August 31, 2006


Alphabet Rescue. By Audrey Wood.  Illustrated by Bruce Wood. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $15.99.

Can You See What I See? Once Upon a Time. By Walter Wick. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $13.99.

     The themes are familiar, the approaches unusual, and the result is a pair of winning books on topics that, in other hands, would seem merely ordinary.

     What, after all, can be more everyday than the alphabet?  For all the ways alphabet books are dressed up and brightly illustrated and given themes and offbeat approaches, what can be really different in a book about the 26 English letters?  Audrey Wood can answer that: she has turned the letters into heroes of an alphabet-themed story that does not actually teach the alphabet sequentially at all.  There is no “A is for apple” in Alphabet Rescue – instead, there is a presentation of all the letters at the start of the book, and several additional presentations of them within it; but the book itself is a story.  While a boy named Charley goes to visit his grandparents, the alphabet letters take a trip of their own, to Alphabet City, where they have a series of adventures based on the clever idea that it is the small letters taking the trip to a land where the capital letters are in charge (just as adults are in charge of children).  Within this conceit, Wood finds lots of ways for the small letters to be more useful than the capitals think they can be – ending with a celebratory parade in which the capitals, in proper A-through-Z order, cheer everything the little letters have done.  The story works so well in part because of the illustrations by Bruce Wood (Audrey’s son), which focus on the action scenes while keeping the letters within them outstandingly clear.  Kids will have a lot of fun picking out the words that certain letters spell out, apparently unintentionally, in some scenes.  In the celebratory final scene, for example, the text draws attention to the words “thank you,” but some letters are spelling “Cat” and “Mud” as well.

     Searching for certain specific things within complex scenes is what the popular I Spy books are all about – and Walter Wick, that series’ co-creator, has carried the theme through into his own set of books called Can You See What I See?  The basic approach of this series and the I Spy books is similar – but the latest Once Upon a Time volume is something special.  Instead of just creating elaborate, digitally enhanced photo montages within which hard-to-find items are located, Wick here bases every two-page spread on a fairy tale: “Goldilocks,” “Puss In Boots,” “Cinderella” and more – 11 tales in all, plus a final two-page illustration combining elements from all of them.  The result of Wick’s approach is a book that is not only fun as a set of puzzles, but also a clever reminiscence of well-known stories.  On the “Three Little Pigs” pages, for example, there are three little pigs and a wolf whose breath is apparently blowing them (and lots of other things) all over the place.  “Sleeping Beauty” features the heroine dozing in the ruins of a castle, a wicked fairy made out of twisted roots, and a variety of items not necessarily found in this particular story, such as seven-league boots and a pink high heel.  The humor in these try-to-find-it illustrations is as enjoyable as the puzzles themselves, and the high quality of the arrangements – the one of “Beauty & the Beast” is particularly striking – makes the book lovely to look at.  The “search for hidden objects” theme is an old one, but Wick’s book makes it fresh again.


Bea & Mr. Jones. By Amy Schwartz. Harcourt. $13.95.

Ruby the Copycat. By Peggy Rathman. Scholastic. $5.99.

     There needs to be something endearing about a children’s book for it to become a classic – and it needs to transcend time in some basic way, so that it appeals to later generations whose external circumstances have changed quite a bit from those of the children for whom the book was originally intended.  Here are two books that work because their focus is on what is within the characters, not the way they dress or the appearance of their environment.

     Bea & Mr. Jones is a very amusing role-swapping story from 1982.  It’s a tall tale with some very attractive (if, objectively speaking, slightly dated-looking) black-and-white illustrations.  Bea Jones is fed up with kindergarten, and Mr. Jones is sick of commuting every day to his job in an advertising agency on the 42nd floor of a building in the city.  So father and daughter (there is no mother in the book) decide to trade places for a day.  The ad agency sends around a note stating that Bea will take Mr. Jones’ place for the day, and the kindergarten teacher gets one explaining that Mr. Jones is filling in for Bea.  Each character excels in the new role: Mr. Jones doesn’t spill a thing when helping out with milk and cookies, and soon becomes the teacher’s pet.  Bea gives her secretary the day off and endears herself to the boss by laughing at his bad jokes, which she thinks are genuinely funny.  By the end of the day, father and daughter have enjoyed themselves so much that they decide to try the swap for another day – and then another, another and another.  “Mr. Jones and Bea had each found their proper niche in the world” by trading places, Amy Schwartz tells us – ending the book with amusing portraits of the two now-happy characters in their new roles.

     Bea & Mr. Jones is all about finding yourself and then being yourself – and “being yourself” is the theme of Ruby the Copycat as well (indeed, the front and back covers both say so).  Peggy Rathman’s book dates to 1991 and retains all its charm.  Like Bea & Mr. Jones, it is at heart a simple story: a new girl named Ruby joins Miss Hart’s class, and in her eagerness to fit in, starts imitating everything about Angela, the girl who sits in front of her.  When Angela wears a red bow in her hair, Ruby puts one on after going home for lunch.  When Angela comes to school in a flowered sweater, Ruby goes home at midday and puts one on, too.  When Angela describes her weekend, Ruby says she did the same things; when Angela writes a poem, Ruby makes up a variation on it.  Not surprisingly, the result is bad blood between the girls – until Miss Hart finds a way for Ruby to express her individuality.  It turns out that Ruby has a real talent of her own that she has been too shy to show to anyone.  The whole class ends up copying her, and everything ends happily.  Unrealistic?  Perhaps so – but the issue of fitting in remains very much with us, and Ruby the Copycat can be a fine starting point for parents to discuss it…after their kids enjoy the amusing story.


The Monstrous Memoirs of a Mighty McFearless. By Ahmet Zappa. Random House. $12.95.

     This books wants – oh, how it wants! – to be clever.  And it is clever, and fascinatingly illustrated, and creatively laid out, and full of inspired touches.  All it lacks is heart.

     The Monstrous Memoirs of a Mighty McFearless (the “a” renders the title both strange and awkward) is the first novel by Ahmet Zappa, one of the four children of that genuinely odd musical master, Frank Zappa.  It’s hard to say whether the more-than-slightly-skewed elements here are genetically imprinted or whether, as seems more likely, they are evidence that Ahmet Zappa is just trying a little too hard.

     The book has so many clever contents that some children may have a ball with it, overlooking the emptiness at its core.  It’s about the McFearless family of monster-fighters, and it’s told in the first person by 11-year-old Minerva (“Mini,” though she hates the nickname).  Minerva’s primary nemesis, until the monsters start showing up, is her nine-year-old brother, Maxwell.  They live with their father – their mother, Minerva tells us, has died – and they discover a hidden room behind the house’s fireplace, and in that room are weird bottles and strange implements and all sorts of oddities that, it turns out, are used by their father for “monsterminating,” which of course means exterminating monsters.  Then their father gets a Bewilder Box, which contains something the King of Evil wants very badly, and the monsters attack, and the father is kidnapped, and the kids are rescued by a one-eyed coyote, and with the help of a book called the Monstranomicon (a name modeled on H.P. Lovecraft’s dread Necronomicon), the group sets out to rescue dad, or what’s left of him.

     This wants so much to be a romp!  There are monsters called the Grumplemiser, Glorch, Swoggler, Snargleflougasaurus, and so on, and there are pages within the book printed on dark backgrounds to look like pages from the Monstranomicon, describing the monsters and giving “defensive recipes” for warding them off.  In fact, the cover of the novel is supposed to look like the cover of the Monstranomicon, but without that book’s disconcerting habit of chewing on people.  In addition, every ordinary, plain-white-background page is adorned with cartoon drawings of monsters, some of them eating the page numbers and some surrounding the text and some simply floating or crawling here and there.  Color pictures of bugs, amulets, leaves and such are scattered on the pages, too.  And so are illustrations that look like the sepia-toned photos of old, illustrating this or that part of the action.

