July 27, 2006

(++++) BRITS' BITS

The Wicked History of the World. By Terry Deary and Martin Brown. Scholastic. $10.99.

The Stunning Science of Everything. By Nick Arnold and Tony De Saulles. Scholastic. $10.99.

     The British are coming – again.  But this time, Americans need no Paul Revere to warn of “one if by land, two if by sea.”  It’s two – by the book(s).  And it’s just fine to surrender to the amusement, wit and carefully researched (if frequently rather odd) facts in these two offbeat and fascinating pieces of nonfiction.

     The subtitles help set the tone.  For the history book, we get “History with the nasty bits left in!”  For science, it’s “Science with the squishy bits left in!”  Each book includes a foldout: “villains” in the history book and a timeline in the science volume.  And each is written in prose that refuses to take itself seriously – although the information is accurate and the research has clearly been careful.

     Yes, it helps to be a bit of an Anglophile to enjoy some of this, such as the history volume’s discussion of human settlement of Australia (around 30,000 B.C.): the people there “became very skilled hunters and survivors – till they were invaded in the 1700s by some simple savages from a country called Britain.”  The “British to American Glossary” included in each volume helps, although it is scarcely complete: it includes “bloke = guy” but does not explain “nicked” (stolen).

     Yet there is so much offbeat charm in these highly unusual books of facts that any slight vocabulary issues are minor indeed.  The history volume includes “pharaoh phoul phacts” about ancient Egypt, such as the death of Hor-Aha (he was eaten by a hippopotamus) and the way Rameses II’s nose was kept in shape after he died and was mummified (it was stuffed with peppercorns).  Egyptian-style art illustrates these pieces of information – and dragons illustrate facts about the Orient, and there is what looks like a war handbook to explain the rules of battle.  There is a cutaway view of a castle (called “Cutter Whey Castle,” of course), which includes 10 things that would not be around in 1450 – an amusing “find the mistakes” game.  There are facts about health practices that will make you squirm, and torture intended to make people squirm.  There’s a how-to about Aztec human sacrifices, in which a modern cartoon docent demonstrates the gory techniques.  Slavery and slums (including slum cooking), murders and massacres – they are all here.  This book is not for the faint of heart (or stomach) – but it is highly unusual and ghoulishly informative.

     The science book has some ghastly stuff in it, too, such as a “gruesome garden” that contains, among other plants, the South American strangler fig, which “strangles trees and steals water from their roots.  Its victims die very slowly.”  But this book is more about grossness than mayhem.  Regarding methane, for example: “If you had a dinosaur-sized bottom problem you could convert your toilet into a gas cooker.”  Regarding bugs: a male Australian red-back spider does “a lovely somersault – straight into the female’s mouth so she can eat him!”  Regarding animals: the Brazilian hoatzin bird “spends its time eating and burping to get rid of the gas the bacteria [in its stomach] make.”  Also on animals: “secret diary” entries of a naked mole rat, an echidna, and a hog-nosed snake.  The solar system, water cycle, volcanism and human digestion have never before been presented this way.  It’s all weird and all fascinating – every bit of it.


Baby Read-Aloud Basics. By Caroline J. Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez. AMACOM. $15.

     Go to any bookstore, head for the children’s-book section, and prepare to be overwhelmed – especially if you are a first-time parent.  Doctors, educators and parents themselves believe that reading to children, including the youngest babies, can be important developmentally and a gateway to lifelong interest in words and, more generally, in communicating.  Partly for this reason, there has in recent years been such a proliferation of books aimed at young children that reviewers cannot keep up with them all, and time-pressed parents can be forgiven for having not the slightest idea of how to choose one book over another.

     Now, though, there is help: Baby Read-Aloud Basics.  The authors, both certified Reading Recovery teachers, include everything from developmental information, to suggestions on the best settings for reading, to a series of mini-reviews of recommended books for various ages.  For example, they label the eight-to-12-month baby “the babbler,” note that he or she knows about 50 words and can make most speech sounds, and recommend books that invite the child to repeat words or phrases; have flaps and noise buttons; and illustrate action words, such as running or jumping.  As for how to read, Caroline J. Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez emphasize a quiet environment, a comforting and rhythmic voice, holding and cuddling while reading, and being prepared to read the same book again and again and again.

     Some of their suggestions are simply common sense – but parents, especially first-time ones, have only so much common sense left for reading when there are so many other baby-oriented activities to do every day.  And even experienced parents may benefit from a refresher course in the basics of making book time enjoyable as well as educational and developmentally significant for babies.  Not all readers will need to be told the benefits of reading for babies: increasing vocabulary, helping accelerate the understanding of words, stimulating the imagination, creating a bonding experience, helping instill a love of books and learning.  Nor will parents necessarily be interested in yet another condemnation of television by comparing it with books (TV is antisocial, while books create a reader-listener bond; TV enforces a fast pace, while reading’s pace is controlled by reader and listener; etc.).  And some of the authors’ statements are overly argumentative and overly broad, as when they say that TV can encourage attention-deficit disorder, while reading can help prevent it.

     The value of this book is not in its global statements but in its specific ones.  Blakemore and Ramirez have excellent ideas for choosing children’s books: select from a variety of genres; be sure you enjoy the book; limit the number of gimmicky books in favor of ones that rely on your voice; look carefully at illustrations to be sure they have enough variety to keep your baby’s attention; and so on.  They even offer “demonstrations” showing how reading can work between parents and babies of various ages – though these should be seen only as very general guidelines, not road maps for your personal interactions with your child.  As for the authors’ specific book recommendations: all are solid, and all involve books that should be easy to find at your local library, so you can see where the authors’ views are in accord with your own and where they differ.  The big idea here – and the thing that Blakemore and Ramirez get exactly right – is that it is never too soon to start reading to and with your baby, and that the sooner you start baby’s interaction with books, the sooner you start an appreciation that will literally last a lifetime.


Alexander’s Tomb: The Two Thousand Year Obsession to Find the Lost Conqueror. By Nicholas J. Saunders. Basic Books. $26.

     Alexander III of Macedon, known to one and all as Alexander the Great, conquered pretty much everything he laid eyes on, which included pretty much all of the known world in his general vicinity – and some distance beyond.  He then died at the age of 32 – and undertook, after death, a series of further odysseys as his body was buried, moved, reburied, moved again, and eventually lost altogether.

     Where is it now?  No one knows – but that is not really the point of British anthropologist Nicholas J. Saunders’ book, despite the work’s title.  Saunders is more interested in a discursive look at numerous things Alexandrian or inspired by Alexander than he is in chronicling the search for the conqueror’s tomb.  Not everything here is equally interesting, but some elements are fascinating.  The oft-told tale of the depravities of the Roman emperor Caligula, who styled himself a second Alexander, gains little from being told yet again; nor do the Alexandrian ambitions of Napoleon lend more than a veneer of relevance to the tale of his defeat in the Battle of the Nile.

     But the likely destruction of one of Alexander’s tombs by Christians in the year 391 C.E., and the possible smuggling away of the conqueror’s body before the tomb’s defilement, is a fascinating tale, as is the whole interrelationship between early Christianity and the worship or near-worship of Alexander, who styled himself a god.  The wearing of Alexander amulets by early Christians is a little-known story that is worth telling, and is told well here.  And it is intriguing to contemplate that the carving of Mount Rushmore was anticipated by those who wanted to carve Mount Athos in Greece into Alexander’s likeness – a project that the conqueror himself decided not to pursue.  Also fascinating is the tale of Cassander, a man whom Alexander treated with contempt – who was eventually responsible for arranging the death by stoning of Alexander’s mother; the murders of Alexander’s wife and child; the killing of Alexander’s Persian mistress and her child by the conqueror; and perhaps the murder of Alexander’s sister, too.  Here is a virtually unknown historical figure whose infamous acts – albeit not out of keeping with the barbarism of the Wars of the Successors after Alexander’s death – essentially wiped out the Alexandrian bloodline.

