December 28, 2006


Runny Babbit. By Shel Silverstein. HarperCollins. $22.99.

Mouse Cookies & More: A Treasury. By Laura Numeroff. Illustrated by Felicia Bond. Laura Geringer/HarperCollins. $24.99.

     These are the books of the year.  What year?  It really doesn’t matter – they’re fabulous for any year, in any season.  And now they’re packaged with CDs that let you hear the words and even some highly appropriate musical numbers.  These winners are double winners now.

     You would expect a book called Runny Babbit to be a silly book, but it is not – it’s a “billy sook.”  It says so right there on the cover.  Shel Silverstein had so many marvelous ideas over the years that it’s a joy to read or reread this final one, finished shortly before he died in 1999.  The book simply involves switching letters – but it turns out to be not so simple after all.  Here’s one short, eight-line poem, “Killy the Bid,” as an example: “Runny bought a howboy cat,/ His buns were polished gright./ He yelled, ‘Stand back! I’m Killy the Bid,/ And I’m fookin’ for a light!/ So give me your sold and gilver,/ And your sorses and haddles, too,/ Or else I’ll hold my creath and bry/ Like bids named Killy do.’”  How marvelous is that?  It’s not just that Silverstein swaps letters – it’s how he swaps them, so he sometimes creates one real word (“cat”) from another (“hat”); sometimes writes hilarious nonsense (“buns were polished gright,” which also includes a newly created real word); and tosses in the sort of silliness that would be funny even without the rearranged letters (“hold my creath and bry,” but it’s also funny to imagine a would-be-fierce outlaw saying “hold my breath and cry”).  There’s wonderful stuff on every page here, about Runny’s family, or rather about how “Runny fad a hamily”; about how “Runny mets guddy” and “Runny hets gandsome”; and about Runny’s friends – for instance, “Calley At’s kittle litten” and the “skancin’ dunk.”  Reading the poems and figuring out what’s going on is a huge part of the fun here – and so is looking at Silverstein’s typically marvelous illustrations – and so is listening to the included CD, in which Dennis Locorriere reads a dozen of the poems.  This book-and-CD combo is a multimedia feast that should delight kids of all ages for years to come.

     The CD included with Mouse Cookies & More is even more elaborate, since its 12 tracks not only include readings from the book but also showcase delightful songs written by Sarah Weeks.  This self-proclaimed Treasury is elaborate, too, containing four complete books dating back as far as 1985: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, If You Give a Pig a Pancake, If You Give a Moose a Muffin, and If You Take a Mouse to School.  These are all elaborately circular stories, starting with what happens if you do something with a mouse, pig or moose, and ending with what happens if you do something else – the ending inevitably taking you back to the beginning.  Super-charming illustrations by Felicia Bond perfectly fit the free-flowing prose of Laura Numeroff – these books are equally delightful for kids to discover for the first time or rediscover after not reading them for a while.  And there’s even more in Mouse Cookies & More: cookie, pancake and muffin recipes, the music to some of the songs, and activities ranging from the tame (“Write Your Friend a Letter”) to the not-so-tame (“Explode a Messy Volcano”).  This is the sort of book-and-CD combo that parents and kids can dip into together, over and over – reading a bit, doing a crafts or baking project, then relaxing while listening to a song or two.  It makes for marvelous anytime activities.  And if you give a child an anytime activity, he or she will probably ask you for more…and more…and more.


Baby Blues: Framed. By Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott. Andrews McMeel. $16.95.

     Let us now praise Baby Blues, the only comic strip to bring you both the lines “Tadpoles in the toilet!!  Nobody flush!!” and the trip to the zoo for two parents and three kids, where the father says, “We’d like five tickets – two roundtrip, and three one way.”

     Real life was never like this – except that it is like this every day for parents of young children…only not so funny.  Baby Blues is something very rare: a comic strip that reflects family life, year in and year out, with unerring accuracy plus utterly endearing amusement.  With one calendar year on the way out and another on the way in, this is as good a time as any to consider just how well the realities, or near-realities, of modern family life are presented by Jerry Scott (who also writes Zits, a family-oriented comic that is equally wonderful in a different way) and Rick Kirkman.

     Baby Blues: Framed is an oversize “Treasury” volume, which means it contains previously published strips – in this case, from the smaller-size collections Our Server Is Down and Something Chocolate This Way Comes.  As usual in Andrews McMeel “Treasury” books, you get a few things here that were not in the original volumes: color Sunday strips and, in this case, a refrigerator magnet suitable for framing your favorite Baby Blues strip (or cutting them out day after day and framing each one).  Despite these extras, it is hard to justify buying this book if you already have the two smaller-size ones – unless you cut up the smaller ones to put those strips inside the magnet included with this one.  How’s that for subtle but effective marketing?

     If you don’t have the previous collections and do have children, this “Treasury” is a treasure that’s definitely worth having.  The adventures of the MacPherson clan – parents Darryl and Wanda, children Zoe, Hammie and Wren – continue to mirror daily family life with an eerie combination of reality and surreality.  There’s sibling rivalry: baby Wren has a fever, so middle child Hammie demands loudly, “If she got one, I get one too!”  There’s the art of apologizing: Zoe says, “If this is about the footprint in the pie crust, I said I was sorry!”  There’s the plight of staying at home to raise children: one strip is drawn sideways to accommodate the huge size of a pile of laundry, and one Sunday entry has Wanda waking up from a nightmare, “the one where I give up my career to become a stay-at-home mom with three ungrateful kids, a big mortgage, flabby thighs, and no time for myself.”  There’s the art of finding parent-alone time: in another Sunday strip, Darryl tries to watch TV, Zoe and Hammie bicker constantly, so Darryl starts explaining baseball to them in detail and they get bored and walk away – leading Wanda to say, “Teach me this.”

     Kirkman and Scott are unerringly on-target in their focus on life with kids.  Wanda wanders through a clothing store until she comes to the section called “Throw-it-on-and-hope-for-the-best-wear.”  The MacPhersons visit an enormous pick-a-melon patch, where Zoe and Hammie both choose the same melon and fight over it.  Wanda and Darryl spot a toy marked “NEW and even more annoying” – it’s called “Grandma’s Revenge.”  And Wanda sits quietly with Wren, thinking, “I’ve witnessed every burp, smile, hiccup and whimper this baby has ever made, at the expense of my personal interests, career and social life.  Good trade.”

     That’s what it’s all about: kids, families and Baby Blues.  Bravo – again.


Nightsong: The Legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. By Michael Cadnum. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Rickshaw Girl. By Mitali Perkins. Illustrated by Jamie Hogan. Charlesbridge. $13.95.

     Sometimes a legend has such power that it resounds through the ages and through retellings that are profoundly different from the original tale.  And sometimes legends in general permeate our thinking about stories that, when you look at them more closely, are not really legends at all.

     The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice dates back to ancient Greece and has several components.  For example, it is Orpheus who helps Jason and the Argonauts pass the Sirens safely on their quest for the Golden Fleece.  But the best-known tale of Orpheus involves his marriage to Eurydice.  This is originally a tragic story, in which the power of melody proves insufficient to overcome human frailties: Orpheus charms the rulers of Hades into allowing him to escape with Eurydice, who has died on their wedding day, but the grieving musician cannot resist the impulse to look back at his beloved and therefore loses her forever.  And beyond that sad ending comes a sad postlude, when Orpheus is attacked and torn to pieces by followers of Dionysus.  Later ages found this double tragedy, or even the single one of Orpheus’ loss of Eurydice, unsatisfactory, and often changed the ending, as Michael Cadnum does in Nightsong.  Cadnum bases his book on Ovid’s retelling in Latin of the Orpheus-Eurydice story, and Cadnum follows Ovid in using the Roman names for gods: Jupiter instead of Zeus, Minerva instead of Athena.  This is Cadnum’s second reworking of an Ovidian tale, and is just as swift-paced and effective as Starfall, in which Cadnum retold the story of Daedalus and the ill-fated flight of his son, Icarus.  Cadnum aims at young readers and is determined to give these stories pleasing conclusions, if not wholly happy ones.  Thus, in Nightsong, Orpheus does indeed lose Eurydice, but he rediscovers her presence when, after long mourning, he again begins to play his lyre and hears it sounding with her voice.  That’s a neat conclusion, actually, and it plays into the transformation theme so common in Greek myths.  The story moves ahead swiftly and is shorter than its 136 pages would indicate, since the book has blank pages to introduce sections and lots of white space mixed with the print.  The result is an easy-to-read and pleasantly uplifting story, containing tragic elements but featuring a resolution that is satisfying to modern tastes – along the lines of a fairy tale in which there is suffering but a sense of happiness at the end.