     Oh, it is all so visually striking…but Ahmet Zappa makes no effort whatsoever to have readers care about the characters – and therein is the book’s major flaw.  The brother and sister are simply siblings who fight but, when the chips are down, cling to each other (although Minerva’s enjoyment of some genuine pain that Maxwell suffers is, frankly, rather creepy).  The father is noble and bold and a victim (but the sepia-toned close-up of him being nearly devoured by a monster is intense enough so it is likely to scare some readers).  All the monsters talk to Minerva, who has learned their language, and all are windbags (also gasbags: Zappa includes a fair amount of odor humor and a fair number of poop jokes, including the family’s imprisonment in Castle Doominstinkinfart).  The King of Evil, also called the Zormaglorg, is the biggest windbag of all (if not the smelliest), and of course he talks so much that he eventually falls victim to the thing he has sought for so long, the Enotslived Diamond (“Devilstone” backwards – that’s a clue; an obvious one).  In our highly visual age, all the attractive illustrations and offbeat elements of the book’s presentation may be enough to get readers to ignore the human characters’ lack of personality (the Monstranomicon and coyote regularly upstage the brother and sister).  If so, Ahmet Zappa will have disproved the lyrics of a song that was already old in his father’s time: “You gotta have heart.”  But a second novel that does have heart would be oh, so much more involving, effective and entertaining than this one.


White Time. By Margo Lanagan. HarperCollins. $15.99.

Vampire Kisses 3: Vampireville. By Ellen Schreiber. HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Return of Skeleton Man. By Joseph Bruchac. HarperCollins. $15.99.

     Journey, if you will, to a world different from ours, but not too different; and meet people different from us, but not too different; and experience with them things that could not quite happen to you in everyday life – no, not quite.

     Margo Lanagan’s world is a hard one to pin down.  In White Time – as in its predecessor, Black Juice – Lanagan offers a set of stories (10 of them here) that take place in different venues and feature different sorts of characters, from the street-smart to the fairy-tale.  The title story is about a spring-break “occupation-tasting” assignment, a form of what was called work experience in “the old days before the work/leisure dichotomy became politically incorrect.”  The befuddled protagonist, Sheneel, spends most of her time trying to figure out what is going on.  Other stories, such as “Dedication” and “The Queen’s Notice,” have slightly askew fairy-tale settings.  In fact, everything is slightly askew in these tales, with whose central characters it is impossible to empathize (the book’s major failing).  White Time is an authorial tour de force, showcasing Lanagan’s stylistic skill, but that is pretty much all it showcases: a connection with real-world humanity is somehow missing.

     Vampireville doesn’t even pretend to connect with mundane life.  Ellen Schreiber’s book, like Lanagan’s, is intended for ages 12 and up, but its setting is quite different.  This third book in the Vampire Kisses series stays focused on the relationship between Raven of the mortal world and Alexander of the Underworld.  But just as in teen-oriented books without vampires, this one has rivalries and troubles galore: Alexander’s enemy, Jagger, keeps showing up, along with his sister, Luna.  Everything takes place in a town that Raven calls Dullsville (ha, ha), with the main plot being Raven and Alexander’s search for Jagger and Luna’s home base, to try to stop them from doing nefarious things.  “’This isn’t a contest,’” says Raven when confronting Luna. “’These are people, not prizes.’  Her blue eyes turned red.  She stepped so close to me, I could smell her Cotton Candy lip gloss. ‘I want you to back off!’ she said in my face. ‘I want you to back off!’ I said in her face.”  That’s a fair sample of what passes for style here.  Take none of this the slightest bit seriously, and you can have some good clean bloody fun.

     There is more a feeling of something unclean in The Return of Skeleton Man, which is aimed at a slightly younger audience – ages 10 and up – but contains some real chills.  It does not match Joseph Bruchac’s original Skeleton Man, in which an Indian legend persists into the present and commits horrifying crimes whose background only the Mohawk girl, Molly, and her parents fully understand.  Sequels almost never measure up to their originals; Bruchac even has Molly say so at the start of this book.  But acknowledging that reality doesn’t make it any less true.  This is a short novel – just 136 pages – and more than half of it is taken up with scene-setting that quickly becomes tiresome.  The story takes place at a sprawling mountain lodge whose resemblance to the creepy scene of the film The Shining is noted by Molly herself.  In fact, a few of Bruchac’s scenes, in which Molly walks along deserted corridors, feeling someone or something watching her, closely resemble parts of the film and the Stephen King novel on which it was based.  Eventually, Molly must re-confront Skeleton Man and outwit him a second time, thanks to help from an unexpected source.  The book’s climax is effective, but it would probably be better if Bruchac lays this particular legend to rest in the future and moves on to other topics.


Bartók: Mikrokosmos (complete). Jenő Jandó, piano, with Tamara Takács, mezzo-soprano, and Balázs Szokolay, piano. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     It takes endurance to listen to the complete Mikrokosmos – all two-and-a-half hours of it.  It takes tremendous skill to play the whole thing with attentiveness, not to mention subtlety, as Jenő Jandó does.  And it takes a certain amount of guts for Naxos to release this two-CD set – because, as remarkable as the music is for pianists, most of it does not present an especially rewarding listening experience.

     Bartók wrote the 153 piano miniatures of Mikrokosmos between 1926 and 1939.  They are definitely his “piano method” and, collectively, a major work, but even he was not quite sure how to characterize them, saying that they could either represent a small world or the world of small ones – that is, children.  The easier pieces could in fact be played by children, but not so the later ones.  And the work as a whole was intended as instructional, not for performance.  At least the first four of its six books have a decidedly academic bent, despite a few listening highlights here and there.

     It is difficult to convey just how much this work sprawls.  The track listing alone takes up three pages of the enclosed six-page booklet.  The pieces are as brief as 18 seconds, with quite a few under 30 seconds and a very large number under one minute.  Only four pieces, all in Book VI, last two minutes or more.  One of those, the longest of all at four-and-a-half minutes (twice as long as any other piece here), is a small masterpiece: No. 144, “Minor Seconds, Major Sevenths.”  This piece’s decidedly pedestrian title belies its expressiveness; but other pieces’ more evocative titles (No. 108, “Wrestling”; No. 109, “From the Island of Bali”) do not necessarily mean that the pieces themselves are any more inventive than ones whose titles sound ordinary (No. 122, “Chords Together and in Opposition”).

     Jenő Jandó takes every single piece seriously, from the “Six Unison Melodies” with which Mikrokosmos begins to the “Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm” with which it ends.  Jandó and Naxos deserve extra credit for including the multiple versions that Bartók wrote of several pieces – this explains the occasional presence of a mezzo-soprano and a second pianist.  If you are a pianist, simply studying Bartók’s method and hearing how he builds logically from piece to piece, starting with the most basic elements of playing and adding harmonic and rhythmic complexity, is fascinating.  And a few of the pieces in the early books are interesting in and of themselves: for example, No. 92, “Chromatic Invention (2)”; and Nos. 79 and 80, each less than 50 seconds long, which are homages to, respectively, Johann Sebastian Bach and Robert Schumann.

     Yet it is hard to escape the reality that Bartók intended Mikrokosmos to be played, not heard.  It is only in the 32 pieces of Books V and VI that truly performance-worthy works appear.  So although this complete Mikrokosmos emphatically deserves a (++++) rating for its ambition and the excellence of Jandó’s performance, it has to be said that this is by no means a work for everyone.  Even dedicated pianists are unlikely to want to sit through the whole thing in one sitting – six sittings, one per book, seems a more congenial approach.  But there is one thing all owners of this set should enjoy knowing: the first CD may contain the largest number of tracks ever put on a single CD – 96 of them.  Amazing; just amazing.

August 24, 2006

(++++) YUM!

Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. By Adam Rex. Harcourt. $16.

