June 29, 2006


Now You See It… By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.

A Well-Timed Enchantment. By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.95.

     Preteen and young teenage readers looking for summer reading that isn’t 100% fluff and nonsense will have a great time with these paperbacks of Vivian Vande Velde fantasies.  These only seem to be 100% fluff and nonsense – there is thoughtfulness not far beneath the surface, and some really interesting questions about identity, love and the meaning of life are buried only a layer or two deeper.

     Now You See It… first appeared last year.  Intended for ages 12 and up, it’s a fine example of a work in which, as W.S. Gilbert put it, “Things are seldom what they seem.”  And they are seldom what you see as well – or at least what 15-year-old Wendy sees.  Wendy wears glasses – thick glasses – and is doomed to keep wearing them for at least three more years, because her mother won’t let her get contact lenses until Wendy is 18.  Wendy’s vision is really very poor, so when her new glasses break, she is in big trouble – until she finds a pair of rather spectacularly dorky sunglasses on her lawn.  And they just happen to be exactly her prescription.  And that’s just the start of this romp into weirdness, because when Wendy puts the sunglasses on, she sees perfectly.  Too perfectly.  She sees things that aren’t there (little blue men, happy dead people) and things that are there but shouldn’t look like what they look like through these lenses (a cheerleader is an ancient crone; a nerdy boy has pointy ears).  Readers will quickly figure out that the glasses are magic, the strange sights and strange changes in people’s appearance are connected, and Wendy has hold of something much more powerful than she realizes.  She does realize it, in time, as she finds herself the object of some very unwelcome supernatural attention.  Watching Wendy come into her own is only part of the fun here.  The chapter titles are another part, some parodying famed fantasy works (“The Fellowship of the Lens”) and some being just for fun (“Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Didn’t Include Bad Relatives”).  And then there is the underlying seriousness, as Wendy deals with her parents’ divorce, her beloved grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, and some other real-life issues not entirely solvable, even by magic.

     For slightly younger readers – ages 10 and up – A Well-Timed Enchantment provides a different take on a story that is, in some ways, similar.  The heroine here, Deanna, also has divorced parents, and she too is lonely and unsure where she fits in.  But she doesn’t find magic glasses – she finds a cat.  It’s a black cat that keeps following her around the home of relatives who live in the French countryside – relatives Deanna has never met before, but with whom she has to stay because of her parents’ breakup.  Deanna keeps wishing things would change, and as often happens in Vande Velde’s books, she gets her wish…and as always happens after one gets a wish, it doesn’t turn out quite as Deanna thought it would.  Vande Velde mixes more slapstick into this book than she uses in Now You See It…  There’s the sequence, for example, in which Deanna drops her watch into an old well, and a hand pulls her in after the watch, and the well turns out to be a time portal, and Deanna finds herself back in medieval France, trying to prevent history from being upended by the discovery of the wristwatch hundreds of years before it could possibly have existed.  All the usual suspects in magical fantasy show up in this book, which has worn quite well since its initial release in 1990: a wizard, two jealous brothers, and assorted magical creatures.  Oh – and then there’s that cat, who turns into Deanna’s companion and helper in medieval times and about whom she needs to make a crucial decision at the book’s end.  The ambiguity of the ending is one of the many pieces of deliciousness here.  Vande Velde is worth reading anytime, but these particular books seem especially well-suited to lazy days and warm nights.


Toad Away. By Morris Gleitzman. Random House. $14.95.

     Limpy the cane toad is surely one of the least likely heroes ever to grace a tongue-in-cheek fantasy series.  Cane toads are nasty creatures in real life: poisonous, fast-breeding critters that crowd out native fauna in parts of Australia and that have prompted one Member of Parliament to suggest getting out there and swatting them with golf clubs.  They really do need to be brought under control, because while they eat all sorts of creatures in Australia, they are so poisonous that nothing much eats them, and they breed so quickly in Australia’s favorable climate that they have become, collectively, a real menace.

     How British-born Morris Gleitzman, who moved to Australia when he was 16, selected this singularly unappetizing (so to speak) amphibian as a hero is hard to fathom.  Even harder to understand is how Gleitzman, while acknowledging the cane toad’s many unpleasant points in his stories, has managed to make the creature so empathetic and lovable.

     One thing Gleitzman does is prevent readers from focusing on cane toads en masse and bring the story down to a single toad and a few of his close friends and associates.  Limpy may be an unlikely hero, but he is not an impossible one.  Of course, what he does is impossible, but…

     Okay, let’s back up a bit.  Limpy; his sister, Charm; and his friend, Goliath, have their third adventure in Toad Away.  Gleitzman’s series started with Toad Rage and continued with Toad Heaven, two neatly punning and highly enjoyable titles (and books), nether of which you need to read to understand this one (but if you like this, you’ll like those, too).  This time, Limpy and Goliath are on different paths that converge at the end.  Limpy is more determined than ever to find a way for cane toads and humans to coexist peacefully, sharing things they have in common, such as slug sauce and maggot moisturizer.  Okay, he’s a little mixed up, but his heart is in the right place.  Goliath, though, has had enough of human attempts to get rid of cane toads – not to mention their unheeding destruction of the toads, notably by running over them with motor vehicles.  Goliath is putting together an army to fight back.

     It gets stranger.  Limpy decides that the secret of peaceful coexistence lies in the Amazon, and so that is where he goes.  How does a cane toad get to (and back from) the Amazon?  The answer is: amusingly.  Limpy has to head to parts unknown because the local source of cane-toad wisdom, Aunty Pru, has an unfortunate encounter with a truck.  Eventually, after a wild series of mismatched encounters, including a turn on the movie set of Armageddon 4—Rise of the Toads, Limpy discovers that the secret to improved human-toad interaction is…toad pee.

     Yes, really.  And if you don’t appreciate that, you certainly won’t care for the Australian slang sprinkled throughout the book (there’s a helpful glossary at the end).  But if you do accept Limpy’s discovery – well, you may not have to buy a new set of golf clubs.


Pool Boys. By Erin Haft. Scholastic. $8.99.

My Shining Star; Tú eres mi estrella. By Rosemary Wells. Scholastic. $8.99 (English); $5.99 (Spanish).

     Books such as Pool Boys practically define escapist summer literature for teenage girls.  There are the typecast girls who are close friends, the typecast hot guys making plays for this girl or that or several, the misunderstandings and stolen kisses and stresses of hormones under the hot sun, and the eventual assertion of girl power and dismissal of the most egregious of the philandering males.  Except that such words as “egregious” and “philandering” never find their way into Pool Boys.  Too much brain power needed to figure them out, ya know?  And yet, even though there is nothing remotely real-world about the Silver Oaks Country Club, the rich witch in the Versace bikini, or the love-‘em-and-leave-‘em tennis pro, Pool Boys is fun in its own irredeemably shallow way.  There’s nothing wrong with girls ages 13 and up – the book’s target audience – cooing and giggling over Erin Haft’s dialogue: “You’re into Charlotte.  Maybe she’s into you, too. Either way, we’ll get you laid this summer.”  And: “He stood behind her, guiding her hands as she leaned over the pool table, showing her how to aim the cue.  She kept giggling.  She was wearing a strapless pink dress that showed off her bronze tan, and she was sort of mashing her butt against Ethan’s body as she pretended to try to shoot the ball.”  Or: “Caleb’s lithe body wrapped around hers, his long, sweet kisses growing more fervent.  Water dripped from Charlotte’s fingers as she caressed his cheek.  Caleb buried his head in Charlotte’s neck.  Their legs tangled under the surface.  This was real.  This was now.  And this was right.”  With prose like this, if “Erin Haft” isn’t a pseudonym, it should be.  But – again – this book delivers exactly what it promises, and if it doesn’t promise much…well, teenage summers aren’t known for their intellectual elements.

