lewis. Illustrated by Daniel Kirk. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $15.99.

Mix the fuzzy cuteness of ducks with a much-loved nursery song and you have Five Little Ducks with Ivan Bates’ delightful illustrations. Bates manages to mix the realism of the ducks’ appearance with some very human-like expressions and activities involving the ducklings themselves and the other animals they meet (ducks holding things with their front legs, a goat smiling, mother duck crying when “no little ducks came waddling back,” and so on). Kids ages 3-5 will enjoy the pictures for this rhyme that they probably already know. And they will especially like the final reunion scene, when all the little ducks come waddling back – bringing their mother the gifts that they had wandered away to get for her.

Children in the same age group get a nicely sized board book all their own in Nancy Tafuri’s Goodnight, My Duckling. This is a followup and companion to Tafuri’s Have You Seen My Duckling? – but the board book stands on its own. The story is kept very simple: an increasingly sleepy baby duck gets good-night wishes from other animals (a beaver, a frog and more). By the time all the good-nights have been said, mother duck and the other ducklings have gone off to sleep and the laggard little duck is alone on the big lake – until a friendly turtle lends a helping hand…err, shell. Tafuri’s animals are even more realistic than Bates’: they do talk to each other, but they look and behave just like real-life animals (well, except for the turtle-helps-duck scene). The scenery here is as lovingly pictured as are the animals. The result is a wonderful bit of bedtime reading for any parent’s little duckling.

Dinosaur Dinosaur is also for ages 3-5 and, like Five Little Ducks, has a rhythmic tale to tell – a jump-rope rhyme in this case. Many parts of it are fun, but it is not quite as good as the other books – call it (+++). The dinos-dressed-up-as-suburban-kids approach is not really a new one, and some of the illustrations could actually be a bit scary for sensitive young children (for example, the mother dino’s super-toothy grin at the breakfast table). This is a book whose details are more fun than its main story: look for the saber-toothed housecat, the dinosaur toothbrush holder (and the nearby “pterano-paste”), the woolly mammoth stuffed toy, and so on. But the rhymes wear thin quickly, with page after page like this: “Muddy-duddy dinosaur,/ soap up in the tub./ Bubbly-wubbly dinosaur,/ rub-a-dub-a-dub.” The story will more likely appeal to younger children in the target age range, the illustrations to older (and more raucous) ones. Parents will be able to tell with a quick flip through the book whether they have little dinos like these at home.


Small Steps. By Louis Sachar. Delacorte Press. $16.95.

     The problem with setting high standards is that people expect you to live up to them.  Joseph Heller, for example, set a standard with his first novel, Catch-22, that he never came close to matching afterwards.  In his later career, when an observer told Heller he had not written anything approaching Catch-22, the author responded, “Who has?”

     This is a darned good question, but it begs another question: why do authors so often seem to have only one truly good book in them?  It’s too soon to say that of Louis Sachar, who has written numerous books already and presumably has ideas for many more.  But it’s certainly true that he has not yet come close to the astonishing quality and sheer humanity of Holes – certainly not in follow-ups such as Stanley Yelnats’ Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake and the present volume.

     Small Steps is the story of Armpit (real name: Theodore A. Johnson) and what happens to him back home in Austin, Texas, two years after he is released from Camp Green Lake.  It is a well-told ordinary story whose very ordinariness comes through most clearly when Sachar tries to render it extraordinary.  The author seems to be trying too hard all the time – while Holes read like an effortless production (which of course it wasn’t), Small Steps reads like a tortuous, labored one.

     Armpit’s life continues to intersect Camp Green Lake in some ways, notably the reappearance of his buddy X-Ray, whose get-rich-quick scheme goes awry and causes Armpit plenty of grief – until a helpful detective winks the whole thing away.  But there are plenty of new elements here, too – which, unfortunately, tend to ring false.  A notable one is Armpit’s 10-year-old disabled next-door neighbor, Ginny, who is the only person who really believes in Armpit (who, of course, believes very much in her, too).  Another crucial one is a teen pop singer named Kaira DeLeon, with whom Armpit develops a relationship of sorts.  Kaira’s stepfather/manager, Jerome, is the bad guy here, and is so one-dimensional a villain that he would almost be laughable if Sachar did not have him perform a violent act of shocking viciousness.  But Armpit’s behavior would also be laughable if Sachar did not intend it to be taken seriously – as in a scene in which Jerome, for no apparent reason, hands Armpit a baseball bat and has him take some practice swings.  This proves a crucial event, to whose meaning Armpit is totally oblivious even though Sachar makes it so obvious to readers that he might as well have written it in neon lights.

