November 30, 2006


Wintersmith. By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials, Book I. By Philip Pullman. Knopf. $22.95.

     Britain’s best writers apparently write so-called “kids’ books” because children are significantly smarter, more imaginative and more capable of thinking of things in new ways than adults.  Terry Pratchett’s four books for children are more serious and often darker than his many Discworld books for adults, although his trademark wit and humor are always present.  And Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – ostensibly written as children’s literature – is so vast, so awe-inspiring and so fraught with depth as to set the whole notion of “kids’ books” on its ear.  The trilogy’s very title is a quotation from Milton – about as adult a poet as one can find in the English language.

     Wintersmith is Pratchett’s third story of young witch Tiffany Aching and her odd camaraderie-cum-partnership with the Feegles, eponymous (and very blue, and often very drunk) heroes of The Wee Free Men and important characters in A Hat Full of Sky.  The Feegles, whose blue skin reflects Pictish warrior customs and whose constant mangling of the English language reflects Pratchett’s predilections, are under the strictest possible commandment to help Tiffany at all times, because she once saved them from a fate worse than death (perhaps not the right comparison where Feegles are concerned, since they believe they are dead already).  In Wintersmith, the Feegles journey hither and yon, and thither and to th’other place, as they try to help Tiffany untangle herself from the Wintersmith, the spirit of winter, into whose eternal dance with the Summer Lady the young girl inadvertently inserted herself.  As a result of this mistake, Tiffany is partially becoming the Summer Lady, who is partially becoming Tiffany; and the Wintersmith, who may now wrap the whole world eternally in ice, is determined to take Tiffany as his queen by becoming a human man – using a recipe derived from a children’s rhyme.  It’s all stuff and nonsense and quite, quite wonderful, as Tiffany ages (she turns 13); matures (she acknowledges feelings of more than mild interest in Roland, the much-put-upon son of a local baron, who eventually takes a heroic part in Tiffany’s tale); and learns what it really means to be a witch: witches can do magic but spend most of their time trying not to do it, and that puts Tiffany in the awkward position of helping out an unpleasantly whiny and self-centered young witch who thinks magic and witchcraft are the same thing.  Wintersmith slips into traditional kids’-book territory only rarely, when Pratchett cannot resist childish wordplay – “Tiffany was Aching all over” – or creates a character such as Horace the mobile cheese (which the Feegles dress in a kilt).  But the warp and weft of Wintersmith are far from childish, and the pattern Pratchett weaves here is one that adults would do well to observe and understand – if they could be as clever as children.

     There is nothing remotely amusing in The Golden Compass, which is now available as a “Deluxe 10th Anniversary Edition” that contains, in an appendix, facsimiles of some of Lord Asriel’s papers as donated to the Jordan College Library.  The names Asriel and Jordan will not mean a thing to someone in the enviable position of encountering this book for the first time – and that is just as well, for there is so much to discover (or rediscover) here that the papers are merely…well, appendages.  What is central to this book is the character of Lyra Belacqua, who has depth and understanding far beyond what most adults will ever muster.  An even stronger character than Tiffany Aching, Lyra lacks Tiffany’s humor – there is much wit but only an occasional flash of fun in The Golden Compass – but has far more than Tiffany’s share of knowledge, mystery and portentousness (which is not to be confused with pretentiousness).  Pullman called this book Northern Lights for its British publication, and in fact its climax is every bit as wintry as anything the Wintersmith could think up.  But it is people – yes, including people who would be gods – who are the truly chilling ones here, their emotions and motivations frozen beneath a kind of psychological ice through which Lyra can pick her way only uncertainly, with the aid of her alethiometer, the Golden Compass of the title.  The book is entirely too rich to encapsulate, pervaded as it is with wonders in every bit of everyday life: the dæmons of Lyra’s world, external animal accompanists of every character’s life and expressions of important aspects of his or her being, are but a single example.  This is also the book in which Pullman introduces the mystery of Dust, whose solution has such shattering emotional impact later in the trilogy.  There is, in fact, nothing remotely childish about The Golden Compass, which may explain how it slipped under the radar of many parents to capture and captivate their kids – kids who now, a decade later, are grown or nearly grown, and have hopefully retained at least some of the sense of wonder with which Pullman so gently, so insidiously, so brilliantly infected them.


The Masque of Maňana. By Robert Sheckley. NESFA Press. $29.

     Science fiction is such a doggoned serious field.  It started with all those worried projections about where the world was going (H.G. Wells) and all those concerns about the interaction between human nature and technology (Jules Verne).  During the 20th century, it moved through periods of optimism and pessimism, but always with an underlying serious mien.  SF readers could be forgiven if they wanted a writer who would occasionally make them smile rather than scowl.

     Isaac Asimov did just that periodically, but the writer who did it more consistently than any other was Robert Sheckley.  Sheckley was essentially a short-story writer, although he also wrote some darned good novels – after realizing that he couldn’t make much of a living with the shorter form.  NESFA Press collected five of the novels as Dimensions of Sheckley, and they have some wonderful parts, from the bizarre intensity of Immortality Inc., to the strange-and-stranger scenes in Dimension of Miracles (which looks directly ahead toward Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), to the marvelous turning-in-on-itself plot complexities of Minotaur Maze.  But in truth, all the novels also have parts that drag, and their endings tend to be less than satisfactory.

     Not so the short stories, which NESFA Press collected because of the honors being given to Sheckley at the World Science Fiction Convention last year.  It proved to be the last such convention during Sheckley’s lifetime: he died in December 2005 at the age of 77, after a career spanning more than half a century.

     Many of the best productions of that career are in The Masque of Maňana.  Sheckley’s short stories were influential in a number of ways, most of them odd: “Seventh Victim” was filmed as The Tenth Victim, including a memorable scene of Ursula Andress (the first Bond girl) firing a gun through her bra; the story also inspired the RPG (role-playing game) “Assassin.”  “The Prize of Peril” predicted the advent of today’s television reality shows (it was written in 1958!) – and was made into two separate movies, one in Germany and one in France.  And so on.

     Much of what made Sheckley unique was the humorous slant he took on SF conventions in general and the specific requirements of the field in particular.  Among the 41 stories in The Masque of Maňana are “The Language of Love,” which turns out to be a language you don’t want to learn; “A Ticket to Tranai,” which suggests what might happen if Utopia were created for humans as they are, not as utopian idealists believe they should be; “The Accountant,” in which black wizards and demons are confronted by the even-more-terrifying prospect of numbers; “Fool’s Mate,” in which the traditional heroic idea of Earth winning a battle in space is turned on its head by relying entirely on being illogical; “Pilgrimage to Earth,” a genuinely disturbing story whose alternative title, “Love, Incorporated,” gives a better idea of just what the visitor to Earth finds ultimately hollow; “All the Things You Are,” in which it turns out that the greatest barrier to successful contact between humans and aliens is the fact that humans are, well, human; “A Wind Is Rising,” in which humans on a distant planet heroically confront a raging weather system and barely, but triumphantly, survive – only to find out that they haven’t seen anything yet; and many other similarly clever, engaging, offbeat and unusual tales.  There are enough wonderful Sheckley short stories not collected here to allow NESFA Press to put out another book, if it so wishes – perhaps a Sheckley memorial edition.  That one should definitely contain such gems as “Protection,” in which a man is warned of deadly danger unless he avoids doing something – but the “something” is never explained to him.

     Robert Sheckley’s short stories, in general, require little explanation, and that is a major reason for their enduring charm.  Sheckley’s humor is almost always good-natured – there was very little that was sarcastic or cutting about him – and for that reason, his works are fun to read even when the amusing elements conceal some fairly serious critiques of society.  The Masque of Maňana is a fine introduction to Sheckley for those who do not yet know his work, and a wonderful remembrance of him for those who do.


