May 25, 2006


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

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

It’s All About Me! By Karen Phillips. Klutz. $14.95.

     There are always a few Klutz releases that don’t quite fit into the company’s standard crafts categories.  They’re a bit quirkier than other Klutz books (which is really saying something), a bit harder to pigeonhole, and tend to offer fun in some unexpected ways.  Here are three of them.

     Penny Games actually costs only $9.70 – a bargain! – because it is packed with 25 shiny pennies in a cleverly designed plastic package that fits onto the front of the spiral binding of the book.  Like other Chicken Socks offerings, this one is for kids as young as four, so the games have to be simple.  And so they are – but that doesn’t prevent them from being clever.  Try “Penny Bump,” in which six cutout spokes of a game board provide tracks in which you place pennies to shoot toward the board’s center – the object being to land on the central circle or knock away someone else’s penny that’s already there (it’s a little like shuffleboard).  Or play “The One Cent Slide,” in which you try to slide a penny through a maze from the outside ring to the center.  Games with bound-in boards alternate with ones that don’t require using the book at all (well, except for the instructions). As a nice bonus, there’s an explanation of how to make dull pennies almost as shiny as the ones packed with the book.  It’s easy to do, and it really works.

     How to Build Pirate Ships is the second Klutz Building Cards book – the first showed how to build castles – and it’s loads of fun for what is essentially a set of instructions on creating a house of cards (okay, a ship of cards, but you get the idea).  The cards come bound together and perforated.  You break them up into various shapes (“skinnies,” “trapezoids,” “biggies” and so on), then use the shapes to create pirate ships.  A plastic pirate is included to remind you of what you’re doing, and the book includes amusing asides, such as “How Ye Talk Pirate”: hearties are friends, booty is treasure, “arrr!” means “I am a pirate,” and “yarr!” means “arrr!”  The main event, the building, is less guided than in other Klutz books – there are no specific plans to follow, but there are step-by-step instructions for using the cards, followed by “a gallery of galleys” that you can make with the cards.  This is for the patient, self-directed builder who may have a future in nautical design, though hopefully not in nautical naughtiness.

     It’s All About Me! is all about…well, whoever buys the book or gets it as a gift.  It’s a set of personality quizzes, starting with a page labeled, “Introducing the World’s Most Fascinating Topic: You!”  This is not a book for the modest.  A good sense of humor helps a lot, though.  In one quiz, you find out what kind of cookie you are – gingersnap, chocolate chip or sugar (each gets a personality interpretation).  Another test offers “8 Ways to Tell if Your Parents Are Extraterrestrials” (hint to parents: you’re definitely ETs).  There’s a lucky number page, an inner artist page, a test about being psychic, a naughty-or-nice quiz, and much more.  At the end is a bound-in pad of paper for taking the quizzes, taking notes, doodling, or otherwise having fun.  This is a book for girls – the pink plastic overlay and included pink pen give it away, as do the illustrations, which are all of girls – and it’s enough fun so maybe guys should ask Klutz to make one for them.  Or would that be too quirky?

(++++) MOM-ITUDE

MotherStyles: Using Personality Type to Discover Your Parenting Strengths. By Janet P. Penley with Diane Eble. Da Capo. $16.95.

The Working Gal’s Guide to Babyville. By Paige Hobey with Allison Nied, M.D. Da Capo. $15.95.

     Advice-for-mothers books are a dime a dozen, and overpriced at that.  Useful advice books for mothers are much rarer, and a bargain at 16 or 17 bucks.  MotherStyles is more than a bargain: it’s a genuinely new and creative way to look at how you are likely to react and behave as a parent (it’s written for women but, in the main, will be just as useful for men).  The subtitle explains what this is all about: “Personality Types” are defined through the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which assigns each person a four-letter sequence identifying his or her method of handling the world.  Used – indeed, overused – in the working world, it has not before been applied to the world of raising children.  But it makes intuitive sense to use it this way.  After all, if the MBTI is accurate – there is some dispute about its precision, but it is generally accepted as a good guideline – then it reflects how you take in, process and use information throughout your life.  And parenthood is emphatically part of your life.  

     An MBTI analysis assigns a person to one of 16 types.  The way you get your energy is either Extraversion or Introversion.  The information on which you focus is either Sensing or Intuition.  You make judgments and decisions either by Thinking or Feeling.  And you like the outside world structured through either Judging or Perceiving.  These terms are technical, not intuitively understandable, but Janet Penley and Diane Eble give a good overview of what they mean, and help readers decide where they fit among the types.  The book will be most useful for parents who have had a formal MBTI test, though it can be helpful even if you haven’t had one.  The authors assign each personality type a name: ISTP is the “Give ‘Em Their Space” Mother, ESFJ is the “Happy Together” Mother, and so on.  Then they show how each form of perception is likely to influence family relations.  The discussions are plainspoken and well thought out; the suggestions are helpful (MBTI advocates will tell you that going “against type” is extremely difficult and rarely beneficial); and the assertion that there is no “best” mothering style – only differing ones – is extremely reassuring.

     Reassuring in a different way, The Working Gal’s Guide to Babyville is also plainspoken, even chatty, as it moves breezily from preparing for maternity leave to returning to work – or deciding not to.  From surviving newborn care to developing a baby’s intellectual curiosity, Page Hobey and pediatrician Allison Nied take working soon-to-be-mothers through practical suggestions, we’ve-all-been-there moments and lots of girl talk.  For instance, what about sex after baby? “Let’s be honest here.  The concept of breast feeding is really weird at first. …Suddenly [breasts] serve a purpose that is no longer decorative or sexual but utilitarian and practical.”  How do you handle worries such as, “My significant other will be so horrified by my ballooning belly we won’t have sex again until we’re too old to care”?  What are the pluses and minuses of returning to work – and if you want to return, what are the pluses and minuses of full-time, part-time, flextime and other work arrangements?  These are real-world concerns, dealt with reasonably and with multiple options laid out.  The examples of women who have taken various approaches to work and motherhood are not always helpful – everything seems a touch too buttoned-up, with not enough mentions of the inevitable chaos of raising a child – but the book as a whole is a useful compendium of ideas, suggestions, and old-fashioned reassuring pats on the back to reassure women whose work focus has undergone, of necessity, a genuine paradigm shift.


Seeker: Book One of the Noble Warriors. By William Nicholson. Harcourt. $17.

Gregor and the Marks of Secret: Book Four in the Underland Chronicles. By Suzanne Collins. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Most fantasy-adventure stories for preteens and young teenagers are “finding yourself” tales: the heroic quest, whatever it may be, is an outward manifestation of an inner search to decide who you are, what you will become, and where you fit in the world.  It’s all very Jungian, as the authors of these books seem to know well (if more intuitively than intellectually).  A couple of sentences in Seeker encapsulate that book and many others of its kind: “She was ordinary in every way, and had no reason to think she was different from everyone else.  But she was.”  This is the inmost belief of many, many readers in this book’s target age range of 12 and up – and, truth be told, of many adults as well (hence the popularity of adult quest fiction, which is another story, if a related one).