     Archeologists from ancient times until now have searched for Alexander’s final resting place; so have Egyptian pharaohs and Christian emperors.  No one has found it, and some theories of its location border on the outlandish (which does not mean they cannot be true) – for example, the possibility that Alexander’s mummified remains were mistaken for those of St. Mark and are now buried beneath St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

     Because Saunders’ book is so wide-ranging, and offers no solution to the obsessive quest that its title heralds, it is a work more for armchair historians than for armchair detectives.  The writing is breezy, though sometimes name-heavy.  What is a bit surprising is that Saunders gives short shrift to the notion that there does exist a well-known tomb of Alexander, at least metaphorically speaking: the city of Alexandria, producer of great scholars, major New Testament manuscripts, one of the wonders of the ancient world (the Pharos or lighthouse), and to this day perhaps the greatest bastion of toleration and informed inquiry in the Middle East.  Alexander is known to have been buried in his namesake city not once but twice.  Perhaps that is where his spirit remains.

(+++) GAMING

Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Game Criticism. By Ian Bogost. MIT Press. $35.

     More than half a century ago, the brilliant parodist of classical music, Anna Russell, noted that discussions of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle were frequently presented “by great experts for the edification of other great experts.”

     One has somewhat the same feeling about Unit Operations, in which Ian Bogost – assistant professor of literature, communication, and culture at Georgia Institute of Technology – presents a learned, carefully argued study of the principles of video games and how they relate to the principles of literary theory…in language designed to be inaccessible to all but the cognoscenti.

     Thus, he writes that “the relational meaning between the two games Pong and Tank, for example, as person-to-person combat simulators, aggression-release devices, or pub traffic generators, is materially bound to the common logical structure of the works themselves.”  And he states, “’Ludology vs. Narratology’ may be a nice shorthand for the tension between rule-based systems and story-based systems…  Ludology has been characterized by its coverage of the unique features of games, and narratology in the traditional sense of the word is the study of narratives across media, including oral and written language, gestures, and music.  Interestingly, this variety of narratology is much more similar to ludology than its detractors may acknowledge.”

     Bogost’s entire book is written this way; it is clearly of the academy, by the academy and for the academy.  And this is a bit of a shame, because the world of video games – and their relationship to other forms of entertainment and learning in the modern world – cries out for criticism that can bring the abstruse language of computers and the equally abstruse language of literary criticism into the same arena, and preferably down to earth.  Bogost has no interest in doing this.  He does, however, have an interesting central idea: any medium, he says, consists of interlocking units of meaning, and in this sense all media have analogous construction and all can be discussed using analogous terminology.

     This is intriguing, but Bogost does not pursue the thought into the everyday realm, where he appears not to be comfortable.  His highly technical analyses of everything from the philosophies of Plato and McLuhan to the early games Pong and Half-Life to the more recent Grand Theft Auto series to Joyce’s Ulysses are undermined rather than elucidated by his consistent choice of language whose meaning can be extricated only with difficulty: “The truly componentized, unit-operational game engines of modern games only further accentuate this merger of functionalism and materialism.”  Bogost is far from unique in his preference for academic style over writing that communicates more clearly: his concern lies at a theoretical level where he seeks to win over other theorists, not everyday readers.  But as video games become even more prevalent in everyday life, it will become that much more important to develop a critical theory encompassing them and other forms of communication-cum-entertainment (such as books and films) in language that clarifies rather than obfuscates.  Bogost’s thinking is far clearer than his expression.


Roy Harris: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (“Folk Song Symphony”). Marin Alsop conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Naxos. $8.99.

     Marin Alsop, who will assume the post of music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra later this year, has a special affinity for American music – and is especially effective when conducting episodic works that allow her to bring out details without needing to focus on a grand overview of the music or its monumental sweep.  This CD is therefore doubly successful: it plays to both areas of Alsop’s strength.

     Roy Harris’ symphonies are not especially well known, perhaps in part because their history and numbering are confusing.  He completed 13 orchestral works that he called symphonies, even though some (such as No. 4) are not really symphonies at all, and others (such as No. 3) are single-movement works.  Harris also gave the name “symphony” to some works that are not for orchestra, and to some works that he did not complete – about 18 in all.  This CD is intended as the first in a series of all 13 of his numbered orchestral works designated as symphonies.

     Heard simply on its own, the CD is impressive.  Symphony No. 3 shows Harris with a distinct style, despite the fact that numerous elements of the work reflect the music of other composers: hymnlike sections sound a bit like Ives, some rhythmic angularities are reminiscent of Copland, and a lengthy central section that features quietly scurrying strings and occasional brass outbursts resembles the music of Sibelius.  Still, the symphony, written in 1938, does not come across as imitative: the various elements are integrated into a cohesive whole.  Alsop’s conducting makes the work somewhat episodic, but no less effective for all that.

     Symphony No. 4 was written one year later and is really a fantasia for mixed chorus and orchestra.  It has seven movements, of which only two short interludes are for instruments alone.  In fact, the orchestral introduction to the fifth movement, “Negro Fantasy,” is longer than either of the two interludes.  This “Folk Song Symphony” uses various American tunes in a mostly downbeat fashion.  The “Negro Fantasy” movement, the second-longest, is funereal until the very end, and the longest movement of all, “Western Cowboy,” offers a bleak orchestral accompaniment to two songs about death on the American frontier.  These two movements together represent half the symphony’s length.  The orchestral interludes are brighter, but the remaining vocal movements are also on the dark side – except for the finale, which is based on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and which comes as something of a shock with its resolute triumphalism.  Alsop treats each movement as a miniature, not attempting to provide any sort of overarching shape to the work – a task that would, in any case, be difficult.  The Colorado Symphony Chorus sings sweetly and clearly, and the orchestra is quiescent and spirited at the appropriate times.  These symphonies do not in themselves establish Harris as a major American composer, but they show strong workmanship and a clear personal style that accepts various influences and transforms them.  And Alsop proves herself a strong advocate of the music.

July 20, 2006


What Would Wally Do? A Dilbert Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

     Here’s a book whose title question is easily answered.  The answer is: as little as possible.  That’s the way of life for Wally, the dumpy engineer with glasses and six hairs (three at each side of his head) who at one point asks Dilbert, “Would you say I’m kind of a Renaissance loser?”

     Well, he is: “You have no pride and no ambition,” says the ever-ambitious, ever-frustrated Alice.  But Wally is not just a loser.  He’s actually one of Scott Adams’ more intriguing characters – based, as Adams explains in the introduction to this large-size “Treasury” volume, on someone with whom the cartoonist once worked.  If everyone in the Dilbert strip is dysfunctional except Dogbert – as Dogbert himself once proclaimed – Wally would seem to be the most dysfunctional character of all.  He does nothing, gets nowhere, has no friends and not even the semblance of a social life, and is always one step away from being fired.

     But that’s Wally’s peculiar genius.  He stays one step away from disaster.  At one point, Catbert, the diabolical feline director of human resources at Dilbert’s company, says he has mapped Wally’s genome: “Your genes predict that you will be a bitter, lazy, Caucasian guy with six hairs and poor vision.”  And so Wally is.  But Wally has an answer for everything, including that description: he becomes outraged, then falls asleep.  As Gertrude Stein once said in an entirely different context, there’s no there there.