     Small Steps is about all the small steps that damaged people take to try to turn their lives around.  The writing is good and the dialogue especially so.  The ending is, not surprisingly, bittersweet, but it is not particularly satisfying.  Small Steps comes across as a highly contrived book that would not garner a great deal of attention except for its connection with Holes – a book to whose level, unfortunately, it never rises.


Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. By Jesper Juul. MIT Press. $35.

It’s high time for a thorough, unbiased sociological study of video games, the people who create them, the people who play them, the trends they represent, and the future developments toward which they are likely to lead us. Half-Real is not that study, but it is a worthy step in the right direction.

Juul is an assistant professor at the Center for Computer Games Research, IT University of Copenhagen, and thus has an inherent inclination to balance the ivory-tower study of gaming with its everyday elements. His style tries to balance the everyday and the academic, too, and if it does not always succeed, it at least deserves credit for the attempt.

The title of Juul’s book comes from his notion that video games use real-world rules to place players in a fictional world. This is, in fact, nothing new, though Juul seems to think it is: what is, say, “Monopoly,” if not a fictional world in which real-world rules apply? But Juul’s interest is less in the existence of real-world and fictional elements in video games than in the way the real and fictional interact, and the way in which that interaction changes over time.

Juul posits a new definition of games that he calls the classic game model. He says the model explains how games have traditionally been constructed for 5,000 years – but it has reached certain limits because of how video games are, broadly speaking, constructed today (“the classic game model is no longer all there is to games”). The definition and its supporting evidence lead Juul to argue that computers and video games are uniquely suited for each other.

More interesting than this largely academic analysis are Juul’s discussions of rules and his specific looks at individual video games. His explanation of how rules work is lucid and pointed, leading to comments like this one: “Games are learning experiences, where the player improves his or her skills at playing the game. At any given point, the player will have a specific repertoire of skills and methods for overcoming the challenges of the game. Part of the attraction of a good game is that it continually challenges and makes new demands on the player’s repertoire.”

This may be obvious to video gamers but is not necessarily so to others. Juul’s discussions of specific video games show why. For instance, he compares two early video games – Pong (1973) and The Hobbit (1984) – showing through clever analysis that the apparently simple design of Pong gives it attractions that the more complex Tolkien-based game lacks. In discussing more-modern game features, such as the crash mode in Burnout 2, Juul mixes analysis of specific game elements with a real-world overview: “A game is a play with identities, where the player at one moment performs an action considered morally sound, and the next moment tries something he or she considers indefensible.” Ah, but there’s the rub, and there’s the difficulty with Juul’s largely admirable work: there is a significant societal argument today about the extent to which video gamers do or do not recognize the indefensibility of game actions in the real world. Presumably all nonpathological gamers know that deliberately crashing cars is not a good idea. But what about other ways in which gamers gain an edge, especially in role-playing games – by making and breaking alliances, deceiving other players, changing sides, and so on? Is it safe to say that this sort of game-world behavior never translates into the real world?

Juul does not address this issue or others of significant potential interest. And he is a bit too facile in comparing gamers’ reactions to those of movie audiences: the media, even when a movie is game-based or a game movie-based, function very differently (in terms of a film’s linear progression and forced observation from the director’s chosen viewpoint, for example). Still, if Juul does not have the last word on the edgy relationship between real and gaming worlds, he does have a number of interesting points to make; and he makes them, for the most part, very well.


Babymouse: Queen of the World! By Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.95.

Babymouse: Our Hero. By Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.95.

     It’s easy to see that you’re supposed to love Babymouse, a brother-and-sister team’s cartoon creation with adventures aimed at girls ages 7-10.  Babymouse is just adorable, with her frizzy hair…err, whiskers; her shapeless shift dress with a heart on it (reminiscent of the blouses worn by Cathy Guisewite’s cartoon Cathy); her propensity for daydreaming; and her pinkness (the books are in black, white and pink, with pink dominating the many dream sequences).  The Babymouse books are something between comic books and graphic novels, certainly not old-fashioned young-kids comics but not trendy manga, either.  And the slightly askew adventures of this lovable and not-too-furry character fit somewhere between cutesy-pie kid stuff and slam-bang, action-packed graphic novels.