A Birthday Cake Is No Ordinary Cake. By Debra Frasier. Harcourt. $16.

     These are not food books – not in any ordinary sense.  The edible stuff is just an excuse for (on the one hand) monstrously delicious fun, and (on the other) an explanation of basic astronomy.  Yes, astronomy.

     The subtitle of Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, which is almost a chapter in itself, reads, “And Other Stories You’re Sure to Like, Because They’re All about Monsters, and Some of Them Are Also about Food.  You Like Food, Don’t You?  Well, All Right Then.”  Got all that?  The table of contents says “Menu” at the top.  Among the offerings are “The Middlewitch Witch-Watchers Club: A Club Sandwich Which Watches Witches,” “The Mummy Won’t Go to His Eternal Rest Without a Story and Some Cookies,” and “The Lunchsack of Notre Dame.”  The title story – a poem, actually; this is a book in verse, and it’s not bad, certainly not verse – explains how the townspeople threw tomatoes and potatoes and moldy bread at Frankenstein’s monster, who thanked them, made a sandwich from everything thrown at him, “and ate a big, disgusting lunch.”  Several interludes focus on the Phantom of the Opera, who keeps getting unwanted tunes stuck in his head: “It’s a small world after all./ Angry cursing fills the hall.”  “There was a phantom/ had a song,/ and BINGO was its name-o. …It bugged the phantom/ all night long./ He never was the same-o.”

     Other ghoulish entries include “Count Dracula Doesn’t Know He’s Been Walking Around All Night with Spinach in His Teeth” (he can’t see it: no mirrors in his castle); “The Yeti Doesn’t Appreciate Being Called Bigfoot” (“Some folks call him Sasquatch./ His real name is Ruth”); and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Henderson” (“Alas, the glass of Cream of Evil/ mixed with Powdered Creep/ was really milk/ the maid had laid/ aside to help/ him sleep.”  Adam Rex’s drawings are as varied as his imagination is twisted: some in color, some in black-and-white, some in comic-book style, some in scientific-illustration style, and all thoroughly weird.  This book is intended for ages 5-10, but it’s entirely strange enough to be appreciated by immature people of all ages – including, especially, adults.

     Much less weird, except conceptually, is A Birthday Cake Is No Ordinary Cake, which explains the ingredients for a proper cake: the sun, the Earth’s spin, 365 sunrises (cloudy days included), and a few other things.  “We’re traveling in a circle.  This recipe is a circle.  Enter at any point,” writes Debra Frasier.  She then takes readers through a year-long recipe.  One portion: “Find the sound of a returning red robin. …Next—stir in any two bright spring flowers. …Mix well.  At night, look up often.  You will need to add at last twelve full silver moons.”  And on and on the story goes, with the baker carrying a bowl and spoon, gathering bits and pieces of the progressing year (example from autumn: “the shadow of a line of long-necked geese, flying south”).  After 365 days of gathering, the baker adds the ingredients you would expect in an ordinary cake (flour, sugar, milk and so on), bakes the cake, licks the spoon, and says happy birthday to the world.  Real recipes at the book’s end – including “The Spinning World Birthday Cake” – add to the fun, and a final page of scientific facts is (what else?) the icing on the cake.


The Flowers of Evil. By Charles Baudelaire. Translated by Keith Waldrop. Wesleyan University Press. $24.95.

     There is something almost unseemly in enjoying a translation of a classic work nearly as much for the translator’s discussion as for the work itself.  But if this is a guilty pleasure (admittedly a rarefied one), what better book to elicit it than Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal?

     Baudelaire (1821-1867) was dogged by ill luck all his life.  When his book of poetic reminiscences and dark thoughts was published in 1857, it earned official condemnation, and six of its poems were banned from further printing.  The next edition (1861) omitted those poems but included 32 new ones.  The outstanding new Wesleyan University Press edition includes the entire 1861 version plus the six banned poems of 1857.

     What makes this edition so wonderful is Keith Waldrop, a poet himself as well as a translator.  Waldrop’s “Translator’s Introduction” is a model of its kind: plainspoken, clever, chatty and unselfconsciously erudite.  Waldrop tells of Baudelaire’s life and loves, to which many mysteries are attached, and of his death, itself a mystery: “What Baudelaire died of, the thirty-first of August 1867 (he was forty-six), is impossible to say with any precision.  Probably it’s best to leave it that he died of complications.”

     Waldrop cheerily (and rather cheekily) asserts that while we know some things about Baudelaire’s life (“as a hack, he was a flop”), we just don’t know a lot about what made him tick – and it doesn’t really matter.  One section of Waldrop’s introduction is headlined, “Did Baudelaire Believe in God?”  The first sentence is: “I don’t know.”

     What Waldrop does know is what and who influenced Baudelaire’s work: Edgar Allan Poe’s dark tales and poems (of which Baudelaire was an early translator), several lovers of various pedigrees, and Baudelaire’s own “spleen,” defined for the purpose of Les Fleurs du Mal as “ennui of all things; disgust with life.”  In the 126 poems of the 1861 edition, there are four in a row (numbers 75-78) that are all called “Spleen.”

     Waldrop’s deep understanding of Baudelaire and high-level sensitivity to poetic nuance lead him to a rather surprising approach to structuring his translation of Les Fleurs du Mal.  Waldrop explains other attempts at creating an English-language The Flowers of Evil, says they all have merit, and notes that “the choice that is not available is ‘in the original meters,’ French and English meters being incommensurable.”  Waldrop’s choice is “the verset, a measured prose that allows the sentence to dominate, as in prose, checked by a sense of line that restricts it.”  Waldrop knows Baudelaire never used versets, but this translator is looking not for formal equivalence but for “the thought and feeling that Baudelaire put into his poems, coming as close as I can to his tone.”

     In this, Waldrop succeeds brilliantly.  The verset form looks odd at first, and the pacing of the translation takes some getting used to; but accept Waldrop’s approach once, and his verbal skill will capture you throughout this volume.  Baudelaire saw his collection of poems not as a collection but as an entire book, so it can be dangerous to take any of these pieces out of context.  Nevertheless, it is tempting to point out a few standouts.  No. 116, “A Voyage to Cythera,” offers self-loathing in the mode of Jonathan Swift, and a particularly striking phallic metaphor followed immediately by a poetic ellipsis: “In your isle, O Venus! All I found erect was a symbolic gibbet hung with my image…–Ah, Lord! Give me the strength, the courage, to contemplate my heart and body without disgust!”  No. 33, “Posthumous Remorse,” is a Poe-esque meditation on “damp vault and hollow grave,” ending with the barbed line, “And the worm will gnaw at your hide like remorse.”  No. 83, “Heautontimoroumenos,” has a title that sounds like something out of Poe – it means, roughly, “the self-tormented” – and reflects Baudelaire’s unique melancholy through words reminiscent of Poe’s in “The Haunted Castle”: “I am the vampire of my own heart, one of the great abandoned—condemned to eternal laughter, never to smile again!”

     If you cannot experience Baudelaire in the original French, you cannot do better than read him in Waldrop’s lucid, empathetic translation.  This is not a book to be perused in bright midday sunlight, but one to be pored over as a chill rain falls, portending colder days to come.  The Flowers of Evil offers introspective pleasure of a very rare kind.  Waldrop’s translation is the one to turn to, if you choose to turn in this direction at all.


Thelonius Monster’s Sky-High Fly Pie. By Judy Sierra. Drawings by Edward Koren. Knopf. $16.95

A Color of His Own. By Leo Lionni. Knopf. $12.95.