     Yet Wally does have power, in his own way.  When the Pointy Haired Boss hires Rasputin as a consultant because of his charisma, and Rasputin tries the Evil Eye on Wally, it is Rasputin who chokes – because, as Dilbert remarks to Wally, “Your anti-charisma is strong today.”

     And that’s what is much in evidence in this book: Wally’s anti-charisma.  Wally’s work non-ethic makes a weird kind of sense in the Kafkaesque environment of Adams’ strip.  Dilbert deliberately does a shoddy job on an unnecessary project so he can get to lunch on time, saying as he eats, “Today I traded my work ethic for a banana.”  Wally responds, “I ate that banana years ago.”  It makes no sense at all, and a weird kind of sense at the same time.

     The same could be said of the arrangement of strips in this book.  Because Wally is the focus, many single strips here are taken out of context from multi-strip sequences, making them less than intelligible (not that Wally would mind).  Occasionally, the layout is simply bizarre: Wally’s coccyx-removal scheme, on page 178, is set up on page 203; his escaped-felon ploy is on page 180, but the setup is on page 206; and on page 110, three strips from a series about the Queen Bee of Marketing are reprinted in reverse order (the sequence’s finale, which did not involve Wally, is not included at all).

     Like most Andrews McMeel “Treasury” books, this one contains almost nothing new: just a few previously uncollected strips, plus color in the Sunday panels – which adds little to Dilbert and is not much reason to buy the book.  But this 27th Dilbert collection has an unusually strong focus on a single, even-weirder-than-the-rest element of Adams’ strip, and that is a reason to buy it.


The Prophecy. By Hilari Bell. HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Wizard Test. By Hilari Bell. Eos/HarperCollins. $5.99.

Grail Quest #2: Morgain’s Revenge. By Laura Anne Gilman. Parachute/HarperCollins. $10.99.

     By the time they get to be age 10 or older – that is, by the time they reach the target age range for these books – most young readers will know the basic elements of fantasy: a hero or heroine, a quest journey, magic, an unblinkingly evil nemesis, some coming-of-age and finding-yourself elements, and so on.  Writers in this genre, for this age group, can take the easy way out by mixing and scrambling all these elements and creating a passable piece of entertainment.  Or they can do more than is usual – as does Hilari Bell.

     Bell’s latest book, The Prophecy, is funny enough, fast-paced enough, and fantastic enough to interest young readers who usually have only a mild liking for swords and sorcery.  It’s the story of Prince Perryn, a book-loving scholar who cannot manage to get the hang of weaponry and cannot rely much on magic, either, since it seems to be disappearing.  The prophecy of the title tells Perryn how to kill a dragon that the attacking Norsemen have bound to their will.  But the prophecy relies, as all such things seem to, on the very magic that is leaving the world.  And it requires Perryn to find a unicorn, a true bard and a singing sword.  This could be a recipe for comedy or tragedy, but Bell chooses to use elements of both: the threat to Perryn’s homeland is real, his drunken father cannot stop it, and the dragon is scary enough; but the sword, when Perryn eventually unearths it (that’s a clue), is a character of high comedy, and there is plenty of lightness to leaven many of the proceedings.  On balance, though, The Prophecy tells a serious story – the usual one of coming of age, but with enough twists and turns to make it unusually enjoyable.  Perryn’s eventual emergence as a blend of king and scholar will surprise few readers, but the adventures through which he reaches his goal – including a very harrowing final confrontation with the dragon – contain surprises aplenty.

     Bell’s previous book, The Wizard Test – now available in paperback – includes less balancing of serious and amusing elements; it is an altogether darker story.  The hero here, Dayven, is a born wizard who unwillingly proves himself through the test of the title.  Then, after he learns of his unwanted magical ability, he finds that a more important test is only beginning, for dangerous political intrigue may force him to do what he knows he must not: alter people’s true destinies.  Early in the book, Dayven must break one oath to fulfill another, and another character tells him, “I understand that you had to make a choice.  And your choice was right.  But it shouldn’t be like that, Dayven.  You shouldn’t have to choose between oaths.”  Yet Dayven must choose between oaths, and between loyalties, throughout the book, in order to pass the greater test whose nature becomes clear only at the end of the story.  Readers will not be surprised that he does pass – but the cost of his success is one that sensitive readers will find themselves thinking about seriously.

     It is harder to take Laura Anne Gilman’s Grail Quest series seriously.  The work is formulaic, using the same basic elements used by Hilari Bell but presenting them in a much more standardized way.  The second book of the series, Morgain’s Revenge, is well enough written to earn a (+++) rating, but is scarcely a must-read.  Anyone who does not know Grail Quest #1: The Camelot Spell will have some trouble making sense of the characters and motivations here, although knowledge of the legends of King Arthur certainly would help, since Grail Quest is a version of them.  In a sense, the Grail Quest title is a misnomer, since the quest never happens – the first and second books are both about ways it is delayed.  The delays are caused by the machinations of Morgain le Fay (in other Arthurian books, usually called Morgan le Fey), who uses magic and kidnapping and other nefarious doings to interfere with King Arthur’s knights.  To target the book at young readers, Gilman makes most of the story turn not on highborn derring-do and chivalry but on the adventures of Camelot’s servants.  Three of them – Gerard, Newt and Ailis – bear the brunt of the action and the brunt of Morgain’s anger here, while the knights plan their important and glorious quest and end up going not much of anywhere.  The setup for Grail Quest #3 is quite clear: an ending featuring a character saying “something’s wrong” makes it plain how the next volume will begin.


The Random House Dinosaur Travel Guide. By Kelly Milner Halls. Random House. $10.99.

Hit the Road. By Caroline B. Cooney. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     Real or fictional travel – take your pick of weirdness.  If you prefer the real world, or a semblance thereof, try The Random House Dinosaur Travel Guide to find out about more than 300 American and Canadian dinosaur-related places to go.  This is strictly a real-dinosaur guide – one of its flaws is that it takes the subject so seriously, not even including a chapter on kitschy dino theme parks and such.  But if you are serious about the planet-dominating animals that died out 65 million years ago, you can find someplace to go to further your interest in any of the 50 states – plus the District of Columbia and seven Canadian provinces.  Most states and provinces are large, so you cannot simply hop, skip and jump from one attraction to another.  But if you’re driving with an eye to dinosaur exploration, you’ll likely find something within a couple of hours of wherever you happen to be.

     Some of these sites are no surprise: Colorado, for example, is rich in dinosaur attractions (such as the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and Dinosaur Trails of Purgatoire Valley in La Junta).  But how many amateur dino devotees know about the attractions of the Natural Stone Bridge and Caves in Pottersville, New York; Mastodon State Historic Site in Imperial, Missouri; Honolulu Community College; or the Hartman Prehistoric Garden in Austin, Texas?  Kelly Milner Halls has done a fine job of collecting information on places to go, including addresses, phone numbers and Web sites.  She presents everything matter-of-factly, without suggesting specific locations that are more worthy of a family’s travel time than others, so you’ll have to do some research on your own before using this book as a guide.  But once you hit the road, you’ll find Halls quite helpful – and her back-of-book dinosaur shopping information is a nice bonus.