     Parents, however, may want to do something to help their kids along – even in hot weather.  While teens are fending for themselves, parents of younger children can take a few minutes (it won’t require too many) to read My Shining Star, which is available in either English or Spanish.  Rosemary Wells, who has written and illustrated more than 150 books for children, here condenses into a few words and a few pages the 10 basic principles that parents can teach their children to give their kids the best chance of doing well when school resumes in the fall.  The principles, which Wells developed by working with teachers, are respect, listening, patience, trust, work, honesty, time, reading, writing, and habits.  Lovingly illustrated with bunny characters portrayed in a stable family environment – not the reality, unfortunately, for many children today – the book gives brief and straightforward elaborations of each of the 10 points.  For “Listening,” for instance, Wells writes, “Listen to your child’s stories, hopes, and worries.  Hear her and respond.  She will learn to listen to others.”  For “Trust,” she writes, “Keep your promises.  Your child will be trustworthy.”  These are simple words and simple admonitions – and by no means always easy to follow in our stress-filled, time-pressed lives. But summer will be over soon enough, and Wells’ ideas will bring continued benefits even as the days grow short and the nights turn cold.


Berlioz: La Damnation de Faust. Marie-Ange Todorovitch, mezzo-soprano; Michael Myers, tenor; Alain Vernhes, baritone, René Schirrer, bass; Slovak Philharmonic Choir and Orchestre National de Lille/Région Nord-Pas de Calais conducted by Jean-Claude Casadesus. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust, is about redemption through knowledge, eventual acceptance by the holiest of holies so long as one’s striving never ceases, and – by no means coincidentally – the regeneration of humanity, through a combination of all that is best in the Europe of Goethe’s own time with the greatest accomplishments of antiquity, represented by the love between Faust and Helen of Troy.

     You would never know any of this from most musical versions of Faust.  Gounod’s well-known opera is strictly an earthly love story, at the end of which Marguerite is saved and Faust and Méphistophéles ride off.  It is based entirely on Part I of Goethe’s monumental work.  So is Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust – even though Berlioz was familiar with Part II and well aware that Faust is eventually saved, not damned.  Ever theatrical in outlook, Berlioz thought the contrast between a saved Marguerite and damned Faust – the latter yelled at in Hell in a made-up patois believed by Emanuel Swedenborg, the mystic and philosopher, to be “the infernal language” of demons and the damned – would be more effective than a work following Goethe’s Faust more carefully.  Besides, older versions of the story did show Faust condemned to Hell.

     And so we have La Damnation de Faust, a brilliantly orchestrated not-quite-opera: the composer called it a “Dramatic Legend.”  There are three primary soloists and one secondary one, who appears in a single scene.  There are choruses, including one in Latin; there is a opening in Hungary rather than Germany (allowing Berlioz to include his famous orchestration of the “Rakoczy March”); and there is a dramatic climax in which Faust, thinking he is riding to Marguerite’s rescue, rides straight to Hell instead.

     It is all a bit of a mishmash, but it has many lovely elements, on which the performance directed by Jean-Claude Casadesus focuses.  The quieter sections are the best ones here, including a truly ethereal “Dance of the Sylphs” as well as Marguerite’s songs and duets with Faust.  Marie-Ange Todorovitch has a fine, dusky voice that is especially effective in its lower register.  As Méphistophéles, Alain Vernhes is sardonic and sarcastic, fully appreciative of the ironies of his words (Berlioz wrote most of the libretto himself).  And René Schirrer does a fine job with the small role of the drunken Brander, singing the famed aria about a rat that leads Méphistophéles to sing the even more famous one about a flea.

     Unfortunately, there is a weak point in the production, and it is Faust himself.  Michael Myers sounds petty, not world-weary, from the start, and seems to be moved throughout by anomie, not a quest for knowledge or experience.  When he first dreams of Marguerite and calls out her name, he does start to display more emotional intensity, and there is tenderness in his scenes with her.  But as the central character of this not-quite-opera, he falls a bit flat.

     Still, the chorus sings well, the orchestra plays adeptly, and if Casadesus underplays some of the dramatic sections (the “Rakoczy March” actually sounds a bit dull, a well-nigh impossible “achievement”), he extracts much of the beauty and sensitivity of Berlioz’ score – and the score has a great deal of both.

June 22, 2006


Mary Poppins; Mary Poppins Comes Back; Mary Poppins Opens the Door; Mary Poppins in the Park. By P.L. Travers. Illustrated by Mary Shepard. Harcourt. $12.95 each.

     These lovely new editions of P.L. Travers’ classic stories of the world’s greatest nanny confirm what generation after generation has discovered for itself: there is nothing and no one quite like Mary Poppins.  Floating (literally) into the lives of the Banks family – and later appearing at the end of a kite string, and still later as a shooting star – Mary Poppins turns the family’s world upside down while remaining very much the prim and proper ideal child-care worker.  Or at least she seems perfectly prim and proper – but in Travers’ marvelous books, nothing is ever quite what it seems….

     The first Mary Poppins book was written in 1934, the second in 1935, the third in the fear-filled days of 1943 – which Travers acknowledges in a serious introduction: “This darkness will not last forever. ...The children will dance and leap about them as they did in the times before.”  And if England and the world after World War II never did quite return to the idyllic times that Travers partly recounted, partly imagined in these books, we can still revisit those times – now firmly ensconced in the lexicon of fantasy – through the Mary Poppins tales.  Travers herself acknowledged the passing of the Poppins era in the fourth book of the series, Mary Poppins in the Park (1952), which consists of six stories that Travers says could have occurred during any of the Poppins visits in the earlier books.  Travers knew that the time for Poppins tales had passed, offering readers “a word of warning to anybody who may be expecting they are in for a fourth visit.  [Mary Poppins] cannot forever arrive and depart.”

     Yet in a very real sense, Mary Poppins never leaves anyone who has delighted in her acquaintance.  Some – a very few – of her adventures were turned into a successful Disney movie with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.  But how much richer the books are!  Travers interweaves reality and fantasy so seamlessly that readers must sometimes think for a moment to find the exact point at which an everyday scene has changed into something quite marvelous.  Travers’ world is one in which magic is all around us, have we but eyes to see it.  Mary Poppins provides those eyes, which are, in the most profound sense, the eyes with which all children see the world.

     Yet there is no need to over-analyze Travers’ books – and no way to overstate her accomplishments.  The Banks family, although it contains some elements of what we would now call situation comedy, mostly seems quite down-to-earth, led by a generally serious and sober father and somewhat flighty and confused, but well-meaning, mother.  When Mary Poppins takes Jane, Michael and the twins through everyday events – such as shopping and park visits – the magic that somehow inheres in the errands erupts, to the utter delight of the children and, often, of befuddled bystanders.  Mary Shepard (aided by Agnes Sims in Mary Poppins Opens the Door) provides illustrations that perfectly capture what could be called the matter-of-fact magic of the series.  The writing and illustrations make an irresistible combination.  For the sake of the magic that lies within them, one can only hope that today’s super-sophisticated children will, thanks to these excellent new editions, become the latest generation to discover the practically perfect Poppins.


Storm Watch: Book & Air Balance Forecasting Station. Book written by Patrick Smith Kelly; illustrated by Brian Larson.  Accord Publishing.  $17.95.

     Mark Twain gets the credit for saying, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”  Actually, Twain was quoting his friend, Charles Dudley Warner.  And the amusing statement is, in any case, no longer true: everything from deliberate cloud seeding to inadvertent (or at least unthinking) release of industrial byproducts into the atmosphere does indeed do something about the weather.