     Rickshaw Girl reads much like a fairy tale, too, or like a legend drawn from Bangladesh, where India-born Mitali Perkins lived for a time and from which her ancestors came.  Yet this is a thoroughly modern story, although one set in a part of the world with which most Americans have little familiarity.  Like her earlier book, Monsoon Summer, this short novel is about the changing roles of girls and young women in parts of the world still very much bound by tradition.  Monsoon Summer was set in India and had a long-distance romance (a very long distance: India to the United States) at its heart.  Rickshaw Girl is simpler and in some ways more charming, with the straightforwardness and exotic setting combining to produce its fairy-tale quality.  It is about a young girl named Naima who loves to create the traditional patterns that are painted in Bangladeshi homes for special occasions.  The book is festooned with these alpanas and with other sensitively rendered drawings by Jamie Hogan.  As for the story: despite Naima’s skill with designs, she is not permitted to earn money to help her family – this is rural Bangladesh, after all, where gender roles are fixed.  How Naima finds a way to stay true to her culture while continuing to produce the art she loves – and finds a way to help her family after all – is the subject of the book.  Perkins tells it believably, caringly and with sensitivity both to old traditions and to the modern forces that are bringing change, however slowly, to so many parts of the world.


My Buddy, Slug. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Knopf. $15.95.

It’s Happy Bunny: The Good, the Bad, and the Bunny. By Jim Benton. Scholastic. $7.99.

Disney Cuties: Project: Bedroom. By Apple Jordan. Random House. $8.99.

     Cartoonish characters aren’t just for comic strips or animated cartoons anymore.  They seem to have crept, flown or sidled into everything.  In My Buddy, Slug, for example, Slug, who is a giant slug, has slimed into an otherwise ordinary tale of the pitfalls of friendship.  There’s nothing at all sluggish about Slug, which makes him (it?) an odd fit for Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s book about the wonders and perils of a best friend who sometimes stays just a little too close for comfort.  It seems there used to be three best friends – Alex, Kevin and Slug – until Kevin moved away, and now there are only Alex and Slug, who are together all the time.  This eventually proves too much for Alex, the book’s narrator, who finally tells his mother, “I’m sick of him!”  Slug overhears this and goes away, proceeding to go to school on his own, play basketball with other kids, and so on.  A lot of the illustrations are funny – Slug doing a slam-dunk in particular – but because Slug never does anything that an actual slug would do (no, not even leaving a trail of slime anywhere), he (it?) could just as well have been a salamander, eel or flying horse.  Krosoczka has a nice story about friendship to tell, but Slug doesn’t quite fit into it.

     Happy Bunny fits pretty much anywhere.  This bad-boy, cute-as-a-button rabbit undertakes to explore the difference between good and evil in The Good, the Bad, and the Bunny, Jim Benton’s latest use (or misuse) of an adorable-looking character who constantly plays against his apparent type.  This is, as usual, funny in a juvenile way – Benton really could do with fewer odor jokes – and is at its best when the simply drawn, sweet-looking Happy Bunny is at his most cynical: “Faking it is a great way to show that you care enough to lie.”  And “nobody is perfect – and by ‘nobody,’ of course I mean ‘nobody else.’”  Some parts of this little book are a lot of fun, such as the good-bad-or-bunny examples.  In one, you hold a door for someone who does not thank you.  The good thing to do is just let it go; the bad thing is to slam the ingrate’s head in the door; the bunny thing is to say you saw the ungrateful one drop money outside – so when he or she goes back out to look for it, you can lock the door.  Unfortunately, not everything here is equally amusing.  But the contrast between Happy Bunny’s adorable appearance and some of the stuff that comes out of his mouth is still effective in a twisted way.

     And then there are characters that are cute as a button, or two buttons, and always do only cute and helpful things.  Happy Bunny is an antidote to such characters – but if you prefer the characters themselves, and are not afraid you will sweeten yourself to death, you will enjoy the Disney Cuties series, of which a typical example is Project: Bedroom.  This is a help-you-redecorate book, featuring miniature Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other characters – drawn in such a simple style that Happy Bunny looks positively complex by comparison.  Officially intended for ages six and up, the series will probably appeal mostly to kids just becoming familiar with Disney characters – perhaps around age three.  In Project: Bedroom, there are quizzes to help you decide what sort of room you would like, suggestions on using mirrors and paint colors and other elements of decorating, and some cute window clings and wall stencils for participatory refurbishing.  The ideas themselves are often quite good – set up a cozy reading nook, have a decorating party, and so on – but they will be effective only for kids who embrace the utterly vapid look of the Disney-derived characters presenting them.


Norton Internet Security 2007. Windows XP – eligible for free Windows Vista compatibility upgrade. Symantec. $69.99.

Own Your Space: Keep Yourself and Your Stuff Safe Online. By Linda McCarthy. Addison-Wesley/Symantec Press. $19.99.

     Don’t go into the new year without all the Internet protection you can marshal – that is the universal message from hardware and software manufacturers alike.  Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to online protection, so you have to pick and choose among available products – whose quality and prices vary considerably.  The most important thing to have is knowledge of what you’re doing online, what threats you face, and what methods are available to protect your computer and your data.

     There is no ideal Internet-protection method, but if you’re looking for something tried-and-true, whose multiple components work seamlessly together most (if not all) of the time, Norton Internet Security 2007 is an excellent choice.  There are four basic elements here: Norton AntiVirus, a well-respected and efficient protective program whose memory hunger has been somewhat tamed for 2007; Norton Personal Firewall, to help block attacks emanating from online sources; and Norton Antispyware and Norton Antiphishing, designed to stop malware downloads and to help prevent you from being taken in by a phony site that looks much like a real one.  Symantec has always done a better job of protection than explanation, and this year is no exception: the idea is “set it and forget it,” except when you have to update it (which usually occurs automatically) or troubleshoot it (which rarely occurs at all, but can be time-consuming if it becomes necessary).

     Symantec has done well this year at improving boot time and scan time while decreasing memory usage.  These are not things a user should have to worry about, but they affect how quickly your system starts and how speedily it goes about searching for and eliminating threats – so even if you lack technical knowledge, you should know that Norton Internet Security 2007 does its job as well as in prior years (if not better), and in less time.  Also important, whether you fully understand it or not, is improved rootkit protection, which guards against threats buried so deeply in Windows that many other programs cannot find them.  Symantec lets you install this security suite on up to three computers – a useful feature for home networks and small businesses, and a big improvement over some competing products, which permit only a single installation.  And you can monitor all functions from a single, centralized page – very helpful for users uninterested in delving into the depths of what Norton Internet Security 2007 is doing.  Can you get this protection for less money?  Certainly.  There’s a $20 rebate if you are upgrading from earlier versions or certain other products, and for even lower cost, there are absolutely free programs available online that do just about everything this suite does.  But you have to download, maintain and update each one separately, depend on yourself for most troubleshooting, and accept the possibility that one free program may not “like” another, so the two may interact in unpredictable ways and compromise your security.  Symantec’s component parts work together easily and well, and provide peace of mind that makes Norton Internet Security 2007 well worth the price for many computer users.