     Well-written books of this type disguise their essentially formulaic plots beneath a wealth of action scenes, assorted red herrings, and, in general, a fair helping of magic.  Seeker is well written – and it has an interesting gimmick that sets it apart from (if not above) other novels of this type: despite the singular title, there are three seekers here.  One, the eponymous 16-year-old hero, intends to join the Nomana, a band of fighting monks whose name means Noble Warriors.  They live in a castle-cum-monastery and protect the All and Only, the god who made all things.  But Seeker is not the only one wishing to join the Nomana.  Morning Star, who is also 16, has long wished to join and is now on a journey to make her dream come true.  The third seeker (and in some ways the most interesting) is a river bandit known simply as the Wildman, who is bested by the Nomana and, impressed, determines to become one of them.  The fates of these three protagonists intertwine in predictably unpredictable ways: we know there will be twists, coincidences and chance meetings, even if we don’t know specifically what they will be or where or when they will occur.  The action takes place against a backdrop of enemies seeking to destroy the All and Only.  Seeker introduces its characters effectively, moves its plot along nicely and sets up future books skillfully, though it is not, in the final analysis, unique or even especially creative in plot.

     The Underland Chronicles actually were creatively plotted in the beginning, but now, in the fourth book, they are starting to wear thin.  This series targets readers ages 9-12 and remains fast-paced enough – and simply enough plotted – to engage them.  But after Gregor the Overlander, Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane and Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, there is little new to learn about Underland here.  In each prior book, Gregor has fulfilled a prophecy, wittingly or unwittingly, but there seems to be no such mystical road map here: Gregor simply joins the young queen Luxa on a quest to find out why mice are disappearing from Underland.  Luxa credits the mice with saving her life and seeks to find out what has happened to them; Gregor comes along to help.  Of course, if turns out that things are darker and less straightforward than they seem at first, and there is a prophecy involved, after all – one that will put Gregor to the ultimate test in the fifth book of the series, which is supposed to be the last.  Gregor and the Marks of Secret reads more like a setup for that finale than a solid book in its own right.  It has moments of danger and excitement, but it seems more a placeholder than a self-contained adventure.  Only in the fifth book will we find out for sure if this story of missing mice is a crucial puzzle piece.


Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. By David E. Nye. MIT Press. $27.95.

     Peppered with pithy comments as it tangles with 10 essentially unanswerable questions, Technology Matters is an intriguing book that seems to be searching for the right audience.  David E. Nye, professor of comparative American studies and history at Warwick University, has the intellect and vocabulary to write an academic study, but not (at least in this case) the temperament.  Yet he has a wealthy-world-centric perspective on technology that prevents his book from reaching out much beyond Ivory Tower circles.

     Thus, some of his questions are simply phrased and should be widely accessible: What is technology?  Is technology predictable? Do new technologies destroy jobs or create new opportunities?  But other questions are phrased with much greater complexity: Is technology inherently deterministic, or is it inflected or even shaped by culture?  Does an increasingly technological lifeworld expand mental horizons or encapsulate human beings in artifice?

     When he speaks of technology, Nye is talking of it as First World countries understand it: although a better water-delivery system is technology of the greatest importance in rural Africa or Asia, Nye is more interested in the effects of children playing with telephones and PlayStations.  Thus, his analysis of technology is by its nature limited.

     Nye certainly expresses himself well when he wishes to: “A tool always implies at least one small story.”  “[Robinson] Crusoe transforms himself from a castaway into the owner of a colony.”  “Do weapons make people safer?  Consider this question on a personal level.”  But he sometimes turns phrases for their own sake: “The factory system undermined the musical aspects of traditional work.”  And he has a tendency to state the obvious as if he is providing a revelation: “In the fifteenth century the new technology of printing was first used to produce Bibles.  Politics itself was not openly discussed in print.”

     Nye does have a big idea, and a valid one: we should subject technology to the same sorts of big-picture questions that we usually reserve for politics and economics, since technology is an equal, if not greater, shaper of society.  Actually, he sees technology and society engaged in a sort of mutual feedback mechanism: technological developments shape society; the newly shaped society makes additional technological developments possible; those new technologies then shape society further, and so on.  This makes sense as a kind of meta-view of technological progress, though it tells us little about how (or if) it is possible to make human adaptations as quickly and effectively as we make technological ones.

     In fairness, it must be said that Nye’s questions may be inherently unanswerable, or answerable with a lot of “both” and “yes, but” comments.  For example, “do advanced technologies make life more secure, or do they expose humanity to escalating dangers?”  The only reasonable answer is “both.”  And what do we do with that answer?  Nye does not know; but then, no one really does.  Nye deserves more credit for raising significant technological questions than blame for failing to find reasonable, much less simple, answers to them.


The Land of Elyon, Book 3: The Tenth City. By Patrick Carman. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $11.99.

The Valley of the Wolves. By Laura Gallego García. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Modern fantasy novels almost all trace, ultimately, to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  But some writers have gone out of their way to remedy one perceived flaw in Tolkien’s work: the almost complete absence of women.  Tolkien (like his predecessors, such as Lord Dunsany) saw heroic fantasy as essentially a man’s world, driven by statesmanship and warfare – traditional male preserves.  Recent rethinking of male-female roles has led to a recasting of heroic fantasy as well, especially for young readers: both these novels are intended for ages 9-12.

     Unfortunately, except for their female protagonists, most modern fantasists have not found a way to stray far from their Tolkienian roots.  The result is fast-paced work filled with self-discovery (especially important for this age group) and with plenty of battles, both with external foes and with one’s own impulses and uncertainties.  Even at its best, this is formulaic stuff.  Thus, in The Tenth City, the conclusion of the trilogy of The Land of Elyon – a conclusion that, as is often the case nowadays, leaves open the possibility of further books to come – the standard good-vs.-evil focus comes to a head, as Alexa, the heroine, fights for self-knowledge even as she battles the evil Victor Grindall, himself a minion of the imprisoned Abaddon.  There are mysteries aplenty here, and there is friendship, and there are rescues and heroism and all the usual components of fantasy.  “It’s a very good thing we’re such a timid people in times like these,” says one character, adding, “There is a healthy fear of all things outside our kingdom, and a deep longing for the past when my father was still here.”  This is pretty much standard dialogue.  There are outright clichés here, too – ones that it is always odd to encounter in fantasies supposedly set in other worlds and other times: “We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” for example.  Still, Patrick Carman knows how to plot and pace a book of this sort, and Alexa is certainly worth rooting for.  Most of the supporting cast is even more one-dimensional than Alexa herself, but it is always satisfying when goodness and virtue triumph and a young person learns about herself in the process – which means that The Tenth City is a satisfying read.

     So is The Valley of the Wolves, which relies more heavily on mystery and characterization, and less heavily on battles, than does The Tenth City – and is for that reason a more interesting book.  Laura Gallego García gives us an appealing heroine in Dana, a young girl of curiosity and depth whose only friend, Kai, is believed by Dana’s family to be a figment of her imagination.  That sets up an interesting plot: readers know Kai is real, although we do not know his nature – hence the book’s first mystery.  The fact that Dana sees and interacts with Kai means her own nature is somewhat mysterious, and sure enough, she is invited to study sorcery at the Tower in the Valley of the Wolves.  There are plenty of other mysterious characters in this book: the stern Maestro who invites Dana to the Tower; the woman in a golden tunic who offers Dana the difficult-to-fathom advice, “Look for the unicorn”; the elf, Fenris, who is studying with Dana and who seems both sympathetic and off-putting; and the wolves that constantly circle the base of the Tower.  The dialogue is nothing special: at one point, Kai asks, “What are you going to do?” and Dana responds, “I don’t know. …I want to know more.”  But the unusual characters and strong plotting carry The Valley of the Wolves forward effectively; and if the revelations at the end are not wholly unexpected, they are handled with skill and are given more emotional weight than modern fantasies usually provide.