     Judy Sierra’s wonderfully ridiculous recasting of the already wonderfully ridiculous poem about the old lady who swallowed a fly is…well, wonderfully ridiculous.  You remember the poem: “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly – I don’t know why she swallowed the fly.  Perhaps she’ll die./ I know an old lady who swallowed a spider that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.  She swallowed the spider to catch the fly, but I don’t know why she swallowed the fly.  Perhaps she’ll die.”  And so on, and on, and on, in the best house-that-Jack-built fashion.  Well, Sierra – aided and abetted by thoroughly delightful drawings by Edward Koren – has adapted the lady-and-fly poem into a tale of the lovably shaggy Thelonius Monster’s attempts to make a fly pie (because he once swallowed a fly and it tasted so good).  Thelonius consults the requisite spider for advice (via E-mail, no less), and then proceeds to create an enormous pie crust with the characteristics of flypaper: all gooey and sweet and very, very sticky.  Thelonius collects flies from all the suitably gross places – a cat’s litter box, a cow’s droppings, a Dumpster – and puts all the flies, still very much alive, onto his super-sticky pie crust.  Then he invites “all his disgusting-est friends and relations” to have some pie with him, and then they show up, and THEN…but that would be telling.  It’s really hard to top Sierra’s and Koren’s talent for wild poetry and weird drawings – wait until you read and see the scene in which the flies, still trapped on the pie crust, serenade the monsters by playing tiny violins, trumpets, bongo drums and a guitar.  Kids will laugh out loud at the thoroughly twisted happy ending here – and parents who don’t laugh out loud need a funny-gland checkup.

     The absurdity in Leo Lionni’s 1975 fable, A Color of His Own, is of a gentler sort.  This lovely little story – one of Lionni’s best – is about a chameleon who laments the fact that he does not have his own color: he takes on the color of whatever he is near.  What solves the chameleon’s problem is an older, wiser chameleon, who realizes that if the two stay together, each will always have the color of the other – whatever that color may be.  This element of the story is a pleasant take on the importance of friendship.  But Lionni offers more here, for he has the unhappy chameleon – and, later, his friend – take on colors that are quite impossible in real chameleon life.  The humor of the story lies entirely in Lionni’s charming illustrations of a chameleon on a tiger’s back, striped like a tiger; a chameleon sitting on a leaf so his color won’t change, then changing anyway as the seasons progress; and, best of all, two chameleons finding bright-red mushrooms with white spots – and ending up bright red and white-spotted themselves.  Simple, like all Lionni’s fables, and disarmingly charming as well, A Color of His Own is a lovely little delight in this handsome reissue – in the original, easy-to-hold size of about eight inches square.


The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. By Alfie Kohn. Da Capo. $24.

     Might as well start the new school year with a provocation.  Alfie Kohn’s latest book is a shot across the bow of traditionalists, standardized-testing and standardized-education advocates, and all those who believe in BGUTI: “Better get used to it” – meaning that life contains necessary unpleasantness, and the sooner children learn that, the better.

     The author of Punished by Rewards here argues, with considerable research backing him up, that homework is a tradition whose time has long since passed.  He says that there is no evidence that homework helps students learn better, retain information longer, or even prepare for the less-than-enjoyable experiences they are sure to have in the future: “What underlies BGUTI isn’t just preparation, but preparation for experiences that are unappealing. …[Children] need to acquire the self-discipline to slog through what they don’t see as worthwhile. …[But] it is experience with success and unconditional acceptance that helps one to deal constructively with later deprivation.”

     The BGUTI discussion is a microcosm of Kohn’s entire argument against homework.  He is essentially holistic in his view of school.  Merely keeping kids there for seven hours a day is already getting them used to doing something they don’t want to do – why add to it with homework?  If homework is to be assigned, it should be collaborative – students and perhaps even parents should be involved – and it should not be graded when turned in, but shared among classmates so all can benefit from it.  “The most open-ended arrangement would be a situation in which students are given no assignments and are therefore free to choose their own activities, which may continue or be sparked by what happened in class.”  To be sure any homework assigned does not risk increasing the educational gap between “privileged and struggling families,” the solution is “to lengthen the school day slightly, at least for older students, in order to give them time to complete all their assignments before they leave for home, thereby making sure that all kids have access to the same resources.”

     It is fair to characterize Kohn not merely as an idealist but as a utopianist.  He happens to be correct in citing studies that show little or no benefit from homework – certainly not from excessive amounts of it.  And it not just kids who would applaud a lessening or elimination of homework – so would parents, who are supposed to make sure the homework gets done and are expected to discuss issues involving it (including whether there is too much of it) with the teacher.  Try that when you have several children, a single-parent family or one with two parents working long hours, multiple children in different schools, after-school activities, or simply an attempt to keep kids out of trouble and off the mean streets outside.  Homework is a huge burden on many families – perhaps a greater one on less stable, less well-to-do ones than on any others.

     But Kohn’s alternatives would increase families’ burdens, and the burdens on teachers as well – not to mention the burdens on administrators trying to arrange school-bus routes to allow slightly later classes, and the burdens on taxpayers forced to fund the changes.  Freeing children from homework so they can focus more on learning, both in class and outside of it, is an idea sprung from a naïve, middle-class view of the world.  Kohn’s analysis of the inadequacies of homework is far better than his thoughts about how things could be improved.  His anecdotes about individual schools and teachers determined to find a better way are just that: anecdotal evidence that things can be done better without homework by certain people in certain circumstances.  It would have been more intellectually honest for Kohn to state clearly that these experimental alternatives are not universally applicable, and that they require tremendous (and difficult-to-come-by) cooperation among administrators, teachers and families.  Instead, Kohn correctly states that most students are stranded in the homework desert, and he makes the Promised Land beyond seem tantalizingly close.  Alas, as a road map for large-scale change, his proposals are mostly a mirage.


Boy Heaven. By Laura Kasischke. HarperTempest. $16.99.

Beast. By Ally Kennen. PUSH/Scholastic. $16.99.

Kiss Me Tomorrow. By Susan Shreve. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Heaping helpings of teenage worries, fears and hormones are in the forefront of all these books.  And as differently as the novels work themselves out, there is an underlying similarity to the protagonists’ troubles and the eventual resolutions of their stories.

     Boy Heaven seems to be a typical summertime, not-a-care-in-the-world story about cheerleader friends at camp together, following their hyperactive hormones in several directions while neatly filling entirely traditional adventure roles.  The narrator, Kristy Sweetland – even the name seems typecast – is the good girl, and her friends are the slut, the rich witch, and so on.  The whole story of sunning and skinny-dipping in the great outdoors has an ageless feel about it – or rather the feel of a particular age.  “Forty?  Who ever imagined I’d someday be forty?  I was seventeen, with a perfect tan.”  The twist here is that Kristy apparently makes a mistake during a gas-station stop, smiling a touch too invitingly at a couple of boys – who then follow the girls’ car on the road to camp and maybe, just maybe, become stalkers.  So there is an occasional frisson of fear to complement the flirtations that make the camp seem like boy heaven to the cheerleaders – until, at the end, first-time author Laura Kasischke tells readers that the book’s title refers to something much more sinister.  The ending is a bit unfair: Kasischke never really gives readers a chance to figure it out.  But teens ages 14 and up who enjoy being whipsawed won’t mind.

     Beast is an even more intense book – and although it is, indeed, about a beast, a question that Ally Kennen leaves open throughout is just who or what the beast is.  You learn what the animal beast is about halfway through (although the cover, unfortunately, is a giveaway), but it seems through much of the book that the narrator, Stephen, is really a beast himself.  He lives in foster care, is shuttled from family to family, has a string of petty crimes in his past, and adds to the list during the novel.  He has a mother who is certifiably insane and a father who isn’t far from it, and he doesn’t care about anything or anyone except for his brother, Selby – who is dead.  And perhaps, in a strange way, he also cares for the beast of the title, a dangerous creature that he has kept alive for four years as it has grown and grown and grown.  Kennen pulls a few too many strings in the book, and seems to lose track of a character here and there, but her writing is undeniably effective – and undeniably British (she lives in Bristol, England).  In the absence of a glossary, American readers will have to figure out such words as “manky” (filthy), “knackered” (exhausted) and “can’t be arsed” (bothered) on their own.  Figuring out the characters’ motivations may actually be a bit harder than managing the vocabulary, but Kennen deserves credit for fast pacing and an ending that is satisfying even though it does not tie up all the loose ends.