Another Stereotype Bites the Dust: A “Candorville” Collection. By Darrin Bell. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

Let’s Get Pickled! A “Pickles” Collection. By Brian Crane. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

The Flying McCoys: Comics for a Bold New World. By Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

A Million Little Pieces of “Close to Home.” By John McPherson. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

     There’s much to be said for niche comics.  True, there’s much to be said against them: audience fragmentation, loss of the sort of common experience that readers used to get from Little Orphan Annie or Dick Tracy, drawings specifically designed to be exclusionary of everyone not in the “in” group at which they are targeted, and so on.  But really, comics did not create fragmentation in their audience – that came first, and cartoonists followed the trend.  And the nice thing about “narrowcast” comics (as opposed to traditional “broadcast” ones) is that even if you have a particular (or even peculiar) perspective, you can probably find something that matches it.

     Candorville, for example, features black and Latina characters, and it has a strong (but not overbearing) political viewpoint.  Darrin Bell – who also co-creates Rudy Park, a strip with a political angle of its own – scores effectively when he reflects similar words through the ages.  For example, he takes a claim of success in Iraq in one panel, turns it into a similar claim about Vietnam in the next, then one about World War II, and one about India under British rule, and one about the American colonies before the Revolution, and finally one about the “pitiful Visigoth savages” who have no chance against Rome.  By using the same characters in each panel, and changing their costumes, he scores a telling point.  And this isn’t even Bell’s best stuff.  Even better are panels in which a character says one thing while thinking another; or characters interact one way on the surface while having entirely different concerns underneath; or read a book called “Ignorance for Dummies”; or cope with the everyday humiliations of modern life, from identity theft to the impossibility of reaching a human being when calling customer service.  Candorville has heart, soul and smarts – a winning combination.

     But suppose Bell is a bit urban and a bit political for you.  How about a nice suburban-family strip with the focus, for a change, on the grandparents?  That would be Pickles, which features Opal and Earl and their grandson, Nelson, who lives next door with his mom, Sylvia, and her husband, Dan.  Opal, Earl and Nelson are the core of the strip, although the grandparents’ dog, Roscoe, and cat, Muffin, play starring roles as well.  The humor here is of the gentle variety and is often silly: Earl stands in a bank shouting random amounts of money while people fill out deposit and withdrawal slips; Opal accidentally calls Earl by the dog’s name, but Nelson says that’s okay because Opal really likes the dog; Opal joins the Red Hat Society, which Earl insists on calling the Mad Hatter Society.  There’s little here of overwhelming significance, but it’s all pleasantly enjoyable.

     Now suppose you prefer a quick hit of humor, single-panel style, rather than a daily multi-panel strip.  If you want the humor really strange, you turn to The Flying McCoys.  If you want it odd but just near enough to reality to make you think twice, you look for Close to Home.  Both neatly encapsulate one oddball thought or another in a single daily panel.  Just how oddball the McCoy brothers are is shown in the dedication of their new collection, which thanks, among many others, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Boris Karloff, Don Knotts, Monty Python, Norman Rockwell, Hunter Thompson and Mark Twain.  Funny thing: you can actually pick up all those influences if you look hard enough.  Mostly, though, you look at The Flying McCoys for bizarre takes on almost everything.  In one panel, the Israelites question the handwriting on an 11th commandment saying they must give Moses foot rubs.  In another, a man at a bar laments, “My ex-wife’s lawyer doesn’t understand me.”  Elsewhere, the Scarecrow tells the Wizard of Oz that he no longer wants brains – just a tummy tuck and butt implants.  This is strange and often wonderful stuff.

     Close to Home is strange, too, but in a different way.  Here you find “The Culinary Institute of Hospital, Penitentiary and Airline Cuisine,” and Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” offered with surround-sound, and applicants for a sales job during “the critical brownnosing portion of the interview,” and in-house day care at Velcro Corp. (in which parents neatly stick their kids to the wall).  Who’s to say these things don’t exist, or won’t be created soon?  If The Flying McCoys stays far from reality, Close to Home stays almost on top of it.


The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil. By Wiley Miller. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $14.99.

Dear Dumb Diary Boxed Set. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $19.96.

Our Dumb Diary, A Journal to Share. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $7.99.

     Exaggeration can be fun.  A lot of books for kids make it their main stock-in-trade – and when done well, it can lead to an enjoyable reading experience.  That’s what you get in The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil by Wiley Miller, the cartoonist who draws Non Sequitur.  Basil, a boy so ordinary that he is named after an herb, manages in 128 pages to solve the mystery of Atlantis, foil a plot to take over the world, take a ride on a pteranodon and learn about the thermablat.  Not much ordinary there, and that of course is Miller’s point: even someone who seems ordinary can have the most extraordinary adventures.  But this is not a “message” book, since the story is played for its adventure and amusement value rather than for a chance to show children that (for example) everyone is extraordinary in some way.  So far, so good.  But unlike Non Sequitur, in which these adventures originally appeared as Sunday vertical-format strips, the book seems a little flat.  Basil is not an especially appealing hero: he doesn’t smile, and he is willfully oblivious to the unusual things that already exist in his supposedly ordinary life (the fact that he and his family live in a lighthouse, for instance).  As a comic strip, this story was a delight, with crowded panels bristling with words and detailed drawings of bizarre people and locations.  In narrative form, with the pictures sprinkled traditionally on typeset pages, the whole thing pales a bit.  But it’s still fun.

     Jim Benton’s Dear Dumb Diary series is fun, too, in its own one-dimensional way.  The four books in the series to date – now available in a single convenient if oddly priced boxed set – are narratives of the middle-school angst of Jamie Kelly, who starts each book by warning parents and non-friends not to read it, then chronicles all the happenings and (mostly) mishaps of her sort-of-everyday life.  A lot of her problems revolve around Angeline, the prototypical perfect person: beautiful and rich and sweet and generous and oh-so-annoying.  By the fourth book – Never Do Anything, Ever – Jamie sees a positive side of Angeline at last.  But in the first three – Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, My Pants Are Haunted! and Am I the Princess or the Frog? – Angeline takes on more of an arch-enemy role.  Jamie also deals with friendship and boy crises, clumsiness, and her general anger (of an amusing sort) at the fact that things don’t go her way all the time.  She’s a likable character, and kids who really like her will enjoy Our Dumb Diary, A Journal to Share, which gives them a chance to relate their own lives to Jamie’s.  The spiral-bound book starts with the usual warning about who should or should not read it.  Then, instead of blank pages, it includes fill-in-the-blanks pages based on the four Dear Dumb Diary books.  Example: “Would you rather watch someone who is so perfect that the word ‘perfect’ is not perfect enough for her as she flirts with your crush, or get sent to the nurse’s office for a little lie-down time on the cot during art class?”  This journal can be more fun than most, as when it asks for a listing of the “times you’ve been the victim of gigglecide,” defined as “that thing when somebody grabs you by the shoulders and makes little stampy stomps and shakes their head around and squeals those happy, giggly, shrill sounds that make puppies pee.”  Okay, this is scarcely profound.  But it’s cute in its own way.


The New Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children. By John Rosemond. Andrews McMeel. $24.95.

Raising Gifted Kids: Everything You Need to Know to Help Your Exceptional Child Thrive. By Barbara Klein, Ph.D. AMACOM. $16.95.

     Many parents wish that children came with instruction manuals.  Wish granted!  Of course, you still have to read the books, figure out if they apply to your particular family, and then implement the recommendations.  But, after all, you have to do much the same with anything programmable – a cell phone or DVD recorder, for instance.