     Kids ages eight and up need not take the grand and grandiose view, however.  What they can do is learn to use the same basic forecasting tools that professional meteorologists rely on when making their weather forecasts.  (And if the tools help kids forecast accurately only a little more than 50% of the time…well, that’s about as good as the pros get, too.)

     Storm Watch is a very cleverly designed, but very simple, weather station, and it includes an easy-to-understand book about the weather and the various instruments that measure it.  What you get is a rectangular plastic box, taller than it is wide, with the words “Air Balance Forecaster” at the bottom and with built-in devices to measure temperature, barometric pressure and humidity.  The book – at 56 pages, more of a booklet, really – fits neatly into a cutout on back of the box.  After you mount the box on a wall, you can keep the book in its slot for consultation anytime.

     Measuring temperature and humidity is simple and requires no setup.  The barometer, however, is a bit more complicated.  A plunger – sort of a syringe without needle – is included; you use it to get air bubbles out of the sealed U-shaped tube and to set the pressure to whatever a local weather report tells you it currently is.  After setup, the device needs no further attention – kids can simply hang it on a wall and look at what it tells them about weather.  But the barometer setup can be a bit tricky, and should really be done by an adult or older sibling.

     The Storm Watch book is done in a storybook style that will likely appeal more to younger kids than to older ones.  The information in it is solid, explaining what weather is, how and why it changes, and what the various measuring devices tell you.  The entire package is part of a series called “I Can’t Believe It’s Science” – other entries let kids measure precipitation, learn about different types of rocks, even test for acid rain.  The whole approach is hands-on and friendly, and goes a long way toward making science both comprehensible and unintimidating.  Storm Watch won’t help kids do more about the weather, but it will certainly help them learn more about what the weather is doing to them.


The Shark Who Was Afraid of Everything. By Brian James. Illustrated by Bruce McNally. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

My Secret Unicorn #1: The Magic Spell. By Linda Chapman. Illustrated by Biz Hall. Scholastic. $4.99.

It’s Happy Bunny: Guess What? It’s Still All About Me. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $7.99.

     The animals in books have different roles and different meanings for children of different ages.  For younger kids, a story about animals who behave like humans can make it easier to face one’s own everyday worries and concerns.  That’s the value of The Shark Who Was Afraid of Everything, for ages 3-5.  It is the story of a shark “unlike all the others” (how many children feel that way!), and of all the things that scare him – told in easy-to-follow rhymes: “Sharkie feared the silly seals./ He swam away from electric eels.”  Sharkie decides to run away from home, to go someplace where no one knows how frightened he always is.  On the way, he meets and befriends a small fish – and when the two get really lost, it is Sharkie who tells his new friend not to be scared, then finds the way back.  The soft-pedaled message – it’s all right to be scared, and you’ll be brave when you have to be – is pleasantly communicated.

     Older children start to see the wonder in animals, and magical animals are, not surprisingly, the most wondrous of all.  The My Secret Unicorn series is about a little girl named Lauren who gets her wish for a pony – then starts to wonder if perhaps the pony, whose name is Twilight, is really a unicorn, ready to change if Lauren recites the correct spell.  Lauren gets the secret-unicorn idea from a book given to her by Mrs. Fontana, who owns a store in the country town to which Lauren and her family have just moved.  Girls ages 7-10 will enjoy this “setup” book – of course Lauren does find the spell, or there wouldn’t be an ongoing story – and will look forward to further installments.  Not much actually happens in this first volume, but the stage is certainly set for adventures later.

     By the time they are preteens and teenagers, children are likely to have absorbed some of the sarcasm and offbeat humor that are often expressed through animals in humor books.  The It’s Happy Bunny series uses an adorable-looking but snide and foul-mouthed rabbit to toss around insults, toilet humor and the like.  It’s Still All About Me is not a book but a set of postcards – the second one using this character.  It includes 16 cards and 20 stickers.  The stickers show Happy Bunny with various expressions and in various activities: using a cell phone, wearing prison garb, etc.  The postcards, which you can really mail if they strike you as worth sending to someone, sport such comments as, “Parents are hairy and slow, but they buy you stuff,” and “We should talk about what you can do for me,” and “OK. I’m perfect. Now stop staring.”  A few of the cards are mildly witty, if not overly attentive to grammar: “I know Right from Wrong.  Wrong is the fun one.”  Most are at least faintly insulting: “I’m cute.  You’re not.  Seems so unfair.”  For the target audience – ages 12 (physical or psychological) and up, but not too far up – these should be fun.  But be careful where you send them.


Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Ileana Cotrubas, Heather Harper and Hanneke Van Bork, sopranos; Birgit Finnilä and Marianne Dieleman, contraltos; William Cochran, tenor; Hermann Prey, baritone; Hans Sotin, bass; Toonkunstkoor, Amsterdam; De Stem des Volks, Amsterdam; Collegium Musicum Amstelodamense; Children’s Choirs of the Churches of St. Willibrord and St. Pius X, Amsterdam; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink.  PentaTone Classics. $19.99 (SACD).

     Bernard Haitink is one of the greatest of all Mahler conductors, and this 1971 performance of the Eighth Symphony is one of the greatest ever recorded.  Its release by PentaTone in the original four-channel version that Philips created, but could not bring to market at a time when stereo LPs were the dominant recordings, is a major event.  No Mahler lover should be without this spectacular SACD – which sounds superb on any CD player, and even better on equipment designed to take advantage of all four channels.

     Haitink’s understanding of this huge work is immense and profound.  His tempi are on the brisk side, but never injudiciously so.  His solo singers have opera-quality voices, and many have in fact been heard in operas.  All the choruses are superb, speaking their words with clarity and bringing emotion to texts that must be far from familiar to most chorus members, especially the children; general chorus master Frans Moonen does an outstanding job.  The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the two or three best in the world at the time this recording was made, plays with perfect tone, balance and intensity throughout – Mahler, a great conductor in his time, would have been overjoyed with such clear inner voices, such elegant brass, such precise woodwinds, such sumptuous strings.

     Haitink truly interprets this work; there is no sense, as there is in some other recordings, of simply trying to get through it, to keep the huge mass of performers together.  The first part, Veni, creator spiritus, hums with intensity, the tempo changes handled with aplomb and the balance between choral and orchestral forces nearly perfect.  The second part, the final scene from Part II of Goethe’s Faust, is revelatory.  Thanks to the intelligent decision to release this performance as a single SACD (some other recordings come as two disks), the moody instrumental introduction to the second part closely follows the end of the first, marking a distinctive change in ambiance – and also connecting the two parts carefully.  Haitink excels at bringing forth Mahler’s linkages: as themes in the second part reflect those in the first, we hear them with great clarity, even when solo violinist Jo Juda is playing against huge massed forces.  (Juda and organist Kees de Wijs both make top-notch contributions.)  And Haitink knows just where and how to draw attention to words that Mahler deemed crucial.  For example, Doctor Marianus’ bleibe gnädig (“grant your mercy”) is unsurprisingly repeated three times, but so is the joyful cry of Una Poenitentium, the spirit of Gretchen: Er kommt zurück (“he is returning”), sung with heartfelt love for the immortal part of Faust, which has gained salvation.  There is great drama in this interpretation, not simply reverence – though there is that, too.  It is an altogether remarkable performance.

     Although the name PentaTone refers to the company’s use of five-channel recordings, the engineers chose to leave this one in its original four-channel state and make no changes to its sound – an exceptionally wise decision.  The only quibbles here are with the packaging: it repeatedly prints the wrong total time for the performance, giving it as 70:45 when it is really 75:45; and the texts are omitted – without any suggestion about where to find them online (one excellent source is www.naxos.com/libretti/mahler8.htm).  But these are presentation quibbles, not musical ones.  The music itself is transcendent, and Haitink’s interpretation of it is an unalloyed joy.