     What the suite does not do is explain in detail what it’s doing and why.  For that information – for a deeper understanding of what’s out there on the Internet and what you can do to surf safely – you can turn to Own Your Space.  Author Linda McCarthy is a security architect in the office of the chief technology officer at Symantec, and an expert at breaking into supposedly secure systems – to help programmers figure out how to protect them better.  Her book is targeted at teenagers and filled with rather unnecessary anime-style illustrations, but it’s valuable reading for anyone concerned about online protection – and it does not promote Symantec’s products, simply mentioning them in lists that also discuss competing products and free downloads.  McCarthy really knows her stuff, and after spending a few hours with this book – that’s the minimum time commitment you’ll need – you too will have a much better understanding of bad code, data grabbers, spam generation, phishing (including examples of amazingly realistic phony sites), and much more.  There are chapters on blogging, on understanding the difference between public and private postings (this should be especially useful for teenagers), on the pluses and minuses of wireless connectivity, and on ways to tweak and patch and update your system to keep it as safe as you can, as much of the time as possible.  A first read-through of this book may make the subject seem overwhelming for the non-technically inclined, but a second will show that while McCarthy has no choice but to discuss some technical elements (they are what will attack you and what you will use to defend yourself), she keeps her writing as simple as possible – without minimizing the underlying complexity of her subject.  No matter what form of Internet protection you choose to use, McCarthy’s book will help you understand why you need that protection – and what you’ll need to keep watching for even when you think you have plugged every possible hole in your system’s security.


Beethoven: String Trios, Volume 1: Trio in E-flat Major, op. 3; Serenade (Trio) in D Major, op. 8. Members of the Kodály Quartet: Attila Falvay, violin; János Fejérvári, viola; György Éder, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

Ferdinand Ries: Complete Symphonies. Howard Griffiths conducting the Zürcher Kammerorchester. CPO. $35.99 (3 CDs + 1 SACD).

     Beethoven cast such a long shadow that it is fascinating to hear works in which he stood in the shadow of someone else.  The first volume of Naxos’ planned set of all Beethoven’s string trios begins with the composer’s op. 3, which is very clearly modeled on Mozart’s only string trio, known as the Divertimento, K563.  Mozart’s sublime work is one of his monumental achievements – how he attained such depth and reached such heights with only three instruments is another of Mozart’s many miracles.  Beethoven’s work, in contrast, is light and bright and pleasant, but altogether inconsequential.  Attila Falvay, János Fejérvári and György Éder play it well, with considerable verve, but this work barely hints at Beethoven’s later capabilities.  The op. 8 Serenade, though, provides stronger indications.  The last three of its six movements are particularly interesting: one starts as an Adagio, turns into a Scherzo, then back to an Adagio, then a Scherzo again; one is a thematically intriguing and altogether ingratiating Allegretto alla Polacca; and the finale – twice the length of any other movement in this work – is a theme and variations that ends with a spirited march.  Again, the members of the Kodály Quartet play spiritedly and do not attempt to give the Serenade more gravity than it possesses – but they bring out what it does have, and there turns out to be a fair amount there.

     There is more than a fair amount of musical value in the eight symphonies of Ferdinand Ries, but Ries, born in 1784, has the misfortune to be forever associated with and vastly overshadowed by Beethoven, with whom he studied for a time and whose secretary he became in the early 1800s.  Ries was frank in his admiration for Beethoven, about whom he co-wrote a set of reminiscences, and his music shows it in two ways.  First, there are almost direct quotations from some Beethoven symphonies in some by Ries, plus some modulations and instrumental uses that were clearly inspired by Beethoven even if not copied directly from him.  Second, Ries repeatedly and unsuccessfully strove to move beyond the trails that Beethoven blazed – the Ries symphonies’ finales, in particular, tend to be a neither-here-nor-there blend of sonata and rondo forms, as if Ries knew he needed something different but was not quite sure what it should be or how to create it.

     Nevertheless, the neglect of Ries’ well-wrought symphonies is unfair – as history is so often unfair to the merely talented when there are towering geniuses in the same field living at the same time.  Ries’ eight works have a compositional order as confused as the order of Antonín Dvořák’s used to be until it was standardized.  To hear the Ries symphonies in the order in which they were written, you listen to No. 1, then No. 5, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 8 (one of two that were never published), No. 6, and No. 7 (the other that was never published).  This is easy to do with the new CPO set, which has two symphonies per disc, but the listening is not entirely straightforward, since these are four separate releases enclosed in a paper sleeve rather than a single integrated release.  Sound quality varies, booklet notes are sometimes repetitious and sometimes hard to follow, and the fourth disc (of symphonies 7 and 8) is not a standard CD but a Super Audio CD (SACD) – which, for some reason, has the most incoherent accompanying notes and even gets Ries’ dates wrong.

     It is worth getting past these presentation peculiarities, because Ries had some interesting and clever things to say in his music.  Beethoven’s “Eroica” clearly was a major influence: Ries wrote two symphonies in the same key (E-flat Major); liked to use hammering chords reminiscent of those in the “Eroica” to make some of his points; and even wrote a “March funèbre” as the slow movement of one symphony (No. 1, in D major).  Entirely on his own, Ries created numerous felicitous tunes and some especially impressive Menuetto or Scherzo movements (he used each designation four times).  Each of the Ries symphonies is in the half-hour range – he never sought to scale the heights through length – with three in minor keys and five in major; four with slow introductions to the first movement and four without; and an increasing mastery of instrumentation and orchestral color evident as the series progresses from No. 1 of 1809 to No. 7 of 1835.  Ries’ star never shone very brightly, and was already eclipsed by the time of his death in 1838.  But he is a better symphonist than most audiences have ever had a chance to know.  Howard Griffiths leads the Zürcher Kammerorchester with great style, and this small group sounds far fuller than its size would indicate as it brings real weight (if not weightiness) to a composer who deserves to be more widely heard.

December 21, 2006


Anatole and Anatole and the Cat. By Eve Titus. Pictures by Paul Galdone. Knopf. $14.95 each.

     The most endearing Gallic rodent character for children in the 1950s – and isn’t that a mouthful? – was an honest and honorable mouse named Anatole, the star of two books that were published in 1956 and 1957 and have now been reissued in marvelous new editions with the original superb Paul Galdone pictures (Galdone won Caldecott Honor awards for both books).  The beret-wearing Anatole is a family mouse and, above all, a mouse of honor, who learns early in the first book that human beings resent him and his kind for taking bits of their food to feed mouse families.

     Anatole is horrified at being thought less than honorable – the fact that mice always have lived this way means nothing to him – and he is determined to find an upstanding way to take care of his family, which includes wife Doucette and children Paul, Paulette, Claude, Claudette, Georges and Georgette (how charming is that?).  Anatole comes up with an extremely clever way to earn his daily bread – or, more precisely, his daily cheese.  He types a few dozen signs with words such as “extra-‘specially good,” “good” and “not so good” on them, sticks a long pin through each sign, and carries them one night to a cheese factory whose business is not doing too well.

     Anatole’s super-sharp mouse nose and super-tuned taste buds tell him exactly what is good or bad about every cheese, and he leaves his signs all over the place, including suggestions for improvements of subpar products.  The head of the factory, M’sieu Duval, sees the signs, tastes the cheeses himself, and discovers that the mysterious Anatole – who has put his name on each sign – is 100% right about everything.  M’sieu Duval changes the recipes of his cheeses, and “soon business began to BOOM!  The people of France demanded Duval cheese or no cheese at all!”  But M’sieu Duval cannot find out who Anatole is: “the secret remained a secret,” even after the grateful M’sieu Duval names Anatole “First Vice-President in Charge of Cheese-Tasting.”

     This is an extraordinarily clever story, told with a great deal of wit by Eve Titus – and Anatole and the Cat is every bit as good.  It takes place later, as Anatole is performing his vice-presidential duties.  Anatole – helped by his friend, Gaston – is hard at his gourmet work one night when he hears the sounds of a cat in the factory.  Terrified, he makes a series of hilarious mistakes in his cheese labels and suggestions.  Later, Anatole leaves M’sieu Duval a neatly typed interoffice memo saying that the cat’s presence so disturbs him that he cannot do his job.  M’sieu Duval leaves a note in return, apologizing for his family pet being left accidentally in the factory.  And so all should be well – but non, the cat turns up in the factory again, and Anatole realizes he must take action.  This turns out to involve catnip, a makeshift cage and a collar with a bell, and it is a simply wonderful solution to the inventive mouse’s problem, earning him additional praise from his grateful employer.  The Anatole books are so packed with offbeat charm that they seem every bit as fresh today as they were 50 years ago.  It is wonderful that a new generation of children will now have the chance to meet this most extraordinary mouse.