Mendelssohn: Octet for Four Violins, Two Violas and Two Cellos; Bruch: Octet for Four Violins, Two Violas, Cello and Double Bass. Kodály Quartet; Auer Quartet; Zsolt Fejérvári, double bass. Naxos. $8.99.

Mozart: Horn Concertos Nos. 2-4; Horn Quintet, K407. Wilhelm Bruns, natural horn; Quadriga-Quartett; Mannheimer Mozartorchester conducted by Thomas Fey. Profil. $16.99.

     Some music is a simple joy to hear – disguising the difficulties of performing it well.  The Octet by 16-year-old Felix Mendelssohn is a perfect case in point.  Bright, fleet-footed (especially in the wonderful Scherzo), and apparently effortlessly constructed, it is a work that produces unalloyed pleasure hearing after hearing.  But it is not simple to play well – to get eight instruments to produce the sort of lightness and clarity that the work demands, while still bringing forth fullness of sound when required.  The Kodály and Auer Quartets do an excellent job with this work, melding their somewhat different ensemble sounds into a combined one that fits the joyous music as if there could be nothing simpler.  This is, of course, a very difficult thing to do.

     The difficulties of Bruch’s Octet, and its apparent simplicity, are of another order.  Far less known than Mendelssohn’s work, Bruch’s is a darker-hued piece because of the inclusion of a bass instead of one cello.  It is also, for all its rhythmic vitality, the product of a very different time in its composer’s life. Mendelssohn lived only 38 years, but Bruch lived 82, and the Octet is one of his last works, published posthumously.  It is tempting to compare this work with Mendelssohn’s, but unfair to both of them to do so.  Bruch’s lightness is always only a step away from intense emotion, while Mendelssohn’s seems to flow from endless optimism.  The performers’ sound in the Bruch is darker and more contained, and the lovely central Adagio gets the full Romantic treatment it deserves.  The pairing of these quartets on a single CD is unusual.  This release proves it very worthwhile.

     The pleasures of Wilhelm Bruns’ horn playing are of a different sort.  His instrument, the natural horn for which Mozart wrote his horn concertos, is a simpler-looking instrument than the modern valved horn, and is far more limited in the notes it is capable of playing.  Mozart, ever one to push the boundaries, insisted on tremendous virtuosity from Joseph Leutgeb, the player for whom he wrote the concertos.  Mozart’s scores constantly and rather crudely chide Leutgeb, warning him of the difficulties of the music and occasionally reminding him that there is not much further to go.

     Bruns’ inspired playing shows just how difficult Leutgeb’s task was.  The natural horn produces different levels and qualities of sound for different notes, and some notes sound purer than others.  Runs, so much a fixture on valved horns, are very difficult to play.  Hand stopping to alter pitch is an absolute necessity and must be done with great care to produce the right note.  Bruns has thoroughly mastered all these techniques, and his concerto playing is wonderful.  The works themselves sound quite different here from the way they sound on a valved horn.  The finale of No. 2, for example, has greater intensity and forward motion than that of No. 3; on the valved horn, the reverse is true.  As for the lovely Quintet, it sounds like a true collaboration of equals here, since there are very few notes on which the horn’s sound automatically overpowers that of the strings and has to be held in check.

     So this is a must-have CD for lovers of Mozart’s horn works.  But it does have some peculiarities.  The concertos are not identified by their common numbers – only by their Köchel catalogue listings (417, 447 and 495).  The first concerto, K412, is omitted, even though it runs a mere 8½ minutes and would easily have fit on a CD that is now just 57½ minutes long.  And if you want to know about the Quadriga-Quartett, you have to read German: all the booklet notes are given in two languages except for the information on this ensemble.  These inelegances of presentation are worth overlooking because of the quality of Bruns’ playing and the highly interesting performances that result.  But the existence of the lapses from a company as good as Profil is puzzling.

May 18, 2006


Bob Books: Set 1, Beginning Readers; Set 2, Advancing Beginners; Set 3, Word Families; Set 4, Compound Words. By Bobby Lynn Maslen. Illustrated by John Maslen. Scholastic. $16.99 per set.

      Bobby Lynn Maslen’s Bob Books have been a wonderful introduction to reading for the past 30 years. Now Scholastic is offering them in new packaging that is easy and enjoyable to use, with color cleverly added to the illustrations by Maslen’s husband, John, a watercolor painter. The result is book sets that are just as useful as ever for young readers – and even more fun for parents and teachers helping kids learn to read.

      The first set of 12 little books was originally published as Bob Books and Bob Books First! The 12 small paperbacks are packaged in a neat box – you could call it a “Bob Books Box” – with a teaching guide on an enclosed card. These books use three-letter words and short sentences – ideal for the earliest readers. But the books are a cut above other very-early-learning materials, thanks to whimsical illustrations and silly stories. For example, Book 2, Sam, includes Sam, Mat and Cat – and not only says “Cat sat on Sam” but also says “Mat sat on Sam,” showing a smiling Mat atop a Sam who is clearly being crushed in a good-natured way. The amusement value of the stories and illustrations will keep kids coming back, seeking to make further progress so they can find out more about these silly characters and their adventures.

      The second set of 12 books was originally called Bob Books Fun! Here the three-letter words continue, along with consistent short vowel and consonant sounds – important for a reading foundation in English, since vowels and consonants are not always consistent in the language and a firm grounding is required to make the variations more understandable later. This set of books uses more complex sentences than the first set. For instance, Book 5, The Big Hat, begins, “Tex was a big man,” and includes 22 words in all (the word lists at the back of the books are valuable teaching aids).

      The third set contains eight books to read plus two activity books. It was originally published as Bob Books Plus and Bob Books Kids! Here the stories become more complicated and longer, and kids are introduced to long vowel blends and consonant combinations. There are still only one or two sentences per page, but the sentences are a bit more advanced: “Mop ran after Jack and Zack” appears in Book 1, Floppy Mop. The two activity books offer reading, drawing and coloring activities that supplement the eight storybooks. Parents or teachers will need to supervise the activities to be sure kids understand them – and, just as important, enjoy doing them.

      By the fourth set, which contains four 16-page books and four 24-page ones, the stories are longer and kids are starting to read new word endings and vowel blends. This set was originally published as More Bob Books and Bob Books Plus! The final four books include the first multisyllabic word in the sequence: Samantha. Even the titles are more complex: Book 7, for example, is called Jumper and the Clown and includes such sentences as, “Her hat had spots of blue and orange.” The word and sound repetition continue here, but at a more advanced level – and the books are just as much fun to read and look at as are the earlier, easier ones.

      Bob Books remain one of the very best ways to teach kids to read. The neat new boxed format, the colored illustrations and colorful covers, the easy-to-follow teaching guides, and the overall sense of fun make these delightful little volumes as useful in the 21st century as they were in the 20th.

(++++) TOP DRAW-ER

Magic Painting. By the editors of Klutz. Chicken Socks/Klutz. $12.95.

Crayon Rubbings: A Bumpity Coloring Book. By the editors of Klutz. Chicken Socks/Klutz. $9.95.

Paper Stained Glass: Color-by-Number Art for your Windows. By Barbara Kane. Klutz. $19.95.

Paper Fashions. By the editors of Klutz. Klutz. $19.95.