     Ah, but children are not programmable, at least not in any reasonably straightforward way.  So it would be a mistake to believe that either of these books can simply be taken at face value and used with your own kids.  Still, both books make a number of good points and can help you decide what you actually want to do.

     The New Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children is an update of a book originally published more than 15 years ago, but as family psychologist John Rosemond explains, that doesn’t matter much: “I’m trying to turn the clock back. …I am absolutely, without a shred of doubt, convinced that parenting was stronger fifty years ago than it is today, and that children were stronger as a result.”  If you disagree with this belief – and it is a belief, not an incontrovertible fact – then Rosemond’s book is decidedly not for you.  But if you think it’s worth trying some old-fashioned ideas because they have stood the test of time, then you’ll find the book appealing.  Rosemond’s core belief is that “the secret to raising a happy, healthy child is to give more attention to your marriage than you give to your child – a lot more, in fact.”  This will strike some modern parents as selfishness, while others will find that it confirms their instincts.  Rosemond argues that parents must love their kids unconditionally but must also make sure they behave properly, disciplining them “with power and purpose.”  Benevolent dictatorship is the family model that Rosemond favors, and he argues with some intensity that it succeeds – using his own family as a prime example (he has two adult children and six grandchildren).  Rosemond has little patience with medicating children or asking for special consideration if they have difficulty in school.  Sufficiently firm parenting is what works, he says.  This means, among other things, no TV (the Rosemonds gave theirs to charity without telling their kids), no video games, and no computer-based learning.  Rosemond is an advocate – director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting – and tends to be dogmatic.  His book will appeal mostly to like-minded people and to parents who are floundering and unsure of themselves.

     Rosemond believes that all children are gifted, but that poor parenting and external influences such as television dilute their gifts.  Barbara Klein adopts a different and more conventional definition of gifted kids: they are extremely bright and, for that reason, uniquely challenged by an educational environment that all too often focuses on slow and troubled learners at the expense of kids who learn quickly and well, then come back for more.  Gifted children, Klein points out, dislike routine tasks, are easily bored, and tend to be introspective and sensitive.  Klein’s acknowledgment of the special difficulties of raising gifted children is welcome, as is her call for more resources for their benefit – and for parents to consider home schooling if needed aids are not available.  But that recommendation, like some of her others, may be a stretch, if not impossible, for many families.  How, for example, are parents supposed to determine whether programs for the gifted are good for their kids, or too high-pressure, and how can parents locate schools with “a project based approach to learning, which allows for creativity and problem solving” and is Klein’s ideal environment?  Klein also is sometimes self-contradictory, downplaying the importance of IQ scores but also stating that an IQ above 132 means a child is gifted, 145-plus is “highly gifted” and 160-plus is “profoundly gifted.”  Thus, as with any parenting book, Klein’s needs to be read carefully: parents should sort through the elements useful in their particular situation and pass over the rest.  Raising Gifted Kids contains some clearly valuable information – for example, the fact that a gifted child can be outstanding in a specific area but quite immature in others – but, its “everything you need to know” claim notwithstanding, neither it nor any other book is a perfect instruction manual for raising your particular child.


Handel: Messiah. Soloists, Academy of Ancient Music and Choir of New College Oxford conducted by Edward Higginbottom. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Handel’s Messiah has been played by orchestras large and small, sung by choruses tiny and huge, cut and pasted every which way, and “improved” in both fascinating ways (by Mozart) and unpleasant ones (by Victorians and post-Victorians).  It had no direct liturgical purpose, but is closest to an Easter oratorio – yet it has become inextricably linked to Christmas season, and this work of profoundly gorgeous choral writing is frequently turned into a sing-along during the winter holidays.  Messiah has, in short, been abused, misused, underused and overused – and, happily, in recent years has been properly used, at least in recorded form, with chorus and orchestra of the right size for the work and soloists able to scale its considerable vocal heights and handle Handel’s formidable ornamentation expectations (many of the vocal displays were originally supposed to be improvised during performance).

     Yet never, until this new Naxos recording, has Messiah been heard in the form in which Handel himself directed it in London in April and May of 1751.  For that year’s London performances, Handel used boys’ voices rather than adults’ – not only in the chorus but also for all the high arias.  Given the difficulty of finding adult singers who can manage this work, the task of finding young boys who can do so would seem well-nigh impossible.  But Edward Higginbottom has succeeded.  Yes, there are the requisite adult voices for the lower parts – tenor Toby Spence and bass Eamonn Dougan – and there is, for the alto arias, a fine countertenor (Iestyn Davies).  But the highest voices, the trebles, belong to three boys who are obviously well schooled in the British chapel choir tradition: Henry Jenkinson, Otta Jones and Robert Brooks.  There is an openness and refreshing naïveté to the boys’ singing that provides a level of clarity and joy often missing when adults sing these roles – much as the use of a boy in the final movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (an approach favored by Leonard Bernstein) gives added poignancy and lightness to that movement’s song of heavenly life.

     In Messiah, the tale is of earthly life on the verge of becoming heavenly, and the boys’ light voices fit the story perfectly.  It is easy to find minor points of intonation or ornamentation with which to quibble, but they are minor points: these boys have learned the music well, they sing it with feeling, and their sound actually provides something quite rare these days – a Messiah that truly seems different from all the others.

     The boys’ singing alone would not be enough to make this recording a success, of course; but happily, the other soloists, chorus and Academy of Ancient Music are all top-notch, playing at lively tempos that communicate the joy of the entire Messiah story while reserving plenty of seriousness for times when it is required – but without letting anything drag.  Yes, this recording is a curiosity, but so were Handel’s 1751 performances (no one knows why he used trebles for the arias at that time).  What is important is that this is not just a curiosity: it is a fine presentation of Messiah, well played and well sung, and entirely worthwhile on its own terms.

November 22, 2006


Jam-Packed FoxTrot. By Bill Amend. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

Heckuva Job, Bushie! A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $19.95.

The War Within: One More Step at a Time. A “Doonesbury” Book. By G.B. Trudeau. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

     The oversize collections of comics that Andrews McMeel calls “Treasuries” serve up heaping helpings of a cartoonist’s work – and can turn episodic daily newspaper strips into something akin to graphic novels.  It is not easy for cartoonists to produce a daily three-or-four-panel strip that works as a self-contained entity, with some sort of punch line, and also as part of a longer narrative.  But today’s top cartoonists do just that seven days a week – frequently, as in the case of Bill Amend, by creating comedies of character.  Day after day, the characters in Amend’s FoxTrot remain true to type.  Anyone who understands the dynamics of the strip – with which a new reader can familiarize himself or herself quickly – will realize that the interplay of Fox family members is the consistent background against which individual strips or strip sequences take place.  Jam-Packed FoxTrot, like most “Treasury” volumes, is a reprint: Sunday strips are in color, but otherwise the book is identical to three smaller-format ones called Orlando Bloom Has Ruined Everything, My Hot Dog Went Out—Can I Have Another? and How Come I’m Always Luigi?  The comedy flows naturally from the family members’ personalities: golf-obsessed, generally ineffective father Roger; health-food-and-soap-opera-addicted mother Andy; bottomless-stomach, thin-as-a-rail, sports-wannabe son Peter; fashion-and-boy-obsessed daughter Paige; and super-nerd Jason, around whom the rest of the family’s antics usually revolve.  For example, Jason tries to stave off spring by dumping ice cubes on a melting snowman; writes an apology on the blackboard once, then writes code in chalk that would replicate the apology 500 times; creates study aids with wrong answers to sell to lesser students, so he will have more repeat business; makes a “ninjabread man” that attacks the other cookies; and much more.  Occasional offbeat stories – such as an “ink shortage” sequence featuring mostly white panels – offer a pleasant change of pace.