     Babymouse is of course supposed to be a sort of “everygirl,” or “everymouse,” though it is unlikely that girls in the 7-to-10 age group will want to identify themselves with someone called “baby.”  When Babymouse gets frustrated, as she often does, she remarks, “Typical” – a signature comment of sorts.  Babymouse has a best friend, Wilson the Weasel; a little brother, Squeak; and the typical too-popular in-school enemy, Felicia Furrypaws (who happens to be a cat; no real surprise there).

     Babymouse’s adventures are good-natured and good-humored, though not really laugh-out-loud funny.  In Queen of the World! – the first book – she worries about being accepted by Felicia and her shallow groupies, eventually getting a much-craved party invitation by giving Felicia her own book report and getting in trouble.  The party proves spectacularly boring, all gossip and silliness, and Babymouse finally shows some gumption and leaves to watch monster movies with Wilson – whom she had thrown over for Felicia.  In Our Hero, Babymouse is forced to face one of her big school fears: dodgeball.  She frets and worries and gets upset in anticipation of the game, but has to play anyway.  Then Felicia hits Wilson – hard – and Babymouse forgets her fear and scores the winning shot…against Felicia.

     The narratives are actually less interesting than Babymouse’s daydreams within them. She imagines a movie called “Babymouse vs. the Squid,” visualizes herself as “Babymouserella,” imagines that her always-stuck locker is a black hole in one book and a homework-eating monster in the other, and considers what would happen if she turned into “Babymousezilla.”  These pink daydreams have a madcap silliness that almost saves the fairly mundane main stories.  Babymouse is worth sampling for girls in the target age range, but she may have to grow up a bit – or at least grow a little less babyish – to become a really attractive series character.


Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 7. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Ernst Märzendorfer. Marco Polo. $9.99.

British Tuba Concertos: Vaughan Williams, Gregson, Steptoe, Golland. James Gourlay, tuba; Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Gavin Sutherland. Naxos. $8.99.

     Taking a few steps off the musical beaten path is by no means a walk on the wild side – it is simply a stroll along, as Robert Frost put it, “the road less traveled.”  There can be great enjoyment in going beyond the standard classical repertoire and exploring some byways.

     Johann Strauss Sr. did not count as a byway in 19th-century Vienna, but his fame was eventually eclipsed by that of his eldest son, and Strauss Sr.’s music – much of it quite delightful – is heard today less often than it deserves.  Marco Polo has been redressing this balance with its ongoing edition of Strauss Sr.’s works, and the seventh volume contains some gems.  There are six waltzes here, interspersed with shorter pieces: four galops and a march.  The result would be pleasant listening even if the works were of uneven quality.  But they are all well made, well orchestrated and charming, albeit in different ways.  The waltz Mittel gegen den Schlaf (“Cure for Sleep”) lives up to its name with a Presto introduction and several fast dance sections.  Erinnerung an Pesth (“Souvenir of Pest”) is dedicated to “the noble Hungarian people” and uses a Hungarian Lassu to introduce its Vienna-style waltzes.  Erinnerung an Berlin (“Souvenir of Berlin”) celebrates a risky tour (in light of the geopolitical situation) that Strauss took to Berlin, during which the composer earned both praise and handsome gifts – not only from the Prussian nobility but also from the Tsar of Russia, himself visiting Berlin at the time.  Among the galops, Jugendfeuer (“Fire of Youth”) is notable for speed and spirit, and Cachucha for castanets and overall verve.  Strauss once wrote, “I have nothing to do with [journalists] calling me an artist, a thing I never posed as.  The harmony of all united in joy is my only aim.”  The latest CD of Strauss Sr.’s music – wonderfully played by Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina under Ernst Märzendorfer – shows, once again, how well the elder Strauss aimed.

     Farther off the beaten path than Strauss Sr., and of more serious mien, the four tuba concertos by 20th-century British composers bring to the forefront an unwieldy instrument that rarely gets its due.  The tuba has been used to exceptional effect by Berlioz, Wagner and Shostakovich (a muted tuba is a highlight of his Symphony No. 8).  And it has been an instrument of fun – literally – in the hands of famed caricaturist and tuba player Gerard Hoffnung, who once arranged a Chopin delicacy for tuba quartet.  Rarely, however, has the tuba been used as a traditional solo instrument in a concerto.  Vaughan Williams’ concerto in F Minor, written in 1954 (when the composer was 82), is a classic of its kind.  Easy to listen to and formally rather old-fashioned, it is a highly musicianly showpiece.  The other works on Naxos’ new CD are more recent.  Edward Gregson’s was written in 1978, originally for tuba with brass band, and pays brief homage to Vaughan Williams’ earlier work before taking off on its own.  The dancelike but not quite danceable finale is a highlight.  Roger Steptoe’s 12-tone work dates to 1983 and was originally three pieces for tuba and piano.  It is both song-like and virtuosic, with a cadenza linking the second and third movements.  John Golland’s concerto was first performed as recently as 1997, though written during the 1980s.  Its finale, partly written in 7/8 time, is particularly interesting.  None of these works can be easy to play, but James Gourlay handles them all with aplomb, with Gavin Sutherland and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia providing clear and nuanced backup.