     Kids young and old (that last category includes parents) can always find crafts projects that are fun to do among the many offerings from Klutz and its smaller-size, square-book sibling line, Kluck…err, Chicken Socks.  But not everything from Klutz involves making stuff – some projects involve coloring stuff.  Take Magic Painting, for instance.  It’s a book of hidden-design pictures for kids as young as age four – and of course it includes everything needed to make the pictures visible.   Remember the old-time “paint with water” pictures?  This book is the much-improved Chicken Socks version.  It comes with a brush and five watercolor paints – packaged so cleverly that, after you remove brush and paints, you have a tray in which to put water.  Just dip the brush in water, dab it in paint, sweep it across the page, and presto!  You’re an artist!  Not content with that cleverness level, the Klutzfolk offer special cut-out projects that kids can use for something more than mere decoration: cards, bookmarks, a mask, even jewelry.

     Kids who prefer crayons to paint will have a ball with Crayon Rubbings, which not only includes six crayons and a rainbow crayon brick but also provides plastic rubbing plates that provide the “bumpity” in the book’s subtitle.  The plates look a bit like firm, square bubble wrap.  Kids put a plate – there are several designs – under the part of a picture they want to color.  Rubbing a crayon over the paper colors the picture with a “bumpity” effect.  It’s really pretty cool – the ordinary-looking pictures of a house, snake, elephant, turtle and various weird alien creatures are anything but ordinary when colored this way.  Klutz even shows kids how to make their own rubbing patterns using various kinds of bumpy stuff.

     Older kids, ages eight and up, can try a far more complex and elegant form of coloring with the 12 special markers included in Barbara Kane’s Paper Stained Glass.  This is a really clever concept: each marker has a fine tip and a fat tip, and each tip contributes to a stained-glass look on the included plastic outline sheets.  Every sheet can be colored two different ways: flip it to the left for one set of colors or to the right for another.  For example, flip the “Dancing Dragon” to the left and follow the coloring instructions to create a red dragon on a yellow background; or flip it to the right to color the dragon green and the background blue.  The numbers make it easy to color the designs, but these pictures are not for the impatient: there are lots of numbers and lots of colors.  That’s why the finished plastic pictures look so attractive.  And they really do glow when light comes through them – though hanging them in direct sunlight will, after a while, cause the colors to fade.  A few projects even offer special ways to hang them, such as attractive frames for the Russian Horse and Bug Garden designs.

     For something else to do with paper, girls can make dresses, shoes, camisoles and much more with Paper Fashions, which includes patterned and solid papers – plus stencil shapes, ribbon, beads, sequins, glue, and some adorable teeny hangers on which to put your masterpieces.  As always, Klutz offers clear instructions for projects that are on the complicated side: stenciling, outlining, basic cutting, precise cutting, smoothing, trimming and decorating.  Kudos to Klutz for neatly solving the problem of inevitable errors: “If you make a mistake when cutting, don’t panic!  Consider using the results anyway.  Some of the coolest looks happen by accident.”  Girls need plenty of patience to follow all the instructions and suggestions here, but it’s worthwhile to do so: the clothes can be quite cute, and budding fashion designers could do much worse than starting with these concepts – and perhaps making a few fortuitous errors.


In Shark Years I’m Dead: “Sherman’s Lagoon” Turns Fifteen. By Jim Toomey. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

     Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon, although it has been around for 15 years, is not one of the best-known or most-popular comic strips in newspapers today – which is testimony to just how straitlaced most newspaper comics editors are.  This strip is hilarious, but it’s also weird, and most newspapers apparently prefer to keep their weirdness in the “lifestyle” section – or on the front page.

     If this strip isn’t in your local paper – it currently appears in 250 dailies – In Shark Years I’m Dead will give you ample reason to lobby for its inclusion.  There’s nothing quite like this story of fish living an idyllic life in a South Seas lagoon, the sharks picking off the occasional “hairless beach ape” for a tasty meal while the hermit crab comes up with unending moneymaking schemes and the sea turtle reads every book that has ever been written and realizes he’ll just have to start all over again.

     Sherman, the shark of the title, is married to Megan, who is more a terror of the seas than he is.  Hawthorne is the scheming hermit crab; Fillmore, the turtle with a bad case of perpetual failure with she-turtles; Ernest, the young computer genius with a penchant for hacking into well-protected Web sites and taking Sherman on trips (in the Ganges River, Sherman chooses his mantra: “Feel like chicken tonight”).  There are lots of bit players, many of them ending up on fishing lines or (even more likely) in Sherman’s capacious stomach.

     This is an oversized “Treasury” volume, which would normally mean all the strips are reprints, except that the Sunday ones are in color.  But there’s a pleasant oddity here: most of the strips toward the back of the book have never been collected before (though they may show up in a future regular-size collection).  That makes this book a particularly good introduction to the strip for non-fans, and gives current fans more reason to buy it than is usual in “Treasury” offerings.  The stories are offbeat and ridiculously surreal: Sherman buys a stuffed swordfish; Megan recognizes the swordfish as “Sally from my book club” and tells Sherman to give her a decent burial; through a serious of misadventures, Sally ends up as Ernest’s CD holder.  Sherman and Megan find a baby shark and are exhausted after taking care of him until his parents show up – but then they end up with a baby of their own later in the book.  Hawthorne starts a casino and is visited by mobfish demanding 30% of the action.  Hawthorne turbocharges a toilet, which ends up carrying Sherman aloft when he flushes it.  Sherman and Hawthorne play Macbeth and Banquo, with the result that Fillmore, the director, is praised as “brilliant in turning this Shakespeare tragedy into a comical spoof.”  A computer virus hits the lagoon, and Ernest helps Sherman track down the perpetrator, who happens to be a surfer – whom Sherman handles as only a shark can.

     It’s a weird strip, but in a wonderful way.  If you don’t know it yet, you should.  Caution: if you don’t like it, Sherman may show up in your toilet bowl one of these days.  Or in your local newspaper editor’s toilet bowl, anyway.


Strange Happenings: Five Tales of Transformation. By Avi. Harcourt. $15.

     The protagonists of the five stories in Avi’s Strange Happenings are not particularly admirable people.  Most of the stories are dark fairy tales with twists here and there – and with greater or lesser degrees of darkness.  Because the book is intended for readers ages 8-12, there is no dwelling on violence and little outright fright – less, in fact, than in Bruce Coville’s scary stories, which Avi’s somewhat resemble.  But the underlying assumptions of these tales are rather unpleasant, and sensitive readers may find them scarier than a plot overview would indicate.

     The first tale, Bored Tom, inspired the excellent cover art by Greg Swearingen, which shows a cat looking into the water, where its reflection shows a boy.  The protagonist spends all his time being bored, is envious of cats for their lives of constant rest and relaxation, and wishes he could become one – until he finds out the true cost of the change.

     In the second tale, Babette the Beautiful, we are firmly in fairyland, with a childless royal couple and a queen’s intense wish for a flawless daughter.  That would be Babette – but for a person to be seen as flawless, it turns out, she must not be seen at all.  There’s an old crone here moving the action, as in many fairy stories, but the conclusion comes more from a twist on Lewis Carroll than from the Grimm brothers.

     The third story, Curious, starts out with an amusing premise: just what are all those weird mascots seen at sports events?  Who is inside the strange costumes?  This tale takes an ugly turn at the end, though – and even readers who anticipate the climax (there will be many) may find it somewhat overdone.

     The fourth story, The Shoemaker and Old Scratch, places us once again firmly in fairyland, with a hint of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” but a much less satisfying conclusion for the protagonist.  A cat is a major character here, as in Bored Tom, but Avi leaves the exact connection between this cat and the Devil unexplained – a weakness in what is otherwise a well-done tale of revenge and the importance of keeping your end of a bargain.