     “Pleasant” is scarcely the adjective for Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, which has spent more than three decades skewering societal trends and, in particular, self-important and hypocritical politicians.  Trudeau is all too easily dismissed as an old-fashioned leftist, but in fact his contempt for the people that we Americans elect to represent us crosses party lines: this is the cartoonist whose icon for former President Clinton was a floating waffle, often dripping with butter and syrup.  In recent years, with Republicans controlling the three branches of the federal government, Trudeau’s satire has of course been directed at the G.O.P. most of the time.  That’s certainly evident in the new “Treasury” volume, Heckuva Job, Bushie! – which not only gets in jabs at the president and his supporters, but also takes an intense look at the soldiers serving in Iraq and the recruiters trying to bring more people into the military (Mike Doonesbury’s daughter, Alex, seriously considers enlisting).  A lot of Doonesbury does not wear especially well, because it’s just too topical: detailed considerations of the nomination of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador and the day-to-day foibles of former congressman Tom DeLay no longer have much impact.  But Trudeau’s technique of hopscotching among his characters – changing focus and story lines every few weeks – means there is plenty here to enjoy, and to think through.

     The War Within is a smaller-size book that picks up a single, highly emotional story line from the “Treasury” – the attempt of B.D., after his loss of a leg in Iraq, to return to civilian life and be rehabilitated both physically and psychologically.  A successor to The Long Road Home: One Step at a Time, the new book packs every bit as big an emotional wallop as the first one did.  And again, Trudeau is donating his proceeds from this book to Fisher House, where families can stay while their service members are being rehabilitated nearby.  Trudeau obviously respects the people who are fighting overseas as much as he hates the policies that put them in Iraq and Afghanistan (he was no big fan of the Vietnam war, either).  The War Within is a work of rare sensitivity and genuine caring – it shows just how powerful a comic strip can be.


James Houston’s Treasury of Inuit Legends. By James Houston. Harcourt. $18.

Tales of Deltora. By Emily Rodda. Illustrations by Marc McBride. Scholastic. $14.99.

Rainbow Magic: The Weather Fairies. No. 2: Abigail the Breeze Fairy; No. 3: Pearl the Cloud Fairy; No. 4: Goldie the Sunshine Fairy; No. 5: Evie the Mist Fairy. By Daisy Meadows. Little Apple/Scholastic. $4.99 each.

     Magic can be an integral part of life or a gateway to a life outside the mundane.  For the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, magic is everywhere in folklore and, by extension, everywhere in life – if perhaps just out of reach a great deal of the time.  James Houston lived among the Inuit for 14 years, starting in 1948, and subsequently produced stories and art inspired by his time with people of great warmth in a land of great cold.  James Houston’s Treasury of Inuit Legends collects four stories originally published between 1965 and 1971.  All are sensitively told, set with clarity in a land where a single misstep can mean a frozen death, and quite unlike most legends that readers ages eight and up are likely to find elsewhere.  The subject matter reflects the everyday life of the people who told Houston these stories. Tiktaliktak is about a young hunter who is carried out to sea on a drifting ice floe.  The White Archer is about a youth who trains for years to become a great archer and take revenge on warriors who attacked his family – although the old man who teaches him points out, “A man does not just kill because he is a clever hunter.  He succeeds in the hunt only if he is a good man, a wise man, who obeys the rules of life.”  Akavak is about a dangerous journey to a distant land, in which a boy accompanies his grandfather (the importance of elders to the Inuit is clear throughout these tales).  And Wolf Run is about a desperate hunt for food, in which a young boy succeeds by remembering his grandmother’s lesson – and treating wolves with great respect.  This is an unusual and deeply satisfying book.

     Tales of Deltora is much more conventional: the magic here is used to establish another world and to cause or stop battles within it.  The world of Deltora shows its roots in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth quite clearly: an implacably evil magician, whose sole desire is power and domination, subdues the lands north of a mountain range (called the Shadowlands) and then seeks to conquer all the lands south of the mountains as well.  He uses evil flying beasts that he has himself created, and shambling, subhuman warriors who live only to fight and will never retreat.  The parallels with Tolkien are almost embarrassingly extensive, but Tales of Deltora proves a much better book for young readers than a brief overview of Emily Rodda’s plot indicates.  For one thing, Marc McBride’s illustrations are far better than the words – the book is beautiful to look at and handsomely produced.  For another thing, Rodda occasionally creates a chapter of real power, such as one in which the hero, Adin, gets mysterious help when he needs to cross a broad river.  And for one more thing, the book’s underlying message is an attractive one: the whole story is about Adin’s dreamed knowledge of the importance of uniting the seven tribes south of the mountains, which cannot stand against the Shadowlands individually but have hope if they can overcome lifelong suspicion and work together.  This is a powerful and uplifting message, if scarcely a new one.  Rodda works well with it – although the book’s final chapter, which exists only to set up a sequel, is really overdone.

     For young readers enamored of magic without darkness, the Rainbow Magic: The Weather Fairies series offers quick reads of very similar books whose plots are super-easy to follow.  This series rates (+++) for first and second graders – older kids are unlikely to find it appealing.  The series began with friends Rachel and Kirsty helping Crystal the Snow Fairy recover one of the seven feathers stolen by Jack Frost from a magical weathervane.  The second through fifth books – there will be seven in all – keep the pattern going, as the girls search for Jack Frost’s non-scary goblin assistants (whose powers involve such things as smelly burps and using fog to spoil a race, and who are vulnerable to such attacks as tickling).  There’s nothing serious at all in these mildly magical books, but there’s certainly some fun and a bit of nonthreatening adventure for girls who wish they could see (and help out) a fairy now and then.


Wide Awake. By David Levithan. Knopf. $18.95.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. By John Boyne. David Fickling Books. $15.95.

The Amazing Life of Birds (The Twenty-Day Puberty Journal of Duane Homer Leech). By Gary Paulsen. Wendy Lamb Books. $13.95.

     “Chick lit” for teens and preteens is a recognized form these days, but there is no comparable genre for guys in the same age group.  Perhaps that is because so many books about boys’ experiences are so different from each other that it is hard to come up with a category to encompass large numbers of them.  Wide Awake, for example, is all about the election of the first gay Jewish president of the United States, and of what that means to two gay teenagers, Duncan and Jimmy.  No, this one isn’t for everyone, although it’s as well-written and well-paced as David Levithan’s prior book – Boy Meets Boy, which was his debut novel.  The gay theme is important here, but readers need a strong interest in politics as well, especially the sort of lawyer-driven, recount-focused politics we have seen in the last two presidential elections.  What happens is that Abraham Stein appears to have been elected, but he won only because of a thin margin in Kansas, whose governor is insisting on a recount of the votes in his state.  Levithan says the book takes place in the near future, but it clearly echoes the past – and, equally clearly, it is hard to imagine any near future in which a gay Jewish presidential candidate is even nominated, much less elected (or apparently elected).  In any case, the election quickly becomes less important in the book than its effect on the relationship of Duncan and Jimmy, both of whom worked for Stein and both of whom were prepared to celebrate the victory – but who respond very differently when the results are called into question.  So this is a book about politics, about being gay, about relationships in general, and about what it means to be a citizen of the United States – no small themes here.