     Speaking of hitting the road, Hit the Road is an entertaining fictional road trip featuring a 16-year-old driver who finds herself at the center of her determined grandmother’s plan to get together with old college roommates for what may be their final reunion.  Caroline B. Cooney is not sure whether she wants the book to be a romp or a sentimental journey, so she includes elements of both.  The central character is Brit, who has had her driver’s license for just 11 days when the whole Nannie weirdness starts.  Brit has a tendency to talk breathlessly – and to regress as she spends more time with Nannie’s generation: “’Gosh!’ said Brit, who had not said ‘gosh’ since third grade.  ‘I can’t wait to talk to him.  It’s been ages!’  She was terrified.”  Brit is initially reluctant to go along with Nannie’s adventurous plans, but she gradually warms up to them and to Nannie’s frail, elderly friends.  The generation gap – actually a two-generation gap – remains, but it takes on an endearing quality: “Brit was exhausted by the eighty-six-year-old-ness of the girls.  The way they changed their topics – and the topics they changed to!  Yes, she’d studied King Lear and hated every line of it.  It was hard to understand and ugly when you did.  How come they never read stuff where everybody lived happily ever after?”  Well, here’s a book where everybody does live happily, more or less – if not ever after, at least for a while.  It will be a little on the sweet side for some readers ages 12 and up – its intended audience – but should give others, especially those with living grandparents, a whole new way to look at aging.


Emily Rodda’s Raven Hill Mysteries #5: Dirty Tricks. By Emily Rodda and Kate Rowe. Scholastic. $4.99.

Guardians of Ga’Hoole, Book 10: The Coming of Hoole. By Kathryn Lasky. Scholastic. $4.99.

Call Me María. By Judith Ortiz Cofer. Scholastic. $6.99.

     There are so many mysteries to solve, in this world and others, real and imagined, that a young reader has but to choose the type of mystery he or she wants to encounter, and there will be a book, or a series of books, on that very topic.  Fans of traditional mysteries – taking place in what passes for the real world, in the traditional “what’s going on and why?” format – will enjoy the fifth Ravel Hill Mysteries book, which has mundane settings: school and the library.  It seems there is a phantom of some sort at large in the Raven Hill Library, and it is playing some nasty tricks on Richelle and her five friends.  The tricks are getting more dangerous, too, and there is a real risk that the library will be destroyed if the young detectives do not find out who (or what) is behind the mystery.  It turns out that there are surprises within surprises, involving the librarian herself, and reading, and professional jealousy – but of course, everything turns out just fine.

     Things are not quite as neatly tied up in The Coming of Hoole, the 10th but by no means the last book in Kathryn Lasky’s long-running series about people and owls and wolves and magic and more.  This is the sort of mystery that turns on a prophecy whose meaning is unclear.  It takes place in a mythical land where only the humans (or human-like characters, to be precise) resemble the reader.  It is, in short, a fantasy, and one that Lasky has been spinning for quite some time, ever since the first Ga’Hoole book, The Capture.  This is probably not the right book for newcomers to the series to read first, since it draws on so much that has gone before.  But it is possible to figure out what is happening here, thanks to a scene-setting Prologue.  The focus of this book is the second of three ancient legends, this one speaking in large part of wolves and owls.  The Ga’Hoole books have their own vocabulary: “This particular kind of howling was called glaffing.”  “It was Dunmore MacDuncan, a young but very intelligent wolf who was just a pup when they had left the Always Cold and begun their journey to the Beyond.”  The humanizing of wolves and owls is effectively done, even if the mystery of this book’s prophecy leads at the end only to the conclusion that there are more mysteries to come.

     The greatest mystery of all, of course, lies within each of us, and it is that mystery that Judith Ortiz Cofer approaches in Call Me María.  Subtitled “A Novel in Letters, Poems, and Prose,” this is the tale of a Puerto Rican girl now living with her father in the New York barrio – separated from her mother, who remains on the island.  María is not used to the cold concrete of the city, or the cold of its winters, but here she is and here she must stay, looking forward to the coming of spring – a metaphor here, as it often is, for the awakening of one’s inner self.  María finds herself through poetry, such as this excerpt from a poem about her friend, Whoopee: “She does not see her own beauty./ She performs for us. She gives us herself/ as a clown. This is her gift and her secret/ sadness. Whoopee does not know/ her beauty.”  The constant inward focus of this short novel makes it seem longer than it is – it does tend to drag at times – but the book is certainly heartfelt, and in seeking to plumb the inner mysteries of being oneself, it has a depth that other kinds of mystery stories usually lack.


Mozart: Concerto (Pasticcio) for Harpsichord and Orchestra, K40; Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra, K246 (Lützow); Concerto for Fortepiano and Strings, K107/1. Wolfgang Brunner, harpsichord and fortepiano, and conducting Salzburger Hofmusik. Profil. $16.99.

Dowland: Lute Music, Volume 1. Nigel North, lute. Naxos. $8.99.

     The 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth has led to the rethinking of performances of some of his works (and to the over-performance of others).  Wolfgang Brunner and the original-instrument players of Salzburger Hofmusik here offer unusual – and quite authentic-sounding – versions of some very early Mozart keyboard works.  The intimate feeling of these performances (recorded in 1998 but fitting right into the current Mozart mania) seems right in line with court life in Mozart’s time, and it is surprisingly easy to imagine the boy genius playing these pieces with a sound much like the one here.

     Mozart’s first seven piano concertos are actually arrangements of works by other composers, and are therefore collectively called Pasticcio (pastiches).  K40 is based on music by Honauer, Eckart and C.P.E. Bach.  Even in this youthful work – Mozart was 11 when he wrote it – there is a prefiguring of later Mozart here and there; but in the main, both this and the roughly contemporaneous K107/1 are merely delightful parlor music, played here with great verve, spirit and authenticity.  These works would almost certainly have been played on the harpsichord, as they are here – and because of their small scale, they sound just right on it.  K246, known as the “Lützow Concerto” in honor of the noblewoman for whom it was written, is played here on the fortepiano rather than the harpsichord, leading to a more ordinary but still interesting listening experience.  It is unknown which keyboard instrument Mozart had in mind for this work, but he did play it as a piano concerto himself years after composing it, so it is sensible to use the fortepiano, as Brunner does here.  The one oddity of this performance is that the “Lützow” includes a written-out basso continuo part – something Mozart almost never provided – but Brunner chooses to extemporize instead.  That is in keeping with 18th-century performance practice, but it would have been nice to hear what Mozart wrote down.  It would also have been nice to hear more music – the CD runs only 51 minutes and could easily have included two more Pasticcio concertos.  Still, it is a great pleasure to hear what there is.

     The pleasures of John Dowland’s music are of a different sort and from a much earlier time – 200 years before Mozart’s.  Dowland (1563-1626) was an almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616), and since Dowland wrote for the theater and Shakespeare included music and songs in his plays, listening to Dowland’s work is very much like an aural journey to Shakespeare’s time (though it is not known if any Dowland pieces were actually performed within Shakespeare productions).  Lutenist Nigel North plays more than an hour of music – about one-fifth of Dowland’s surviving oeuvre – on this new Naxos CD.  North, a prominent exponent of the lute who is largely self-taught, handles this notoriously difficult instrument (which has neither a standardized number of strings nor a standardized tuning pattern) with great sensitivity, producing nuanced performances of considerable beauty.  All eight of Dowland’s “fancies” or “fantasies” are included here – works following no specific musical pattern and therefore offering the musician more opportunities for self-expression than usual. North’s lute playing is very expressive indeed, whether in dance movements (almain, galliard, jig) or in quieter or more deeply felt works, such as “A Dream,” “Orlando Sleepeth” and fantasies 3 and 4.  These works were never intended to be heard at great length, and this CD is better listened to in small sections than as a whole.  There is beauty in every section, in every piece of these tunes of very long ago.