Rorem: Flute Concerto (2002); Violin Concerto (1985); Pilgrims (1958). Jeffrey Khaner, flute; Philippe Quint, violin; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Naxos. $8.99.

     Everything Ned Rorem writes sings.  This is not a mere critical conceit: Rorem himself has said, “I conceive all non-song pieces as though they were songs – like settings of words that aren’t there.”  The 82-year-old composer is best known for his songs, but he has also written a substantial body of purely instrumental music, much of which has the tempo, rhythm and thematic lines of extended wordless songs.

     That is certainly true of the pieces on this CD, two of which – the Flute Concerto and Pilgrims – are world-première recordings.  Pilgrims is an extended, moderately melancholy meditation for string orchestra that has nothing to do with early U.S. settlers and everything to do with what Rorem, as quoted in the CD’s booklet notes, describes as “a mood of remembrance.”  It provides a pensive introduction to the two concertos.

     Neither concerto is really accurately titled.  Rorem suggests that the word “concerto” has many different definitions, which is true, but it does create certain common structural expectations on top of the basic one of using a solo instrument to dominate a group of others – or at least be first among equals.  In light of their structure, these works might better be titled “Six Movements for Flute and Orchestra” and “Six Movements for Violin and Orchestra.”  The movements are mostly self-contained, though the first and last ones of the violin work are cleverly interrelated.  Each movement has a title that is more suggestive than descriptive; there is no sense of “tone painting” here.  And the dominant pacing of both concertos is somewhere in the Andante-to-Moderato range – as if each work is an extended song.

     Though written 17 years apart, the two concertos have some structural elements in common.  The fifth movement for flute and second movement for violin use the same distinctive dynamic structure of soft-loud-soft.  That fifth flute movement is called “False Waltz,” and the fifth violin movement, though labeled “Toccata-Rondo,” is in reality also a false waltz – in 4/4 time.  In both works, the solo part climbs in and out of the orchestra, and is often subsumed within it – in fact, in the flute concerto, the piano is as much a solo instrument in some sections as the flute.

     Among the more interesting movements are the fourth in the flute concerto, called “Hymn,” which is scored as a quintet instead of an orchestral piece; and the third in the violin concerto, “Romance without Words,” the most songlike movement of all, which Rorem says “is literally a song from which the text has been excised.”

     Jeffrey Khaner, for whom the Flute Concerto was written, plays it with tremendous style and sensitivity, while Philippe Quint brings bright virtuosity plus soulfulness to the Violin Concerto.  José Serebrier’s conducting is impeccably attentive to detail, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic plays with fine tone and sensitivity to the nuances of the works.  The result is a CD that sings beautifully – as Rorem’s music always should.

June 15, 2006


The Wildest Brother. By Cornelia Funke. Illustrated by Kerstin Meyer. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.

On Top of Spaghetti. By Paul Brett Johnson, with lyrics by Tom Glazer.  Scholastic.  $15.99.

     Kids ages 4-8 will have a great time with both these books – in very different ways.  The Wildest Brother is a family story, told by Cornelia Funke in her usual offbeat and endearing way, with a soft-pedaled bit of emotion thrown in at the end.  It’s all about the many ways fearless Ben protects his older sister, Anna, throughout the day, fighting off monsters and moldy ghosts and bears and wolves, armed with such weapons as three plastic swords, a pumpkin-sized water pistol and a rubber knife.  Ben is so busy battling these scary creatures that he can’t find the time to clean up the red spots he makes on Anna’s desk, fix Anna’s horse poster after he knocks it off the wall, or help Anna pick dandelion leaves for the family guinea pigs.  Yes, Ben is brave, all right, and Anna is suitably grateful for all the protection, though she does occasionally tickle Ben when he gets a little too rambunctious.  But after a full day of protecting his home and his sister, Ben encounters things that even he cannot quite face on his own “when Night presses her soot-black face against the window and the heating creaks like the sound of a thousand biting beetles.”  Then it is Ben who needs protecting, and he knows just where to get it – from Anna.  This is a simple story of illusion and reality that shows siblings supporting and caring about each other – a wonderful message, though this is by no means presented as a “message book.”  Kerstin Meyer does an excellent job showing the various evil creatures Ben battles – and, at the end, in simply rather than brightly colored pictures, the obvious love that Ben and Anna have for each other.

     On Top of Spaghetti speaks to the 4-8 age group very differently: with a heaping helping of pure absurdity.  Children today know the song “On Top of Spaghetti” without likely realizing that it is a 1963 parody by Tom Glazer of a traditional folk song, “On Top of Old Smoky.”  The original song begins, “On top of Old Smoky,/ all covered with snow,/ I lost my true lover/ from courtin’ too slow.”  The parody, of course, goes, “On top of spaghetti,/ all covered with cheese,/ I lost my poor meatball/ when somebody sneezed.”  Well, Paul Brett Johnson turns this ditty into the basis of a hilarious tale about the owner of “Yodeler Jones’s Spaghetti Emporium & Musicale.”  Yodeler is a dog, his customers are all sorts of animals, and the problem is that a “fried fritter fricassee parlor” has opened up next door and is taking all Yodeler’s business away.  So Yodeler sets out to “invent the most dee-licious meatball this side of Sicily,” except that the meatball escapes because of a sneeze, and there’s a hilarious chase all around the town that eventually ends with the growing of a meatball tree (yes, that’s in Glazer’s song, though most kids don’t know all the verses).  This is one of those out-and-out silly books with no redeeming characteristics except that it’s gosh-darn, all-out fun.  Which is a redeeming characteristic.  If you don’t find this hilarious, have your funnybone checked pronto.


M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales: The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen. By M.T. Anderson. Harcourt. $15.

     Uh-oh.  The first M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales book was outstanding – fall-out-of-your-seat funny, and clever, and unusually designed, and utterly absurd, and filled with parodies of mystery-series characters, and parodies of footnotes, and parodies of parody, and…well, it was great.  That was Whales on Stilts!  The question was what Anderson could do for an encore.

     Err…he did this.  The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, while not actually a bad book, is, in contrast to Anderson’s previous work, rather…well…ordinary.  It has some of the same elements, but it simply doesn’t handle them as well, and the new elements here just don’t come across with the kind of hilarity that the first book produced.

     The Thrilling Tales concept has an everyday girl, Lily Gefelty, solving strange mysteries with two friends who are also characters in their own book series: Katie Mulligan, who lives in Horror Hollow and fights supernatural haunts, and Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, whose dress, speech and methods reflect the earlier days when the books about him were written.  This conceit – characters in books being characters in a new series of books, along with a girl who has never been a book character but is one now – was great fun in Whales, but Anderson does little with it here.  These are simply three friends from three different backgrounds, working together on a mystery.

     Except that they don’t work together.  Anderson separates them and has them follow three different paths, only to be reunited near the end.  This is a real mistake, since much of the fun of the first book came from the interaction of the unlikely trio and the different ways in which each of them approached whatever peril they were facing together.  Lily doesn’t have much to do in this book, which is a shame, since she is supposed to be the “normal kid.”  Katie mostly wants to be on vacation and avoid solving any mystery, which is a shame, since her confrontations with dark and sinister things are a great deal of the fun.  And Jasper spends much of his time tied up and choking on his own mucus, which is a huge shame, since it’s a vastly overdone part of the plot and makes this supposed boy hero just another unfortunate kid with allergies.  Bad move, M.T.

     The book does have its compensations.  The basic setup is funny: various other characters from series of kids’ books get together under somewhat mysterious circumstances at a mountaintop lodge.  There’s a boy whose series of horse-riding adventures turns out to have been woefully foreshortened; there are the Cutesy Dell Twins, who seem mainly to be boy-crazed; there are the Manley Boys, obvious Hardy Boys parodies, whose stupidity is almost beyond parody; and there are the Hooper Quints, who spend much of the book being kidnapped, which is the heart of the mystery.