     Nor is there anything thematically small about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, even though the story is actually a microcosm – of nothing less than the Holocaust.  John Boyne’s novel is about nine-year-old Bruno, whose father gets a new job that requires the whole family to move from Berlin to a place that the father calls “Out-With.”  The book involves the slow discovery by Bruno that he is in a place where something is not right, where some people – unlike his own family – are spoken to harshly, are casually mistreated, and wear clothing and symbols that mark them as “other.”  The interactions at Out-With take on a surrealistic and dangerous quality, as when a lieutenant is sharply questioned about his dad by Bruno’s father, and Bruno himself has to say that a friend he has made is imaginary so as not to…not to what?  Bruno is not quite sure what is going on – and his uncertainty, coupled with his desire for friendship, leads to a small tragedy that effectively reflects the huge, almost incomprehensible evil of the Holocaust.  Readers will guess what will happen long before Boyne makes it happen; but this novel is moving and intense even when you realize how carefully Boyne is manipulating his characters – and his readers.

     Yet not all books with boy protagonists are serious, or deal with intense subject matter – far from it.  Gary Paulsen’s The Amazing Life of Birds is about something that all boys go through – puberty – and is written in the flippant style typical of many of Paulsen’s books.  This short novel, intended for ages 10-14, is laid out as a day-by-day recounting of 20 days in the life of Duane Homer Leech, who has just turned 12 and is trying to figure out what is going on with his body and mind.  He has a dream in which he sits in a huge bird’s nest watching a movie on TV.  He develops pimples, leading to this: “Must go, I thought, must find master, must find Puberty Master and kill him.  Zit Monster must have revenge.  Arrgh!”  He deals with his changing voice, his preoccupation with elbows, his tendency to fall over, his inability to talk to girls, the Desiccated Dinosaur Droppings served in the school cafeteria – and his preoccupation with birds.  Yes, “birds” as in “girls,” but also “birds” as in “flying feathered creatures,” which come into his mind at the strangest times.  In fact, lots of Duane’s times are strange: “Any little difficulty, something that would be a minor glitch in some other life, went nuclear in mine.”  What boy hasn’t felt this way at (and after) puberty?  Paulsen’s ability to make Duane’s sufferings amusing – without in any way minimizing the embarrassment that Duane feels continuously – results in a book that, as overdone as its narrative is, manages to come to a reasonably happy (if reasonably inconclusive) ending.


The Nature of Leadership: Reptiles, Mammals, and the Challenge of Becoming a Great Leader. By B. Joseph White with Yaron Prywes. AMACOM. $21.95.

Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy and Its Aftermath. By John C. Esposito. Da Capo. $15.95.

     Every book about business leadership seems to have a different gimmick to help disguise the fact that it is making many of the same recommendations found in other books on the same topic.  B. Joseph White, president of the University of Illinois, offers a reptile-mammal contrast as his gimmick – although it should be noted that this conceit is ill served by the book’s cover, which shows a majestic lion but only a small, unassuming lizard (why not a Komodo dragon?).  Abetted by organizational consultant Yaron Prywes, White recommends a leadership style that draws on the analytical, rational and tough “reptilian” characteristics and combines them with the nurturing, participatory “mammalian” ones.  It’s best not to consider these images too closely, or one will notice that reptiles are driven largely by instinct, not analysis (and certainly not rationality) – and that many of them, such as pythons and alligators, are effective nurturers of their young.  And then there all those mammals – rodents in particular – that regularly eat some of their young.  So this book’s concept – its “grabber,” if you will – is perhaps even sillier than most.  But the book is saved by the quality of its advice and its unusually practical orientation (more than might have been expected from someone in academia).  White’s five qualities of great leaders, for example, are well thought out and well presented: innovation, willingness to take risks, ability to spot and attract top talent, a sense of the larger context within which an immediate challenge presents itself, and the ability to cut people and resources appropriately when necessary.  None of these qualities is newly discovered – the “larger context” idea, for example, is essentially the same as being able to determine whether something is urgent, important or both.  But White presents them well, and his comment that a possessor of all the recommended qualities still needs a “sparkle factor” to be considered a great leader is worth remembering.  Charisma, whether you consider it reptilian or mammalian, does count.

     Charisma, leadership and old-fashioned honesty were in extremely short supply in Boston during World War II – a state of affairs, says John C. Esposito, that was largely responsible for the city’s worst disaster.  On November 28, 1942, the worst nightclub fire in U.S. history hit Boston’s No. 1 nightspot, the Cocoanut Grove, killing 492 people – almost half of all the revelers and staff in the building.  Fire in the Grove not only details the horrific event itself but also looks at the sociopolitical climate in which it occurred and the aftereffects, some of them lasting, of what happened.  This is a story of the speed with which tragedy occurs: the victims were dead or doomed within a mere eight minutes after an imitation palm tree caught fire.  It is a story of the heroic efforts of doctors to save burn victims – improvising some treatment techniques that later became standard.  And it is a story of the cronyism and barely concealed corruption that famously pervaded Boston life at the time – and for many years afterwards, despite the public outcry after the fire.  Esposito, an attorney and consumer advocate, takes a somewhat lawyerly, lecturing tone in parts of the book, and never quite explains why people unfamiliar with this tragedy should want to explore it in such detail.  Still, for those who are familiar with the Cocoanut Grove fire – and see echoes of it even today, as in the fire in 2003 at The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island, which claimed 100 lives and which Esposito mentions at the end of his book – Fire in the Grove will stand as a thorough exploration of a major tragedy and a clarion call for stronger building codes and better, more honest code enforcement.


Microsoft Natural Wireless Laser Mouse 6000. Microsoft. $79.95.

Microsoft LifeCam NX-6000. Microsoft. $99.95.

     Everyone knows about Microsoft’s domination in operating-system and business-application software, and computer users tend to love or loathe the company because of the ubiquity of its products and the fact that it dominates so many software sectors.

     But under most people’s radar, inspiring no fear or loathing and not as much attention as it deserves, is the hardware part of Microsoft, which consistently turns out high-quality, competitively priced enhancements for PCs (and some for Macs) – and is actually in the forefront of the development of certain product features.  This is the Microsoft that more people should know, and two of its new offerings show why.

     Microsoft Natural Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is one of the strangest-looking mice you are likely to see.  Rounded, with a surface elevated much more than is usual in a mouse, and with a vertical right side – like the dropoff of a cliff at the ocean – it looks tall and ungainly.  But darned if the thing doesn’t work beautifully and, after a short period of adjustment, feel so comfortable that other mice seem like aberrations.  It turns out that this mouse has been very carefully thought out.  The rounded and elevated shape lets your fingers relax and curl instead of sticking out nearly straight – that straightening is associated with hand cramps and tiredness after long use of a mouse.  The strange-looking vertical right side lets your hand rest on the desk while your fingers use the device (this mouse is only for right-handers).  There’s a thumb scoop on the mouse’s left side, an inch above the desk, which turns out to be just the right height to keep your hand in a sort of “handshake” position – which is supposed to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome by minimizing pressure on nerves in the carpal-tunnel area.  It’s impossible to be sure, without long-term use, how well this mouse protects against carpal tunnel syndrome, but it is possible to say that users who have often experienced hand tiredness and cramping after marathon computer sessions will find their hands feeling surprisingly relaxed if they use this mouse instead of one with a standard shape.  It has some neat operating features, too: an “instant viewer” tool that displays all open windows at the same time, so you can switch from place to place easily, and a two-color battery-life indicator that is much more convenient than the typical battery-life software programs provided with other wireless mice.  This mouse works on both Windows and Macintosh computers, too.  And it is compatible with the new Windows Vista operating system.