     For lighter fare for teenagers, try a book aimed at younger teens, such as Susan Shreve’s Kiss Me Tomorrow.  This story of Alyssa “Blister” Reed has comedy as well as pathos.  As in the other, more serious books, Kiss Me Tomorrow revolves in part around a broken family: Blister’s dad has remarried and her mom has a boyfriend, and Blister is unsure in her relationships with her parents and the new people in her parents’ lives.  Blister is unsure of herself, too – not surprising when she has no good romantic role models.  She is attracted to Jakob Cutter, a stereotypical “bad boy” (seventh-grade style) who seems to like her, too; and she cares a lot for her best friend, Jonah, as well, but not in that way, even when Jonah kisses her after she rescues him after he makes an error in judgment that lands him in hot water…  The ups and downs of the characters’ lives are nothing special, and the characters themselves are not particularly well fleshed out, but Blister’s spunkiness is attractive, and the issues of friendship and loyalty are worthwhile (if scarcely unusual) ones for young teens to explore.

August 17, 2006


A Particular Cow. By Mem Fox. Illustrated by Terry Denton. Harcourt. $16.

Piggies: Book and Musical CD. By Don and Audrey Wood. Illustrated by Don Wood. Harcourt. $17.95.

     In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe, a member of the House of Lords sings approvingly of the fact that, during the Napoleonic War, his colleagues “did nothing in particular, and did it very well.”  That’s also a pretty good description of what happens in Mem Fox’s hilarious A Particular Cow, where one cow in particular takes a particular walk on a particular day and a number of particular things happen.  By the time the cow has become trapped in a particular pair of underwear, rolled down a particular hill in a particular postman’s cart, made a complete mess of a particular wedding, and ended up almost upending a particular boat, kids ages 3-7 will be laughing their particular heads off.  So will parents lucky enough to read this particular book to or with their children.  By simply using the word “particular” again and again as absurd situations pile up, Fox makes things particularly ridiculous.  And Terry Denton helps matters along with particularly appropriate drawings, filled with action and color and utter silliness of a particularly harmless type.  By the time this particular cow returns to her particular barn, kids will be clamoring to find out what in particular happens the next time she goes on a morning stroll.  Parents will have to make that story up on their own – or wait to see if Fox and Denton create a sequel to this charming book.

     Piggies, also for ages 3-7, is charming, too, and it is also rather weird and quite musical: an included CD offers seven songs that explore elements of Don and Audrey Wood’s text.  That text simply takes the “this little piggy” idea several steps further than the old nursery rhyme does, imagining that each finger really has a little piggy on top of it.  There are two fat piggies, two smart ones, two long ones, two silly ones and two wee ones.  Actually, they are all silly in their own ways, thanks to Don Wood’s adorable drawings: one fat piggy wears a top hat and carries an umbrella, one smart one has a telescope, one silly one is an upside-down clown, and so on.  Each page shows a left or right hand, with that hand’s piggies doing all sorts of silly things: eating watermelon or wearing a cactus costume when it’s hot, skiing or having snowball fights when it’s cold, playing with bubbles in the bathtub, and so on.  The piggies’ antics – which at one point include getting really, really dirty – are highly inventive, and the final kisses goodnight (with the two hands together, so each piggy finger kisses its opposite number) are really clever.  So are the songs, which brightly and bouncily introduce the piggies and sing about what they do when they are hot, cold, clean, dirty and more.  The book-and-CD combination adds to the many pleasures of what is already a very pleasurable, rather offbeat story.


Unlikely Exploits, No. 2: Heir of Mystery; No. 3: The Rise of the House of McNally. By Philip Ardagh. Scholastic. $5.99 each.

     Blimey if Philip Ardagh didn’t pull it off after all.  His latest trilogy, Unlikely Exploits, had a less-than-promising beginning in the first book, The Fall of Fergal.  Certainly the trilogy showed no signs of matching Ardagh’s previous three-book foray into absurdity, The Eddie Dickens Trilogy.  But Ardagh has pulled the proverbial fat out of the proverbial fire with a second Unlikely Exploits book that brings readers back to laugh-out-loud land, and a third that goes beyond slapstick into the realm of actual cleverness.

     This trilogy is about the impoverished McNally family, which includes a dead mother, an alcoholic father with a wooden leg, and five children, one of whom dies at the start of the first book.  This is not a promising setup for humor, and in The Fall of Fergal (Fergal being the one who goes splat in Book One), Ardagh never quite makes the whole situation lighthearted enough.  He does, though, introduce a few interesting elements, such as the ability of the oldest McNally child to change her shape: her name is Jackie, and she can become a jackal at will.

     This is one element that the second and third books develop effectively and amusingly.  Another is the younger McNally kids’ names, which we find out refer to strange powers that they have but of which they are not yet aware.  The kids’ names are Le Fay, Albion and Joshua (Fergal’s powers having presumably failed to be of much help when he was smushed on the pavement).  It is not until the very end of the third book that the McNally children and we learn everything they can do.

     But first we must get through the second book, which involves brain transplantation (thus keeping Fergal around as a character, or part of a character), a ruined mansion in the midst of scary Fishbone Forest, and a very strange individual called Mr. Maggs – who doesn’t seem quite human and always clutches a teddy bear.  Also, a plague of spontaneously appearing holes, about which we learn a bit in Book One, plays an important part in Book Two and is fully explained in Book Three.

     Let’s see – what else?  Well, in Book Two, Mr. Maggs is doing nefarious deeds because he is determined to change the world by, among other things, rearranging the alphabet.  In Book Three, the head of Tap ‘n’ Type, the company whose typing contest Le Fay won in Book One – moments before Fergal’s fall – turns out to be not at all what he seems.  The same may be said of the teddy bear.  Fergal, it turns out, is exactly what he seems, which by this time is something quite different from the pathetic squashed pile that he had seemed to be (and, in fact, was) in Book One.  And if all this sounds confusing, you ought to see how confusing Ardagh makes it, with many asides to the reader, a variety of puns (as in the title of Book Two), and (in Book Three) a time scheme that refuses to behave reasonably and progress normally.  “There are exciting times ahead,” says one character in the final book – but in fact, there are exciting times ahead, behind, right now, and probably elsewhen.  To figure all this out, you will simply have to read the entire Unlikely Exploits trilogy.  Definitely do not stop with Book One, or you will be unlikely to read the other two.  Those are the ones that make enjoyment of the whole series very likely indeed.


Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface. By David Standish. Da Capo. $24.95.

     We are all living inside Earth, not on its surface.  Or: Earth is made up of concentric spheres, like nesting dolls, and there may well be life within.  Or: the warmth inside Earth sustains a vast civilization.  Or: flying saucers come from inner space, not outer space.  These are but a few of the beliefs about a hollow Earth held by crackpots, serious scientists and authors over the centuries.  Dictators held them, too: Adolf Hitler, his Third Reich crumbling around him, explored the possibility of escaping within.

     What is, or was, going on here?  David Standish, who teaches magazine writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, takes a journalist’s approach to the variegated and decidedly odd history of belief that the Earth is a hollow sphere (or concentric spheres – an idea seriously advanced by Sir Edmond Halley, for whom the famous comet is named).

     This is a fascinating study, and it covers a lot of ground.  Starting with scientific approaches to Earth’s supposedly hollow nature, Standish progresses through the pseudoscientific 19th-century notion of John Symmes that the Earth could be entered from either pole, to literary journeys suggesting the same possibility – notably Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.  From there it is a natural step to the most famous novel about a hollow earth, Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), which owes a debt to Poe that Standish explains briefly and clearly.