     A few Anderson touches reappear here to good effect, such as occasional use of screamingly large type, the inclusion of a professor who studies bats and finds his way about by screaming loudly as a form of echolocation, and amusing footnotes here and there – for instance, Anderson mentions the “Kentucky mountain asp” and provides the footnote, “the most poisonous of the imaginary North American snakes.”  Alas, these amusing elements seem like echoes of the more successful previous book.  Maybe Anderson will do better next time.  There had better be a next time – this series started with a bang and should not end with a whimper.


Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock. By Andrew Beaujon. Da Capo. $16.95.

     Early Christianity was far from the staid, ceremonial, tradition-bound religion that modern Christianity, in most of its forms, has become.  Early Christians argued and fought over doctrine, books, behavior, relationships with non-Christians, their own Jewish heritage, and much more.  Christianity started as an intensely vital religion – but over time, and through gaining enormous secular power, it became encrusted with a particular kind of orthodoxy, a set of unvarying precepts that more and more believers found stultifying.  When schisms eventually developed, they occurred mainly because certain groups wanted to impose their own absolutist will instead of accepting the absolutist approach of others.  Over time, much of the early joy and intensity of Christianity was systematically squeezed out of it.

     The people involved in Christian rock are trying, knowingly or not, to return to some of their religion’s earliest roots, to express themselves with joy and rhythm, to have a good time while affirming their innermost beliefs.  This is the world into which Andrew Beaujon, senior contributing writer for Spin, takes readers in Body Piercing Saved My Life.  It is a world of skateboarding ministries, of Christian tattoo parlors and coffeehouse and nightclubs and paintball parks, of teenagers rebelling against the outward forms of their religion while finding their own ways to focus on what they see as its innermost spiritual guidance.

     The nation’s largest cities, New York and Los Angeles, are the centers of Christian rock, where a subculture of fans supports Christian bands and some bands have started to attract secular audiences as well.  Beaujon is clearly comfortable in this world, though he visits it as an outsider and a keen observer: he sees it journalistically, not as a believer determined to bring others into the fold.  Still, one difficulty with the book is that Beaujon is far more immersed in this world than most readers are likely to be.  That leads to writing like this: “It’s probably not a surprise that by the time of Pedro the Lion’s next record, the band’s membership had dwindled to one.  Tooth & Nail had offered to sign Pedro properly (the EP was done as sort of a dry run for both parties), but Bazan said his lawyer was appalled by Tooth & Nail’s offer.  ‘He said, “What is this, Columbia Records in the ‘50s?”  Like he [Brandon Ebel] was trying to get your publishing and all this stuff.’  Bazan decided instead to go with Made in Mexico, a label started by a former Tooth & Nail employee, James Morelos (whom [sic] Ebel told me ‘now owns a hair salon in New York’ while making a mincing gesture).”

     Did you get all that?  The inside-the-business stuff, the quotations within quotations, the quick passing references to this person or that, this company or that, are all part of Beaujon’s style.  The book reads as if he has so much to say that he just has to spew everything out and let readers pick up as much as they can.  And that’s fine, if you’re willing to put in the effort and sufficiently interested in the topic.  It is, in fact, a tremendously interesting subject, a story of rebellion in form that generally retains conservative conformity in message.  Beaujon’s approach is too far “inside the phenomenon” to be a good introduction to Christian rock for those who know nothing about it.  But if you already have some familiarity with the principal players in the field, and want to find out how they interact with each other and with the secular music world, you will find Beaujon’s tour of the territory at least intermittently fascinating.


Private Peaceful. By Michael Morpurgo. Scholastic. $5.99.

Out Standing in My Field. By Patrick Jennings. Scholastic. $5.99.

     These paperbacks are intended to be more than lower-priced editions of hardcover books.  They are part of Scholastic’s “After Words” series, which includes bonus features designed to amplify or deepen a young reader’s experience through back-of-the-book essays, question-and-answer sessions, even quizzes and recipes.  The added material does not really make either book better, but some of it – especially the Q&A with the authors – may make readers feel a stronger sense of relationship to the people behind the prose.  The bonuses are not really a reason to buy the books, but they are nice additional elements.

     The books themselves both have considerable strengths.  Private Peaceful, originally published in 2003, is one of the many war stories that Michael Morpurgo likes to write.  Its focus is not on battles – Morpurgo cares little about the actual fighting – but on the effects of war on those caught in it.  The book’s title is the name of an actual soldier killed in 1916 – Morpurgo saw the man’s grave.  And the events in the book actually happened, though the author has fictionalized them.  This is a not a story for the faint of heart, and it may be too intense for preteens and young teenagers, though it is recommended for ages 12 and up.  The reason is its deep emotion and deeply felt sense of unfairness.  It is about the execution of 300 British soldiers for cowardice, desertion or falling asleep at their posts – all the men being judged “worthless” and all receiving trials of perhaps 20 minutes, with no one to assist or speak for them.  A monumental injustice by the standards of our time – it is apparent that the soldiers were shell-shocked and needed medical care – the executions seemed right and proper during World War I, and the British government has never apologized for them.  Morpurgo’s fictional characters make the story, and the war within which it occurred, come all too realistically alive, and the final scene of marching off to nowhere, with no certain outcome, is emblematic of the feelings of many soldiers even today.  The “glory” of war emerges only in the “After Words” sections, which discuss aspects of World War I in more matter-of-fact terms.

     Out Standing in My Field is for younger readers, ages 9-12, and is about the more humane and less deadly form of war that is organized sports.  The damage here is more psychological than physical.  Patrick Jennings’ book, first published last year, is about a man who so admires Ty Cobb that he models his life on Cobb’s to the extent possible – and wants his son, the book’s narrator, to become as great a baseball player as Cobb.  There is an underlying irony in all this: Cobb was a great player, but he was one of the nastiest, most vicious men ever to play the sport.  Cobb called his father “the Professor,” so narrator Ty Cutter – named after Cobb, of course – has to call his dad Professor, even though his father is actually a barber.  And Ty has to play every game, even though “I suck. …Big-time.  Ask my teammates.  They know I’m the worst guy on the team, that I’d be the worst guy on any team.”  But the Professor is Ty’s father, and Ty has to play, even if he hates it and the other players hate him.  The book is all about Ty discovering the courage to be himself, not what his father wants him to be – and the consequences of his growing up and becoming more self-aware.  Out Standing in My Field is written in innings rather than chapters, and Jennings explains his own fascination with baseball in the “After Words” section.  But the most interesting part of the appended material is Jennings’ application of the Professor’s rules to…writing.  That page has nothing directly to do with the rest of the book, but it really is a worthwhile bonus.


Bach: The Art of Fugue.  Sébastien Guillot, harpsichord.  Naxos.  $8.99.

     There has never been anything else quite like Bach’s final work, The Art of Fugue, and almost every performance of it is revelatory.  Sébastien Guillot’s reveals the extremely close relationship among all the fugues except the final, uncompleted one, and also reveals the enormous variety of approaches that a harpsichordist can take to these works through sonic selections as well as tempo choice.  If there was ever an argument about whether this magnificent work should be played on the harpsichord or the piano, this performance should go a long way toward settling it in favor of the older instrument.  After all, what the harpsichord lacks in note-sustaining ability, it more than makes up for through purity of line and the ability to vary its tone enormously, much as an organ’s tone can be changed by selecting different pipes.  Guillot’s variegated approach to The Art of Fugue makes it easier and more enjoyable to listen to than many other, more academically inclined performances.