     Because computer users are so accustomed to the shape of traditional mice, it does take some time to adapt to the Microsoft Natural Wireless Laser Mouse 6000, but once you do so, you will find it hard (and perhaps painful) to return to a standard mouse.  The adaptation time is a minor concern.  But there are a couple of others: this mouse is not available bundled with one of Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboards, which is a shame – perhaps that is a cost decision, since the mouse is not inexpensive (another factor to consider).  Also, the mouse is rather ungainly to use with a laptop, and is not available in a smaller size for traveling – it may not be possible to put the ergonomic features into a smaller mouse, but it would be nice to see Microsoft try.  And how about a version for left-handers?  The biggest problem with this product, though, is that you can’t buy it just yet: it won’t be widely available until January.  Strongly consider using a holiday gift card for this mouse in the new year – your right hand will thank you.

     A Microsoft hardware product that you can buy right now – although it is for Windows laptop PCs only – is Microsoft LifeCam NX-6000.  This is an enhancement to the computing experience rather than an improvement in a necessary function.  And it happens to be a lot of fun.  Many companies make webcams, and a lot of them cost less than this one.  But Microsoft packs a lot more into this top-of-the-line, wired LifeCam than you’ll find elsewhere.  The camera not only delivers 2.0 megapixel video but also works as a still camera with impressive quality (7.6 megapixels interpolated).  It’s got an easy-to-use attachment base that you can secure with one hand; a collapsible lens that lets you carry the camera as easily as a keychain drive (which it resembles); a 3x digital zoom; and a wide-angle lens with automatic face-tracking feature, for ease of use (you can actually teleconference with this camera – it’s not a toy, even though it’s fun to use).

     However, to get the most out of this camera, you’ll have to use Microsoft software as well as this hardware, and not everyone will be comfortable with that.  The advantages to doing so are many.  This LifeCam has a one-touch-blogging feature for easy posting of photos – but it is designed for Windows Live Spaces sites.  It has easy-to-use dashboard controls – but they are for the Windows Live Messenger interface.  It has a very clever feature called Windows Live Call Button, which lets you see which buddies are online so you can quickly initiate video calls – but it works only with Windows Live Messenger.  Every feature on the Microsoft LifeCam NX-6000 works well, and the camera’s small size, easy-to-use attachment base and convenient portability (in a nice touch, a carrying case is included) are big pluses, and are big pluses for this camera no matter how you connect to friends, family and colleagues.  But it is certainly true that Microsoft – which, after all, is primarily a software company – has optimized the camera in such a way that users need to use some Microsoft connectivity programs to get the maximum possible benefits from this piece of hardware.  Yes, this LifeCam is compatible with all major instant-messaging software, and works well with programs other than Microsoft’s.  Still, your personal feelings about Microsoft software may determine just how good a value you consider this LifeCam to be.  It’s certainly a worthy competitor for anything else now on the market – and its video and still-picture resolutions are top-of-the-line.


Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6; Trio Sonata from “The Musical Offering”; Concerto in G Minor for Flute and Strings. Swiss Baroque Soloists directed by Andrés Gabetta. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos may be the most famous ignored job application in history.  Their exact provenance is still a matter of dispute, but some scholars believe Bach sent them to Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt in the hope that they would so impress him that Bach would be offered a job.  Instead, like many a résumé today, they were unceremoniously thrust into a drawer, unregarded and unknown until rediscovered many years later.

     Whatever the exact truth of this story may be, it is certainly true that these six concertos are now so popular that it is fair to ask what new things can be added to them to justify an additional recording.  The answer turns out to be adding old things.  The Swiss Baroque Soloists play the concertos on original instruments – not the first ensemble to do so, to be sure, but one of the most adept, the players seeming as thoroughly comfortable with the transverse flute, violino piccolo and original forms of more familiar instruments as most orchestral players are with their modern versions.  The result is a period-instrument recording that does not feel like a museum piece – it feels like something that lives and breathes the air of an earlier time.  And some of that is heady air indeed: it is hard to believe the third movement of Concerto No. 3 can be played this accurately at so fast a tempo.

     The reason this and other fast, highly detailed movements are so effective is that the players are uniformly excellent, with Niklas Englund being especially impressive on trumpet in the second concerto and Giorgio Paronuzzi being suitably virtuosic (but without overdoing it) in the fifth.  Ensemble balance is exemplary throughout, and the mostly speedy tempi are well chosen – nothing drags here, yet there is no sense of artificially creating drama by speeding through movements for no good reason.

     This two-CD set has a couple of bonuses, too.  One is the Trio Sonata in C Minor from The Musical Offering, a piece based on a fugal theme given to Bach by King Friedrich II.  The king was a competent flautist, and the trio sonata uses that fact to advantage, its opening slow movement letting the flute and violin toss themes back and forth before the following Allegro gives the flute considerable prominence.  As would have been customary in Bach’s time, this Trio Sonata actually features four instruments: flute, violin, harpsichord and cello.  All are played with grace and stylistic sensitivity.

     In addition to playing the transverse flute in the Trio Sonata, Stéphane Réty transcribed the other “encore” piece here, the Concerto in G Minor for Flute and Strings.  This is familiar in another form, as the F Minor Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1056 – a work believed originally to have been a violin or oboe concerto before Bach himself transcribed it for harpsichord.  No one thinks it was ever a flute concerto, but it sounds especially light and fleet in this version and is a pleasant curiosity as well as a worthwhile ending for this fine CD set.

November 16, 2006


CatChristmas. By B. Kliban. Pomegranate. $12.95.

Cat E Gor y.  By Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $14.95.

The Twelve Terrors of Christmas. By John Updike. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $9.95.

Top Cats: The Life and Times of the New York Public Library Lions. By Susan G. Larkin. Pomegranate. $19.95.

     Some gifts are for cat lovers only.  Not cat owners – no one ever really owns a cat – but people who love felines, either the real-life type or the delightfully fictitious sort created by such masters of the medium (whatever medium they used) as B. Kliban and Edward Gorey.  Kliban (1935-1990) was an inspired creator of cat stuff, and CatChristmas collects some of his cutest seasonal drawings: the cat hanging from Santa’s nose, the cat atop a Christmas tree (causing it to bend all the way over), the boxed cat wearing a red ribbon, the basket of kittens on a doorstep, and more.  This charming little book – small enough for stocking-stuffing – also includes never-before-published feline versions of Christmas carols.  “Oscar Beany Catt” writes, “Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, Your ornaments make great toys.”  “Wheela Brie” offers “The Little Drumstick Cat,” which ends, “Pa rumpa pum pum, Yum yum yum.”  Also look for “Kitties We Have Heard on High,” “Hark the Hungry Kitties Sing,” and more – it’s cat-egorically funny.

     And speaking of categories, the strangely titled Cat E Gor y (the name makes perfect sense when you see it on the cover, accompanied by two cats arranging the letters) reflects the feline celebrations of another top-notch cat artist, Edward Gorey (1925-2000).  This book, also small enough to be a stocking stuffer, was not created specifically for Christmas and will be fun at any time for Gorey fans.  Its history is unusual: for a limited edition of his book Amphigorey, published in 1973, Gorey created 50 cat drawings – one per book.  Each owner of the limited edition thus has one of these drawings – but the owner of Cat E Gor y has all 50.  Part of the fun here is finding the numbers contained in each drawing.  “Four” is given as “IV” on the shirt worn by a black-and-white cat in a drawing that also includes colored streamers.  “Eleven” is written out as a word on the bow of a small boat in which a cat sits dreamily.  “Twenty-two” is a partially obscured “22” on a planter atop a high stand – at which a cat on the floor is looking.  “Thirty-one” appears as “31” on the scarf of a cat riding a unicycle.  Except for the numbers, these are wordless drawings – and no words are required.  The book is a great cat-ch.