Bad Boys. By Margie Palatini. Illustrated by Henry Cole. Katherine Tegen/HarperTrophy. $6.99.

Bad Boys Get Cookie. By Margie Palatini. Illustrated by Henry Cole. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Take the Big Bad Wolf of nursery-rhyme fame, double him to TWO Big Bad Wolves, and find ways to trip up every single evil plan the Bad Boys devise – and you have the formula for Margie Palatini’s two Bad Boys books.  But there’s nothing formulaic in the telling here, and kids in the target age range of 4-7 will likely let out wolfish howls of laughter at the plots the Bad Boys hatch and the way their plans are inevitably foiled.

     The first Bad Boys, originally published in 2003 and now available in paperback, starts with the wolves on the run from Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs.  Willy and Wally Wolf congratulate themselves on their escape and recite their mantra: “We’re bad.  We’re really, really bad.”  But the thing is that they are bad at being bad, and that’s why the book is so much fun.  Willy and Wally need a way to hide out (and find something edible) while various good-guy characters are looking for them, and they get an idea when they spot some well-dressed sheep nearby (that is, sheep wearing dresses and hats and carrying pocketbooks – Henry Cole’s illustrations are a hoot).  So the wolves become Willimina and Wallanda, “two wolves in sheep’s clothing.”  They straighten their stockings, give themselves “a primp and poof,” powder their noses and walk right up to their would-be dinner.  The disguises work, too…well, almost.  One of the sheep, smarter than the others, realizes something is amiss and comes up with an entirely appropriate way to send the bad-boy would-be sheep back into hiding.  It’s “shear” brilliance – and the picture of the Bad Boys running away is absolutely hilarious.  But of course they’ll be back.

     And they are, in Bad Boys Get Cookie, in which Willy and Wally find themselves in the middle of that story about the gingerbread man who runs away from the baker, saying, “You can run and run as fast as you can – you can’t catch me: I’m the gingerbread man.”  Except that that’s not what the escapee says when the Bad Boys run after him.  Instead, he calls out, “Na-na-ni-na-na! Lookee! Lookee! You can’t get me. I’m one smart cookie!”  Of course, the Bad Boys – motivated, as usual, by hunger – set all sorts of clever traps for the runaway, but of course all the traps fail (the Bad Boys’ disguise as Hansel and Gretel flops especially hilariously).  The cookie gets away from the wolves – but, just as in the original gingerbread-man story, runs into trouble when trying to cross a river on top of what he thinks is a log.  “I believe that little crumb is not as smart as he thinks he is,” remarks Willy.  True, true.  But the cookie’s disappearance still leaves the Bad Boys without anything to satisfy their appetites, until…but that would be giving away the book’s ending.  Suffice it to say that the conclusion is as delicious as the rest of the book – indeed, as yummy as the whole premise.  These Bad Boys are very good indeed.


Deliver Us from Normal. By Kate Klise. Scholastic. $5.99.

Far from Normal. By Kate Klise. Scholastic. $16.99.

     There’s nothing normal about Normal, Illinois, in the eyes and mind of 11-year-old Charles Harrisong.  And the good citizens of Normal don’t find all that much normal about Charles and his family.  The Harrisongs are poor, and they seem weird, and Charles is blessed (or cursed, as the case may be and often is) with the ability to feel people’s true emotions, even when their feelings are at odds with what they are outwardly saying or doing (in fact, especially then).

     Kate Klise is a reporter for the bubbleheaded People magazine and has written a series of light graphic novels, but the initial tale of the Harrisongs, and especially of Charles, is a serious one, and she handles it well.  Klise explains, in the “After Words” section of the new paperback edition of Deliver Us from Normal, that she started the book shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and that the overall seriousness of the time affected her writing.  There are still plenty of flashes of humor in the book, such as Charles’ unwanted obsession with a ridiculous jingle for Bargain Bonanza stores, but the underlying theme is pretty well summed up by Charles when he says, “Some wishes come true.  Some wishes don’t.  Sometimes you find out you were wishing for the completely wrong thing.”  In the case of Deliver Us from Normal, what Charles wishes for more than anything is to escape from the Illinois public school where his unwanted emotional perception causes him constant problems – and he does get to escape, with his family, to Fairhope, Alabama (from Normal to Fairhope – now there’s a journey!)…but things aren’t quite as idyllic as Charles has wished them to be.  The Harrisongs really are rather unusual people: they move to a run-down houseboat, which is not exactly where Charles thought his New Life (which he imagines capitalized) would begin.  Despite what Charles calls his “straight-A record for ruining things,” matters actually turn out pretty well, thanks to some old-fashioned mutual respect and love that hold the Harrisongs together.  They’re the sort of nuclear family that used to be considered normal.

     But then there’s Klise’s new book about the Harrisongs, Far from Normal.  Yes, the family is far from Normal, Illinois now; and it’s easy enough to argue that these people were rather far from normal all along.  But the title barely hints at what happens to Charles and his family in the new book, which is much more of a romp than the original.  Bargain Bonanza figures largely here, as the Harrisongs find themselves working as the chain’s spokesfamily.  This leads, naturally enough (within the twisted logic of this book), to creation of a new clothing line called NormalWear, inspired by the Harrisongs.  And that leads to – where else? – reality TV.  Given Klise’s celebrity-focused day job, readers should not be surprised that the antics in Far from Normal seem as if they really could happen, and perhaps have happened, in our celebrity-and-fame-obsessed culture.  When Charles’ sister is asked by celebrity reporter Angela Andrews, “In what way do you think it’s normal to be sexy, and sexy to be normal?” it is one cringeworthy moment among many – largely because questions like that do get asked, all the time, by characters like Andrews, who barely seems a caricature at all.  Perhaps Klise’s willingness to let her sense of humor return to the fore in Far from Normal indicates a greater emotional, as well as temporal, distance from the mass murders of 9/11.  If so, it is a distance Klise shares with many of her would-be readers and their families: it feels good to be able to laugh again.  Yet the edginess of Klise’s humor here may serve as a reminder of how far from normal, or what used to be normal, all our lives now seem to be.


Stickmen. By Peter Vegas. Andrews McMeel. $7.95.

A Collection of Sexy Quotes. By Michelle Brown. Andrews McMeel. $12.95.

     Still searching for some stocking stuffers?  Here are a couple that won’t deplete your wallet too much, that are good for some seasonal enjoyment, and that – in one case, anyway – can even give you a head start on Valentine’s Day.

     Stickmen is just what the title says: a book filled with those little stick figures that everyone doodles now and then.  You know the type: long vertical line for body, shorter horizontal line for arms, two splayed lines for legs, and a circle for a head.  Peter Vegas plays with the ultra-simple form through modest changes and dialogue balloons.  For instance, one Stickman tells another, “I’m getting a tattoo,” and the other reasonably asks, “Where?”  One Stickman is labeled “Parking Warden” and has a diagonal line through his circular head (since the slashed circle is commonly used to mean “no parking”).  Two Stickmen are seen next to a more fully drawn character (with face, hair, etc.), and one Stickman asks the other, “Who’s your fancy friend?”  One Stickman is missing the usual circle on top, and another asks, “Where’s your head at?”  The humor here is mild, sometimes juvenile, with no pretense to profundity or any lasting effect – making this a nice little stocking-stuffer sort of book to generate mild amusement and then, perhaps, be passed along for someone else to enjoy (since it takes very little time to go through the whole thing).