     Standish has a pleasingly flip style that fits his subject matter well: “Verne was just a normal guy whose life gave little hint of the fantastic voyages that he would find within and that would make him the originator of the modern science fiction novel.”  This style stands the author in good stead as he moves into more modern and increasingly weird ideas about a hollow Earth, such as Koreshanity.  This is a religion, founded in the 19th century by a man named Cyrus Teed, who “loves nine-dollar words and isn’t shy about making up new ones.”   Koreshanity’s central tenet is that the Earth is hollow – and we all live inside it.  “Promulgating these ideas would be a large order for a young man whose life so far had been undistinguished at best,” writes Standish, who then shows just what Teed did and how he did it – a fascinating (and in some ways cautionary) tale whose ending did not come until 1961.

     The latter part of Standish’s book shows the persistence of the hollow-Earth myth in literature, including but by no means limited to L. Frank Baum’s Oz series and the Pellucidar saga of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The book’s final chapter, intriguingly titled “The Hollow Earth Lives,” includes everything from comic books to B movies (“Superman and the Mole Men”) to Internet-based weirdness – with Web sites you can check out yourself.  Standish does make fun of this persistent belief (“I’m just getting an incoming message from one of the fillings in my teeth”), but he also makes an effort to understand it – to show why this particular dream has persisted for centuries, always changing form but never quite disappearing.  Hollow Earth is in some ways a romp through pseudoscience, and in other ways an exploration of the reasons for human self-delusion and the peculiar forms that one type of wish fulfillment has taken for hundreds of years.


The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon. By Mini Grey. Knopf. $16.95.

Babymouse: Beach Babe. By Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.95.

     Mini Grey has a highly unusual sense of humor – perhaps not surprising in someone who got her first name because she was born in a Mini Cooper.  In The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, she pushes her humor quite a distance – maybe a touch too far.  The book starts out as a “what happened afterwards?” story: after the cow jumped over the moon and the dish ran away with the spoon in the old nursery rhyme, then what happened?  This is a good premise, similar to the “what happened after ‘happily ever after’?” idea that has led to many reconsiderations of fairy tales.  And Grey starts the dish-and-spoon story brightly enough, with a vaudeville act and scads of money, a little too much of the high life, and then the pair falling into debt and owing money to the mob (in the form of the “Carving Knife Gang”).  So far, all this works – but then it all goes a bit awry, when the dish and the spoon become bank robbers to try to pay back the knives.  The dish and the spoon as bad guys?  That’s a stretch – as is their attempted getaway, during which the dish is shattered and the spoon captured and jailed…for 25 years, yet.  This is an awfully dark turn for the tale, and kids who find the early pages of the story endearing may have trouble finding pleasure in the breakage of one character and the incarceration of the other.  Grey tries to bring lightness back at the end: the spoon serves the full 25-year sentence, wanders into a junk shop after being released, and there finds the faded and cracked but now-mended dish.  So the dish and spoon run away again, this time to perform their vaudeville act for free – since it was the money they earned from the act in the first place that led to all their troubles.  There’s a moral in there someplace, but it never quite comes out.  The tale is a touch noir for children who still enjoy nursery rhymes – and not noir enough for ones who have outgrown them.  Give Grey points for cleverness in both writing and illustration, but this adventure isn’t quite all it could have been.

     There’s a portrait of the dish that ran away with the spoon in the latest Babymouse book, too.  The dish and spoon are two of the things Babymouse finds in her locker when cleaning it out at the end of school (she also finds a meteor, some aliens, troublesome gnomes, Bigfoot, and so on).  This and the other fantasy scenes are the strongest parts of Babymouse: Beach Babe, which, like the two earlier Babymouse books, is silly and funny – if a little repetitious, a little too determined to be cute, and a little overly babyish at times.  In Babymouse: Beach Babe, the wrinkly-whiskered girl mouse imagines herself as a champion surfer, a “little mermouse,” a jungle explorer, and more.  But in reality, she’s a little girl mouse struggling to have fun at the beach despite crowds, sunburn, strong waves, and a narrator who is getting on her nerves.  Also in the anti-fun department is Babymouse’s annoying little brother, Squeak – but it is only when Babymouse decides that Squeak is really important to her that both mice finally start to have beach fun.  The message is a little heavy-handed, but considering the fact that Matthew Holm and Jennifer L. Holm are brother and sister, there may be a touch of reality underlying the fantasy and the fun.

(++++) EVA -- VIVA!

Lehár: Eva. Morenike Fadayomi and Zora Antonic, sopranos; Reinhard Alessandri and Gerhard Balluch, tenors; Thomas Malik, buffo tenor; Thomas Zisterer, baritone; Chor des Lehár Festival Bad Ischl and Franz Lehár-Orchester conducted by Wolfgang Bozic. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

     Here is wonderful music in a marvelous performance, restoring to the catalogue one of the best pre-World War I operettas by Franz Lehár after an absence of decades.  This is a strong (++++) musical event in every way – despite a presentation flaw that English speakers will surely find irritating.

     This is really the complete 1911 operetta, including the dialogue – of which there is quite a bit, both in speaking parts and in melodramas, with music playing behind the words.  It is more than two hours of fascinating (if somewhat dated) plotting by the same team of Alfred Maria Wilner and Robert Bodanzky that created the clever Der Graf von Luxemburg, which premiered two years before Eva.

     The problem, if you are not fluent in German, is that there is no libretto provided with the two-CD set – and no information on how to get one, either online or by ordering it from somewhere.  Eva is a complex work, with several intertwined themes, and those who speak only English, or have limited German, will be frustrated to have it back in the catalogue in a form that they will be unable to appreciate fully.

     But the music – anyone can appreciate that, and revel in it.  It is of the amazingly tuneful type that Lehár turned out with apparent ease for Die Lustige Witwe and several of its successors.  Everything sounds and feels like a dance, and it is almost impossible to finish listening to Eva without picking up a tune or two to hum to yourself later.

     In some ways, this work (like Der Graf von Luxemburg) seems designed specifically to capture the audiences that loved Die Lustige Witwe.  Eva reflects the super-popular earlier operetta in both subtle and less-subtle ways.  Subtle: the name Dagobert, mentioned briefly in the earlier work, plays a big role here, and Restaurant Maxim, which was so important to Danilo and Hanna, is briefly referred to in this tale of Octave and Eva.  Less subtle: the music itself is highly reminiscent of the sounds of Die Lustige Witwe, there are plenty of grisettes (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) present in Eva, and the attraction of the Parisian social whirl is as central to this work as to its more-famous predecessor.

     But Eva is very much its own operetta, for better and worse.  It is a Cinderella story – the characters actually make repeated references to their lives as a fairy tale and to Eva as a Cinderella figure.  But Eva is set firmly in the industrial age: its subtitle is Das Fabriksmädel, “The Factory Girl.”  It even includes a brief scene of workers rising up against their boss – a subject that was highly topical in 1911, with Marxism much discussed and soon to assume control of Russia, but that now seems rather overdone and dated.  The eventual happy ending is oddly contrived: to stop the rebellion of the workers, who are Eva’s protectors (she is a sort of “daughter of the regiment,” factory style), factory owner Octave (Reinhard Alessandri) falsely says he is engaged to her – but he only becomes serious about her a full act later, after Eva has fled to Paris and begun living the life of a demimondaine.  Lehár’s happy ending spares Eva the fate of Verdi’s Violetta, but the whole romance has a false ring to it – except for the utter sincerity and extraordinary beauty of the music.