     The final story, Simon, is also a fairytale of sorts, but it is a rather grim one until a happy ending that comes pretty much out of nowhere.  It is all about a self-absorbed, extremely vain young man who becomes a highly successful hunter, until one of his hunts causes a transformation that gives him more attention than he wants.

     Avi’s pacing of the stories is expert, and if there are plot holes here and there, most readers in the target age group will not notice them, or will not care: there is enough fascination in the tales to make up for occasional narrative lapses.  And the cautionary message of several stories comes through clearly, though it is never overtly stated: it’s best to be satisfied with who and what you are, because becoming something else may have consequences you would rather not have to face.


Norton Save & Restore. Windows XP. Symantec. $69.99.

     This new Symantec product is either a brilliant line extension that will appeal to people who would not normally consider buying computer utilities, or a product desperately in search of a market.  Consumers will decide which one it is, and the answer will determine whether there will be annual updates or a quiet demise of Norton Save & Restore as standalone software.

     This product enters a crowded field of software that simplifies computer backups.  It is based on – and very similar to – Norton Ghost, which is available for the same price of $69.99 or is included in Norton SystemWorks 2006 Premier, an impressive and multifaceted suite of programs selling for $99.99.  Rebates and discounts on software are often available, so it is quite possible that you could buy SystemWorks Premier for even less than the official $30 price differential: a $20 rebate would bring the differential down to a mere $10, and SystemWorks Premier is a far more versatile offering.

     But then, of course, you would have Norton Ghost rather than Norton Save & Restore.  They are not quite identical, though it remains to be seen how effectively Symantec can explain the differences to consumers.  Norton Save & Restore lets you set automatic backups of an entire hard drive, or lets you make backups of selected files at set times or manually.  It works with external hard drives, Iomega Zip and Jaz drives, USB and FireWire devices, CDR/RW drives and DVD+-R/RW drives – which means it can make backups to virtually all the storage media commonly used today.  It can also make an exact copy of your entire system simply and efficiently – that’s precisely what Norton Ghost does, and that’s where Norton Save & Restore most clearly shows its parentage.

     Thanks to recent improvements in all its interfaces, Symantec here makes it easy for relatively inexperienced users to view backup status and check backup protection level – useful features, though not critical if you schedule regular backups.  As for the “restore” function, it essentially duplicates the “System Restore” utility already built into Windows XP, though Symantec’s version is less clunky and seems to work more smoothly.  Still, both utilities get the job of restoration done, and you already have one of them on any XP machine.

     Some of the useful functions of Norton Save & Restore require you to be using other Symantec products – lessening their utility.  For example, there is a neat feature that starts a backup automatically when your computer comes under certain kinds of external attack.  But it works only if you are already running Norton Internet Security.

     It’s hard to make absolute positive or negative comments about Norton Save & Restore.  It works well at making backups, but so do competing programs.  It has a user-friendly interface, but that is not unique.  It has some good features if you run other Symantec software, but they won’t work if you don’t.  It does just what Norton Ghost does and is therefore duplicative, but may be a better choice if you don’t already run Ghost – unless you have Ghost because you bought SystemWorks Premier, in which case it would be very hard to justify the extra expense of Save & Restore, which does not add significant benefits.

     The fact is that a backup program, even a good one, is not really something you should buy as a standalone.  Today’s computers need various forms of protection.  Buying them one at a time makes little sense.  If you do want a program specifically for backup chores, Norton Save & Restore is a very good one.  But before buying it, stop and consider whether you want to purchase a single-use product in the first place.  Building up protection bit by bit (yes, that’s a pun) costs a lot more in the long run than buying higher-cost multifunction programs in the first place.


Schoenberg: Serenade, op. 24; Variations for Orchestra, op. 31; Bach Orchestrations: Fuga (St. Anne)…Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele…Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist. Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble with Stephen Varcoe, bass (Serenade); Philharmonia Orchestra (Variations, Orchestrations). Conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

Mátyás Seiber: Concertino for Clarinet and Strings (1951); Antal Doráti: Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1977); Zoltán Kodály: Symphony (1961). Louisville Orchestra conducted by Jorge Mester (Seiber, Doráti) and Robert Whitney (Kodály). James Livingston, clarinet (Seiber). János Starker, cello (Doráti). First Edition. $12.99.

     The fact that the variation form is prominent in every original work on these two CDs says something important about 20th-century compositions and composers.  Variations, however cleverly done, are in essence repetitions of the same idea: a composer has something specific to say and keeps saying it, again and again, in a number of different guises.  The third movement of Schoenberg’s Serenade, “Variations,” is “the most delectable of the seven,” Robert Craft writes in the notes to the latest CD in Naxos’ superb Robert Craft Collection.  The Variations for Orchestra are generally deemed Schoenberg’s greatest orchestral work.  The Variazoni semplice movement of Seiber’s Concertino is the longest in this five-movement work.  The central movement of Doráti’s Concerto is marked Variazioni, and the central movement of Kodály’s three-movement Symphony is also in variation form, though not so marked.

     These two CDs come from two of the most important and excellent sources of performances of 20th-century music.  Craft’s knowledge of and skill with the music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg is nearly legendary.  Here, he offers a Serenade of verve and spirit, fully immersed in atonality and (in the one vocal movement, a sonata by Petrarch) in Schoenberg’s characteristic handling of the human voice.  The Variations are wonderful: bright and dense and complex and entirely listenable without the need to know anything about the techniques with which they were composed.  And the three Bach Orchestrations show a side of Schoenberg less well known than his forays into atonality.  Fuga (St. Anne) builds through a brass-focused section to a full-orchestra climax worthy of Stokowski (could it have influenced his Bach transcriptions?).  The two chorale preludes seem like fuller musical expressions than Bach’s originals, with an especially lovely cello part in Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele.  These are expansions and, in a way, reinterpretations of Bach, but with great respect for the composer’s originals.

     Yet Craft’s notes inadvertently show why so much 20th-century music is difficult for audiences.  Writing of the Serenade, he points out that the vocal movement starts with the first two notes of a 12-tone series, then adds, “Each note is followed by a mandolin/guitar chord containing the remaining ten pitches of the chromatic scale.  The twelve pitches are then exposed in melodic order in the vocal part, and repeated in the same order twelve times (the twelfth is incomplete), but with differences in octave registers and in the position of the series vis-à-vis the musical phrases.”  This is difficult enough to follow in prose.  Human ears, perhaps excepting those of Schoenberg and Craft, do not naturally hear this way, and while they can be trained to do so, should such training really be necessary for every concertgoer?

     The question remains an open one on the First Edition CD.  Though less well known than Craft’s work, the Louisville Orchestra’s commissions and First Edition LP records were extraordinarily important sources of new music from the 1950s through the 1970s.  This CD, part of a series of reissues, shows just how valuable the series was: all three works here were world premiere recordings.  Mátyás Seiber’s Concertino, recorded in 1969, is remarkably accessible music, very difficult to play but much less difficult to hear and enjoy. The wonderful conductor Antal Doráti was less well known as a composer but was certainly a skilled musical craftsman, and his Concerto – recorded in 1977, the year it was written – could scarcely be played better than it is here, by the great János Starker.  Nevertheless, the work is not wholly successful, though its central variations, each with its own title and characteristic phrasing, are interesting.

     And then there is Zoltán Kodály’s Symphony.  The great composer finally got around to this form at age 79, and handled it with aplomb.  The work was recorded in 1962, in the then-standard monophonic sound: all the music was funneled into a single central track, without any audible sense of placement of orchestral instruments.  The result is a performance that feels somewhat squashed, in the absence of an aural indication of what is coming from where in the orchestra.  Still, the work sounds effective in many sections, with the dancelike finale moving along particularly enthusiastically.