February 02, 2006


A Gift of Gracias. By Julia Alvarez. Illustrated by Beatriz Vidal. Knopf. $15.95.

Doña Flor: A Tall Tale about a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart. By Pat Mora. Illustrated by Raul Colón. Knopf. $15.95.

     It is the simple, heartfelt tales of a culture that most readily communicate its values to other cultures, making mutual understanding and appreciation possible.  Since so many people share common values such as respect, family members helping each other, even love of animals, these values are most easily transmitted cross-culturally.  And how better to do so than in well-written, well-illustrated, decidedly non-preachy children’s books like these two?

     A Gift of Gracias is a tale from the Dominican Republic.  Although her story has religious trappings, Julia Alvarez is wise enough to point out, in an end note, that in a sense the story is about Mother Earth, not exclusively a particular image of the Virgin Mary.  This is a simple and lovely tale about immigrants from Spain who are having a hard time trying to live by farming in the Dominican Republic.  Maria, born in this new land, is determined to find a way to help the farm succeed.  In a dream, she sees herself planting orange seeds and repeatedly saying gracias for them.  A beautiful lady appears in the dream and identifies herself as Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia – Our Lady of Thanks.  This vision inspires Maria to suggest that her family plant orange seeds and try to grow them – and sure enough, trees grow with unnatural speed and the farm is saved.  Maria’s Papá, on his way to take the fruit to market, asks what gift she wants, and she asks only for a portrait of Our Lady of Thanks.  Papá is unable to find one – but the way Maria eventually gets one becomes a second miracle to add to that of the fast-growing trees.  The very simplicity of the tale makes it deeply affecting, and the excellent illustrations by Beatriz Vidal heighten the mood with their blend of the realistic and the fanciful.

     Doña Flor is a tall tale of the American Southwest and its Spanish culture, told in part with Spanish phrases.  Flor is a giantess: her mother’s singing made corn plants grow as high as trees, so naturally it made Flor grow to giant stature as well.  Flor is helpful and friendly, saying Mi casa es su casa to people, animals and plants alike.  But she becomes irritated when the sound of a huge mountain lion frightens animals and humans alike – and puzzled when she cannot find the “big monster gato.”  Eventually, she gets clues from the animals, the most amusing of which comes from the snake: “Vaya silencios-s-s-amente a la mes-s-s-a mas-s-s alta,” – that is, “go quietly to the tallest mesa.”  And s-s-sure enough, Doña Flor finds the s-s-solution to the mystery there.  It is a delightful one that leads to a heartwarming conclusion.  Pat Mora is an advocate for multicultural education – a controversial cause that she advances effectively with this story that reaches out to families of all kinds.  Raul Colón’s fascinating illustrations, created with a combination of watercolors, etchings and colored and litho pencils, add to the charm and effectiveness of the tale.


Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them. By Tim Walsh. Andrews McMeel. $29.95.

     There are no iPods here.  No Xbox 360s or PlayStation Portables.  None of the latest gadgets and gewgaws made it into Tim Walsh’s marvelous exploration of toys almost everyone knows but almost no one knows about.  Walsh takes us into the world of Lionel trains, Silly Putty, the Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, Barbie, Hula Hoops, Lite-Brite, GI Joe, Rubik’s Cube and Cabbage Patch Kids.  All are toys that have been around for at last a decade (many for much longer).  All have sold at least 10 million copies.  And all were invented by identifiable people who did not work within existing major toy companies (hence no Hot Wheels here, since Mattel invented them internally).

     Walsh is himself a toy inventor – well, a game inventor.  He created “Blurt!” – which was rejected by every major U.S. toy company and has since sold more than three million copies.  It’s not quite good enough for Timeless Toys, but it’s getting there.  Walsh does things on his own if he doesn’t get outside support.  This book itself is an example: he self-published it in 2004 as The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless Toys, and sold enough copies at $50 apiece so that Andrews McMeel picked it up for much wider distribution – at a lower price.