     Gorey did create Christmas-specific illustrations – featuring bats, not cats – for John Updike’s The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, a tongue-fairly-firmly-in-cheek little book (yes, yet another stocking stuffer) in which typically peculiar-looking Gorey characters endure the trials and tribulations of the season.  One of those is the mall Santa, with “loose-fitting nylon beard, fake optical twinkle, cheap red suit, [and] funny rummy smell when you sit on his lap.”  Then there are Santa’s helpers: “Underclass masochism one day, bloody rebellion the next.”  As for carols, they “boom and chime from the vaulted ceilings of supermarkets and discount malls – and yet the spirits keep sinking.”  And let us not forget “Fear of Returns,” which is “the humiliating descent into mercantilism’s boiler room.”  Perfect for the Scrooge on your list, or your own inner Scrooge, The Twelve Terrors of Christmas can help keep the holiday season in perspective so it doesn’t become cat-astrophic.

     But the holidays will end, of course, and the seasons will move on – so how about a cat for all seasons?  Or, more specifically, two cats?  That is what the lions in front of the main branch of the New York Public Library have been since they were put in place in 1910.  Well, actually, not quite…as Susan G. Larkin points out, the lions were not a huge hit when the first plaster models of them were set out, but they soon enough became an important meeting place for New Yorkers of all types.  And they really are “for all seasons,” as this book’s 90-or-so images (color and black and white) show: they wear hats and wreaths, are seen on New Yorker covers being playful or erudite, and come across at various times as reassuring, joyous, or simply symbolic of a great city.  As interesting as the photos of the finished lions are, showing New Yorkers enjoying them, the story of their creation is equally enthralling.  Larkin, an art historian, discusses how the lions were conceived and then built by sculptor Edward Clark Potter, and shows how in later years they were renovated to retain their fresh appearance and their positions as unofficial but very public ambassador-cats of good will.


Christmas. By Robert Sabuda. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $12.99.

When Santa Fell to Earth. By Cornelia Funke. Chicken House/Scholastic. $15.99.

Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation. By Linas Alsenas. Scholastic. $16.99.

Who Will Guide My Sleigh Tonight? By Jerry Pallotta. Illustrations by David Biedrzycki. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Mistletoe: Four Holiday Stories. By Hailey Abbott, Melissa de la Cruz, Aimee Friedman and Nina Malkin. Point/Scholastic. $8.99.

     There’s something predictably, if understandably, treacly about Christmas, so it is always fun to find books that allow the sentiment of the holiday season to flourish without burying readers in overdone sweetness.  Each of these seasonal books finds a way to connect readers with the holiday without going over exactly the same ground that many other stories have covered.

     The simplest, most straightforward and most charming of the books is Christmas, a stocking-stuffer-size pop-up book by Robert Sabuda – whose The Christmas Alphabet has become a modern holiday classic.  This time, Sabuda brings together a series of original pop-up designs – including one never-before-seen pop-up – to spell out the word “Christmas.”  It’s simple, to the point and delightful.

     When Santa Fell to Earth is at the opposite extreme: Sabuda’s book is all about images, while Cornelia Funke’s is all about words (although it has some well-done illustrations, too).  Leave it to Funke to create a complex, far-fetched holiday tale that is dark but not too dark, worrisome but not overly scary.  This one is about what happens in the two weeks before Christmas, after a reindeer accident brings Santa down in a winter storm.  He lands and is stranded in a nice neighborhood of helpful people – but all is not well, because Santa is being pursued by Gerold Geronimus Goblynch, who wants Christmas to stop being about children’s wishes and instead be all about money.  (Hmm.  Sounds as if there are lots of Goblynches around.)  Santa (here called Niklas) and his helpers are observed by “a huge silver limousine with pinecones on the license plate and a star on the hood,” and so there is a chase, and hiding, and all sorts of trouble, until a bit of magic turns Goblynch sweet.  But this does not mean what you think – Funke is far too clever for that, as readers of the book will find out.

     Clever in a different way is Mrs. Claus Takes a Vacation, the first book by Linas Alsenas.  It’s a neatly offbeat premise, very amusingly handled: Mrs. Claus is sick of snow and ice and is jealous of the fact that Santa gets to travel all around the world, while she stays home in the cold north.  So she takes off in the sleigh, visiting beaches and Japanese restaurants and tourist attractions, making friends everywhere she goes – and leaving behind a worried and lonesome Santa, whose domestic skills leave something to be desired.  Then Mrs. Claus starts to get lonely, too, and the stage is set for a trip home and a lovely Christmas-eve surprise.

     Speaking of surprises, there are plenty of them in Who Will Guide My Sleigh Tonight? Jerry Pallotta and David Biedrzycki have cooked up a deliciously silly story about all the animals whose help Santa sought before he finally settled on reindeer.  Tigers are too rough, penguins too earthbound, dolphins too fond of dipping Santa’s sleigh in the ocean.  Giraffes get stuck in telephone wires, and skunks are…well, smelly.  Santa’s trials and tribulations are especially enjoyable because of Biedrzycki’s illustrations, which are always clever and frequently hilarious.  This is great fun for younger readers.

     For older kids – teens far too sophisticated for naïve holiday celebrations – the four stories in Mistletoe offer seasonal romance, troubles and even some magic.  All the authors clearly had fun coming up with holiday-themed stories: Aimee Friedman’s tale of love in a department store, Nina Malkin’s take on holiday magic in Tinseltown, Melissa de la Cruz’s O. Henry-style look at the perfect present, and Hailey Abbott’s story of a scandalous New Year’s Eve party.  As Abbott’s protagonist eventually finds out, “everything would be, if not perfect, then at least pretty darn close” – a statement that neatly fits not only this book but also Scholastic’s many other pleasantly offbeat seasonal offerings.


The Mislaid Magician, or Ten Years After. By Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer. Harcourt. $17.

The Boy Book (a study of habits and behaviors, plus techniques for taming them). By E. Lockhart. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     When young kids discover something they really enjoy – a roller-coaster ride, perhaps, or being carried on a parent’s shoulders – they inevitably wait until the last ounce of deliciousness has been squeezed from the experience, and then say, “More!!”

     Readers of the Kate-and-Cecy adventures and the stories of Ruby Oliver are likely to shout “more!!” as well after savoring the delights of this tale or that.  How fortunate, then, that Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer have come up with a third novel about Kate and Cecy, while E. Lockhart is offering a third story (and second novel) about Roo.

     There’s something magical about all the adventures of Kate and Cecy, and not just because the cousins can actually work magic.  In these days of E-mail, text messaging, IM and SMS, it is a genuine pleasure to discover an old-fashioned epistolary novel – that is, one written in the form of letters among the characters.  Wrede (Cecy) and Stevermer (Kate) are really adept at this form, which has the added advantage of solving the usual problems of collaboration, such as the “voice” in which a book is to be written.  Here, the writers give the characters their own voices through their letters – point-of-view consistency is irrelevant (and, given the many things that happen to the protagonists, probably inadvisable).  In this third book of their adventures – after Sorcery and Cecilia and The Grand Tour – Kate and Cecy are old hands at marriage, which they have been practicing for 10 years, and at having children (five between them), and of course at magic.  Now they are watching the transformation of England by the expansion of the railroads – and James is asked by Lord Wellington himself to investigate the disappearance of a German railroad engineer.  While James and Cecy head north on their mission, Kate and Thomas are left with the five kids (all of whom start casting spells themselves) and with a mysterious mute girl whom they have rescued.  The sprawling plot has to do with the railroads’ interference with ancient underground magic.  The letters that move the plot along are as charming as ever – in what other book would someone write, matter-of-factly, “Mr. and Miss Webb remain dogs for the moment”?  And yes, the complexities are nicely knitted together in the end.