     And what music it is!  The main waltz from Eva is still heard in concert from time to time, and there is gorgeous love music (however insincere the sentiments seem to be), and rollicking party and Parisian tunes, and some heady coloratura turns both by Eva (Morenike Fadayomi) and by Pipsi (Zora Antonic), the Parisian sophisticate who eventually takes Eva under her wing.  Pipsi and Dagobert (Thomas Malik) are the nominal second couple of the operetta, but Pipsi has had a previous fling with Prunelles (Thomas Zisterer) and has no problem renewing it from time to time.  The result is a level of endorsement of amoral, if not immoral, behavior that makes the sincerity of the main love story in Eva somewhat hard to accept.  But the music is so lovely that one is tempted to agree to anything.

     For all the delights of this performance, the libretto issue is a vexing one.  CPO has in the past produced outstanding recordings of other Lehár works, including complete libretti both for full-length works, such as Zigeunerliebe, and for one-act operettas, such as Frühling.  English speakers who try to follow the multi-tiered three-act Eva through only a brief summary of the action are certain to be frustrated.  Eva is wonderful in many ways; so is this recording.  It would be extra-wonderful if, in the future, CPO finds a way to include dual-language libretti with all its Lehár recordings – or at least to make such libretti available separately to Lehár devotees.

August 10, 2006


Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables from A to Z. By Lois Ehlert. Harcourt. $10.95.

Regarding the Bathrooms: A Privy to the Past. By Kate Klise. Illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. Harcourt. $15.

     Here are two wonderful looks at things involved in different rooms of the house – aimed at different ages, created in ways that are different as can be, and both thoroughly delightful.

     Eating the Alphabet is an oversize board book for kids up to age three.  It’s a delicious look by the ever-wonderful Lois Ehlert at things you probably have in your kitchen, or should consider trying if you haven’t done so yet.  This is a book in which A is not only for the traditional apple but also for artichoke, asparagus and more; B is not just for banana but for bean, beet and broccoli; and so on.  As always, Ehlert’s illustrations beautifully complement her well-chosen text.  How many alphabet books would think of having C stand for currant, E for endive, H for huckleberry, N for nectarine, S for Swiss chard?  Ehlert does not stretch her cleverness too far: some letters have only a single example (D for date, Q for quince).  But some letters get a cornucopia of produce: there are 12 examples for P, covering four pages.  And yes, there is an example for X: xigua, a type of watermelon.  Ehlert’s original version of this book dates back to 1989 and has lost none of its charm.  The new board-book version, filled with delectable colors and pages that can even survive being gummed (briefly), is well made, highly attractive and probably worth using for occasional meal planning.  Okra, jicama, kumquats and radicchio, anyone?

     The Klise sisters’ latest water-related romp, Regarding the Bathrooms, has none of Ehlert’s simplicity and elegance, and needs none.  This is a book for a very different group of readers – ages 9-12 – and it gives the Klises plenty of chances for poop jokes, atrocious puns and the usual craziness that is an everyday occurrence at Geyser Creek Middle School.  The previous three “Regarding” books – on the fountain, the sink and the trees – are excellent preparation for this one, although you don’t really need to have read any of them to enjoy this bathroom book.  The story is told through letters and ads and doodles and logos and pages from “The Geyser Creek Gazette” and drawings made to look like photos.  It involves Roman baths and Bath, England; a sheriff named Mack Rell and fountain designer Flo Waters; an international criminal investigation of nefarious crooks who were captured in an earlier book but have now escaped; an inquiry into how Jawlseedat Mountain got its name; and much more.  What’s the plot?  A better question would be: what are the plots?  As in the other Klise “water” books, this one jumps from place to place and plot to plot with abandon, until everything is neatly pulled together at the end: the mountain, the corrupt policeman, the escaped prisoners, the graffiti-filled bathrooms, and the promise of the next book, which will be called Regarding the Bees.  Bee there.  But first be here.


The Chimpanzees of Happytown. By Giles Andreae. Illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Heifer International: Together. By Dimitrea Tokunbo. Illustrated by Jennifer Gwynne Oliver. Scholastic. $8.99.

Shoo, Fly Guy! By Tedd Arnold. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

     The importance of helping others is a frequent theme of books for young children.  Sometimes it is communicated subtly, sometimes forcefully.  The Chimpanzees of Happytown comes from the subtle side of things.  It’s the story of a dull, gray town without playgrounds or trees or anything much to do except work and mope.  The chimpanzees wear clothes, carry umbrellas, ride in cars, and shop for boring things at dull stores – making the parallel with human life as clear as possible.  There is no explanation of how this place, which at the start of the book is called Drabsville, got that way, but there is someone who keeps it that way: the mayor.  Into this unappetizing town comes a brightly bedecked traveler named Chutney, who decides to plant a tree to relieve all the grayness.  The mayor finds this unacceptable and has Chutney arrested – but the children next door take over care of the seedling, and their cooperation with Chutney leads to a color revolution in which the chimpanzees assert their individuality and their village is renamed Happytown.  Giles Andreae’s tale is a pretty little fable, the moralizing is not laid on too heavily, and even the former mayor – who is ousted, with Chutney taking his place – is eventually brought around.  The illustrations by Guy Parker-Rees are a big reason for the book’s success: the contrast between rain-soaked Drabsville and a Happytown filled with children having fun on fruit-shaped playground equipment is especially enjoyable.

     Enjoyment is not the point of Together, which takes a much more forceful approach to urging cooperation.  Heifer International is a worldwide humanitarian organization that is trying to mitigate the hunger of hundreds of millions of people by giving each poor family in 125 countries a farm animal: a cow to provide milk, a chicken to lay eggs, and so on.  Families are supposed to nurture the animals and, when their animals have babies, pass along a baby animal to another family.  Together is not an overt solicitation for the donations on which Heifer International depends, but parents may see it that way.  Dimitrea Tokunbo’s story is extremely simple, explaining what each animal does (chickens lay eggs, sheep give wool, and so on) and then repeating the refrain, “Giving to me, giving to you,/ together there’s a lot we can do.”  Jennifer Gwynne Oliver provides illustrations that make the animals look cuddly and intelligent, and the book includes information on Heifer International for parents.  Families already supporting this charity and wanting young children to understand why are the most likely to appreciate Together.

     To appreciate Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy series, the main thing you need is a slightly skewed sense of humor.  Fly Guy is simply a fly – although a large and amusingly drawn one, with huge eyes.  And he’s the pet of a boy named Buzz, whose name Fly Guy can say (“buzz,” see?).  Buzz and Fly Guy cooperate in their own way: Buzz plays with Fly Guy and keeps him happy, and Fly Guy eats what Buzz makes for him and doesn’t “bug” the rest of the family.  But in Shoo, Fly Guy! Buzz and his family go on a picnic while Fly Guy is out flying around.  Fly Guy returns home to look for something “brown, oozy, lumpy, and smelly” to eat, but can’t get into the house.  So he goes in search of food – only to be told to “shoo” by everyone whose food he checks out.  There’s a happy ending, though, when Fly Guy finds Buzz at the picnic and Buzz has something special all ready for the fly to enjoy.  What is it?  Well, the book’s title is a clue.  This third Fly Guy adventure is just as weird and silly as the first two: Hi! Fly Guy and Super Fly Guy.  This is one fly you won’t want to swat – or even shoo.


The Centenarian; or, The Two Beringhelds. By Honoré de Balzac. Translated and annotated by Danièle Chatelain and George Slusser. Wesleyan University Press. $29.95.

     Written a mere four years after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and a mere two after Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), Honoré de Balzac’s The Centenarian has fascinating resemblances to both books – and an entirely different perspective.  This is one of the very earliest works of French science fiction, long predating anything by Jules Verne.  It is also very early Balzac: he was only 22 when the work was published under the pseudonym Horace de Saint-Aubin.