     So Timeless Toys is, in a sense, a $30 book that’s worth $50.  Actually, that’s true in more than one sense, since the book delivers at least $50 worth of information and entertainment.  Here you get more than the story of the teddy bear being named after Theodore Roosevelt: you learn about the Clifford Berryman cartoon that inspired the plush toy’s creation and the Russian-born immigrants, Morris and Rose Michtom, who made the concept a reality.  You can see the patent drawing underlying the Magic 8 Ball, and learn how Albert Carver and Abe Bookman invented the toy itself.  You can read about master carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, founder of the company that became LEGO, and about his son, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, who invented the coupling mechanism that made possible the familiar bricks we know today.

     Fascinating trivia abound throughout the book.  More on LEGO: the name is a contraction of the Danish expression “LEg GOdt,” meaning “play well,” and also happens to be Latin for the phrase “I put together.”  How’s that for a happy coincidence?  There are many more “did you know?” moments in Timeless Toys: Lincoln Logs are the creation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John; PEZ came in dispensers that looked like cigarette lighters because it was intended as a mint for smokers; a doctor who was also an Olympic gold medalist in pole vaulting was also the inventor of Erector Sets; Candy Land was created for children with polio by a woman suffering from the disease; and on and on and on.

     This is a work of superb scholarship, boundless optimism (what wonderful things people have thought up!), beautiful design (many photos of the original versions of toys, and many of the people who created them), and endless fascination.  You can read it bit by bit, in any order, but it is so addictive that you will have trouble putting it down – except perhaps to play with some of these classic toys with your own children…or even on your own.  Why should kids have all the fun?


The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. By Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D. Basic Books. $24.95.

     Here is a book designed to warm the cockles of the heart of baby boomers – or the brain’s equivalent of cockles, anyway.  Gene Cohen, founding chief of the Center for Aging at the National Institute of Mental Health and now director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, here argues that the brain and mind do not inevitably deteriorate, on either a physical or metal basis, as people age.  Instead, minds undergo positive changes as people mature.  Furthermore, there are specific things everyone can do to harness the power of mind and body in ways that will make those changes even more positive, actively building brain reserves and potential.

     Those are a lot of claims for any one book, especially one written for popular consumption, but Cohen has the bona fides to back many of them up.  A researcher himself, he is good at mining others’ research and explaining it simply, and in extracting nuggets of advice from scientific findings and jargon.  He also has a good sense of how to present his ideas to a generation that has been reading self-help tomes for decades.  For instance, he divides the “second half of life” into four phases: midlife reevaluation, a time of exploration and transition that he is at pains to say is not the same as “midlife crisis”; liberation, a time for experimentation and freeing oneself from earlier inhibitions; summing up, a time of “recapitulation, resolution, and review”; and encore, a phase characterized by the desire to go on “even in the face of adversity or loss.”  Cohen also introduces the concept of “developmental intelligence,” an umbrella term that he uses to encompass the ideas of increased wisdom, social skills, life experience and more.

     If all this sounds a touch too pat and formulaic, that is exactly the problem.  In his eagerness to make his thoughts comprehensible and accessible to large numbers of people, Cohen has not only simplified recent research findings but has also put them through the standard self-help grinder.  Just as everything that goes through a sausage machine comes out looking like a sausage – no matter what the internal mixture – so Cohen’s book comes across as just another rah-rah, you-can-do-it piece of overly optimistic self-delusion.

     Or perhaps that is a bit too harsh.  The suggestions Cohen makes for keeping the body and brain agile are good ones, after all.  The problem is that they are exactly the same suggestions made in hundreds of books, magazines, newspapers and at who-knows-how-many Web sites: exercise physically; keep your mind active; establish a strong social network; find challenging rather than mindless leisure activities; and so on.  None of this is wrong, but none of it is new, either.

     Cohen does a good job of countering now-outdated notions about aging, such as the ideas that mental decline is inevitable and that the brain does not form new cells in later life.  His optimism is refreshing and sometimes infectious, and his real-life stories of highly vital people in their 70s, 80s and 90s are well chosen.  But baby boomers looking for something new – or, even more unreasonably, something easy – that they can do to preserve their vitality into their later years will find nothing of the sort here…or, it must be said, anywhere.