     The magic is of a different kind in E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver stories (although Roo herself would probably wish she could have the powers of Cecy and Kate).  The Boy Book, a sequel to The Boyfriend List, finds Ruby in her junior year in high school, a newly licensed driver, with a new friend (Noel) and a new job (at the zoo).  Some of her friends (former friends?) from the earlier book are still not speaking to her, and she still suffers from bouts of self-pity, often expressed in footnotes, such as this one: “Everyone at Tate Prep, even the fifth graders, has a cell phone.  Everyone but me.”  Still, Ruby is not a perpetual whiner, and her attractive qualities more than make up for her complaining.  Her “levels of boyfriends” list, dating to her sophomore year and used here to open one chapter, is still hilarious, still accurate, and still having repercussions.  And Ruby’s approach to the all-too-common problems of adolescence – writing a book about them – remains offbeat and refreshing.  Ruby is no better at solving her problems here than in The Boyfriend List (or in the story in which she appeared in the anthology, Not Like I’m Jealous or Anything).  But that is what makes her attractive: she seems more of a real person than do the protagonists of most teen-focused books, and her failure to make sense of everything in her life is itself a liberating experience – at least she realizes that life doesn’t always make sense.  One chapter in particular neatly sums up Ruby’s introspection and ultimate frustration in trying to figure things out.  It’s the one called “Why You Want the Guy You Can’t Have: Inadequate Analysis of a Disturbing Psychological Trend.”  Ruby is a real charmer.


Gray Matter: Why It’s Good to Be Old! By Bob Elsdale. Andrews McMeel. $14.95.

A Teaspoon of Courage: A Little Book of Encouragement for Whenever You Need It. By Bradley Trevor Greive. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

     The usual explanation of why getting old is good runs something like this: “consider the alternative.”  That’s not good enough for Bob Elsdale, who uses composite and digitally enhanced photographs – featuring gray, wrinkled elephants – to make points about the good aspects of aging.  This is intended to be cute but tends to come across as cutesy.  And not all the digital enhancements are of equal quality – for instance, one showing two big elephants carrying outdoor equipment while taking two small ones to the beach is so poorly rendered that one wonders whether Elsdale wanted readers to know that the elephants weren’t really carrying anything.  A lot of the concepts here are enjoyable enough: wind-surfing elephant, elephant on a surfboard, elephants playing chess and tic-tac-toe, and so on.  But the most affecting pages are the ones using the least equipment, such as a two-page layout of the beach and two elephants, with nothing but the words, “Everywhere is memory lane.”  It’s a bit hard to figure out the audience for this book: unless you are a real elephant fancier (or someone you would give it to is one), the book may fall a bit flat.  Certainly it does not have the sheer verve and style of the photo books by Bradley Trevor Greive, who is the master of melding pictures with words.

     Greive’s new book, A Teaspoon of Courage, continues his pattern of finding actual (undoctored) animal photos and playing with them, not by changing the photos themselves but by writing captions that explain human foibles in terms of what the animals seem to be doing (but, of course, really aren’t).  Thus, this book starts with an adorable puppy peeking through a hole in a wall, with the caption, “Sooner or later everyone runs up against a brick wall.”  After this comes a meandering look at what courage does and does not mean.  A bird landing on water near an open-mouthed shark, for example, gets a caption that starts, “Doing things that are inherently dangerous does not necessarily indicate courage.”  This sort of thing is all well and good – but the underlying theme of this book is more serious than in most of Greive’s works, and that makes the cute juxtapositions a little harder to take than usual.  Even Greive cannot come up with a really fitting photo for the words, “Truly brave individuals slowly but surely rebuild their lives after suffering profound personal losses.”  The bear seeming to wipe a tear from its eye is okay for “Heroes cry, too,” but the baby elephant struggling to its feet doesn’t quite work for “Every time you reaffirm your faith in yourself, it grows stronger.”  Furthermore, the language here is somewhat too New Age-y to be universally appealing: “You will find your holy grail.” “If you just keep paddling, your wave will arrive to take you all the way in to the beach.”  But many of the photos are real winners, and if this is not Greive’s most effective book, it certainly has its moments of charm and cuteness – for any and all ages.


Working for Peace: A Handbook of Practical Psychology and Other Tools. Edited by Rachel M. MacNair, Ph.D., and Psychologists for Social Responsibility. Impact Publishers. $17.95.

The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952. By Allen Ginsburg. Edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan. Da Capo. $27.50.

     Although almost everyone believes in peace in the abstract, getting to it in any concrete way tends to seem extraordinarily difficult, even impossible.  Most guides to the cause of peace focus on its importance, on the horrors of the alternative, and on how to get like-minded groups together to protest and/or contact lawmakers and/or stir things up in some other way.  Not so Working for Peace.  This is a guidebook to the psychology of social activism, in which active peace workers seek to help others build their confidence, organize volunteers, overcome the inevitable obstacles and get out whatever word they are trying to get out.  It is certainly true, as editor Rachel MacNair says, that understanding the issues and knowing how to do a press release are necessary abilities but not sufficient ones.  The contributors to Working for Peace try to add other, less-often-considered necessities: handling stressful emotions, learning how to assess your own interests and skills, improving your mood during an uphill struggle, fighting “commitment exhaustion,” motivating others to work for or with you, and more.  Everything here is exceedingly well-meaning, but if activists suffered from exhaustion before, getting through this book – never mind trying to follow all the prescriptions in it – will be a recipe for collapse.  Even a single brief point in a single essay can carry a wealth of difficulty: “A hand placed on someone’s shoulder can be seen as an assertion of status or as a sign of affection.  Do not automatically assume that it will be taken as a sign of affection.”  Or: “The secret to the effective sound bite is something we call ‘Media Haiku’: Find different ways of saying the same thing.  Connect them with ‘and,’ ‘so,’ ‘therefore,’ so your presentation seems like [sic] you’re doing a logical progression (this follows that) rather than merely repeating the same thing.”  Bad grammar aside, there’s a lot to digest there.  In fact, there is a great deal to digest in the whole book, not all of it especially nutritious.  Even the essay on “Three Examples of Successful Social Action Groups” has lessons that may only be applicable to roughly analogous situations – not as general rules.  Working for Peace turns out to be more well-intentioned than practical.

     One hesitates to think of peace as a cause célèbre, but it certainly seems that way when so many celebrities-of-the-moment fixate on it for the betterment (one suspects) of themselves, not necessarily the rest of humanity.  One need not hesitate, however, in thinking of poet Allen Ginsburg as a cause célèbre: that’s how he came to see himself.  How he got to that point is the subject of The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, which is strictly for Ginsburg aficionados and for people – such as the co-editors – who seem to have defined their lives largely in relationship to where they were in Ginsburg’s life’s orbit.  This is not to say that Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton (who worked with Ginsburg) and Bill Morgan (Ginsburg’s friend and literary archivist) do a poor job editing these minutiae of Ginsburg’s life from high school onwards.  But really – there is so much here (more than 500 pages of it), and so much of it is trivial or, what is worse, simply boring.  There are 100 poems in this book, 65 of which have never been published before – most of them, it seems, deservedly.  Yes, fans of the group that included Ginsburg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac will find things to enthrall them here, such as an account of Ginsburg’s relationship with Neal Cassady that contrasts in significant ways with the story as told by Kerouac.  But really, who cares – other than Ginsburg scholars and Ginsburg fanatics (there’s a lot of overlap there)?  If you are a committed fan of Ginsburg’s later writings and want to see much of what he wrote on the road to his better work, you will find plenty of it here.  But without a preexisting commitment to all things Ginsburg, there’s little reason to martyr yourself by slogging through the artifice of this book.