     It takes longer to go through A Collection of Sexy Quotes, and that’s a good thing, since there is actually some depth to this selection by Michelle Brown – and the book should continue to be fun at least until Valentine’s Day (you could even save it until then and give it as a gift at that time).  There is nothing really smarmy here – the quotations are far milder than anything in even an average rap song – and there is a surprising amount of wit to go with an assortment of flippant remarks.  There is no apparent arrangement of the quotations, so you can open the book anywhere and enjoy it serendipitously.  Pages are laid out in multiple type faces – some quotations are quite large, sometimes in color, while others are quite small – but there does not seem to be any connection between the size or placement of a comment and its profundity or wittiness.  There are gems on every page; each reader will have a different view of which are genuine and which are made of glass and paste.  Among the many comments is this from famed operatic diva Maria Callas: “Love is so much better when you are not married.”  From Mae West: “Give a man a free hand and he’ll run it all over you” – and “I feel like a million tonight.  But one at a time.”  Cary Grant: “I think making love is the best form of exercise.”  Shakespeare: “Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?”  Dorothy Parker: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”  Woody Allen: “Love is the answer, but while you are waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions.”  George Bernard Shaw: “Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.”  Not everything here will make you think – the comments by modern celebrities tend to be on the crude side – but there is truly something here for just about anyone interested in sex.  That is, for just about anyone.


We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah. By Patrick O’Donnell. Da Capo. $25.

Small Beauties: The Journey of Darcy Heart O’Hara. By Elvira Woodruff. Pictures by Adam Rex. Knopf. $15.95.

     This may be nominally a season of peace and goodwill, but it is only by the greatest stretch of the imagination that we can imagine all people, everywhere, sharing that belief and orientation.  It is worth remembering that while many people relax and celebrate at this time of year, many others cannot – not even for a day.  It is also worth remembering that America, whatever its divisions and uncertainties, has at its heart a boldness and bravery, in any and every season, that has helped make it a destination for natives of other nations for hundreds of years.

     These somewhat sobering thoughts are occasioned by two very different books, one of the recent past and one of a past more distant.  We Were One is a hard-hitting and emotionally trying description of the time, only two years ago, when Marines attempted to displace al Qaeda operatives and supporters from their greatest stronghold in Iraq: the town of Fallujah.  Patrick O’Donnell marched with the Marines’ 1st Platoon into that town, whose conquest was deemed vitally important, and his story of the many battles there is an outstanding first-hand account of al Qaeda using civilians as shields, sending suicide bombers in from multiple directions and forcing intense house-to-house fighting.  O’Donnell starts with the Marine platoon’s formation in California and follows the men to a deployment that eventually ended with 35 casualties, including four dead.  The devastation experienced by the platoon was emotional as well as physical, and O’Donnell is as effective in detailing the mental anguish as in describing the endless firefights.  The book’s main problem is that it is too intense – it will be difficult reading for almost everyone, and even more so at this time of year.  Still, O’Donnell says, “I was there [in Iraq] to do a job, to record what was going on from a historian’s perspective,” and he has certainly done that.  It is one of those distressing ironies of history that all the other events in Iraq in the past two years have rendered Fallujah little more than a footnote in an ongoing war.  The men who fought there should never become footnotes.  Slogging through their story is a way to make sure they don’t.

     Darcy Heart O’Hara represents a huge calamity that has also become a footnote to many who are unfamiliar with the Irish diaspora.  Darcy is fictional, but her story is based on that of a real family that was forced to leave Ireland for America because of the devastating potato famine of the 1840s.  The real family had an extremely well-known descendant, whose identity Elvira Woodruff reveals at the end of her book.  But it is clear why Woodruff chose not to tell the real family’s story: the tale of an otherwise unremarkable family speaks more loudly than that of a family with an exceptional member.  Actually, Woodruff does make Darcy exceptional in one way: she notices things – the “small beauties” of the title – and collects them as she endures famine in Ireland and eventually travels to a new life in America.  The pebble, dried buttercups and old wooden bead that Darcy keeps take on meaning beyond themselves and beyond Darcy’s family, coming to stand for an immigrant experience that is replicated even today, as people continue to stream toward the United States in hopes of a better life.  It is worth remembering, in this and every season, that it is for those hopes, as much as for anything, that the Darcys of the world come to America and the Marines fight in distant lands.  One need only look at the Irish name of the author of We Were One to see an important level of connection with Small Beauties.


Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16; Cello Concerto (After G.M. Monn); Orchestration of Brahms Piano Quartet in G Minor, op. 25.  Robert Craft conducting the Philharmonia and London Symphony Orchestras; Fred Sherry, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

Shostakovich: The Golden Age (complete ballet). José Serebrier conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     The directions that classical music took during the 20th century were many and varied – and sometimes contradictory.  It was often difficult for audiences to get a handle on what was going on, especially when contrary trends occurred simultaneously.  This sometimes happened even within the work of the same composer, with Arnold Schoenberg being a prime example.

     Naxos’ superb Robert Craft Collection now offers one of its most intriguing CDs, in which the earliest of three pieces is the most “Schoenbergian” and the latest is such an orchestral showpiece that parts of it might fit into a pops concert.  The earliest work here, Five Pieces for Orchestra, dates to 1919 and reflects Schoenberg’s efforts to develop an entirely new, yet entirely (in his view) Germanic, musical form.  The always-fascinating booklet notes, by Craft himself, quote Schoenberg as saying, “I cannot unreservedly agree with the distinction between colour and pitch,” and this synesthetic approach clearly informs these pieces.  They have titles that Schoenberg attached reluctantly after his publisher requested them, but the composer did not want the titles to provide clues to the work.  For example, he called the first two movements “Premonitions” and “The Past,” then noted of the first, “everyone has those,” and of the second, “everyone has that, too.”  The point of this music, whose technical complexity is considerable, is the music, as usual in Schoenberg.  The pieces offer a welter of rhythmic and chordal difficulty for both performers and listeners, with Craft’s uniformly understanding performance being a wholly sympathetic one.

     Another direction Schoenberg took was in reverse – or rather his own sort of reverse, which meant looking back at works of the past and changing them to fit his, Schoenberg’s, sense of esthetics.  There was a certain breathtaking arrogance to the way Schoenberg did this.  In 1932, in freely adapting a cello concerto written by Georg Matthias Monn in 1746, Schoenberg noted that the work was Handelian, then said, “My principal concern was to get rid of the deficiencies of the Handelian style” – which he proceeded to enumerate at some length.  Were Schoenberg not himself a genius, this would be self-aggrandizement of the highest order.  In fact, while Schoenberg scarcely improves on mid-18th-century forms, he certainly turns Monn’s work into a cello showpiece – so much so that the great Pablo Casals, for whom Schoenberg wrote it, considered it too difficult and refused to play it.  Fred Sherry plays it very well indeed, and if it sounds neither wholly of the 18th century nor wholly of the 20th, that is perhaps inevitable in a hybrid work like this.

     As for Schoenberg’s 1937 orchestration of the Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet: it manages to sound like neither Brahms nor Schoenberg.  It’s a fascinating piece, whose creation shows another element of Schoenberg’s supreme self-confidence: “I think I resolved this problem [of chord figures], but this merit of mine will not mean very much to our present day musicians because they do not know about them and if you tell them there are such, they do not care.”  Hmm.  Yes.  Well.  Robert Craft clearly cares a great deal, and his reading of this work makes it a genuine showpiece, with a finale whose trumpet glissandi, xylophone and glockenspiel speak of gleeful virtuosity for its own sake.