     At the same time, Guillot scrupulously follows Bach’s intentions, to the extent that they are known.  This recording is made from the autograph score, and as a result, the huge, final Fugue 19 – the only piece not based on the theme that forms the underpinning of all the others – simply ends abruptly as the music moves to the name of Bach (German notation for the notes B flat, A, C and B natural).  There is no slowing down, no hint of what is to come, and certainly no “appropriate” conclusion – Guillot just plays right off the page.  This is jarring to hear but highly effective in retrospect, since it literally brings The Art of Fugue to an end with Bach’s name, at the point where – according to Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel – the composer died.

     Whether or not this is literally true, it makes for an unsettling but somehow right conclusion to a work that explores fugal technique from every possible angle.  Fugue 6 sounds especially effective here, and quite different in tone from the rest of the fugues.  Fugue 13, which appears in “Forma recta” and “Forma inversa,” is played with enthusiasm and fine attention to detail.  The three canons – in Hypodiapason, Hypodiatessaron, and “al roverscio et per augmentationem” – all sound very impressive, the canonical design actually being clearer to modern ears than the strict fugal structure of the other pieces.

     The Art of Fugue has long been considered, correctly, a highly academic exercise, and in some ways seems a farewell by Bach to a form of contrapuntal music-making that was already fading by 1750, the composer’s final year.  Certainly there remains plenty of material in this almost 70-minute work for musical analysts to pore over for many years to come.  But one of the pleasures of a performance as good as Guillot’s is that it brings The Art of Fugue alive as music to be heard, not just to be played and analyzed.  If you have mostly heard about this piece, but have shrunk from its complexity and erudition, you will find Guillot’s performance a particularly congenial one.  It does not require you to understand all the ins and outs of the work in order to enjoy it.

June 08, 2006


King Dork. By Frank Portman. Delacorte Press. $16.95.

Icefire. By Chris d’Lacey. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $14.99.

     Dig ever more deeply into yourself, and what will you find?  This is not only a question for psychoanalysis.  It is a question posed in many books for teenagers – though rarely as entertainingly as Frank Portman poses it in King Dork.  This is a book that grabs you with its weirdness from the start: the cover (by Angela Carlino) has the book’s title and author’s name superimposed on and mostly blocking a reproduction of the famous cover of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  You can see just enough of the Salinger cover to know what it is, if you have read that book.  And it’s really helpful to have done so if you’re going to follow and understand Portman’s, because the Salinger book plays a major role in this one.  Portman’s protagonist, Tom Henderson, whose father died under unclear circumstances that rise to the level of mystery as the book goes on, finds his father’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye and discovers a secret code in it.  He also finds a funeral card and a receipt for 24-hour Martinizing.  And things rapidly start getting weirder.  Tom, a typical high-school loser with typical rock-band ambitions, discovers that there is not one mystery but many of them, and after a while, you can barely keep up with which mystery interlocks with which other one.  There’s a song about suicide, and another that’s a love song with decidedly raunchy overtones.  There’s some fairly raunchy action, too, and although it is not described in detail, it explains why King Dork is intended for ages 14 and up.  As for those mysteries: Tom gets involved with fake people and dead people, monks and the Bible and the Crusades, a devil head and witchcraft, and various Da Vinci Code sorts of things – all the while trying to survive the rigors of a typical high-school existence and, oh yes, figure out how and why his father died.  This is a strange book in many ways, all the way to its finish, which includes an Outro, a Bandography and a particularly pointed Glossary (“Advanced Placement: classes that are far easier than regular classes and for which students receive inflated grades”).  Everything in the endpieces really does relate to what goes on in the book, which deftly combines the detective genre with the coming-of-age novel and serves the whole thing up with more than a touch of satire.  Highly recommended.

     The genre of Icefire is easier to pin down: it is heroic fantasy, at least in a broad sense.  The age range for Icefire is younger: 7-10.  The book is more straightforward: a search of the past for important keys to what is happening in the present and, perhaps, an understanding of what will come in the future.  But this sequel to Chris d’Lacey’s The Fire Within is anything but typical in how it progresses and where it eventually leads.  It’s a dragon story, but with a difference (several differences, actually).  In The Fire Within, the hero, David, discovered not only the power of dragons but also the power of…stories.  That was a neat touch, one of several that made the book special.  Now we are in a world where dragons grant wishes (if they benefit the dragon race), where the history of the Arctic is a mystery, where a teardrop of fire may hold the answer to that mystery or to the mystery of dragons or to a discovery of the interrelatedness of all these mysteries.  D’Lacey tells readers in an afterword that he was always interested in polar bears – more than in dragons, even clay ones like David’s Gadzooks – and sure enough, polar bears (nine of them) are key to the various mysteries here.  This is a book in which dragons use cell phones, text messages can be dangerous, and alien apparitions offer visitors a cup of coffee.  It is an unusual book, in which a journey of discovery comes to a most interesting end – and the journey itself is as enjoyable as the eventual discovery.  D’Lacey leaves open the possibility that he may write another book set in David’s world.  If so, it will – gadzooks! – be worth waiting for.


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

     Fresh from their sort-of-success with The Government Manual for New Superheroes, Matthew David Brozik and Jacob Sager Weinstein here apply the same sort of silliness to Harry Potter wannabes.  Their premise is that, if something exists, then the government will surely find a way to regulate and try to manage it.  So if there really are superheroes or wizards, there must be a department of the government charged with getting the super or magical beings to adhere to regulations, get the necessary permits, and behave themselves – to the extent possible.

     Wizards is a better book than Superheroes, which never seemed to be sure if it wanted to be a satire on government paperwork and bureaucracy or a simple let’s-have-some-fun volume.  Wizards isn’t entirely sure what it wants to be, either, but – perhaps because it clearly has some elements of the Harry Potter world in mind – it seems more focused and better directed than the earlier volume, which sprawled all over the place.

     Consider, for example, the authors’ discussion of the myths and truths about Wizards Prison.  Some of it is straightforward comedy: “Myth: Wizards Prison is surrounded by a putrid moat from which the screams of the damned echo without end.  Truth: Wizards Prison is surrounded by several inexpensive but clean hotels at which the visiting families of prisoners regularly stay.  Most have pools.”  But some is clearly tied to the dreaded Azkaban of J.K. Rowling: “Myth: Wizards Prison is guarded by soulless ghouls capable of sucking the life out of inmates by forcing them to relive their worst memories.  Truth: Wizards Prison is guarded by a highly skilled staff of caring professionals who are capable of sucking the life out of inmates by forcing them to relive their worst memories, but usually refer them to trained counselors instead.”

     Brozik and Weinstein retain this supercilious tone pretty much throughout the book.  There is cooperation between the magical world and what Rowling would call muggles, resulting in (among other things) “the passage of the Act Necessitating the Oversight of the Regulation of Magic through Affirmative Legislation (‘Act NORMAL’).”  There are warnings not to be fooled by science: “Scam artists will prey on the sick, selling them mythical, improbably named items such as ‘aspirin’ or ‘ibuprofen’ or ‘a plaster cast,’ when what their victims really need is a simple spell of healing.”  There are warnings against illicit substances (which include mushrooms that prevent users from seeing their usual visions), fraud (contact the Better Bewitchment Bureau), and “involuntary transubstantiation, insubstantiation, or ratiocination.”  There’s a section on earning the gratitude of the dead, and one on magical sports.  There are even helpful definitions: a magician is anyone who practices magic, while a wizard is anyone who practices it for a living.  This is all as light and fluffy as can be, certainly good for some mindless amusement during a year in which there will be no new Harry Potter book.  And some of it is genuinely clever, such as the list of suggested further reading – which includes, among other things, “The Seven Hobbits of Highly Effective People.”


Globalization and Its Enemies. By Daniel Cohen. MIT Press. $27.95.

     It seems that today’s tales of globalization-inspired wealth inequality, job displacement, and imposition of foreign values on traditional cultures are nothing new.  They date back, argues Daniel Cohen, at least to the Spanish Conquistadors – and have been provoking sometimes-violent argument for hundreds of years.