     Anyone interested in building a top-notch collection of 20th-century music would do well to include both these CDs in it.

May 11, 2006


The Wright 3. By Blue Balliett. Illustrated by Brett Helquist. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Blue Balliett’s second art-related mystery is even more self-assured than her first, the bestselling Chasing Vermeer.  Like its predecessor – which was Balliett’s first book – The Wright 3 is deftly plotted, with likable (if not entirely real-seeming) characters and a fascinating mystery that incorporates genuine artistic – in this case, architectural – knowledge and information.

     The book is aimed at readers roughly the same age its three eponymous protagonists, who are not quite 13, and it has the fast pacing and intrigue sure to appeal to this age group.  But there is more here: Balliett has figured out how to take real-world mysteries, add a few fictional but plausible ones, and create a book that explores subjects (such as art and architecture) that are taught dully in school, if they are taught at all.

     The focus here is the Frederick C. Robie House, commissioned from Wright in 1908 and completed by him in 1910.  It still stands in Chicago and is now protected, after nearly being demolished in 1941 and again in 1957.  Balliett’s book places the house in jeopardy yet again, with young detectives Petra and Calder, along with Calder’s friend, Tommy, setting out to preserve it.

     There are nefarious doings afoot – there is, in fact, something literally fishy about certain plans for the house (that’s a clue).  Balliett also introduces a ghost (maybe), a hidden treasure (definitely), and a coded message (extremely cleverly).  And she really makes readers think about what art is, as when the kids’ teacher, Ms. Hussey, has students create a list of what makes the Robie House qualify or not qualify as art.  In the YES column, for instance, one writes, “Art should have surprises.  The house looks like [sic] it’s full of places to go in and out and change directions.”  In the NO column, one entry says, “Art shouldn’t be dangerous.  This house looks like [sic] it has too many places for a kid to fall.”  The point is not whether these criteria are right or wrong – the point is that Balliett wants readers to think about their criteria for art, and whether they agree or disagree with the comments of Ms. Hussey’s class.

     The Wright 3 would not succeed if it were merely a didactic novel, of course.  And in fact, kids can simply read it as a fast-paced mystery story and enjoy it thoroughly – though not completely.  Petra, Calder and Tommy do face danger and bad guys and all sorts of uncertainties here, and they do handle their adventure with the usual pluck.  Even at the surface level, the book is fun.  But there is more here, both in the writing and in the illustrations: the angularity and occasionally odd perspectives of Brett Helquist’s paintings put one in mind of Wright himself, and Helquist’s pictures contain an imaginative visual puzzle that readers will enjoy solving on their own – during or after their enjoyment of matching wits with the heroes of The Wright 3 and the book’s clever and intellectually adept author.


The Super Scissors Book. By the editors of Klutz. Chicken Socks/Klutz. $12.95.

Pop Bead People. By the editors of Klutz. Chicken Socks/Klutz. $12.95.

Clothespin Cuties. By Theresa Hutnick. Chicken Socks/Klutz. $9.95.

Ribbon Purses. By Theresa Hutnick and Megan Smith. Klutz. $14.95.

     You know it’s spring when the chickens put on their socks and go dancin’.

     Okay, we’re no competition for Poor Richard’s Almanack (or the Old Farmer’s Almanac, for that matter), but there’s something inherently springlike about the bright new crafts books for younger kids from Klutz’s Chicken Socks line.  These are square-shaped books for children as young as age four, priced lower than regular Klutz books but still containing everything kids need to do whatever activity the book is about.  And the Chicken Socks books are just as good-natured and downright cute as the regular Klutzstuff.

     The Super Scissors Book is maybe even a little cuter.  Here’s the book that every publisher has been looking for: to use it correctly, you have to destroy it, so anyone wanting to do more or redo something has to buy another copy!  But Klutz is so good-humored about all this that that just couldn’t be the motivation (could it?).  Kids who are busy having a ball with the book will scarcely care.  It comes with two pairs of scissors (straight edge and snaggle-tooth), and in a typical display of Klutzy sensitivity and desire to avoid lawsuits, it warns parents that the scissors are capable of cutting “fabric, hair or your favorite set of pearls.”  Don’t let your kids read that page, okay?  There’s plenty of other great stuff for them to cut: a paper chain, a smiling squiggly snake, a flower bouquet, even a bobblehead dog and cat that really work.  Those and some other projects require bits of tape here and there, and Klutz even supplies those – precut to the right size.

     There’s no cutting or pasting required to make Pop Bead People – a delightful followup to a Klutz title of last year, Pop Bead Critters.  This time, just take the four basic bodies (cutely named Missy, Orbison, Scooter and Sunny), snap on feet and hands and ears and stuff, or change the heads and make other pop-together people (one suggestion, Doodle, is a doozy).  You can also make two-headed alien poppers, if you like (turn the bodies upside down and use the leg holes for necks and heads).  And you can play a game called “Neck Stretchers,” which is a sort of Tetris with pop beads – silly and fun.

     For somewhat more traditional Klutz krafts…err, crafts…younger girls can make Clothespin Cuties while older ones make Ribbon Purses using a book from the regular Klutz line.  Theresa Hutnick, who created the first book and co-created the second, has a lovely sense of both fun and style.  The Cuties book comes with three old-fashioned wooden clothespins, plus yarn and flowers and other stuff to attach to the clothespins, turning them into a princess, ballerina and mermaid (glue to do the attaching is included, of course).  Some adult supervision is a good idea here, since the book will appeal to the youngest Klutzniks but the glue can mess up those pretty sequins and such.  After the glue dries, kids can attach punch-out decorative stickers to their Cuties all on their own.

     The Purses book is all ribbon and beads (well, and needle and floss instead of thread).  The seven pretty ribbons can make seven longish purses or 14 shortish ones.  All are small – girls need adept fingers to make these.  When finished, the little purses can hold a couple of coins, be clipped to a keychain or backpack as decorations, or be worn as necklaces.  Even the basic purse is pretty – and it’s a good place to start before moving on to the beaded and button beauties.  You know it’s spring when girls start sporting pretty little accessories like these!


Something Chocolate This Way Comes: “Baby Blues” Scrapbook 21. By Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

How Come I’m Always Luigi? A “FoxTrot” Collection. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $8.95.

Some of the great chroniclers of childhood in our time are to be found in the funny pages. And some of the great fun of our time is to be found in their comic strips. Every parent knows that there are some days when everything is so totally overwhelming, so totally out of control, so utterly impossible to tolerate, that the only choices are to scream or to laugh. For making it easier for parents to choose laughter, Rick Kirkman, Jerry Scott and Bill Amend deserve medals. Preferably ones lovingly covered with spittle.