     While Schoenberg was going down his various roads, Dmitri Shostakovich was looking for his.  In the 1930s, Shostakovich wrote three full-length ballets that were intended as models of the sort of uplifting, socially conscious music that was expected in the newly coalescing Soviet Union.  The Golden Age (1930) was the first, followed by The Bolt (1931) and The Limpid Stream (1934), both of which reuse some Golden Age material.  Shostakovich had real talent for theater composition, although he eventually abandoned it in favor of symphonies, chamber pieces and opera.  The Golden Age at its full two-and-a-half-hour length is a lot to take, even in a performance as splendid as José Serebrier’s with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  The music is just so determinedly upbeat for all Soviet-related elements, and so black-and-white in its characterizations, that it is really a bit much.  And many of the scene titles, which were seriously meant, are laughable today: “A Rare Case of Mass Hysteria,” “Conversation between the Director of the Exhibition and the Fascist,” “Mime of the Agents Provocateurs,” “The Touching Coalition of the Classes, Slightly Fraudulent,” and so on.  The ballet’s story is about a Soviet soccer team that visits a Western city and finds its heroism undermined by bourgeois hostility and decadence, until the eventual “Total Unveiling of the Conspiracy” and a surprisingly Tchaikovskian “Final Dance of Solidarity.”

     There are a few excellent pieces within the ballet, including a beautiful, symphonic Adagio called “Dance of Diva” (the work’s longest piece), a showstopping Cancan at the end of the fifth of the six scenes, a Polka that has become well known and that uses the xylophone intriguingly, and an entr’acte consisting of Shostakovich’s arrangement of the song “Tea for Two.”  But much of the music is aggressively strident, punching its way through major key after major key – although flashes of Shostakovich’s sarcasm are everywhere.  The ballet was a failure – as choreography, not ideology – and only a few pieces from it are performed nowadays.  In some ways it represents the road not taken by Shostakovich, who grew constantly as an artist despite Soviet strictures and occasional official condemnation.  Like his Third Symphony (“The First of May”) of 1929, The Golden Age celebrates what deserves little celebration.  But it is a fascinating work to hear – perhaps not straight through, but certainly bit by bit.

December 14, 2006


Clever Ali. By Nancy Farmer. Illustrated by Gail de Marcken. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $17.99.

Let’s Play in the Forest While the Wolf Is Not Around! By Claudia Rueda. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Clever Ali partakes so thoroughly of the spirit of the Arabian Nights that it could almost be the thousand-and-second tale of Scheherazade.  It could alternatively be titled “Clever Nancy and Gail,” because both the story and the illustrations are remarkably…well, clever.  Nancy Farmer bases the book on an old story about an Egyptian ruler’s plan to get cherries quickly from a distant land.  But it is no ruler seeking cherries in this book – it is merely seven-year-old Ali, son of the Keeper of the Pigeons for the wicked Sultan of Cairo.  Ali has trained a pigeon poorly – the boy is only seven, after all – and it has ruined a bowl of the Sultan’s cherries, and the Sultan will cast the boy’s father into an oubliette (a deep, dark pit), to the demon that lives at the bottom, if Ali does not replace the cherries in an impossibly short time.  The way Ali thinks himself out of this dilemma is delightful, and the eventual resolution of the story – in which the demon turns out to be a lot nicer than the Sultan – is both funny and pointed.  For her part, Gail de Marcken presents beautifully conceived, finely rendered, atmospheric illustrations that include, on the front and rear endpapers of the book, the English sounds of the Arab consonants.  This is a book of fun, of subtlety, of wit and wisdom – as well as good old-fashioned storytelling.  It’s really a new story based loosely on an old event, but it feels like one of those grand old tales of times long gone.

     There’s nothing grand about the silly story in Let’s Play in the Forest While the Wolf Is Not Around!  But this really is an old tale – or, more accurately, a traditional French and Spanish play song that dates back to the 16th century.  In the original song, whose melody is given at the end of the book, children pretend to be animals playing in the woods while the wolf is absent – and at the end of each verse, the wolf speaks, explaining why he is too busy to interfere with the game right now: “I am putting on my undershirt.”  “I am putting on my socks.”  And so on.  Claudia Rueda turns this song-and-story into a simply illustrated, brightly colored tale aimed squarely at toddlers and preschoolers, who will enjoy the repetition, the amusing pictures of the wolf getting dressed, and the clarity of drawings that use very simple backgrounds or none at all.  Rueda makes an especially clever use of perspective here: at first, the wolf is shown very small, on an otherwise blank page.  Each time he dons another article of clothing, he is shown bigger, until eventually his very toothy, open-mouthed face nearly fills the page as he announces, “I am very hungry!”  What is he hungry for?  Not, it turns out, for any of the forest creatures – Rueda makes sure that there is nothing more than a momentary worry about that.  This old song still has plenty of liveliness, and Rueda’s book makes it thoroughly appealing to modern children.


Once Upon a Time (She Said). By Jane Yolen. NESFA Press. $26.

     So immersed in the world of fairy tales is Jane Yolen that it sometimes seems her stories, like Hans Christian Andersen’s, are merely retellings of age-old legends.  But, like Andersen, Yolen is a creator of new fairy tales, using the old ones as models.  And hers are as much of our time as Andersen’s were of his.

     Andersen’s stories were all about pain and loss and, much of the time, failure.  Yes, the Ugly Duckling turns out to be a gorgeous swan (in a highly autobiographical tale).  But the Little Mermaid does not get her prince – she turns into sea foam, the Disney version notwithstanding.  The Little Match Girl freezes to death in a tale whose bleakness is relieved only for those of strong religious faith, and the Steadfast Tin Soldier is melted in a story with at best a bittersweet ending.  Yolen’s stories contain pain, loss and failure, too, but their perspective is quite different: sometimes feminist, sometimes humanist, sometimes humorous, sometimes self-consciously imitative of Grimm fairy tales and other models.

     Once Upon a Time (She Said) contains 81 titled sections that include more than 81 stories, poems and nonfiction essays; for example, “Dream Weaver” is a loosely connected group of seven tales.  The order of the 81 seems somewhat arbitrary, containing no obvious thematic referents and no particular reason to (for example) put nonfiction works such as “The Brothers Grimm and Sister Jane” and “Remembering Books” in the midst of various tales.  But editor Priscilla Olson’s reasons for the sequencing of the items matter less than those items’ quality, which is uniformly high and frequently outstanding.

     Yolen is at all times aware of the archetypes within which she works, referring in her nonfiction to such prototypes as “type 450,” “Grimm No. 6,” Gnostic gospels and much more.  She is erudite and is clearly a teacher of considerable expertise.  But she is first and foremost a writer, as the sheer abundance of her fairy tales attests.  Many of these stories last only a couple of pages, and the poems may take up only half a page, but Yolen makes her points clearly and cleanly, and often with considerable emotional impact.  Skilled with language, she can arrange for the simple word “so” to be fraught with meaning in one paragraph, then use “pullulation” aptly shortly afterwards.  Sensitive to fairy-tale structure – she is expert at the use of “once” to introduce stories and “now” to change scenes within them – Yolen manages to make many of her tales reach out emotionally with as much effect as their non-Bowdlerized prototypes used to possess.

     Oh yes, these are stories for adults.  In one, Aladdin’s widow, fondly remembering his sexual prowess, tries to use the magic lamp to obtain a suitable substitute – with hilarious results that would fit the Arabian Nights quite well (although Yolen’s solution is a great deal less raunchy).  In another tale, the tragic (or at least pathos-filled) “Brother Hart,” it is sexual jealousy that leads to the final crisis.

     Even when Yolen writes much lighter fare, she is clearly recapturing fairy tales from the child orientation imposed on them in Victorian times, restoring them to their standing as pithy reminders and warnings directed at adults.  A humorous poem such as “Mother Goose’s Maladies,” to cite just one example, is quite clearly not for kids, with its references to reflux and diverticulitis.  Yolen is a remarkable writer, encapsulating large themes in a few words in just the way that the oral tradition of fairy tales did for so many hundreds of years.  The dark things of today may seem different from those of the past, but Yolen’s stories show how strongly the old rural and feudal motifs – dark forests, enchanted castles, nobles and beauties transformed by magic, and so on – continue to resonate even now.


Try Rebooting Yourself: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $10.95.

New Math: Equations for Living. By Craig Damrauer. Andrews McMeel. $9.95.