July 13, 2006


A Hat Full of Sky. By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins. $16.99.

     There is so much wonder in this world – and that world, and the other one, and the one over there – that no single book can possibly contain it all.  And there is so much to write about that no single author can possibly produce all the necessary words – never mind the unnecessary ones that, when added to the necessaries, give us what we call “an author’s style.”

     And yet there is Terry Pratchett, and there is Discworld.  Pratchett’s Discworld tales currently run to 30-something volumes, and as far as we know, there is only one of him (intelligence on this subject being mixed, as intelligence usually is).  What is unalloyed is the pleasure of reading anything Pratchett writes – even when, as in his two books about the Wee Free Men (of which this is the second), he is writing for children…which means he is far more serious than when writing for adults.

     Pratchett’s books are not so much wonderful as they are wonderfull, which is to say, full of wonders.  He could have called this book A Hatful of Sky, but the actual title is far more Pratchettian.  It implies a hat filled to the brim, and possibly overflowing, with sky, and if that seems impossible, it is only the first of a myriad of impossibilities that Pratchett makes you wish were possible even though it is probably just as well that they aren’t.

     Pratchett is a master of creating layers within layers.  Consider the Wee Free Men, who are a focus of this book (and its predecessor, which is simply called The Wee Free Men).  Known as Pictsies, they are drunken, nasty former fairies who were apparently thrown out of the kingdom for being drunken and nasty and fighting all the time.  As a result, they think Discworld is a sort of Valhalla, and they must have died (from fighting) and gone to it.  If they die on Discworld, they assume they return, unhappily, to the land of the living, wherever that is.  Oh: and they paint and tattoo themselves blue.

     Now, all this is amusing enough, but it is even more so if you peel away the layers – as with an onion, except that Pratchett’s tend only to produce tears of laughter.  “Pictsies” is not only a pun on “pixies,” which is more or less what these wee folk are, but is also a pun on Picts, the highly warlike ancient British people who used – yes – blue dye as war paint and for decoration.

     Or consider the 11-year-old witch, who is already using her powers but does not understand them and has to leave home to learn how to use them.  Her name is Tiffany Aching – one of Pratchett’s wonderful combinatorial names (other examples here include Abiding Swindell and Dimity Hubbub).  “Tiffany Aching” offers a hint of something elegant merged with a hint of strong desire.  Perhaps that desire is for understanding her powers, or perhaps it is for something else, as Pratchett suggests in his inimitable style after Roland, a 13-year-old nobleman rescued by Tiffany and her frying pan in the earlier book (read it!), says good-bye to her and gives her a wrapped gift: “Admittedly—and it took some admitting—he was a lot less of a twit than he had been.  On the other hand, there had been such a lot of twit to begin with.”

     A Hat Full of Sky is a coming-of-age tale – a time-honored type of story never honored quite the way Pratchett honors (or dishonors) it.  There are, as always, more plot twists and turns than there are twists and turns in the roads Tiffany follows on the way to her eventual destination – which is back home, in case you wondered.  J.R.R. Tolkien had Bilbo Baggins write a memoir called There and Back Again about his adventures away from the Shire.  Think of A Hat Full of Sky as Tiffany’s version of that memoir and you won’t be far wrong.  But you’ll be far enough wrong to miss the point completely.  The wonders of Tolkien’s world have occasional parallels in Pratchett’s, but the worlds are ultimately different not only in character but also in kind.  And yet they are, Middle-Earth and Discworld both, simply (or not so simply) our very own everyday world…which will seem much less our own, and much less everyday, after you are finished being thoroughly delighted by A Hat Full of Sky.

(+++) BEACHED!

Junie B., First Grader: Aloha-ha-ha! By Barbara Park. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. Random House. $11.95.

Where Did Daddy’s Hair Go? By Joe O’Connor. Illustrated by Henry Payne. Random House. $14.95.

     Ah, beach season.  The things you can do!  You can get in trouble, take bad pictures, make a lot of noise, get a bird caught in your hair – and if that’s not what you do at the beach, that proves only that you are not Junie B. Jones.  The irrepressible (and, in her latest book, irrepressibly loud) first-grader heads to Hawaii in Aloha-ha-ha!  This 26th Junie B. adventure revolves around the camera that Mr. Scary gives Junie so she can take vacation photos.  It’s a film camera, which makes things difficult for Junie when she just can’t seem to get good pictures of anything, including herself.  You might expect the camera to be a digital one, now that digitals are increasingly common, very inexpensive and highly useful for discarding bad photos so no one but you ever sees them.  But that would defeat Barbara Park’s purpose here, and would deprive Denise Brunkus of the chance to display a whole gallery of photos, from the ridiculous to the sort-of-cute, at the end of the book.  The story is filled with typical Junie B. misadventures, but the heroine is a bit shriller and more irritating this time than she usually is.  She is also more preoccupied with yelling “911” whenever something goes wrong.  She gets stuck in a parrot-shaped pool float and yells, in capital letters, “I’M STUCK IN MY PARROT! 911! I’M STUCK IN MY PARROT!”  She sees an eel while swimming in the ocean and yells, “AN EEL! AN EEL! I SPOTTED AN EEL! 911! 911!!”  A bird gets too close for comfort, and she yells, “BIRD! BIRD! 911! 911! BIRD! BIRD! BIRD!”  A little of this goes a long way, but Park provides a lot of it – and although everything ends happily, as it always does for Junie B., the first-grader is a bit less endearing here than in most of her books.

     The Junie B. stories are for ages 7-10, while Where Did Daddy’s Hair Go? is for ages 5-8, but Joe O’Connor’s young hero, Jeremiah Jensen, has more wide-eyed charm around his home than Junie B. has while visiting Hawaii.  Jeremiah hears someone call his father “Baldy,” and starts wondering why his dad doesn’t have much hair – and where the hair went.  Later, he hears his father saying something about losing his hair, so Jeremiah starts a search for the missing follicles – through closets, cupboards, drawers, bathtub, garage, even the toilet.  He looks inside the house and outside, with no luck, and then starts wondering if other things also lose their hair – leading to a series of off-kilter imaginings.  Some of this gets a little too cute for its own good: O’Connor, who is bald, is obviously celebrating his condition, while illustrator Henry Payne, who has plenty of hair, revels in pictures showing Jeremiah imagining what his dad would look like with hair.  The book gets a touch message-heavy when Jeremiah asks how his father felt about losing his hair, and his dad replies, “It’s who you are on the inside that really counts.”  But then the family goes to the beach – that place where everyone sees more of everyone else than is, strictly speaking, really necessary – and Jeremiah for the first time notices how different people look in terms of shape, weight, color and, yes, hair.  So he decides that he doesn’t have to search for his dad’s hair anymore, because his father is perfect as is – a pleasant conclusion to a pleasantly amusing book.


Ulysses Moore #2: The Long-Lost Map. By Pierdomenico Baccalario.  Illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. Translated by Leah Janeczko. Scholastic. $12.99.

Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods: Book Three in the Underland Chronicles. By Suzanne Collins. Scholastic. $5.99.

     Sometimes adults want a book purely for escapism.  Younger readers do, too – and in fact, summertime seems a particularly hospitable season for literature without grand implications.  Either of these reasonably lightweight books will be a fine warm-weather reading experience – and because both are parts of series, you can get others of the same type if you really enjoy these.