     Cohen brings a peculiarly French viewpoint to an argument often expressed by, or against, U.S. intellectuals and policymakers.  He is professor of economics at the Ecole Normal Supérieure and the Université de Paris-I, a member of France’s council of economic advisors, and a Le Monde columnist.  His basic point is an intriguing one: far from forcing the values of a materialistic society onto nations organized on different models, modern globalization – thanks to instantaneous worldwide transmission of information and easy dissemination of data even in many poor countries – creates desires and expectations among impoverished people.  Those desires cannot be readily fulfilled, so there is resentment, even outright anger, at being exposed to so much wealth and so many objects of interest without the ability to join the party.

     This is an intriguing viewpoint.  Cohen bolsters it not only by reference to the Conquistadors but also by discussing the British empire in the 19th century.  His point is that global free trade, as enforced by the Spanish and British empires among their colonies, does not bring a general improvement in wealth or well-being: India, for example, was as poor in 1913 as in 1820.  Furthermore, the results of today’s instantaneous transmission of information – and the values of the societies producing the information – are decidedly mixed: China has found a way to rise rapidly while maintaining its own social and political system, but wealth dissemination to Africa has been spectacularly unsuccessful.

     Cohen notably omits a review of France’s own imperial days in his discussions of the downside of globalization, and even though he does not specifically say that the United States is the central problem in modern globalization, he certainly implies that it is.  These are not unexpected positions from an author so closely tied to the French government.  That does not mean they should be discarded – but readers should remember Cohen’s own biases while reading what he writes about others.  Thus, Cohen at one point comments, “To think of freedom as a Western attribute is to engage in the unfortunate habit of judging the past in light of the present, to forget the Inquisition and the tragedies of the twentieth century.”  He is specifically discussing Burma at this point, but the remark does reflect one of his general attitudes.

     Cohen is not quite sure how to make globalization work – not that anyone else is.  By pointing to China as a success, he seems implicitly to accept the brutal dictatorship there; but he is not accepting of the junta that rules Burma and calls it Myanmar.  He is also a continual apologist for France, a country whose sclerotic economy and unsustainable socialist impulses are dragging down the entire European Union.  For example, he praises the “thirty glorious years” after World War II in which “Europe managed to catch up” to the United States, and remarks offhandedly, “The management methods that French industries had copied from the United States were not far from those that already existed in Europe,” thus minimizing the need to catch up in the first place.  This misplaced national pride is one of the forces standing in the way of successful globalization.  If someone as educated and thoughtful as Cohen does not see this barrier, it is no wonder that intelligent discussions of globalization’s costs and benefits are so few and so far between.


Kidnapped Book I: The Abduction. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $4.99.

Rewind. By Linda Dower. Scholastic. $8.99.

     The things that worry young people change as they get older.  Fear of strangers, for example, tends to switch to fascination with strangers as serious dating years arrive – by which time, fear of severe social problems rises.  These changes happen at different ages for different people, and sometimes not at all.  But most readers of certain ages will likely find their worries reflected, rather melodramatically, in these two books.

     The Kidnapped series is planned as a trilogy; The Abduction sets the whole thing up.  Aiden and Meg Falconer, brother and sister, are walking home from school when a van pulls up and someone kidnaps Meg.  Aiden is the only witness, and therefore not only feels responsible but also bears the burden of helping the FBI try to track down his sister and find out who took her and why.  For her part, the plucky Meg needs to try to escape on her own, not knowing who is looking for her or what the chance is of someone finding her.  Neither Meg nor Aiden has much individual personality – one is “the victim,” the other “the would-be rescuer.”  For that reason, The Abduction is more of a puzzle book than an emotionally involving story of fear and mystery.  Meg and Aiden’s parents are somewhat notorious (they are the “possible motive” people), and there is a question whether the kidnappers tried to grab Aiden at the same time as Meg, and there are various red herrings and straw men tossed blithely about.  None of the characters is really worth caring about, but the book’s pacing is certainly TV-quick-cut fast, and The Abduction will please readers ages 9-12 looking for something easy to read and not too mentally or emotionally challenging.  Whether Gordon Korman’s thin story line is worth spreading over an entire trilogy is a question yet to be answered.

     Rewind is for older readers, ages 15 and up, because it deals with the intensity of teenage love affairs and the high-school social scene.  The material is pretty standard fare – the book revolves around shy heroine Cady; Lucas, on whom she has a longstanding crush; and Hope, a friend of Cady who is beautiful and who has Lucas wrapped around her little finger (and other body parts).  What is supposed to intrigue readers here is not so much the tale as the telling: the story starts with drama at the end-of-year prom and then works backward to explore the reasons for the various confrontations – and the personalities of the people involved.  Telling a story in reverse can, in the best of hands, be spectacularly effective: Jorge Luis Borges wrote a tale that starts with a man dying and moves backward through the events leading up to his killing.  Laura Dower, though, has neither the style nor the interesting characters needed to pull off the reverse narrative effectively.  The technique keeps calling attention to itself: just as you get interested in something that seems about to happen, you move to the next chapter – that is, backwards in time – and have to try to reconnect with the narrative.  There is some skill in the writing here, but teens who know from the start how the book ends may not find the in-reverse narrative motion enough reason to keep reading and find out the solutions to mysteries that are, in the final analysis, fairly typical and fairly minor.


Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll. By Rick Coleman. Da Capo. $26.95.

Indestructible: The Unforgettable Story of a Marine Hero at the Battle of Iwo Jima. By Jack H. Lucas with D.K. Drum. Da Capo. $22.95.

     After Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath devastated New Orleans, one of the innumerable voices speaking up for the city was that of Fats Domino, the legendary singer whose whereabouts even many of his fans no longer knew.  Domino’s personal resiliency and that of his beloved home city were discussed together, and new attention was paid to the man whose debut single, “The Fat Man,” sold a million copies in 1949 and gave Domino his famous nickname (he was born Antoine Domino, Jr., his mother’s eighth and last child).  Domino was 21 when he recorded that single and is 78 now, his influence acknowledged and praised over the years by everyone from Elvis Presley to John Lennon to Bob Marley.  Surprisingly, Blue Monday is the first biography of Domino – and music critic and historian Rick Coleman has spent 20 years working on it.  That it is a labor of love therefore goes without saying.  It is densely packed with information, filled with tidbits about Domino’s life, music and legendary stamina and work ethic (he once played 79 tour dates – taking just two days off).  Domino is so unlike modern rock “stars” as to seem to be from another planet: guarding his privacy, rarely giving interviews, living in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward for years until Katrina forced him out.  Coleman not only tells his story but also tries (not altogether successfully) to place it in the larger context of America itself, taking readers back to the days of slave ships, forward to the evacuation of Domino and his family after the hurricane, and in between to many of the high and low spots of the development of rock ‘n’ roll.  Domino fans – and there are still many – will surely adore the book.  But it is worth pointing out that Domino’s amazing string of 80 hits – he outsold everyone except Elvis – occurred between 1950 and 1963.  Younger music fans, alas, may not even know who he is.