Kirkman and Scott’s Baby Blues is a continuing marvel. This is one of those comics whose every strip leads parents to exclaim, “That’s just what happened to us!” Or, “That could have happened to us!” Or, “Thank goodness that didn’t happen to us!” It’s solid empathy no matter what the exclamation. The latest collection really is the 21st, though only 18 others are listed inside the book: the first two collections were not published by Andrews McMeel (but maybe it will buy the rights and reprint them?). Through all 21 collections and five Treasury volumes, this loving-but-not-syrupy (though sometimes sticky) chronicle of the MacPherson clan has neatly encapsulated the everyday struggles, joys and – did we mention struggles? – of raising kids. Parents Darryl and Wanda are now firmly and forever outnumbered: Zoe, Hammie and Wren are clearly in charge. Here we find Zoe protesting loudly to Wanda that she didn’t do “whatever it was you were going to yell at me about,” then asking Hammie, “Think she suspects me of anything?” To which Hammie replies: “You mean besides bad acting?” Wren goes into a climbing stage – a time of life familiar to most parents – and of course does so to an extreme, quickly getting to the top of the refrigerator and similar places. Wanda comes up with a perfect description of her three kids: “Griper, hyper and diaper.” Wanda’s unmarried sister babysits one night when the kids are on good behavior, decides that she wants a baby of her own, then realizes (after a heart-to-heart with Wanda) that she isn’t ready and will “just have to be happy with my stupid career and its perks, benefits and ridiculously high salary.” Later, she goes man-hunting on the Internet, with predictably unpredictable results. In fact, “predictably unpredictable” nicely describes Baby Blues itself – and the whole art of building a family, for that matter.

The three kids in FoxTrot are older than the three in Baby Blues – they are preteens and teenagers – but if you think that makes family life easier, just check out any sequence in Amend's strip. FoxTrot has some elements of traditional TV-style suburban comedy – notably bumbling father Roger, who in the latest collection discovers Internet poker and predictably maxes out his credit cards. Amend is stronger when focusing on the strip’s central character, genius nerd Jason, who is just discovering that maybe he likes girls (he’s on the very edge of the cootie stage) and who twists reality into video games whenever possible: the collection’s title refers to Super Mario Brothers games, which Jason and best friend Marcus play in the snow when told to go outside instead of spending all their time at the computer. Jason also has wonderfully skewed ideas about almost anything wholesome: his Christmas card series is a touch, shall we say, violent. But he remains in many ways a young child, as when he gets a Darth Vader helmet stuck on his head. Mother Andy, big brother Peter and big sister Paige (a frequent target of the wrath of both Jason and Jason’s iguana, Quincy) make a fine supporting cast – and provide good reminders of why it’s much funnier to read about sibling rivalry in the comics than to deal with it in real life.


The Book of Everything. By Guus Kuijer. Translated by John Nieuwenhuizen. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

Rules. By Cynthia Lord. Scholastic. $15.99.

     A strange, affecting book about a family in which the father perverts religion and the son develops his own highly personal version of belief, The Book of Everything is heady but difficult stuff for its intended audience of children ages nine and up.  The title refers to the book in which a young boy named Thomas writes down what he sees.  Among other things, he sees tropical fish swimming in the city’s canals.  He sees his father beat him and beat his mother.  He sees extraordinary beauty in a neighbor with an artificial leg.  He sees the Lord Jesus, who visits regularly and says, “Just call me Jesus.”  He sees his quick-witted sister Margot match wits with their narrow-minded, violent father.  And Thomas hears things, too, as when Jesus tells him, “I haven’t had an easy time with my father either, you know. …He was very strict.  I had to be nailed to the cross whether I wanted to or not. …And now I’ve lost Him on top of it all. …He disappeared after your last beating.  I think it got to be too much for Him.”

     It is tempting to probe this family’s various pathologies and to subject Thomas himself to both psychoanalytic and religious analysis (Thomas was, after all, one of the Apostles).  The constant hinting at complexity, coupled with the spasms of violence, makes this a difficult book for its target audience.  It is more puzzling than intriguing – you feel sorry for the characters’ situations more than for the characters themselves.  Yet this short novel (barely 100 pages) is strangely affecting as well as simply strange.  There is certainly something otherworldly about Thomas and his visions – or are the visions his reality, or even the reality?  This book will not likely have wide appeal, but it has the makings of a cult classic and could be a favorite of some highly inwardly focused children.

     Rules, for ages 9-12, is much easier to read and much more realistic.  It should be: it is loosely based on first-time author Cynthia Lord’s own family experiences as the mother of two children – one with autism.  The title refers to the family rules that 12-year-old Catherine constantly tries to get her autistic brother, David, to follow, from “chew with your mouth closed” to “if the bathroom door is closed, knock (especially if Catherine has a friend over).”  But Rules also refers to the more general social rules that Catherine herself finds difficult to follow one summer when she meets wheelchair-bound Jason, who cannot speak, and possible-best-friend Kristi.  “At a friend’s house,” Catherine tells us, “everything is uncomplicated.  No one drops toys in the fish tank…and no one shrieks unless there’s a huge, hairy spider crawling up her arm.”  It is at Kristi’s house that Catherine feels she can “just be me and put the sister part of me down” – that is, the part whose life, whose whole family’s life, revolves around an autistic child.  The book is all about self-discovery under trying circumstances, and it is all so well-meaning and heartfelt that it is impossible not to want it to be a good book.  But it really isn’t – not quite.  The “accept those who are different” message isn’t just written – it is, in effect, spray-painted, graffiti-style, on every page.  The “we all have our awkwardnesses” message is slathered on with all the subtlety of molasses, and is every bit as treacly to read.  There is a story here, but Rules screams “message book” on every page, and quickly becomes very wearing indeed.  The message is a good one, and the book will resonate with families in situations similar to the one the author’s family is in.  But it won’t reach much beyond that core audience – and doesn’t seem to care to try.

(+) WHY, OH WHY?

The Why Café: A Story. By John P. Strelecky. Da Capo. $12.95.

     One of the most aggressively shallow self-help books in years – and that’s really saying something – The Why Café is a simultaneously sanctimonious and supercilious tale of a mysterious diner-like establishment where people who have lost their way find enlightenment by asking themselves three questions and being guided by two gurus: a waitress and a cook.

     The three questions are: “Why are you here?”…“Do you fear death?”…and “Are you fulfilled?”  Answering these queries – especially the first one – is supposed to help you define your Purpose for Existing, or PFE.  The narrator is John – hey, that’s the author’s first name! – and the waitress is Casey, and the cook is Mike, and there’s a fellow patron named Anne who has a few words to say as well.

     Think of a late-night high-school or college bull session, perhaps fueled by alcohol or other ingested substances, in which you solve all the mysteries of life, the universe and everything, and you will have some idea of the flavor of this book.  (The fuel here is diner food, but the puerility is much the same.)  The idea is that John gets stuck in traffic on his way to a vacation from his stressful everyday life, takes an alternative route, gets lost, and finds The Why Café “in the middle of the middle of nowhere.”  Exhausted and nearly out of gas (Ooh! He and the car are nearly out of gas!), John stops, reads the three questions on the menu, and is soon embroiled in discussions about the lessons taught by a green sea turtle (swim with the waves rather than exhausting yourself by swimming hard against the current) and a stereotypical “happy native” fisherman (if you are already satisfied with what you have, there is no need to strive for more).

     Now, because this is a fairy tale, it would be unkind to pick apart all the absurdities of plot in its 130 pages.  But because this is supposed to be a book with valuable life lessons to teach (it even includes a “Reader’s Guide,” for those needing extra instruction), it is fair to examine what some of the lessons are.  The first and most important of them is utter selfishness: the aim is to find your PFE, and everyone else be damned (unless helping others is part of your PFE, of course).  All the happy, self-fulfilled people at the magical mystery café are apparently loners, unencumbered by wives or husbands or lovers, and definitely not tied down by children, aging parents, or anyone with health-care needs or any sort of disability.  The second lesson is that God (or some god, maybe the god of luck) will provide for you if you only figure out your PFE and take the necessary actions to fulfill yourself in accordance with it.  Your enthusiasm will communicate itself to people so effectively that they will want to help you and will do what is necessary to further your journey to fulfillment (this juxtaposes oddly with the inherently selfish nature of a PFE, but never mind).