     Scott Adams has been having a very tough time of it in his personal life.  He developed a rare ailment that virtually prevented him from speaking for a time, although he seems partially to have recovered; and his drawing-hand problems became so severe that he had to find a way to create his Dilbert strips entirely by computer.  But Adams, one of the most successful cartoonists in history, has managed to keep his personal travails entirely separate from his cartoon world: Dilbert is as fresh, funny, pointed and eerily accurate in its depiction of the modern large-company office environment as always.  The 28th Dilbert collection, Try Rebooting Yourself, actually does contain a one-of-its-kind sequence in which Adams draws himself (about as well as he draws everything else).  It starts with him addressing his readers, saying that he is about to draw an unfunny panel because so many people have requested it, then finding himself in succeeding strips trapped in the Dilbert world – which Adams proceeds to model loosely (very loosely) on the film version of The Wizard of Oz (he eventually gets out after repeatedly saying, “There’s no place like my home office”).  The rest of the book – which includes a bonus page of eight color stickers of Dilbert and his cubicle-dwelling cohorts – is the usual Adams weirdness rather than the unusual kind.  Characters who seem as if they work just two cubicles down from you keep popping up: Medical Mel, whose endless ailments here include an intestine trying to escape his body; a Cubicle Cockroach; a new hire called Sourpuss, who says such things as, “People say the glass is half full, but they don’t say of what”; a giant dung beetle to gather up victims of downsizing; Vijay, the world’s most desperate venture capitalist, who cannot stop throwing money at bad ideas or no ideas; and many more.  Then there are the usual suspects, of whom the most entertaining is frequently Dogbert – who here provides tech support (or nonsupport), invents “an external antidepressant” that used to be called pepper spray, leads a seminar on dealing with difficult coworkers (concluding that “the only way to deal with them is to quit your job and become a syndicated cartoonist”), and guides Dilbert through “the land of unrealistic business assumptions.”  All this lunacy works because it is not mere cleverness – the real-world connection is amazingly strong.

     Craig Damrauer, on the other hand, only thinks he has found a real-world connection in New Math, which is strictly a cleverness-for-its-own-sake book.  It’s worth a (+++) rating as an offbeat stocking stuffer, but it’s one of those little books that you zip through in 10 minutes, chuckle at here and there, and then forget.  Damrauer simply casts various elements of life into the form of mathematical equations, whose quality is hit or miss.  For instance, “Rat = (Mouse x 4) – Cute” seems to make an obvious point (although people do keep fancy rats as pets).  “Disappointment = Expectation/Reality” seems somewhat sensible, and “Dog = Cat + Loyalty” is funny, if scarcely a new sentiment.  But Damrauer does not always follow math’s logical principles, even in fun: “Deadbeat Dad = Paternity/Responsibility” should really be “Paternity – Responsibility.”  And before considering New Math as a stocking stuffer, take note of this equation: “Santa Claus = The Tooth Fairy + 250 lbs.”  New Math is ultimately a case of “Occasional Outstanding Cleverness – Outstanding.”


Hometown Architect: The Complete Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois. By Patrick F. Cannon. Photography by James Caulfield. Pomegranate. $35.

     Are there ever such things as minutiae in the creations of a world-famous architect?  If you think not – that is, if you think everything a master creates is a masterwork – then you will consider Hometown Architect a (++++) book and a major addition to the many studies of Frank Lloyd Wright.  But people who have merely heard of Wright, and even many who know and admire his work, may find it difficult to understand the extent of the loving attention here paid to work that is between these covers only by accident of geography.  Or not “accident” exactly: Wright began his architectural career in and around Chicago, and this beautifully produced book does a top-notch job of showing and discussing Wright’s buildings in two suburbs west of the city.  But unless you are a serious student of Wright or a committedly enthusiastic resident of Chicagoland, you will likely find the focus of Patrick F. Cannon’s book overly narrow.

     Like all Pomegranate books, this one is quite handsomely designed.  The text is knowing (Cannon is an Oak Park resident and a tour leader at the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust) and easy to follow (Cannon is also a journalist and publicist).  But it is James Caulfield’s photos that give the book its real impact.  Wright’s first design – his own Oak Park home – gives a sense of history and of how far Wright would later move from his roots, since the house is structurally disunited and lacks a clear sense of form (though parts of it certainly look ahead to Wright’s later lines).  The interiors are far more impressive than the exterior, featuring impressive use of glass, stark planes of wood and a clever structure of chains to support both a balcony and glass globes for lighting.  Other homes shown here are special in their own ways.  The Chauncey Williams House, for example, looks British rather than like Wright’s usual designs, with dormer windows and a steeply pitched roof.

     Wright first did architectural work in Oak Park, and Cannon’s chronological arrangement of the book makes it easy and interesting to follow Wright’s developing style (and the occasional byways into which he went while searching for it).  The later houses shown here, such as the J. Kibben Ingalls House (1909), start to show Wright touches that would be replicated many times, such as multiple exposures for rooms to allow maximum interior light (accomplished in this house with a cruciform plan that gives triple exposures to two first-floor and three second-floor rooms).  The latest house here dates to 1913 and features a characteristic shelter for the front entrance and some handsome built-in furniture.  Cannon also includes some information on and photos of Oak Park and River Forest homes that may have been Wright’s but that have over the years been so changed that his involvement is no longer clear.  Hometown Architect will be a handsome and welcome addition to the bookshelf of Wright enthusiasts and heritage-minded residents of Chicago and its suburbs.


Akiko: Pieces of Gax. By Mark Crilley. Delacorte Press. $9.95.

Babymouse: Rock Star. By Jennifer I. Holm & Matthew Holm. Random House. $5.95.

The Five Ancestors, Book II: Monkey. By Jeff Stone. Yearling. $5.99.

     There is something comforting about reading the latest adventures of a series character.  Since the character and his or her basic setting are already established, the author can create all-new flights of fancy with the same material at the core, providing the enjoyment of something not yet experienced along with the stability of a known quantity.  Mark Crilley has this approach down pat in his series of books about Akiko.  The ever-plucky sixth-grade galactic explorer is not the only character to reappear in Pieces of Gax, the ninth Akiko book.  Also here, and as reliably unreliable as ever, are her traveling companions, Spuckler and Mr. Beeba, plus the irrepressible floating head called Poog, plus of course Gax – the robot whose pieces are mentioned in the title.  Like all the Akiko books, this one goes off in expectedly unexpected directions: Akiko is supposed to go on a nice, safe spacefaring vacation, but instead finds herself embroiled in an argument about who or what owns Gax after the robot literally goes to pieces.  As Akiko goes about searching for Gax’s scattered parts, Crilley treats readers to his usual helping of odd names (Moonguzzit, Bropka, Gollarondo and Thnib all appear on a single page) and amusing passing comments (the motto of the University of Malbadoo is, “When Knowledge and Ignorance meet, let them shake hands and agree to have lunch sometime!”).  Does everything end happily?  Does Akiko have a chance for heroics that help save the day?  Does Poog make the hurpleskap jump out of the water?  Do you even have to ask?

     The Babymouse books offer fantasy of a different kind.  Sister-and-brother authors Jennifer I. Holm & Matthew Holm take the everyday home and school life of their appealing title character and turn it into fun through a series of fantasies, each as strange as the last.  Yes, Babymouse dreams of being a rock star, but among the other fantasies in Babymouse: Rock Star are one in which our heroine demonstrates how awful Felicia Furrypaws is by imagining a scene in which the cat actually causes someone to die of embarrassment; one in which Babymouse is swept to Oz by a school-corridor tornado (causing her to be late for class); one in which musical notes rise up off the page and attack her; one in which she becomes the Pied Pipermouse; and more.  The basic story here – about Babymouse’s struggle to learn to play the flute – is, as usual in Babymouse books, less interesting than the outlandish byways.