     Calling Domino a survivor is accurate, but there ought to be an even stronger word to describe Jack H. Lucas, the youngest Marine in history to earn the Medal of Honor – and the youngest soldier in any branch to win it in the 20th century.  Maybe the best word is the title of Lucas’ book: Indestructible.  After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lucas left home, lied about his age (he was 14), and joined the Marines.  Not wanting the stateside duty to which he was assigned, he stowed away on a troop ship bound for the Pacific theater – with the help of his cousin, who happened to be aboard that very ship.  Lucas eventually took part in the bloody battle of Iwo Jima, where he jumped on top of two grenades that landed among his unit’s men – saving others’ lives but ending up with a huge number of shrapnel injuries.  He was 22 pounds lighter and three-quarters of an inch shorter when he returned home, and now tells readers that “for the rest of my life I will live with grenade fragments in my brain and lungs, some pieces as big as a .22 round.”  But he did survive, and to this day believes that “God was, and is, working in my life.”  Aided by D.K. Drum, Lucas tells his story matter-of-factly but with obvious pride – and if there ever was a man who deserved admiration, Lucas is one.  Unfortunately, there have been so many “greatest generation” books, about battles and units and individuals, that Lucas’ extraordinary story and sacrifice sound like tales already told.  In a sense, they are: he did what many others did – just with a little more intensity.  And he did come home, however broken; many, many others did not.  Lucas and the other World War II survivors deserve the nation’s gratitude, but no more of it than is due to those of his comrades who would never have the chance to collaborate on a book like Indestructible.


Lehár: Schön ist die Welt.  Elena Mosuc, soprano; Zoran Todorovich, tenor; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. CPO. $16.99.

     It is hard to count Franz Lehár’s operas, because he so frequently cannibalized them and turned them into retitled works.  Thus, although Schön ist die Welt (variously translated as “How Fair the World,” “Fair Is the World,” “The World Is Lovely,” etc.) dates to 1930, and has a book and lyrics by Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Löhner, it is really a reworking of Endlich Allein (“Alone at Last”), which Lehár wrote in 1914 to a book and lyrics by A.M. Willner and Robert Bodanzky.  In Endlich Allein, an eccentric and wealthy American girl named Dolly is going to marry an impoverished and rather dim Count – until she goes mountain climbing with a guide who turns out to be a Baron in disguise, and the two fall deeply in love after an avalanche traps them on the mountainside overnight.  Dolly’s entrance song, which establishes her initially flighty character, is Schön ist die Welt.

     By 1930, Lehár had been working for several years with Richard Tauber, and decided when redoing Endlich Allein to give the song Schön ist die Welt to his favored tenor.  So the new (or semi-new) opera’s title tune, which runs like a leitmotif through all three acts, becomes a pronouncement on beauty rather than the lighthearted song of a dilettante.

     The overall plot changes mainly by eliminating the role of the Count.  In Schön ist die Welt, a Princess is pledged to a Crown Prince she has never met.  At the grand hotel where she is to meet him, she sees a young man who had helped her fix a flat tire on the road (this is one of numerous modernizations of story details).  The man – the Crown Prince in disguise – says he is a guide, and he takes the Princess up the mountain, where the avalanche and falling-in-love parts of the plot occur as before.  At the end, each realizes who the other is, and the operetta ends happily.

     But Schön ist die Welt feels like an operetta only in its first and third acts.  The central second act, most of whose music is in two lengthy through-composed sections, is one of Lehár’s most operatic productions, and was wisely carried over nearly intact from Endlich Allein.  This act makes more vocal demands of the singers than Lehár usually does; and structurally and musically, the act bears more than a passing resemblance to the second, Liebsnacht act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  Lehár is coyer than Wagner, keeping his couple chaste but yearning throughout the action.  But the music hints at what happens after the curtain falls.

     Schön ist die Welt is sadly neglected today, despite its unusually deep second act, several memorable waltzes, a delightful rumba (a brand-new dance in 1930), and two really excellent arias: the title song and the soprano’s third-act coloratura aria, Ich bin verliebt.  Elena Mosuc and Zoran Todorovich handle their roles with relish and emotional intensity on this recording, and Ulf Schirmer – who will become music director of the Munich Radio Orchestra this fall – conducts with verve and spirit.  Except for one very odd flaw, this recording ought to bring Schön ist die Welt a whole new round of popularity.

     The flaw is not in the music but in CPO’s presentation.  Usually among the best labels at producing useful booklets and libretti, CPO falls far short here.  There is not even a track list, not even a list of timings of the various segments – much less a libretto.  The single CD presents all the music of the work but none of the dialogue – an acceptable approach if listeners can at least follow what is offered.  Unless you speak moderately fluent German, you will be unable to do so here.  A synopsis does explain what is going on during each track, more or less, but it is neither accurate enough nor extensive enough to take the place of a libretto.  And how long has it been since a CD was released without a track list and track timings?

     CPO can do much better – and, in the past, invariably has.  For example, its single-CD release of Lehár’s Frühling, a one-act operetta and altogether lesser work than Schön ist die Welt, contained a complete libretto.  Hopefully this packaging is an aberration, and CPO will do better when it releases additional neglected Lehár works – of which there are many, even if they are hard to number.  For now, collectors can at least rejoice that Schön ist die Welt is available in such a beautifully sung, beautifully played and beautifully recorded edition as this.

June 01, 2006


My Senator and Me: A Dog’s-Eye View of Washington, D.C. By Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Illustrated by David Small. Scholastic. $16.99.

Up before Daybreak: Cotton and People in America. By Deborah Hopkinson. Scholastic. $18.99.

     It often helps to dress up factual books with amusing “framing stories” to make the information more interesting to young readers.  That’s the approach of My Senator and Me, which is ostensibly narrated by one of Senator Edward Kennedy’s two Portuguese water dogs, Splash (full name: Champion Amigo’s Seventh Wave – a bit hoity-toity for a “reach out to everyone” book).  Splash, it seems, helps the senator get through the day, accompanying him to work and playing with him so he gets some relaxation – and even, in one funny scene, barking at just the right time, so committee members who are arguing about two versions of a bill relax, forget their tension and come up with a suitable compromise.  David Small’s illustrations make everyone and everything in Washington look endearing – a bit far from reality, but this is, after all, a book for young readers.  Small shows the inside of Kennedy’s office, the underground train that runs from the Senate office building to the Capitol, and numerous sights of Washington: White House, Lincoln Memorial, Kennedy Center and more.  Notably absent are the extensive and intrusive security measures that have turned these once-beautiful buildings and memorials into fortresses – but, again, this is a book for young readers.  Kennedy himself, looking trimmer in these illustrations than in real life (you can compare Small’s pictures with the photo on the back cover), is of course the hero of the narrative, as he pushes successfully for an education bill.  The most endearing scenes show Kennedy and Splash playing together, but the meat of the book is in the text, explaining how daily legislative work is done.  My Senator and Me is an enjoyable story with some genuinely useful underpinnings.  Parents, whatever their political leanings, will here find Kennedy and Splash to be pleasant, intelligent guides to the lawmaking process.

     A less varnished version of the truth is Up before Daybreak, a fascinating study of “king cotton” and the people who planted, picked, spun and wove it during the 19th century and well into the 20th.  Parents expecting this to be a book about slavery will be surprised to find how equally balanced the poverty of cotton production was.  From the cover, which pictures one white child and one black one working in two parts of the cotton-growing-and-processing system, through the abundant illustrations inside this very well-written book, Deborah Hopkinson shows that cotton was a demanding master of whites and blacks alike.  The Civil War and its aftermath are only part of the story – a part in which readers will learn some unexpected things: “sharecropping,” for example, literally meant sharing one’s (usually meager) crops with the owner of the land on which they were grown.  Adults will learn, too: the expression “fair to middling,” still sometimes used today, originated in the cotton business, where “middling” was the basic grade and “fair” the best of a total of 13 grades.  The importance of cotton in the 19th century, the people who planted and harvested it, the way it was graded, sold and eventually turned into products, are all here and all carefully explained.  The eventual downfall of this onetime king, as mill towns began to shut down in both northern and southern textile centers in the 20th century, is also well explained – along with the human cost (including to children) of the changing economic scene.  As an introduction to and overview of what cotton once meant, compared with what it means today, Up before Daybreak is a fascinating, often sobering story of a crop that was key to the development of the United States.