     The Long-Lost Map is the lighter of the two books.  Originally written in Italian as La Bottega delle Mappe Dimenticate – a somewhat more evocative title than it has in English – this second Ulysses Moore adventure continues a story that has clear echoes of The Narnia Chronicles, at least in terms of how modern young people are transported to somewhere outlandish.  The protagonists are 11-year-old twins Jason and Julia, and their friend, Rick.  All walk through a magical door – okay, not a wardrobe, but it’s the same general idea – in an old English mansion, and find themselves…in ancient Egypt.  Why there?  No special reason – this series does not bear too-close examination.  In this second entry, the boys become separated from Julia and then meet an Egyptian girl, with whom they go on a quest for the map of the title, which shows a place called Kilmore Cove.  The dialogue, as translated into English, is of this type: “’This is crazy!’ Rick suddenly exclaimed, holding his head in his hands and shouting to the sky.  He looked at his friends. ‘IT’S INSANE!’ ‘Well, okaaay,’ Jason replied. ‘Thanks for sharing, Rick.’”  Take none of this seriously, and realize that it is an adventure aimed squarely at preteens – around the age of the central characters – and you’ll have a book that tries to accomplish little beyond entertainment, and does a nice job within its limited scope.

     The Underland Chronicles are deeper in intent and more serious in approach.  The fourth book, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, recently came out in hardcover, while the third, Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, is now available in paperback.  Readers unfamiliar with the underground world where most of the action takes place may have a little trouble acclimating to it if this third book marks their first encounter with Suzanne Collins’ series.  Once you figure out who the good guys and bad guys are, though – and it’s not really too hard – you will quickly get wrapped up in this story of the boy, Gregor, and the rats (and other creatures) in whose subterranean city he has his adventures.  There are dark doings afoot here, as in the first two books of the series, and this time both Gregor and his mother have traveled to Underland to track down the latest curse that it seems to be Gregor’s destiny to defeat.  Some of this story has resonance precisely because of what happened in the earlier books: when one character says, “you did not kill the Bane,” the reference is to the second book, Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane.  But the main element of interest here is Gregor as reluctant hero: “The whole time he was down here all he ever wanted to do was get home to his family in one piece.”  And Gregor does get back home, to what the Underlanders call Overland, after averting (or at least postponing) a war – but all is not well when he returns, and the book ends as he is about to recruit another Overlander to help in his next adventure.  Young readers who like this book will want to read that one, too – and the first two volumes as well, to get all the background and understand all the characters better.


Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Edited By Justine Larbalestier. Wesleyan University Press. $24.95.

     Justine Larbalestier may have a great future as an anthologist – more so than as a writer.  Her previous book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, was an over-academic, shrill and polarizing work that discussed SF mainly in passing.  Daughters of Earth, cleverly conceptualized and well assembled, is a far better study of women in SF.  And it is not just a study – it is a book that a reader can pick up simply to enjoy the 11 SF stories it contains, some of which have been unavailable for decades.  Furthermore, because the stories are presented intact and in their entirety, a reader can decide on his or her own how much sense the essays about the stories make.

     Larbalestier, an honorary associate in the School of English, Art History, Film and Media at the University of Sydney, Australia, has found 11 essayists and turned them loose on SF stories of their own choosing, allowing each writer to select a tale and then comment on it.  The approach has the great strength of eliciting genuinely interesting (even when wrong-headed) commentary on the stories.  It has the weakness of creating huge holes in the anthology: for example, although there is a story or two from almost every decade from the 1920s through the 2000s (the most recent tale, from 2002, belies the book’s Twentieth Century subtitle), the decade of the 1940s is omitted – although it was one of the most productive in SF.  Larbalestier points out that no essayist chose a story from that decade, but this is a poor excuse: such a creative compiler as Larbalestier could surely have bent someone’s will just a bit.

     Within its limits, though, this is a really well-done anthology.  Few SF readers are likely to know Clare Winger Harris’s “The Fate of the Poseidonia” (1927) or Leslie F. Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola” (1931).  Many will know Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (1967) and Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love” (1987), but few will have analyzed them as do the essayists here.

     Those essayists are a mixed bag, as are their analyses.  Cathy Hawkins, assistant editor of Australian Feminist Studies, wastes the reader’s time with her attempts to find depth in Lisa Tuttle’s “Wives” (1976), a shrill and dogmatic story that is also not particularly well written.  Joan Haran of the University of Cardiff spends far too much time discussing the relationship between “Rachel in Love” and cyberpunk, but makes some interesting points about the story’s exploration of what it means to be human.  Wendy Pearson of the University of Western Ontario seems totally immune to the gorgeously poetic prose of “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill Side” (1972) – written by Alice Sheldon under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. as a retelling of John Keats’ poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” from which the story’s title comes.  Pearson follows the eight-page story with a pedantic 22-page essay (including 43 footnotes – all the essays are heavily footnoted) that oddly uses the pronoun “he” for the author.

     There is no single theme to the essays, except for the overarching one that defines these stories as feminist (or proto-feminist) literature and views them exclusively, or at least primarily, through that lens.  Given Larbalestier’s design of the anthology, this is perhaps inevitable.  But it nevertheless frequently makes the focus too restrictive, and results in some writing that would be hilariously funny in its political correctness if it were not meant to be taken seriously – as when one essayist discusses “radical feminists of color.”  Indeed, it is the weakest stories here, such as “Wives,” that are the most narrowly feminist in orientation.  The best stories reach out with a universality that intrigues and moves men and women alike.  In her next anthology – hopefully there will be one – Larbalestier would do well to provide some commentary of her own to interrelate the stories and the essayists’ viewpoints.  This time, the reader must do that on his or her own – and if it is not always worth doing where the essays are concerned, there are always the mostly excellent stories themselves on which to focus: to engage, entertain and, perhaps, even instruct.


Strauss: An Alpine Symphony. Antoni Wit conducting Staatskapelle Weimar. Naxos. $8.99.

     With a strong sense of self-knowledge and a hint of self-deprecating humor, Richard Strauss once said that he might not be a first-rate composer, but at least he was a first-rate second-rate composer.  Some of his operas might belie such a modest assessment, but works such as An Alpine Symphony tend to confirm it.

     This is a long work – more than 50 minutes – and is a symphony only by a very large stretch of the imagination. It is better described (and heard) as a tone poem, which makes it Strauss’ final work in that form, completed in 1915.  Beginning and ending with sections called “Night,” it is the musical story of a day spent climbing up and then down an Alp, experiencing the wonders of both realistic nature and the sort of capital-N Nature through which Nietzsche believed it was possible for humans to achieve liberation.

     Some of the tone painting is effective, but some is quite mundane (waterfall sounds, cowbells to symbolize pastures).  There is short shrift given to the dangers inherent in mountain climbing: only two brief sections, lasting a total of three minutes, hint at physical danger, although there is a rather overdone thunderstorm toward the end as well (during which the imagined climbers descend the mountain).

     When played to the hilt, An Alpine Symphony, with its huge orchestra and periodic reminiscences of other Strauss tone poems, can be striking, if scarcely profound.  The Staatskapelle Weimar plays the music very well indeed, but Antoni Wit holds the work a bit too firmly in check for it to be fully effective.  That thunderstorm, for instance, is lacking in drama, seeming almost hesitant – scarcely what Strauss intended for a movement including, among many other things, wind and thunder machines.

     The broad phrases and string-heavy passages are the best here, including “Entry into the Wood” and (cowbells aside) “On the Alpine Pasture.”  The work’s longest section, “Final Sounds,” also has grandeur and sweep in this performance.

     As a whole, though, Wit seems a touch apologetic about this overblown piece.  The “On the Summit” section, for example, bursts into tremendous sound, but subsides so quickly and thoroughly that Wit seems glad to have gotten through it, to be able to move into warmer and more congenial sonic regions.