     In later years, Balzac disavowed everything he wrote under names other than his own, including this novel.  Certainly the book is a piece of juvenilia, and certainly it does not have the merits of his later work – but it is a fascinating novel nevertheless.  It is also a remarkably fast-paced one in this first-ever English translation, without the paragraph-long sentences that characterize much later Victorian writing.  The language is plain enough and flows well enough so that the book reads quite well, despite some stilted phrasing (presumably original to Balzac): “In an instant, the General had guessed the young girl’s character: her large eyes, round and shining, indicated by their mobility, a soul easily enraptured; her broad forehead, her somewhat thick lips seemed to speak of a heart that was big, generous, and proud with that pride that excludes neither confidence nor affability.”

     The General in that sentence, also called Tullius, is one of the two Beringhelds of the novel’s subtitle.  The other Beringheld is the character that turns this into science fiction: he is a 400-year-old scientist who lives on by extracting a certain vital fluid from living victims.  This elder Beringheld is also the General’s father – not great-great-many-times-removed grandfather, but his actual father – through some additional scientific intervention.

     The crux of the book is the inevitable conflict between the Centenarian and the General, a man of Balzac’s own time who has risen to prominence in Napoleon’s army through demonstrated ability rather than through innate intelligence and aristocratic mien.  Balzac does not explicitly identify the elder Beringheld with the discredited ancien régime, but the parallel is certainly there.  Standing between the society-oriented General and his self-oriented elder is a young woman named Marianine, the pure object of the General’s affections but also a potential source of vital fluids for the Centenarian.  Modern readers will immediately see a parallel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula – but that book dates to 1897, a full 75 years after The Centenarian.  And although Dracula also explores elder darkness in the modern world, Stoker never creates a female character who develops the pluck and steadfastness of Marianine, for it is she who is finally responsible for the Centenarian’s destruction.

     The Centenarian is remarkable in its exploration of then-new scientific concepts and then-current themes (including those common to Gothic novels), and for its anticipation of elements of future SF as well.  The novel sprawls a bit – indeed, more than a bit – and its structure will not please all readers: much of it is a long flashback.  It is repetitious and formulaic in places, and the translators make no attempt to disguise this.  Still, if it is a potboiler, it is a surprisingly effective one, and from a most unexpected source.  Fans of unusual SF will certainly enjoy it.


Kidnapped, Book Two: The Search; Book Three: The Rescue. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $4.99 each.

     What happens after The Abduction?  These two books do: they are the second and third parts of Gordon Korman’s saga of the Falconer kids, Aiden and Meg, and their parents, and some exceedingly nasty but also moderately inept kidnappers.

     In the first book, The Abduction, 11-year-old Meg was snatched by persons unknown while walking with her big brother, Aiden, who therefore feels responsible for what happened and is determined, in The Search, to find Meg himself.  He botches pretty much everything he does – middle books of trilogies have a tendency to contain a lot of running back and forth without getting anywhere – but he certainly shows himself to be plucky, determined, and all that.  So does Meg, who becomes a more interesting character here (though not too interesting: everyone in this trilogy is as conventional a type as you can imagine).  Meg spends much of this book trying to escape on her own, and she actually manages to get away, with help from an unlikely source.  Of course, her escape isn’t entirely successful, because that would end the series one book too soon.  But Korman extracts plenty of melodrama from Meg’s plight – even giving her a bittersweet 12th birthday while in captivity.

     Actually, the entire trilogy is melodrama, and will appeal mostly to preteens whose idea of pacing comes from endless TV-watching.  Kidnapped does move quickly, and it’s certainly full of surprises, especially in The Rescue, which features Korman throwing in just about everything from an international terrorist organization to a deus ex machina – or, to be more precise, an ursus ex machina.  Here we have FBI agents at cross-purposes, Aiden in and out of custody, the Falconer parents suddenly assuming considerable importance as a motive for the kidnapping (but not in the action: these adventure books are strictly for the young), plus questions about hackers, scenes of people lost in a cave, and lots more.  It is absolutely impossible to take any of this seriously, and equally impossible to imagine that there will be anything other than a happy ending.  So it spoils nothing to say that Meg is eventually rescued and the kidnappers foiled.

     Older or more sophisticated readers in the target age range of 9-12 will give this series no more than a (++) rating.  But it appears to be directed mostly at younger readers, at people still looking for summertime escapism, and at readers who want the same sorts of quick cuts and shallow motivations in print that they are used to on television.  Kidnapped is worth a (+++) rating for what appears to be its most likely audience.  With any luck, these will be “gateway books,” getting young readers interested in the action-adventure genre and tempting them to seek out better written, more interestingly plotted works in the future.  One can always hope.


William Primrose: Viola Transcriptions. Roberto Díaz, viola; Robert Koenig, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Lillian Fuchs: Complete Music for Unaccompanied Viola. Jeanne Mallow, viola. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     It was not until the 20th century that the viola really came into its own as a solo instrument.  True, Telemann wrote both viola and two-viola concertos, and both Mozart and Beethoven played the instrument – though neither composed much for it.  True, Berlioz wrote Harold in Italy as a viola showpiece for Paganini, but the great violinist rejected the work as insufficiently virtuosic.  Yes, Brahms wrote his two great op. 120 sonatas for viola and piano in 1894 – but they were actually written first for clarinet, and are more frequently performed as wind pieces.  Then, even later in the century, Richard Strauss gave the solo viola the role of Sancho Panza in his 1897 tone poem Don Quixote, which is cast as a set of variations – but even there, the viola literally played second fiddle…to the cello.

     It was left to 20th-century violist-composer Paul Hindemith to make the solo viola a force to be reckoned with – as it also is in the Viola Concerto by Walton and the unfinished one by Bartók.  But those are still mighty slim pickings for the truly great violists – which is why one of the greatest, William Primrose, decided to arrange some showstoppers of his own.  Roberto Díaz, former principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, now owns Primrose’s Amati viola, and uses it brilliantly on a new Naxos CD.  Because the viola is tuned a fifth below the violin – it lacks an upper E string but has a bottom C string – it has a warmer, richer tone than its smaller cousin (“violin” actually means “little viola”).  That tone is heard to wonderful advantage in the Nocturne from Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2, the fifth of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, and brief pieces by Tchaikovsky and Brahms.  But the viola has a playful side that is far less often presented.  On this CD, it sounds especially good in an arrangement of the “La Campanella” finale from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2.  The longest work here, the four-movement Sarasateana by Efrem Zimbalist, explores both the emotive and the dramatic sides of the viola.  But the most interesting work on the CD also contains a seed of disappointment: Beethoven’s Notturno, op. 42 – an arrangement of his op. 8 Serenade for string trio – has seven movements, but Díaz plays only three, leaving listeners hungry for more.  Still, this CD is a wonderful showcase for an instrument that is more beautiful than many listeners realize.

     The two-CD set of Lillian Fuchs’ complete music for solo viola, played skillfully and lovingly on Fuchs’ Gasparo da Salò viola by Fuchs’ granddaughter, Jeanne Mallow, offers much more of the viola but a much less satisfactory listening experience.  Of the nearly two hours of music here, only the 12-minute Sonata Pastorale was written for performance.  It is a pleasant, unmemorable work with moderate technical demands.  The rest of the pieces here are three sets of studies for violists to use to hone their skills.  Twelve Caprices for Viola is the most technically demanding, Sixteen Fantasy Etudes somewhat less so, and Fifteen Characteristic Studies for Viola the simplest – though scarcely easy.  All these sets of brief pieces thoroughly explore the instrument.  A violist who becomes adept with these works will be skillful in bowing, double stops, harmonics, fugal form and much more.  But the pieces do not sound well for listeners.  They are intended to be played – and quickly become repetitious when merely heard.  This two-CD set deserves a (+++) rating because of the skill of the playing, the interesting technical elements in the works, and the few individual pieces that stand out: the “Doloroso” in the Caprices, the fuga or fugato in each set, the marches in the Etudes and Caprices, the “Perpetuum Mobile” in the Studies.  But the CDs as a whole will be of interest primarily to violists, who may wish to compare their own handling of Fuchs’ studies with that of Mallow.