     The Five Ancestors is another type of series.  Here the focus is not on a single character but on a group, whose members are moving collectively in the same direction: to find out why their temple was destroyed, what their own backgrounds are, and what they can do to put things right.  The second book in the series, Monkey – now available in paperback – focuses on Malao, whose older brother, Ying, led the destruction of Cangzhen Temple and all its warrior monks…including Grandmaster.  Malao and his four comrades – Fu, She, Hok and Long – must now continue their training in five different animal-themed styles of martial art on their own, even as their separate but intersecting paths lead them to an understanding of what happened at the temple.  The timid Malao, only 11 when the temple is destroyed, steadily gains courage throughout this book, helped by a white macaque that leads an unusually militant group of monkeys.  The events of the first book, Tiger, are recapped here, so readers can pick up Monkey and understand what happened earlier.  But the fast pace and well-presented martial-arts scenes may lead many readers to want to go through the whole story, from the first book on.


Schubert: Symphony No. 9, “Great.” Sir Colin Davis conducting Staatskapelle Dresden. Profil. $16.99.

Schubert: Symphony No. 9, “Great.” Günter Wand conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker. Profil. $16.99.

     Schubert’s ninth and last symphony is called “Great” to distinguish it from his sixth symphony, also in C Major, which is called the “Little” or “Small.”  But No. 9 is great in other ways: in scope, in length, and in its creation of a style that opened the way for other symphonists to work in a form that many people in the early 19th century believed was played out after Beethoven’s Ninth.

     Schubert was moving toward a monumental symphony throughout his last years: No. 7, which he did not finish orchestrating, is a large-scale work; No. 8, the official “Unfinished,” has two magnificent movements that together last a full half hour, but Schubert created only a little bit of a third movement before abandoning the work.  No. 9 was the fulfillment of this tragically short-lived composer’s enormous potential in symphonic development – and there is so much packed into the “Great” that conductors can and do find and emphasize very different elements of the score.

     The new Profil releases of “Great” performances by Sir Colin Davis and Günter Wand are about as different as they can be.  Both are live recordings, the Davis from 1996 and the Wand from 1993.  The Davis version is about three minutes shorter (51 minutes to Wand’s 54); what matters, though, are not the tempo differences but the tremendous difference of approach to this work by these two outstanding conductors.

     Davis conducts a “Great” that is fleet and flowing.  The sound is clean and clear, and there is a feeling of ease of progress throughout.  In the first movement, Davis stays with the indicated tempos, letting the music swell and subside like waves of sound, and resists speeding up at the end.  The second movement takes some getting used to: marked “Andante con moto,” it here gets a strong emphasis on the “con moto” and sounds significantly quicker than usual (this movement accounts for almost the entire difference between the total time of these two recordings).  Yet Davis does not hesitate to take a very long, very effective pause at this movement’s climax.  The third movement seems slow after the second, but really is not, and the trio has the lovely lilt of a ländler.  The naturalness of the orchestral playing here is a big plus – and it continues into the propulsive finale, where the balance among strings, horns and winds is particularly good and the contrast between forte and piano is especially effective.  The end result of the Davis reading is a bright, forthright “Great” that clearly looks forward to Bruckner while standing on its own as a work of unexcelled originality.

     If Davis re-creates the “Great,” Wand shapes it to his will.  There is plenty of rubato in the first movement, especially in transitional sections, and the coda is started quite quickly – then slowed down.  Wand seems to be trying to emphasize the structure of the symphony, but in so doing he denies its natural flow.  The second movement’s slow tempo is effective, the trumpet entries are nicely done, and the orchestra plays with warmth, but some individual touches are a little prissy – examples being a slowdown about two minutes before the end and some ponderous final chords.  The third movement, in contrast, is light and free-flowing, and the finale has an impressively dramatic, intense opening.  Wand gives the trumpets prominence in this movement, too, with a strong martial effect, but he gives short shrift to the lovely second theme, which is one of Schubert’s most felicitous.  In addition, the sonic quality of this recording is a bit hollow – lacking the crispness of the sound on the Davis CD.

     There are charms aplenty in both these performances, and both represent legitimate approaches to Schubert’s “Great” symphony by conductors who clearly know just what they are looking for.  The Davis reading certainly deserves a (++++) rating.  Wand’s will also be worth (++++) for listeners who like this meticulous conductor’s highly personal approach to the score; but for listeners in general, a (+++) rating is more appropriate.

December 07, 2006


Mommy? Art by Maurice Sendak. Scenario by Arthur Yorinks. Paper engineering by Matthew Reinhart. Michael di Capua/Scholastic. $24.95.

How Do Dinosaurs Learn Their Colors? By Jane Yolen & Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $6.99.

How Do Dinosaurs Play with Their Friends? By Jane Yolen & Mark Teague. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $6.99.

The Baby-Sitters Club #2: The Truth about Stacey. By Ann M. Martin. Adapted and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Graphix/Scholastic. $8.99.

     There are some books that you buy simply to look at, not to read.  Adults know this phenomenon: that’s what coffee-table books are all about.  For the youngest kids, books of pictures can be a first experience with books of any sort.  But what about kids’ books whose primary reason for being is their outstanding appearance, not their verbal contents?  Those are much rarer, and Mommy? is so rare that it is just about one of a kind.  This is the first pop-up book by Maurice Sendak – a fact that apparently justifies its inordinately high price and its shrink wrapping (which means you cannot look through it before buying it, unless the store helpfully has a copy on display).  This is one of those books that you buy as an extravagance – and how about that!  We are right in the season of buying gifts as extravagances!  But because this book uses Maurice Sendak’s art, don’t expect anything seasonally appropriate – unless the season is Halloween time.  The book is chock-full of ghosties and ghoulies and all those sorts of things…and it is utterly charming and completely captivating.  Think about the one-word title.  What we have here is a little boy who opens what appears to be the door of the wrongest possible house as he searches for his mother.  From room to room he wanders, startling a vampire, a wolfman, a Frankenstein’s monster and more, saying the single word “Mommy?” over and over.  At the end, with a bit of paper engineering even more remarkable than the startling foldouts that have come before, he finds – well, let’s just say this ends happily.  And very Sendak-ly.

     There’s a special style of its own to the How Do Dinosaurs…? series by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague.  In these books, misbehaving kids are shown as realistically drawn dinosaurs (although their parents and playmates are drawn as humans) – the visual point being that children’s misbehavior looms large.  That’s not a point that children themselves will get from these books – they’ll simply have a great time watching dinos ride tricycles, play on see-saws, chase balls and much more.  How Do Dinosaurs Learn Their Colors? and How Do Dinosaurs Play with Their Friends? are board-book entries in this series, and they’re as visually striking as can be.  Yolen and Teague fill them with little bits of amusement that parents will love, as when the page “white chalk marks on an old black slate” shows a dinosaur holding a blackboard bearing its name, Polacanthus.  The “colors” book simply shows colored objects used by the dinos, with each color printed in itself (the word “blue” in blue type, for example).  The mischief here is mild but, as always, very funny – check out the dino with the yellow banana, blithely tossing the skin away.  In the “friends” book, misbehavior is more pronounced, shown clearly (and amusingly) above admonitory text in these books' usual “question” format – here, about whether a dinosaur does certain things when a friend visits: “Does he hide all his dump trucks, refusing to share? Does he throw his friends’ coloring books in the air?”  The images are so funny that the later-in-the-book message about proper behavior goes down much more easily.  And that, of course, is exactly the point.

     The friends in Ann Martin’s popular Baby-Sitters Club series are older – seventh graders – but their problems come across well in illustrated form, too.  Raina Telgemeier has done a fine job turning The Truth about Stacey into a graphic novel – having already done well with Kristy’s Great Idea, the first of these graphic novelizations.  The Truth about Stacey features two intertwined stories: Stacey’s problems with her parents as they seek better treatment for her diabetes, without consulting her; and the entire club’s problem with a new club of sitters set up by older girls who are quite irresponsible – but whom parents favor because they seem to be more grown-up.  Everything works out well in the end, and in truth, this is a story-driven book as much as a picture-driven one, since its plot comes from Martin’s original work.  But the pictures can make this story appealing to visually oriented girls who have not read Martin’s many books.  Most of the drawings are simple and straightforward, but a few – such as ones in a candy store – are attractively elaborate, and some are appropriately dark when characters are angry or sad.  This graphic-novel series is worth looking at and reading.