     There is no question that Strauss is prone to bloat in works such as this (which lasts three times as long as, for example, the much earlier “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”).  A conductor who revels in the composer’s excesses can make this an exciting, if superficial, musical experience.  But Wit never quite lets go – with the result that this Alp seems more like a large hill.

July 06, 2006


The Jolly Mon: Book and Musical CD. By Jimmy Buffett & Savannah Jane Buffett. Illustrated by Lambert Davis. Harcourt. $17.95.

     This is a fairy tale of rare sensitivity, wonderfully told in words and wonderfully read on an included CD by singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett and his daughter, Savannah Jane Buffett.  The Jolly Mon is intended for children ages 3-7 but is sure to delight the whole family.  It has all the elements of fairy-tale telling: an exotic setting (the island of Bananaland), magic (in the forms of a guitar and a dolphin named Albion), bad guys (pirates led by One-Eyed Rosy), and a happy ending.

     The list of elements sounds ordinary, but the book is anything but.  The Buffetts make this a fable about the wonders of music and its healing powers.  The Jolly Mon finds a magical guitar in the surf one day, and travels with it from island to island, bringing joy to everyone – until he runs afoul of One-Eyed Rosy, who sneers, “People were not meant to be as happy as you make them,” and tosses the Jolly Mon overboard.  But Albion – the dolphin whose picture is on the magical guitar – rescues the Jolly Mon from certain doom, the good people of Bananaland find the pirates and lock them up, and the message is clear: people are meant to be as happy as the Jolly Mon makes them.

     Families will be happy not only with the story, which is delightful enough, but also with its presentation.  The pictures by Lambert Davis, who also illustrated the Buffetts’ Trouble Dolls, fit the story perfectly, superimposing a sense of the real even on the most unlikely scenes.  Davis has a marvelous sense of perspective: one of the best illustrations simply shows a small village and its people – from the viewpoint of a colorful bird perched high in a tree.

     At the end of the book is the sheet music for the song “Jolly Mon Sing,” by Jimmy Buffett, Will Jennings and Michael Utley – complete with words for all five verses.  And you can hear both book and music on the CD, in which the Buffetts themselves do the reading while Utley, Robert Greenidge and Ira Ingher perform music that fits the story like a glove.  And lest you think the Buffetts simply made the story up from their own fancy, the book’s introduction explains that there seems really to have been a musician named Albion in ancient times – and legend says he was indeed thrown overboard by pirates and rescued by a dolphin.

     Believe as much or as little of all this as you like.  One of the great charms of The Jolly Mon is that it will make you want to believe – perhaps not in the precise story as told here, but in the possibility of human friendship with other creatures sharing our planet, and the overarching power of music not only to soothe the savage breast but also to calm the mind and make the spirit soar.


Chopsticks. By Jon Berkeley. Random House. $16.95.

The Five Ancestors, Book Three: Snake. By Jeff Stone. Random House. $15.95.

     The settings of these books provide a good deal of their charm – and are integral to their story lines.  Chopsticks is a lovely little story of a tiny mouse who helps a huge dragon, and the way they both benefit.  It has faint echoes of Aesop’s fable of the mouse and the lion, but it soars on different wings – dragon’s wings, to be specific.  Chopsticks, the mouse, lives on a floating restaurant in Hong Kong harbor – a restaurant whose entrance is flanked by two magnificent painted wooden dragons.  One night, one of the dragons speaks to Chopsticks, telling of his deep desire to fly and his inability to do so because, after all, he is made of wood and lacquer.  Intrigued, Chopsticks asks if he can help – and the dragon explains that Old Fu, who carved him, knows how to bring him to life.  So Chopsticks sets out to locate Old Fu – who finds himself intrigued both by the mouse and by the wooden dragon (“I always knew that one would want to fly”).  A bargain is struck: Old Fu gives Chopsticks the secret of awakening the dragon – which turns out to be a special musical tune, played when the moon is full – and Chopsticks promises to return and bring Old Fu the stories of his adventures with the dragon.  And so he does.  This is a simple story of wonder and friendship, rendered exotic in part by the setting and in part by Jon Berkeley’s illustrations of his own story, which feature unusual perspectives and effectively tell the tale from a mouse-eye view.  It’s a lovely little fable.

     The Five Ancestors is neither lovely nor little, but Jeff Stone continues to keep it fast-paced, intriguing and well-plotted in the third volume, Snake.  This is the story of five young Chinese monks who must make their own way in the world after their monastery is brutally attacked, the buildings and older monks destroyed, and their teacher, Grandmaster, killed.  Each of the five trainees has focused on a particular form of martial arts that reflects his heritage – a heritage known only to Grandmaster.  After the monastery is razed, the five young monks set off to find out the reason for the attack, to learn more of their own martial arts, and to discover the secrets of their past and destiny as well.  Secrets are particularly important to Seh, protagonist of Snake and a master of snake-style kung fu.  His senses are sharp, his manner quietly watchful – until he must leave the temple, to encounter powerful bandits and meet his own father and a woman whose name means “cobra.”  The plots of the Emperor’s nephew and the troops with which he marches become ever more intricate in this installment, and the hatred of Major Ying for Grandmaster and all that he stood for becomes even more intense.  As Seh learns of the benefits and perils of secrets, and finds out more about the mysterious white monkey that appears again and again, the precious Cangzhen scrolls that the young monks are trying to protect continue to get passed from hand to hand, their importance uncertain and their ultimate fate unknown.  Stone’s stories continue to grow: despite the umbrella title of this well-wrought series, there are now seven books planned for it.


Underwater to Get Out of the Rain: A Love Affair with the Sea. By Trevor Norton. Da Capo. $25.

     Trevor Norton is too clever by half.  A delightful raconteur and an accomplished scientist, he imbues every page of this memoir with his own quite charming personality.  There is a lot of science here, too – Norton is professor of marine biology at the University of Liverpool and director of the Port Erin Marine Laboratory on the Isle of Man – but Norton presents it so charmingly that what one learns, one learns almost in spite of oneself.

     Yet the highly chatty and very British style here will not be to all tastes, certainly not all American tastes.  Sometimes Norton talks around a subject while talking of it: “A sponge is the least pretentious of beasts.  It never seeks to impress.  It is just a cushion of catacombs lined with microscopic whips to keep its internal currents on the move.  The sponge’s interior is as labyrinthine as a grand hotel, with all its corridors crowded with tiny sheltering crustaceans that filch morsels from the flow.”  At other times, he takes a relatively matter-of-fact subject and goes out of its way to render it exceptional – and at these times he is British to the core: “Miraculously, we were almost unscathed [after a traffic accident].  But Bunny’s Triumph looked like Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled Buick.  The windscreen had gone, the bonnet was concertinaed and the saloon a colander.  To our amazement, when we extricated it from beneath the truck and pulled out the wings, the wheels still turned and the engine worked.”

     Then there are Norton’s ruminations on his lifelong love of the sea and its creatures: “The explorer’s (and the author’s) dilemma is that, just as a rose petal is bruised by handling, entire living communities are vulnerable to the touch of humans.  If we celebrate the beauty of a reef or a lagoon, we expose it to the dangers of excessive admiration.  Nature thrives best on neglect.”  And there are the anecdotes – many, many anecdotes – about science and scientists.  For example, there is one about a zoologist, Alan Stephenson, who wrote a classic book on British sea anemones “adorned by beautiful paintings of them and delightful vignettes of a naked sea nymph prancing in the surf and reclining on rocks.  The nymph is clearly his wife Anne.  Librarians at his university had inked out these vignettes in case she induced a prurient interest in anemones.”  This chapter ends with Norton’s own rendition of a Stephenson painting, showing – yes – a naked nymph lying on rocks on the seashore.  (It should be said that Norton’s many drawings are one of this book’s unalloyed pleasures.)