     The Why Café is a piece of pernicious pseudo-profundity cleverly designed to contain just enough truth to attract a wide audience.  Who hasn’t felt caught up in the “rat race”?  Who hasn’t felt overwhelmed by the glut of available-for-purchase stuff out there, smothered by a consumerist society that offers a constant bombardment of ads suggesting that fulfillment comes through buying this or that doohickey?  Strelecky makes his living giving seminars and speeches about finding your ideal life.  Apparently the attendees – and any readers who mistakenly believe this book is useful for anything other than fattening Strelecky’s wallet – are so desperate that they listen to or read about some troubles that sound vaguely like their own and become pliably willing to believe that Strelecky has some sort of insight.  Actually, he does: insight into exploiting ennui and malaise to make himself money.  That’s apparently his PFE.


Johann Strauss I Edition, Volume 8. Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina conducted by Christian Pollack. Marco Polo. $9.99.

Tchaikovsky: Dances and Overtures. National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Theodore Kuchar. Naxos. $8.99.

     The music of the Strauss family symbolized the brightly optimistic elements of 19th-century Vienna in much the same way that the music of Tchaikovsky symbolized the darker, doom-laden side of 19th-century Russia.  The contrasting characters of the dance music of Johann Strauss Sr. and Tchaikovsky make this perfectly clear.

     The eighth volume in Marco Polo’s excellent Johann Strauss I Edition presents 10 more of Strauss Sr.’s works from the 1830s.  Some of them are real gems.  It also includes two pieces that have been attributed to Strauss Sr. in the past but that are almost certainly not by him, though they partake of some of his style.  As usual in this series, the works on this CD have varying levels of interest – although all are worth hearing as less-known examples of Vienna’s golden age of dance music.  One fine piece here is the waltz Der Frohsinn, mein Ziel (“Gaiety Is My Aim”), whose title is a fine encapsulation of Strauss Sr.’s overall attitude toward his music.  Robert-Tänze, on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, and Elisabethen-Walzer, a top-notch work that Johann Strauss Jr. also performed in later years, are two additional highlights.  And Gitana-Galopp is one of Strauss Sr.’s best short-form works.  The other pieces here have more curiosity value than intrinsic musical worth – for example, it is interesting that Ballnacht-Galopp uses themes from Auber’s Le bal masqué, but the work itself is too straightforward to command substantial interest.  Christian Pollack, however, approaches all these pieces as if they are minor masterpieces, fully bringing out whatever value they have in terms of verve, tunefulness and bright spirit.  And the Slovak Sinfonietta Žilina plays, as usual, with idiomatic virtuosity.

     The dances and other works on the Tchaikovsky CD are also very well played, but their purpose is quite different from that of Strauss Sr.  All these works but one come from operas, and their aim is to set the mood – usually a dark one, or a bright one designed as a contrast to the darkness in the preceding or succeeding scene.  Two dances come from Tchaikovsky’s only comic opera, Cherevichki, and are part of an entertainment before the Devil (a comic one, but the Devil nonetheless) arrives.  Two dances and an entr’acte are from The Maid of Orleans, Tchaikovsky’s version of the Joan of Arc legend, and range from hymnal to grotesque in content.  Also here are a dance and the introduction to The Enchantress, a tale of betrayal and death by poisoning; a Gopak from Mazeppa, representing a few minutes of entertainment in a historical story of betrayal and death; and dances from The Oprichnik, which occur during a wedding celebration that is followed by betrayal and death.  There is little lightness in Tchaikovsky’s operas – certainly not in The Queen of Spades or The Voyevoda, whose overtures are on this CD.  The former remains in the repertoire as a dark tale of gambling addiction and murder; the latter, Tchaikovsky’s first opera, was destroyed by the composer but has since been re-created, and features some especially interesting scoring.  The sole non-operatic work here is the symphonic poem Fatum, also destroyed by Tchaikovsky (after Balakirev strongly criticized it) and subsequently re-created.  The free-form piece is dark throughout, but it too has skillful orchestration and a fair degree of dramatic tension – being, like Tchaikovsky’s dances, farther from the world of Strauss Sr.’s Vienna than mere geography would indicate.

May 04, 2006


The True Story of Stellina. By Matteo Pericoli. Knopf. $14.95.

Noodle. By Munro Leaf. Pictures by Ludwig Bemelmans. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $15.99.

      The everyday wonders of life have rarely been communicated with as much sensitivity and subtlety as in Matteo Pericoli’s The True Story of Stellina. It is indeed a true story, almost a mundane one, but it rises to the level of poetry through the combination of Pericoli’s lovely tale-telling and his outstanding illustrations. Stellina – the name means “little star” – was a baby finch found on the street in Manhattan by Pericoli’s girlfriend (and, later, wife), Holly. Holly, a dancer, adopted Stellina when the bird’s mother did not return, and Pericoli, an artist, tells the story of the life of the two humans and the bird. That’s all – but how rich the tale is! Pericoli pinpoints the exact location where Stellina fell from her nest, approximates the city sounds through which Holly had to hear to be able to listen to the baby bird’s tiny “cheep,” and explains how Holly and the bird must both have wondered, “And now? What’s going to happen now?” Those paired questions recur throughout this short and lovely book, as Stellina adapts to apartment living, learns to eat on her own, travels with Holly on the subway (in a little box), and stays in an always-open cage while at home. “Stellina learned how to fly,/ all by herself,/ and Holly was so excited,/ because Holly, my wife,/ doesn’t know how to fly./ She knows how to dance,/ but not how to fly,” Pericoli writes in the singsong free verse in which he tells this tale. He includes charming portraits of Holly and himself interacting with Stellina, and loving anecdotes about the little finch: “Two sounds made her sing/ more than any others./ One was the shower,/ especially when Holly, my wife/ was taking one./ The other was the sound of the piano./ ‘CHEEP CHEEP!’ she sang along.” Stellina lived more than eight years, and Pericoli makes it impossible not to see those years as full, rich ones for the bird – and fuller, richer ones for the humans because of the little finch. The tale’s wistful ending perfectly fits this utterly charming real-life story.

      Noodle is super-charming as well, but in a very different way. A fascinating collaboration between Munro Leaf (Ferdinand the Bull) and Ludwig Bemelmans (Madeline), this 1937 book – now available in a handsome new edition – is about a fictional little dog trying to solve the sort of real-world question that often troubles children ages 4-8. Noodle, a dachshund whose name fits him perfectly, wonders whether he would be better off in some other size and shape. A fortuitous encounter with the “dog fairy” (a white, winged, sort-of-poodle) gives Noodle the chance to get his wish to be different, so he trots off to the zoo to evaluate all the possible shapes and sizes he could be. He finds that the zebra, the hippopotamus, the ostrich and the giraffe are all quite happy with their own sizes and shapes – and recommend them highly. But the things those animals do and the foods they eat don’t suit Noodle, who decides to tell the dog fairy that he wants to keep his own size and shape after all. That’s no surprise, but what is surprising is the level of creativity that Leaf and Bemelmans bring to the story. For instance, as the hippo descends into her pool, bubbles come up in Leaf’s writing and emerge pictorially at the end of Leaf’s sentence. And when Noodle meets the giraffe, the type is set in a long curve that neatly parallels the shape of the giraffe’s neck twisting down toward Noodle. There are charms like this on every page, making the made-up Noodle as delightful in his own way as the real-world Stellina was in hers.