     This is a very rich book, multilayered and multifaceted, but it does have the flaw of the discursive: it is hard to say where Norton will go next (each chapter begins with both a title and a location, and there are many locations), or why he goes to one place or another at any particular time.  The feeling of the book is that of a lengthy monologue by a learned fellow who is perhaps a bit over-full of himself, who has been to many places and seen many things and tells his tales entertainingly – but tends to go on a bit and be somewhat oblivious to his audience’s reactions.  Norton’s memoir is a great deal of fun in small doses, though anyone seeking narrative sweep, cohesiveness or a fully articulated point of view will be happier reading something else.


Boyds Will Be Boyds #3: Danger! Boys Dancing! By Sarah Weeks. Scholastic. $4.99.

The Top Ten Ways to Ruin the First Day of School. By Ken Derby. Scholastic. $4.99.

Spelling Machine. By Keith Faulkner. Illustrated by Gina Tee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $7.99.

     When kids think about school at all during the summer, it is usually with either relief that it is over or dread that it will soon resume.  There ought to be a third alternative, and Scholastic may just have one: think about school as something to laugh about.

     This can be easier to do when you’re not there, especially if you are a recent or rising fifth-grader.  Both Sarah Weeks’ book and Ken Derby’s are fifth-grade adventures – and since both are fairly thin paperbacks, they’re just fine for a trip to the beach or for reading outdoors (or indoors, if the weather won’t cooperate).  Danger! Boys Dancing! gives the two fifth-grade Boyd boys – that’s Nat Boyd and his best friend, Boyd Fink – a taste of culture that they’d just as soon not have: a class assignment that involves dancing, and maybe even ballet.  Mrs. West tells the class, “Modern dance is about finding the emotion within and using the body to express it outwardly to the world,” but the Boyds mostly want to figure out how not to do any of it.  There are misunderstandings, of course, and when the performance comes around, it turns out that there really is danger in having Nat Boyd dance.  But everything remains lighthearted and good-humored.

     The same is true of The Top Ten Ways to Ruin the First Day of School, which was originally published two years ago as The Top Ten Ways to Ruin the First Day of 5th Grade.  Actually, there are more than 10 ways to ruin the school year here, and Tony Madison – also known as Tony Baloney – is responsible for pretty much all of them.  Tony is the class clown, and he has an obsession: The Late Show with David Letterman.  Tony’s antics are all designed to get him an appearance on the show.  How does a young boy from Kansas City make it to the big time in New York?  It doesn’t spoil the book to note that Tony succeeds in what he wants to do – because it is the way he succeeds, and the aftermath, that are really what the book is about.  There’s plenty of fun and fluff here for summer reading.

     For parents of younger kids, who may want to keep things light during the summer while also helping get a child ready for school, Spelling Machine is a neat book-and-plaything.  There is a very slight story: kids pick out animals pictured in the jungle or ocean, items shown in a house, and so on.  Here’s the trick: they then spell the things they see on a “spelling machine” bound into the back cover.  The “machine” looks like an oversize version of the dial on an old-fashioned rotary phone.  The key is to start spelling each word by placing the single red circle over the word “start.”  Kids then spell each word, letter by letter – cat, carrot, snake, door, banana, and so on.  Touching each letter and turning the dial so that letter appears over the word “start,” then touching the next letter and turning the dial again, eventually spells the word – and kids then simply lift a flap to check their spelling.  The process takes a bit of time to get used to, especially for younger children, but once kids are comfortable with the procedures, they will find Spelling Machine to be great fun.  Early spellers will have a really good time here.  Now if only there were a contraption to make things equally enjoyable in, say, fifth grade….


Stokowski: Bach Transcriptions; Transcriptions of Handel and Purcell; Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies. José Serebrier conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Vivaldi: Bassoon Concertos, Volume 3. Tamás Benkócs, bassoon; Béla Drahos conducting the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia. Naxos. $8.99.

     Fully appreciating Leopold Stokowski’s transcriptions of works by J.S. Bach requires rewinding time – going back to an era when original-instrument performances were unheard of, recordings were available only on 78-rpm discs playing three minutes per side, and Bach’s works were heard very rarely in concert halls.  In those days – 60, 70 and more years ago – Stokowski the conductor performed a valuable musical service, using his experience as an organist (and the love of Bach he developed by performing Bach’s works on that instrument) to bring this music to a far wider audience.  Stokowski thus played a role similar to that of Felix Mendelssohn, who revived Bach’s music in the 19th century after it had gone largely unplayed for nearly 100 years.

     In the modern era, though, Stokowski’s transcriptions have not worn well.  Where Bach – whose original works are now easy to hear – offered subtlety and complexity, Stokowski’s transcriptions offer strong emphasis and obviousness.  There is great beauty in some of them, but it is not Bach’s beauty.

     With that understanding, that mindset, there is much to enjoy in José Serebrier’s latest CD of what Stokowski wrought.  Stokowski himself said of several of these works that he wrote them wondering what Bach would have done if he had had access to a full-size modern symphony orchestra.  Well, he would have written entirely different music – not created grandiose versions of his clear-sounding, carefully devised contrapuntal masterpieces.  Still, Stokowski is effective in his own way, at least sometimes.  The Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3 and “Sheep May Safely Graze” are both affecting, and the complex chorale-prelude Wir glauben all’ an einem Gott has strength and majesty aplenty.  On the other hand, Es ist vollbracht! from the St. John Passion is passionless, even dull, for its first two-thirds, then overdone to the end.  The Pastoral Symphony from Handel’s Messiah is soupy and syrupy, and the understated tragedy of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas sounds as weepy as a 19th-century melodrama.  Stokowski’s setting of “Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies” is interesting, especially since the first (Veni Creator Spiritus) had been used by Mahler and the second (Veni Emmanuel) was used by Respighi.  José Serebrier is a sensitive, thoughtful conductor, a friend and associate of Stokowski, and as effective an advocate as this music is likely to get.  Taken in small doses rather than heard straight through, this CD has much to recommend it.

     Nevertheless, Baroque music sounds better when played as Baroque composers intended – witness the third volume in Naxos’ excellent series of Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos.  Both bassoonist Tamás Benkócs and conductor Béla Drahos take pains to play the music as accurately as possible, and it shows: the performances are light and bright, showcasing the bassoon’s virtuosity in a way seldom heard in later music.  Vivaldi wrote more than three dozen bassoon concertos, and this CD offers some of the more interesting ones.  RV483 is the only bassoon concerto Vivaldi wrote in E-flat, and includes a lyrical C minor slow movement.  RV495 is one of only two written in G minor, and features a particularly dramatic opening.  RV500, in A minor, is a bassoon version of the Oboe Concerto, RV463.  RV502, in B-flat, surprisingly avoids the instrument’s own bottom B-flat – indicating that it may have been written for a performer more familiar with an older form of the bassoon that had a lesser range.  Also here are two of the 14 concertos in C major: RV472, which starts with a bassoon solo, and the cheerful RV474.  All these works are basically good-humored, and all are similar in the wide leaps they require of the soloist and the finely planned give-and-take between bassoon and ensemble.  These are not original-instrument performances, but their balance and enthusiasm are right for the music – as is their modest scale.